I’ve found myself in the bluest of funks over the last few months.
I could blame it on the weather—the fact that everything, even my bones, is brittle and frozen. There’s also that daily dose of Fox News on the gym television. No matter how cheerful I am at 7am, by 8:30 the treadmill and Tucker Carlson have turned my gusto into disgust.
I run and still feel fat.
Obama was re-elected, but half of us are stockpiling weapons and Don’t Tread on Me bumper stickers. CNN’s no help, either. Every eight minutes they’re on Kim and Kanye fetus watch.
Yes, there are a lot of reasons to stay in bed and keep the curtains drawn.
On my birthday, my very recent birthday, I did just that. I fluffed my pillows and tried to arrange myself around my two stinking, crotch-licking dogs. I had a cup of lukewarm, vanilla bean tea and a copy of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (a book so addictive, that police should prepare their narcotics divisions for gangs of bleary-eyed readers taking over American towns).
I turned 35—some might say I’m still a baby in the grand scheme of things. I am, however, a baby with a bum hip and an ever-slowing metabolism.
No, my funk has nothing to do with wanting to go back or preserve my youth. My childhood, my adolescence, and the majority of my twenties were times I survived more than enjoyed. So when I turned 30, I packed my bags and got some decent insurance. I was ready for this phase of the journey—true, honest-to-God, oldest-person-at-the-punk-show adulthood.
Now that I’m fully ensconced in this land of adults, I’m finding that nobody knows what the fuck is going on here.
You arrive, with your lessons learned and your lowered alcohol tolerance, believing that life will be a bit simpler. You’re told that you become more relaxed and accepting, less neurotic and clinging. You’re told that a good dinner with friends, the kids sleeping through the night and a roof over your head is all that you desire anymore.
You find yourself 35 and not even close to that ideal. You find yourself wanting things you never wanted before, things, you fear, you might be too old to get.
You consider master’s degrees and massage certifications and renovating a dilapidated, quick-sale house. The years have collected, and you see this most vividly when your parents receive their senior citizen discounts at the movie theatre.
I don’t know how it happened, your mother will say. Life goes by so quickly.
When I say you, I mean me. I don’t assume that everybody in their 30s goes through my own brand of insanity. I do, however, know that when I ask other adults for guidance, they suggest a decent bottle of wine and the link to a blog that might be helpful. Dream boards help, apparently. As does Kombucha.
The one commonality among my friends is that they want more, not less. They feel that they just started to become themselves. They want to maximize this new self-knowledge, dress it up and take it out. They crave a new and more exciting journey, one with a destination that will fulfill all the dreams they now have for themselves.
I’ve always been a good cook. I should go to culinary school.
I’m thinking of making my life story into a play. All I need is a month or two.
I’ve always wanted to shave my head. I’ve been thinking about it a lot.
These are things I’ve heard my 30-something friends say. They’re in this strange period, too old to go off half-cocked and do something frivolous only to regret it when falling asleep at work the next morning. Hangovers look worse on an adult than pleated pants, and—trust me—everyone noticed you popping ibuprofen at the meeting.
You’re also too young to give up, to spend a day drooling into your pillow while watching a Biggest Loser marathon. We’re expected to be in the prime of our lives, where working and raising children and making a yoga class four times a week should be, energetically, a snap. No naps or evenings spent on the front porch for us.
We have to get it all in, as I was recently told, while we are still young enough to enjoy it.
Getting it all in requires a lot of scheduling, shifting, spreadsheeting and hopeful visits to the Travelocity website. There is nothing more dangerous, especially around a significant birthday, than the internet. It’s an anti-therapist, that devil on your shoulder tempting you to try the fruitarian diet, buy a dehydrator to make your own jerky, wear barefoot running shoes, or take a trip to a far-flung location.
Everyone is looking for a destination and they believe that taking the right path will lead them there. We are all, in our 30s, desperately searching for the right journey.
My time-is-short wanderlust was piqued by a story on CBS Sunday Morning about Ardh Kumbh Mela, a Hindu festival where almost a million Indians travel hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles by foot, car and bike to the Ganges. They jump in the murky waters of this enormous river to wash away their sins.
The television showed mothers and children, fathers and solitary pilgrims, all dressed in vibrant fabrics, their souls seemingly as clean as whistles.
It wasn’t India that was calling me after that news story—it was the river. And as I am, for better or worse, a Southerner first and a yogi second, it was the Mississippi.
Every time I envision a trip to the Ganges, I remember a friend once telling me that the only river she could remember after her Indian trip was the one coming out of her. Her sins may have been washed away, but so were the entire contents of her stomach after bathing in those spiritual waters.
Given that gastronomical taint, it’s the Mississippi River that holds some kind of mystical power over my American imagination.
And while the Ganges has connections to thousands of years of Hindu ritual, the Mississippi is the river of Sam Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, the mustachioed sage of all that is good and grotesque about this country. He grew up along the river, and spent his early adulthood training to be a steamboat captain. His most powerful prose comes from those experiences.
He saw, from various rafts and riverboats, the horrors of slavery, the degeneracy of poverty, and the beauty of slow-moving, muddy water.
In Life on the Mississippi, Twain details his time as a steamboat captain. He says that the most important part of the job was memorizing every curve and quirk of the river. Navigating a massive boat, especially at night, could be very dangerous. Many wound up moored to a Tennessee shore with hundreds of angry passengers demanding their money back. Many died.
Twain became a fairly skilled captain, but that didn’t protect him from danger. He convinced his younger brother to follow in his footsteps and take a position on a steamboat. Tragically, he was killed in an explosion on his first trip out. Twain never recovered from the loss or the guilt.
The rest of his life was, in some way, an attempt to make peace with the Mississippi he both loved and feared.
Even the name he chose for himself, Mark Twain, indicates safe passage. A cry of by the mark twain by a riverboat man meant that the water was two fathoms deep, sufficient for worry-free navigation by the great steamships of the 19th century Mississippi. Perhaps he named himself this because it was a place he never found, a heaven he hoped he might reach if he prepared himself and memorized every map. Twain found hilarity and humanity on his adventures.
Peace, however, was always just beyond his grasp.
Mark Twain gives me solace during this time in my life the way that the Ganges provides grace for so many during Ardh Kumbh Mela. Like Twain, I’ve been under the misguided notion that if I memorized every curve, and planned accordingly, I’d be saved from all the disasters and disappointments of life.
Yet, I find myself at 35 with a trail of wreckage behind me and afraid of what’s ahead. I haven’t reached a destination, and my compass seems to have given up entirely. Like Twain, I keep going in spite of failure and grief and uncertainty.
As much as I’d like to take off on an extraordinary adventure, I don’t really have to travel to India or Memphis; this life is my pilgrimage. I’m on the great journey, already.
I will find my Mark Twain, someday. Or not.
Oh, but the things I’ll see!
P.S.: I would love to bathe in the Mississippi with my fellow yogis. Let’s have a festival of our own, shall we? I’ll bring the Imodium.
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Ed: Bryonie Wise