The age of nostalgia (35)
Leaning in to aging out
Before we begin: My newest story for Cosmopolitan is live! Check out the seemingly insignificant, hyper-specific things that made 10 women realize their relationships were toast. And thanks to all of you who shared your stories with me!
I’ve been 35 for six months now. Since my birthday in April (I’m a double Aries, obviously) I traveled to San Diego and New York City, places where I spent a lot of time and learned how to be a person in the world. And I thought a lot about who I once was.
In San Diego, I spent a morning working on the UCSD campus overlooking Scripps Pier and the Pacific Ocean. I listened to the conversations around me between women students, teachers, and scientists discussing marine species, research projects, and recent studies. A group of college-age girls nearby discussed the controlling texts that Jonah Hill’s ex-girlfriend released; “I would so dump him,” one of them said. I smiled for the next generation. But I also ached that I was no longer one of them—no longer young.
Fifteen years ago I metaphorically sat where they now sit, on University of San Diego’s campus a few miles south. I was a communications studies major and worked on the college paper. I was pretty sure I wanted to be a journalist. I could still go anywhere, be anything.
Eventually, I decided to go to J-school and then move to New York City, where I interned for an investigative journalist then got my first magazine job. I had so many aspirations for my Big Exciting Writing Career. I could be a magazine feature writer, author a best-selling memoir, or rise to the top of Conde Nast. The future was one giant choose-your-own-adventure book.
Flash forward, and many of those pages have been flipped. The chapters that could have been are forever closed to me now. And that’s a hard pill to swallow.
I’ve had a wonderful, charmed life so far. And I understand that there’s much more goodness to come (if I’m one of the lucky ones, of course). But, for the first time, I feel a foreboding sense of the loss of possibility. Once upon a time, the world was my oyster. The paths were endless, and picking a fork in the road felt a lot less serious; I knew the next fork was right around the corner.
At 35, there are simply fewer forks. My next big fork selection could be years away. In some ways, that’s incredible: I spent the last 15 years getting to know the core of who I am and building my life around her and what she most desires. Because of all of that growth, my life is peaceful and healthy. But it’s also quiet, and often so familiar.
Many people who grew up in chaotic households or around volatile relationships have had to reparent themselves to internalize that stability does not equal boredom or undesirability. Three years after leaving my corporate career and New York City behind, I’m still trying to unlearn the hedonic treadmill, still reminding myself that this simple-feeling life is what I want, and what is best for me. That I can love who I was five years ago and the woman I am today.
I’m especially noticing my own limited thinking around what I am or am not allowed to do “at my age,” especially as a woman.
I feel like 35 may be the natural age where we collectively feel the powerful pull of nostalgia, like the moon to the ebbing tide. Our formative teen years, where we experienced so many firsts and some of our most potent emotions, were two full decades ago. That’s long enough for our favorite hits to be considered oldies. I’m old enough that I usually side with the parents in movies rather than the risk-taking teens. And I’m the age at which society officially separates you from the young-ish. That’s not my age range anymore.
At 35, I’m noticing more than ever how much aging is talked about, and how much more I’m thinking about it. I’m especially noticing my own limited thinking around what I am or am not allowed to do “at my age,” especially as a woman. I paid $270 to get Botox in my forehead for the first time in June, even though (humblebrag) I’m often told I have no fine lines and great skin. I think I did it because a lot of my friends are doing it and it’s something I’ve been told I should do now if I want to look younger later. And I suppose that is something I want? I’ve certainly been taught to want that, and that men only desire young-looking women.
There are endless TikToks about what Gen Z (actual young people) are wearing, doing, and listening to, and how we can be more like them. There are perhaps even more videos of Gen Z making fun of what millennials like and how cringe we are. (A lot of the Gen Zs from these interactions sound like judgy, controlling assholes, tbh.) But I’ve also seen plenty of conversation around the freedom that comes with aging and opting out of the endless quest to “be cool.” Recently, Anne Helen Petersen wrote about the buckets of aging millennials and why we are the way we are, and Haley Nahman wrote about the upside of aging out:
Last summer, when my friend Justin took me to a party downtown in a cavernous garage, surely operating illegally as a venue, I looked around in amazement. From the middle of the foggy dance floor, I saw everyone there was younger than me, their outfits a baffling mish-mash of trends I hadn’t worn since I was 15. I remember joking to him that I felt washed, but in truth I felt euphoric. It was genuinely surreal to observe these people and recognize, with a new clarity, the distance between us. Their masked eagerness, their considered postures, their energy that suggested this party might lead them anywhere. Technically speaking, they were cooler than me. But I was gratified to realize I didn’t envy them. I didn’t consider them in any way lesser, I just knew it would have been silly to long for something I’d already grown out of.
I know the feeling. And I’m trying to embrace it.
Earlier this month I went to Seattle and saw Death Cab for Cutie and the Postal Service play the full “Transatlanticism” and “Give Up” albums to celebrate their 20th anniversaries. I let the millennial nostalgia wash over me, and thought of some of my first solo car rides as a 17-year-old, cruising the streets of Glendora, California, feeling like I may die of heartbreak over the water polo player I had a crush on. I noticed how we millennials didn’t scream at ear-splitting volumes. We sat down for most of the show, and we kept our phones in our pockets. My nervous system felt so much happier than it did when I saw Harry Styles last year, my fingers stuck deep inside my ears for half the concert. (I bought these earplugs recently and can’t wait to use them.)
At 35, my life often looks like going places where I feel comfortable, wearing cozy clothes, spending time with supportive friends, and basking in the sunshine. I spend most of my time doing things I love, and going places I’m genuinely excited to be. And I still try new things sometimes, too. I know that I’ve got a lot more lessons on aging with grace and self-acceptance to learn. But if a general sense of peace and contentment is what aging out looks and feels like, I want so much more of it.