In my teens, I was very, very afraid of thirty. People not only started dying at thirty of heart attacks and aneurysms, but grown-ups were thirty. Parents were thirty. Anyone who said “Thirty is when the world becomes yours” was obviously in denial. It was adult-speak for “My life is beige. But I accept it, because I have to. I. Am. Thirty.”
Some time later, I turned thirty. And then thirty-four. Soon, I’ll be thirty-six. I discovered, as I settled into my thirties, that the world does, in fact, seem to belong to my generation. We’re the ones running for office. We are the target demographic for car commercials. We own it, baby.
People my age marvel at how much “smaller” childhood haunts appear when they return years later, so I decided one rainy Sunday to jump in my car and visit my old neighborhood, a trip made possible thanks to a recent return move to the northeast. After driving for an hour and a half, I pulled into Swanson Court, where I’d lived between the ages of four and seven. It had not changed—not one bit—in thirty years. And it did look smaller from where I sat in my car.
I parked where my dad used to put his old Grand Prix. When I got out to walk around this apartment complex that had somehow defied modernization, I was transported at once into childhood. I found myself taking shortcuts through bushes, sliding sure-footed down a rain-slick, grassy hill. Memories came. There: the rock I’d jumped off of, hands planting on mulch and a sharp, hidden blade of glass. There: the spot deep in the woods where we’d played doctor. There: the mutilated mouse, my first encounter with death.
I climbed over fallen tree limbs and through wet leaves, tracing the footprints of my curious, explorative six-year-old self, and gradually the apartment complex spread and grew, its acreage widening around me.
It was an a-ha.
“A-ha!” I realized. As an adult, yes–I may well rule the world. But in exchange, I’ve left it behind.
I no longer know the grass of forbidden lawns, because I drive past it. I don’t know the dips in the woods, or the rocks hidden by leaves; I walk the path. In childhood, I knew the bushes at the base of the hill where, I would tell my father, the best blackberries grew. I’d sat cross-legged in the dark cove under a pine and mashed its red berries together with needles to make an inedible stew. I had played in, fought near, or otherwise claimed every foot of grass, woods, and parking lot.
If the world looks smaller to me now, it is because I no longer take refuge in its private darkness, don’t daydream in its corners, don’t make my own familiar path using its natural markers as my guide. Instead, I drive past it, looking at it through a window and from the kind of distance that makes everything look small but me.
My favorite thing about getting older is that I can look back at my early childhood and understand now what I couldn’t possibly have understood until I was able to look at it in retrospect: me and this world my generation now “rules” were once quite close.