A week with friends signals a new stage of life

Jay learned about the New Year at dinner on the 31st over three flutes of sparkling apple juice. By the next morning he was in the swing of things.

We were flipping pancakes together in the kitchen when Wally started whining—stuck atop a nearby chair. “I’ll help him,” Jay said. He ran over in his new red apron and with a bear hug, lowered his brother to the floor. I hope that act of kindness marked the start of a good year between those two.

We arrived back home on Sunday and as we crossed the state line into Michigan, Caroline and I were pleased to note that our family was in much better shape than when we’d left nine days earlier: no more stomach flu, no more travel, and Wally eating (and keeping it down) like he’s got a pound or eight to gain.

We spent a lot of the drive home talking about all the people we’d seen on our trip. We saw a dozen friends, met two new babies, got to know a couple toddlers who’d tripled in age since we’d last seen them, and generally caught up—over tea, breakfast, corned beef sandwiches, take-in Thai—with a lot of people we don’t see often enough.

We’ve been away from the east coast—and our east coast friends—for 16-months now and things have changed in that time, with us, with them. Across all our visits I got a sense of not being quite so young anymore, and of having turned a corner from the rapid-building stage of life to something slower and more permanent, where happiness and failure play out over decades instead of years or months.

Because for the last decade Caroline and I and our peers have been experiencing life in bursts: graduations, new jobs, new homes, marriages, kids. They are all important milestones but they’re also preliminary, too. Getting married is just the start of being married, which is the harder and more monumental thing. And becoming a parent and tending to a sleepless newborn are easy trials compared with the long-term project of raising kids and trying to balance all the parts of family life.

Our week catching up with friends made it clear that, in our early-thirties, the game has changed. The markers of a successful life are subtler than they were; satisfaction and disappointment would seem to run deeper now, which is exciting because what’s earned is not so easily taken away, but also scary because it’s harder to turn the tide when things aren’t going the way we want them to.

All told, life seems to be asserting itself as I guess we always knew it would. There’s melancholy in the creeping bald spots and signs of paunch on a few of my friends and in the gray hairs that dominate atop my own head.

But it’s thrilling, too, to be midstream with our friends after so many years together close to shore.

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