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The 29th Year

In three days, I will be 30 years old.

For the past 362 days, I have not been 29 – I have been “almost thirty”.

It’s been with both trepidation and an accelerated sense of validation that I’ve contemplated this milestone. “There are certain things I want to accomplish in my life,” I told a friend shortly after turning 29. “All of sudden I’ve realized that I don’t have unlimited time to just let them happen. I have to start making them happen!” At the same time, I sought to speed up the clock. When I’m 30, I told myself, people will take me seriously!

My 29th year has passed almost entirely overshadowed by the year that would come after it. The lost year. And yet it’s been perhaps the most productive year of my life, the year in which the experience and education of previous years have fulfilled their promise.

I just got back from Chile, my third trip to that long, thin country that clings to the edge of South America with the long arms of its glaciers and fiords. This trip, I was the Operations Director of Ríos to Rivers, the non-profit I co-founded last year. I led eight students from a private school in Colorado through the crowded subways of Santiago to the beech-lined banks of the Río Baker in Patagonia; I facilitated an educational and cultural exchange that showed them how to think critically about the controversial hydroelectric debate over Chile’s rivers.

I watched these high school students grow over the two-and-a-half week program, watched them engage with presenters in Santiago, then spend five days “intercambiando” (“exchange-programming”) on the river itself with the young members of Club Naútico Escualo. Proud, overwhelmed, I listened to students voice ideas that are at the core of my belief system: “It was one thing to hear about this place and the dams when we were in Santiago, but actually being here is completely different. It’s totally changed my perspective.”

Rios to Rivers’ US-Chilean exchange program participants on the Rio Baker

During one discussion, I asked the US students if there was anything in particular they would do differently when they returned home as a result of this experience. One young woman responded, “But what are we supposed to do? I always feel like there’s some right answer, some ‘Big Do’ that we’re supposed to do when we get home. But I don’t know what it is.”

She was right. It was an unfair question, one that I’ve agonized over for years. I love to travel, I love to write, I want to teach people about the world through my writing, I want to change lives. But how? What can I do now to fulfill all these ideas and potential? My father, my friend Dan, and others have all tried to take that pressure off me, and I heard the voices of that support system speaking through me as I answered the student. “You don’t have to Do anything Now. I’m 29 years old. I’ve been traveling for over seven years wondering the same question, and now I’m standing here with you in Chile. This exchange program was never my goal. I never saw this coming. But my being here, my doing this program, is a result of everything else I’ve done up to now. All the experiences I’ve gathered – all the experiences that you will gather, including this one – mix together in, like, a big experience soup.” I laughed, the kids laughed. “What you do after this trip is less important than what you do on the next trip. And the next. What’s important is that you keep gathering experiences and let the ‘Big Do’ come in its own time.”

And so, during my 29th year, I never did realize my big plans for “making” things happen, for setting out a clear list of priorities and working towards them in an ordered fashion. Yet things—huge things, life-changing things!—happened anyway. When will I learn that it’s less effort and more intention? Less control and more trust. That the universe really does work for those who let it. When will I focus not on turning some number but on simply being here, now?

Maybe in my 39th year.

3 comments to The 29th Year

  • Sandy

    Susan, I am not sure the world is ready for what you will accomplish by your 39th year :) I can tell you this though, the time, energy, pure love, and meticulous dedication you have put into Rios to Rivers will ripple the currents of those kids’ lives for decades to come. I doubt you will ever truly know the impact you’ve had, but I do hope that you know it will be immense. To Susan! A woman with unyielding compassion for the world, its wonders, and its people! Happy Birthday! *imaginary mason jars full of celebration liquid clanking*

  • Happy birthday!

    I’ve also struggled with this idea of the “Big Do” especially in the face of conflicting and compelling information. It was such an incredible pleasure to be part of Rios to Rivers, a labor of incredible love that has seeded all sorts of important questions in the minds of the next generation of kayakers, river lovers, global citizens.

    *enters room with imaginary homemade carrot cake with Rio Baker-shaped cream cheese frosting swirls and thirty candles burning bright*

    Happy birthday! Here’s to the next 30 years of exploration, education, and big questions!

  • Dan

    Dear Susan, a belated happy birthday to you!! When you look back on your life before 30 and think of all the lives you touched, all the experiences you’ve had, all the world you have seen — you will think to yourself, “why did I ever worry that I hadn’t done enough??” Everyone’s lives take different paths, and maybe now you are settling into a real rhythm after whirling around the world and soaking up all the wonderful life experiences!

    Reading your writings now, I sometimes think you are more of a philosopher than me. Someday soon we can talk philosophy again. And someday soon I hope to visit you and experience the places and people that have become your passion.

    Sending you love from the hot, rainy state of North Carolina!!

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