April: Donna, what do I do? If working around corpses isn’t right for me, then nothing is. I feel totally lost.
Donna: Saturn’s return.
Donna: Saturn’s orbit around the sun takes roughly 29 years. And when it gets back to where it was when you were born, lots of turmoil, self-discovery. When I was your age, I got banned from every river boat in Germany.
(Parks & Recreation, Season 7, Episode 2)
The key to understanding me is knowing that I never want to grow up. This is not to say that I want to wallow in immaturity, waking up every Sunday morning with a Skittles hangover in a friend’s basement. This is also not to say that I resist responsibility or shirk learning opportunities. Quite to the contrary, I’ve developed a passion lately for designing my adult life: picking out tablecloths, creating an ordered ecosystem for my important documents, and distilling my annual goals into weekly, daily, hourly steps to take. It is not adulthood that I fear.
Rather, I fear the natural narrowing of life. The limited resource of time. The perennial call to decide. The plopping of figs. And as a result, I often find myself grappled in one interminable existential crisis—multiplying every prospect in my life by infinity and staggering under its magnitude.
Recently, though, while rewatching Parks & Recreation, Donna Meagle taught me about the concept of Saturn’s Return. It turns out that astrologists assert that when Saturn approaches the point in its orbit that it held when you were born, your life is heaved into a state of disarray, turmoil, and, ultimately, growth. It also turns out that it takes Saturn about 29.4 Earth years to complete this orbit. Convenient.
Now, I don’t subscribe to speculations of the stars. In fact, I didn’t even know “my sign” until a few years ago. However, if there is an astrological event for me to pin my existential stresses on, I am sure as hell going to take it.
A Google search quickly yielded the article “How To Survive Your Saturn Return!” by blogger Gala Darling. I printed the article, uncapped a pen, and began to chart my course through this astrological cataclysm:
“If you’re almost 30 & your life feels like it’s hitting the skids, there is a perfectly rational—& astrologically sound!—reason.”
Whenever I talk to close friends about the past two years since moving to Seattle, I find myself drawn to the contradiction “It has been so frustrating and so good.” Establishing myself in a new place has required testing the integrity of entire pillars of my life. Things have crumbled. Things are being rebuilt.
I think it may be a bit dramatic to use the phrase “hitting the skids,” but it’s my Saturn Return, so I think I’m allowed to linger in a bit of melodrama! (Right, Abby?) At least there’s a perfectly rational, astrologically sound reason for it, right?
“Essentially, your Saturn return is a test. What is it testing? Maybe a better question is, what is it NOT testing?! Saturn is a hard taskmaster, & Saturn wants you to learn the difficult lessons so that you can move forward with your life. During your Saturn return, you will be asked repeatedly to prove that you have learned from the challenges you’ve faced over the last 29 years.”
I’ve never been very good at timed tests. I was the student hunched over his final essay answer—rereading, perfecting, suturing comma splices—for an hour after my classmates had put down their pencils and walked away.
In my darker moments, I sometimes wonder if my past selves would be disappointed in me. I’m not the All-American runner teenage Gabe had hoped to become. I haven’t published a book despite my teacherly acclaimed collection of handwritten poems in first grade. I have yet to wholeheartedly dedicate myself to a particular career—much less the three that kindergarten Gabe wanted to hold simultaneously. I often convince myself I have not lived up to their potential.
Then I remember nineteen-year-old Gabe in his first year of college—sidelined from running after a surgery, grappling with being gay, unable to be vulnerable with pretty much anyone about pretty much anything. And nine-year-old Gabe—riddled with obsessions and compulsions he didn’t understand, leaden with guilt.
I look at myself now with an army of confidants, barely a secret to my name, and so many preoccupations I’ve learned to set my pencil down beside and simply walk away from, and suddenly I don’t feel that I’ve done them such a disservice. I hope that future Gabes continue to liberate me and regard me with benevolence even if they occasionally disappoint themselves.
“In Western culture, society has increasingly unrealistic expectations of us. In our twenties we’re out there exploring, finding ourselves. We have new hairstyles…”
“…& a new boyfriend every week.”
Not even a little bit.
Do groceries count?
“…we don’t take work too seriously…”
“…& in the words of The Flintstones, have a gay old time.”
Yes! Astrology is amazing!
“In fact, society encourages this. This is ‘normal’. But when we turn 30, you better hold onto your hat, because we’re somehow also expected to have our career figured out, be ready to have a baby, & definitely have a big shiny rock on our left hand. I mean, how are we supposed to manage all of that & not have some kind of mental breakdown?!”
I suppose the benefit of being a total cliché is that at least you know you’re not alone in your crises.
This past summer I began the task of looking for a therapist. One counselor I had a consultation with politely listened to my litany of anxieties then informed me that the number of twenty-seven-, twenty-eight-, and twenty-nine-year-olds she saw with almost identical tensions was staggering. I must confess that there is some comfort in being completely unoriginal even if it means resonating with the words of someone with a better grasp of “the stars” than basic punctuation.
“Standing on the cusp of 30 years old can feel like staring into a huge cavern; it’s a natural time to do some self-assessment. Have we done the right thing? Are we in love with or married to someone who is going to love us, challenge us & support us no matter what? Do we have a job that brings meaning to our lives? Are we living to our fullest potential? These are all questions that Saturn demands we answer.”
Damn you and your vague, universal questions that I instinctively apply to the specific circumstances of my life, Saturn! A base-ten number system is something that I can dismiss as an arbitrary societal convention, but you! Your return is an astronomical occurrence I cannot deny!
“I sometimes think of Saturn as a kind of loving bully — the cruel-to-be-kind type. He picks us up, turns us upside down & shakes everything out of our pockets. The stuff that stays is the stuff that is working. Everything else gets shaken loose.”
When I sink into some perceived inadequacy in my life, I think instead of the people that populate it—of the mud and horse manure flecked on the back of our biceps as we finish the relay, of the cozy rug under my stomach as we crowd around a board game, of lives lived gracefully and enthusiastically at every age. If the orbiting of the planets and the spinning of the clock keep bringing me back to you—to you all—then I believe it’s worth it.
“It is at the point of the Saturn return to say to these infants: do not. Sell yourself short. Do not. Settle for the house and the baby in a year and a half. Do not. Believe the only thing available to you is more work at the steno pool. Do not. Look in the mirror and notice any wrinkles because there is not a single one on your face.”
I remember finding my first wrinkle almost immediately upon arriving in Seattle: a single horizontal crease across my forehead caused by gravity and a shallow dip in my skull. A horizon that would only grow thicker.
Desperately I recalled that it takes seven years for every cell in our body to regenerate. Perhaps if I didn’t smile or raise my eyebrows for seven years it would go away! Seven years of revealing no emotion. That’s doable, right?
“Tell them, kiddo. Tell them that the problem with Saturn is he wants to make ends to the world when there aren’t any. Every Saturn return client you have, ask them for the most outrageous vision for their future and tell them to decide how to get that. At Saturn return, the very worst strategy is compromise.”
There are so many aspects of our identities that we can grow into and gain greater understanding of: gender, race, sexuality, interests, aptitudes. But I wonder if the nature of age is that we never quite grow into it. Just when we’ve grown comfortable where we are our world rotates and our bodies shift and we are never quite able to reconcile who we are becoming with who we just were.
“At Saturn return, the very best strategy is to look right at that goatsphynx and tell it look here, you don’t scare me. I am going to get old anyway and I am going all the way up.”
Here’s the thing: I don’t know what a goatsphynx is, but I’m starting to believe it may not be as scary as it sounds.
And here’s another thing: despite our vastly different views of the world (and the cosmos, for that matter), when Gala Darling wishes me “Mega-watt love always” and signs off, I do feel that she’s been here before and is rooting for me. And there is a real electricity completely unrelated to Saturn that comes with that.
Gabe Gunnink (’14) lives in Seattle, where he works for a European travel company and gawks at the landscapes and skylines surrounding him. In his free time, he enjoys practicing Portuguese under his breath on city buses, running far enough to justify eating an entire pan of cinnamon rolls, and faithfully implementing Oxford commas.