Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Aging Well


I’ve had some great birthdays in my life. And some not so great ones.

Five days before my 6th birthday, the summer of 1990, the summer before I started kindergarten, my little brother was born. My mom had a c-section, and missed my party because she came home from the hospital on the same day and was still recovering. That was the year I had ice cream cake and a clown who made balloon animals, at the Ground Round restaurant.

The year I turned 16 everyone teased me: “Sweet 16 and never been kissed,” they said, and I blushed because, though in fact I had been kissed, unbeknownst to the adults in my life, it was in a game of Truth or Dare, and in my opinion that did not count.

When I turned 21 I was working at a summer camp with strict rules about staff behavior, so I knew there would be no alcoholic raging (not that such raging was my style anyway). What I didn’t anticipate was that, so off-handed had my mention of my birthday been in the weeks prior, that the entire staff would forget it -- even staff who had known me for years, staff who had celebrated previous birthdays with me, at this very camp. I was director of the kitchen staff that summer, and my team felt so bad when they realized their oversight that they threw me a surprise party a week later. It more than made up for it, though the memory of everyone else’s oversight is inescapable. Birthdays have made me nervous ever since.

My 25th was the worst, though. I had just finished a master’s degree, my boyfriend had broken up with me a month before graduation, and I was unemployed -- this in 2009, arguably the worst year to finish a degree in pretty much anything, in terms of job prospects. David Sedaris was giving a reading in the next town over on my birthday, and I wanted nothing more than to go, but I couldn’t find anyone to go with me. I don’t drive, and the combined lame-ness of the hour-plus bus ride and going to the reading alone was more than I was willing to subject myself to on my birthday, so I stayed home all day, by myself. I managed to shoehorn a few friends into going to my favorite irish pub later in the evening, so the day wasn’t a total wash, but it was a rough start to a rough year. These days, I’d go to the reading alone, and thoroughly enjoy myself. Such are the lessons about self that come with age.

Since then, the midpoint of my twenties, each successive birthday had been better than the last. At 26 I moved into a new apartment (where I still live), and my landlords and their grandchildren, who had known me for less than a month, baked me a cake and had me over for supper. At 27, I threw my own party for the first time, complete with an Oberon mini-keg and homemade cupcakes provided by a dear friend. At 28 I was a visiting scholar at the Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf in Minnesota, and celebrated with new friends from all over the world (if my memory serves me correctly, I over-celebrated, in fact). At 29 I asked friends to bake cake and meet me at my favorite pub, and they showed up with not one but three different kinds, sending me home with ample leftovers, a bouquet of flowers, and a stack of sweet, thoughtful birthday cards.

Yesterday, I turned 30. Thirty.

I’ve been torn about 30. Actually, no, that’s not true -- I’ve been thrilled about 30, while keenly aware that society suggests, with little subtlety, that I should not be. As a single person whose accomplishments are mostly education or travel related rather than, say, monetary or familial or whatever else people tend to label “adult,” and as a woman whose value is often marked by physical characteristics that will lose their cultural currency in the years to come as I start to show my age (I love the laugh lines developing around my eyes, but I am probably not “supposed” to), I think this birthday was supposed to strike fear into my heart.

Every year I feel further and further from achieving such supposed markers of adulthood, and every year I care less and less about whether I ever will. The gift of my twenties is the hard won confidence to say, I’m a grown woman who knows what I want and will do what needs to be done to get there. This is my life, and I won't apologize for it.

I am grateful for the person I became in my twenties -- the woman who will pack up and move across country if needed, but isn’t afraid to put down roots and stay. The woman who can pack for three weeks in a carry-on bag, who reads both The New Yorker and Vogue, who isn’t afraid to take a hip hop dance class by herself even if it means looking silly in front of total strangers. When I was 6, 16, 21, and 25, I didn’t know that one real gift of age is a freedom from not only the expectations of others, but from those I’ve placed on myself. The best thing about being a grown up is that you never really leave your past selves behind. You take them with you; you get to be many selves all at once; you add up to a more incredible person with each year, each heartbreak, each joy, each ordinary day.

What I am trying to say, in the words of Dar Williams, is that I’m so glad that I finally made it here. I am part of an intergenerational group of women who I do yoga with every week, and one thing (of many!) they have taught me over the past few years is how to mark time, to honor transitions, to embrace each year with courage and grace, as a miraculous gift. When you have helped welcome women into their 60s and 70s, it seems so silly that anyone would worry about 30, that anyone would call it “old” or imply that each year should bring with it anything other than joy and possibility. I am just getting started, and I see ahead of me decades upon decades of wisdom and happiness and heartbreak and companionship and good work to do, surrounded by good people.

I’ve been called an old soul on more than one occasion. I’ve always been a bit on the serious side (my own mother has been known to tell me to “lighten up” from time to time. She is usually right). I suppose none of this is news, coming from someone who finished two masters degrees before her 30th birthday. I’m what you might call...driven.

If it’s true that I was driven at age 20, it is also true that it took most of my twenties to learn to slow down. To dance. To laugh (especially at myself). To know when to stay up half the night working, and when to stay up half the night having fun. I need both, and it took me longer than most, maybe, to learn that I don’t have to choose between them, to learn to embrace the contradictions of my own tendencies toward both earnestness and frivolity. To be present in the here and now, and worry less about the future.

I see the shift in myself when a friend makes a joke, and I deliver the perfect one-liner in response, without missing a beat, instead of coming up with a well-crafted retort hours later. I see it when the clock glows 2:00 am on a weeknight because I was out late with friends, and again on a Saturday night when I pour myself a glass of wine and settle into the couch to watch TV after a 12 hour day of writing. And I certainly see it in my decision to use some birthday-gift funds from my aunt to buy the purple skateboard of my dreams, which I will surely ride down the hallways of Duke Divinity School until someone with authority makes me stop.

I see it in a million little ways in a life that has taken me a decade to shape, in every little thing I’ve done that scares me (which is more things than you would probably guess).

I have been thinking of myself as 30 for a long time, and I think that is the main reason I couldn’t bring myself to throw a huge party this year as I had originally planned to do, opting instead for a relaxed night at Fullsteam. (That, and throwing your own party is a lot of work. Also, I hate being the center of attention.) I arrived in my metaphorical thirties a while ago, and I’m simply ready to get on with living them, with all “the things I know now that only time could tell,” in spite or because of all the ways my life doesn’t look like some people think 30 should. I’m lucky to have many, many people who know that my 30 is just right for me, and who have welcomed me into this new decade with great love and expectation for all the good that is yet to come.