The Big Three-Oh-Em-Gee
On Monday I turned 30. This was not a big deal, I hadn’t been dreading it at all, it seemed like just another birthday. In fact last week I was feeling very pleased with myself that I was being so reasonable and rational and grown up in not blowing it out of proportion. And then it happened. My ever-tactful sister, a doctor no less and therefore apparently trained in breaking bad news, announced, as if to the entire of the busy tube carriage in which we found ourselves squished, that she had spotted my first grey hair. She then proceeded to pluck it from my head and hand it to me, like a prize. She is 26, what does she know of these things?
As I held the wiry strand between my fingers (it was bright white as if taken straight from Santa’s beard) I contemplated that this, then, was in fact the beginning of the end.
By the time Monday rolled around I had managed to regain some perspective. End, schmend! Finally, my 20’s were over! Yes they were glorious, yes they were magical, but really they did drag on a bit. I can barely even remember being 20 — it was that long ago. But maybe that’s because my brain cells are dying and those memories are being overwritten with more pressing things like the identity of the murderer in the second season of The Killing (yes, it’s HIM!). This is rather comforting – maybe I will gradually slip into a content state of befuddlement and not even know it. Actually maybe that’s not such a good thing.
Anyway, plenty of time for that. For now I am embracing my 30’s, it feels like so much good stuff is going to happen this decade. It’ll be like my 20’s but better. This time I’ll be more certain of myself, more defined as a person and just generally more “me” (and more cheesy, apparently). I spent a lot of time trying on various other ways of being, ways that I thought pleased those around me, and now I’ve circled back to where I was when I was 18 — curious, eager, and having my mind constantly blown by the world around me.
I think of the boredom that set in at around 27 as a rather embarrassing period of my life that I hope never to repeat. I mean what could be more wasteful than being bored? It is a small, mundane tragedy. This is probably one of those cringe-worthy, First World problems. After all I was not hungry, scared, or hovering at the poverty line. But in that context being bored seems to be even more of an affront to the privileges I am lucky enough to enjoy.
In fact when I think about it, a lot of being bored comes from doing stuff you don’t want to do — things you’d rather not spend your precious time on. Often this is a result of doing things other people tell you to do or, worse, things you think other people want you to do. But the truth is — barely anyone cares what you do. If you register in their thoughts for more than a passing second then odds are they are someone who likes you just the way you are anyway. This is life-changing stuff, it is so freeing. You can get on just being who you are after all, because that is exactly what everyone else is doing.
This also means you have nothing to prove because there is no one to prove it to. Everyone is just getting by. In that context the concepts of success and failure seem completely meaningless, utterly inapplicable to the human experience. What does it mean to be a successful human being? [Looks like my 30’s are going to involve some pretty deep thinking, huh?]
Another great thing about your 30’s is that you’ve got more room. I mean, taken literally, I do not actually have any room right now, especially since our move date has been pushed back by another bleeping month. But I mean psychologically, emotionally, intellectually, and, dare I say, spiritually. At school it was like we were all bunched together, living life on top of one another. I wanted to be all these abstract things — cool, beautiful, popular — each one characterised by a Sisyphean unattainability (if you think you’re cool, you’re probably not, etc). If I decided to do one thing and you decided another, it seemed like one of us had to be right and one wrong. There wasn’t room for difference, we were all sticking together, we were all trying to find the one Right Way. At the same time you had to stake a territory, you had to have a “thing”, something that set you a bit apart. If someone copied your thing, well that was grounds for an all out bitch fight. A delicate balance was being struck — different, but not too different; the same but not too similar.
Now everyone has spread out. Geographically my friends from school, university and work are scattered all over the globe, but also in other ways we are a little further apart. Some of my friends are married with multiple kids and some are living it up and partying hard (I know of no one doing both but I still dream, however unrealistically, that that will be me). Some are saving the world, some are saving money. It doesn’t seem to matter any more if we’ve chosen different paths — it adds to our friendship rather than detracting from it.
20-something, likes a good time, GSOH
I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that my 20’s went by in a bit of a blur. 20 to 24 was one big hangover. Apparently I thought getting people to like me involved many bottles of Chardonnay, which is funny because how could that possibly be sustainable? If they happen to like drunk-Michelle (she can be quite charming, I think) was I meant to suspend myself in a constant state of inebriation?
24 to 28 was a blast but… This was the phase of tentative exploration, but also mostly just putting one foot in front of the other. Even my adventures weren’t that adventuresome when you get right down to it. You may say, “But you got married! Doesn’t that count for something!”. Well, yes and no. Meeting Dan was far, far more important than marrying him — and, incidentally, this coincided with the end of the 4-year bender. Our relationship is one of the most valuable things that I have and no doubt having Dan in my life empowers me to do so many things, but I am so much more than a marital status, and so is he. I’m not saying nothing good happened in those years or that things didn’t move forward, but things can move forward from their own momentum, without you even trying, and I’m not sure I can take credit for that stuff.
You’ve got to realise you’re inside the paper bag before you can punch your way out. That’s what happened at 28. If I were ever to chart my life on a big whiteboard these would appear to a casual bystander to be the down years, the trough, or maybe the plateau. But a lot was going on behind the scenes. Ideas were percolating, thoughts were solidifying, and courage was being mustered.
If your 20’s are supposed to be a time of self-discovery then I guess your 30’s are about self-realisation. Except that I feel like these aren’t two separate processes, but rather one and the same thing, and the aim is to do both, all of the time. This is also pretty good, you can figure out what you want to do and be like, and just do a be like it right now. You don’t have to wait for some later period to realise your goals because no one is marking your work, no one is going to give you a gold star. No one will pronounce: yes, you did it. Well done.
Another thing that is changing is my approach to aging. When I was 18 I couldn’t think past 21. I assumed that after leaving university I would get married, have a family and do whatever old people do. But that whole part of my story was compressed in my mind into a Happily Ever After — the bit of the narrative that the inventors of fairy tales thought was too boring to bother telling in the story itself. It was as if things ended at 21 and everything else was an after-thought, a post-script, something that would happen to someone else.
Perhaps that’s why 21 was such a rude awakening, when it became apparent there was so much more to do, think, feel, experience, love, and laugh at. There was so much good stuff in that “ending”. For me now this time seems so rich and full of possibility. Maybe it took living 30 years to really be able to imagine another 30.
30, and Just Getting Started
When we first arrived in Washington, DC, the year I was doing my Masters, we lived with my cousin, who hadn’t seen me since I was a toddler and yet opened up his home to not just me but Dan as well. He began to take us along to Tuesday Night Dinners, hosted by his friend Patrick from across the street. These were an open-door affair — anyone was welcome as long as you brought some food. Dan and I were the youngest people at these dinner by several years, and were half the age of some of the regulars, but it didn’t matter one bit. The dinners were lively and varied, with an ever-changing cast of characters, each bringing a different history and set of opinions to the dinner table.
Whenever I start to panic about the future I think of those evenings. There we were, all from different backgrounds, ranging in age from 28 to 60. Everyone was living their lives, and we’d discuss all the joys and problems and share all the delightful stories that came of our experiences. Dan and I didn’t feel young and they didn’t seem old, because we weren’t and they weren’t. We were just people. It gave us all perspective, grounding and the peace that comes from good food and good conversation. Organise Tuesday Night Dinners — it’s going on my 18-month plan, assuming I can persuade people to come to Finchley.
So when people talk about 30 as being the age by which you’re meant to have things all sewn up, all figured out, I can only laugh (hopefully not in a mad old lady way). 30 is the perfect time to change your life because it’s the perfect time to figure out how to change it. If you don’t know yourself then how do you know if you’re going to like the changes you make? I finally think that I know myself well enough to change my life for the better. This is an amazing feeling.
So Happy Birthday to me, and bring on the next decade.
A version of this post also appears on Medium.