I am hesitant to admit this, but…
I lived in fear of turning thirty for most of my twenties. I feared I wouldn’t have finished my novel, wouldn’t have a stable job, and would be just aimless as when I was 22. I was so afraid. But now that I am here, living with an unfinished novel, a less than stable job, and a still pretty aimless life, with all of these things I thought would be the end of the world I’ve realized how silly I was to be scared.
Because the thing is,
the thing we all know but pretend isn’t true, is that life almost never goes how hope it will. Nothing is ever what we expect. But I can say, from this side of thirty, that though I planned, had successes and failures, learned and grew and was hurt and healed again and again, I was still surprised and delighted by what I received. By what I experienced. Nothing that I thought would happen by the time I was thirty has happened. I’m not married. I don’t have kids. I still haven’t settled on a career. I haven’t published a book or gotten a PhD. But I’ve written poems and essays and stories. I’ve sewn a new wardrobe. I’ve met so many new people, and gained a new, more complex understanding of the world. I’ve been hurt and hurt other people. I’ve seen beautiful things and awful ones, and mostly I’ve learned time and time again that people are worth believing in. That is it always worth it try and do better, to leave things better than we found them. Cheryl Strayed says, “Who we become is born of who we most primitively are; that we both know and cannot possibly know what it is we’ve yet to make manifest in our lives.” And she is right. Every good thing I’ve experienced has felt both surprising and inevitable. Felt unearned and deserved.
Twenty-nine was a strange year.
I felt both happier and sadder than I ever have. I finally, finally, started consistently working on my novel. I sewed so many things. I had my heart broken, and might have broken one myself. I tired really hard to hold on to a lot of things. I was afraid if I let go of them that I would lose something too great to imagine. That I wouldn’t be the same. I always drift back to one moment from last summer. Walking down a street in Durham in the middle of June after seeing First Reformed. A movie that gutted me and inspired me. The Ginko trees were green and their leaves were everywhere and I bawled as we walked through them. We passed a huge, beautiful magnolia and the man I was with pulled a branch low so I could smell it through my tears. In that moment I appreciated everything around me more than I ever had. The heat of the south, the smell of that bloom, his kindness. I felt overwhelmed to live in a world that held such things. Where such things were possible. I knew I was in love, with all of it. I think I felt like I would lose that moment when that relationship ended. That it wouldn’t feel special anymore if I let myself move on, if I let go. But I was wrong. That magnolia will always be mine. I can always return to it. Because the person I became at the end of my twenties wasn’t because of any one person. It was me.
Which doesn’t mean I’m not still making mistakes. In sewing, in my job, in personal relationships. I am. Often. This weekend I embarked on my most ambitious sewing project to date: a toggle raincoat. It is fair to say I felt pretty confident, arrogant even, when I started this raincoat. I truly thought it was going to be a breeze. Or if not a breeze, that it was going to go pretty smoothly. But after a day and a half of sewing dry oilskin and jersey, finally ready to put in my zipper, I realized I had sewn the front pieces to the wrong sides. Well, I didn’t realize it, my mom did, when she watched me pin the zipper. It was nine o’clock at night. I was leaving to drive home the next day, and what I thought was one of the last steps turned out to be several more hours of work. I’m not too proud to admit I burst into tears. All it took was four wrong seams to reduce me from confident and smiling, to timid, self-critical, and hopeless, feelings that marked most of twenties. But with encouragement from my mom and my friend Holland, we took them out, and re-sewed them. And because I was too shaky, my mom sewed the zipper in, demonstrating to me, again, all her best tricks, learned through 40 years of practice, for making sure it lines up. I wish I could say the rest went smoothly. But I’d also sewed the hem facing upside down, which I discovered the next morning. Though I got upset again, it was easier this time to put in perspective and see the value in redoing it, and learning to be better. But I couldn’t have done it without other people’s help. And I couldn’t have figured out the person I am now, at thirty, without so many of the amazing women (and a few men and gender non-conforming people) I met when I was a sad, unsure, twenty-something, with a lot of dreams and questions and no idea how to make any of them manifest.
I know none of this is earth shattering. I know also that it is a privilege to be given the space to learn these lessons, and to have people around to help me learn them, to encourage me, always. I grew up in house where questions were encouraged, where books and art were prevalent, where I was allowed to disagree. I didn’t always appreciate that.
We live in a world with really narrow boundaries. A world based on money and greed, that divides people across gender and racial lines, all in the name of maintaining the status quo, of keeping the powerful in power. When I was younger changing any of that seemed impossible. But it doesn't seem impossible now. I’ve seen people stand up to corrupt sheriffs, speak truth to power in online spaces, and take that scary risk of refusing to back down. I’ve learned how to apologize, and mean it, and keep meaning it. I watched a 15-year stand-up to the most powerful people in the world over their inaction on climate change. I’ve learned something better is possible. It’s possible if we fight for it. It’s possible if we believe each other, if we believe in each other.
These kinds of things, they don’t fit neatly on timelines or bucket lists. They aren’t accomplishments you can put on your CV. But I don’t know how else to think about my twenties. I don’t know another way to talk about what I mean.
It’s weird, right, how smart I thought I was then, when I look back now and wonder why I couldn’t see it. I’ll probably be thinking that when I’m forty too, and another ten years after that. But if there is one thing I know now, at thirty, it’s that I don’t want to waste anymore time hating myself. I don’t want to waste anymore time bringing other people down to make myself feel better. I only want to do better, and help other people do better. I want to make so many things. And I am so excited to get started.