The mid-thirties sounds ancient to me, but here I am. My birthday was last weekend. Hello, 35.
My friends have helped me figure out that I grew up as a tail-end member of Generation X, and in my twenties, it was plausible for writers to publish their first books and memoirs when they were 25, so I felt like a slacker even though I was an overachiever.
Well, even though I finally wrote a book (PLUG: Please buy it here!) it did not happen the way I thought it would. I didn’t expect to be rich or famous, but I did hope to have an agent, and a publisher, to have a slew of acknowledgments pointing to all the famous and talented writers and publishers and agents.
The first rule of my thirties that I learned a little earlier than my actual 30th birthday is that sometimes (OK, often) what we want or what we think we want is not the best thing for us. The things that grow and mature us can be just as amazing as what we think we want, even if they’re more difficult than what we envisioned – especially if they’re harder than what our daydreams offer.
Vanessa Martir, one of my writing sisters, posted something similar to this on her birthday, and I wanted to follow suit. I didn’t actually envision what 35 would be like – I spent a lot of my childhood and teen years thinking that 25 must be pretty old – but my older relatives and friends all say this is when things get good. The following is a list of things I wish I’d known a decade ago; maybe I would have had more fun, I would have been less hard on myself.
1. It gets better: Why did I think two decades was as good as everything was going to get? I’m not sure. While it’s true that things get more complex as you get older, they’re also a lot more fun.
2. People are amazing: Sonia Sotomayor, Wise Latina Supreme Court justice and single lady has been doing press for her new memoir, My Beloved World, and she makes it a point to say that she is not self-made, which I respect. None of us are islands. And with the right people in our lives we can do amazing things.
3. People are complicated: I like the superhero’s approach to life. We all have alternative faces we show the world, in one way or another. What matters is that we know who we are and we allow other people room to be complicated if they need to be or want to be. Or have to be.
4. Life only gets more complex: My mentor and friend Evelyn C. White said this to me and I know that she’s right. It seems more and more true the more time passes. I do hope it’s not like a Rubix cube by the time it’s time for me to go.
5. Get your life: A friend of my sister’s has said this to me a couple of times with glee and the phrase makes me smile. We only get one shot, so I aim to wring the most of out of every experience, even when it’s frustrating and hard and lonely. Getting my life means everything. It makes me happy so I can make the ones I love happy.
6. Everything ain’t for everybody: I was super insecure in my 20s, though I tried faking confidence until it felt natural. I realized at 30 that I was trying too hard to fit in and thinking too much about what other people thought. It was a relief to shed that. Sometimes I still slip up and I forget that people’s reactions to me or my life are more about them than they are about me (I loved reading The Four Agreements for this reason). The older I get, the less I slip up.
7. Freedom is more than a notion: It is also not free. Which is fine. We all have to pay what my writing hero James Baldwin called the price of the ticket. Any dues I have to pay are what I consider rent for being here on earth and taking up space.
8. God/The Universe will give you what you need if you learn how to ask: I’ve always been bad for asking for help, but I’m a believer in the divine because of how often I am provided with exactly what I need.
9. No woman is an island: We already covered this, but I’m stubborn and it took me a long time to learn how to lean on folks, too. How to be vulnerable enough to ask and wise enough to let go of expectation: that’s what I work on daily.
10. Vulnerability feels like hell but it is the only way to live: Yeah, vulnerable has looked to me in the past like a long euphemism for weak. But Brene Brown and Marianne Williamson and a ton of other writers have shown me the beauty of vulnerability. (My favorite so far is The Courage to Write by Ralph Keyes)
11. Surrendering/leaning into change is frightening but endlessly rewarding: A couple of days before I left the newspaper industry, I was freaking out about all the changes in my life, and terrified that I was doing the wrong thing. When I went into work, I clicked on something that erased my hard drive and essentially wiped the slate clean. I knew that I had to surrender what I had been holding on to. And I have not regretted my decision for one second since.
12. Aim for excellence not perfection: When I published the book, I could immediately see all the flaws in formatting, in publicity for it, the people that I forgot to mention this time around, the ways that it was different and maybe less marketable than other books about single life. Then I remembered that I like aiming for excellence because perfection is impossible. It’s hard to enjoy life when you’re trying to be perfect.
13. Dance, Live, Sing like nobody is watching: I saw that quote when I was much younger. Yeah, whatever! People are watching, they always are – it’s Big Brother! But I would still try to shut out the invisible and visible eyes. I made friends who encouraged me to forget the world in favor of fun at least once or twice a year. For 35, I aim for much more than that.
14. Or, like everybody is watching: I am an extroverted introvert, so there is that side of me that’s a ham. I was an actor in high school, after all. So sometimes I like to put on a show. It’s always fun, at least for a little while. The pressure to be perfect can creep in and ruin the fun, but only if you let it.
15. Pain is weakness leaving the body: I always think of the loud grunting dudes in the weight section at the gym when I think of this, but when I feel really sad and teary and down, I think of how important it is to release things by way of tears or sighs or a long vent session followed by ice cream or chocolate.
16. Heroes are more than sandwiches: And you can be your own hero.
17. Nothing makes me feel as useful in the world as sharing my talent and gifts: Someone wiser than me said that our gifts and talents are our rent for getting to live on this planet. And I believe that with all of my heart.
18. Sharing and generosity are your rent for taking up space on the planet: That people are transformed, moved or inspired by anything I do amazes me. But I am humbled by the many talents and gifts of the people I admire, too. So it all moves in a circle.
19. You can do some things but you can’t do everything: My friend and writer extraordinaire Courtney Martin tweeted something about this over a year ago now, and it lingered in my brain.
20. We are our worst critics: What I have told my students is that the world has enough criticism for you and anything you do in your ambitions to be great. I tell them what I tell myself: don’t add to the criticism chorus.
21. Drama loves company: So the happy part of being Single & Happy comes from cultivating serenity and peace. It’s also meant that some people have left my life, don’t like what I create, can’t stand letting their lives be good and without drama. I still pray for them and wish them well, because I remember when I liked connecting with folks because I had some drama to share.
22. Have a vision: There’s something you have to contribute here that nobody else can give to the world. It’s easier to be happy when you’re working toward creating that.
23. I like lists, but sometimes they’re prisons: I used to make a five-year, ten-year and 15-year plan every year for my birthday. Then I realized that those lists were like New Year’s resolutions. They were inspiring to think about, but what if I decided I didn’t want to do everything on the list? What if I couldn’t make everything on the list happen?
24. Find out if you’ve got a prison you’ve put yourself in: This is another gift from my friend and mentor, Evelyn. Sometimes we blame other people for putting us in a box, when really, it’s a prison we made for ourselves out of fear.
25. What other people think of me is none of my business: Also, other people’s opinions don’t pay the bills.
26. Honor your gut: In dating and in life, I have always made a bad decision when I went against my intuition. Always.
27. Learn to fail gracefully: I fail all the time. I am often ashamed and humbled by my failures, and I don’t share them as publicly as I do my successes because my ego gets in the way. But I try to take what’s useful and leave the rest.
28. Learn to win gracefully: Because I’m competitive and I like to win, this has been a hard lesson for me to take seriously, but I practice.
29. Cooking is awesome: I didn’t learn how to cook at my mother’s side when I was a kid, but teaching myself how to cook and learning how to make things that are healthy (for the most part) has been transformative. I save money, I feel better and I feel like a rock star in the kitchen even when my dishes turn out slightly weird sometimes.
30. Believe in yourself and your future: This is especially important for singles. Maybe you don’t have one other person in your life to be your cheerleader, but you can be your own cheerleader.
31. Know when to fold ‘em: Sometimes things just don’t work out the way you want them to. I love the quote that says we should let go of the life we planned in order to make room for the life that is waiting for us.
32. Be flexible about your life plan/manifestos: I can be stubborn and inflexible, which is no fun and doesn’t make me happy. Sometimes you need to be vigilant about your dreams for your life. But sometimes you have to compromise. I hear this is good practice for love and relationships, too.
33. We are our own heroes: I have a long list of people who inspire me with their courage, creativity and generosity. But at the end of the day, I want to move from being inspired to actually implementing my dreams and visions. I want to live the kind of life that will leave a legacy of aspiration, true. But it helps me sleep at night knowing that I was invested in my own salvation, too.
34. Growing up is a privilege: I always considered it a given, especially once I was working for a big-time newspaper and living in beautiful parts of the country. But we know from Sandy Hook elementary to Hurricane Sandy that some people don’t get to grow up and live to see even their teens or twenties.
35. Let the beauty you love be the work that you do. I think that speaks for itself.