It was my birthday on Tuesday, and now I am thirty three. I say it to myself with something like wonder. It seems impossible that those numbers apply to me. They are vast, immense, as old as the stars; a whole universe in the curve of double figures.
When I was twenty (and twenty five, and twenty nine), I imagined thirty three as a far off continent. Things would be different there, things would be simpler. I would be a mother, perhaps, with children clutching stickily at my knees, printing my face with their kisses. A writer (of course) with poems in the world and a string of accolades. A wife with a diamond ring and honeymoon sun in my skin, still, golden.
And now I am on that continent - childless, bookless, without a husband. And the strangest thing about it is that I am happy, for the most part. Happy in my life. Happy in simply having a foot on the place, like I imagine Columbus was, planting his flag in the earth of the Americas.
I have spoken, at length, about spending my twenties grappling with health, both physical and mental. Those years where every day was a whirlwind: food and booze, panic and bones; hair falling out in handfuls, fainting like the ladies in Victorian novels, blue-lipped, wasp-waisted, eyes swarming with stars.
It seemed dramatic, then - life was crazy, amplified, passionate, intense – but in fact, my life was on pause in those years. The whole of my twenties a button pushed down and held. It felt chaotic but I was standing still. Nothing moved. Nothing changed, except the numbers that flashed on a series of scales, the numbers that either praised or damned from the labels of my clothes.
I could regret the waste – and I do, sometimes – but the experience has turned out to have its gifts. I dug in the muck for years and came up wild-eyed and bloody-handed with the effort, but I found my treasures in the end, my fistfuls of gold: respect for myself, and awareness; empathy and acceptance; a hunger for truth and for knowledge; a burning curiosity and a mad thirst for experience.
Perhaps the strangest gift is that of girlhood. I had it, once, and wasted it; frittered it away in midnight kitchens, bent over porcelain bowls in bathrooms. I gave it, freely, in return for a body I could carve the air with, all knife-edge and cleaving slice. My friends were falling in love for the first time, and moving to cities, and kissing in bars, and buying spices in markets in foreign countries, and I was at home, alone, taking a savage delight in misery. All those years the other girls had, of trying, and finding, and fumbling towards something, I missed out on. I felt badly about that for a long time, as if I was behind, somehow, as if I needed to catch up. But the result of that now is that I feel like my friends did when they were in their twenties: like the world belongs to me in a way that it has never belonged to anyone else, that everything is new, and shining, and waiting to be experienced.
Birthdays inevitably make me reflective. The sequence of passing years, the implications of mortality, the endless list of all the things I haven’t done or seen yet, the places I have missed. My thirties have been the first years in which this reflection has not been synonymous with panic. I think before, I saw my life as a sort of train journey with a beginning and an end, and a series of stations I needed to pass through in between: education, career, marriage, children, and so on. Only in my thirties am I beginning to appreciate that the point of the journey is the journey itself, not whether I’ve reached a particular platform by the time designated on the schedule (which isn’t, anyway, my schedule). Life isn’t the checking off of station-names until the final destination. Life is the miles of field flashing in between, the beads of rain on the glass. Life is the other passengers in the carriage and the sheep outside, sleepy-eyed, working mouthfuls of grass.
It’s good to look forward, I think, but not too far. Not so far as to where the tracks converge to a single gleaming point on the horizon. You miss the wild flowers between the slats that way. You miss the way the dust turns like fireflies in the random slants of falling light.