I remember turning 19 and thinking this is it. This is my last chance to make something of myself.

I felt as if my potential had been wasted, my viability as an Extraordinary Person squandered. 19 was old. I couldn’t believe I had let 18 slip through my fingers like water, when it was the most important age I would ever be. Being 18 was my best chance for success, for beauty, for fame and fortune to find me and lift me up out of the relative mediocrity of my wholly regular life. Now that I was 19, I was as unappetizing to fate’s whims as last night’s soggy leftovers, and I was devastated.

I’m not sure when or how this ridiculous mythology of the cult of youth planted itself in my mind, but every birthday since 19 has been a little rough on me. I turned 26 recently, and I keep thinking I should have accomplished more by now, that I’m running out of time. I missed the boat. The world belongs to the barely-ripe fruit of the young, and I’m decaying on the branch.

The thing is, I love decay. I love old red brick schoolhouses overtaken with wild vines snaking skyward, I love scars and wrinkles and streaks of wiry white hair. I love ancestors and animal bones picked clean, ghost towns, faded photographs. So why do I have such a hard time accepting the beauty and inevitability of decay in myself, and in those I love?

Like so many others, I have this bad habit of waiting. Waiting until I’m the elusive Better, the impossible Ready, to go out and live my life fully. But I’m beginning to realize that I don’t have all the time in the world. I will never be my ideal self, but I can run towards something resembling her. Decay is a steady reminder that my time here is in a constant state of erosion. If I want something, I need to go out and take it for myself before it’s too late. It will not come as a result of being that fictional Ready. It will come as a result of vulnerability, dirty hands, wide eyes, and a healthy disregard for inhibition. It will come from discomfort.

Decay, despite what the world would have you believe, is not a thief or a vandal. Decay is a gardener, a curator, a poet. It takes what is owed to it. It digs at youth with hungry fingers only to plant new seedlings in the resulting void. Decay brings its challenges, but it does not remove opportunity, erase beauty, or dampen value. Decay is an opportunity for growth. Your life is not over once you’ve danced through the golden hour of youth. Embrace the wondrous night of all that comes after. Embrace your decay.