This last birthday, my 28th, was rough.
That beautiful June day, I woke up at five in an anxious sweat, pulled on a sweater, climbed the hill, and watched the sun rise over the city. And although I knew that I should be relishing the wet dew of the morning, the apricot light glinting from the face of the Bow, and the fact that I managed to make it another year without pitching my life into total disaster, I sat on that hill and I cried and cried and cried.
I remember joking as a teenager that I’d never live past 27, because what was the point? All the greats die young, and I was certain I was meant to be great. On that hill, tear-stained and panicking, all the nasty little voices that like to hang out in my head repeated it again. My life is over. I wasted it. I’m used up. I missed all my chances.
I went back to bed. And I spent the entire day there, sleeping, thinking, and mourning. I mourned what I saw as a wasted youth. I mourned my ‘deteriorating’ looks. I mourned my worth as a human being – turns out that being cognizant of the fact that women are socialized to understand that our societal value (read: our fuckability) plummets after 20 doesn’t mean you’re immune to feeling like crap about it. I felt shoved off of a throne I didn’t even know I sat upon. I mourned opportunity. I mourned wonder.
Birthdays used to feel like a new opportunity, every new age a new identity to try out. Now they’re just terrifying. I used to laugh at women who dreaded getting older, chalking it up to vanity and frivolousness. Now I get it. I do.
When you’re young, you feel like you’re going to be young forever. And then one day, you’re not.
I don’t know about everyone else, but growing up, I had a particular mythical age that signified the pinnacle of success – seventeen. Maybe it was because Britney Spears released her debut single at seventeen, and I was deep into the requisite ‘I’m going to be a pop-star’ phase of every 90s girl. Maybe it was because even then, I knew that seventeen existed in that liminal space between childhood and adulthood, where you have all of these opportunities and none of the associated responsibilities. Whatever it was, I fixated.
Seventeen was surely the age that I’d be at my peak; where I’d suddenly bloom into this beautiful woman, where fame and fortune would rain down on me and all I’d have to do is stand there with open arms to capture it. All I had to do was be myself. After all, I was special, right? I was different. I knew, deep in my heart, that seventeen was gonna be IT for me. That it was my expiration date.
Of course, seventeen came and went without much fanfare. I whiled away that year drinking bootlegged grape vodka in Fish Creek, scribbling bad poetry in notebooks, and waiting. And then I turned eighteen, and a haze of dissatisfaction and disappointment began to settle. Where was my Real Life? Why hadn’t it begun?
I decided that there must be something wrong with me, but that if I could only learn to cultivate a superior self, everything would be okay. This is when the lists started. I made lists of ways I could be prettier, ways I could be more pleasing to men, ways I could be more mysterious and interesting. I made lists of everything that was wrong with me. I catalogued every personality flaw. I spent a year starving myself, chewing up bags of Doritos and entire pizzas and spitting them out instead of swallowing them, sneaking upstairs in the middle of the night to flush it all down the toilet.
I tried on endless iterations of myself – goth girl with ripped fishnets and poorly concealed, experimental razor marks. A French courtesan with silk robes and secrets. An acid-dropping art hippie with bad boyfriends and ink-stained fingers. I wanted nothing more than to be irresistible and untouchable, admired, not loved, a character in a book instead of a real, whole person.
And that never really stopped. Even in the last few years, I’ve been obsessed with making everything about my life pleasing, aspirational, ‘grammable, if you will. I’ve been consumed by trying to recapture how I felt before seventeen, those years when I was so convinced that I was special, set apart and above, a rare emerald just waiting to be chipped from the earth.
Thing is, I’m exhausted. On my birthday, all cried out, I started to think of who I was as a little girl, before any of this self-hatred started to take hold. And I realized something kind of amazing.
I’m the same person.
When the neighbourhood kids came knocking at the door, asking me to come out and play, I’d go to nearly comical lengths to avoid them. I’d pretend I was sick, napping, doing homework. When I did venture outside, I went out the back door, hoping not to run into anybody, and hopped on my bike and rode the alleyways instead of the main streets. I used to follow the street cats around, trying to drum up a narrative of their secret animal underworld, the complicated kingdom of rabbits and robins, all their small stories. There was nothing better than a book. Nothing better than the quiet hours of the morning, before my brothers woke up and all hell broke loose. I was self-possessed and stubborn, fiercely independant, unfashionable, dreamy, dark.
Despite all those years trying to be someone remarkable, underneath it all I’ve always been who I am. Despite my genuine affection for people, I find casual friendship a little difficult, a little incomprehensible. I’m more comfortable alone, with my very few close friends, or with just my partner. All of the squirrels and rabbits in our front yard have names, and their behavior is faithfully noted and reported to my husband in soap opera format at the end of each day. I have a near-erotic fixation on new books and good pens and fine paper.
And despite all of those lists, all of those expectations I’ve been putting on myself and on the world, I’m okay just as I am. Just as I’ve always been. I spent so much time looking for the most successful version of myself, the one that would help me ‘win’, the one worthy of a million Instagram followers and expensive size 4 jeans and a fabulous minimalist house on the river, that I didn’t ever learn to like myself.
I’m tired of waiting for my Real Life to begin. For my Real Self to emerge. She’s been here all along, under all of this anxiety and self-loathing, just waiting for me to wise up. Yeah, I’m not seventeen. I’m older than my parents were when they had me. I don’t have a world of opportunity just waiting to gobble me up. But I’ve got a real life.
I’ve got two working hands and a stack of good poetry books on my desk. I’ve got prairie skies, a Waterman pen, french butter in the refrigerator. I’ve got a man with enchanted-forest eyes and a burning heart. I have my moments of stubborn bravery, now and then. Friends who I’d willingly answer the door for. A jam jar of clean tapwater.
My real life is not a life I ever dreamed about. But it’s mine, wholly and completely mine, and it’s always happening. It’s happening right now, in the shade of the backyard poplar in our 1950s fourplex apartment, with my rusty bike in the corner of the deck, and a cool, dry breeze rolling up from the river. My life is happening. Here. Now.
And so is yours.