When I was 27 I reconnected with a friend from middle school. We’d kept in touch for a few years when I was in high school, but lost contact by the time we went to college. When I crashed at his place, he pulled out a box of memorabilia, dug around, and pulled out some letters–actual handwritten letters!–I’d sent him when I was 16. My excitement and amusement were quickly replaced by regret and an existential funkiness when I read those letters.
“I’m different now. I am becoming a better person. I am becoming the person I always wanted to be,” I wrote.
Without having read those letters, I would have probably said the same thing to him at 27. It depressed me because it was irrefutable evidence that I was still struggling to become the person I wanted to be more than a decade later, after a college education and a my debut into adulthood as an English teacher in Taiwan. What was I doing at 16 that was so special? I knew at 27 that I was already starting to feel regrets about opportunities and time wasted. And if at 27 I thought I was becoming the person I always wanted to be, would I find out in ten years that I was lying to myself?
I wanted to share that with you because I wanted you to know that I am constantly checking in with myself–every season, every New Year, every birthday. I usually feel positive. I feel like I’ve devoted a good amount of time to thinking about life’s mysteries and I’ve come to some helpful conclusions. And then I check out my old diary or my old blog or find some letters I wrote when I was 16 and realize I’ve been chasing my own tail the whole time.
This birthday, I am finally starting to feel old.
Cue the chorus of people older and younger than me saying, “You’re not old!”
Thank you. That’s kind of you.
But the reality is I see signs of being old whenever I look in the mirror. I have more crow’s feet and laugh lines than ever. I have stubborn cellulite.
I can’t hold my beer anymore. Wine is fine, but sometimes even one or two beers will keep me out of production til dinner-time the next day. That’s severe, right? I used to party.
I feel old.
When I was 26 or so, I started feeling like I could conjure up the audacity to write. I felt like I had a superpower if I did so much as a draft a story about my first kiss. I eventually started working on my memoir. I was going to have a draft ready to submit to publishers by the time I was 30. Then with 30 looming, I was going to settle for a short story.
Now I’m 35 and I have a hard drive full of unfinished drafts of my memoir, short stories, and essays. I have feeble attempts at poetry in various notebooks.
I do have my own home office, though.
I am starting to suspect that the version of me that gives up gainful employment to live in a shack in the forest and write full-time while subsisting on a diet of handouts from kind strangers and caring family members is not actually a version of myself that I aspire to be.
I have finally admitted to myself that I get excited about getting that thing I needed from IKEA.
When I was 25 I admitted to myself that I liked air-conditioning and hated spiders too much to really join the Peace Corps. I wanted to when I was in college, but I was overwhelmed by my student loan debt and thought it would be better to get a paying job first.
I’m still paying off my student loans. I own three sets of matching linens from IKEA. I have a guest bedroom.
Did my priorities change naturally as I got older? Am I giving up? Or am I finally realizing who I am and what I want?
And if I am only just now realizing who I am and what I want, why has it taken so long? And what am I going to do with this information?
I am tired. I have been treading water for so long. Chasing my tail. When I moved to Taiwan, my friends said they were jealous. They went to grad school and then got married. When I moved back to the States, my American friends said they regretted not getting out and travelling for a year. By then they had careers. They were having kids. When I moved back to Taiwan, my American friends said it was brave of me to opt out. Now they have families, retirement accounts, and cars. They can watch Game of Thrones on Sunday nights on their big-screen TVs, legally.
My biggest concerns are watching Game of Thrones and going back to America after I’m too old to teach just to be a greeter at Wal-Mart and listening to old people who have never left the country complain about “damn immigrants”.
I don’t want to die alone, and lonely.
I’m 35. I’m old enough to do whatever I want, but the options are dwindling faster than I can figure out what they are. What they were.
(I’m not going to learn how to surf. There’s still time to get into snorkeling.)
I feel like I’m getting old faster than I figured out how to live.