I chatted online with a former teacher almost exactly a year ago.
"Hurry up and get married lah! You're nearly 30 already!" she urged.
I hear that sort of thing all the time, so that one event wasn't noteworthy. What made it memorable was the fact that this was the same woman who had said the following four years before, as part of a text message:
"[Husband] impossible n driving me nuts. Advice -- remain single til 30. Freedom priceless. Take care. Ms X"
So, if I'd taken Ms X's advice both times, I should have spent the remaining four years of my 20s in determined pursuit of being single. And then, it seems, shortly before the stroke of midnight on my 30th birthday, I ought to have found someone to marry and then made sure that everything was signed, stamped and toasted by 500 raucous Chinese* before carriage turned to pumpkin, horses to mice, and humongous glass slippers to humongous everyday flats (let's be realistic, even in a fairy tale I'd still have outsize flippers for feet). Because seemingly, 30 is a magical age when a woman's value expires unless validated by the institution of marriage.
More on marriage another day, but for now let's look at age. So it seems I've already failed one of the criteria that I'm supposed to have been able to tick off by 30. Not to mention that I am still, at time of publishing this post, jobless; have yet to recover the majority of my savings that I plunged into further study and the necessary relocation that ensued; do not own real estate or have a significant investment portfolio.
But I'll tell you what I do have, much of which I didn't have when I was 16, 21, 25, all those ages of which people like Ms X wistfully mourn the passing: I have joy. My mind, after 23 years in the gloom of depression, is at peace. I wake every morning with a sense of purpose and direction. Every task, big or small -- from making coffee and mixing cake batter to emailing people with Big Important Titles at international organisations engaged in helping-people-type things -- is informed by the knowledge that I am enjoying this moment in this place with these resources and these people because this is exactly where I'm meant to be.
Baking for other people gives me an excuse to make frosting.
Cupcakes for the New Year's Eve picnic of 2009.
Maybe one reason for so many to lament their age and the increasing distance from childhood is that they miss that time. On my part, I never had a carefree childhood so there isn't much to miss; or whatever I do miss -- such as people and pastimes -- most of them are easy enough to connect with here and now. Those that I can't, such as people who've stopped breathing and playgrounds that have been torn down: well, no amount of mourning for them will bring them back, so I do as I've learnt. I remember them fondly, and I find ways for my present life to reflect the riches they brought to my past.
A lot of my female friends a year or two younger than me have told me they're petrified of celebrating their 30th birthdays with no man in sight. For their sake I'll put it out here: I've spent the past five and a half years not in a significant relationship, and my 30th birthday was wonderful. I spent the day at the beach. Then I met friends for dinner, new friends who'd lived in the same apartment building for half a year without my knowing until I ran into them at my new church. She baked me a cake; he sang to me in Spanish. Later that week, I flew to Perth courtesy of nice cousins for a five-day celebration that included cake, a road trip, bad 80s rock, more of the ocean, and way too much food for five people with 30- and nearly-30-year-old metabolisms. The day I flew back to Sydney, another cousin invited me to a Moroccan dinner to celebrate two birthdays: mine and her daughter's, seven days after mine. The metabolism was unchanged. That was the beginning of a good year for me, one that has surprised me at every possible point.
The birthday cake Erin baked for me last October, which revealed
that we share similar principles in cake decorating. Picture by Erin.
When I started keeping a regular journal, one thing I resolved to see between its pages was growth. I wanted to honestly say with each passing year that it's the best I've ever had. So far, I've kept that resolution. Life has continued to be rocky. My family is as it has been and might never change. Still, I've given up worrying about elements beyond my control and instead invested all I had into improving the quality of my life where I can: the work that will take up the bulk of my time and, in return, give me some of that stuff that we use to pay rent and buy food and look after our neighbour; the relationships that have been entrusted to me; the body I'm left with for the rest of my time on Earth; whichever place I call "home" for the time being. Maybe the reason I don't work up a good sweat approaching every birthday, why 31 doesn't scare me and, I hope, neither will 84, is that I don't wait for birthdays before I contemplate where my life is headed and whether I'm doing it well.
So, in reply to Ms X and everyone who's hovered anxiously around me telling me that I need to get married/look for a house to buy/think about voluntarily increasing my superannuation rather than giving more money away... thank you for caring enough to say these things. (And by the way, the 3 of you to whom I owe money: don't worry, it isn't your money I'll be giving away. I won't resume my former habits of giving to causes until you've got back everything you kindly lent me when I needed food money and a roof over my head.)
Thanks for telling me, in your own ways, to go after the things that you feel go best with my life at this age. But I'm really OK. I'm more than OK. I'm 30 years and 357 days old, and passionately enjoying every moment of the passing time. Because it isn't being married at 31, successful at 31, wealthy at 31, or even healthy at 31 that will make me happy. These things are all great and I believe I'll have every good thing I'm meant to have, when I'm meant to have it. But if I'm not able to find joy now without these things, I doubt I'll be any good with them.
Great timing, by the way, that as I started writing this post I saw this link on a friend's Facebook page. Wouldn't there be a lot less stigma attached to ageing if more of us approached it the way Hedda Bolgar does?
*This statement is no indication of disrespect towards the Chinese. I'm Chinese (at least on paper, and I'm positive that genetically my family is predominantly Han, but there must be some Benetton-advertising sensibility weaving through our lineage or surely my brother and I wouldn't look the way we do). I'm glad to be Chinese. But I'm not blind to the fact that apart from being the world's most populous ethnic group, we might also be its loudest. Especially at weddings.