Your twenties. What an extraordinary, shitty, absorbing, expansive, grief-stricken, glittering, shifting, powerful, broke, successful failure of a decade.
My fourth decade spun into being this week. These things have a way of sneaking up on you quietly. At one point, it’s five years away, and then all of a sudden it has slipped through your fingers with silky threads and been and gone. 10 years ago, I was 20, skinny and stupid and tender hearted and sweet. In a decade’s time, I will be 40 and no doubt have added lines to my eyes and sags to my boobs and who knows? Maybe a baby or three, or another 12-dachshunds.
It’s an interesting exercise to look back at the forces which have shaped the being I am today. I’ve always adored birthdays; it’s a tap-dancing time for my inner narcissist. Who wants to be celebrated in all their splendour? I do. I still look at people who hate birthdays with a mingling feeling of bemusement and disquieting horror. But, why? What a glorious moment for my alter-ego, wrapped up in fuchsia taffeta and flaming top hat. Oh, you want to worship little old me? Go on then!
I was ambivalent about the apparent milestone status of this particular birthday. I felt no tremors of dread at my marching years. I’m in the best physical and emotional state of my adult life and I feel the party is just getting started. I don’t want to be 21 again. 21 was hard. I think there is a reason there are such high statistics for mental ill-health for people under 25. Many have been pushed out of the guiding institutions that have ruled their short lives with steel capped force, be it the exacting routine of high school or the family home; and are now making their way by braille through unfamiliar terrain, pocked with looming trolls like rental bonds and awful jobs and desperate loneliness, raging hormones, substance abuse and such pressure about what they are going to do with their lives. Yeah, it can also be filled with the carefree wonder of little responsibility, bumbling months of grotty backpacking, cheap wine, unfurling passions and the exquisite flowering of new lovers and hard-hitting young romance. You feel so much. A fragrance laced with memory or a concert is enough to make you weep. But, it’s not all roses. I think we forget. It can be hard.
Your twenties are such a pivotal time of growth. So much extraordinary change. So many bad eye makeup choices. How are today’s teenagers consistently rocking a Khloe Kardashian smoky eye, whilst I seemed only to be able to produce a Lady Di blue eyeliner, that gave me the identity of a startled racoon that fell in a portaloo. Thanks for nothin’ Cosmo Magazine.
In my twenties, I owned and lost my very first dog; a soul mate in canine form whom I still think of every day. Who I still light candles for. I wait for her to come back to me in some other form.
I bought and paid off my first car – a ruby red Barina which gave me an unbelievably giddy rush of freedom to the head. I bought this! With my money! Pulling in to the servo to fill up BY MYSELF (albeit, 15 bucks at a time due to the whole limited cashola situation) was exhilarating and the littering of Twirl wrappers carpeting my car floors were testament to the impulse purchases catalysed by such a mental state.
In my twenties I had serious, cataclysmic, ride-or-die relationships and said yes to the man I’ll marry next year.
I travelled like an actual idiot abroad. Ticking off places like a to-do list and paying very little homage to what it was I was seeing or doing. Another country to drink another glass of cheap white wine in, or snog a sunburnt fellow traveller in bad shoes.
There were unfortunate choices in lovers and hormone-stricken sobbing over silly boys who would one day grow up to be decent men. Just not yet.
I tasted the salt of devastating grief when my dear friend died, in a way that ripped me from the soft cocoon of my sheltered young shell.
I met friends who have grown to form the skeleton of my existence; whose support and love plait the pelt of my days.
I played Safari Barbie in Botswana’s Okavango Delta and galloped through gleaming floodplains beside towers of giraffe, Jurassic in their movements, limbs flailing akimbo. I lay in the pulsing heat of my canvas tent in the African night and listened to the chuckle and splash of hippos on my doorstep; shooing elephants from the centre of our camp so I could make my morning coffee, the whip crack of their ears slapping their skulls as they shook their heads in mock charge. The dust and the heat and the skies that still spice my thoughts with such intense vividness and seem like a dream, now.
I scraped through my university course and did little to make the most of all the opportunities afforded me; frozen into lethargy by a gripping fear of the scale of the throbbing city and the huge campus crammed with people hurrying and debating and studying and grappling and competing.
I worked a season in France as a chalet girl, growing fat on cheese and drunk on alpine air and learning the visceral, divine bodily adoration of skiing. Blue powder days and standing on the doorstep enjoying my frozen cheeks and chilly hands as I listened to the silence of soft snow falling down in clean, crystal ropes.
I worked as a rural reporter in the flat, dry countryside of my girlhood. Driving to remote places to talk to ordinary people doing interesting things because they could, or they were driven to. Sweating through press conferences on the sides of new dams or in the middle of cotton fields spreading white as bone in all directions; listening to politicians spin bullshit under the shade of their shiny Akubras. Leaving town in the charcoal pre-dawn and watching the sun creep her buttery fingers across the comforting silhouettes of ragged gum trees, following endless roads creased with the corpses of roadkill ‘roos.
I moved countries for love; twice. Drank gin like water in the blooming opulence of British summers, where the thick, succulent growth of a gorgeous sunny day is completely unparalleled. I fell madly in love with my friends who are my family there, forged in summer frocks and cemented during eccentric suppers and breezy coastal trips and wine soaked parties. Endured a winter glazed with frost; freezing the water pipes and leaving us stranded behind snow hewn hedgerows.
My vocational path seems to be unwinding with molasses consistency; different trainings and new doors opening to usher me closer to my purpose, whatever that is. Yoga and Pilates and health and meditation the bedrock to something bigger than me. But, it’s still coming. I’m still learning.
And now, we’re here in New Zealand. From my window the mountains carry their snow caps in ragged contours, brushing the bowl of the sky with their glacial hair. I spent the last day of my 20s washing away a hangover in my first cold water immersion (a fancy word for sitting in very cold water. WTF, indeed.) A gaggle of us waded into the water where mist coiled like white breath; gasping and clinging to each other and laughing at the ludicrous freeze of it all; squatting on the bed of stones so water flowed over our shoulders like a bruising velvet cloak. Five minutes we sat there! Before wading out clumsily with boards for feet, frozen stiff, the shock of the comparatively warm air suffusing our limbs rosy as our blood boiled and stung under the skin. We felt alive and silly and cold and bursting at the seams.
I am relentlessly cheerful about another year. Yes, it appears there are meteorites of despair, panic and hopelessness ricocheting around our planet like blowflies around a steaming pile of January dung. The climate is in crisis, there’s plastic in our salt and Ivanka Trump is representing the western world at global summits. But, I’m doing my best. We’re doing our best. There’s so much to be grateful for. There’s coffee and books and cashmere and family and people evoking real change. There’s dogs. Thank god for dogs. There are foster carers and organ donors and volunteers. There are committee members all over the world taking part in working bees and holding fundraisers and running events. You can too. There are rivers and cool breezes and gelato. If I’ve learnt anything, it’s kindness is everything. Generosity makes the world a better place. It’s the micro things that count; the everyday-ers rather than the once-in-a-whilers. Make your corner of the world as good as you can. Advocate. Collaborate. Do what you can. Love as much as you can. We are our thoughts; so be careful with those. I don’t so much as like hiking as I actively worship at its alter. The wellness industry isn’t healthy. But I still love yoga. And kefir. Our gut health is so important; I think we’re just scratching the surface of it. Life and situations are nuanced and rarely black or white. If in doubt, listen to a podcast. Send thank you cards. In fact, just send cards. Take the risks and sleep as much as you can. Never stop learning; when we do, I think that’s what death might look like. Thank you, indeed.