This is a guest post from one of my favorite writers. Her name is Erica. I met her in a class that actually changed my life. In that class, I thought, “I want to be like Erica.” Later, she was in my tiny writing group. The entire time I’ve known her, she has worn the most unassuming clothing. Like she really just likes to be comfortable. In this city, I had never seen someone do that. She struck me immediately and continuously as a person who likes being herself. Who can just sit there being herself for as long as you need to sit there with her, figuring yourself out. I was thrilled when she wrote to me yesterday and said she needed to write this post. Then she wrote it.
I turned thirty yesterday. I was in my twenties for a long time—a whole decade. I turned twenty in Maine, where I was living in staff housing behind a luxury resort, paying $35 a week in rent and saving money for a trip to Europe. How’d I get to Maine? My car broke down and I found a job. It was adventurous, I was young, and my life was yawning open like a carpet unfurling.
In Maine, I learned how to hear complaints from guests at the hotel without rolling my eyes. I learned all the wrong ways to be a customer. I learned that having a compassionate boss makes a big difference. I met a man in his sixties named Legs, who told me that losing his girl had been his Auschwitz. And I said, “Everyone has their Auschwitz,” but I didn’t know, then, what mine was, what it might be. In fact, ten years on, I think it’s a little dramatic. But still, I understand my point—that everyone suffers more than they think they can suffer. Everyone has to face what once seemed untenable.
When I was twenty, I didn’t ever expect to turn thirty.
Thirty felt like something I’d experience during the trip to Europe I had yet to take: seeing a distant shoreline—no, the faint suggestion of a shoreline—from a ferry and thinking I’d never actually make it to that new country. When I was twenty, most of my friends were older than me. Throughout my twenties, actually, most of my friends were older than me. Their lives became a little more stable a little sooner than mine. A lot of them got married. Now, a lot of them are having children, or are at least thinking about it. A lot of them already finished graduate school before I decided to go.
I lived in Vermont from the time I was twenty-one to twenty-three, after six months in Europe where I learned how to open my mind (only sometimes with, ahem, help), how to speak quietly in a cathedral, how to communicate love to the non-English speaking parents of friends you met in America. In Vermont, I learned how to live with people of all ages, and how to love people who were older than I was by more than a few years. I learned that when a man asks for or gives a massage, that’s definitely code. I learned that in Vermont, it’s not called soft-serve—it’s called a creamee.
In Vermont, thirty was the age of almost nobody. We were all in our twenties, except the much older people, who were in their forties and sixties and seventies. It seemed like we collectively skipped thirty, and I spent a lot of time thinking about how great life would be if I could go straight to being old, straight to retired. I felt like a working stiff, like the fun of life was through, because I had to earn money and I didn’t see an extended vacation in my future as payoff. I thought that if I could just get to seventy, but with all the benefits that those years are supposed to have, then I’d be the luckiest person alive. I’d have friends and a partner and a pet and a house with nice furniture, and maybe I’d have had some kind of career that didn’t carry the monotony of a regular job. But I didn’t want to actually experience that. I just wanted its results.
I can see where I was coming from, then. I was feeling bad for myself, lonesome and unsure of my future, of what I really wanted to do. It was an aimless moment, a moment when I visited Montreal often, to go to concerts by myself at places like Club Soda and La Sala Rossa. Once, the lady at the border said this: “Why would you go to a show by yourself?” I said I didn’t have any friends, and she let me through. That wasn’t entirely true, but it often felt true. I had a hard time, in Vermont, because I was learning how to be a friend—how to invite people into my life and keep them there.
Last week, I surprised an old roommate from Burlington by showing up in her new town, Ithaca, without giving her a heads up. I knew she’d be there, and I knew she’d welcome me. And this is what I learned in Vermont: that some friendships endure, when they’re treated respectfully, and in those friendships, people settle into one another in beautiful ways. In Ithaca, we sat at a kitchen table drinking beers, telling our respective stories of heartbreak, and then she took me into town, where I met a whole bunch of her new friends and we talked the way we’d always talked, like only a week had gone by.
When I left Vermont, it was to move back to New York City, where I’d lived so long before that it doesn’t even fit into my twenties (this is shocking to me too, and I lived it). I was going back to college, and the acceptance into school had buoyed my confidence, begun to show me what I was worth. And in New York I learned everything—or at least, I wanted to learn everything. I took classes in disciplines I didn’t know anything about, like physics and urban studies and philosophy. I read every single thing that was assigned—required and recommended. I read things that weren’t assigned, books that were returned to the cavernous basement library where I worked. I was ravenous for information.
In the midst of all that reading, all those papers, all the problem sets, a little cat found me, and she taught me the most important thing, the thing that books and friends and parents and everyone else couldn’t. That there’s a way to take care of a living thing, to fall in love with it, that gives you something you need in the process. Nora and I grew up together, then, in the folds of down comforters and in the comfort of a space that was only ours. And then we outgrew that space, and we invited other people into what we had created—first friends, and then lovers.
Thirty, by then, was the shoreline coming closer, the way an outline finds itself filled with green, and then, finally, trees, as you move toward it. At twenty-six, I was living with a man, a man who was thirty before we met. I did laundry for both of us, and watched baseball at night instead of going out, most of the time. I ate brunch with my friends, but we weren’t hungover. When I went to visit my sister in Australia and a friend in New Zealand, it was a short vacation, two weeks, and I used vacation time to take it. I’d never had vacation time before. I’d never had a retirement fund, either.
When I was twenty-seven, I left him. I moved a half-block away and learned that distance doesn’t have to be measured in neighborhoods. I learned that being compassionate must also apply to the self. I learned that kindness doesn’t always solve an unfixable problem. And I learned calculus.
Like a boat off-course, thirty started to fade again. Having a partner, at thirty, seemed like one of the requirements. A degree, probably, too. Maybe a stable domicile. Maybe a relationship with my parents that felt rich with history and love. I was on track, for some of those things. How many things does it take to count as adulthood?
Today, I’d say none. Nothing is imperative when it comes to adulthood. But then, I wasn’t sure. The next two years, the twilight of my twenties, had me falling in love again, in a completely different way, with a person I would never have imagined myself falling in love with at twenty, twenty-two, twenty-six. I learned, at twenty-eight, that love exists in the places I never thought to look before. I learned that love can be larger than I ever thought, even though I always thought it was huge. And I learned that the more you love people, the more they love you back. The more you trust people, the more they trust you back. And the more you give people, the more they give you back.
I’m in graduate school now. I started when I was twenty-nine, and I’m older than almost everyone. I don’t mind, though. Now that I’m thirty, I’m learning that friends are everywhere, if you’re open to making them. I’m learning that the more I share with people, the more connections we find, and the more we have to learn from each other. I’m learning that my decisions have been the right ones—even the wrong ones have been the right ones. Once, I wanted to skip this coming decade. I wanted to get through it without experiencing it. I’m glad I know better know. I’m setting sail again, and right now, there’s not even another shore in sight. You know what? I feel free.
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Erica Sklar is an MFA candidate at UNC Wilmington, where she spends a lot of time hugging animals. She writes personal essays and is at work on a book about surviving the loss of a sibling. You can reach her at email@example.com
Other thoughts about turning thirty? What was it like for you? Or what do you expect it to be like?
Erica’s Unroast: today I love how my thighs look in short (but not too short) shorts