I’m turnin’ into a nigga that thinks about money and women, like, 24/7. That’s where my life took me; that’s just how shit happened to go. — Drake, “Know Yourself”
When I turn 36 in two months, I will cross over the benchmark of this decade where I’m closer to 40 than I am to 30, far closer to middle-age than post-adolescence. Subconsciously, during 2015, that must’ve been significant to me. This has been the year that I started chasing. Finally, I stopped waiting for my dreams to find me working, and refocused my work so that it gathered like an arrowhead and flung itself forward.
I still don’t know what else I want to be when I grow up. But I know far better, thanks to 35, who I am right now.
A few days ago, I tweeted that the 30s are a revelatory set of years — and not everything you become during them is inspiring or pleasant; not everything you realize about yourself makes you proud. The truth is: the first five years of my 30s taught me just how many of my good traits are decision-based. They’re the result of waking up every day and choosing to be kind or generous or thoughtful or compassionate. None of that is innate. I’m not always tender with my child instinctively, for instance. Sometimes I take a deep breath first and set my intention on a soft word or a gentle touch or a question — “Was that nice?” or Was that the right choice?” — rather than yelling, “What’s gotten into you?!”
And, I mean: I fail.
I can be shallower than I thought I had become, either compelled or unnerved by physical appearance in ways I thought I’d conquered as a child. I still notice how people look before I notice who they are; how they look still impacts how I process who they are. It’s something I intend to continue rejecting, now that I’m aware just how much work I still need to do.
Even when I think I’m operating out of pure human kindness, I can discover, at the end of a day, that I was in fact motivated by the response I’d hoped to receive. The disappointment I feel when I don’t get it is what makes that apparent. Take this, as an example: when I was 33, I fell in love with someone, dated him for four months, and pined for him over the next two years. For him, I would run a gauntlet of errands, under the guise of just-friendship, attempting all the while to convince both him and myself that I was simply good-hearted, willing to accept what would never be — us, a couple, reconciled — yet still present myself to him, whenever he was in a bind. Love, after all, whether or not it’s met with equal or greater force, is kind. It doesn’t seek its own. It meets whatever need it sees, without expectation of repayment. This is what I wanted us both to believe. It’s who I thought I was: purely kind, unconditionally loving.
But I was stealing all kinds of repayment: the sight of him, his touch, the scent of him steeped in the cloth seats of my car, long after he’d left it, his conversation. I used it all as a kind of fossil fuel; I let it burn off my loneliness.
Worse, in my 30s, I’ve been on the receiving end of this very kind of attention, offered as under a label of friendship and undeterred by known disinterest in it. I’ve chosen not to reiterate my disinterest, because these days, having someone familiar near can be far more appealing than resolutely sending him away.
I am embarrassed to admit that. I spent my 20s eschewing all behavior that could be called clingy or needy or desperate or validation-seeking. I prided myself on being able to take a hint. I always left first, even if I didn’t want to. I knew all the adages: Never make time for someone who doesn’t make time for you. Listen the first time. Follow your first mind. If he’s truly interested, you’ll always know it. That I could know those things as true and decide to test them anyway isn’t something I enjoy disclosing about myself. The woman who does that isn’t the woman I believed I was.
My 30s have made me different. My 30s, with a small child I have yet to raise, whose future frightens me, for all its potential and for the possible ways that this potential will carry her far away from me and lead me, in my very old age, back to the silent, less vibrant life I led before her, are the decade where my worst qualities and greatest fears are revealing themselves and it’s too exhausting to keep pretending to the world that I don’t have them.
I am often afraid, especially in my friendships and with lovers. I do not want to let anyone go. I can say this now because I am almost 36 and I think, when a woman is still single at this age, this sort of admission is expected.
I do enjoy the life I’m carving out. I am a writer, which is really all I ever wanted to be in the world, and I am a mother, which I was never certain I wanted to be, but have risen to — with all my heart — just the same. Ten years ago, I would not have dared ask for more. I do not always dare it now.
But increasingly, I am challenging myself to own whatever I am and then to interrogate it. I am, at turns, angry and jealous and petty, short-tempered and selfish, and even, as this most recent failed relationship taught me, unwittingly duplicitous. I have done more than my fair share of compromising what I truly want. Now, I am becoming exacting about it.
I simply want to be good — to myself, to my child, to others, good at my work and at a love as yet unseen. I no longer want to pretend to anyone that I am sweeter or more self-sacrificing than I am. And in the absence of that performance, in the midst of my daily choosing and failing, I want someone beside me making his own, similar decisions. Among them: accepting me just as I am and choosing, each day, not to flinch.