This article was originally written for The Creative Cafe.
On Sunday I turned 21, sat wrapped in a blanket, drinking tea on the fire escape outside my friend’s apartment.
Incidentally, it’s the same place where I sat a year ago, on my 20th. An industrial metal perch, redolent of half-forgotten scenes from musicals, which can feel more like home than where I actually live.
Once in a while, just sometimes, it ends up being where I run when things are overwhelming and nowhere feels like the right place to be.
And birthdays tend to fall into that category.
21 caught me by surprise because I’d half forgotten I was 20.
For most of my life, I could pass for a good five years younger than my actual age. So, at 13 I could pass for 8, and at 18 I could pass for 13 or 14. Something changed though, once I left university and launched, wholly unprepared, into the adult world.
During the interim period, I went through the end of the only serious relationship I’ve ever been in, the loss of my grandfather, the loss of a friend, the loneliness of a year of isolation, moving home half a dozen times, the draining ordeal of figuring out how to make my freelance business work, my first office job, learning how to keep a cat alive, illness in the family, and other things I won’t share here.
Somewhere along the line, people started guessing my age as closer to 30 than the truth. Whereas at 18, my ID would get rejected because ‘it can’t be real, there’s absolutely no way you’re 18’, at 19 a bartender in a bar with a policy of asking for ID from anyone who looked under 25 laughed when I made to hand her my passport.
There’s a green light on the building opposite that fire escape, a literary metaphor so trite and obvious I made myself wince the first time I felt an odd sense of satisfaction at the sight of it.
In daylight, it’s just a burglar alarm or something. But in the dark, it’s F. Scott Fitzgerald’s metaphor for the out-of-reach thing we crave the most, the hazy dream of a perfect future, and I was grateful for it.
In theory this is where I launch into a rodomontade about everything I’ve learned and achieved this year. Except…that doesn’t fit. It wouldn’t be honest.
We’re meant to, per certain cultural standards, celebrate birthdays. I haven’t celebrated in any meaningful way since 15/16, before I got seriously depressed for the first time and started finding the idea of dragging a bunch of people into one place to congratulate you for surviving another orbit of the sun to be narcissistic.
So instead of celebrating, I spent most of the day thinking and the night watching that green light. Trying to remember what my own green light is. Trying to figure out what I want. Trying to unpick the decisions that led me to where I am now.
This is your life. This is not your funeral.
That’s something I wrote in a post earlier this year, and it reflects how I feel about 21. It takes, for me, a lot of guts to admit that the last year was mostly a terrible mess.
There are the beautiful, Instagram-esque highlights and the modest successes, the times I traveled, writing I loved creating, the euphoric first couple of months in London. I stopped biting my nails, my most ingrained bad habit and something I’ve done since I was practically a baby. I cleaned up my diet (a bit, most of the time) and learned how to do very basic cooking (causing two near serious fires in the process.) I read ~120 books and, between work and personal, wrote maybe as many blog posts/articles. My brother graduated from Oxford. A friend managed to drag me into a club for the first and only time in my life.
I walked across a frozen lake in Copenhagen, camped and climbed a waterfall in South Africa, returned to Paris, saw a heart-stoppingly wonderful cathedral in Malta, and numerous exhibitions in London. For a short time, I even started dating again which is wildly out of character. I got to spend time with friends from college and school, all of whom are amazing people.
But undercutting most of it, an aftertaste of anxiety, a palpable sense of fear, the charade of quiet self-sabotage, exhausting loneliness, a need to hide the reality of my days, a compulsion to keep people at arm’s length, catastrophic thinking, and a sickening sort of regretful guilt of indeterminate cause.
It’s one thing to be happy when you’ve escaped somewhere else, another to feel that way in your mundane normal life. Which is what really matters.
In the early hours of the morning, a man appeared and began clearing odds and ends from a huge heap of trash that has lingered below the fire escape for as long as she’s lived there. He noticed me watching and, gesturing loosely, announced ‘This will all be gone soon.’
He meant the rubbish, of course, but in my metaphor soaked, exhausted state, that unremarkable comment took on the same degree of meaning as the unremarkable green light.
This will all be gone soon. Every part of our lives is impermanent. Everything we are and want and believe and need right now will change.
By the time I turn 22, most things will be different. And I need that to be in a good way.
Birthdays are the logical time to take the pulse of our lives. On paper, the majority of the day was a gloom of hopelessness, steeped in rumination and cyclical thinking.
But I’m glad for that. I’m glad everything hit me in one day, with a shattering intensity. Glad for the green light, like a meditation chime, that focused my mind all night. Glad for the pain of hammering the mistakes I made this year into my head:
‘…we don’t really learn anything properly until there is a problem, until we are in pain, until something fails to go as we hoped. We suffer therefore we think and we do so because it helps up place pain in context, it helps us to understand its origins, plot its dimensions, and reconcile ourselves to its presence. It follows that ideas that have arisen without pain lack an important source of motivation.’ — Alain de Botton, How Proust Can Change Your Life
As easy as it is to make these types of statements and as hard as it is to make them true, I want this year to be a helluva lot better, to be a time of actual growth.
I want to gain clarity in my work, to gain a better sense of where I want it to head as that moves into a new chapter. Devote more time and energy to my personal writing projects, namely blogging. Get better at recognising and pursuing what makes me happy: spending time in green spaces, animals, walks, reading, going to galleries, taking pictures in new places. Look after my health a little better: stick to grain-free veganism more consistently, stop this cycle of under and over sleeping, meditate again. Perhaps most important, finally start learning how to be less uncomfortable around people, to gain control of the shyness that’s misconstrued as rudeness. And work. Like hell.
I wrote most of this shoddy manifesto in the notes app on my phone out on the fire escape, a garbled note to self (which, for the millionth time, is how I write most of my posts.) And it’s here as a reminder for myself this year.