Tomorrow I will be thirty one years old. I remember turning ten and feeling the weightiness of being one decade old and being old enough to know what that meant. A decade! Decade was a word heavy with meaning, associated with the elders whom I was to respect at all costs, decade referred to history, was associated with Roman numerals. I was leaving my early childhood behind me and going out unto uncharted waters.
But I was a brave girl and I was ready to face what ever life would bring me. I sincerely hoped, at that point in time, that life would bring me a ranch out west with wild mustangs.
I did not celebrate my twentieth birthday; I used it instead like a life line to drag me out of the murky waters of a marriage at nineteen into what I hoped would be respectability. It did not offer me the reprieve I had hoped. That birthday punctuated a winter that was as dark and heavy as the woods that surrounded our home, the home we lived in with my in laws.
It lay down a narrow and rutted back road, almost impassable in spring and glazed with ice in the winter. The room I lived in had huge windows that let in the sight of the tangled woods, with high, towering bookshelves on the other. I breathed in the light as though it were air but I still felt as though I were drowning.
By the time spring came, I and my first respectable car were barreling down the road, leaving that bondage behind and hoping I was strong enough to bear up under the weight of being a divorced woman at the tender age of twenty. I kept his name, partly to remind myself, partly to punish myself and partly because I was too exhausted to consider all the steps involved in changing it.
My twenty fifth birthday was celebrated in South Korea. I was the sole teacher of over a hundred Korean English students, my hands were perennially covered with chalk dust, I was always leaving little cups of green tea on window sills and desk tops. I lived in a dorm room heated by the floor, with a hot water heater for my very own shower (I was the only one who had this privilege) that eventually and dramatically burst into flames one night when I attempted to use it. I washed my clothes squatting on the floor, in a plastic basin and hung them out to dry on a wash line strung on the roof.
I loved being twenty five. I loved being in South Korea, I loved my Japanese boyfriend of two and a half years, whom I had been going to visit each year since we had met in person the first time, in Boston during New Year festivities.
I loved my Korean students who came laughing, exuberant, down the long, concrete hallways of my building, their dark hair lifting, their dark eyes alight. How shyly they would put their heads around the door of my office, to say hello. How sweetly the little girls would beg to hold my hand and cluster around me, chattering unintelligibly, but so hopeful.
During the preschool class in the mornings, I would take them all out, all fifteen of them. Using a little stop and go sign I had made, we would line up and walk down to the small green park at the base of the steep hill that the university was built on. I would be at one end of the green and open my arms to them and they would come racing to me, fill my arms with warm bundles of squirming toddlers.
"Sungsunim, Sungsunim!" they would cry, clustering about me, reaching only to my thigh and thrusting their dripping wet paintings at me, or urgently babbling on about some current state of their affairs that I must know about immediately and then act upon, as their teacher.
I dreaded turning thirty. I dreaded it so much that the thought of turning thirty tainted the ages of twenty eight and twenty nine. I might as well have leaped from twenty seven to thirty for all that it mattered to me. It was almost a relief by the time I reached thirty. I don't even know what exactly I was dreading so much.
I turned thirty in a city downtown, feeding the homeless at a mission established the Seventh Day Adventist Church. It was a snowy and cold night, the homeless ate burritos and salad with Ranch dressing and then there was a Bible study. I wore the heavy, lined black wool coat that I had purchased at Ann Taylor that fall, I kept my cell phone on vibrate and in my pocket in case work called, the holiday season was approaching and there were always call offs and chaos.
Work was a monkey on my back that didn't let me sleep. I would enter the building and the weight of it would settle down, familiarly, possessively. There were always stacks of paperwork on my desk, obscuring the pictures of the elderly that I loved best.
That winter I had thrown off the shelter of a suburban subdivision, the comfort of inground sprinklers and a full basement, of wall to wall carpeting and the color scheme I had picked out and then painted on the walls one spring in a flurry of home improvement hopes.
I had needed the shelter, I had searched it out and then grown up out of it. When I turned thirty, I lived in a little house well out of that upper middle class comfort, starting out with nothing but my dog Lynn and the brand new bedding I had purchased with my credit card at Walmart. I did not even have a coffee maker.
My twenties were a wild ride and I imploded on many occasions. I loved passionately, got engaged four times and married none of them. My body is still straight and slender, my belly taunt and untested; I have never given birth. Sometimes I feel barren, as though because of this my body is holding on to a sense of youth that should have long passed.
People gasp when I tell them my age, some of them get angry, as though I were lying to them and demand the truth immediately. But I feel my age, I feel my age all through me. I feel it in the muscle I pulled doing upholstery with my father that never healed properly, in my jaw where two of my wisdom teeth were pried out improperly, damaging the nerves so that I can't taste on one side of my mouth and I always worry a little bit that I might be drooling slightly and not know it. I feel it in my back that always hurts a little in the morning and after a long drive.
I flung myself wildly on long journeys in my twenties, out into the heart of foreign countries. Lately, my journeys are all internal and I have found marriage to be the most challenging and rewarding one of all. Marriage is my final frontier and I have thrown myself into it with my typical abandon.
I think of all the things I left behind, six hundred dollars in a bank account and the perfect pair of high heeled, black suede Mary Janes in Seoul, my Christmas ornaments in a subdivision, my eight hundred dollar wedding dress in Greenfield, NH, my old fashioned bike with the basket for groceries in Shisui, Japan. Sometimes I feel like I am a refugee from my own life.
Recently I attended a seminar and toward the end there was the opportunity to take communion. I took a piece of bread and a little plastic cup of red wine over to a solitary corner and sat down to meet and review with God, as though at a board meeting.
I struggled to phrase what it was I wanted to say to Him, I thought over my past thirty years, I thought of the many times I felt He had betrayed me, how I had betrayed Him. How I had shut Him out or turned my back on Him, how I had felt He was angry at me, or punishing me and the times I had felt His presence incandescent in my life, full of power and grace.
"No matter what else happens," I said, "I commit to...continuing...to..."
I felt God touch me then, with mercy and with gentle humor. "We've been through all that," I felt He was reminding me, "and here we are. Why not celebrate the next thirty years, whatever they bring?"
So I laughed quietly, feeling the freedom and the grace offered; I lifted my little cup. "Here's to surviving the first thirty, and to next thirty we'll spend together, whatever they bring."
Turning thirty one brings with it contentment and peace, two things I have rarely felt up until now. I need no longer scatter my belongs and my heart around the world. I am no longer driven by the need to prove something to myself, or to some unseen audience. I am safe at home now and can give up punishing myself, just as I gave up my ex husband's name and took on a new one.
Here's to the next thirty years.
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