I recently turned 33, and this set me to thinking about the trials and tribulations of the various stages of life that propel you towards adulthood. At all stages there are adventures to be had and lessons to be learned; the trick is that these often only become apparent with the benefit of hindsight.
Do you ever catch yourself by surprise as you are thinking about something and say to yourself, ‘Wow, that was 10 years ago!’. And then suddenly you realise that it was, in fact, 20 years ago. Now how on earth did that happen? A time of no internet, no mobile phones, green Dublin buses and questionable hair styles, flying past in a blur and landing me unceremoniously in my early 30s.
I remember way back in the dark ages when I was 18, thinking that by the time I was 30 I would have my shit together. I would have it ALL sorted. I would be married to a handsome land-owning gentleman, would have had some sort of an illustrious and well paid career (or several), would have traveled the world extensively and would own some manner of a country residence with room for a pony (or two). Because to my 18 year old mind, 30 was OLD. The idea that at 32 I would be unmarried, still figuring out my career, making lists of all of the places I still want to visit and a million miles away from owning anything other than a photo of a house, simply did not occur to me. It was a simpler time….
Childhood is now a series of hazy memories. Games out on the road on summer evenings; rounders, mop mop, Mother May I, My Grandfather’s Shop and Chicken. And the obligatory tennis obsession around Wimbeldon time, when everyone was a potential Steffi Graff. Knees were constantly scabby, teeth were constantly gappy and there were always adventures to be had. There was great pleasure to be taken from drinking the melted bit of your Mr Freeze, and in getting a £1 punnet of chips from the greasy chip van in Claragh Laragh fun park. Friendships were easily forged and easily dismissed; ‘You’re only my second best friend now’. Fancy paper was swapped, skipping was practiced with furious intensity and hair was seldom combed (much to my Mother’s despair). Hours, days and weeks slipped by as I cavorted through the years, in the pure carefree joy that defines a blessed childhood.
Sleepovers were the hallowed ground, sitting up till all hours consuming an entire county’s daily recommended amount of sugar and giggling about these creatures we had heard about called ‘boys’. Scrunchies were fashionable and classroom fads included Troll dolls and Body Shop lip balm, and ‘waiting’ for each other to finish your sums. I fought with my brothers endlessly, and was often used as part of their WWF wreslting practice. How none of us lost a limb is quite remarkable. I read Black Beauty from cover to cover several times and plastered my walls in posters of horses and ponies, and day dreamed about the wild horse I would find running free in the Wicklow hills and how I would tame it and go on to be a partnership on the Aga Khan winning team. There was no reason to think otherwise. Everything seemed possible.
The one phase of my life I would not repeat for any price is adolescence. Awkward, spotty, frizzy haired, angst ridden adolescence. I was starting to develop a sense of myself and I did not like it one little bit. Braces added to my general geekiness, and I blushed furiously at the smallest thing. At one point, I decided that a bob would be a good move so my hair sat on top of my hair in a frizzy triangle (I had yet to discover the magic of hair products). My wardrobe mainly consisted of Nirvana tshirts and purple jeans, and Doc Marten boots once I had worn my Mother down about letting me have a pair. We skulked around in packs, loitering outside the petrol station, Tesco, the cinema, the chipper and other equally unexciting places. I would sit poised over my radio cassette player, waiting for Dave Fanning to play my favourite song so I could record it and listen to it so much that the tape ribbon would wear out. Boys were still creatures to be feared as far as I was concerned, although many of my friends had progressed to having boyfriends and the laneway behind Tesco bore witness to many en-masse shifting expeditions, over which I stood ‘sketch’ at the top of the laneway, at a safe distance from anything that might have resembled a boy.
I wore a waistcoat to my first teenage disco, and I think I wore my brothers oversize cardigan to my second one. Acne, frizzy hair and braces didn’t exactly make for the prettiest of pictures. I was popular in school and did well academically, and I had plenty of hobbies that I was quite good at. My brothers teased me a sufficient amount to ensure that there was no danger of me becoming either big headed or excessively angsty. I guess the teens weren’t all bad, but I still cringe at the thought of them.
My exceptional awkwardness and slightly comical looks meant I didn’t exactly have the boys lining up. Teenage discos largely consisted of me stewarding the throngs of boys who wanted to ‘go off with’ my friends. The less said about the romance of the mid 90s the better. But I am glad I didn’t glide through my teens. Even the most confident among us was still desperately unsure of themselves, and we made up for this crippling lack of confidence by being overly loud and obnoxious when the opportunity presented itself. I wasn’t the coolest girl in school (by a long shot), and I didn’t attract attention for my looks so I slowly started to realise the if people liked me, they liked me for who I was. The whole process of being a lanky, furiously blushing, awkward offence to style and hairdressing, was an extremely character forming experience.
The late teens were slightly better. My fashion sense improved slightly, and I got to do things considered to be more interesting than standing outside the local shop. I went to concerts and house parties, and there seemed to be an endless chain of ‘band nights’ to keep us amused. That heady thrill when you are served your first underage pint is one to be cherished. Before you know it, you will be chuffed with yourself for being asked for ID in the offy when buying the bottle of wine you are bringing home alone on a Friday night.
The twenties. The twenties are THE time really. The time to be selfish and carefree, uninhibited by the awkwardness and lack of confidence of your teens. When I graduated from college, Ireland was heaving with opportunity. You could walk into a job without even trying. We were young, educated and not facing the grim abyss of emigration and employment which our parents had battled through. There was almost TOO much opportunity; the choices were overwhelming and endless. Summers abroad became par for the course, and my fellow students causally mentioned backpacking in Thailand, J1 in New York and inter railing around Europe and the apprenticeship they had lined up for next year. I wasn’t quite on the same page, working through my summers and training for BHS qualifications. But that was my choice. In your early 20s, you make money, and shake off the shackles of the penny pinching college years. Throughout college, I used to get £25per week and a monthly train ticket from my parents. Everything else I made up in babysitting, summer jobs (which paid £100 per week), and giving Irish grinds. But it was enough. Ireland hadn’t quite lost the run of itself at that stage.
More importantly, the 20s give you the glorious gift of time. You can decide to work for a few years, travel for 2 years , try living in London for a year and travel a bit more and then come home to settle down and still only be 26. I started work just before I turned 23 and went travelling for the first time just before I turned 25. I felt like I had all the time in the world. I could live out my travel ambitions, build my career and meet the man of my dreams, well in time for my 30th birthday. I travelled a lot in my mid-twenties, spending the guts of 3 years travelling or Volunteering, coming home to Ireland for a few months here and there to save money. I don’t regret any of that and I know it has played a major part in making me who I am today. Perhaps I could have spent those years building a career and financial security, but I really think you can’t put a price tag on the experiences and personal growth that travelling gave me. While all around me were busy buying houses and 4X4s, the idea of a bank loan never entered my head (thankfully).
Some questionable decisions in the romance department taught me many lessons, and also, cheekily, ran off with some of my mid twenties. The next thing I knew I was 29 and back at college, and then in the blink of an eye I was 30. How did that happen? Of the things I regret most, I regret letting shoddy decisions steal two years out of my precious twenties. They were years when I could have been thinking through career choices, out enjoying myself with my friends, enjoying life while I still had the cushion of a few years to work with. In the late twenties you can still indulge yourself and make the odd frivolous decision, and I greatly resent that I lost that. If I could go back and talk to my 25 year old self I would tell her in no uncertain self to get her priorities straight.
And then the 30s. Ah the 30s. You have learned the lessons, drank the drinks, partied hard, had your heart broken and lounged in the general self indulgence of your 20s. You are yourself, just a more confident, self-aware version of yourself… who can no longer handle the drink. I realise now that my 18 year old self was only conforming to what society tells us; that by 30 you are supposed to have your shit together. And plenty of people do and fair play to them. But it doesn’t quite run like that for everyone. You can’t magic the dream job or the dream man out of thin air, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun, have some spectacular adventures and find yourself to be truly happy. I have blossomed in my 30s; I am more confident, more self-aware, braver, truer to myself…and I have discovered the power of a good hair product. My friendships have changed as our lives branch off in different direction and to different places but the value of those friendships has not dimmed at all.
You hit 30, and suddenly everyone around you is getting married and having babies. You can’t move without there being a change in someone’s relationship status on Facebook. Every house party and dinner party conversation turns to weddings and christenings. It doesn’t seem that long ago when 21st conversations were the order of the day. But it is a long time ago – more than 10 years. I hope when I am 43 and I look back on these ten years that I will assess them in terms of how much I laughed, how true I stayed to myself and how many adventures I went on. All the wedding talk and baby talk does get draining, and there are days where I find myself working out how much travelling I can do, while still developing my career and having kids before the age of 40. But if my twenties taught me anything, it’s that there is very little point in planning. Regardless of what decade you happen to inhabit, the lessons of life are essentially the same: Do what makes you happy, try to do some good in the world, be good to the people around you and be true to yourself. Life is not at all bad. It is actually full of beauty if you put your Iphone down for a second and look around you.