A few weeks ago I turned thirty, and as I sit here writing, I’m sharply aware that I have entered a whole new decade, with a whole new number to utter when someone asks my age. Thirty. As a girl, where did I imagine I would be — who did I imagine I would be at this age? Here’s where I am:
My life is extraordinary.
I don’t mean to boast, but rather to acknowledge and claim the clear and simple fact that who I am and what I am up to is extra-ordinary — as in beyond the constraints of what is currently considered to be normal and expected in this world. I find myself, as my dear friend-elder-lover-life-partner so often says, “off the map.”
I don’t have a “regular” job, but create work for myself alongside people who are doing the same and making a noticeable and sizable difference in the world.
I have a daily meditation practice, and a deepening connection with Zen. I can tell you from experience that anyone who is regularly practicing meditation beyond the culturally hip scope of cultivating peace and mindfulness, and doing so with the intention of waking up is out-of-the-ordinary. When you spend that much time in stillness, silence and emptiness with no one but yourself, bumping up against the edges of pain, desolation and discomfort and the stories of who you are; when you have the no choice but to stop, step back and actually see yourself “doing” yourself, all of reality changes. A flexibility, comfort with and trust in the unknown and the unknowable begins to arise, and you are never the same.
I’m part of a group if women that is exploring and pushing the edges of sexuality, intimacy, eroticism, love and community. I work with these women, eat, sleep, pray, pleasure, pee, cry, laugh and love with them. They are the roots and core of my life, my chosen family. The depths we go to together and the support and acceptance we share are radical and transformative, to say the least. In my thirty years I’ve never experienced anything remotely close to what we are up to, and I dare to claim that it has never-before-been-seen. It’s nothing entirely new, nor is it entirely old; but rather the old and the new fused together with the now in an inseparable dance of grit and grace and everything in between.
My ten-year-old self — even my twenty-five-year-old self would/could not have imagined any of this.
I’ve spent three decades in this body, as this self, on this earth, and none of it feels solid or static; there is more change occurring that not, and some days it feels like I’m in a continuous dance of death and rebirth.
For as long as I can remember I’ve been commended, praised and admired (and also painfully misunderstood, mocked and excluded) for a maturity and wisdom that is “beyond my years.” From the inside looking out, I often know not what to say in response. It’s becoming increasingly uncomfortable to hear and be recognized for something that is not beyond my years, is exactIy appropriate for where I’ve been and what I’ve experienced, and that I apparently came into this world holding; or perhaps the world gave it to me to hold. I have so much more to say about this, but for now, let it be known that this wisdom beyond by years came at a price.
When I was born, a month early, jaundiced, and oh-so-tiny, I was quite necessarily placed in a safe, warm incubator so that it could do the work that my liver at that point could not. In the last several years I’ve returned to that moment, wondering at and recognizing its significance. In the first week of my life, my primary experience of this world was utter aloneness and literal isolation. I went from the full intimacy of my mother’s womb, swimming in an amniotic fluid of contact and connection, to total separation.
That week of isolation led me to understand, on a cellular-synapse level that I was alone in this world. With no one to hear my cries, I came to believe that my wailing and my depth would not be received and so I secret-ed them away, keeping them in the whispers and the shadows. I became an iceberg, only revealing a small pristine portion of me, and keeping the rest to myself.
Maybe it was my voracious reading that inspired this wisdom beyond my years. While my classmates were enjoying The Babysitters Club or the Box Car Children, I read stories about the horrors of the Holocaust, the genocide in Cambodia, experiences of death and terminal illness, and dystopian futures — all before I was ten. I read other things too, but rarely did the books I chose feature happy endings; and when they did, they were always colored by struggle, pain and grief.
I didn’t just read these books, I entered into them in a way that brought them to life. In Third Grade, every afternoon we had SQUIRT (Super Quiet Uninterrupted Individual Reading Time). One day I curled up under an extra table in the room and began to read;the book was a sequel to Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, full of time travel, druids, mystery. At some point my teacher called an end to SQUIRT and brought everyone back together for the next activity but I was so engrossed in this story that I didn’t hear him; and I was so tiny, tucked away and absolutely still that no one realized I hadn’t come back. I have no idea how long I read and I don’t remember what happened when I came to realize that class had resumed; all I recall is the feeling of timelessness and oneness with that particular story and with reading in that moment; I was not on the floor under that table, I no longer existed, I was the story; I was reading.
When I was twelve we kept journals in my Seventh Grade English class. First thing every day we would write in these journals, answering a prompt that was on the board. Mine was white with blue stripes, carefully-chosen from an aisle of journals at the local office supply store. My favorite part of every day was pulling out that journal to pen a few words
One day the question on the board was: “Who are you?”
Most days I would glance at the question and begin immediately, full speed ahead, words pouring out of me like a waterfall, unstoppable, forceful, uncontainable. But this question, “who are you?” stumped me.
As my classmates scribbled nearby I stumbled through the few sentences I could manage. “Who am I?” I wrote, hoping that rewriting the question would unlock my mind. “How could I possibly know?” From there, I don’t remember the details of what I penned, but it went something to the effect of, “I’m only twelve and I’m changing all the time. I’m just starting to figure out who I am.”
I didn’t know how to put into words the eternal internal mystery of a human becoming.
To my horror, our teacher then asked us to exchange journals with the person next to us to read and comment on what our classmate wrote.
As I read my classmates answers, “My name is _______. I play this sport. I go to this school. These are my parents. My friends are __________. I like pizza and ice cream…” I was dumbfounded. I could have written out answers like that, but it was so obvious that those weren’t me; they were things that I did or relationships that I was a part of, but they were not me.
The comments I received from my classmate, who happened to be a friend of mine, were meant to be jokes, but felt like stabs and jabs that struck deep and had a lasting impact. In the margins of my carefully chosen journal she wrote things like, “that’s just PMS,” and “You’re Alyssa! Duh!”
Reading those comments began a very real process of hiding — even more than I already was — any kind of vulnerability. It was clear to me that my questions, wondering and depth were unwelcome. I kept them to myself. My deepest intimacy was shared with the pages of my journal (the one I kept at home, NOT in my English class) and with the characters in the books I devoured.
But now, I’m coming out, revealing and unfurling me. My selves. The ones of me that I’ve kept secret, hidden away; some just below the surface, and others at a depth so unfathomable even I was unaware of their existence. The ones that seemed inappropriate, unwanted, unnecessary and inconvenient. And, of course, the ones that will rock the boat, provoke, shake things up, defy, disappoint and shatter expectations.
At this ripening-yet-tender age of thirty, I am ready to stand up and share with you what I know to be True. Not factually or objectively true; you won’t find much of that kind of truth here. What I most care about is the Truth I can feel in the marrow of my bones; the kind that makes me weep at its recognition while sending shivers down my spine.
I’m very much aware that I am standing on the shoulders of giants — both living and dead. These giants paved the way for my existence and this wisdom is a part of a larger stream that is not mine to own but rather to allow and participate with. I proclaim this not to diminish myself, but simply to acknowledge the truth that I have been blessed to experience this world with some seriously extraordinary elders/teachers/guides/bushwhackers. These women have culled and shaped me and I owe them my life, but they would never take it. They have been there — even the ones I’ve only known through their writing — in the darkest of moments, reminding me that I’m not alone, that I matter and that the story that is my life is significant.