letter #7 – on turning 35: what we talk about when we talk about ageing

My dear friend,

I’m turning 35 recently, or have turned, by the time you receive this letter. A few months ago, when I realized 35 is the number I need to befriend myself with next, I admit it felt unthinkable.

I’m not saying I don’t feel my age at all, or I have any reluctance to the steady increment of it. (Quite the contrary, I have to constantly remind people of it so they don’t mistake me as someone less experienced or mature.) It’s that if I gave myself a long and intent look, irrelevant of any outer appearance, I would realize I have, maybe outgrown my self-perception in terms of age and time. And the last time I was met with this “surprise” was when I turned 30. At ages with these zeros and fives, it always feels it’d take a bit extra work to make the reconciliation, doesn’t it?

For my generation, in this part of the world that I was born and raised, we grew up more or less with a societal value that “there are certain marks to make at certain ages”. By that standard, which, to my regret, some people still hold on to today, I would certainly be frowned upon. On the other hand, we live in a time where an equally (if not more) prevalent slogan would tell us “age is just a number,” as if the length of our very own existence bears little significance. This, I feel, while it might sound good on a birthday card, one would fare better if one doesn’t take it too literally.

The thing is, age is indeed a number, and if this number must be carrying some kind of message, a very personal one, that my life is trying to send across to me, what, is it? It’s with this question in mind that I start writing this letter to you, my friend.

At 35, as any other ages, there are inevitably some age-specific annoyances I must deal with. For example, my weight seems to be permanently fixated at 52 kilograms and see no signs of change no matter how much I exercise, or how constraint I am with my chicken nuggets addiction. The emergence of grey hair on my head has basically reached a point that I know I must develop a more scalable solution than cutting them off one by one. I spend way too much time than I want to on screens and devices, and yet, I regret not staying as connected to some people that I do care as I could have. It seems that each year, there are more to grieve over in the department of lost friends. With work, the means of which I make a living of, I guess I’m doing alright generally, (but that is) if I could resolve with the bare fact that a big chunk of my time and my mind is indeed occupied by something I can’t call it passion. And, I hate to mention, I do increasingly ponder over the matter of a potential motherhood, a phase that most childless women at my age are bound to struggle over. 

Beyond all these discontents I just laid on the table, my friend, I hope you’d be pleased to hear that, I am generally in agreement with how my life is steering towards, and I don’t say this with a light note, as if everything is naturally as good as the way they are. On the contrary, I say this with the considered prudence of someone who has just started steering her life in the way she wants. (I guess I am kind of a late bloomer in that way, but it is only until recent few years that I felt I am in control of my life, instead of passively letting it happen.) And this is when I realized how the most substantial changes, instead of some big moves as we might imagine, are usually less visible. For me, the change is, I’ve become a much more balanced company to myself, and that means I’m finally being more productive and purposeful with the time I spend alone, which is, as you might know, quite a lot.

Based on my recent observation, a good week of mine goes like this: In the morning of a work day I’d start with half hour by the piano while sipping at my first cup of coffee. Sometimes I’d alternate to half hour of reading for a change. (I am two books behind schedule already for this year’s reading challenge.) On Monday and Friday, which I normally work from home, I’d go for a jog when the sun is sinking. On the days I go in to the office, I’d do my 10-minute meditation on the train in the morning, which otherwise happens in the evening at home. If I have lunch alone, I’d sit in the park and eat with my book. Once or twice a week I’d have some sort of class – fitness or music-related – scheduled in the after-work hour. In the evening I like to have my dinner with one episode of something to watch. After that, I’d practice any instrument I feel like – piano or ukulele – and end the night with a 1-or-2-page journaling, where I tend to perform a microscope diagnosis of my little pains and sorrows, progress and setbacks, and sometimes joys and elations. On the weekend if there’s any social activities, I’d try to schedule them all in one day and reserve the other day to myself to relish all the activities mentioned above, only at an extended degree, with a loose sense of time.

I feel, as insipid as it might appear to others, with this little framework of tasks that I carefully cultivated, I am able to access a private quietness in my mind as long as I need it. And it’s in this private quietness, that I feel, I acquire a sense of timelessness, insulated from the official realm known to everyone else.

My dear friend, you see, if we zoom out from this little domestic life of mine, and examine it from above, connecting this existence with what it means to be 35 years old, we would get the message that I was looking for at the beginning of this letter. With many rounds of trials and errors, I could now say, that 35 is the age I’m no longer in a constant seek of external stimulations and excitements to be interested in my own life. It’s that, outside the parts which I participate to maintain a relation with the official realm, for the first time, I have created an inner world that’s equally tangible, a solid and organized space where I can entrust myself with, where I harvest tiny happiness and savour lingering sorrows, where I test the boundary of my own craziness and observe them dissipated into the river of history, where I can temporarily exist outside Time. It’s a section of my life that nothing really happened, while so many things have happened.

There is of course, an undying hope for love within me, something I protect with great care and quite like fiddling with. If you ask me, love, both giving and taking, as many other things, is an ability that takes a lifetime practice to master. It’s also through this practice that I learned love can be cast upon so many things. In the absence of a narrowly-defined romantic love, not a day has passed that I don’t experience a more boundless and shapeless kind of love. The love for a brilliant story, a fictional character you deeply relate to, an infectious piece of music, a section of beat that pumps right into your blood, a specific time in a day, a lucid revisiting dream, a sweaty run, a gentle shade of light in the sky, a content idleness, a subtle smell in the air, a high-purity solitude, a sincere exchange of greetings, an inside joke among a close group of friends, an endearing baby in the lift, a peer stranger reader on the train. The thing is, my friend, none of us can say with assertion that we have seen the truth of love. We can only feel it through the reflection of it, the reflections in our eyes, or any other eyes. And if you look scrupulously, you’d see love can take so many possible forms, and meet an inexhaustible universe of receivers, including ourselves.

Now, it is with this slowly radiating love inside me that I am concluding this letter.

Yours, affectionately and one-year-older,

Ellen

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