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,


Ella & Maude

Her name is Ella, she is a 34-yo woman that works as a content marketer by trade. Ella lives by herself, in an apartment under her name, on an island primarily occupied by families, kids and dogs, and she has a routine to keep her shit together. Ella prides herself on living an independent life, knowing this independence doesn’t come natural for her. For example, Ella is not the best feeder for herself. She hates grocery shopping and feels innately incompetent in the kitchen. Nevertheless, she tries her best to get this job done. Sometimes she lost track of what she’s doing as her noodle dances in the boiling water. Sometimes, she makes the ugliest egg in the world and still enjoys it.

Her name is Maude, and she never ties herself to the ground. Maude is full of curiosity about many things, behind her, there is a long list of “interests” and “skills” that she once tried to pick up but eventually let go: Taekwondo, Japanese, Photography, singing, guitar, French, yoga.  And yet, she continues to want to learn new skills and fancies about being really good at random things.

Ella is always rushing to be on time for things, and she struggles to diagnose the root cause of this eternal state of rushing. As Ella lives alone through the pandemic, her self-dialoguing behaviour has significantly developed during this period.

Maude has the softest eyes for the world. If she wants, she can see beauty in almost everything, and she tries to not abuse this talent of hers. Still, more often than not, Maude is easily touched by many “unremarkable” things: A man reading in the park, fallen petu als in the shape of love, a city swallowed by an imaginary dragon of speed. Maude is always playing some sort of childish game with herself.

Strictly speaking, Ella is not so much of a pretty woman, and she has never been 100% happy about the way her body looks. Since she has memory, she has wished her legs are skinnier and longer, but she gets by with what she got. Like many other 30-something women, Ella works hard to keep in shape, and she’s very skilled at finding the most flattering angle of herself. But fundamentally, Ella knows her charm goes beyond that.

Maude speaks her own private language, and she is quite comfortable being the odd one out. She excites herself by walking the roads less travelled.  And sometimes, she walks them with bizarre objects in her hand. She can easily make acquittances with literally just anything. For Maude, every object is alive, and each of them deserves to have a name.

Ella likes to dress herself in her own sometimes-quirky, usually-whimsical ways, and enjoys a kind of agelessness through the freedom of clothing. Sometimes, Ella thinks she is still the little girl that she remembers herself as, and she behaves like one when she is alone. But sooner or later, something would usually happen and reminds her the need to deal with many matters as the grown-ass woman that she is now.

Maude is as passionate about many things as she is indifferent to many others. She would emotionally engage in the life of literature figure like Isabel Archer, and she indulges her sentimentality in all sorts of music. Her heart would float every time she sets her eyes on the moon, and she’d shut off her receptor whenever the man she’s with starts to explain NFTs or democracy to her.

Among her friends and acquittances, Ella is often known as the mean one. She doesn’t say nice things easily, and hides her emotions behind ironical jokes. In her mid-thirties, Ella suddenly realizes she’s more closed off than she’s aware, and she has lost more friends along the way than she’s ready to acknowledge. But some friends do stick around — a tiny, close circle of people that keeps her grounded and accompanied — as they learned to live with the peculiarities of each other.

Maude treasures every physical and digital trace of the past, and looks after a whole garden of trivial memories. She sometimes dreams of the friends she has lost, and journals about the sense of loss when she wakes up. Maude keeps a detailed log of every stream of her emotions. Instead of hiding them, she lets her feelings out in every way she knows. Maude is convinced that, as long as she keeps digging into them, she’d be able to find gold.

Ella’s love life officially recessed 3 years and 4 months ago. Since then, she has dated numerous guys, been on and off apps a few times, had a couple of flings, and watched all of them slip away. Emotionally, Ella is jaded, passive, and she doesn’t suffer fools lightly. It’s always Ella’s first instinct to fight against the role that most men expects her to play, an approving audience, a human ornament that comes with some harmless wit, a freelance improviser of some convenient intimacy.

Maude, on the other hand, falls in love a little at every chance she has, and refuses to let her intelligence get in the way of her feelings. Maude is not shy of showing affections. She enjoys stroking the hair and gently touching the face of the person she likes. Maude is honest with her desires, and validates her sense of “being happy”, even a fleeting, shallow kind.

Over time, Ella is convinced that she doesn’t have much luck with men, and is determined to not make it her problem. She buttons up her strongest emotions, the need of being with someone, love and all that, and concentrate her effort on redefining a new, independent type of personal happiness. 

Maude could always sense the moment when her “transitory happiness” starts to leak away, and quietly, she observes the familiar bleeding of her own. “One must be mad to want to voluntarily repeat this cycle,” she would write in her notebook. But still, no bleeding would stop her from embracing all the potential hurt in the world. Stubbornly, Maude believes there’s no pain she cannot endure.

At the end of the day, Ella is always striving to grow stronger and freer, and Maude is always the girl who just wants to feel everything.