Photos by Paris Williford
Creative Direction: Ashley Johnson
Everything that can be said about the way you’re supposed to conduct your life is already written on a billion block-printed affirmation memes: “Trust the timing of your life.” “Healing is the end of conflict with yourself.” “Life is tricky, stay in your magic.”
I've heard about the catastrophic meltdowns folks have when leaving their 20's. Although surprisingly, I have heard even more say that they believe age 30 will magically unveil every revelation there is to have about your future. At the stroke of midnight your 20's will unsheathe your new, wise, seasoned and blissfully awake self. Your future unfolds like a yellow brick road. Your new chapter is written by Oprah herself. You are new. You are unabridged. You are 30 and made.
The truth is: 30 unfolds just as each age before it: with length and experience for context, and without proper care, can present itself and fade as fast as the novelty of a New Year’s resolution. Your 30 will only be magical if you’ve set yourself up to receive the grace you believe it will bring. And this is what I'll talk about on my birthday.
The magic of any change lies in the time spent preparing for it, and if you’re prepared, if you’re working tirelessly within every evolution of yourself, you never resent a birthday or change. You'll face it boldly and welcome openly.
So, here’s all you need to know about—not just 30—but aging itself: your path is your own.
For most of my life I was the gangly weirdo who fit in everywhere and nowhere at the exact same time. Blending and not blending my way through life. Assimilating when I was made fun of. Making what I loved in private.
Lots of different life experiences led to me not dating until after college. I also believed that no person who was still evolving as often and as uncomfortably as I was had anything of value to add to me. What does a 16-year-old know about partnership? What does an 18-year-old know about sacrifice? What does a 21-year-old truly know about the long ache of a self-love journey? That development is volatile. I thought, why go through so many uncomfortable evolutions with someone who is probably evolving through the same things?
I always thought myself selfish to try and bring an incomplete version of myself to anyone else, and because I believed that about myself, I didn’t accept those who at the very least, weren’t trying to grow into themselves too. Don't get me wrong, the experience of dating brought forth its own necessary lessons eventually, but being whole while alone first was the best thing I could have done for myself. I was able to wander through love and dating and heartbreak when I felt I was outfitted to process them without rose-colored glasses. It didn't dull the pain at all, love hurts for everyone—but I had the fast-healing medicine of confidence to treat myself. Confidence that matured through solitude.
My biggest, long-standing conflict was, and still is with non-conformance. Nonconformance makes people uncomfortable. Those who see you living inside alternate truths project their fears about your life choices onto you to discourage you. But non-conformance is how super-heroines and heroes are born.
From a young age, I consumed mountains upon mountains of fiction. Through books, I learned that there are multitudes of ways to live a life, and that the circumstances you begin with, are not the ones you're always destined to have. I learned that the everyday person can be a heroine and a champion, and I championed my own narrative by discovering autonomy, and learning that I am only bound by what I allow to keep me bound.
I wouldn't have found my wholeness had I not creatively exercised within the significance of alone-ness: vacationing alone, going out to dinner alone, going to movies alone—it made me fearless, confident and interesting, so I've never had difficulty attracting the fearless, the confident, the interesting.
I was not made to make sure that anyone is comfortable with the path I chose or the way I've chosen to live my life. I am not meant to own any feeling about what folks think about my work, what I should or should not have, or where I should or should not be at any age. Other people's fears about the way I live my life inspires me to keep living above limitations. Those limited and restrictive ideas concerning what I or anyone else is supposed to be doing, belong to the people who try to project them, and I'm not required to receive or own it. So, I don't. What is important is that I'm happy. And I am.
Just a few days ago, I told the story of my childhood to a friend, and he paralleled my history to that of a common biblical story in the book of Jeremiah about The Potters House. The potter worked his clay on a wheel, smashing and remolding, rebuilding and reshaping until he found the best design for the pot.
Life will uproot you, change your molding and design, fold you into yourself, build you out again and throw you in fire. It is only on the other side of the fire, after life's hands have structured you into your best self, and the glaze has smoothed all your pores, that you are fit to hold water. When I finished my story, with chapters that included all too many episodes of smashing and reshaping, he told me simply, "you hold water so well." I was floored.
Believing you're supposed to approach your 30's with everything at your feet, without evolution or destruction, without revolutions and agonizing lessons, without going through fire is a naïve overestimation of the experience of life. You have to be reshaped and molded over and over, smashed time and time again and thrown into the hottest fire of your life before you are able to hold your water.
If you skip a step to avoid pain, you miss out on vauable opportunities to be a better you. I can assure you, I missed no steps.
So I want to break down, in a simple way, some of the essential lessons I've learned on my way to this day:
Don't spend time loving anyone into loving you back. It is wasted time. And time is the most precious thing you are afforded in this life, and you never know, when it is going to be up.
The things people believed you were weird for before, will be the very things people clamber to be a part of when you've arrived. Stay weird.
Exercise excellent customer service in your everyday life: train yourself to live inside the experiences of others. When a conflict arises or a poor choice is made, empathy makes you a more understanding and diligent being. This is the essence of humanity.
Share: your light, wisdom, work and tools with others. No one can take anything from you that you made yourself because they’re not you. Your goodness heals people.
Cut off someone when it absolutely necessary to your survival. Otherwise, reorient folks to best serve your energy. Slicing away at everything at offends you doesn't teach you endurance, and it also leaves you very alone.
Reading will do more for the quality of your life than you'll ever imagine.
Good friends are the anchors of your life. Oftentimes they are better than family. They are your mirrors. They hold you to yourself, question your flaws and pave the way for you to make productive change. And vice versa. If you are not a good and selfless friend, you will never receive adequate partnership in return.
Additionally, good friends are not property, they are extensions of what is already good about you. Share them.
"No." Use that often.
Compromise, will sometimes cheapen your self-worth. Only compromise when it is productive. This applies to all aspects of life, especially relationships. You are not worth the second best of anything or the shadows.
Don't let social media fool you into thinking pretty pictures equate a pretty life. Even mine. Especially mine.
Knowing what you don't want, through experience, is oftentimes more useful than knowing what you do.
You have to work your life with intent if you want everything you say you want out of it.
"Having it all together" does not translate the same way for everyone. It's not supposed to. I'm perfectly happy even without a plan. Living confidently in your own narrative is essential to your own acceptance of yourself—which is all that matters. So as I move into this decade I'm not sad, I'm optimistic. Because even Oprah once had her time in the kiln.