I turned 33 last month. Spectacularly, I might add, at an absurdly glamorous party attended by 150 of my close personal friends. There was cake, and pole dancing and although everything that happened after 2:30am is fairly hazy, I remember I felt very happy indeed. And whilst 33 may not be a typical milestone, the nice afterglow of an excellent party – coupled with the number’s pleasingly curvy symmetry – left me feeling contemplative about everything I’ve enjoyed in this decade so far
Because on reflection, my thirties have been something of a revelation. With their arrival I’ve experienced a sense of release: An exhalation, after far too long holding my breath (and myself) in. By contrast, my twenties were defined by an urgent, breathless momentum that spun me across London, Paris and LA, pursuing new worlds and first times. I felt ravenous for experiences that I knew were inevitably fleeting. I remember once standing alone on a balcony at some beautiful warehouse I’d come back to for an orgy/after party, staring at the city beneath me. The wind whipped against my legs (I was no doubt underdressed) and I felt a sudden, lurching fear that one day all this would be finished, and my life would feel small and quiet.
Later, I explained my existential dread of becoming boring to the host and he laughed uproariously:
‘Boring?’ He cackled, in the way people ought to at the pretensions of youthful self indulgence. ‘Even when you’re old – very old! – you will never, ever, be boring’
I understand him now. In my twenties I mistook motion for meaning. I assumed that if I partied and worked and fucked and exercised and hustled and travelled relentlessly, I would forge an interesting life. And in parts I did – I certainly covered a lot of ground and garnered sufficient wild tales to eat out on for years to come. But in the snatched gasps for breath in between each new escapade, my body began to insist that I neither should, nor could, keep up this pace. I was missing all the texture one finds in the quiet. I began to pause more. I went to therapy. I exhaled.*
As I did, a confidence began to crackle within me. It punctuated life with moments of surety, like landmarks in a newly-discovered place. That sureness taught me the pleasure of my own company, and my own wants. It taught me to say ‘no’ more when I meant it, and to trust people to receive that no as a gift. It taught me to take myself, and status, and money far less seriously, but to make space for things that once felt huge and impossible: Failure, uncertainty, vulnerability, grief.
I felt the sureness in my body and my desires too, and with it came a greater willingness to lose myself in pleasure than I had allowed before. I appreciated myself so much more, cherishing what Mary Oliver so beautifully describes as “the soft animal” of my body. In doing so, I replaced the far less gratifying desire to be ‘approved of’. This desire characterised so many of my formative sexual experiences. The thrill I would feel when someone would lean in to kiss me or place their hand on my thigh was never the anticipation of a good kiss, rather the pleasure of confirming, if just for an instant, I was liked and wanted. It has taken me time to understand that good sex is as much about self discovery as it is discovering someone else.
I see that now in the lovers I had in my twenties. Not all I might add, there are a handful of excellent people that I’ve been in step with from the start. But I recognise that many people were drawn to my ‘newness’ and my inexperience, rather than anything more unique. My dates often asked very few questions about my opinions, interests or experiences, despite the fact I have always had plenty. As a very young woman, it can be hard to be seen as anything other than that, even when you are so much more.
Now I can recognise how restrictive that was, and how magic it can be when people see each other more fully, rather than as mere ideals. Because we live in a horribly ageist society, and because the sex industry replicates and intensifies that, I previously nursed a quiet anxiety that once I turned 30, I would quickly feel my sexual currency dwindle, like the slow sputtering out of a fire. In reality, the opposite thing has happened. I have watched the women around me flourish into brilliant, magnetic people. I have more lovers my own age and younger than I ever have before. They ask me about my life and solicit my opinion. They tell me they’re drawn to assertiveness, confidence and honesty. And in turn I enjoy the company of people that value those things – that seek out equals, and that remain curious about other people’s inner worlds.
Because desire, the thing that makes a life worth living, is an exercise in curiosity. In all the things we do not, and cannot know, about the world, no matter how much we sprint to try and find it. All you can do is continue asking questions, and keep still long enough to hear the answer.
*The one cliche I managed to avoid entirely was getting into wild swimming, which continues, to this day, to be a freezing, boring nightmare for me.