Posted by Cecilia Leger on 1:05 PM

My birthday is coming up and I am now older than I'd ever pictured myself being when I was a teenager. As a kid, you know, you always imagine the cool ages: 18 when you'll finally be able to tell your parents off, 21 when you are more "officially" an adult, 25 because that age just sounds right – like you'd have your whole life figured out by then. Looking into the future, I couldn't wait for life to begin; couldn't wait for my license, my first car, graduating from college, getting my own place and decorating it with the modern furnishings my mom would never bring into our home. And then marriage and 2.5 kids, the perfect job where I'd be so successful. Then, well, nothing.

I never dreamed about anything beyond mid-20s. There was no other age that I considered magical or special. During my teen years, whenever I thought of life between 30 and 80 – the few times I ever did – I only thought of it in decline. Getting older, getting sick, dealing with whatever trials your own kids might bring. Nothing cool or appealing about any of that.

So here I stand, on the edge of 36, looking over the rim into the canyon of "Downhill."

And, I gotta say, it's a good view.

What I didn't know all those years ago is that life is less about the stuff and more about the being. Of course, I had hoped and expected—I'd gotten the car, the college degree and a career I love, the first apartment I got to decorate just like I wanted. (Although, to my mother's never ending sense of worry, there isn't yet the marriage and the 2.5 kids.) But none of that is what has brought me here. To this place of knowing myself, to this place of acceptance.

And OK, so there was a time when "acceptance" had such negative connotations for me; it sounded too much like giving up, like saying: yeah, this is all there is to me, so I'm just going to go have a lie down.

Conventional wisdom – you know, all the things "they" say – is that in looking back, the regrets people often have revolve around the chances not taken, the risks avoided, instead of the mistakes that were made. As I look back, I wouldn't say that I have regrets, per se. If anything, I'd want to spare Younger Me the emotional rollercoaster that came from always looking outward, always wondering if she was enough.

If I could go back, I would take Younger Me out to lunch. Someplace hip and expensive so she could see that 36 can be cool.

We'd be girlfriends gabbing and laughing over overpriced salads. Sometime during the meal, the talking would die down and I'd know the time was right.

I'd look at her and say: You're OK, you know. OK is all you ever have to be. You will have dreams and you will strive for them; you will want some materials things and you will get them. But at the end of the day, the only thing that will fill all the dark little corners you're afraid to into is being able to accept yourself for who you are.

I won't say much more, because I remember that Younger Me hates lectures. And as I drop her off I at home, I hope she'll think about what I said, but I know better.

Some lessons can only be learned through the passing of time.

I have goals and dreams and ambitions; but they've become things on my bucket list – not the measure by which I define my existence. And happiness is linked more closely to a sense of wonder and gratitude than a bank account or professional success.

Today is a lazy, quiet, summer afternoon. Even though it's warm, I've turned the AC off and opted for open windows. I can hear the birds calling out to each other, the constant ringing of cicadas; Michael Buble is playing softly in the background. Once I'm done writing, I'll go back to the Justina Chen Headley novel I started last night. I'll let myself sink into the story as if walking into the cool waters of a placid lake on a hot day. And like water, the words will embrace me, lift me until I'm weightless and serene. This day, this afternoon, taken and enjoyed on its own without comparing it to any other, real or imagined, brings contentment.

That's what I've learned about myself, too. When the roar of the should'ves and could'ves and might haves drowns out what is I am lost. Being content with who I am only comes when I can let myself be, without comparing to a better version of me. I know I haven't set the world on fire, but I am well loved for being just as I am. That is enough.


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