Gymnastics has always been one of my favorite sports to watch, and I’m not sure many people know this about me. As a kid, I idolized the Olympic gymnasts. There was always something incredibly mesmerizing about watching kids my age fly fluidly across bars, decorated in twists and turns, and somersault their way into a backwards bend on a beam with precision and grace. I always dreamt of becoming one of them. I always wanted to be the girl in the black leotard, hair pulled back tightly in a neat bun, gliding across a beam. I wanted to be the girl who tackled life the same way a gymnast tackled a floor routine: with precision and grace and above all, balance.
Today is my 27th birthday, and all I’ve got is this vague confession about everything I never became: I am not a gymnast.
It’s been awhile since I’ve been able to convince myself to meet you here in the very same place I swore over and over again I would never leave. This whole thing somehow changed for me in the years since I started it. My thoughts on your screen are symbolic, really. Like that local coffee shop you won’t dare walk past in fear that just the smell of their dark roast will bring you to your knees and back to the time when you almost made him stay. Or the dimly lit ocean side road where you sat with him outside on that cold March night and realized that this would never work out. That that road and that street light and his sullen wave in your rear view mirror were the last you’d see of him. Or the gas station that you conveniently skip past, even when you’re chugging along the highway, running on E, because it’s a reminder of a night you want so badly to forget. When his smile lit up the crisp summer night and his hand was on your knee, and you knew that you were falling — that somehow, this would be good, until suddenly, it wasn’t.
It’s been awhile. It’s been awhile since I gathered up the courage to will myself to come face to face with the thoughts in my head and put them down onto this screen. Because once they’re out, once they escape that secret spot in my head and flow through my hands and onto your screens, they’re concrete. And what else do I have to keep for myself if everything that’s spanning the universe in my mind is written out for you to read?
But today, on my 27th birthday, I gathered the energy and the courage and the will to stand up and raise my little white flag and tell you that I never became that girl. I never became the gymnast. I never became the girl who tackled life with precision, grace, and balance, and I’m okay with that.
Here’s what 26 was like for me:
26 was me, standing in that black leotard, hair pulled back in a bun, walking on a balance beam, gleaming with pride as I tip-toed across, collecting medal after medal. 26 was me, gliding through my routine, but feeling a little off kilter. 26 was me, trying my hardest against the wind — trying my hardest to learn balance. I spent most of the year walking that beam with the same determination of a toddler taking her first steps.
No one ever warns you. No one ever gives you a heads up and fills you in on this whole growing up thing. And it’s funny isn’t it? You get a book detailing What to Expect When You’re Expecting. You get inundated with syllabi at the beginning of the semester outlining what is to come in the upcoming 15 weeks. You are given pages of instructions describing specifically how to piece together Ikea furniture, and yet we are all faced with one universal truth: we eventually all will have to grow up, and there is no book, syllabus, or list of instructions that tell you what to expect, what to anticipate, or which turn to take.
You don’t know how badly I wish someone could have grabbed me by the shoulders and looked at me in the eyes and just told me that 26 sometimes feels a little like being 16 all over again. That you’ll sometimes feel incredibly small and unimportant, despite being surrounded by so many people who love you. That you’ll often feel misunderstood, no matter how many ways you put it or how many words you use to describe it. That you’ll go toe-to-toe with your parents and just like that, they somehow forget that their child is an adult. Because no matter how old you are, you will always be their baby. That you’ll still struggle with relationships. both romantic and not, and showing up, and deciding between how tightly you should hang on and when it’s time to let go.
26 genuinely felt a little bit like 16 did. And I’m sure if I went around the room and asked how many of you are dying to take a time machine all the way back to the age of 16, I would see idle hands stirring in your laps.
The last year of my life was as much about advancement and progression as it was about stagnation and loneliness and feeling a little bit of loss of control. It was as much about success and accomplishment and getting what I worked so very hard for, as much as it was about feeling run down and broken and tired.
26 was supposed to be it for me, though I’m not quite sure what it really means. Did it mean transition after transition, the closing of an era, and the birth of new chapters? Did it mean saying bye to people, letting go of familiarity, closing the door on the past, finishing my Master’s, diving headfirst into my career, and the continual shift in my orbit?
I’ll be honest: 26 was all of those things.
I’m not sure really what I expected. Nothing changed. There was no loud crash. No confetti. No marching band parading around me. Nothing that marked the end of an era and the beginning of the next chapter. There was dinner and margaritas and waking up the next morning to go to work. Business as usual.
Nothing changed, and yet everything did.
And I was waiting for it. I was waiting for the bright lights and loud noises. I was waiting for something I could touch or taste or see. The change was there — it was almost tangible. I was sucker punched by it, but I didn’t see it. I couldn’t touch it. Believe me though, when I tell you, I felt it. And it swallowed me whole.
I wish someone could have told me that the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel isn’t actually as bright as it seems. I wish someone told me that you can reach all the destinations you pinned on your road trip map, and sometimes, it’s still not enough. Sometimes, you throw your hands out in front of you to steady yourself, but you still lose balance. You still get tossed along the shore.
I wish someone could have told me that the grass is always greener no matter where you water it.
I’ll be honest. I have nearly everything I worked so hard for in the last three years. And my God, if life was only about the accumulation of things, I would be on top of the world. Everyone thinks it’s about the stuff. But I’ll let you in on a little secret: it’s never about the stuff. I can fill a little glass home with all of the things that I’ve earned: a degree, a certification, a license, a diploma, a job. And trust me when I say: all the stuff is not enough.
The last couple months of 26 were about giving myself permission to be human.
There were so many nights I wanted to kick myself for going home and crashing. For sitting in the eye of a storm that shouldn’t have existed. For getting defensive when people told me how lucky I was to even land a job before graduation, how they would switch spots with me in a heartbeat. For feeling selfish and ungrateful because on paper, I got what I wanted. I got what I worked hard for.
But I’m only human. I’m allowed to go home and let the night swallow me up. I’m allowed to struggle with both success and failure. I’m allowed to feel hurt. I’m allowed to be frustrated. I’m allowed to want more. I’m allowed to be human. And this is a reminder that you are too.
There’s going to be a day when I forget about all of this. There’s going to come a point in my life, maybe many years down the road, when I look back on this last year and all of the mountains I climbed, and valleys I lived in, and laugh at myself for ever being so dramatic. There’s going to be a point when I look back and remind myself that despite the ever-present feeling of losing balance, it wasn’t all that bad. I knew next to nothing about anything in life, but I still did it, and survived it all in the end.
26 taught me there is so much more to this here life thing than adding a bullet point to your resume, or a comma to your salary, or a new mailing address, or an extra diploma to hang up. 26 taught me that life is less about the precision it takes to become a gymnast, and more about balance and grace and determination. It’s not about hitting that routine perfectly; it’s about getting up and doing the damn walk, no matter how strong those gusts of wind are.
I can’t predict what 27 will be about.
And maybe that’s the beauty of life. Maybe 27 will be the start of something new as I really assimilate, for the first time, into this new role in this big ol’ world we live in. Maybe I’ll spend the next year figuring out what the hell any of that even means. Maybe 27 will be scary and magical and exciting and difficult and fun and surprising.
And maybe, if I’m lucky, with a little faith in my own balance, 27 will be all of those things and so much more.