Throughout childhood my mother would often remind me, “Either grow old or die young, those are your only options.” The bluntness of her statement sunk in, and I decided that if I was lucky enough to lead a long and full life, there was no point in dreading the inevitable. But it’s easy to laugh in the face of death when you think it’s on the other side of eternity.
A plurality of decades later, I couldn’t help falling into that common downward spiral of thought as my 30th birthday drew near. It’s the age we lose our youthful aspirations and settle into mediocrity. As children, we envisioned multilevel beachfront properties and bank account balances with endless zeros. I assumed I’d be living like The Jetsons by this point. Ultimately, it’s the expectation that we’re supposed to slow down, that our impulsivity and occasional bad habits will magically melt away, that really make us dread growing old.
I had mostly come to terms with the big 3-0, but my well-meaning younger friends kept pressing me, asking, “How does 30 feel?” They thought, like I once had, that some cosmic personality shift occurs once the clock strikes midnight on that fateful day, that it’s some spongey texture pressing up against your face. Maybe they were right. But the only way to know would be to force myself to take a long, hard look at myself, and I couldn’t do that in the routine in which I lived. I couldn’t do that in the life that was leading me closer to 30 by the minute. I decided that a week in Costa Rica, including a few days spent at a transformative arts and music festival, would provide me with some clarity.
We arrived at Envision Festival at dusk, and a rainstorm followed us in. It was hard not to feel discouraged, especially after nearly a day of traveling, but we trudged through the thick mud, searching for a place to erect our tent. By the time it was pitched, it was filled with more mud and frogs than luggage and sleeping bags. I didn’t sleep well that first night, but got a front row seat to a tribal drum circle that began at approximately 4am, and a mother who, hysterical from exhaustion, screamed at the amateur drummers to shut it down and let her family sleep.
I wondered why that woman would bother coming. I wondered the same thing myself.
There were a lot of families there, though. There were more children than any other festival we’d been to. It wasn’t uncommon for kids to chase each other through the rows of tents barefoot, crashing through other people’s property with abandon. Every few minutes, I saw a woman walking with an infant casually attached to her breast.
Though I’ve supposedly reached an age where motherhood becomes a priority, I am not one to coo at infants. Whenever co-workers bring in their new babies to show off at work, I wonder aloud why we can’t do the same with pets. After all, my dog can do a lot more tricks than your two-week-old.
That changed at Envision. Something clicked, and although I still have no plans to enter motherhood anytime soon, I realized how much joy there is to be found in simply watching children play. There’s also a lot to be learned. As adults, we often become so consumed with work, paying bills, and saving money that we forget that life is meant to be experienced in the moment. There is a disconnect between our bodies and our minds, and even when we do have time off, we are unable to pause the inner chatter long enough to appreciate it. We have forgotten how to play.
It was something I relearned during my time at Envision. I chased waves at the beach. When a bubble machine whirred near me, I jumped up to pop them. I lazed in hammocks and took afternoon naps, allowing the pressures of time to escape me.
On the last morning, I noticed a young woman standing to the side of the pathway holding a sign that offered, “Free Hugs!”
“I just want one really good one,” she told her friend, seeming to be losing hope. “Then we can go home.”
I turned around and stepped into her open embrace. It was then I realized not just how therapeutic touch can be, but that hugs don’t start getting really good until after the five-second mark.
How many moments of true connection have I missed out on because I pulled away too soon?
The festival ended shortly after. We finally found a hostel, and at Jon’s insistence booked a private room. At first I puzzled over the two full beds set up in opposite corners of the room, but with Jon’s condition worsening, it ended up being a blessing in disguise. I took my first real shower of our trip (although we were still several days away from the luxury of warm water) and after a nap, left Jon sleeping peacefully to explore Dominical on my own.
My experience as an international traveler is limited, and nonexistent when it comes to traveling alone. For the first time, I got a taste of the independence and thrill that comes with getting intentionally lost. There was no one to vet decisions with, no preferences to be considered other than my own. I wasn’t a child, tied to any itinerary. But I wasn’t an adult with the same condition. I was simply a human being, living in a moment.
I ordered dinner at a beachfront cafe and nursed a glass of wine. I watched people stroll up and down the boardwalk and spent some time journaling. The sky was beginning to darken, so I quickly paid my check and headed to the beach.
As I sat alone on the shore watching colors blend in the sky, I became overwhelmed with gratitude. I thought about the incredible people I’d met over the last few days, the lush green jungles that had provided me shelter, the brave and spontaneous man who hadn’t hesitated to take this journey with me when asked. I let tears fall freely from my eyes. I am not religious by a long shot, but over the next hour, as I watched the sun take a slow dive into those crystalline waters, I murmured heartfelt prayers to the universe, thanking whatever stars had aligned to allow me to experience this firsthand.
So how does 30 feel? Terrifying and new and uncertain and my right knee is a little weaker and sometimes I worry that I won’t have enough money saved for retirement, but my heart is more open than it’s ever been and never have I held a greater appreciation for my own mortality. I have less patience for bull shit and no longer babysit behaviors that do not serve me. Occasionally I act irresponsibly and pursue childish impulses. I wake up most days feeling lucky, ready to live bigger, extend my reach a little further.
There’s a reason why cultures all over the world revere their elders: they have wisdom beyond their years, watched history unfold, and gained valuable insight into human nature. If anything, the wrinkles, sunspots, and grey hair should be worn as badges of honor, evidence of experience that we can’t yet comprehend.
As with most things, when it comes to aging my mother was right, our options are limited. We have to grow old. But now I realize: growth is for the best.
The author’s travels were sponsored by Envision Festival.