As a stoned and superstitious teenage parking lot rat, I was warned never to use a white lighter. As a rule, my dreadlocked sidekick said, they were to be destroyed on sight. The legend was that Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, and other members of the 27 club all had white lighters in their pockets when they were found dead three years shy of 30, and I would meet a similar fate if I sparked up with a colorless Bic.
At the time, 27 seemed eons and eons away. Being 27 meant being a fully formed human, a messy genius, an artist in his or her prime, someone who had mastered things, loved, lost, and become as beautiful as they would ever be. Twenty-seven-year-olds had millions of adoring fans, timeless iconic style, high cheekbones, babies with their lovers. I would never be 27 because it would never be 2013 and I would never not be a teenager. But just to be safe, I never used a white lighter again.
The age of 27 continued to feel distant and emblematic until the last day that I was 26. I felt that I was faced with it so suddenly and harshly, this idea that Kurt and Jimi and I were on the same step of the big ol’ stairway to heaven, except that they were lugging along framed platinum copies of Nevermind and Are You Experienced while I continued to debate whether or not I was too old for to apply for internships. My 24th, 25th, 26th birthdays were not particularly heavy aside from their accompanying hangovers (my 26th involved an alien abduction-themed party that left my house in literal shambles), but on the very first day that I woke up 27, I felt abrupt existential panic. Wasn’t I supposed to be “thriving” right now? Wasn’t I supposed to be so successful that I despised myself for it? Bring on the accomplishment and self-loathing! I’m ready! But instead, I surveyed my life resumé and found its unimpressive roster to be a passable LinkedIn profile, hair that won’t grow past my armpits, and a closet full of instruments that I barely know how to play (gonna get to the xylophone any day now, for real). And on top of that, I’ve found four grey hairs on my head in the past year, and my emotional maturity is so low that I still unironically listen to Blink 182’s Dude Ranch.
But I thought I should take into account a better denomination of personal success: happiness, for lack of a better word (this is no self-help book). And while I’m a total sentimental sap and I do miss the exuberance of age 16, the thinner thighs of age 20, and the impulsive road trips of age 23, I can’t honestly say that I was happier then. In my youth and early 20s, I couldn’t seem to stop making hilarious strings of terrible decisions (not to say that I still don’t, but it feels like their frequency is slowing), struggling with every relationship in my life, and worshipping idiots solely because they seemed more self-assured than I was. For a time, I thought I wanted to be — or at the very least, be with — a Kurt Cobain. I wanted to feel everything so strongly all the time, without realizing that that lifestyle simply exhausts you instead of enlightens you.
At 27, I’m still a cosmic infant, barely able to comprehend the weird, intricate, sparkling, crushing, floating party that is the human experience. Would I even want to be “peaking” right now? If this is the best time in my entire life, do I really want to decline for the next 50+ years? How awful that would be. (The physical aspect is obviously unavoidable after age 30, so let’s just speak to the experiential level.) And I wonder if the members of the 27 club that killed themselves, intentionally or otherwise, had the sinking realization that they were running out of things to look forward to, that they would forever be known for and defined by great albums that they created almost accidentally, before they had even been able to define themselves first. If society grabbed on to some song or drawing or blog post that I made when I was 25 and decided that it was the defining work of my life, I think that I would feel pretty godawful, too.
I think it’s okay to not know how you want the rest of your life to look when you’re only a quarter of the way through it. If I can’t even commit to a tattoo, for Christ’s sake, I probably shouldn’t worry about having sculpted my opus.
A recent study found that 70% of people over the age of 40 say that they did not reach happiness until age 33. So for the next six years, here’s to knowing that things are just getting good. And to hoping that if I must grow any more grey hair, it be a really cool Cruella de Vil-style skunk streak on the side of my head.