My Twenties: A Retrospective In Paragraphs And Pictures

January 18th, 2011 - filed under: Furthermore » Inspiration

My twenties were much like my cartwheels: clumsy, fun, and often fueled by tequila. Photo by Larry Jon and Patrón Silver. Click Picture To Enlarge!

When I was 20 I was a gypsy. It was my second stint of homelessness, actually, though this time around it was much more fabulous. My beau and I had devised a plan: sex in all contiguous 48 states. We roved America in a soccer-mom mini van, customized with a raised bed built in the back. We stored clothing, food, and a camping stove underneath. Up top we slept in a pile of cheap pillows, my vintage hat boxes, and an old guitar. Five months in and we were nearing our amorous aim, but alas a torn timing belt in Massachusetts bankrupted us. We high-tailed it back home and had to skip the southwest; we made 39/48.

Thrilled to finally see the Atlantic ocean, I dipped my fingers right in and tasted it.

My first baby, Killer, joined our journey somewhere in the far northeast.

Getting silly with old friends in Seattle, where we couch surfed for many weeks. Does this friend look familiar? Yup – that’s young Damian!

A year after Bush took the White House but before September 11th. We took photos . . . *ahem* . . . *sharing our feelings* all over DC – the FBI, the IRS, and on. Ha!

No longer a nomad, I turned 21 and enrolled in school. See, I’d had this epiphany while gazing into a vernal pool somewhere in New England. Biology! I parted ways with my travel companion and got a gig pulling shots at a grungy art house/coffee shop. That’s where I met the man who would steal my heart for the next half a decade – though our actual courtship would only last until Christmas. He was older, much older, and a rock star through and through. But his heart was gold and he crooned to me Nat King Cole love songs, and we both became lost in the fire that flared white hot between us. Some flames just burn too bright.

My first semester back at community college, this was taken in Chemistry 101!

My hometown boasts a world renowned photography school, and thus I’ve done a lot of amateur modeling. ANTM? Hmm . . . don’t think so. Artist unknown.

My best friend and I fireside at Bar Absinthe. I spent many long nights nursing my wounds and sucking down pints on that patio.

The start of an amazing project that never came to be. Photo/art by Matt Jordan.

My 22nd year was a lesson in tragedy and consequence. My heart had been utterly decimated; each morning in the shower I cried until I dry-heaved. A close family friend died, and then my young dog Killer died too. I had a one night stand and became pregnant. I became un-pregnant. I crashed the van. I took a lot of baths and listened to a lot of Tom Waits. That was the year that I began drinking.

Amidst the misery, life kept moving. A collection of misfits became my comrades – a motley crew of scientists and artists. Our poison was Patrón Silver and our pleasure was Trivial Pursuit. We gathered for games each weekend in my living room, simultaneously flexing our brains and drinking ourselves to oblivion. I paired off with a partner who wouldn’t require too much of me; my heart wasn’t part of the bargain.

You can pretty much stop here – this picture captures the essence of my early 20s.

Cell bio. Sneaking a quick catnap with my lab ‘partner in crime’, while waiting for our gel electrophoresis to run. Still the hardest class I ever took in college. Loved it!

We held a wake for Johnny Cash on the night he died. RIP September 12, 2003.

At the end of the year, Harley the Happy Dragon joined my life. Read his story here.

At 23 I was stabilizing. I fell deeply in love – with academia. School consumed me. I had a tumultuous affair with calculus, then a lusty fling with physics. I ran mathematical marathons all day each day, and I still sipped myself into a stupor every night. I favored gin those days. I ended another relationship. I was awarded a number of scholarships, worked within the bio department, and set my sights on my dream school. That fall some friends and I managed to score Tom Waits tickets – his one and only American show of the tour. It was a dream come true and helped ease the pain when the next month, the American people re-elected George W. Bush as president.

Sweaty and surly after an anti-war march, summer 2004.

Outside the Paramount Theatre in Seattle, Tom Waits on the marquee. We crashed with Damian’s parents – who knew that one day they’d be my in-laws?!

Immediately after seeing Tom Waits for the first time. We were all still in a daze . . .

The day after the 2004 elections, photo taken for

My 24th birthday was spent in Washington DC. I was there to protest the Bush inauguration . . . and also to visit a new flame. He was an Air Force officer I’d met online, and so began a year-long cross country romance. We were an odd pairing, but he taught me a lot about loving, the verb. I was still too broken to meet him in that place, but I gave to him as much of myself as I could. That year I was accepted to the College Of Creative Studies at UCSB. I spent the summer working in a parasitology lab and began University that fall. By winter I had taken on a research project. I destroyed my relationship, again. Near the end of that year I decided to do two transformative things: I vowed to stay single for a full year, and I got my ass into therapy.

We stood in the freezing cold for almost 6 hours to proudly turn our backs on Bush.

A winter afternoon on the banks f the Potomac.

This is the weird kind of stuff you do when you’re in a long distance relationship.

Hard at work in the field – a muddy job but somebody had to do it!

My 25th year was electric ambition. I was single and self determined. I dated for fun without any intensity. I learned how to take care of myself. I learned how to *take care of myself*. I was a scholastic machine, dead-set on maintaining a perfect 4.0. This was a year of incredible growth, of hard work and hard play. In summer I traveled to Glasgow, Scotland, where my research partner and I presented our results at the International Congress of Parasitology. In November, on my one-year anniversary of being single, I gave myself a wedding ring. I married myself in a solo ceremony that took place in my beloved bath tub. There was chocolate, and bubbles, and champagne. There was whispered commitment to truth and openness; a chisel to finally crack that armor.

The next day, I kissed Damian.

Single girls just wanna have fun!

Parasites! This picture ran in a number of newspapers. Photo by Kevin Lafferty.

Presenting our work in Scotland. I clean up nice, no?

Exploring Glasgow. I may or may not have romanced a 7 ft. tall scientist . . .

At 26 my life was a whirlwind of forward motion. Damian clicked into my heart so completely that I gasped once and then never looked back. When he proposed 6 months later, I wondered aloud what took him so long. Some love is just immutable truth. Sublime simpatico.

By early June I was graduating college; by late June we had bought a house in Portland; by August I was settling into p-town and by September Damian had joined me there. In late October we began [the gut-wrenching, incredibly long process of] quitting smoking. We were in a whole new city with no friends, no jobs, nothing but opportunity. I was breathless.

Damian and I lookin’ all swanky for a French-themed party (hence his strange facial hair).

And lookin’ *not* so swanky, sick in bed (but I love this picture!!)

Getting my diploma – this picture ran in the newspaper, haha.

We had to sedate our dogs for the epic journey northbound. Poor dogs on drugs!

My 27th year was terrible bitter and blissful sweet. I got lost in the depths of a quarter-life crisis, battling real depression for the first time in my life. I was working a meaningless job and had lost my sense of direction. Also, I was quitting smoking – a seriously emotional experience.

In contrast to that, the year also the held greatest highs I’d known! I married my one true love on 060708, a day so filled with joy that it still overwhelms me. Following that was 10 delirious days in Cancún: all twitterpation, paradise, and glee. At the end of our honeymoon we flew to Phoenix, got matching tattoos, and saw Tom Waits. It was the perfect end to our perfect adventure.

Working the demo station at Trader Joe’s, my sign says “Happy Super Tuesday – please keep me updated!” Such a political junkie.

Happiest moment of my life.

Oh Cancún, dear sweet perfect Cancún

Brand new tattoo (my first!) and Tom Waits on the marquee.

Turning 28 was the beginning of my turnaround. I was actively hacking a path towards happiness; living my truth was changing my life. I’d quit my day job. I’d gone vegan. I’d bought a bike. I’d launched Bonzai. And then, on our 1-year wedding anniversary Damian and I made a baby. But I need to give credit where credit is due – there’s no way I would have quit my job, become a writer, built a web space, or been able to find my Bliss if it weren’t for Damian. His support is unwavering and I just don’t know how I got so goddamned lucky.

For a friend’s photo project: “one word to define you right now”.

The first image of our son!

My goodness, I loved being pregnant.

My ‘bed rest nest’, where I spent the last 3 months of my pregnancy.

In my 29th year I became a mother. I could sit and stare at this cursor all day long but I’ll never be able to summarize my feelings regarding that matter, simultaneously the most effortless and most excruciating experience I’ve known. Wee Mr. Waits is the light of my life – I didn’t know there was love like this! But having a child has also been hard, in ways I hadn’t expected. I’ve had to learn to slow down, and I’ve had to fight (fight!) to keep myself in a positive space. And by slow down I mean, somewhere in all this motherhood madness I’ve managed to take on my next big project (which I’m so tired of not being able to talk about, seriously). Okay, so I guess I’m still learning about how to slow down . . .

Love at first hug <3

We had our rough spots.

But mostly we had a total blast.

Emerging from 29 I feel like my life is just beginning. I look towards my left and I see so much to be thankful for. I look towards my right and I see endless possibility. I wiggle my toes, kiss my family, and look out towards my future.

  • Tenise Rae

    Just beautiful…..

  • Emily

    Beautiful! That was so lovely to read. I’m only approaching twenty, but it made me feel like I’m prepared for whatever happens from then on!

  • Kate in SB

    Wow, this is so great. So cool that you’re willing to share all this. I’m not sure I care to remember a good part of my twenties, haha.

    I can’t believe I’ve known you for five years. What a wild ride!

  • Kirke

    Just so cute…
    Greetings from Estonia(n vegan).

  • Janine

    I love your modeling photo, and you look gorgeous in the French party photo as well. Just so so pretty. Sometimes you remind me of Dharma (from Dharma and Greg, which I love).

  • Charlotte

    What a decade. I hope you are having a fabulous time this wee. Happy Birthday and heres to many more.

  • Chantelle

    Such a fabulous story and pictures!
    Do you have any tips or hints that helped you give up smoking for good? HOW HARD IS IT!!??? arghhh.Emotional roller-coaster so far :(


  • Minna

    Thank you for sharing this, Sayward. Seriously fascinating to get to know more about You!

    I wish you an unforgettably awesome birthday week and lots and lots (and lots!) of luck for the next decade! :)

  • Beens

    I’m totally having a ‘there’s something in my eye’ moment at your last couple of sentences! Beautifully written, all of it.

    I’m actually so happy I read this: I’m in a very similar place as you were in 2006 – I told myself to be single for at least a year, work on and enjoy my career and I married myself in the living room (the bride wore lace and drank rum)


  • Joselle

    It was a pleasure reading your retrospective. Much of it mirrors how I felt about my twenties. They were WAY harder and more tumultuous than being a teenager! Now that I’m 31, I can honestly say I’m happier, healthier and more equipped to handle the hard stuff. 30 is awesome. Welcome to the club and happy birthday!

  • Allison

    That was an incredibly beautiful journey. Thank you for sharing! It is nice to know that everyone has a story about how they got where they are. I think the 30s are going to treat you well!

  • Kelly M.

    OH MY GOD you and your husband got married the same day as me and mine. How cool.

  • Kelly M.

    ^ and I failed at grammar but I don’t care.

  • Amanda

    Oh man, this post made me cry. I am about to turn twenty, and I am so full of restlessness and yearning and sadness. But I am also optimistic beyond anything I’ve felt before, and this look into your life has strengthened that tenuous hope. I can only hope to be able to look back on my twenties-to-be with as much wisdom and love as you do now.

    All my best, Sayward. Thank you for continuing to be an inspiration in my journey to bliss (and veganism!).

  • Court

    Thank you for your candor. I have spent my late 20s trying to quit smoking and finally accomplished it at 28, almost 29. Advice to others: you will quit when you are ready to. it is just a decision that is made and then executed. beautifully written Sayward, thank you for sharing.

    Happiest Birthday!

  • Korina

    Happy Birthday lovely. Still so tickled that you are a CCS girl, too. You should make a little coffee table book out of this :D

  • Melissa L.

    Sayward!!! Okay, there should have been a viewer warning to grab a box of tissues before reading this profound post today. Wow!!! This brought on some true crocodile tears.

    What transparency! What reflection! How cool to see how your life’s journey has molded you and made you into today’s Sayward. All the layers of life. All the seasons. Sometimes it can literally take your breath away.

    How cool to think that there is more to come.

  • Christa

    Happy Birthday Sayward! What a beautiful post, you had me laughing and crying through the whole thing. It was so touching, honest, raw and real and I just loved it, thanks for sharing! I think that so many of us feel when we are going through really bad times that we must be the only one to have ever felt that terrible before, but the truth is that everyone feels that way at some point or another. The more people talk openly and honestly about those feelings instead of just positive happy feelings the more we can all relate to one another in the most basic human way possible.

    Hope you have a wonderful week celebrating yourself!!

  • Monika {windycityvegan}

    Happy happy birthday, Sayward! This post was lovely – thank you for sharing so much of yourself with all of us out here in the ether. I hope your 30s bring you all that you wish for and more than you can imagine!

  • Ashley

    Loved this my dear cousin. Just… loved it. Struggling for words, but what comes to mind first is: BEAUTIFUL.

  • Michelle

    Wow, such a beautiful and inspiring story!! Thank you so much for sharing and for being so REAL! Have a happy & magical birthday! :)

  • Sunny

    Happy birthday! Such a beautiful and honest reflection on your 20′s. Thank you for sharing this post. I hope your 30′s are and even better journey. I wish you so much happiness!

  • Staar

    Happy Birthday Sayward! This was absolutely beautiful to read. I thank you for sharing this.

  • Jeremy

    I remember things that aren’t remembered here. My silence is yours, though. I love you two.

  • Sayward

    Thank you guys so much! I was so nervous hitting ‘publish’ on this last night . . . eek!

    @ Kate in SB – I can’t believe it’s *only* been five, girl! Also, 3 DAYS!!!

    @ Kirke – Yay hello! Do you know Minna, or resident Estonian vegan? =D

    @ Janine – Aw thanks. I’ve gotten Jenna Elfman (Dharma) a lot. It used to drive me crazy but I’ve come to terms with it, haha.

    @ Chantelle – Oh man, it really is the hardest thing I’ve ever done – and I say that *after* natural childbirth! I used food/sugar as a replacement and I’d say that’s not the best but then again, it worked! And I honestly don’t know if I would have been able to otherwise.

    Court is right in that you really have to be ready, but also you just need to dig in and be diligent. Know that it’s going to suck and that it’s going to take a long time. But also know that you WILL get to a place where smoking is simply no longer appealing. Like, at all. I genuinely couldn’t believe that I would ever get to that place, but I have.

    But you have my deepest sympathies, dear! I know how truly hard it is! Any other advice from ex-smokers?

    @ Beens – Oh yay! for self-marriage! I still wear my ring. That’s so awesome that you did that, and the ceremony sounds pretty rad. Good luck with everything lady!

    @ Kelly M. – Yeah! Best date ever, right?!

    @ Amanda – Aw, ditto to you lady – all my very best. Twenties are a roller coaster. Enjoy the wild ride!

    @ Melissa L. – Indeed, the best part is knowing there’s so much more to come. =)

    @ Jeremy – Darling, if all my memories could truly be summed in 10 paragraphs, I’d be in a lot of trouble!

  • Alina S

    thank you so much for your honesty and vulnerability…. so encouraging when I am trying to nurture those traits in myself! love your blog, as always :)

  • Ali

    Wow, this was wonderful to read. I can relate so some of it so much that I teared up a little. Thank you so much for sharing such tender moments with us. You are a strong woman. I’ve been having a rough time lately and it brought me back to a positive state.

  • Sandra

    You really are in inspiration! I love how open you are and how positive you are! Thank you for sharing your last decade, I hope you have a very happy birthday!

  • MathTutor

    First off, Happy Birthday! I’m sure you are enjoying it!

    Secondly, this post was AMAZING. Your words were englighting and the photos mesmerizing. I am about to turn 21, and this entire year has brought about a lot of reflection (for me) because my life has changed so drastically!

    I am inspired to make sure I remember the good and the bad, thanks to you, so that I can reflect on it later in my life.

    Keep being awesome!!! :)))

  • Felicity

    Happy Birthday!

    This post was wonderful to read, it really was. I’m 23 and my life plan has just completely derailed in the past few months. I find myself for the first time not knowing exactly what I’ll be doing or where I’ll be in the next couple months or so. Reading this actually meant a lot to me because I’ve been doing a lot of self-reflection and soul searching.

    Thanks for this and again, Happy Birthday!

  • Joey Ogle

    Sayward… couldn’t read through this entire decade of your life and not say something. This posting is an inspiration to all that will read. I am happy to have been part of your life, if only for a little while. We definitely had one hell of a year. I too still refer to Cell Hell as the hardest class I ever took, but it’s the one I remember the most, and the one I had the most fun being part of. Congrats on all that you have accomplished in your life thus far! You will do great things. Cheers!


  • sj


    Wow! You really opened up on this post! SO much! It was absolutely incredible to get to read this! I feel so privileged! It is really a treat to be privy to reading your narrative on your 20s! And complete with TERRIFIC pictures to boot! Gah!

    As someone turning 25 this year, it’s pretty encouraging to read this. I’m still getting my undergrad degrees (which makes me feel kind lame sometimes that i’m still in school but whatever!) It is just nice to see someone who I think is so inspiring is just a real person too! Like, you had your wild and crazy times, got depressed, drank too much, got your heart shattered… and you climbed out and are a whole, healthy, strong and beautiful person! It gives me hope. :-)

    Thank you.

    AND! it’s killing ME not knowing what your next big project is!!! OMG WHEN DO WE GET TO KNOOOOOOWWW!? hahaha!

  • Annie

    That was fun ride/read. It also in some way validates the recipes and advice in your blog.

  • erosan

    Hey beutiful! Happy b-day week! Feliz cumpleaños!

    You look amazing on most of those pics, on the others you look even better.

    Thank you for the post. I sometimes feel the age-crisis sneaking behind me, but so far I’ve stayed ahead. Reading this helps me realize I am not the only one with such feelings.

  • Kate

    Sayward I love your writing!! A wonderful reflection that I definitely can relate to.

  • Minna

    @ Sayward & @ Kirke – Haha! I believe we do know each other! We actually just recently became friends thanks to the (one and only) awesome Estonian vegan forum (veg[dot]ee). I think all five Estonian vegans know each other LOL!

    Great to see you here, Kirke (: Yay for Bonzai Aprhodite!

  • GrowingRaw

    Hey, you’re keeping me up late again!

    Thanks for sharing so much about your twenties – some of the experiences you wrote about resonate so strongly with me. (Like spending half a decade nursing heartbreak!)

    Gypsy times, oh yeah! Except next time you take the family…

  • HeatherG


    What a beautiful post and a special way of getting to know more about what makes you tick, past and present. Thank you for sharing all of this with us…I know how tough it was being a “private” person as well. Please give that beautiful boy a kiss from his internet fans!

  • Andrea

    Beautiful story, wish you all the best and thirties fulfilled with love!

  • EmilyC

    My quit-smoking-story:

    I really tried to stay positive with the whole thing. I quit in stages. (first in the car, then at school, then at work, etc.) If I backslid, I would do my best to focus on all of the times I wanted to smoke or would usually smoke, and didn’t, and how much better my health is because of it. Having one cigarette after a tough day with a glass of wine was not something to get mad at myself for when I avoided smoking the usual 30 cigarettes the previous week. As long as the total number a week was getting smaller, I felt that I was making progress.

    Ultimately, what worked for me was to not think about smoking in black/white, smoker/non-smoker. That would set up a system for me to fail. For me, I focused on constant gradual IMPROVEMENT. Now I might have a smoke with a drink at a bar with friends, but the next morning I definitely don’t feel like another. Now it’s an occasional youthful vice to indulge in, like having a few beers, gambling, or eating McDonalds.

    With all that being said, I don’t think my body was as chemically dependent on nicotine as the average smoker seems to be. My body quickly made cigarettes taste bad once I completely stopped smoking while sober. (did other people find that as well?)

  • EmilyC

    btw, love the retrospective!

  • Lindsay

    This was beautiful, Sayward! So jealous that Tom was at the Paramount! One year before I hit my Tom-love at 20, but still!

  • Monika {windycityvegan}

    My quit-smoking-story – I had a eureka moment and genuinely wanted to quit. I was a pack a day for 5 years, and one afternoon I was rummaging through my car for change (this was back in the 90s when cigarettes were *cheap*) and I just thought, “I really don’t want to be that person who rummages for change in their car just to have a cigarette.” Also, I absolutely hated it when people bummed smokes off of me, so I didn’t want to be *that* person, either. And just like that, I quit. I was still at university and drank like a fish, but the guy I was engaged to & lived with at the time was not a smoker so there wasn’t much opportunity to cheat. That’s around the time I really started racing, so in retrospect I bet I used running as a substitute.

  • Amber bee

    So beautiful, brought tears to my eyes, how longitude has been since naked olive oil twister. I love you guys! Cheers to growing up! Love Amber;)

  • Melissa C.

    I really, REALLY love this. What a wonderful idea. Happy Birthday, Sayward! <3

  • Leslie

    Happy Birthday Sayward, Today is mine too!

  • daoine o’

    amazing post, filled with joy and pain. it must have taken a lot of strength to write it all out.

    very best wishes on your 30th! wow, that was so long ago for me…i feel like i’ve wasted a lot of life. methinks i need to reread your post and use it and perhaps some others i’ve been following to find the fuel to fire my life up, before it’s over!

    thank you again for a heartfelt memoir!

  • Sayward

    You guys make me feel so loved! <3 <3 <3

    @ Joey Ogle – Wow blast from the past, so good to hear from you! And yay for Cell Hell, those are truly some of my greatest memories of college. We worked our ASSES of man! Good times. =D

    @ sj – Aww, first of all thank you! And secondly OMG ITS KILLING ME TOOOOOOOO!!! But SOON, like maybe even next week. Eeeeeee!

    @ erosan – Thank you sweetie. And no way, not old. Just ripening! =D

    @ Minna and Kirke – Haha that’s awesome, yay Estonian vegan power!

    @ Amber bee – Oh dear lordy I’d forgotten about that adventure! That was pre-20s even, I think. Ahhh, mi vida loca, me encanta!

    @ Leslie – Oh HAPPY BIRTHDAY! I hope it was spectacular!

  • kilo

    Beautiful post, Sayward. Happiest of birthdays to you.

  • Becks

    Thanks Sayward for opening up about your past and your future here on Bonzai. I always get really excited when a new post pops up on my feed reader and it’s nice to feel like I’m getting to know the person on the other side of the Internet. Happy Birthday, best wishes, and I hope my 20′s are as eventful, challenging and lead me to the place where I want to be as well (I’m just starting out!).

    Much love, and Many Thanks,