What a good way to start a birthday morning! Last week I ushered in another year of my life, which we celebrated by eating copious amounts of barbecue and drinking Texas Mules, as one does to welcome a new era. For those in the know, it should come as no surprise that we celebrated in high style, as birthdays are a pretty big deal for us. How often do we get the chance to celebrate the miracle of our existence—how often do we look the universe in the eye, and say, well thank God it was me that came to be, and not someone else? Not often enough, I don’t think.

Every year someone inevitably asks, do you feel older? I always say not really or something similarly non-committal, because the oldest I’ve ever felt was a few years ago, and the youngest I’ve ever felt is probably still around the corner. I don’t think “old” and “young” are on a fixed scale, or related really to our ages at all—numbers can only quantify the passing of years, but to me, they can’t qualify the intangible feeling of being old, or young. A few weeks ago I stood watching a waterfall roar through the central Oregon desert with my Dad and felt so young, so small in comparison. The first time I watched an animal die I felt old, to my core, I felt world-weary and aged. I am older now than I was then, but I have never felt like it, not once.

I thought, for a long time, that it was the mundane part of being adult that defined getting older, but now I’m not so sure. The Lauren Turns 20 plan was a resounding success, and I am proud of my ability to pay bills on time (mostly). It’s easier to do than I thought it would be. But here is what surprised me—the greatest challenge of “growing up” has been  figuring out who and what I want to be and do now that I am outside the structured world that I lived in for so long as a student. I realize—I graduated two years ago now in May, which doesn’t seem possible—but in that time I feel like I’ve done ten years of growing, between 22 and 24. This past year in particular has been one of stretching—thinking, feeling, exploring more than I have in any other year of my life. I am ever evolving, but this year was one of particular evolution. I am proud of the life and choices I’ve made, I am proud that I am continuously exploring and learning and discovering new ways to think and feel about the world. That, to me, is a sign of growth.

I think that’s the part of getting older that people can’t tell you about. It’s easier to say that a mark of getting older is getting more responsible—you need to write checks and floss every night and try to be a morning person (but I will note that I am writing this at 5:58 a.m. so maybe that one actually took, now that I think about it), than it is to say, what do you value? What do you stand for? What brings peace to you when you feel bogged down by the mundanities of daily life? What is it that you look for in a partner? Do you trust yourself? Do you trust the people you’ve surrounded yourself with?

Can you wake up in the morning and be proud of the work you do? What are your goals? Will you proudly answer to your name in a crowd? And these too—do you hear your heart of hearts whispering guidance and do you listen? Do you feel connected to the world around you, as one part of a larger whole?

I appreciate the importance of being an accountable person, for waking up early and responding to e-mails when they first come in, for saving money and not drinking my liver into oblivion too soon, all these things are good. It doesn’t make a life though, it doesn’t account for the soul part within me. And that’s what I’m focused on now, on tuning the old heart strings so they ring out in perfect harmony. Now that I am a little bit grown up, now that I sometimes listen to NPR and can not only write checks but also order more, these matters of the heart are the things towards which I turn my energy.

As with this sense of growing older, I don’t think you can quantify growing up. Which is to say, we call it growing up, as we get older,—but we mark a “grown-up” in ways that I don’t always think signify an internal growth, we mark them by our ability to operate in the world, by how we manage the complexities of taxes and making a living and buying houses. What is important I think, is that I have never felt more like myself—that I feel very much that I am participating in a lifelong process of becoming, of realizing my own potential, and of gaining confidence in my own wisdom. I look forward to knowing too that next year, at 25, I think I will be saying the same thing—which means another year of discovery and adventure and self-exploration lies ahead of me. Onward, 24!