The Fourth Decade

One of my closest friends turned 40 today. I’ve been thinking about this one, trying to figure out why we put this much significance on a birthday, why we decorate this particular mile marker with lights and flowers and well-meaning phrases full of pith, borrowed from antiquity or Sex in the City, one of the two. I’ve had this conversation before with friends in their late 30s and early 40s, and we all say the same thing: “I don’t feel 40. I don’t know what it’s supposed to feel like, but whatever it is, I don’t feel it. Does it mean we have to wear longer skirts now?”

Whatever cause for contemplation there is, I’ll take the bait. I know that, at minimum, turning 40 gives us permission to take stock and see where we are, to ask of ourselves: What have I learned (if anything?) What have I gained or lost? What am I contributing (if anything)? What’s necessary?

There’s a great book (I’m forgetting the title now) which is a compilation of letters from writers, artists, philosophers, and other notables giving advice to the young. Advice is sticky, and everyone knows it. Who are any of us to say what someone else should do or not do? How to live or not live? My path was certainly as circuitous and contradictory and clumsy as anyone else’s. I can’t very well tell a purported mini-me to make all the same choices as I did, or not, whatever… And while I’m at it, who’s to say that I’m not still young myself? (as I bristle, with a toss of my head). I mean, geez, if someone out there has any advice for me that I haven’t already heard and ignored, I’m listening.

But in the interest of my friend’s birthday, and all the thinking it’s got me doing, and the fact that it’s the end of June and I need to produce something of consequence on this blog, here are a few answers to those questions above, from my corner of the world, as I understand things to be, at this moment in time—realizing that I haven’t yet entered my own fourth decade (though it’s fast approaching), and knowing full well my answers will probably change at 50. Or with the next election. Or when Saturn moves (come on, Saturn—I learned my lessons already, OK?).

And if the following smacks of advice, don’t worry. You are free and clear to take from it what you want and leave the rest. You are even free and clear to leave all of it and go watch whatever’s on HGTV. And you are free and clear, of course, to scoff at mine and come up with your own answers, even if you’re 23 and just graduated from college or spending your 88th year in a rocking chair remembering the time when…

So here goes.

What I’ve learned:

1.    We are what we eat. Not just a cliché! I should’ve started eating better at an earlier age. But knowing what I know now has saved me doctor visits, money, extra pounds, and sanity.
2.    On that note, exercise more. Even when it aches. Even when you’re tired. As my chiropractor used to say: “Life is motion. When you stop moving, you die.” (I may have added that last part for dramatic flair).
3.    And on that note, drinking alcohol is highly over-rated. Nothing served by a bartender is truly pleasurable unless in the smallest possible quantity. Yes, this includes wine. Yes, this applies to anything over one glass. Besides, a hangover means you’re probably not moving too well. See #2.
4.    No one really has a clue what they’re doing, ever, including me. That’s why we look around at everyone else all the time.
5.    Which is why suspending judgment, of ourselves and others—even for a millisecond—is a worthwhile endeavor.
6.    Stress, fear, frustration—they’re all largely self-created. I’ve learned to get a handle on these through meditation, prayer of a non-religious sort, nature walks, silence, writing, reading…whatever mechanism feels good to me at the time.
7.    But just when I feel I have a handle on something, I discover I have much, MUCH further to go.
8.    Some things in life require discipline, including but not limited to setting aside money for quarterly taxes, getting enough sleep, following a calling, parenting, meeting a deadline, doing a good job—at anything. The rigors of life are no picnic if you don’t have discipline. Fortunately, growing up a dancer, I learned this lesson early on.
9.    The world is both bigger and smaller than what I previously thought it to be.
10.    The older I get, the less I know. (Someone said that—a person named Pam Ferris, I think). And may I add: never a truer statement there was.

What I’ve gained so far:

1.    Trust—in the mysterious ways and workings of the universe, in myself, in others (albeit in a less generous dose)
2.    Love in all its guises—sappy, humble, confounding, fierce, heart-pounding, all-encompassing, exhausting, accepting, amazing
3.    A few crow’s feet and occasionally grumpy vertebrae
4.    Skills—some useful, some not; weird habits; odd cravings; stubborn rigidities—some admitted to, some not
5.    A whole lot of stories, best told around a table late at night to my sister or my girlfriends

What I’ve lost:

1.    Unchecked cynicism
2.    That horrific sense of panic when something doesn’t go right (I like to think)
3.    Deep sadnesses, old hurts, festering wounds…to the extent that I may still remember them, but don’t carry them with me daily
4.    Hatred—of myself and others
5.    Reliance on anyone or anything to tell me how things are or should be (including the news, self-proclaimed experts, women’s magazines, popular blogs, politicians, social media, conventional wisdom of all kinds, consumer product companies, and what can be deemed orthodoxy in industry, government, religion, economics, medicine, and culture)

What I’m contributing:

1.    My writing, as much as I can, as much as gets out there
2.    The female role in an undefined, fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants family unit, and the “intergalactic wife” (not yet recognized by the state) to a wonderful, lovable man
3.    A number of possibly aggravating, possibly unanswerable questions posed often and without remorse
4.    Not enough yet, evidently

What’s necessary:

1.    All the best human attributes of kindness, compassion, humility, bravery, surrender, and resilience
2.    Preposterous theories
3.    Laughter
4.    Art, science, and mysticism—in equal measure
5.    Free will
6.    True friendship
7.    Whatever you conceive a soul mate to be, but only when ready
8.    Whatever you conceive family to be
9.    A white sand beach, undiscovered…as yet…by me
10.    Deep breaths when the wheels are coming off
11.    Deep belief that the wheels will be replaced
12.    Taking stock from time to time
13.    Wishing a happy birthday to a dear friend, cleverly disguised in the form of a random blog post, which is to say, inserting reverence and appreciation for the human connections we have in whatever ways we know how