On Turning 40

birthday

When I turn 40 years old next month, I will be at the halfway point of my life expectancy (for white females in the U.S., anyway). It’s hard to hold a mini dance party for myself when friends on Facebook remind me that the world is burning. And, if you are anything like me, your idea of celebration is a short dance party followed by Netflix and finished up with a good book. If my kids ask you what to get me, tell them it’s an hour and a half nap.

My life is almost half through or I am only halfway there, wherever “there” is. I swing back and forth, as many do, on the pessimist and optimist view. Looking behind me, many of those years I wouldn’t dare want to relive, but there are also moments that I wish I could relive in real-time. Looking ahead at the next 40 years, I feel equal parts curious and cautious.

Lifelong Goals

At sixteen I made a list titled “50 Things I Want To Do Before I Die.” I knew about the power of lists even while I was struggling to locate my math homework. The list included small, obtainable goals such as “make one dish really well” and “become a vegetarian.” There were more thrilling goals that were all about living on the edge, like skydiving, bungee jumping, rock climbing, and running ultra-marathons. Over time, I’ve moved that edge further and further away as I’ve learned I have a very substantial fear of heights. Having lived most of my life on the plains, I hadn’t had much opportunity to test my resolve.

I’ve been able to live out many of my goals. I’ve lived in a foreign country, I’ve run marathons, I’m a vegan, and I took a rock-climbing course for adults at the YMCA this fall and found that I enjoy it. Still, thinking about my list and superimposing the person I have become on top of the person I imagined in my youth, I find myself wanting more.

Your Fantasy Self

Many people begin their bucket lists with an image in their mind of who they want to be. Is your fantasy self a famous cook or athlete? Are they working up a sweat or are they standing in front of a crowd? Feel free to confess something about your fantasy self in the comments. We all want something more or something different out of life.

My fantasy self is a world traveler. She would hop from one country to the next, appearing in third-world countries on a lark and sporting a ponytail, tank top, and cargo pants. (You can tell I made this list in the ’90s.) The European version of this traveler wore fitted slacks and a white men’s shirt a-la Aubrey Hepburn. This mental image of this version of me hasn’t changed in 30 years.

Old Goals, New Goals

I still think about that lost life, the one my sixteen-year-old self imagined. Our world is so full of opportunity when we are sixteen. We are wholly unformed as professionals, as romantic partners, and as parents.

But that bucket list looms out there like a tray of brownies. If we leave it too long the brownies will either grow stale or all the good bits will be eaten up, be they corners or middles. And, like a tray of brownies, I can’t let the good bits sit and when I start by eating of piece I can easily hit my caloric requirements by finishing half the pan. My goals are like this too. I once had a goal of running a half marathon, so rather then let it sit and get stale, I registered for one; and then a marathon; and then six marathons in that same year.

Yes, I ran all of them.

Yes, they were exhausting.

Would I do it again? Gosh, I had hoped not. Yet I ran my first two full marathons since having kids but I only finished the last one because my husband, my ride, didn’t show up until mile 23 so I figured that I might as well finish…there’d be free beer and a ride at the end. Never will I ever be an ultrarunner but motherhood has filled a much larger space than I expected and I want to make room for it…and brownies.

Upon entering my 40th year, I have a list of more goals ready to be checked off: “Speak semi-fluently in another language,” “Go to China,” and the ever-elusive and predictable goal of “Get down to pre-pregnancy weight.” It’s a battle to both take these goals seriously and not to take the goals too seriously. I’ve got a lot more life to live and I have time to conquer these goals slowly.

Life Goes By So Fast But There Is Still Time

If I could go back, I would relive, over and over again, all those first days of getting to know the man who came to be my husband. Yet I know that the man he is today is more complicated and interesting than the one I met. If I could go back, I would be kinder towards my older brother. Yet I know that I can begin anew today. If I could go back, I (and just about any mother I know) would enjoy snuggling up with our small children. Yet, my children are still small and we still snuggle, but I know it can’t last and that I’ll have to adapt to new boundaries.

What would you do if you could go back twenty years? What is preventing you from doing those things now?

Aging Is a Practice in Perspective

I try not to get too negative about aging. I have yet to be able to reframe my view on my own sagging skin and wrinkles. Not that I was a great beauty, but I miss and I don’t miss being openly admired for my looks alone. Now I have other, more substantial, things that I want to be known for. I want to be good and I want to have taught something meaningful to someone.

Year 39 was all about preparing for the crisis. Midlife was going to get me down! Year 40 was going to be the year that I would remember “the list” in perfect clarity and find myself falling short of those dreams. Midlife was going to test my limits and push me over the edge! But then I remember that I hate heights and I’m scared of edges. So I back away.

No one needs to plummet into late adulthood. They can buy plane tickets, they can fill their passports, and they can safely cross the chasm of expectation with a reclined seat and a glass of wine.

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