Saturday, January 2, 2010

40 from the other side

As of Nov. 19, I am 40 years old.

Cripes! When did this happen? My childhood, my teens, college, my 20s--it all seems like yesterday. Cliched but true. Forty has always seemed so, so far away. It was the age of adults, of parents, of authority figures, of someone else, not me. Now I am looking at 40 from the other side.

I havent't written much about this milestone, because I needed some time to settle into it, to determine how I felt about what everyone says is a momentous occaision in the course of life. I'm still not sure if I know what I am feeling now--nearly two months into my 40th year--but I figure that it's time that I digest the moment and get on with it.

Turning feels differently than turning 30--at least is has been different for me. Thirty (and the other important ages I have passed) marked no major soul searching, no shift in the way I thought about myself. Forty is different. At 40, I feel more...myself. I wrote the following in a post about a friend labeling my taking up running as a "mid-life crisis:"
Contrary to popular belief, I suspect that really good personal change doesn't happen until middle age. Around 40 is when most people reach the "sweet spot" in their lives--at least I think that I have. After nearly four decades, I know myself in a way that was impossible at, say,19. I am less bound to (or concerned about) others' expectations than I was at 29. I have the disposable income to make more of the things I want happen. I am less fearful. I have more confidence in myself. Also, like a student entering the final two years of her high school career--I know the next years really, really count. In the words of Andy Dufrense, now is the time to "get busy living or get busy dying."

I have always admired athletic women. I have always wanted to be one of those women who could jog for miles or hike to the top of a mountain or go kayaking. My desire to be that woman has not changed in 20 years. But back in my early 20s, I would have told you that I was simply not that sort of woman. Hell, I couldn't even
ever climb the rope and ring that stupid bell in elementary school gym class. I would have blanched at what other folks would say when they heard that I was running. "What? You?" Now, I will tell you that I can be any sort of woman I want to and screw what anyone thinks about it. This attitude is how I was able to cut off my permed hair and go natural four years ago--another decision I would have been terrified about in my younger years. This attitude is also why I can embrace my nerdy bookishness and my love of rock, pop and alt country. I don't care what black girls usually do. I don't care what women usually do. I don't care about what I usually do. For better or worse, this empowered thinking took me years to cultivate and I don't think I am a rarity among women (and, actually, men either). I think this is why women (and men) sometimes make drastic changes as they enter mid-life--because they finally have the confidence to do the things they have long wanted to do, but have not.
At 40, I feel unencumbered by should dos, must dos and people thinks. This is so different from, say, my mid-20s. And yet, I still feel young. I think I still am young. I understand now what I used to hear my elders say when I was a kid: That even at 50 or 60 or older, they really didn't feel any different than they did at 20 or 30. I still want love, want to look good, want adventure, want to learn and discover new things, want to have a good time. My definition of all those things may have evolved, but I still want them.


40 feels light.

As I was turning 40, my oldest friend, who is barely two years older than I, was facing a medical crisis, the resolution of which marked an end to fertility, one of society's markers of youth in women. This occurence forced me to face another side of reaching middle age (and, yes, I suppose I am of middle age now, though the term makes me cringe). At 40, I had to face my friend's mortality and, thus, my own.

I was the last of my closest circle of friends to hit the four decade mark. Our bodies--no matter how youthful we look--have four decades of wear on them. Sometimes, like when I finished a 5k last October, my body surprises me with what it can do. Sometimes I feel every one of my 40 years...and then some. (I came to rue all the liquor and cake I consumed on my birthday weekend, for instance.)

My friends and I, we don't talk about crap apartments, internships and annoying bosses anymore. And no matter what "Sex and the City" tells you, when my 40-something girlfriends and I get together now, we don't talk about hot clubs and multiple paramours. We talk about mortgages and travel plans and money and being the boss and husbands and kids and dating post-35. It is good conversation, but it is definitely grown-up conversation. We talk about other things, yes, but our conversations are weighted by responsiblity, not the carefree exchanges of two decades ago.

Where once everything seemed to be ahead of me, and I spoke with wonderment about the future, there is a sense now that time is much shorter--that my life doesn't begin "for real" somewhere down the road (as I thought it did when I was in my 20s); my life is now. And while there is much I still plan to achieve, the reality is that some of the things I had marked for the future will remain undone. When you are 20, it is never too late to do anything. When you are 40, sometimes it is.

40 can feel heavy, too.


I think, though, that I will spend my time embracing the "lightness" of middle age. There is no sense stewing too much about the big 4-0. After all, no matter how I feel, it is what it is. And time will continue to march on. Beside, as my father always says, the alternative to growing old is much worse than aging.

So, here I am on the other side of 40. And I've decided it's not so bad.

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