Well, it’s finally happened. I did it. When I woke up, I looked in the mirror. Did I look older? Maybe I just felt older. Would other people be able to tell? Would they eye me and assume that I was now in the club, in the know, with my other friends? Or did I still look naïve?
See, this weekend I turned 40. And I’m not exactly sure what to feel. Just saying it sounds so loud in my head: “I’M 40!” But, how can I be 40 when I feel like I just now survived adolescence?
I don’t remember my 20th birthday. I barely remember my twenties at all. They started with unhinged independence and spun into adventures in adulting with little more than a safety pin and a prayer to keep my dignity from slipping. As for my 30th birthday, I was too pregnant to focus on a milestone. But I liked that decade. I grew up in my thirties, several times, and sometimes over the same lesson again and again. Unlike my twenties, which was a steady incline from no responsibility to a mortgage and a career, my thirties ran me in circles. It seems I didn’t understand me enough to keep myself from stumbling each time I thought I’d hit my groove. But where I have landed feels good.
Only now there’s all this hoopla pushing at me, all because I’m 40.
It’s hard to ignore the hype: “40 isn’t what it used to be.” Well, that’s good because at one time 40 was geriatric. Another is “40 is the new 20.” I can jive with the thrill of that, except that I definitely don’t want to be 20. I had even less of a clue then. And finally, “Life begins at 40.” While this is hopeful, I’m still recovering from my thirties. Universe, please don’t start me on anything new. My personal favorite forties quote is straight from the mouth of Carrie Bradshaw in “Sex and the City” when she advises her young, starry-eyed twenty-something assistant: “Your twenties are for making mistakes, your thirties are for learning from them, and your forties are for paying for the drinks.” A happy medium—I reach the end of immaturity, but mercifully foot the bill for my younger cohorts still in the perils of youth. That has a sinister appeal.
Except that as I confront this milestone, I, once again, feel little sentiment. I’m more like, “Now I’m 40. So now what?” Maybe I just don’t care? Maybe it isn’t a big deal after all and just an excuse for kitschy merchandise?
The truth is I don’t want to start over. I don’t want a clean slate. I have limited regrets, such as not listening to Mom the three times she tried to teach me how to sew. That’s turned out to bite me on the ass at every carnival season and costuming event. New Orleanians simply shouldn’t have limited seamstress skills. I regret not finishing piano lessons, too. Knowing how to read music comes in handy. Just ask The Goonies. But as for the rest—the embarrassing mistakes and stupid decisions—I don’t regret them. I don’t need to purge myself of a number of weaknesses before becoming who I am today. If I leave them behind as I stumble into a new life, I lose who they’ve made me and then I do have to start over.
I forgave my gaffes with perspective. If additional clarity is the calling card of my forties, let me accept the invitation.
My faces and phases from childhood to teens, to twenties and thirties, led me to this place at the end of my thirties, this curious opening that up until now was concealed by discouragement, second guessing, and fear. I have the desire to push aside the overgrowth and go—to surrender to myself and to whom I am supposed to be. But I don’t want to lose the rest of me, the wild child within who tripped over her own feet to get here. If I could somehow retain the best of her as my story continues to unfold, then maybe this new life is worth the hype.
I’m told that a few resolves will set in and aide in the process of repairing the childish tendencies I’ve held onto. Among them, that I’ll stop worrying about whether or not people like me. I hope I don’t. That I’ll dwindle my friendships to a select few. I hope I don’t do that either. And that I’ll slow down and take things as they come. I hope against that too. Grow me. Deepen me. Build me, aging. But don’t turn me away from me.
I know little about aging gracefully, but I know enough to know that I am the only me out there, so why waste my distinctiveness? To be understood by others matters. To be surrounded by a cast of characters is vital. To tackle threats, as if a wound up terrier at a door, is instinctive. What if the resolve of my forties is less of sticking to what is important to me and more of understanding why it’s important at all? If wisdom brings evolution, let my curiosity, not an age, be my guide. There’s a new beginning worth exploring.
So here I am: 40 and questioning. Time to answer to me.
Originally published in New Orleans Magazine online.