In two weeks, I'm having a milestone birthday - The Big 4-0 – and the apple cart of my inner life has been somewhat jostled. For the last year, I have jokingly referred to my state of ennui about turning 40 as a "midlife assessment"; adjacent to, but not synonymous with the better known midlife crisis.
Indeed, I am not in crisis. But I would be lying if I said this birthday has not confounded me a bit.
As kids, my friends and I played M.A.S.H., attempting to foresee (or create) our futures. We would object when we ended up in a shack with 10 kids, working as a poop-scooper and married to Gregory, the glasses-wearing boy who wet his pants in gym class in first grade and had been a social pariah ever since.
No way! I wanted to marry cute Tim Knickerbocker, live in a mansion (or at least a house), have 3 or 4 kids and a fabulously successful job as a fashion designer or an Olympic gymnast (which seemed like a job to me at the time). It was a fun, silly game. But it was also useful for testing and shaping my ambitions.
My twenties and thirties were all about building my M.A.S.H. dream. I moved to Los Angeles, graduated from college, got a well-paying job and had a few years of 20-style living with ample disposable income before falling in love with and marrying the Man of My Dreams, moving to the 'burbs and having three babies. Check. Check. Check.
That's not to say all my choices were unreflected or rash. On the contrary, there were many times along the way when I stopped to consider if the trajectory of my life was well-aimed or if I needed to recalibrate.
But my thirties were a fast-paced and somewhat frenzied season that left very little time for assessment at the end of the day. I set up goals like firing targets, took aim and began knocking 'em down, one after another like Annie Oakley shooting a playing card.
Looking back, I can see that my life took on tremendous inertia; a life set at 65 mph on cruise-control, barreling through the days and weeks, gobbling up the years like Pac-Man.
For many of those years, I had an almost obsessive need to memorialize every instant with a photograph or video, desperate not to let a precious moment slip through my mind-sieve like water down the drain. And thank goodness I did! I remember so little! My memories often seem to me like flies stuck to fly-paper: luckily, loosely caught.
With that said, my thirties were good to me. I enjoyed having babies and toddlers, built a stable and flexible career for myself, made a lot of wonderful friends and began learning how to be a good wife and mother. I have cultivated a life I love very much.
If my eight-year-old self could meet my 39-year-old self, she would glow with pride and joy. While slightly exhausting, my thirties have been full, fun, dizzying and colorful. Forgive me for being predictable and sentimental, but the word is blessed. I feel blessed.
If the hectic, can't-stop-won't-stop, hyperactive thirties can leave me feeling this way, who's to say my forties won't be even better? Of course, none of us knows what the future will bring – or if we will even have a future! – but all evidence so far would suggest that my life is going to continue to be richly fulfilling.
So why am I so rattled by the idea of turning 40?
For starters, I am dumbfounded by how unbelievably fast four decades have gone by. I find myself unprepared to have reached this precipice so quickly.
Furthermore, I don't want to just live; I want to live well. I don't want to miss my own life, half asleep and joyless. I want to soak in every precious second of it – the good, the bad alike – and give my whole self to the people I'm with while I'm with them.
My most peaceful, gratifying experiences over the last forty years have occurred during ordinary moments when I have been extraordinarily attentive to the people I'm with or the place I'm in, and all the thoughts and feelings taking place at that instant. But the truth is that I am distracted, self-absorbed and emotionally and mentally absent more often than I like to admit.
Also unsettling is the fact that I have very few concrete goals for the second half of my life. M.A.S.H. and "Happily Ever After" implied that we make all our most important decisions early on in our adult lives; that the latter half of life is for basking in the glow of your dream come true.
Put in your forty years of toil, and forty to sixty years of bliss will naturally follow. Voila! This isn't the case, however, and now the next forty are stretched out in front of me like a frontier, vacant and unknown. While this presents a marvelous opportunity for me to dream big and start fresh, for a Virgo planner like myself, this is foreign, uncomfortable territory.
The fact is, with age comes wisdom and with each passing year I become increasingly aware of how little control I have. Everything I love and everything I've worked for can be taken from me in a snap. My twenties and thirties were spent actively planting a garden and harvesting the fruit.
But who makes the garden grow? At the end of the day, I can water, weed, nurture (or neglect), but I'll never have the power to make fruit.
As much as I hate feeling unprepared and out of control, I'm beginning to wonder if that is exactly how I'm supposed to feel going into my forties – if that isn't, in fact, the whole point. To stop trying to control my destiny and instead allow my fear to give way to a deep and powerful surrender.
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