Turning Forty Feels Like Preparing For Mid-Terms

It was late afternoon in June of 2020, a sunny day feeling like the beginning of summer. A breeze washed over me as I walked down our street. In these months of quarantine, any time I got out of the house felt like a hard won victory. I pulled out my phone and called my old friend Scott. He answered. 

“How’s your midlife crisis coming along?” he asked.

I was working on a memoir story about the time I worked as a summer camp counselor. I had some journal entries from that time but a lot of gaps that I was having to fill in from memory. It was a thrilling experiment, like piecing together a puzzle about my past. I was hungry for more- I wanted to keep digging into old journals, type them up, shape them into stories. It was the perfect escape from my life, which had become incredibly difficult since covid forced us all into lockdown. I lost my job, my Cosmetology school closed, and Mina’s school closed, which meant after six months of finally having a life independent from my daughter, I was suddenly back to being a stay at home mom, indefinitely. None of us knew how long this quarantine would last. 

Writing these stories gave me a way to sink back into a time when I was free, young, and wild, with no responsibilities. I had confessed to Scott that I felt conflicted about these urges to flee into my past, knowing that it could be an unhealthy impulse, but at times it felt necessary, like studying for a test. 

“Well, I’ve decided I don’t want to call it a midlife crisis,” I answered. “I’m thinking of it more like a midterm review.” 

I’m turning 40 in a couple weeks. The closer I get to turning 40, the more that feels true. It’s a time in your life that begs you to pause and take stock of where you’ve been, and sketch out a rough outline for what comes next. Many people mention how turning 40 forces you to take into account your own mortality- you can no longer pretend that you will live forever. 

The term “middle-aged” gets a bad rap, but it’s ultimately an optimistic term. If you’re lucky enough to make it to 40, it is a huge privilege to be able to claim, more or less confidently, “I’m halfway done.” That’s a lot of time left, really. But also not. Because your time is clearly finite, it begs you to focus. The world is not a wide open wonderland as much as it was in your 20’s. You’re more realistic about what you may or may not get around to doing. 

There is a huge span between age 30 and 40. I look back to when I turned 30 and I was still a fresh-faced youngster. I had been married for three years and I was two years away from having a baby. I was still dabbling, the way you do in your 20’s, with careers and jobs and goals, not quite sure where I was headed. I was happy and naive, privileged enough to be mostly ignorant of the world’s problems. I lived in Portland, a safe bubble of liberal hipsters biking to parks and karaoke bars and coffee shops. I worked at a cheese counter and interned at an arts and culture website and took creative writing classes at PSU. Life felt promising but at the same time, kind of aimless. 

I wanted my 30th birthday to feel special, so I booked two nights at a modest hotel on the coast for me and Benny. I thought it would be nice to be at the beach, not realizing that May on the Oregon coast can be pretty stormy. I pictured us lounging in the sand, soaking up the sun, but we spent much of the trip in our hotel room watching old VHS movies that we rented from the hotel front desk as it rained heavily outside. It felt a bit depressing and anticlimactic. I hadn’t previously felt upset about turning 30 but there was a moment when I was falling asleep on the night of my birthday and I felt a sudden piercing in my heart- “Oh, my twenties!!” I momentarily felt the loss, the grief of moving beyond that treasured decade. 

Just a day at the beach

Since turning 30 a lot has happened. Benny and I had a baby, we bought a house. I changed careers in the middle of a pandemic. We’ve gone on trips, celebrated holidays, cooked a thousand dinners, sang a thousand songs, read a thousand books, drew a thousand pictures. We’ve had park picnics and play dates, petted cats, hiked to waterfalls, swam in rivers, had arguments, had tedious discussions about schedules and taxes and finances. I wrote and self published a book. Benny and I have learned how to be parents, how to be partners, how to be grown ups. 

As full and rich as life is, though, I’m ashamed to admit that for me, my 30’s has been defined by its deficiencies. Ever since becoming a mom, I’ve been so hungry- ravenous for my own time, my own space. I am constantly seeing my life through a filter of what I’m lacking. Much of my time has been spent strategizing ways to create more boundaries around myself, constructing a moat so that I can choose when the drawbridge is lowered. To people who don’t need a lot of alone time it may be hard to understand, but for me it is a constant struggle to try to get what I need so that I can be a balanced, functional person. When I look back on my 30’s what I see first and foremost is a creative, independent woman denying her own needs repeatedly, consistently, for the good of her family, and for the sake of her grown up responsibilities. 

Obviously it’s not that one sided or I never would have written a book, gone to hair school, made 100 collages, taken walks alone, and done dozens of other things that I did for just me. But when I zoom out and take a long distance view of the past decade, that hunger is so pervasive and glaring that it’s hard to see around it. 

But here’s what’s next- we’re selling our house, the house where we’ve lived for 7 years. I’ve never felt completely at home here, in this three story townhouse with no yard and a sad dark little patio. It was a house that made sense at the time, it was a practical choice, and in many ways it’s worked out for us. But I want to live in a house that feels right. I want to come home and feel happy to walk through the rooms, and wander through our yard and pluck wild mint leaves and put them in my mouth as I weed the garden. I want a house that feels like an extension of myself, a house that feels satisfying to clean, that is welcoming for friends and family. I want to live in a house that I’m not always trying to escape. I want to sink into my domestic roles and not resent them because I’m getting what I need in other aspects of my life. Mostly I just want to enjoy life again. 

Driving home from work last night I was listening to an episode of Pete Holmes’ podcast “You Made It Weird.” He had a segment where he paid tribute to the comedian and actor Louie Anderson who had died, by replaying an excerpt of an interview he did with Louie a while back. Louie was earnest and tearful and he told Pete, “Make the best of this and stop all your bullshit, as fast as you can. Because if you don’t, you are robbing yourself of… life. And I only learned it from loss. When I just lost so many people. I wish I would’ve enjoyed that more. And I think people, they wait too long, I don’t think you plan on waiting too long. I think you just do it, because I think you think it’s endless. Time. But it’s finite. And I don’t think we understand finite, except for that very moment we lose someone who’s spiritually connected to us. So, stop all your bullshit. I say it, it’s impossible to live it. But you can try.”

Then Pete talked about when he and his wife used to say, “Let’s get married, someday. Let’s have kids someday.” But they realized how silly that was, to prolong what they wanted, to act as if they had control over time. 

Louie said, “Well, why don’t you two just say, ‘we are married.’ And why don’t you just be married. You know, to be

“I mean, I agree with you. I think that you want, you need. You desire. But you already have it all.”

You already have it all. 

What if I chose to see my life through this lens, instead of the lens I had been seeing through, which was focusing on my hunger, the places in my life that were lacking. It reminded me of something a high school teacher had said once, that stuck with me- every so often, say to yourself, “This is the best it will ever be.” Every time I remember to think that a cool thing happens- it solidifies the present moment and puts it on a pedestal in a way that elevates even the flaws, the challenges, the deficiencies, the anguish of any given day and encourages me to remember, “Oh, that’s right. I am lucky to have anything at all, even the less desirable aspects of life. This messy transition, this confusion and growth and struggle IS LIFE and don’t discount it, don’t look away, let it be right there on the pedestal with everything else. You think your life will be better if this happens, if that happens- you don’t know that it will be better. Let this day, this moment, be it. Let it be the best it will ever be. (Mind you, this phrase may not work for everyone. If you’re having the shittiest day ever, thinking “this is the best it will ever be” might not be helpful. But for me, it usually works.)

So I got home, Benny was making breakfast tacos for dinner. He, Mina, and I scarfed them all down and told each other about our days. After dinner Benny put on Sharon Von Etten’s new album and started the dishes and I cleaned the cat box. Then I was about to head upstairs to start Mina’s bath so we could get that done early and watch The Great Pottery Throwdown, which is a British ceramics competition show we all love. But as I came out of the bathroom I saw Mina doing a strange, slow, goofy dance to the music. The song was plaintive and dramatic and Mina’s dancing was a combination of feeling the mournful quality of the music and also making fun of it at the same time. I had to join her, and we moved our bodies in awkward, slumpy, noodly movements and contorted our facial features into ridiculous arrangements. I thought if Benny saw us he might think we were making fun of his beloved Sharon Von Etten but he came over and started dancing too, hunching his shoulders and shuffling his feet, doing a hilarious scooping motion with the measuring cup he held in his hand. 

I couldn’t help feeling like, if I hadn’t been listening to that podcast, I would’ve been in a hurry to rush upstairs and get the bath started so that we could watch the show so that I could get Mina to bed so that I could have an hour to myself before falling asleep. But in that moment I allowed myself to hold out my hands and feel the weight of all my treasures- my home, my job, my health, breath, food, music, anticipation, desire, transition, and most of all this, my loving, wild, flawed, beautiful, ridiculous family. 

I already have it all. 

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