I haven’t been 39 for a day and already I’m realizing that next year I’ll turn 40. And before you lay into me about 40 being the new 30, you’re only as young as you feel, and all that jazz, I ask that you please slow your roll because 40 is a big fucking deal. Although I spent much of my childhood wearing the mask of an adult, I remember reacting to the thought of being thirty. That’s old, I said. When you’re small you can’t imagine counting an age beyond your ten fingers. And then something in you changes, the shift is nearly imperceptible, and you suddenly find yourself attaching fractions to your age. You pine for sixteen, eighteen and twenty-one. Perhaps you think the world will reveal itself to you in degrees, because why else would you be so desperate to shed being one of the innocent?
I spent the day alone with my best friend’s daughter once. There was an emergency one Christmas morning–my friend’s son woke vomiting blood, the walls were a massacre of red–and I played with a small girl who was baffled over the fact that I abhor pink (god, what a heinous color!). While I wasn’t a girly girl, I was creative, and I made for a suitable playmate when she wanted to build imaginary sets for the plays we’d co-written. I marveled over her curiosity, and while we watched episodes of Strawberry Shortcake in what felt like an endless loop, I remember smoothing her hair, wanting for her to be young for as long as she possibly could, because children architect these magical worlds that adults find ways to ruin.
Everything for children is a first, whereas adults know too much. We’ve seen things that make us want to press our eyes shut and rewind the tape. Take us back before 21, 18, 16. We want it all back. We want our world small, simple, with only our friends and family in it. I had to write a scene last night about a woman who’s taken up permanent residence in a dark country and she struggles to remember what pure, unadulterated happiness was like. That first spring. The rain of leaves. The light that broke through the trees. Bare feet swaying on a car dashboard. Witnessing a stranger kneel down and pray for the first time. I had a really hard time writing this scene because those moments felt too simplistic, ridiculous and I’ve tainted them with everything that comes after. I can’t only keep the beauty in the frame without ushering in the ugliness, the cruelty, hate, violence and fear that we’ve come to know, in degrees, as the years stumble over one another. Feeling like a sophist I let the page cool, and I hope I can return to the story with something different. Who knows. Maybe I’ll play Strawberry Shortcake episodes to get me in the mood.
From where I sit now, the world is different. I read an article about how little one can change after they’ve turned 30, and contrary to what the author posits, I can’t even conceive how much I’ve changed in a span of 10 years. Or perhaps I’ve shed layers of skin to reveal what was always there–I can’t decide which. In ten years, I got sober, fell out of faith with a god I once worshipped (I’m spiritual, but no longer believe in a god or the binary confines of heaven and hell), discarded the need for materialistic trappings and unguided ambition, fell in love with my body after struggling with it since childhood (and realizing, much like many women my age, that I was beautiful then–why couldn’t I have seen me then as I see me now?), focused on quality over quantity in all aspects of my life, took comfort in the fact that while I don’t want to be a mother in the traditional sense of the word, I find I can be maternal in other ways, softened my view of my mother, which went from a deep, voracious hate to a sorrow, a certain kind of sadness. A few other things I’ve learned (ack! I’m entering the list terrority, something I’ve long admonished, but whatever, I’m riding on a sugar high from eating copious amounts of homemade fruit bars):
1. You start to remember everything you’ve read: When I was at Columbia getting my Master’s, I took a class, “Poets on Poets,” and I can’t tell you how intimidating it was to hear professors and guest lecturers quote other writers and their works as if it were nothing, as if the knowledge were simply stored in this imaginary memory bank set loose onto the world when deemed necessary. My feelings of awe soon shifted to annoyance over what I thought to be pretension. Rolling my eyes I thought, if someone quotes Susan Sontag one more fucking time, until I became the person who reads and quotes from Susan Sontag and Joan Didion. I’ve read countless books, but as I grow older I realize that some of them have lingered, left their indelible mark, and I find myself quietly returning to them to ferret out new meaning. It’s sort of like going back to the familiar and taking comfort that this is a place you’ve navigated before. And I’ve got just the Susan Sontag quote for this, people!!!
In all of this, I am assuming a certain idea of literature, of a very exalted kind. I’m using the word “writer” to mean someone who creates, or tries to create, literature. And by “literature” I mean — again, very crude definition — books that will really last, books that will be read a hundred years from now.
2. Not everyone will love or like you, and this is okay: Years back, a slew of catty book bloggers wrote some very unkind words about me online and I was DEVASTATED. This was before the advent of GOMI and other forums where people talk smack about other people–this was 2006 and I remember my face getting hot and how I cried about people who were so fucking mean. I wanted so desperately to be popular, to be liked, and the fact that there were people in this world who think I’m shit was hard to deal with. Now I don’t care. Admittedly, I’m a hard person to know and I’m flawed, but what matters to me are how I, and those whom I respect and love, feel about me. Everything else is superfluous, peripheral noise that I tune out.
That’s not to say that I don’t listen to criticism or constructive feedback. One has to in order to grow as a person and artist, and if someone cares enough to give me feedback in a way that’s meant to take me to a better place, I think, why not listen? It’s always worth listening to, and identifying what part (s) of, feedback resonate. I had a mentor, whom I adore, who would always pull me into his office to give me feedback on how I was managing staff. He once told me that I wore my emotions on my sleeve entirely too much, and a good leader has to be like a parent–almost always calm, always in solutions mode–and this shit was hard to hear. I was defensive and kind of bitchy, but then I realized that this person didn’t have to take the time out of his day to make me a better leader. And when I refined certain aspects of my character did I find that he was right. Sometimes you need to hear hard truths in order to become better, smarter, stronger.
3. I don’t have FOMO because I’d almost always rather be at home: This coming from someone who was once known as the “mayor”! I threw grand parties, attended them, was always double-booked, and grew miserable as a result. I didn’t realize I was an introvert living an extrovert lifestyle, and I’d often get wasted just to get through making the rounds at a party or I existed in a perpetual state of exhaustion. As I grew older I realized I didn’t need to be everywhere and do everything. I needed to have quality moments with people I admire, respect and love. Which leads me to…
4. I have a circle of ten and that’s about it: Chalk it up to unpopularity all throughout high school, but I used to be consumed with having SO.MANY.FRIENDS. Now I don’t have the time or energy for volume. I have a solid crew of less than ten friends for whom I’d lay down my life. These are a mix of women I’ve known for the greater part of my adult life–friends who saw me through addiction and relapse and knew me when I was a lesser person but stuck around because they saw the potential for me to change–and women with whom I’ve gotten incredibly close in the past few years. And while I may not see most of them as often as I’d like (some are mothers, one lives in Connecticut), when I do see them it’s as if we’ve picked up the conversation exactly where we’d left off.
My friends are strong, brilliant, beautiful, remarkable, tough, and don’t necessarily hold my social, economic and political views. Over the years I’ve learned about the importance of being taught by others. I’ve a close friend who’s a staunch Republican, and while it’s challenging to know that we don’t share the same opinions on how we want this country run, I’ve learned a great deal from her: how it’s important to understand your opponent and not simply ignore them, how we have to find some common ground if we want change. That there is some truth to what we both believe in, and it’s about how we can meld those truths into the greater good.
What I’ve also learned? I’ve become suspicious of women who don’t have long-term close girlfriends. I’ve also learned that it’s okay to have quarterly friends–people whom I like and admire, but I don’t have to see them every day.
5. I’ve been more socially active than I’ve ever been in my life: In college, we were told that we were the apathetic generation. Gen X didn’t care about anything. We were a-political, fatalistic. And for many years I didn’t care about geopolitics and didn’t advocate as loudly as I could have for the things I believe in. Now, all of it matters more than it ever did. Now, I can’t shut up about feminism, gay rights, racism, the fact that the U.S. isn’t morally superior because we apparently have no qualms about raping and murdering our own citizens. Now, I can’t stop reading about the politics in other countries. I can’t stop finding new sources to read. After Ferguson, I realized how “white” my news was, and I made it a point to find different sources. I made a point to be uncomfortably comfortable, which leads me to…
6. Travel is a huge part of my life: There are people who have the means to travel but don’t even have a passport and I don’t understand it. It’s as if the U.S. is enough. And it’s not, at all. It was only through traveling the world did I begin to see it differently. I’d been exposed to cultures I read about through the veil of an Anglo-Saxon or Americanized point of view. I’ve traveled to countries that aren’t necessarily “safe.” I’ve stood in streets watching anti-American rallies. You learn through context, and I feel as if I have a more complex view of America from having traveled outside of it. This year I went to Korea, Thailand, India, Spain, Ireland, and I have so much to see, so many places to go.
7. I let shit go: This is hard for a type-A control freak, but there are just some people, situations and events I’ll never be able to change and I have to accept that. I have to make a certain kind of peace with so much that exists beyond my reach. But this has taken an extraordinary amount of time and self-reflection. It’s only until recently that I’ve let go of the fact that I spent nearly four years of my life working for a man I didn’t like much less respect. Now, I try to learn from the things I can’t control. That, I think, is the greatest change I’ve seen in my life–that it’s imperative that I not stop learning. That I not be complacent. That I not simply exist to be constantly comfortable. That I not be changeless. That I not be open to change. That I not be receptive to criticism.
It never is what you want it to be, and that’s okay. It can be something else entirely.
This is the thing I hate about lists–they never fully encapsulate the whole of everything, or any one thing. However, if I look at the woman I was at 16, 18, 21, and now, I can say that I’m calmer, quieter, kinder, and less insecure. The threadline through all of the years, I realized yesterday, is my writing. I’ve spent the greater part of this year wondering what it is I plan on doing with my life, and then it occurred to me that I only want to write. The writing can take different shape and form, but it’s the only thing that gives me shelter. It’s the one thing to which I can return and it never fails to challenge or excite me.
So maybe that’s what I’ve learned at 39, the year before I turn 40? I want to write, always.