The New Thirty (But Even Better)

So. I’m 40 now.

As I’ve said before, I like celebrating my birthday. While I know that some people would rather ignore that date on the calendar, I’m solidly in the IT’S MY BIRTHDAY SO EVERYBODY CELEBRATE camp.

There had, of course, been our trip to Mexico this summer. I also wanted to get away with Nick so that we could commemorate the occasion, just the two of us… And so, two weeks ago, we headed to Florida for one glorious day at the Epcot Food and Wine Festival.

I’m basically still full, which doesn’t bode so well for Thanksgiving.
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Yep. I bought this ridiculous, ridiculously overpriced photo. It was worth it.

Given that I’d already gilded my lily not once but twice, I decided that I didn’t really want to do anything major on my actual birthday (this past Sunday). One of my BFFs, Sarah, and I are So You Think You Can Dance devotees; we always try to see the tour together. As luck would have it, the SYTYCD tour was coming to Buffalo on Friday night, meaning Sarah could fly up, we could catch the show, and then spend my birfday weekend in Rochester.

Ella, Annie, and I met Sarah and her son, J, at the airport, took in the show (awesome!), then drove back home — where Nick and the rest of Sarah’s family (her husband and son, Z) were waiting. We spent the next 36 hours hanging out, throwing a freakin’ awesome party for Ella (more on that later), laughing, opening the 40 presents Sarah had wrapped for me (omg), eating like foraging animals, and generally reveling in one another’s company.

After Sarah and Co. left on Sunday afternoon, the girls began begging me to open my other birthday gifts. While Nick and I sorted through everything (we’d had souvenirs and Christmas gifts sent back from Epcot, so there were a whole bunch of boxes), I noticed that there was nothing from my dad and stepmom, Meg.

This seemed really bizarre — my own dad hadn’t recognized my birthday, not even with a trinket? I tried to reason with myself that it didn’t matter – he and Meg had mailed a card and we’d FaceTimed that morning. I didn’t need things. It was just a birthday. No big deal.

HOLD THE PHONE THOUGH. ‘Cause it was a big deal. Not the presents, but the very idea that they’d essentially treated my FORTIETH(!!) BIRTHDAY like any other day was really starting to bum me out. Nick and I made our way back upstairs, boxes (but none from my very own father, thank you very much) in hand, and turned the corner to where the girls were waiting for us in the living room…

Except it wasn’t just the girls.
Seated between them on the couch were my dad and Meg.

They’d flown up from Long Island to surprise me.
Because 40? 40 is important.

I almost had a heart attack.

As I’ve watched my fellow 1975ers hit this milestone, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on what turning forty means and why it mattered so much to me. I distinctly remember my parents turning 40. For years, my childhood home held a framed copy of the invitation announcing my dad’s big day: “Lordy, Lordy, Look Who’s 40!” There were also the photographs of my mom attending “Over The Hill” birthday parties; she and her friends powdered their hair to look gray, donned old lady sweaters, and rented walkers and canes.

Forty was something. Forty was momentous.
And, to my twelve year-old brain, 40 was OLD.

Forty doesn’t seem even remotely old to me now. If anything, forty is young, maybe because it happened so freakin’ fast. In my mind’s eye, college – even high school – are just a blink away. The memories are so bright, the smells so strong, the sounds so clear, it amazes me that those days were (quite literally) more than half a lifetime ago.

I don’t miss those days, though; I rather prefer it here. Having more living beneath my feet gives me firmer ground to stand on. It’s not that I’ve left behind the person I was in my 20s and early 30s, but rather that I’ve brought her with me; together, we have worked damned hard to become who I am today.

I like me today.

At forty, the fragility and uncertainty of life are simultaneously disconcerting and empowering. I’ve had friends lose their parents, their spouses, and their children; I’ve had friends who, themselves, did not live to see 40. It’s no longer a given that tomorrow will come. But that doesn’t scare me. If anything, it’s a reminder of how important it is to make sure that the life I am living is the one I want.

By the same token, I’ve also seen people of a far more, ahem, advanced age make mind-boggling life changes. Attending college in their 80s. Riding a scooter at 94. Switching careers at 65. Getting married at 50. Finding love again after decades of thinking it was lost. Life is what we make of it; change is always possible; nothing is set in stone.

At forty, my convictions are so much stronger than before, but with one very important caveat: they can evolve at any time as soon as I gain more knowledge or see things from a new perspective. Learning is more critical to me than ever before; how else can I figure out where I stand and where I’m going if I don’t even know where I am?

At forty, I’ve finally figured out why I’m on this planet, what my mission is (not in the espionage way, although that would be really cool). The vague outline of the idea hit me out of the blue this summer and I’ve been honing in on it ever since.

I’m here to make connections.

Connections between facts and fictions. Connections between them and us, whoever that is. Connections between here and there. Connections between thoughts and actions.  Connections, most of all, between people. We are not in this alone, this whole life thing; we are meant to do it together.

It’s not easy – being honest, reaching out. It scares the heck out of me. But every time I do it – every single damn time – it feels amazing. It is the right thing to do. It’s why I’m here.

In honor of my birthday, I decided that I would do 40 random acts of kindness – one per day – leading up to Sunday. They ran the gamut, from paying for a stranger’s groceries to letting people merge ahead of me in traffic, putting “Safe Travels” notes on airplanes to donating to charities, placing flowers on windshields to leaving positive comments at the grocery store or the Y.
40 for 40 garbage
There’s a pack of Extra gum beneath the little card…
40 for 40 airplane
Attached to an airplane tray table…

40 for 40 dollar store
Left in the dollar store.

Sometimes, the RAOKs were entirely anonymous. Other times, they were anonymous but accompanied by a card (see above) identifying what was going on (while searching the internet for RAOK ideas, I came across several research articles detailing how people are more likely to spread kindness when they hear people talking about performing acts of kindness; connections, people!). And other times, I decided against using the little identification cards but looked people straight in the eye as I handed over a Starbucks gift certificate – because, every now and again, no matter how difficult or awkward it feels, that whole connecting thing is the most important and powerful part of all.

I loved the RAOKS so much, I’m kinda gonna keep doing them. Because is there ever too much kindness? No, there is not.

A couple of weeks ago, a friend shared this on Facebook:
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It got me thinking. A lot.
Is this where I want to be? If my life were the same, would I be happy? If not, then what?

I like my life now. Scratch that: I love my life now. It is a good, true, purposeful, fulfilling, enriching, invigorating, exciting, simple, joyful life. I am absurdly fortunate. For that – and for my loyal and hilarious and intelligent and good-hearted friends, for my family, for my health, for a job that challenges and strengthens me, for growing faith, for a neighborhood I’ve always dreamed of, for Nick and the girls (who make all of this, all of everything, worthwhile) – I am so tremendously grateful.

This is the life I’ve worked for. It hasn’t been easy getting here, but it’s exactly the life I want. Yeah, I’d like to lose five pounds. I still want to learn the cello. I plan to visit more of Europe and drink Sauvignon Blanc in New Zealand. And, by God, I need to get myself to bed earlier.

But, in ten years, if my life looked like it does today?
I’d be thrilled. And damned lucky.

I don’t know if this is what I thought forty would be, but I’m so very glad that it is.

I am 40. FORTY!!!! And it is good.
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Pooping On Your Unicorn

What is up with people raining on other folks’ parades?

You know what I mean. Someone goes to Facebook or Twitter or SnapChat or whatever the kids are doing these days with the specific purpose of expressing happiness or excitement.
“Just bought my first candy corn this year — my favorite!”
“Cannot WAIT for the new Avengers movie!”
“Sitting down with the second season of Orange Is The New Black. So psyched!”
“Looks like it may hit 95*. Awwww yeah! #LoveMeSomeHeat”

Then come the comments. Some – most? – agree with the post.
“I could eat my weight in candy corn!”
“The Hulk is hot!”
“Love OITNB.”
“Yassss! I’m swimming after work!”

Then there are some that neither agree nor disagree – neutral comments, if you will.
“I’m saving my candy corn until it’s October!”
“Wish I had time to see a movie.”
“Don’t have Netflix — is OITNB worth getting it?”
“It’s only gonna be 70* here!”

But then there are the from-left-field, for-no-reason, poop-on-a-unicorn comments.
“Omg. Candy corn is DISGUSTING.”
“Black Widow is the only female Avenger and she’s basically just a prop. Terrible message. No thanks.”
“Watched one episode of OITNB – absolutely hated it.”
“How can you possibly stand it that hot? #Awful”

This happens over and over and over again, and every time, I want to reach through my computer (or phone) and smack the commenter. What prompts a person to see someone being happy about something and then respond with the opposite? Why even bother? Is it to “teach a lesson”? Get a rise out of someone? Spread a little Grinch-y-ness because you’re having a crappy day? Diarrhea of the mouth? NO SERIOUSLY WTF??

Sure, the impersonal nature of the internet has something to do with it. When you’re not looking someone in the eye or having an actual conversation, it’s a lot easier to respond to joy with pissiness. I mean, can you imagine these in person?

“Holy crap! I just won tickets to see The Nutcracker! HOW AWESOME IS THAT!”
“Ballet sucks.”

“We’re headed to Chili’s since their tortilla soup is dad’s favorite. Wanna come?”
“Last time I was at Chili’s, I puked for a week. You couldn’t pay me to go.”

“These new boots are super comfy.”
“I bought those and wore them twice before I realized how ugly they are.”

You’d find new people to chill with pretty fast.
Online, though, people do this ALL THE TIME. It’s as though they see someone’s happiness and just cannot help themselves from squashing it. I HAVE AN OPINION AND BY GOD I WILL SHARE IT.

Look. I love a good online discussion or debate. I have no issue with people being honest – even if it’s contradictory or negative – when someone starts a discussion, asks for thoughts, etc. When you say, “Tell me about Burundi” or “You know you wanna FEEL THE BERN!!!” or “Considering getting a nunchuck – pros and cons?” or “What do you think about kilts?”, you’d better expect some real, non-Pollyanna answers.

I don’t even have an issue with someone jumping in and giving their two (thousand) cents when someone hasn’t asked for an opinion. I mean, presumably, everyone has chosen the people they associate with on their social media networks. It’s pretty much assumed that groups of people hanging out together – even virtually – will, like, interact. Talk. Commune.

So when someone posts a random thought, a conversation starter, a neutral observation, etc. – “Tried to work out today. Arrived at the gym and realized I’d forgotten my sneakers. #fail” – it seems to me like an opening for some give and take. Maybe there’ll be some empathy (“Been there, man. Sorry!”). Or humor (“That’s why I don’t work out!”). Or (constructive?) ideas (“Leave your keys in your sneakers as a reminder!”). And maybe there’ll be some uninvited criticism (“That’s what you get for staying up so late.”). Unless someone goes off on a rant or tangent, all seem par for the course.

The internet is a crazy place; generally, I like it there. I’m not dissing discourse or freedom of speech or expressing yourself or sharing your craptastic mood. I am dissing being a shitty friend and responding in a completely unsolicited and negative way when a pal has posted for the sole purpose of expressing joy or excitement.

What prompts this level of douche-baggery??

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My grandfather was a big fan of New York Magazine. I remember reading and re-reading (maybe we kept a copy of the magazine by the john?) a 1979 contest titled “Competition 366: 1. What you should have said, and, 2. What you did say.”
This particular honorable-mention entry has stuck with me since then.

Just today, someone I follow on Facebook posted a link to an article/video, accompanied by a heart-eyed emoji. The message was clear: I’M SHARING BECAUSE I LIKE THIS! LOVE LOVE LOVE! Most of the comments were positive (“So awesome!”) or neutral (“That guy in the background is laughing pretty hard”), but then – out of the blue – someone chimed in with, “I didn’t like this at all.”

What the ever-loving heck?? Why would anyone respond to genuine happiness by saying something completely unnecessary and negative? WHY?!?!

Okay, okaaay. If I step back, I can kind of understand.. because I used to do it, too (hides head in shame). I distinctly remember Nick finishing a college a cappella concert, eagerly bounding up to me because he and his group had just premiered a song. He looked at me with the biggest grin (I very much remember the grin) and said, “How did it go?”

My response? “The tenors were flat.”

Womp-womp.

Were the tenors flat? Yes. But why the hell I felt the need to convey that information right then, when he was so exuberant, can really only be summed up like this: I was a self-righteous jerk. Nick wasn’t coming to me in that moment to hear a freakin’ critique of the performance; he was coming to share his joy.

I HAD A LOT OF CHOICES, PEOPLE! I could have shared his joy back (“It was amazing!”). Or, if I wasn’t really feeling it, I could have said something supportive but vague (“You were totally rocking out up there!”). Or, if I couldn’t even muster that at the moment, a hug might have sufficed.

Later, when we actually sat down to dissect the concert (as we college a cappella geeks are wont to do), when he was actually looking for an honest appraisal of the set, I could have mentioned my thoughts about the tenors. But raining on his parade? Just plain mean.

I remember that moment not because of what I said, but because of how Nick’s whole body fell when he heard me – how his face crumpled and his step faltered. And I instantaneously knew that I’d been an ass. No matter how much I tried to take it back or make up for my stupidity with compliments and praise, however, the wind had been knocked from his sails; he’d been so looking forward to sharing that moment with me and I’d ruined it.

I vowed to try to be different. To not immediately chime in with the negative. To be kind instead of right. (Okay, I didn’t vow that right then — that wouldn’t come until I read Wonder with Ella and fell head-over-heels in love with the book’s central tenet: “When given the choice between being right and being kind, choose kind.” But the idea was there!)

I’ve been trying for more than twenty years.
us freshman year
Nick and me, freshman year, looking exactly like the a cappella geeks we were.

Do I get it right (har har) all the time? Oh hell no. I screw up – a lot. And each time, I know it immediately… Like when Annie proudly brought me a drawing and my first comment was how she’d used markers when she was supposed to be using crayons. Or when Ella giddily showed me her newly-pierced ears and I burst into tears because I was so upset that I hadn’t gone with her to get them pierced. Or when a friend told me she was afraid for me to read anything she posted online because she was nervous I’d correct her grammar.

Turns out? People don’t want to be judged when they’re talking to their friends; they just want to be able to talk. Go figure.

I haven’t corrected any friends’ grammar since.

So, I suppose I get it, somewhat. There are times when I just CANNOT ABIDE what someone else has said — when I am SO CONVINCED of my opinion, there’s an almost physical need to share it. But that doesn’t mean I should.

I’m not – at all – saying that we need to agree with everything our friends post online. I’m not saying you should “like” or “favorite” anything you don’t genuinely enjoy. You don’t always have to choose between the extremes of silent or supportive, either; there are absolutely times when you can say something that offers another point of view. When someone asks for advice or thoughts? Bring ’em. When someone says something neutral? Go ahead and say what you really think.

But when someone is sharing solely because they are HAPPY and EXCITED? Saying something negative or totally contradictory back is not only unnecessary; it’s mean.

For the record: I hate candy corn, I haven’t seen any of the Avengers movies, I’m excited to watch Orange Is The New Black but haven’t gotten to it yet, and if it were 95* out, I’d be crying, not cheering. But if you tell me you’re stoked for your candy corn-, Avengers-, OITNB-, sauna-filled day? I promise I won’t poop on your unicorn.

 

Sparking Joy (aka I Gots Me Some Organizing Religion)

I haven’t been around here recently nearly as much as I’ve been in the past. Part of that is due to a conscious restructuring of my time (I’m playing the piano a lot more – holla!), but part of it is because something really big has been going on that’s been taking up every not-otherwise-occupied moment of my time.

But now, it is done. It is finished and complete and the weight of the world is off my shoulders and I feel SO FREAKIN’ GOOD about it, I can finally declare it to all of the internet world:
MY HOUSE HAS BEEN DECLUTTERED. !!!!!!!!!!

What? You were expecting other momentous news?

THIS IS EXTREMELY MOMENTOUS NEWS! For the first time in – ever? – I’m actually happy with my house and what’s in it. This is big, people. Really big.

Nearly every time she’d come over for dinner (which was several times a month), my grandmother would comment on how our house was too small for us; we needed more space. And every time, we’d laugh and reassure her that we loved our house – it was plenty big for us – and as soon as we took the time to do some reorganizing and purging, it would feel much more spacious. Taking that time, however, proved elusive.

We were probably destined to go on much as we always had if not for the convergence of two things this summer: the plan to add on a mudroom and my learning about Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. The former has been a longtime dream of ours. It’s tough to live in Rochester, where snow is plentiful and mud season is long, without any kind of mudroom.

Additionally, one of the main entries into our house (and the only one that the dogs access) is directly from the garage into the kitchen – meaning that the kitchen is constantly filled with mud, leaves, dirt, etc. Add to that a general lack of storage (see: dog kennels in the dining room, Nick’s and my coats hung on the side of a kitchen cupboard…) and we’ve been itching to create a space for our coats and winter gear, the dog kennels and food, and the girls’ backpacks and school accoutrements. After speaking with an architect and drawing up some plans, we were on our way to making our dreams become reality.

In order to do so, we knew we’d have to make some changes. Specifically, the stuff in the garage would need to be stored somewhere during the construction – ideally inside – meaning we had to have space to hold it. Thus, the first bit of inspiration: in order to make space, we should probably, like, get rid of some of our current stuff. Simultaneously this summer, we were unexpectedly the recipients of some furniture from my grandma’s apartment, so we had to make room for new (to us) couches, too – which involved a lot of shifting our current furniture around and getting rid of other pieces.

This might have gone off fairly smoothly and quickly had it not been for the second bit of inspiration: the book. Three different people, on three separate occasions, mentioned to me that they had read Ms. Kondo’s book – which (I’m paraphrasing here ever so slightly) instructs folks to go through all of the items in their house in a particular order and keep only the things which “spark joy.” Each of these three friends said that this advice was, indeed, life-changing, and that they loved what this particular style of decluttering had brought to their lives.
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Exhibit A: the area underneath the fish tank that had been used to store games.

decluttering games
Exhibits B and C: games now stored on bookshelf (books previously on shelf = donated), shelves and storage bins beneath fish tank for cold weather gear, school supplies, etc.
decluttering fishtank

I didn’t then have a copy of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (my mom gave me one a couple of weeks ago – yay!), but my friends spoke so highly of it, I spent a lot of time with my boyfriend, Google, trying to determine whether or not the KonMari method might work for me. I read articles, listened to interviews with Ms. Kondo, and watched countless YouTube videos on her clothing-folding method (yes, there’s a method. And many, many videos… the internet is a strange place, y’all). As I did my research (so official, no?), I came to the conclusion that I could totally get behind her approach. BRING IT ON.
decluttering drawer
New folding method. Not sure how long this will last; check back in a month.

And so, while we emptied out corners of the house to hold the stuff from our garage and rearranged furniture and replaced old carpeting with laminate flooring, I made a conscious effort to approach each reorganization and clean-out using (what I hope is) Marie Kondo’s plan.

Which means I went through everything in our house. No, I mean Every. Single. Thing*. I opened every drawer, every closet, every cupboard and took out every single item, held it in my hands, and determined whether or not it brought me enough joy to keep it. Every baking dish, every linen napkin, every bottle of nail polish, every board game, every mitten, every ornament. EVERY. THING. If the items made me happy (photographs) or were useful/necessary (staplers, Spanx), I kept them. If they didn’t fit those criteria, they were donated or trashed.
*except the things in the girls’ rooms. It’s crazy up in there, yo. That’s on them.

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Found these in the bookshelf. THIS WAS LIFE BEFORE GOOGLE. Good grief.

It took nearly six weeks, but it happened. One day, the kitchen cabinets and the area under the sink. Another, the drawers and cupboards in the girls’ bathrooms. The dining room hutch. The living room shelves. The front hall closet. Lastly came the basement, which held storage-y things like decorations and tools, but also the part that, according to Ms. Kondo, would be the hardest: memories. Photos and love letters and the boxes of my childhood mementos containing everything from first grade report cards to every single notebook and paper from every single class I took in college; EVERY SINGLE CLASS WTF.

It was the simple concept of Sparking Joy that made the clean-out process both easy and relieving. I hadn’t known just how many things I’d saved over the years because I thought I should — unused gifts from extremely kind and good-hearted friends, expensive kitchen gadgets that I’d felt guilty ditching, clothes that had made me smile but didn’t anymore. Once I realized that they were no longer making me happy but that they’d served their purpose (I loved remembering how wonderful it felt receiving the gifts, being thought of in such a sweet way; how excited I’d been for the kitchen tools, etc.), I felt completely comfortable in letting go of more stuff than I’d imagined possible. The same, surprisingly, went for my childhood mementos. (Full disclosure: I kept all of our photographs, every last one. They still spark joy.)

decluttering cassettes
Also kept: these, from my original cassette collection. 
Forget sparking joy; these are ON FIRE.

Taking up more space than anything else were my teaching boxes. If you’ve ever lived with a teacher, you know how much stuff we accumulate. Resources, ideas, professional development certificates, letters from former students and parents. It spanned my days as a K-8 music teacher, 5-6 homeroom teacher, 2nd grade teacher, and middle school music teacher — eleven years of papers, tests, quizzes, syllabi, transparencies, lesson plans, IEPs, meetings, goals, comic strips, and communications.

And that doesn’t touch on the textbooks, lesson books, planning books, references, gradebooks, three-ring binders, CDs, cassettes, office supplies, classroom posters (my favorite: “You can’t scare me. I teach.”), decorations, or hats (yes, an entire box of dress-up hats; teaching elementary music, these are essential, I tell you). Basically, when you’re a teacher, you need to assign an entire room of your house to hold all of your materials.

Once I finally accepted that, in all likelihood, I’d never be a regular classroom teacher again, I saved the music-related things (a good 10 boxes’ worth) but ditched the rest; it took a full Bagster dumpster to hold it all. Still-relevant resources were added to our donation pile, which took up half of our garage. When the day came to donate it to our school district’s annual second-hand sale, we wound up renting a U-Haul to hold everything.

There’s, like, an entire house’s worth in here!decluttering garage2
decluttering garage3 Steering this thing was not easy.decluttering garage uhaul2

It’s hard to describe the almost manic drive I felt to complete this project. For six weeks, it was all but an obsession; every spare moment that could have been spent on other things (like, um, writing) was devoted to going through the house. It was a completely consuming task… but in the end? Fabulous!

Above kitchen desk – beforedecluttering kitchen

Above kitchen desk: after
Because I actually made space in the cupboards (by ditching non-sparky things) to store the gift bags and tissue paper and boxes of cards. OH YES I DID.
decluttering desk

For the first time, every item in the house belongs there. Every room, every space, feels comfortable, joyful, clean. This isn’t (at all) to say that we no longer have stuff – we do – but the stuff we have is purposeful and meaningful. Plus now I have more time to write!

The one downside to this is that the house is so decluttered, when our awesome housecleaner comes, no one* notices.
NEVER THOUGHT I’D SAY THAT.

(*I notice. She is amazing.)

The mudroom project has hit a snag so we don’t know when/if it might be completed, but in the meantime, the house is a happy, cleaner place to be. My only regret is that my grandma never got to see it like this… But I’m confident that, somehow, she knows.