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.
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.
There’s a pack of Extra gum beneath the little card…
Attached to an airplane tray table…
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.
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.