[This was a message to my dearest friends and family that I sent on my 40th birthday last year.]
The Spanish have a different take on birthday celebrations. Birthdays are fairly low-key affairs, and – either in addition to, or in lieu of, receiving gifts – the person marking her birthday often bestows small gifts to family and friends. Milestone birthdays that generate great attention in other cultures pass without the same sort of fanfare. At 40, you might gather your near and dear for a meal or drinks, but you would definitely pick up the tab. I love that idea, for all that it conveys about how we should mark our journey across this life. So while I cannot sit around a table with all of you today, I send you the following thoughts as an inadequate token of gratitude.
I’d be a rich woman if I had a dollar for every person who has told me in recent months and weeks that “forty is the new thirty.” Some cite to analysis from those who track historical trends and the data on changes in life expectancy. Others have deduced it from the fact that so many of us from the Class of ’89, or ’93 – the 1971 babies – just took a hell of a lot longer to reach the benchmarks of adulthood. For the most part, our 40’s do look a lot more like our parents’ 30’s, and we have the student debt, ghosts of failed relationships, and travel albums to show for it.
I get the reasoning, but after mulling it over, I don’t think I buy it. Forty is forty, and with my forty-year-old wisdom I can state with firm conviction that not much good comes of denying things. I won’t go so far as to say, as I’ve also heard oft-repeated lately, “I wouldn’t take my thirties back even if I could! It’s so much better to be forty because….” The truth is that I would gladly reclaim some of the energy, naiveté, and skin elasticity that I’ve lost in the last decade. I would delight in reliving my wedding day, and the days that I met my children (though maybe we could cut to the credits, the dreamy montage where they’re all cleaned up and snuggling in my arms), and some less profound but undeniably wonderful moments: the U2 show in Philly; the entire 2004 baseball playoffs; laying like a beached whale under the cherry blossoms in 2007 and dreaming of the daughter who would come just days later. And I have loved celebrating your joys as well, be it cheering at your weddings and anniversaries and graduations, or holding your newborns, or marking your accomplishments with pride.
Lest I stray toward revisionist history, though, I am more than content to leave much behind. I spent my thirtieth birthday realizing the guy handing you a pen as your gift isn’t going to be The One. I spent the next few years sabotaging my own happiness. For every triumph, I wince at a remembered failure. For every peal of laughter, I can also summon a memory of loneliness, confusion, frustration. I have watched people I love struggle through illness and pain. Having babies brought me to pits of despair before the ecstasy of becoming a mother. And being a mother certainly has taken me on a few return visits to the pits of despair. So many times I have fallen on my face, dropped the ball, and taken my eye off of the horizon. There was the sleeping in my car incident on my 35th. Yes, there is much that I happily relinquish to history, grateful that social media didn’t exist to enshrine it forever.
So, forty it is. It’s a number imbued with spiritual heft. Forty days and nights in the flood. Forty years of the Israelites wandering in the desert. Forty days from resurrection to ascension. Forty weeks in the womb. I don’t know who decided upon that number to represent the essence of struggle, the journey to redemption, the fulfillment of promises. But it speaks to me now, having little choice but to embrace the matter, and I’ve decided to draw from those examples and to try to make my own forty about the power of patience. We are always moving forward, whether we choose it or realize it or accept it or fight it. I want to accept it, and I want my only compelling sense of urgency to be to try to shape a better world to leave for Devan and Kian, for Dylan, Kyle, and Lindsey, and for Nikhil, for Joseph and Curtis, and Leah and Jonah, and Charlotte and Juliet, for Shaan and Navin, and Norah and Josephine, and Jack, Davis, Kate and Caroline, for Emmett and Henry. I want desperately to pick my head up from the daily toil, the all-too-easy nag or gripe or grudge. In this I ask all of you for help.
But this started as a thank you, and that is truly what it is. You have all in some way shaped me – created me, really – and made these four decades the time that flies when you’re having fun. You have forgiven me for mistakes big and small. You have graced me by having a long memory for my successes and amnesia for the less-than-successes. You have made me laugh at the moments when I’m on the brink. In some 14,600 spins on the earth, and 40 trips around the sun, we are all bound to get a little wobbly. But as Bono so artfully borrowed from Psalm 40, you set my feet upon a rock, and made my footsteps firm.
All my love,