On Tuesday, December 19th I am going to be 40. Forty. That seems huge. That seems monumental. And I’m sorry, bear with me, but I feel an Oprah moment coming on wherin I wax all philler-soft-ical and stuff:
The day itself, I am pretty sure, is going to pass in a festive flurry of holiday preparation. There is nothing grand planned beyond taking Finny J. in for her regular chiropractic visit, last minute Christmas shopping, laundry, and take-out tempura for dinner. I am looking forward to visiting my favourite florist and splurging on all manner of fresh blooms and greens. The best moments of that day, I’m sure, will be devoted to flower arranging which if I thought about it for three minutes, would definitely make my list of top five things to do along with walking with my dog, laughing with my husband, eating choocolate and painting. Oh, and soaking in the bathtub. Hopefully there will be time to do all those things too (well, the bathing and the dog walking and the chocolate eating for sure!).
My parents arrive for the holidays the next day and I’ve been hurriedly preparing for that event. Our house renovation (really more like rejuvenation than renovation as no walls were removed or bathrooms added or anything) kicked into gear big time in the last few weeks and now it is almost done. Finishing touches, a new set of towels, art hung in place… that’s all that remains to be done now. It’s feeling comfortable, together, grown-up-ish and yet not too stuffy.
It’s funny how people react when they find out you’re about to turn forty. They kind of step away and eye you warily for signs you’re about to go postal or burst into tears or sign up for a reality teevee series or strip naked on the spot or burst into flame or something. They handle you like you are both dangerous and fragile, gingerly as if you were a flask of nitro glycerin.
But the thing is, I’m feeling pretty wonderful about it. No, honestly! I feel sort of radiantly peaceful about it all. Granted, I haven’t had a whole lot of time to think about it in recent days and even less time to write about it, but I did plenty of ruminating on it earlier this month and yes… I feel good. I feel grateful, I feel … dare I say it?… kind of joyful about it. Even though forty is not what I thought it would be.
I guess I always thought it would feel different. That it would feel … I dunno. More serious, more controlled. I thought I would have greater “power” and wisdom. I guess I thought it would look more conventional than it actually does, more accomplished and polished and together. I think I thought it would look more confident.
But the thing I’ve been thinking the past couple of weeks is that I AM confident. I AM powerful. I AM accomplished. It’s just not in a “woman in control of her stock portfolio and the boardroom” kind of way. It’s a quieter, but stronger and deeper kind of confidence. I know who I am now. I know what I have to offer. I know what I have to give. I know my strengths and my weaknesses. And most importantly, I know how to be happy and I know that happiness comes from inside yourself and from nothing else. The way I see it now, happiness is a choice you make. It’s not just something that falls into your lap, it’s something you have to reach for and grab on to with both hands. And something you have to hang on to with white knuckled determination.
The trick, I think, is learning how to recognize it in the first place. That’s the hard part. Because it doesn’t always look or feel like you think it would. It’s not all spangly and day-glo orange. It doesn’t surround itself with little throbby cartoon hearts and roses and illuminated flashing signs. It’s quieter, softer, barely a color.
It’s not the stock portfolio or the immaculately decorated house or the perfect wardrobe or spectacular resume or any of that. It’s about acorns and seashells and loving doggie snuffles and feeling the tranquility, the strength of nature. It’s about recognizing the wonder of the world around you everyday and recognizing in yourself what you can control and trying to let go of what you can’t. It’s about acceptance of yourself and others. It’s about knowing when to give of yourself and when to hold back. It’s about recognizing that it’s all about the journey and not about the arrival.
I think I’m a happy person by nature, but there have been many a “lost” year when I forgot that. But somehow, I’ve found that person again. I’m getting better and better at being able to tap into that hidden reservoir, even when life on the outside is less than optimal. I’m getting better at learning how to move and sway with the ebb and flow of living. Not that I’ve mastered it completely… or even at all. Believe me, even though I tend to present my sunniest face here, I do have moments of grim anxiety, overwhelming feelings of inadequacy and ennui, waves of fear and self pity and black, black days, just like every one else. But I’m learning how to stand strong when those currents attempt to overtake me.
When we went to see the Dalai Lama speak a couple of years ago, one of the audience members asked him (during the Q & A) whether or not he ever gets sad, or angry or fed up with it all. And he replied, yes, of course. He is not perfect, he is human and he has all the same emotions that everyone else has. But he also said that at those times he tries to remember the world is a deep blue ocean. A storm kicks up, but it only ripples the surface. The depths are still, calm, untouched.
I think that 40 means that I am beginning to understand that a teensy bit and I feel grateful for that. It’s knowledge that some come to much sooner, but it’s knowledge that others never get at all.
I’m not generally someone who is very good at looking back. I get nostalgic for my childhood from time to time, but largely I have a way of compartmentalizing my past and honestly? The future is always more important to me. This is a plus sometimes in that I don’t get caught up in the cycles I’ve seen other people get caught up in where they are reliving their glory years or bemoaning the loss of them. But sometimes it’s not such a good thing in that I don’t remember the lessons I’ve learned from one day to the next or recognize the landmarks either, the markers along the trail, the rings in my tree stump. Of course, mostly I am striving to learn how to live in the present, but as I look at 40 and I think about the future, I realize that while I’m really excellent at dreaming about the future and how much shinier it’s going to be than today, I’m not really great at PLANNING for the future. So on Tuesday, I will steal a moment and sit quietly and write down a list of things I’m looking forward to in the next 40 years.
Bring it on!
P.S. In recent years, I have also learned how to appreciate good lighting, slightly blurry pictures of myself and the youthful allure of the color pink a lot more two. I suspect this is gonna be a continuing trend. It’s only a matter of months before I’m applying liberal dabs of vaseline to any camera lens aimed in my direction.
Yesterday evening at the grocery store, there was a little boy, about 7 or so, standing in line behind me, trying to wrestle a big orange box of Tide up on the conveyor belt.
“Chrissy is really good at imaginating, ” he said to his mother, following the remark with a great grunt of effort as he managed to heave the box onto the counter.
“Chrissy is good at what?” his mother asked. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see her brow furrowing as she tried to puzzle out what he was saying.
“Chrissy is really good at imaginating,” he repeated again.
“Chrissy is really good at imaginating,” he repeated a third time, with no trace of the annoyance I was anticipating.
There was a pause and I turned to glance at her and saw that her face was still a mass of baffle. “Imagining! Imagining!” I silent screamed at her, trying to communicate myself telepathically. “Chrissy is good at imagining!” I got it the first time, why couldn’t she?!
“oh,” light dawning. “You mean Chrissy has a good imagination.”
I swear I felt the little guy’s relief shimmer right off him, like heat off the back of a refrigerator.
“Yeah,” he said.
The thing is I personally prefer “Imaginating.” It seems so much more authentic.
I’ve been ruminating on this little exchange ever since. Is it just me or does it seem like an odd thing for a child to observe about a playmate? Do kids really notice those kinds of qualities in other kids? I mean, it’s been a long long time since I was a kid, but the way I recall it, I just sort of assumed that every kid was good at imaginating and that it was hardly a trait that I would single out in another. Granted, I was always pretty good at imaginating too, so maybe it’s just the way I viewed the world. Or maybe he had overheard a teacher congratulating Chrissy on her good imagination and thought that it was a grown up thing to say and so he was trying it out on mom.
And then I got to thinking all about imagination and how fabulous it really, really is and how nice it would be if everyone had one as brilliant and remarkable as Chrissy’s. And then I started thinking about what to have for dinner, and I totally lost that particular train of thought.
But it came back to me this morning while I was out walking Finny J.
I was listening to the rain tapping on my hood, weaving between these narrow saplings in a place I call “the horseshoe”, looking for deer, when I started pretending I was an old man with a long white beard and an elaborately carved walking stick who was wandering the woods looking for inspiration. It was part of his (my) daily routine… he would spend hours out there, wandering with his Great White Pyrenees mountain dog, Bo (Finny J.’s alter ego for the sake of this particular pretend) and all the creatures of the forest knew him by scent and the sound of his shuffle and would come out to visit, the deer and the birds taking seeds from his palm (he carried a special pouch tied to his belt just for this purpose) and while they fed he would quietly stroke their heads and memorize their every feature and later, in the evening, in front of a roaring fire with Bo at his feet, he would carve exquisite likenesses remarkable in their expression and romantic accuracy and find a special place for them in his little stone cottage with the thatched roof and the perfect curl of smoke coming out the chimney.
I was pretending so hard that I could tell you exactly what he smelled like (like wool and pine boughs with a faint whiff of campfire lying underneath) and what his favorite meal was (old fashioned Irish steel cut oatmeal with dried blueberries and walnuts on top) and how he was mute and yet could whistle any bird call with absolutely amazing recall. And then a twig snapped and I looked up in time to see a big buck leap over a fallen tree and melt into the woods and it suddenly occurred to me… how many adults still do this? Pretend. Pretend hard and completely and all the time, like you did when you were a kid. How many women about-to-turn-forty-in-two-weeks are out in the world, weaving between saplings, stuffing their pockets with pinecones, and imagining they are white bearded, mute wood carvers with a passion for animals?
Sadly, I don’t think it’s nearly enough. Sadly, I don’t think it’s too many. Sadly, I think I may be one of a very few. And one of fewer still who would blithely admit it directly to you, not caring that it probably sounds a little insane.
And I think that’s just the saddest thing about being a grown up. I think it is criminal that when you’re an adult, some part of you is so squashed flat that you either forget entirely how to pretend to be a pirate or a woodcarver or a fairy in a toadstool village or… you feel kind of shy and/or ashamed to admit you still pretend stuff.
Don’t you think that’s sad?! Isn’t it sad that being a grown up means you’re suppose to stomp around thinking about taxes and furniture polish and quarterly reports instead? Isn’t it sad that as you grow up you’re suppose to give up pretending and march around in the “real world” all the bloody time? Not pretending to be anything other than whatever it is you are?
And I mean PRETENDING, not imagining. Because I think there’s a difference. First of all “imagining” is kind of a grown up phrase. You never hear a kid saying “let’s imagine we’re pirates and we’re being chased by a really angry octopus!” No. What they say is “Pretend we’re pirates! You be the girl pirate with the peg leg that shoots poison darts and I’ll be the girl pirate with the pink eye patch and the skull hat!”
You can “imagine” the worst. You can let your “imagination” run away with you. You can “imagine” the grief of losing your husband, you can “imagine” the horror of war, you can “imagine” what it’s like to be homeless, or hungry, or abused or whatever but one rarely shouts out with great rollicking enthusiasm “Pretend we’re suffering the horror of war!” “Pretend we’re abused!” “Pretend you have cancer!”
Although, on second thought, I guess kids do yell out stuff like “Pretend I just shot you and you’re dying!” “Pretend I’m Darth Vader and I just lightsabered you in half!” But it’s different somehow.
Pretending is less serious business than “imagining”. Pretending is more playful, happier, and more detached from all the weighty stuff that sits in our bellies and makes us fearful and unhappy. Pretending is good stuff, man. Of course, imaginating is pretty rocking too, when done right. But there’s more room for error there, I think.
I think everyone in the world would be so much happier if they spent a good fifteen minutes a day pretending to be something happy and gentle and outside themselves. I really, really do.
Do you still pretend?! You can tell me. I swear I won’t tell another living soul. And if they have you committed because of it, you’ll find me in the straitjacket right next to you, pretending I’m a talking rabbit with a penchant for fine wine and chocolate.