On the sultry summer morning I turned 40, a package arrived from my mother. Inside was a book sporting a cover photo of a beatific woman in her 40s. Within its pages was her account--and those of many others--about entering life's prime time.
These serene and satisfied women--wearing crow's-feet merit badges--told tales of doubts resolved, identities jelled, childish expectations altered. A "rite of passage" they called this day. A chance to transform one's life and rewrite stale scripts.
I wanted to believe them, but all I could think about was my impending divorce and stalled career; the fact that the only mammal keeping me company on this birthday was my wolf-dog, Baby; that my seemingly once-full life had become a hermit's monastery; that now I was supposedly too old to wear my cut-off jeans.
What was ahead besides yearly mammograms, menopause and toothless mastication?
So I put down the book and cried, a self-pity fest that lasted until 10 that night when I took the dog down to Big Corona beach and watched the waves rock and roll.
By then it was quite clear--even to me--that my emotions hadn't caught up with my age. Inside that 40-year-old body was, indeed, a screaming 16-year-old. I started to laugh at myself and melodramatically vowed to change.
The days of compromise were over. There was no more time to waste.
Thus began my 40th decade. Now two months shy of two years later, I'm amazed at all that's happened: The divorce became final, the career shifted and I left my comfortable home of 17 years to try living in New York City, where with a child and a wolf-dog depending only on you and you depending only on yourself, you have to grow up fast or give up.
But growing up \o7 is \f7 hard to do, and despite any outward differences, inside I still too often feel 16. I still can't quite believe I'm really not. I'm shocked every time I look in the mirror and see the lines snaking around my eyes and upper lip, every time I shell out $120 to the hairdresser to cover budding gray, every time some man I'd like to date calls me "Ma'am."
Today I laugh at myself more readily, and that's the beauty of being almost 42: You become more self-accepting. In your 40s, there's no more easy pretending that tomorrow you'll automatically be different. When you feel uncomfortable, you stop dead in your tracks and say: "Whoa, what's going on here?"
Instead of acting like a know-it-all, instead of defending and denying your own insanity or blaming it all on others, you learn that you really don't know much except that you're responsible for your own feelings and that defense and denial only postpone any chance of change. You learn to say "I'm sorry." You learn to at least \o7 listen\f7 to what your mother has to say.
And you learn to listen to other people. When you reach your 40s, you become interested in surrounding yourself with those who have already put down the mantle of pretense, people who know their own truth and aren't afraid to tell it, people who won't collude with you that your wrong way is right. You do it because you--like they were--are exhausted from doing too much, caring too much and trying too hard.
It's in your 40s when you stop waiting for tomorrow and start to find out who and what really matters now--friends, family and enjoying the present moment. That's when career concerns pale next to the sight of a neon Maine sunset or your child's hot cheek pressing into yours. That's when you begin to let go of many of the expectations you had of yourself and everyone else who crosses your path.
And that's when you watch your 20ish and 30ish friends and thank God you'll never have to go back.
I just wish that this 16-going-on-42 mind could be put back into that 16-year-old body. Maybe then I wouldn't feel so foolish still wearing these cut-off jeans.