In nine days I will turn 40. Usually birthdays don't give me pause - I don't spend a lot of time thinking about getting older. Maybe it is because emotionally I feel like I'm about 28, or perhaps I'm happily in denial. Either way, I have never been particularly wistful about birthdays.
But it is impossible to hit a milestone birthday like 40 and not think a little. And then, of course, there are the comments from friends, who do seem to think 40 is a big deal. "My God," a friend of mine said recently, "we're halfway to 80!" Thoughts like that are precisely why I don't think about age much.
I kept a journal for years. I wrote almost daily for nearly 10 years, starting at age 18. Less so as time progressed, and hardly at all in the past five years. Nostalgia drove me to open these journals recently, and I smiled back at my younger self as I read through the pages. I saw something I had forgotten about: I used to keep lists. In my early 20s I felt a compulsion to document my life that bordered on ridiculous. It makes me think of one of my favorite sayings: I may not be much, but I'm all I think about. I would divvy up my life into catagories, and make lists immortalizing myself (at least in my mind's eye). Here is a sampling of lists I made on my 19th birthday:
What I hate: my handwriting, violence, insecurity, loneliness, chipped fingernails, sororites, arrogance, authority.
What I like: Red Revlon lipstick, Fleetwood Mac, road trips, leather jackets, Almaden wine, flirting, independence, my dog.
What makes me scared: being alone, feeling out of place, anyone being angry with me, people leaving, death.
What makes me happy: warm socks, a room full of people I know at a party, a beautiful spring day, driving my jeep, a lazy day in my robe reading a book, a good converstaion with someone I didn't know I liked, getting a letter in the mail, a smile from a stranger, a new term - a chance to do anything.
It is ironic .. these lists wouldn't be much different today. I don't do much flirting anymore, unless it is with my husband and then he looks at me skeptically, wondering what I need from him. Almaden wine would be scratched from the list (or perhaps switched to 'what makes me scared'). I still have terrible handwriting, and an enduring fear of conflict. And I'm still not a joiner; if suburban Moms had sororities (some would argue they do) I still wouldn't like 'em. I have switched from Revlon to Loreal lipstick, but I still love my leather jacket, although my husand (who is more conscious of trends than I am) won't let me wear it out in public anymore.
What I learn from my 19 year old self is this: the things that I need to be happy are very simple. Life gets complicated as we get older: careers, marriage, houses, children - all of these things mire us down in the day-to-day grind of life. It warms my heart to see that at 19 I understood the value of a warm pair of socks, a good book and friendship. I think I understood them then better than I do now. These days it is far too easy to overlook the simple goodness in life.
So, at 40, I would add only a few things to my list of what makes me happy: the flash of my kids' smiles, giggling, creativity, my little family, peace of mind.
I have also lost some fears - I am no longer preoccupied with what other people think about me. I love being alone. I don't fear death as much as think of it as the next step, whatever that is. And I have gained things I cherish - gratitude and acceptance.
So maybe, in honor of my 19 year old self, I should throw on my leather jacket and some red Revlon lipstick, jump in my Jeep (yup, still have a Jeep), crank up the Fleetwood Mac, take a road trip, flirt with my dog and celebrate my independence. Works for me.