Today I am 39. By any child’s estimation, at 39 I should have accomplished the things I wanted to accomplish, attained the things I wanted to attain. When I was a child, I had serious doubts that I would live this long. But I am just starting out.
I was born on a Thursday, eleven days late. My assigned due date, May 12, was both Mother’s Day and my parents’ first anniversary. I was stubborn even then—I showed up when I was good and ready. My mother used to recite that “Thursday’s Child” rhyme about how doomed we are. Did I feel doomed? Sometimes. I’m not even sure I know anymore what “doomed” might mean.
What I thought as a child that I don’t think anymore: You should be celebrated for overcoming hardship. Now I think too many of us wittingly create our own adversity and want a cookie for transcending it. Everybody gets a break, and nobody else ought to be judging. We should help each other when we can. But no. You don’t get to be a hero for dodging a bullet that you fired. The drama isn’t what makes a story good. This probably sounds like one of those cryptic, compliment-fishing status updates. I’m talking about the people around me when I was growing up, and about the tendencies I had to figure out on my own about twenty years ago. How you accept an inheritance or you don’t.
Despite my occasional panic about my own mortality, my life is still a project.* I still think I’m going to lose the 30 pounds I’ve gained since college this year, that I’m going to get better at various aspects of life, that I’m going—someday—to get my shit together. It should go without saying that as a child, I would have expected to have my shit together by now. Except that I’m pretty sure I never expected to lose it. When my mother’s friend called me “stringbean,” because I was such a skinny kid, I’d think (maybe even say), “I’m never going to be fat.” But come on. We ate chips and salsa for dinner on a relatively regular basis. Or popcorn.
It doesn’t matter if you know better, what to eat, how to behave. Sometimes you default to a habit. One of mine is binge eating. There is almost no circumstance under which a bag of Chili-Cheese Fritos survives more than a day in my house. It’s been a long time since I could crash diet for a few weeks and feel restored, back to some prior self. I am almost 40; peak physical condition without intense devotion of time and pain is a thing of the past. Yet I can still imagine it. I spend too much time imagining it, imagining other ways in which life is a project to accomplish instead of a series of days to experience. My angst over my schlumping past-peak body isn’t so much a central feature of that series of days as it is a really terrific example of an attitude, a way of being. And not a particularly helpful way of being, either.**
At what point is a habit—good or bad—a part of who you are? Or any feature you carry forward, willingly or resentfully? When do you stop looking for what you can change? Where is the balance between acceptance and being a better person? It’s a cliché, but I tell myself that what I want in life is peace, on a day-to-day basis. I get better at that—at peace—over time. I get more willing and able to say what I want with accuracy and precision.
But it’s taken a really long time. I get mad about how long. I feel like I know so many people who hatched from adolescence right at this point, ready to name who they are and demand what they want and write big, juicy novels and ferment their own small-batch whiskey or whatever. How many of the last 39 years have I wasted on bullshit—other people’s and my own?
This is probably a pretty unoriginal lament. Not breaking new ground here. But I happen to be the kind of person who needs to understand how things work. I’m sort of incapable of just agreeing that things work and leaving it at that. So how—I’m asking far too late, I know—does this adult life thing work?
Except for the aching knees every morning, I don’t feel old. For a long time now, I’ve kind of looked forward to my forties. I have an image of myself, my hair tied up in a knot, wearing good shoes. Doing what? I don’t know yet. Before long, I suppose I’ll find out.
*With much gratitude to Patricia Henley, who told me that the mortality-panic is a feature of being 40-ish, and will pass.
**Another useful example: Spending entire semesters doing nothing but wishing for them to end.