Today is my 46th birthday. It’s a surprising number, in its nearly smack-in-the-middle relation to the lifetime between 0 and 100, and its largeness (46? Seriously? That many?) although I’m not sure what age I think I ought to be. For years I mostly felt 19, and then later, for an even longer period, I thought of myself as 36ish. But this year I feel acutely, undeniably 46, which is a cocktail of responsibility, worry, joy, regret, and a slightly world-weary version of my inveterate optimism, along with knees that hurt when it’s cold and hair that needs to be dyed every three weeks lest I start to look like Jessica Tandy in her later years.
It’s hitting me, I guess is what I’m saying, that 46 is a number by which you are expected to have learned some things. I love reading the wisdom lists people write about age, 29 Things Every Woman Should Know By 29, 30 Things I Learned in My 30s, 50 is the New Black, Do Whatever the Hell You Want, You’re 80. My favorite is What You Learn in Your 40s by Pamela Druckerman.
These advice pieces always seem like jewel boxes, the sort your grandmother keeps tucked nearly out of sight up on her tall dresser. And sometimes, when you visit, she’ll take it down and show you her treasures – the circle pin from her high school dance, the engagement ring your grandpa gave her when they were young and poor, later replaced by the ring she wears now, the big diamond she never takes off but promises to leave for you one day, the necklaces and bracelets. They are a look into the author’s lives, the lessons they’ve learned the hard way, what they’ve saved and polished.
My accumulated knowledge, such as it is, is less a treasure box and more of a well-worn backpack. One that fell off a truck and rolled into a river and dried in the sunshine, got ripped against rocks, frozen in the snow, thawed in a meadow. And it’s filled with treasures, but they are things like abandoned bird’s nests and stones flecked with mica, single earrings and journals with flowers pressed between their ink-smeared pages.
But I think one of the privileges of 46 is getting to tell what you know, and so here are the things I carry:
Not everything turns out for the best. You are going to make some awful choices, there will be times when you don’t get what you want, you are going to say the wrong thing and miss opportunities, and you are going to have regrets. It’s weirdly comforting to know that it’s all right to feel terrible about some things. But you do have to find a way to live with your sorrows, a way to be in your life that isn’t ruled by the pain of what was and what could have been. You need to find a way to let it stay in the past. And if you can learn something and not make the same mistakes again, you’ll be all the better for it.
Stop being such a goddamned narcissist. Everyone is the protagonist of their own story, and all the things that ever happened to you, that will ever happen to you, sublime and horrible, have happened and will happen to more people than you can imagine. That’s why we recognize ourselves in books we can’t put down, songs we sing out loud in our cars, and movies we watch and re-watch. Most of our experiences are universal, unless you’re an astronaut going on the first mission to Mars or something, and even then you’ve got people sharing that experience, and I bet your feelings setting out for Mars are deeply similar to those of every explorer who set out to chart unknown seas and territories. It may feel a little disappointing at first, to realize you’re not as unique as you thought, but it’s much less lonely.
Be generous. By now, with luck, you’ve achieved some success and have a little money. So when you hear from a nervous 20-something on LinkedIn who wants to buy you coffee and ask how you got to where you are in your career, take them to breakfast and tell them. When you see a new mom in Starbucks fumbling for her wallet and trying to soothe the baby, offer to help. Put down your phone and let your 9-year-old tell you about the dog she saw. Ask questions – was the dog brown? Did it have long legs? Thank your partner for putting the toilet paper in the bathroom, instead of complaining that they didn’t put it on the roll. When the mom who works 80 hours a week comes to a PTO meeting, introduce yourself and sit with her, and don’t tell her how it’s SO NICE to FINALLY see her since she NEVER comes to anything at the school. If you have the sort of relationship with your parents where calling them won’t cause you tremendous pain, then call your parents.
Sometimes it matters what people think of you. The trick here is knowing when to care and when not to. The ex-husband who snuck your collection of Kinks vinyl into his suitcase and told you he hated your haircut on his way out the door? Who gives a damn what he thinks. The boss who writes your performance review at work? You want him to think you’re knocking it out of the park. Learn to tell the difference.
There are cool kids. You may be one of them. No, really, right now someone somewhere probably thinks you are so cool they hardly know how to talk to you. Because who the cool kids are is relative, and believing someone is cool has everything to do with our own wishes and insecurities and very little to do with some empirical definition of coolness. This is why you should pursue you own big passions and nerdy niche interests and not worry about it, because that thing you always thought made you weird is precisely the thing that makes you wonderful.
Don’t be a jerk about music. You don’t have to love One Direction or care about Ellie Goulding. You can dismiss Ed Sheeran and Walk the Moon. Go ahead and roll your eyes at Meghan Trainor and Andy Grammer. Just shut up about it, because when you complain about music you sound pretentious, rigid, and boring. Stop it. And seriously, if you can’t dance to Uptown Funk, you hate life.
There are still surprises in store. After the tumult of your 20s and the striving of your 30s, your 40s can feel sort of settled. There’s the furniture and the rugs and the cups in the cabinets, and the books on the shelves and the photos on the walls, you’ve got a partner or you don’t, you’ve had children or not, the cat you had in your 20s died years ago, and you think, “Huh, so this is what happened. This is how it all turned out.” And then you find out they’re reviving The X-Files and even Skinner is coming back and you remember there is still time to fulfill your potential, for all the mistakes and missteps and stupid things you said, the choices you made and didn’t make, the regrets and the hurting knees and the compromises, for all of the things you lost and didn’t try for you can still be surprised by something so purely fantastic you never would have imagined it could happen. The world can still surprise you. You can still surprise yourself.
You don’t have to clean before your friends come over, but… Your friends really don’t care what your house looks like, but it’s still nice to clean the toilet before they come over. It’s a gesture of goodwill and civility. No need to make yourself crazy, just give it a wipe with a paper towel.
The cat will always kick litter on the floor the moment you put away the vacuum. I’m not speaking metaphorically here. Somehow the cat just knows.
Do that thing. Several years ago a manhole exploded on the street where I was working, and we were evacuated through the fire stairs and told to run downtown. It was one of the most terrifying experiences I have ever lived through, because there was every reason to believe the horrific boom and smoke-filled sky was another terrorist attack on New York City. And as I was running from 40th street to 14th street in sandals that cut my feet bloody, I thought, “I’m so glad I just paid my life insurance bill. Damn it, I wish I’d written that book.” The dream that presents itself as an imperative when you believe you’re outrunning death? You should do that. Start today.
Never masturbate with a Clarisonic. Trust me on this one.
Don’t wear shoes that hurt. It’s not worth it. For years I tried to find a pair of heels I could wear and still feel like myself. It turns out that I am happiest in a pair of loafers, which accommodate my habit of walking while daydreaming and exude the kind of bookish sexiness I have been cultivating since I was 14. You still have places to go. You’ll walk there on your own two feet. Dress accordingly.