Today is my 40th birthday. I am informed and aware that this occasion causes no shortage of wailing and gnashing of teeth for some. I, however, am delighted, ecstatic, expansive, grateful, excited.
It helps that I’m writing this from Maui.
But it also helps that I’ve been desperate to be a 40-year-old woman since I was nine years old.
When I was nine, my family owned a racquet club, where I would hang out and help out in the summertime. Watching those 40-year-old women Jane Fonda-it-up in the dance aerobics classes, decked in thong leotards, leg warmers and white high-top Reeboks was everything to me. It, as they say, gave me life.
That my social calendar now consists largely of dance classes and brunches, spin classes and dinners (which my friend Rebecca and I do so regularly we have given it a name: spinner) and lululemon-clad global adventures with my fitness pals wherein we cycle, row, swim and shop – this feels like a mission: accomplished kind of life.
So much of my life right now reflects the best parts of what I’d dreamed, but is more beautiful than I ever legitimately hoped for. At 40, I have the groundedness, humility and good sense to sit in and appreciate these moments, even as I gear up for transitions and new seasons. I have a beautiful home, friends and community like I’d never known were even possible, a career that allows me to be creative, true to myself and flex my smarts, and the truest type of prosperity. Beyond just the financial, I live an abundant, healthy life I love to look at – and love to live.
Is life perfect? Definitely not. But it is beautiful. And it was hard won, by the grace of the Good Lord, the sweat of my brow and the constant inner inspiration and willingness to push beyond what was comfortable. Twenty years back I was a very young Mom, trying to get my education and raise my son and his brother the best I could. New friends might never know it, but my last couple of decades included two divorces, near bankruptcy in the Not-So-Great-Recession and a custody drama.
They included trying to consciously parent a very troubled teen, the heartbreak of my brother going to prison, and a series of multi-generational health scares, from my son’s congenital glaucoma to my mother’s stroke after stroke after stroke. The last decade also included a weird and wondrous journey of serial career transitions and reinventions, spiritual and emotional healing, financial recovery (and then some) and the restoration of many of the broken areas of my life.
So at 40, I sit at a place of calm, sweet, surrender to this journey. I am intense, intent and intentional, and I am a woman of great energy, power and activity. But I allow now, in a way I couldn’t even conceive at 20. I still have another 80 or so years to live, conservatively, and I can already see how the dots have connected, taking even the most traumatic of experiences which could have harmed me – the very things which I thought would do me in – and turning them, ultimately to my great advantage.
Those traumas are often the little kernels of miracle at the core of my superpowers, I’ve learned. I’ve learned that so many of the things I forced to happen, historically, were a mess, and that so many of the things I allowed to happen turned out to be the best things ever. Now, I allow.
I am, by nature, a contrarian. I have cultivated an uncanny ability to rethink and reframe a painful or stressful belief into new beliefs that work better for me. So, a few years back, when my friends started to turn 40, I noticed how many were having a hard time with it. To be clear, I believe that experience is valid, especially here in the US. Our cultural narrative about aging is jacked, and people – men and women alike – struggle mightily to escape it’s maw.
But, maybe because of my Jane Fonda-esque childhood models, maybe because of my contrarian nature, I had hit 35 and decided that 40 and beyond was going to be stellar, not in some weird chasing youth kind of way, but in the way of depth, maturity, energy, wellness and grounded calm. And also in the way of no longer being so focused on everyday dramas and emergencies as I was in my 20s.
Starting right around the time I turned 35, watching people turn 40 with stress and angst inspired me, as did the realization that time flies, and I’d be hitting the milestone myself before long. I recall very clearly thinking: they’re not doing it right. And I recall asking myself the next natural question: what would turning 40 “right” look like?
So, I got still and quiet and took stock. I realized that a lot was wonderful about my life, and the person who I was, but also that the greatness I could have and be and live was being limited by a few bad habits, limiting beliefs, dysfunctional patterns, and toxic relationships. I stopped distracting myself from looking deep at my past and my present, and made a conscious decision to press pause, do some deep cleaning and healing of my life, and do whatever it took to release the self-critique and anxiety that had been an ever-present backdrop to my existence up till that time. I agreed with myself to then do the work it’d take to stop creating and re-creating the same dramas and tired, old, played-out broken life storylines again and again.
I went to therapy, and participated in treatment for post-traumatic stresses I didn’t know were called that. I read so many self-help books, and practiced what I learned. I got grounded and comfortable with the discomfort of exploring myself and getting real about my messes. I learned that neurons that fire together wire together, and began the process of rewiring some old emotions and behaviors.
My therapist told me that it was never too late to have a wonderful childhood, so I took up the challenge of injecting a sense of light, play, joy and wonder into my daily life, all the while cultivating the skill of putting an end to relationships and patterns that no longer served me.
I realized that I’d really never – not even as a kid – had legitimate birthday celebrations, and that I’d have to make up for lost time with my 40th. Ultimately, I engineered the birthday celebration I’m in the midst of right now: an 18-month birthday, the cornerstone of which would be a series of 9 trips to places around the world I’d never seen before. I’d have to start at age 39 and end at age 41, but I was up for the challenge.
So, in June I went to Paris and Copenhagen, in September to Italy and Croatia. I’m spending my actual birthday with friends in Maui, and have another half dozen trips plotted to take place between New Year’s and 2016.
But back to 35. I started doing the work, and ultimately made a series of changes to my life that systematically, fundamentally changed everything. I got divorced. I changed jobs a couple of times. My relationship with my parents shifted and evolved to a new stage of maturity and health. I got out of debt and my finances flourished. I made besties with my body, which I’d struggled with for decades, and it responded with a next-level state of energy and health.
I started walking the way of integrity, recognizing the sense of tightness and constriction that nearly always signals that I’m acting or living or speaking something different than what i truly feel. I learned how to align and realign my words and deeds with truth. I did that over and over again, with less and less effort required each time.
I unrepressed myself, rewiring what I believe about the world, and about myself, to align with what God says about me: that I am His child, that my whole job here is to let my light shine and to love Him, others and myself. In the process, under my touchiness and (then) easy-to-pull triggers, I found a deep reservoir of love, enthusiasm and near boundless energy for life.
My son recently showed me a picture of myself from college, and I had the crazy realization that at 40, I look and feel so much better, so much more joyful, and even so much more physically well than I did then. While I appreciate those who joke about my looking like I’m my son’s sister, the work of getting to this state of life was so healing and so formative to who I am, that I actually have been shouting my age from the rooftops this last few months.
In fact, when people suggest I look 21 what I think is this: thanks, but you could not pay me to be 21 again. You could’nt pay me to go back to the self-consciousness and angst I had before I learned to trust myself, before I starting unfolding into the full glory of being me, flaws and all. No, thank you. And come on, if you’re 30, 40, 50 or even 70 – admit it: we all know we’re glad to be done with that nonsense. Seriously, if you’ve been gifted with great health and you make a practice of cultivating that with a healthy lifestyle, you can be beautiful in a new and different way, and active at a new level by the time you’re 40. I’m pleased as punch that I can wear all the activewear I want, and do whatever activities I want, without worrying about whether I look weird in dance class or whether I can afford the yoga workshop or cycling adventure. This, I could not do at 21.
Over 40, if you do it right (and you can), new possibilities open up. You know how to work your body. You know what to eat to feel good, and what doesn’t work for you. You can be more beautiful and vibrant and fit than ever, and understand that that beauty includes your body’s little endurance trophies, like stretch marks, foot pain and surgery scars. You have some money, and hopefully little or no debt. You have clarity on what you’re great at, or at least know that you can do something to get it. You know what clothes look great on you, and can afford them. You know that life is beautiful, and that every beautiful moment will pass. But so will the tough stuff.
You no longer feel so entitled to smooth sailing through life, so you’re less outraged and resistant to the reality that sad, hard things happen. You’re more confident in your ability to handle what comes your way, and you are no longer so quick to see things as “bad” or “good”. Rather you see events as just life and people as wounded, beautiful children of God. You stop taking things personally. No, really – even the most personally directed assaults.
You realize that life is precious, and that people matter. You can get out of your head, and into the game of living your life
Well, that’s what 40 represents for me.
I’m inspired today by something President Obama said in an interview I read a few months back, while I was on the first leg of my birthday trip, somewhere in France. In the aftermath of the Charleston shootings, he was talking about American race relations as an ongoing social evolution. He said that, as President, you can never really solve an entire social issue of that scale – just imagine: we live nearly 200 years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and are still wrestling with these same issues. As he sees it, Obama said, his job isn’t to write the whole book of history on any given issue. All he gets is one paragraph in the book. And all he can do is everything possible to get his paragraph right.
I can think of no better perspective to take, as I commemorate moving into my fourth decade on this earth, than this. The last three decades were focused on growing into myself, understanding myself, my power, other people and the world, healing from the inevitable wounds of life and building the capacity and resources to live a life of joy, love, power and integrity.
It’s become clear to me that the next eight decades, give or take, will be focused on boldly doing what it takes to get my paragraph right, in terms of how I impact and experience the people in my life, in my communities and in the world. I hope you’ll come along for the adventure.
So much love + onward + upward,
This post originally appeared on Tara’s blog at taranicholle.com – sign up here for her newsletter. Follow Tara on Facebook and on Twitter @taranicholle.