This is my last blog as a 41-year-old, and I cannot tell you how excited I am for this next birthday. Come Monday, I fully expect to be privy to the meaning of life, the universe, and everything, because if you’ve read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, you know that 42 is the answer to the question of “What is the meaning of…, Alex?”
(If you haven’t read it, I’m not gonna bust your chops, because unlike SOME PEOPLE I am married to, I myself only read it once, and did not memorize every single bit of it, as many fans seem to, but I remember 42, and I always know where my towel is, and I think that’s good enough.)
I’ve spent a good deal of mental energy over the years trying to figure out the answers to the aforementioned Big Questions, with about the level of success you might expect if you, too, have ever engaged in such cogitations. But I’m pretty psyched that the answers might just be bestowed upon me for merely having reached the age of double-majority.
(And if you didn’t know I was going to be 42, the fact that I still use the word “psyched” would clear that right up for you.)
(And if somehow I didn’t know I was going to be 42, the fact that I was at least twice as old as most of the youngsters getting both hands stamped–Club Congress’s means of identifying underage concert-goers–at the Of Montreal show Tuesday night brought it home, and brought it home hard.)
But I’d like to think I wasn’t completely oblivious during what could statistically presumed to be the first half of my life, and I thought in honor of my birthday, and advancing senescence, I’d share some of the more consistently solid lessons I’ve learned over the years, in case they might be useful to anyone else. And I invite y’all to share any important life lessons you’ve managed to learn in the comments, because this whole Life project is hard enough; if we can give each other any hints, we should.
I started a list awhile back in anticipation of this very venture, but, in a perfect illustration of my middle-aged womanhood, I have no idea where I put it, and foraging in all the likely places was ultimately futile. So perhaps I will start there. (No doubt, as soon as I publish, I will come up with 10 more things I meant to include. Oh well.)
1) Time, genes, and hormones catch up with us all. There is no escape.
I consulted an orthopedic surgeon a couple of years back, who told me that the anomalies he saw in my X-rays were not surgery-worthy, and I could blame my folks, because they were congenital. And it’s true; we’re all pretty weak in the lumbar spine. Then there are the shifting hormones I experience as I ease my way down the long, slow slide to menopause. I know they’re only natural, and you kind of expect to be irritable, but nothing can really prepare you for the absent-mindedness and fog that makes you google “symptoms of a brain tumor,” only to find pages that start with “Are you female? Over 35? YOU DO NOT HAVE A BRAIN TUMOR. It’s perimenopause.” Seriously, I found a page just like that. A more certain “Thank god/Oh shit” moment I haven’t had in a long time. On the plus side, if I remembered what I walked into a room for the first 8 times I walked into it, I’d never get any exercise.
Also, a PSA: There’s no point in getting impatient with people’s hearing loss, or their slowed movement, or their tendency to repeat themselves, or their inability to park the Lincoln between the lines, because we all do it, or will.
2) No good deed goes unpunished.
I’m wired to be helpful if I can. And I try not to be cynical. But I’ve learned the truth of this one so many times, I can’t muster up even a tiny bit of doubt about it.
3) There are no medals for martyrs.
This is a mantra I’ve had for years, having learned the hard way enough times. So often, we do things, pushing ourselves to physical, emotional, and psychological extremes that just plain aren’t good for us, only to realize that no one even noticed. Most of the time, they won’t, or will but won’t display the level of gratitude for our sacrifice we would hope for, and it leads to bitterness and resentment. The truth is, in adult life, there are very few gold stars, very few pats on the head, and no one offers you a lollipop at the doctor’s or the bank drive-thru. You can keep working for it, but you’re just asking for disappointment. Better to get off the cross. Say no. Stop doing so much. You’ll feel a lot better.
4) Raw cookie dough is probably not going to be the death of you.
Could raw cookie dough or cake batter make you sick? Sure. Is it likely to? I have to say, in just shy of 42 years, I’ve licked beaters and scraped bowls at least 4.3 million times, and have never gotten sick from it. The only time I’ve ever gotten a tummy ache from raw cookie dough is when I ate too much of it at once. That could happen from too much broccoli, too. Unless you make a habit of storing your eggs in random shoes in the back of your closet for months at a time, it’s improbable that you will get food poisoning.
5) Neither are public bathrooms.
Human beings have survived and evolved successfully for 200,000 years to the tune of some 7 billion people on our planet at one time, much of that time without benefit of refrigeration, preservatives, or antibiotics. We are hardier than we realize, in most cases. The bathroom door handle of a public restroom is really not a credible threat. I’m just sayin’.
6) One cannot overestimate the positive and life-improving results of adequate dietary fiber.
7) Don’t do things you know in advance you’re going to resent unless there’s a paycheck involved.
No one needs your begrudging assistance, and no, you’re not hiding it well at all. Everyone knows you’re not happy to be there. Save yourself, and everyone else a lot of unhappiness. Either do it willingly with a glad heart, or skip it. (See #3)
8) If it looks like rain, bring the umbrella.
If you bring the umbrella and don’t use it, no harm done. But if you don’t bring the umbrella, it will surely rain, because that’s just Murphy’s Law. And there are lots of “umbrellas.” If you think you might need something, whether it’s an umbrella, a condom, or an extra hour for something, take it, because if you don’t, you’ll need it. I thought about bringing a jacket to Hawaii this summer, and decided I didn’t need it, because…Hawaii, and also, I didn’t have much room left. And truthfully, I didn’t need it in Hawaii. But I did need it when I was freezing in the plane on the way to Hawaii. Then I had to buy an overpriced long-sleeved t-shirt I didn’t really need (I had plenty of other souvenirs) so that I didn’t freeze on the overnight trip back. If you like to gamble, you can probably skip the umbrella. But I can guarantee there will be times you regret it.
9) There is plenty of bad in the world that will come calling. You don’t need to court it.
You just have to have your shit together enough that you’re able to deal with it when it does.
10) What other people think of you is none of your business.
My dear friend Judith once said to me, in younger days for both of us, “What is it that makes another person’s opinion so important when they are privy to so little of our true selves?” She changed my life that day, no lie. And soon thereafter she handed me a book with a version of the above title. Which was interesting and useful, but never so much as her own comment. The day I realized that the judgments of others were necessarily limited, incomplete, and flawed because they didn’t know the complexity of my life and thought process that brought me to the actions I took, I could no longer give their judgments much credence. And to know I had no idea what brought them to this point in their lives made me less likely to judge others, because my critique would be just as flawed and useless. I have to believe that people are doing the best they can most of the time, because I am. If they COULD do better, they’d be doing it. Nobody really wants to suffer, all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding. If they’re not, I can only assume there are a lot of invisible forces at work, and how can you not extend grace to that?
11) Bitterness corrodes the vessel that carries it.
12) Letting go of things is one of the hardest things we’ll ever do, and one of the most necessary.
Some people think it’s always right to keep fighting for something, even when it doesn’t accomplish anything. There is honor (and peace) in knowing when to step back, when to walk away, when to let go. We’ve been taught that quitting is always a bad thing. Sometimes it’s the best, healthiest thing you could ever do. Learning to quit when you’re behind is an important life lesson.
When I was still teaching, but ready to get out of the profession, I went to the local community college with the intention of getting a professional certificate to be a paralegal. I put in two semesters of a 4-semester program, and then I dropped out, because I realized I’d end up in another desk job making half of what I stood to make working for the ed tech company I’d landed at after leaving the classroom, and that perhaps my life’s contentment didn’t lie in having the right job, but in doing more of what fed my soul outside of work. All my life, I’d been an honor student. College graduate. And suddenly, I was a community college dropout, and never felt better. It was something I obviously needed to learn how to do: to see when something wasn’t working, and walk away along some other path. It’s still not my strongest suit, but I’m getting there.
13) If it’s not going to matter in the long run, it doesn’t matter now.
After Antiguo died, I didn’t set about building a pedestal for his memory. I had a pretty clear understanding of who he really was when he was alive, and once he was gone I didn’t lose that. He had his quirks, like anyone, and a few annoying habits, and there were some hard feelings from (admittedly petty) incidents that hadn’t quite gone away. But I found that once he was gone, I would’ve given anything for him to space out playing the guitar and forget I was there, or do any of those annoying things once more. I forgave him everything, and any past hurts just evaporated; it no longer mattered. Going forward, I brought that idea with me: if I’m going to forgive you for it when you’re dead, I’m going to forgive you, right now, when it can actually do some good. And it has. I let things go much faster than I used to.
14) Given enough time, most things tend to work out for the best.
This is something my parents have told me over the years, but it took living long enough to see it play out in my own life to realize the truth of it. Jobs I didn’t get, places I didn’t live, people I didn’t end up seeing naked…dozens of things that were disappointing at the time inevitably ended up looking more and more like dodged bullets. I remember that when I come up against new disappointments.
A none-too-deep, yet highly symbolic, example: A couple years ago, I bought a new set of flannel sheets for our king-sized bed. Inexplicably, instead of 2 king pillow cases, we got one king and one single. The use of the latter meant that if I used it on my king-sized pillows, half a pillow was sticking out at all the times. It was annoying, and offended my aesthetic sensibilities. Fast-forward to last week, and a recent cold snap that announced winter was nigh, and I dug out the flannel sheets to make the bed. I couldn’t find the second pillow case, because I’d stuffed it somewhere out of sight because I couldn’t use it, and I forgot that until I found it again. Only I bought a special memory foam pillow this summer in the hopes it would help with my bunged up neck, and wouldn’t you know it? The too-small pillow case was now perfect. It was exactly what I needed–now. Not everything is fixed by time, and the entropy of life therein, but a surprising number of things are. All it requires of us is patience, and knowing that the wheel will turn.
15) Learn to do things alone.
I have known a lot of people who never do anything alone. They’ve never eaten in a restaurant alone, gone to a movie or a concert alone, gone shopping alone, traveled alone, and can’t imagine doing so. These are the people who suffer most when they’re not in a relationship, or the person they’re in a relationship with wants space to do their own thing. And they spend a lifetime missing out on the things they want to do/see/experience because they can’t find anyone who will join them for their thing, so they just stay home. And seethe about it. Getting over the discomfort of doing things alone pays off big in getting to do things you really want to do without having to scrounge up an escort. It’s worth the effort to learn to enjoy your own company. And doing some things on your own, like traveling, fills you with a sense of accomplishment and self-sufficiency you can’t get any other way.
16) Make something with your hands.
I really believe that we are meant to be creators, and that it is fundamental to our sanity that we create. I don’t care if it’s art, or music, or jewelry, or food, or a stack of firewood, or a garden, or a pile of leaves–making something where previously there was nothing is satisfying and therapeutic, and in a world where we move bytes and bits and live and work primarily in our heads, I think it’s more important than ever. Creation is not the special province of “creative types.” We were born creative types. We know that in kindergarten, but we forget it somewhere along the line. Making something with your hands is not merely a hobby; it’s self-care on a very deep level.
17) Todd Rundgren was right. Love IS the answer.