I’ve never really had a good role model for how to “act your age.” A couple years shy of 80, my dad still skis most days in the winter, hikes with the grandkids in summer, and acts as his own general contractor and head carpenter for a happily endless array of house projects. I’m likely to find my mom, a good bit younger than my dad, but still considered a “senior,” outside sledding with the children or digging in the garden, rather than tucked quietly into a grandmotherly rocker.
So hitting a new decade mark has me a bit bewildered. How is a 40-year-old supposed to act? Where in my life should I be at this age? How the heck did I get to 40, when I feel like I was 27 just last week? When you’re a teenager, it feels like reaching 18, then 21, will take forever. At 21, 30 seems distant. At 30, the beginning of a new decade may still be a personal shock, but your 20s were just a few months ago. And then, suddenly it seems, the 20s are in the distant past, and you’re in the midst of middle age.
In the last few weeks, I’ve read articles and blog posts about aging gracefully, coming to terms with turning 40, things older people regret doing – or not doing – during their youth, and things you can do at 40 that you couldn’t at 20. All a bunch of hogwash, really.
Here’s how I look at it: there are certain things we can do now, at whatever age we are, that we couldn’t do 5 years ago or 20 years ago or last week. And there are things we could do then that we can’t do now. Most of it is not directly tied to age, but rather to perspective and experience.
When I was in my 20s, I could ride my mountain bike for long periods of time, at high elevations, without collapsing. That’s because I used to ride my mountain bike a lot, and I lived in a town whose elevation was 9,000 feet above sea level. I have friends, my age and older, who can still do that, because they ride bikes a lot and are bad asses. Me, not so much.
But today I can do a handstand in yoga class, because it’s something I’ve practiced. I can run five miles without getting too tired or too bored. I can be perfectly content sitting at home with a glass of wine and a good book on a Saturday night. I also get more done most days before 7:30 a.m. than I used to in an entire week. That is a simple necessity when managing three children, a house, a small menagerie of furry pets, and professional responsibilities.
Would I trade 40 for 20? Nope. Just as when I was 20 I wouldn’t have dreamed of fast forwarding two decades to 40. There are certainly things I miss about those younger days – being able to walk down to the bar just to see if there was anything interesting going on, sleeping late on days off from work, skiing endless powder runs without worrying about collecting kids from their ski lessons, and – perhaps this one most of all – having the freedom to hop in the car and head out of town for a weeks-long road trip, or deciding on a whim to move to a different country for six months.
That was all fun stuff, and I’m really glad I did it. There are good stories in those experiences, and a few bad ones, too. They all make up the wandering road of my life to this point. I’m also really happy with where I am now. I think if I were still road tripping around, solo, I’d be pretty bummed. Even back then I knew I wanted to settle down sometime, have kids, do good work. And that’s where 40 finds me.
So here’s my birthday epiphany for the year I hit the Big 4-0: however old you are, embrace life. Whatever your age, do the best you can at whatever it is you’re doing. Hopefully it’s something you want to be doing, somewhere you want to be. That way, when you look back, you’ll have fond memories instead of regrets. And when you look forward, you’ll have some idea of where you want to be going, even if you’re surprised when that next big birthday sneaks up on you.