A woman at my synagogue asked me the other day, out of the blue, how old I am, and before I could think I blurted out, “forty.” I had just turned forty three days earlier and it was on the tip of my tongue to say so. And then I got scared. The thing is, I do not look forty. This woman said I looked 20 or 25, and even if she was being nice, I really do look like I could be thirty years old, and I’d rather people think I am younger, because my resume is really short for a forty year old.
We have a lot of expectations about what people will have done by certain ages, and, in an upper middle class, Jewish community on Long Island, these expectations can be unbearably high. Everyone’s kid is successful, and married, and has a nice apartment in the city, or a house in the suburbs. Everyone is very busy, and works out, and has a smart phone glued to their head. I don’t fit in, and I keep thinking, when they realize that I’m not just a ne’er do well thirty year old, but a ne’er do well forty year old, I’ll be kicked out.
In some ways, I feel all forty of those years weighing on me. Everything in my body hurts, and I need naps every day, and some days I feel closer to eighty than to forty. But emotionally, intellectually, I feel like I’m just getting started. There’s so much more that I want to learn and do. There are so many books left to write and left to read. There are so many people to meet and places to go.
I’ve written novels and short stories and essays and poems and drafts and drafts and endless drafts. I’ve taken classes in almost every kind of writing (except journalism, which terrifies me), and earned two masters degrees, and discovered that I will never run out of things to write, or things to learn. I’ve been with the same therapist for twenty years and have been diligent and hard working on every issue. I’m still not done, still not healed, but without all of this work I would be dead, so, thumbs up?
None of this is what I had planned, though. I planned to publish novels. I planned to be on talk shows, and teach writing classes, and meet the president, whoever she happens to be. I planned to drive carpool, and sing my children to sleep, and laugh with my husband every day.
I don’t think Cricket and Butterfly are aware of their ages. Cricket doesn’t look at herself in the mirror and say, Damn, I look good for an eight year old. Butterfly isn’t pacing he floor, worrying that she hasn’t napped enough and time is running out. They don’t judge themselves. They may judge me, but not themselves.
I don’t think Cricket has any concept of getting older. Time passes, sure, but from her point of view, it’s everything outside of herself that’s changing, not something on the inside. She’s the stable center of the world. Just ask her. Butterfly, I think, has a bit more awareness of the changes she’s gone through over time. We celebrate her gotcha day, rather than her birthday, because we don’t know for sure when she was born. She has lumps and bumps on her skin, and diabetes, and a heart murmur to show for her ten years. She gets back spasms when she tries to follow Cricket on her running and jumping sprees. And maybe she can feel in her body how many more years she has left. She’s an intuitive little creature. But actual birthdays? She’s got to be thinking, why would anyone choose to have only one day a year to be celebrated when they could be celebrated every day?
As a child, I felt like I was drowning in failure, even though I did well in school. I couldn’t figure out how to have good friendships, or how to communicate well enough to teachers, or with my parents, to get my needs met. I felt like there was a whole other language that I was supposed to have mastered, but no one was teaching it to me. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize that I have to make up that language myself, because most people are in the same boat, unable to articulate the things they most need to say.
Even now, the road forward is anything but clear, and will probably be too slow and take too long and inspire impatience in the people around me. I will hesitate and make mistakes and choose anything but the path they see as being outlined in neon lights, because I can’t see that path at all.
Dogs live much shorter lives than we do, and yet they feel less pressure to achieve great things, or so I assume, because I’ve never seen Cricket at the computer logging on to Kahn Academy. I wonder if, with fewer years to work with, we’d make better choices about how to live them.
For my birthday this year, I want to learn to live more like a dog, to judge myself on who I am first and what my resume says another time, or never. I want to wake up in the morning thinking about what I need, and who I love, and how lovely the snow looks on the pine trees, instead of worrying about all of the milestones I have yet to meet.
I think Cricket and Butterfly are prepared to help me with this.