Things I'm Learning in Middle Age
Friends, not long ago I celebrated my birthday (and I'm STILL waiting for your gift, you ungrateful cheapskates). Now this was not a traditional milestone birthday - just 38, merely 38, only 38 (sigh) - but it feels somehow important in a way that previous birthdays in my 30's haven't. 31 - 37 breezed in and by without much angst or excitement, but 38 carries some heft with it for some reason. Because I'm now officially in my late 30's? Because my high school graduation was 2 whole decades ago? Because it's the first birthday I've celebrated since having achieved regular nights of uninterrupted sleep post-Smartlings? It's hard to say why, but I can definitely say that 38 feels good: meaningful, rich, full of promise and full of weight.
38 is my feet planted sturdily on the ground, knowing who I am rather than wondering who I'm becoming. 38 is growing, but from firmly established roots. 38 is still learning, but 38 is no dummy. 38 is the fertile nexus of experience and youthful vigor. 38 is gravitas within reach of one hand and enthusiasm in the firm grasp of the other.
38 is the fucking shit.
And, while those of you with more years under your belt may scoff at my girlish delight in my meager years, I am working on learning some small pieces of wisdom. So, here is a humble list of things I know now that I didn't know when I was unequivocally young. I wish I had been able to know these things earlier, but knowing now isn't half bad. Half a lifetime without these, and half with. It's the beauty of midlife. I'll take it.
1. No Guilty Pleasures
I used to feel bad about the things that made me feel good. I shamefully snuck out for secret fast food on my lunch breaks, hid mass-market novels and self-help books in a drawer rather than shelving them next to the "real" books, and lied to myself and others about the appalling quantity and quality of reality TV I loved. But, sometime in the past couple of years, it was just to exhausting to pretend to be smarter, more mature, more high-brow than I really am. So, no more guilt about the pleasures. I will happily talk your ear off about the last season of The Bachelor*, fake "cheeze" is in my top-5 favorite foods (in both cracker and queso form), and, yes, I HAVE read Holly Madison's first memoir**. And I will high five myself all the way to the grave for my love of this shit, and I will fight to the death for your right to high-five yourself for your (victimless, all consenting adults) pleasures, too.
2. Err On the Side of Fun (But Know What Your Fun Is)
I spent so much of my 20's being responsible all the damn time. I really and truly did not understand what one's 20's are for and, while all that goal-setting and -achieving did work out well for me, I missed out on a lot of good times. Not so in my 30's, friends! Particularly since having kids, an advent that makes opportunities to have grown-up fun rarer and therefore more precious, I say yes to things far more often than I have in the past.
The objections to having fun seem paltry and invalid the older I get. Will it mean spending money? Who cares? My overall yearly budget on fun is so low that, overall, it won't matter. Plus we have grown-up money now, not grad-student (non-)money. LET'S DO IT! Will it mean staying up late and being tired the next day? I was going to be tired the next day anyway, as I am every damn day. LET'S DO IT! Will it mean the logistical nightmare of coordinating multiple parties' schedules and ability to find sitters? Having managed classrooms and a busy family, I am up to that challenge! LET'S DO IT!
But, as I age, I also know what fun means for me. I do not go clubbing, as I tried to in my 20's at friends' insistence, because it loud and sweaty and awful. And I do not go out drinking much anymore because I never really liked it even though I was supposed to. Those "fun" things aren't fun for me. But I'll drop everything and honor what is really fun for me. I'll leave my life in a heartbeat to go do karaoke with you because that sounds loud and sweaty and AWESOME! And I'm there at any nerdy reading or museum opening or new play. Because that's my fun, and I know to honor that now and to honor it whenever I can.
3. Speak Up (Discerningly)
I have a habit of running my mouth. I know you're shocked, but it's true. I swear. And, formerly, I'd happily argue you into the ground proving it. This quality is useful; I'm eager to state my mind and will expend tremendous energy to change yours. It's also dangerous. I've wasted hours, days, years fighting battles that I was only destined to lose because the purpose of the battle was never an exchange of ideas, but rather an exhibition of clever yelling. The last place I should admit this is The Internet, but, because of this, historically I've also been generally easy to bait. This means that, where I intend to approach a conflict with ideas and reason, I sometimes wind up leaving it with a trail of noise behind me, either because it was the other person's purpose in being noisy and I blindly followed, or because I don't know when to stop.
But as time goes on, I'm starting to realize the wisdom in the warning not to wrestle with pigs because I'll just get covered in mud, and the pig likes it. I can speak up for what I believe is right and true, but I don't have to take all comers who seek to fight me on their terms. I can recognize a pig for what it is and leave it in its pen. I can use both articulate sound and dismissive silence as tools of communication and self-expression.
4. Be Comfortable With Others' Discomfort.
This one just popped into my head like a lightning bolt the other day when I was trapped in front of an angry, honking, gesticulating, red-faced driver as he loudly, wildly tried to convince me from his car to abandon my intention of turning left, which stalled his progress, and instead continue straight, where I was not going. It was a ridiculous display of entitlement and rage, and, as I watched him foam in the driver's seat, my brain calmly said "I am comfortable with your discomfort." This goes hand in hand with knowing when to let pigs wallow in their mud alone. I acknowledge that there are those who are made uncomfortable with what I say, or what I do, or who I am, and, well... that's fine. How sad for them to have such raw feelings about my actions, but, really that's fine with me. I accept that. I don't have to engage in every fight or make everyone a fan.***
38 promises to be a good year for me, with this list as a good guiding point. What have you learned as you've gotten older, dear Smarties? What rules or wisdom can you share? I look forward to reading your advice and putting it into practice along with the above.
*What is this Lauren B. bullshit? Jojo got robbed! Granted, she was robbed of an opportunity to get engaged to a guy who was bland at best, but still! Also, you know, nuanced feminist critique yadda yadda yadda, but JOJO FOREVER.
**But I hid it from the Smartlings, may they please grow up better than those who produced them.
***Word to the wise, DO NOT tell the person whose discomfort you're accepting that you are comfortable with their unhappiness. I did this recently with spectacularly terrible results, which, really, I should have foreseen. In my head it sounded all zen and shit, but coming out of my mouth nothing could have sounded more arrogant or dismissive. Clearly this will make a good entry for "Things I've Learned: 2017 Edition," since clearly 2016 is ruined for this point.