When I was in elementary school, the fifth graders were awe-inspiring. They were such big kids, they were all so smart, and the girls were beautiful. I mean, they had all their front teeth; they were practically women. Once I became a fifth grader, though, I didn’t feel like the person I’d seen when I gazed up at her from the lower grades. I was uncoordinated, I hated my hair, I never felt like my clothes looked like everyone else’s, and my teeth, while present, were far from perfect. As a sixth grader, eighth graders became my new fifth graders. As a freshman, it was the seniors I idolized. Each time, when I finally ascended to the peak I’d admired, I found that it wasn’t what I thought it would be; I wasn’t what I thought I’d be. Either I hadn’t seen those who went before me clearly, or I simply didn’t measure up. As a young person, I wasn’t sure which was true.
Once I made my way through my twenties (not having had my life “all figured out” by 25 was another buzz kill), the disconnect between my preconceived notions of age and my real-life experiences continued, but it began to turn on its head. I suppose, in my mind, I’d always categorized age into two columns: <30=young and active, achieving >30=old and stagnant, arrived. Each time I hit one of those sub-30 milestones and didn’t feel completely thrilled with who and where I was, I saw myself as underachieving. I wasn’t everything that I could or should be, or I wasn’t getting there in time. (In time for what, I’m not really sure.)
Since turning 30, I’m still at odds with the expectations I’d had for each age-related milestone. Now, though, this no longer disappoints me. You see, I thought that yesterday, when I turned 36, I’d feel old. Somehow, I’d gotten to thinking that one’s twenties were the decade for living– the one we’d all been allotted to make money, travel, achieve, and live fully before 30 arrived—that watershed age at which we’d be shackled to home, children, and the small circle and quiet routines associated with them. Once I hit thirty, I reasoned, I’d better have lots of good living to look back on, because things would be pretty boring from that point on. It’s not that way, though.
Here I am, really looking at 40 for the first time without having to squint, and to my great surprise—I like what I see. When I look back on my twenties, the parts I remember most fondly are those parts that helped my thirties become what they are: finding my true vocation in teaching, meeting the man who would become my husband and the father of my children, and every little snapshot in time that makes up those particular albums. I don’t long for any of the other stuff or mourn its status as past—even the good bits. Mostly, as I near 40, I’ve realized that the best part of life is—or should be—the living one is doing right now.
If a person looks around her world and sees only what is wrong with it, it’s not a problem of age, it’s a problem of perception. Whether using the long or short lens, if looking around at the world yields only pictures of what’s wrong (the jerk politician ruining our state, the unfulfilling job, the crappy service at restaurants, the wood trim you hate but can’t afford to paint, the toddler who just can’t seem to get on the potty training bandwagon, the bum shoulder that doesn’t allow you to swim), then life has truly become old. It’s easy for a person to settle into a life with which she’s constantly dissatisfied. Nothing is right, everyone disappoints, everything is going to hell, and everyone needs to know about it. That just not the view I choose to take. If I were to take that view, then by 40 I’d feel every bit as old and curmudgeonly as I always thought I would in my twenties.
At 36, the stuff of my life is more than some, less than others, but the substance of it? The meat? That I’ve got in spades. I have a husband who knows that little things make a birthday great. I have a son who asks me to lie with him in bed after I read him bedtime stories and scolds me when I doze because he wants to talk. I have three parents—three—who all took time out to call me on my birthday, telling me they love me and that they’re proud of me. I have a baby girl for whom I’m the whole world and whose smile makes sure I know it.
Are there some things I wish were different in my world? Sure, but most are either very small or very far from me and mine. I’ve decided that unless I’m willing to put some sweat equity into changing the few things with which I’m unhappy—to do something more than idly criticize or pass along an ill-conceived, cynical tweet—it’s really best to just to refocus the lens on what’s right rather than what’s wrong. Add a filter. Screen out anything that obscures my view of the good stuff.
I understand that there are new and different problems that mount with each consecutive year. I don’t have the burden of declining health and an aging body that I likely will someday, but I really do believe that no matter what or how many the successes and disappointments in one’s life, how satisfied a person is with the life she’s living is less about what is present or missing and more about that on which she chooses to dwell.