45 Things I’ve Learned on My Way to 40 (That I Wished I Knew Much Younger)

Image uploaded from iOS (15)My brain, and heart, and my vanity are a bit bruised with the realization that I’m stepping on 41. (This is how my father used to greet each year we celebrated a birthday. “You’re stepping on 14!” he’d announce with a huge smile, since birthdays mark the completion of the age you are turning.)

But I am.

At 40 I still consider myself young for several reasons. First, if I got hit by a bus tomorrow and people read my obit, they’d say, “Oh! She was so young!” Second, I feel like I have so much more to learn about life, love, and the universe. Third, I’m only beginning to grasp the things that are most important to me.

And yet. The lines on my brow are more pronounced. My skin isn’t what it used to be. And I have a sideways Z-shaped scowl crease in between my eyebrows from using my deep-in-concentration face far too often.

Lighten up, lady!

I have lived here on Earth, in this body, for four decades.

Along the way, the one thing I’ve most consistently been (besides a female human) is a learner. Most of what I have learned has shocked me, challenged me and made me more whole. And still I persist in humbling myself to the incredible untouched knowledge that surrounds me daily. I am starving with the desire to devour it all.

Yet, learning comes at its own pace, in its own time, when we are ready for it.

As a tribute to the experiences of learning I have had, about six months ago I decided to try to document them, mostly because I wish I’d known most of these a bit younger. Like all my daring intentions begin, this one also started as an experiment. I figured once I documented them, I’d peruse my little experimental list to determine if it was worth sharing. (This is how I trick my ego mind into letting me do stuff without judging me to death.)

I’m not fully certain these are worthy of sharing, but what the heck? I’m 40 now, so who the hell cares?

Full disclosure: these have come from my own experiences as a woman, as a mother, as a wife, as a business owner, and an employee, and numerous other shoes I’ve stumbled around in thus far. That is to say, these ideas/recommendations/musings are unique to my perspective and not at all comprehensive or definitive. So don’t take them that way. I know I don’t.

They are the things I’ve learned along the way that may or may not be helpful to you.

One other detail: since I’ve been compiling these along the way, when tonight came I realized I had 45 to share. Instead of pursuing perfection and editing them down to a more cohesive 40, I got lazy and sassy and ornery, so there are 45. Ergo, in no particular order:

1. Choose your friends very, very carefully. Pick people who know how to handle a fragile heart, rampant self-doubt and are dedicated to helping you find the best version of you.

2. Comparing yourself to other people is a form of self-judgment. It’s highly addictive and highly toxic.

3. At least once be the homeroom parent.

4. Take some photos of yourself pregnant (each time) until you have one you would like to keep. (I’m not talking pre-arranged cheesy photo shoots. Just you, just being. Pregnant.)

5. Don’t stop developing yourself — separate from your spouse, your kids, your family or anything else. You are your best investment.

6. Buy Magic Eraser, OxiClean, Febreze, baby wipes, Clorox Wipes and club soda. They can basically handle any house/clothes/child/spouse/pet/red wine/Sharpie emergency imaginable.

7. Hire a cleaning service and protect it fiercely. Let it be the last thing you cut when times get tough.

8. Times will get tough, whether it is money, family, children, sex, friends, career. When it does, you may get bitter. That’s OK for awhile. But when you are ready, the best antidote to bitterness is to accept the choices you made and then infuse gratitude for the experiences you had because of them.

9. You don’t have to buy a house. You think you do, and it’s nice, but you don’t.

10. The messy, un-manicured moments are the ones you want to capture.

11. There is no formula for your faith. You must eventually create it on your own terms. It might be in the form of a religion. Or not. Either way, your connection to God is what matters most.

12. Take the time and huge personal investment required to teach your children meticulously good manners. This is one of the most useful, productive investments you can make in your kids.

13. Expect that what you will learn in your marriage is that your spouse is flawed. Deeply. And probably not in the way you think. Also, so are you.

14. Understand the unique needs you have as a person. Then create boundaries to protect and minister to them.

15. It really does not matter that: your house is messy, your kids’ socks match, your child’s lunch represents a balanced meal, your Christmas tree goes up on Dec. 1. It just doesn’t.

16. As much as you are able (and even if you don’t especially like them) get to know your parents, and their stories. Writing them down is a bonus. Ask the tough questions and dig into some family mysteries. Once your parents are gone, they will take it all with them.

17. Write lunchbox love notes to your kids as much as you can remember. These small gestures of kindness make a big impact.

18. Whenever you don’t know what to say as a parent: tell your son or daughter you love them no matter what they do or who they are.

19. In a business meeting, hone the art of knowing when to stop talking.

20. If you are the only woman in the room in a business meeting, you must consider this an advantage.

21. Beware the ones who tell you that you can’t. You’ll notice they’re the same ones who haven’t ever.

22. Never apologize for your gifts. Never.

23. Examine your relationship with conflict like a researcher might. Unlocking the pattern of it is likely to lead to greater happiness in life.

24. Hold your spouse accountable for his/her own happiness.

25. Great rules of thumb for kid birthday parties: never on a Sunday, no more than 2 hours and coordinate the number of invites to the age the child is turning.

26. Teach your children: you are not always going to be invited and we can’t always invite everyone.

27. Take time for yourself alone.

28. It’s a huge pain in the neck to pump the tires and keep them inflated, but take family bike rides.

29. Your lady parts will stretch significantly during childbirth. But don’t despair, with a little work, they will bounce back.

30. The best sex you have will be after you are a mother.

31. Keep a mental list of ridiculous things that make you laugh so hard you cry. Refer to them when times get tough or mundane and let go.

32. If you cannot find your ideal work situation, make a careful plan to create it. Test your plan. Then test it again, then test it some more. If it’s profitable, make the leap.

33. When you lead a team, learn something deep about each person involved. Appreciate that in them.

34. Naps are magic golden balm elixir, not signs of weakness. Even 15 minutes lying down with your eyes closed can completely shift your perspective.

35. Develop and regularly revisit shared inside jokes with your spouse, your best friend, your kids. Use these cues to evoke laughter — particularly in the times of life when you are facing the direst situations.

36. Consider the friendships you develop in early adulthood — particularly those formed when your kids are very young — as your family and treat them as such. These are the people who are walking at the same pace you are.

37. Fall in love as many times as you possibly can — with your spouse, with friends, with your kids, with your work, with mentors. Open up to it. Let love be a thing of beauty and a source of energy.

38. Figure out the type of clothing that works for your body type and then invest in pieces that make you feel confident. But play with your clothes. Experiment with trends. Your appearance is a way to find joy in who you are throughout your life.

39. Take videos or make recordings of your children when they are young. I recommend interviewing them about their age, friends, favorite activities as they grow.

40. Stash plastic shopping bags in the door wells of your car. They come in extremely handy with barfy children and over-served friends.

41. Death doesn’t end your relationship with someone you love.

42. Others may expect you to set aside your own needs. But don’t you dare agree.

43. Always clear aside urgent or pressing matters for a friend, employee or colleague who is in pain. There’s nothing more important in that moment than showing love and care.

44. What you are obsessing about in your [fill in the blank: options include child, spouse, best friend, business partner, parent, brother, sister, kid’s teacher] is really about you. Upshot: if it’s about you, you can fix it. Usually by thinking differently.

45. Learning how to breathe is half of getting through life’s most difficult moments.

There. Looking forward to the next 40 years, but mostly, just looking forward to bed.

Advertisements

Why I Gave Up Coffee: Mind Hacks + Memories

35mm_12302_ 023I recently gave up something I loved. It was something I thought I needed to function. It was something I was subtly and happily routinely dependent on.

 

I didn’t give it up for a religious reason or because someone confronted me about it.

 

I did it, as I do many things that I ponder long and hard, as a temporary experiment only.

 

I take this approach, I think, to trick my ego into releasing an established habit on a short-term, no commitment basis only. This little mind hack is super helpful for me because once I am committed to something I am, like, moon-landing committed. So I tend to tiptoe around commitment for a good long while, hemming and hawing, until I know either I am totally ready or I am terrified that I might not be. Either way, it’s that time when I jump.

 

Back to the regularly scheduled confession: For a few important reasons, about a month ago, I gave up drinking coffee.

 

Full disclosure: I still drink a cup of coffee once in awhile. Maybe once a week. Maybe.

 

But that’s it.

 

I used to be a 1-cup-before-I-leave-the-house, then espresso, then maybe an afternoon iced coffee sort of lady.

 

So it wasn’t obscene or gallon-ic level intake. It was probably modest caffeine-ism at best.

 

Honestly, it was the routine of this brown-eyed beverage that I loved the most. I loved the filters, the scooping, the brewing, the miracle of water into coffee dripping, the first pour, and, like many pleasures of mine – the smells. Coffee has the best roasted, earthy, rooted, caramel, smoky, tucked in scent possible.

 

One inhale brings me the full-bodied ideas of mornings of possibility, of standing espresso bars in Italy’s early light, of the care of another for me, of in-depth post-dinner conversations around crammed tables mostly cleared of food, of moments of reassuring sound, when all you hear is a sip and swallow and sigh.

 

I remember as a child, lying half asleep in my grandparent’s cool, dark basement on the sheet-covered sofa as my grandmother, up at 5 or 6 a.m., would put on the stovetop percolator coffee maker, just up the stairs. I would listen to her day beginning and feel intensely comforted. The shuffle of her slippered feet on the orange and cream-colored linoleum tile in the kitchen, the whooshing of cabinets opening and their soft close. The front door creaking as she went to fetch the paper, the tinkling of the cups being set out as the soft pop-pop-blop of the coffee perked on the stove and I drifted back off to sleep.

 

Coffee meant safety, home.

 

I recall watching my mother measuring out the coffee in the maker before guests arrived for dinner, so that all she had to do was hit the button as she cleared plates and – voila! – fresh coffee would pair with her homemade pavlova or pumpkin roll or angel food cake, to her guest’s delight and comfort. When my mother entertained, which she did regularly, her focus was always on her guests’ delight and comfort. My job in this coffee caravan was to fill and set out the cream and sugar in the delicate ceramic coffee service with the painted roses and dessert teaspoons with enamel handles. If she was totally on her game, I served sugar cubes out of a clear crimson glass sugar vase with vintage miniature silver tongs she found at an antique housewares boutique.

 

Coffee meant care, comfort.

 

I tried to like coffee on my own terms in high school and college, but I only pretended to. I drank it to stay awake to study for my AP exams, or to finish a paper. I masked my dislike of the way it hit my stomach and turned it a bit sour. I pretended being shaky after one cup was a fun feeling. I took the gateway cups and fancied them up with flavored creamers, flavored coffees, with cinnamon and raw sugars.

 

Then, I slowly drifted away from my consumption.

 

It was a secret relief.

 

Until 2003, when my daughter was born and coffee became pretty much the only way I was going to survive being a sleep loving, yet sleep deprived, mom of a child who only slept in 4-hour increments until she was 4. Not an exaggeration.

 

From then on, and throughout my time as a mom who works and raises kids full-time, coffee has been my wingman.

 

So why did I give it up?

 

There were health reasons I could have ignored. There were also the memories of shaky hands and sour stomachs that had been so keenly present when I first started drinking it.

 

There was the sense that I wasn’t even feeling those things anymore. Then, there was the notion, needling ever deeper into my heart, that I might not be feeling them because my mind was no longer taking my body’s phone call that coffee and I didn’t really get along. That perhaps all those symptoms were still going on, but that my mind was blocking them.

 

I began to wonder what it would feel like not to drink coffee. How would my body, my blood stream, my temperament respond? What if I could stop that phone from ringing from my body to my brain?

 

I had worked so hard to convince myself over the last 13 years that I needed it, but maybe, when it was all said and done, I didn’t.

 

Ultimately, that’s what made the experiment permanent.

 

Because the notion I couldn’t shake turned out to be right. I felt much clearer, calmer and less sour stomached without coffee. Without it, my hands didn’t shake. I felt less dizzy.

 

I didn’t get as snappy around mid-morning.

 

And I was just as alert, just as on, without it.

 

It was a welcome discovery.

 

It felt right – for me.

 

As I reflected on all of this, I acknowledged we were raised, more than anything else, on tea.

 

My mother was an avid tea drinker before my older brother married a Brit. Every single night when dinner was cleared up, she would put a kettle to boil on the stove. Warming water in the microwave for tea was always out of the question. A piping hot cuppa would accompany her to bed, perching on her stack of books, or would settle her down at the dinner table as she sewed loose buttons or reviewed someone’s final essay or sat you down to talk about your grade in math.

 

Tea greeted us on cold mornings beside bowls of grits or oatmeal or cream of wheat with brown sugar.

 

For my 8th birthday, a formal tea party was held and all the attendees wore gloves. For real.

 

For my mother’s 50th birthday, friends threw her a surprise birthday tea party. I was roped into bringing her to the cute cottage-like tea place for the surprise. She had no idea and was tickled to see her closest friends gathered for her. Surprising the best hostess in the group was never an easy task.

 

For her 61st birthday, we held a tea party for her once again.

 

She had just found out her cancer was on the march again. And I mean crying-in-the-car-all-the-way-there – just. None of her adoring guests, those who came in fancy dresses and ridiculous hats, knew yet that she’d just received her death sentence.

 

She wore one of her mother’s vintage pillbox hats with faux wild roses in pink and orange around the brim. Her hair was thin, her skin was yellowish and she was gauntly thin. But she would not cancel.

 

What I remember of her on that day were her wide smiles, her tears of joy, the sound of her throaty laugh, the one where she clapped her hands together in delight as she tipped back her chin and bellowed.

 

I remember giving her my gift — the ham-handed “MOM” child’s level cross-stitch I had made for her over the last two months – an attempt to be more of the handy daughter I thought she really wanted when I was a kid. I remember how she welled up then and I felt so deeply in my bones that this $5 token was successful at expressing something of the total devotion of love I felt for her.

 

I remember how all her friends fawned over her, showered her with gifts and generally made her feel as if she was the queen herself.

 

She loved tea. And she loved tea parties.

 

It was the last party we had for her that really mattered.

 

We all have to learn to let go of the things we think we need in this life.

 

When we don’t want to, when we can’t imagine ever doing it, and when we choose to and when we can.

 

Whether it’s coffee or tea, or a bad habit or a good friend who’s done you wrong.

 

Whether it’s something you use to cope with life or the someone who gave you life.

 

At 40, I think I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter how we let go – if we use mind hacks, denial, dextox or heart-pouring mourning.

 

It’s only in the letting that we go.

 

 

 

Why I Love Reading the Obits

Reading paper

One thing I inherited from my parents and grandparents is a love and respect of the newspaper. Like, the actual printed one. (Yes, I still get the local printed paper, delivered to our door, two days per week.)

One thing I inherited directly from my mother was a love of the obituaries.

During her 62 years, she read them religiously. Especially the Sunday obits. Those she would pour over.

Yes, it was sad. Yes, she would cry.

When I moved out and eventually got married and took the paper at my house a few miles away, she would call me on Sunday morning, in tears.

“Have you read the paper yet? You must read this obituary,” she’d manage between tear-cracked tones.

So I would. Sometimes I would read it as she waited on the phone. Sometimes I’d read it and call her back, in tears. We’d swap highlights and pine, together, over it all.

Since she’s been gone, two things.

First, I took extreme care in writing her obituary. I felt it was a masterpiece and a ridiculously incomplete sliver of a tribute to a woman so much richer, fuller and more complex than those thin lines of ink and newsprint could bear. I think it was decent, though, because I received several letters from complete strangers who were moved enough to send me a note of their condolences.

Second: I still read the obituaries whenever I get a chance.

I cry to myself, inevitably tearing up and shedding saltwater over long lives, short ones, loves lost, details missing and those present. I trace the life lines of each individual’s path through the world, via careers, moves, re-inventions, second and third careers, pre-deceased children, rich relationships and charitable pursuits. You see so much in these concise pieces: meaning and measure, risk and failure, secrets and scars, and love, and love, and love.

It always overcomes me.

My husband asks me why I do it to myself, as my teenage daughter turns on her heel and storms out, embarrassed, and my youngest cuddles up with comforting hugs.

So imagine my delight when coming upon this Ted talk by Lux Narayan, CEO of Unmetric, who shares our devotion to the obituaries and who used his company’s technology to analyze 2,000 New York Times obituaries to see what the data would reveal about the achievements of those featured – famous and common.

You should watch the Ted talk, it’s only 6 minutes.

Here are three things about what Lux and Unmetric found that jumped out at me.

First, the average age people made their first major accomplishments. There was only one age in the late 20s (sports), just one in the mid-30s (art, film, literature) – and the rest of the first major accomplishments (business, medicine, engineering, law, academics, science, politics) were made in the early to mid-40s.

For a lady about to turn the big 4-0, who has lots more she wants to accomplish, this was welcome news.

Second, of all 2,000 obituaries analyzed, the most significant words tended to be creative ones: Artist, Singer, Director, Writer, Pioneer. Also among the top: Leader, Led, Founder, Reporter, Advocate, Activist, Survived, Transform, Creator, Music, Author, Fight, Fought, and my person favorite, Voice.

How sweet it is that the artists, the rebels, the transformers are those we revere once they leave us.

(Spoiler alert: Here’s what wasn’t on the list: spreadsheets, timesheet, hours worked, stable, safe, corporate, retirement, insurance, follower, accept, allow, same.)

Here’s the last of my many takeaways: Narayan also did a side-by-side comparison of the famous obits and the normal people obits, looking at the significant and most frequent words.

Here are the top 7 for each:

Famous

Year

Art

One

World

Help

American

John

 

Not Famous

Help

Year

Time

One

John

Music

First

 

Three words are common between the two lists: Help, Year, One and, oddly, John.

(If you’re named John, good on you. If not, you won’t be offended that I don’t comment on that interesting tidbit.)

Help. Year. One.

What do these three words tell us about people who make enough of an impact to be featured on the New York Times obituary page?

Here’s my take:

They were compassionate doers.

They used their time wisely.

They exercised their courage enough to do something different, something that made them stand out.

That’s it.

As I approach my fourth decade, I am characteristically reflecting on my four decades. I’m sifting through my accomplishments and cross-referencing goals. I’m paying homage to the difficulties I’ve experienced and for the chances they gave me to grow. I’m getting a bit anxious over the pending “to do” list.

Since my mom died unexpectedly at 62, I realize time is short.

But this is welcome navigation.

Care.

Do – now.

Be the one.

Oh, and, keep reading the obits.