When I turned 21 I cried all afternoon, tucked into the bay window of my college room, in the corner of the upstairs of my college house. Caught in between a waitressing shift and the mid-July heat of Waltham, Mass, I had taken the night off to have dinner at Joe’s in Boston and to then order legit drinks at some pool hall nearby. Jillian’s maybe. I played pool a lot in those days, and smoked cigarettes and listened to the Dead and the White Album with my feet hanging out of the window of my college boyfriend’s Volkswagon Golf. I read Peyton Place and thought about turning phrases one day the way Grace Metalious could—Indian summer is a like a woman.
It was the most grown-up 21st birthday on record I’m pretty sure, which is, I imagine, why I cried. I didn’t cry that way when I turned 30. I had a husband and a six-month old and a shirt that fit and a table at an Upper West Side restaurant filled with people I liked and family-style Italian. 30 didn’t feel any different than 29. If anything, 30 was validating. It was time to be 30.
The next time I cried was at 32, when my grandmother—a challenging and angry old woman by then, (formerly challenging and angry, too, but also other better things)—died at the crack of dawn on my birthday. It’s possible of course that she died before midnight, on the 15th. We don’t know. But I think it was the 16th. I think she thought about calling me at 7 am and singing to me as she had every birthday my whole life long and that she died just before she could. I cried because it was so shocking—she was 90 yes, but willful and strong and present, not dying, not dead. I cried because she wouldn’t meet my son who had been born just three weeks prior. I cried because she would never call me on April Fools Day again either. She would never know that I had more books on the way—good ones, important ones—and that despite her temperamental nature, it was her love of my writing that made me trust her until the end, and in some ways helped me trust myself, too.
So, it makes sense that I cried that year.
And I didn’t think I’d cry now at 40 the way I cried at 21 because not many people get to 40 in such great shape—not physical shape incidentally, given my arthritic knees and sudden onset sun spots—but metaphysically, 40 is an incredibly happy place for me. I’m grateful as can be.
And yet, it is midnight and 40 is here now and with it, this brand new decade and here I am feeling those 21 year old feelings. Youth giving way to age. A lump in my throat. Dinner reservations and camp trunks and to do lists and yes, I’ve read every last piece of inspired this is 40 writing there is. I get it. 40 is great. 40 is the new 30. The new 21 even. I’ve written about it myself. And it’s all true. You get to be who you meant to be at 40—you can stop trying so hard, hang out only with people who make you laugh and who make you feel understood. You can eat bread and m&ms today and know that tomorrow you won’t because you know yourself now. You’ll get it back together because you’ve gotten it back together before.
So, I wasn’t going to say any more on this topic. I was just going to have a big party and smile and thank God and the universe for bringing me to this day. Until I realized, about 20 minutes ago, that I had a tiny little something to say about it. 40 is not just a number. 40 is a real thing, and it is okay to cry about it if you have to, for a minute, or a day or two, because transitions are hard. And this a transition. I have to stop being in my 30’s now the way a child has to stop playing tag and head back inside when recess is over. And recess was good, man.
My 30s were really, really good to me, too. Recess good. I got two kids and my own book series out of my 30s. I got an apartment and then a house in my 30s. I got closer with my family, closer with old friends, even closer with new friends.
So I’m heading inside from recess toward the unknown and I’m thinking, there could either be a boring math lesson around that corner or maybe a new student from a far off place, or maybe a special project with tempera paint and clay. Maybe it’s someone’s birthday and there will be cupcakes and a read-aloud. I don’t know. You never know.
All of the sudden I’m not going to cry though. Because that’s it. Recess was good. It did the trick. Accomplished what it was meant to do, and now I’m all filled up with fresh air and ready to take a seat after running around with my friends. I’m ready. Even if there is no cupcake. Even if it’s math.
It would be so nice to hear my grandmother’s voice this morning. It might even be nice to stick my feet out the window and smoke a cigarette, while, I don’t know– while my guitar gently weeps. That’s nostalgia for you. All music and feet out the window, no tears.
You don’t get those things back, though. You just get to take them with you to the next thing and the next thing is right now. So, I’ll happily soak up the whispered happy birthdays of my sleepy kids, the bear hug of my husband, the Facetime with my nieces. I’ll take this bright, sunshine-y day, too, and all the days to come over the course of this next decade. And I’ll carry it with me to the next thing after that, too.
I’m ready. Time for math (and cupcakes).