Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
In 20 days I will turn 40. Like everyone else in the world, or maybe just everyone in America, I was hoping to rise above certain negative and personal issues and be a certain kind of awesome person by this particular mid-life birthday, without the crisis part. I have a feeling that this existential reckoning with the age of 40 is mostly an American type of angst, but I’m merely speculating.
I’ve had other such idealistic expectations in the past — when I was very sick with an unknown illness, I wanted to be healed by one of my birthdays. I felt strongly that it would be so. Perhaps this is because a birthday heralds a new year of life. And my birthday, November 26th, always falls in close proximity to Thanksgiving Day as well as the beginning of Advent.
So why not be healed — physically and spiritually — as I give thanks for my life? Why not be healed as we begin a new year in the Church calendar and symbolically await Christ’s birth — the most important life ever to be lived? It seemed perfectly reasonable and poetic to me. But what is reasonable to me is rarely reasonable to God. He did heal me, but not by my 30s or during my favorite season, autumn. He healed me in the summer of 2010 with a surgery of epic proportions. It took 8 hours. My innards were cleansed of “an explosion” (the surgeon’s words) of endometriosis.
So, will I become Super Zen Jenni in less than a month? Will I be a woman who is fazed by nothing, striding through this world with impenetrable confidence? Probably not, but I’ve slowly come to believe that’s okay.
* * *
My 40th birthday wish list:
To not catch the flu. I caught the flu on my 38th and 39th birthdays and it was really lame.
Several hours to not feel as if I have to work, write, clean, do laundry, talk, or run errands and just read a good book with a cup of coffee or tea. Or a glass of red wine.
In the words of Mary Oliver, “I want // to think again of dangerous and noble things. / I want to be light and frolicsome. / I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing, / as though I had wings.” It’s been too long.
An Ethiopian food dinner with my husband followed by a good cigar, like a Arturo Fuente Hemingway Short Story. If nothing else, I am literary through and through.
In addition to my current dream jobs of writer and editor, I would love to have Terry Gross’s job, or one very similar to it. Read books, watch films and TV, listen to music, and talk with the authors, directors, actors, and musicians? Bliss.
Last month I dreamt that a friend gave me a hot air balloon ride — that would also be awesome.
How about a new record player? My favorite CDs on vinyl? A turquoise Le Creuset tea kettle? Cat eye reading glasses? A mani/pedi? Subscriptions to Deeply Rooted magazine and The Paris Review? Books are always welcome.
* * *
In 10 days I will turn 40. I know that my husband and I will celebrate my birthday, and my parents will celebrate at their house when we travel to Dallas for Thanksgiving Day. But other than that, I don’t have a big celebration planned. One friend has joked about my need for a big party, but I laughed it off. The thought of a surprise party doesn’t scare me nearly as much as it did in my 20s, but really, I’m not expecting one nor will I be sad without one. If anything, I’d much rather celebrate with a few friends in the style of something like a Pinterest photograph.
Today a friend and I chatted after church about people’s inquiries of me lately, “Have you done anything exciting lately? Do you have any exciting plans for Christmas?” These types of questions usually pop up at appointments — the dentist, a haircut, etc. Lately, life is good and steady, but not exciting. My friend and I pondered, does everything really need to be exciting? A haircut is pretty exciting in my book. Maybe I’ll tell my hair stylist, “Congratulations, you’re the excitement!”
My friend and I also discussed our love for the mundane, which can also be pretty thrilling. She offered the stellar yet very ordinary combination of a croissant and a cup of coffee. Also, the existence of butter. Today, for me, 30 minutes to read and sip coffee in the quiet of my house before church was amazing. And this moment, as I type: a window table at a favorite Starbucks, a hazelnut Americano, earphones & the music of Sigur Rós, rain, people-watching, pedestrian-watching, train-watching, and a crane at rest over a building in progress in the distance — all of this is not what most people label as exciting, but for an introvert it’s sublunary perfection. And the Christmas lights on the palm trees outside just switched on, and Christmas lights are magical to me anywhere, anytime.
Did I mention that buildings in progress lit up at night give me hope? They are so beautiful in their raw, symmetrical state. One day, they will be whole. One day, I will be whole, too.
* * *
Who I wanted to be by age 40:
A better, more selfless, less emotional/complicated wife.
A more consistent house-cleaner and cook.
A disciplined writer.
A more prolific freelance editor.
A self-employer who could afford health insurance.
A woman who knew what the heck to do with her hair, and had a little more fashion sense. Get a capsule wardrobe already. (What is a capsule wardrobe?)
* * *
“Oh my God, what if you wake up some day, and you’re 65, or 75, and you never got your memoir or novel written; or you didn’t go swimming in warm pools and oceans all those years because your thighs were jiggly and you had a nice big comfortable tummy; or you were just so strung out on perfectionism and people-pleasing that you forgot to have a big juicy creative life, of imagination and radical silliness and staring off into space like when you were a kid? It’s going to break your heart. Don’t let this happen.” —Anne Lamott
Oh my God, I don’t want to break my own heart. I do want to write that memoir (or two or three), my book about daily liturgies, and heck, maybe even a novel. And oh my God, I have been strung out on perfectionism and people-pleasing like a bonafide junkie. I’ve been startled lately to discover that my sense of humor is deflated. I’ve forgotten how to laugh until it hurts.
During the past year, I feel like I’ve been grasping for life, white-knuckled. Yet at other times I could feel life coursing through me from head to toe. What do I want to do with my one wild and precious life? To not let go of life and living, that’s what.
I want to be healed from the emotional issues that have plagued me for 39 years—my own Bethseda, a story from the Gospel of John, chapter 5. Jesus asked that man who had been an invalid for 38 years, Do you want to be healed? As for me? Yes. Yes, I do. I’m ready to pick up my mat and walk. Mostly, I want to quit worrying about what people think of me. Quit thirsting for their approval. What do they think of my hairdo? Do they notice that I’ve gained 10 pounds? Do they think it’s strange I work in yoga pants unless I get out of the house and am forced to put on real clothes?
I do not want to worry about other people’s varied, ever-changing, unreliable opinions. I want to cast off the anxiety and fretting and self-hatred that so easily entangle me and choose life. According to Abraham Heschel (and Deuteronomy 30:19 and Twitter), that is God’s chief commandment. Wait, isn’t it to love my neighbor as I love myself? But see, I need to love myself before I can love my neighbor well. It’s tricky.
I’ve been wandering around my own life for 40 years like a damned Israelite in the wilderness. I’m ready to enter the Promised Land, or as a child in Sunday School said last week, “The Lovely Land.” I want my spirit to run wild and laugh hysterically in a wide and spacious place, comfortable in my own skin, clothed in Christ. I want to live.
* * *
In 6 days I will turn 40. It’s not likely that I will be Super Zen Jenni in a week. It’s not likely that I’ll be Super Zen Jenni ever in my life. But I do know that God will continually breathe life into me as He has all of these 40 years. He accomplished quite a bit during the first week of creation, so I know that He will do a great deal of creative work in me this week. I may not see it quite clearly by November 26th, but I will thank Him for all of the soulful, restorative creativity a few days later when I gather with my husband, family, friends, and their children in Houston for an Ethiopian food dinner, and French macarons for dessert.
* * *
Who I will most likely be on November 26, 2014:
A woman with curly, short hair and a petite, curvy body.
A woman who struggles with the conventional concept of time — general punctuality and writing deadlines, especially.
A woman who will continually search for good art wherever it may be found.
A woman who will continually seek God and the beauty of His holiness.
A woman who does not shave her legs every week.
A woman whose perception of her appearance may never size up with all the beauty I see in the world.
. . . And all of this is perfectly okay. If I’ve figured out one thing about turning 40, it’s that this life is not about attaining perfection of any kind. It’s not all about me. It’s just about living and enjoying this one wild and precious and messy and wonderful life.