The End (Or, My Forties Begin)

This is the end of a three-and-a-half-year journey, and if you went on this journey with me, even for just a while, thank you.

I started this blog because I wanted to amass a fan base, which I wanted to do because I wanted to sell a book, which I wanted to do because I wanted people to hear my voice—and also, to be wholly honest, because I believed publishing a book would validate my existence. Perhaps becoming “known” as a writer was my “immortality project.” I was 35, wrestling with my own mortality—and my own worth. My whole adult life I’ve been trying to solve these two related conflicts. I don’t want to die, but if I have to die, I’d better make this life meaningful by … ?

There’s the blank I’ve been trying to fill in ever since I started writing, as far back as I can remember. To make meaning.

I’m sure I won’t stop trying to do that, but in the last 3+ years, I’ve come far. As I look out on my forties, here’s what I know. (Oh great, another one of these clickbait things. Thanks, asshole.)

In my last few moments of life, it won’t matter if I was published on McSweeney’s. Or the Times or the New Yorker. It won’t. People won’t remember it. Morbid as I am, I used to imagine what my obituary would say, and I’d feel distressed because it would reveal the plain truth: I was a humble teacher, like so many others—and like so many others, my writerly hopes were never realized.

Then I started thinking about what people would remember. Not what would appear in some kind of official record, but what people would say about me at my memorial service. What comes to mind is something Erma Bombeck once said. It’s a theistic saying, but you can take God out (or conceive of “God” as whatever it means to you):

“When I stand before God at the end of my life,” she said, “I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me’.”

I will never be an Olympian. I will never be a doctor who saves lives. I will never be a performer who sells albums and fills venues. I will never win a Pulitzer Prize or National Book Award, and I might never even publish a book.

But I can sing, passably, joyfully, in an empty room. I can sing the songs of my grandmother’s era, soft and soulful, for my child. I can accompany friends and students on the piano. I can spell words for people and answer grammar questions. I can write, and edit, a mean essay. I can spend my days helping people be better readers and writers. I can meet students with love every day. I can compliment people. I can listen to them and reassure them. And most important of all, never to be underestimated, I can make them laugh.

I’m using everything I have.

Will I keep writing? Oh, god, of course. And sharing. I might even post a few things here, but not regularly. With this blog, I met my goal of making my voice heard in a way I hadn’t expected. People from all across cyberspace listened. More important, people I know in real life listened, coming to know me more intimately than I could have imagined.

So that’s what I’ve learned about success and achievement. Here’s what I’ve learned about myself:

I’m weird, ugly, self-conscious, self-absorbed, much too judgmental, and at times, inexplicably self-destructive. And you know what? So are you, and so is everyone else. Because that’s what humans are.

I prefer being alone. I prefer expressing myself through writing rather than interacting with people face to face. I’m driven by the need to think, plan, and solve problems, and I prefer to spend my time doing those things. I am no longer going to feel guilty for needing time alone. I’m going to stop apologizing for not deriving fulfillment from tasks that force me to be intellectually passive, including cooking (I tried, I fucking don’t care), routine child care (I love my kid; staying home with him is still awful), and things most people consider “relaxing” or “fun” (going to sporting events or movies sans a crossword puzzle book). I’m not going to change, nor do I want to change. Italians have a saying for this kind of self-acceptance: Sono fatto così (I was made that way; that’s how I’m made). While I want to spend the rest of my life giving of myself, I don’t have to be miserable doing it. So, boundaries.

Finally, here’s what I’ve learned about relationships:

Love is not something that happens to you. Initially, it might be, but over the course a relationship, it’s an action, something you choose to do every day. And it’s hard to make that choice daily, because we’re selfish creatures who are never satisfied. I spent the first three decades of my life trying to be loved and listened to and understood. The rest of my life is for trying to love and to listen and to understand. I have far to go. Do we tune out our spouses when we’re busy and wait impatiently for them to finish telling a story? (I do.) Do we fight the urge to run and hurl ourselves off the nearest parapet* when our kid is talking about Minecraft again? (Yep. Also, I’m perfectly aware that none of you have parapets nearby. I just like the way that sounds.) Do we find ourselves immediately judging and condemning before trying to understand? (Um, this is pretty much my whole existence.)

We resist loving. I never would have said that about myself when I was younger, full of dreams about perfect friendship and perfect romance. The resistance is palpable, a catch in the chest. I have to stay with the feeling, as Buddhists do, until it softens, until I can accept it and move past it, and open. (By that time, my husband’s story is already over, and I’ve heard none of it. Sorry, honey. I’ll practice.)

That’s what life and love, and even religion, are, right? Practice. Rehearsing for the future, and ultimately, as philosophers have always understood, for death.

As I come back to finish this post, I’ve spent a typical morning. I’m harried, not having enough time to finish everything that has to be done. I’m trying to clean the house before my parents arrive so I can show them I’m not a total failure and can handle my life (even though I can’t sometimes). I want to punch my husband for taking out the trash without tying up the bag. I pause on the way back the hallway, looking at our family photos, at the collages of my husband and me when we were children. The photo of him as he looked when I met him feels familiar, but his other faces are still mysteries to me. I wonder how I can ever hope to know this person. I wonder (again) if I can truly love, or if I’m broken. In another frame, my six-month-old son smiles gummily at me, a mere seed of the person he’s becoming. Now, I know everything about him, but soon he’ll start to have secrets, his own faces I can’t fully know.

And I’m fine with that. I accept that it’s impossible for us to know and understand one another completely. But I know that we must never stop trying.

This is my forties. A decade to focus on giving. On being rather than seeming (and sometimes it’s a very fine line).

Namaste. And I mean that for everybody. Even you fucking scary weird-ass clowns.

7 thoughts on “The End (Or, My Forties Begin)

  1. You know, your 40s are when you’re supposed to start to become wise. Looks like you’ve jumped the gun. I love your words. And you. (In all of your weird, ugly, self-conscious, self-absorbed, much too judgmental, and self-destructiveness.)

  2. Not to go Jane Austen on your ass, but you pierce my soul. I feel your longing and sense your ambition and hear your thoughts echoing in my head too. (My tombstone will read “she made a nice bed”.) I admire your honesty and your setting of priorities. You have figured out so much! And you express it so beautifully!

    But I do want to share one thought: life is looong. There are many hours ahead for you, empty of expectation, free, undesignated, delicious, and all yours.

    I’m using one of my hours now, sitting by the fire, my husband nearby typing on his laptop, my four children grown and gone. As I stare at this week’s half-written blog post, I can state that never in my life have I been so happy.

  3. **There’s the blank I’ve been trying to fill in ever since I started writing, as far back as I can remember. To make meaning**

    LOVE that sentence. Get that sentence. It is engraved inside of my bones.

    Also, NEVER say NEVER, my darling.

    HAPPY 40th!! Luv U. xxxxx from MN

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