Thoughts on 40

I have been thinking about this impending birthday for quite awhile. I’m not sure why 40 is the age that’s really making me take stock of my life. I looked back at a few blog posts around when I turned 30, and apparently that was just another birthday, and didn’t even merit a mention. Maybe it’s because I was in the thick of raising small children (and goats and chickens), and just generally recovering from the Great Recession and the mess it had made of our business and our move to Italy. I was dealing with too many external crises to manage an internal one too. On the other hand, for some reason 40 has always felt like an age that would never happen to me. It is, after all, impossibly old. Middle-aged, even. An age at which one really ought to be acting (if not always feeling) like a Full-Fledged Adult. Which makes it funny to me that I am currently in the middle of a rather youngish thing to do: going to school.

Last year I took a bit of a career break to get a graduate degree in history. Not out of any illusions that a history degree would make me significantly more marketable; simply because I have always wanted to get a master’s degree, and the opportunity presented itself. I chose history because I viewed it as an opportune mix of the literary and the scientific; because it was fascinating, and because the programme itself had so much to do with what I had been doing personally and professionally up till then. To wit: moving from place to place, reinventing my identity, trying to find some way to become a person my Self would recognise. Cities, Migration and Global Interdependence was the way Leiden University evocatively put it in the programme description, and it was a perfect match for my interests.

One semester in, and turning 40 today, it feels like a good time to evaluate my life as it is right now. Despite some lingering anxiety and imposter system, school is going as well as it always did. I suppose I have added to my teenage academic inclinations the management skills derived from twenty years of parenting, working, and otherwise adulting. Surprisingly, I don’t feel much out of place for being at least fifteen years older than most everyone else. Although the fact that there’s a 24-minute train ride between my grad school life and my regular life does serve to keep the two in separate spheres in a way that’s not entirely unpleasant.

Being in grad school still feels strange. I looked in from the outside for a long time. I watched friends embark on academic careers with varying degrees of success and heartbreak. For the first ten years or so, I fantasised that I myself might have such a career. But here and there, life intervened. Tony and I started a business together. We spent years trying to move to Europe. I had two babies, homeschooled them for awhile, and then eventually went back to work. I somehow fell into marketing and then public relations, and that became what I did. I did enjoy the networking aspect, but I grew less and less enchanted with the social media side.

Not sure whether this belongs in a 40-year life retrospective, but it kind of does, because of how social media has developed over my (now considerably lengthy) adult life. I have to say that although I suppose I am still more or less friends with Facebook, I have developed quite a dislike of social media in general, even as I compulsively use it. And I have an ardent aversion to utilising it as a marketing tool, even though (or perhaps because) I’ve done so much of that too. At the peak of the insanity, I spent three years simultaneously running over a dozen social media accounts associated with my job, my nonprofit project, my business, and of course my personal self. At some point it became exhausting. Not just exhausting, but also existentially horrific. It felt like Late Capitalism was intruding even into my so-called private ‘social’ sphere. I had no division between the personal and the professional. Which on the one hand I loved, because I knew so many wonderful people, and on the other hand drove me insane. At some point I started to wonder if I even existed as a person, or if we were all just brands marketing ourselves to each other in some kind of sick parody of human relationships. I guess that may have been the moment I realised I needed to step back and get some perspective.

Things have since calmed down on the social media front. I’ve cut down on the professional accounts, and I only ever post when I feel like it on my personal accounts. I am in a much better place with social media now. Sometimes I’ll go a whole week without posting on Instagram, and not even feel guilty. And yet, with the simplification some other things have slipped away too. A year ago I would say I was decently well-connected among a certain international creative and social set in The Hague and Amsterdam. Half of Amsterdam, they say, is not from here. And partially because of the many different people from different places, society here—perhaps even more than elsewhere—is composed of many interlocking social circles. The international elements of those circles tend to be more fluid, rearranging themselves in different configurations as people come and go. One feels the need to work bit by bit against the outgoing tide, as friends and colleagues move away. Otherwise there’s a likelihood of eventually ending up standing alone on the sand, wondering where everyone has gone. It’s not that I have any desire to be on one of those outgoing boats; only that meeting all the incoming ones becomes a bit exhausting after awhile. Ah, for a social circle that stays intact. Too many friends live far away, and too many potential friendships have been thwarted by sudden distance. Which makes the moments of connection, when they come, all the more precious. Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like to live in the same place forever. And then I realise I can’t even imagine that life, and no version of me would ever choose it.

I must be in full-on mid-life crisis mode, because the realisation has crept up on me sometime in the past five years that I will not be on this planet forever. Maybe it’s the birthday; perhaps it is the fact that time flows differently when you stay in one place. Instead of an infinite succession of future possibilities, life has become a sequence of precious chosen moments–a string of pearls that will someday reach its end. My dad said something like this to me the other day: he is conscious of the limited time left, and thus chooses carefully how to spend it. I have this strange sensation that I am slowly catching up to my parents; that the difference in our ages becomes less as I grow older. I suppose in a relative sense it does. At forty, I have reached the same conclusion as my father at sixty-five.

It’s not that I would change anything, but more that there are so many lives left to live, most of which I realise I won’t end up living after all. And that’s entirely because I love the one I’m currently living so much, and I’ve finally semi-reconciled myself to the fact of only getting one. It turns out I probably won’t move to dozens more countries, mostly due to the fact that I don’t want to. A friend of mine is planning a round-the-world trip with her family, where they stay a month in each place. Good for her! But to me it just sounds exhausting. I never want to move like that again. Which isn’t to say that I don’t want to move at all. Sometimes I ask myself whatever happened to Italy. In fact, I fantasise constantly about moving to a little hill-town in Le Marche and seeing the sun and the moon come up every day over grass and trees and vineyards, rather than towers of brick. I am not unappreciative of northern Europe. There are definite perks to living in a place where the trains run on time. But I miss the beautiful chaos, the messy perfection of that country of contradictions. No offence to the excellent Dutch, who get so very many things right, but what am I doing spending my life in a place where the national foods are fried gravy, chocolate sprinkle sandwiches, and potatoes with kale mashed into them? Italy awaits, and eventually I will return.

At any rate, I find myself turning forty, wondering where my life has gone, and more importantly, where it is going. I am, by all accounts (including my own), incredibly fortunate to be where I am. I am sixteen years into a warm, romantic, deep, adventurous, wonderful marriage adventure that grows more fulfilling with each passing year. I have two fabulous children who not only seldom give me cause for worry, but also become ever more interesting and delightful to be around as they grow older. The four of us are settled in a lovely little flat that we miraculously manage to own, in a part of Amsterdam we love. I should say the five of us, since our elegant little fluffy butterfly, my tiny wolf, the mini-dog curled up in my lap like a little white fox as I write this, is indubitably a part of the family, and brightens every hour with her quirky, affectionate personality.

With each passing holiday we explore our chosen continent a little more thoroughly, try new cheeses, new wines, new views, new experiences. Closer to home, Amsterdam’s many cultural offerings are a perpetually available feast, of which whenever I dip in to sample, I know I taste only a fraction of everything on offer. Theatre, dance, music, film, poetry, art, lectures, the list goes on; I admit to a sort of constant low-level FOMO, but I really do go out and experience quite a lot. On top of that, every six weeks there is my much-enjoyed book club, and every month or two a new poetry evening at our friendly local bookshop. Although my personal participation has waned somewhat, especially due to the aforementioned grad school, the literary and artistic collective I co-founded a few summers ago continues to host wonderful regular poetry readings, which fill my soul.

While I have happily left behind the religion of my youth and made a comfortable peace with it, I continue to enjoy a good relationship with my family and in-laws. Both sets of parents brave jet-lag every year to visit their grandchildren (and children too, I think), a generosity for which I am profoundly grateful. In five years here—which for us is a sort of eternity—the charm of Amsterdam, for me, has never waned. I still feel a thrill when I walk along the canals, or see the city lit up at night, or glimpse another bizarre little architectural detail. Even the many quieter pleasures of this city (our weekly coffee date at an atmospheric café, or being able to cycle and take the train–we still don’t own a car) make life here something special.

So mostly what I feel at the momentous age of forty is gratitude: for the rich memories of a life adventurously lived, for all the books I’ve read and carry with me now, for the many people I’ve met along the way, and–at the risk of sounding sappy and cliché, but do I really care?–for the unending wonder of waking up every morning in the arms of someone who loves me.

I guess in the end, if I could tell my 20-year-old self one thing, it would be that her life would turn out better than she could have ever imagined.

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