Yesterday the cucumbers were rotten, every one of them. I love the little produce market downtown in theory, but I've been disappointed more than once by a selection that lost its will to live. Aware of my cucumber conundrum, the cashier with the caricature-sized eyes and glistening silver strands that scoff at graying sold me a perfect-specimen seedless cucumber at a discount. As she rang me up, she fumbled for the words to describe making a decision without first consulting an authority. "Do you know what I mean?" she asked. I did, but on the spot I couldn't recall the phrase "executive decision." For a writer, that should've been a no-brainer, except my brain is shrouded in fog from sleep deprivation, the perpetrator of which was kicking his fat, dimpled legs in the stroller beside the dragon fruit.
Attractively Greying Cashier and I briefly discussed motherhood and aging while she rung up my judiciously discounted vegetable. She told me not to expect much from my forties. Challenge acknowledged, I shoved her warning into the abyss of my diaper bag and told her to have a good day.
Twenty years prior to my forties, I started shopping in junk shops and thrift stores. I amassed a respectable collection culled from South Florida through my home state of West Virginia and all the way up to New York City. Along the way, I developed quite a knack for incorporating old with new. Forty is that way. It's vintage you in an arranged marriage with current you. The stakes are higher than the price.
At nearly 41, I have much to behold: new wrinkles; persistent cellulite; a toddler who inhales oxygen and exhales crumbs; a five-year-old whose brain is on a steady drip of Red Bull; and a confounding case of partnership. There are female mammogram techs carefully arranging my boobs on a platter to be slowly smashed and male dermatologists ungracefully exposing my butt crack to check for signs of damage from UV rays it has never met. There are student loans that age like inner-thigh fat, bigger and uglier. There is an overdose of the freelancer's nemesis: the gig that almost was. There is laundry like that unblow-out-able magic birthday candle. There are carbs and food coloring and artificial flavors and pesticides out to ruin me and my children. Beyond all that sits my resolve—like a snarling granite gargoyle guarding the home of my hopes. Despite life's hurdles and the produce cashier's warning, my instinct tells me the best is yet to come.
For some, forty is an apex held up by years of traveling an upward trajectory. For me, it's a mountain of hindsight dying to crow I told you so. Except I know better than to harbor regret, at least not an amount I can't manage to carry. If I hadn't quit college at 18, I would've missed the adventures of living in South Beach and New York City. If I hadn't clung to that immature painter who destroyed my heart through college and then some, I wouldn't have learned that love is deeply flawed. If I hadn't left behind the dreamy, brainy singer who said I'm "like a box of stars," I would've gotten married far too soon. If I hadn't crushed my better judgment for the womanizing scoundrel in Memphis, I wouldn't have had my first son. If I hadn't gotten close to friends who would let me down in the biggest ways, I wouldn't have learned a heavy lesson about perspective. The ifs go on and on, at least for some of us.
Forty forges a new partnership between nature and nurture. We're tasked with managing—or juggling—the things we can't change about ourselves along with the repercussions of our past. When the supremely gifted singer Chris Cornell committed suicide at the age of 52 last month, he gave life to a jarring truth: Nature doesn't respect age. We don't outgrow afflictions like anxiety and depression. We don't suffer them less because we're busier or more stable or even wildly wealthy. Like Chris Cornell, I know anxiety. It has hounded me for decades, and thankfully I've manged to elude it in large enough bounds to breathe. Since the birth of my second son, anxiety has gained ground, clawing at me daily, urging me to believe disaster or disease is looming. Keeping good time with anxiety is the half-life of every impractical or impulsive choice over two decades of living life on my terms. Some days I long for ten years ago, when life was wide open, when accountability was low, when sleep disruption and stress didn't glare back from the mirror.
This morning I hurt my back moving a table from the back deck to the one in front. I could've waited for help, if I were someone else entirely. Waiting is for tall people or redheads or engineers, I think. At first I carried the table, and then I dragged it. Then the chairs and the 6-foot-tall umbrella that was deceptively cumbersome. I moved the grill to the other side of the deck and sprayed everything, porch included, with the hose. And then planned on scrubbing all the furniture and the deck with soap later. I sprayed the garden, still fragile in its new life, and wondered how much was enough or too much. I wonder that sort of thing often. All the while, my little one was squealing over dandelions, discovering the texture of mulch, and mumbling about bubbles and balls. My dog was wriggling on his back in the overgrown grass. It was all there before me, the ache and the reward.
Some women celebrate 40. Because it makes sense. Because they have lives
like the bay, not like the ocean. I don't begrudge them their calm,
undulating peace. Nor do I resent the roughness with which life handles
me. I've given it permission, mostly. I give myself permission too: to learn from it; to keep moving, always, even when the steps are so small that no one sees them but me; to hold onto my dreams; and to see the gifts I'm presented—like motivation in the form of a seedless cucumber.