too many words by laura lemay

thoughts on thoughts on turning 40

Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray
from the straight road and woke to find myself
alone in a dark wood. – Dante, Inferno (Ciardi, trans.)

Ten years ago I wrote an essay called Thoughts on Turning 30. It was a very personal essay, for me. One of the big reasons I wrote it was because I don’t keep a journal (kind of unusual, for a writer). I had talked in that essay about how I had spent time at every significant birthday up to that point moping about my life and about what I had learned. But I had never written any of it down. Part of my intent in that essay was to capture a moment in time, to explain how I was feeling at that moment so that Future Me would know.

I am Future Me now. Today is my 40th birthday. I joked in that essay that Future Me would look back on 30 me and laugh about how naive I was. I read that essay now and I don’t think that I was all that naive. I’m not laughing. I am, however, struck at how self-confident 30 me was. Self-confident, and optimistic. I was a bright young woman with a big attitude, at the top of my game, with big ideas and a whole lot of years to accomplish them stretching ahead of me. 30 me had so much to look forward to. 30 me was, frankly, really cool.

30 me, unfortunately, didn’t know how quickly things could unravel, didn’t know how dark the next ten years would actually be. How easily things could change with a few health problems and a lot of worry. Life sometimes jumps up and stands in the way of one’s big fabulous plans.

I’m not here to write thoughts on turning 40 and moan about how terrible things have turned out for me. They’re not terrible. I’m healthier than I’ve ever been, I have a good career, a terrific marriage, and a very comfortable life. But things are much different now than they were for 30 me — quieter, more settled, more introspective, more routine, more boring. Which would be fine, if I was happy. But there’s a lingering, nagging doubt in the back of my mind, and sometimes the front, that I could be, should be, more than I am. There’s a doubt that is only underlined when I read 30 me excitedly talking about what she has learned and how much more she’s looking forward to. I find myself at 40 envying the overwhelming energy of 30 me, and wondering when it was I lost the drive to change the world. Is this just what happens when you get older, or did I make a wrong turn somewhere? Am I, like Dante, lost in the dark wood? And if I am, what I do I need to do to get out again?