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A Post About Turning Forty

 

A woman at my synagogue asked me the other day, out of the blue, how old I am, and before I could think I blurted out, “forty.” I had just turned forty three days earlier and it was on the tip of my tongue to say so. And then I got scared. The thing is, I do not look forty. This woman said I looked 20 or 25, and even if she was being nice, I really do look like I could be thirty years old, and I’d rather people think I am younger, because my resume is really short for a forty year old.

We have a lot of expectations about what people will have done by certain ages, and, in an upper middle class, Jewish community on Long Island, these expectations can be unbearably high. Everyone’s kid is successful, and married, and has a nice apartment in the city, or a house in the suburbs. Everyone is very busy, and works out, and has a smart phone glued to their head. I don’t fit in, and I keep thinking, when they realize that I’m not just a ne’er do well thirty year old, but a ne’er do well forty year old, I’ll be kicked out.

In some ways, I feel all forty of those years weighing on me. Everything in my body hurts, and I need naps every day, and some days I feel closer to eighty than to forty. But emotionally, intellectually, I feel like I’m just getting started. There’s so much more that I want to learn and do. There are so many books left to write and left to read. There are so many people to meet and places to go.

I’ve written novels and short stories and essays and poems and drafts and drafts and endless drafts. I’ve taken classes in almost every kind of writing (except journalism, which terrifies me), and earned two masters degrees, and discovered that I will never run out of things to write, or things to learn. I’ve been with the same therapist for twenty years and have been diligent and hard working on every issue. I’m still not done, still not healed, but without all of this work I would be dead, so, thumbs up?

None of this is what I had planned, though. I planned to publish novels. I planned to be on talk shows, and teach writing classes, and meet the president, whoever she happens to be. I planned to drive carpool, and sing my children to sleep, and laugh with my husband every day.

I don’t think Cricket and Butterfly are aware of their ages. Cricket doesn’t look at herself in the mirror and say, Damn, I look good for an eight year old. Butterfly isn’t pacing he floor, worrying that she hasn’t napped enough and time is running out. They don’t judge themselves. They may judge me, but not themselves.

"Hey, skinny dog in the mirror, help me bark for food!"

“Hey, skinny dog in the mirror, help me bark for food!”

Butterfly fits in naps whenever she can.

Butterfly fits in naps whenever she can.

I don’t think Cricket has any concept of getting older. Time passes, sure, but from her point of view, it’s everything outside of herself that’s changing, not something on the inside. She’s the stable center of the world. Just ask her. Butterfly, I think, has a bit more awareness of the changes she’s gone through over time. We celebrate her gotcha day, rather than her birthday, because we don’t know for sure when she was born. She has lumps and bumps on her skin, and diabetes, and a heart murmur to show for her ten years. She gets back spasms when she tries to follow Cricket on her running and jumping sprees. And maybe she can feel in her body how many more years she has left. She’s an intuitive little creature. But actual birthdays? She’s got to be thinking, why would anyone choose to have only one day a year to be celebrated when they could be celebrated every day?

Cricket is always looking for somewhere interesting to go.

Cricket is always looking for somewhere interesting to go.

And Butterfly does her stretches, so that she can keep up with her sister.

And Butterfly does her stretches, so that she can keep up with her sister.

As a child, I felt like I was drowning in failure, even though I did well in school. I couldn’t figure out how to have good friendships, or how to communicate well enough to teachers, or with my parents, to get my needs met. I felt like there was a whole other language that I was supposed to have mastered, but no one was teaching it to me. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize that I have to make up that language myself, because most people are in the same boat, unable to articulate the things they most need to say.

Even now, the road forward is anything but clear, and will probably be too slow and take too long and inspire impatience in the people around me. I will hesitate and make mistakes and choose anything but the path they see as being outlined in neon lights, because I can’t see that path at all.

Dogs live much shorter lives than we do, and yet they feel less pressure to achieve great things, or so I assume, because I’ve never seen Cricket at the computer logging on to Kahn Academy. I wonder if, with fewer years to work with, we’d make better choices about how to live them.

For my birthday this year, I want to learn to live more like a dog, to judge myself on who I am first and what my resume says another time, or never. I want to wake up in the morning thinking about what I need, and who I love, and how lovely the snow looks on the pine trees, instead of worrying about all of the milestones I have yet to meet.

I think Cricket and Butterfly are prepared to help me with this.

"What's next?"

“What’s next?”

 

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About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

174 responses »

  1. This is awesome. By the way: if you lay all your accomplishments or non-accomplishments aside, you are perfect exactly as you are because you are unique, phenomenal wonderful you. I love your blog. 🙂 ❤

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  2. Happy belated birthday! Learning to live life with the joy, wonder, and abandonment that a dog has would be an amazing thing. Be gentle with yourself on your journey and remember that every new day offers you a chance to try something new… Best wishes!

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  3. Happy belated Birthday! I’m 47 and I am told that I don’t look it but there are days when I too feel double the digits. Forty for me is a wierd decade because on the one hand, I feel more confident as a person and on the other hand I feel anxious about being forty because it means fifty is right next door. I would love to have a pause button to really savor the rest of my forties. I do have some very inspirational women who came into their own in their fifties which is a lifeline that I cling to, like Julia Child and others.

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  4. 40 is when all the FUN starts;)! Happy Birthday and many more!

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  5. I am sure they will help, as only dogs can; we understand without being told. Pip

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  6. Belated Happy 40! Enjoy your YOUTH Rachael :-).

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  7. Like you, I learn from my dogs everyday. But let me tell you, from the perch of my 52 years, there is still time: to write, to publish, to dream and to define what success means to you. Happy Holidays!

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  8. Merry Christmas, Rachel!

    I’ve tweeted this and two previous posts 🙂

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  9. Hi Rachel,

    Your goal to learn more how to live like a dog is admirable. Each day, I do the same; I admire my dogs for their ability to enjoy life for its simple pleasures. Perhaps you read my philosophy when visiting my website, which sums it up for me.

    Worrying what others think, or trying to keep pace with what material items others may possess is pointless in my book, and a waste of precious time. Granted, on average, dogs do live shorter lives than we, but in all reality, life can end at any moment — for any of us. It is for this very reason that I choose to live each day as if it were my last. That does not mean that I try to accomplish everything on some bucket list (I do not even have a list), rather I try to make the most of what I have and what is around me — a sort of “stop and smell the roses” approach, if you will.

    I certainly hope that you work diligently toward your goal, because I believe it will serve to bring more joy into your life. Still, try as we might, we will never truly know the pure joy of simplicity, for in the end we are human, and subject to our own nature.

    By the way, as someone who is not far from leaving my forties behind me, I know all too well the pains (physical and mental) associated with aging. As my father used to jokingly say, “Golden years my butt” or words to that effect. Nonetheless, I try to look at aging as merely a process in which we evolve. I am not a day older today than I was yesterday, but I am a day wiser. In the end, it is all a matter of perspective.

    In any event, keep up the great work with your writing and caring for your dogs and may you, Cricket, Butterfly, and the rest of your family enjoy a wonderful holiday season, and may 2015 bring you what you wish for most.

    Sincerely,
    Jim Foster

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  10. Forty is a good age. Congratulations. Remember that you are just getting going. Never mind what anybody else thinks.

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  11. Hunch. If your spirit could be made visible, Rachel, you would see forty years’ worth of wisdom and goodness. Merry Christmas, John

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  12. Woof! You humans have so much to learn from us dogs – it sounds like you are on the right track 🙂 My doggy advice is to always take life one tree at a time, chase a lot of cats, roll around on your back against very scratchy grass (ESPECIALLY if there is a dead animal to roll on!), and snuggle close to your sweet pups.

    My mommy turned 50 in August, and she tells me that life just gets better and better. She wouldn’t go back in time for anything. I think she looks much younger, just like you, but what do I know? I’m a dog. Woof!

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  13. Hi Rachel,
    Happy 40th Birthday!! Sending you a huge slab of chocolate cake with luscious ganache and bone treats for the dogs.
    I come from a similar background and I know what you mean about the pressure to measure up. I was feeling stressed about Christmas Day with the family but it was all in my head. They love and accept me as I am and I think a number of us encouraged each other along. Age-wise, I’m now in the middle, which I guess is what it means to be middle-aged so I listen to stories from my aunts and uncles and impart stories to my younger cousins and my kids. One of the greatest life lessons that’s ever come of out our Christmases is “fake it til you make it”. That one’s been bouncing around among the cousins for a few years now and keeps coming back. It’s particularly helpful for people with talent who are struggling to step out there into the public arena ie lion’s den.
    Have you ever read “Letter’s to Sam?” It’s one of my favourite books. It’s a series of life lessons written by a paraplegic grandfather who is a psychologist and Sam is his grandson. A beautiful book. You would also appreciate it as the author is Jewish and ties that in well.
    Do you live near Jones Beach? I have a photo of my grandmother lying on the beach there in 1948. Hope you had a Happy Hanukkah and wish you a great year ahead whether you tick off more boxes or not!! xx Rowena

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  14. Great blog. I agree: live like a dog next year. Just don’t “go” in the yard! That’s too extreme. But DO take long walks with your dogs. It’ll clear your head. That’s my goal for 2015, anyway! Happy New Year!

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  15. Greetings fellow Sagittarian Rachel I have just had my 65th birthday on the 11 December and I celebrated with my friends and family because after a couple of health scares in September I was well and fit enough to dance. Good on you for deciding to look on life as a dog for the next year – they love you unconditionally and welcome you home no matter how long you are a way. They do not worry about how they look or making goals for the year they live in the moment :). It is what we should all do and now that I have retired I plan to do that. However I know it will not be easy as I am a natural goal setter and like you can be critical of myself so will have to ensure that I slow down and go with the flow. cheers Lynne

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  16. So sorry I missed your birthday, fellow December baby like me..lol…I am 15 years older than you, just having hit 55.I too, am sharing the desire to learn from my pups, especially on the cusp of retirement. We walk slower, take in leaves and smells and all sorts of good things. Life is too short. Again, belated wishes, and a happy heathy year to you!

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  17. They don’t look 40…ha ha.

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  18. Rachel, you are a very good writer. I really enjoyed your post on turning forty, although I am well past that hump. But, got to tell you, you have the cutest dogs! I am not an animal lover by any stretch of the imagination. I wish them no ill, but I’m scared stiff of anything with more than two legs, but your photos captivated me as much as your writing did! I look forward to following you! Congratz on an excellent job!

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  19. Hi Rachel, Thank you for liking my drawings of Flora and Abner. I really like what you have written in this post and identify with it a lot. My art is the place I go where I have no regrets,can be at peace, and happy in my world. The description toward the end of your piece, of basically just living in the day, is my salvation. And having a sense of humor!

    Reply
  20. Thank-you for your likes Rachel and a very Happy Birthday from freezing London! It really is just a number 😉

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  21. I love this, I just turned 50 and figure it is better than the alternative 🙂

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  22. Pingback: A Post About Turning Forty | martintoppingimages

  23. Bloody heck, wish I’d just turned forty! I’m only a few years older than you, but I seem to remember 40 being all youthful n stuff!

    Cricket and Butterfly look lovely. Hope they teach you that doggishness is better than humanness! My dog Deedee isn’t so good at that – BARK BARK BARK FLAMING BARK!! Big and barky. Sweeet as a (sweeet) nut, but also big and loves getting muddy and growls at me if I fail to look at her for 2 minutes. As needy as me!! She is going to reach her Gotcha! this coming Halloween. She’ll be 10-ish then. Wish I would be too!

    Thanks for Liking my photoblog martintoppingimages.wordpress.com. If you want to read what I think about other stuff, see ihatehate.wordpress.com. I like taking photos and writing (about everything!). I’ll be keeping an eye on you too (don’t worry, I live in the UK, kinda hard to stalk you from here! 😉 )

    I’m gonna follow you now (your blog, not you… like I said, UK and USA are kinda far apart…). Why not follow me too? I need all the encouragement I can get!!!

    See ya!

    Reply
  24. Rachel, one thing going for you is that you are in tune with yourself. You know what’s going on inside of you. At least that’s my take after reading your post. At the same time, the expectations of our tribe can be very very high. Don’t forget the “now.”

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  25. 40 is the new 20s! And “43” is just a number! Hehehe! I am 41 and Sheila is 36, but we’re living life as teenagers.

    Reading this article and a few others, we think you’re living life to the fullest, writing novels, loving dogs, etc. We believe you’re living life right!

    Happy New Year! Cute dogs, by the way.

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  26. Us humans can live for ages now. At 40 you’re likely not even halfway out yet. (This is what I tell myself whenever I get on one of my “Oh, my life, my plans, where did it all go?” attacks.) Us oldies need to stick together!!

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    • Oh no, I looked back through the replies and saw I already left one. I can’t remember doing that, must be down to my old brain closing down. So, I’ve managed to reply to this twice… no, it’s thrice now! Think I’ll stop now, before I leave another reply…

      Reply
  27. Such a wonderful post! Thanks for sharing! I too am turning 40 before too long and I wonder where I went wrong. I am not where I thought I would be, and there are so many things I still want to learn and do…I hope you find your path, or not, if you want to keep on experimenting with whatever works for you! 🙂

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    • I was watching Cricket hopping through the snow this morning, having the best time in the world, and I thought, that’s the stuff! Just to be in love with each moment like that – that’s the goal!

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  28. Definitely follow the dogs lead – they are ‘Guardians of Being’ – they know how to live with joy in the present moment!

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  29. Happy, happy Birthday, Rachel! I enjoy your blog and your tremendous insight. Take care of yourself. Thank you for reading MY blog.

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  30. Beautifully written, seems like one of the more practical pieces of advice I have received in a long time… Thanks….

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  31. Rachel, one thing is certain: Cricket and Butterfly do not judge you. They are perfectly happy with you, just the way you are. Live this year like a dog. Every day, get up and do one doglike gesture. I’d love to read about that too.

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  32. Rachel there are so many good points in the commentary of this blog. First of all happy birthday, and you DO look younger. My good friend gave her daughter a vanity plaque for her 40th which said “ULOOK20) It was true. At 86 I can tell you that you are doing fine. Don’t overthink it. It’s Life. Just live it Rachel. Give Cricket and Butterfly a belly rub and enjoy the day.

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  33. …my cat’s name is Cricket 🙂

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  34. Thank you for liking on my blog! I loved this post, a lot of what you write resonates with me, and it’s always nice to feel like you are not alone! Happy belated birthday!

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  35. Thank you for liking my blog. An analogy to encourage you: A flower bud is small, hard and facing inward. When it blooms, it turns itself inside out, faces the sun, braves the elements and presents itself to the world. The world beholds the beauty of the flower that had the courage to get out of itself and share it’s loveliness. Be brave…. Be fearless….

    Reply
  36. Thank you for liking my post. I am truly curious as to what terrifies you about journalism.

    Reply

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