This year I turned 45. What have I learned in 45 years?
When I was eight I learned a lot about being female. I learned that my cousins were allowed to throw all their laundry down the stairs, and their mother would pick it up and wash it for them. I learned that my favorite aunt had never married, and that was why she owned cool houses and had lots of time to bring us fun places. I learned that my mother raised her voice a lot, and we ignored her a lot. But I also learned that I better apologize to my mother before my father got home.
When I was nine I learned that lots of kids had divorced parents. But mine weren’t, and so I was one of the lucky ones. When I was 10, I learned dirty jokes from my friend Tiffany. I didn’t understand them, but I repeated them. Then I wasn’t allowed to hang out with Tiffany anymore. I learned that Tiffany was a Bad Influence.
When I was 12, I moved from a New York apartment to the suburbs. I learned that lots of girls had perfectly straight pale blonde hair, and big grassy lawns, and turtlenecks with green frogs and rainbows on them. I learned that I didn’t talk like I was from the city, which was considered a good thing. I learned that my trendy Farah Fawcett feathered hair was not a considered a good thing.
When I was 16 I learned that no one should drink Long Island Iced Teas. And I learned the hard way that you should never get into a car with strange boys who have been drinking—even if you’re with friends.
In my twenties, I learned that you have to wake up early if you want a job and a good seat on the train. And that hard work yields results. I learned that you can read slush pile manuscripts all day for years and never find a bestseller. I learned that all rejection letters are the same—because I was the person who wrote them. I learned that good writing and good stories jump out and grab you because they are magic. And I learned that with one or two notable exceptions, lawyers and cowboys can’t write decent novels. But crazy people write incredible stuff.
I learned that if you’re not married by the time you’re 30, some people will think you’re an old maid. So you must work feverishly at finding Prince Charming. Then I learned that my friend’s husband cheated on her when they were married two years. She wouldn’t leave him because her mother said divorce is wrong. And then I learned that my friend’s mother had six children because her priest told her that birth control was a sin.
In my twenties I learned that grown ups don’t know much more than teenagers. I learned that not all people who work for nonprofits are good people, and that some people like trees more than they like other people. I learned that there are con men in the world who don’t yet realize they are con men. They are liberal, earnest con men, and when they hit other people’s cars in parking lots, they drive away without leaving a note.
In my thirties I learned that flyfishing is a deadly boring activity that will cover you in mosquito- and black-fly bites, and sometimes you might even get dive-bombed by a crazy angry bird, and your head might bleed afterwards. I learned that it is okay to be an intermediate skier, and it’s also okay to skip skiing altogether on frigid days. I learned that it can be hard to get pregnant if you wait too long, and I wondered why women aren’t told about this until it’s too late. Then I learned that when you finally do get pregnant, and eat all the carbs you want, you can gain 70 pounds and become a whole lot bigger than your hot male obstetrician.
Then I learned that colicky babies holler for eight hours a day. And I learned that you can love something so fiercely that it hurts, no matter how much it cries. I learned that nothing would be better than freezing time and keeping my babies young forever, with their sweet baby smells and bright adoring eyes and pudgy toes.
Then suddenly in my forties I learned one day that I could no longer remember a thing about taking care of a baby. I learned that sometimes other people’s babies annoyed me. I learned that I am exactly the same age as a few of my best friends, and that I am five years older than some others—and that I can tell the difference.
I learned that it is possible to be too thin. But barely. I learned that some people join toddler playgroups to gain admission to the right private preschool, and others take out loans so they can make large, ostentatious donations to school auctions. I learned that some people are resilient enough to fight their way through divorces with grace and good cheer, but other people can go to pieces over country club politics, and need medication to make it through a tennis match and brunch.
In my forties I learned that when someone shows you who they really are, you need to believe them because otherwise you’ll get in too deep, and then it will be impossible to exit gracefully and without great sacrifice. I learned that wise people cut their losses early, and that there are no rewards for staying in a bad situation.
I learned that people who are charming and quirky in their twenties can just go to pieces in their forties. And that you should have seen it coming. But you never do.
In my forties I learned about betrayal of the deepest sort. I learned that some things are so traumatic that you cannot talk about them for a long time, and then when you do, you feel great shame even though you weren’t the person who did anything wrong. I learned that some people can listen to terrible stories and show compassion even though they have never suffered like you.
And sometimes, when you’ve lost everything, you realize that you never enjoyed much of that stuff anyhow. Instead, you seriously consider moving to the beach and learning how to surf. At the same time, I learned that when you face terrible things, your old everyday fears disappear.
I learned that it doesn’t matter if things are nature or nurture, they just are. I learned that you can’t change a child’s temperament to make them less like you so they face less adversity in the world. But if you laugh at some bullies, they will go away. Liars eventually get caught. Mean people have big reasons for being mean that have nothing to do with you, so be pleasant and get away as fast as possible. But good people glow, and when you find them you need to keep them near.
And I learned the perfectionism will kill you and keep you back from achieving those secret dreams you can hardly acknowledge out loud. So if you mess up, if you’re four or forty, you have a choice: wallow or move on. And I learned that you if you have hope and friends and family, you can survive anything and be reborn at any age.