Remembering the Ghosts of Holiday Seasons Past

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What is it about being in the middle years that makes me incredibly nostalgic? Is it because I am in my middle years reflecting on my childhood while also pondering on the years that lie ahead? Is it because I am now the age I remember my mother being during my own childhood- as if she is forever preserved at the ages 37-40 and I at the ages 7-10? Just the other day, my mother explained how witnessing your own child’s early life is like the blink of an eye. Now in her early 70s, she says that time seems to rapidly speed up. Using my 13 year old niece as an example, we recalled when my sister brought her home as an infant from the hospital as if it were yesterday. Similarly, I can fondly remember my own childhood and how the events of 30+ years ago seemed to be only last week. Nevertheless, I look back on the first decade of my life and am bewildered at what a very different world it was then from today. Perhaps it was the innocence of my childhood not yet corrupted by angst of teenage and early adult years, or by the sorrow from the loss of important and beloved figures in my life now gone, or by the knowledge of upsetting and hateful news all over the world constantly in my face thanks to the technology of the internet.

Being so far away from the people from my early life may intensify the nostalgia. Would I feel so achingly nostalgic and long for the ordinary moments of my childhood if I still could visit and stay in my childhood home from the early 1980s? If I could be with my parents and sisters at any time? My mother frequently assuages my aches for the past with pictures of the family Christmas tree or by sharing the beautiful family moments from the present. Pictures of family gatherings at my sister’s home with her children enjoying the same childhood moments we once did. Pictures from Christmas of the present and as new memories are made.

Embracing my childhood memories and the people who shaped them brings new meaning to my present life and what lies ahead. So before such loving memories become even more remote in time and recollections, I will honor on paper such meaningful moments from holiday seasons in my past.

A cherished and much loved possession from my very early childhood is Billy Bear- my trustworthy loyal teddy bear companion from Christmas 1978 and onwards through so many journeys in my life. For a few holiday seasons from 1981- 1983, my mother would take my sister and me to a local Minneapolis department or toy store in late November or early December to help pick out four or five similar potbellied teddy bears to my Billy Bear. How excited I was the first time bringing home more companions for Billy Bear! This would mean more birthday party teas and celebrations for my beloved stuffed animals with cookies, and gifted toys from the basement wrapped in recycled wrapping paper. When we brought the bears home though, they were neatly placed on a shelf in my or my sister’s bedrooms. My mother gently helped me understand that these new potbellied bears would only be with us for a few days. I could carefully hold and love them in the interim time but soon we would take them to a place where they would then be given to other little boys and girls who would love them. In a subtle way, she helped me to comprehend on a basic level that not all children in the world or even our city were as fortunate to have a home or so many toys. Loving those bears for a few days took on a new meaning and the annual ritual of picking out the bears and then bringing them to the people who would then pass them on to their new owners became a favorite part of the holiday season for me.

potbelly bear

The Pot Belly Bears we would love and pass onto other children each year. And yes- I did have this record!

In addition to the loving ritual of bestowing potbellied teddy bears to other children in the community, there were preparations of gifts for family and loved ones, which took on a creative spin. There were many varieties of cookies to be made (so many kinds and names I can’t recall at this point), cut out and decorated with green and red sugar, silver and gold balls, and dyed frosting. Most gifts for my parents or grandparents were usually creations from school art class such as glazed clay bowls or Billy Bears, plastic beaded shrinky dink ornaments, or intricate drawings. A home art project one year included our own homemade wrapping paper- plain, dull white newsprint decorated with Christmas tree or star imprints from homemade carved out stamps on potatoes and inked on with gold, red and green acrylic paint. The freshly printed wrapping paper would dry for a couple of days in the basement until we could wrap boxes of cookies or school art projects to send to my grandparents or cousins in other states.

Memories from holiday seasons from my childhood also include recollections of preparations for festivities and pageants at school. Classmates and teachers would share family and cultural customs from Hanukkah and Christmas such as the spinning of the dreidel and lighting of the menorah, or the tradition of searching for an almond in Swedish Christmas rice pudding. Rehearsals in music class were held in the school theater for the holiday pageant which included traditional and contemporary Christmas and Hanukkah songs and a shortened version of the Nutcrackers’ Suite. My mother stitched together a bright red yarn wig for me to come to life as a Raggedy Anne doll in a rendition of Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies. Even to this day, I get excited when hearing just a few notes from Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet and I can still imagine myself moving robotically in the limelight across the stage with classmates as we performed to our parents, grandparents and siblings in the audience.

One Christmas Eve in 1981 (or was it 1982?), my mom and grandparents summoned my sister and me down to the basement. For the past day, there had been some secretive commotion and my sister and I patiently waited for the secret to be revealed. We were told to quietly step down the stairs and as we descended, there curled up and shivering on a blanket in the corner was a forlorn, lonely little mutt which had been rescued from the Humane Society. My sister named him Sam after Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain). On that first night, he whimpered, cried and would hardly touch any food other than the odd Cheerio from my grandma’s palm. Sam stayed part of our family until my last year of college in 1996 and has become a blended part of the happy memories of my childhood. On that first Christmas though, he finally ventured upstairs that morning, sheepishly making his way into the heart of our family as we sat around the Christmas tree in our living room. That particular Christmas morning, a beautiful and quiet snow blanketed the neighborhood with icicles slowly forming on the outside trees. Someday I may be a very old woman, but no doubt if I were to hear Bing Crosby’s White Christmas, that magical Christmas morning with my mom, grandparents, sister and Sam will come to my mind.

1982 xmas

The memorable Christmas Sam joined our family. Circa 1982

Reflecting on those early childhood memories of holiday seasons, I realize what made the memories precious were not the material gifts nor even the lure of what Santa would bring. Rather, they were sharing and being part of the kinship of family, friends and community. Although such nostalgic moments cannot be repeated, I realize their essence has followed me through life, even when I have been far away from the beloved family of my early childhood. New and different memories have been created as I celebrated Christmas and the holiday seasons with my father’s extended family in 1993, or with my family in Germany in 1995, or with my ersatz family in China from 2010-2013 and finally with my adopted Kiwi family in New Zealand these past two years. As my life evolves into new chapters and changes, I will no doubt strive to model the Christmases and holiday seasons of my future after the values and memories of those Christmases and holiday seasons from my past.

 

The Visit

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The warm air of the high pitched hairdryer whirs through my hair. I bend over, staring at the drab blue carpet, while tousling the underside of my damp hair with my right hand and waving in circles the hairdryer on the nape of my neck with my left hand. It is an automatic, perpetual routine I practice every morning without thought. Flipping my head back up, I grab a brush to pull the hair from my scalp to form a subtle curl in my hair. As the grate on the shaft of the hairdryer comes in contact with the roll of my hair on the brush, it overheats, burns out and abruptly stops. Exasperated with only a half done hairstyle, I grumble at my morning routine being interrupted.

My mind wanders to reflect on how my morning hairstyle ritual is one I have repeated every morning for over 30 years in different settings, on different hairstyles, and through different chapters in my life from childhood to middle age. Every day the same face appears before me in the mirror, ostensibly unchanged from the day before. I’m always so preoccupied with efficiently getting made up before the big rush out the door. I have not ever given pause to this part of my day and how in these ordinary, mechanical moments, I have actually unconsciously witnessed over the years my own physical transformation.

The intersection of the reflection of my own transformation with the thought of my present predicament of a burnt out hairdryer, pulls to the forefront of my mind memories of my Aunt BJ. Although she departed from her journey in this world ten months before, memories of her still captivate me. She doesn’t come to me in my dreams, although I’ve been blessed before with visits by my late grandparents in that realm. Rather, in recent months, I intensely ached from her absence during a fleeting personal and private crisis. Even before her passing, during the slow decline of her brilliant mind to Alzheimer’s, I tried to channel and emulate her, finding solace in intellectual pursuits and pouring over the latest editions of the Harvard Business Review, from which she use to clip occasional articles for me and my cousins.

That morning, the defunct hairdryer recalled memories of Aunt BJ’s own methodical morning hairstyling routine. A longstanding joke in our family is Aunt BJ’s hours in the bathroom getting ready for a day or evening in which she would need to present herself. Fifteen years ago, I finally got to experience firsthand her careful and meticulous morning hairstyle ritual in the bathroom, when I shared a hotel suite with her and her sister, my Aunt Martha. Rising early, to secure her time block in the bathroom, I groggily dozed in and out of early morning slumber to the muffled sound of the shower in the adjacent bathroom. Following her shower, I imagined Aunt BJ settled into the thick, fluffy terrycloth bathrobe provided in the bathroom suite. Various lotions and potions might have been slathered. And then finally…it was time…. for Aunt BJ… to style her hair. I could hear the chord of the hairdryer being unwound and plugged into the wall socket. A wooden handled hairbrush was picked up from the bathroom counter and then the hairdryer whirred to life for ten seconds. Then the hairdryer was abruptly silenced, placed on the counter, and a new tuft of hair was curled around the brush. The hairdryer was scooped up again, and whirred back to life. This cycle repeated itself for probably 15 minutes, until Aunt BJ deemed her hair to have the perfect body and desired texture. I finally forced myself awake and sat up in bed to see Aunt BJ emerge from the bathroom looking vibrant, immaculate, and delighted from her personal pampering.

Back to the present but still in an Aunt BJ trance, I wander over to my closet to pull from the back corner of the top shelf two faded and well-cared-for Coach purses. Purses from the fine collection of Aunt BJ, which I have now inherited. One tan, one faded black. I hold the purses up to view, admiring their fine craftsmanship and the meticulous sewn seams. I imagine Aunt BJ proudly buying these heirloom purses as a younger woman, spending her own self-earned money. The purses symbolize to me a woman ahead of her time, unafraid to pursue her own path in life, quietly breaking through glass ceilings and unabashedly enjoying the finer things in life. The moment clarifies what I’ve known all along- she is my role model, even if I might not follow exactly in her footsteps. Aunt BJ would support me in my pursuing my own dreams and path in life.

As I stare entrancingly at the Coach purses, the defunct hairdryer on my dresser suddenly purrs back to life. I laugh out loud. I know that Aunt BJ has somehow just been channeled by me and she is signaling back.

Most people including my rational self would think that my visit from Aunt BJ was just a coincidental alignment of events or perhaps my own mind hallucinating. That seems to be the logical and true explanation for it. But I believe my moment, no matter how it came to be, was truly a gift and will allow Aunt BJ’s legacy to live on with me.

Enjoying a more serious but tender moment with Aunt BJ

Enjoying a more serious but tender moment with Aunt BJ. She’s sporting her tan Coach purse here.

Aunt BJ in her element

Aunt BJ in her element

The Dawning of the Age of 40, Part 4: Swimming 40 Lengths

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This week, I am sharing a four-part series on turning and being 40. This is the fourth and final essay.

On my 40th birthday, I jumped into the clear, 50 meter pool and effortlessly careened my way towards the other end. A clear sky opened up and the glowing sun warmed by back as I plowed through the water. My mind was lucid with only positive thoughts and energy as the endorphin-burst pushed me ahead. Riding on the euphoria, a decision I had waivered on for the last month, was clarified. Yes, I would register in the race to swim across Lake Taupo the following weekend. But while I had previously thought my comfort level would be limited to the 2 km swim, I suddenly knew I had the confidence, fitness, and mental strength to swim the longest distance of 4.2 km.

In preparation for the swim, I had been training a couple times a week for the past six months. As the summer rolled around, I pushed myself to swim 4-5 days a week and longer distances each time. A couple of weeks before my 40th and still doubtful of my ability to swim the long-haul, I realized I would have to try and swim a non-stop distance of at least 2 km in the pool to gauge whether I could indeed sustain myself for at least that distance. I realized my apprehension and fears of even the practice swim and the eventual lake swim race were mirrored by my anxiety of turning 40. The swim training, the imminent lake race and my approach to 40 were all looming countdowns of distance and time in my head.

A 2 km swim in a 50 meter pool is 40 lengths, and so it’s no surprise that I counted each length I swam on that practice swim as a year in my life. Sometimes I counted forward, sometimes I counted back. The first few lengths were easy enough and then I tried to transition into a pace for the next 1.5 km. I would be lying if I said I didn’t struggle during most of the swim, especially as other younger, fitter swimmers came into my lane and passed me several times. There were other interruptions along the way. My arms started to ache as if heavy bricks were strapped to them. Around 36 lengths, I had to switch lanes and begrudgingly finished the last four lengths. At the completion of the swim, I felt drained, skeptical and uncertain. These fleeting feelings of doubt did not help the positive mindset I was also trying to channel for my upcoming milestone 40th.

So how did the pendulum swing from the gutted feeling of deflation I experienced during the last weeks of my 30s to the confidence, mental readiness, and inner peace I experienced on my 40th birthday? I can’t put my finger on anything that just seemed to click. Experience has shown me in recent years that it’s pointless to worry about certain things out of my own control. Things like turning 40 or being the best swimmer in the pool or lake swim. Experience has also shown me that the factors in my control usually do prepare me for big personal feats and endeavors. Just like I was uncertain about how 40 would be, the big 4.2 km swim across the lake would be an unknown, uncertain, abstract feat until I actually experienced it. All my previous 39 years had allowed me to succeed, fail, dabble, experiment, prove, sustain, and be prepared for 40. Life would continue on after 40 with more trials and tribulations, moments of joy, disappointments, contradictions and daily hubbub. Similarly, my decades of swimming, endurance building, and physical travel through countless swimming pools, lakes, rivers, and seas all over the world had proven that the 4.2 km Taupo swim I had built up to epic proportions in my head would be another “swim in the lake”. Like my decision to embrace 40, I decided the lake swim would be about the experience itself, and I would embrace and savor it as well.

Looking across Lake Taupo at the start of the long swim

Looking across Lake Taupo at the start of the long swim

A gentle, dawning glow permeated through the sunrise as I stood on the shore of Acacia Bay looking out across Lake Taupo. My companions were friendly strangers- fellow swimmers who assisted me with my wet suit and settling my nerves with pre-race chit chat. With the announcement of the start of the race, I took a step aside, away from the rush of the crowd into the lake. As I descended into the water, a calmness settled within me. Pointed towards Sandfly Hill, my focal point on the opposite side of the lake, I glided through the water like I had always done thousands of times before. There were brightly colored buoys and boats set as markers along the way, but I didn’t have any sense of how much distance I had covered. When I reached roughly the middle of the lake, I stopped. Treading water, I looked behind me to the ant-sized cars and houses on the distant shore I had started from and then to the vastness of the lake around me. Kayakers and other swimmers were roughly 30-50 meters away from me, but essentially I was all alone. Through the wispy, delicate clouds of the morning sky, the sun began to poke through, beckoning me home to the shore ahead of me. Then, for those few moments, my mind let go of my worries, anxieties, and looming responsibilities and I just decided to be. I enveloped those moments, took a deep breathe, and resubmerged my head in the water to continue my swim.

The Dawning of the Age of 40, Part 3: The Tragicomedy of the Shelved Woman

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This week, I am sharing a four-part series on turning and being 40. This is the third vignette.

One of the aspects I have seriously dwelled on about turning 40 is what it means to be a woman at this age. I have felt heavy hearted about posting this article, uncertain whether it could offend, strike a negative chord or be considered anti-male. In the end, I decided it would completely defeat its purpose if I felt I had to censure myself or chose my words carefully. These are my personal experiences and observations and sharing them validates the truth in them.

It was at some point in my early 20s when I developed the rude realization of the notion that women are supposed to have a shelf life and that our identity should very much be wrapped up in our looks and our appeal to the opposite sex. A series of both trivial and headline events both in the news and in my personal world awakened me to the seemingly perplexing and cruel status quo.

I was 23 in 1998 when the world sat back in its chair with a box of popcorn to be entertained by the spectacle of the Monica Lewinsky – Bill Clinton affair. During that time, I myself was an intern in offices of the German parliament. Having only one or two degrees of separation with such political heavyweights and in such a male-dominated world is not only a surreal experience, but also bewildering when you are completely new to navigating the real professional world and trying to find your own adult identity. I didn’t know how to react when hearing overtly sexual jokes told sometimes on my or other fellow female interns’ expenses about us being the “interns”, wink, wink, nudge, nudge. Throughout my 20s, I continued to feel similarly perplexed and stung whenever I heard male peers and coworkers confide and lament about women trying to wield their power by flaunting their sex appeal with the latest dress accessory or by likely sleeping their way to promotions.

While I unconfidently tried to decipher my own professional identity and what that would entail as a woman, I also attempted to navigate the world of dating. It was also at 23 when a concerned male friend explained that I wouldn’t have many years to waste if I expected to marry. Sharing insight with me about the role of women and men in his own country, he calmly and matter-of-factly explained that women past 28 would be considered too old to marry. Unfazed by his warning, I thought, “Well, that’s not the world I live in and it’s not the 1950s.” Then one day when I was 26, a male family member only a few years older than myself made a passing remark about a female acquaintance of his looking pretty good for being in her late 30s. I implored him to clarify just what he meant by, “looking pretty good for her late 30s”. Like being hit by a speeding freight train, I suddenly reached that gross revelation that even within my so-called modern, progressive world, women seemed to have a shelf life. As I ventured onto online dating sites, this was reinforced to be true. How else could the countless profiles of late 30-something single men who desired women between the ages of 20 to a year younger than themselves, be explained?

While living in China during my late 30s, I witnessed the tragicomedy of the shèngnǚ (剩女), or “leftover woman”. Unmarried by her late 20s, and too educated, independent and busy to nab herself a husband, the sheng nu has been cited as a “threat to social stability” while also being the subject of both positive and negative media attention, TV shows and movies. In 2007, the People’s Republic of China Ministry of Education officially proclaimed sheng nu age to be 27. Four years later, I was several years deep into sheng-nu age status and newly single at 36 when yet another male friend explained to me about the sheng nu. I felt an immediate affinity for my Chinese counterpart and even though I knew I wasn’t directly the object of the concern, rage and curiosity by the Chinese government nor my family, I began to develop the idea that my identity did not have to be interwoven with that of a man or husband (or lack thereof).

Outside of China and even in 2015, just in time for my 40th, the shelf life of a woman still exists. Women’s magazines and TV commercials targeted towards the 30-50 female demographic feature 36 year-old female celebrities modeling anti-aging and anti-wrinkle creams. So that we too can achieve such lovely, youthful looks, the magazines love to dish out to us mortals the exercise, beauty and diet regimes of famous 40-something female celebrities, who in spite of their age, look amazing! Even the celebrities themselves are not immune to the double standard of the shelf life. A few months ago, 37 year-old actor Maggie Gyllenhaal shared her dismay with having been turned down for a movie part as the love-interest of a 55 year old male costar on the grounds of being too old. A video skit featuring comedians Amy Schumer, Tina Fay, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Patricia Arquette perhaps best portrays the absurdity of women no longer being “f*%kable” after a certain age, while their male counterparts never have to face such a time. I can’t help but feel jaded about these implied messages that women should really work hard to look amazing after 40 because otherwise, we will become invisible because clearly our looks are our most prized keepsake.

These days I'm letting go and am more comfortable in my own skin

These days I’m letting go and am finding my own self worth

The surprising irony for me is that I started to finally come into my own around 36, an age dangerously close to (or past) shelf life expiration. While it’s true I feel chuffed if someone thinks I look much younger than my actual age, I don’t miss the awkwardness of my twenties. I am now comfortable in my own skin, body and with my own sexuality. I look in the mirror and see a woman I love, for all of her different features and imperfections. This self-love and confidence also seep into other aspects of my life. For years, I struggled with proving myself capable in my various jobs. Of course I still sometimes have uncertainty about my future career path, but these days I am more confident in my abilities and contributions and seem to be taken more seriously than in my younger years.

So, today I reject the notion that I will someday be shelved and become invisible. I reject that my worth and value as a human being should be tied to my looks and ability to attract the opposite sex. Some may think because I’m 40 that my shelf life expiration date is near, but I’ll chose to ignore it and will simply determine my own terms of my value and worth.

Next in this series on turning and being 40:
Part 4: Swimming 40 Lengths


For further listening and reading:

2012 Foreign Policy article: The Startling Plight of China’s Leftover Ladies

Inside Amy Schumer’s Last F**kable Day

Monica Lewinsky’s 2015 TED Talk: The Price of Shame

Robin Korth’s 2014 Blog post: My ‘naked’ truth

The Dawning of the Age of 40 Part 2: Running towards the Big Achievements’ Deadlines

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This week, I am sharing a four-part series on turning and being 40. This is the second vignette.

Ten years ago when I turned 30, I figured the three big achievements an adult could obtain were being well-established and successful in a career, being in a long term committed relationship, and being a homeowner. In my mind, the early 30s were also a time for me to begin to get on the right track after muddling through the novelty of adulthood in my 20s. I considered that I had a decade to figure out how to achieve those goals and that 40 would be a reasonable deadline. Understandably when a person has such lofty and perhaps unrealistic goals, the pressure starts to build up and by the time I reached my mid-30s, 40 became a dreaded and feared symbol for the possibility of not succeeding. I can sum it up that I feared I would not amount to much and accomplish anything respectable.

I like to think that I was not alone in this fear and that many of my peers may at times also struggle with feelings of inferiority. The world is becoming more and more cut-throat and competitive and every time you turn around, someone has discovered the cure to cancer, or is single-handedly solving world peace. I myself used to dread receiving the alumnae magazines from my college which would have updates of fellow former classmates’ latest life happenings and achievements. For years I shirked away from sending in news of my own life because I just didn’t think I had any worthy accomplishments to share.

Oh very young- Back in the days when I had a very skewed sense of my futureself

Oh very young
Back when I had a very abstract sense of my future self

Recently, I found a class project I completed when I was 12 back in the seventh grade in 1987. The assignment was a chronicle of my life and I reflected on my past, my present and my future. For my future, I had predicted that I would swim in the 1996 Olympics, attend Julliard for my violin playing, marry my college sweetheart, be a swim coach at the YMCA, and be the mother of a three year old- all by the age of 27! I’m afraid my 12 year old self would be disappointed to learn that I didn’t achieve any of those goals- not even 13 years past the age 27 deadline. Of course I could say my sense of future accomplishments for myself were extremely warped, but I also can’t blame my younger self for predicting such ridiculous achievements. I was only extending on what I was familiar with and good at in my life at that time. Anything else would have been too abstract. It is also understandable that my younger self assumed that I would meet my future husband and start a family by 27 because it’s what my own parents and grandparents had done. At 12, my ideals of success and normalcy were based on those previous generations.

Similarly, in my late 20s and early 30s, my ideals of success began to be based on what I witnessed peers achieving. This included friends of mine, family, those fellow college classmates who wrote to the alumnae magazines, famous peers who had achieved notoriety for whatever achievements, and even fictional peers. Every time a peer would reach an achievement, whether it was purchasing a home, publishing a book or becoming director at a company, I would reexamine my own current life standing and successes.

Perhaps some of my fellow- new 40 somethings similarly have compared themselves to peers or have been doing that their whole life. My struggle of measuring myself to others is mostly a thing of the past now. At some point in my late thirties, I began determining my own markers for success and achievement. My goal of being a homeowner was dropped after actually being a homeowner in a situation over my head. My goal of being a success in a career was exchanged for achieving fulfillment not only through work but other pursuits as well as achieving a work-life balance. I am learning that the fulfillment I get from family, friends, community and even strangers brings me happiness, as does occasional solitude. This realization that I am essentially happy has allowed me to slowly let go of my unrealistic measures of achievement based on others’ successes and continue to reflect on and reexamine my own measures of success.

Oh, and I’m happy to say that a few months ago, I finally wrote to my college’s alumnae magazine for the first time to share my life’s events.

Next in this series on turning and being 40:
Part 3: The tragicomedy of the shelved woman

For further listening, viewing and reading:

Dan Gilbert’s 2014 TED Talk: The psychology of your future self

An appropriate song for this theme: Cat Stevens’ Oh Very Young

The Dawning of the Age of 40: Four Reflections on Turning and Being 40

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When I was about 8 or 9 years old, I remember sifting through the different c40ategories of birthday cards in a Hallmark store. Besides the usual Sweet 16 cards and so on, there were a selection of cards with messages about being “over the hill”. At that age, I couldn’t think in metaphors, so when my mother tried to explain what “over the hill” meant, I kept drawing blanks. “What do you mean your life is a hill? Your life is a hill you ride up and then it’s all downhill from a certain point??” When it was finally explained to me that the peak of the hill was middle-age around the age of 40, I tossed the notion aside because it was far too removed from my life then. At that time, 40 was the age I associated with my parents’ generation. Even 13 was abstract! As I got older, into my teens, twenties and even my thirties, 40 still remained a distant and abstract age. Then suddenly friends just a couple of years older than me entered into their 40s and there it was on my own doorstep. In the six months leading up to my 40th, I contemplated a lot about my health, my happiness, my mortality, my accomplishments, my lack of accomplishments, and other big questions.

When I finally did reach 40 in February and in the months that have followed, I have felt somewhat heavy hearted about it. When scoping out the profiles and status updates of friends on Facebook, I realized that many of my fellow turning-40 peers also experienced similar anxiety and deep reflection around the milestone age. Some of us expressed it with a little trepidation with status updates like, “Reflecting on my life on the last week of my 30s”. Others of us tried to put on brave faces with status updates like, “I’m 40 and fabulous!” or “40- here I come!” On my own status update, I proclaimed I was “Embracing 40”.

So what is it that is so significant about turning 40? I suppose turning 30 is just as significant, but something seems more weighted, graver and intense about 40. Therefore, over the next few days, I will share four different aspects, perspectives and reflections about turning and being 40 based on my own personal experiences. I hope these vignettes will simply serve as a launch pad for further discussion, thoughts, funny stories and sharing of heavy concerns. Here we go..


Part 1: Life’s halfway marker

Extending on the theme of “over the hill”, perhaps some of the anxiety about turning 40 is that it is indeed a reasonable marker for half of a lifetime. Consider that the average life expectancy in the US in 2010 was 78.74 years. In New Zealand, there is a little more of an advantage with 83 years for females and 79.3 years for males. No doubt, these ages will increase by the time my peers and I reach our 70s. On the flipside, it’s a bit jarring to read statistics about life expectancies from previous historical periods. For example, the global average life expectancy of a person born in 1950 was only 48 years young, and for 1900, it was only 31 years young!

I suppose it can be assuring that so many medical advancements have been made just within the last two generations and that people’s quality of life, access to decent diets, education, shelter and health have improved overall. Every once and a while, I stop and consider that I won the cosmic lottery for being born in this modern day and age and in a developed country with so many comforts and conveniences. Unlike people in some parts of the world or from previous generations, I haven’t had to battle life threatening illnesses, work my way in the middle of the night to outdoor primitive toilets, wait for once-a-month-only baths or showers, toil and labor over backbreaking work twelve hours a day and seven days a week, nor stop with my schooling at the age of 10. Thanks to not being dealt those unfortunate cards, my life expectancy has a very good chance of pushing at least 80.

But with the increased likelihood of living longer comes certain modern day burdens that many of our 19th and early 20th century 40-year old predecessors didn’t have to consider so deeply. Burning questions and concerns such as, “Will I live too long? Will I have enough money to last me until I die? Will I have to work until I am really old? Who will care for me?” I’m guessing that in previous centuries, these concerns were less relevant because people simply didn’t live into healthy old age and quite literally worked until the day they died (yes- I’m talking about you, person born in 1900 with an average life expectancy of 31). Also, for a long time, even in the US (and still to this day in many places all over the world), people knew they would be cared for by their families and younger generations and that they would even live together under one roof. When my grandparents were in their 40s, for example, it was assumed and common practice that their parents would eventually move in and live with them in their twilight years. Indeed my mother’s parents did have both their mothers living with them in their last years. Somewhere along the line though, that changed and elderly loved ones started to live independently or in rest home facilities. So for our parents’ generation and younger, including us 40 somethings, this is the reality of what we will likely be facing when we reach our more mature years. We grapple with saving enough for our life in the present while also trying to set aside money for the possibility of living to 2075 and even onward.

Another note on the topics of age and the later chapters in life is that we 40-somethings are now beginning to face the reality of our parents’ aging. When we were younger, we got a glimpse of what’s ahead in this realm when we witnessed our grandparents’ aging and our own parents facing the ups and downs of those years. Over the last couple of years I have had an increasing number of conversations with peers about their parents and what considerations they have for accommodating them and being closer to them. One friend has shared his hope to soon buy his dream farm home with peacocks and fruit trees and have his parents join him there. Another friend anguishes over being halfway around the world from her parents and how she may balance the current demands of her work and life in her present home with that of more substantial, meaningful times with her parents. I too struggle with such guilt sometimes and how I will be able to contribute to my parents’ happiness in their later years, just like they did for my grandparents.

Perhaps these heavy, weighty thoughts are necessary in order to come to terms with the cycle of life. And perhaps 40 isn’t any more special than 10, 20, 60 or 80. 40 itself is just another marker along life’s journey.

Next in this series on turning and being 40:
Part 2: Running for the Big Achievements’ Deadline

For further listening and reading:

Laura Carstensen’s 2011 TED Talk: Older people are happier

Dr. Atul Gawande’s documentary on PBS Frontline: Being Mortal

Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End

Mind slip: Coping with absentmindedness and forgetfulness

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My mind sometimes slips into a fog. It’s true. There may be countless times in a day when I stand up, walk with purpose into the kitchen at home or open a drawer in my desk at work and then simply stop dead in my tracks. I stare blankly into the desk drawer or the open refrigerator for several moments. Squinting my eyes and biting my lower lip, I then chant quickly under my breath, “Why I am here? Why am I here? Why am I here?” until I can at last remember what I originally set out to do. Sometimes I correctly figure out my original mission. Other times, I end up completing something else only to realise moments later in another part of the house or deep into another task that I didn’t achieve my original task.

This may seem like a completely normal, human thing to do. To comfort myself, I try to chalk up my scatterbrained moments to what I call a “brain overload” and that I once again awkwardly have put myself in a situation in which I am processing too many ideas and tasks simultaneously. Just a couple of weeks ago, a work friend tried to carry on a casual, easy-going conversation with me while I tried scanning a book on the copy machine at the same time. I simply couldn’t manage this ostensibly simple task of a pleasant conversation and pressing a button on a machine at the same time. My friend finally sympathetically turned to me and said, “I think I’ll leave you be. You’re not a multitasker, are you?”

Sometimes when I make a “brain overload” goof or an absentminded blunder, I joke that I just had a “blonde moment”, unfairly playing up the stereotype about dumb blondes. I realize that it’s a cheap shot and this overused and untrue generalization needs to be retired. I don’t really believe that my blonde hair causes my forgetfulness and absentmindedness, so obviously it can’t be true. Some people also refer to such absentminded instances as “senior moments”. When I catch myself in such a moment for others to witness, I may get a remark like, “Oh Stephanie, you’re far too young to be having such a moment.” To which I think, “Right?”

I can’t help but feel so isolated, ashamed and indeed alone in such moments of my mind slipping. In recent years, it has caused me embarrassment and also has caused those close to me frustration. When I have actually been called out on such moments, I get over-defensive and want to scream out, “I’m not dumb! Really!” I remember a few years ago going through days of anguish and consternation when a work supervisor had been tasked to delicately mention to me that I had behaved inappropriately at a recent meeting for asking questions that had been covered a few minutes before. Other times, I have been softly rebuked by friends and loved ones for retelling stories I have shared two or three times previously or for repeating a conversation for the umpteenth time. Although I’m sure the messages are well meaning, the effect can sometimes make me want to seclude myself and hide away for a while.

My absentmindedness and forgetfulness sometimes causes me to feel like I'm facing an isolated and upward struggle.

My absentmindedness and forgetfulness sometimes causes me to feel like I’m facing an isolated and upward struggle.

Sometimes I wonder whether my absentminded and forgetful moments are simply that or whether they are teasers of the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Dementia and Alzheimer’s are sadly very much realities in my family and I have in recent years witnessed them take their toll on brilliant, vivacious, energetic minds of family members very dear to me. I guess secretly I have feared and am increasingly coming to terms with the reality that I may too someday walk down that path. Recent articles I have read about young people being diagnosed with Alzheimers as early as their late 40s have helped stoke that fear in me. As far as I know, there are no cures for memory loss and these cruel inflictions of the mind. The mind loss an individual may experience is equally cruel to the pain that their loved ones must endure as they witness a once full of life, exceptional person who is close to them transform and slowly wilt away before their eyes. Yes, losing my full memory capacity and my mind and then subjecting the pain to my loved ones is probably one of my greatest fears.

Why am I contemplating such a heavy topic? Inching my way up to 40 in a couple of months, I am actually coming to the point in my life where I will be middle-aged. My own mortality isn’t staring me in the face but I can’t help but reflect on the cycle of life and the different stages as I approach the middle chapter of my life. My last grandparent’s passing last year and my parents entering their 70s this year has me more contemplative about life stages and perhaps my own last chapters.  Meanwhile, I hope that by confessing my fear of mind deterioration, I will send the message to others of all ages experiencing similar slips and fears that they are not alone. Indeed, I recently heard even the grandmaster of horror, American writer Stephen King confess in an interview that not the mysterious bogeyman but memory loss and ultimately losing his mind were very much his greatest fears. Hearing such confessions from him or witnessing mind slips and absentminded moments from others are constant reminders that they are in essence human and that I don’t have to feel alone and ashamed in my struggle.

A few months ago while teaching, I finished giving directions to my students about an assignment. I was very careful and methodical in my oral instructions and also passed out written instructions to my students. No sooner did I finish explaining my instructions when I asked the obligatory, “Any questions?” A student in the front row then raised his hand and proceeded to query about something I had just gone to great pains to finish explaining. One of his classmates belted out a laugh and quickly covered her mouth to try to cover up her astonishment and rudeness. Can I confess that I took such great comfort in the first student’s mess up? While initially I wanted to sigh and give him a look that said, “Really? Seriously?” I stopped myself and thought, “Careful, Stephanie…He may be one of your kind.”

Such moments have helped me cope with my own mind slips, absentmindedness and forgetfulness. They teach me to be compassionate and sensitive to others, and how people process and develop their thoughts and ideas. Whatever the cause of my own absentmindedness and forgetfulness, I try to compensate for them with my sharper long-term memory and by making sense of my knowledge of random, so called trivial facts and information (For example, when I was in college and in the days before widespread internet and quick Google searches, I would occasionally get phone calls from my sister in the middle of the night desperate to find out the name of that actor who played Gopher in Love Boat or some other random information). By repeating, reviewing and reciting (re being the key prefix here) ideas, stories, thoughts and ideas that have just been shared with me, I know they will become more ingrained, even if not necessarily at the same pace as others. Self-deprecating humor also helps me cope. Another tactic I may employ before launching into a story or relaying events, is simply citing a, “Perhaps I have mentioned this before…” or a “Let me know if I have told you this before”, thus avoiding embarrassment on both my part and my listeners’ parts. And if my mind does indeed someday go the dreaded route of Alzheimer’s, then I shall embrace and celebrate whatever whit and memory I have for as long as they both may last.

We absentminded and forgetful people indeed are not alone. We are from different backgrounds and walks of life. I like to think that many of us are actually great thinkers and achievers as well. As friends, family members, work colleagues, classmates and teachers, let’s not silence or shame those close to us if they may need something repeated or reiterated. Take pleasure when your grandmother or close friend tells you that funny story from her childhood for the umpteenth time, especially if it transforms them to another place and even allows you to relive the events vicariously.

Dedicated to the memory of my brilliant aunt, Dr. Barbara Merkens.