I turned 38 on Monday. On learning it was my birthday several people asked me if it was a “big one”. I’m assuming they weren’t guessing I was turning 30. Hmmmm.
The last years of a decade are weird. It’s not an elegant way to describe it, I know, but it’s the way a friend of mine and I have agreed is the best way to describe it. In a couple of years I’ll be looking okay for my forties, for now I’m looking pretty average for my thirties (in my personal and skewed opinion). Then there’s the laundry list of must-do’s before the clock ticks over into the next decade. It’s worse than rushing to snag a drunken snog before midnight on New Year’s Eve. By forty I MUST have accomplished this, I MUST be like this, I MUST have ditched this habit, run this marathon, published this (phenomenal, lauded) book, produced this many offspring, collected this much money, bought this, this and this and I MUST look just like that…*she points to someone airbrushed to the smoothness of a newborn. It’s all a bit much, isn’t it?
At any rate, the clock ticked over to 38 and, just like the computers at the turn of the millennium – remember that?! – nothing changed. I was just the same. Same number of silver hairs, same number of mauve stretch marks and same number of kids, all of whom had managed to wet their beds; including ours. That’s a whole other story. The fact that nothing changed gave me a strong sense of relief. It’s okay, Hannah, you’re really haven’t super-throttled that much closer to old age and death. Everything’s going to be alright, Bob Marley said so. You don’t look so bad. Besides, stop dwelling on it, you don’t have time. You’ve got sheets to wash.
But things have changed…over time. Not over night the way I was fretting it might, but gently and gradually, in the same way that wrinkles find their way onto your face and gravity starts to work it’s dark magic on the bit under your chin. I have learned some things over the years, it turns out. Things I’d love to have known at a younger age but which only slap you in the face much later. Like….
1. Your path will be hard.
You know when your Mum / Dad / guidance counselor / teacher warns you off a job or life path because it will be hard? Well, in my opinion, that’s true of ALL life paths. Someone needs to scratch out the “Easy” on the “Easy Path” sign because it’s a complete misnomer. Sitting in an office, feeling your soul leeching from your very bones, deciding how to cut labour costs – NOT easy. I can vouch for that. We all want easy, but it’s impossible to find and, trust me, boring can be just as bad as awful. If the sign says “Easy Path” I’d caution against taking it. You’re likely to have to double back anyway, once your soul is sad and wonky, and no-one great, successful or wonderfully happy ever proclaimed about their life choices – “I simply chose the least burdensome route!” As Ria Voros might say – You just gotta suck up the suck and I would add “Because it will suck.”
2. You’re probably going to need glasses at some point.
I found this so surprising! But it’s true. I had 20/20 vision for so long and now I do not. Very naively, I never imagined a time when I would need to dye my hair, get glasses or be really sure about my health insurance policy and what it covers. Your body is going to falter and fail. Young people really have no idea. How do I know? Because I was one and I was blinded. Until I was actually a bit blinded. Irony.
3. You will find the people in your batch.
Thankfully, as you get older it becomes much easier to find friends. You know yourself better, other people know themselves better, there is much, much less mucking around wondering if this person likes you or not, if this person is your kind of person; you just know. Friend-forming becomes so very easy and there’s no more of that playground bullshit. I love this. Added bonus, there’s so many ways – physically and online – to makes connections and form a community. A new friend of mine, Tom, has a theory that people come in batches. “Like cookies?” I asked him. “Yup.” He replied like it was obvious. Tom and I are different genders, different ages and have different beliefs, but we are friends. Anne Shirley Cuthbert was right about “kindred spirits” and it becomes easier to find yours as you get older. I accept the dark magic, chin sagging thing as exchange for this.
4. You are not unique
I’ve just finished reading “Steal like an Artist” on the recommendation of another kindred spirit, Holly. Author, Austin Kleon, even references the bible “There is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). True that. As much as we would like to think we are unique, as much as we would like to believe that we are special, we really are just like many, many, many others. Hey – there’s a batch of you, remember. In your creative life – less so in real life? – it’s perfectly reasonable to thieve, borrow, beg and mash together. The more you fret about being original, the less you will produce. The less your produce, the less there is to edit. So surrender the specialness and just play. It’s liberating, my friend.
5. Your work won’t last.
Most of us are secretly hoping to have a legacy. We might not say it out loud but the fear of (inevitable) death has us all scrambling for something permanent to point to. I made that! It’s okay; it’s at least partly biological and only a tiny bit narcissistic; we all do it in more or less obvious ways. I’ve had several people tell me it must be so wonderful to have published books to give to my kids, to pass down to my grandkids. Yes, it is. But once I was published I very quickly, uncomfortably realized that my books are only likely to last a generation or maybe two. Unless you are able to rival Shakespeare your work is probably going to fade into obscurity. The trick is to get over that. Just like you, your work probably won’t last. It’s an unpleasant thought, I know. But if your work makes you happy, makes you feel like yourself you should do it anyway! And if knowing you and your work is temporary, and that this depressing thought makes doing your work all too hard…. then you can check out point 1. You’re welcome.
6. No-one is “sorted”
My best friend, Liz, has one saying and one story I particularly like. The saying is “People only ever show you the tip of the ice berg” – meaning that we rarely see other people’s troubles, dramas and issues. Liz reminds me of this when I go down an Instagram rabbit hole and start obsessing about why my life doesn’t look like Mimi Thorisson’s (Look her up. And then remember that saying.) Personally, I don’t have a problem with the whole “only showing your shiny stuff “on social media thing. I think that is normal and people have been doing that for centuries, in different forms. You just have to remember it’s not their whole lives it’s their iceberg tip. Then, the story I love that Liz tells is about open heart surgery. She is a cardiac technician, so she was standing in an operating room watching two surgeons perform one of those most incredible things humans can do with their hands – mend a body. My friend, Liz was in complete awe, the two surgeons like mighty demi-gods, performing a miracle, in the most precise and delicate way. Then one of the demi-gods starts talking about going away for the long weekend. The other demi-god asks “You’ve got to watch the traffic leaving Auckland. Are you going to drive?’ Hands in a person’s chest, demi-god number one shudders and shakes his head “Oh no! My wife will drive. I hate driving in traffic; it makes me anxious.” Liz was floored. She glanced from the open chest and bloody heart and to demi-god’s face and back again. Even demi-god’s get anxiety? So, perhaps your demi-god, your Instagram muse, your perfectly constructed, bikini-donning friend, your cupcake-baking, jumper-knitting neighbor, the “perfect” mother, sister, friend worries about driving in traffic. Perhaps there are several things they worry about and cannot do, will not do, things that make them cry in the bathtub or reach for the wine; secrets, heartaches, fears and flaws. In fact I am sure of it. No-one is sorted. And if they look like they are it’s because you’re only seeing the tip of their ice-berg, see?
7. Everything you learn, you will have to learn again.
I possibly could have written this same list five years ago. Maybe with slightly different headings and with a shallower appreciation, but still. It’s evident to me, at my grand old age, that we learn once, twice, MANY times, before we get it. Hopefully in ever decreasing lessons, lessons with lesser and lesser clout, but also maybe not. Oprah says “Life smacks you with a bouquet first but if you don’t get it it’ll get you with a brick bat” (I am totally misquoting Oprah, I think that might be akin to blasphemy). These days I tend to see most incoming, repeat lessons from afar and stave them off at the path – “Whoa there! I learnt you last year! Jog on!”. But the really tough ones, the core ones – about self-love, love in general and personal identity, they are hard to shake off. Much, much thornier. They keep cycling back around. So next year, when I read this post I’m likely to be nodding my head and learning it all…over…again…
I hope these lessons don’t seem too despairing. Because, one last soapbox, my thirties have been incredible; I’m a big fan of this decade so far. I highly recommend it.
What are your favourite life lessons?
What do you keep learning over and over again?
What do you know for sure, at this age, that you wish you’d known sooner?
Hannah x x x
PS Photos of me from the last decades in order – age 8, age 18, age 28 and now at 38.