Earlier this week I had a conversation with a friend of ours 15 years my junior. He was talking about struggling, looking at his life — he always thought it would look different at 25.
My response? Without an ounce of bitterness (really!) — in softer words than these, I basically told him to get used to it. I’ve yet to hit an age milestone that didn’t leave me with an overwhelming chuckle, a metaphorical shaking of the head.
In a separate conversation this week, I told other young-ish friends that the day you turn 39, you start thinking about your 40th birthday. It’s like you spend the whole year preparing — or if you’re like me, fantasizing about what that day will look like. I usually daydream these things while exercising, because the soundtrack du jour piped in from headphones is requisite. So, on various treadmills and trails this year, the big 40 has looked like any of the following:
- I take a cruise with my high school besties. This fantasy was actually born from a suggestion by one of them at our 20th reunion. Our collective milestone was still 15 months in the future, enough time for it to be an easy thing to say, to agree to do. In truth? I will always love those friends, but we haven’t done a good job keeping in touch. As an added deterrent, I’ve never once desired to go on a cruise. The thought of it makes me feel claustrophobic and seasick. Scratch Fantasy #1.
- I host a gigantic dance party. The soundtrack contains every song I’ve loved since 1988, which means it would have to be extracted from my brain via Harry Potter’s pensieve-dipping wand. The party is located in a well-decorated warehouse-like space somewhere downtown, and all my favorite people from the past 20 years are in attendance. This is delusional on so many levels it’s ridiculous. Scratch Fantasy #2.
- I host a more intimate party, but with all of my favorite people from across the country in attendance. Since it’s a fantasy, I am somehow able to afford to fly everyone here and put them up. Cross-reference the delusion of Fantasy #2, and scratch the 3rd.
Today I turn 40. Yesterday afternoon I tried my darnedest to make a proper cake (albeit grain-free, dairy-free, sugar-free). I had a vision of what this cake would look like: it would be a square mini cake, with airy vanilla layers, a coconut cream filling, and chocolate cream icing. I knew the texture would be different from a traditional yellow cake — knew the chocolate frosting might not be as sweet or chocolatey. As I pieced together recipes, taking an experimental approach to all aspects, wanting to tweak things out of desire or need, I was having the best time baking I’ve had in many months. I am at my heart a problem-solver, and thrive on challenges. I had the vision as my prize, was thinking of ways to style the shot as I measured out ingredients.
I’ll spare the minutia and take you to the last page of the book: the cake was a total flop. Partially edible, but not at all what it was supposed to be. I served up small pieces to my kids for dessert last night — and as I watched all three eat with enthusiasm and give their thumb votes (they ranged from 2 thumbs up to a thumb and a half), I thought about the fact that in a few hours I would actually, unequivocally turn forty. I would be a forty-year old. All of those fantasies replayed through my brain in an instant, and I couldn’t help but chuckle. Literally.
I told Tim a few weeks ago that, cliché as it may be, I felt a tinge of midlife crisis. Four decades, and no measurable worldly accomplishments to show for it. My design work never made it into Print magazine, I’ve never been interviewed by Terry Gross, I’ve not yet published that memoir (sneak-peak: southern redneck girl teaches self to cook, this is metaphor for life in general, blah, blah, blah, somehow manages to be funny as hell); I’ve never been properly fitted for a bra at Nordstrom, still share a bathroom with all of my children, drive at least one muffler-less car, have dirty baseboards. I’m not sure where exactly I thought I’d be at this point, but I have a feeling this list of un-accomplishments would not have been penned by my 25-year old hand.
But then I serve these pieces of shoddy, spongy cake to my three children. And as they chew, with thumbs in various stages of up, down, or sideways (that’s a neutral vote), I realize that I also never imagined them, or this life — this journey with my husband and three children. I couldn’t imagine them, because my mind is too limited — bound by dreams of movie reels and magazine ads, award-envy and wanderlust. My fantasies could have never included these three utterly delightful small people, with me as their undeserving mother and Tim as their father, because it would have been too wondrous a dream to risk.
I have no recipe today, because who wants a recipe for a birthday cake fail? But I chose to record this failure, to share it on my own day of milestone naval-gazing, because it’s all just too perfect. Today I won’t eat a beautiful cake, won’t embark on a cruise, am not preparing for that rockin’ warehouse bash or miracle intimate mixing-of-worlds. Instead I’m heading to Louisville, KY with Tim, meeting up with my brother-and-sister-in-law, for an overnight restaurant-hop. I kissed my little ones goodbye this morning before school, confident they’d be in good hands with Grandma in my absence. I’ll face this mark without a beautiful cake to show you, but also without bitterness, for at least a moment comfortable with the fact that life at forty is not what I thought it would be.
Today’s photo, in all its ridiculousness, is in honor of Dr Seuss, as today is his birthday as well.
In case you’re wondering: yes, I ate it. For breakfast.