Reflections on 40

My 41st year of life began a little over a year ago in the arctic circle, gazing up at the northern lights from the doorway of a glass igloo at the tail end of a birthday trip with a handful of close friends that by its very nature joined two of the major themes of my 20s and 30s—overland travel and community, respectively—together into a template for what I wanted the next decade of my life to look like. I arrived back in Seattle on February 8th, and the world shut down a few weeks later. That birthday trip ended up being a farewell not only to my 30s, but to the pre-pandemic world in general…and it was a great way to say goodbye.

40 was very different from what I thought it would be in a lot of ways, but in one very important way it was exactly what I expected: I arrived back on American soil last February ready to settle in and start building a life in earnest with my then-girlfriend Laura, and that’s exactly what we’ve done. One year of pandemic dating is undoubtedly equivalent to some longer stretch of time of non-pandemic dating, and in our case spending so much time together made it very clear that we both wanted that to become a long-term trend in our lives. We bought a house together last year and got engaged a week ago today, and the engagement served as the closing chapter to a year of transition the primary theme of which has been the creation of our shared life together, which we now have the rest of our lives to continue tending to and growing and caring for.

When I think about the years and decades ahead of us now, I think about them in terms of the milestones that we’ll celebrate together, the challenges we’ll face and overcome, and all of the joy and sadness and laughter and adventures and lazy afternoons that we’ll share along the way…and it feels fantastic.

40 or Bust

“First you live your life. Then you make up stories about it.” That’s a quote from myself at some point in my early 20s by way of my journals, and it’s one that I think back to often–there’s a lot of power in the stories we tell ourselves. 

I’ll be turning 40 in a few hours. As you may know, transitions are very important to me–and the transition into this coming decade feels especially significant. I spent my 20s running my wanderlust to ground, and my 30s building a community and putting down roots in Seattle. 40 feels to me like the first year of the rest of my life, and an opportunity to synthesize the best parts of both of my previous adult decades into a solid foundation for my middle age and beyond. 

As I’ve been getting ready to write this post I’ve been thinking a lot about the story of my life–what it is now, what it’s been in the past, and how it’s changed over the years…and also about who’s been holding the pen. If you’d happened to have run into my 24-year-old self at a working hostel in New Zealand, perhaps in the month I spent picking apples by day and reading Faulkner and contemplating my life by night, and you’d asked him what he was doing out there, I would have told you that I was enjoying the freedom of my youth, but also that I was proving to myself that I could make it in the world on my own, without having to rely on anyone else. That was the central motivating concept of my 20s, until I realized that self-sufficiency is a myth and turned my focus to becoming part of a community instead. I’ve done a pretty good job of that in Seattle over the course of the last 10 years, but the life I’ve built has still been very focused on keeping myself safe, in one capacity or another. 

I know what I want the rest of my life to look like, at least in a general sense. I can see the outlines of my job, my home, and my community stretching out all the way to the horizon, which is a new experience. Getting to this point has been the journey of my 30s, and it’s something I could never have done alone. I’m also starting to accept, though, that in order to finish filling in the story I’m going to have to give up some of my control over how it eventually turns out. 

I read All About Love by bell hooks last month–it had been highly recommended to me by a friend, and I’m in a space in a new relationship where I’m really interested in understanding the idea of what love truly means–and it didn’t disappoint. The definition she uses for love, which comes from Erich Fromm, is “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth,” and I’ve found that to be a useful framework as I’ve thought about what intentions I want to set for the next 10 years of my life. 

One of the things that I’ve always appreciated about the way I lived my life in my 20s is that anytime I was presented with two options, my default was to choose the one that I was least comfortable with, just to prove to myself that I could do it. There were a lot of different reasons why I spent so much time out on the road after college, some of which were healthy in retrospect and some of which weren’t, but my eagerness to, as a friend put it at the time, cast myself out into the world with no guarantee of success, is something that I want to tap back into, and learn to adapt to the way in which I inhabit the world now. 

I’m finally coming to accept that the only way to lead the life that I ultimately want to lead is going to be to get much more comfortable with my inner emotional life than I have been in the past. A big part of that is necessarily going to have to entail both sitting with uncomfortable emotions and taking emotional risks, because without putting something on the line–extending yourself–it’s impossible to get the connection with others that forms the very heart of both meaningful relationships and real community. 

So my 40s, if I live them well, will consist in large measure of a deeper exploration of what it means to love and to be loved. If all goes according to plan, this will be the decade in which I get married and start a family of my own, deepen my connections with my family and friends, and learn to be the best, most emotionally intelligent version of myself. To give up some of my control over the story of my life, in other words, and in doing so to make it much richer and fuller than it ever could be with just me as its author.