The opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and not necessarily those of The New Agenda.
I turn forty on Wednesday, and for me this is a long-awaited day. I have wanted to be forty since I was in my twenties. Why? Because the idea of turning forty is ripe with a sense of true womanhood. You are not a woman, not really, until you are forty. Everything before forty is trite, experimental, and full of the work that will bring you the fruits of forty.
Being forty means I will finally have it together; I will no longer be able to rely on excuses as to why I haven’t been published, why I haven’t been successful, why I still feel like a little girl inside aching for something I can’t quite articulate or get my hands on. Forty is the beginning — not the end or the middle. It feels as if I have been longing for this time — waiting for this extraordinary decade to come and wrap itself around me, cocooning me until I emerge as a full and complete and established woman. I have been waiting for this year, this week, and this Wednesday for a long time, decades, and now that it is here, I can look back at my life and reflect on where I have been, where I have come from, and what I can do to get to where I want to spend the rest of my life. Here is my life in decades — in decades’ worth of lessons that have gotten me here — to the revised version of my forty self:
First Decade: The first ten years of my life were turbulent and precarious. There was no wall to hold on to and no solid and reliable gravel to keep my feet in place. I was constantly moving, like the gypsy my mother latched on to — the gypsy that blackened my childhood and tainted my innocence . This decade was as stark as his soul, as dark as his skin, as foul as his deeds. This decade was all about surviving and keeping my head above water. I learned that fathers abandoned their families, mothers were equally violent to men, and children bore the brunt of adult corruptions and wore the scars of life’s unfairness. But I escaped.
Second Decade: The next ten years of my childhood were fraught with forced silences and an adoption that opened a door to another world only to have it shut behind me with only windows through which to breathe. In lived in a home where walls confined me, floors chained me, and my tongue was forbidden to utter the horrors of my experiences. I was quiet and studious and I learned to please those around me by doing as they bid me. I had no voice, no will, and I learned to scream and fight and hold on to myself in silence. The only place you could find the real me was in my poetry.
It was at the end of this decade that I fell in love, found my voice, became a teacher, reunited with my birth family, took back my name, and struggled to find my self, not the self that had been forced upon me like a thick layer of skin that never quite fit. I learned that prisons are self-imposed as much as they are imposed by others; only courage and determination can destroy the house that imprisons you; and that pleasing yourself is more important than sacrificing yourself for others, no matter how much you need their approval.
Third Decade: This decade made me a mother — of both books and children. My memoir, Drowning Squirrels, which recounts my challenges with my mother’s prostitution, our homelessness, and my orphanage and adoption, took its first tremulous breath a year before my son took his. This decade was bitter-sweet. In writing, I collected files of rejection slips; I found and lost my agent; I learned the fine art of revision; and I learned how easy it is to give up.
In mothering, I was overwhelmed, as this was the toughest job I had ever had in my life. With five pregnancies and only two children making their way out of my body and into the world, I had to face the limitations of my body and my life — I had to endure the kind of loss that only women who miscarry feel — the desperation, the self-blame, the lack of power, the sense of failure. The long and arduous path towards recovery that leaves the body but never the mind — the fact that we can still recall the moment we knew, the day we lost, the pain that struck us down and pinned us to our knees.
I learned that while driving towards a dream one could easily be swept away when children come into the scene; that the world does not admire the mother who thinks of her dreams before those of her children; and that motherhood is not inherent to all women. As a mother, my two mothers haunted me daily, their dysfunctions becoming my own, and I was forced to discover my own distinctiveness as a mother and as a woman — flawed, human, and humbled.
Fourth Decade: I enter the expansive realm of forty as a mature and self-possessed woman. I walk its path with a partner who holds my hand, our free hands interlocked with the smaller ones of our children’s. We are a pack — the Alpha Packs — and there is nothing we cannot do without one another. I need them as much as they need me, and I cannot imagine existing without them — I have ached for them — for my place among them — all my life. With them, I am home. I am distinct, real, and important — published or not published; teaching or not teaching; writing or not writing. They love me no matter what my credentials are — and in spite of my flaws.
My forties are full of potential. My first baby, Drowning Squirrels, is in the hands of a very capable and trustworthy agent, and even if he cannot find a publisher for it, I know that there are other avenues I can embark upon. There are other paths intended for me to leave my mark, for my forties are about just that — leaving my mark — as a writer and as a woman. I teach and write to empower, to strengthen the resolve of those who think that they cannot change their circumstances.
I am turning forty, and there is nothing I cannot do, nothing I will not attempt to do. And if I drown, I will do so laughing because I have endured and overcome time and time again. At forty, I am able to embrace my self, my losses, and the lessons I have acquired in my life. And this is extraordinary for an extraordinary life.
How do you look upon forty or the idea of turning forty?