Well folks, on Tuesday I turned 40 and I figured it was time to consider how I feel about this, and to assess why this decade already feels so very different to the last. My birthday falls on St Patrick’s Day, which used to pass by without the least little bit of attention when I was young, and so it surprises me now to find celebrations beginning to spring up around this particularly minor saint. He really ought to be renamed the patron saint of the mid-life crisis because nowadays he seems to symbolize the question about what a person has actually achieved of value. It’s a bit tragic that the only thing he was famous for – supposedly driving the snakes out of Ireland – has subsequently been disproved as a scientific impossibility. So what did Patrick do, exactly? Umm, not sure. I think he was a missionary of the diplomatic variety, or at least that suits me because it makes him a man close to my own heart. I’ve always felt I was wired up in a fundamental sort of way to go around zealously trying to convert people to various cerebral causes. It’s not the kind of work that produces tangible results, so I won’t waste my time trying to figure out if I ever achieved any. But pause a moment there; that in itself is a significant difference for me. I used to feel that I had wasted a precious day unless I had something to show for it, I lived each day, in fact, as if it were my last, which after much experimentation I have to tell you is a terrible lifestyle with nothing to recommend it. But the first thirty-five years were distinctly marked by the sensation that there was not enough time, that I had to hurry, hurry, to pack added value into every moment.
One of the quotations I really liked when I was ambling around the internet, figuring out what I thought about ageing, was this one: ‘If life really begins on your 40th birthday it’s because that’s when women finally get it… the guts to take back their lives.’ If I finally begin to feel now like I have more time – paradoxically, of course, given that I undeniably have less of it ahead – then it’s because more of it finally belongs to me. I married and had a child early, my job was extremely taxing, and I was certainly in collusion with all the demands that rained down. When I was invited to write an article, I never once turned the editors down; if there were a shortage of teachers, I never evaded extra hours, extra responsibility. I felt I owed both my family and my work equal, and equally large, shares in me. I ran around offloading parts of my self to everyone in need as if I were on special offer, as if I had crates of myself back at some vast warehouse and I couldn’t shift the goods fast enough. What didn’t belong to my family belonged to the university, and so inside myself I was as poor as any third world country. Giving up the university job was such a revelation; I felt sick at the thought of it, but the resulting sense of spaciousness has been just wonderful. And it’s interesting to do something different, too. The Buddhists are right: when you end up carrying things you feel you can’t bear to be parted from, they end up as burdens, not gifts any more. The only thing you truly possess in this world is yourself, and giving it away in the hope of external validation is an illusion I spent far too many years chasing.
This has been the biggest rearrangement of ideas I’ve been through. Getting to the top of my profession looked like success, it had all the trappings of something that would give me a lot of pleasure, and in fact it was quite a significant strain. Don’t get me wrong; I loved so much of my job, but I never lost the feeling that I needed to prove myself. If I wrote a good publication, if I taught well, then I simply seemed to set a standard I then needed to maintain. It’s amazing now I look back that the things I was particularly good at – giving lectures and papers – were things I did at high cost. I always had stage fright and I can’t tell you how nice it is not to have to put myself through that. Although if you told me I had to deal with 50 people, I would still rather give them a lecture than a cocktail party. And I’ve published some books, but you know what? The thrill of seeing your name in print lasts all of about ten minutes, if that. Working on non-fiction projects, I’ve come to the conclusion (and it’s taken me about a year to get there) that it really doesn’t matter if I never get published again. There are books I want to write because there are things that interest me, but it’s the writing that’s the exciting part, the finding out, the thinking it all through, the seeing what comes out on paper. I didn’t feel like this even five years ago. Then I felt that all it would take would be one book, the right book, to make me feel like I’d made it, like I had somehow sealed my fate or my value, between a pair of hardbound covers. A cultural myth again. Or maybe other people do somehow feel validated by the right event, be it a publication or whatever. I never have done, and don’t imagine I ever will.
If there’s one thing I regret so far, it’s that chronic fatigue meant I never had the experience of working hard, working intensely and finding an honest human enjoyment in that. I liked work, but the result was always exhaustion. It’s not so much fun facing up to the years ahead when things do start to go wrong with you, on the basis of knowing how those physical breakdowns can be debilitating and confidence-destroying. It would be better to be ignorant about that still. But the last few years have taught me to recognize what I need and to make sure I secure it for myself. It struck me that the ageing process is one of a general solidification, a kind of crystallization into a distinct shape, as the formlessness of youth gradually falls away to reveal the outline of the individual. I feel now that there are things I know, and this knowledge is encouraging; it literally gives me the courage to express myself and to make decisions. But I don’t want to fall prey to mental inflexibility. I want to be sure I can still change my mind, or take on board new ideas and concepts. I don’t want to hunker down behind the rampart of my personal philosophy and sit the rest of the battle out there. It’s change that keeps you young, I think, in whatever form it takes.
Okay, you’ve been very patient, because what you really want to know about my 40th birthday is what books I got, right? Here are the lovely books I received:
Jhumpa Lahiri – The Namesake
Elizabeth Stout – Olive Kitteridge
Patrick McGrath – Asylum
Jilly Cooper – The Common Years
Nicholas Sparks – The Notebook
Francine Prose – Blue Angel
Adam Thorpe – The Rules of Perspective
Elena Ferranti – The Days of Abandonment
Elena Ferranti – Troubling Love
Louise Gluck – Vita Nova
Ayn Rand – The Fountainhead
Jessica Mitford – Hons and Rebels
Audrey Niffenegger – The Time Traveller’s Wife
I read somewhere that by the time you hit 40, you are aware that you’ve probably only got about 2,000 books left to read. All I can say is, we’ll see about that.