When my friend Cat turned 40, her mother invited her out into the garage and took out an old industrial measuring tape from the tool box. "Pull it out to 80 inches and lock it into place," she instructed Cat. Confused and curious, Cat did as she was told and laid the rigid tape across the cement floor. "The average life expectancy of a woman is 80, give or take a year or two," explained her mom. She then pointed to the 40 inch mark. "Cat, you are here. Half your life is behind you. Half ahead of you. Life doesn't stretch on forever. Remember, there was a beginning, and there is a middle, and there will be an end. Happy Birthday."
What a birthday gift. A reality check of epic proportions. A lesson with an unforgettable visual aid.
One day last September I woke up and, much to my chagrin, I was 40. I thought to myself, "how did I get here? This is not my beautiful house. This is not my beautiful..." Like David Byrne of the TALKING HEADS, I'd spent half my life letting the days go by. I am left with only 14,600 days and 350,400 hours more in my life. And that's IF I am lucky and I don't get hit by a bus or rubbed out by a fatal disease before the average life expectancy.
Summer vacations used to stretch on forever, do you remember? Free from school and able to lolly gag as I pleased, I swam at the community pool, played kickball in neighbors yards, read chapter books on the front porch swing, and liked to lie on my back on the grass to watch the wind blow through the leaves of the trees and clouds forming and reforming into odd shapes. I daydreamed about what I might be when I grew up. There was so much time stretching out in front of me that three short months of school vacation passed like they were a year. Now, as a friend of mine likes to say, you make a trip to the mailbox and when you return to the kitchen counter a decade has gone by.
I have been celebrating, and mourning, my 40th birthday for the past four months. To mark the occasion, I went to the lakeshore with my husband and two young boys and climbed enormous sand dunes. They gave me an iPad to encourage me to write. I commissioned a play at a wonderful theatre in North Coast San Diego in an (massive ego stroking) attempt to tie my name to a piece of art that may outlive me. And, to top off the birthday fanfare, I will travel to India with my friend Lakshmi in February as a kind of vision quest. Will it offer an epiphany that leads me to my purpose in this life? I hope so because here I am smackdab in the middle of life's measuring tape gobsmacked at the realization that THIS LIFE WILL NOT GO ON FOREVER and I'd better figure it out before time runs out.
For years, I have wasted a lot of time seeking the validation of others. At 40 I now see that I made a lot of life decisions based on what other people thought I should do instead of doing what my gut told to me to do. I've consistently ignored the advice of two of my favorite writers; Shakespeare's character Polonius' sage advice to his son, "this above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man" and Joseph Campbell's famous encouragement to follow ones bliss and "we must be willing to get rid of the life we've planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us."
I've thought a lot lately, as we all have, about the illness and death of Steve Jobs. He often said he'd look in the mirror every day and ask himself if it was the last day of his life, would he want to do what he was about to do that day? If he said no too many days in a row, he knew it was time to make a change. To an audience of Stanford graduates he said, "Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life."
Today, I unearthed an antique measuring tape from a box in the basement. It was a favorite of my moms and I have left it unfurled to the 80 mark on the front of my desk. Each centimeter marker on the tape a reminder that every day is precious and every decision a rare gift to live the life you want to live. In 2012, I have decided to finally take Mr. Shakespeare's and Mr. Campbell's advice. I will strive to be true to myself and set free my long held expectations so that I might live the life that is waiting for me.