40

I turn 40 in ten days. I’m excited about it, ready. I’ve kind of always wanted to be 40. This is a symptom, I think, of being told very early in life that I was an “old soul” and also “mature for my age.” I both hated and loved hearing those things and I’m still not sure what they mean exactly. I do know that I am someone who is adept at paying close attention, which is part of what makes me a writer; perhaps this is what folks were noticing when they identified my soul as being older than my body. (Don’t worry, my body has now caught up. And how!)

I have never dreamt about my life past 40, or imagined what it would be like. Probably because I was so achievement-oriented for so long that I figured I would line up my accomplishments like little ducks in a row, and the rest of my life would unfurl in orderly fashion from there. GEE WHIZ that’s hilarious, isn’t it? Ah, sigh. I may have been mature for my age but I still had plenty to learn. 

There’s tremendous freedom in this setup, of course. I have (just about) made it to 40, without spending any time dreaming about what I might do once I get there. Thanks to equal parts good first-generation immigrant girl training and genuine desire, I managed to line up those accomplishments (degrees, marriage, kid, books, a fifteen-year teaching career) and they have been incredibly fulfilling and also full of surprises. The biggest surprise being – they aren’t the most important thing about me. They don’t direct my future. They aren’t who I am.

photo of fall foliage from the Great Smoky Mountains in my home state of Tennessee, October 2022

I grew up the only child of older parents, which means I hung out by myself a lot. This was fine with me, given that I was and still am a giant nerd who is quite content to enjoy the company of books, go for a bike ride or walk, listen to music, and write in a journal every day. What I took for granted about this routine, though, is the way that all of this alone time allowed me to cultivate a very close relationship with myself. Nishta and I, we were on good terms. We liked each other. We enjoyed each other’s company. 

These days, after a period of forgetting, I am remembering how much I like my own company. I am spending more time with and by myself than I have in a long time. It feels good, feels right, feels necessary. I have neglected this relationship, the most important one in my life, for far too long, and I have several years’ worth of doctor’s appointments, surgeries, prescription medications, and even a medical leave from work, all of which I can now translate as my body saying HELLO COULD YOU PLEASE PAY ATTENTION TO US THANK YOU VERY MUCH

I published a book in 2019, but honestly it’s been even longer than that since I genuinely worked on a writing project. I have been, in a lot of ways, stuck. Scrabbling notes and dreaming up half-projects, wondering why I could not get my body to cooperate with my desire to create, throwing out the occasional poem on Instagram, all the while trying to do right by my students and my family. You know who I wasn’t doing right by, though? Me.

At long last, earlier this calendar year, life seemed to be lining up to allow for the writing life I had always dreamed of; my family had moved back to Houston, I was taking some time off from full-time teaching, and I sold a book proposal for my next collection of essays: MORE THAN YOU BARGAINED FOR. 

Friends, a word to the wise. Don’t go calling your work-in-progress “More Than You Bargained For.” It’s just dramatic irony waiting to happen. 

I thought that this book I’m writing was going to be a continuation of the last, bringing stories about my family up to date and sharing what it’s like to be the parent of a trans child in Texas right now. I planned to write about teaching during the pandemic, including what it was like to bring one of my students into my home and my family. I had essays planned about Shiv’s continued journey related to Black identity, her fascination with villains, as well as my experiences with chronic pain, which have definitely been more than I bargained for. 

In classic plot-twist form, it turns out that this book is also going to be about my marriage ending, which is not something I ever imagined could or would happen. Jill and I have been together since I was nineteen years old, which is basically my entire adult life. But what time and space to myself, time to discern and reflect and re-get-to-know-myself, have made clear is that the right path forward for me is not inside this marriage. I know it as clearly as I know my own name, and there is a grace in that clarity, for which I am grateful. 

I suppose it’s perfect that I never imagined life past 40, for now the future is a wild open expanse, free and ready to be filled by whatever I dream up. Stay tuned, y’all. Life after 40 won’t be easy but it’s going to be good.

xoxo

NJM