40 Till I Die! How I Plan to Take the Pressure Off Middle Age

First Person

40 Till I Die! How I Plan to Take the Pressure Off Middle Age

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

When I was in my teens, at least three different palmists “read” my palms, and prophesied that something terrible, like death, or an accident will hurtle my way in my 42nd year. I remember their concerned faces, the slow shakes of their heads, the what-can-we-do-it’s-all-in-the-stars shrugs. Until last year, 42 seemed far away, like something that happened to other people. But 24 hours shy of my 40th birthday, I have been thinking a great deal about mortality, and about those palmists. Now, 42 doesn’t seem that far. It feels like it might drop in for a visit anytime. 

The number 40 has a heft that 39 simply does not. Forty means there can be no more messing around; that you are the grown-up in the room. Forty is significant in literature, religion, and science. Remember how many thieves Ali Baba had to outsmart? Or how many days Noah waited after the floods before releasing a raven? During the Middle Ages, when Europe was under the grip of bubonic plague, guess for how many days ships were isolated in the harbor before their passengers could go ashore? Yes, 40. 

When I look at my friends who have turned 40, or what turning 40 means according to the world and social media, there seem to be three distinct responses. The first is to celebrate in some wildly unexpected way with plenty of online inspiration for assistance. “40 is the new 30! Go crazy with our exclusive champagne-tiara-purple hair offer! Hire a personal chef to cook you and your girlfriends breakfast on our exclusive helicopter that will cost as much as your soul!” The second? Be forlorn and full of regret, mourn the swift passage of time up to this point. If you are not married, don’t own a house, and don’t have two kids by this point, what really has this been all about? The third: this too shall pass. This birthday too is like any other. 

The number 40 has a heft that 39 simply does not. Forty means there can be no more messing around; that you are the grown-up in the room.

Now, on the cusp of this birthday, I am not sure if I fit into any of these mindsets.  

 I am not from a religious family – the palmists did not enter my life through my parents or grandparents – but I have given myself a mantra for next year. I am calling it, The Year of Magical Doing. The plan is simple: have fun and accrue some good karma along the way, so that two years from now, if that impending disaster takes a peak in my direction, it will be blistered by my glowing existence, and like any good Indian raised under our national-cultural umbrella of “Shame is Good for You,” it too will hang its head, and back away red-faced. 

The Year of Magical Doing will prioritise everything I loved as a kid and this next year I will take these loves to a deeper level. My first goal will be to write to 40 people – friends, members of my extended family, former colleagues, mentors, teachers – who have impacted my life in a positive way. I will commit to writing to one of these people each week; 52 weeks; 40 letters. Sure, I am connected to several of them through social media but liking their posts on plum jam doesn’t count. When I say “write,” I mean write something meaningful, something beyond work emails. And by “write,” I also mean it all – emails, cards, postcards, old-fashioned letters. 

For my second goal, I am committing to reading 40 short stories, again spread out over the next year. I am going to put two caveats in place though: the writers have to be women; and each of these stories must be set in a different country. I don’t think I have ever read a story set in Mongolia or Cyprus or Uruguay. And I am excited to see where this journey will take me. 

However, goal number three might be the one I am most excited for. Thus far, I have been to six countries and the best gift from each of these places has been making local friends. My goal will be to ask these friends to share a couple of their favourite recipes with me. Now here’s the rule. Whatever they share, I have to make it at home. 

Even as a kid, I thought I was exceptionally qualified to give life advice. So you can imagine how much more qualified I feel now.

The fourth and final component of The Year of Magical Doing will be to compile all the wisdom I have acquired so far. This will include everything from “you should not throw a party if you do not know how to properly introduce people” to “the importance of staying curious about all that interests you, be it plants or pirates.” Compiling such a list should not be difficult. Even as a kid, I thought I was exceptionally qualified to give life advice. So you can imagine how much more qualified I feel now. Plus, I am a proud Indian. Judging people and giving unsolicited advice are my two superpowers. A major motivation behind compiling said wisdoms is that my husband is a forgetful man, and in the event something should happen to me, I imagine he will be in grief, and wouldn’t want to be bothered with questions such as, “What was your wife’s favourite colour?” (Red. Thank you for asking.) 

Admittedly, to some, this may seem morbid, but last year, I read, “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning,” by Margareta Magnusson. It’s based on döstädning, an organising principle which suggests that each of us organise our possessions in such a way that our families don’t have to worry about what to do with them upon our passing. That said there’s also the fact that when someone dies, sorting through their possessions can bring comfort and closure to those left behind. Why should anyone take that away?

In my case, the book made me reflect on all that I have done by age 39: teaching, and studying abroad; marrying; evacuating on the eve of a hurricane; having a book published; sautéing fish with lettuce (terrible, terrible idea); maintaining 15 pen pals simultaneously; breaking up with a boy on Valentine’s Day because he was a poor speller; eating chicken skulls, fish eyes, frog leg; learning a semester’s worth of Farsi; re-watching The Office; bunking school; getting tattoos; traveling across the breadth of North America by train; holidaying in an erstwhile lighthouse keeper’s cottage on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It made me think of all that’s left to do, starting with The Year of Magical Doing.

Turning 40 then is not about looking back but about looking forward. To remind yourself that your 40 is going to be fabulous. So, here’s to whatever’s coming next, to living with greater intentionality and gratitude, perhaps getting another tattoo or two, and maybe, resisting the urge to friend palmists.