The Internet Personified: On forty
Hello weird new decade
Hallo, my schmink tisches!
I am a Sagittarius. Two of my closest friends are too—one born the same day I was, the other one day later. (Different years for all.) We are all three very different people: my friends—who are not friends with each other, to clarify, just with me—are organised, hard-working and think nothing of giving up pleasure so they can finish a long hanging task. One loves activity and the outdoors. One loves cozy gatherings, preferably long lazy lunches. I am like neither of them, tending to indolence, supremely self-indulgent, willing to be late to something so I can take a nap. I like crowded rooms, and smoky dive bars. If given a choice, I’d live in a big city for the rest of my life, not setting a toe even in the countryside, except for maybe a weekend sometime in summer if I was feeling Romantic about Nature. If we are all three Sagittariuses, which of us is the most Sagittarius? I spent my teen years reading about our zodiac sign, like it would explain me to me.
I think about being Sagittarius when I’m faced with new situations. I think, “Maybe I am reacting to this like this because of my zodiac sign.” It’s a comforting thought: nothing has to do with me, everything has to do with the stars.
But more likely—actually probably—the reason I am reacting the way I do is because of things that have happened to me before. You’re always learning, always checking things off a giant list you don’t even know you’re keeping.
When I turned forty in December, I wasn’t really thinking about it. For many years previous, probably since I was about 37, I’d been thinking vaguely about “going all out” for my fortieth birthday. I thought Goa at the time, lying lazily on a beach, being given a cocktail, surrounded by people I loved. I could see the night, glitter across bare shoulders, plunging low cotton dresses, in-jokes and puckered mouths from too much to drink. I’d have to do a little navigating because my friends are such a mixed bunch it is sometimes unwise to mix everybody and hope they get along, but I’d been hoping that the distance would make awkwardness less important, that love would hold us all together. And then the pandemic happened, and of course, everyone’s plans changed, including mine. Instead of warm sunny Goa, I’d be in cold icy Berlin, instead of being surrounded by people I loved, I’d hoped (but not very hopefully, the pandemic has cured me of unbridled optimism) that a few friends would be able to make it, and when they weren’t, I was just glad that K and I were together, starting a new adventure.
I could have stayed in Delhi, you know. My birthday was just one week after we left, there was no tearing hurry to make us leave the city when we did. But though I was willing to compromise on a bunch of things, my vision of forty always involved somewhere else. I wanted to wake up in the morning and be elsewhere. Not at home in Delhi, but in a strange place, with the sun shining (or not) differently, with a whole unexplored land in front of me. I didn’t want to be in our Delhi flat organising booze and food as I always did for my birthdays. I just wanted to be elsewhere, opening my eyes on a new decade with a new start.
One of K’s friends was in town, so we went out and got some pizza and some glühwein and then we went home and the next day we had to put Bruno to sleep and this was hanging over my head the entire time so I wasn’t able to abandon myself to birthday feelings at any rate. I wanted to do something because you know, you only turn forty once, but I couldn’t celebrate with all the joy in my heart because our cat was dying.
So I suppose that was my first introduction to this new decade. Sorrow and joy. Pushing through and yet not pushing yourself so much that you can’t handle it.
K and I started dating just a few months before I turned thirty. At twenty nine, I was already weary of the Game, I wanted in the words of Portishead: a reason to be a woman. And we were very quickly, very into each other. Love happened like quicksand, a slow enveloping of all your body until you realise you’ve surrendered to it. I’m glad we met then, both of us reaching our slowing down years at the same time, both of us ready to fall in love, both of us open to what was next.
I mention this because at forty, I have already been with someone for ten years. At forty, I already decided with my partner several years ago that neither of us was very interested in having children. So my waning fertility affects me in that I am sad that these are my last few years of being a “functional woman” so to speak. So silly to assume fertility is tied up with your sense of being a woman. But ours was the first generation to buck tradition and settle down and be childfree all together. I have a friend one generation older who also chose to eschew parenthood, but in my own generation, a majority of my friends are childfree, it’s such a common choice that we don’t even feel the need to discuss it any more. At forty, I doubt anyone will ask “So when are you having kids?” because those years are nearly behind me, I’m almost done with the whole rigmarole. I feel free now to admire children, to think they are cute when they walk past me on the road, to smile at mothers with babies, to be delicate about peoples struggles with fertility instead of just shrugging my shoulders (“kids are overrated anyway.”) or very quickly offering a list of options for things they could do instead of trying IVF or whatever. I understand now that as we begin our slow march towards death—as we begin to be aware of our slow march towards death—it’s nice to think your life has meaning to someone else.
Because the truth is, I am halfway through my life. If I lived till 80, this would be the 50% mark. We can change some things about our physical circumstances, but stuff: body stuff, health stuff, all that boring talk which is now endlessly fascinating to all of us, it’s never going to get better. Just “not as bad as it could be.” (Unless of course you are the exception to this rule and you were very ill in your teens and twenties and now you are the picture of health and vitality.)
I look young for forty. I’m not even saying this to show off, what a thing to show off about, something I have no control over. My hair is still black, no greys. My face is round and I have plump cheeks, so no hollowness there. If you look closely at my face you’ll see lines around my eyes and mouth. If you compare photos of me now to photos of me ten, fifteen years ago, you’ll see I’ve aged quite a lot, but people don’t generally walk around with a photo of themselves at 27, ready to show you. I haven’t been sleeping very well recently, so for the first time in my life, I have dark circles under my eyes, something I used to long for as a teenager, so I’d look mysterious and gloomy. Now it just looks like I didn’t wash my eye make-up off in the night. I have friends of all ages, and when, inevitably, the conversation rolls round to age, I often don’t participate. I’ll say “Oh I’m too old to XYZ” but this is usually at a social situation and usually because I don’t want to sit up any longer. Take it from a forty year old, if you’re not having fun at eleven pm, it’s very unlikely you’ll suddenly start having fun at 2 in the morning.
But no, a lot of people I know like to use their age as a way to say what they can and can’t do. Too old to get a radically new haircut or quit their jobs and do something creative like they’ve always wanted or make new friends and so on. When I was leaving Delhi, at our leaving drinks, one of my friends leaned in and said, “Aren’t you scared about doing this at forty? Starting your life again?” and she was nice enough to frame it as a question, but I’m sure a lot of people thought I was completely nuts to just give up on everything (we owned a flat for god’s sake!) and leave. I told them all it was because we had no children, which is true, no other schedules to please except our own, but it was more than that. It was about, I think, reaching that halfway mark of your life, and not wanting the rest of it to look exactly the same.
Gloria Steinem famously said to a journalist who told her, “But you don’t look forty!” “This is what forty looks like.” And that was a great solid answer. But I’m scared, with everything I’ve read about women becoming erased from society because they’re no longer sexually viable or whatever, that this will happen to me. I don’t want to be a sexual object, you understand. I just don’t want to become invisible. The third stage of femalehood: the maiden, the matron and the crone.
But forty today is no longer what it used to be. We could be thirty two or twenty six or nineteen, just with forty years of living on this planet behind us. Which is nice. Think of living all that again.
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And that’s all I’ve got for you this fine Thursday morning. Be good and if you can’t be good, be careful.
Love and other indoor sports,
Who are you? Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, writer of internet words (and other things) author of seven books (support me by buying a book!) and general city-potter-er.
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