I have finally passed through that imaginary boundary of life that took me over the border from my thirties and right smack into my forties. No one even bothered to stamp my passport or inspect my baggage. I am suddenly, overnight, a decade older and hopefully a decade wiser. I am also certain this occasion requires a quiet moment of reflective thought to contemplate what, if anything, this passage should mean. Have I lived my life well – have I met the challenge of expectations?
How, exactly, do we measure a life “well-lived”? What are the indicators that suggest to us “Bravo, you’ve done well!”? Are there any certain guidelines with which to compare our life’s efforts in order to know if we have achieved this ambiguous notion of success? Does the amount of money we have accumulated in the bank or the number of perfectly dressed progeny, found genuflecting in several languages, measure success? Is it measured by the number of fascinating friends we now find around us, the quality of the designer business suits that hang in our closets or the number of square feet in the houses we own?
Ten years ago I turned 30 on a pontoon boat floating on the murky waters of Portage Lake in Summit County, Ohio. A decade later I turned 40 on the grainy beaches of the Costa Brava in Spain. Does this change in geographical location suggest any measurable type of marker in the success of my life? In ten years time my celebration moved from the musty, backwoods water in the rural hills of Ohio to the distant shores of the glamorous Mediterranean coast in Spain.
Spain may certainly seem like an upgrade from Ohio – but both are open to the interpretation of the traveler and both hold special places in my heart. It is not location that measures the success of my life -- but the paths taken to get here.
On that pontoon boat there were cake and candles and beer and wine and a certain festivity that “lake people” know how to bring to the table of celebration. There were numerous gifts; not only brightly and meticulously wrapped but bedecked with an elaborate assortment of bows and ribbons and colored envelopes with humorous cards all lamenting, in comic book sketch, the end of youth at 30. Back then on that pontoon boat, floating in festive revelation on the thick haze of a humid August evening, there was the suggestion of a door now closing.
In your 20’s you could be foolish, make mistakes, discover wrong directions and be frivolous with your intent. You were almost certainly applauded for “finding things out”, “making your own way” and having “great life experiences”. At 30, there suddenly seemed to be other, more dire expectations: know your place, find your niche, have your mate, establish your friends and stick with it all for the rest of your life. There could only be one path now; focus, claim it and become it – and walk silently and similarly along that path trying to be a carbon copy of the others who also chose it.
At thirty, I was well positioned to just that. On that festive pontoon boat, with the full moon bearing witness, I allowed the door of youth to close as suggested but also kept the key hidden away in case panic, boredom or misery should seek me out and haunt me. A few years later, at 32 and well ensconced on the path, I was offered a huge promotion with fanfare and congratulations and monetary reward. My superiors looked at me with enormous pride and spoke of my success and of my exceeding well beyond what was expected of me.
At that moment my heart and my soul clashed in full force with my mind and I was suddenly looking outside of my sad and lonely self. Just what was expected of me? Why was anything expected of me? Why couldn’t I just continue to explore the notion of what was to be me without conforming to anyone’s idea of what was expected? Those seemingly austere words from my well-intended employer instantly ushered in, on the wings of angels, those three fates – panic, misery and boredom. Luckily, I had kept the key and with some hesitation, I kicked the door of conformity open and saw not one path but several. Elated and free to move as I chose, I ran up and down them all, across and back; never really getting to the end of any one but never looking backwards either. And I am now, at 40, convinced that I might just well have what could be “a life well-lived.”
When I turned 40, there were no candles, no cake and no brightly wrapped gifts that one could rip open and hurl bows and ribbons at unsuspecting revelers. I had at my feet much greater gifts. In silent repose, I dug my toes down into the ancient earth feeling the stones washed by millions of years of ocean tides into intimate grains of sand – each one a precious jewel with which to measure my life -- perhaps well-lived. I watched seagulls glide across quiet spaces of sky forgotten by the wind. I listened as ocean breezes sang Happy Birthday to me and teased the long mane of my imaginary hair. I watched the red orb of morning sun rise out of the ocean from other exotic places that I too have visited while traveling on these many paths.
I found at the table of my birthday celebration a cacophony of sea sounds introducing strange guests to my party…. gulls, winds, waves, trees – those were the festive revelers cheering me on; congratulating me on turning 40. This time there were no doors whose position required
contemplation – none to open and none to close. I find myself not walking on any certain path of expectation but only on the one that lies before me now and in this moment.
I can only see its direction just so far and then it disappears before any expectations can be determined. I do not fear what I cannot see but revel in the thought of its mystery. At times the path appears to go forward all at once; but I know, at the top of that hill, it will surely veer west for awhile and wind its way through brilliantly colored canyons and across mysterious lands haunted by the ghosts of ancient people who seem oddly familiar and comfortable to me. I know too that, without any notice, it will suddenly careen to the east – leaving me almost dizzy with its change of direction and head toward distant places where strange words are spoken with a different tongue; but where the rhythm of place matches the very beat of my own heart.
What is a life well lived? At 40 it is proud of never closing any doors and never choosing to follow just one path that goes only in one predictable direction. It is conforming only to non-conformity and allowing every single thing around me to be my teacher, my guide and my friend. And certainly allowing all of it to crash my 40th birthday party; the shiny grains of sand, the swaying palm trees, the red-hot sun arriving from the orient, the seagulls gliding in hidden places of stillness, the shells bouncing in warm ocean tides. And, most of all, feeling my imaginary long hair blowing in the wind and hearing the promise of eternity whispered on the breeze.