So…I have a milestone birthday coming up later this week. Statistically, people’s 40s tend not to be their favorite decade. There is evidence across cultures (and even across species! Some studies suggest apes suffer this too) that mid-life is marked by some serious malaise.
Part of this narrative is that your course is set, but you haven’t done the things you hoped, as a young person, that you’d do. Frequent blog readers know I made a List of 100 Dreams (part 1, part 2, part 3) a few months ago of things I’d like to do at some point in my life. In order to counter the “what am I doing with myself?” narrative, I’ve also spent some time pondering things I’ve done in my first forty years that I’m happy about.
If you’re approaching a milestone birthday — or even if you’re just trying to be grateful for your life on a normal Monday — I highly recommend making a DONE list like this. It certainly helped on this rainy Sunday when I’ve got a serious case of laryngitis that kept me from performing with my chamber choir this morning. More broadly, life can kick you in the teeth sometimes, but it can’t take away things on your DONE list.
So here goes….
I married a good guy. Pure luck — or fate? I met him at the second bar of the night I was visiting on February 15, 2003. We got married 18 months after meeting, so the marriage itself featured some getting to know each other, but 14+ years in, so far, so good.
I have four wonderful, adorable, spirited children. I’m enjoying seeing who they’re growing up to be (including, now, a guest blogger!) We all went out to dinner to celebrate my birthday on Sunday night and it was…OK. Better than when we had, say, a 4-year-old, 2-year-old and baby. We are slowly moving into the big kid stage.
I graduated from the Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics, and the Humanities. This is a (public!) residential school in Muncie, Indiana, for juniors and seniors. It was not easy for me. I’d pretty much coasted through school before, so when I showed up in the fall of 1995, I had to learn how to work. My first semester grades weren’t good, but I figured out how to study, and I got straight As from then on. Really truly earning my grades was one of the biggest confidence boosting experiences of my life. It’s one of the reasons I’m passionate about kids being challenged to the extent of their abilities. I gave a speech at graduation and then — fun fact! — came back twice more to give commencement speeches as an alum.
I graduated from Princeton University. This was a great experience as an undergraduate (hello, taking writing classes from Joyce Carol Oates and John McPhee?) But I think I appreciate it more as an alum, being part of such an incredible network of people. Doing two panels at the She Roars conference, for instance, was really fun.
I am working as a writer. I wanted to be one when I was growing up, and here I am! I am writing fiction and non-fiction. I’ve written 8 books under my own name. I know these books have positively affected people’s lives. I get emails about this, and I’m thrilled when people tell me they decided they could go for that promotion, or go back to work after maternity leave, or have another kid (!) Or even the small stuff: the family that took a weekend trip to the beach instead of staying home attempting to do “nothing,” for instance. And they loved it.
I gave a TED talk. It now has 7 million-plus views! While I grew up knowing I wanted to be a writer, I didn’t have this same pull toward public speaking. However, I did like being on stage as a kid. I once sang a solo (at age 9!) in front of something like 1000 people. Now that I am doing a lot of public speaking, I’m reminded how cool it is to be up in front of a big group, really feeding off that energy and giving people an enjoyable experience. In general, I don’t use PowerPoint. It’s just me up on stage — a one-woman show.
I’ve written for a lot of cool publications: the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, USA Today, Fortune, Fast Company, etc. I think I have a particular thrill seeing my byline in big newspapers because I had a job for a while in college delivering all these newspapers.
I’ve traveled to cool places. I’ll make this a sublist, with some of the more intriguing locations. In my mind, I haven’t traveled as much as I wanted to, probably because I never did a European backpacking tour as a young person, which in my mind is what a well-traveled person would have done, but when I look at the list, I realize that I’ve seen a lot. I have:
— Seen the big 5 in Africa. I’ve visited game preserves in Namibia (Etosha!), Botswana, and South Africa (twice).
— Traveled around India, seeing the glittering Taj Mahal one night and then visiting a slum the next morning. I saw tigers in the wild. My husband and I made this trip when Jasper was 5.5 months old, which I know a lot of people wouldn’t have done, but it was such an amazing adventure and I’m so glad I went.
— Lived in Australia for four months during college. During that time, I saw Uluru, the Great Barrier Reef, a show in the Sydney Opera House, and I spent a week hiking in Tasmania (that’s where I read Ulysses the first time; I liked the wandering parallels). I also stopped someone from my tour group from going over a waterfall when we were up near Darwin.
— Visited the red light district in Bangkok. I traveled around Thailand, and spent time in the beautiful islands, but Bangkok is just a surreal place in many ways. Memorable.
— Biked through Vietnam, and saw Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
— Shopped in a souk in Marrakesh. Then my husband drove us over the Atlas mountains. We stayed in a desert town for a night, then drove through various argan tree groves (with goats) to wind up in a walled beach town on the coast.
— Biked along the desert border between Israel and Egypt. Under the moonlight, it was magical. On the same trip I visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and Bethlehem too.
— Partied all night in a little red dress in Brazil. (This was at age 22, but the dress still fits! I wore it to my husband’s office Christmas party last year, though with a more respectful black wrap).
— Done Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Pretty sure this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, because I don’t like crowds or cold weather!
— Had high tea at Cliveden House in the UK with my kids, which I list only because we then saw that Meghan Markle stayed there right before her wedding. Of the various UK places I’ve seen over the years, I was probably more taken with Stonehenge and the Isle of Skye (location of To the Lighthouse).
— Stayed at the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone. While out running one morning this summer, I saw Old Faithful erupt pretty much all by myself (like with 2 other people). Given the crowds there during the day, this was a pretty cool experience.
— Visited the Andes in Peru. Ate ceviche in Lima.
— Eaten sushi in Tokyo and seen the cherry blossoms in Kyoto.
— Traveled up the Norwegian coast on ferries between the fjords, and on a different Norway trip, spent a June day around the solstice in Trondheim, when it was light much of the night. My husband and I actually got caught in a snowstorm on a mountain on the summer solstice, which was crazy.
— Visited all five of the seaside towns comprising Cinque Terra in Italy.
— Saw the spring tulips in the Netherlands – just rows and rows of them in the country side and at Keukenhof. On this trip we also saw the little village in the north of the country that my grandfather departed from many years ago.
Anyway, some cool places. A few other items from the DONE list:
— I ran a marathon! I finished Big Sur in California back in 2010. Runner’s World said that if you were only going to run one marathon in your life, this should be it. I may only run one marathon in my life, so good thing this was it!
— I have run for 700-plus days straight. I may not run fast (at all) but at least I run consistently. Plodding, but consistently.
— I have sung in Carnegie Hall. Lincoln Center too. And DAR Hall, curiously enough, as choral back-up for a Dave Brubeck concert. I was 22 at the time and I am 99 percent sure I did not understand how amazing an opportunity that was. So much is wasted on the young.
— I’m singing again, after a 6 year hiatus. I sang in the Young New Yorkers’ Chorus for 8 years. During this time I helped found the Competition for Young Composers, which has commissioned dozens of works from people who are now really big names in the choral world (Abbie Betinis, Joshua Shank, Ola Gjeilo, etc.) These days, I’m really enjoying singing with my church choir (if there was Sunday’s laryngitis incident…)
And here are a few things I’ve DONE that scared me at the time…but I did anyway.
— Went on a roller coaster with inversions. Only one, the Aerosmith one at Disney, but still!
— Zip lined through the rainforest in Nicaragua. Like up in the trees. I’m really scared of heights. Fears are relative; my little brother is a serious rock climber. My mother and I just have to look away when he posts the photos on Facebook.
— Unmedicated childbirth (not that I had any choice on kid #4’s speedy delivery)
— Submitted an op-ed to USA Today while I was an intern there. It was my first big publication piece, and writing regularly for them for years wound up opening up a lot of doors.
— Moved to NYC without a job, just because I’d always wanted to live there. So many good things came of that decision. Sometimes you just have to trust things will work out.
There’s more birthday content to come later this week. In the meantime, why not take a stab at your DONE list?