I turned 45 in October, which is by itself a gift.
But I gave myself a few things to celebrate. Permission, mostly, to let go of stuff that felt as if it mattered at 25, 35, even 40. Maybe you can relate.
Forty-five is halfway to 50. Heck, 45 is halfway to 90 if we’re really being honest. Here’s what I’m telling myself this year.
It’s OK to look like yourself. Over the summer, I was diagnosed with periorbital cellulitis, which is a scary- sounding infection around the eyes. I stopped wearing makeup for a long time, even after my eyes healed, because they were extra-sensitive and I was afraid of reinfecting them.
A few things happened. One, I could get out the door a lot faster. Two, I could laugh till my eyes watered or cry spontaneously (two things I’m quite good at) and never worry about my mascara running. Three — and this is the big one — I looked tired and old in photos.
We’d be out with friends and someone would snap a photo and put it on Facebook, and I’d think, “Man. I look tired and old.” But here’s a thing I realized: I am! Tired and old!
So many of the faces on my social media feeds have been filtered with that flawless, airbrushed finish. They look like lives rendered in chalk rather than real, human faces that age and sweat and break out. So many of the smiles tiptoe right up to the point of happy, but not too happy, because too happy makes your cheeks wrinkle or your chin double or your eyes crinkle. So many of the faces look a little bit like the people I know, but not really like the people I know look in person.
I get it. It’s a cruel, judgmental world. There’s a lot of pressure, especially on women, to look ageless and polished. My picture appears with every one of my columns. My looks get commented on far more than anything I say or write.
But I also think it’s OK to look exactly the way you are: Tired. Old. Scarred. Happy. Human.
There’s freedom in “I don’t know.” I recently embraced “I don’t know,” and it changed my life.
Something big shifts when you let go of the need to look as if you know everything. You shake off the fear of being revealed as an impostor. Your shoulders relax. You engage in conversations that used to seem intimidating because, in a pinch, you can always fall back on “I don’t know.”
I don’t know that word. What does it mean? I don’t know that author. What did she write? I don’t know that theory.
You learn more. You grow more. You probably, without even realizing, inspire people around you to do the same.
There’s wisdom in screwing up. I interviewed Cheryl Strayed in September, before she came to Chicago to see the premiere of “Tiny Beautiful Things,” the Victory Gardens show based on a collection of Strayed’s “Dear Sugar” advice columns.
Strayed, if you don’t know her work, has written beautifully and vulnerably about her heroin addiction, her divorce and her stumbles, in and among her triumphs. I asked her if it was intimidating to admit her own missteps and regrets even as she doled out advice to other people.
“I think so much about emotional well-being is about revising the false narratives we’ve received,” she said. “And one is this notion that there are perfect people. People who haven’t made mistakes or had regrets or done the wrong thing and then learned to do the right thing.”
And if we happened to stumble upon such a person, she said, would we really want her advice?
“What would they have to teach us?” she said. “We learn so much from what we’ve done wrong.”
You get to look up. Look up from your work. Look up from your screen. Look up from your schedule of tasks that feels all-consuming, that feels as if it will crumble to the ground if you so much as glance away for a moment. Up and out is where it’s at.
Up at the sky, which never disappoints. Out at the people around you, some of whom live at your same, frantic pace, some of whom would kill for one or two of the things occupying your time and your head space.
Your work and your screen and your schedule will wait. Up and out centers you and reminds you that you’re part of something big and beautiful and fleeting.