By Tawni O’Dell
Originally published in the anthology, Forty Things To Do When You Turn Forty, Sellers Publishing, Inc., 2007
Italian poet Cesare Pavese wrote, “From the moment you turn 40, you are responsible for your own face.” Novelist Tawni O’Dell expands on this truth through personal reflection and the discovery that only you can decide who you will be.
I don’t belong to a book club myself but as a fairly well-known bestselling author who lives in a small town in Pennsylvania, mows her own yard, and has two children in the public school system who also play sports and constantly need rides from me, I’m not exactly an inaccessible recluse. I often get approached by total strangers who ask me to attend their book club meetings when they’re scheduled to discuss one of my novels. I’ve been accosted in the grocery store, at my son’s soccer games, leaving a movie theater, and once even had a woman slow down her SUV as she drove past my front yard where I was raking leaves and shout out an invitation to me.
The other night I was sitting at one of these book club meetings in a spotless living room, sipping a glass of pink wine, listening to the chatter going on around me. This particular book club was made up of women in their twenties and thirties. At 43, I was by far the oldest one there.
The conversations weren’t really what I’d call conversations. There was no exchange of ideas. They were more along the lines of verbal competitions where the point was to vocally bludgeon each other with ever bigger and ever wilder claims of what they owned, how well they maintained their faces, and how exhausted they were. As I listened it suddenly struck me that the reason I wasn’t participating wasn’t because I didn’t own things or I didn’t have a face or I was inordinately perky that evening but because I didn’t care to discuss any of the things they were discussing. Not so long ago I would have tried to make myself care, or I would have worried that I didn’t care, or I would have pretended that I cared. Now I calmly revel in the fact that I don’t care that I don’t care.
To me this has been one of the best discoveries about entering my 40s: I’ve reached a place where I no longer feel the need to try and impress everyone I meet by listing everything I have and everything I do. If someone is going to be impressed by me I want it to be because of who I am.
I suppose it’s no surprise that in a society that thrives on competition and gives everything a rating we as members of this society come to think that our value lies solely in a laundry list of our accomplishments and assets. It’s only with age and experience that we begin to question the lack of sense and humanity behind this assumption.
I decided not to be so judgmental of these women and made a few quick mental lists of my own priorities at their ages.
Things I cared about in my 20s: straightening my hair, the color of my car, finding a man, always being right, dressing sexy, wondering what I’m going to be when I grow up, Don Johnson.
Things I cared about in my 30s: being a good mom, being a good wife, being a good writer, being a good daughter, being a good lover, being a good friend, being a good citizen.
Things I care about in my 40s: sleep, avoiding rudeness, finding some time away from my man, jazz, feeling sexy, wondering when I get to stop being what I finally ended up being when I grew up, calcium.
I was self-absorbed in my 20s; my 30s were full of self-sacrifice but underlying both was the need to impress people whether it be with how I looked or how I lived or how much I was doing for others.
I took my analysis one step further and decided 20s are the Decade of the Ego: Look at me. 30s are the Decade of the Martyr: Look at What I’m Doing. 40s are the Decade of Acceptance: You May Look at Me . . . But Also Talk to Me.
One of my favorite lines about turning 40 comes from the Italian poet, Cesare Pavese, who wrote, “From the moment you turn 40, you are responsible for your face.”
He wrote this over sixty years ago so I’m pretty sure he wasn’t talking about Botox, or chemical peels, or nose jobs. For me what he’s saying is 40 is the age when you finally take matters into your own hands, and you decide what you will be and who you will be. Other people’s opinions and approval aren’t tantamount anymore. What matters is your opinion. You’re in charge of what kind of face you’re going to show the world because frankly, the world is beginning to not care about you.
You’ve reached your 40s. You’re a real grown-up now. Your mistakes aren’t as readily forgiven. Excuses aren’t accepted. Your future is not as wide open as it used to be. No one is going to tell you, “You’ve got your whole life ahead of you,” ever again.
As I looked around the room at all the young fresh faces eager to dominate yet also eager to be loved, I thought of the beginning of a sculpture when the clay is still wet and anyone who walks by can take it into his hands and mold it into something he wants it to be.
I’m at a point now where that clay is beginning to dry. I offer resistance to those hands. I’m taking on my permanent shape. There’s still a little work to be done. There are still some changes to be made just as there still will be changes in my life, but my basic form will remain the same. Soon I will be completely set, and I take comfort in knowing that once I am, I will be able to weather the worst storms and the brightest days and keep my integrity intact like any work of art.
I settled back into my chair knowing soon we would start discussing a novel, and those conversations always shed light on a person’s true self. What kind of person are you? we’ll be asking each other with each question from the Reader’s Guide. This is something we should care about. Possibly it’s the only thing.