I was trying to think of something I could do to mark the occasion of my 40th birthday. Something I could offer to the readers of my blog. And then I thought about what I’d like to do for my younger self. If I could somehow dig a hole through time, poke my head through a mirror and speak into my former lives, what sort of advice would I give myself? What would it have made my life easier to know?
So here it is. Forty random things I’ve learned in my 40 years on this spinning bluegreen orb…
1. Never stop training. It’s a lot easier to stay in shape than it is to add muscle or lose fat after you let yourself slide.
2. Be nice to your knees. All those ligament and cartilage tears DO ache on a rainy day a couple decades later.
3. Never lose touch with your old friends, even if life takes you in different directions and you don’t have much in common anymore. They’re your link to your past, and they connect you to your childhood.
4. Don’t buy into someone else’s prudish moral code. Experience everything. And then decide for yourself what’s right for you.
5. Your dreams are worth it, and you are right to follow them. Don’t be too frustrated. That grinding poverty only lasted ten years or so. And then it got better.
6. She wasn’t a bad person. It’s just that none of her dreams came true, that’s all.
7. Events and places come into clearer focus from far away. Write about a place only after you’ve left it. And when you have to make a difficult decision, go away for a while, to the desert maybe, where you can be alone.
8. If you want to understand someone, don’t ask them to tell you about themselves. You’ll only get a bunch of spin. Ask them to tell you about the world.
9. Stop each year and ask yourself: Is the life I am living worth what I’m giving up to have it?
10. Get used to being judged, especially during your poverty years. We live in a culture in which what you do is so often mistaken for who you are. No one notices the years of hard work, study, practice and preparation that make an overnight success.
11. Be thankful for your intense curiosity. It’ll take you everywhere.
12. Pain is saddest on plain features.
13. All religious people seem to require something to torment themselves with.
14. The first night of an adventure is always sober, despite darkness and excitement and fresh uncertainties. The first day is inevitably somnolent and oddly drunken.
15. Sometimes more bitterness can be sown in 5 minutes than can be gotten rid of in a lifetime.
16. The desert teaches by taking away.
17. Regret and guilt are selfish emotions. Don’t fall into them. And don’t let others use them against you.
18. Remember that feeling of light peeking through the curtains of your childhood bedroom. And that comfortable late night silence as you dozed in the back seat on a car ride with your father. Those are the times you’ll wish you had back.
19. Spend more time in idleness, listening to music late at night, observing the sky and the details of things. Don’t lose touch with that, because it was the source of your best work.
20. The most attractive girls I’ve known over the years didn’t fit the conventional media “standards” of beauty. They each had something unique, some asymmetry or “flaw”, and a radiance that shone from within because they were confident and comfortable in their own skin. Learn to appreciate and love your differences. They’re what make you attractive. Conventional = incredibly boring.
21. Related to Number 20 above. When you’re growing up you’ll hate being different from your friends. You’ll hate your name, or your looks, or those quirks or interests that make you stand out. But those are the very things you’ll be celebrated for later. And those unique personality traits or gifts will attract a fascinating group of friends who share your worldview long after you’ve left the arbitrary peer groups of your school days behind.
22. Cultivate strength and learn how to fight. It allows you to relate to others from a position of simplicity and kindness.
23. A smile, non-judgement, and a willingness to learn opens most doors. Curiosity does the rest.
24. Go alone. And don’t have too many preconceptions about the place, the people, or what you’re getting into. Let it unfold on its own, and in its own time.
25. Stepping into the unknown is never comfortable, but it’ll change you in ways you could never have imagined.
26. We aren’t given very much time, and it passes by like a dream. Never take it for granted.
27. Those times on a trip when it all goes catastrophically wrong usually make the best stories. And it was the same for all those times I was in trouble as a kid. Learn to enjoy them in the moment, looking down on the scene from above.
28. It’s possible to put the best of yourself into your writing—poetry, your ability to love, optimism and hope—and what’s left is all you’ve got for your day to day life.
29. Things end. Even those things you could never imagine your life without.
30. If you find yourself asking “Are we there yet?” then you’re probably on the wrong path.
31. Your philosophy and the philosophy and moral code of your culture doesn’t apply everywhere else. People live differently and they get along just fine.
32. By 40 some your friends start looking like your parents and their friends did when we were teenagers. That’s why some of them were so much fun. They aren’t any different than we are right now. We just thought they were old.
33. Jorge Luis Borges wrote: “Revenge does not alter what was done to you. Neither does forgiveness. Revenge and forgiveness are irrelevant.” I agree.
34. While we each have many talents, we have only one true gift. You’ll recognize yours immediately because it’s the only one that doesn’t feel like “work.”
35. Reading is the fuel of good writing, and it’s also a window on a larger world of thought, experience and ideas that span centuries. A life without reading is a life lived on the surface.
36. Life can’t be lived by other people’s rules, not society’s and not religion’s.
37. We have an interval and that’s all. All our moments, both significant and insignificant, will be lost in the mists of time. The Judgement Day question has nothing to do with morality. It is, in fact, “Was your life meaningful?”
38. Eternity isn’t a function of adding an infinite number of years. It’s a result of slowing time, of lengthening those moments in between and learning to live there.
39. The music you grew up with is still the best. Not because it was particularly great, but because it’s wrapped up in so many memories.
40. Sometimes opportunity really will knock only once.
So that’s it. Forty things I’d love to tell my isolated small town dreaming teenage self.
Then again, maybe it’s better that I couldn’t reach back into the past to tell myself these things. Because my life has consisted in finding them out.