On the Occasion of Turning 40

The author at 20

Dear Trapper (circa 1996),

I know what you’re thinking — 40 is impossibly distant. Like I might as well be Alpha Centauri, something you know, at least intellectually, is beyond the horizon but seems too far to fathom ever reaching. By the time you get here you will have seen 495 full moons over 350,400 hours. Your heart will have beat more than 1.6 billion times. And the hair on your head that you worry is getting too thin at too young an age will be gone. That girl you have your eye on, the one who drinks on a fake ID she made in art class, the one you play shuffleboard with at Midway Cafe under the team name The Flaming Death Skulls, she’s the one. The mother of your children. And I think you might already know that. You think you know a lot of things though.

But you do not know trouble yet. You do not know the hurt of watching things you believed in fail. You do not know the shame of seeing your name and address in the newspaper when the first house you’ll ever buy is threatened with foreclosure. You do not know the sting of a doctor’s words come the diagnosis, the sting of needles through your skin. You do not know the crushing realization that there is not enough time. There was never enough time.

Do you remember when the first of your parent’s friends turned 40? The neighborhood showed up in their living room, the air choked with cigarette smoke and small talk. Black balloons with the reaper’s scythe rose from ribbons tied to every chair. You were 7, maybe 8, eating chocolate cake and half melted ice cream off paper plates with tombstones. And the party banner hanging over the table read “Over The Hill”. You asked your mother what that meant — over the hill. It was explained to you in an indelicate way that gave you pangs of anxiety. The icing lost its flavor, and your mother had to calm your racing mind by assuring you that “the hill” is a long way off. Except it’s not.

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote:

Ah, the knowledge of impermanence

that haunts our days

is their very fragrance

He, by the way, has been dead for 90 years. See, the beauty of all this rests in its brevity. You can only really savor what you know you cannot keep.

But if I’m being honest with you, kid, this isn’t what I thought 40 would look like. I took aim on bigger things. But I’ve missed the mark so far sometimes as to shoot myself in the foot. You’ll swear a blood oath with that girl, the one who plays a killer shuffleboard and can drink you under the table, that you’ll never live in a subdivision or work an office job. You will break that one together. You’ll promise to make good on a debt that drove you under. You will break that one alone. Some things work out. Some things won’t. I don’t know everything, not by a damn sight. But I know a few things, and I’m going to tell you 20 years too late the things I wish someone had told me. Or maybe they did, and I was too busy talking to listen:

Be deliberate with your dreams. You cannot put a tourniquet on time so don’t put one on your ambitions. Do the thing.

Trust yourself. You know your own heart more than a thousand doubting elders. They don’t have the book of answers either. Just a better poker face.

Pursue meaning rather than happiness. It might not change the world, but it will change someone’s world. And that is where perfect happiness is hiding.

The years are going to bless you. And also break your heart. It is hard and it hurts, but everything worth a damn does. And your beloved Cubs, they will…well, I don’t want to spoil it for you, kid. Be good. Stay curious.

This post first appeared on TrapperHaskins.com