The Art of Turning 40

Your skin may have lost its glow, but you can still dance until your knees ache

On the morning you turn 40, wake up filled with gratitude. You’ve made it four decades on this beautiful earth, and you have so much to be thankful for.

If you’re not exactly sure what you should be thankful for, check your gratitude” planner, which you recently purchased after reading that article in the newspaper. The one that explains how writing down what you’re grateful for will help you not drown yourself in the toilet after reading any given morning’s headlines, because everything is on fire and the world seems run entirely by people who want to watch it burn.

Be grateful you read that article, which not only taught you how important gratitude is and inspired you to buy your specialty planner, but also suggested you begin mindfulness meditation. Which you are totally going to start after your birthday. It’s in your planner.

For now, get up and put on your gym clothes. This is a privilege! You’re turning 40, and you’re healthy enough to exercise. Pencil this into your list of things to be grateful for today.

Go downstairs and make a smoothie. Mentally tabulate the calories so you can enter them into the weight loss app you downloaded years ago. Then remember you deleted that app after you read a book about intuitive eating. Remind yourself that life shouldn’t be about dieting, but about health, even as you covertly plan what you can eat for the rest of the day, so as not to go over the calories you now feel ashamed about counting.

Tell yourself to stop feeling ashamed.

Feel ashamed that you can’t stop feeling ashamed.

Answer your phone when it rings. It will be your parents. Your father’s terrible back problems remind you once again to feel grateful and that exercise really is about health. Listen as your mother tells you that, since retiring at 75, she’s been walking six miles a day and is now a size four.

“Happy birthday,” she says. “I’m a size four.”

Imagine beating your mother to death with your phone.

Tell your parents you love them and are grateful for them because you do and you are, even though you still kind of want to murder your size-four mother. Hang up the phone and shake it off. Remember, it’s your birthday! Drink your smoothie and go for a walk.

Wonder whether you should walk six miles. How long would that take? Two hours? Die a little inside at the idea of spending two hours of your birthday meandering around Pittsburgh. Decide to do your usual, not-six-hour walk.

While walking, listen to a podcast that encourages you to love yourself, and to meditate, and to be grateful. Make a mental note of the $399 meditation app advertised during the podcast, and wonder if you’d use it enough to justify the cost. Wonder whether there’s any price tag steep enough to keep you from wellness, and then acknowledge that is one of the taglines of the podcast to which you are listening.

Wonder how the podcast lady affords all the apps she talks about every day.

When you get home, take a birthday shower. Worry, once again, about whether you exfoliate enough. You’re 40 now, and you have a vague notion that exfoliation has become very important. Like maybe enough exfoliation will yield the same results as a serpent shedding its skin. Apply enough microbeads to your flesh and it will rejuvenate as the dewy, pliable membrane of your youth.

Then remember that microbeads are actually microplastics, which are literally poisoning the Earth. Wonder how much poisoning of said Earth you are directly responsible for, what with your addiction to H20+ Beauty products in the ‘90s. Take a deep breath to push away the mental image of islands of plastic floating in the ocean, which are even now being eaten by whales that will promptly die in agony.

But goddammit, you moisturized today.

Moisturize after your shower and feel like a hero for doing so. That is some self-care right there. Yes, there are people out there who bleach their anuses, a level of amour-propre you will never, thankfully, achieve. But goddammit, you moisturized today.

Do work for the job you know you’re lucky to have. It allows you to pay your bills and do something satisfying in a world where some people have nothing. Less than nothing. People dying on rafts, packed into freight cars, walking 30 miles a day in caravans, never worried whether they’re a size four. You see their faces on the news, hear their stories on the radio, feel your heart ache as both political parties use their existence to fuel their machines.

Receive a notification on your phone that the $119 a year you pay for the privilege of all of this terrible knowledge has been deducted from your checking account in the form of one of your newspaper subscriptions.

Consider canceling. Less because of the money than because of your mental health. Instantly regret even thinking about canceling. Bad things are happening everywhere, every day. Your ignorance betrays those suffering. There is a moral imperative to the act of witnessing. You know that because you read about it in the newspaper that costs you both $119 a year and a sliver of your sanity.

Put aside your work and get ready for a night out with friends. Don your favorite outfit. It’s got some see-through bits, and it’s tight-fitting, even though you’re not thin and you’re turning 40.

Think about that article you saw about what women in their forties should wear and make a mental Venn diagram comparing it to the article you read about what women who are not thin should wear. Realize that leaves you with a boxy top thrown casually over a mumu, with some statement jewelry desperately trying to distract anyone from noticing you even have a corporeal form. Think about all the articles written in response to those articles, telling the authors to go fuck themselves, and wear what you want.

Perhaps you’re all gods in this moment, dancing while the world burns.

Go out dancing with your friends, even though you’re now 40 and you wonder if you shouldn’t be at home, tackling the tyranny of New Yorker magazines piling up next to the toilet. Dance anyway. Dance till your knees start to ache, which is only a few hours later, now that you’re 40.

Join everyone in shouting out the lyrics to a song you weren’t quite old enough to really love in the ‘80s, but have since come to appreciate. Let memory sweep over you in a wave of grief and jubilation. Close your eyes and wonder whether you’ve done enough with your life.

It’s true that you’ve done things you never thought you’d achieve.

Yet you don’t feel complete.

It’s also true that you’ve not done some things people consider important.

Yet you don’t feel you’ve really lost out on anything.

Remember, for a split second, exactly what it felt like to believe every door was flung wide open, waiting for you to walk through. Acknowledge what it’s been like to watch some of those doors shut. Know that some are shutting even now, as you stand, suddenly paralyzed, on the dance floor.

Open your eyes, and see your friends.

Know that you’ve done brilliant things and dumb things. You’ve acted out of courage, and you’ve acted out of fear. You’ve hurt people and you’ve loved people, just as people have hurt and loved you. Know that — even on a packed dance floor, so close to others that your sweat is mingling with both friends and strangers — you are alone. The world is chaos despite the soothing lies of the American, middle-class narratives with which you were raised.

Also know that you are here now, in this moment, shouting along with people you really enjoy to a song written in a moment of bliss by someone who was just as confused and alone as you. Know that this is enough. That it has to be enough. That your body, aging and imperfect, is dancing. Remember Nietzsche said that he “would only believe in a God who knew how to dance.”

Perhaps you’re all gods in this moment, dancing while the world burns. Just be sure to hydrate. Even gods are prone to wicked hangovers upon turning 40.

This story is part of The Art Of, an ongoing series by Human Parts that supplies you with instructions for living.

Novelist and essayist. Director of the MFA in Writing Popular Fiction at Seton Hill University. Find out more at

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