On Herself · On Psychology

On Turning 40

“You’re going to lose everything,” my then-husband said, while we were eating lunch one winter weekend.

I readjusted my roast beef sandwich, the contents of which were about to spill onto my plate, and said: “how about now?”

This was seventeen months before our marriage ended–which I know with precision because I’d recorded it in my daily journal.

It seemed an especially ominous way to refer to errant lunch meat, a moment that signified something, although I didn’t know what. And even now, when hindsight makes his comment seem like a warning, I’m still pretty sure that P. was actually trying to facilitate a more tidy dining experience, and not issuing a forecast of a gathering storm.

I took special note of the exchange then because although he was not at all given to morbid thoughts, I’ve always entertained them with gusto. I dwelled on the broader implication of his observation of my sloppy sandwich, which struck me as entirely correct: I would lose everything eventually, as all mortals will. But since I was then 36, the losses I anticipated seemed decades away.

The losses I did not anticipate followed the next year. Some were permanent: my home; my name; my understanding of the character of the man I’d spent my life with since age 17. The rest of the losses proved temporary, although I had no way of knowing that as they happened. I couldn’t read because I couldn’t concentrate, I didn’t eat much because my stomach was lurching, I lost all faith in the basic order of the universe.

All of this was more or less restored to me in its own time and pace. And I can now say that in the bigger picture, what I’ve gained from the divorce has exceeded what I lost. But if P. had said “you’re going to lose everything,” on the night he walked out– or in the months of chaos that followed– I would not have argued.

Hand Embroidery by Alison Stein

But how about now? Now I’m days away from my 40th birthday, so I’m dwelling on a different addition to my list of lifetime losses: my own dewy youth.

I’m mostly kidding about that — I don’t see aging as a loss, considering the available alternative. But this is arguably the moment where I leave any behind any claim I might have still had on a younger adulthood and enter middle age. It’s a reminder that the pool of potential time I have left in this life – which is of uncertain size anyway – is definitely diminishing.

It’s also obvious that the shape of my life is radically different as I leave my thirties than it was when I entered them. And while I still know that I will lose everything eventually, my understanding of the nature of loss has changed.

I now believe that the central problem of life is not loss per se. The real trouble comes from the process of change that follows a loss, or a gain, or really anything that alters the course of life significantly.

I’m studying metalsmithing now, and have been introduced to a phenomenon called work-hardening. Basically, when you bend or manipulate metal repeatedly it becomes stiff. This is sometimes good – like when you’ve gotten a piece into the shape you desire, and you don’t want it to change anymore. But if you need to continue to shape the object, a work-hardened piece will break if you continue to manipulate it.

Malleability is not infinite.

This is exactly the opposite of how I’d always thought things worked. I imagined that metal would become more pliable as I manipulated it, that basically the molecules would get used to being rearranged, would just give up, go limp and say: bend me, lady, any way you want.

Likewise, I thought that the more change I experienced in my life, and the more loss, the better I’d be able to handle it. I could radically reshape my life, without breaking, or breaking down.

What I’ve learned is that radical reshaping is certainly possible, and survivable –but change never comes easy for humans. Nor does it for inanimate objects.

In a bookbinding class not long ago, my teacher said that a piece of paper, folded into the signature of a book “remembers” its life as an unfolded sheet. To forget its original shape, it has to sit with a heavy weight on it for a period of time. Wire “remembers” its life on a coil, before it becomes a drop earring or a toggle. It often requires hammering, to be educated on its new role in the world. And metal, once its become work-hardened, needs to be put into fire – a process called annealing – which will restore its molecular lattice and allow it to bend once again.

Reshaping doesn’t require painless repetition as much as it requires brute force and time.

This makes intuitive sense when it comes to difficult changes: divorce, death of a loved one, loss of any kind. In fact, those changes are often described as feeling hammered, getting hit with a brick, walking through a fire, taking time to adjust. It’s less obvious that this also applies to positive changes — a new relationship, a new job, a new opportunity. But changes of any character employ the same brutal techniques of life reshaping.

It just takes a lot of energy to change a life, in any direction. It takes time.

When I was in college, my favorite political theory professor wrapped up an otherwise abstract and cerebral conversation by telling me that only two things in life were true: This too shall pass; and there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.

Time has certainly proven her correct, not that she needed me to say so. But what I didn’t realize when I first heard her say it, over twenty years ago, was that these two principles were intimately related.

Everything changes — and change will inevitably extract its price.

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