About eight months before I turned 40, I panicked. I was entering "real" adulthood and there was no turning back. In my mind, I was still 12 – an awkward, brunette cool-kidwanna-be. I was a tiny thing who would have had the yearbook title of "shortest," except for Beth, who had been born with a hole in her heart, giving her an unfair advantage.
In class, I was silent – never offering the answer, even if I knew it. At lunch, I'd walk around the school yard multiple times, pretending I had somewhere to go, someone to eat with (cue the tiny violins). I was only confident when I locked myself in the guest bathroom. There, I was the sultry Ginger Grant who was adored by everyone on the Island. I'd spend hours sitting on the counter, preening and purring "I Wanna Be Loved By You" into my hairbrush and planning what I would say when Mr. Roarke welcomed me to Fantasy Island.
As I grew up, I became more like Mary Ann than Ginger, but that was okay. Mary Ann was always more grounded anyways. 32 years later, I am still short and brunette and have a wild imagination – but I've learned to hide most of my awkwardness. The unease still comes rushing back in again at parties, elevators, and when I'm told I need to speak publicly at events.
But with my 40th approaching, I could feel that I was getting closer to Mrs. Howell's age every single crushing minute.
Being a planner, I dove right in. The internet offered so many choices, but with my pocketbook close to empty and my birthday in the middle of winter, coming up with creative ideas was a bit of a challenge. I eventually found a lovely cabin to rent on a nearby island. On the list were six of my favorite girlfriends who inspired me. They were all creative in their own right - a designer, an illustrator, a painter, a pastel artist, a writer, and an art therapist. I asked them to forgo birthday gifts, instead asking them to share their talents instead. They were to teach us a skill over the long weekend– something they were good at. Each one was also responsible for one special meal.
On the ferry ride over, our cars were overflowing with suitcases, gourmet ingredients, and art supplies. Once we arrived, the adorable island cabin wasn't quite as advertised – behind the beautiful photos was a bachelor pad, and the "fully stocked gourmet kitchen" consisted of a cookie sheet, a pizza pan, some big knives, and a dishwasher. Being planners as well, the ladies had brought a lot of their own specialty kitchen equipment in anticipation.
Over the next three days, we learned how to make Pomtinis, create found-object garden art, dabble in chalk pastel, and create books. I hadn't taken time to do art for myself in such a long time. It felt really good.
For the book binding project, everyone contributed ideas to my"40 Things to Do in My 40th Year" book – a goal book to mark a new beginning to help ease me into the idea of getting older. Watch a movie by yourself. Drink Bubble Tea. Go kayaking. Go on a road trip with your girlfriends. Easy things, nice things. But one comment felt like a slap on the head: Dump your mom-jeans.
Ouch. I was 12 years-old all over again – cotton in a world of polyester, high waters in the land of flare. It was true that after my son was born seven years earlier, I hadn't bothered with fashion magazines, and didn't have time to keep up with the latest TV shows. So now, the truth was out. I had been secretly embarrassing my friends with my lack of cultural awareness. I just never thought I'd be one of those people. But I guess even Ginger's clothes would eventually look outdated, stuck on that island as the world continued to get cooler and cooler.
Besides the public humiliation, the weekend was going pretty well. Then, it was the art therapist's turn to lead us in an activity. She asked us to make a map of things we were doing and things we wanted to do and then create a pie chart of how much time was spent doing those things, looking for where the balance was off. Then, she had us all create a mandala to show what things should look like once everything was re-prioritized. Then it was time to share.
We each took turns sharing about rocky relationships, physical pain, loneliness. We had, each of us, lived carefully – keeping hurts covered like a blanket over a volcano, keeping our real lives secret, our burdens private. It took someone who knew how to access our central cores to tear down the brick walls we had carefully crafted, and turn the weekend into one of the most memorable occasions of my life.
We enjoyed a taste of what our hearts needed – connection, understanding, friendship. We bonded over laughter, tears, and gourmet food. And got in touch with our inner 12-year olds.