Defining and redefining myself at 40.

I recently read a quote in which Michelangelo described creating the masterpiece, David.  “I created a vision of David in my mind,” Michelangelo said, “and simply carved away everything that was not David.”

Michelangelo’s words struck a chord in me this year as I prepared to turn 40. As my birthday approached, I mused about who I have been, who I am becoming, and where I want to be. But I felt like I was stuck in marble, obscure and undefined. 

I decided to become the sculptor of my life and carve away the things that distracted me from remembering who I am.

There are several ways to define something. The one we hear most about is dictionary-style defining, where you describe what something is – for example, its dimensions, attributes, and core parts. The less intuitive way is to describe what something is not. In this way, you take the Michelangelo approach of coming to know something by understanding what it is not: a dog is not a cat, a teacher is not a babysitter, a mother is not a relic.

In many ways, this approach to getting to know myself felt less overwhelming than figuring out who I was. The truth is, I wasn’t entirely sure who I was. In recent years, I’ve forged an identity largely in relation to other people – as a daughter, a wife, a mother – or how I earn a living – as a teacher, a yoga instructor, a consultant. But to think of myself as a person who is more than these monikers has been difficult. Who am I, for example, when I go on a solo trip? Who am I on the weekends or when I am between jobs? Who am I when I am not juggling deadlines and aligning schedules? Who is that person? I wanted to know her better. So, I decided to become the sculptor of my life and carve away the things that distracted me from remembering who I am.

I started working shorter days, opting for 8 or 9-hour days instead of 9 or 10 or 11-hour days. Shorter days allowed me to be less overstimulated, which in turn gave me more space to get acquainted with a self I haven’t seen in a while, one who loves to daydream on long walks and slips off her socks to spontaneously choreograph free-spirited dances.

I kept carving. 

I love the masterpiece I am becoming.

I packed away clothes that felt like another person or another life. I gave or threw away gifts and knick-knacks that cluttered my shelves, that I kept out of guilt, or that I’d tucked away into a closet and forgotten about.

On the eve of my 40th birthday, I gave myself the haircut I’ve wanted for years – the short cut I’ve been too shy to ask for, too unsure of myself to insist upon when the stylist snipped a shape I wasn’t quite looking for.

When I finished cutting, I stood among the wisps of clipped coils and stared at myself in the mirror. I smiled. “There I am,” I said, my hair finally free from the marble.

Most surprisingly, I carved away the need to think of myself as a writer. While calling myself a writer gave me the confidence to keep writing even when no one read my words, I realized that “being a writer” increasingly felt burdensome. What did it mean to be a writer when I wasn’t paid to be one? What did it mean to be a writer if I didn’t make time for writing on the weekends? And what did it mean to be a writer if I wanted to do something with my free time other than write – did that mean I wasn’t being true to my deepest self?

Carving away the “writer” title felt freeing. I was a person who writes, just like I am a person who works as a consultant, a person who likes beautiful clothing, and a person who likes action movies. I’m still myself even if I don’t write my stories, if I switch careers, if I wear frumpy outfits, or if I watch a romcom. I’m still me.

Carving away has been illuminating. I feel as though I’m being released from marble, limb by limb. Now my hands and arms feel free enough to grasp at what I want – to experiment with and understand and, fundamentally, remember who I am. 

Slowly, I’m starting to see the me who has always been there, waiting – sometimes patiently, sometimes impatiently – to stretch her legs and be known. She is less angsty and more confident than I thought; more social and less isolated, too. 

Emerging is an Irie I am still getting to know. And, I have to say, I love the masterpiece I am becoming.

8 responses to “Defining and redefining myself at 40.”

  1. Martha Twaddell Avatar
    Martha Twaddell

    Thank you for sharing these thoughts. They rang true for me.

    1. Thank you, Martha – I’m so glad.

  2. Love your writing. Love your hair at any length. Keep taking care of yourself..

    1. Thank you for these kind words, La Nelle!

  3. Thanks, Irie!
    Your words inspire me to pursue more carving. In preparation for birthday #69

    1. Thank you, Nancy! Happy almost birthday!

  4. Your take on 40 is one every woman should adopt, no matter what their age is.
    I am turning 70 later this month, could you write one just for me?
    My mother is Betty Warren, at Second B in Lubbock, and she has always said the most wonderful things about you.
    March babies rule!!

    1. Hi Jana! I love Betty 🙂 I’m actually a February baby, but agree that March babies rule too!

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