Monday, January 27, 2014

Thoughts on 40

I turned 40 last week.

It's all a game of numbers, my friends told me. Mind games. You're only as young as you feel, and age is just that - a number.

Easy enough to say, even for myself. Not so easy to re-tune the mental track that's been saying, for over a year, 'You're 40, you're old, and you're destined to be alone and never doing anything significant for the rest of your useless life.'

I don't look 40, or so I've been told. I can still pass for a student when I'm up at university teaching, especially when there's a group photo, and if I don't smile too close to the camera. Too many crows' feet at the side of the eyes. Too many smile lines on the face. I'm in better shape than I was in my 20s, or at least I try to be, and I think that my judgement's improved over time. Oh, and my disposition - at least I have a modicum of patience now where I used to have absolutely None At All.

40, Asian, single. Weddings are difficult things at any time, Asian weddings can be a bit harrowing but thank God for relatives who've learned not to ask me the million dollar question about When I'm Getting Married Next, especially during my brother's wedding last year.

I can't honestly say I was expecting my fortieth decade to feel any different from the day before, or that I was looking forward to it, because I really wasn't. On both counts.

And then my friends happened. Took the entire day, blew it out of the water with so many wishes and thoughtful gestures. My choir mates armed with cheesecake and mille crepe cake and the happiest 4-part Happy Birthday in the world, surprising me and another choir mate who happens to have the same birthday. For about an hour after rehearsals, there was crazy and food and photo-taking, and lots and lots of laughter.

Love happened, and my entire world changed because of it. My friends, my family, the people I care about most in my life, gave me the best birthday I've ever had. My students wrote me such beautiful messages, some whom I never even thought would remember, and slowly it's beginning to sink in - it's true, age really IS just a number. Where there's love, where there's purpose, you are never old. I have amazing friends, and I have amazing students who come out into the world to become equally amazing people. That counts for something. It's a start.

A few days ago someone asked me, How does the big 40 feel?

I told them, It feels fantastic. Because it does.

This year I've stopped thinking about what I want to achieve in life, now that I'm into my 40s. Instead, this is the year I think about what I want to leave behind - the legacies to my friends, family, students. Because I can achieve everything I want to, but if none of that impacts any lives for the better, then what's the point?

I had the privilege of meeting up with two former students, who are now in university. I taught them in high school five years ago. Five years! Where does the time go? They are both beautiful young women who are doing so well in their studies, and still making time for their musical passion, and I am so proud of them. What gave me pause was that during the conversation, both of them talked about old times, and what they remembered wasn't the big things like winning competitions, or the lack of. They talked about the little things - me staying behind to give feedback to one of them and teaching them how to breathe properly when singing. How I'd stand at the back of the classroom to try and get them to use vocal support to sing louder. How I'd use crazy illustrations like the cicak on the conductor's forehead to help them focus sound.

I came away from the conversation humbled beyond belief. What matters isn't the big things, although those do have their place - it's the small details that you think are throwaway, that people remember. These girls remembered random acts of kindness, things so mundane I take them for granted as part of my work. But to them, right then, it was everything and more.

Legacy. From now on, it's all about legacy. Because life is short, and what you leave behind is often far more important than all the biggest projects you've achieved.

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