On the Last Day of my 39th Year – Letting Go of Childish Things

I’m turning 40 tomorrow. For much of the past 6 weeks, the realization of suddenly being middle-aged has found me fighting off anxiety, depression, and fears of failure.

I’m going to be 40 and what the hell have I done with my life?

My mind races back to everything I thought life would be like by the time I turned 40. The youthful dreams, hopes, and aspirations look very little like the reality I find myself living.

See, I’m that person you knew in college that had their life mapped out – literally. I have a piece of notebook paper in a box in my attic of a random list of life goals and milestones that I sketched out half a lifetime ago, when I thought I knew everything, but instead I was really just young and dumb.

The words of my mother echo back to as I write this, warning me not to let deviations from my Life Map get me down, advising me that life can’t be neatly mapped out. I assured her that I knew all that, yadda, yadda, but I needed goals and things to keep myself on track, ensuring success in life! I know now why she looked back at me the way she did. She knew I was a crazy fool. She knew life is never what we expect. She was 40 and she knew life wasn’t anything like she imagined at 20, either.

Yet, for some reason that list has always been in the back of my head. At first I literally checked off the accomplishments and goals met. Yet as the years have gone by, the list was put in a moving box and an internal checking off of items continued, yet less was accomplished and a nagging fear of failure has been eating at me for years. Then with 40 looming, about 6 weeks ago I freaked out one night lying in bed with my husband. Every last thing I felt like I haven’t accomplished just ran right up in my face and started taunting me, and I had a less than adult melt down.

God bless my patient, loving husband having to deal with this right at bedtime.

And God bless my friend Linda as I spewed all this to her one day over a bagel sandwich and coffee.

And God bless my therapist as I spent 90 minutes in the office last time lamenting my lack of wordly accomplishments by the ripe old age of 40.

Gracious me! These last few weeks have not been my finest. I have not gone gently into my 40’s… kicking and screaming and crying. And it all comes back to not accomplishing things on that blasted list I made during college. Despite the rational side of me that kept saying there were very valid reasons for deviating from my life map, I couldn’t get it out of my head.

And that’s why sometime before tomorrow I’m crawling into my attic – facing down whatever spider may be waiting for me – and I’m finding that damn list in that random box. I know it’s up there, somewhere. And then in the fire pit in our backyard, on my 40th birthday, I’m going to burn it.

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Through a variety of circumstances, my husband and I took our children up to Washington, D.C. for a last minute family vacation a couple weeks ago. We left the day after my last therapy appointment, where I agonized over turning 40 and then my therapist spent some time nicely reminding me – in her calm, professional manner – to grow the hell up. Seriously, it went better than I just made it sound. My therapist is wonderful, but basically, I know that’s what she was telling me. She gave me much to chew on and during our 9 hour ride to Northern Virginia, I contemplated much of what she said.

But what really was amazing was how this trip to Washington D.C. was exactly what I needed to let go of the list, these unfulfilled aspirations, these forgotten dreams. There was a gentle kick in the seat of the pants by the universe, so to speak. The Divine reminded me of what really has importance, and His peace came on my heart in the strangest of places – the seat of government and an airplane hanger.

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Take a trip in my TARDIS, uh, my Time Machine (all you non-Whovians), and peek a little into the mind of young Mandi. In grade school, I was obsessed with all things NASA and determined to become an astronaut… and not just any astronaut. I wanted to be a Pilot or Mission Commander. This proved problematic as I was super small back, yet I knew that each
of those mission positions required people to be 5’4″ or taller. So I prayed regularly that God would help me be at least that tall or more growing up. The odds were not in my favor – most of my mom’s immediate family are all under 5’6″, including the men. I was hoping my dad’s average height genes would be dominate. I worked hard on my grades, always at or near the top of each class until high school.

Then the dreaded divide among student giftings happened – Math that include weird symbols and letters. And sciences that included Math. Ugh. I had math teachers that were really smart. And they were really good at showing me that they could do math, but honestly, they didn’t explain how to do math very well. Where was Khan Academy and all these cool
Math tricks you see on the net back in the early 90’s?

I was a realist. I knew Math and my struggles with it probably meant that childhood dream of becoming an astronaut was just a dream (despite in an ironic twist, reaching exactly the magical 5’4″ in height). But I was a person with other talents and interests, so I focused on those. My life goals shifted and by the time I graduated high school, I just knew what I was going to be when I grew up!

Public policy, politics, and all things Ronald Reagan, Conservative, and Republican were my passions. I bought and paid for my own subscription to National Review. I read the newspaper daily, carried around a pocket Constitution, listened to Rush Limbaugh, and kept a running list in our head of the President’s cabinet members. I’d argue politics with just about anyone, and I was convinced I was right about it all.

At our high school, the Junior Class always wrote predictions about the Senior class and this was mine:

senior prediction

Mandi Herrmann will surpass Hillary Rodham Clinton as the woman of politics when at the age of 57 she becomes the first female president of the United States.

(huh, first of all, this was in 1993 and honestly, no one thought we’d have a woman President until 2032? Here’s hoping that’s not the case – anyway, I digress.)

I just knew when I was 18, 19, and 20 years old that I was going to graduate college, go to law school, work some campaigns, maybe work for a Senator or clerk at the Supreme Court, write some speeches, and eventually, myself, run for office. Either the SC Governor’s Mansion or something in Washington DC. That was where I was going – my goals.

And that’s what made it on that blasted life goals list. Not a vague do this or that, but with hard set age-defined limits. Man, I was a piece of work.

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Now, back to our recent vacation in DC and what really matters…

The first day we were in the District of Columbia, we had an appointment to tour the Capitol Building, our seat of government. There are two options to do this – go to the Capitol Visitors Center and take one of the generic tours or you can schedule with your Representative or Senator’s office a private tour. We opted for the more personal tour. Having done this in the early 1990’s, I remembered that if you had a private tour, you got to see the back passages of all the office buildings and ride the private train from the Senate building to the Capitol building.

We were met in Senator Scott’s office by a group of fresh faced young people decorating a Christmas tree. We showed them our appointment confirmation and an intern behind a desk stepped forward to lead our tour. Our guide was a recent college graduate who is attending law school in DC. She spoke with a passion about the Senate office buildings as we walked those halls. She knew random political trivia. You could tell this young 20-something, dark haired girl from South Carolina probably loved all things Ronald Reagan, Conservative, and Republican. I asked her what she hoped to do after law school – and she ran through a checklist of things sounding vaguely familiar.

And then it hit me, as we walked into a statue filled hall called The Crypt in the Capitol building. Twenty years ago, that girl was me. Full of youthful dreams and aspirations. Convinced she will change the world through public service and the halls of politics (and probably some smoke-filled backroom deals, too).

IMG_3148

Picture taken moments after my epiphany in The Crypt in the the Capitol Building. The star we are standing in front of is in the exact center of DC. 

I looked at my amazing husband and my kids (as they stared up at the grandeur of the Capitol building while wondering when we might find a playground) and the angst of turning 40, the taunting of the unchecked life goals on that damned list, it went away. All of it… Those manufactured goals of changing the world through a life of public service and ambition and power would have left me without Eric and Katie and Jonah and Anna.

I wasn’t destined to make my mark on the world as a lawyer or judge or governor or senator, or even the first female president (as in that silly high school prediction). My life has more meaning than serving in cold, echoing granite and marble hallways. I would change the world, but in a much more subtle way – by loving my husband, by mothering my three amazing children, by making moms feel welcome for many years at a MOPS group, by serving the hungry hot dogs at a park with my local church, by writing a blog here and there that maybe someone needed to read, and by having a cup of coffee with a friend.

There is no failure in an ordinary life. So, in these Halls of Freedom, I suddenly felt free. I had made it to DC by my 40th birthday. It might have been by minivan via I-95 with my husband behind the wheel and my crazy kids in the back, but I made it regardless, the best way I knew how.

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Going to the National Air & Space Museum out at Dulles in Northern, Virginia was the icing on the cake. My other IMG_3283childhood passion was met as I stared with tears in my eyes at the Space Shuttle Discovery. It’s the most beautiful flying machine I’ve ever laid eyes on. When I first saw it sitting there in all it’s majesty, I was instantly 10 years old again, sitting on my couch watching a shuttle lift off, playing with a die cast shuttle model, and dreaming.

It was a peaceful moment gazing at the Discovery knowing that the Space Shuttle and I were in the same space. I could have touched it (if I were a crazy rule breaker, you know). No regrets about this unfilled dream. It’s okay to have childhood dreams. It’s what kids do.  IMG_3289

But it’s also important not to get lost in regret as an adult. I think I finally understand Paul’s admonition to put away childish things…

1 Corinthians 13:11 (NLT)

When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things.

The rest of the trip was full of museums and monuments and most importantly, memories with my family. It was the best damn vacation I’ve ever had. No more feeling lost. I found myself in Washington, DC.

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My life and my accomplishments? No regrets here. Not anymore.

When I was 10 and thought about 40, I was an astronaut.

When I was 20 and thought about 40, I was a Congressman.

And at 30, I had my first child. So I knew at 40 I’d be in the midst of motherhood.

I don’t need a goal’s checklist to tell me I’ve have a good life. I see it in the everyday moments. I hear it in the laughter (and squabbles) of my children. I feel it in the arms of my husband. I soak it in surrounded by family and friends.

So here I am, on the last day of my 39th year. Tomorrow a new decade begins. And I’m excited. There’s a blank slate of what might happen in the next 10 years. I might run a marathon. I might write a book. I might travel the country with my family in an RV.  I might even vote for a Democrat. Or, I might just do my laundry on a timely basis, cook healthier meals, and continue to be the best wife and mother I know how to be.

But you know what, that’s okay. I wouldn’t change a thing.

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