Thoughts on a 39th Birthday

I turn thirty-nine years old today.

It won’t be today, of course, the day you are reading this. It’ll be a few days after today. Probably Friday.

Today’s today, the day I am writing this, is November 4, 2020 — which means that nobody will really want to read this today, the only thing any of us really want to read is some kind of confirmed statement about the presidential election, and none of us are going to get that today.

Probably not even by Friday.


Every year on my birthday I take a picture of myself, generally tagged “this is what 39 looks like” or whatever the appropriate age is. A borrowing of Gloria Steinem.

Here is what 38 looked like:

And here is 39:

I could have taken a posed one, like I did last year. With a respectable professional-person blouse and very red lipstick. I could have taken a series of selfies until I hit one that I was happy with.

I took this one, instead.


If I look a little wan in this photo, a little tired around the eyes, it is only partially because of the election.

I mean, it isn’t really because of the election at all, but I feel obligated to say that it is because I know that’s what everyone else is thinking about right now.

I’m not thinking about the election. (I did vote; at this point, the rest of it is out of my control and no amount of thinking will change the outcome.)

I’m thinking about the adventure I find myself called towards.

The adventure I have to choose whether or not to accept.


If you know anything about me, from any of my writings on The Billfold or Lifehacker or Nicole Dieker Dot Com, it’s that I love structure and order and the kind of discipline that eliminates a lot of decision-making. Wearing the same basic outfit every day. Eating the same basic meals. Knowing what I am going to do at 6:30 every morning, and at 6:45, and at 7:15.

There’s a comfort in this kind of ritual — that every day I will rise before dawn and light a candle and write three pages and drink a cup of hot lemon water with cayenne and compose two measures of music and put on NPR’s Up First and begin doing sun salutations on my yoga mat.

And after that I will practice the piano and open my laptop and start sending out invoices and replying to emails; I’ll have breakfast and then lunch and then go for a walk and then finish up my freelance assignments; then it’s a half-hour dumbbells routine on alternate days and then a quick tidying of the house and then dinner, all before a terribly early bedtime.

That might have worked when I was 38.

It will not work when I am 39.

You do see what is missing, don’t you?

Or, more accurately, whom?


At first I thought that L and I could have the hours between dinner and bed, and I could have, like, all the rest of them.

And L, because he actually loves me — which is still uncomfortable, I am still not used to this — was actually on board with this plan.

It would seem to be the same kind of plan that many people have, especially couples without children; out of the door every morning with a quick kiss on the cheek, back at the end of the day for a couple hours of relaxation and/or television before starting it all over again.

It would seem to be the kind of plan that could work. It is not an unfair plan, not necessarily.

But it is not the plan that either of us want, which means I have to consider The Other Option.


It all started to fall apart when L and I invited a few people over to socially-distance themselves around our new fire pit. Although L had originally planned for the evening to end early enough for me to keep the kind of bedtime you’d give a fourth-grader (because he loves me, because he knows these kinds of things are important to me, because I still cannot believe all of the care this man is giving me), the gathering lasted until nearly 10 p.m.

This is where I start feeling embarrassed on my own behalf. Ashamed, that I should be so loved and behave so poorly.

Because I left the party early. I went up to bed to give myself enough time to relax and wind down before my disciplined little bedtime, which meant I said goodnight to everybody at an hour that had an 8 in it.

Which could have been fine. It was not an unfair thing to do. L and I had agreed, beforehand, that I could do it.

But it wasn’t fine. If it had been fine, I wouldn’t have spent the next four days losing sleep over it.


Then it was Halloween. We dressed as foxes and built a candy chute off our front porch. I was already several days sleep-deprived and I ate much more candy than was good for me and it came around to 8:30 p.m. and L asked me if I wanted to go for a walk with him, to say hello to the neighbors and see the full moon.

And that could have been a wonderful experience. We could have had a wonderful time.

But I was tired and unhappy and overstuffed with chocolate, and after our walk, when we should have been celebrating how well our first Halloween had gone, I started complaining about how miserable I felt.

And L, because he loves me, did not say you are ruining the goddamn evening.

But I knew I was.


The next morning. Samhain, and the time change — though it didn’t matter because I barely slept that night, and by the time the sun was up I had made my decision.

“The way I am living isn’t working,” I said. “We can’t have the life we want if I need to be in bed by 9 p.m. every night. We’re going to want to have more parties, we’re going to want to go to the symphony, we’re probably going to want to play with the symphony or do theater again or take a dance class or something like that.”

“What about your early-morning writing time?”

“I wrote The Biographies of Ordinary People between 9 p.m. and midnight,” I said. “I only changed my schedule after that because I started doing freelance jobs that required me to be ready to pitch stories by 8 a.m., and I don’t have any freelance jobs like that right now. I could switch my schedule around — go to bed around 11:30 or midnight, wake up around 7:30. It could work.”

L agreed. “It would put you more in line with the rest of the world.”

“Plenty of people wake up before 6 a.m. and go to bed by 9,” I said. “But this schedule would put me more in line with the world you and I want to live in.”


I’ve always said that you should begin as you mean to continue, so that day I stayed up until 11:30 p.m. by the new clock. Midnight-thirty by the old one. Nearly four hours after I usually went to bed.

The next day I woke up with a plan for every hour — same old Nicole, just chrono-shifted and slightly jet-lagged — and it all went beautifully until 9:30 p.m., when I had slotted in work on the composition I’d been previously tackling at 6 a.m. and L picked practice the piano and we discovered that you cannot do those two activities simultaneously.

The day after that I woke up ill and exhausted; I spent much of the day in bed and almost missed a freelance deadline.

Then my birthday. Up and at ’em and time to light the candle and write in my journal and — no, wait, L is also up now, he’s inviting me to join him for a cup of tea, I want to have tea with him but I also want this little precise comforting life that I have created for myself, if we have tea and it goes a bit too long I might miss the time I’ve set aside to practice the piano — and at this point, still jet-lagged, I become completely discombobulated.

So we talk about it. Because L loves me, we talk all the way through it.

And I realize I have two options.


The first option is to remain as I am. To assign a task to every hour and to keep myself attentive to those tasks. L will support this plan, if I choose it.

The other option — or, since I capitalized it before, The Other Option — is to begin to integrate our lives. Both of us are self-employed, and at this point in our careers both of us have workdays that require approximately five consecutive hours of sustained focus. L’s workday is fixed; he teaches piano online in various time zones, and he’s got nearly all of his lessons batched between lunch and dinner. My workday is more flexible, but I could adjust it to overlap.

Which means that we could have our mornings and our evenings free. Literally. We could go to bed when we were tired and wake up when we weren’t. We could have tea for as long as we wanted, or we could say “This morning is too beautiful to stay indoors — let’s go for a walk.”

We could play chess at 9 a.m. if we wanted to, or at 10 p.m., or keep a board open and alternate moves all day long. Currently I have “chess” blocked off for Monday evenings only, and before you start laughing, keep in mind that before I created that schedule we weren’t playing much chess at all — we were just saying I think we should play more chess and then watching television instead.

That’s the first challenge of The Other Option (or, as I called it this morning, going “Full Artist”) — that we’ll spend our days dillying and dallying instead of thinking and creating. We want to make things on our own and we want to make things together, and we will have to figure out how to integrate our time in a way that balances both discipline and indulgence.

The second challenge is that I might not feel comfortable asking for the time I need to make the things I want. When you set a schedule and tell yourself “this is what I am going to do with my day,” you save yourself the trouble of having to make decisions — and when you tell your partner that you are going to run your days by a certain schedule, you save yourself the trouble of having to ask permission.

Not that permission is the right word, but there’s going to be some morning when L asks “would you like to go for a walk” and I’m going to say “well, I really wanted to work on this piece of music I’m composing,” and my worry is that I won’t actually say that.

But I’ve already written paragraphs and paragraphs proving to all of you just how much L loves me and how ready he is to give me the time I need to do the things I want to do. Proving to myself, in a way I didn’t realize until I wrote it.

So it seems obvious what I should choose.

The Other Option.

The integrated life.

The call to adventure.

And — let’s be honest — the call to growth.

I don’t know what other gifts L has gotten me yet (we’re going to do presents later this evening) but I think this may be my favorite one. ❤️

 
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