Filling the wobbly vase at 40

potteryHello. Happy New Year.

I’m working on a fun idea for my 40th year. A few months ago, while engaged in conversation with a student, we spoke about time-limited-oriented blogs, such as ‘400 Days until 40’, which is one that my student used to read. It freaked me out a little that he mentioned this on the exact day that I had 400 days until I was 40. Anyway, after a few weeks of pure fear of aging and dying, I then went on a friend’s 40th birthday, we spoke about it, and I got over it.

And now I’m starting to see other friends, acquaintances, bloggers, all with their excellent ’40 before 40′ lists (going up in balloons, singing in public etc). Other people have lists or acts that are more closely linked to their everyday. A poet I know is learning 40 poems off-by-heart before she’s 40. (She’s a wonderful performance poet.) I liked that idea. In fact, I liked both the wild and the everyday.

So I started with one idea–a blog about transitioning to veganism before I was 40. I am already a vegan and have been for a year, but there are a few moments, and a few belongings, that still need to change/go, such as a reliance on chocolate when tired, my old leather satchel, not checking labels of all new foods.

And I began it in the spirit of one of the most important books I read last year,  Scott Jurek’s Eat and Run. In that book the mantra is ‘just do things. always.’ It’s a mantra Scott learnt from his father. In the book he talks about his ultra-marathon career. It was very much stimulated by his parents. His mother’s unconditional love and support (‘you can do anything’) and his father’s conditional love and encouragement based on effort (‘get on and do things. always’). And it helped Scott become one of, if not the, greatest endurance runner known.

In his book on second-half-of-life spirituality, Falling Upward, the Franciscan monk Richard Rohr notes how psychologists actually this kind of boundedness (unconditional love from one parent, conditional from the other) is the idea start to life for a child, because not only do they receive, and so know and recognise unconditional love, they also recognise boundaries and the need to be a maker, that one cannot just always just expect to be loved. One must work to the good of others, and oneself. The poetry, the poesis of life, in fact, when we think of the origin of that word as ‘to make’, is found not only in the love, but in the verb.

My parents’ love for me was in this model. Unconditional and conditional. I’m not quite sure which parent was which… and the quality of the love and the communication of that love was also pretty poor and confused a lot of the time. But it was there, in part. If Scott Jurek got a Ming vase (which he didn’t of course; no-one’s parenting is perfect), then I got an unvarnished and wobbly pot thrown on the seconds heap. Perhaps. And yet, sometimes, I can put flowers in that pot and they thrive, still. As long as I don’t overfill my vase so the water flows out the holes (read: as long as I don’t take on too much to try and prove myself worthwhile) then I can bloom. My parents did the best they could while battling their own illnesses and lacks in parental care. And thinking of the vase, where it runs smoothest and strongest at the join, you can detect the hand and the craft of my grandfather, holding many of us together.

Rohr calls this the container. We spend the first half of our lives creating this container through ego-driven activities. Our parents and our grandparents, our schoolteachers and friends (e.g. the superego, the teacher, the potter) has a large hand in shaping the container.

“The first half of life is devoted to forming a healthy ego, the second half is going inward and letting go of it.” – Carl Jung

And so we are ready to fill it. This is the second half of life that Rohr, and Carl Jung, and the storyteller Geoff Mead, and others–and me, spontaneously, about a year ago–talk about. We have our container for life. Now, with what life will we fill it up so it is meaningful for us? Sometimes that container needs to be rebuilt when we reach the second half of life (we know when we have: it begins, usually, with a fall from grace, and a long journey back to wisdom.) Other times it works well enough. Sometimes, though, people never get out of their first stage of life, and spend their entire lives just building the container: making money, buying security and comfort, building ego. In Western societies we live, Rohr is sad to say, in a first-half-of-life world. We would do well to spend more time learning from indigieneous cultures and religions, with their rituals, their passages between the two halves of life ingrained in their customs and practices. (but we don’t listen, do we?)

So, as I spontaneously said to myself about a year ago, I’m in the second half of my life now. This is the ‘do things’ part. This is the part that comes after building the container. Whatever job I and my parents have done of that, then so be it. This is the vase I’ve got right now. And it makes sense now when my friend Andy said to me on the beach at Plympton perhaps over ten years ago ‘Go and live the life you’ll then write about.’

And so not to be outdone with the ’40 at 40′ meme, I was thinking about (filling my vase fully, as I tend to do) 40 sets of 40 things at 40. Which would make 1600, of course. But there are 6,720 hours in the 40 weeks until I’m 40. That’s one thing every 4.2 hours. No problem. Considering some of these (plant 40 new plants) could all be done in one weekend. Etc.

This isn’t only tongue in cheek. And I’d be happy to fail to do all 1600 things. But in the end, why not fill your life with the things you want to do, and love doing? And I’m not thinking of jumping out of planes. I was thinking more about a question like this: ‘how do I want my life to be full? how will it have felt to have lived?’ So the list of 40 things was all about things that I want to fill my life with anyway; not named one-off experiences but the things that I will go on doing for the rest of my life. Such as:

  1. Read 40 books (from my shelves! no new books!)
  2. Write 40 letters to friends
  3. Have 40 afternoons doing nothing
  4. See 40 plays/films/acts
  5. Learn 40 prayers/koans from 40 religions
  6. Help relieve the suffering of 40 individual animals
  7. Plant 40 different plants on the allotment and in the garden
  8. Host 40 dinners
  9. Learn to cook 40 new vegan meals
  10. Run 40 races (note: NOT RACE, but run)
  11. Make 40 things such as artwork, tools for kitchen, etc.
  12. Submit 40 pieces of creative work to magazines and competitions
  13. Help 40 people
  14. Meet 40 new people
  15. Finish 40 bits of writing (could involve beginning new things)

All feasible. I have 25 more ideas to come up with. Got any suggestions?!

The countdown begins next Monday, 20th January, which will be 40 weeks until I’m 40. I’m quite looking forward to the challenge. I enjoy visualising and planning, mapping and recording: it’s an aesthetic project as well, as I’m going to create one large 70x100cm artboard with a record of all the things I’m doing, with a collage around the side. Which leads me on to a next post, about being seen… but will write about that later.

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4 comments

  1. stevethorp

    Hi Alex, I love the container, and this piece seems really grounded. The ideas of filling up and just do stuff, always very much chimes how I’ve been envisaging (and doing!) stuff at the moment (of course I’m a bit further on at 55!). The 40 x 40 things does sound a bit challenging for 40 weeks! I hesitate to add to your pressure but what about 40 different walks with your ecological self?

    • alex lockwood

      Thanks Steve. In fact I have added your suggestions to the list. A friend asked me to explain my motivation for this list, which is something I’ll do. There doesn’t really feel any pressure about it. It’s a positive project for a couple of reasons: 1, being that these are things I really want my life to be filled with, and just being the type of person who is motivated by completing lists(!), having visualised and shared (I think research psychologists call it ‘capitalization’?!) these lists, then I feel motivated to do them, even if sometimes I feel tired or think it would be easier not to. So, Monday, there was a poetry reading, and attending 40 events is on my list, I was tired, but it made me go, and I enjoyed it, and glad I stayed to the end, rather then ducked out early. We are creatures of habit and change comes hard, and now I have a creative and aesthetic (I’m turning the whole project into a poster) motivation for doing all those simple things that I want to feel that are easy to do, rather than not part of my habits and rituals. If that makes sense! 2, is that after working on one project for so long (the novel, PhD) it’s really nice to have some opportunity to just say YES to ideas that arrive. This 40×40 was an idea that a year ago I would have had to put the lid on and keep for later, and such pushing down on one’s creative ideas is wearing. So I’m in a ‘Say Yes’ mode to new ideas and challenges, and just going for it.

      • stevethorp

        Both 1 and 2 make sense! You’re right about habits – sounds like you’ve got some interesting things to say yes to!

  2. Pingback: Feeling Voices, Feeling Lucky | Self, Soul and Writer

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