milestone: a stone set up beside a road to mark the distance in miles to a particular place

The number 40 is such a stone – for everyone, but somehow, especially for women. And while women’s lives are in no way universal, there are certainly more than a few universal elements. A 40-year-old woman has very likely confronted these things: a changing body and, with it, a changing understanding of self; experiences in which she felt like a failure; an ever-expanding to-do list as she tried to balance her own needs with those of others; joy in moments when her ideas and ambitions were realized; grief in the face of insurmountable realities and, inevitably, losses. Lindsey Mead’s new collection of first-person essays by a phenomenal group of women writers in (and around) their forties, On Being 40(ish), gathers readers to an inviting table set with understanding, humor, and insight.

I met Lindsey at summer camp when I was twelve years old. A slight girl with red hair, she was not a spotlight grabber. To the contrary, she was then, and continues to be now, a watcher, a deep thinker, and a powerful writer. Her blog, A Design So Vast, reveals as much about her daily life as it does about the themes that resonate with so many women: the experience of time passing; the toll of work on more sacred, personal priorities; the beauty of words, light, and nature.

In her introduction to On Being 40(ish), she paints a vivid picture of being with her closest friends, now in their forties, at their annual reunion. “Forty feels like we’ve come to the top of the Ferris wheel: the view is dazzling, in no small part because we know how quickly the descent will go.” Mead understands that “the forties are a decade of reckoning and awareness, of gratitude and loss, and they are limned with emotions as divergent and powerful as the individual voices that speak to them.”

The voices are in this collection of essays are indeed powerful – they are: Meghan Daum, Catherine Newman, Veronica Chambers, Sloane Crosley, KJ Dell’Antonia, Jill Kargman, Jena Schwartz, Kate Bolick, Allison Winn Scotch, Jessica Lahey, Julie Klam, Sujean Rim, Sophfronia Scott, Lee Woodruff, and Taffy Brodesser-Akner. Each essay, each expression of what life is like for a woman in her forties(ish), is uniquely impactful. Reading this book feels very much like sitting in a wonderful seminar, one where everyone in the room has her hour to share her story, and does so with unparalleled intentionality, grace, honesty and humor.

What is universal in women’s lives? Perhaps it is the way in which we use words, the way we, to use a line from Jena Schwartz’s beautiful poem Inheritance, we “reach for words from air.”

Jessica Flaxman

Jessica Flaxman

Bookclique is brought to you by Jessica Flaxman, an educator and writer who lives outside of Boston with her husband and two daughters. She is author of the blog What I Learned Today in School and is an editor of Klingbrief. Jessica’s students, teachers, and friends are part of this project in support of book culture, readers and reading.