Lindsey Mead, ON BEING 40 (ish)

Lindsey Mead is a Princeton and Harvard Business School graduate whose day job is working as an executive recruiter. She writes a popular blog called A Design So Vast. Don’t miss her recommended reading list. It’s pretty awesome. She has written for a wide range of publications from Brain Magazine to HuffPost and writes frequent book reviews. She is the editor of the collection of essays, On Being 40(ish), which includes contributions from other podcast guests of mine like Jill Kargman and KJ Dell’Antonia, as well as notables like Lee Woodruff and Sloane Crosley. Lindsey lives with her husband and children in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


Welcome, Lindsey, to “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”


Lindsey Mead: Thank you for having me.


Zibby: Can you please tell listeners what your amazing collection of essays, which is called On Being 40(ish), is about?


Lindsey: It is about the experience of turning forty, being in one’s forties. There are contributors who are older than that. I personally think of it as a broader exploration of basically a particular season of life, which is forties broadly, but midlife for women.


Zibby: What made you want to compile all these essays? What made you want to tackle this topic?


Lindsey: I've always written a lot about age. It’s kind of a way to get into thinking about -- season’s the right word for it. I've always written posts every year on my birthday trying to capture where my life is. I have a long-time relationship with a former editor at Simon & Schuster who’s now actually working on her own book. Her name is Christine Pride. She had the idea. She came to me, actually. It was great. It was pretty nascent. She's a little bit younger than am I, but also in her early forties, and said, “What would you think about doing this?” We, together, fleshed it out.


Zibby: You had never written another a book?


Lindsey: I've written two books, but they're on the floor there. I've never written anything that's been published, no, other than online and essays. No books.


Zibby: This is a big project to start. What did you think? Were you excited? She said, “Do you want to do it?” Let me hear the story.


Lindsey: She and Brittany, who’s my agent who’s also a close friend, know each other. They talked about it. I felt a little bit, I don't know what the word is, it felt very like it was meant to be. I was immediately on board with the topic. It actually feels now, it feels like there's a little bit of zeitgeisty energy about midlife, in my opinion. Maybe it’s just because I am in midlife. It was pretty smooth. We talked a lot about what we wanted the collection to look like and be about. Then we brainstormed contributors and reached out to them. From there, it rolled out. It was fun.


Zibby: What was it like for you to turn forty? When you were younger and you thought about life when you were forty, is this what you thought it would be like?


Lindsey: It’s a great question. I have often said for years that my life is exactly like I planned it and nothing like I imagined.


Zibby: I love that. That's awesome.


Lindsey: The actual experience of turning forty was really a nonevent. I remember the day I turned forty. I picked my kids up at camp, which is a hell of a drive over the bridge to the Cape and driving them home. I did all this laundry. We had dinner at home. It’s just a really regular day. That was great. I would say it’s exactly like I thought it was going to be but also totally different. That sounds really abstract.


Zibby: I relate to that. I'm going to read a quote you said in the book. You said, “I love hearing Allison describe her forties as her favorite decade because I feel the same way. This stage of life feels like one long exhale. It’s also exhausting and overwhelming. More than any other time in my life, I feel pulled thin and like so many people need me,” which I just loved. Did you find that the other contributors to your book felt similarly to you?


Lindsey: I did. I read a lot of memoir. This book is not a memoir, but it’s personal essays. One of the great markers of a successful memoir or an essay is that it manages to take the really, really personal and make it super universal. I always think of that Gail Godwin quote, “The more you focus on the singular and the strange, the more you access the universal and the infinite.” Each essay actually comes at the question of -- we were like, “Write about being forty.” It’s a pretty broad prompt. I do think that some themes emerge. I'm thinking of KJ’s essay about why she didn't answer the email. That's clearly somebody who’s got a lot of people needing her. I haven't asked the question of the other contributors, but I think most of them do feel the same way even though everybody's lives are different. That was important to us also. Christine and I spent a lot of time making sure we had a diversity of viewpoints, not just people of different races and ethnicities and martial situations and sexual orientations and people who had kids and people who didn't. Even with all of that variety, there are some universal things that emerge, which is awesome.


Zibby: I felt like everybody had the same sort of, “This is a time to pause. This is the middle. We’re stopping for a second. We’re reflecting.” Everybody was kind of lookin’ around like we’re all on some sort of football field. Everybody's frozen and looking, taking stock, and then the game can go towards the rest. 


Here are some of my favorite quotes from some of the different authors. Meghan Daum -- I hope I'm pronouncing that right -- she said, “Children are life’s great timekeepers,” which was so great. It’s so true. They mark the passage of time. Veronica Chambers said, “What I have learned from being a sort of sports fan is a lesson that I have applied really almost daily to the act and art of being in my forties. It’s a game of two halves,” -- oh, this is probably where I just got that analogy -- “It’s a game of two halves, and this is the thing. No matter what happens, you can't win in the first half,” which is great. Sloane Crosley, who I love, she did a whole thing on beauty and said, “An assessment of my face as it stands now, construction projects that began in my late twenties are still underway.” Julie Klam wrote, “Turns out the reason people say being a grown up is hard is because it is,” which is very true. I loved Lee Woodruff’s essay. She's a really beautiful writer. She talked about her newscaster husband Bob Woodruff and his injury on the field and said, “When Bob woke very suddenly one day, my entire aperture on the world had been rearranged. I understood with clarity that there was no perfect age. I had envisioned my forties as a mostly joyous, jumbled combination of mothering, marriage, work, and play. Wasn’t this decade supposed to be the wonderful, gooey, marshmallow center of life?” This is just some of the authors. Jill Kargman’s essay was great. KJ Dell’Antonia’s essay, which was accepted in The New York Times recently, amazing. You really make the reader think. You make us pause and think, which was fantastic. 


You have a full-time job. You're an executive recruiter. When did you get this project done?


Lindsey: I have written a lot about when I write because I get that question a lot. I would say that the editing of this project was exactly the same, which is to say it happened around the edges of the rest of my life. I once long ago described writing as the grout between the tiles of my life. It was a random analogy. It makes so much sense. Not only is it around the edges, but it holds everything together. I would say the editing of this was the same experience. I’d edit and write in the mornings. I’d edit and write at night, if I had half an hour free in the middle day. It’s definitely something that is not my full-time occupation, writing or editing. That's actually okay. A lot of people have often said to me, “You should quit your job and write full time.” The truth is, for me, having this other life in financial services, frankly, it’s hard for me to imagine not doing that. It’s super additive, for me personally, to who I am and how I think about the world. I can't imagine not doing it.


Zibby: Tell me a little more about your blog, A Design So Vast, and how you came up even with the name and the content.


Lindsey: I start it on a whim in 2006, which is crazy how long ago that is. Grace and Whit were one and three when I started the blog. There was definitely a part of me that wanted to capture them. I was aware even then that I wasn’t going to remember everything, which is totally true. The title comes from probably my favorite quote, which is from Louise Erdich’s The Bingo Palace. “There's no such thing as a complete lack of order, only a design so vast it appears unrepetitive up close,” which I find very, very reassuring. Honestly, I picked it on a whim. I probably should've called it LindseyMead.com because I could've gotten the URL back then. Originally, I wrote a lot about them. Then as they got older, I wrote less about them. It’s changed a little bit over time. I've always travelled with the elevator pitch of what my blog is about. I've been told many times I need a better tagline.


Zibby: Oh, stop. That's like saying you have to tidy up with a bow the things that are going on in your mind on an average day. It’s not that neat and perfect. The things that you feel passionately about, they don't always get so perfectly packaged. I guess if you had some sort of specific intention for the blog…


Lindsey: No.


Zibby: See? That's what makes it more relatable too. People want to intake information about lots of different things. It’s not like you only go online to read -- I'm rambling. 


You've also written so beautifully about your father, even on Instagram, and marking each date that passes. I'm so sorry for his loss. It sounds like you were so close. His love of poetry really seeps through into you. Have you found that writing about that helps about his loss?


Lindsey: I have. I definitely have. I actually worry I'm a broken record writing about it too much. I'm kind of like, “I should be over this by now,” but I'm never going to be over it. I have written a book about him already. It’s about a 250-page book. It’s about maps. One of the themes in my life and his life is he was interested in maps. He had a lot of framed maps on the wall. He collected Baedeker Guide books. I've written before about this fundamental belief in the map that he had. My eulogy talked a little bit about this. The book was about him and about his influence on me, but also about what happened when you've come to the end of the map, which for me was always living according to whatever the next great achievement was. He once said about me when I was about eighteen that my biggest strength in life is doing just well enough to get the next hardest thing. I was super offended at the time. He's totally right. The problem is once you've had your graduate degrees and had your children, there's no obvious next [indiscernible]. That's what that book was about. I would love to write more about him. I've often thought about revisiting that. I don't know. We’ll see.


Zibby: I love that essay that I read the other day, especially with all the quotes of poetry. It’s so lyrical.


Lindsey: People don't know that he a PhD in physics. He was an engineer and super logical and had this side interest in poetry, which I loved.


Zibby: So nice. You say on your website that people find your book reviews also to be more helpful than anything else. What do you try to put in these book reviews? How do you do it? What's the secret?


Lindsey: I read your question. I haven't written one in a while. I don't know. I choose my own. I can only review books that I loved, which is a gift. I don't get told what to review. I'm able to pick. It can be very heartfelt in my recommendation. Maybe people pick up on that. I don't have any secret sauce. I'm a big underliner when I read, and notetaker. Of course, I read mostly from the library so that’s a little tricky. I don't, obviously, underline library books. When I read Dani’s Inheritance, which I knew I was going to review, I was writing in it. Then when I go back to write the review, I usually flip through and see what I've underlined and structure it that way. I'm definitely not a formal or in any way educated book reviewer. I just like to talk about books I love. I love to talk to other people about books they love. It’s definitely one of my favorite topics.


Zibby: Me too, as you can tell.


Lindsey: Thank you for this podcast.


Zibby: I do the same thing, but I find I often don't have a pen. What I started doing was just dog-earing a page.


Lindsey: I dog-ear the bottom. Then I have to go back and see which was the line I wanted. With library books, then I would take a picture on my phone. What I realized is sometimes it goes by and I can't remember what book it was. 


Zibby: I find I go back a lot of the times and I'm like, “Why did I dog-ear this page? What did I like?” If I can't find it again, then forget it. Obviously, I have to forget it. It’s something that has to have stuck with me a little bit. That's so great that you actually use a library. I'm such a supporter of libraries. I love them. I find I take out more for my kids in the summers, or summer when I have more time, or there's a little local library. You really go in and use them? That's awesome.


Lindsey: I really go in and use them. I have a lot of guilt about it because I like to buy books. I do have a friend who used to work in publishing. She said, “You know, we sell to the libraries. You shouldn't feel guilty about that.” The Cambridge Public Library is great because you can order the books. Then they come in to the one around the corner. It’s like my free Amazon. I love the librarians. That's a great job, in my opinion. They have great ideas. We talk about books. I do often buy books. If I go to a reading, I buy the book, or if it’s book I want to have. My dad always used to say actually, “Home is where you keep the books.” After his death, part of what we’re doing is throwing things away. He had so many books. There's a part of me that's very liberated by the library. [indiscernible] stuff. I do use it. I love it.


Zibby: I think it depends on the author. Where was I? I went to some book reading. They were like, “You know what? If doesn't matter you read our book, just make sure you bought our book.” [laughs] I think for other writers, they just want you to read it. That's why people feel so touched when you take the time to read it. They’ve spent so long writing it. 


Lindsey: I definitely care more about people reading it. When people come up to me and say they read my blog, it makes me want to cry. I care much more about the reading than the buying. That’s maybe why I haven't published a lot of books.


Zibby: No, stop. That's so funny. Do you have any interest in trying to revive, you mentioned you might want to revive the one about your dad, but starting to write another book or mining the blog for some other…?


Lindsey: I think about this all the time. I would love to write. I feel a little bit like a fraud. Everyone's like, “Congratulations on your book.” I had a big part in this. I feel like this is my baby, but I didn't write the whole thing. That's why it’s so beautiful because everyone else's writing is so great.


Zibby: You are a total fraud. You're an imposter. I'm going to hang up now. Forget it. [laughs]


Lindsey: I do think about lots of things. I wrote the one book about maps and my dad. Then the second book I got very close on was a book about Grace. It was called Wonder Girls. It was about parenting a daughter in adolescence, basically preteen. I remember I went for a walk near my house one day. I came home and I wrote this page and a half about having walked past the playground where I used to take her as a child and how the weight of everything that was gone was so overwhelming. I leaned back against the fence. I wrote this whole thing, one page. I remember sending it to Brittany. She was like, “Wow. We might have something here.” 


I realized that the expectation for disclosure in a memoir is really high. People passed on the book. It was not picked up, so I'm not sugar coating. It also made me realize that part of the reason people passed was, “She’s withholding.” I realized there's certain things about my daughter I'm just not going to write about. If that's what's necessary to write a memoir -- I believe it probably is necessary -- I don't want to do it. I guess the answer is I’d love to write a book. I have ideas. I've basically been told that once you put stuff on a blog, you're not going to sell it because you've given it away for free. The idea of aggregating the blog is very appealing. I print it every year. It’s that many pages. It’s so big. It’s half a bookshelf. I don't think that could turn into a book. I'm not very good at fiction. I'd love to write fiction, but I'm not good at it. I don't know the answer. Fundamentally, I'm uncomfortable writing about myself. Therefore if you're not good at fiction and you don't really want to talk about yourself, it’s a little limiting.


Zibby: You could've just summarized how I feel about writing in general. I can do a thousand words about what I pick, but I pick what goes in.


Lindsey: Totally. That's the thing about blogging or essays. It was really an ah-ha for me. Several publishers came back and said, “She needs to go deeper. Where's her husband?” I'm happily married. I choose not to write about that. I don't want to write about x or y in my daughter’s teenage life. I realized when you're a blogger or an essayist, you can pick. I don't know if people say this to you. People say to me all the time, “You're so comfortable being vulnerable.” The truth is I don't really feel that way because I can pick what I share about. I'm aware that I write candidly about certain aspects of my life, but they're the ones I'm comfortable writing about. I don't feel exposed. If somebody said you have to write about your marriage, I would be like, “No.”


Zibby: You're stealing what's in my head right now. You're literally articulating the same exact things. I was talking to you earlier. This memoir I just tried to write, I got the same feedback. “You have to write about this. You have to talk about that.” I'm like, “Well, I'm not writing about that.” “The reader will be unsatisfied.” Who is this demanding reader? Why do they have to know every single thing? Do they even care? Come on.


Lindsey: I know. I have not solved that quandary. You let me know.


Zibby: I think you figured it out by doing this collection of essays. Now, I might try to copy you.


Lindsey: A friend of mine was joking last night. She was like, “So what are you going to write?” I said, “I can't write this. I can't write that. I think I'm going to do On Being 50(ish) next.” I do feel like hopefully this is a model that will continue.


Zibby: To be honest, one of my four kids is an eleven-and-a-half-year-old girl. I could use your preteen insight.


Lindsey: Grace was maybe ten when I started. Now, she’s sixteen and a half. It goes really fast.


Zibby: What you said about the playground, that brought tears to my eyes. Do you have any advice? There are all these aspiring authors and bloggers and everybody. What would you tell them?


Lindsey: I have my notes here in your questions. I was, all caps, “WRITE.” If you want to be a writer, you have to write. I still have trouble using that word for myself. I don't really think of myself as a writer. I've spent twelve years trying to own that title. What makes a writer is writing, fundamentally. That's my only advice. I don't personally think that you have to chop everything else in order to write. For me, it’s been really profoundly effective to write alongside another or multiple other lives. I find it paralyzing when people's advice is “Drop everything. Sit down and write the book.” I think that's overwhelming. For me, the advice is just start writing. That's my overall advice, but I don't feel like somebody who's in a position to give advice.


Zibby: You are ridiculously self-deprecating. Stop it. In my humble opinion, which means very little, I don't think you have to have fifty books on a bookshelf at Barnes & Noble to make yourself a writer. It’s who you are in your soul. Writing comes out in so many different ways. Maybe there are poets out there who are like, “I've never written a novel, so I'm not really a writer.” You're selling yourself short. Plus, you contributed this great book, which is the best gift for anyone turning forty ever. It’s on sale February 5th, very exciting.


Thank you for being so open and vulnerable in the ways you chose today, and all your writing. Thanks for comin’ on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”


Lindsey: Thanks for having me.


Zibby: Of course.



On Being 40(ish)
Simon & Schuster

Transcript coming soon!

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Lindsey Mead, Sophronia Scott and Jill Kargman at Word Bookstore in Brooklyn on pub day.

Lindsey Mead, Sophronia Scott and Jill Kargman at Word Bookstore in Brooklyn on pub day.