I turned 36 this week which—according to Brett who’s a “doctor” (sssshhh, don’t tell him he’s not)—is the beginning of middle age. This is why he sucks as a doctor because I looked it up and it’s right up there with some of his other medical advice—false information. For the record, Brett does moonlight as a weatherman and does a fine job at it. Where were we?
“You know,” I told him, “just so you know, I’m fine with the term ‘middle age’. Everyone knows the middle’s where it’s at. The cream in Oreo cookies, the meat in a burger, and—oh hey, look! I found another great middle for you.” I raised my right hand and pulled the four outer fingers down so the middle one had the stage for its sun salutation.
“Ha ha, very funny,” he added. “I’m just sayin’, welcome to the club, baby.”
The end of the year is always weird for me. I go into a bit of a post-Christmas funk, I have a birthday, a new year arrives. My mom used to find me as a kid, crying in my bed on the night of my birthday because “everything’s over.” Because I believe in handling funks in the healthiest way possible, I no longer climb into bed but instead get out of dodge and go shopping. I kid. Well, actually I did shop and we are leaving town, but I’m a big grown up now and try to funnel everything I know about change and learning and goals into my end of the year reflections. Come along.
I was reading some old birthday posts the other day and found the one from the year Nella was born. That year. Whew. It will always stand out as such a beautiful year of growth for me—one where I not only fell in love with this precious baby, but all these hidden things about myself (yes! Believe it or not, my own journey is about me!) and my misguided dreams were discovered–and I didn’t even have to open the boxes. They were opened for me—unwrapped, top pulled off, tissue pulled out, box put in my hand and all I had to do was look at the truth inside and do something about it. Our new circumstances (which I now realize aren’t that different from the old circumstances) challenged me that year, clearly pointing out true north in life every day. For a little while after, that was my story: Finding Beauty in the Unexpected. I wrote a book, met new families, stood up and talked about perspective. I was Mom who Finds Beauty in the Unexpected, and every day felt emotional and alive with inspiration and intense feelings. I didn’t have to dig hard for lessons in life—they were in my face, and repeated themes lit the path for everyday understanding: Find beauty! Redefine perfection! Look for new perspective! Love wins!
It’s been five years, and all those little truths are still there, still lighting the path while maybe not as raw and in-my-face as they were with a new diagnosis. Life moves on and one event, no matter how big it is, does not completely define us. The theme of my birthday post the year after Nella was born was “I am capable.” And this year?
We are many stories.
As a writer, I often find it easier to write when life is hard. Heartache equals good material. I mean, look at song writing. How many songs are there about heartbreak and broken relationships? A hell of a lot more than songs about soccer moms passing out popsicles after a victory game, I’ll tell you that much. After contributing to a writing retreat this year, planning one for next year and getting to know the attendees, I’m definitely aware of this. Writing is a beautiful tool for dealing with pain and uncertainty in life. Participants shared really hard and beautiful stories at Doe Bay, but I remember one friend who admitted, “I had a happy childhood. I live a good life. I didn’t experience some of the tragedy you’ve all shared, but I still want to write.” Writing and digging through the comfortable parts might be the greatest writing challenge of all—and the most important.
Life and its infinite truths are constant—beauty, birth, death, heartache, vulnerability, love. It’s our ability to see the truth these experiences hold that changes—when the numbness of comfort is removed. We need to make sense of things and find truth when life is hard—for survival’s sake. But what about when things are going well? What about those windows when our vulnerabilities aren’t pulsing loudly, when hardship doesn’t clearly point us north? For this reason, I can lose my way sometimes when things are going well, and I’ve been guilty of feeling the need for emotional defibrillation when there’s no obvious “story” happening. There are thousands of stories in our life outside of the big hard things though that call for our attention and lead us north. It’s not that heartache equals good material; it’s just that heartache alerts us to where it’s buried. The good material is there all along. My goal is to unbury the good material—to open my eyes enough to see the hundreds of stories that exist in my life, no matter what we’re going through. I don’t want to miss their truths. They are all important.
I saw the movie Wild this week–a book-to-movie success considering I turned to my mother-in-law when it was finished and said, “I can’t even talk about it. We should just walk to the car now.” There’s nothing glamorous about a three month journey up the Pacific Crest Trail–in fact the physical and emotional brutality of it is exactly what allowed Strayed to rediscover herself and move forward after her mother’s death. But there’s something alluring about her experience, enough to inspire many others to set out on the PCT in search of the same kind of enlightenment. We want to be broken, we know that solitude and challenges pull something out of us, we feel we’d be better after having gone through it–that we’d know something we didn’t know before or prove to ourselves and maybe others that we’re strong and fearless.
I want to push myself this year, try new things, take a class or two, get out of my comfort zone–yes. That’s important for growth for all of us. But I don’t want to fall into the trap of believing that some big experience unearths the story of my life any more than standing still and paying attention to all the small stories that exist and are waiting to be discovered right here, right now. And I don’t need to wait for some hard thing or trek in solitude to be suddenly side-swept with inspiration to write that next book I’ve been saying I’m going to write.
I return to one of my favorite quotes:
“No one longs for what he or she already has, and yet the accumulated insight of those wise about the spiritual life suggests that the reason so many of us cannot see the red X that marks the spot is because we are standing on it. The treasure we seek requires no lengthy expedition, no expensive equipment, no superior aptitude or special company. All we lack is the willingness to imagine that we already have everything we need. The only thing missing is our consent to be where we are.”
~Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World
There’s so much richness right here for all of us, no matter how mundane our routines are or how much of our week we spend in car pick-up lines. Our story is not controlled by what happens to us but rather how we write it.
There’s a wealth of good material for 2015 and every year after it. Here’s to finding it, using it well and passing it on.
A look back at my favorite little stories from 2014. Pieced together, these moments taught me a lot about love, community, vulnerability, kindness, beauty and the impact I have to help make life better for those around me–from the little people in my own home and friends in my community to women in countries far away. But the best way to bring treasure to someone else is first to recognize your own–the X you’re standing on.
Happy New Year, fellow Middle Age Friends!