When you are young, birthdays are milestones. Becoming a toddler. Finally in school. Teenager. Sweet Sixteen. Voting age. Drinking age. Then one day you reach an age where the next major milestone is Medicare, and call me crazy but that isn’t as exciting as your first Vegas trip.
In a few days I’m turning 39. To a lot of people, this is still pretty young. To my children, it’s super old. For me, it’s the end of an exhausting decade of life. It’s also sitting at the doorstep of my forties, which will make me officially middle age. Now it’s not so much about the promise awaiting me in life, but more of an indictment of how I’ve spent my life thus far. Maybe I’m hypersensitive, but I always have a lot of thoughts leading up to another trip around the sun.
I remember my husband threw me a 30th birthday party that wasn’t what I wanted, and I was disappointed that he didn’t try harder. In fact, he pawned most of the logistics off on my mom. It sort of symbolized a pervasive thought that has plagued me throughout my life: I’m not exactly where I want to be. In many ways, turning thirty was no different than before. I still didn’t love my body. I wallowed in embarrassment that I was entering another decade without being a serious writer– the last thing I published was a short story in my early twenties. There was never enough time and still too many goals I hadn’t accomplished. I remember thinking: I’ll do it all before forty.
My thirties have been hard. Right after I entered this new decade, my husband’s never-ending custody battle with his ex-girlfriend came to a bitter, screeching halt. My father-in-law was on his deathbed, and my husband was frequently gone to take care of him. We were delayed in having our second child. My grandmother died. Our house got badly burglarized, and I was still floundering in my ability to write, love my abs, and feel content with how I had spent my time. And that was just the first year.
Within the next four years, we moved, two more babies were born, and then the rug got pulled out from beneath me when my husband unexpectedly passed away. I lost a lot of my youthful energy to grief, single motherhood, and being forced into a life I did not want. Now I will enter the last year of my 30s in the middle of a global pandemic, but to be honest, by the time COVID-19 hit I had already given up on happy endings.
When Kenneth died, I remember wanting my old life back. Even the parts where I was frumpy, even the days when I was consumed with angst over never having time to write or do something for myself and carried pregnancy weight. That previous life where my grandma took care of me when I was sick. When I never thought twice about a criminal breaking into a window and rifling through my underwear drawer. I’d even take the six years when we didn’t use our passports and I thought I’d lose my mind. I would take any one of those boring, innocent days.
I think we fantasize a lot about our youth. We sugarcoat our past. The good old days, when our thighs looked better and we had less wrinkles. Times when we didn’t collapse in exhaustion at the end of a long day, when our to do lists weren’t a mile long and we were not perpetually trapped in an endless cycle of falling behind. Days where we definitely had problems, but they sure weren’t as bad as being middle-aged and single during a pandemic.
Now I pine for that time before COVID-19, when I didn’t own a face mask and didn’t think twice about walking through a crowd of people, eating in a restaurant, or going into a classroom full of children. I don’t even pine for my pre-widow days anymore. I’m okay with my sad widow days when at least I could travel and go to pilates and sit with other adults. My standards have changed in direct proportion to my desperation.
It’s easy to let the good times sink to the bottom of our consciousness while the worst moments float to the surface, clouding our perspective.
I have to admit that there were many good parts of being in my 30s. It wasn’t all sad. Perhaps most profound for me was the fact that I became a Buddhist. Maybe I officially became one in my twenties, but not really. Not in the way where I was ready to put my heart into it. Long story short, I needed a coping mechanism to deal with all of the unsatisfactoriness I felt, and what started off as a mutual agreement to raise our children as Buddhists ended up becoming something that would forever change me after Kenneth died. I like to think of Kenneth passing me this baton to help me continue onwards in this journey without him. Now, I can’t imagine living any other life. That’s the strange thing about being a human. We go through all of this garbage that we didn’t want, and somehow the garbage turns us into better versions of ourselves.
I came across a Thich Nhat Hanh poem in a meditation class. The poem is called “For Warmth.”
I hold my face in my two hands.
No, I am not crying.
I hold my face in my two hands
to keep the loneliness warm–
two hands protecting,
two hands nourishing,
two hands preventing
my soul from leaving me
He wrote this poem after the bombing of a town during the Vietnam War, after overhearing an American soldier say, “We had to destroy the town in order to save it.”
I can only imagine how I would feel if that had been my home, my people, my life. I am struck by Thich Nhat Hanh’s wisdom that transcends our human emotions. In a world that gives us many reasons to quit in despair, knowing the power of our own two hands and the value of retaining our souls can be enough to get us through anything.
On my desk, I keep a picture of myself at around 7-years-old. The same age as my daughter. Little me in the picture looks suspiciously over one shoulder, wearing a purple puffer jacket and a braid down her back. I keep her there as a reminder that whatever my age, whatever happens to me, I’m still the same little girl on this journey. Sometimes I need to remember to hold my face in my hands, like I might do to a small child I am trying to comfort, and take a moment to breathe in the potential of right now, exhaling everything else. I did not know about this kind of love before my thirties.
Another recent find was this cartoon by Pearls Before Swine, and I thought it made an interesting statement about how to survive amidst all of the noise in the world.
I don’t think the cartoon is about leaving society and social isolation. I read it as embracing reality– people are assholes– but you can forge your own path despite them. People are going to tell you what you’re doing wrong. They’re going to thwart you. Reduce you. Reject you. People are going to be annoying as shit, as the Wise Ass on the Hill informs the mouse. That’s not even factoring in what the universe will throw at you. The solution will not be in changing reality, but rather staking claim to your authentic existence. This is how you will be free. The Wise Ass is correct though. It will take great mental and physical fortitude to get there. He also forgot to mention that you’ll get knocked off that hill every so often. There will be storms. It won’t be perfect, but at least it will be yours.
My father and I went to visit my grandmother; she is my only living grandparent. Grandma is almost 97-years-old, and each time we visit her, I notice age closing in. She is here, and she is not here. Visits are not what they used to be. We can no longer have the same kind of hours-long conversations like we used to. Her body is slowly shutting down. It’s not that she’s unhealthy, only that she is almost a century old. No matter how healthy you are, how lucky you are, how fortunate you are, time will catch up to you. In her, and in everyone I have lost, I have been taught the fragile nature of life. I know I will leave my 30s with a deep appreciation for the gift of time. An acceptance of impermanence; a greater commitment to making the most out of right now. These are presents of immeasurable value that I scavenged out of the wreckage in my life.
Vaccinations opened up for my tier, and today I was able to book my first COVID-19 vaccination. On my birthday. I can’t think of a better gift than getting something to help me stay on this journey. To be alive. For my birthday this year, that is exactly where I want to be.
Happy prick day to me.