40

These days, I’ve been measuring the state of affairs in my life by our return to pre-pandemic activities. It’s interesting, because it was a similar experience dealing with grief. We feel the rug ripped out from beneath our feet and crash hard into a despair so wide and bottomless it feels like drowning, yet we cling to the glimmer of hope that maybe someday everything will go back to normal.

Until we realize there is no normal.

The normal of our dreams can not ever be replicated no matter how hard we try. Today’s normal has already shapeshifted, evolved, morphed, twisted and bent into something that slips between our fingers, unable to be contained. 

We saw Wicked last weekend. This was our first show since the pandemic hit. I had seen the show in the early 2000s, in a different lifetime when I was single and in my early 20s without a care in the world. It was so long ago I could barely remember the storyline. This was the first show for Peter Jack, my 6-year-old, and it was a delight to witness his joy as he discovered the world of live entertainment. In a world of TikTok and YouTube, it felt like I was passing on a slice of our human legacy to him, something that connects us to our ancestors.

This is what I want for my family: experiences, time together, creativity, the arts, stories, a retreat from the hustle and bustle of life, if only for a few hours. It’s difficult to think that almost two years ago everything we knew as normal came to a screeching halt, altering the course of everything. In the early months of quarantine, it felt like life would never be the same. 

And it isn’t. 

Yet this feels like the right place to be right now.

Today is my last day as a 30-something. My thirties are over. Tomorrow I turn 40. Oof. What a tough decade. 

I remember turning 30 and lamenting the fact that I wasn’t close to publishing anything yet. What agony, feeling like success had passed me by. That was my biggest concern at the time. I think back and cringe at the hubris and naivety of that version of me.

I entered the decade as a married mother of a toddler. I am exiting this decade as a widowed mother of three children. I think about all of the drama I’ve survived. Moving. New beginnings. Closed chapters. Conflict. All of the highs and lows. Aging. Birthing. Growing. The loss of loved ones. Diagnoses. A pandemic. 

The days were long, but those years were so darn short, and I hear it only moves exponentially faster from here on out. 

I haven’t finished writing any books yet, but I distinctly remember being in Mammoth in 2013 and realizing that I needed to get serious about my goals. I brought a stack of books to the camping trip and was determined to get better. Eloise was about four-months-old, propped up in her Bumbo seat at the table while I read my first writing book. After all, I was 31-years-old and still not published! So old! I had written stories throughout my childhood but I hadn’t made much movement except for one short story during my college years getting placed in a literary journal. I needed to start clawing at my dreams.

In the past nine years since the Mammoth trip, I’ve kept reading and writing, and in the last six years, I’ve been sharing my work. It has progressed at a meandering pace, but I feel better about this new decade than I did in the previous. I’m not at the starting line anymore. I’ve made progress. I’ve put in a lot of work, and this is just the beginning. I’m not ashamed. 

After seeing Wicked, I went on a deep dive into the Wizard of Oz. Someone mentioned that Wicked was criticized as being too political. Intrigued, I started to research. I didn’t know that Wizard of Oz was written as a political commentary on late 19th century monetary policy. The yellow brick road represented the gold standard. In the novel, Dorothy wore silver slippers, representing the silver. Even the name Oz had significance: the abbreviation for ounces, what you would use to measure gold and silver. The road leads to the wizard, who is a charlatan. Basically it leads to nowhere.

Wicked has a different political message, one of unlikely friendships, opposing viewpoints, rivalry, and a reaction to corrupt government. 

I’m a government teacher, so I appreciate political messages and expressions in the arts. I think it’s beautiful. Yet, I don’t think this is what necessarily moves us in a story. Monetary policy in the late 1800s means nothing to me today. But the journey, the unhappiness, this desire to find answers and to go somewhere better– the elusive place of happiness– this is something that resonates. It doesn’t matter if it’s finding the magic answer to monetary policy or dealing with looking different in society. In the end, it’s grappling with our suffering and following a path that will lead us away from our troubles. This is what we want to relate to, what we hope will teach us, and where we want to plug in to a story to teach us about our humanity. When I think about the Wizard of Oz, I think of finding my own way on a path and making sense of my own suffering in pursuit of a better me. That’s what resonates. 

I have felt a myriad of negative emotions in the last decade. Never feeling enough, for one. I missed my kids’ school spirit day on 2/22/22. Completely slipped off my radar. I felt like a loser mom. I feel very inadequate at my daughter’s softball practices and games, like I never fit in and have nothing athletic to offer as do the other moms and dads. Even at my ripe age, hours away from 40, I still frequently feel like a fish out of water. I often feel behind, like I’m not where I should be. 

This has been my work in the last six years: learning to grapple with the demons in my head that grew bigger and scarier once my husband unexpectedly passed away. It forced me to reexamine what I had left in this life that had gone off the rails. Where did I want to go? Who did I want to be? What did I want to do? Who am I even?

In Everyday Suchness by Gyomay Kubose, he writes “we want to live and not merely exist.” That’s what I want. I don’t want to just go through the motions. I want to reach my goals. I want to do the things I always wanted to do. I want to experience joy. I want to learn. Now that I understand firsthand the fragility of life, I have an urgency to really live the life I want to live. 

Socrates famously said that the unexamined life was not worth living. Simplified, we need to know ourselves. Know our shortfalls, our strengths, and work toward the version of ourselves we aspire to be. Learn and never stop being curious. To find what excites us, and experience what brings us joy and growth. The growth doesn’t feel good at the moment, but it will be worth it on the other side. This is ongoing, full-time work. 

I’m reaching the point where I think I know myself pretty well. 

Okay. So that’s half the battle.

Now how to happily exist in a world where others will not know who you are, not care who you are, or even misconstrue who you are. I’m still learning how to block out all of that noise. It’s not easy. I am not the same person who I was at 13-years-old or 33-years-old or even yesterday. But I’m running out of time. I can’t spend such a precious commodity on what other people think.

I’ve been reading this book “The Cow in the Parking Lot,” and it references a contemporary Zen parable. It’s about trying to park your car, and another car stealing your spot. You get angry. We’ve all been there. How dare they! Now take the situation and flip it. You’re waiting for the spot, and out of nowhere a cow comes and blocks the way. It won’t budge. The parable asks the question: are you angry? 

Of course not, right? It’s a cow. Nothing you can do about it except move on. 

This seems like the crux of what I want to work on in this new decade of life. Not just the big things, but most importantly all of the micro moments of everyday stress that affects my mood. The uncontrollable. There are so many moments throughout each day when we are faced with a choice of how to respond. Learning to do what I can within the scope of what I can control, and choosing how to show up each day with composure, perspective, grace and calmness– that is what I aspire to do in my 40s.

I recently listened to Brene Brown’s podcast, “Dare to Lead.” Her guest was Dan Pink, a best-selling author who did work around feelings of regret. He says that people more commonly regret what they did not do, more than what they did do. In other words, people regret failures of boldness. He explains that doing things is what matters most in life, as this leads to the psychological richness many of us desire. His work overlaps with Brene’s work in vulnerability and courage. It takes both to face your regrets, and to move on from your regrets. 

Dan Pink’s solution is to create environments where people feel comfortable being bold. These would be environments where people feel like they have psychological permission to take chances and make decisions for better or worse. He argued that it is important to disclose regret. You should name them out loud. This is a process of making sense out of the negative feelings and doing something with them; using them as guides for future choices. He said that “regrets teach us if we’re open to receiving them,” but that people have “not been taught how to process negative feelings…they are signals for thinking.” Another interesting fact: the only people who don’t have regrets are kids younger than 5, people with brain diseases, and sociopaths. 

Regrets are a part of being human! Negative emotions literally happen to all of us. They give us feedback. They are important, yet we are someone taught to fear them.

Throughout my entire life, I’ve assumed that the negative emotions were my flaws. Proof that I was deficient. If I could go back in time and teach younger Teresa what I know now…what if, what if, what if. 

It’s a lot to think about, but I know that one day I will regret never letting go of my fears of failure, my averseness to risk, my feelings of inadequacy, my distrust, the way I cling to my wounded heart by building a fortress around me. Wrapping myself inside of a cocoon– the fortress– just to avoid these feelings was how I spent my teens, 20s, and most of my 30s. The 40s is time to tear down the walls, brick-by-brick.

Today I remembered that my friend of 22 years hadn’t returned my texts from earlier in the month. It has been a busy and difficult month; somehow the weeks just slipped by. We both have birthdays in the same week. I sent her a birthday card, and today I realized my birthday card still hadn’t come from her, which was very unusual. We’ve been exchanging cards for two decades. I felt a pit in my stomach and picked up the phone, thinking surely we would be laughing about this once she answered. But she didn’t answer. Her stepson did. Kathie died in January. 

Despite experiencing many of my friends and family passing at this point in my life, it still hits me in the gut: the fragility of it all. How fleeting it all is. Not being able to say goodbye. 

My grandma, who is almost 98-years-old, lies in a nursing home with Alzheimer’s. Her health is strong, her mind has reached its expiration date. Last time we visited it was a circular dance of her saying, “I can’t call you, but you can call me?”

“Yes, we can call you,” we reassured her.

“I can’t call you.”

“We’ll call you.”

And then she would squint her eyes and say, “Who are you?” 

Over and over again.

I brought my 12-year-old on that last visit. I want my children to see death. I want them to know the natural order of things, because this is the only way we will grow up not to fear it. I firmly believe there is something sacred in birth and death. 

Ethan said afterward, “I don’t think she meant to literally call her. I think it was a metaphor for something else.”

I agree. But I wish somehow Kathie could know that I did call her. I thought about her. I cried for her. She meant something to me, and I’m so glad I knew her. 

Turning 40 means I know for sure at this point in my life with all of my experiences that the hurt never feels any better. Yet the love I have felt convinces me that there is more to love and so much more to experience. I see in front of me a neverending yellow brick road to wherever I want to go, if I only have the courage to live the life that I want, and to keep putting one foot in front of the other. 

I’m ready for this next chapter, wherever it takes me. 

I leave you with a poem that I always go back to. It’s one of my favorites, especially today, as Kathie weighs heavily on my mind..

“The Layers”

BY STANLEY KUNITZ

I have walked through many lives, some of them my own,

and I am not who I was,

though some principle of being

abides, from which I struggle

not to stray.

When I look behind,

as I am compelled to look

before I can gather strength

to proceed on my journey,

I see the milestones dwindling

toward the horizon

and the slow fires trailing

from the abandoned camp-sites,

over which scavenger angels

wheel on heavy wings.

Oh, I have made myself a tribe

out of my true affections,

and my tribe is scattered!

How shall the heart be reconciled

to its feast of losses?

In a rising wind

the manic dust of my friends,

those who fell along the way,

bitterly stings my face.

Yet I turn, I turn,

exulting somewhat,

with my will intact to go

wherever I need to go,

and every stone on the road

precious to me.

In my darkest night,

when the moon was covered

and I roamed through wreckage,

a nimbus-clouded voice

directed me:

“Live in the layers,

not on the litter.”

Though I lack the art

to decipher it,

no doubt the next chapter

in my book of transformations

is already written.

I am not done with my changes.

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