August 5, 2013 § 20 Comments
It took a lot of living, and the culmination of much suffering, and turning 40 nearly a year ago, to make me start forcing my own hand. I believed that honesty was a way of acting or enacting. I now understand that it is something far deeper. It is giving yourself the space to actually feel your feelings and be true to them. At all costs. So in that regard, I still have a ways to go. – Gwyneth Paltrow
I have missed being here and writing on this blog mostly because I feel so connected to everyone I’ve met in this space. But what I am discovering about myself is I can’t put together a post – or something even remotely coherent about an experience – while I am still living the experience. And since I turned 40 (in January!!) my experiences have been sharper and more cutting than almost any other time in my life. Each day seems to bring in something new: a new revelation, a change in perception, another piece of myself held up to the light.
Probably the biggest question I am living into right now is that of teaching yoga, which feels an awful lot like standing in front of a crowd and stepping out of my armor. I am working on a post about teaching but I’m not even close yet to finding the right words. Each class still feels like a question, a doorway, a dark room I have to feel my way into by running my hands along the walls.
For the past few months I have also been working on a post about turning 40, which was a bigger deal than I thought it would be. (Proof that I am the slowest writer in the world!) Initially I was writing about an indoor track meet in Boston in late January of this year, where my college 5000 meter record was broken two days before my birthday. It had a very quintessential “40” quality to it in that I was handing off the baton to the next generation of girl-women, who are just beginning to bound into the world. There was a big element of joy to the experience and excitement but a bit of sadness as well. It had that sunset feeling that something was over. Not just speed but youth itself; that smooth skin, those exuberant friendships, the security felt then, that life was just beginning to unfurl.
Halfway through that bit of writing, I became ridiculously bored because life is nothing like a race and besides, I don’t even run anymore. 40, it turns out, is not a neat succession of days that loop around a defined center. Rather, 40 has been a year of ripping the center out. It’s been an evisceration, an evaluation of what I believe and what I know and what I hope for. It’s been a lesson in how raw it feels to long for something, how gorgeous and heartbreaking it is to look at yourself and say: “More of less, this is who I am.”
A week ago, I took a road trip with my boys, from the very bottom of North Carolina, up to northern Virginia to see Oliver’s best friend, and then farther north to my parents’ house in the mountains of Pennsylvania. On the way home, we swung through Delaware to see my dear friend while she was vacationing at the beach. It seemed like such a simple, and well-thought-out trip, a week of people and visiting and time with my boys in the car.
Oliver and Gus are amazing travelers and I loaded their Nooks with books and movies, I stocked backpacks with Highlights, National Geographic Kids and stickers, raisins and Tangrams, and I filled my iPhone with audiobooks like Frecklejuice and Superfudge and Henry Huggins. Then we hit the 95 near Quantico where traffic stopped. Soon after that, the rain came down in sheets and I was hunched over the steering wheel somewhere outside Stafford on the flooded highway, desperately trying to follow the car in front of me, which was flashing its hazards.
I loved visiting my parents and my friends. I loved being with my boys, but it turns out, I am not someone who loves road trips. We stayed in hotels for three nights where the bed wasn’t like the one at home and the coffee was weak and burned. I don’t enjoy eating pizza two days in a row, I have a lousy sense of direction, and to be honest, I don’t even like driving. One night, after eating dinner in Virginia Beach in one of those fake town centers, I called my husband while the boys were throwing pennies into a fountain, and I felt as homesick as I’ve ever been.
I really want to be someone who digs road trips and adventures and surprises but guess what about that. I want to be someone who can have a glass of wine with dinner without wanting it to be two but I’m not that either. When I was 20, I thought at 40 I would have things figured out, that I would be confident and would make time to straighten my hair every day. I thought I’d have an office and wear shirts with buttons and watch my kids win ribbons in swim meets.
Instead, 40 is having a son who still doesn’t like to put his face in the water. It’s wearing cut-offs and converse most days, and having hair that is wild and turning grey around my ears. 40 is standing in my kitchen at two in the afternoon and realizing that I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing, whether I am thinking about dinner or parenting or marriage or writing. 40 is knowing I need watermelon juice instead of pinot grigio, walking rather than running, and a daily meditation practice. It’s finding out I am not very good at resting and that social events scare me. 40 has been a visit to a therapist to talk about the anxiety I’ve had since living on Camp Lejeune, it’s wanting to be a better friend to my husband, and it’s been the insistent thrum of truth that I am not as special as I thought I was.
40 has also been a bit of a relief. It’s been six months of molting, of shedding old skins, even though it means I walk around feeling fragile and lost half the time, and this is not something I could have done when I was 20. While I was at my parents’ house I got a massage from Ginny Mazzei, an incredible yoga teacher there. “How was it?” my mom asked when I got back home. She was filling water bottles for the boys because we were going to take them to Knoebels, an 87-year old amusement park in the middle of the woods.
“I feel awful,” I told her honestly. “I think I need to lie down.” During the massage, when Ginny dug her hands into my back, I jumped. Ouch, I thought, and then I felt a wave of grief break a levee somewhere near my heart and spill up and over the banks. While my parents and sons were riding an old-fashioned train and eating soft pretzels, I was drinking a cup of tea and sitting on my mom’s meditation cushion, with tears in my eyes for a sadness I couldn’t even name. Afterwards, I wrote in my journal and then wrapped a blanket around myself and watched “House Hunters” on HGTV.
This too is 40, this permission to do what I need to do in this lifetime, this permission to be honest. I used to be afraid of honesty, and now I see it as a gift, as a load off, as a big sigh of relief. At 40, we realize we probably aren’t going to be rock stars or Olympic athletes or supermodels. We are no longer going to three weddings each summer and our baby days are mostly finished. As women, we are out of the spotlight, elbowed to the side by those in their twenties and thirties and thank god about that.
In my twenties, I was too worried about what everyone thought to get much done and in my thirties, I was too busy with babies and little boys. Now that I’m 40, I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and get to work.
A few weeks ago, I woke up and wrote the word “Forgive” on the inside of my wrist, mostly because I wanted to forgive myself. Not for anything in particular but maybe for breaking all those promises to myself. I was tired of tugging guilt and shame behind me all the time and the way they pulled at my knees. Within hours, two people I never really ever wanted to hear from again called me. “Forgive everyone everything,” said the Buddha. “You haven’t forgiven anything until you’ve forgiven the unforgivable,” said Rolf Gates. Ha! said the Universe. You need some practice.
This too is 40, the knowledge that I will be humbled again and again, brought down to my knees by the devastation and beauty of life, and while I am there on the ground, I might as well pray.
My great-uncle Mart used to ask me riddles when I was little. “How far can a bear run into the woods?” he would say after I’d been in his house for five minutes. “Halfway,” I would answer with a grin, remembering the answer from the previous summer. This too is 40. Halfway, if I’m lucky.
If you haven’t read Lindsey Mead Russell’s “This is 38,” please do. I was inspired by her beautiful writing.