Today I awoke in a house full of love.
A house filled with friends and family, in the mountains of Washington, on the shore of the Hood River. A beautiful gift from a generous friend. It is the morning of my fortieth birthday.
Forty years ago today my beautiful young mama gave me the gift of life, at great expense to herself, in that moment and countless that would follow. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: I won the cosmic lottery with my family. Just this week, on the raggedy edge of the island fringe of British Columbia I met a man who said, “I met your mother!” “Lucky you!” I replied, “She’s the best person in our family!” And I meant it. My mother is both the first and the best person I’ve ever met. Much of what is good and patient and productive about me she is responsible for sowing, against the very great odds of my natural bent. My Pop isn’t half bad either. He’s responsible for most of the spicy side of my personality. It’s genetic. They’re the coolest people I know. Today, I wake thankful to them, for the selfless gift of my life and the way they have continued to hold my world together, far longer and far better than they were legally obligated to do. I know not one single person who has better parents, or had a better beginning in this life than I did. Having just emancipated my first young adult this last week, I am beginning to have an understanding of the cost of that kind of gift.
Can I just start by saying, I’m delighted to be turning forty?
It feels like a tipping point in life, mine at least. A nice, solid, flat place to stand on the high ground of motherhood and marriage. A point from which to observe the hills and valleys over which I’ve traveled so far and a spot to catch my breath and plot my attack on the next big climb; I’m not delusional enough to think that this is the top of the mountain.
I spent the afternoon, the other day, chatting to my best friend as we rolled through Washington and Oregon the other day, fresh off the ferry from Victoria, Canada. We talked about his kids and mine, travel plans, and our usual round up of topics, before he asked,
“So, whatcha doing?”
“Thinking about what to write about for my birthday,” I replied.
There was a few minutes of silence and then,
“Why not write about happiness?” he asked.
“Erm… no… I don’t think I’m brave enough to write about that yet,” I typed back, slowly, with my thumbs.
“You know, they say that we become happier as we turn forty,” he sagely pointed out.
“Well, I guess I kind of feel that… “
And he let the topic drop, knowing how my mind works. We moved on to discuss the date he had last week and how my week with my brother went.
Of course I couldn’t stop thinking about it, then: happiness. Not something I’m particularly great at, truth be told. Don’t get me wrong, I choose cheerful almost all of the time, but happy? Internally? Meh. That’s another thing altogether. There was a time when I’d have told you I was the happiest person on the planet… but then… well… life happens, doesn’t it? Things are not always what they seem. We drop balls. Other people shatter a few for us. We second guess every single thing. Every. Single. Thing. And then, we settle. We settle for something that is not unhappiness, but it’s not happiness either. We resign ourselves to our fates, the choices we’ve made, the roads we’ve chosen, the paths we’ve hacked through the rainforesty undergrowth of the hard places in life that we find ourselves. We get through somehow. This was my thirties. Most of them, anyway.
My twenties? Well, I don’t even know what to say about that except that I spent a decade pregnant or nursing and I don’t remember anything else. Then, mid motherhood, I discovered a lot of things about myself that rocked my world. You know, the kinds of things that in *other* people make for great behind-their-back coffee conversation.
So I did what any mother does, right? I sucked it up and raised my kids, kept my marriage together, threw myself into work, and tried to sing loud enough that I couldn’t hear myself think. Around the margins, I took a lot of long walks, virtually, and in person, with the aforementioned friend who would look at me with those deep brown eyes and patiently wait for me to stop running in circles and deal with my own soul. Am I the only one?
It took me clear to 38 to begin to get the memo: to begin to understand who I was and to begin to be willing to work, in the real world, with what I have to work with. I don’t love that process, self delusion feels so much safer, and it’s often so much easier for everyone else to swallow.
So, I’ve been looking forward to forty, as I’ve begun to step into the sunlight I’ve created for myself and choose my own path forward. In my fortieth year I’ve discovered a capacity for happiness and for love that I didn’t realize I had. I’ve learned that in spite of some very real limitations, one’s best effort is often all that is required, and sometimes it is enough. I’ve learned that my relationship with myself is the most important one that I have and I’m learning to nurture that. I’ve learned the value of perseverance, patience, open-handed loving, and negotiation. I have a new appreciation for The Man and his capacity to roll with my punches and his continual choice to try to grow with me, instead of in some other direction. I don’t always make that easy. His love for me is breathtaking.
I’m beginning to understand the pursuit of happiness.
It’s a treasure hunt, of sorts, that one cannot begin until she’s sorted out the scraps of the map she inherited. There is a lot of gluing and taping involved, and sometimes we have to draw in the missing bits as best we can. We’ll never begin to find our way until we’ve first determined which direction is up and marked our true north on the compass rose in the corner. The X that is supposed to mark the spot, the one everyone dives for first, that’s a red herring. It’s not where the gold is buried that happiness is found. It’s not the skull and crossbones either, it’s not in other people, living or dead, that we’re going to find what we’re looking for. It’s in the dashes drawn in curvy lines all over the front and back of the map that we discover the truth, happiness is the journey, not the destination. Destinations always disappoint, you can trust me on that.
I walked a long line of yellow dashes across a map last month. My feet still tell the story. It occurred to me, about 300 kilometers in that happiness was between the arrows, between the dashes, along the path. Happiness is a walking companion and you either hold hands and walk together, or you don’t, but it’s a choice, a daily pursuit, and a method of travel. Can you believe it took me so long to figure that out? I’m not a fast learner. I also had to come right to the end of myself and be completely out of ideas before I was ready for the simplicity of the answer.
In so many ways, forty feels like a rebirth.
The beginning of the third quarter of my life. Twenty years in which to create things that are beautiful to me. In which to turn my life’s work, in the form of my children, loose in the world. In which to climb as hard as I can towards people, places and things that I can just catch a glimpse of near the top of the next ridge. Two decades to dedicate to cultivating authentic happiness, for myself, for those I love, for those I haven’t met yet who will rock my world in the years to come. That’s fun to think about.
I’m celebrating my birthday simply, quietly, this year; with raspberry pie, several cups of tea, laughter with my friend and snuggled into The Man’s lap as we watch our kids grow out from under us. I’ve already given myself the only gifts I want this year: rebirth and happiness.
To that end, I got a tattoo. Did I mention that? No? Well I did. In Leon, Spain, last month; for my birthday, with Jade. It’s henna brown, on my inner left wrist: the sanskrit word Jati, which means rebirth. It’s a reminder to me that my life was given to me once, by my favouritest Mama, but that each day I must recreate it for myself, my way, on my terms, with my own heart and hands. Forty might just be my happiest birthday yet. I turned 38 on an overland bus through Laos into Cambodia and 39 in New Zealand, if you’re interested in reading about that.