Did I ever tell you I have a little sister? Well, by “little” I mean younger. She is taller, as well as more independent, and lately, I have come to think of her as wiser than me too. She has a particular knack for anticipating needs, like how unsettling it might be for me to move four kids cross country and then turn forty.
“Happy birthday!” my husband’s card read, “You are finally the age you’ve always wanted to be, and things are coming together!”
It’s true. I’m one of those people who thought: When I’m forty, I will have it all figured out. I will be comfortable in my skin, and I will have the life situation I’ve always wanted.
I turned forty in Colorado during a visit to my parents, a mini vacation before we had to return to our new home in Illinois and begin this new life for real. School. Activities. And six toilets to clean.
Toilets aside, I did expect to own a house at age forty, in a location near family where I could raise my kids well. Check. (Even though I now realize how overwhelming home ownership can be.) I also expected to have my vocation figured out, and while I probably spent too many years deciding not to be a doctor, I think I’ve made up some ground on the writing front, finally taking classes, finally publishing essays, and once I get a book out there, hopefully feeling more confident of this title: writer.
But overall, I think I expected to feel grounded in who I am and where I am. So moving this summer really shook that up. All of a sudden I had no friends, no connections, no doctors, no grocery store, and a stack of bills higher than anything I’d ever seen before. All I knew was what was behind me: for example, being able to walk to get a mammogram (where else can you do that?!), or return books at the library, or visit CVS or the grocery store, or exercise on an incredible bike path, or have access to a million green spaces, or say hi to everyone I pass on the sidewalk by name. I also missed my little house (including, oddly and particularly, my kitchen sink), the house I complained about for years as “not enough,” the one that held so many memories that I didn’t want to forget.
All of a sudden, I didn’t want to be forty. “Forty” to me was supposed to feel confident. Instead, I felt like the rug had been pulled out from under me. And I was so angry, angry that I couldn’t keep my family going in the same way we had before.
Settings, jobs, and schedules are frequently vague, and the many names of her friends truly blend together, although I know a lot about what she ate in each restaurant or gathering. Food writing is where she shines, and her earlier book / cookbook Bread and Wine is one of my favorites. (I make Annette’s Enchiladas once a month.) But somehow, she always writes in a way that says, I see you. For example:
“You may, like me, find yourself in midlife…and all of a sudden, the life you planned is gone. And the world you thought you lived in is gone. And the assumptions and beliefs that carried you through up to this moment have dumped you unceremoniously into a foreign land. You don’t speak the language. You don’t know anyone.
“...Everything has changed and also you still have work to do and dirty dishes in the sink, and where your future used to be, now there’s a blank nothingness and you realize you have to build a new life… This is terrifying.” (20)
I lived in Cambridge for 13 years, longer than I’ve ever lived anywhere else in my life, by about four years more. During those last weeks, my book club threw a goodbye party for me, and at the end of the night, one by one, each of the women spoke about how I’d helped bring the community together, and about how they were confident that I would do the same where I was going next. I know they meant well, but what an overwhelming thought! I spent 13 years building up to this, and I’m exhausted. All I want to do right now is hide in bed. How am I supposed to do it again?
I remember I chose to move, and I didn’t choose to move. Sometime last falI I screamed at my husband, “I don’t want to move! I don’t want to live like this anymore!” Like the move Niequist writes about in her book, our families moved for concrete reasons, and also because we felt let down by systems and people around us. Under the grief of all of this loss, I was angry, because, as Niequist astutely points out:
“Anger makes us feel like we’re in control again, because loss is, at its core, loss of control, or the myth of it anyway – I couldn’t keep that person alive. I couldn’t make them stay. I couldn’t fix our problems. I couldn’t save whatever it is that was broken.” (102)
Yes. I couldn’t keep my patients alive in the hospital back when I was a doctor. I couldn’t make friends stay when new jobs took them away from Cambridge. I couldn’t change our school system to be what we needed, and I couldn’t find the space to heal from these difficult past few years. Gosh, I thought everything would feel “set” in my forties. Instead, I felt exactly like this:
“To my great horror, the first part of my forties has been an unwinding of the threads that wrapped around my life, a throwing off of all the lines, a systematic and painful series of unbelongings. I didn’t choose the unbelongings – by that I mean it wasn’t strength or independence or boldness. It was more someone peeling my fingers, one by one, away from the life I’d been clutching with white knuckles, the life that didn’t fit anymore, no matter how hard I was trying to hold on.” (63)
I lay in bed a few nights after unwrapping Niequist’s book and devoured her words in sort of a call and response format. As big questions and yearnings and homesickness rolled around in my mind, Niequist penned her suggestions of hope:
“I don’t know when the dawn will break, for you or for me, but I know that the healing comes in the trying and that even in the dark we have to keep practicing our callings, whatever they are. We have to keep doing the things we were made to do, the daily acts of goodness and creativity and honesty and service – as much for what they bring about inside us as for the good they do in the world. Those two things work together, and they both matter.
“Practice your vocation or calling…because the practice of it will keep you connected to your own deepest self and to the God who planted these gifts inside you. Because this is how life is. We get stuck in the dark, sometimes for a long time. We ache for morning. And sometimes it seems like it will never come.
“But this is also how life is. Dawn always breaks. Morning always comes.” (61-2)
For me, I knew that meant going back to the page. I was sure of it. To write myself into a place where I could seek and reflect and share again.
I wanted to turn forty and feel like I’d arrived. Instead, while all I’m feeling is unmoored by everything I’ve left behind and while I’m wondering what could possibly lay ahead for me now, I was most cheered to read Niequist’s story of her grandfather, a man who had a specific and profound impact on those around him…beginning at the age of eighty-five. You’ll need to get your own copy of the book for the full story (Chapter 38: Never Too Late) because I don’t want to alter how she tells it. The point: who knows what we’ll be called to do in the future. There’s a lot of hope in that.
Niequist writes, “as long as we all keep showing up, keep dancing, keep seeing each other, I think we’ll all get to wherever we’re going, and I think we’ll all discover our wild, weird, brave next selves along the way.” (215)
There’s a gesture we make in church sometimes, a way of standing with your hands turned palm up in front of you, open and willing to give or receive or both. My fingers may feel like they have been peeled painfully from the life I clung to in Cambridge, but recently my sister reminded me of this too: the need to keep my hands open. Always.
I am still here. Just over here now. Another time zone. Another place. Same purpose. Same pen. As my friend Katie once said, “There are many wonderful ways to live.” May we find them here too.
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