Yesterday was my 47th birthday, and it was great. I woke in my lover’s arms in the big city and fell asleep in my own small-town bed, full of blue cheese burgers and hoppy beers. I spoke with my beloved children, who somehow still love me after all the indignities and worse that I have been responsible for in their young lives. I saw the sun set over the quiet street where my tiny household flourishes, where the cat abuses the neighbor’s flowerbeds and the dog barks joyously at passing baby strollers. I shared a laughing, congenial meal with my roommate, miraculously now the master of himself after years of addiction and illness stripped away our marriage and very nearly his life. I bought myself a present of books with money I earned myself, and promised myself the time to read them as the truer, deeper gift. I ate Eggs Benedict in our nation’s capitol and flew on a big jet plane to Ohio and drove home in my very own car, with enough money to pay for garage parking and even stop by the BMV to get a new license…on the very day it was set to expire.
There have been far worse birthdays, times when every reminder of passing time was a reminder of defeat and surrender. Times when the best thing about turning over another year was the accompanying faint breath of hope that things might not eternally suck. There were times low in cash, low in love, low in confidence, low in perspective. The calendar never wavered, though: not in the tempests of fear or the doldrums of depression. The sun rose and set, the winds warmed and cooled in their accustomed patterns, the rains fell and froze and turned to fog in utter oblivion of my mortal woes. $5/day for the family’s food turned in the passing of time to a career that meets and exceeds any sensible person’s needs, even including college tuition. The endless roller-coaster of codependent flailing at the spectre of addiction and misery turned first to solitude, then to peace. The ill-advised attempt at marriage that threatened a swift return to a life of futility and bitterness was relegated to history before the damage became permanent. The seasons turned; the white in my hair grew brighter; the light in my heart burned stronger. I ran some miles, I wrote some words, I knitted things and cooked things and spoke things and listened to things. I went to hockey games. I went to operas.
When I was half my age I imagined that life here at the (generously assessed) midpoint was a calm backwater, the reward earned by a couple of decades of nonstop effort. I thought that—after somehow successfully pulling a sustainable marriage and a couple of well-adjusted children out of my a**, that life would become some sort of gentle foot-massage, free from doubt or insecurity or head-scratching befuddlement. Boy, was I wrong! The truth is that with age comes an ever-increasing sense of amazement, and not always the happy kind. How did I get so old? How could I have made such mistakes? How can I possibly figure out how to avoid the next ones? Where does safety stop trumping freedom? What life do I want to have lived? What life do I have now? What’s the difference?
If I were 22 and plagued with such questions, I would go mad or turn to a life of rum and Cheetos. But I am not 22, and the process of figuring out what to do with the next half-century is just about the only truly interesting project left to do. It’s time to think about what it means to have made so many mistakes and still feel so fundamentally happy. It’s time to appreciate the people who haven’t judged me on my errors but on my commitment to be a fully-engaged participant. Heck, it’s time to appreciate the folks who gave up on me and had the generosity of spirit to change their minds back again. I have been so staggeringly lucky, for so many years; the dark times and the difficult times have not been definitive, only educational. The vast menagerie of fears that has at times kept me company through life has always been scarier in thought than in deed…a privilege I have done nothing to earn and nothing to deserve. As I observe the people around me wrestle with and sometimes lose to their demons, part of me can’t quite believe I’m still standing. Which gives rise, of course, to the eternal question of what does one do when one is the lucky one? How does one life a life that shows sufficient gratitude for the staggering good fortune of just having made it this far? How do I walk a path that builds others up with the privilege I was born with? How do I listen to those whose lives mirror my own in ways I can barely fathom? How do I turn their wisdom into useful action? How do I take half a lifetime of half-grasped notions and barely-realized experience and turn it towards a genuinely useful purpose? So many questions, none of them asked with the breathless eagerness of youth.
It already looks like the Year of Being 47 is going to be a barnburner. There are questions in play whose answers will be life-changing. There are forces at work that will have much to teach when their time is ripe. There will be new demands and new gifts and new promises. There will be releasing of hopes and embracing of reality—and vice versa. Four and a half decades of experience have taught me much; the next year will be equally rich, I think, and the next. For these are the years when the answers matter less than the questions. We have so little left to prove, and so much left to explore. We are made strong by our sorrows but retain our best powers. This is the year of Waking Up and Paying Attention. I hope there will be many more just like it.
©Mary Braden 2015