In a whoosh of woodstove-warmed air, I stepped outside, my hiking boot crunching on crusted snow and the door creaking behind me as I pulled it closed. Winter dawn was breaking in the unassuming way it does, dark blue, and I moved with the habit of quiet deliberate steps designed not to wake children, despite the fact that they were fast asleep indoors.
It was my birthday. My fortieth.
I had imagined this day, and what I assumed would be a threshold moment, a hundred times over the past years. I would greet the day on the beach in a tiny town in Eastern Australia, a place where I had come into my own nearly two decades ago – the only recurring dream I’ve had in the subsequent years of tossing and turning next to sweaty-babies-turned-gangly-children. I would be resplendent with feelings of completion. Look how far I’ve come.
I’m guessing you, too, have become an expert in renegotiating expectations and damage-controlling disappointment these last two years.
And so. A pilgrimage of a different kind: a medicine walk. I had baked a loaf of bread, a ritual of self-sufficiency, to bring with me. Hot tea. One container of cold butter and one of apricot jam; a couple of clementines. One foot in front of the other foot, dawn until dusk.
If I’m being real, I have to tell you that I spent an aggravating portion of the day with the tune to “Jingle Bell Rock” on repeat in my head, that I got lost down an eerie back road littered with the bones of an unidentifiable animal, and that walking for nine hours in this (now) forty-year-old body hurts. Renegotiating expectations, damage-controlling disappointment.
But also, there was this: a small thought that worked its way into a knowing with each step I took.
The gift of this milestone birthday was not, as I thought it might be, the gift of completion or satisfaction; not an inventory of accomplishments – nor even the somewhat cliché midlife tally of regrets.
The gift was a set of instructions.
I realized that have been receiving these instructions in increments over the years: they were small, nudging, and even a little bit exciting at first. But this past year, in the way of midlife awakenings – or so I’m told – they came large, thundering, faster, unbidden.
I first encountered them as troubles of varying levels of insurmountability, and I, in the way I am accustomed, would throw the weight of my intellect, my ambition, my will and my privilege at them, with varying levels of success.
But with each slow snow-crunching step, I began to see them differently.
The first instruction came the day I dropped my one-year-old baby off at daycare, and the sound of her cries haunted my ears as I was bustled out the door by a well-meaning support worker in brown corduroy slacks: “It’s better if you just go. Go quickly.”
Another came on the day I walked home with my kids, shouting answers to their constant stream of questions over the din of six lanes of rush hour traffic, my fingers clawed into their little arms lest either of them break loose and run into the road.
One instruction tore through our family movie night when, out of seemingly nowhere, The Fear crawled over my skin and my heart started to pound and I received one diagnosis, and then another, and I came to realize I was both its cause and its cure.
A quiet, shattering instruction: a picture of me – the photo op of a lifetime in front of Machu Picchu – triumphant in my appearance and terror in my heart, about to lash stinging, bilious words at my iPhone-wielding husband, who could not make me look any less resentful, no matter what filter he used.
Another, when the world dismantled itself and left me – everyone – on my hands and knees, searching for the dropped threads of What Matters and How To Stay Okay.
The instruction I never imagined: a shaking-hand call, barefoot on the summer deck, to the pediatric mental health crisis line, the sound of the well-meaning support worker’s voice haunting my ears: “Three years. The waitlist is three years.”
The instructions read: nothing that got you here will carry you further.
Dear reader, I must break the spell I’m weaving here to say this: I’m sitting here, staring at the words I’ve just written. Nothing that got you here will carry you further. This moment – this one I’m writing and you’re reading – is the first I’ve articulated these instructions as succinctly. That sentence seems to have come through me, not of me, and I’m not sure what to write next. Because I don’t know what’s next.
When I first imagined writing this, I imagined it as some kind of listicle – that seductress of the blog world who promises five steps, or ten, to all manner of Being Better Than You Are Now. It would read: Rituals for Your Milestone Birthday, or, all smoke and mirrors, How To Have An Empowered Midlife.
But perhaps, in fact, the reality is that midlife spits in the face of simplicity.
I am packing my bags. I read somewhere, back in my traveling days, that the best way to pack is to make a pile of everything you think you might need, and then take away half of it and add twice as much money. It’s good advice if you can take it, and my whole family still teases me about the way I pack for trips.
In my pile this time around: twenty years of journals, mined for golden threads of identity, forgotten dreams, letters unsent. A pen, paper; always. One trusted healer, the woman who held me as I roared my babies into this world and the one who stands by me still as I roar myself into this world. Many, many silent hours of solitude, and if I’m being honest, many more of chaotic mothering, because everything is sacred. The Earth; always.
I know the shape of the horizon and the tasks laid ahead.
Unlike the tasks of the first half of my life, my success will not be measured – there is no healthy baby to hold, no title to bear, no stalwart home on the ocean’s edge to assure me of my place in the world. There will be no completion, for the tasks of my midlife – and maybe yours too – are practises of the everyday, not promises of an ideal future. And nothing that got me here will take me further: I cannot rely on my intellect, my ambition, my will or my privilege to inform me. In the pile of resources for this journey, these make up the half I must leave at the trailhead. I will pack not twice as much money, perhaps, but twice as much love, to be sure; perhaps even three times more compassion.
Reader, I am struggling here, for I want to tell you the tasks I have discerned, and I also don’t. I have written them and erased them five or eleven times now, and I fear words actually diminish them, somewhat. I fear they will read a bit trite, though they are threads of truth that I have spent months – maybe years – following through the fabric of my life, seeing here, how they’ve held me together, and here, where they must be unravelled. Perhaps they will read a bit trite because they are in many ways – those universal truths we read on the pastel covers of this year’s daily planner: Love Yourself, You Are Worthy, and all those other tasks easier said than done that have become throwaway lines, wilted with overuse.
And so, these tasks I will hold close to my chest for now, for they are raw and precious to me.
But perhaps you’ll know them the next time we meet – perhaps – and you notice that there is an ease in the corner of my eyes. Perhaps we’ll embrace and you’ll feel me to be someone who is settled in her bones. Perhaps my laugh will be easier, and you’ll sense in my words the contours of my integrity, my authenticity – gosh, perhaps, even, (that word I am so shy to use) my soul. And I hope that you’ll feel a belonging, one that draws us inexplicably closer together and invites our hearts to speak to one another – that you might find a home in me and I in you.