Today I am forty and so far I’ve eaten breakfast (made by Rik), went to physical therapy, taught a class on revising prose, ate fish tacos, and now sit in my very favorite nook of my writing studio. I’m keening to tell you something, but I’m not sure what. Perhaps if I keep writing, I’ll figure it out.
In my thirties, I lost and then rebuilt my marriage; I cut ties with my father; I learned how to grow plants; I became a better mother; I developed a writing discipline. These things feel simple to say, like pointing to a map instead of traveling to the country, but they are the first things to rise to the surface when I consider this last decade. I told a friend recently that turning forty feels like a gathering of powers, energy earned from the suffering and flailing of everything that came before it.
I lost both of my grandparents in my thirties, confronting a depth of grief I’d worried over my whole life. It’s rare to have your beloved elders in your life well into adulthood, and rarer still that your child can know them in a meaningful way. I was gifted both rarities. I think of them every day and listen hard for their voices as I get further and further away from their physical presence. Their home is no longer a place I can return to, which I’m coming to understand might be what allowed me to finally buy my own home. I’m no longer split between here and there. Only here exists now and I am free to fully inhabit this place I’ve lived for 20 years.
Beautiful, luminous friends have died as I tumbled through my thirties. They visit me often in my dreams. I see them peeking around the corners of poems, in songs, a conversation we never finished continuing on in my head, my heart. Still, I wish they were here and assume I always will.
I found my calling, my community, and this glorious corner of light where I now sit, in my thirties. I traveled. I found another home and circle of fine souls in the far north. I experienced, for the first time, the gift of time and my own uninterrupted thoughts at a writing residency. I wrote two books in my thirties, and even though they’ve not yet found a place in the world, I wrote them just the same. I found that there are more words, more ways, even after you feel you can’t conjure one more.
I’ve witnessed how the failures and missteps of my twenties stretch into a long, forgiving curve as I look out into the vastness I hope my life will be. My daughter rises with intelligence and humor into her adulthood, past all of the anxious days I once held to so tightly, that I would never be enough to raise her, guide her, hold her, because I was young and unformed myself. Our family is so strong—my mother, my brother, and I. My husband, my child, and I. These overlapping triads that make everything I imagine, possible.
And though, many days, I observe the world’s anguish and see that there is a black hole, cut exactly to my shape that I could easily drop down into, I resist it. I pull the lens back to the frame of this home, these trees, the beautiful soul I wake up with each morning, my dear, dear friends near and far, my students shining up and out from their seats, the tenderness of aging pets, baskets of food grown in this soil, and always, somehow, an abiding hope for what comes next.
This last year of my thirties has been the best of my life. For a second time, I committed myself to the love of my life, in front of our people, in our favorite place. I am lucky enough to work with the bravest, most compassionate group of writers. My job is purposeful and challenging. We’re days away from owning our first home after 20 years of marriage.
I’m not afraid anymore to live. After years of unshakable depression and constant concern for our ability to make a good life, somehow we’re here. We were making it all along. All of us.
I don’t know if what I was yearning to say found its way through these thoughts. The light has turned toward dark and a pink radiance is illuminating the clouds outside my studio window. Maybe it’s woven between the words. Maybe you can imagine how, if you were here, I would touch your arm. I would insist on hugging you goodbye when we parted. Together, let’s wave to the end of my thirties and beckon the new decade in. For today and a while more, imagine me here.
The day after Thanksgiving, Rik and I drove 40 minutes up the hill to find snow. That morning, we hemmed and hawed about what to do with this rare gift of a day off together. The possibilities ranged from a night at the hot springs to a walk in the park. Finally, I decided to make turkey sandwiches and fill a thermos with hot Chai coffee, squeezed the last bit of apple pie and whipped cream into a Tupperware, and informed him we were going to find a snowy forest to eat this little feast in. Should I get our snow gear together, he asked. No, I insisted, we’re making this simple.
We packed up our food, the dog, and a change of shoes. Pulling out of the driveway, we started a podcast on the science of mindfulness recently suggested to me by a friend. We love to dream about living in the mountains. It’s one of our favorite stories about the future. But houses in the mountains are losing their water. It is harder to dream without water.
This January, almost a year ago now, I woke up one morning and my left leg was numb from the back of my thigh to my toes. It didn’t take long to discover the severe herniation in my L5/S1. Not my first time around with this kind of pain. Seven years ago, I had a microdiscectomy on my L4/L5. That time, it took me a year to understand what was happening in my body. I was able to get there quicker now, in part, because I have health insurance. A trainer at my gym told me to get to the doc quick. They don’t mess around with numbness, he said. And he was right. I was in the MRI tube within a week.
At the top of my list of intentions for New Years: Go backpacking with Rik and Sylvia.
Not a chance.
Sylvia flew to Tucson, Arizona to spend a week with her partner over Thanksgiving break. I always cry when I drop her off at the airport—not because I don’t want her to go or because I think something will happen to her out in the world, but because it feels like some part of my body is stretching, the emotional equivalent to your lungs when you’ve run to the edge of your capacity. The tears rise up in my throat at the moment we get to the security check, watching as the other travelers thin from five, to four, to three…and then she’s caught in the circuitry of proving her identity, shoe removal, and as I turn to watch her, she holds her hands above her head in a diamond shape and is off to the gate. Too fast, I think. My heart, I pray.
On my way home, I stop in another town and go into the Goodwill. I stay there for hours, perusing the racks, the crocheted quilts, the tweed coats. I’m boarding, she texts. <3, I text back. An hour or so later, I’m peeling the too-tight pants from my legs in the dressing room and hear the phone chime. I’ve landed. As if waking from a dream, I gather up my treasures and checkout. I can go home now that she is back on solid ground. Thank you, I say to the young woman at the counter.
I imagine the hugs and kisses and tears at their reunion hundreds of miles away. The irrepressible smile that must be breaking across her face. Thank you, I text back.
We see the snow at the same time. Just a thin patch over a shaded hillside. Turning right toward Butte Meadows, we watch as white wins out over the red earth, transforming the landscape into something elemental, forgiving everything it covers. Trucks and SUVs come from the opposite direction with cut trees strapped down, newly exposed trunks jutting forward.
This year of back pain has taken some joy from me. Mostly the simple pleasure I get from walking. A left leg that hesitates, doesn’t lift like the other, and lands blunt back onto the path, sometimes radiating secondary pain through the ankle once broken and repaired with a handful of hardware. I work with my thoughts instead of my legs some days, allowing the imagination of what comes next, the person’s face I will see, the anticipation of teaching, to overpower the discomfort.
When the first crack of ice fractures under my boots, I forget. The dog runs ahead—bounding really—his white fur dirty compared to the pristine drifts. I feel good. I could run up into the blank, glittering trail behind him, but instead I take one step, and then another. Careful.
Another intention from the New Years list: Go to another state.
I think about Alaska every day since teaching there this summer. I wonder about the sunlight and the snow. I think about the Chena River and the beavers working all night. The long table with a butter yellow cloth where we ate three meals a day. Cinnamon darkened oatmeal. The houses we built with words and memory.
At the start of the school year, I was sick. I didn’t know it at first because the main symptom was a kind of darkness that hung on me. I walked around the house unsure of what to do next, weeping intermittently. By the end of the week before classes, I developed a deep cough and a fever. After what I thought was a cursory visit to Immediate Care, I was diagnosed with bilateral pneumonia.
Work less. This is an intention I’ve set every year, but this is the first time I’ve actually followed through. After missing the first week of school, sicker than I’ve ever been, I quit one of my jobs. I took my gracious colleagues up on their offers to help. I let go of the fear that I would be behind.
It took five weeks before I felt like myself again, but when I rose out of the profound exhaustion I found a bubble of saneness surrounding me. I felt a sense of possibility and a deep, resounding clarity that I must protect this little pocket of quiet.
The night before Thanksgiving, Rik and I plan to go out dancing. Beforehand, we get pho and grab groceries for the next day. By the time we get home, Rik is tired and falls asleep early, but I am dead set on going out. I kiss him goodnight and head out into the cold.
It’s packed in the bar. I find a friend and order an undrinkably strong cocktail. There are degrees of familiar faces all around me and I easily settle into the music. Light refracts from mirrors into my eyes, so I close them. I take a little square of dance floor where I can move my hips, the bodies of others bumping into me, sometimes carelessly, sometimes along with my beat. I dance until the lights come up, my body singing its aches and pains.
It’s been a good year, I decide, my boots offering their uneven clacking to the empty street. I will soon shimmy into the sheets warmed by my love, the fridge full of the nourishment we will render into feast for my mother and brother, my kid far away finding her own happiness in a place she’s never been before.
I breathe into my scarf, warming the soft fabric, and pull it over my face, inhaling what the body provides.
There are three young men playing with broadswords, fighting knives, two-headed axes and long bamboo sticks. They twirl and wield like drum majorettes below my writing studio on a triangle of grass in the park plaza. Two of the three are dead serious—shirts off, heavy studded belts and strips of leather like loincloths, one has a mask that covers part of his face and a ratty red goatee. The other has long dyed hair with bright crimson rivulets shining in the midday sun. The third doesn’t quite fit. He’s wearing blue jeans, a faded black t-shirt and has close-cropped blonde hair. He’s the one who keeps offering snacks to the other warriors.
It's so hard to start sometimes. Or maybe, I should revise and say, continue.
For years, I've been copying submission guidelines from the backs of magazines into my notebook-of-the-moment only to be exhausted at the end of the process, close the book and never send a thing.
Today, I sent something to Brevity. I had to trim a hundred words from an already somewhat micro collage CNF piece. And you know what? It wasn't that hard. Sometimes the things we become attached to are just the non-essential organs of the whole. They buffer. They, in their worst moments, distract from the parts that need to be held higher.
Upon arriving to my studio space, I had a backpack full of books, San Pellegrino and my necessary technology. I touched one book briefly, took a disorienting nap and ate a dinner of cheese and crackers. After submitting the short piece, I began a revision on a longer one.
All of my efforts today have been driven by my secret "Submit Here" board on Pinterest.
I get overwhelmed by the amount of information that comes through my networks about submitting. To save myself from the crushing pressure of desire to be published and a desktop full of half-finished things, I started pinning things so I could have that conversation with myself at another time. Today was the first day in months I felt enough space around me to begin poking through that collection of calls.
There is a pedicab that circles the block, blaring "music from the 90s up to today's hits." He has a way of circling back the moment I get deep into a new sentence. He's a friendly guy though. I've seen him turn down his stereo when he approaches someone with a stroller with a potentially sleeping baby inside.
Just another call, today, telling me to keep going. Other days, offering me a place to stop. The world is never going to quiet itself for me.