On a birthday: regrets and reflections, belatedly

I’m in New York. Specifically, I’m in Brooklyn, folded into a comfy armchair. I refuse to move despite the sun’s upward shift causing moments of blindness when I lean back. Every so often I close my eyes for respite and realize I could slip back into sleep. A head cold has kept me up the last few nights and even the trucks chugging by every minute would not keep me from drifting off. This patch of sun inside is warm. The air outside hovers near freezing, one of the reasons I’m spending my birthday hunkered down and lazy.

I’m 44 today. How I’ve celebrated my birthdays this decade has varied. For my 40th birthday, I threw a big party at the Jambalaya. I heard it was fun, but an excessive number of vodka gimlets prevents me from remembering much – I have favorite blue dangly earrings from that night without a clue as to the gift-giver.

Turning 41 was both quieter and more profound. I was in Taiwan on my first international trip surrounded by people I didn’t know who spoke languages I do not speak. I’d never been gone from my family so long. The adventure excited me enough without an awkward, obligatory toast, so I kept my birthday tucked away. I’d think about it later, being 41 and discovering, as I circumnavigated the island, that I like myself. A few weeks ago I used my passport for the second time, a warm water surf vacation to Mexico. I wonder if I should have traveled more in my 20s – I mean, of course I should have, I always longed to explore, but imagining how that would have worked, three kids and no money, exceeds my ability to suspend disbelief.

I threw another big party at the Jam for my 42nd birthday. The evening culminated with Full Moon Fever performing all my favorite Tom Petty songs, a fine, fine time.

My 43rd was slightly more restrained – or was meant to be until the ATL put a “Happy Birthday” announcement on their marquee (a wonderful gesture that I’m sure marked the zenith of my popularity). What can I say? I like to go places and I like to celebrate and I’m good at throwing parties: these are three things I’ve learned in my life. Of course, I wish I’d learned some more useful skills, too – sewing, perhaps, or speaking Spanish. When modern society collapses, my only hope is convincing people to feed me now so I can plan the annual harvest celebration later. (“But, guys! We need to have something to look forward to now more than ever! Don’t let dystopia get you down! Look, I’ll pull together a party for all the survivors. It’ll be great! And, um, can I have some of those acorns?”)

Another talent I wish I’d acquired sooner: being good with money. If I’d arrived at adulthood armed with that knowledge, many of the pitfalls I encountered would have been inconveniences instead of catastrophes or could have been avoided altogether. (“Overdraft charges, late fees? What are those?”) But those of us with a reckless streak insist on learning the hard way how to conserve our resources: money, time, a willingness to love.

I would also have liked to have mastered the art of communicating feelings by now – something my family refrained from so strongly that I blanched even typing that – and been less quick to anger. I let frustration with my children manifest in yelling too many times, even spanking on occasion, despite a firm opposition to both. The number of times I lashed out at the kids due to other troubles – how to pay the water bill in time, the morning’s argument with my husband, exhaustion from working late, trying to find my way around a new town and being confused when H Street turned into Campton. We’d been in Humboldt all of nine days, desperate to find housing, and I was supposed to meet the property manager at a promising place, but the directions were to take H to Walnut, which didn’t make sense. This was pre-smartphone, so I had no way to pull over and get my bearings. My oldest complained about something and, already on the verge of panic, I lost my mind, screamed at her to shut up and lashed out with my hand. I wish that birthing a child into this world brought along an infusion of patience and grace, that those attributes had come in with the same abundance as my milk.

In Jess Walters’ book Beautiful Ruins, the theme of want – of the way “we want what we want” even when we claim otherwise due to obligations and a sense of what’s proper — runs through the novel. The closer what you want is to what is right, a main character’s mother tells him, the more likely you are to be happy. When the thing you desire is different than what’s ethically best, in other words, your odds shift in favor of misery. (And thus is the plot of a thousand movies launched.) When you’re married, when you have children, immediately much of your world is divided into right and wrong. And, as a mom, what is “right” is always the thing that requires the most self-sacrifice. At least it seems that way in the beginning.

But then comes the unavoidable truth that you still want the things you want: adventure, love, joy, friends, success, to embrace as much of the world’s offerings as possible. And sometimes you skip making pancakes because you’ve learned to surf at 30 after a lifetime of wanting to surf and this morning has brought the sort of small, clean swell perfect for you and the tide is now so you leave out the granola and milk and a note saying you’ll be back in time to take everyone to school, but the waves are so good that by the time you drag your exhausted self out of the ocean, you’re running late and when you get home, your family is in a world of stress and it’s your fault because you were selfish.

And sometimes wanting to surf takes other forms: working late because your career excites you in a way that doing laundry never will, taking college classes because you fear your brain is atrophying, social engagements with childless adults instead of planning school events with the PTA moms – you’ve volunteered, you have, you served nachos every Friday for an entire school year, and your appreciation for the tireless efforts of more dedicated mothers is tangible, but at some point you just want to talk film and literature and politics with people who get you, and so you give in, again, to that selfishness. But you are not quite happy because in the back of your mind, you are aware that the life you want is not exactly the life you have and try as you might to reconcile the two, there are times when you choose what you want over what is virtuous. Predictably, people are disappointed and the guilt you feel for letting down the people you love makes you regret, makes you wonder if you’ll ever figure out how to do life right.

But enough cataloging of regrets.

Here I am, lounging about in my brother’s apartment. I could have spent the money I’ve spent here on something more practical. I could have brought a kid with me for his continued cultural edification. I could refused my brother’s offer of a birthday ticket to New York and stayed home to care for my people, my house, eschewed vacation to get more work done. But I didn’t want to. I wanted some time alone, some time to lie on the couch, the ability to do what I wanted, go bowling or to a comedy club or the Tenement Museum, without arguing with anyone about it – a heretical state of mind for a wife and mother, to be sure. But typically my selfishness is mild, a pedicure here, a surfboard there, a penchant for cocktails.

Other, older, women tell you, as you’re turning 40, that your 40s will be “awesome!” (They say the same thing when you’re turning 30. Or 50.) For me, that’s been true. The past four years have been awesome. Partly because the older I get, the less patience I have for bullshit, and that will improve anyone’s life. Partly for all the reasons earlier decades were good: children relatively healthy, living close to the beach, a slew of solid friends. But mostly because I’ve had a job that not only challenged and rewarded me, but pays enough that I can cover the bills, donate to some causes, treat folks to dinner once in a while, take a trip on occasion and afford to do validating work as a freelancer. Good job and good friends equal happiness in my world. And that kind of happiness equals confidence. And confidence is sexy! So yeah, my 40s have definitely been a sexy time — just like those other, older, women said they would!

All this reflection! I sound like I’ve turned 94 instead of 44. Quickly, some things I do not regret: saying yes to life, cultivating the best possible friends, dedicating the majority of my adult life thus far to my family. Having a dog. Moving to Humboldt. Striving, repeatedly, to be kind, to be kind, to be kind.

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