Across the finish line, I’m a little unsteady on my feet in the silence.
The youngest of my kids started kindergarten, and the oldest just entered his teens. Our endless house project is at last over, three and a half years after it began. I thought the decade of my 20s was the rat race – 100-hour workweeks, city apartments barely used. But it was just a training sprint for the real marathon of my 30s: four kids, two cross-country moves, two giant construction projects, two aching deaths.
I’m 42 years old, and the last time I had daytime quiet in my home, I was 29.
It’s not the a-ha moment I thought it might be. The tide of life will always flood in to fill the void. But I am breathing a little easier, and I marvel to see daylight at my desk instead of the lone glow of my computer screen in the dark.
I’m not young, but I don’t feel old either.
And I’m surprised to find I am much smarter at 42 than I was at 29. I’ve thought many times I was losing my mind – during pregnancies and amidst the demands and sleep torture of young children – but for all the times I’ve been on the brink of insanity, through it I’ve become a more perceptive, effective and understanding person than I was before. And, oddly, calmer.
Life has changed me, in unexpected ways.
I’ve turned philosophical.
Somewhere along the way, I gave up on control.
In Jon Muth’s brilliant children’s book, Zen Shorts, Muth relates the story of “The Farmer’s Luck”:
An old farmer has a horse. One day, his horse runs away.
“Bad luck,” say his neighbors. “Maybe,” says the farmer.
The horse returns the next day, with two wild horses.
“Good luck,” say his neighbors. “Maybe,” says the farmer.
The following day, the old man’s son tries to ride one of the wild horses and is thrown off, breaking his leg.
“Bad luck,” say his neighbors. “Maybe,” says the farmer.
The next day soldiers come, but because of his injury, the farmer’s son is saved from being drafted and taken away.
“Good luck,” say his neighbors. Even so, the farmer is philosophical. “Maybe.”
Plans served a directional purpose when I was younger. But now I don’t have the arrogance to think I know best. It doesn’t come naturally to me, but I’ve learned that it’s much more effective to work with the universe than fight it.
Youth felt like paddle boating on a still lake, a lot of pedaling slowly building momentum. The early years of parenthood were like hurtling down rapids – unexpected, terrifying, constantly changing.
Now it’s more like sailing on the open sea. Getting anywhere is less about frantic effort than it is about having the vigilance and preparedness to navigate when the wind allows. Other days the wind gusts the wrong way, or doesn’t blow at all, but I know the one thing we can count on is change.
I listen to what people mean more than what they say.
I thought I was a good listener before, but I used to listen in a very literal way. Now I realize that words are only a small part of what people say when they speak.
I try not to repeat myself with the kids too often – goodness knows they stop listening – but I say this one all the time, to them and to myself:
What people say, even if it’s directed at you, is about them, not you.
In other words, what people say is loaded with their own baggage. So there’s no need to go unloading yours on top.
When my mom texts three times to remind me about something, it means she’s anxious. When my youngest whines for a snack, then to read a book, then to draw a picture, then to make hot chocolate, she’s saying, “I’m tired and fighting to stay awake.”
When someone gets mad, or freaks out, I understand it comes from a place of anxiety or insecurity. Everyone has a backstory. I have lost the arrogance to judge. So now I try to dial the situation down instead of up.
Even on the nice side, someone’s compliment or enthusiasm may be more about their desire to please, or wanting attention, as it is about genuine emotion. It’s like the quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “What you are speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.”* You always have to consider the source.
There’s a great kids book, Simon’s Hook, in which Simon the fish learns not to bite the tempting hooks that people drop. I hope my kids learn, earlier than I did, that we all get to choose what we react to. Sidestepping land mines – problematic people, situations or decisions – is not hard once we know what to look for. Experience teaches us to spot trouble before we get there.
I tune out the noise.
A dad once walked by me at the Costco food court holding two wrapped hot dogs, trailed by two agitated kids clamoring: “I don’t want a hot dog!” “I want pizza!”
The dad headed for the condiment dispensers. “Ketchup? Mustard?”
Kids: “I don’t want a hot dog!” “I want pizza!”
The dad calmly unwrapped the hot dogs, squirted a line of ketchup on each and walked off to a table.
Knowing they were beat, the kids looked at each other for a moment before following the dad to the table, sitting down and starting to eat.
That guy is my hero, and not just in parenting. Life is full of distractions. I’m better now at sticking to my own agenda and tuning out the chatter.
Enough is enough.
We spend our lives building – careers, relationships, families – and after four decades of building, I know I have more to lose than I have to gain. I am so grateful for the abundance of amazing people in my life. Some I see very rarely, but I know the years won’t matter when we see each other again. They are stars in my sky – sparkly and comforting, even from a silent distance.
I am grateful for every day of good health, mine and my family’s. I know how quickly that can change.
I’m not counting down to any more milestones. I love watching my kids grow and change, but it still seems inconceivable that they are a few short years from driver’s licenses, college applications and – heaven help me – dating. I can’t even bear to think beyond that.
I’m not young. But this is dang close to as good as it gets. I wouldn’t want to go back to the awkwardness of the teen years or the career stress of my 20s. You couldn’t pay me enough to go through four pregnancies and childbirths again, or the years of sleep deprivation that followed.
I’ve made it here, and I’m not going to worry about what’s next. While the wind is still, I am glad just to breathe in the moment.
* My fact-checking tells me the original Emerson quote, from “Social Aims,” is actually this: “Don’t say things. What you are stands over you the while, and thunders so that I cannot hear what you say to the contrary.” But the simplified version is pithier for internet reading.
* * *
In the eternity it took me to finish this post, I realized that I’m always in a meditative mood here in January, probably because I always need a break from food after the holidays. Here are past meditations if you want to catch up:
But I think I’m ready now to get back to food. Eating is a whole lot easier than thinking.
Oh, and I forgot to say, the winner of my giveaway was Lee, who is all the way in Costa Rica but is having a friend in Oregon bring her the cookbook when she visits. In a goofy twist, I found out it was going to cost me about the same to mail the free book than to order Lee a new one from Amazon with free shipping. So I Amazon-ed Lee a new book and gave the giveaway book to my sister-in-law. Silly. But I do love the cookbook, and it was a fun experiment.
Happy new year, kind friends! Wishing you a healthy, happy 2015.
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