This week has been sort of a strange one for me, more melancholy than celebratory. I’m not sure why that surprises me. Maybe I thought I was in the perfect frame of mind to meet and pass this particular milestone. Last week I was feeling strong and tough and energized. There is more daylight, more warmth, more green. There are less layers, fewer socks.
I’ve had more than one person on the other end of the couch gently suggest to me that I tend to struggle with transitions. I may crave change and growth, I may scramble after it relentlessly, but I often forget to wean myself from the delicious predictability of complacency. I forget to grieve that loss. I forget to even call it loss.
It’s all interconnected, though I wonder if I try to over-connect things sometimes. A friend is in town and joins us for dinner – I haven’t seen him in years. I painted a mural on the nursery walls for his daughter the day before yesterday, except now she’s looking at graduate schools for an MFA, so maybe it’s been a bit longer since she paints on her own now. He once drove through the night and the mountains to help lift me out of unbearable sadness. He let me sit in the darkness of his car while he told me one story that lasted as long as that road curved; we drove those same roads a few weeks ago on vacation in the daylight, but I still remembered how they looked at night through my tears. I don’t know how to thank him for that except to sit across a table of fresh pasta with him and let the little one pepper him with jokes the whole night long.
He’s here for a conference, and the keynote speaker is Krista Tippet, and I listen to her every Sunday on the radio. Well, I listen to fifteen minutes of her on my way to church, and I feel guilty sometimes because I want to stay in the sun warmed car and finish listening instead of going inside. Sometimes I listen at work, and then I feel guilty again because I’m caught up more in her words than the task at hand. He mentions her on the way to dinner, which reminds me to listen again at work on Monday, and I’m listening to her interview with Mary Oliver and doing no work at all. And Tippet plays a recording of her daughter reciting The Summer Day (at 22:24) when she’s in the sixth grade, and I remember again why I loved this poem so many years ago. I remember because I no longer love it for the same reasons and it’s this realization that brings me to tears and sends me out to my car. I recover at the bookstore down the street, thumbing through books for my daughters, texting my husband my excitement when I discover a new book for E that I know she will love.
She does love it, and she’s cracked the spine before we even back out of the driveway. She reads it in one sitting, one long sitting in a moving car, driving south. The little one sleeps for hours, the kind of hard sleep that releases her thumb and lets her mouth fall open as her chin tilts to the side. I shift my position every few minutes. I’m always sore, but I say this aloud for the first time, which means I’m acknowledging my age to some degree. I’m either sore from being active or sore from being inactive, from sleeping too long or too little, from thinking too much or not enough, from an overabundance of love or too thin a coat of acceptance. There is no middle ground in middle age; I wonder if that is bumper sticker worthy, or if someone has thought of it before.
After several hours I ask her how the book is and she hugs it tightly to her chest, but with her finger still holding her place. The first three Penderwick books occur in quick succession; many years have passed before this fourth one. The characters were twelvish and now they are grown just like that. She says it takes some getting used to. She’s always fancied herself as Jane. I wonder what she thinks about reading Jane-all-grown-up.
It isn’t really forty that is nagging at me, despite the fact that I’ve been shamelessly looking for validation that I’m beating the odds. I skip out of my gym class on Monday on the “shut up, no way’s” that I receive in a conversation about birthdays where of course I mention my number the following day. I stop for milk and yogurt and a bottle of Altos de Luzon on my way home Tuesday and the clerk scans the bottle and lifts her eyes to study my face. I hold my breath and hope that I have to produce my card so that I can tell her she’s made my day on my birthday. But she’s satisfied with what she sees, and it’s just a regular day to everyone else around me, and maybe to me as well.
If it’s not forty that is nagging, then what is it? I think maybe I know. Tippet mentions that her daughter was twelve when she memorized that poem, but now she’s twenty-one and all grown up. Jane Penderwick is too. Soon my E will be twelve, and in another moment grown. Grown up to that age where heartbreak can break you and if you are lucky there is someone there to catch you and drive you home.
I’m fragile in this line of thinking; I’m fragile when we drive north these days. It’s hard to stay awake in the car when our day has stretched on for more hours than we can count. The soreness keeps me awake and aware, but my eyes still close for a few. I wait for that moment because I know it will come, a brief moment when I think that the past two years might not have happened and that we’ll find everything the same when we return, only older. E will be twelve soon, and she’ll disrupt the order of what was once there, the order of those girls. She’ll be twelve and (please god, please, please, please) she’ll be grown up the next day, and painting her own paintings about mountains and fields and grasshoppers and heartbreak.
From the end of The Summer Day by Mary Oliver
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down into the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?