Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The F Word

I am sitting in a beautiful cabin in the Smoky Mountains with three of my favorite people, my kids and my mom, sleeping in the next room. The only sounds I hear are the insects talking to one another in the trees. Quietly, another decade of my life is coming to a close. I am turning forty tomorrow and the anticipation of this transition over the past several weeks has afforded a great opportunity to reflect on what time has taught me and how I hope to evolve and deepen even more over the next ten years.

When I turned thirty, I was insecure, sad and uncomfortable in my own skin. I was in a struggling and toxic marriage that had me in tears almost every day and I didn't think I deserved any better. I also had recently learned that I was pregnant with my daughter because, as all experts will tell you, the best way to improve a relationship is to have a child together. I was working at Middle Tennessee State University as an academic counselor and I liked both my job and the people with whom I spent my days, considering several of them to be close friends. In fact, one of my co-workers was the very first person I told about my pregnancy. But overall, I was rather isolated.

Over the next decade, I had a child, was a stay-at-home mom for several years, had another child, got divorced, went back to work full-time, bought my first home, and gained strength and confidence. I also lost some friendships and made amazing new ones, rediscovered my passion for writing, ran five half-marathons, put on ten pounds, faced disappointment in myself and others, and was overwhelmed with gratitude. I have failed and succeeded. Through that time, I've become acutely aware that I am very much a work in progress. And, as more of my life finds itself in the rearview mirror, it is interesting to see how events and people and circumstances have shaped that work.

Instead of "Forty" being an "F word" that makes me cringe and obsess over every gray hair along my temples (actually, I like my gray hairs and admire them as little badges of honor) or sun spot on my legs, I'm embracing the change and I'm determined to make this new decade the best one yet. With that in mind, I have come up with three "F" concepts about which I have learned a lot in my thirties and that I hope will continue to be areas of growth for me over the next ten years.

Friendship

I lost a couple of really important friendships while in my thirties, ones for which I still grieve. I accept a majority of the blame for their disintegration and I recognize the primary reason it happened. When I am hurt or I know I have hurt others, I pull away. It's easier than having those tough conversations. It's also incredibly immature. The loss of those relationships has helped me to improve who I am as a friend, both in being more conscious of not hurting someone for whom I care in the first place and by being willing to talk it out if tension does arise. But I wish I did not have to lose some important people in order to get there.

I've also come to experience friendships that are deeper and more treasured than at any other point in my life. From the girlfriends who hung out in a hospital waiting room all night while I delivered my son to friends at work who make me laugh until I cry multiple times a week to the friend who came up to me when I was sobbing the day I filed for divorce and said, "I don't know what to say, but I'm going to stand right here with you" to the single mom squad on my block, I could not be more fortunate concerning the chosen village that surrounds my family. I've learned that being a good and reliable friend, one who does not judge but offers her honest opinion, one who wants to share the happy moments with you and will not run away from the hard ones, one who will find a way to be there for you at 2:00am, is one of the most important jobs a person can have.

I still have a long way to go to become the friend to others that I wish to be. But I'm glad that my thirties taught me how crucial true friendship is and what it should look like. And I am thankful EVERY DAY for the friends in my life. I treasure their love and support and strive to be more like them.

Forgiveness

Making the decision to forgive has brought such peace as my thirties draw to a close. I am no longer angry about parts of my childhood that did not look exactly as I would have hoped. What's the point in that? I can't change them. I have forgiven stuff (that's as eloquently as I can express myself here because "stuff" is as much detail as I ever plan to publish about something so personal) that happened in my marriage. My ex-husband comes to our daughter's softball games, and there were other parents who, even at the end of the season, thought we were still married because we are able to sit next to one another and support our girl. There is peace, and that comes by choice.

I've learned that harboring anger has very little impact on the person who is causing me pain, but it sure does get in the way of being happy and content. That doesn't mean that I don't have flares of anger when I feel that I or someone I love has been wronged. I just don't let myself stay there anymore.

Also, I've forgiven myself, for choices I've made, for not valuing myself for way too long, and for not always being the person I wanted to be in the past, as I realized I needed to free myself from that guilt in order to move forward and be a better person tomorrow.

Fear

Over the past decade, I have known people my age who have died from cancer and heart attacks and tragic accidents, leaving behind spouses and young children. I have grieved with people who have buried children. I have watched with horror the news coverage of natural disasters and terrorists' atrocities. Instead of making me worry more about the many threats that surround us every day, these events have led me to worry less. Living in fear would not have prevented that tumor or that other driver from crossing the yellow line or stopped a person intent on violence. But it would have taken up room in the brain that is better reserved for joy and laughter. I don't want to dwell on all of the "what ifs" of life instead of enjoying the moment right now that I've been given. Of course, I still try make smart decisions and strive to have a lifestyle that keeps me healthy and reasonably safe; I just have come a long way in not focusing on and wringing my hands over what I cannot control.

I've also realized that fear is a bunch of hype. It makes headlines and sells books. It tells us to tether our kids and lock ourselves inside our homes and not trust the stranger walking down the street, but it's largely fiction. I've learned that most people are good and most places are safe and the worst possible scenario is hardly the most likely one.

Finally, I've freed myself from a lot of fear because I faced some scary stuff over the past ten years and come out on the other side stronger, from single parenting to health concerns that dragged on without answers to confronting difficult people. I can look at most challenges now and think, "Remember what you did back then? You've totally got this one as well."

I'm excited to start my forties not feeling afraid of what may, or may not, come next.

So, good night, thirties. You've been filled with some difficult lows but more spectacular highs. You made me a mom. You developed me into someone with whom I enjoy spending time. You've introduced me to people who have made my life so much richer and more fun. You have matured me and softened me and strengthened me. Thank you for all of your lessons. I won't miss you, because my focus is strictly on moving forward. But, I love what you were to me and will carry you with me always.