One year ago, I crawled toward my fortieth year with apprehension, uncertainty. I lost sleep (more than usual), agonized over whether I had yet accomplished enough in my life, worried that my time was running out. Though wiser friends advised me, I did not fully comprehend that I feared a mere number—nothing more. As The Event passed, I reflected, reminisced, and suddenly realized that nothing had changed. Not a thing. I was still me.
Turning forty became exciting, a milestone, a badge of honor. For the first time in my life, I appreciated looking a bit younger than my age and got a kick out of people’s reactions when I told them I had just turned the big 4-0. I pulled out old photo albums, mixed tapes, postcards and letters, drinking in my past. I even blogged about it, vowing that my fortieth would be a brilliant year.
And brilliant it was, as the greatest gift I received was me. I reclaimed myself. Returned to Beth. I opened my heart to new friendships and rekindled some of the old. I bid farewell to an eight-year relationship but not the beautiful person with whom I had shared it. I began writing again. I rediscovered the pure thrill of live music, something I had shelved for quite some time. I reconfirmed that pleasure is found in the simple things of life (dinner with a friend, an old favorite song, a newly discovered band, a compliment, a kiss, a road trip). I downsized to a tiny walk-up apartment but filled it with only my favorite things. And I moved near the ocean, where I have spent hours and days since, walking along the water’s edge, sitting on the beach, staring at the horizon, thinking, wondering, wishing, praying thanks for such a dream come true.
As I greeted my 41st birthday, I realized with a vengeance how truly thankful I am. My students showered me with heartfelt birthday wishes, hugs, smiles, and sweets, reminding me that I have been called to a vocation greater than myself—or all of the corporate jobs and money the world has to offer. At the end of the school day, as I walked awkwardly toward my car with handfuls of construction paper cards, loose-leaf letters, and wrinkly little Ziploc bags full of misshapen chocolate chip cookies, a colleague I have secretly penned “Sad Sack” mentioned that she had heard it was my birthday. As I told her of my students’ outpouring of love, she replied in true mope fashion, “Oh, Beth, they were just happy to get out of doing work.” Hmm…perhaps. A younger me would have allowed Sad Sack to pierce my beautiful bubble. This 41-year-old, however, quickly decided to ride the high, give thanks for her students’ remarkably turbulent, fragile, explosive, awesome adolescent selves, and re-read their lovely letters and cards over and over again.
I recognized the same transformation within me a few weeks ago, when a burgeoning friendship suddenly imploded, both parties equally involved in its quick demise. My younger self would have plummeted into a pool of insecure funk. The 41-year-old me, however, instinctually stepped back, breathed, and reflected. I realized my specific mistakes and apologized to her out of true, deep remorse. I refrained from confronting her with the specific ways in which she had contributed to the mess and gathered what lessons I could. And, in the spirit of Thanksgiving, I swallowed my pride and wrote her a heartfelt card, thanking her for the amazing ways in which she had touched my life in such a brief amount of time. I left the door open for continued laughter and friendship, but she slammed it shut for reasons that undoubtedly make sense to her. And that is fine. At 41, I finally recognize that my goodness, my value, my worthy friendship are not defined by another.
And so it is that I continue to be grateful for my inner voice—that which has always guided me but continues to increase in volume with each birthday. The voice that tells me to swallow my pride, apologize, forgive the other and myself, learn the lessons, move onward. The voice that guides me toward some people and away from others. The voice that whispers of the simple, profound beauties all around me: the first blustery December snowflakes, a neighbor’s kind gesture, loving words from a friend, a strand of blue Christmas lights, my sister’s love, a piece of sea glass or heart-shaped stone. The voice that reminds me of all I have been through, all I’ve survived, and the gifts of strength and wisdom borne of those trials.
As I ponder the challenges I have faced, my thoughts drift to Elizabeth Edwards, who died yesterday at the age of 61. I always admired the woman, who epitomized pure strength and grace. A tough, beautiful woman who survived the death of her son, a cheating husband, crumbled marriage and who sure as hell gave breast cancer a run for its money. And so, yet again, I am reminded of the fragility of life, the hope for something beyond this world, and the blessing of good health.
Aside from an accelerated heart rate, a rather serious bout of skin cancer last summer, a broken nose this past spring, and an occasional case of bronchitis, I have been more than blessed. I celebrated my first mammogram a few months ago, even receiving a long-stemmed pink rose upon my departure from the clinic. A week later I received a letter confirming that all is well. Standing in my kitchen, letter and envelope in hand, I exhaled loudly, then felt the slow trickle of tears down my face. I trembled from the magnitude of what could have been, the alternate scenario some other woman might be facing at that very moment, and for the overwhelming sense of gratitude pounding within me.
As Edwards declared in her last statement released to the public, “The days of our lives, for all of us, are numbered….But I have found that in the simple act of living with hope, and in the daily effort to have a positive impact in the world, the days I do have are made all the more meaningful and precious.” How beautiful. How true.
And so, if 40 was about rediscovering myself and getting back on my path, 41 is going to be about living each day consciously, fully awake, with hope, simplicity, and gratitude. Life is good, love is in the air, and my heart is open and brimming with blue Christmas lights, snowflakes, and 80s songs. I plan to grab on to my 41st year with an iron grip, squeezing every ounce of precious life from it as I go.