There was frost on the ground this morning. The grass made silver green, the wooden bridge a slip underfoot. It is autumn – my first in a decade – and the days pull between two seasons with cold nights and colder mornings, crisp afternoons. I ran this morning. I could see my breath but feel my toes. This year I am running all the seasons. I am warned winter is very cold. I am told winter isn’t so bad. I will know winter in another month or two. Now though, the wild green I drank in August, the wild green I’d missed out the desert window, the wild green is going. Tall grasses along the river wave gold and the leaves of trees growing either side of the river and up the hills are the color of campfire. This morning I noticed the pointy elbows and knobby fingers of bare branches. Soon all the trees will be angles and lines against sky.
Today I am thirty-seven. I thought about this while running. I thought I should feel something about thirty-seven. What I feel is okay and okay is peak compared to the inappropriate, hidden emotions of my last decade of birthdays and anniversaries when, instead of remaining buoyantly thankful/ exuberant/ #blessed, I’d often sink in melancholy at to-date regrets. Then at some point late in the day, Justin would see my disappointment and apologize for not getting a gift of messing up dinner plans. I’d sigh, be held, and think I couldn’t explain my sorrow was not a missed dinner out but the whole course of my life. It was much easier to imagine I was pouty about baking my own cake.
Growing up, birthdays were a big deal. Mom asked what we wanted for our birthday dinner. I remember choosing tacos or fettuccini alfredo. From first waking to right before bed, we’d get songs and hugs and kisses. We were celebrated. We were enjoyed. I don’t remember my siblings or myself feeling jealous of one another’s birthdays because each of us had a turn at choosing our day’s activities and menu. I remember making cards or putting together small gifts for Nate and Joanna and opening their gifts to me.
When I turned seven in second grade, my parents gave me a Lisa Frank watch with a set of bright, interchangeable bands that I wore for two or three years. When I turned eleven in sixth grade, I walked hand in hand with Mom at dusk to a blood drive and watched her donate a pint. I ended up resting with my feet up while my sister ate cookies and drank all the offered juice. When I turned sixteen my junior year, my family showed up during second period choir, dressed as clowns and singing happy birthday before Mom pinned a corsage on my sweater. When I turned twenty-one as a senior in college, my roommates and I drove out of town on a quiet country road and watched the Northern lights.
After college I chose a direction I hadn’t quite meant to choose and there I was in the middle of something good I didn’t want, married and teaching in rural Wisconsin. So each year marked another year deeper in this something good I couldn’t see, another year removed from the direction I didn’t take.
I turned twenty-seven in Colombia, celebrated with a party of new friends, celebrated an age I’d long thought a good number to really do something. The something I did was have a baby, so I celebrated twenty-eight waking with my one-month old daughter. I was bleary and hopeful this would work out okay.
At some point, we let go. I do not mourn growing older. I tell friends I want my forties. But I want my forties because I think then I will do whatever it is I imagine doing well: writing a book you read, sending creative and kind children to the world, falling into enviable late marriage comfort.
Years ago my dad wrote “Be there” on the dedication page of my new Bible, my full name stamped in italic gold at the bottom right of the maroon leather cover. And since then I’ve returned to that exhortation to find its fit for many situations as a quiet command to hold steady in the present, with no rush to the next task or conversation, no rush to the next year or season. How can I explain why this birthday – opened with a cold morning run, closed in a warm bed with my husband – was the birthday I was just there for, not sinking in melancholy, not counting misses and ifs. And this birthday: returning from my run to my son singing the first two lines of happy birthday before telling me to come see what they got for me, opening my eyes to find a tiny cactus spiked with purple blooms at my feet, resting against my husband who is just so good to hold, kissing my daughter’s smooth forehead and thinking some birthday soon we’ll be an even height. And this birthday: a hot shower, good coffee, a catch up with a friend, an hour to write, an hour to read. So much in one day. Errands and chores before we woke up to Monday. A late afternoon snit by my daughter who proclaimed that I am no fun, that I ruin all the fun, that I don’t want her to have any fun. Hodge podge dinner. The last flurry of bedtime. Then the day was over and I was that much into my thirty-eighth year, warm in bed next to my husband and glad for okay.
Maybe even better than okay. I want to know why contentment feels a fight. Why for a decade, more, I couldn’t fully ease into the good I had. Why during those years I pinched at the thought of a parallel track where I lived in a drafty walk up, wearing an old wool sweater through the entire winter, forgetting to eat because I consumed stories instead and emerging in spring with a book of my own.
I am okay and occasionally terrified.
I am thirty-seven and finally thank you Jesus at last glad for marriage and children. But I am also thirty seven and keenly aware what I waste. So now I learn a narrow walk of contentment and pursuit. Now I learn a narrow walk of trust. Now I learn do I reap the years of practice, do I reap the years of choosing to stay, do I reap the years of fighting to yield, do I reap the years of sorrow and fear, do I reap the years of tentative joy, do I reap the years of quiet obedience, do I reap the years of defiance, do I reap. At night, I curl into my husband’s warm body, breathe against his skin. This is comfort, to be near and warm, to tell my mind to be here between the sheets and nowhere else, no parallel Sarah untethered, no shadow fright, no ache for what I am not. At night I may lay awake in terror or I may rest.