Thirty-Nine Stories

Today I am thirty-eight years old. When I think about my age, I take inventory against whatever my mother was doing at my age. There is no way to say if she was better than me at her age thirty-eight, or if I am inching ahead at my age thirty-eight, but for the marvel of comparison I can’t help but tick through the list. She celebrated the first birthday of her fourth child while her first child started university. She paid a mortgage, drove a minivan, and meal planned. My daughter just turned ten, my son eight, and university enrollment is still far enough away that I sometimes wonder if the world will end before the kids get a chance to be adults – even though statistically (where are those statistics!) now is supposed to be a safer, less violent, better time to be alive than any of our previous centuries. I am living in an apartment I didn’t choose, and I ride a bike or take the subway. I never meal plan.

Maybe I will turn this little paragraph into an essay. Maybe I’ll ask my sister Joanna if she does the same thing. Or my brother Nate, if he thinks of Dad as he adds a year. Maybe Mom thinks of her mother. Mom and I are both firstborns. We made our mothers. Or maybe on my birthday, Mom remembers who she was when she was thirty-eight, chalks up a similar list. Yes, maybe this will become an essay. One of thirty-nine stories I will write to celebrate this, my thirty-ninth year.

Before I wanted to be a writer, I wanted to work in an office or be a teacher. Both of these jobs seemed like play. One year I received a desk organizer for my birthday and I kept the little compartments stocked with paper clips, pens, post-its, and smiley face stickers. I took a highlighter and pen to the JC Penney catalog, circling and crossing out items, taking calls from imaginary customers and enjoying how official I sounded when I repeated item numbers, sizes, colors. Dad would hand over a thick stack of those postcards you get in magazines, all advertising something computer related, and I filled our fictitious names and addresses. This was office. School was an old teacher’s edition of a grade two or three language arts text, its gloss pages bound by a thick white metal spiral. I gave spelling tests. I asked the comprehension questions. I flipped through the pages efficiently. I used a teacher voice that could border on insincere patience. But then I wanted to be a writer.

There is no way to play at being a writer. If you want to be a writer you cannot pretend to write. You must write. What you can pretend – what I have often pretended – is that you have a readership, that a book deal is nigh, that what you write won’t disappear in thirty years. Thirty-Nine Stories is not about pretend. Thirty-Nine Stories is about me being a writer, for real.

During my thirty-eighth year I cornered Justin in the bedroom one night. This does not go anywhere fun. I put my hands on his shoulders and said, Look at me. Still not going anywhere fun, even though that evening I’d had two glasses of wine. Justin looked at me and I said, I missed an MFA. I am going to write like I’m getting an MFA. He said, Okay.

Well, here is the fun part. Parameters! Thirty-nine stories completed in one year. Stories: narrative fiction or nonfiction. I can revive old ideas, return to incomplete drafts, but I must also write totally new work. The quality of pieces will vary. I will revise what I want to revise. By the end of the year, I want fifteen strong pieces. Pieces: may vary in length: ten (or fewer) pieces of 500 – 1000 words; at least ten pieces of 5000 – 10,000 words; at least three pieces of 10,000+ words. And for the readership (you) I will post excerpts/ full drafts of each finished story, though process posts may be more interesting because even I want to know how I plan to write thirty-nine stories in one year.

Today I Am Thirty-Seven

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.