I turned forty last year. Five months from now, when December rolls around, I’ll turn 41. In 2015, after I turned 39, I came up with this overly cute idea to make a list of things to accomplish before I turned 40. I called it my “40 before 40” list. I would travel, get in shape, strengthen and make muscles I’d never seen before POP from dormancy. I would write more, go back to school, fix a complicated recipe… take a freaking hot air balloon ride, etc.
Instead, I got bouts of anxiety (several of them). And a dark and fluid, situational depression swallowed me up, leaving tenacious residue. I tried to give shape, and name, the watery pain of some childhood memories. I went to therapy for the first time; stopped speaking to my father for the first time; resumed speaking with my father; mourned the death of my grandmother; got fatter than I’ve ever been, and experienced other firsts that left me feeling more odd, than energized for a new year.
I’m reclined on my bed as I write this. Legs stretched out, lap-top propped on a pillow. My father’s senior picture, a black and white portrait from the early 70’s, stares back at me from the top of my dresser at the end of my bed. His expression saved in time with a flash-bulb burst, is clad with his classic calm, up-crooked grin. I wonder what he was doing in the seconds just before, and just after in that time of his life (a time when not even an iota of an idea was formed in his mind about a daughter who, in her fortieth year, would carve a chasm lasting months between them)……anyway.
Right next to my dad’s senior portrait is a stack ten books high. I can identify each one by their shape and thickness, but only one book spine, blue and white and coral and colorful amidst the fading brown pages of other books, is turned outward so that it can be read: ‘”Full Catastrophe Living”, by John Kabat-Zinn Ph.D.’
Overall, the book is about taking control of your thoughts during anxiety and depression. It’s about strengthening your mind’s role and response to emotion, about de-catastrophizing by using mindfulness, a technique where you and your thoughts step outside the somatic feeling of stress (or, you can just call it Jedi mind training).
I’ve definitely worn out the pages of that book. And I have gotten some useful takeaways. Seriously.
But in this particular instance, as I fold over the events of my life the past few years, I think the title applies beautifully in a totally different way.
My life these past few years, has (un)fortunately not been a series of neat items on a list. I’ve been leveled. I’ve been burned to the ground. I’ve made a royal mess of things…repeatedly. I have not ridden in a hot air balloon.
But maybe, I actually have…
Those firsts that left me feeling more odd than anything, happened to me during a vacation with my family. There was a wedding circle on a beach and the bride broke in while an acoustic and lyric-less version of “Sweet Child O’ Mine” was played. There was a lush drive with one of my favorite people on the planet up the Atlantic City Expressway. There have been hugs. There have been glasses of wine. There have been firsts that have left me feeling brand new and excited about my life. I’ve watched people I love walk into their dreams. There’s been redemption. There has been growth. There has been forgiveness. There has been grace. I climbed to the top of an Atlantic coast light house with my father.
Fifteen years ago or so, I memorized a quote by Henri Nouwen. When friends were going through hard times, or pain, or facing unexplainable uncertainty, I’d sagely share it with them.
“Your life is not going to be easy, and it should not be easy. It ought to be hard. It ought to be radical; it ought to be restless; it ought to lead you to places you’d rather not go”.
I know I understood those words 15 year ago. But I think I understand them more now. They sound like full catastrophe living. They sound like an encouragement to live fully the moments you you didn’t plan–or would NEVER plan–for yourself.
It’s funny how we make plans…and it’s funny what actually ends up happening. In five months I’ll be 41. I don’t have a list but I am excited. And I am ready.
Here’s to full catastrophe living for all of you, and to getting what comes when you don’t get the hot air balloon ride.
Here’s Sweet Child O’ Mine with Myles Kennedy and of course, Slash.