On Gratitude and Turning 35

072615 mug

Birthday mug

J caught my interest in this knobby gray mug while we wandered through a fair trade shop in Minneapolis. I adore handmade artisan mugs, but always talk myself out of buying them as I reflect on the regular, useful mugs already taking up real estate in our cupboard. I eye the quirky mugs longingly, get a tiny amount of sticker shock, and walk away responsibly.

“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”

Knowing Marie was looking for something to wrap for my birthday, J pointed it out to her. And I was quietly thrilled about the mug, even remarking to J how I was sad I had to wait a few weeks for my birthday since I wanted to start drinking my morning coffee from it right then.

As I actually drank my coffee from the mug, I noticed a few imperfections. Some irregularities in the coloring. Tiny fissures in the glazing.

And my affection started to wane. Suddenly the imperfections were all I could see. I forgot what I liked about this mug.

I could go mad looking at the small imperfections in the mug. Just like I could get lost in the bitterness of my life not turning out how I planned.

Turning 35 messed with me.

I have always wanted to age gratefully and gracefully. None of the bemoaning another year gone by or hoping nobody knows how old I really am or whining over the wrinkles and whiskers accumulating. Another year means I’m still alive. This is worth celebrating! Years (hopefully) translate into acquired wisdom. This, too, is worth honoring.

I failed. All those grand plans went up in smoke this year.

Thirty-five is a number I resent.

It’s just a number and not so different than 34. But, this birthday stings and leaves a bitter taste.

Perhaps it’s the symbolism with the number. Maybe I see more of the loss with aging this year instead of what I’ve gained.

I’m reaping the harvest of a messed up narrative through the infertility journey: “It’s okay. I’m still young. There’s still time. I’m not 35 yet.” And now I’ve reached that threshold, and no miracle happened. Here’s the problem with those arbitrary age goals I set: if I live long enough, I reach those benchmarks, and then what?

Like everyone who’s grieved something, I want to reach a point where the cycle of emotions is closed on this.

Instead, I find myself unpleasantly surprised at the places and times I’m pained. I was fine on this front a few weeks ago. All was well. Walking on sunshine and all that jazz.

That is actually how grief works. You’re good. Then you’re not. Then you’re in the “feels.” You wander your way through the “feels” till you find yourself back home again. And the cycle maddeningly repeats in unexpected seasons.

Recently, someone asked me how my baby was. Boom. I was fine, and then grief exploded out of nowhere. The person meant well and must have gotten me confused with someone else. That or my recent weight loss (however small) is a mind warp for him.

Still, I felt like I’d just been physically slapped across the face. Two of the things that give me great distress (and one of which I never speak about to anyone but my husband) were thrown together: infertility and weight. And to compound matters, the person just wouldn’t believe I hadn’t been pregnant, and so it was like being slapped again and again.

While I’ve reached a point where I believe it’s okay to not have babies of my own, even as I still want kids, suddenly that question made me doubt the validity of my life story.

I do know life will be some kind of okay, but also I understand God’s definition of okay and my definition do not necessarily overlap. I do know I am enough. I am loved. I am valued. Just as I am.

But feelings don’t always line up with what I know; they’re mutinous little buggers with angst-filled questions. Is my life really going to be okay even though I don’t seem to be able to have biological children? Is my life really going to be okay if our adoption agency decides we’re crazy people who shouldn’t have children?

Why wouldn’t it be okay? Because the narrative I hear from so many people (and I whisper it to myself too) is that life without children is not quite enough. I’m not quite as human as the other people with children. I’m not quite a “real” adult without children. Whatever that even means.

I call it bogus when somebody feels that about himself or herself. But, it’s sneakier with my own story. I swallow that lie so often before I even know what hit me.

The problem is the lies aren’t obvious.

The lies I swallow get intertwined in the narratives we tell about life, about “normal” human experience. The assumption that life looks like going to school, getting a 9-5 job, getting married, having babies, grandchildren, and so on. The lies are buried deep in our generic small talk questions. They’re in the assumptions of authors about their intended audiences. Perhaps, the lies are connected to notions of womanhood; so much of womanhood and femininity is culturally connected to motherhood — for good or bad.

Once I’ve drank the vial of rat poison lies, I see the tiny fissures in my story, the four pregnancy losses and years of barrenness, like those tiny imperfections in the mug. The things I didn’t want, the painful, broken things, fill up my vision.

“Give thanks for a little, and you will find a lot.”

Here’s my antidote for the rat poison lies.

Stepping back a little and looking for the beauty. I can’t see the beauty in the vast majority of life when it’s two inches from my face. Nobody can.

All the little fissures and imperfections are front and center, and they dominate my entire field of vision. Everything gets distorted when we’re too close to it.

It’s like my paranoia about eye make-up; I get frustrated when I can’t put eyeliner on perfectly, which is nearly every day that I bother putting on make-up. Make-up is not my gift, but I like to dabble with it anyway. I have to remind myself: nobody else is looking at my eye makeup an inch away from my face. If I take a step back, suddenly everything gets put back into perspective and bearable.

Those nagging things don’t disappear with a little distance. They’re merely put into perspective.

Settled at a normal distance I see the mug in perspective. Its whimsy and flaws work together. The knobby mug still fits perfectly in my grip, the heat from the coffee warming my palm. The mug is still cheerful and funky. The weight comforts as I curl my hand around it. The bumpy texture serves as a playground for my anxious fingers.

Perspective makes all the difference.

While the 35th birthday was an unwelcome reminder of the infertility story, I also had profound moments of knowing I am loved. By J. By family. By a couple of dear friends.

And, readers, I hope you have moments like this in your life, too.

Moments where you know a crucial person (or persons) sees you — all of you, not just image management you — and loves you. Maybe this experience is what grace feels like, like gentle warmth radiating from your stomach all the way to your toes and fingers. Like being wrapped in an emotional fluffy blanket. You feel you don’t quite deserve what you’re receiving, but the people know what they’re offering and give it anyway.

You are worth loving because of your very existence.

And yet I think love always comes to us in spite of ourselves rather than because of ourselves. Maybe this is why love feels like grace to me. Because we are loved, then we become awesome in the eyes of someone. Not because we are awesome, and then we become loved by others. We don’t earn love. Though heaven knows, we all get caught in the trap of trying.

So, if this is the gift of 35 — recognizing love as grace and feeling the grace poured out on me by others — then this is worth celebrating. For this is overwhelmingly beautiful to experience. And this is something I hope I pay forward.

Even knowing my flaws (and, in some cases, because of the imperfections), these friends and family see the beauty in me and in my story. My story is not less, even as it diverges from people around me.  Still, I am loved. I am seen. I am known. I am welcome.

And in thinking about my struggle with 35, I decided to cherish the mug as a reminder about life. The mug’s imperfections are not a reason to abandon it to the back of the cabinet; instead, they’re a reminder to be gracious with myself and look at my life with some perspective, too.

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