My kids started school yesterday. (We do it early here in Georgia, but they get a few scattered breaks throughout the year.) They woke up excited, hopped on the bus with friends, and came home with details and excitement to spare. But when we sat around the dinner table last night, it somehow felt like there was no break at all. Like I was just doing this with a kindergartener and a second grader, and I blinked, and now I guess we are here with a first grader and a third grader. The days are swirling so fast.
Lying in bed last night, I was thinking of what this feels like lately. I thought about when someone has a stack of papers or a handful or receipts or something, and then the wind blows and it takes the pieces flying in all directions across a parking lot or a busy sidewalk. The person flails around unsuccessfully trying to get them back as they blow away. That is my life lately. The second I think it is in my hands, it has flown away and we are on to a new stage.
They got back from their Europe trip just over a week ago. All they wanted to do was lie down in a pile of blankets and watch a movie, and I was happy to play along. There is a lot of push and pull happening for all three of us lately. Independence and time apart this summer, and then remembering what home feels like.
Yesterday I waved kids off from our crowded bus stop for the fourth year. Four. I can hardly believe that somehow. We have been here in this shape with these four walls for almost half of Jude’s life and most of Norah’s. This is not a transition year at all for us. No fresh start at a new school for anyone. Norah has the same teacher Jude had two years ago. We are familiar to one another, and she hugged me as I walked into the meet and greet a few days ago. I lingered at the bus stop today with a hot coffee mug and other moms who know me well and see my kids everyday. We’ve made a cocoon here, and I’m feeling more than ever that it is what I once prayed for — peace and home and roots that have grown deep in this place. When I have eyes to see that, I understand that I lack for nothing.
I listened to the latest episode of Spiritualish yesterday afternoon as I cleaned in my quiet house while the kids were gone. One of the hosts is in her mid-forties and a mother to a teenager, and the frame of the entire episode was how midlife and adolescence are essentially the same thing. Or that maybe we at least have something to learn from reflecting on what our issues were in adolescence and perhaps they just reappear in another form in midlife. This thought blew my mind and struck a chord that I keep thinking about and turning over again and again in my head.
I think what we all wanted in adolescence was the same thing – freedom and autonomy and faces that looked back at us with a recognition of who we really are. And I’d venture to say that is what people want in midlife as well.
When I taught high school, I could see so clearly that is what my students wanted, but I could also see that some students really got it and went about chasing those things in a way that worked — exploring and coming to know themselves better, making choices that were true to themselves, and sometimes challenging authority but in a thoughtful and authentic way that helped to shape the path they were carving for themselves. And of course some students chased those things in all the wrong ways — pretending to be something they were not, self-destructive behaviors and distractions, trying on relationships that anyone could see were not working for them, and pushing against authority and traditional wisdom just to prove something.
And here I am in midlife (or close to it. Is late 30’s midlife yet?) and I watch my peers doing the same thing. It is exactly the same. When we were teenagers, we realized that the structure and life we’d known was not working for us anymore. It’s still the same thing at midlife. The status quo is not working for anyone anymore, and you have two options: chasing all the wrong things and continuing to play the game or doing that hard work of self-exploration and having the courage to truly hit the reset button on aspects of our lives that are simply not working anymore. I suppose that is the difference between a midlife crisis (doing it all wrong) and a midlife awakening (doing it right). But at the root, we all want the same things.
I’m not certain where I am going with this except to say that this cocoon has felt so nice, and it is warm and familiar here, and I have all the things I have prayed for. But also I feel like I’m just getting started, and as I grow closer and closer to my 40th year, I can see that adolescence brewing again. Maybe I’ve been lucky that the storm that happened in my mid-thirties blew away anything that wasn’t working for me so that I could make new roots and start again and build my life intentionally from the ground up. In Tiny Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed writes a letter to a class of college graduates and tells them, “About eight of the ten things you have decided about yourself will over time prove to be false. The other two things will prove to be so true that you’ll look back in twenty years and howl.” I am almost to that 20 year mark, and sometimes I do feel like howling when I see what remains that I always knew deep down was true. That weird sense of deja vu when you don’t know where the years have gone or how you got here, but you always knew you’d feel like this.
Everyday brings new challenges with my kids and within my own self. Every morning brings a million tasks to be accomplished before we go to bed to wake up tomorrow and do it all again. The challenge is to carve a meaningful life that feels true in the midst of tackling so many small things.
Last night Norah leaned a little too hard on a small table in the corner of my living room. It toppled over and sent a glass candle crashing in a hundred pieces on the floor. It was nothing sentimental or valuable, but the commotion and drama made us all jump. I scooped it up and vacuumed the tiny pieces while she cried. I told her it was fine, but the tears were flowing anyway.
A few minutes later, she went upstairs for a bath, and she said, “You know what, Mama? Practice does not make perfect.” I asked her what she meant, and she said that today at school her teacher told them there is no such thing as perfect. “Practice makes better,” she explained.
I think maybe we never completely figure it out, do we? I don’t trust anyone who says they have. We practice and we practice and we get better, and eventually our lives start to look more like our own and our freedom starts to feel more vast everyday. We pretend to outgrow our old desires, but really we want the same things at 16 and at 36 and at 46. And if we do it the right way, with a little courage and intention, we move closer and closer with every year.