The Reality Tree

I am not a fan of the holidays. I think I’ve made that clear. I do love one holiday tradition, though. Last year, after we bought our pandemic house, we bought a pandemic Christmas tree to match the new house. It’s not the 9 foot tree or the lights on the tree that make me happy. It’s the ornaments Steve and I have collected and curated over the past 26 and a half years. Some were gifts from friends. Some we bought to remember trips or events. Some the boys picked out.

My favorites are the ones we had personalized for our family members. Each of us have our own ornament on the tree. We have one too for each of the pets we have had. And each time I put those ornaments on the tree it’s a walk down memory lane. It makes our tree ours. And every night when I light the tree and sit and look at these ornaments, I see my life, not the life I was given, but the life I built for myself. Every ornament, from the wooden sea turtle we purchased in Kauai to the silver camper I gave Steve to represent our Airstream dreams to the ornament our friends had made that looks exactly like our Ruby dog, makes me happy. The tree as a whole is a representation of my life now, and as I look at it I feel proud and grateful.

The stress of the holidays, the over-the-top and unnecessary shopping, the gift wrapping, the obligations, all of it I could do without. But the tree, the tree I like because it is the antithesis of the holiday insanity. It is home and heart and love and history. It grounds me when everything else is swirling like December snow. It’s my anchor to what is real.

Life Isn’t Chess: You Can’t Go Back, So Just Go Forward

In April of 2006, just before our sons turned 4 and 6, we traveled to Captiva Island, Florida, to give them a taste of beach life. Because we are a landlocked, mile high family, we waited to make the long trip to a beautiful island until we were certain the boys would enjoy the experience (and we wouldn’t lose it on a four-hour flight with them). While we were there, we shuffled between the resort pool and the shell-strewn beach. The boys loved racing from the surf and building sand castles. We visited the famous Bubble Room for one dinner, and another night we ate ice cream for dinner and chased it with salt water taffy and all-day suckers. We saw a couple manatees near the boat docks. We took a sunset cruise to look for dolphins. And at the end of the trip, my husband took an epic photo of the boys and I, which became one of my all-time favorites.

April 2006

During the lockdowns and the time spent at home during 2020, I spent my some of my time dreaming of returning to Captiva with the boys. We were desperate for a beach trip after being stuck in our landlocked state for so long. I booked a 3-bedroom condo at the same resort we visited last time. We were in a different part of the resort this time around, closer to public restaurants and to the Starbucks just outside the resort entrance, but the rental was bigger and afforded the boys their own rooms. We spent a lot of time at the beach, but didn’t visit the pools because the boys were a bit too big for the kiddie waterslide now. Instead, we did some kayaking through mangroves on nearby Sanibel Island. We ate at the Bubble Room again and loved it. We wanted to repeat our ice cream dinner, but didn’t have the right resort card to gain access, which was a total bummer. Still, we discovered another restaurant that we loved so much we ate there twice. We saw more manatees this time than last time, including a momma and her baby off the docks outside our condo and another one that swam by us while we were in the surf in the Gulf. And on one clear evening, we went back to the spot where we took my favorite photo and attempted to recreate it as best we could. The palm trees were bigger, the boys were bigger, but the beauty of the moment was the same.

May 2021

When you have young kids, people love to tell you that you should cherish those moments because they go by so fast. They aren’t wrong. They fly by like they’re on a Japanese bullet train. But parenting is, from day one, a growth enterprise. There is no going backwards, as it’s meant to be a forward endeavor. So don’t let anyone convince you that watching your kids grow, change, and eventually move on into their own lives is somehow a negative, something to be depressed about. It’s the greatest gift a parent can receive. If you don’t believe me, ask a parent who has lost a child. As memorable as our trip was in 2006, it was better in 2021. I’m grateful we’ve made it this far together, and no matter what happens from here I will cherish ALL the memories, not just the ones from when the boys were small.

Let The Holiday Season Commence, I Guess

I don’t know how it is going where you live, but in our neighborhood the holidays begin now, apparently. Many homes have their holidays lights up, and they are turned on nightly. It’s a little early for me. I don’t want my holidays combined like a vanilla/chocolate swirl soft serve. I want to suck every last moment out of fall and savor every drop of pumpkin spice latte. I don’t even want to think about putting a tree up until the last of the pumpkin pie slices and bites of turkey have been consumed. What is the big rush, anyway? The Christmas season in our home exists for five, precious, ephemeral weeks, and I think that is what makes them more special. It appears I am in the minority, though, because here we are, all lit up like I am already behind on holiday shopping and wrapping.

There is only one holiday component that is allowed to begin before Thanksgiving, and that is the preparation for our yearly holiday card. The family holiday card is something we’ve done since Thing One arrived in 2001. We have not missed one year of this tradition. We know that in a couple years it’s likely that the photos on these cards will change as the boys move on into their own lives, but Steve and I will continue sending out holiday cards as long as the post office continues functioning. It may be old fashioned, but we enjoy it and there’s no stopping now.

Today I started the process for this year’s cards. I began looking online for outfits for the family photos. In the past, I have gone in person to Gap, Old Navy, or J Crew to try to piece together clothing that would coordinate but not be super matchy-matchy. But with a thirteen-week-old puppy in the house, I have too little time for those shenanigans so I opened my browser and got busy. It didn’t go as well as expected, so in the end today I decided to shop in our closets for suitable photo attire. Without too much digging, it was mission accomplished. Next up: location scouting.

We’ve never had a paid, professional photo taken for these cards. We do them ourselves, which makes them feel less polished and more, well, us, I think. We have had, on a few occasions, a family member or friend snap photos for us after Thanksgiving Day or after we cut down our Christmas tree. More recently, however, Steve has set up his fancy camera on a tripod at our chosen location. Capturing a decent photo has not always been easy. For starters, when the boys were younger, they seemed had an aversion to looking directly at camera. So, we would take 30-40 shots, sometimes pausing to run back into the car to warm up because it was so cold. Some years, we had to go with a photo that was not what we really wanted but was the best we could get. The process has not always been ideal. Often there are myriad complaints. Sometimes there are cross words. In the distant past, there may have been threats, bribes, or ultimatums in effect. I always have the final say over the photo we use because this tradition is my baby. I love putting together and sending out holidays cards, even as the number of them we receive has dwindled because others have given up on the expense, time suck, and frustration of this perhaps outdated holiday tradition.

I’m still not quite ready to let this go. I’ve kept a book containing our holiday photos over the years. It’s fun, if a bit sobering, to view these now. Each photo has a story or memory attached. There was the year that Joe insisted on having his shark, Bruce, in the photo. There was the year we took our holiday photos in Hawaii dressed like typical Hawaiian tourists. There was also the infamous year the boys had bowl cuts and were looking pretty spiffy. I am grateful, however, that we have persisted with this tradition because we will forever have these memories and photos of our time with our sons as they grew, no matter what the future holds.

You Don’t Have To Let Go Of Everything At Once

Are you kidding me, Colorado?

For two decades now, we have gone to the corn maze with our sons before Halloween. It started in 2001, when we took four month old Joe to Anderson Farms. We have been when it was 80 and sunny. We have been when the temperature dropped and we were finishing the maze in the snow. We have been when we had the boys in Baby Bjorn carriers, then in wagons, and then when we raced as teams (boys versus us) to see who would emerge triumphant. It is one of the traditions we made and kept over the years. It was definitely different this year with Joe off at college, but we decided we weren’t ready to let this go.

The map Luke used

It was about 60 degrees at 10:10 a.m. when we entered the maze. The sky was full of cirrus clouds, and the leaves on the cottonwoods were amazing. Luke has a crazy good ability to read maps, so he told us we could finish both sections of the maze in 15 minutes. I told him it would take at least 30. With this challenge, he started leading us through the maze. In five minutes he had us through the smaller section of the maze. I was a little shocked. I knew he was good, but this was a little over the top. I started to suspect that this is why he and his brother have beaten us through the maze three years running. We did get close one year, but not close enough. I thought it was because Steve and I were old and slow. It was actually because Luke was Magellan in his former life.

Luke leading the way

Luke raced us through the second part of the maze. I kept complaining that although there are seven miles of paths in this maze, I was going to get in less than one mile of walking because he was so damn efficient. In the end, I wasn’t half wrong. We reached the exit for the second part of the maze at 10:36. I tried to explain to Luke that corn mazes aren’t about speed, but Luke told me I didn’t raise quitters. He thinks successfully navigating corn mazes it is about efficiency and speed. I tend to disagree. I think corn mazes are meant to be wandered through in awe, with a plan of escaping at some point but not until you’ve sucked every last bit of glory out of fall before dreaded winter arrives. But I was not going to complain about our difference of opinion because any time with our high school senior is a good thing.

I think that when both boys are gone next year, Steve and I will still work to keep this tradition alive, even if it is just the two of us. I can’t see giving this up. At its worst, it’s a cold, wet day in a muddy cornfield. At its best, it’s a beautiful morning walk in nature under a glorious fall sky.

You can’t keep your kids from growing up and leaving you, but you can keep some things in tact so that if they ever return (maybe with their own children) they know where to find you.

Thing Two and I

Turns Out Dr. Spock Was Right

“Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.” ~Dr. Benjamin Spock

Two little bears and one mama bear

Today I was thinking about the times in my twenty years as a parent when I was brave enough to follow my gut, to speak up for my children, to make the right choices for them in the face of opposition from medical professionals, family members, friends, and even random strangers who couldn’t keep from speaking up about something they knew nothing about and that was none of their business. Sometimes I made these bold moves with my voice shaking. Sometimes I made them unconsciously, simply changing a behavior without considering why I had. No matter how I managed to summon the courage in those situations, though, I trusted myself. And, as it turns out, I intuitively knew a lot more than I thought I did.

When most kids their age were starting first grade, I thought it wise to keep both our boys back a year and give them a second kindergarten experience. I simply didn’t feel they were ready. I just kept thinking that an extra year to be a child, to build basic skills, could never be a bad thing. It was odd watching boys they knew from playgroup jump ahead of them in school. It was odder still when boys who were younger than they were suddenly were in the same grade. In the end, both boys ended up being diagnosed with learning disabilities, and the extra year allowed them to fit in with their fellow students until we figured out what they needed. If they had gone to school “on time” with other children their age, they would not have been able to keep up. They weren’t ready then. Neither boy has suffered for the extra time we suggested they take to get to where they needed to be.

When Joe was 7 and finishing first grade, I remember him crying and telling me he didn’t want to go to second grade. He hated school. He actually said to me, “I’m the dumbest person in my class” (that story here). That broke my heart because 1) I knew he was not dumb at all and 2) how do you fix the shattered self-esteem of a 7 year old? So, I went out on a limb and took him to Children’s Hospital in Denver to be evaluated for ADD after Joe’s occupational therapist suggested it. It took less than an hour spent with two child psychologists and one child psychiatrist before they took me aside and told me they were positive Joe had ADHD. They suggested trying him on a low dosage of Concerta, the slow-release version of Ritalin. Joe and I agreed he should try it. Several friends thought I was crazy. How could I put my young son on a Schedule II drug? Three days after he started on it, Joe, then 8, told me he finally felt like himself. That medication changed the trajectory of his life. It allowed him to focus at school, to trust himself, to make good decisions, to grow his self-esteem. It allowed him to graduate high school with a 3.8 GPA and gave him the opportunity to be accepted at a well-respected, private liberal arts college. He and I have zero regrets about this decision.

When I told Joe’s pediatrician at his next appointment about his new prescription, he read me the riot act for not consulting him first. Didn’t I know that he could have evaluated Joe? Why wouldn’t I consult him first? He was his doctor, after all. I looked that doctor square in the face and, with a voice rising from somewhere in my gut I did not know I had, told him, “Yes. You are his doctor. You should have diagnosed this already based on all your visits with him and all the forms we filled out for you and the tests you yourself gave him in your office.” He huffed out of the room. Joe was horrified. I told him everything would be fine, and we would be finding another doctor. Ten minutes later, to his credit, the doctor returned with Joe’s chart and admitted he should have caught it. We found another pediatrician anyway.

The next pediatrician came recommended to us by a couple friends as well as Luke’s dyslexia tutor who knew him personally. The boys were at that office for six years. During that time, they became teenagers. When the doctor conducted his physical exams of the boys, I stayed in the room. I never allowed them to be alone with the doctor during the physical exam when they were undressed, even though they might have felt it invaded their privacy. To combat that, I would turn to face the wall when the doctor checked their genitalia. My main reason for remaining in the room was that the boys were not great at sharing information, and I didn’t want to miss out on what the doctor was saying or finding. My secondary reason was that when I would ask the boys on the way into the office if they wanted me to stay in the room, they always did. I knew it made me seem like a meddling, overprotective, helicopter parent. I did not care. As it turned out, that doctor was one day no longer at the practice. He was being investigated regarding claims made by other parents of inappropriate sexual touching during exams. We dodged a bullet because I stuck with my gut.

If you are a new parent, a soon-to-be parent, or a parent who is constantly questioning your decisions about your children in the present moment, I’m here to tell you that what Dr. Spock said is true. Trust yourself. Trust your intuition. No one knows your child as well as you do. Listen to them. Listen to your heart. Meet them where they are and not where you hoped or wanted them to be. And then do whatever the damn hell you want to raise your child(ren) the way that makes the most sense for your family. Ignore the naysayers, the comment makers, and the nosey Bakers. You know more than you think you do, even when you aren’t aware of it.

My pride and joy…both of them

The Best Job I Never Had

A funny thing is happening in my life. People are suddenly deeply interested in my career choice. For twenty years, I have been a homemaker and 24/7 support staff for my children. During this time, when people would ask me what I did for a living and I would respond as I just have, they would immediately lose interest in their line of questioning. I figured that was either because they didn’t want further elucidation on my career staying with my children, perhaps hoping to avoid what they assumed would be inevitable potty talk or presentation of myriad baby photos, or because they figured that I had no intelligent things to say because I was only a homemaker and caregiver with no perceivable goals, accomplishments, or interests. There were many times at parties and social events when I felt ostensibly invisible. In this country, you are only as important as your job. Taking care of children and a home is undervalued when held up to other careers.

Recently, however, it seems many people I know are curious about my future plans. I’m assuming this sudden concern is because our youngest is finishing up the first quarter of his last year of high school. The question posed is always the same: “What are you going to do with yourself once both boys are off at college?” After decades of no one having any interest in my daily goings-on, I have found myself at a loss for a response to this question. I assume most people pose the question because they are wondering what work I will do now that my current employers no longer need me. Some people have asked if I will go back to my previous career as a scientific and technical editor. Some people have asked if I’m planning to go back to school since I have been out of the work force for so long and might need some retraining. Other people suggest maybe I could work at Starbucks or Walmart because my resume is a little lackluster what with the twenty year hiatus I’ve had. Their concern for my future is a little puzzling given their previous lack of interest in the goings on in my life.

So, I am going to take a minute to demystify my plans so people can stop worrying about what I will do with the extra hours I’ll be saddled with once Luke graduates next June. My plan is to retire. My tour of duty is over, so I am going to find myself again. Maybe I will work on writing. Maybe I will practice a lot more yoga and ride my bike. Maybe I will travel and visit friends I haven’t spent time with in far too long. Maybe I will work on creating new recipes that fit my old lady diet. Maybe I will play drums in a garage band. Maybe I will make a bunch of AARP friends and play pickleball. Maybe I’ll get weekly massages. Maybe I’ll get bored with all that and find a part-time paying job or volunteer at an organization that feeds my soul. Maybe I’ll do a little bit of all of it. I have no idea. But after twenty years of having my life schedule filled in with other people’s plans, I’m looking forward to making plans of my own, whatever that might look like. And the beautiful thing about retiring from a non-paying job is that I won’t be missing a paycheck. So, win-win.

I’ve been lucky and I’m still lucky. I get to retire from a non-paying job no one thought I was doing all these years. At least now I’ll have an answer when someone asks me what I do. When I meet someone new and they ask me what I did before I retired, though, I’m going to have to tell them I had a classified job with the US government so the conversations ends there. Life is funny sometimes.

The Transition Trip

I love seeing my sons together, even if it is via a Snap map

As a parent of a high school senior, the college search is often on my radar. After successfully launching Joe in person at his college of choice in January, I began to work with Luke on his search. To that end, back in March, I took Luke to get a feel for a Reed College in Portland, which at the time was his number one choice. Then, in June, we flew to the northeast because he wanted to visit Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. After that, I decided he needed to see some schools in the middle of the country, a little closer to home, so we visited three colleges in Minnesota. The schools on Luke’s list have largely stayed the same, but the order he has them ranked in has evolved several times. It’s been kind of exciting to see his process at work.

This weekend Luke is in Walla Walla, Washington, visiting Joe at Whitman College. Today he toured the campus and sat in on an information session. Initially, Luke had no desire to attend his brother’s school of choice because he was intent on finally setting himself apart from Joe. The boys have attended the same schools together since Luke started kindergarten, so I didn’t blame him for wanting to step out of his older brother’s shadow. Still, I couldn’t help but selfishly want them to end up at the same place again. They would still be a thousand miles from home, but they would be there together, at least for part of the time until Joe graduated. They could share a car and have family there for emotional support. It made sense to me, but it was never my choice to make so I decided to let it go and let the chips fall where they may.

Luke told me recently that Whitman had moved into the top spot for him. I think after doing a cost/benefit analysis of his situation, he realized that he would have time to make his own way as an upperclassman after his brother had graduated and gone on. And, in the meantime, he would have a support system at school, someone who could give him advice on professors and activities and dorms. He could start down his own path, make his own friends, but not be taking such a huge leap on living across the country alone. Joe could be a safety net for him as he branched out for the first time as an adult. Luke, for all his ideas and occasionally stubborn views about his future, usually lands squarely on the wisest choice.

Nothing is definite until the five schools Luke will apply to make their decisions, but I am solidly behind his selections and don’t think he could go wrong with any of them. Would I like it if he ended up with his brother in small town Walla Walla with its charming downtown, 140 local wineries, beautiful scenery, and pleasant weather? No. I would love it. I fell in love with Walla Walla two years ago when I toured Whitman with Joe the first time. But I will have to pull back my enthusiasm until the dust settles. It’s hard to be a parent as your kids transition into adulthood. What was once settled and routine and in your control gets upended. It’s your turn to go along for the ride. I keep wondering where we will end up.

For now, I will just be grateful that the two are together again tonight. All is right in my world. And probably in theirs too.

The Last First Day Of School

The big blue bear at the Denver Convention Center is one of my favorite sculptures in town

We went downtown tonight for the first time since Mother’s Day to take our rising high school senior to a college fair. It was at the convention center, and they staggered arrival times to keep the crowds down. Everyone was wearing masks. Still, a college fair is a college fair, and it was fun to watch Luke as he interacted with admissions personnel from five different small, liberal arts colleges. Luke has always been ready for this. He famously told us when he was seven that he was, and I quote, “Ready to find a wife, have some kids, and just get on with my life.” He is so ready to start his adventure. And I am almost ready to witness that amazing transformation. I’m a little shocked that we’ve made it to his senior year, but then I still can’t seem to fathom that I’m 53, so there’s that.

I spent part of today washing bedding for Joe to take to his dorm room. I am trying to help him get his head in the game about what he wants to bring with him because I don’t want to be shipping things to him that he should have brought on our thousand-mile voyage to his college. He’s excited about going back. He only had one semester of college last year, so this will be his first full year experience. The sophomore dorm at his school is brand new, though, and quite posh. They have nine section lounges, each with their own full kitchen. The third floor, where he will reside, has a glass-encased meeting room (a fishbowl), a huge room with game tables, and a balcony with a fire pit to make S’mores. He will get a single room with a full-size bed and built-in shelving. He’s already bought wall art and a small, smart projector so he can watch tv and play video games in his room. Now, if he can remember to go to class we’ll be in good shape.

All of this got me thinking about how back to school used to be for me and what it is now. It used to consist of buying school supplies and a couple new outfits for them, taking a photo on the first day, and then relishing the peace and quiet at home. Things have changed. Now I will drive Joe out to Washington while Steve stays home to get Luke settled into his senior experience. Steve is still not back in the office, so even when Joe is gone and Luke is at school for the day, I will not be alone at home. If the past year has taught us anything, it’s how to be flexible and adapt. So, I should be totally ready to deal with the chaos next year when both boys are heading off to college at the same time. I’ve been training for this.

Do I miss the days when I dropped them off together for the first day of school, filled with anticipation about the year ahead? Maybe a little. But I’m finding that each new stage is replete with its own excitement and challenges. College is a short four years, nothing like the first twelve years of schooling. I am certain that by the time I get this adjustment worked out and am functioning like a well-oiled machine, Luke will be graduating. They already told me I can’t take first-day-of-school photos of them, so I will just have to make sure to get in an extra hug before I send them off into their futures.

The only question that remains is what will I do with mine?

Out Of My Hands

The other day I was sitting in the car with my youngest while we waited for the high school to let out. I glanced over at Luke who, per usual, was already busy scribbling responses in a vocabulary notebook. As he worked diligently to get ahead on his homework for the evening, my eyes were drawn to his hand. I don’t normally notice the boys while they are ensconced in their school work. But, sitting in the car without much to amuse myself, I got curious to see what he was working on. As I looked over, this is what caught my eye.

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How does he even do that?

Luke has one of the most unique ways of holding a writing implement I have ever seen. This visual sent me tripping down memory lane, thinking of all the teachers and aides and tutors who were flummoxed by it. It was labeled maladaptive. When he was young and spent hours drawing and coloring, his grip constantly broke crayons. Beginning in preschool, teachers pointed it out as if it made him a freak, the Hunchback of Handwriting. I was told he’d never be able to get through school with that grip. His hand would tire. His writing would be illegible. Quelle horreur! Occupational therapists spent hours working with him to redirect it, to bring it in line with what is considered “normal.” For my part, I consistently deferred to their assessment that the situation was untenable and needed to be corrected because, well, what did I know? I was no expert. So Luke continued to do therapy and classroom work and tutor time in an effort to fix it, even though he didn’t see it as broken. In the end, no matter the effort that went into ameliorating it, he reverted back to what was natural for him.

Eventually, I found a reason to stop thinking about his odd pencil grip. When his third grade teacher mentioned it in our first conference with her, I told her we really could not care less. It was a non-issue. She looked at me like I had three heads and rattled off the reasons I’d heard myriad times as to why this was, in fact, a huge deal. I slid his psychoeducational evaluation across the desk and told her improving our dyslexic son’s reading skills was our only focus. Nothing like a bigger problem to make a smaller problem diminish. His pencil grip and handwriting blipped off the radar screen. It became nothing more than an extension of Luke’s character: creative, unbridled, and charmingly quirky. Nothing wrong with that.

Years later, I one day noticed my own pencil grip. It also would be considered maladaptive. It too would make preschool teachers cringe. Maybe if I’d considered it sooner, I could have saved Luke all the hassle of hours in occupational therapy, knowing I’d survived school and life with my own weird grip. Like mother, like son? Sorry, buddy.

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Apparently I owe Luke an apology

The little things aren’t always the big things we imagine them to be. Our fruitless attempts to remediate Luke’s pencil grasp taught me to choose my parenting battles more wisely in the future, to listen to experts but to weigh their advice against the bigger picture and my own gut feelings. With time and practice with my Little-Miss-Rule-Follower self, I’ve started to recognize I don’t always have to follow common procedure. Some things will improve with time and some things aren’t worth the trouble. My son who, despite his dyslexia, struggled his way from two years behind reading level in third grade to become the kind of kid who at 12 was reading adult, historical non-fiction books like Band of Brothers for fun, never needed help getting a grip. He needed help teaching the adults to let go of one.

People ponder the question of nature versus nurture. I posit it’s a bit of both. Sometimes one wins out, sometimes the other. We would like to be in control, to manage, to create order from perceived chaos, but the universe seeks to teach us otherwise. Maybe it would be better if we accepted that sometimes things are simply out of our hands.

The Permission Slips

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had paralyzing self-doubt. Some people doubt their beauty. Some people doubt their intelligence. Some people doubt their athleticism or their math capabilities or their decision-making skills. I doubted the entirety of my self-worth. When others would point out my positives, their words might have well as been Sanskrit. I was unable to process their praise, much less accept it. I would deflect with self-deprecation, never responding with a simple “thank you” because I couldn’t own it. Still, those kind words, repeatedly offered, planted seeds. They gave me permission to entertain, at least briefly, the modest notion that maybe I was more than I felt I was.

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My 7th birthday…when someone else decided a scary clown candle wouldn’t give me nightmares

Since the beginning of January, I’ve been considering a party to celebrate my 50th birthday next month. But, every time I would think about it, I would determine it wasn’t worth the money. Or I’d create a guest list only to decide no one would forgo their Memorial Day weekend plans to celebrate with me. I stressed about choosing a place where my vegetarian, gluten free, dairy free, beer connoisseur, and junk-food junkie friends alike could eat. I worried people wouldn’t find parking. I borrowed all manner of trouble looking out for other people, while the number of excuses I invented to avoid looking out for myself was macabre. My potential birthday party morphed into a monstrous, self-imposed migraine, and I decided perhaps it wasn’t worth marking the occasion at all.

I mentioned this during my weekly mental health session on Monday. My therapist, knowing the only way out is through and the only way through requires action, decided I needed to plan this event. The exercise in putting myself first, in believing I mattered enough to selfishly devise an entire day around my own likes and wishes without considering what others would choose, would be excellent skill-building practice. As I sat in her office pondering my preferences, it hit me. I had no idea substantive idea what I love. I had no clear preferences. It’s a blindspot I developed over a lifetime of never feeling worth the effort of asserting myself. My default has been to allow other people to choose where we eat or what we do or where we travel or when we go. I learned early on that anything I wanted was silly and wrong, not to mention undeserved. So I let others take the lead because I lacked the clout to choose. I was never in the driver’s seat, only along for the ride. By asking me to uncover my preferences, she handed me a permission slip, carte blanche to put my hands on my hips and declare, “It’s my birthday and I can do whatever I want and if others don’t like it or feel inconvenienced then they can stay home and miss out.” I didn’t have to feel guilty about it, either. It was a required assignment. Insecure rule followers are comfortable being told what to do. It’s safe.

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My 21st birthday…when someone convinced me pleated shorts were a good look for me

Because I wasn’t sure what I wanted, I concentrated on what I didn’t want. My aversions, unlike my preferences, are clear cut. I didn’t want to go to a baseball game. I didn’t want to eat sushi or pasta. I didn’t want to cook or bartend for others. I didn’t want to invite people out of a sense of obligation or guilt. I didn’t want to stress small details. I did not want negative people, no matter long we’ve known each other, involved at all. I did not want a party where people bring black balloons and Depends to suggest I’m at the precipice of death. Little by little, through the process of elimination, my mind was freed to discover what I did want. I was able to create a game plan that felt life-affirming, fun, adventurous, memorable, and empowering.

And since it was my birthday and I could do what I wanted, I decided to rebrand it. So, I am not having a 50th birthday party. I’m having a twenty-four hour Re-Birth Day. I know I don’t want to operate my next 50 years through the same rubric. I’ve been slogging  through a quagmire of issues that have plagued me since childhood and, thanks to my insightful and supportive therapist, every day I feel better about myself, more confident, less willing to deal with bullshit and naysayers and energy suckers. This is where I start owning my life rather than letting others direct it. This is where I begin self-advocation. This is my damn story. I deserve to tell it without someone else’s narration. I no longer need an advisory board. It no longer serves me.

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My 48th birthday…when I didn’t even believe I deserved a chair

With these things in mind, I’m approaching the next seven weeks as a growth quest. I know I won’t be able to return all my demons to the Upside Down before my birthday, but I might be able to sequester the remaining troublemakers in a soundproof cage long enough to create a better headspace for taking positive action for myself. Initially, I needed someone else to hand me a signed permission slip to look out for myself. It was a jumping off point, and you have to start somewhere. I accept that…for now. With a little practice, I’m sure that by this time next year I’ll be writing all the permission slips I need. The year after that, maybe I won’t need any at all.

 

What in your life is calling you,

when all the noise is silenced,

the meetings adjourned, 

the lists laid aside, 

and the wild iris blooms by itself 

in the dark forest, 

what still pulls on your soul?

~ Rumi