Today is my birthday. Last year, when I turned 40, I used the occasion to write an update on the topic of discomfort. My husband and I had just concluded a very difficult, uncomfortable year hashing out what we should be doing with our lives and whether that included moving homes, and we were gearing up for a potentially difficult, uncomfortable year. Added to the regular chaos of raising four young children was a 5-month sabbatical in Berkeley, California (including a venture into homeschooling), followed immediately by summer “vacation” and a local move, and then the start of the new school year.
If you’re a regular reader, you know this.
A year ago, I embraced this discomfort as an opportunity for growth and change. I still believe that, but I have to admit that part of me was expecting a break sooner or later. If you’d asked the me of a year ago how I thought I would feel on my next birthday, my honest answer would’ve been: “Relieved and settled.” With multiple moves behind me, and with our family and our stuff installed at last in what we hope will be our final home, I anticipated that this would be the year when I could relax and breathe again.
Turns out that just because you’re not moving doesn’t mean that you’re settled.
Lest you think this post is about to veer into whiny ingratitude: Don’t worry. I have a loooong list of things to be grateful for, and I know it. I have a loving, supportive, and healthy family. My husband likes to cook. My daughters are growing up, and becoming more fun and interesting and enjoyable every day. As of this year, all of our girls are in some sort of school at least a few days each week, and I even get to homeschool one of them, which is one of the most special, fulfilling, and challenging things I’ve ever done.
And this new home: A year ago, I could never have imagined what a gift it would be. It is full of light, and its size, layout, and spirit just work for our family. Then there’s the land. I’m not sure that I can even begin to do written justice to the land yet: the beautiful rolling green fields that I see out every window, where we walk the dog and watch butterflies and collect milkweed pods in order to send their feathery seeds into the wind.
All of this is so, so good.
But moving a family of six takes an awful lot of cleaning, and packing, and unpacking, and cleaning again. We spent the better part of a month lifting boxes and climbing stairs and pushing vacuums and wielding paintbrushes, and we are exhausted.
Our old house is still on the market, and we expect it to sit on the market through the winter: The Vermont real estate market is slow on a good day, and it appears that we may have chosen a bad day to put our house up for sale. We will survive, but obviously this isn’t ideal.
And that land, that beautiful land: We have plans for it. Plans that involve garden beds and brush hogs and tree cutting and chicken fencing. My to-do list these days includes things like: Research building compost bins from pallets, and Borrow Tricia’s pickup truck for bulk mulch and soil.
Then there are some days that are just mice-in-the-glove-compartment, beavers-felling-backyard-trees, blueberry-bushes-mysteriously-dropping-leaves, one-child-has-Lyme-disease type of days. I’m not kidding: That was one morning. Later that day, my husband came in and said, “There’s a rabid skunk in the shed,” and I just shrugged in resignation, because of course there was. (There wasn’t: He was kidding.)
Some of our girls had difficult transitions to school. My husband is stressed about going back to teaching after a year’s sabbatical, with tenure looming a year away. We have aches and pains. And there are still big, huge “What are we going to do next?” decisions that we need to discuss, but we can’t quite seem to find the time because once the girls are (finally!) asleep at night we’re just too sore and exhausted to do anything other than eat popcorn and read.
What I’m saying is: One year later, we’re hardly “relieved and settled.” We are still smack in the middle of uncomfortable.
So, in a way, I got my wish: I concluded last year’s birthday blog post with: “I hope to be uncomfortable for a long time to come.”
But, you see, I didn’t really believe that. In my heart of hearts, I thought that discomfort was like a mountain peak. Maybe you spent a year struggling uphill, but then you got a break. You got to look around at the stunning views, celebrating how far you’d come. You got to catch your breath.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in a year’s time, it’s that life doesn’t guarantee you a break. Sometimes you don’t get to catch your breath. Life is not plotted out like a race, with water stations for optimal comfort.
I have known all of this. I have written versions of this same thing before. Still, every time I’ve climbed up one mountain only to find that there’s another peak right in front of me, or that the descent is even more difficult than the ascent, my knee-jerk reaction is: “That’s SO UNFAIR!”
But here, I think, is some good news:
With age does come the opportunity to learn from our past in order to shape more realistic expectations for the present. We consider things unfair when they’re unexpected. But if I channel my four decades of experience into the expectation that life will be hard, then it won’t seem so unfair when it is. I’ll waste less time being angry when I don’t get a break, and I’ll be gratefully surprised when I do find rest.
And a word on rest: Because life doesn’t simply hand us moments of relief and comfort, we must become adept at grabbing them for ourselves. I’m slowly learning to go to bed earlier and wake up earlier so that I can claim more quiet hours, to say no to things that will clutter up our family’s calendar with needless busy-ness, and to spend as little time as possible in front of screens.
So my birthday prescription for optimal mental, physical, and spiritual health combines lowered expectations with being proactive about rest.
How am I doing with that? Honestly, I struggle. (Also, my children seem hell-bent on destroying any chance I have to rest.) But I cling to the rope of knowing that I am not alone on this climb.
It is all a work in progress: Our family, our land, life. Frequently uncomfortable and exhausting, with quick and surprising moments of joy and relief. But I’ll leave you with this quote by Henry David Thoreau, which I’ve been reflecting upon this birthday week: “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”