Last week. Starbucks was crowded so I was sitting at the communal table next to two twenty-something girls. I covertly watched them- their messy hair, big sunglasses, last night’s mascara casually smeared in the right way. The black-haired one sighed, and pushed her purple sunglasses up higher on her head. “I really need to get my life together”, she said. “Yes,” the other one said, “we really do. I mean, we’re like so far from together.”
I smiled because I remembered how many times I’ve said those words. For the first time since I turned forty, I feel proud of it. I’m not making fun of these girls- I achingly remember the uncertainty of my twenties. I knew nothing, the shape of my life and what it would contain was maddeningly blurry and insubstantial. I wanted a plan, I wanted to know who I was, I wanted to know it would all be okay. I wanted to know I would not end up alone and in a job I hated, or not alone but with a guy that constantly withheld love for weeks or months and then poured it out on me all at once in a way that was intoxicating but too much to handle, or with a guy that bored me, or with a guy that was perfect for me but in a job that was suffocating and paid me no money and we would live in a crappy apartment in West Hollywood for the rest of my life while all my friends bought houses and had babies. Basically I was afraid of not knowing what I wanted, and then not ever getting anything right because I didn’t know what to ask for. I spent hours with my best friends, endlessly discussing ourselves and the different versions we were trying on, the lives we were auditioning, the lives we wanted or didn’t want, the lives we feared. This is what twenty should be- trying to get it together. Trying to identify what it is that you want, and then stitching it together with that other thing that you discover you need, and so on. Searching each thread for the right job, the right city, the right man, the right career, the right passions, the right life.
As I was listening to these girls, I was also reading Lindsey Mead’s awesome ode to turning 40 (This is 40) and nodding along. As Lindsey says, these are the “in between years, the thick, hot heart of life’s grand pageant, busy and rich and exhausting, overflowing with demands, responsibilities, and love”. I nodded along, yes, because I feel so in-between, in the middle, at the top of the roller coaster; and yet, I also feel like I’ve arrived somewhere. I’m not trying to get my life together anymore, I realize, I am just trying to keep it together. I want to tell my twenty-five year old self- relax. You will find the right husband, you will find the right-enough career path to get you where you need to be, you will have a house you love, and friends you cherish, kids that will complete you and tear you up in ways you didn’t know you needed, and a passion for something that makes everything make sense. But when you find it, you have to keep it all together. Life with kids is messy and someone has to make sure everything doesn’t unravel. And that’s you, that’s 40.
My life is together, as in I have gathered all these people and things that mean so, so much to me, and I hold them against me every night. But what my twenty-five year old self did not know is how scary a life together can be. Because now I have so, so much to lose. I can’t breathe sometimes with the weight of knowing this. It’s the ordinary things that remind me.
It’s O’s shoes kicked haphazardly across the entry rug, I’s baby dolls and trail of diapers she has taken from my bag and used for her own babies, Mike’s computer bag perfectly organized and zipped in the same place every night. I look at these things and I feel it in my chest- the flutter of love that can swirl itself into a tornado of fear if I let it. This daily litter of books and papers and mail and sippy cups and crayons and Lego’s and tiny shoes is the evidence of my life, and sometimes they haunt me, these things that are useless without the people they belong to. I don’t know what it is about a child’s shoe that can send me running upstairs to lie down next to O, to make sure he is still breathing, to make sure he is okay, to make sure he knows he is loved. In the still of the night, everything seems to breathe with what ifs.
It’s the drawings I found on the shower door yesterday morning. As the steam enveloped the shower, a princess, a castle, the moon, a heart with my daughter’s name inside it, all bloomed into life. I wasn’t there, but knew my husband had drawn these to please our daughter. I could see her, standing in her mermaid pajamas, her round tummy, her crazy swirling curls, her gap-toothed grin, holding her purse and her baby and her loveys, shouting “A princess! The moooon! Again, daddy, again!”. Evidence of love, of this life I share, evidence of everything I have pulled together.
It’s 3 am last night, and a shout from upstairs, and a bad dream and holding him close and noticing how he doesn’t fit quite as well anymore, but still little enough that my arm around him can keep the bad dreams at bay. I lay there longer than I had to, holding him, trying not to cry, keeping it together.