34 candles & their reflections

image by Meredith Bell

Every year my mother writes a Christmas letter to send out with each of the mountain of cards to kith and kin. She limits it to a two page missive, which is fairly impressive as it contains a blurb for each of five children - complete with pictures- plus an update on herself and dad, an intro, and a final summation. This year, she asked us each to write our own paragraph.

My brother’s new girlfriend had her birthday on Monday and she turned 28. During the course of conversation about birthdays near Thanksgiving, which ages were the best, and so on, she called me “older.” (as in you are an older person, not you are older than me.) I laughed, felt the tiny sting of vanity and ingrained values of a society that values youth, and laughed some more. It wasn’t as big a sting as I would have thought just 6 years ago when I was 28. But perhaps the fact that I can seriously think the words just 6 years ago proves the point.

Last year, I wrote a blog post on Tumblr called “Reflections before 33” the night before my birthday. I think, perhaps, the truth is that we do not — at our core — change. Our situations alter and maybe as we grow older we become better at expressing and acting from our core being.

I have a packet of old Van Gogh reproduction postcards from a garage sale. I have never seen any of them except the self-portrait. A few of them, I don’t even like. It is funny to think that Van Gogh produced more paintings than the ones I know and love so dearly. That there are perhaps hundreds of Chagall paintings and that Picasso sketched on anything that was standing still for more than a minute. You think of each of them in association with their master works, with the creations you most love or hate. I have no idea if I have created a “master work” yet. I have done some paintings that I truly and fiercely love. I have made art that other folks adore. I have done some things that were clearly and definitely not.

I spent the better part of my life believing that you kept going, as an artist, until something hit. It might be a master work that is recognized or just the right thing at the right time, but if you kept going until something hit, everything would be suddenly and magically awesome. There would be money and the lingering audience of flash fame and all boundaries would cease to exist. Maybe that is actually true, but now I know that wishing and longing for a dream of the future blinds you to the present and twists everything you touch towards that end. Thirty-four years has taught me to enjoy painting the painting and not worry about making a hit.

There are whole worlds in my mind. When I was a child, I was unpopular. I was weird and odd and other kids didn’t like me, so I spent a lot of my time reading and going into the worlds that other folks had created, happy and contented as the words magically changed into a virtual reality somewhere between my eyes and my brain. To this day there are happy places that I go back to again and again and not so happy places that reach to the core of my own and collective humanity, all between two covers. This year, I released a world of my own creation. I wrote it, years ago, for myself and for those few folks who read the first bit and said “What happens next? This is good. Keep writing.” I did and I wrote a novel. I held it for years while I was buffeted by rejections from publishers. I decided to release it, essentially, on a whim this year. First digitally and, very soon, physically. In the hype of releasing it, I sometimes got lost in the semantics and occasionally got caught in my own expectations. But now, it is a thing that is. I have given it to the world unfettered and can not know how many people may find wisdom or happy places or the core of humanity in it’s words.

During the course of 33, I realized how much I can not know. I accepted my own ignorance. We are given to the illusion that with the internet, we can know anything. The world may be as simple and direct as it appears or it may be layers unseen beneath a crust, and I do not know which is true. I can only live the life I have and make the world I touch as I wish it through my own small actions.

I learned to trust this year. Maybe because I was, as mentioned, an awkward and friendless kid that I held tight to my masks to protect myself. I held so tight to my masks that I believed that they were my true self. I could not even recognize them as armor. Slowly, slowly this year, I discovered the masks and learned to drop them long enough to be honest with myself; To look at them and know why they are there, what they are imagined to be protecting me from. I have walked through fire and did not burn, protected by the people I thought I was protecting myself from. Without the armor in the way, a hug is one of the most comforting expressions between folks.

The mother of my belovedest one died, just after my birthday last year. It does not matter how old or young you are, there is a unique pain: losing your mom. I come from a big family and there have been a lot of funerals, but even when my grandmother died, I was the pragmatic one to give everyone else space to mourn without hindrance and to barricade my own grief. I have never sat with someone as I sat with my belovedest, holding him, crying in sympathy for his tears which had to be shed, which were unbound and unconsolable. Perhaps nothing connects us and binds us in love like being there for someone when nothing can be fixed.

This was the year of the ukulele. The first instrument I have ever actually learned to play a song on. (5 songs and counting now + a birthday song I composed) I love singing and I am, reportedly, terrible at it. I learned not to care if I am terrible or not this year and just enjoy myself.

Money has always been a thing for me. I was raised feeling that there was not enough and carried that concept through my adult life. It twisted me into a horrid person (at least in my own mind), a money bipolar. It took me thirty-four years, but I finally learned to relax and not exist in a projected future of scarcity, to accept what is offered with grace and gratitude, and to ask for what I need.

My birthday wish, the big one that is too big to put on any list and that I have only whispered to the first star I see, is to go to the continent. Not to dream of it or plan for it, but to just do it. I want to see the famed light and atmosphere of Paris that artists long dead wrote of and wander the strange paths of Venice, little sidewalks of stone beside the canals, and I want to sketch along a boulevard in Kyoto. I want to paint the landscape of a town in Sweden I can’t pronounce and speak In Relig Odhrain to the tombstones and the chapel on Iona. I want to speak in French and Italian and Swedish and German with folks in the off-the-beaten-path-places. I want to let the dreams of what the world beyond is like slip into the fiction section of my mind, while the truth I see of the world infuses my senses.

But just now, I am content and happy as I am: A 34 year old girl, reflecting on life and love to the internet while my belovedest sleeps on the bed near me, snoring just a little as the winds blow a little colder in the November outside our walls.