18 Things it Took Me 38 Years to Learn

I'm interrupting my brief writing hiatus to put down a few things I know today, my 38th birthday. It has been a year, lovelies. A big, beautiful, transformative, burn-to-the-ground-and-build-it-back-up kind of year. I'm sitting here at the kitchen table in my dad's house in Colorado, 4:13 am. I'm tired from a bad night's sleep, but the coffee is hot and the candle burning smells like orange and cinnamon and the sky is dark and cool. The picture above is just before publishing this. Yes, I have fabulous morning hair and a few of them are grey.

1. I am a writer. I am a writer not because I write well, or because I do it for a living (I don’t), or because someone else calls me a writer, or because I’m published (I’m not), but because I write. Because it won’t leave me alone. Because I get agitated and frustrated and weary when I don’t pay attention to it. Because when I’m doing it I forget who I am. It does inconvenient things, like waking me at 4am after a night of being kicked in the head by my kid, to ask me to go dance with it. 

2. We all have something like this in us, dying to get out. Some of us have many things. Paying attention to and bringing these things forth isn’t just a privilege, it’s our duty. It’s really that big! Not bringing forth our gifts isn’t a tragedy because others don’t get to experience them, or because they could change the world (although both of those things are possibilities), but because we die inside when we don't. And the more of us that are walking around disconnected from ourselves and others, the more we try to escape into other places – like booze, sex, our phones, TV, Facebook, work – and then collectively, we are numb at best and dangerous to each other at worst. A big part of the reason I was dying when I was caught up in addiction – aside from the more obvious and immediate dangers – was I disconnected from the part of me that could create. I couldn’t answer the call to go dance at 4am. The writer in me was suffocating.

(To be clear, I don’t believe our gifts have to be something “big” and recognized as profound, or artistic, or successful, to the outside world. Gifts are an inside job; they are what makes us feel aligned to something bigger than ourselves. Often they go unnoticed. Mothering, for example. No one needs to recognize our gifts for them to be gifts. We will know them by the way we feel when we are doing them; we will forget ourselves.)

The best book I’ve read on this is “The Great Work of Your Life” by Stephen Cope. In it, he describes the process of unlocking the unique possibility inside every human soul – the true life’s purpose – through examples of people like John Keats, Walt Whitman, Susan B. Anthony and Thoreau.

“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” – Gospel of Thomas

3. Pain is just a teacher. We all run from pain. We live in a society that tells us to run as far and as fast as we can from it, and gives us 600 different easy ways to distract ourselves from it, or kill it, quick. But it’s been my greatest teacher and even though my instinct is still to escape (and probably always will be), I do that less, and when I can sit still with it, I learn something. Often a big something. Glennon Doyle Melton says it best here:

Pain is not a sign that you’ve taken a wrong turn or that you’re doing life wrong. It’s not a signal that you need a different life or partner or body or home or personality. Pain is not a hot potato to pass on to the next person or generation. Pain is not a mistake to fix. Pain is just a sign that a lesson is coming. Discomfort is purposeful: it is there to teach you what you need to know so you can become who you were meant to be. - Momastery

4. We could all stand to care a fuck of a lot less about what other people think. I grew up with a grandmother who was very concerned with outside appearances and wealth. It’s not her fault she valued these things, and there were so many beautiful aspects of her that I picked up on and integrated into who I am, but this message was a false one. A big fat lie. It just doesn’t matter what other people think. Like it really. absolutely. doesn’t. matter. ever. Living my life to stay in the good opinion of others was a huge prison and arriving at the place where I do not give a fuck about things like this (which is different than not caring, or being compassionate, or aware) has been my greatest liberation.

5. I love my past because it got me here. All of it, even the really hairy, dark stuff. The days and years buried in addiction, the big ass mistakes, the pain I caused myself and others. Like most of us, I learned how to not be an asshole by being an asshole. So I forgive my past and I love it, even the hard bits – especially the hard bits – because it got me here. Also, I’m quite sure to be an asshole again.

6. Everyone is doing the best they can. They really are. That doesn’t mean we let everyone in, and we certainly don’t let them all stay, but it does mean that none of it is really personal. The guy that didn’t dig me? Not personal. The dad who could be really cruel and abusive? Not personal. The job I was so perfectly qualified for but went to someone else? Not personal. The friend who quit me without an explanation? Also not personal.

This concept – “nothing is personal” – is one of the four agreements in Don Miguel Ruiz’s great book, “The Four Agreements.” Also one I highly, highly recommend.

7. Happiness is thin milk. And we, as human beings, are terrible judges of what will actually make us happy. I wrote about it here.

8. It is a miracle I’m sitting here writing this, and that you’re over there reading it. As Bill Bryson said,

“Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stranded, stuck fast, untimely wounded, or otherwise deflected from its life's quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment in order to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result -- eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly -- in you.” - Bill Bryson

Seriously. Think about that – really think about it -- for a second. Doesn’t it blow your mind?

9. Not everything will be ok, but most things will. And quite often, what we think we cannot endure will turn out more beautiful than we could have conceived. Four years ago, I wouldn't have imagined I'd be at peace in my relationship with my husband, even though we'd no longer be married. I wouldn't have thought it possible that I'd be close to a year without alcohol and actually grateful for that. The things I thought would destroy me didn't. Which leads me to...

10. The universe has a far, far better plan.This sounds so trite and internet wisdom-y, but it’s true. Always. I have a zillion examples of how the universe had a far better plan than I did, but the two biggest are my daughter and the fact that I’m sitting here sober today. I wasn't opposed to being a mother someday, but getting pregnant wasn't planned and I certainly didn't welcome it. Yet this child is so totally mine, so totally supposed to be here as the little blue-eyed Buddha she is. And the sobriety thing, I just can’t even. Would’ve never picked it. Thought it was the end. I was so wrong.

11. My church is not a church. Glen Hansard’s voice, Anne Lamott’s words, the smell of my daughter’s head, the sound of my heart pounding during a run -- these things are my church and I can go there every day. Your version of church is perfect, too.

12. Everything looks better after a sleep.

13. It all starts with telling the truth. And there is no truth that makes me or you unlovable. Promise. (Also, you can’t outrun it.)

14. My body knows the answer before I do. And it’s never wrong. My body knew when my marriage was wrong, it knew when I was pregnant, it knew I was killing myself with alcohol and drugs, and it’ll guide me every day, if I’m willing to listen.

15. If I honor my non-negotiables, things pretty much stay on track. Even when circumstances are really messy.

16. Work-life balance is a bullshit myth. It just doesn’t exist and I stopped chasing it. I can do a lot of things, but I can’t do everything. Sometimes I have to work really hard and feed my kid breakfast for dinner four nights in a row while she sits in front of the iPad. Sometimes I need to stay home with her or read her a story and work has to wait, even though it means blowing a deadline or leaving someone hanging. It eventually evens out, but it doesn’t look or feel balanced while it’s happening, and striving for a picture of balance (which is really our society's code word for "doing everything") only made me miserable. No, thanks to leaning in.

17. When there is no enemy within, the enemies outside cannot hurt me. This is an African proverb I heard only recently, and have also only recently come to understand. It's why I spend a LOT of time and energy making sure we're all good within. All parts of me - body, mind, heart, spirit, every bit. Because then whatever happens outside, and shit always will happen, because life, I'm good. My brother says, "There's only one person you have to live with every day of your life so you better make sure that relationship is a good one." Truthiest truth. I used to have a very, very icky relationship with myself. We are making amends. Every day. Sometimes we backslide. But I know how to love her hard now. And I do.

18. Getting older is the best thing I’ve ever done.

Birthday sobriety recovery love Alma
Birthday sobriety recovery love Alma