Today I find myself turning thirty-five with far less struggle. Everything is different: we've relocated to two different states since then and settled on the southern Virginia coast, where I never wanted to come and now never want to leave. I quit my job to stay home with the kids and added one more: a wild, affectionate, blond little boy. Our girls have grown, and with them our parenting challenges. My body and diet and lifestyle have all changed. And coinciding with, or maybe as a result of all these changes, I have learned volumes about myself.
Like most people, I have traits of which I'm not proud. It can be tempting to shame ourselves for these, or at least it can be for me. I'm terrible at keeping in touch, at returning phone calls. I like the idea of making plans but often feel like I want to stay home at the last minute. I screen phone calls, even from people I love most. I can be awkward in social settings; I love people but crave solitude. For years I have hung my head about all of these things.
Over the last five years, though, I've learned that these are not necessarily shortcomings, but character traits. My love of togetherness but need for solitude are not contradictory, they just are. They are part of what makes me me, and each part is equally good and right and neither part requires me to apologize. Knowing this about myself frees me. It enables me to commit to only the social engagements I really want to be a part of, reserving time at home with my family or alone. I no longer feel a need to explain a negative RSVP. The reasons why I choose not to commit to something, for myself or for our family, are my prerogative. My wellness--and my family's--is my responsibility alone and comes first and, for me, this includes ensuring my margin. Adopting this habit has garnered me puzzled looks and questions that sometimes feel more like accusations from others with different needs, but it has also largely removed resentfulness from my life. If I only say yes when I really mean it, then I am free to be fully present and engaged where I am. And, necessarily, I say no to lots of really good things. But when I leave white space in my life, sometimes it serves me and my family by allowing us downtime. It has also often freed me to help others I hadn't known I'd be helping. And, either way, it's good.
This whole "without apology" business might sound self-centered, and I can understand that. Conversely, though, I think knowing myself better and owning my decisions, strengths and flaws has helped me grow stronger at apologizing and recognizing when I'm wrong. It's still not my favorite thing, but whereas I used to struggle with any admittance of weakness, getting my strengths and weaknesses out in the open has made me less afraid of being exposed. It's okay to be wrong, to make mistakes and to say I'm sorry. I'm really not sure I knew these things before.
Knowing myself doesn't mean excusing poor behavior because that's "just the way I am." Sometimes it means forcing myself out. So, after long periods of busyness or togetherness, I now know I can be a bit of a hermit. And I'll let this go on for a little while--a recharging period--but there always comes a time when I need to venture back out, to avoid poisoning myself with self, to restore my focus back to others and balance. I understand my lack of responsiveness can be rude, regardless of whether that is my intent. So, even though I don't always want to, sometimes I have to pick up the phone. Not everyone is like me, and I can be myself and still meet them where they are.
In yoga we practice noticing what is happening within our minds and bodies and allowing it to be, without judgement. This last part is so hard but so good. It has allowed me to come more fully into being myself, which has meant greater vulnerability in my relationships and an increased ability to understand my own emotions and reactions. I can question my feelings and weaknesses, but there is no point in shaming myself for them. I can learn and grow while still allowing them to be. If I understand my reactions better, I'm less likely to project my feelings on others and, I hope, better able to be present for them.
So, at thirty-five, I still have major questions that gnaw at me while I try to sleep, about where I'm going, whether I will ever decide to make my dreams come true, and whether it's even up to me anyway. This year I have felt like I lost my mojo, and after spending a long time shaming myself for that and thinking I could just discipline my way out of it, I'm realizing maybe there's something to the silence. Maybe I'm not doing something wrong; maybe the timing just isn't right. Maybe when it is I'll know; maybe I'll feel it. Maybe there is something here for me now; maybe it's just not what I thought I'd find. Instead of feeling ashamed that I have the voice but can't stand the stage, I'm learning maybe there can still be beauty and purpose singing in the darkness, into the wind, for the love of the song itself.
So sometimes I'll write, and other times I'll read. Sometimes I'll draw near to others, and other times I'll curl inward. Sometimes I'll sing, and sometimes I'll reflect silently, but always I'll work harder at listening. I will know myself but work to be more considerate of others, to be a more thoughtful friend. A more faithful follower. A better version of me.
Maybe, most of all, I've embraced what I may not have known five years ago: I cannot forgive, accept, shower grace upon and love others if I don't first practice it within myself. The second greatest commandment--to love my neighbor as myself--holds little weight if I don't love myself in the first place. I'm finding that treating myself with this sort of care enables me to better see others, to meet them with more compassion than I ever thought myself capable of before.
I thank God for change and growth, for forgiveness and grace, for self-awareness and burgeoning wisdom. I'm grateful for these beautiful, flawed, wonderful people in my house and community that I get to keep trying to love better. I'm grateful for the shiny and new and the tarnished and dusty, for a twelve-year-old love and eight, six and two-year-old children, for laughter and friendship and family, for the good and easy and the complicated and hard. But mostly I'm thankful for the ridiculous blessing of another turn around the sun, for a chance to keep trying.