I was able to share my birthday with an amazing group of women this year. This is an amended version of some words I shared with them.
The adjectives used to describe me throughout my life have been plenty. I’ve been told I’m stubborn. Witty. Funny. Friendly. Welcoming. But I’ve never, in all of my life, been described as happy. No one has ever (to the best of my knowledge or in my presence) said, “she’s such a happy person.”
It’s a fair deletion because the truth is, as long as I can remember, I have tilted towards melancholy. When I was in fourth grade, I discovered Where the Red Fern Grows and week after week, during library time, I could be found huddled in the back corner, buried in the stacks, wiping away the tears as I read about two dying dogs and the sacred red fern that grows between their graves. And when I turned twelve and my mother asked what I wanted for my birthday, I asked for a book that would make me cry, so she bought me the book that had made her cry when she was my age; Jane Eyre – a tragic tale in no uncertain terms.
My obsession with sadness has been life long, I think. I don't often search for happiness, and I have certainly never come by it naturally. I’ve always been more comfortable with sad things, I think, always just a tiny bit burdened by the weight of the world – a weight that doesn’t seem to be easing with time. Life has always seemed – well - hard. Barbara Brown Taylor refers in her book, An Altar in the World, to “the wilderness gene” – the part of us that makes us strong and resourceful, but also makes us realize how perishable we are. It is our perishability that I have always identified with. And while people often find this sad, I have found myself thankful for this ability to identify and name the perishable. This capacity has been a gift in my life and the older I get, the more I realize that being comfortable with my own perishing has made me highly attuned to the perishability of others. We are such fragile beings, after all, and I’m so grateful to have developed the eyes to recognize, sometimes in an instant, the fragility of another soul.
As I have moved through the world, with a sense of my own perishing and a developing ability to see it in others, I have come to realize that the only way we get through this life is by taking our turns in the lifeboat. We’ve all been there: in desperate need of saving, and suddenly, there they are – the rescuers – rowing the boat and throwing the buoys of hope over the side, giving us something to cling to when the riptides of life were pulling us under, something that we couldn’t find all on our own. And then, not long after our rescue, we find it is our turn to row, to gather hope for someone who - God help them – is looking even more desperate than we were just a few nautical miles ago.
I’ve thought a lot recently about the people who have thrown out the buoys for me in my perishing moments. They have made me laugh and made me cry. They have shared their families, their children, and their pets. They have taught me to be creative and reminded me that it is my responsibility to do so. At times they have fought with me, exposing things about myself that I didn’t even know where there. They have done physically hard and gross things, caring for me in ways that I didn’t ever expect I would need, and would have been too embarrassed or proud to ask for had I known what they might be in for. These people have shared their stories and trusted me to hold them in confidence, and they have sat around tables littered with wine or coffee or crumpled up Kleenex and listened to mine, returning the favour that trust demands. They have told me that in this day and age, when it feels like hate and hurt are chipping away at the world and at the very soul of humanity, that it is okay to be a little angry some of the time. And then they have gently reminded me that, even now, after all that chipping and hurting, it’s probably going to be okay.
These moments, in their complexity and beauty and even in their horror, are our combined efforts of rescue. These are the moments that make me happiest, and that make this business of aging a little less terrifying. In these moments of gathering, you realize, suddenly, that you're not alone in all of this after all. This crew of weather-beaten rescuers will take their turn at the oars, as you perhaps did for them once. These are the moments that scratch the best before dates off our lives and remind us that no, really, we are best after.
After we have shared what we have abundantly and without worry of enoughness.
After we have fought one another intensely, saying the hard and horrible and (often) true things.
After we have gathered hope where there seems to be no hope – the marriage revived from the ashes, the baby that finally came, the injury that healed against the odds. All the things we dared not hope for, dared not believe.
After we have clutched another’s story safely in both our hands and tucked it into our hearts for safekeeping, allowing it to dwell there, so fully alive that we find ourselves welling up with tears at a stoplight, wishing we could turn back time and undo what the world has done.
After all of this hard and beautiful work, we are always, always better.
I’m not a conventionally happy person, I know. I have always struggled to find the divine around me. But when perishing people come together, I think that this must be where God hangs out, as we cry and console and dream and laugh and row the life boats together and for each other. I want to spend my life stringing those boats together, tossing our hard stuff back and forth and allowing one another to carry it for awhile. Because when we bring the perishing together, it will probably be the most beautiful thing we could imagine. And for me, that will always be where real happiness is found.