In October, a friend asked me what I'd planned to do for my 50th birthday. At that point, I hadn't given it a ton of thought but I did know this: I wanted to somehow show my gratitude for people who have shaped how I see the world and/or for how they show up in the world leaving me inspired and better for knowing/meeting them.
And so I decided I would write 50 letters before I was 50.
It was a lofty goal because writing letters if done well, takes time.
I set about making my list, thereby taking a trip down memory lane which found me all the way back in elementary and Sunday school.
I ended up going through each decade of my life. I have moved five times and held twice that many jobs. I have always noticed people. It's just who I am. I am naturally curious about what makes people tick and anyone who goes the extra mile or has gone a bit out of their way, not just for me, but for a cause or someone else is someone I tend to remember. And so all of these things combined made it not that hard to come up with well over 50 people and the list grew. In fact, I have the determined I will not really be done. Why should I end showing my gratitude, my observation of a job well done, a moment of inspiration, or even just a simple communication that says 'I see you.'
But this was never about numbers. It was about just taking a bit of time to mark the fact that I have not made it to this decade without a little help and whole lot of inspiration from my family and people I've only met online and people I spent an intense amount of time within the trenches of work or parenting or school or some combination of the three.
I think my favorite thing about this whole experience is what I call "the pause". When I am writing a note by hand, I have to think carefully before I write. It's very different from just throwing words down as fast as I can on my keyboard. I like that pause, the thinking before crafting the words. And I like how it takes me back to the person and for just a bit, I am with them again. I like seeing a person in my mind and trying hard to express what I see in them with words.
I might be a bit weird and I am pretty ok with that.
The unexpected joy of this experience has been the little notes and pieces of mail I have received in return. To have someone say, "Thank you! You made my day!" was the icing on my 50th birthday cake.
The truth is I had no idea how selfish of a project this was. It has been me who has benefited the most by simply recognizing people who have shown up on my path who had something to teach me simply by being themselves. Each time I see this, it is me who grows a little bit braver in getting closer to the person I want to be.
It was never supposed to be about me, and yet again, I was wrong.
Dear sweet baby girl,
Dear sweet woman,
I don’t know how to address you because it feels so often like I am talking to both of you. It is hard, isn’t it? Riding that line between who you were and who you are now? I see your innocent face- those dear rosy cheeks and that haircut that you detested- short, the quintessential “boy” cut of the 60’s that your mom adopted because she didn’t do hair. So many memories come rushing back to as you float towards 50. I see you holding a baby pig up by its hind leg as you help your dad give them shots. How uncomfortable you were- the humid farrowing house, the heavy winter gear making you itch, the warm urine running down your arm into your coat and there you were- stuck, wet, hot, surrounded by squealing pigs. This memory is so strong because it seems there are many of those that center around your discomfort and how you could not shake it.
The hot outdoors, the freezing outdoors, the hours in the beating sun walking beans, picking rocks, helping in whatever needed to be done. You have wrestled so much with all of this. And, because of this gift you have, you have spent so much time wondering, why did it feel so hard to you? All of the things you spend so much time feeling resentment for are the very same things friends cherished when they discuss “growing up on the farm.”
It’s all done now. You made it. It was just the way it was. You have spent too much time, I think, trying to figure out what was wrong with how you felt about it instead of just accepting it wasn’t for you. More than all of this is knowing how your parents showed up for you time and time and time again, every year since you left. All the questions they didn't ask, all the support given by their presence in your life. All love, all the time. They were always for you. It is time for you to be for you, as well.
Dear sweet woman, look at how far you have come! You have endured so much loss. The harrowing years of loss- the miscarriage after miscarriage after miscarriage. Sometimes it still astounds you- to know you lost 7 babies. What you know now is that it was trauma. What you know now is that you did not let that trauma have a place. What you know now is that what doesn’t get acknowledged, doesn’t get time, doesn’t get to be seen and felt for truly what is will come back. And so that is why it has ridden down so deep in you for so long. And I am proud of you! For letting each of those losses out, bit by bit, word by word, tear after tear. You now know it wasn’t YOUR fault. It wasn’t something you did. It wasn’t something that you were. It just was. Each drop of blood, each little baby, gone- they were not meant to be yours. And here is another thing. It isn’t ok. It just won’t be. But it is and you can carry it and not let it be all of what makes you you.
Dear sweet woman. This will sound so anti-feminist that you will struggle to write this sentence, but it needs to be said anyway. You chose well! You have found a partner in life who is everything you’d hope for your own children. Dear Bob is funny and kind and patient (mostly) and so for you in all ways that it feels remarkable at times. His life’s mission is your joy. How did that happen? How did you see that? It was his eyes, you know that. They are always at the ready for a laugh and always so steady. He looks at you on a treadmill the same way he looks at you ready for a night out. It is his eyes that you choose to use more often when yours get cloudy. Your life together has been far from easy or perfect, but sweet woman, you feel deep in your bones the true meaning of gratitude and love each night you take his hand and each morning when the cup of coffee is sitting at your nightstand.
Dear sweet woman, the other thing that must be said, this thing you have struggled with for so long, is that you see that your depression is not you. It is a gift to know this, finally, at 50. It has leveled you. It has stopped you in your tracks, it has told you lies and made you small and it has kept you from being the woman writing this letter. It is simply a part of you- not all of you. Every bad minute, hour, day, week, or month is just that- a stretch of time that is dark, heavy, hard to wade through. But your record is strong- you get through it every single time! You come out and see the before, during and after. You have learned to remind yourself as much as needed...it passes, it passes, it passes. You don’t have to hide it. You don’t have to pretend it’s ok when what you feel is so clearly not. Those who love you know this, but better than that- you know. Sometimes, it is not ok.
Dear sweet woman, you do not know and it is ok. You do not know so much. You don’t know how it will all shake out for your parents, your children, your own self. You know the path you are on is only as clear as maybe the next right step. The best part here is that this feels just right to you. You used to want to plan it all and what I see is how much freedom you now feel for not knowing, for letting go, releasing your shoulders and accepting that you don't know.
I see how much you still like to micromanage your kids’ lives, but the feedback from your teens is clear. BACK. OFF. Micromanaging really only comes in handy for party planning but the rest of life? Not so much. And so I just love how you are moving forward without much of an agenda.
I love you dig into the things that matter to you and how you have slowly let go of those things that do not. This is true for people and how you spend your time. I like how you know that it’s ok to pay attention to how people make you feel and if the answer is “not good” then you don’t need to seek them out because of obligation.
You have always tried to so hard to listen and say with your eyes, “I see you” for whomever you are with. But now...the gaze is slowly shifting, finally, to you.
Isn’t that what this letter is all about? I see you, Lisa. I see the little girl you were and the woman you are now and you are all of it. There are heaps of things I did not say here, and that too is ok. You know that your gift, the one that fuels the very heart of you, is not going away. The gift of sorting it all out in words will be something you return to again and again. You have accepted that you will never stop wrestling. It is who you are. It is the best thing about you. I like that you know this and so you know it is impossible to write one letter to yourself- there are letters to be written that will be fueled by anger, joy, and everything in between because you feel it all and want to understand it. That is you.
Happy Birthday, sweet woman. You are a gift and it is such a profound joy to see that you not only know this, but you believe it.
Almost 50. What Have I (Not) done?
I have not made peace with my body, but I have learned to care less about appearance and
more about health.
I have not taken up sewing or crafting or house cleaning. I have not become any more
interested in any of these things over time.
I have tried to keep a few plants alive. No real success yet but the desire to try again is still
I have not made a bucket list. I have determined there is no need to wait for things. Do them as the opportunity arises. There is no better time.
I have forgiven those who hurt me. Forgiveness heals. Now, to extend this towards me. I'm
inching towards this.
It turns out I have a special power. I can split myself into two people, the see-er and the be-er.
See-er: “Oh look...you are not well. Take care, sweet pea. Rest.”
Be-er: ”Here I am, remembering my medicine, seeking out comfort in people who love me.”
Or, “My skin is prickly. My stomach is turning. Something feels off. What should I do next?”
It’s so good to remember I have both of these skills. I have magic!
I have noticed my son’s voice after I tell him to have a good day and that I love him. There is
usually a slight pause and then, “I love you too, mom.” It is not exactly uncertain, but it is also not loud and sure. It is a kid saying what he knows is true while being self-conscious.
He is 15 and love feels weird, even for your mom. But it is true. Our love is true.
I have not been a gunner. I have not raced to the top to be the best at anything. I remember when Bob was in medical school he played Gunner Bingo with the riffraff in the back row.
He and the riffraff made a Bingo card out of people who would answer questions first, those
who would race to jut their hands up, shout out with great certainty the answer though often they were terribly wrong. What did it matter as long as they were confident in their errors?
It took a semester for the names to shift- a whole 18 weeks to finally understanding shouting out answers
willy-nilly isn’t an education. How long does it take to understand it's ok to not know?
to just listen, to not race towards answers instead of letting them reveal themselves to you?
I have always wondered why I wasn’t competitive. What, I have asked too many times over
the years, is wrong with me? But lately, I have laid down this particular sword which has been
extended towards myself. It was simple, really. I stopped wondering, digging into this question
and just let myself be. There are other far more interesting things to get into- such as how the light changes with the seasons or which book to read next or searching out funny jokes
to make my teens roll their eyes at me. Pointing swords at my perceived failures. Not fun.
I have determined I want more fun.
I have found holy spaces. Here is one. Nine women in a room writing, intent and focused on
the telling of her story. There is space and energy and light and there are sighs of letting go,
of holding on, of breaking free. They seem trapped sometimes and then escape of their own
free will. The sighs travel to the pen and the words come out and then there is another
freedom. It was said. That thing you thought, buried, ruminated on, wondered about,
explored. You put it down and now it’s out. And then the telling. You read what you wrote
and space and energy and light shifts again. You see the words and hear the words and
they now cannot be unsaid. Freedom. The words have set you free. Holy.
I have lost children. I have thought long and hard about that time in my life. The time of
losing babies. I don’t think I really was a be-er at that time. I saw it but could not be it. To be
loss is too much. One and then another and another and another. So much blood. How can
a person be blood? And so I just watched it and didn’t let it become me. I didn’t let it be me.
My feelings now for that woman during that time- I can see her and I wonder if I did
something wrong to not be her? I do know I feel great empathy towards her- the girl who
could not be. Poor dear heart. She did the best she could. I see that.
I have not succumbed to despair. Every day the news blasts another atrocity. I feel my skin
prickle with fear when I think of my daughter going away to college. I want to insert a
disclaimer- as if the place she chooses will determine whether or not she is not safe. My
daughter will not be safe anywhere. My daughter is not safe now. No one is safe
anymore. Not in a church or a synagogue or a hospital or a nightclub or a concert or train
or a bus or in the woods or in a city. This is true. So how to explain my lack of despair?
Because I just have to turn towards the light. I have to. I must to do my part, my little tiny
part and keep pointing this part towards the light. So despair, I see you. There are times
when I feel you. You want to rob me of breath, force my eyes shut, root me to the ground.
But no! Sometimes I shout that to you, “NO!” I cannot let despair BE me.
I have, against all odds, hope.
My hope is that as I keep inching closer towards my truest self, the gifts I do have will grow. I
cannot grow with despair. I can grow with medicine and sunshine and words and cats and words and
saying yes and no exactly when I mean them. I can do this with the people who see me being me.
I have met those people and I am those people or others. Despair doesn’t fit in with us.
I have no grand conclusions about turning 5O.
I have not given it all away. I have not discussed marriage and all the work it is.
I have not shared with you all of my hopes and dreams and plans for the next 50 because this is another
thing I have learned. Some things are JUST for me.
thing I have learned. Some things are JUST for me.
I have great excitement because I see who I am becoming and I will share one more thing: I like who I see.
I have gratitude for not being done yet.
I chose this photo of me taken in New Orleans last year because I like it.
That's the only reason. This is my 50's mantra. Because I like it.