I spent a lovely couple of hours at Café Lemont with some even lovelier women friends this morning. A coffee celebration to mark the official yearly shift from “Ordinary Time” to “Birthday Time.” This sounds very Catholic somehow, doesn’t it?
I do this, though. Every year, I start thinking about my birthday weeks in advance. I believe in celebrating this day and I believe in celebrating it for days (last year, turning 40, I got away with weeks) on end. It’s not just that I like cake (though, oh, I do) or pampering (I have already scheduled my birthday massage!), but I am a creature made for self-reflection. No wonder I write memoir, I guess. But even before I did that, the beginning of October had always moved me simultaneously outward (into the gorgeous weather wearing the tall boots and cozy sweaters that I’ve always preferred) and also inward–into and back through the last year, two, ten, twenty-five, forever. I welcome it. I’m ready for it.
I used to write myself letters for every five year milestone birthday. I wrote to myself at 20, 25, 30 and then last year at 40. Dear Sheila, Here’s the stuff you know about your life at this moment. I remember the actual writing of the one when I turned 30. It hurt. I made myself be honest while nobody was looking. I had been divorced for three years and it still marked me more than I wanted to admit. I was in love with someone new who could not be what I needed him to be, yet I could not sever the relationship. I was in pain a lot then. I was the “old lady” in my grad school class, which made me feel like I was supposed to be wiser, a better role-model, more grounded than my friends and classmates, and then too, I felt just plain stupid: out drinking too much, making (more) bad relational choices, churning with doubt about my abilities both personal and creative every day. I kept the letter and have read it several times in the intervening years. It’s amazing to me how prescient it is. How absolutely lucid. Re-reading it I am always reminded that, though it often feels otherwise, I usually *do* know my way through whatever difficult space I’m navigating that seems impossible at the time. As with so many things, it’s a matter of trusting myself.
I’m so glad I wrote and that I kept the letters. I really like getting letters from people who love me. (Hey, you should all write me letters for my birthday!)
Speaking of which, an unexpected…I don’t know whether to call it a gift, really: last week, a box arrived from CT. Stuff I had been keeping in storage at a friend’s house. Stuff I had apparently boxed up and shoved way in to the furthest corner of her basement. Under the water heater. My wedding album from the first time around and what looks to be every single love letter my high-school-boyfriend-cum-ex-husband ever wrote to me. It all spilled out onto the living room floor and I sat in the middle of it, sort of unsure of what to do next. Yellow-lined legal paper with tiny, terse pen marks. Loose-leaf with the fringe still attached. Copy paper colored in with hearts and I swear there was a rainbow on one of them. A rainbow! I shuffled them around, laughing nervously, opening one quickly, recognizing the handwriting, reading a sentence or two (I will love you forever! I’m sorry I was such an asshole! I will love you until the end of time!) then shoving it back into its envelope after checking the postmark date. All the while vaguely aware that I was supposed to feel something, Anger? Loss? Nostalgia at the very least. I don’t know what I felt. Bemused, maybe. More than a little exposed.
What am I supposed to do with all this stuff? I asked Paul. In my head, the options included: put them back into a box in the basement; put them out on the curb for the trash; pick through and keep just a select few so someday my kids will be able to play archaeologists and know that I was once a teenager in love just like they are/were/will be. (I am suddenly all messed up with the time in this sentence.)
Read them, Paul said. Read through them and see what you can use.
He meant for my writing. For my memoir. The ex-husband story line is in there, after all, and it needs development too. It’s not a bad suggestion and I imagine I will do it at some point.
But it occurs to me today that reading through them may be just the right thing for this reflective pre-birthday mood I’m in. I don’t expect I’ll like everything I find in those letters. That’s the thing: I won’t be able to hear my own voice responding to some of the (I am quite certain) crazy shit I will find in them. And this will remind me of how little I used my voice then and how long it took me to find it at all.
Dear Sheila, Give yourself a break! You were only 15, 18, 24, 27 years old.
Dear Sheila, You are making up for it now, aren’t you?
Dear Sheila, I will love you forever! Till the end of time!