The Long Way Home

Today is my birthday. I’m 33 years old, which is pleasing in a way that is telling of my propensity for obsessive-compulsive isms. You see, I have a tendency to seek out the comforting relief born of patterns, of repetition and balance – so the smooth, curved lines of two threes, back-to-back, feels inexplicably calming.

Is that weird? Tip of the iceberg, I guess.

The other night I was sitting on the front step, taking in the night, as I often do. It’s during these times that I feel most serene and the thoughts flow through me.

I began to think about an earlier conversation, when my boyfriend asked me what I wanted for my birthday. Sadly, he did not seem amused with my coy attempts to dissuade him, with gift ideas like six more months of summer or the last living unicorn.

He pressed, “Why do you get so weird around your birthday?” and “Seriously, what do you want?” And boom, I felt bad for the guy – I wasn’t making it difficult for him intentionally. What was my problem?

Sitting there, immersed in the night, I noticed the shadow cast by a nearby tree. The tree itself was backlit by the many streetlamps staggered at various intervals along the cul de sac, the effect of which was not ominous, nor imposing. On closer inspection, I became enthralled with the layers of feather-like shapes, leaves overlapping leaves in tones ranging from the lightest grey to the blackest ink.

Seeing this reminded me of lacework, though an erratic botanical version. And for all of my adherence to predictable consistency, I will concede that there’s an undeniable and captivating beauty in the spontaneous and unarranged. Nature’s lace, temporarily painted on the side of the house.

A light breeze caused the shadows to come alive along the wall. I considered, what do I want?

To me birthdays are important, though not necessarily because of any gift I might receive or party thrown in my honour. These are nice gestures, absolutely, though historically when someone has asked me what I want for my birthday, I’ve found myself unsure how to answer.

I don’t want anything from anyone, not really. And I don’t like asking for things. If someone wants to give, they will. To a point, wouldn’t you agree?

Call me superstitious, or juvenile if you like – but in the spirit of the wish you made as a kid as you blew out the candles on your birthday cake – I believe that if there’s something magical you’re yearning for, you don’t ask for it. Not if it’s a gift. Not out loud.

Incidentally, I’ve also learned that if what you’re after is a metaphysical or experiential gear to shift so that you might understand yourself and the world a little better, you best keep your lips sealed. That, or just say “a nice pair of socks” when someone asks for gift ideas. Otherwise people will think you’re fucking bonkers.

On the bonkers front, I’ve noted that a lot of people act a bit bizarre on their birthdays, whether it’s a morose attitude over being another year older, or insisting that one’s date of birth is just another day. And my fella had a point. I’d be lying if I said I haven’t acted a little odd on previous birthdays myself.

But it isn’t the fear of losing the elasticity in the skin on my face, or trepidation upon contemplation of being another tick towards my eternal wormy resting place, as one might suppose. Nothing as commonplace as that. It’s something else that I only began to grasp as I watched the shadows of the tree shift and dance.

I realized that I wanted the same thing I’ve been after for a long time.

Resolution to my existential crisis.

And before you go saying it’s incredibly cliché – that what I sought was what most thirty-something women in North America strive for – just hear me out. I have a thirst to know who I am and what I’m doing here.

As you can imagine, it’s hard to tell someone that you don’t know who you are without them thinking you’re either wading into identity confusion, or have perhaps gone off the deep end entirely.

To be clear, it goes without saying that knowing and owning your personal identity is not a gift that someone can give you. You have to figure it out for yourself.

Often, people get so absorbed in searching for themselves in other places – in celebrity culture, in possessions, in someone else – that they become unsure of what to do with their own life. We become fragmented and paralyzed from all the messages out there telling us who we ought to be.

I don’t want that.

What I want isn’t in the realm of the physical, not necessarily. It’s experiential, metaphysical. That someone would celebrate my existence when I don’t know what that means has made me feel as though I’ve somehow duped, or cheated them, and that’s the reason I find it so hard to answer such an exceedingly simple question. What do you want for your birthday?

I want to know who I am.

And so I have been thinking. As a starting point to determine who someone is, one might logically deduce that they ought to examine who they have been, where they came from. Which is fitting for a birthday, a time to pause and reflect.

Okay. So having arrived in my early thirties, there are some things that surprise me. I don’t feel like an adult, not really. I would agree, however, that I do adult things and have gone through many rites of passage to get to this point.

I graduated high school and moved to a big city to get a university education. I was married – and I’ve been divorced. I can dress like a grown-up person and play along, I pay bills and taxes. I own a sensible SUV and I pay a mortgage. I’ve held various rewarding jobs.

But these are the material possessions that I claim to own and the things I have done. I’m not my job or the financial transactions I make. Those things are not who I am, are they?

No. I went into the house and looked in the mirror, at the vessel that I did nothing to earn but that I’ve lived in for 33 years. I looked to her for clues of who I am.

Did I look three decades old? I shrugged my shoulders and examined my hair, looking for signs of grey. Over the past year I’d stopped colouring my hair, something I started to do almost twenty years ago, and hadn’t taken a break from since.

I’d always been plagued by restlessness, by a desire to change my appearance as drastically and frequently as possible. It occurred to me that I wanted to be someone other than who I was, flitting from one pseudo-identity to the next. And it’s disorienting to try to be someone other than who you are when you don’t identify with who you are to begin with.

No grey hair, still blondish brown. But that has nothing to do who I am.

I sat on the floor to stretch. That’s what I do now, instead of watching TV or talking on the phone or fretting my time away. I spotted a small bruise on my leg. Looking closer, it appeared to be a varicose vein. With curiosity, I pressed firmly where it emerged and pushed upward with the index finger of my opposite hand, to see if the blood would pool backwards past the broken valves and confirm my suspicion. It didn’t.

Huh, I thought. It’s an actual vein, just larger than it had been before, no doubt made more obvious from strength training.

Strength training, I laughed. That’s what I do now. I lift weights and employ resistance in order to gain stregth. This year I threw away my bathroom scale so that I might gain muscle mass without having an anxiety attack every time I stepped on it.

It was holding me back. Putting on weight, albeit in a healthy way, and not freaking out about it was foreign territory for me. I chuckled to myself, then abruptly stopped.

I am not my muscle mass or body fat percentage or how much I weigh.

Well, I mused – I’m a mother, that much is certain. I reflected on how my daughter would turn seven in just a couple of weeks, a concept rather inconceivable. I teach her everything I can, whenever I can, and I try to be a good role model.

She is my left and right ventricles embodied, both atriums in a little human being running around in the world. I try my best to safeguard her from the really awful things that can happen to children, and at the same time teach her about the wonders there are to behold in life. No question that I’m a mom. To that effect, I’m also a daughter. I’m a sister and a partner and a friend.

But I know that these relationships do not define me. I’ve spent a lot of money over the years on self-help books and counsellors to discover that I am not my relationship with my mother. Likewise, I know from painful experience what happens when you limit yourself to what seems to define someone else.

Being there for the people I love is important, but it is not who I am.

Frustrated and feeling somewhat defeated, I let the thoughts slide away. I felt so close to a pivotal understanding, but the epiphany receded just beyond my reach. Maybe I wasn’t meant to resolve the problem that has eluded me for such a long while, or perhaps it would come to me again, if I just let it be.

Then I woke this morning, and there it was. My eyes opened wide as the realization crystalized at long last, and a heaviness unclamped itself from my chest. Suddenly I was able to breathe with more ease than I had in a long while, quietly allowing this new way of looking at life to solidify.

The epiphany stayed with me, held fast to my thoughts as I prepared for work. It followed me as I rushed out the door, stood with me as I rode the train and followed me through the city streets.

I smiled with purpose and with the knowledge that the answer I had been seeking was within me all along; it was something that could only be turned out once fully ripened – a perspective that you might already identify with, but a gift to me nonetheless. A gift from me, to me, that begins to occupy the emptiness I have sought to fill for so long.

The reality is that I am all of the things I’ve made mention of, and more. I am every experience I have thrown myself into, I am every cell that comprises my bodily form. I am every dream I’ve ever had and every laugh, every grimace and each pang of sorrow.

I’m not defined by my relationships – whether genetic, platonic, or otherwise; only bolstered by each one. I’m not diminished by the challenges I have faced. Each obstacle has made me stronger, and I get to decide how I want to feel about all of this.

I am layers upon layers, and capable of building further layers still – not unlike the circumference rings in the cross section of a tree; not unlike the one I sat and watched sway in the wind. My yearning to improve and evolve does not lessen who I am today, or the persons I have been in the past.

I’m a complex moving organism that is as changeable as a morphing shadow animated by the wind, illuminated by many sources; a projection that can be interpreted by whomever, however they perceive me to be.

I am made whole of abstract components blended with the physical.

In any case I am simply me – right here and right now. The urge to chase my own tail has evaporated and this has left me feeling anew. And so it seems my birthday wish has come to pass.

Thank you for being a part of the journey.

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