The end of every November Brienne has a birthday, and then, sure as the spinning of the earth on which our birthdays depend, seven days later I too have a birthday. Exactly one week apart.

This year our birthdays fell on Fridays and were overshadowed by Walk to Bethlehem. Neither of us were too upset by that. Brienne lives to sing, act and be on stage, performing is a chance for her to express who she is and what she wants to contribute to her community and the world.

She's doing something she loves and that's a good way to spend a birthday, even if you're exhausted at the end of the day.

Brienne got this crocheted hat at Trail Days in Damascus, VA
while we were hiking the AT
she's grown so much since that hike, and a lot has changed in her life but she still has the hat
this year she added those adorable pom-pom ears

One week later I spent my birthday at homeschool co-op all day, then shuttling kids to cast call, attending the performance myself (a nearly three hour affair with the line-up and walk through), warming up and waiting till the last scenes wrapped up, then driving a car load of teens home after midnight.

My birth"day" didn't feel like it was about "me", but it didn't need to. I was deeply grateful for the opportunity to be so involved in my teens lives, to know their friends, to be the person who drives them home; a car of happy, chatting, healthy (in body and spirit) teenagers on a Friday night. I went to bed so very satisfied.

"She's doing something she loves and that's a good way to spend a birthday, even if you're exhausted at the end of the day."

We celebrated both of our birthdays with Saturday brunchs on our respective weekends, squeezed in between the previous late night and Saturday afternoon's cast call. I cooked a "by request" breakfast for Brienne's birthday and we gave gifts to the birthday girl, as is our tradition for our children's birthdays.

For my birthday Damien and I went out, while the kids slept, to a popular brunch restaurant in our neighborhood.

Damien's moccachino topped with toasted homemade marshmallow

I didn't eat much for the rest of the day after this breakfast

We've walked past this place many times, a line-up snaking out the door and around the corner. Behind the large glass windows tables are packed with satisfied customers eating gorgeous plates of food, sitting in plush velvet chairs. We've always wanted to try it. A birthday was a great opportunity.

This year Brienne and I are in the unique situation of having our ages be the inverse of each other. She is fourteen and I am forty-one. This is the first time this has happened. I did the math, this pattern that will now repeat for us every 11 years. So in eleven years I'll be 52 and she will be 25, another eleven years 63 and 36...74 and 47, 85 and 58, (96 and 69?)

I checked briefly to see if I share this numerical relationship with the other two kids, and it appears I don't. (I could be wrong, I didn't spend a lot of time in the numbers.)

What is sobering is that the next time we have an inverse birthday Brienne will be a woman. She could easily be married, possibly a mother. I was a mother at her age. When she's 25 I will be 52. Completely done raising and homeschooling my children. In a different phase. A phase completely unknown to me.

Both possibilities, Brienne being a 25 year old woman and me a 52 year old woman, is in our future and yet what that future holds is so uncertain. I don't even know what the next year holds.

Which is one of the reasons I am so grateful for life right now, in this "moment" of three teenagers and performances, and driving, and homeschool co-op. I am so thankful for these years I still have with my children, invested deeply and actively in all the comings and goings. My children, my heart, they will grow up, but they aren't yet, and that maybe is the best birthday present for me.

Remember the good ol' days of blogging, where you'd feverishly write something in the forty-five minutes you had before hitting publish. Yeah, so this isn't one of those posts.

I wrote this on my birthday. Like I say in the post, it was a gift to myself to finally publish some of these thoughts. My birthday was two weeks ago. Then I had to run it by Damien for his "ok". Any time I talk intimately about our marriage I ask him to pre-read what I hope to publish, it's always subject to his approval. He said "no" to a post I wrote this summer to commemorate our 19th anniversary. I'm still holding onto it.

Once I got the approval from Damien I considered photos. I wanted to publish photos from the entire year, since this post is a reflection on this past year.

I wanted to use some of my favorites, my most beautiful nature photography. But I had made some goofs in my photography workflow early this fall in which I had "un-checked", for lack of easier explanation, my favorites.

So... in the past week I've gone through the photos I took this past year, to re-check the favs. In doing so, I discovered sets of unedited and undeleted photos, I try to keep on top of that. And that made me twitchy so I had to spend time doing all that, then choosing my favorites and now, it's the middle of the December and it's my birthday post.

It's a dull grey day, raining. The second of December, my fortieth birthday.

The weather really doesn't matter to me today. I do love the sun. I adore the sun and the angle of light this time of year but there won't be any "angle of light" to appreciate or photograph in this constant drizzle.

You can't order weather for your birthday and the weather feels nearly perfect for what I'm up to right now. Ten am, still in my pj's, drinking hot cocoa and writing on my bed. This is exactly what I want to do. Cozy is my love language and this feels just right.

And anyway, the main thing that is giving me great comfort today is that it's not my thirty-ninth birthday.

Last year was my most difficult birthday to date, that I can remember. I may have suffered a "bad" birthday as a child but I don't recall. My childhood memories are like that, mostly sweet. That in itself is a great birthday gift.

Last year's birthday landed, through no fault of its own, in the trough of a marital existential crisis.

I just had to google existential crisis to make sure I understand it correctly. In that search I came across a post on Psychology Today in which a person had an "existential" crisis one night as she was falling asleep, and she had a conversation with her half-asleep husband that helped pull her out of it.

That is not the kind of existential crisis I am talking about. Nor am I talking about the opposite end of the spectrum when a person goes off the deep-deep end and has no idea of their life purpose, meaning and value.

I'm talking about the somewhere-in-between existential crisis. In this case, a crisis in our marriage, in which we did question the foundations, or more accurately, some of the extra constructs we had added to the foundation.

I'll warn you now. This post is about to get spiritual because as soon as you start taking foundations, life's meaning and purpose you enter a realm that is no longer strictly explained by physical laws and easily articulated definitions. This is where things get spiritual. And for me, that means talking about Jesus.

This is just a heads up since my blog isn't overtly Christian, but today it is.

Waiting for the saints and skeptics (which is not the same a cynic, I am a skeptic about many things) to take a deep breath.

When Damien and I got married we sang a hymn at our ceremony. Our ceremony was not scripted by someone else, we chose this song specifically to set the tone for our marriage.

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus' blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus' name.
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand.

When darkness veils His lovely face,
I rest on His unchanging grace;
In every high and stormy gale
My anchor holds within the veil.
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand.

That's been the foundation through nineteen years of marriage, three babies, many moves, living life and growing into maturity together. It was, and is, what we are both committed to. More than to each other, we are committed to a personal steadfastness in Christ. We both chose in our youth, independant of each other, to anchor ourselves to Christ. And when we met, and not much later decided to get married, we brought that commitment to our marriage to be its foundation.

So, if that was the foundation, why the existential crisis? Very good question. Finding the answer has been the emotional and spiritual work of many months.

Another question, what does this have to do with my fortieth birthday? Other than the fact that my 39th was "celebrated" in the despair of that unknowing and pain.

Here's my attempt to answer those questions.

First of all, I have a year's worth (the year 2015 to be exact) of personal writing, journaling, mediating, bible reading, and prayerful reflections which I achingly, desperately (what other adverbs can I use??) hope to sort, write, and publish one day.

Those words are a testimony of God's grace in my life. They are the story of a Christian couple (two people who have a professed faith in Jesus and are trying to follow his example), who love each other deeply and still manage to hurt and hinder, and then forgive and keep seeking together. They tell the journey of walking through a midlife crisis which is starting to resolve itself, though the future is still unknown, the direction unclear.

It's my birthday today and I'm gifting myself time to start writing this story, a down payment on the process, that in faith I will complete, though that completion may not be published here.

I am somewhat reluctant to start the process because each onion layer I peel back in my published writing, having already peeled many of those layers in my personal writing, begs more questions than it provides answers. And I can't answer all the questions in one little fortieth birthday post.

So here's a fair warning: you get what you get. It won't be the whole story it will be glimpses, not to tease or taunt but to simply start the telling.

Last year all I wanted for my birthday was to not be in the emotional place we were. Damien was in so much pain (it was my earlier pain that caused his suffering, there is no villain in this story) that he could barely acknowledge it was my birthday, that I was special and deserving of love. And at the end of the day he apologized for be unable to move past that for my sake. And he held me and I cried. And all I could do at that point was trust that we would get through this.

It hurt but I understood. It wasn't lovely or beautiful because the depths of pain we sometimes experience in loving other people is just that - deep pain.

By my definition, family life, home, is the sacred space we create that gives our loved ones the permission and space - emotionally and physically - to experience and express all the emotions.

Hilarious joy, simple contentment, fear, ecstacy (the marriage bed), anger, disappointment, frustration, pain and much more. So you could say it was a sacred-space birthday but not in the happy-happy-joy-joy sense.

Last year I started anticipating this current birthday. I wanted to be in a different place when I reached forty. There were many things I wanted for myself, that I have been working on this year, to varying degrees of success. But mostly what I wanted was to be on the path to healing. I was hopeful of reaching this point. Not hopeful of finding "the answer" by my fortieth, but hopeful I'd be on my way there.

November 5, 2014

A rainy, overcast day, just came back from a walk with my family. I am filled with compassion for who I am, who I was.

I see the girl I was and I miss her, her energy, her confidence, her zest. I want to reclaim parts of her, to have them rise again in me, but I want to move into my 40's with the wisdom of the last 20 years as the foundation.

I am so much more compassionate and empathetic than I was as a young woman. I can surrender my plans and adapt to change much easier. I am much more comfortable with my sexuality.

I am a daughter, wife, mother.

Me, always in relationship to someone else.

I used to be feisty, commanding, in control. I was dynamite, small but powerful. Quick to judge, quick to speak, quick to seek forgiveness. Eager to please. Willing to try new ideas but resistant to a change in plans.

Always looking to the future and the resolution of something there - when I graduate, when I get married, when I have babies...

Becoming a mother and a wife enlarged me in ways not possible otherwise. But I lost things also. I gained much from those "losses" but I think chunks of myself have sloughed off, for better or worse. And I want to rediscover the light inside me. That fire that attracted and was attractive.

I think I need to reclaim some of that, or simply acknowledge that, as I move forward into my 4th decade.

The girl who won Damien’s heart, how did I do that?

I feel our thru-hike caused a separation between Damien and I, a separation caused by my shame but also the gutting of myself, the sacrifice of myself.

I was barely an adult when I married Damien. I don’t regret the years we’ve had together, at all. I would have married him sooner if I could. But I think I expected and thought marriage would do certain things for me that it doesn’t have the power to do. Marriage as the panacea for all life’s problems.

I have to heal in the context of our relationship but I have to heal on my own. I have to find answers on my own.

What is not written in that entry, but is implied and in-between all the lines; what is written in many, many other journal entries is this question: who am I?

That was what I set out to discover this past year.

First, I set aside 2015 to be a year of healing, a year to focus on home, family, self, in some jumbled-up order. I had no intentions or ambitions to work-from-home as I had been building with Damien up to that point. In fact, that pretty much all came crashing down with my burn out, so there wasn't really much choice but to go back-to-the-basics of family life/homeschooling and marriage.

I like structure so I created one for the year, according to the seasons.

  • quiet, creativity, fun, and reflection (winter)
  • connection, cleaning, and hope (spring)
  • rejuvenation, exploration, and joy (summer
  • space, gratitude, and celebration (fall)

My intention was to focus my heart on these themes through the seasons and I invited some women to join me on that journey around The Kitchen Table.

That part of the project didn't work out quite as planned. The course I set out for myself, that original framework of ideas to guide me to healing helped some, I'm sure. It pointed me in a direction. And the ideas of course are metaphors for the internal work that had to be done. Cleaning was not just about purging our stuff before our move but about cleaning stuff out on the inside. In writing down these intentions I may have been hoping that my outward actions would change something inside. I don't know.

What I do know is that my healing happened on levels much deeper than Kitchen Table essays could express.

This year my heart needed to be home, that place of safety and security in our family, the axis around which we all spin, the physical and emotional space I've cultivated in my twenty years of being a homemaker.

I started there, with what I knew. And I listened to the longings of my heart. I determined to stop pushing against myself, in my futile attempt to try to meet a longing, a void in my husband's heart, that was not mine to fill.

Four specific areas I identified last winter to rebuild my wellbeing

I identified and articulated my core needs. I was courageously vulnerable with other people (I didn't hide my struggles) and tried to recognize and remind myself how so not alone I was in this journey. I looked honestly at my flaws, my failings, and my wrong ways of thinking and ways I'd messed up, and then I loved me anyway.

I got serious about my mental health and practicing Cognitive Behavior Therapy.

I did all that but I still didn't find the answer to my question. All of that soul-searching work just tilled the soil.

I went through a writing spurt of identifying all I am not, you should see the list, it's long. But that still did not answer the question who am I?

Returning to the root of who I am, finding myself again was brought about in the most unlikely way. I could not have planned it, charted it, structured it, even if I tired.

It was a simple request: I asked my atheist/agnostic (I am reluctant to label someone else's beliefs but this is what he has communicated to me) successful business-man friend to teach me how to meditate. He knew something I did not, how to quiet his mind and find focus and I wanted to learn.

I wanted to learn so I could move forward with my Mental Health and Craft a Vision part of Project Home & Healing.

The Appalachian Trail and the gut-wrenching self-examination that followed taught me that what I believe about myself sets the course for my life, my reactions spring from my subconscious, and the only thing I can truly change is my perspective and my perceptions. But how?? My mind, the part I am aware of, and even scarier the part that remains hidden, is the determining factor in my "success or failure" and how I view myself.

I went to my friend because I wanted to change my subconscious thinking patterns (my mind-stew, or whatever the subconscious looks like) so I would a) have a vision for my future, b) be successful at that wildly creative, amazing vision, and c) not self-sabatoge the good things in my life with doubt/fear/anxiety.

My friend not only extended his friendship, but asked me hard questions, and shared what he had learned in his own life.

He introduced me to his meditation technique. There was nothing weebie-jeebie about it. I'm not into that. I had a goal - to work on re-wiring thought patterns and deep seated false beliefs about myself, so I could be successful at life.

And here's where God's grace is painted like a gorgeous watercolor over the black ink outline of our feeble human efforts.

It was an atheist/agnostic, francophone, business man who pointed me back to Christ.

My friend's meditation technique is a structured thought pattern, it's not an emptying, it's a focusing. And the first gate of that technique is a meditation on "who I am".

I listened to my friend's instructions, I wrote notes, I answered his questions as honestly as I could (there's a lot more to his technique than that first question). My belly roiled with anxiety, he knew that.

I took the instructions, re-read my notes, and I started mediating. And I never got past that first gateway.

I loved the framework my friend gave me, I have every intention of following through with answering all the questions I need to finish the process, because I really want to be pro-active about my thought patterns.

But I haven't finished going through that training yet because I found the answer to the question I've been asking, the question my friend asked me, and that's all I need right now.

I have been asking the identity question, who am I? for the last few years, as I've become a writer, as we've adventured and traveled, and moved and tried new arrangements of living and earning, and as my kids have grown and my roles and interests have changed.

I've written about that quest, quite a bit. I've studied my personality. (I'm a personality-type geek.) Two years ago, I hosted a skype chat with some of you in which we ended up talking about how we define ourselves, our confusion in doing so.

I've had to craft bios for writing projects in which I've attached adjectives to roles... adventurous mother, creative homeschooler...

And yet none of that is the definition of who I am. Because what if my children reject me, or die, my husband abandons me, I lose my cognitive abilities. If I lose all that defines me, who am I then? I don't anticipate this. I don't fear these things. But if my identity is rooted in other people, and in my goodness or my self-awareness, if it is rooted in adjectives and roles, and if I lose all that, I am nothing.

But I am not nothing.

This summer and fall has been about finding my identity outside the defining context of my roles. Finding my worth, my value, my self in something other than the jobs I do and how well I do them.

My identity has nothing to do with if I’m a good homeschool mom, a supportive wife, a loyal daughter.

My identity is in Christ.

He is my perfection, where it truly matters (in the presence of God), allowing me to know my Creator, bringing me into relationship with the Father, enabling me to partake in the Divine.

This is the good news, the gospel: that I don't need to struggle with being enough, Christ is my enough, he is my perfection, my goodness.

Everything I’m seeking, he has already taken hold of for me, given to me. And he invites me to live in that freedom.

Separated from God I am not worthy. Good gracious, I hurt people. I am unkind. I am not honest. All of these injustices committed against myself and others, and so much more, in spite of my best intentions otherwise.

Jesus is my worthiness.

I am worthy because Christ was worthy of communion with God. What other worthiness is there? To know the Divine, the Creator, the Author, that is the ultimate worthiness, the ultimate identity.

I rediscovered who I really am, in a sense I returned to my roots, I re-found my identity in the righteousness, in the wholeness of Jesus.

In Christ, hidden in his blamelessness, I am not just enough, I am completely whole. Healed.

I am in Christ.

The quest to define my identity stops here.

I thought I would find confidence again by getting reacquainted with myself as a child, tapping into my feisty young adult self. I thought I might have to go back to who I was, to find out who I am now. Or maybe I needed to look forward, to craft a vision, into the unknowable future, to define myself based on who I wanted to become. Or maybe I just needed to love myself.

Nothing wrong with any of those ideas, but they weren't the answer in themselves. My identity can be known here, in who I am right now. The love I claim is not simply my own, but God's love for me in Christ.

My identity, that core me that is essentially undefinable, is hidden in Jesus Christ. Safe. Cozy. Secure. Everything I want, right there.

I don't have to be anything to be valued or loved. To re-iterate, I don't have to be a good mom, or a supportive wife, or a caring daughter to have worth. In case it's not obvious, I want to be all those things. I want those and way more. I want to be over-the-top in my affections and support, in love and kindess towards people. But my worth does not come from that. That is not who I am. Who I am is in Christ.

This is what I have been meditating on for the past five months. I meditate on images and Bible verses. And this may sound weird (like most of this post may for some of you), I soak myself in God's love for me. I picture myself being loved by God.

For most of my adult life I have actively sought to know, understand, and define myself in roles, interests and vocations. I repeat, none of these are bad. I think my family has benefited greatly that I want to be a good mom. But when I start to derive my worth, my meaning, and personal value from a role and how well I do it; when I place something else (like marriage) above being in Christ as my identity, that is a misplaced allegiance. It's idolatry.

The seed of a lie - that my life's meaning and value came from anything else other than God's love for me - was planted, that grew to a weed, that had to be pulled. And the pulling of that weed was very painful and it broke a lot of the structures that had grown up up around that weed. It caused pain in our marriage.

We come into new realizations of self as we grow. And as Christians I think we can have new born-again experiences; significant, foundation-shaking, come-back-to-Jesus moments in our life.

This was one of mine.

I don't know that I've ever really viewed myself this way before. For my whole adult life I've defined myself by my roles and my relationship with other people. This is completely human, very natural, it's how we're known and understand ourselves. It's not bad.

But when I failed in one of these roles, or even perceived a failure, when I broke because I couldn't live up to how I defined myself, I realized I can't root my identity in anything but Christ.

Back to the birthday.

The existential crisis in our marriage, which we were experiencing last year on my birthday came from having attached meaning to our marriage in things other than Christ, as we rooted ourselves individually in things other than Christ. We added to the foundation our values, our interests, our desires, which are not in themselves bad, but they are not the foundation.

The same thing that had happened in my heart happened in our marriage.

This year I sought to find an answer to my who am I question. I wanted to heal, on many levels. I'm well on my way but it's not a done deal. I struggle with anxiety because of how my brain is wired and ingrained thought patterns, those don't disappear overnight, nor can I re-wire all at once.

I'm learning how to parent three teenagers and you know all that stuff I said about providing sacred space for my people's emotional honesty, yeah, doing that is actually really hard. Also, in recognizing I'm not called to be everything for everyone, and setting my boundaries, sometimes my pendulum swings into selfishness. This is a work in progress.

My identity is a done deal but living out that freedom is the work of life.

I wanted to be "somewhere" on my 40th birthday. Not a place, but an understanding of self. What I learned through 2015 is not what I imagined I would discover or need to re-discover.

I am reclaiming my confidence, not in self, but in Christ. I am rooted in love - not my husband's, children's, or parent's (though I am so blessed I have those) - but in God's unending love for me. I appreciate that marriage and motherhood are gifts in my life, they are not my meaning, my purpose, my identity. I have been gifted with a personality, a way of doing things, for the mission of glorifying God with my whole being.

And that's what I know on my 40th that was hidden in hurt and shame on my 39th.

Last week I celebrated my 35th birthday with my family. It was a wonderful day, full of gifts and surprises. Not the kind of gifts you unwrap (though there were a couple of those) but gifts given and received in love.

gifts from Brienne's birthday
simply to illustrate the "gifts" theme of this post

This year I requested we use my birthday gift budget to buy me a concert ticket. Tonight I'm going to Natalie MacMaster: Christmas in Cape Breton. Ok, well I'm not going to Cape Breton but to MacMaster's Christmas themed holiday program that's passing through Maine right now. A friend will be joining me, it's a girls night out and I'm so excited. I have wanted to see a live music show for months and months and finally it's happening for my birthday. (Thanks Debbie for the encouragement.)

Damien always makes me the sweetest cards

But the concert is really just the icing on the cake of an already wonderful birthday week and month (December with all its festivities seems like a continuation of the celebration).

sugar cookies instead of cake

I received so many lovely gifts for my birthday and I have to admit I have been giving myself a few gifts this month.  Here they are in no particular order:

The gift of time. Time off from school. Time to go to bed early and read books. Time to tickle my children and read stories. Time to make Christmas gifts. Less time spent on my computer (photo work, internet, communication etc...) more time enjoying this season.

The gift of friendship. This has been freely given but I have also been seeking it out as of late. I am tired of feeling isolated and have made a conscious decision during this month off from school to reach out and make time for friends. Friends for tea, friends for lunch, and friends to go to concerts with.

The gift of pretty. For my birthday Laurent and Brienne made these pendants for me. Also, my friend gave me earrings (see photo at end). I feel like a new woman with all this new jewelry.

The gift of nature. Our winter hikes this month have been gorgeous. I haven't shared many photos because I haven't had the time to process them all, nor am I posting as much. But I assure you (even without the photos to prove it) these weekly hikes refresh and recharge me.

The gift of pampering. On my birthday we had friends over for cookies and tea in the afternoon. Damien came home from work early to start preparing a special supper. As our friends were leaving I was shooed off to a hot bath, where I was waited on ("can I bring you tea mommy?") while Damien cooked. After our delicious supper I was escorted to the in-house spa where I was treated to body massage, a pedicure and manicure - while sipping a starbucks coffee and eating more cookies. I went to bed feeling loved, loved, loved with soft and supple skin to boot!

The gift of reading (& the promise of more good food). My mother ordered me my very own copy of Wild Fermentation for my birthday. It arrived today (smile).

The gift of understanding. This is a gift I give myself, though many have extended it to me also. I seem to be in a long period of self-evaluation and reflection and the darkening days simply intensify this introspection. I want to further understand what makes me happy, what it looks like for me to function at my best. I want to know what will bring me joy as our lives change and shift. So I'm reading, finding resources, taking personality tests, watching inspirational TED talks (you must watch this TED talk) etc...

The gift of love. I'm taking time to ask questions about who I am because I want to continue the work of creating a life I love.

This all sounds so self-focused and I am reluctant to share my navel gazing but the truth is I want to accept myself more. Dare I say it, I want to love me. My family and friends love me, they tell me so often. I love my children and husband with all my heart and then some, why can't I love myself and feel comfortable saying that?

Wow, there is no neat and tidy way to stitch this up after opening my heart so wide. So I'll leave it there. I am loved.

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