Monday, June 19, 2023

Thoughts on Turning 40

I turned 40 on June 10. Leading up to my birthday, I found myself suddenly recalling a poem I read years ago, Fiddler Jones by Edgar Lee Masters, an American poet from the late nineteenth/early twentieth century.  
The earth keeps some vibration going
There in your heart, and that is you.
And if the people find you can fiddle,
Why, fiddle you must, for all your life.
What do you see, a harvest of clover?
Or a meadow to walk through to the river?
The wind's in the corn; you rub your hands
For beeves hereafter ready for market;
Or else you hear the rustle of skirts
Like the girls when dancing at Little Grove.
To Cooney Potter a pillar of dust
Or whirling leaves meant ruinous drouth;
They looked to me like Red-Head Sammy
Stepping it off, to "Toor-a-Loor."
How could I till my forty acres
Not to speak of getting more,
With a medley of horns, bassoons and piccolos
Stirred in my brain by crows and robins
And the creak of a wind-mill--only these?
And I never started to plow in my life
That some one did not stop in the road
And take me away to a dance or picnic.
I ended up with forty acres;
I ended up with a broken fiddle--
And a broken laugh, and a thousand memories,
And not a single regret.

A poem about a fiddler who never got ahead in life, whose forty acres never multiplied into more worldly goods or wealth, who dropped what he was doing over and over again to go play his fiddle for dances. The birds and the sounds of everyday life made him think of his music; his plowing was often interrupted by the opportunity for another jig. 

I re-read it a few weeks ago and it settled into my heart just as it had years before when I first encountered it. "...fiddle you must, for all your life." "I ended up with forty acres; I ended up with a broken fiddle-- And a broken laugh, and a thousand memories, and not a single regret."

A year or two ago Nathan was sorting through old CDs and cassette tapes (!!) and listening to snippets of things as he came across them. I heard some violin music floating out of his study -- The Lark Ascending by Vaughan-Williams. "Who's playing that?" "It's you." "What? No. This sounds fine, but I never played it well at all." "Well, it's you." A bit later, piano music -- Chopin's Fantasie-Impromptu. "Who's this now?" "You again. In high school." "No! I remember recording it because my teacher wanted me to submit it to a competition, but I tried and tried to get a good take and it was always wrong..." 

I've thought about this experience a lot in the past few years. Am I only able to appreciate something when it's far behind in the rear-view mirror? Is perfectionism hindering me from enjoying life in the moment, whether it's my experiences in music, or anything else? How many times have I thought something was not worth documenting or enjoying or celebrating because it wasn't "perfect"? What if all along, those things were wonderful and my eyes were clouded from seeing it? What if all those summers where I wished I weighed 5-10 lbs less, I could have just enjoyed the sun on my skin, my toddlers in my arms, my kids leaping in the sand, and seen more beauty in it? What if all the recitals and concerts I played were worth enjoying exactly as they were, the imperfections less perceptible than they seemed to me at the time? What if my yard and gardens were perfectly nice places to be in spite of the weeds? What if my professional life has been a greater accomplishment than it's ever seemed to me? What if life was worth enjoying even when the house was messy? What if my kids are doing pretty well, and being slower to learn to read, or struggling with math for a while, or taking time to progress through violin repertoire is OK after all? 

What if things being imperfect doesn't make them any less worth enjoying, remembering, celebrating? 

* * *

So, I threw myself a party for my fortieth birthday. I had said for years that I would do it when I turned forty - that I would let my kids see me face it head-on, no black balloons or gag gifts involved. It was cocktail attire, under the lights on the back patio, with my kids passing appetizers. (They were so excited about this.) And when Nathan's work life got turned a bit upside-down in the weeks leading up to my fortieth and he didn't have time to help plan or prepare, well, I'm incredibly thankful for friends who offered -- no, insisted -- help: baking me exquisite cakes, helping with food, and even coming up with a signature cocktail (which has become a new favorite of mine). 

Nell has really enjoyed learning hand-lettering over the past year, and made lovely little signs for me.

mini galettes were fun to help make and even more fun to pass around the mingling adults.

one of the cutest three waitresses of the evening!

every bit as delicious as they look - I had to try a small slice of each, of course!

blurry imperfect photo captured by one of my kids

Molly, who is six now, went up to a friend at my party and said with a happy sigh, "I'm SO glad my mother is forty!" The friend told me of this later, saying, "She sees it as a great honor bestowed upon you!" And I love that. 

"Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the days to come."

It drizzled a tiny bit at one point, that evening of my 40th when we celebrated on the patio. I am still carrying some extra weight from having Cecily five months ago. Nathan's work life continues to throw a fair bit of stress in our direction rather continually. But that evening, after everyone had gone home, I stood on the patio for one more minute listening to the music that was still playing, enjoying the glow of the lights and the sudden stillness. And I said to Nathan, "It was exactly the party I wanted." I looked around that evening and felt that if this is forty, I'm here for it.

I intend to try to spend the next forty years worrying less about all the imperfections and failures, and finding the wild wonderful successes that have been here all along. To make and store up those "thousand memories." I hope someday I can say that we've fiddled for all our lives, stepped away from the work to go and dance at every opportunity... "not a single regret."