“It’s very weird to succeed at thirty-nine years old and realize that in the midst of your failure, you were slowly building the life that you wanted anyway.”
– Alice Sebold
According to the Writer’s Almanac, novelist Alice Sebold was raped as a young woman and spent the next 15 years struggling to have relationships with others and struggling with the craft of writing. In her 30s she wrote the surprise bestseller The Lovely Bones.
Her quote above stuck strongly in my mind (and I noted it even more because I am 39 this year). Because I know just how it feels to live in darkness for decades and realize with an astounded ache of insight that the unfamiliar pain and pleasure you feel is your eyes adjusting to brilliant light.
Because without knowing it, and thinking you were doing something else, you were stumbling to your destination unknowingly but all along.
I just had a fabulous brunch with Rowan. Eggs and biscuits with peach butter and blueberry preserves. Coffee and cold water and tomato juice so packed with flavor I made her take a sip. We had amazing girltalk (quite literally about sex and drugs) and agreed that lately, we feel like queens of the universe.
I have health issues. Rowan is breaking up with the man she once hoped to marry. We both have debt and stress, and a lot of each.
But we both love our late-in-life college education, we love the city we live in, we love having each other to talk to, we feel like we have unbelievably loving friends of great integrity and real talent, and we feel connected to all the things we love.
We have music and colorful clothes to wear. And while we are not rich, we have enough to buy little Indonesian beaded rings together and have a delicious brunch downtown, and promise each other that the next time it rains on a weekday we will meet there again for fried chicken and fried green tomatoes over goat cheese and caramelized onions. We will shake the water from our umbrellas and watch the rain fall past the foggy plate glass picture windows, and know that we are the queens of the universe.
If an incredibly rich friendship in a life full of rich friendships and wearing geranium perfume and clean clothes while drinking hot coffee on a cool and sunny September morning is not the riches of the fucking ages, I don’t know what is.
I sat at the table with the noise of restaurant chatter and open kitchen clatter all around me and I felt my latest realization crystallize all around me like frost on a window.
For so many years I thought I had a default life. An ersatz life. My version of the American dream was to have a husband, kids and the perfect job. I didn’t think about friendship, or self-expression, or learning, or how having the perfect job is an unending, grueling journey involving turnabouts, disappointments and constant change. I didn’t know to think about these things.
I turned to building a network of friends as a medicine for the unbelievable loneliness of being a single woman whose first set of friends deserted her. I didn’t see it at the time, but I collected different people the wiser time around, people with more integrity and more in common with me and each other.
And now I find myself at parties all year round, putting purple orchids in the hair of birthday girls, listening to flamenco music, getting hugs and kisses, feeling consistently loved and appreciated in ways that are as unfamiliar as they are wonderful.
I turned to self-expression out of having nothing else to do with myself. I turned to education when all attempts at making a living failed. I learned that maybe the perfect job isn’t something you search for, but something you create inside yourself with aching slowness as you learn and change and explore and grow, and wait until the day it rises up into the world like it was always there.
All the things I thought were consolation prizes, all the things I thought were inferior pleasures to salve the stings of decades of failure, are the very stuff of my joy today.
My dear friends. My ability to make things with my hands. My profound knowledge, gained over years of unhappiness and trial, of myself and what I like to do and be to make myself feel happiest and most fulfilled. My shaping of my own skills and expertise into the work I like most, am best at, and that offers the most and best of myself to everyone.
It occurs to me that I am spoiled rotten. That I am the princess in a fairy tale written by my wiser, later self, where the princess is single, wears jeans, is a poli sci minor and is rescued again and again by a cast of characters including the most interesting and great-hearted people around (Lala).
If my last battle is against my own ordinariness, that is in itself an incredible victory decades in the making.