40

Avery counts the deep lines etched across my forehead. “One… Two… Three… Four.” Then she asks, “How many do I have, mama?” I tell her there are none but she doesn’t believe me. She climbs a stool to look into the mirror. “Zero,” she says; surprised and faintly disappointed.

This is what 40 looks like.

Forty hid far enough over the hill that I never gave it much thought until I turned thirty and the inevitability dawned on me. Looking for a fuller picture, I started asking 40-year-old people, “What are you excited about in the decade to come?”

“Gaining weight,” they said. “Losing hair from where it should be and growing hair from places where it shouldn’t be.”

What’s so great about 40? For starters, I know who I am, what I do, where I live, and who I love. I’m calmer and more confident. I have courage enough to admit what I don’t know. I forgive more and react less. I choose people who show up in my life over those who don’t.

When I look back on my 20s, I wish I’d been easier going and kept a lighter mind. For a while, fear of never finding love and family juiced the sweetness out of life and left me sucking a dry lime. Even when I got what I wanted; I found that I didn’t end up wanting what I got. Sure, I had some fun. But I lacked the perspective to understand how good life was; so it almost didn’t count.

The runes offered the same advice often enough that I started to pay attention: Be receptive, they said. If free will made me miserable, then maybe receptivity could bring something like happiness. So at twenty-eight I decided to do it: I would pursue nothing in favor of radical acceptance. For a few years, it worked. Aside from one bad night on the floor of a south-bound train out of Mumbai, it went very well.

Life is a game of Twister; not darts. Once I calibrated to this way of thinking the pieces started to come together. As my 30s ticked by (where did that decade go?), a lot of the things I lost sleep over in my 20s came to fruition. Partner. Home. Kids. The spinning brain cogs clicked and some of life’s overwhelming number of possible paths melted away. Anxiety dissipated. I gave up movement – temporarily at least – for a wild and terrible stillness.

A note of warning: When you open to the will of the universe, expect the unexpected.

At 40, I feel grown up. I’ve finally started to refer to myself as woman, rather than girl. I know when to hold ’em and when to fold ‘em. I’ve lost my thin tolerance for pop music. I’m quicker to drop grudges. If absolutely necessary, I can drink coffee black. Other than that, I’m the same person I was at twenty-eight.

Forty is where it is at. I’m ready settle in to the quiet landscape of my body; to stop living every day like an emergency; to recognize the miracle held in every pale, tangerine sunrise.

I miss the strength, infatuations, collagen, and wide-eyed aspirations of my 20s, but I wouldn’t go back and do those years again. Unless I could go back to my 20-something body and keep my 40-something mind. Then, I would definitely go back. That would be awesome.

*

When my friend T turned 40 she took a new job. Right away she knew it wasn’t for her, and she quit within the week. “At 40 I don’t have very many fucks left to give,” she said, “and I’m careful who I give them to.” We reveled knowing that at another time she would’ve stayed in that job for a year. Or years.

Mother. Adventurer. Artist. Healer. Advocate. I love who I am, and I have stopped hoping to become someone else. The best part of being 40 is a surprising sense of the unknown. Family restricts my freedom; but with my need for belonging saturated I can finally relax and wonder, what could the rest of my life be about?

The universe is full of solar systems a galaxies light years away. Everything matters, and nothing matters. Because what are we made of, but star dust?

*

The first age spots appeared on the backs of my hands this year, and I’ve been preaching the virtues of sunscreen to my daughter. It’s probably too late for me, but who knows? If I start wearing it now, maybe I’ll look great at fifty.

The same friends who turned 40 when I was 30 turned 50 this year. So I ask again: “What are you excited about in the decade to come?”

“Gaining weight,” they say. “Losing hair from where it should be and growing hair from places where it shouldn’t be.”

One of those 50-year-old friends is a photographer. I recently caught him taking pictures of a beautiful old tractor that sits gathering rust and lichen in a field near my home. He’s lived here twenty years, and I’m sure he has a thousand pictures of the thing. Yet the evening light was nice. I couldn’t resist calling out: “Haven’t gotten around to capturing that one yet?”

Tractor, September 2018
Tractor, September 2021

He shrugged in response. Maybe returning to whatever we love over and over again is as good a way to mark the passing of years as any.

What am I excited about in the coming decade? Play. Laughter. Movement. Delight. I exist well enough in this world of straight lines; but I would like to meet a version of myself with more my oil in my hips. I want to inhale deeply, and exhale fully, without thinking about it. I figure I might as well start being young now, before it’s too late.

***

Avery’s universe

First self portrait

Photography has been a great way to connect Avery with the baby brothers and offer her a special “big sister” role at the same time. Here, for her 4th birthday, I share some favorite photos of hers that I keep in a folder called “Avery’s Universe.”

A good place to use a phone

Through these pictures I see what my daughter notices about our family. I learn more about who she is and about who we are. Best of all, these photos reflects the totality of her love; a sense of what else would I photograph?

Baby brothers
A study in brothers 1

As a photographer, a kid has this advantage: I reach for the camera when everyone is copasetic and I have a free arm. I hand Avery the camera when everything is hectic and I am hoping to occupy her. In this, she captures the speed of our life more accurately than I ever will.

A study in brothers 2
A study in brothers 3

I like her portraits. I feel drawn to them the way I am drawn into any still frame of art that captures a thing in motion; a living, breathing being in transition from one moment to the next.

A study in brothers 4

I appreciate the honesty of her lens. There is no secret working of camera angles to hide an undesirable mess or the bags under my eyes. Everything is shown as is. Life looks that way. Why wouldn’t it be in the picture?

The sun
This happened once

Casual moments, sticky surfaces, propensity for all objects to land on the floor. From a child these recorded realities come naturally; her pictures are accurate without being insulting.

Mamadada
DIY haircuts 2020

Yes, I delete ten pictures for every one I keep. But also, she is starting to ask for the camera when she sees pretty light. We are adding art words to her vocabulary: Design. Palette. Frame. Subject. Shade.

A study in brothers 5
A study in brothers 6

These pictures feel special for so many reasons, including the gaps where I use my imagination to fill in the time that passes between pictures. Flipping back through these images, I watch my sons emerge from neonates to older babies with spunk and personality. And I watch my daughter shake off the remnants of babyhood and become a strong, confident, capable kid.

A study in brothers 7
A study in brothers 8

One last special thing: Mama gets to be in these pictures. Avery is the only person who documents this chapter of my life. When she photographs me holding a baby – smiling at him or playing with him – there is no end to my pleasure. She catches me in the middle of my work and tells me that the job I am doing is good enough.

*

Culinary Adventures

I like to cook; but I love to be fed. Somehow this dichotomy served me well in my first two decades of adulthood. But then it was 2020 and I found myself cast as the mother in a family of five. My under-confidence in the kitchen exacerbated our dinner stress, and I figured, as long as I am responsible for feeding all of these hungry people forever, I might as well learn. Time to take my meatballs out of my apron pocket.

I’m not a bad cook. I can make something robust, filling, and even tasty; but I am slow and my repertoire is limited. I only cook when I have unlimited time and that occurs under one condition: When pigs fly.

A big problem is that I start making dinner without an end goal. Seriously. I have no idea what these ingredients might combine to become. My only objective is to use up the vegetables before they liquify in the bottom of the refrigerator. I chop and sauté, add things from cans, and voila! A soup is born.

If I make anything other than soup, I screw up the details. I start with polenta, but turn the whole steaming potful into a baked cornmeal pizza crust. Toppings shift out of beans and cheese and into pesto and olives. Or leftover brown rice sneaks its way into Thai dishes. I am forever mixing and matching Asian sauces. Every meal is as much a surprise to me as to anyone else. Nothing ever tastes quite right.

“You are crossing cultures,” my husband complains.

This from a guy who puts ranch dressing on tacos. “How come when you do it, it’s fusion cooking, but when I do it it’s a mistake?” I ask.

“Because when I do it,” he says, “it’s delicious.”

Fine.

I surround myself with good cooks; which is not entirely coincidental. My husband must have been a five-star chef in a past life. He is a wealth of culinary insight, and for no obvious reason.

One afternoon, M stops home for lunch and I proudly serve him a turkey-havarti melt with avocado and homemade pesto. His response: “Any chance of a little tomato?”

M always knows what he wants. The flip-side is he doesn’t receive mediocre food well. He does not even receive good food well if it could be improved upon. For ten years I have avoided conflict with my husband by not bothering to feed him.

I slice the tomato, muttering not-so-under-my-breath. I’m fishing for an apology. He opens his mouth, and I look up. He says, “Do we have any red onion?”

I would hate him for this, except the sandwiches turn out so special.

Food presses me to answer questions of desire that I have long avoided: What do I crave? What might fulfill me? What do people eat, anyway?

My home cooking started the way all of my best learning does: By circling in from a seemingly unrelated point, taking my sweet time, and enjoying myself along the way.

Several months in, I had little to show for my efforts except better breakfast foods and baked goods that I was already pretty good at making. I spent hours in the kitchen, and still there was nothing to eat. One night, all I had to show for myself was peanut sauce, roasted veggies, and rice. “Is this dinner?” Avery asked. Um, yes?

Feeding children is tricky. I prepare dinner under the guise of feeding them but let’s be honest: They want yogurt and toast. And tacos. I could throw a taco at them every night and nobody would complain.

Best that I please myself whenever possible. I find myself doing crazy things; like I’ll be inspired by a vegan recipe but then I’ll add dairy and meat or make it gluten-free. Good stuff happens this way but it isn’t efficient. Fake parmesan and vegan butter, while interesting, are not exactly necessary.

Also, I do have to feed the children. I did a couple of experiments with meatless meats that didn’t go over well. Avery refused to eat the first one, and that should have been my sign. On the second foray she said, “Mama, if it doesn’t look like meat, and it doesn’t taste like meat, it isn’t meat.”

Learning any skill necessitates a certain willingness to fail. I experiment with new recipes when M is out of town so that my inner midwestern farm-wife doesn’t fret about pleasing him. But Avery let’s me know if I miss the mark.

Avery has her father’s pallet. She will eat whatever I make as long as it is delicious. Also, she needs presentation. I can have all of the elements of a meal ready to go; but if it falls apart into a pile of crying babies at the last minute and looks like pig slop she goes on hunger strike.

I want to make wholesome, healthy, delicious food. Sounds simple. But who cooks this way? Where are my people? Also, how do I create delightful meals without a lot of planning and fuss? If mung bean sprouts and ripe avocados grew out of my ears I would be much better at this.

Time to get goal-oriented. Every weekend I jot a quick list of things to make throughout the week and endeavor to do one creative thing in the kitchen every day. I visit the library and check out all the cookbooks. I bookmark everything that looks good, then become so overwhelmed that I go back and shove everything through the slot.

Later, I try again. Mercifully, an epiphany brings relief: Food is themed. Ethnicities. Seasons. Colors. Certain things go together, and certain things don’t. With a little research I also pick up a new recipe app that allows me to organize recipes this way and it gives me the feeling that life will go on. This is where I’m at, people.

Here are some profiles I am playing with:

Southeast Asian: Red curry paste, mung bean sprouts, cilantro, peanuts.

Mediterranean: Parsley, basil, thyme, tomato, olives, lemon, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, mozzarella, parmesan.

Mexican: Black beans, tomato, corn, chili powder, cumin, avocado, lime, red onion, cilantro.

Japanese: Soy sauce, miso, ginger, sesame, green onion, rice wine vinegar, seaweed.

Themes keeps me on task. I get a lot of mileage out of making sure I can name a dish, and clarify its ethnic origins before I start cooking. It’s also possible that thematic thinking affects my shopping more than my cooking. I don’t need to know what’s for dinner when I put in an order; but if I buy green onions then I also need ginger and miso. If I’m craving sun-dried tomatoes it’s worth picking up some feta. You’re welcome.

Getting interested in food, leaning in, has turned cooking from a source of stress into a source of pleasure. If I accomplished nothing except that I change 100 diapers and a day I feel sort of, meh. If I change 100 diapers, and make ratatouille, I feel awesome.

Eventually, I found a few sources that check all the boxes for me. Favorite cookbooks include Nourish by Cara Rosenbloom and Nettie Cronish and the Run Fast, Eat Slow series by Shalane Flanagan and Elyse Kopecky. Angela Liddon of Oh She Glows is a vegan genius and few things taste so good as vegetarian dishes by Cookie and Kate.

Cooking has also improved my diet more than restricting food ever did. The more I prepare inspiring vegetables, and seek protein in beans and seeds, the more I crave those foods.

My time in the kitchen is shifting out of responsibility and into play. I get to have a little adventure, protected there behind a gate. When the babies toddle over they always leave with a snack. If anyone cries then everyone gets a cookie. I want them to enjoy time with mom in the kitchen, too.

Let’s begin.

****

The dinner breath

I’m a little short on adventure these days, though nursing hungry twins can be scary after midnight. Release the Kraken!

Evenings are also full of adrenaline. It is 4 PM. The house is a disaster, and every child is crying. I am making dinner but also I am ready to spring. The muscles of my back, neck, and jaw are coiled.

I am not entirely opposed to adrenaline. I love to ski, hike, and bike; but in those sports you can always stop and re-assess. Evenings with my family are more like running whitewater.

Something about being tired, and having a dinner-making responsibility to see through, makes the madness in my home unbearable. In a past life, the highest use of late afternoon was to fix a quiet cup of tea for some toes up time. Now, as my children hover and swarm, I feel like, Why are you still talking to me?

On the exterior I am calm. Inside, my brain turns to soup. I open the refrigerator door and forget why I opened it. Nausea sweeps through me. What is this? Oh. That’s panic. Cold, hard panic. Then I remember, green beans, and move on.

*

To freak-out is the body’s natural reaction to threat. It goes by many names… Come un-glued. Flip your lid. Lose one’s shit. The brain short-circuits, making the prefrontal cortex and all of its propensity for language and rational thought temporarily unavailable. The only problem is, wild children do not constitute an emergency.

I was never one for whitewater. In my early 20s a boyfriend wanted to learn so we spent some time at the pool and then took our kayaks to the river. In the course of a week, I swam a class II rapid, tipped on an eddy-line (and feared I would drown), and watched him washing-machine down a class IV rapid. That was enough for me.

People say we can only control ourselves. What the hell? Living in chaos, at times, renders me emotionally hijacked. I am anything but in control. Fight or flight isn’t a pleasant state to hang around in; I would gladly drop my reaction if I could. How do I make it stop?

While it is happening, I’m convinced that a nice little adult temper tantrum will restore order – for tonight and all the evenings to come. But freaking out never solved anything. Tomorrow night we will be right back here where we started. Same bat time. Same bat channel.

I want to be a calm mom. If I can pull this off, maybe my kids will look back on childhood with rose-colored glasses. Right now, I commit to figuring this out. I will learn to recover from stressful moments without to upsetting anyone.

Maybe all I need is to reframe the situation. I wonder if I could shift this daily experience out of anxiety attack and into adrenaline rush. When someone in our family is up against something difficult, we say, try again or ask for help. My husband loves whitewater. So I ask:

“You know that time, between 4 and 6 PM, when everyone has needs, and I am tired, and I need to make dinner, and it is so hard?”

“Yeah,” he says.

“It’s sort of feels like running the rapids on a river; like there’s no possibility of eddying out or making things any calmer. I just have to get through it.”

“Mmhmm.”

“Why do you like that feeling?”

“It’s a little scary,” he says. “But it’s exciting too. The danger gives you a rush.”

“Is there anything you like about whitewater kayaking that might help me get through that time of day?” I ask.

“No,” he says. “I don’t think so.”

Breathe. Take a breath. This is what people say. Before you go under, I think. But one breath does nothing. I need like an hour of breathing to feel like myself again.

I’ve been working towards self-regulation for my entire adult life. Allegedly there exists a teeny tiny gap between emotion and the impulse to act. All one has to do is locate it, separate the two, and let the emotion rise and fall within the body without doing anything crazy.

You don’t have to do anything.

After decades of scanning I still don’t see that space. Anger, stress, fear, or scarcity sends me straight into whatever in-voluntarily smack-down spectacle my body orchestrates to reign in control. At the first hint of a hairline I promise to throw in a pry bar like a javelin.

Keep your head down, I tell myself. Ignore the chaos. Keep going. Ride the wave.

When you’re in a hole, and the water keeps coming, there isn’t time to think. Yet, keep paddling, and the hole will eventually spit you back out. My brain flat-lines for ten to fifteen minutes, tops. All I have to do is resist the urge to lash out for this teeny tiny slice of time. The emergency will resolve and my brain will come back online by itself.

I am motivated. Never before was every day so fraught with land mines and the stakes so precious. Maybe with compulsory daily practice I can get a combat roll down before the brothers move on to solids.

For fifteen years, I have been aware of my breath, the experience of life in my body, and the compulsory generation of thoughts. I can observe thoughts, but in a triggered state I end up bending to their whims.

In the big picture, mindfulness helps me to stay calm. But it has never helped me snap back to stasis in the heat of a moment. It occurs to me, that fight or flight is a physiological response, and if there is a way in, then there must be a way out.

With a little research I learn that the return to rest and digest status is a function of the Vagal nerve. This “wandering” nerve starts at the brainstem and meanders all the way to the gut; which is why intuition is sometimes described as a “gut” instinct. I am pleased to learn and is also sometimes called the Vagas nerve.

Goodbye reality; hello Vagas.

Want to hack your way out of fight or flight? There are quite a few ways to stimulate the Vagal nerve: Story-telling. Singing. Journaling. Belly-breathing. Splashing cold water on your face. Pressure points. Bearing down.

You mean, that I can calm down just by pretending to fart? Yes. Maybe.

Ready. Set. Vagas.

Vagal nerve strength can be measured by tracking the heartbeat. Under stress, the heart holds a constant rhythm. As a person returns from a triggered state to calm, there is more variability in the timing between heartbeats. The skill of returning quickly from a triggered state back to center is a function of vagal tone, but it also goes by another name: Resilience.

I think a lot about building resilience in myself, my children, and our family. Realizing that two separate goals just met and married in a neon chapel strikes me as very, very cool.

Vagas is the answer no matter the question.

Resilience is not a measure of grit-your-teeth endurance or the depth of your stuffed emotions. Rather, it is a measure of one’s willingness to look what is real in the eye, see it for what it is, and to do what is needed, for as long as is necessary.

Highly resilient people are no better at holding back floodwaters from bursting through the dam than anyone else; their forte is to accept the disaster, pick up the pieces quickly, and begin again.

For my part, resilience means generating less anger; valuing relationships over control; noticing the experience others are having even when I am at my whit’s end. It is stopping, before I freak out, to ask, Is this worth giving up my calm?

The finish-line for me each evening is something our family calls, the dinner breath. My husband and I made up this ritual on our second date and have kept with it ever since. We join hands with our daughter, the babies in their highchairs, and anyone brave enough to venture over for dinner at our place. We sit in stillness long enough to take one intentional inhale and exhale. We wait as the vibration of gratitude travels around the table and passes through each one of us. We are together, and that is enough.

I hope dinner time will become just another time. A regular meal. No big deal. Becoming resilient to the chaos of children gives me hope that I will make it to the table. That there will come a moment, with everyone in front of a hot meal, where nothing crazy has happened. When I sit and take hands, I finally relax. I have conquered the rapids.

You can’t buy happiness, but you can go to Vagas and that’s kind of the same thing.

***

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