Discover more from Jessica Slice writes about disability, poems, and waterfowl
Congratulations if you have changed
Amelia came to visit for my 40th birthday. When we moved to Canada, she warned us that she would not come during the winter, but it was easy to get her to make an exception. The weather was very warm-for-Canada while she was here, but no one could convince her that it was actually quite balmy out.
In the weeks leading up to my milestone birthday, I felt an ambient unease, and my body was humming with unpleasant anticipation. I had put some pressure on myself to plan something worthy of the occasion — to really mark the day. Should I invite people over? Order a fancy dinner? Would I regret not finding the exact right special way to mark my new decade?
When I turned 37, we were still living in California. A few weeks before that birthday, Khalil was hospitalized. On my birthday, Amelia came over, and we all wore our fanciest clothes. After Khalil went to bed, we turned off the lights and released flying wish paper. I kept remembering how magical the evening felt and wanted to do something similar this year. Memory is funny, though — in the photos from that day an oxygen monitor hangs off of Khalil’s tiny finger.
I thought back to my other birthdays. First, I counted back by tens. I turned 30 in Paris. I turned 20 in Charleston. I turned 10 in Northern Virginia. I was born in DC. I recounted all of the birthday parties I could. I googled, “what do you do when you turn 40?” I told Amelia that I wanted to get matching tattoos.
It will surprise not one person to hear that I am predisposed to earnest self-reflection. For 15 years, I’ve been starting each January with a vision board collage. Turning 40 a few days after New Year’s meant I was going hard on introspection (navel-gazing? I don’t want to hear it). One angsty morning, I made two lists:
10 things I like about my life.
5 things I want to change.
Whenever I write anything — for myself, for a book, or for this newsletter — I pause before beginning and say to myself, “tell the truth.” I have learned that everything crumbles when I won’t tell myself the truth. (Telling the truth to myself is not the same as telling everyone everything.)
So I took my time with my lists. It’s easy to think of dozens of things I love about my life — my family, the lake, the swans that visit in the winter, my new adjustable bed frame that has improved my hip pain substantially — but as I wrote, one item surprised me; it felt a little bit like a miracle.
One of the things I like about my life is … me.
I like being myself, and I like being with myself. When I’m alone and quiet and can burrow in deep, I’m not ashamed of what I find.
Like so many others who have lived with shame, the degree to which this has not always been the case is hard to overstate. For decades, I believed that my core was rotten and that the only way to survive was to manically paper over the decay with charm and achievements.
Those vision boards from 2007 — they were covered with numbers — trips to take, houses to sell, pounds to weigh, and miles to run.
But now, at 40, I can notice that during these last years, things were changing inside of me. All of the hours in therapy, the generosity of my friends, the safety of a loyal partner, the thousands of poems I have read, the hours meditating, the reminders to myself that every day is a day of my life. Protecting Khalil.
Without realizing it, I earned back my own respect.
It’s very hard not to spend a few paragraphs qualifying this all. Of course, there are plenty of things I’m bad at and mistakes I make, and people I hurt. Of course, OF COURSE, of course!
So, after all that apprehension, my birthday was quiet. I ate cookies and cupcakes and opened a bottle of champagne I had been saving but it was gross so I had a glass of Sancerre instead. David gave me a dropbox folder of dozens of my friends reading poems. I wept. Jenna and Casey read a list of 40 things they love about me. I cried so hard I had to open the window to cool down. I requested that Amelia and David paint over an uneven patch in Khalil’s room, and they were both very grumpy about it but did a great job anyway. Amelia dusted the leaves on my plants. Khalil drew me a “loveheart” and gave me “loveheart” earrings.
I went to bed early and turned up the humidifier so that I didn’t get another Canadian winter nosebleed. I cuddled our dogs. I ordered myself a new ring.
And the anxiety passed.
I’m 40, and I’m in awe that I am different from when I was 30 and 20. What a gift to have grown older and to have changed. There is a verse from Mary Oliver that has been repeating in my head.
We do one thing or another; we stay the same, or we
you have changed.
And, as always, thank you for the emails and notes that continue to come. When I made my list of 10 good things, you all were on it.
Two poems today. No arguments. It’s my birthday.
To Begin With, the Sweet Grass
Will the hungry ox stand in the field and not eat
of the sweet grass?
Will the owl bite off its own wings?
Will the lark forget to lift its body into the air or
forget to sing?
Will the rivers run upstream?
Behold, I say--behold
the reliability and the finery and the teachings
of this gritty earth gift.
Eat bread and understand comfort.
Drink water and understand delight.
Visit the garden where the scarlet trumpets
are opening their bodies for the hummingbirds
who are drinking the sweetness, who are
For one thing leads to another.
Soon you will notice how stones shine underfoot.
Eventually tides will be the only calendar you believe in.
And someone's face, whom you love, will be as a star
both intimate and ultimate,
and you will be both heart-shaken and respectful.
And you will hear the air itself, like a beloved, whisper:
oh, let me, for a while longer, enter the two
beautiful bodies of your lungs.
The witchery of living
is my whole conversation
with you, my darlings.
All I can tell you is what I know.
Look, and look again.
This world is not just a little thrill for the eyes.
It's more than bones.
It's more than the delicate wrist with its personal pulse.
It's more than the beating of a single heart.
It's giving until the giving feels like receiving.
You have a life--just imagine that!
You have this day, and maybe another, and maybe
Someday I am going to ask my friend Paulus,
the dancer, the potter,
to make me a begging bowl
which I believe
my soul needs.
And if I come to you,
to the door of your comfortable house
with unwashed clothes and unclean fingernails,
will you put something into it?
I would like to take this chance.
I would like to give you this chance.
We do one thing or another; we stay the same, or we
you have changed.
Let me ask you this.
Do you also think that beauty exists for some
And, if you have not been enchanted by this adventure--
what would do for you?
What I loved in the beginning, I think, was mostly myself.
Never mind that I had to, since somebody had to.
That was many years ago.
Since then I have gone out from my confinements,
though with difficulty.
I mean the ones that thought to rule my heart.
I cast them out; I put them on the mush pile.
They will be nourishment somehow (everything is nourishment
somehow or another).
And I have become the child of the clouds, and of hope.
I have become the friend of the enemy, whoever that is.
I have become older and, cherishing what I have learned,
I have become younger.
And what do I risk to tell you this, which is all I know?
Love yourself. Then forget it. Then, love the world.
It grows larger
wall after wall
on some miraculous arrangement
blond and weightless
as balsa, making space
for windows, alcoves,
more rooms, stairways
and passages, all
in light, with here
and there the green
flower of a tree,
what a change
from the cramped
room at the center
where I began, where i crouched
and was safe,
but could hardly
breathe! Day after day
I labor at it;
night after night
I keep going-
I'm clearing new ground
I'm lugging boards
I'm hanging sheets of glass
I'm nailing down the hardwoods
I'm hinging the doors-
Once they are up, they will lift
their easy latches, they will open