Monday, October 19, 2009


Today is my birthday. Not a birthday of any great significance; no special legal privileges are newly mine, and the number doesn't end in a zero. It's just another year gone. Today, as usual, I staggered out of my warm bed early enough to squeeze in a morning walk before the kids woke up to to pull my attention in 4 different directions. I didn't even brush my hair before going out. The sun was hardly up when I came in the front door to find my three-year-old running to greet me with wet pajamas. Again. My 19-month-old stood rattling the sides of his crib, waiting to be dressed. "All the shirts in his drawer are too small," my husband informed me as he deposited the baby, wearing a shirt two sizes too big, in the high chair. As I reached for an apple, my eldest complained of three loose teeth and requested that I pack his lunch with soft foods. Meanwhile, my five-year-old ran laps through the hallway in a panic, wondering where his socks and belt could have gone. Apparently it never occurred to him to check in his dresser. Then, halfway through dishing up seven bowls of yogurt, I realized that I'd forgotten to have him do his math homework for the second time in a week.

If, at age eighteen, I could have seen myself at 31, I might not have recognized the somewhat disorganized mother of four I have become. I would certainly not have been pleased with what I saw. I've grown softer and rounder in all the wrong places, and the dark circles under my eyes seem to be a permanent fixture. I've never been the owner of a single item advertised in Vogue. I have never lived in Paris. I've traded art museums for coloring books; urban Shakespeare productions for grade school plays; dinner at eight for Happy Meals at noon. I never saw this coming. I'm not even a "kid person." As I look back, I ask myself how this could have happened to me. What became of all my ambitions?

The answer is: They died.

Thirteen years ago I was a college freshman with big plans and little foresight. I was going to study French, and then earn a Master's degree—probably a PhD as well—in Art History from some red brick institution on the East Coast. If I had asked my 18-year-old self what I would be doing now, I would have seen myself traveling to sophisticated places and delivering lectures to sophisticated students and reading sophisticated books and wearing sophisticated clothes and painting sophisticated canvases to the delight of my sophisticated patrons and dining in sophisticated restaurants with my sophisticated husband, whoever he might be. I would have a brilliant career. I would name-drop cities. I would know people who knew people, if you know what I mean.

But something—let's call it grace—happened to all those sophisticated plans. Today, on my 31st birthday, tiny, unsophisticated fingerprints stipple the lower halves of the windows and the French door to the living room. Sticky drips from unsophisticated sippie cups pepper the hardwood floors. The upstairs trash can is overflowing with unsophisticated diapers. I read unsophisticated stories to unsophisticated children who can't sit still long enough to hear the ending. I have a family-size bag of highly unsophisticated chicken nuggets in the freezer for those nights when we get home late—and muddy—from unsophisticated soccer games. I sing along with unsophisticated songs while attempting to accompany them using my unsophisticated piano skills. And I live in my unsophisticated home town where I push an unsophisticated double stroller while wearing the unsophisticated tennis shoes I purchased at a church rummage sale. And the strange thing is that I know this life, although I sometimes live it poorly, is a far better life than my 18-year-old self could have understood.

It's difficult to discern how my perception of "the good life" altered during the intervening years. But if there's one thing I've learned during that time, it's that a well-lived life means dying well—over and over again. I have not done it as often or as willingly as I ought. Not nearly. Sometimes I think that leaping in front of the oncoming train to rescue the baby in the stroller would be the best way to go—all at once, in a blaze of selfless glory. But where would be the challenge? Or the reward? Until I see that I must die daily, a little at a time, sometimes imperceptibly, I will never learn to truly live.

My husband's mother is staying with our family right now, and I think she has known this for a long time. She has given her years to teaching English to teenagers on their last stop before jail; helping kids with special needs learn to read; giving hours and days of every week to students and grandchildren and friends in need. She's been a mentor to people with addictions. She walked 60 miles this fall to raise money to find a cure for the cancer that took her little sister's life. She's planning a trip to volunteer in an orphanage overseas next year. She drove alone 1200 miles to see her son's family here in Idaho and will drive alone 1200 miles to get home to her other son's family in Arizona. She gives her life away. That is to say, she has found it.

We went with her down to the river this week when the weather was warm. We ate a picnic on the levy and watched the boys play on the rocks near the water. She and my husband climbed down with the kids and peered between the stones with them in search of lost treasures. They returned with a broken pink fishing pole, two golf balls, and an orange water pistol. They also returned with smiles and dirt on their hands. My hands were clean. Sophisticated people do not get dirty.

As we packed up our picnic, my husband told the boys to throw the remains of their sandwich bread into the river. When they did so, a pair of gulls plummeted to the surface to snatch the floating pieces, leaving a lone duck to seek vainly for the leftover crumbs. The bread was gone. But somehow the news got out that food was being distributed, and the gulls and ducks from across the river came in a mass to find what we had to offer. My oldest son turned to me and asked for more bread to give them. I hesitated. I had just packed it away. There were sandwiches to be made during the week ahead. I paid good money for that loaf and didn't want to waste it on an assembly of dirty, ungrateful birds. But I am slowly learning that my own plans must die and give way to something richer; I passed the loaf between my sons, who broke it, throwing it riverward.

The cries of the hungry fowl filled the air as piece after piece descended toward their waiting beaks. We all laughed at their enthusiastic response to this unexpected bounty. Broken bread may have been wasted on these filthy crowds, these shepherdless flocks. But what we gathered from it was something much more. Something multiplied. Twelve baskets full.

We took a stroll along the levy and then down its steep green slope toward the road. But looking behind us, all the boys knew that a grassy bank like that is not to be experienced by mere walking. Back up they all went—even the baby on hands and knees—to roll down in dizzy giggles. I stood apart to watch, with the stroller between them and me, giving way to a dignified smile. But then my husband broke away up the hill after the children to take part in their game. And after him went his mother, who reached the summit and came twirling toward me, calling to me to join in. I hesitated. Sophisticated people do not roll down hills.

Sophisticated people do not know how to live. I stepped from behind the stroller and jogged to the top of the levy, lay down on the grass, and let myself go. Over and over. A whirl of colors spun around me. Gulls cried overhead. I slowed to a stop at the bottom of that grassy bank and lay, arms outstretched, breathless, with a thousand-thousand friendly blades against my back. And I died. Laughing.


Carissalayla said...

Thank you dear friend for this beautiful post, I too suffer from a world too full of sophistication and reading this made me feel a swirl of emotions and even dab a tear or two from my eyes, I too think I am in need of a rebirth!

Happy Birthday Hannah!

Bree said...

Are you writing these for me??? Not that I had planned much of a sophisticated life but I sure get tired of dying to ones self. Thank you for the lovely reminders. They made me weep. In a good way. Hope you have a lovely 31st.

Unknown said...

To Carissa's dear friend....It was so refreshing to know that I am not the only Mom out there that feels this way. I am having to learn how to "Just let go" my husband calls it :).. So I thank you for sharing your sweet and meaning full story that only a Mom can understand. I have to say I cried...
BTW have you ever thought of writing?
Again..Thank you!


Grieser Family said...

Wow Hannah. That was beautiful writing. Thank you thank you THANK YOU for sharing your talent with us. I am in tears.

Happiest of birthdays my sister!

Nicole Lewin said...

Ah yes, the dreams of the opera singer have been replaced by the pitiful effort to sometimes get to Wednesday night church choir.
I had a bit of a tantrum the other day and told Steve that my only job right now seemed to be giving up the things I like to do. He said, "Yep."
He doesn't encourage self-pity, my husband.

Happy birthday.

Brittany Martin said...

This is great, Hannah. Thankfully all your sophisticated dreams began to die when you met that handsome vaccuum salesman so many years ago!

There's one last hurrah, though, for a 31st birthday--Baskin-Robbins, the place of 31 flavors! You should get yourself an ice cream cake.

Michelle said...

Hannah, this post was beautiful and a great blessing to me. Thank you! Hope you had a wonderful birthday!

Bev Atwood said...

Wow. Another beautiful post.
Love, Mom

windandbigwaves said...

Happy Birthday

YOu are truely a gifted writer as I get ready to say prayers tuck everyone in and sigh inrelief that I too get to jump in bed hopefully with just my husband and not the children and our 100 pound golden retriver that has yet to dry from our beach walk. YOu have brought a tear to my eye and I love how you are sharing and showing us what we already really know, enjoy the moment make someone smile laugh and life will not die it will go forward into the wind over the waves and reach you in Idaho. Keep[ the Spirit and thank you for making my day:) Give Aunt Mare a kiss and tell that wonderful husband of yours I would love to hear some of his music!!
Miss you and hopefully someday we will get to visit yo in the west

Lauren said...

What lovely messy lives we live.

Anonymous said...

Hello Hannah. I'm Jessica, and came across your blog via Femina. What a lovely post. Thank you very, very much. It's so easy to get caught up in the little details - the laundry, the diapers, the discipline - and completely lose sight of the big picture. Your words pulled me back and helped me see the Master's view of his art. Have a lovely day!

Diane Garaway said...

I just found your blog after Donna commented on it on facebook...DELIGHTFUL!

Nina said...

Thank you so much for your humble insights into the glory of motherhood. I rejoice with you as you rejoice in the mundane glory of your boys. It is the best trade off for sophistication that I can think of. From a mother of sons to another.... May the Lord bless you richly! Hope you don't mind but, I shared this on facebook.

Claire said...

I'll join this crew! I, also, hope you don't mind--I've shared it on Facebook, too. What a great post, Hannah; thanks.

Stephanie said...

I hope you don't mind me following your blog. I found it through your friend Claire. She posted this link on Facebook; I'm friends with her there because I'm married to her little sister's old childhood friend Stephen. :) How's that for random connections?? Anyway, I hate to use the same word everybody else did, but this entry really was beautiful. You're a really good writer, and you remind me of me a little, only much wiser. :) Thanks for posting this.

Melissa said...

Seriously, you write beautifully, Hannah, and always seem to capture things in a way I never thought of. thanks for reminding us all of the beauty of dying to sophistication and living to joy (even when it's not always immediately recognizable as such)!

Sarah B. said...

Your transparency brought tears to my eyes. This entry in particular resonated so deeply within me, things that I have been trying to sort through, learn, make peace with. Thank you dear!

Rayia said...

What a lovely and delightful amde me cry!
Thank you for sharing your heart!

Unknown said...

Very lovely blog.. thank you so much for sharing it with others.

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