Today is the last day of my 40s, and I’ll never be this young again. It’s the end of a decade that has included my happiest moments as well as my most pain-filled ones. Standing on the threshold of my 50th birthday, along with everyone else who is looking ahead as well as behind, I’m pausing to reflect on where I’ve been and what I’ve managed to learn along the way.
The year 2000 began with the sale of my first novel (part of a two-book deal even though I didn’t know what that meant: “Two books? But I only wrote one!”) and the very same year ended with the sudden death of my mother from breast cancer at the age of 70. The fact that my longest-held dream of selling a novel came true just in time for me to lose my biggest fan seemed a particularly cruel paradox. When my book was published in September 2001, and the first day of my book tour happened to land on 9/11, it started to look like the fates had a special message for me. Slowly I began to understand that none of these events were meant to be taken quite so personally. Things happen, good and bad, ecstatic and tragic, more or less at random. At least that’s what I told myself.
My novel hit a few best-seller lists, got optioned for a film, was translated into nine languages, and won a series of national and foreign prizes. Apparently I had choices: to grieve that my mother hadn’t lived to celebrate all of this with me? to wring my hands over the cancelled book tour, the dwarfing of my disappointments by the giant catastrophe? or to focus my attention on my extraordinary good fortune. I had written a well-received piece of work I could feel proud of, and I had money enough to live on for a while. I bought a little house in Mexico. I ended a relationship that had never quite found its way to solid ground, and considered opening my heart to someone new.
As if by magic, on the first Sunday in January 2003, I stumbled through a doorway into a gymnasium and changed my life. In that space filled with 150 people dancing improvisationally to a two-hour set of irresistible music, the long-lost joy of free movement reclaimed me. Having been a student of ballet, jazz, and modern dance for too many years to count, I was thrilled about being invited to ignore choreography or any prescribed positions. The liberation and inspiration have remained with me ever since, and I continue to practice the 5 Rhythms at least once a week (usually more) along with an extended community that has become a kind of family.
Another miracle happened in that gymnasium in 2003: I fell in love again. This new glass-half-full boyfriend helped me see, as I turned 44, that I had Gotten to Happy. (Coming from a long line of depressives, I found this was not so obvious. When my father called to wish me a happy birthday, I giddily told him I was glad to have been born. That made both of us happy.) Clearly I was living my dream life, complete with a book to finish that was essentially guaranteed publication, and a beloved partner with whom to share my joy.
The successes of Book #1 gave me abundant opportunities to travel, lecture, and teach. Completing Book #2 was challenged by publisher turmoil during which time I lost my devoted editor, but with his support and that of many others, I was able to send that book into the world in May 2006. Time out for the oft-repeated saga of a second novel “flop,” and my newfound happiness started to fray at its delicate edges. Not much later, my boyfriend broke my heart (details too painful to include here), and I endured something like a replay of my mother’s death as I faced the unavoidable truth about the impermanence in all things. I told myself I had another book to write, and I needed to learn how to live with inevitable loss.
Against all odds, my boyfriend and I figured out we needed to give each other a second chance, and as anyone who has returned to try again knows, the process is profoundly difficult and exquisitely rich, often at the same time. When you combine a glass half-empty with one that is half-full, you still have a glass that is at least half-full. You might even end up with a full glass, isn’t that right? Turns out that my renewed chance at love was the gateway to yet another unexpected crisis: diagnosed with breast cancer on my 49th birthday, new year’s eve 2008, I can say without exaggeration that this past year has been the most physically intense ordeal of my life. Surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, seemingly endless rehabilitation from the effects of the aforementioned treatments.
Have I mentioned learning how to be happy about retaining most of my eyelashes? About not throwing up from the chemo (and only from the reactions to anesthesia for the surgeries)? About slowly, finally, regaining the ability to reach overhead with my (dominant) right arm?
Does this count as happiness, I wonder? I thought I would surely know by now, but for the past year I’ve watched myself reach new depths of despair, not to mention fear and frustration. I’m still trying to find my way to completing the next novel (the one not under contract). I’m living with the threat of recurrence and with many new constraints on my lifestyle—the one I always thought was so healthy and positive. I’m learning that my time on this beautiful earth is perfect yet finite, that love can vanish and also reappear, that my body wants to heal itself, and that I have an astonishingly generous circle of family and friends.
I am so lucky. Who knew? I get to re-discover happiness again and again.
GOOD NEWS FOOTNOTE: Blue Nude will be released in paperback on September 14, 2010 (Simon and Schuster).