There are so many oddball things about getting older. Ever-deepening ridges in my previously-smooth fingernails. A widening midsection no amount of boat poses, planks, or crunches can whittle. The need to peer at nearly everything now: the days of an un-narrowed gaze seem to be behind me (not that I can see them). An increasing fondness, which some might call an obsession but what do THEY know I am only here trying to SPARK SOME DAMN JOY, for cats. And, not going to lie, certain cat-themed clothing items.

Time seems to be both speeding up and stretching like one of Dali’s melting clocks. When I anticipate things, like upcoming vacations, it’s with the bittersweet knowledge that in the blink of an eye it will be over and done, another memory added to what now seems to be a staggering collection. I was a child, a teenager, a young adult, and now I am square in the midst of my forties; I have already lived a long and good life, it seems almost incomprehensible that there may be — if I am lucky — many more years yet to come, and then there will be so many memories, and plenty of them, eventually all, will simply be lost. It feels impossible and miraculous and tragic, all at once.

You know that Mary Oliver poem, right? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? I think about that a lot these days. I sometimes have this fear that I’m not doing enough, I’m not making my mark in any sort of culturally-celebrated way — I’m not earning a lot of money, I’m not climbing the corporate ladder, I’m not running a business or topping a bestseller list or even stirring up small online controversies over whether or not waffles are snacks.

(For the record: OF COURSE THEY ARE. What sort of food Grinch considers an Eggo a full meal, is what I’d like to know.)

That fear comes from somewhere other than my true heart of hearts, though. It’s the slippery thinking that comes from comparing myself to others and forever coming up short, that toxic sinkhole I can’t seem to avoid stepping into, over and over and over.

If I have not yet learned how to avoid it, I at least see it for what it is, here in my middle age. It’s less about the scrabbling, exhausting labor of trying to climb out and more about changing my perspective: Ah, it turns out I wasn’t in a REAL sinkhole at all! Maybe that is a bit of the wisdom I was told eventually arrives along with the lip wrinkles.

I think what largely defines this season of life for me, even more than the ongoing vanity crisis of visible decay, is an internal call for meaning. What is truly rewarding, what brings me joy, what makes me feel most myself? Oh, I have spent so much time worshipping false idols.

The very first hospice patient I saw was alert but somewhat unmoored in time, she repeated certain memories. Something that clearly stood out in her mind was seeing a flock of cardinals on a snow-covered tree, she told me about that during many visits. “How beautiful they were,” she would say, her eyes far away. “Those red birds, in all that white.”

She has never left me but I always remember those specific words when I’m engaged in one of my very favorite activities: lying in my backyard, with my face tilted to the sun (more wrinkles!) and all the small active noises of the world happening around me. Lawnmowers, birdsong, the rustle of wind in the birch leaves. A cat curled by my side, the tiny dot of a plane overhead.

It’ll never make for a thrilling obituary (“She could really put a lawn chair to good use!”) but those moments of rest and meditation have such meaning. I try, these days, to be aware of the good things life has to offer, and never mind whether they seem important to anyone but me.

In the end, maybe all we have are the birds in the trees. They are enough. They are, maybe, the entire point.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

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“I just want to check that box.” That’s how John put his desire to go to Disneyland. He’d gone as a kid and believed it to be a sort of childhood rite of passage, something everyone should experience before growing up. It didn’t necessarily seem like his own memories of being there were particularly idyllic, but he clearly felt like it was our duty as parents to take the boys before they got too much older.

I didn’t have the same perspective, although I remember being delighted by Disney World about a million years ago when I went with my mom. My thinking was that my own kids didn’t really grow up on Disney the way I did, so the charm would largely be lost on them. They’re scared of most big rides, John hates waiting in lines, and I have a deep-seated dislike of anything mascot-related. Plus, why would we choose a wildly expensive and crowded crapshoot of a venue when we could save our vacation dollars for a trip to somewhere I know we love, like Hawaii?

He got me convinced, though, or at least willing to see if that box was in fact worth checking, and so we made our plans for spring break. I booked a hotel (the Hyatt House), I bought the tickets (3-day park hoppers with Max Pass), I delved into blogs and websites and crowdsourced suggestions and spent entirely too many days dithering over what sort of bag I should wear (Large or small? Backpack or cross-shoulder? I ended up with this one, which was quite comfortable and held what I needed).

The night before we were scheduled to leave, I was in the backyard with Riley when I noticed he was shivering from head to toe. “It’s freezing out here,” he said through chattering teeth. “Why is it so COLD all of a sudden?”

I narrowed my eyes. 60 degrees and the kid who refused to wear a coat when we got a foot of snow in February is too chilly? Hmmmm.

Of course it turned out that he had influenza, so our trip was delayed while he recovered and all four of us tossed back hastily-procured blister packs of Tamiflu and crossed our fingers, but eventually, after many hours of driving through the dreamy Windows XP wallpaper scenery of southern California, we arrived.

On our first morning I took the advice of many and rousted us out of bed distressingly early in order to get to bag check security a full hour before opening (which was a plan we mostly followed the whole time and I wholeheartedly recommend). We goggled at the throngs and aimed ourselves at Space Mountain and nearly crowdsurfed the surge once the music filled the air and the rope dropped.

Oh, the crowds! Intense even early in the morning, multiplied into staggering numbers by the afternoon. Great colorful swells of people, rippling along in patterns like murmurations, surprisingly never hugely frustrating except when a stroller would collide with the back of my Achilles. So many children, so many families. Many wearing Instagram-ready Disney-themed outfits with red-and-white polka dot manicures, others in delightfully dorky matching t-shirts.

(I’m not sure how to say this without sounding as if I am the kind of privileged who is obnoxiously oblivious of their privilege, but I’m going to forge ahead: I found there to be something profoundly reassuring about being immersed in humanity this way. Now, I get that Disneyland, by its very nature, is limited to those who can get there, pay for the experience, and physically maneuver an exhausting amount of shlepping around — but it IS a crowd of, what, over 40,000 people each day? And I’m sure there is plenty of bad behavior, but what I saw were a whole shitload of folks who were happy to be there, or at least grinning and bearing it, and it was a reminder that we aren’t always at odds with one another. We are living in some pretty sad and difficult times and maybe I just need to strike up more conversations with my fellow line-dwellers to feel a tiny bit more hopeful.)

We started with Space Mountain, as we did every day after that. During the first day the kids were initially nervous about most rides and it required every bit of courage on their part to get on the Incredicoaster, but as soon as things got underway we were collectively blown away. Disneyland rides are so good, you guys. Some of them are thrilling, some are immersive, some are simply deeply insane and endless in length and should be experienced exactly once so we can all turn to each other at some point in our lives and say, “So … It’s a Small World. THAT was fucked up.”

Our favorites were the Indiana Jones ride and Guardians of the Galaxy, both of which we rode multiple times. Incredicoaster has the worst line of all but we still endured it three times, because it’s legit worth it. Dylan disliked the Matterhorn because of the presence of an animatronic Yeti, and both kids were so traumatized by the huge Ferris wheel with the sliding cars I almost had to stop laughing at them long enough to make sure they were okay.

The rides were absolutely worth the price of entry, but what I really loved about this vacation was how much time we spent together. Walking, waiting, hunched over cinnamon-dusted churros: we were in such good spirits. Even during some of the more tedious line-standing moments, we did so much laughing and talking.

We made constant use of the FastPass system, which I highly recommend even though it was kind of annoying: I felt like we had to keep looking at the app and fighting against the occasional glitch where it wouldn’t load properly. The whole FastPass thing is what our schedule revolved around, we’d get a pass for a popular ride then fill the time beforehand with a smaller ride.

There were the moments of frustration that come with any family trip, but my memory is already glossing right over the bumpy parts to the magic. In my mind, Disneyland is forever lit by late-afternoon California sunlight, a melting golden glow filled with bubbles from children’s wands. It’s happy shrieks and full-bodied laughter, delicious sugary treats and friendly smiles, giddy anticipation and the ahhhh of taking off your shoes at the end of the night.

I do not know what sorcery keeps Disney so clean, except of course plenty of well-trained employees, but the place is spotless. Even the bathrooms. Every cast member was incredibly nice and appeared out of nowhere whenever I was trying to take a family picture so I could be included in the shot.

There truly is something magical about it. I know a giant theme park isn’t for everyone, but boy, I’m a full-on believer now.

On our last night, we were waiting for an evening show to get underway. Everyone was huddled on the pavement, tired kids leaning against parents. Behind us, two little girls were skipping back and forth with their bubble wands. The air was filled with these iridescent spheres, color and lights dancing across the delicate surfaces, and the girls were laughing and dancing. They became silhouettes in the approaching darkness and it was just one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.

In the end, I am so grateful to John for championing this trip. The box has been checked, and it came with a million wonderful memories and countless reminders of how much I love our family. We had the very best time, and I think we chose the ideal age for our kids. I hope we go back sometime, but even if we don’t, it was enough.

Honestly, it was perfect.

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