It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

It’s truly my favorite time of the year, and not just because I love Christmas (but I love Christmas–I really do! And I’m a huge dork about it. Anyone want to come over to my house and listen to Wham! sing “Last Christmas” for the 431st time this season?) It’s also my favorite time of the year because by December I’ve spent about six months planning and envisioning, researching and dreaming, and I finally get to zip Holly into my wedding dress for our annual birthday photos.

Like all good ideas, this one was borrowed and adapted, and I’ll be the first to tell you that I know I’m not alone in wanting to document the passing of time by doing a sentimental yearly photograph. I actually got the idea from a parenting magazine back when I still had a newborn. There was a short article about a lady who had taken her own mother’s gaudy 1960s bathing suit (a boxy affair covered in loud floral print and with cone-shaped pleats on the bust) and posed her daughter for a picture each year on her birthday wearing the bathing suit. She took the photos in front of the same wall, and the progression from a barely-standing toddler draped in this bathing suit, to a lovely eighteen-year-old who actually filled the suit out, was really very charming and sweet. I flipped the page and forgot all about it.

Flash-forward to my own daughter’s third birthday. The lady with the bathing suit popped into my head, and I thought, “That would be cute to do with Holly, only in my wedding dress instead of a bathing suit.” So I pulled the pink tulle over her soft blonde baby head, and eased her little arms through the dress. I didn’t have a plan at that point–just the idea of seeing the progress of her growth each year by using my dress as a measuring stick–so I sat her in front of our oak sleigh bed and snapped a few pictures. They were sweet and simple, done with a point-and-shoot camera. I packed the dress away and planned to do it again the next year.

And I did. And the year after that, and the one after that…and then, this year, we set out to do it for the tenth year. Those early birthday shots were pictures of her doing whatever she felt like doing: posing or just standing, the sweetness of her baby face (3rd birthday), or the funny way her missing front tooth juxtaposed against the wedding dress (6th birthday), and even the year we just put the dress on over her rain boots and play clothes and went to the park in our neighborhood to play on the swings (8th birthday), acting as the backdrop for our “wedding dress pictures,” as we’d come to call them.

But then I started thinking of the potential and of all the fun we could have as we carried this on through her 18th birthday. We went up to Timberline Lodge on her 9th birthday (the day after Christmas) and got her posing in the dress with the snow falling outside the windows of the warm lodge. The next year we went to Astoria on a gorgeous, crystal-clear winter day and let her take a handful of colorful balloons all around town. For her 11th birthday we went to Disneyworld, and I got shots of her in all of the parks and on South Beach. This year we flew to L.A. and did Disneyland, then followed it up with a real “L.A. day” (I called it the, “If Holly Went to Hollywood, What Would Holly Do?” year). We got shots with the fabled Hollywood sign behind her, some on the Walk of Fame, and then we ended the day at the Santa Monica pier just as the sun was sinking into the Pacific, where I think we got some of our best photos to date.

It makes me really happy every year to dream up new locations and ideas, and I spent a fair amount of time this fall googling from which street and which neighborhood we could see the Hollywood sign (answer: 5th and Windsor in Hancock Park–a beautiful and quiet neighborhood lined with amazing houses and giant palms), and picturing my baby with her hands in Marilyn Monroe’s hand prints, so it was pretty awesome when it all came together. We had amazing weather the last day of our trip, and there wasn’t even a wisp of smog hanging over the hills. I love watching the years fall away through the lens of this fun tradition, and I’m pretty amazed at how far this $50 dress has traveled. It started on a beach on Maui when we got married, it’s seen snow, flown more miles than a lot of people do, and just in the past two years I’ve shaken sand out of it from both coasts. I’m already nostalgic for the years gone by, but I can’t wait for her next birthday…I’m already dreaming of getting my next shot.

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On turning 40.

For all the years I’ve wanted to be a writer (which is as many years as I can remember), I’ve cut myself a bit of slack by saying, “Well, it’ll happen someday. Someday I’ll be a real author.” But when you have a big birthday like I had this week, it forces you to assess and reassess all that you know to be true about yourself and your life. This birthday–more than any other–has been one of personal growth. For the first time ever, when I said, “I really don’t want anything for my birthday–I already have it all!” I really meant it. I do have everything I want or need, and if I don’t, the responsibility to obtain those things is mine and mine alone.

Holly and I are just a couple of weeks away from publishing the first book in our series, and we’ve got a summer of writing ahead of us. We’ve been super-creative lately, thinking of story lines, picture ideas (she took the one above in our neighborhood park yesterday after I brought home all of the balloons that my wonderful coworkers and students gave me for my big day). It’s an exciting time, as she’s also wrapping up her years in elementary school, growing about two inches a day (or so it seems) and turning into a young lady who makes me so very proud. This journey we’re on together towards publishing has been the very best writing adventure I’ve taken so far, and I know I will always hold it in my heart as one of the most successful things I’ve done as a mother, even if we aren’t ultimately the world-famous authors that we imagine ourselves becoming!

But for as scared as I was of turning 40, I have to say it’s been fabulous so far. If I could share a few words with my younger self–the one who always wanted to be a writer, but beat herself up for not making it happen–I’d tell her so many things, first and foremost that she should keep cutting herself some slack, and that someday will come…and all too soon.

And I’d tell her this: You’ll do okay–I promise. You’ll marry your high-school sweetheart, move across country to Florida with your childhood dog, your 1983 Toyota Tercel with no AC, and your new husband. You won’t have jobs, and you’ll discover that the modeling you moved to Miami to pursue isn’t what you thought it would be.  That the agencies and clients don’t love you as much now that you’re old enough to call your own shots, and you don’t want to do all of the things they tell you to do.

You’ll stay in Florida for ten years, get your Bachelor’s degree, live through an incredibly challenging stint as a child welfare caseworker, try your hand at grantwriting, and meet some people along the way who you’ll carry with you always. You will give birth to the most wonderful creature you’ve ever known (no bias there, of course…), and while holding your infant in your arms, you’ll be diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Because the combination of these two things bring uncertainty and fear, you and your husband will decide that moving back across country to be with family is your best option, so you’ll make that leap–with a baby and two cats in tow (and everyone on that cross-country flight will despise you, but so be it.)

Back in the northwest, you’ll be a stay-at-home mom, manage a non-profit for a few years, and will ultimately get your Masters in Education so that you can take on the biggest challenge and most enriching job of your life. Being a high-school teacher will bring you immeasurable joy, and some of the most amazing people you will ever know will come into your life simply because a counselor assigned them to your class. They’ll walk through the door of your room, unsure about who you are, but prepared to teach you about heartache, patience, humor, and loving other humans even if you can’t “fix” them. Stay strong–you will be rewarded.

So all of these things will conspire to make you who you are at 40, and they are all things that should thrill you and make you proud. You are here, you are (mostly) healthy, you have love, and–most importantly–you have learned to give of yourself without expecting anything in return. The rest is gravy. Now go and write that damn book, girl! Someday is now!