Bones in the Yard

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Photo by Vero Photoart

As someone going through early signs of “the change,” reading Flash Count Diary by Darcey Steinke has been both captivating and somewhat bleak. It’s a heavily researched memoir, a dissertation on menopause – a word that still feels a bit dirty in our mouths thanks to some man still running the system.

As Steinke reminds us, menopausal women slowly – or sometimes not so slowly – become invisible in society. She explains the physical and emotional changes through personal experience, research, and carefully interwoven quotations from poets, authors, and psychologists. It’s a great read.

There is something so helpful in having someone light the path for you, even if they illuminate the grimy, spooky parts of the forest to come. Perhaps especially for this reason.

In her discussion, Steinke includes the relationship with her deceased Mother, assessing her Mother’s lasting influence and sorting through pieces of her Mother’s broken identity in midlife: her unraveling marriage, her loss of self, and her rage toward men and society at large. Now that Steinke is past fifty and has gone through the change herself, she is able to see her Mother’s middle-age rage through clearer, more compassionate eyes.

I am trying to see myself with more compassion lately, too.

As I write this, there are fake skeletal bones still strewn across my yard from Halloween, though they are disorganized and misplaced by the wind now. Remnants from the festive holiday. A jack-o-lantern sits rotting on my porch, his teeth turning inward, spots of black mold beginning to appear inside his hollow body.

I don’t know why we haven’t moved or thrown away these items yet. I have told myself it’s for my 9-year-old son. He does, after all, have an aversion to moving on. But there’s been something poetic and cathartic in these remnants for me. These everyday reminders of a time well-celebrated.

Maybe it’s more than that. Maybe it’s the clinging of my own self to the ground. I see myself in those fake bones, an attachment to the here and now, a reminder of what I’ve lost, of what’s still here, and of what’s needing to be buried.

Steinke describes being physically and/or figuratively born from her Mother three times: at birth, in adolescence, and shortly after her Mother’s death. But she intuits “she must go another round or else her Mother won’t stay buried.” As a reader, this seems to mean incorporating her Mother into the long arc of the story, weaving her into the collective “women’s experience” within a patriarchal society that is downright demeaning toward women, particularly those past a certain age.

I am grasping this same concept as I near 47, as my fertile years grow closer to ending. Only, I am unsure how to reckon with lost youth, aging/dying parents, and the call to rattle the cages of midlife. It’s all quite a tall order to contemplate at once.

But contemplate we must.

Maybe part of moving on, of carrying our knowledge with us and coloring our picture of the future a pretty color is deciphering which bones are fake and which ones are real. What part of my past have I imagined is haunting me vs. what really needs to be reconciled? Which part of my youth needs more dirt on the expansive plot? What can I do to heal the many wounds inflicted upon me for being female in a society that somehow still seems to favor the male sex? And most importantly, now that I am at my strongest and wisest, with so many stronger and wiser years to come, how do I shut out the voices that might try to muzzle me for being past some artificial prime?

It’s a lot. I know.

Thankfully, we can work it out with each other and with books like Steinke’s.

For now, I think it’s time to gather the fake bones from the yard. To feel my feet still upon the ground and take stock of what to put underneath it.

 

 

 

 

Love After Stuff Gets Real

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Photo by Kristina Litvjak

“I’ve got the morning. You are off the hook,” my husband said to me minutes ago. This came after I rattled off a short list of things that had to happen in order to get our son out the door before the bus comes. Is there anything more glorious?

This is not an uncommon statement from him either. In fact, he says this often. And if you have made the conclusion that this means I am often a stress-case in the mornings, then good for you, she says with slight sarcasm (I am still in need of more coffee).

I have so many things I want to write about and tell you that my brain doesn’t know which branch to trace. Nonetheless, for the ease of your experience, I will stick with my husband (and Fleabag, of course).

Really, though, if you have not seen both short seasons of Fleabag, you are missing out. What I mean is, if you love shows that are perverse, funny, and deeply moving, then you are missing out. How’s that? Get through the first few episodes, and you will see what I mean.

A theme of the show is romantic love and our ever-lasting quest to be desired. We want to be attractive, and sometimes, this means to everyone. If we are women, I think this is multiplied by about a 1,000. Our worth is entangled in how attractive we are to others. The why of this is too long and complicated for us to cover right now.

So, I will get back to the romantic love theme. What we all desire most at the end of the day is to “run the dishwasher for someone and watch (him) drink coffee from a nice clean cup,” a paraphrase from one of the characters in the show. A friend told me recently that she didn’t think romantic love was possible for couples who have been married for a long time; she and her husband had just reached their 17-year anniversary. My heart broke as she said this. In fact, I was quietly stunned.

I have been with Eric for 16 years. We just had our 11th wedding anniversary. And we have never been more in love. In fact, I love him more as the years pass. But this doesn’t mean things always change for the better. Going back to the attraction factor, neither of us is getting any younger. Our bodies are not as taut in the right places. The skin around our jaw is sagging a little. We get stuck in bent over postures from being on the computer for too many hours of our life. And we are not immune to difficult times. Check out my “Other Places I Write” page above and see my latest for Motherwell, published last month.

As I was saying, I feel just as giddy over him now as I did when we were younger. No, it’s not the uncomplicated giddiness that comes in early romance, the kind that is driven by dancing hormones and no concern for the future. It’s a richer kind of giddy. The kind that comes when you still want to jump into someone’s arms at the end of the day, after they’ve seen you give birth; you still have some of the same undergarments from 16 years ago; and you have been cursing their inability to take the trash out on time for 10 years. Despite all of this, and so much more, you still grab their hand as you watch TV on the couch, curling into one another like cats (not entirely sure if that analogy works, but I still like it).

So, how is it possible, to keep this romance or return to it when it’s fading? That’s a topic we can keep exploring. See you next time.

 

The Witch

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Photo by Alex Geerts

We put our witch out, the scary one that hangs by our front door with her skeleton mouth hanging open. Her skeleton hands reaching out to passersby. She dons a black pointed hat and a tattered dress and cape. I love her and the season.

This Halloween will be our fourth in this house and neighborhood, and this year, I feel like we’ve become “that house on the corner, the one with the creepy witch.” This is what I hope at least. Since this is the stuff that makes life rich. It’s a bit of my American dream, if you must know. To be an emblem of tradition.

That witch. She is helping me feel like life might be a bit normal after all. It has a physical shape and dimension.

In other monthly news, I have joined the group of social-experimenters-who-(temporarily?)-deactivate-their-Facebook-accounts. Want to join us? ; )

In all seriousness, dare I say I think this might be another stage of grief – or a side effect of needing to take more action in my life, of feeling a need for change, for action.

The Facebook thing, though, hangs over most of us. My husband, Eric, did a tarot reading for me months ago, and the message was all about cutting out what wasn’t working in the present, what was standing in the way of the future. And the first thing that popped into my head was my time on Facebook. But then, there were always reasons to stay plugged in, valid reasons, too, such as long-lost friends and professional connections. You know these reasons.

It’s suddenly become clearer, however, that I spend an inordinate amount of time perusing through reading material: one writer’s new Washington Post piece or another’s potential break with an essay in Longreads. I have become connected to so many writers now that I don’t want for quality reading. And for a long while I felt justified in losing myself between the virtual pages of one essay or story or another.

But my life is moving by me, and there’s more to it than another thought-provoking essay or two in between the time my son’s school bus arrives and dinnertime. There’s more to it than reading another heart-warming meme. And right now, there’s more to it than putting money into an editor to review my own writing. Perhaps, more aptly, money is taking on a different value. Money is a vessel, a foundation. It’s the concrete floor of a house.

A few days have past since I began this social media fast, and my mind doesn’t quite know what to do honestly. I am realizing how much of my life has been lived in some other dimension, and it feels a bit science fiction-y. I had this whole rich inner life once. I had more peace. I didn’t reach for my phone automatically. I didn’t take calls during a car ride. Or text someone while I was grocery shopping. (It all seems to go together.)

But if I hadn’t decided on this break, I would not have discovered to what degree this was true.

I am worried, though. If this turns into a long-term thing, then what will happen to this little blog that I am still trying to get off the ground? How will I reach more readers? How will people notice me? Where is any of this writing thing going anyway?

The trash truck rumbles by outside, and I am brought back to the present, the room I am in, the creaking pipes, the ticking clock, the clicking of the keys. How do we reconcile all the things we miss when not plugged in? And how do we compare that to what we’re missing when we are? I am willing to find out for a while.

The trash truck disappears down the street now, its gears shifting as it glides down the hill. The witch’s robes shift in the wind.

 

Shape-shifting (the next stage of grief)

 

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Photo by Eric Muhr

A week ago, I did something I don’t normally do. I discovered a favorite author was going to be speaking in downtown Washington, D.C., about an hour and a half to two hours from my home, given the ride down to the metro, the waiting, and so on. It was last-minute, and I am not a last-minute kind of gal. An introvert at heart, I need to mull things over, to feel the texture and shape of something, to see the color, as if a simple plan were something physical, like a marble.

Plans need to be made and processed. Spun and rolled across the floor.

But I jumped in head over feet. I dove into the waters of a potentially shady metro ride, into finding a theater and navigating an area of D.C. that I have rarely been to. And I did it by myself. Now that I have told you this, I am feeling a little silly to admit that venturing into a big city, one that I grew up just 10 minutes from, and taking a metro that I took hundreds of times in my youth, would feel like a trek to a foreign land, to someplace like Tibet or Bangkok. That I would need time to process…..

I did it, though, because not doing it wasn’t an option. Not doing it would have been missing out on something I was plain unwilling to miss out on.

And I am beyond thrilled I did.

The thing is, reader, as I get older, I am realizing how entwined my life is with my husband and child. In ways wonderful beyond measure and also in ways that can be restrictive. As I wrote for Sweatpants and Coffee last year, I find ultimate joy in growing into a single breathing organism with my spouse. Our roots do mingle beneath the soil, as I alluded to in that essay. But in the best way possible. Much of the time.

However, at 46 (speeding up upon 47), riding the metro into the city alone was a thing. At 26, this would have been akin to brushing my teeth or walking to the drugstore. (I used to live in neighborhoods where I could walk to Rite Aid, for real.) So, what’s happened to me? And have I really turned into one of those “old” people who is fearful of doing new things?

These are good questions, for all of us. When do we reach points where we rely too much upon our safe little worlds?

This is where the next stage of grief comes in, for me. In the bigger scheme of grieving the death of a parent (even an estranged one), I have felt an independence brewing inside. An independence that is assertive enough to demand for action. This, too, is like a physical thing, something made of blood and bone, as if this sense of agency is a body of its own.

I am splitting like a glorious tree that is ready to reach in new directions, with a root system firmly planted in 26-year-old freedom and daring and another that is growing in an opposite direction. Toward a river. Toward wildlife. Toward the jungle of the metro and the dirty streets of a big city.

It’s a body of bone and blood, and it is building muscle. Who knows what it is capable of?

A Mini Manual for Grief

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Not even six weeks have passed since my father died. Most days this concept is still surreal, particularly when I hadn’t spoken to him in 11 years. For this reason, I think some people have struggled with what to say.

Is it even grief when it’s an estranged parent? Does this person still need to move through the necessary stages?

These are the questions I imagine people would ask because I might ask them, too. I get it. These are questions I have even asked of myself. And the answers are yes and yes.

Permitting oneself to move through grief is absolutely necessary, I am coming to understand, even if sometimes that grief is not observable. Sometimes, it even looks like joy. It looks like an average day at the mall. An average day walking the halls of your workplace. “Now, I am just getting some water at the fountain.” Or “I am merely picking out a good lemon.” Or “Does this skirt go with this top?” Average. Uncomplicated. Life.

Where is this grief you speak of? Why can’t I see it?

If someone you know is grieving, whether over a death, a divorce, a personal failure, or something else entirely, here are things I am coming to understand:

  1. Getting back to life is necessary. This is what pushes us on. And when we have children and spouses, this is essential.
  2. Just because the “most important person in someone’s life” didn’t pass on doesn’t mean there isn’t grief.
  3. This is the time to practice small acts of kindness. This is when they matter. And if you are the one in need of these acts, try giving more away. Giving can be cathartic, too.
  4. This is not a time to feel guilty for being needier than normal. In fact, it’s okay to be needy any time, but for goodness’ sake, don’t beat yourself up for expecting more good juju (or whatever) to come your way.
  5. This is the time to listen to life calling you in new directions.
  6. This is the time to forgive, even those who don’t know what to do, especially those who don’t know what to do.
  7. This is the time. This is the time. This is the time. To take things in. To be good to yourself.
  8. And to not be surprised when giving yourself a half hour to do yoga or meditate or just slow down is the time the tears will come. Let them. And don’t judge if they don’t come either.
  9. Don’t judge yourself. And try hard not to judge others.
  10. Perhaps it’s okay to indulge yourself a little. Buy the vase of flowers, even if you can’t justify the $15.99 price tag.
  11. Order the extravagant coffee – the one with lavender and vanilla. The one you never order because it’s “just too fancy” or “just not worth it.”
  12. Spend a few extra bucks on some new outfits, as long as doing so won’t make you go broke. (If that’s the case, go with a consignment store.)
  13. Cut your hair off again. You’ve been wanting to anyway. (And then relish that having longer hair never mattered to anyone.)
  14. Let the joy come in when it comes. Don’t feel guilty. You are allowed to feel good even if society questions this or no one understands. No one has to.
  15. Avoid the news – and possibly social media – even if you feel out of the loop. Who cares anyway?
  16. Put the energy you were spending on news and 300 hundred strangers’ opinions on Trump and climate change into yourself. What have you been putting off that would nurture your soul? Even if this is merely tidying up the yard or the bedroom closet.
  17. Overall, do what needs to done. There is no right way.

 

Maybe, Possibly Becoming a Joiner

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Photo by Helena Lopes

I have never been a joiner. It began when I was young, as young as middle school, let’s say. I didn’t want to join Girl Scouts, poo-pooed being part of a sports team, and even fought against committing to sleepover invitations. Why?

Back then, I can blame it on my shyness. I suffered from what I didn’t know was social anxiety, despite having a fair number of friends. Into high school, this shyness only compounded, especially as my parents dated – and then married – other people. The awkwardness of living in a body raging with unfamiliar hormones while my parents were going through their own growing pains was……uncomfortable, let’s say.

So, due to shyness severe enough to prohibit me from raising my hand in class, less I wanted everyone to see my reddening face and hear my trembling voice, I opted out of anything that might leave me in such a position.

But that was then.

As I grew into an adult, my wariness of corporate America, and hierarchies in general, became my reason. I was dubious of any club or organization that had board members – and resisted falling into any sort of herd mentality. And I have also done what I can to avoid signing my son up for anything that seemed, perhaps suspect. I have resisted like crazy the pressure to “sign him up!” Seen the crazed look in the eyes of neighborhood mothers whose children are shuttled from one commitment to the next. Or noted the inability for my son’s friends to play due to this practice or that organization. I haven’t wanted any part of it. None.

My child is 9 now, however. And if you read my last post (or know me relatively well), you also know my dad just died a month ago. And if you know grief, you know the process can be winding. It can lead you down unknown paths, through territory you have never seen or dared to enter. (You don’t even have the right clothes for the changing climate.)

My current stage in the whole grieving process is to contemplate becoming more of a joiner.

But wow, is the lone wolf I have always prided myself to be howling!? Yes. Has she enjoyed the freedom to plan her own life, to stay away from ugly PTA gossip or fall into a rigid orthodoxy of any kind? God, yes.

But as I sit with pamphlets on the Boy Scouts and read more about the community service the kids do, as I am witnessing friends find churches to share their joy and grief with, I am seeing the importance of community, for myself and my son, in an entirely new way.

Maybe there is a group for non-joiners? Or an anti-PTA PTA? Or an I-just-want-to-find-more-tribe-members organization? Or a self-help session for lone wolves?

No matter the case, my child is growing farther and farther from childhood. And I am growing farther and farther from that kid in the classroom who couldn’t raise her hand. And the anti-authoritarian teen who’d sneak out of her house on occasion. I am in the stage of resembling less and less that 25-year-old girl, whom my friend Terry swore would never need a man to take care of her. The girl I once swore would live in the desert, Georgia O’Keeffe style. In a trailer. With a dog. And a pickup truck.

I am growing more into the kind of woman who could use a circle of tribe members. Into the kind of mother who wants her son to share stories around a campfire with other kids his age – and loves the idea of him donating time to the local soup kitchen.

I am in the awkward stage of maybe, possible, becoming a joiner.

 

 

Tiny, Enormous Things About Losing a Father

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Photo by SnapbyThree MY

This is the beginning of something, the early skimming-the-rim-of-the-glass-with-a-fingertip version.

I lost my Dad when I was 9. This was the first time. When he declared to the family that he was moving on. I think I was wearing a blue nightgown. I know I was too small to understand the words.

It’s been close to four decades since then, and I lost him too many other times to count after that.

But I never knew when the final time would come or if it had already. I mean, I suspected my wedding day was the end, but there was always a small hope, always a “what if?”

I wrote Dad a letter once, in my teen years. I wrote him because I wasn’t any good at articulating the emotions I felt; I hadn’t learned how to do that from anyone yet. I tried to tell Dad what hurt – the misunderstandings, the lack of calling, the misinformed accusations, the incredible distance, the lack of love. I wanted him to help me figure him out. I wanted him to respond, to open his arms, to say “Come here, daughter. You know I have always loved you.”

This isn’t a sob story; it’s barely even a story. Its is a subtle skimming. A fingertip of grief.

I lost my Dad for the last time on Wednesday, August 14. But his memory will remain. The complicated feelings. The grief. The relief. I don’t think there is ever a clear cut ending when it comes to losing a parent – or leaving a parent. Or having a parent leave you.

There is never really an end, but rather, an undulating pattern, a kaleidoscope of colors.

***

Since his death, I have been flooded with many of the good memories. I wasn’t sure I had any of those left in stock. For so long, it seemed like the good ones had been taken off the shelf, replaced by the bulky, overpriced awful ones. The ones so big they crowded my storage rooms.

Now, I am followed by Dad’s smiling face much of the time. Sometimes, I think I see him out of the corner of my eye – and he always has this grin, one I remembered when looking through pictures at his funeral. My Dad used to smile. And yes, he even smiled at me sometimes. Maybe lots of times.

Now, I am left with a collection of smiles, at least temporarily. Who knows what is to come next week or three months from now?

***

I keep going through the typical things one goes through when someone significant dies. I have been through these feelings before. I first learned of death in college, when a good friend died. In some ways, it was harder then. It was my first time with death. And it was a friend who died while on a dream vacation. His death felt like a violation, a mistake. Some vital error in the grand plan. I was shipwrecked for a time. The contents of my inner world spilled out upon the shore.

This is different. But the same. Meaning, I am thinking of taking up Japanese painting again. (Not really, but I did take up Japanese painting after Mike died.)

More truthfully, I am seeing the insignificance of so many things that normally bother me, like my cat scratching up my couch or the lawn growing a bit tall, or my husband leaving his clothes on the floor.

And I am seeing the significance of so many other things. The small, simple kindnesses. Like a neighbor waving hello or a colleague saying, “Good morning, Elizabeth.” Or a friend sending a text to ask how I am doing.

I am seeing the enormity of having a spouse who will drive you down to NC, picking up your mother in VA on the way, even though it adds on time to the trip. The enormity of aunts and uncles who show up, not to grieve your father, but to be in solidarity with you and your mother. To stand in your corner.

I am seeing the necessity of community and the places in my life where this is lacking.

***

The riff between me and Dad began when I was born. I am not sure why, but my Mother tells me he treated me differently than he did my brother, from the moment of infancy. I don’t know if she recognized this until I was an adult, or until her own Mother pointed this out.

Maybe he was scared. Maybe he was damaged. It doesn’t really matter. Not anymore.

It was a divide that couldn’t be bridged while he was alive. We both stopped trying. This is what happened. Life goes on.

But one can still grieve.

***

The most significant thing I am re-learning now is that emotions are so incredibly rich and complicated. We know so little about what others are going through at any given moment.

Sometimes, all someone can do is care for their own tiny garden, their own clear vase of flowers.

I want to remember this when I am stronger again and less consumed in my own emotional world. I want to remember to spread more seeds. To share more tiny, enormous kindnesses.

I want to remember to keep caring less about the torn-up couch, the grey hairs, the permanent pouch my son left on my body, the angry people in the world who are so quick to hurt and tear down. Maybe they can only tend to their one vase. At the very least, maybe we can help fill it with yellow flowers.