Lost and Found

Photo by Josh Hild 

It’s the last day of the semester for me, and I am home grading assignments. Our Christmas tree is up; it’s our biggest one yet. It stretches across much of our bay window in the front of the house.

A week ago, I had my last day of being 46. And since my birthday comes in December, it often feels like even more reason to take stock of the past year. There are some big things I lost this year, and some bigger things that I found.

I lost my Dad. We were not close to say the least, but we spent decades trying to be something to each other until we both seemed to give up. Actually, until I gave up, and that was it for our story. I don’t get to go back and have the Dad I needed, but no one does. Comparing myself to those who had loving fathers and good support systems is futile. I made it to somewhere where the grass is green, somewhere that has a pretty fence around the yard. I made it through a zillion years of not believing in myself and attracting the absolute wrong boys or men – and ignoring (or running from) a few of the right ones.

So, my hope is that I am losing my need to compare. There are so many women who seem more successful than I at this age, and it feels hard to be going for a real career as a college professor at this age. I wonder some days if I will ever catch up? But there story is not mine. And my successes are still tremendous.

I feel considerably older than I did just two years ago. I can see it on my face, measure it in my son’s height. Changing hormones, job stress, and death will do that to a person, will add a little softening of the jaw and strain in the brow. Living is experiencing and staying aware of emotions that need feeling.

What I have found this year is something new in my marriage. My husband and I passed our 11th wedding anniversary (our 16th of being together), and I feel like we’ve stepped into phase two (or two-hundred), like we’ve entered into a new definition of together, and it feels pretty exciting. It feels like an unspoken renewal of our vows or like a whole new set of vows could be said. We get more of what better or worse means now, and the more comfortable we become in ourselves as people, the more in love we seem to be with one another.

I have also found a beginning inside of myself. Dad’s death creates an opening for me, a new way to process our relationship. It puts to bed any hopes of reconciliation or real connection. And in all of this, there is freedom. A physical and psychological awakening. I feel the pages of this new chapter like they are paper turning in my hands. There is so much brewing right now, and my intent is to put more detail into these thoughts in an essay for the coming year, so I don’t want to say too much. All I can say is more will come on this one.

In the meantime, I am 47. My eleventh semester as an adjunct professor is over. Another layer of the Russian doll has been added, with the internal layers acting as support. I don’t feel like I am hiding those former versions of me. Rather, I am all of it, and this might be how it’s possible to feel the lightness of joy even through the hardening of wood.

I Miss You. I Miss Then.

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Photo by roya ann miller

To the friend(s) I wanted to meet up with over the holiday:

Hi, old friend. It’s nice to see you. Your hair looks like such a different color in this light. I prefer this a thousand times to Instagram. I can see the laugh lines around your eyes, the parentheses around your mouth. I love getting to notice these details, and I am glad (and a little relieved) to know you look just like me – older, less perfect, more experienced.

I wanted to call you months (or was it years?) ago, but things got busy. You know how it is. There is work. Family. Too many papers coming home from school, cub scout meetings I can’t forget, emails, bills, politics…. Then, there is my writing. I have published a few essays this year. It’s been a good year for that. I am feeling more accomplished but also wondering more where all of this is going. Is it going to go, like everything else does, out the window?

I looked up your old boyfriend on Facebook and I might have looked up mine. I just wanted to see his life now. We were such good friends during those semesters of carefree existence in college. “Don’t you miss the days? Don’t you miss the danger?” Ha ha. Sing with me.

And do you remember Seattle? How we felt so free, and so scared, and so young? How it rained all the time. We didn’t have money for clothes, but we were so beautiful.

I miss you. I miss then, and then, and then.

But I am so glad to be older now, aren’t you? It’s so much easier. Yet, it’s also way more complicated. Is this how it is always going to be?

I finally cut my hair, but I guess you can tell. It’s kind of “the older me” version of me.

Eric and I moved to a new house three years ago. It’s yellow. God, we are so happy. I never thought I could be this happy. Ash is amazing. We have two cats.

I’ll tell you about my Dad next time. He died this past summer, but the holidays aren’t a time to talk about that. It’s probably the worst thing…., but I am stretching and growing inside like crazy. Life.

Did I mention I have never been this happy? It’s true. But I miss you. I miss then.

I am so glad we could meet. Happy Thanksgiving, friend.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

The Early Bird

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Photo by Mathew Schwartz

I’ve been waking up periodically in the night with my brain spinning. I am a veritable Dorothy inside, swept up in a tornado of angst. In a weird way, it feels like teenage angst (and smells like teen spirit). Complete with thoughts of “What do I want to do when I grow up?” (I am almost 47.)

My adolescent mind was so noisy this morning, I got up earlier than usual and decided to come downstairs.

My Dad used to say things like “the early bird gets the worm” ad nauseam. This was just one of a list of adages that made me feel like I measured up less and less. Measuring, measuring, measuring. He always seemed to be measuring me against my brother, the golden child; against my cousin, the straight-A student and avid Reader’s Digest reader; against anyone who had “the early bird” traits that I apparently did not.

So, it occurred to me this very morning, as I laid in bed sweating slightly from hormonal changes and busy dreams, that I never attached to anything solid when growing up. Meaning, I wasn’t an athlete, a prom queen, a strong student (due more to distractions than anything), or an artsy kid. My sense of self was always a bit scattered like dandelion seeds in the wind. Who was I? What did I do that was right or good or true to myself? I wrote. I read. I listened to records from my vinyl collection. I created a vivid world inside my head.

It turns out, measuring a kid against others may not be the best plan for long-term success. However, I can get on board with “the early bird” thing. I’ll give you that one, Dad. It’s true. The folks I know who get way more done than I also get up well before sunrise. Getting more done would be nice.

In fact, I recently learned of this incredibly accomplished woman, Ruth Soukup, on a Covey Club podcast, a game-changing community and magazine for midlife women. Their focus is on reinvention in the middle years.

Ruth Soukup started a multi-million dollar company from her blog, turning it into a business. Now, she teaches others how to do the same. How does she do it? She focuses on living the life of your dreams. On motivation, organization, and getting things done. To quote Ruth’s site, she helps you “live the life of your dreams.”

Okay, so what if it sound a little bit hokey? It just might be a tool to help me find direction or discover a plot of earth where I can land and grow roots.

The thing is, my current complex state, the combination of grieving for a deceased parent, sweating through perimenopause, and taking stock of where I have been vs where I want to go demands action. Yes, it also demands rest, meditation, exercise, eating well, and just plain giving myself a break (a lot of breaks). But standing still is not an option. Standing still creates apathy and lethargy. I know this from experience.

Christine Hueber, from Forbes, says to “Resolutely move forward, let go and leave the past in the past.” I believe this is much harder than it sounds, but it’s not impossible.

One way I have already begun leaving the past in the past is to break from Facebook, as I mentioned in this post. No, my days on social media are not over. But I had a sudden realization that the life I have been living on Facebook isn’t really my life.

Another way I am moving forward is by pulling my head out of the present moment. You heard that right. I am actually thinking strongly about the future and where I want to be in five or ten years. I know that place isn’t quite here, despite how lovely and comfortable here might be. Here isn’t going to pay for my son’s college education or my husband’s and my retirement (if that is even a thing in twenty years).

I also recognize and have recognized long ago that just the simple act of getting organized can move mountains. Okay, Ruth, I might be ready for your mac daddy planner.

I can’t promise you or myself that I will be scheduling every hour of my life, but I am leaning in, as they say, to new possibilities. Here’s to getting more worms.

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?