I’m facing down an unwelcome assortment of fives and zeroes at the moment. This season marks my fifth year of being un-married, and I will turn 50 in the fall. So 05 and 50—neat, huh? Why do numbers that end in fives and zeroes always force one to take stock? (I just noticed that stock is a five-letter word with an 0 in the middle!) I hate to buy into the whole midlife-crisis hype, but I can’t stop thinking about where I am vs. where I was, where I want to be, should be, could be or might possibly be one day.
I recently tossed my collection of surviving-divorce books and have discovered that there is no manual for how to get through the phase I’m in now. The self-help books give you 3-5 years, max, to get it together and then you’re on your own. And most of the divorce memoirs follow a predictable script: distraught woman loses it completely, then rebuilds her life bit by bit. By the last chapter, she has found a richly rewarding new life and a new mate with whom she shares a deeper, more extraordinary love than she could ever have imagined possible (a midlife fairy tale—The Sleeping Divorcee!) She has also managed to publish a memoir, for f*ck’s sake.
In the divorce olympics, I am clearly not getting the gold. I’m a competitive person (did you know I won my 5th and 6th grade spelling bees?) so this does not sit well with me, especially as the forties are shoving me out the door. Fifty is actually not the new 37 or 43— just ask those decades.
And, lest I seem too Eeyore-ish, I do know that I have many, many things to be grateful for–amazing daughters, fabulous friends, Fresh Direct, a job with benefits (which entails editing publications that cover the numerous ghastly health problems that assault you upon turning 50. Just saying). Plus, it turns out I am kind of a little plucky. I’ve lived in a falling-apart house without completely falling apart. I’ve disposed of more than 30 dead mice and one dead car, dealt with two sewer-line back-ups without crying, and one burst pipe in my linen closet (with the kind of crying that scared my kids). I’ve done the dating thing, which is not for sissies. I’ve gone on approximately 16 first dates (god, no, have I really?), five of which resulted in second dates; two of those turned into brief relationships. (I’m currently less than optimistic on that front and pretty certain that my next great task is to make peace with being single for the rest of my remaining years. Fortunately, Netflix is really stepping up to the plate. And there’s always bridge.)
Not much more to say right now. I just felt like sending this little blog postcard while I stand here, slightly dazed, at the intersection of Half Century and New Decade.
If you know anyone who happens to be location-scouting for a documentary on the rise and fall of estrogen, please have them ring our doorbell asap. It’s a madhouse in here, what with all of us at a critical point in our femaleness, each trying desperately to negotiate a somewhat-peaceful relationship with the mother of all hormones.
There’s my 12-year-old daughter, who has but a dollop of the stuff and has only recently retired her dolls and Calico Critters; my 16-year-old daughter, who has reached peak ripeness; and me, clinging to the few little drops that still course through my weary veins.
And, btw, it’s not just the humans in the house who are wrestling with this shit. We’ve also got two guinea pigs, both girls, who hump each other on occasion, and two female cockatiels, one of whom can’t stop laying eggs even though they are infertile and she is destined to remain childless (unless she finally catches the eye of the hottie cardinal who frequents our yard. Don’t think she hasn’t tried, even though he is married to that grey little thing.)
So that makes seven of us gals, all being either flooded with or depleted of this sex-specific, sex-inspiring hormone. (Yet, as far as I know, none of us is actually having sex, which, trust me, doesn’t make the situation any better.)
It’s weird how we are all bonded by having X chromosomes, yet we don’t get each other at all. We should feel more simpatico, no? If you were to make a Venn diagram, the part where we all overlap would be a teeny-tiny sliver, probably rendered in tears. (Let’s remove the furry and feathered from the equation, because obviously they present barriers that can’t be overcome.)
I should have no excuse, having once been 12 and 16 myself, but the truth is I have no flipping idea how to relate to my girls most of the time. I am prone to giving them dorky suggestions, like telling the 12-year-old to read Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret again or asking my 16-year-old if she and the boy she likes are “an item” (and then making it worse by asking her to explain “hooking up,” at which point she slams the door in my face). Lord knows, they have no idea what to make of me and my aging issues. Last time I tried to share with them how hard it is to feel your feminine power slipping away, they ran, screaming, in the other direction. Now why would they do that?
So my block recently had a stoop sale, which is the Brooklyn equivalent of a yard sale. We’ve half-heartedly participated in these before, but this time I was determined to do a major house purge. Up from the basement came the massive plastic dollhouse with life-like doorbell sound, the de rigueur girly purple bike, pounds of clothes–including many darling toddler-sized dresses–and a stack of self-help paperbacks that have given it their very best. My 11-year-old and I arranged everything artfully and greedily awaited our customers.
Within a couple of hours, we’d sold the bike and all the cute dresses (over which a few moms almost came to blows). Talk about a win-win! People were handing over U.S. dollars to relieve me of burdensome crap. It was so intoxicating that I kept running into the house, frantically grabbing more things to sell–old chairs, redundant tank tops and jeans that never fit right and never will, bent forks, tired tablecloths. At the height of my frenzy, I almost dragged out our pets (2 guinea pigs; 2 cockatiels) and hung a price tag on them. (How about wedding photos, baby pix, kindergarten art work, my high school lab notebooks? Buy one, get one free!)
In the end, we made almost $120 (which I stupidly promised my kids we’d put toward a new TV), bonded a bit with our block-mates, and managed to spend only $10.50 on our neighbors’ cast-offs (ice cream maker, hand vacuum and kitschy angel statue).
But now I want more–I mean, less. Much less. I’ve become allergic to quantity. Opening my shirt drawer makes me feel ill. Who needs that many crappy t-shirts, all that dyed cotton? Even the word plethora repels me. I want to invest in a few “classic” pieces of clothing and essentially wear a uniform like the truly elegant older women do. I want to be loyal to one tasteful, beautifully-packaged organic brand of soap and shampoo and ditch the 30 or so half-empty bottles of gooey drugstore hair products that infect our bathroom. (Two teen/tween girls = Not going to happen) I look at everything in my house with a new eye toward goodbye. I am the anti-hoarder.
And then there’s that emotionally-loaded subset of stuff known as memorabilia. I am hyper-aware, almost phobic in fact, about the things my kids might find if something were to “happen” to me, as the euphemism goes. I have thrown out some old journals and photos, but there are more. Do my kids really need to read about that night at CBGB’s when I was 20? Do I? Would I feel more complete or less so if I tossed all of that in an effort to lose weight from my psyche?
Maybe our next event should be a bonfire.
Almost everyone I know in my age group seems to be struggling mightily these days. Marriages are crumbling, parents are falling ill, children are morphing into terrifying teenagers, and upper arms are less tank-top-friendly than ever before, making the upcoming summer season a most mixed blessing. If anyone out there is happy and they know it, please do clap your hands (and let your arms jiggle joyfully) right now because there is not a whole lot of applause going on in my circle these days.
It almost makes one (me) want to seek something larger to believe in, something to make it all seem worthwhile. Something, dare I say, spiritual.
I’ve always been allergic to the arrogant we’re right, you’re not aspect of organized religion, having been raised by a lapsed-Catholic mother and Jewish-turned-Unitarian father (so, yeah, Christmas tree, but no menorah). Then I married an avowed atheist (who asked for a menorah for Christmas; go figure) and together we raised our two adorable little heathens. (The tradition continues!)
And now here I am, mired in midlife malaise, suffocated by cynicism. Given my spotty religious past, my god-seeking options are somewhat limited at this point. But there’s always the Buddha: Look at him, sitting there quietly, no crosses to bear, no persecution complex. Who wouldn’t want to have what he’s having? Plus he seems like a really nice guy, a total mensch.
My soul-searching fantasy is a month-long Visionquest involving bells and the Himalayas, but since that’s not feasible, I decided to try a meditation class advertised at a groovy, anything-goes church in my neighborhood called The Church of Gethsemane. (Bar mitzvah? Communion? Gay wedding? Some hybrid of all three? Nothing throws them, I promise.)
The South Slope meditation took place on a Monday evening in the church’s basement. In lieu of the Himalayas, I was hoping for low lighting, candles, incense, floor mats and liberal use of the word om. Instead, I entered a flourescently-lit basement with 3 rows of folding metal chairs and a table with a display of inspiring texts on meditation (which I misread twice–first as medication and then as mediation. Can you tell how fried I am?) A handful of blue-corn tortilla chip dregs sat unappetizingly on a cake-sized paper plate. I checked to make sure I hadn’t accidentally walked into a 12-step meeting. Nope. We were going to meditate.
The upshot? It’s not easy to sit silently for 20 minutes on a folding chair under glaring, buzzing lights–but maybe that’s the point. I kept thinking that if only the lights were dim and we were sitting on the floor in the lotus position, then I’d be able to fully concentrate on my breath and stop obsessing about how I’m going to afford to fix the leaks in the bathroom ceiling and why I’m so lame at meditating and why I thought for a minute that I, of all people, could calm my busy, busy brain.
After the sitting part, the woman who led us gave a little talk on how we’re all so in our own heads and how we mistakenly believe that if we could just tweak our external circumstances–swap this for that, finally get our ducks in a row–everything would be OK and contentment would prevail. During the brief Q&A that followed, I was the only one who spoke up. I asked if the chairs and the bright lights were intentional, a lesson in finding peace among harsh external circumstances, perhaps? (Apparently not. Pure coincidence.)
So, while I didn’t emerge whole and fixed, as I’d hoped, I might possibly be one or two breaths less cynical, which is a start. Next up: The “Meditation for Beginners” DVD I ordered from Amazon.
(Oh and I still want to rename my blog to reflect my new focus on midlife musings, but I don’t want to rush into anything I might regret. Some possibilities: Under Construction; Midlife-a-thon; Woman in Progress. I’m open to suggestions, so suggest away.)
Wow, I guess last summer is over, huh? Oops. I really did intend to resume my blog in the fall, but I guess that season slipped away from me too. Yikes. And winter has apparently been cancelled here in the Northeast this year, so now it’s been officially three seasons since I blogged.
Frankly (get it?), I’m touched that a few of you have been on me about it. I am flattered that some of you have missed my musings. I miss them too, but I’ve been stuck. Allow me to be my neurotic, honest self and I’ll tell you a bit about my stuckness. I’m going to use the “deceptively simple bullet format” extolled by one of my most beloved pals/readers to explain my lengthy blog hiatus:
So that’s where things are at. If you were one of my loyal fans, thank you for urging me to resume blogging. And, um, not that I’m trying to get the milk for free, but if I were to start a new, post-Splitsville blog, what would the focus be and what would it be called?
(Oh, also, I am supposed to give credit for the image: http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/images/view_photog.php?photogid=1152)
and so is my blog. See you in the fall!
Some of my favorite people from high school
I have been in total blast-from-the-past mode for the past couple of months. It started when I learned, via Facebook, that my high school was having its first official reunion, 30 years after our graduation day in May 1981. There was an “event” page and everything.
My initial reaction was that there was no way I would even contemplate attending such an event. I’m not sure why, exactly, but the very idea gave me hives. Not too long ago, in fact, in an attempt to eliminate clutter, I almost tossed my six yearbooks from The Birch Wathen School, which I attended from 7th through 12th grade–longer than any other school I’ve ever attended. The almost-tossing wasn’t because it was a particularly awful experience (certainly no worse than any other six-year chunk of my life, anyway), but because, for whatever reason, the yearbooks induced nothing in me except bemused detachment; they felt entirely dispensable. I’d spent the past few years processing my approximately 20 years with R and the stack of photo albums documenting our marriage and children and all that. High school? Completely off my radar.
But, slowly, as a result of the reunion’s FB event page, I reconnected with a few high school friends online and I began to wax nostalgic. I dragged out the yearbooks and flipped through them with newfound fascination–at the black-and-white pictures of people talking on pay phones, with dials, attached to the wall! Of me with my so-unfashionable-at-the-time curls tamed via vengeful blow dryer into something vaguely resembling the desired Farrah Fawcett hairdo! Of all the girls wearing our school’s required skirts, looking like the Orthodox Jewish women of today. Of the boys sporting resentfully-loosened ties and ill-fitting sports jackets. (All any of us wanted was to wear jeans to school. We got to during final exams and on “Grub Day,” a 50-cents-a-person fundraiser that occurred a few times a year.) Of me attached at the hip to my renegade, delightfully delinquent high school boyfriend, who is still, apparently, off the grid, with only seven FB friends and no photo, even. (Imagine!)
Then, last Saturday, my high school classmates and I finally reunited in person. I’ve stayed in touch with a handful, but most of them I had not seen since I was 17. I saw the guy with whom I went on my first date ever, as well as the friend who initially introduced me to R when they ended up as roommates after college. I saw another guy who impressed me with how much he has grown up in three decades. It was one big episode of Christina Frank: This is YOUR life. (The renegade did not make an appearance, which was mostly a relief, but sort of disappointing too.) The former girls, now women, were the best. The whole experience, was–for lack of a more old-school word–awesome (a word no one used in the 1970s, btw, certainly not for all things ordinary, as they do now. Nor would anyone have known wtf btw meant back then, fyi.)
I did not realize until I went off to college in the Midwest just how unusual my upbringing and high school experience were compared to that of most of the country. The Birch Wathen School was housed in a seven-story townhouse on the Upper East Side, across 71st Street from the Frick Museum. My graduating class consisted of 48 people. Our senior prom took place at The Plaza Hotel (yes, that one, where Eloise lived). Many of us grew up in sprawling apartments on Fifth Avenue, Park Avenue and their environs, with doormen and elevator men and handymen and–coincidentally or not–profoundly flawed, not-present parents. It was a strange combination of privilege and neglect that many (not all) of us knew, and it was comforting to again be in the presence of people who understood that very specific milieu during that very specific time. We hung out in Central Park. Our Huk-A-Poo shirts and Frye boots came from Bloomingdale’s. We bought our after-school candy (Swedish fish and Ice Cubes) at a store called Caviar-teria and thought nothing of it. In health class, we were warned about the dangers of Quaaludes and VD. It was the convergence of a certain slice of New York City at a certain time in history.
I didn’t even begin to comprehend the unusualness of how I grew up until I flew off to Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, surrounded by girls named Millie and Muffy (really!) who belonged to sororities and dated frat boys. I was referred to as “the girl from New York” in my dorm, I guess because I wore black most of the time. (As one of my classmates said at the reunion: “WHY did our guidance counselor send me to Duke?? Why didn’t she know what she was doing? WHAT was she thinking? I was traumatized!”) Ultimately, I gravitated to those who passed for freaks at Northwestern and I love them still; for my junior year I transferred to SUNY Purchase, which felt like home again. Phew.
Reuniting with my Birch Wathen classmates was unexpectedly powerful. I felt like omg, those six years were the most formative years of my entire life–which is, I guess, what nostalgia will do to you. I saw most of those people almost every day for six years, after all–the years during which I morphed from unpopular, skinny, geeky, flat-chested girl to a prettier, curvier, more-confident one who had cool friends, a boyfriend, and who no longer cared what anyone thought of her.
I see now that The Birch Wathen Class of 1981 was a family of sorts, with assorted roles and personalities–the good, the bad and the ugly. It took me 30 years to understand the significance of that experience, but it was well worth it.
As year three–yes, three–of my separation looms, I sometimes ask myself: Why aren’t R& I back to being friends yet?
Shortly after we split, I confidently told myself, my kids and my mother that my relationship with R started as a friendship (1985-1989), then became romantic/marital (1989-2008) and was now back to being a friendship (2008-eternity). See? Nothing to it! Toss the wedding bands aside, and—boom—just like that we’re back to being friends again. It seemed like a positive way to spin it and a lovely idea, given that R and I never stopped fundamentally liking one another, even if the love part went awry.
But so far, the sweet post-marital friendship I envisioned hasn’t quite panned out; we’re not even Facebook friends. There was an unforeseen circumstance about which I’ll be terribly cryptic–but that notwithstanding, it’s all turned out to be more complicated than I could have imagined.
It’s not that I hate R, nor do I love him anymore. We’ve both moved on. He’s had the same girlfriend for three years; I had a boyfriend for over a year (that ended a couple of months ago, fyi–not a tragedy in itself, but more on that in a future blog post). What I’ve come to realize is that when you have kids and joint custody, the post-marital relationship is the real til-death-do-us-part one. It’s the arranged marriage after the voluntary one–and for me, it sometimes requires a lot more effort.
Almost every day, we email or talk on the phone—about summer plans for the girls, about whether the girls need new sneakers (probably, don’t they always?) or should have less screen time (yes, of course. Their brains are melting.) About this or that adorable/infuriating/worrisome/brilliant thing one of them did or said. (Oh, and did you send a check to afterschool? Because I didn’t.)
We work one block from one another and often meet at a mid-point to exchange something one of the girls left at his place and needs at mine. Then there’s the weekly transfer of stuff from one house to the other, the incessant stopping-by to get something someone forgot, which usually involves a little chat on the threshold of the house that used to contain the four of us.
R & I are pleasant and friendly enough during most of these exchanges–but I, for one, could use some space. I find it wearying and confusing to constantly be interacting with the man who made a big fuss about living separately. It makes for a chronic low-grade tension, a perpetual neither-here-nor-there-ness. Limbo personified. How do you really move on when your ex-spouse is in your face all the time? And yet, what choice is there? Who else is going to help me figure out summer camp? Who else shares the same ridiculous degree of pride in our daughters’ sparkling report cards? Who else is R going to depend on to host the girls’ birthday parties and fill the goody bags? Who else does either of us call when one of the kids is sick or when the help required can only come from the other parent? We still need each other, which is both comforting and claustrophobic.
I’m not sure what form a post-marital friendship should take, or if the very concept is pure oxymoron. Maybe friendLY is the best one can hope for. Can you really go back to holding–rather, shaking–hands once you’ve given birth in front of someone? The notion of remaining “perfect pals” with your ex, as the book The Good Divorce describes, is, frankly, kind of weird. We’ve all known ex-couples like this–who hang out and even vacation with each other and their new partners. What is that and why?
It’s hard to know where the boundaries are. When R&I are too chummy, I wonder why we’re not still together. On the occasions when he comes over–say for Christmas morning, or one of the kids’ birthdays, I sometimes think: “Hey, I have an idea. Why don’t we all live under the same roof and that way I’ll have another adult to help me cook dinner and fix stuff, buy milk on the way home and get the girls to bed?”
Conversely, it feels icky when I’m too angry or chilly towards him. When he’s looked clearly sad or stressed, I’ve even had the crazy impulse to give the guy a hug–but how do you hug that? You can’t.
It’s complicated, for better or for worse.
I always feel like The Prodigal Blogger when I go for weeks without posting–a little sheepish, like I have to acknowledge my absence. Which is sort of the point of this post—i.e., the inherent self-absorption in being human.
So. More about me: The last couple of weeks of blog neglect were due to my being paralyzed with fear. I had a routine mammogram in late February, and, for the first time ever, I got a call from the clinic telling me I had to come back for more images because of a suspicious “area of density.” So, naturally, I googled every possible combination of “abnormal,” “density,” “mammogram,” “common,” “percentage,” “of,” “ghastly,” and “death.” I learned that 10 percent of women who get routine mammograms are called back for repeats and that the vast majority of them turn out to be fine. And most of my friends have been through this and it was nothing.
But this was me, and I am really, really, realllllllly bad at this kind of thing. Worse than most people. When in doubt, I assume Murphy’s Law will prevail. When I was pregnant, I worried that my child would be an albino, if only because it’s so unlikely, because it’s one of the few things you’re not tested for, the thing no one would think to think of–so, ha!–I thought of it first. (The fact is, I have been handed stuff in my life, both good and bad, that is statistically very unlikely to happen to anyone, which may explain my glass-half-emptiness. But we shan’t go there.)
I’ve been quietly but very effectively freaking myself out, imagining hideous scenarios, superstitious that because people blithely told me they had the same thing happen and insisted that “Oh, it will be fine,” that guaranteed it wouldn’t be; that because I saw a “Support the Fight Against Breast Cancer” poster in the window of the post office, I was doomed. I was also assigned an article on breast cancer at work this week AND I learned that a colleague’s wife died of it. Signs, signs everywhere! And then, of course, why not me? People DO get the worst news possible, all the time. Entire countries are swept away in tsunamis, taking other women with “areas of density” with them. I’m sure everyone reading this has partaken of at least one appetizer from life’s misery menu, if not several entrees (and I certainly don’t mean to trivialize anyone else’s suffering by making light of my own hypochondriac tendencies; also, please excuse the overwrought menu metaphor).
I fretted that maybe my “area of density” was in fact a grumpy, pissed-off little knot of unresolved anger. That led me to the predictable bargaining and promising my personal Almighty (whom I bring out on these occasions) that I would forgive all–no, really, everything, especially the still-smarting fact of my children’s seemingly sitcom-worthy other life—one that could only have been custom-designed for me by a vengeful, unholy being. I promised I would abandon all negativity and never again say or even think “No fair!” if only, only, only the mammogram would turn out to be benign.
So, yeah, it was benign. In fact, when the radiologist said “It’s nothing. Come back in a year,” I sat there in disbelief, waiting for her to shut the door, assume a grave demeanor and level with me. But yes, this time, I was spared. This time. The high of the relief I felt on the way home was almost worth the agony I put myself through for the previous two weeks.
Now, the big challenge: To keep that promise to my personal Almighty.
This morning I was lying in bed, listening to NPR. It was early–around 8 am. (I got up so I could get to Target before anyone else, because I have crowded-Target phobia.)
Anyway, a guy was being interviewed about “mindfulness” (sorry, but that’s one of those jargon-y words I have to put in quotes, though it resonates with me more than the others) and meditation. He read this poem aloud and it spoke to me in a big way, so I want to share it. It’s the takeaway message for me and I think for anyone who ends up single again after a long relationship. You were on one planet, half of a whole, and now you’re on a different one–one that only vaguely resembles the planet you were on as a single person before marriage. Even if you end up in a new post-marital relationship, it’s so different from that first defining one, formed when you were young and naive and forever-oriented. You’re forced to realize that it’s you who must be your greatest source of strength, you who is both halves of the whole; anyone else is pretty much gravy.
I’ll shut up now and turn the spotlight on the beautiful, true words of my guest poster, Derek Walcott:
Love After Love
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.