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.
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.
and so is my blog. See you in the fall!
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.
Tell me you didn’t see this coming: I have a life coach–or, well, I spoke with one once for 90 minutes. I know, I know–such a midlife-makeover-ish thing to do, right? And I’m really too cynical and eye-rolley to participate in something as amorphous as life coachery—but then it’s amazing what a sudden, unexplained bout of poverty and singleness can drive one to (see: self-help books and online dating sites). Honestly, I’ve been a little restless ever since I landed a job. (For which I am grateful, btw. I’m almost starting to believe in god.) And a sweet, cute boyfriend. (No, really, god, I was kidding. Of course I believe in you.) And figured out how to get groceries delivered right to my door (possibly the ultimate accomplishment of the three, thanks to my good pal god).
Now it’s time to sort out my creative self, something I’ve been trying to do since I was 21, with intermittent success. I didn’t make my original deadline of writing something important, critically-acclaimed and noteworthy by age 30. Or 40. And now 50 is uncomfortably near (um, no thank you, god). Fifty. Fif.Tee.
So now what? In a way, I don’t care as much as I used to about achieving something significant in my lifetime. So what if I would rather watch Mad Men and read other people’s books than write one myself? Does the world really need another book? We’re all going to die anyway—agents, editors, writers, critics, even the PR and marketing people. So in the end, perhaps just having fun and blogging is an acceptable way to pass one’s free time. Right? Am I capable of not putting such pressure on myself? Can I once and for all dismiss my gnawing, constant sense of disappointment in me?
Apparently not, because I wrestle with these thoughts, oh, 500 times a day. Recently, I inflicted my inner conflict on my super-creative and much-younger new friend Laura, who instantly fixed me up with her life coach, Marcia. My expectations were high. Prior to speaking with Marcia, I felt an untrustworthy sense of well-being—as if simply contacting her was accomplishment enough and she would take it from there. I didn’t want her to help me be creative as much as I wanted her to be creative for me, maybe even to produce something on my behalf–more like a surrogate than a coach.
Our introductory chat was good, like a combination of therapy and school. She helped me think about what has worked/not worked for me in the past as far as unlocking my creative self. I shared my struggle over how much to reveal and whose feelings to protect or not in this blog or in any future, larger tell-all endeavors. But she kept bringing up this notion of a “goal,” which I found unsettling–because if I had a goal, would I need a coach (or simply a trophy)?
We’re scheduled to speak again in a few weeks and I’m looking forward to that. Until then, I’m supposed to read a few inspiring texts that Marcia recommended, plus I’m going to write down some of the blog thoughts that I’m reluctant to publish and see where that leads me.
I’ll keep you (goal) posted.
Since my last post on this topic, I’ve accumulated more proof that getting older and becoming curmudgeonly/peculiar are inextricably linked (but maybe the self-awareness is somewhat mitigating?) The latest evidence:
Last week, I bought myself an iPod Nano. It’s fifth generation and it’s fuschia and it makes me feel kind of hip, pitiful as that is. I guess it’s my equivalent of the red sportscar.
I realize I’m way late to the whole digitized music thing. A few years ago, my daughters gave me a Shuffle for Christmas, mostly because they wanted one. It’s very cute—too cute, really, to be practical, but I hardly ever used it, because while I liked music and felt I could distinguish good from bad, I was never into music the way some people are. I was into books.
So it’s particularly significant that I took it upon myself to upgrade to a model that can support my growing iTunes library.
During my marriage, R was the music lover, the one who thought to put on a CD when it wouldn’t have occurred to me. He was mostly into classical and opera (I know: opera buff and good taste in jewelry. Many have wondered, believe me.) When he left, he took 90 percent of our CDs, leaving me four dusty shelves strewn with a motley assortment that included works by Billy Joel, AC/DC, and Raffi.
It was the new periods of alone time that initially led me to rediscover the comfort and joy of song. My sparse collection, along with a handful of mix CDs made by a friend, provided a surprisingly sympathetic soundtrack for my wallowing, my fury, and my new enjoyment of dancing around the living room.
And then I met S, who turned out to be Savant-like about every kind of music imaginable, with tastes that ranged from Dvorak to Zappa. (The fact that my sorry CD shelves were not a dealbreaker, in fact, is testament to his fine character.) He wooed me with songs sent via email, and each one miraculously found its way into my iTunes library, which, until then, only contained a few downloaded episodes of Mad Men. S’s appreciation for great lyrics allowed me to overlook his rather limited experience with great literature. (Try to resist a guy who sends you Greg Brown’s sexy song Milk of the Moon. ) Soon, my iTunes cup ranneth over with all kinds of interesting music and artists I’d never heard of (Jess Klein, Rachael Yamagata, Oliver Mtukudzi).
And that’s when I decided I needed a Nano–which has opened up a whole other wonderful sonic world to me: Podcasts! Don’t even get me started on how much I love podcasts.
It’s been almost exactly two years since R moved out. I honestly can’t believe it has been that long–even though we middle-aged folks are constantly bemoaning the brisk passage of time. My goodness, wasn’t I just writing the post about surviving the first year? Where has the time gone?
Many of the (many) books I’ve turned to for guidance during this difficult period mention the two-year mark as a milestone. Apparently, if you’re the me in the scenario, by then you are officially back on your feet, successfully re-routed toward your glorious post-divorce future. I remember reading about it while still in my raw, skinless state and thinking I could not possibly survive two whole years. I hoped someone would hit the fast-forward button so I didn’t have to be awake for the duration. Or hit me with a bus.
And now suddenly I’m here, 24 months later. I am, in fact, re-routed and less raw, just like the books promised. Yet, oddly enough, I’m also feeling a little sentimental about that hellish phase, if only because it gave me an automatic excuse for being unable to cope with anything. Just like when you have a baby and chalk up the extra weight, the slovenly attire, the exhaustion, to the fact that, well, you just had a baby–until one day you wake up and notice that your kids are in elementary school and you can’t fall back on that anymore.
When I couldn’t handle certain household tasks (and I couldn’t), I forgave myself because, after all, I was a recently-separated, marginally-employed, suddenly-single mom. If my temper was too short with the girls (and it was) or I cried in the bathroom (and I did), well, wasn’t I off the hook, given that I was going through an awfully hard time? If I needed a reason to turn a man down for a second date (which I did), I played the confused newbie: “I’m sorry. I’m so new at this. I’m not ready. I think I started dating too soon. Maybe in a few months…”
Abigail Trafford aptly describes those years as Crazy Time in her book by the same name: “It starts when you separate and usually lasts about two years. It’s a time when your emotions take on a life of their own and you swing back and forth between wild euphoria and violent anger, ambivalence and deep depression, extreme timidity and rash actions. You can’t believe…how terrible you feel, how overwhelming daily tasks become, how frightened you are; about money, your health, your sanity.”
Now I’m so jaded that when I read other women’s divorce sagas, I think, “Oh, boo hoo, honey. Pick yourself up off the floor and get on with it. Pump the gas, kill the mice, fix the toilet, change the occasional light bulb, join the dating site. Because–guess what–you have no choice.”
But, as crappy as I felt during that stage, it also came with the thrill of the new and unknown. I had my work cut out for me, a fierce sense of purpose. Every day felt like a challenge, an occasion that required rising to, an endless loop of first-days-of-the-rest-of-my-life. It was often agonizing and exhausting, but there was so much intensity and drama, so much adrenalin. It was an adventure.
And now things have leveled off. I have a job; a guy. Much still remains unknown, unhealed and unclear–but Crazy Time has officially ended. It’s not exactly a let-down, it’s just so weirdly calm and orderly all of a sudden that I’m a little disoriented. I wonder what will be the source of my next adventure and what will provide meaning. Or maybe I should just embrace the stillness for a while.
(Note to the universe: I said adventure, not heartache. Meaning, not misery. Got that?)
This is not mine, btw.
This past weekend I decided to wear a bracelet that I haven’t worn in years. No big deal, really, except that the bracelet was from R, and for a long time I boycotted most of the jewelry he gave me in a misplaced, don’t-mention-the-war type attempt to protect myself from sentiment. (Plus, the books say that removing physical reminders of the spouse is necessary to heal and rebuild.)
The downside of my jewelry boycott (mancott?), though, is that I have been wearing the same wimpy handful of non-R-associated necklaces and earrings for two years now and I’m getting bored. About 80 percent of my jewelry collection was given to me by R, and,whatever one may or may not think about the man’s other facets (tee hee—get it, facets?), one can’t deny that he had excellent taste in baubles. In fact, it instilled in other females the kind of awe and envy that is usually reserved for that lone remarkable dad pushing his kid on a swing at the playground on a weekday morning.
My friends routinely expressed amazement. “R got you that? He picked it out himself? All by himself?” Then would come the sad stories of having to return–or, worse, keep–ill-chosen husbandly gifts of jewelry, or of having to actually accompany one’s husband to the store so as to avoid faking an “Oh, honey, I love it!” moment.
I never understood this stereotypical cluelessness among men, because it seems that if someone truly knows you, he also gets your style and sensibility. Right? It’s so simple. (The truth is that toward the end of our marriage, R’s jewelry prowess began to falter, and I ended up returning a pair of whimsical, but not wearable, antler-shaped earrings. Something was clearly amiss.)
At one point during those stormy pre-separation months, I weepily gathered every last bit of jewelry that R had ever given me into a tangly mass and chucked it into the wastepaper basket next to his dresser. Fortunately, a sliver of my rational brain was still functioning and knew I would regret that move. I dug it out and tossed it into a drawer instead.
And now that I’ve lifted the ban, it’s like I have all this new jewelry! There are a few key pieces that give me a pang, but it’s amazing how time has diluted most of the voodoo.
Once I found the bracelet, I started sifting through the other stuff. I even reluctantly opened the gray suede box that now serves as a tiny coffin for my wedding and engagement rings. I put the engagement ring—one of my favorite pieces of jewelry (and yes, R chose it all by himself)—on the ring finger of my right hand. Then I put it back in the box because that one’s still a little fraught, plus it seems wrong to wear a symbol of a marriage-to-be when the marriage is now a has-been. But IS there any real reason not to wear it, now that it’s not so much my engagement ring as just a pretty ring that happens to have been given to me during a prior engagement?
What do you think?