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.
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.
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 week I am officially blog blocked (blogcked?). It’s never that easy to come up with ideas for posts, but usually something strikes me in time for my Monday deadline.
And here it is, Wednesday already, and I’m still sadly sans inspiration.
Here’s why I think I’m having a harder-than-usual time forming a post this week:
Thanks for letting me ramble (not that you had a choice). I’d love some thoughtful feedback on that last dilemma. If you write about personal stuff, how do you decide where to draw the line?
Last weekend, my daughters and I got our Christmas tree. Pulling out the decorations had a similar effect as the one I described in my post about my country house, where the familiar backdrop forces you to acknowledge the things that have changed in the intervening months.
Two Christmases ago (my, but it still seems like yesterday sometimes), R & I knew our separation was inevitable, but he was still living with us and the kids had no idea that our cozy foursome was on un-cozy ground. Not surprisingly, it was hard for me to enjoy Christmas that year. Everything we did–getting the tree, decorating the tree, hanging up our four stockings–was laden with the awareness of it being the last time we’ll ever do this. The last time we will all four decorate the same tree and wake up on Xmas morning together. The last time for this, for that. I happen to be especially bad at last times. When we took down the tree and packed up the ornaments into their usual boxes, I wondered which ones had spent the holiday in my house for the last time.
Last Christmas was difficult for the opposite reason: It was full of firsts. The first time I bungee-corded the tree on top of the car (may she RIP), the first time only three stockings hung on our mantel, the first time the girls woke up on Xmas morning and came into a bed that was mine alone. R joined us for breakfast, which felt absurdly normal and also miserably not so. I felt incredible pressure to hold myself together, to exude a see-everything-is-OK! attitude for the girls. The minute they left with R to visit his family, I sobbed for an hour (maybe two). Then, for the first time ever, I spent Xmas day alone, reading a new book–sad, but also, secretly, guiltily enjoying the solitude just a little bit.
And here we are one whole year later already. The girls and I decided we didn’t really need to drive to get a Christmas tree, so we got one around the corner and brought it home in the shopping cart. When we discovered that the trunk was too wide for our tree stand, I cursed, but at least I didn’t feel helpless or cry. I went into Mom-saves-the-day mode, grabbed the bread knife and shaved the trunk ’til it fit.
I can’t say that everything has come up roses (one look at my checking-account balance will quickly convince you of that), but a few aspects of my life are indeed much rosier than they’ve been for a while. For one thing, the gap on our mantel where the fourth stocking used to hang is not nearly as glaring.
On Xmas day, R will again join us for breakfast and I imagine it won’t feel as awkward as it did last year or as poignant as it did the year before that. To quote an old friend, it will feel, as so much now does, like the new normal.
And I won’t be spending the rest of the day alone this year either. What a merry thought.
Once again, the blogosphere threw me a bone. Just when I was feeling low on inspiration, Sunday’s New York Times Magazine landed with a thump at my front door and begged for my attention. So, thank you, Elizabeth Weil, for writing Married (Happily) With Issues (and, btw, feel free to introduce me to your editor because I’ve always wanted to write for the Magazine; actually, I got close once, but then…oh, never mind.)
The article chronicles Weil’s foray into marital therapy with her husband–only they engage in it before they’re on the verge of divorce. According to Weil, by the time most couples enter therapy, they have been unhappy for six years, making the endeavor futile. So kudos to her for trying to nip that shit in the bud (and sorry for cursing, but it felt necessary). Seriously, I’d estimate that 90 percent of couples I know who have gone to marriage therapy have ultimately ended up in Splitsville anyway.
Weil’s marriage follows the standard script: Boy and girl fall in love during their clueless, carefree 20s, get married, skip around and play house for a while until the game turns serious. Then they have babies and lose sleep and spend the next few years singing the Alphabet Song and groggily emptying the Diaper Genie until–surprise–one day they emerge from the fog and notice that the romance has mysteriously departed from their relationship.
Which is not to say that the kids are to blame, because of course we all love our kids and they add immeasurably to our lives and we can’t imagine a world without them (there’s also that pesky biological drive to perpetuate the species).
Ultimately, Weil concludes that maybe the “good-enough” marriage is, well, good enough. She asks what, exactly, a better marriage would look like: “More happiness? Intimacy? Stability? Laughter? Fewer fights? A smoother partnership? More intriguing conversation? More excellent sex? Our goal and how to reach it were strangely unclear.”
Now I’ll confess that my goal in writing this blog post and how to reach it are also strangely unclear. I’ve been mulling this what-is-a-happy-marriage stuff over and have not come up with satisfactory answers. I do, however, have a few new questions inspired by Weil’s piece:
OK–your turn. What are your questions and/or answers on this subject? My inquiring mind must know.
This seems like a good time to take a little break from the D saga so I can talk about something really exciting: books (c’mon, don’t give me a hard time. I warned you I was a word geek.)
I’ve always loved reading, but mostly for purposes of entertainment, education, or edification. During those months when separation was imminent, though, I clung to books like lifelines. No more snickering at the self-help genre for me; as there are no atheists in foxholes, there are no cynics facing marital dissolution. The “relationships” shelf at my local bookseller is currently depleted.
It’s funny (but not necessarily “ha-ha” funny) how the titles I’ve read represent a chronology of the past couple of years. First came the shiny, hopeful, you-can-save-your-marriage books like The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, which sports a giant wedding ring on its cover. I read it and left it on R’s bedside table. He said he’d get to it just as soon as he was done with Remembrance of Things Past and then Kristin Lavransdatter.
Once I realized I was the only one reading the marriage-saving books, I chucked them and bought When Things Fall Apart, by Pema Chodron. She talks about not resisting change and pain, but instead embracing them in a Buddhist/Zen kind of way (got big points with my spiritual yoga friend for having this one lying around). I liked the concept a lot, but surrendering to the beauty of agony was not where I was at just yet. So I ordered a few from the “ok-now-it’s-an-emergency” category. Their covers tend to be bright yellow or fire-engine red with lettering in all caps and no time for illustrations. These include Divorce Busting and The Divorce Remedy, along with How One of You Can Bring the Two of You Together. They offer lots of solo stealth techniques, which are interesting in theory, but didn’t work for me; kept those in my closet (R was reading Trollope’s The Barchester Chronicles at that point.)
When R moved out, I went for a few workbook-style books, including Divorce and New Beginnings, which has a helpful custody planner in the back, and The Good Divorce, which, oxymoronic as it sounds, does a good job of making divorce seem like something to which we should all aspire. By then, R had taken his literary tomes with him and his bedside table was all mine.
Around when I joined the dating site, I added Mars and Venus Starting Over and Mom, There’s a Man in the Kitchen and He’s Wearing Your Robe: The Single Mother’s Guide to Dating Well without Parenting Poorly. I hid those from the girls, who really did not need to know what I was up to.
Now, it seems, I’ve come full circle. I’m reading American Wife. But this time, it’s fiction.
I’m taking a short break from the dating chronicles (can you stand the suspense?) in order to address a couple of housekeeping matters–those little changes that come with everyday life here in Splitsville that may seem incidental, but are in fact huge, pervasive and defining (see soy milk incident.)
The first of these dilemmas is: how should I refer to R now? We’re not officially divorced yet, so “ex-husband” doesn’t seem legit. Plus, I’ve always bristled at the term “ex,” which strikes me as pejorative. R is technically still my husband, but then again, not so much, so that title doesn’t fly anymore. Identifying him as “the girls’ father” or explaining that “they’re with their dad” works, even though it makes me feel kind of like a farm animal used for breeding purposes.
In her book The Good Divorce, Constance Ahrons, Ph.D., bemoans the fact that in this day and age there is no better word to describe someone with whom you may have had children and/or a long, meaningful relationship. She chooses to drop the hyphen as a way to make the “ex” component less rejecting, but I’m not sure I get the point of that. Isn’t exhusband pronounced exactly like “ex-husband?”
There’s also “wasband,” which is clever, and “hasbeend,” which is trying too hard. For now, I’m just calling him R.
Dilemma number two: What do I with my rings and other marriage memorabilia? At the moment, the rings are safely tucked in the cute gray suede boxes from whence they came (good thing I saved those, huh?).
With divorce so common these days, a cottage industry has even sprung up to deal with the cast-off rings. Some jewelers cut a chunk out of wedding bands to represent the fractured marriage, and I’ve heard of divorce rituals where people smash their rings with a sledgehammer and then have the resulting precious-metal blob fashioned into a new piece of jewelry. I’m too sentimental to go that route–plus, I doubt I could hit such a precise target with a sledgehammer.
It was hard parting with the rings, not only because of what they symbolized, but because I grew attached to them; they were my constant mani-companions. Sometimes they snuggled together on my ring finger and sometimes I let them each have their own hand. We had a history, the three of us.
The wedding ring I can live without, but I love my engagement ring–a simple oval sapphire set on a modern, braided gold band. I’m not sure what the etiquette is, but I plan to wear that ring again, dammit.
Then there’s the intricate cross-stitch sampler my aunt painstakingly wove and presented to us on our wedding day. Predictably, it hung over our marital bed for years. It seems wrong to banish it to the basement, but what other option is there?
And my wedding dress, which has been in R’s parents’ (also known as my former in-laws?) attic for years, creepily stuffed and preserved in a coffin-like box from the cleaners. Would my girls consider wearing it if/when they get married, or is that forever tainted too?