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.
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.
I’ve been hating the desk in my dining room for months now. We moved it down there after R moved out and tenants occupied the third floor of our house, where I previously had a little office. It’s a big, clunky piece of furniture whose main virtue is that it holds a lot of stuff. But I never use it anymore. I’ve spent months plotting to get rid of it and to replace it with something sleeker and more dining room-like and finally, this past weekend, I made it happen. Prior to ditching the desk, though, I had to empty its seven drawers, an experience that turned out to be something of an emotional landmine. A few of the random, meaningful, meaningless things I came upon:
It’s clear what I should do with the hospital bracelet (stick in box with other baby memorabilia) and the invitations (toss into recycling), and the mini-cassette recorder (save because no other way to play mini cassette tapes of girls saying ridiculously cute things at age 2). But what about the R-related (but not necessarily R-rated) stuff? These random desk-drawer findings are just the tip of that iceberg. There’s a box in my closet that contains assorted pieces of my past, from my junior high school diary to another stack of love letters from R. (I threw this particular pile of them at him during the ghastly, wrenching pre-separation months and also offered some suggestions for where he might want to shove them.) And then there’s an entire freestanding wardrobe filled with photo albums chronicling our 18 years together.
It’s been a couple of years since R left now and I have some distance. I have transferred my romantic feelings to another person. I can come across the odd Valentine’s Day card from R without it sending me reeling. But still. Still. I shared almost half of my life with this person and it’s hard to know where to put it all, literally and figuratively. Reading these gushy missives is an out-of-body experience. I know all of that happened and that this was the most significant and lengthiest relationship of my life, but it all seems so, so distant already. It’s still hard to process how those passionate written exchanges, once focused on our mutual adoration, could have devolved in to the quick, terse, business-like email affairs that they are today. Looking at letters and photos from my married days brings up something different than the sweet nostalgia I feel when I read something saved from a college or high school boyfriend. Those relationships were meant to be finite. The scenes from a marriage, on the other hand, still sting and feel like reminders of failure–as if they don’t really count because it didn’t last.
So where do I store this stuff emotionally, how do I make a place for it in the modular add-on system of past experiences growing inside my aging brain? Do I want my kids to come across those letters one day so they can see that in fact their parents loved each other once? (Does one keep naked pictures of one’s ex? What’s the protocol there?) Or should I get rid of all of it, sending it off with the ship that has sailed?
While I was unloading stuff from the desk drawers to the dining table, a little gift card fell open. It was signed ”I love you, R,” and it landed right on top of a folder labeled “Separation Agreement.” Really. You can’t make this stuff up, and I didn’t.
Several of you have complained that I haven’t blogged in a while and you’re right, you’re right. I’m sorry! (How’s this for a lame excuse: I’ve been busy.) But I’m thrilled that any of you actually notice and care. That is hugely gratifying and encouraging, so don’t go anywhere. I actually have a lot of post ideas brewing and very soon I expect to unleash a torrent of fascinating, fully-formed posts.
In the meantime, how about helping me get my writerly juices flowing? Ask me something Living in Splitsville-related and I’ll put together a fun little blogger/reader Q&A.
Go ahead, ask!
Oh, and here’s a cartoon from this week’s New Yorker that seems appropriate. Enjoy.
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?)
Anytime you become a member of one of life’s many clubs, you’re introduced to new terminology. When you’re planning a wedding, you start tossing around terms like registry and flatware. Parenthood brings forth birth plan and lactation consultant. In the divorce zone, the lingo includes custody, mediator, and spousal support (that last one sounds like an uncomfortable device you might have to learn to live with after an operation, doesn’t it?)
Well, I was thinking recently about some of these terms and how one might want to customize them to suit one’s particular needs. Here’s what I came up with:
I wanted to come up with a third thing in this vein, but I couldn’t. So it’s your turn. What’s your personal fantasy twist on the customs of separation and divorce?
Of all the challenges that working full time has thrown my way, I am most plagued by the getting of groceries—where to get them, when to get them, and how to get them into my home from wherever they originate.
For almost a decade, I’ve been a member of a fabulous food co-op. The prices are amazing, the produce is amazing–but the amount of time, effort and psychic distress involved in membership is also, well, amazing. In order to reap the financial and health rewards the co-op offers, you pay in other ways. You have to work there for 2 hours and 45 minutes every four weeks; if you’re me, you have to figure out how to get there now that you rarely have use of a car, because the co-op is over a mile away. And the process of shopping can take hours, especially if the checkout person is new and doesn’t know her celeriac from her lacinato kale.
When I was a freelancer, I shopped at off-hours and it was manageable, but now that I work full time, it’s impossible to continue as a co-op member. Letting go is not easy. There’s a cult-like quality to belonging that makes it hard to leave the fold. I feel like an Amish teenager in rumspringa. But it had to happen. I had to leave, to experience food shopping as most of the country does.
As with any loss, the first phase was denial–which manifested itself in me as an inability to shop anywhere. I found it hard to buy food, period. I felt dirty shopping at a regular supermarket, with its clogging trans fats, its cheap-whore-like red delicious apples, its plethora of plastic bags. Where was the bok choy—the beautiful bouncing baby bok choy like they have at the co-op? Even worse, the supermarket has the exact same feta cheese we got at the co-op, only it costs two dollars more. Two. Dollars. More.
I decided that the girls and I would forego food completely. I mean, really, it’s such a time suck—the shopping, the cooking, the endless chewing and digesting. Couldn’t we just consume very nutritious shakes and vitamins and leave it at that? I was annoyed every time the girls asked me for a snack. “Well, there’s that sprouting potato on the counter, or–hello–what about the mulberry tree out back? Anyway, do you really need to keep eating, again and again and again? It’s so common. Get over it.”
Supported by takeout, I moved through that phase and, for a few weeks, I was able to shop at the supermarket, though only in an aggressive co-op backlash mode. When I came home with Reese’s Puffs cereal and Tostitos, the girls were thrilled, though clearly worried about me. Eventually, even they confessed to missing the healthy, wheaty, crunchy stuff.
During this difficult time, ads for Fresh Direct seemed to lurk everywhere, promising to deliver freakishly photogenic foodstuffs right to my door. Naturally, I was suspicious. It seemed too good to be true.
And then, last week, it all came to a head. The potato on the countertop was growing branches worthy of a treehouse. The ancient capers in the side of the fridge door seemed like viable dinner fixins. Finally, I caved and placed an order online with FD. And it was a revelation–no lines, no car, no store to think about! If I have to live on supermarket food, this is the way to do it. I can shop online whenever I want and the food is brought to my door–in 100% recycled boxes, no less, which almost makes up for the lack of exotic vegetables.
Yesterday, our second Fresh Direct order arrived, just as we were finishing up a legitimate dinner whipped up with ingredients from the first one. When I saw the delivery guy at the door, it was as though Prince Charming had arrived on his horse (or in this case, a white refrigerated truck).
My daughter, noticing my glee, said, “Chill, Mom. It’s not Santa Claus.”
Oh, but for a single mother who works full time, it is. It is!
(Fyi, I was not paid by Fresh Direct or anyone else to write this.)
On Friday during my lunch hour, I went shopping for a birthday present for R on the girls’ behalf. As usual, they had grand ideas about what they wanted to get their dad–all of which were way out of my price/affection range–and no ideas about when we would actually have time to do the shopping required in the 24 remaining hours prior to his birthday.
I tried to convince them that the most meaningful gift would be something they made with their dear little daughterly hands–something out of Sculpey, maybe? (I love Sculpey, btw.) I should have just pinned a “kick me” sign on my butt, given the withering, disgusted looks that sweet suggestion inspired from my teenager. (Sometimes I worry that her eyes will roll so high into her head, we’ll have to go to the ER.)
So, fine, I offered to grab R a shirt on their behalf—a shirt being the default 11th-hour gift for all men.
This is the kind of task that you still have to do even when you’re no longer married to your kids’ father. Even if you don’t care anymore about appropriately acknowledging your ex’s birthday, you need to make sure your kids do.
And if you’re me, such an exercise reminds you that you did care once, which leads to having a blog-worthy experience in the men’s shirt department at H&M. (No, nothing like that.)
In the old days, back when I loved R, I would have spent weeks trying to find the perfect item, even if it was just a pair of socks, even if it required me to splurge on something at Barney’s or Bergdorf Men. I would not have dashed into the closest, cheapest store I could find, hell-bent on getting out of there with enough time to eat my sandwich in the park.
But, because I tend to analyze everything to death, I became profoundly aware of my ever-shifting level of investment in the shirt purchase. Here are a few of the thoughts that went through my head:
Last Thursday was my younger daughter’s birthday, so the four of us went out for dinner to celebrate.
The four of us means R was there.
We’ve done this before, of course–re-enacted scenes from our former life as an intact family. We’ve done it on Christmas morning (twice) and on the girls’ birthdays.
I realize it’s good that we can pull off the amicable thing. I sense how happy it makes the girls to have both of their parents in the same room. According to Constance Ahrons’ rubric in The Good Divorce, R& I are “Cooperative Colleagues.” She defines five types of divorcing couples, ranging from “Perfect Pals” (i.e. such good buddies that they should just stay together) to “Dissolved Duos” (think icky, mean Hollywood-style splits). Says Ahrons: “Cooperative Colleagues don’t consider each other close friends, but for the most part cooperate quite well around issues that concern the children … They spend occasional time together–usually special occasions, such as birthdays, school plays, or parent-teacher conferences.”
As sad and second rate as it is, I take pride in the fact that we effortlessly deceive restaurant staff into thinking we’re just another intact family, one where the parents don’t regularly meet in a mediator’s office. We leave the restaurant and walk together down the street, with the youngest daughter up on Daddy’s shoulders. We totally pass.
I find these times of temporary togetherness both grounding and unsettling. On the one hand, I’ve so adapted to my single-mom role with the girls that when R joins us I feel vaguely intruded upon–like, who is this guy who thinks he knows my kids so well that he can tell them what to do as if he’s their parent or something? But it’s also such a gift, one that I took for granted during all those years when the-four-of-us was a given. Another parent? Seriously? Someone who understands these two children–their dynamics, their strengths and weaknesses, their histories, their everything–exactly as I do? Someone around whom I can let down my guard a bit, as if I’m not the only one in charge? It almost sounds too good to be true.
When R showed up at the restaurant the other day, part of me wanted to say: “What are you doing here?” while another part wanted to shout: “Well, it’s about time you showed up! Where the @#$%^&* have you been for the past 20 months?”
But, being that we’re so amicable, and that it was our daughter’s birthday, I simply said “Hi.” Then we ordered sushi.
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?