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.)
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.
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.
… a thousand words or so. God bless America, no?
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?
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.
I had occasionally experienced the nightmare of insomnia prior to that upsetting, unsettling Fall of 2007 (when the gods of marriage decided to wreak havoc), but that was child’s play compared to what lay ahead.
In fact, what marked the decade prior to our separation was just the opposite–that is, my inability to stay awake. There were our baby girls, whose mission in life was to alternately delight us with their adorableness and kill us with their sleeplessness (how, how, how could both of them–so different in so many ways–insist on being identical in their aggressive nap-aversion??) Even when they finally slept through the night, the little darlings were exhausting–yes, just as young children are supposed to be, but still…
Maybe I was catching up from all that sleep deprivation–or maybe there just wasn’t enough can’t-miss TV to keep me conscious, but there was a stretch of time when I simply could not keep my eyes open much later than 9:20 pm–and that was after taking a little nap from 8:15-9:00 pm while lying with one of the girls as she went to sleep (R was even more prone to those than I, btw.)
Anyway, back to the fateful Fall of 2007, when I won a gold medal in insomnia. (Sorry, I can’t resist the corny Olympic allusion.) As life as I’d known it began to unravel, I craved sleep more than anything, desperate for relief from my incessant ruminating over why this happened, how it happened, how it might be reversed, undone, what would become of us, of me, of our kids, who was to blame, what would we do on holidays, how could we tell our families, why, how, when, when, how, why, why, when, how?
One night I called one of my friends–a chronic insomniac–and asked her for some sleeping pills. I went to her house at around 11 pm to score one precious Lunesta, her next-to-last one. I split it in half so I’d have some for the following night, but the next evening, I couldn’t find the little shard of snooze and things got ugly. I rifled through my drawers and my bedside table like a junkie, then crawled around on the floor, on the verge of taking a crow bar to the floorboards in order to locate that fraction of a pill. I didn’t find it and spent the night tossing and ruminating next to my snoring soon-to-be-ex. The next morning I had my doctor write me a prescription for Ambien.
Once R finally moved out, I weaned myself off of Ambien and learned to sleep unaided once again. Since starting my job last week, I’ve developed a new sleep-related neurosis: I so hate the rude awakening of my alarm clock that I’ve started waking up at 3, 4, 5 am just so I can make sure to turn it off before it rings.
Come on, that scrap of Lunesta has to be somewhere.
I am so clueless when it comes to understanding the many machinations of money (yet admirable for almost always being able to alliterate?)
During our last couple of sessions with the mediator, money’s what we talked about–proving that, as with so many things in life, divorce ultimately comes down to cash: where it used to come from, where it will come from, who owns what, who owes what to whom, and who bought the girls their last pair of snow boots. (I did.)
My understanding of money has always been very basic (i.e., you earn it, you spend it, you need it), and being married to R enabled that blissful ignorance. From the moment we moved in together on my 27th birthday, financial matters were his responsibility. I was elated when we got our first joint checking account that year, partially because I felt so grown up and also because–honestly?–it felt comforting to have a man’s name on those checks. In fact, R’s name was printed above mine even though both of my initials precede his in the alphabet. I’m not sure how that happened, but so it did.
For all of our married years, it was mutually understood that R was the one who knew the difference between a 401K and an IRA, between a variable interest rate and whatever the other kind is. The fact that he received a regular paycheck, while my income as a freelancer was unpredictable, followed suit.
Hence, being forced to discuss matters financial for two hours in the mediator’s office is not my idea of fun. During the last session, I spaced out as the mediator tapped frantically on her calculator and R scribbled furiously on a pad. At one point, my gaze wandered to the solid metal paperweight shaped like a bunny on the little table next to me. I wondered what sound it would make if I threw it at the side of R’s head. (Yes, even we amicable couples have our moments.)
My bunny-paperweight-tossing fantasy was interrupted when the mediator asked me if I understood what we were talking about. I, too ashamed and polite to say, “NO, I have no f**king idea what the word equity means,” cheerfully responded: “Yes. Yep. Absolutely.” I felt as dumb as Jeannie (as in I Dream of).
But, hold on, here comes the optimism: Tomorrow I start my full-time job. Even though I am well aware that cubicle life is not everyone’s idea of joy, and even though single working mom is not the label I’d pictured for myself, the thought of earning my own regular paycheck is empowering, relieving and kind of cool.
Soon, I plan to be a financially savvy force to be reckoned with.
(BTW, if you think you can describe the sound a metal bunny paperweight makes when it hits the head of a middle-aged man, by all means let me know.)
On Saturday night, I went to a Valentine’s day dance at my 3rd grader’s school. It was 1980′s-themed, so I spent the afternoon helping my girls outfit themselves in leggings and big shirts with belts.
The school was brilliant enough to provide a little pub in an adjoining room, so that the parents could buy cheap wine and beer in support of the PTA. Every now and then, we wandered into the gym to watch our kids dancing under ghastly flourescent lights to songs by such 80′s phenoms as The Violent Femmes, Billy Idol and Blondie. Our songs.
The combo 80’s/Valentine’s day theme had me waxing nostalgic in a big way. That was the decade when I first experienced the joys and miseries of romantic love, real and imagined. (For a while, I was sure I would DIE if Matt Dillon did not step out of the movie Little Darlings and instantly become my boyfriend.)
I also wrote a lot of bad, angst-ridden poetry during that decade, as I recently discovered while sorting through boxes of stuff. Allow me to share some excerpts (and please try to cut me some slack. I have never shown anyone these fine works, not even those for whom they were written):
* * *
Our love is like a dried-out Flair pen
No longer works, it tries.
It dies. It tries.
My optimism brews beneath a haze of lies.
* * *
This is not the first time.
This is nothing but self-slaughter. This is nothing but used crime.
Latent vacancies destroy the pillow
So blatant is the urgency
* * *
Beneath the crisp white smile of your work shirts
It’s your heart I want to taste
Even if it’s just one big bruise
Or beating red and salty
Like a healthy animal
* * * *
I happen to think the last one has some merit, but, um, a dried-out Flair pen? I can LOL at that now–but back then, it was not a laughing matter.
The 80′s ended with me meeting R, who caused me no angst whatsoever until well into the millennium. By the time I felt angsty about him, I had two kids and zero inclination to write poetry (though I did hit send on a few emails from hell itself).
Now, at the beginning of the 2010′s, I’m feeling too old for angSt. Or maybe just too wise to worry about Flair pens, dried-out or otherwise. Or maybe I’m kidding myself.
Hey, whatever happened to Matt Dillon, anyway?