Tree sticks with no leaves
Harbingers of winter’s suck
Is it summer yet?
Tree sticks with no leaves
Harbingers of winter’s suck
Is it summer yet?
Upon landing in Baltimore, I learned a couple other attendees had arrived late after delayed flights and had missed their rides. Because I had a rental car reserved for myself, I offered to be their shuttle, figuring it would be a chance to make some friends before even getting my official name badge and conference schedule. One of my biggest reservations about attending the conference alone was an image I had of myself wandering around lost and friendless in the cafeteria like a middle school outcast. Perhaps offering a ride would keep me from that fate. Alas, that was not the case. When the three of us arrived and checked in, we went our separate ways. It’s okay, I told myself. There are a couple hundred folks here. My tribe is here somewhere. I shall find them eventually.
I went to dinner on Friday night alone. The cafeteria at Notre Dame of Maryland was packed when I got there midway through meal service, its large, round, communal tables filled with chattering ladies of all shapes and sizes. I grabbed a plate, threw together a Caesar salad, filled another plate with halfway overdone-halfway underdone roasted vegetables, and began the hunt for a place to sit. I was overwhelmed. It seemed every person at the conference was there and successfully friended. I began to feel the fingers on my right hand forming the L-shape I knew belonged on my forehead. Conspicuously unfriended, I hastened to a nearby table where three women were engaged in animated conversation while a fourth woman sat to the side. Here’s another lonely soul just waiting to be my tribe, I imagined. We introduced ourselves and struck up polite conversation. Because she had finished her meal, she carried the lion’s share of the exchange while I scarfed down my veggies. As mealtime began to wind down, I realized I hadn’t had much opportunity to share about my blog. I was out of time, though, so I excused myself to prepare for the evening session. I kept telling myself that the introductions would become easier and my next meal would be at a table filled with new friends. It was early. There was plenty of time.That night the conference hosted a pep rally. Writers who had won the submissions contest got to read their poignant and emotional pieces. During the break, I had the opportunity to touch base with a couple more bloggers. It felt good to share mom and writing experiences with women who could relate. When the program ended, I headed back to the dorm for the Open Mic session where we would put our names into a bowl and take turns reading our work. By the time I got to the lounge where we were meeting, though, it was standing room only and women were already sharing. The bowl to add your name to was at the front of the room through a maze of women seated in chairs and on the floor, placed on the floor directly in front of the gal at the mic. I didn’t want to be remembered as the rude woman who interrupted the speaker by stepping over other people to drop my name in the bowl, so I stood at the back sandwiched between a wall and a table for a while, just listening, before finally accepting that I had missed the boat on this event. I went back to my dorm room, mentally exhausted and ready for some introvert, alone time.
After a restless and wretched night of sleep on a squishy dorm bed, I hauled myself into the bathroom I was sharing. The other gal had left her Sonicare, her empty coffee cups, and a gob of chocolate-tinted toothpaste spit in the sink for me. I chose to assume this was because she didn’t realize it was a Jack-and-Jill bathroom. I locked the door, donned my shower shoes, and washed the dorm room off of me before driving to Starbucks for the most highly caffeinated latte imaginable. As I sat through the first two lectures of the morning, I eyed my fellow classmates looking for a like-minded soul. I suppose that would have come in the form of a carefully hidden yawn or a surreptitious glance at an iPhone. I saw none of that. Everyone was engaged, taking notes, and asking questions. The classes offered useful tips and I hastily scribbled just-barely-legible notes into my notebook, but the feeling that I was way out of my league persisted. I began to wonder if perhaps this wasn’t the best conference for me.
I stumbled into lunch in a state somewhere between dread and resignation. I once again wandered around alone, looking for a friendly face to welcome me to a table. No such luck. After sauntering casually with my food for a minute that seemed to be ten, I found an empty table and settled in alone. I checked my flesh for signs of leprosy and found none. Still, I had to wonder. I sniffed my armpits. Yes. There was deodorant there. I finished lunch and went back to the dorm room to freshen up just in case. On my way back to the classrooms for afternoon sessions, I set off a fire alarm on a poorly marked emergency exit. As I sped up my pace, praying no one would realize I was the goof who caused the ruckus, I decided my transformation from middle age nobody to middle school loser was complete.
I finished the next two sessions in a daze. In the 24 hours I was there, I made zero new friends despite putting myself out there as much as my reserved self could. The thought of sleeping in the dorm bed and sharing the bathroom again depressed me. I pulled up Expedia on my smartphone and booked a hotel room 15 minutes away. I didn’t need a Middle School To The Max party to feel any more unpopular than I already felt. Some takeout, a bottle of wine, and a private bath were all I needed to remind myself I was a grown adult and not a middle school reject.That night while I was relaxing at the hotel and finishing up a blog post, against all odds, another attendee (one whom I hadn’t even met yet) reached out to me on the conference Facebook page wondering where I was. I was shocked. You know that scene in Pretty in Pink where the cute girl at prom motions to Duckie and he turns around to see if she’s talking to him? That’s how I felt. I quickly responded, telling her only that I was “out of sorts” and offering to meet up at the closing session the next morning. That’s what we did. As the conference drew to a close, my new friend, Martha, another blogger about mindfulness and zen, and I decided to drive into Baltimore to visit the National Aquarium and consume a crab cake lunch. The conversation was effortless and affirming and exactly what I needed. I pulled the thumb and forefinger L away from my forehead. I had found my tribe. That it was a tribe of one seemed perfectly fitting for this introvert.
My experiences at the conference were, I’m sure, vastly different from most of the attendees. Most of them are successful and gifted writers, humorists, and mommy bloggers on a mission. The conference, while not quite my milieu, offered loads of helpful information I will be able to incorporate into my publishing experience going forward. My blog may never have hundreds of thousands of followers. I may never make a living from it. What I realize now, though, is that those things don’t matter to me and they never really have. My plan from the start was to use writing to learn more about myself, to share what I experience with others to prove our common connections, and to find greater peace and stillness in my present. In those ways, I’m already a successful blogger.
I recently had the good fortune of marking 47 years off the calendar. After so many journeys around the sun, I’ve become much more adept at celebrating in a way that suits me. This year that included a hot, uninterrupted shower, a venti latte accompanied by a cinnamon roll, some light shopping followed by a leisurely drive into the hills, a pedicure, and a picnic and concert at Red Rocks. And while I could not keep Mother Nature in line (the cranky bitch caused a thirty-minute storm with extreme lightning and heavy rain that delayed our outdoor concert and forced us to seek shelter in our car), overall my day was damn near perfect, securing my position as my number one, all-time-favorite, personal birthday-party planner.
The 1980s sex symbol, Bo Derek, recently said in an interview that aging is not for sissies. Although Bo has about ten years on me, I concur with her assessment. While 40 freaked me out seven years ago, what has happened to me physically since that reaching that milestone makes me shudder. I’ve acquired floppy arm syndrome, crepe-y neck, and sagging knees. Stray chin hairs pop up like wretched dandelions that require immediate plucking under the magnification of a lighted mirror to aid my tired eyes. The gal who used to roll out of bed and attend her college classes somehow managing a bright complexion without makeup is gone. It takes twice the effort and the bankroll to maintain half the fresh-faced appearance I exuded a decade or two ago. I try not to think about it too much, but the reflection in ubiquitous glass reminds me anyway. My inescapable doppelgänger follows me everywhere. Damn her.
As I drove up into the foothills the other day, though, I had something of an epiphany about my age. Even with all the physical changes in me that are less than grand, I like myself. So much. I am more genuinely me now than I have ever before been because I have stopped putting other’s agendas for me ahead of my own. I have accepted my negatives and begun acknowledging and owning my positives. I no longer heed the caterwauling of naysayers. I spent my first forty years becoming what I thought I was supposed to be. I will spend the next forty years excavating the me that lies buried under the sediment of other’s wishes. I grew up a closed-off, fearful Chicken Little, but that’s not who I was meant to be, and it’s not who I will stay. While I am good as is, warts and all, I am open to growth and positive change. If others don’t approve of my new direction, I will leave them in the dust as I speed away and watch their figures fade in my rear view window. Moving on.
To my friends who are a few years ahead of me on this journey, thanks for talking me through my midlife insanity and reassuring me that I would emerge better for it. You were right. It does get better. Little things are easier to let go. There’s freedom in relinquishing baggage and traveling light. And the more baggage I drop, the happier I become. To my friends who are a few years behind me, hang in there. I go before you as proof that the stress, change, and angst you’re experiencing are survivable. The slow, steady climb at midlife is the precursor to the feet-off-the-pedals coast that follows. And, yes. I know you don’t want to hear it. I didn’t want to hear it either, but that didn’t make it any less true.
I’m in life for the long haul, for as long as I’ve got, through the messy and the beautiful and the complicated and the serene. I am not afraid of getting older, anymore. I am afraid of not getting older. There is so much of life I was uncomfortable about experiencing when I was young and chicken-hearted. I am braver now. Oh, sure. Doubt still finds me, but now it comes in the muffled whisper of a pesky librarian rather than the soul-shaking shouts of a doomsday soothsayer. I know the potential for growth still exists, and I know it ain’t over until the Fat Lady sings. I’m not going out quietly. Look for me. I’ll be the old lady laughing too loud, hugging too long, and crossing things off my bucket list. I’m many things, but I’m no sissy.
“Never argue with a fool. Onlookers might not be able to tell the difference.” ~Mark Twain
You know what makes me tired? I mean, mother-of-toddler-triplets tired? The non-stop, exhaustive, political and religious divisiveness presented in the daily media. With Hillary Clinton’s long-expected announcement about her second presidential bid, things have become even uglier in my world. It’s not that I’m not interested in politics. I am. Like most Americans, I have plenty of opinions about our government and whether we have become the kind of nation our forefathers envisioned when they drafted our Constitution. Most of these opinions I keep to myself because I’ve learned that bickering with people whose minds are made up is a Sisyphean task. People say they’re capable of open-ended, honest, fair, and cooperative discourse about opposing views, but I’ve seen too many dinner parties turn into shouting matches over who is right and who is stupid to believe it exists. And the more polarized we’ve become as a nation, the less likely it seems that we will ever be able to have friendly discussions about opposing political or religious views. It’s a shame, really.
I have a significant number of family members and friends who never seem to tire of political and religious controversy. In the days before I knew better, I got into “discussions” (yes…that word needs quotation marks) with these people about my views. Some of these people wrote me off. The rest, however, made me their pet cause, which has proven to be worse. These people have since made it their life’s work to enlighten me about how misguided I am in an effort to save my soul. This, too, is exhausting. There aren’t enough free hours in my day to read the emailed articles sent to inform me of my inherent and unacceptable wrongness. So, I don’t read them. Somewhere along the line it occurred to me that I had a choice…I could save established relationships with people who disagree with me or I could spend my life defending myself and my views to them while becoming increasingly agitated about my need to do so. So I chose to let go. The emails sent for my edification go straight into my junk folder where they remain unopened in communication limbo. Every once in a while, I hit delete for the whole lot of filtered messages in a ritualistic, spiritual cleansing.
“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.” ~Abraham Lincoln
Some people think that my unwillingness to go into battle over my beliefs is cowardly. While they proudly spout their views in every possible public forum under the guise of free speech, repeating news-generated talking points or quoting pieces from partisan publications, I remain silent. And my silence merely reinforces their opinion that if my beliefs held any merit I could defend them. It’s a nasty cycle. I suppose I could catalog and save statistical evidence to offer while disputing my detractors, but how would that ever be worth the effort when they are so convinced of their moral higher ground that they would find a way to dispel my proof and continue along in their assertion that I am at best misguided and at worst completely wrong? I’m female and, despite having been raised Catholic, I now identify more as atheist than Christian. I’m an anomaly. According to a Pew Research study in 2012, only 2.4% of US citizens identify as atheist. Of that 2.4%, it’s been estimated that only 25% are women. I’m so far out there right now, statistically speaking, that I’m nearly a unicorn. Some don’t believe I even exist.
Because I am different from the majority and do not myself fit in, I work on accepting others where they are because life is hard enough without creating controversy where none is necessary. In 2001, we bonded over a previously unimaginable horror. In those moments after the Twin Towers fell, there were no labels. It didn’t matter if you were Democrat or Republican, Christian or Jew, pink or brown. In those moments, we were all simply Americans. While I would never wish for those days back, I do have some nostalgia for the feeling that, as different as we were, we were all in it together. And I wonder sometimes at how in 14 years we’ve slid so far away from the united in the United States of America. Us versus them is now a continual ideological battle being waged within our own borders. It serves the best interests of no one.
So, I won’t debate you if our politics and religious views don’t mesh. I won’t unfriend you on Facebook merely because we don’t agree. But I won’t support this pervasive notion that any one group has cornered the market on morality in this country. There is no one way to be more intrinsically American than another, and no one group deserves a greater say than another. As a young child in the early 70s, I learned that we were free to be you and me. We were all unique, but we all somehow belonged here together in our differences. Maybe that was really idealistic, but I liked that message. I’m not exactly sure when things changed and we became so intolerant of the value of each individual within the confines of our united society, but I’m not buying into this new paradigm. I’m not defending my beliefs. I’m not kowtowing to the majority you create that leaves me on the outside. And I’m not teaching my kids with my actions that they have to explain why their opinion counts. It just does. They’re free to be whatever they want, and they don’t have to fit in to belong. This is America, dammit. And their mother is a frigging unicorn.
“If I can challenge old ideas about aging, I will feel more and more invigorated. I want to represent this new way. I want to be a new version of the 70-year-old woman. Vital, strong, very physical, very agile. I think that the older I get, the more yoga I’m going to do.” ~Jamie Lee Curtis
I was sitting in the chair having my hair guru, Danielle, work the miracle of balayage on my way-too-quickly-greying tresses when I came across an article about a growing trend of women shaving their faces. One of my joys in going to see Danielle is that I get to check out all the latest copies of People, US, and In Style without actually having to buy any issues. It’s how I get to act like a typical female without having to admit to a grocery store clerk that I am typical. But I am going to have to stop reading these publications if articles like this continue to pop up. Why can’t I just read in peace about Bruce Jenner’s transformation to woman without realizing I’m failing as one when I already have all the right parts?
As I battle the march of Middle Age, a battle that becomes more arduous and gruesome as my forties pass, I can barely make time for whitening toothpaste, moisturizing sunscreen, and a daily appointment with my Clarisonic (which is really more of an every third or fourth day meeting if I am being honest). Now I’m supposed to add shaving to my already overtaxed routine? Apparently, this is the latest resurgence of an old exfoliation trend. The article claims that mens’ skin is much less wrinkly and smoother because they shave, thereby removing dead skin cells each time they drag a razor across their face. You can have this dermaplaning done at a dermatologist’s office or spa for between $85-150 a month or you can buy razors and attempt to master the technique yourself and repeat it every four weeks. The more I thought about it, the more it began to make some sort of sense. Most men age pretty darn well. But, still, are you kidding me? Is this what it’s coming to? It’s almost like there’s someone out there trying to see what wild things they can get American women to buy into. The beauty industry does quite well for itself.
I’m not thrilled about getting older. In a few months, I am slated to hit 47. Forty-freaking-seven. And as much as I am trying to be all zen about it, I am not even remotely there. Am I glad I’m still on this planet after nearly a half of a century? Absolutely. Living is much better than dying. But long life comes with aging and aging isn’t pretty. I struggle with the reflection in the mirror. I notice the wrinkles, the blossoming jowls, the dark circles, and the skin imperfections earned after too many days at high altitude without sunscreen because when I was a kid it was SPF 4 tanning lotion on my redheaded body at the pool. It freaks me out. Maybe I should skip the shaving? Honestly, I might be better off with a full beard, now that I’m thinking about it. A beard could hide all sorts of stuff. Wonder if I can grow enough chin hair for that?
I’ve tried all sorts of things to make myself feel like I don’t look my advancing age. My latest insanity is micro needling to improve skin texture, but even poking myself in the face to increase collagen production doesn’t seem to be helping. No matter what I do or how much I invest, time’s gonna keep right on marching across my face. And even if I enlist every treatment known, from Botox to fillers, from laser skin treatments to facelifts, I’m never going to look 20 again. I could spend the GDP of Lithuania on anti-aging treatments, but it won’t stop the inevitable. The years will take their toll.
So I am now trying to discern what aging gracefully might look like for me and how I might achieve it. I think every day about my friends who are on the backside of 50 and who assure me that all my insanity over my appearance will decrease. Eventually I will become more comfortable in my own skin and won’t care as much how I look. I won’t give a second thought to staying younger looking by adding a close shave to my routine. I’ll strive for good health. I’ll focus on drinking lots of water, eating my greens, getting restful sleep, practicing more yoga, and cultivating bigger smiles. And I’ll stop reading stupid articles about how shaving will make me look younger.
Truth is that I am much happier with myself now than I ever was at 20. Would it be nice to have my 46-year-old wisdom in my 20-year-old body? Sure it would. Just like someday I will wish for my 70-year-old wisdom in my 46-year-old body. But I’m not a Disney fan and I don’t live in Fantasyland. This idea we have as a nation about women staying and looking young into our 50s, 60s, 70s, and beyond is a bit Ponce de Leon. If we’re smart enough to acknowledge that the Fountain of Youth doesn’t actually exist, we should be smart enough to know we can’t wish it into existence either.
We spend our youth looking forward to being older and our adulthood wishing we were younger. It’s a horrible paradox. I’m working on becoming more zen about aging, but I have a feeling I’ll be working on it until the day I die.
“When you find people who not only tolerate your quirks but celebrate them with glad cries of ‘Me too!’ be sure to cherish them because those weirdos are your tribe.” ~Anonymous
I am a writer. I am also socially inept. I’m not sure if the social ineptitude is a result of the writing or if I write because I want to appear less socially inept. Either way works, I guess. Let’s just go with the notion that I’m awkward. I’m not in tune with other people’s feelings. Blame it on my being INTJ. Blame it on my ill breeding. Blame it on the aliens who abducted me as a child and conducted sloppy experiments on my brain. All I know is it is what it is. In forty-six years, I haven’t been able to outgrow it.
Every August, our sons’ school holds their annual Back to School Night. They host a tastefully catered meal for parents to enjoy while they go over school policy minutiae before sending us off to our children’s classrooms to receive more information that we of course will promptly forget. I’m sure many people look forward to these type of social events, a chance to get together again with friends from last year and to meet new people. Frankly, I’d rather have my spleen removed by a 10-year-old surgeon wielding a teaspoon as a his primary implement. I have to drink two glasses of wine before I go simply so I will be somewhat comfortable making small talk. Small talk stresses me out. Small talk is never small talk. The amount of effort small talk takes makes it big talk.
This year, we arrived at the dinner and found out that it was not going to be out on the lawn because of the threat of rain. They had the dinner set up inside the gym. I prefer the outdoor setting because it’s easier to flake out when you are in open surroundings. Still, we went inside, like socially weird teenagers, praying we’d get in and get out without being guilted into signing up for any random committees we’d rather die than be on.
We weren’t in there long before a couple we remembered as the parents of one of Luke’s friends from the previous year approached us. We didn’t know them very well, but I sensed they wanted to be there about as much as we did. We exchanged some pleasantries and they asked us to come join them at their table. Having fairly successfully avoid social interaction at the school during the previous year, we had no one else to sit with so we dragged our paper plates to their table. I tried my best to be cordial, but holy cheeses that is hard for me. At some point, I notice how weird that thing I just uttered was and then I begin to spiral clockwise in a whirling toilet flush of social doom. One way or another we got through the dinner, and Steve went with them to Luke’s class while I ducked out to sit in Joe’s classroom in my girl-in-the-plastic-bubble-of-pitiful-but-comfortable-silence sort of way.
On the way home, Steve and I had our usual debriefing about the night’s events.
“I think Lynne is trying to make friends with you,” he said.
“No. I don’t think so. They just didn’t want to sit alone. You know you’re always looking for someone you sort of know so you don’t end up with the new crazies you don’t know at all. Lesser of two evils,” I retorted.
“She came right over to you,” he replied. “Maybe she likes you.” What is this? Third grade? I started wondering if he thought she was trying to pass me a note. I played it off.
“Only because she doesn’t know me,” I said. “There’s a reason I don’t make friends easily.”
“Yes. It’s because you don’t know when people are reaching out.”
It’s true. I’m obtuse. I have never been successful at discerning when people are being nice because they feel they have to be nice or when they are being nice because they truly want to. I’m simultaneously suspicious, pragmatic, and cautiously optimistic. I tend to assume the worst, expect the mediocre, but subconsciously hope for the best. I’m complicated. It’s no wonder I don’t make friends easily.
Over the past few months, Lynne made a concerted effort to set up a couple of opportunities for our boys to get together. Her initial efforts made it much easier for me to insinuate myself into her life like a fungus. And it turns out we have a lot in common, like introversion, yoga, a penchant for expletives, a taste for fine vodka and any kind of wine, a troubling addiction to internet memes, and a gift for dry sarcasm. In other words, we’re awesome, something she was intuitive enough to ascertain before I did.
In so many ways, I remain the dorky kid who walked to my first day at a new school in third grade in handmade clothes feeling like an anomaly in a sea of popular and normal. The friends I’ve made over the past few years have all reached out to me first, which is a good thing because otherwise I’d still be standing stiffly in the corner, gazing at my feet, wondering why no one likes me. Every day I cherish these friends who made the effort and who have been able to recognize that my crazy is simpatico with their crazy. These weirdos are my tribe.
I am my harshest critic. This I know. I am more cruel to myself than anyone I’ve ever known. No flaw escapes my notice. No misstep is not cataloged for future self-flagellation. I never turn a blind eye to my foibles. If there is minutiae to scrutinize, surely I’m already on it. My husband has threatened to remove all the mirrors in our house to keep me away from myself. I rarely worry about what others think of me because I know it can be no worse than what my mind already accepts. I assume that this incessant self-investigation and castigation comes from a lethal combination of being an overachieving first born, having a natural proclivity towards analysis, and growing up in a household where anything less than your best was, frankly, not good enough.
For years I’ve been working to relax my relentless self-criticism. Turns out I suck at it. Really. I’ve honestly made very little progress in this arena. I haven’t been able to remedy my pessimistic thoughts with therapy, self-help books, or yoga. I’ve tried reducing the negative input in my life. I’ve stared at affirmative statements pasted to my mirror until they’ve been burned into my retinas. They haven’t helped. This whole blog, this journey toward zen, was also meant to help move me toward peace. At times, it has helped. At other times it only made me further question myself, my skills, my sanity. Most days I’m unsure if I’m any further along on this trip than I was when I started seven or eight years ago. And in the midst of all this emotional work, the hormonal changes of midlife have not helped one iota. I feel like a ticking time bomb. The best I can say is that I’m aware of the problem, and acknowledging the problem is the first step toward a solution, right?
This morning I was standing in my bathroom when it hit me. I was looking in the mirror (which, so far, has not been confiscated by my husband), noticing the extra holiday pounds, and I heard myself say, “I’m a work in progress.” Holy crap. Where the hell did that come from? I almost turned around and looked behind me. I let that sentence roll through my brain a few more times. I’m a work in progress. Could it really be that simple? Is that all I need to let myself off the hook for everything? The more I thought about it, the sweeter it got. All this stressing over every detail, every imperfection, every gaffe…could it all be alleviated by considering things on a continuum? For so long I’ve looked for and compared myself to a desired end result. What if I stopped worrying about where I end up and work each day on where I am today? The thought was intoxicating.
Because I’m a realist, I know this new mantra will not solve all my self-abuse problems. They are deeply ingrained, and I haven’t had much luck ridding myself of them to date. But I am going to try to start thinking about myself differently while I work toward a better me. Maybe I am a bit heavier after a rough-ish year last year. So what? I don’t need to beat myself up over it. I’m a work in progress. I’m going to start thinking of myself on an evolutionary scale. Right now I might feel like something that just crawled out of a swamp on four legs, but sooner or later I’ll be upright. And that will be progress I’ve earned.