I’ve always heard that as you age certain negative character traits simply get more intense. In other words, our personalities ossify and become more rigid. I’ve found that to be disturbingly true in my case. I grew up with a very pessimistic mother who in turn grew up dirt poor in the Depression, had an unhappy marriage and didn’t trust other people much. My early lessons were mostly warnings about lowering my expectations:
“It never rains but it pours.”
“The rich get rich and the poor get screwed.”
“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
As a consequence, I’ve had to struggle as an adult against a tendency to catastrophize small problems, focus on the cloud rather than the silver lining and fear happiness or success as it might draw the attention of the gods. Because the gods will cut you down to size. As I get older, I find myself forming knee-jerk reactions about the world and the people in it. I find fault with where I live too often (the proliferation of new McMansions with fortress walls around them in my modest neighborhood). I make snap judgments about situations (I’ll hate that party so why go?). And worst of all, I’m often obnoxiously judgmental about other people who probably have their own invisible-to-me struggles. Bitter Bitch meet Nikki.
I do think it’s possible to remain open and curious about the world as you age, and I want that for myself. When I started walking every day, it was something I dreaded. After a few weeks of forcing myself to put on shoes and get off my ass, it became second nature–a huge “step” for someone who loathes exercise. That makes me believe that I can change my attitude about other things as well. I’ve been reading Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion by Sam Harris, and it’s been a major factor in making me uncomfortably aware of how inflexible parts of my personality have become. Harris believes that how we pay attention to the present moment determines how we live our lives and that meditation is key to being able to live in the here and now, mindfully and attentively and kindly. I’ve tried and failed at a regular practice so many times, but starting out again with 10 minutes a day is realigning my reality in the same way that walking every day has changed my relationship with my body. Bitter Bitch meet your match.
September marks the first time in 20 years that I haven’t written the cover copy for the magazine I started in 1994. Although I left the publication at the end of 2013, I continued to write the covers. I’d felt for a long time, though, that it was becoming more difficult to gear up for that deadline every month. At first I thought I was just burned out and needed a pause, but I started to realize that it was also because I’d lost the voice of that magazine that once was second nature to me. Second nature because I developed it and it was in some ways an alter ego for me. But I’m not the same person I was 20 years ago. Somewhere along the way, I started changing, but the only inkling I had for a long time was a nagging discomfort, like wearing a pair of shoes that are too small but so beautiful you can’t bear to give them up. For a non-adventurer like me, a rut is more comfortable than a disruption, but some messages become too insistent to ignore. One day, I just literally ran out of words. Once that happened, I couldn’t stand the thought of writing something false, something that didn’t ring true to me no matter how it might read to others. When that happened, it wasn’t difficult to give up writing for Skirt. The hardest thing is to wait and hope that I’ll find a new authentic voice, one that fits who I am today. In the meantime, it’s a relief to take off those beautiful shoes and go barefoot for awhile.
This evening, after a trip to the grocery, I pulled into my driveway with a dozen things on my mind, all as quotidian and earth-bound as the ham and cheese sandwich I was going to have for dinner. Getting out of the car, I glanced up and saw a distant speck of gleaming silver making its solitary way silently across the the pale blue sky. Time paused, I didn’t imagine it. I was stopped in my tracks half in, half out of the car. There was no breeze, no neighborhood noise. Nothing stirred. I watched the plane as long as it took to it head steadily toward the pile of summer clouds ahead and pass from view behind them. Could our lives be that simple and yet magnificent, I wondered? Maybe we don’t have to trail a banner behind us promoting our many achievements or do barrel rolls to draw attention to how amazing we are. Maybe we can simply hope that by charting our course and and setting out bravely into the unknown, we might bring a moment of beauty to someone watching us pass. All of us, flying with our own wings, gleaming for a moment in praise of our being-ness. Even in the midst of ham and cheese sandwiches.
I’m a sucker for pieces on the internet that seem to offer a brisk how-to guide to happiness, enlightenment and better makeup techniques.
“7 Steps to Becoming More Authentic”
“5 Fast Fixes for Flabby Arms!”
“9 Facts About Kale That Will Blow Your Mind!”
“10 Sure-Fire Tricks to Looking Younger!”
“3 Miracle Creams You Can’t Live Without!”
I often imagine the conversations between the people hired to write these lists:
Jane: Did you know there are 7 Infallible Ways to Break Facebook Addiction?
Sue: No, but my sister gave me 3 Steps to Taking Better Selfies and they really work.
Jane: Wow, that’s awesome. By the way, did you realize that sandwich you’re eating has 8 Deadly Ingredients the FDA Never Told Us About?
I am blown away but not by kale. I’m blown away that anyone anywhere has so many answers to life’s mysteries. The older I get, the more I realize that I don’t know anything for sure. I am beset daily by confusion, ambiguity and lingering grief that I’ll never learn to apply eye shadow in this lifetime. I could never declare as Oprah does every month, “What I Know for Sure!” Or send an essay off to a public radio contest themed “This I Believe.” Everything changes and life doesn’t wait for you to learn the new rules. Things fall apart and then they get cobbled back together in a totally different way. People rarely behave rationally. I grew up in a kind of emotional chaos, so part of me is always longing for certainty, rules that will guarantee I don’t fall off the edge of the world. But I’m trying to make peace with the fact that I know nothing for sure, that my beliefs are subject to change, and that advice usually falls on deaf ears, including mine. But I still harbor a secret hope that one day I’ll conquer eye shadow.
“Dare to be naive.”
Are you willing to appear a little bit foolish, a little bit wide-eyed about the world, instead of ironic, sophisticated and cynical? I’m trying to remember that I never learn anything from irony or by maintaining a cool stand-offish attitude. It’s only when I let myself be as enthusiastic as a clumsy puppy or to unfold like a blossom to whatever weather life brings that I grow. The older I get, the harder it is to recapture the childhood feeling of newness or possibility or hope; it’s even difficult for me to remember being that vulnerable. Because that’s what happens when you’re naive — you become vulnerable and wide open again. But I believe you also learn to notice things that you usually ignore because you’re too busy, too constricted, too engrossed by to-dos. This month, I’m taking an online sketching class called “Seeing,” and I hope it will help me exchange my narrow tunnel vision for a broader panoramic view. What do you do to stay naive?
A lazy Sunday afternoon, drinking beer and ordering platter after platter of oysters Rockefeller, raw oysters and char-grilled oysters. We sit at the bar watching people come and go, drifting in and out of one conversation to the next. Talk and time meander, and the sunlight slants through the high windows so slowly and softly that it seems to have traveled here from a long distance. Maybe from a place long ago where Sinatra is always playing in the background, there’s a pay phone in the corner and no one has your number.
Next week, old friends will come to SC for their annual visit with me. Diane, her husband Bill and I have been laughing, drinking wine and cooking together since the ’70s. My hair is no longer red, but Diane’s is still wild and unruly. When I first knew them, I was a person who danced in fountains and they hadn’t yet started their family. Much has changed but now our friendship. When I stay with them in DC, it’s been winter or fall lately. There’s a fire going, neighborhood friends for dinner, a museum maybe, buying fresh pasta at the Eastern Market, taking a brutally cold walk in the city, wine at 5. When they come to SC, it’s mostly summer or fall, and we adjust for the season. Diane and I going to Starbucks to write together, golf for Bill, planning the next meal, sitting on the beach all afternoon, exchanging book lists, doing the NYT crossword puzzle and solving weighty existential problems. Our agenda might contain important items like:
-What is my purpose in life?
-Should I go gray?
-What’s for dinner?
Next week, Diane, Bill and I will go down to the ocean again, same beach each time, and heal in the sun. We’ll wonder what it means to be our age. We’ll suffer over family tragedies and celebrate small victories. We’ll once again partake of that holy communion of wine, feasting and friendship. Lovers long gone, faithful companions, friends in common, family lore, flaws forgiven, vacations shared, snapshots from the past and breaking bread will be the unwritten, taken-for-granted record of our lives together over the years. And then we’ll pack up our chairs and head home in the waning light. Wine at 5. Illuminated moments of ordinary extraordinariness.
Let me say the unsayable…we’re all going to die. I know I’m not supposed to think that, much less say it out loud, and I spend a lot of time denying it to myself. At other times, I indulge in magical thinking. If only, I think, I’d Botoxed early, exercised more, eaten local, played brain games, meditated, run a marathon, not have stood in a field watching crop dusters fly over spreading their poison, made fewer late night Baskin and Robbins runs, lifted more weights, been more hip, gone spinning every week, eschewed Day-glo orange Cheetos, believed in Jesus, learned to do a head stand, not used aluminum pans, loved more appropriately, been less selfish, restricted my calories — if only I’d tried harder, maybe I would live forever. But as Wallace Stevens wrote in Sunday Morning (the last four lines of which seem sublime to me), “Death is the mother of beauty” and he didn’t mean enlarged lips or lipo-ed hips. My own mortality makes me recite to myself the ordinary, right-here/right-now personal list of beauty in my life: the fitted sheets folded perfectly in my closet, the Oh-My-God gardenias in my yard, sleeping late on a weekday, reading The Four Quartets once a year, drinking gin and tonics on summer Sunday afternoons, waking in the night to thunder and lightning, cornbread baked in a cast-iron skillet, just-squeezed orange juice, neon signs, prayer flags, sunshine slanting across a wood floor, a magical free-of-charge full moon every single month. All the things of the earth. And when my time comes, I wish my body could be placed outdoors on a raised platform like a Great Plains Indian, offered up to the clouds, the birds, the winter snow, the autumn gold, the spring sun, the seasonal stanzas. A body turned into a poem. Selah.
Last night I lay awake berating myself until deep into the night. I’d been on Facebook late and started noticing all the tributes and photos to mothers that were blooming and multiplying. My own brother put up a picture of our mother and garnered many nice comments from people who had known her. So what is wrong with me, I wondered. Why did I have such a complicated relationship with her and why am I left with memories that don’t comfort me but instead make me feel alternately guilty and lonely? Everyone loved my mother, especially her nieces and nephews, grandchildren and the kids she taught throughout the years. As they should have. She was an incredible woman –strong, smart and in many ways stifled by the limits of her own life. She achieved so much, she survived so much and she bailed me out more often than she should have. So why do I mainly remember a sad cold home? I couldn’t think my way through my funk because all those pictures of loving mothers and daughters on FB scrolled through the back of my mind in a slide show of reproach, leaving me on the end of the familial spectrum called “an ungrateful child is sharper than a serpent’s tooth.” No big epiphany here or resolution or closure (if that even exists), but when I read this article in the NYT this morning about the angst social media can cause, I realized that sometimes FB is not always the right place for me to be. Too often, it leads me to make too many comparisons between my life and others with no room for the shades of gray I need to explore and accept. Maybe once I do that, my good memories will grow and start to look more like this:
I’m convinced that we all need an avocation — a pursuit that has little or nothing to do with how we earn a living. Even when I was at my most broke and working jobs I hated, I had a passion or two simmering in the back of my brain. Writing bad poetry, keeping a weepy journal that had occasional flashes of insight, developing obsessions about the French Revolution or F. Scott Fitzgerald. Right now my avocation is learning to paint. The thing I love about it and also fight against is that it has no purpose whatsoever. As someone so focused on outcomes in my publishing job, doing an about-face and immersing myself in process without a goal in sight is a mental struggle. But I’m learning to play the long game. Several years ago, I planted a couple of iris bulbs in a terra cotta pot and eagerly awaited some blooming. Every year, stalks would shoot up with nary a blossom. Year after year after year. Eventually I gave up and forgot about it. This spring I went outside to find four iris blooms on one of the plants. Evidently while I was fretting, some invisible underground work was going on. That’s why I’m trying to overcome the need to force some measurable results from painting. What’s the point of it? I have no idea, but I’m trying to be patient and see what blooms. It might be something entirely unrelated to painting, a ricochet effect that causes some other part of my life to burst into flower. Or it might be just the pleasure that comes from the smell of oil paints drying in my kitchen, the luxury of fat tubes filled with silky, intense color, the ripeness of that moment when you cut open an avocado and place its lush beauty on the palette of an empty white plate. Something, nothing, everything.