All too often, I wish for things that are easily within my reach. Things that could fall into my arms without effort or things that I wouldn’t be heartbroken if I never achieved them. My wish list is just too wimpy. This year, I’m going to add things that will seem like miracles if they happen, things that will knock me off my feet with joy, things that I dream about instead of doing. What’s on your list for 2015?
Archive for ‘Change’
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.
The scary thing and the wonderful thing is that I no longer have a simple answer for this question. After leaving a job I thought would always be my passion, my calling, my alter ego, my reason for getting up in the morning, I’m going to have to relearn what I want instead of coasting on what I do. I am newly hatched. I don’t have a resume. My deadlines are self-imposed. My old business cards have been recycled. I am open to being a stranger to myself for awhile, but if someone asks me at a party what I do, what will I say? That I’m a night owl and reluctant riser? That I’d rather read cookbooks than cook? That if I have a religion, it’s poetry? That I love the sound of wind chimes on a wild winter night, the bell that rings in It’s a Wonderful Life when a fairy gets its wings, a mournful country song on a solitary road trip, logs settling in a wood fire? That I dream of living in the country, but only if there’s a Starbucks nearby? That I’m easily distracted by bright shiny things and multiple conversations going on around me? That I can’t not write? That if I lost all my music, I’d be lost? There’s no job description for any of that, or at least not one that you can present at a networking event. It’s a rare and remarkable circumstance to be suddenly standing in your life without a predictable identity that can be summed up on a business card or used to reassure yourself when the world shit-kicks you into self-doubt. I’m terrified and grateful at the same time. I know in the months ahead there will be times when I will regret my decision, worry about money, wonder what my purpose is, worry about money and long for my old routine. But how many chances do we get to start over by choice, to find out who we are instead of what we do, to have the whole world open before us in the same way it did when we first left home? In his poem The Laughing Heart, Charleston Bukowski wrote, “be on the watch. the gods will offer you chances. know them. take them.” I hope that’s what I’m doing.
I’m going through a huge change in my career this month, and even though it’s a good change in every way, it’s triggered a mental inventory of all the things I’ve done wrong over the years and wishing I could go back and tweak my life. After wallowing in that for a few days, I had to admit that there are things I just couldn’t have known until now, or known only in a theoretical way:
1. There will always be a cool crowd that you’re not part of. I’ve felt on the outside a lot of my life, and it was a lonely place to be because I constantly compared myself to the shiny people and always came up lacking. But being on the outside was the exact right place for me to be given my personality and past. Being underestimated and invisible while I did my work was a blessing instead of a handicap.
2. You might not get the relationship you want — ever. Maybe you’ve been wounded too often and too deeply or maybe it’s just the luck of the draw, but it’s a fact of life that there are always going to be men and women who don’t meet their match. The thing I couldn’t accept when I was younger is that you can have a butter-luscious, full-fat life in spite of that if you just allow it. I wish I had realized that when I was battering my heart against elusive men who were all wrong for me. I don’t regret the difficult relationships in my past because love is never wasted, but obsessing about a Happy-Ever-After made me miss so much Right Now.
3. Your calling can break your heart. It’s a rare gift to be driven, to have a passion that sinks its teeth into you and won’t let go until you cry uncle. The magazine I started was my alter ego, my voice in the world, my lover until it became a millstone around my neck. Now that I’m in the process of leaving, I feel weightless but also bereft. I invested so much in being Nikki-Who-Started-Skirt (the way I am ALWAYS introduced–as if that’s the only thing that makes me worth knowing) that I lost of sight of the Nikki who didn’t need props to walk through the world. I started to wonder if that was all I was in the eyes of other people. Who am I without a title or a purpose? Where do I go from here? What will I answer when people ask what I do? Will people still like the me without a title or job? I wish I could have realized that this day would come and been more prepared for it, but you probably can’t prepare yourself for divorcing your calling while you’re still in love with it. The thing I couldn’t have known until now is that you can read all about how growth is the result of change, but being between the past me and the future me is like being stuck in the birth canal. I need to be both the baby and the forceps and launch myself into some brave new world.
What I think about more and more is how our lives are all about unfolding from one stage of growth into another, world without end. How apt is it that the tattoo I got on my wrist 10 years ago is based on the koru, a Maori symbol of unfolding and creation? I thought I would reach this age and be content with my life, that all the striving, angst and self-doubt would be over. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’m just failing in new and improved ways. I still have a passion to create something. I’m still searching for the meaning in life. I’m still in the process of becoming. I’m doing 70, and I hope it will be a hell of a ride.
[Painting by Matt Overend, which hangs in my house to remind me of the outer journey as my tattoo does of the inner journey]
I’ve never had a 5-year plan or a career path and I never really exercised any kind of forethought about my life. In some ways, I’ve just wandered or been led or aimed in the direction of a vague something that seemed to call to me. For instance, I always knew I wanted to go to college, and I eventually found a way that was completely preposterous when I was 29 and a single mother of three. The route that opened before me to do that was paradoxically the result of a divorce that left me convinced that I had no options out in the world. There are other, easier paths I could have chosen to follow, but instead I was pulled to that particular one. That’s what I’ve always loved about life — you can make all the plans and preparations you want, but destiny and chance and fate will carve paths out of wildernesses that turn out to be holy roads to a promised land if you’re willing to take a chance on your intuition. They might not be the obvious paths and they might seem at first glance to be dead ends, but I’ve always somehow deep down relied on and trusted that they would be there for me. That’s why this time in my life is so confusing. Despite growing older and being content with what I’ve achieved, I still feel a deep pull toward the untried, the unknown, the unexplored. At the same time, I put up all sorts of mental roadblocks to keep me from looking for new beginnings. I know I’m in the midst of a transition and that transitions often seem like unproductive periods of stasis. William Bridges, the author of Transitions, calls this the “Neutral Zone” and regards it as an important time for reorientation. So for now, I’m just trying to learn how to let go of the old roads that brought me here and to wait patiently for my new path to find me.
I was listening to an interview with Paul McCartney recently in which he talked about how his insecurity makes him fear that other musicians are constantly outdoing him. His candor about his self-doubt was illuminating, and it made me admit how often I do the same thing — convince myself that other people are more creative, more productive, more innovative than I am. Obsess about how my work never measures up. Convince myself I’m too old to compete. Pick apart everything I do. Hoard my generosity. I hate how that dries up the well we all draw from. So I decided that every now and then, instead of being jealous and jaded, I’ll make a list of people whose work I admire so much that it makes me green with envy and send out hopes for success for them. I don’t have to like them, but I do have to admit that I appreciate their talent. In the meditation I’ve been doing recently, the guide says that my personal practice not only benefits me, but also the people around me who will enjoy any change of mind, heart, or spirit that I experience. When I’m bitter, it rubs off on my friends and my family and my co-workers, and from a purely self-interested standpoint, it shuts off the universal faucet from which all ideas flow. Turn on the tap!
When I was in the mountains last week for my birthday, I spent a lot of time thinking about the direction I want to set off in during the coming year. I don’t want to do 70 on cruise control, but there’s no map to use for this part of my life so there’s a danger of just rolling through the days ahead in an interstate stupor. Going in circles, doubling back, never getting off the main roads. I don’t feel 70, but it’s an intense psychological milestone nonetheless. I hate to think of aging as a process of reluctantly letting go of things, of mourning things I can no longer do, of clinging to a past version of me. That just seems to lead to limiting risk, playing it safe. “Wear sensible shoes! Hold onto the railing! Don’t forget your fiber supplement!’ Unfortunately that’s usually the only story told about this time of life — one of becoming increasingly irrelevant and invisible and in constant danger of chronic constipation. One day you’re hot stuff in cowboy boots, the next you’re a crone with bunions. It’s such a pervasive theme that I start to believe it myself. I forget that I started a whole new life at 50, that this year I had a sexy little fling with a man who’s 10 years younger than I am, that I still have a restless spirit that needs some speed and an open road. All my life, though, I’ve had goals to reach for — a college degree, a good job, a bigger job, a business to build — and now I don’t have anything specific to replace them. Although I love writing for Skirt!, it’s no longer the only measure of my success or the source of my identity. I don’t regret a marriage that was 10 years of bad roads or the struggle to raise a family alone or scrabbling to earn a living, or even chasing men I shouldn’t have caught. I certainly don’t regret creating a magazine that became my alter ego. But while I was driving myself to get “ahead”, I didn’t have time to pull off at a rest stop to ask myself if there was another path I might explore; I was too busy holding my life in the road. Recently, though, that 17-year-old Kentucky girl who was along for the ride, the one who was too often a passenger in her own life has been causing some turmoil. She’s demanding a second chance to do something new and wild and wholly unrelated to my old shoulds or oughts. I’m not sure how I’m going to do 70, but I wish it could be a dizzy zip-line of a ride full of unexpected epiphanies in the oddest places, serendipitous meetings with oracles and shamans, special guest appearances, and surprise packages filled with fortune cookies and clues to the meaning of life. Buckle up, I’m on my way — doing 70 and watching for roadside attractions, secret passages and damn good diners to report back on to those of you who haven’t started this journey yet.
I’m heading a little bit out of my comfort zone this weekend and feeling a little bit dazed at myself. I’m going out of town with a new friend to spend a couple of days with friends of hers who are complete strangers to me. For someone as shy as I am that’s quite a feat. I might as well casually remark that I’m going to fire walk on my lunch hour or take a shot at Mt Everest with no training. Someone reminded me recently that my word for 2012 is OPEN, and I realize that without meaning to I’ve opened myself to a lot of new experiences lately: saying “yes” to invitations from strangers to meet for coffee; taking an oil painting class; agreeing to lead a workshop; going out to dinner with a man I met in a bar. Once I picked the word OPEN, I forgot all about it. But my subconscious didn’t, and it keeps finding ways for me to walk through doorways before I can find reasons not to. And then I’m completely astonished that I’ve agreed to something out of character and outside the circumscribed little world I’ve created for myself. Open sesame — come find the treasure.
I’ve had this vintage leather suitcase for so long I don’t even remember where, when or why I bought it. I’ve moved it from place to place and at one time used it to store old letters. It’s been sitting empty, taking up space in a closet for several years, and in a tornadic frenzy of crying and throwing things away a couple of weeks ago, I put this on the street for the trash truck or a trash picker to take. In the same haul, I cleaned out my freezer and threw away everything in it. Outdated salmon patties, frost-bitten fruit, over-the-hill veggie burgers and on and on. Stuff no longer edible but that I kept shoving around in order to find an ice tray. Next, I went through my clothes and got rid of everything I no longer wore but crammed in the back of the closet. A wool kilt that hadn’t fit me for 30 years, t00-big jeans–just in case, an expensive, boxy leather jacket that made me feel nunnish. It didn’t escape me that I was simply making an outward statement of what was going on internally. I’ve stuffed old sadnesses and wounds to the back of my psyche year after year, rummaging through them periodically but unable to completely let go. Right now, my freezer is still empty, and more useless possessions have since followed the suitcase to the curb. I’m clearing a space, but I don’t know why or what will come along to fill it. Maybe nothing, maybe a small, tender mercy, maybe something I’ve waited for all my life– I’m not chasing it, just waiting to see what happens.