Before I fell asleep, before I gave myself heartburn by falling asleep when I’d just eaten a bowl of pasta, before the snow started, I’d planned to write a blog post about what a beautiful possibly spring day it was. How it was cold, but a fresh, light-warmed kind of cold, with no bite to it. It was a springtime kind of cold.
And it may still very well be on its way to an early spring despite the groundhog’s pessimism and the icy white outside. If the truth of who we are is not our circumstances, perhaps the same is true of the seasons?
I am waiting for my period, which was supposed to show up on Thursday. If I believed that carnal thoughts about Jon Hamm could get you pregnant or if I weren’t in perimenopause, I’d be worried, so so worried. It’s interesting that as my body is moving from maiden to crone (I seem to have skipped whatever’s in-between) that I wait now not to have my period.
I wonder, is this the start of those 12 months with no period that will land me in full menopause? Or is my period simply on hiatus for a month or two, leading me down the garden path of thinking we have parted forever, only to come flooding back—and yes, from the stories I’ve heard “flooding” is no hyperbole—whenever it feels like it? The 40s can be such a steadying time; I have experienced an influx of wisdom, of calm, of peace about who I am that I never expected to get to. Yet my body is unstable, unsure if it’s ready for my fertility to sputter to a stop, or if it wants to hang out just a bit longer, waiting by the phone for a sperm to call, full of expectation and excitement and already disappointed that the delicious tenterhooks of waiting will end one way or the other. Am I in spring or am I in winter? (And really, I should say “fall” and not “winter” but oh how a poet will lie sometimes just to make the metaphor work.)
There is no heat or hot water in my apartment complex right now. I should be miserable, but the blessed sun is blazing into the great room windows right now so, while I can hear the wind thundering outside, and there’s a faint chill around my ankles (mostly because I’m rebelling against the compression knee highs today), I am warm and cozy.
And sleepy. Very very sleepy. I was up till three last night/this morning. I wrote and edited till around 10 and then watched the last episode of the new series of Black Mirror (beyond unsettling) and a couple of episodes of The Crown. I was awake enough at three to keep going but I figured three a.m. was rock star-ish enough for the waning days of year 47. I vaguely remember that I used to be able to survive on very little sleep but…
I don’t mind aging, I should say, even if my powers of recuperation are somewhat on the wane. I think the glory days are still ahead of me, not behind me. In the opening chapters of Proverbs, the Bible talks over and over again about how precious and valuable wisdom is, which seems like a lot of hyperbole until you hit your 40s and you realize how much trouble you could have saved yourself if you’d only been able to make an early withdrawal on the wisdom that lay ahead.
And while I am vain as anyone (no, you absolutely cannot own too many face masks or brightly colored shades of lipstick) and while seeing my own neck in the mirror has helped me understand finally why Colette always made the older women of the demimonde in her stories and novels put away their pearls once they’d reached a certain age, I am also enamored of women who just let their faces collapse around them. Who bear their wrinkles and stretch marks and age spots proudly. Those are the women who are most beautiful to me, the ones I would jump the fence for (which I’m sure nobody says anymore but I also like 80s music so…)
Over Christmas my Uncle Mel, who is approaching 74 if he’s not there already, told a story about going to the senior center near his house and finding the people there his age terribly old (though the $2.00 lunch was quite delicious). He’s the uncle who travels in a pack with my much younger cousins, visiting parties and cricket matches and wherever they find a welcome, which is everywhere, awash in good liquor and good stories and as my cousins would say, vibes. He said his doctor praised him for keeping younger company as a way to maintain a youthful spirit.
For much of my life, by the nature of when I was born comparative to the school year (I was a January baby, but was in the same grade when I started school with the kids who’d turned 6 in September), I’ve always been the youngest in my cohort. I was definitely the baby in The Divas, the poetry collective I wrote with for several years in Chicago, women who made me so much of who I am. They spoke and wrote about miscarriages and menopause and divorce and empty nests while I was still writing odes to Lenny Kravitz and asking cab drivers to take my drunken self to the McDonald’s drive-thru on the way home from carousing.
It is odd now to sometimes be the oldest one among my group of friends, to be the wise woman (relatively speaking) just because I’ve experienced or watched other people experience things for a good long while now. Is that how I’ll stay youngish—by telling other people what to do?
Still, it’s nice to visit my aunts and cousins at Christmas, to still be everyone’s “first babies,” even as I’m telling their kids, “Well, when I first knew your mother….” And I love that I’ve once again found a circle of older women who shelter me under their all-knowing wings as the Divas once did.
When we meet, I call it a gathering of crones. Some dictionaries say crone means “ugly, old woman,” and I like the idea of that. I don’t hear “ugly” as a lack of physical beauty, but rather the embrace of the fact that we are so much more than our physical beauty, that as we age, if we’re very very lucky, our physical looks are the last thing people notice about us, as they’re drawn instead to our wisdom, our strength, our persistence. It’s the letting go of vanity, the giving of fewer and fewer fucks, so that even a day with no heat and hot water is joyous because your pink bathrobe is soft and your blankets are warm and later one of your younger friends is coming over for apple crisp and coffee and poetry.
Whenever I become unsatisfied with my life, the first thing I think is, “Oh, I need to lose weight.” Though intellectually I know that losing weight changes very little on the inside (I was still grappling with abandonment and trust and al my usual issues even when I dieted to my thinnest), starting Weight Watchers breeds great optimism in me. My motto becomes, “If this hard thing is possible, then surely all the other hard things are possible. I’m realizing that I’ve allowed losing weight to become shorthand for—or a shortcut to—fixing whatever ails my life. The problem with this is, of course, that I don’t really stop to ask myself the hard questions that I need to ask in order to move in a different direction. I’m so full of optimism that life just feels better. Optimism trumps dissatisfaction every single time.
Not to mention that I become so consumed in the action of doing one thing—losing weight—that I don’t spend much time thinking about other things: my job, my writing career, my love life. Sure, there may be progress in those areas, but it’s not from any active striving on my part. I just let myself keep drifting along, albeit with the gift I’ve mentioned before of being able to spot an opportunity when it drifts by me. Weight loss becomes not a means to an end; it becomes instead a giant distraction. In the same way that being consumed with managing the size and shape of my body shrunk who I was down to only my body, I also allowed my life-related troubleshooting to shrink down to one tool: weight loss.
I am feeling lost right now, as I find myself in middle-age returning to the same crossroads again and again—should I change jobs? do I want a partner or am I an out and proud spinster? how do I grow the audience for my writing?—because I’ve taken away from myself the one tool that I’d so carefully honed over the last few decades. I quit Weight Watchers forever. I threw the scale down the garbage chute. I have the number of a nutritionist, but I refuse to call her. Weight loss is not a bad thing for someone who’s clinically obese, as I am. But it’s dawning on me—slowly and painfully—that this time around, if I want to lose weight, I will actually have to do the much harder work first. I’ll have to think my way deeply into the questions I usually use a weight loss program to avoid. I’ll have to feel the feelings that make me want to avoid those questions in the first place: shame, guilt, disappointment, anger. I’ll have to wrestle with impostor syndrome. And define success for myself in a way that has nothing to do with the size of my pants.
I would like to end this with some really upbeat message about how I’m feeling empowered blah blah blah. The real ending, however, is this: I’m going to go throw on some clothes and head to the theater to see Wonder Woman and eat popcorn with butter and drink a Coke. And not think about this anymore today. But tomorrow? Well, that could be the start of something, couldn’t it?
I have just finished reading Ruth Reichl’s Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise. In it she writes about the many characters she took on—wig and dress and makeup and voice included—in order to eat at the restaurants she needed to review for the New York Times without the establishments figuring out who she really was. It’s a fascinating study in how you get treated one way if people know you wield power and another way when you look like you do anything but. (This isn’t news now nor was it news when Reichl wrote the book in 2005, but it’s still interesting to see how it plays out in the life of someone who is quite different from me.)
What really struck me was how Reichl felt as she slipped in and out of her different personas, how they brought out the best in her and the worst in her. How she so clearly understood what made a woman invisible (which made a great disguise but an emotionally wearing experience), and how one disguise as a red finger-tipped, long-haired blonde named Chloe taught her—as she put it—“that I did know how to take advantage of a man after all. When had I learned this? And what was I going to do about it?”
In the end, Reich wearies of rarely eating dinner with her son—who’s still in single digits—and of dipping in and out of personas. So she finds a new job, and there is—at least for a decade or so—a happy ending.
As I think of how different hair and clothes made Reichl feel, I’m thinking about how my hair has changed radically over the last few years and how I visit store after store and website after website hunting for “my look.” It’s starting to dawn on me that I’m a little lost. I say a “little lost” but it’s also possible that I’m completely off track. It’s easy to change the little things (especially if you start going to a barber so it no longer costs a fortune to change you hairstyle, and you also make piece with a certain credit card bill by praising yourself for paying off a number of other credit card bills), but there are larger questions to be asked, larger changes to be made. I just don’t know what they are.
I hate it when someone describes me as impulsive, yet, if I’m honest, there’s something that’s comforting about impulsivity. Join a gym! Join Weight Watchers! Join this Meet-Up group (that you never go to!) Go blonde again! Embrace your latent goth/punk side! Get a new tattoo! Join an online dating site! Vow to get up 1/2 hour early every day to go exercise!
And while those things—well, most of them—are beneficial, they’re kind of like putting Spanx on my life. They smooth out the bumps for a while, but only for a while. There are deep changes to be made. I don’t know what they are, but I do know they require deep thinking. Which I’m terrified of. It’s one thing to think deeply about the things that happened in my past, which offer fine fodder for poems, and also have the benefit that I don’t really have to DO much because it’s all in the past.
But to think deeply about the present, to admit how damned comfortable I am, and how it’s preferable to complain lunch after lunch, and journal entry after journal entry about my job than to actually face the fact that I’m bored but don’t know what to do next because next has always magically arrived and I’ve not really ever had to set any goals…
I was talking to someone the other day about how I have never really wanted to be a writer, which may seem odd because I am a writer. But that’s the thing, I am a writer. Just like I’m Afro-Caribbean and a cis-gendered woman and the oldest of four and brown-eyed. Being a writer has always just been something I was born with, a pre-existing condition.
This is possibly the part of the conversation where you say, “Well, what is your passion?” And I don’t know if I have one of those, nothing long-term anyway. I’m not short of enthusiasms, but they wax and wane, and the thread that runs through them eludes me. I think it’s there, waiting on the tip of my tongue for me to articulate it, but for now I’m tongue-tied and lost.
I’ve been quite content to just drift along in life. And I have to be honest, it’s worked. I’ve been able to earn my way out of poverty*; I’ve published two chapbooks and numerous poems in magazine; I’ve interviewed countless people I never expected to call on a telephone or sit across from like Liesl Tommy, George Lucas, Josh Groban, John Barrowman; I’ve been to Paris and several times to London, and I’ve lived in Italy. I’ve manage to get promoted up four grade levels in the same department, and—since I’m not being modest—I—with help, of course—founded the social media program for a federal agency. Which is all great, but none of this was a goal. I’ve been smart enough to recognize opportunity—which I realize can be its own gift—but as I look out into the great unknown (my agency possibly closing down, life at 50, etc etc etc), I don’t want to drift anymore. I want to have something to work toward. I want to know who I really am, what I’m really made of. At least I think I do. Cause, let’s face it, drifting is not just easier, it’s more comfortable, and most likely I won’t have to give up a thing. But goals are better, right?
To be continued…
*I mean my own personal poverty, since fully taking on full financial responsibility for myself once I graduated college.
I have to let go of what I once saw and open my eyes wide to what’s right in front of me now. Or something like that.
I wrote earlier in this project about letting go, that it wasn’t about giving up, but rather it’s about allowing for other possibilities. Many days I feel okay about the possibility that I will never get married or have a partner or even be a woman who goes on dates more than once every other year or so. Still, every time I know I’m going to be in a situation where I know I’ll meet new people, some of whom may be unattached, hetero men, I hear my 16-year-old self enthuse, “Maybe this will the time I meet the one.” Or if I get introduced to a man—a new work colleague, a friend of a friend or just someone I randomly talk to at an event or on the Metro, I find myself wondering if this is the moment that everything changes.
It, of course, never is. And I find myself wondering if that moment of unbridled hope and optimism that I think is quietly happening inside my head is actually being projected out of my eyes like a neon sign while I forcefully emit a football field-sized pheromonal cloud that, if it were to be bottled and sold, would be called Eau du Desperation. Is there something in my voice when I say hello that sounds too eager or too lonely or too something that is the thing that men interpret as Cupid waving his arms around and screaming, “Danger Will Robinson, danger Will Robinson.”*
Or am I instead broadcasting loud and clear—Look buddy, I’ve got my life handled so just take your possible admiration and move it along. I’ve been told that men are reluctant to approach strong women, but at this point in my life, I don’t know how to be any other way. I’m fairly up front about what I don’t know how to take care of myself, but if reaching the top shelf in my kitchen, telling car models apart, or vacuuming don’t come up, I’m kind of sunk in the showing I’m helpless department. But seriously folks, I’m perfectly happy to let someone else take care of me, but you’ve got to show me first that you can before I hand over the reins. And somehow I haven’t learned the trick for figuring that out in the time it takes to have a meet cute (that will turn into a great toast during the wedding.”
Whether you think I come off as too strong or too desperate, I think the real sinker comes when I explain that I’m 45 and I’ve never been married or even close. I mean I’m starting to think I should make up a divorce or being left at the altar or a string of broken hearts I’ve caused strung from sea to sea just so I can seem normal. Of course I know all the reasons I’ve been single this long, and they are all valid, not-that-crazy reasons. But again, there’s no sexy way to say, “I had narcissistic parents who fucked me up and I’ve just figured it all out so now I can have a healthy relationship” while also trying not to spill your martini (with a twist, preferably of orange instead of lemon, but definitely not an olive). This is the part of the letter, Marc, when I really wish you were actually writing me back. Sigh…
*For my younger readers, look it up.
To be continued…
I should add that one of my brilliant things is making lists. But that one’s fairly obvious, isn’t it? As is, perhaps, that my heart isn’t quite in this right now. But you have to push through. We’re all phoenixing through our lives more times than we want to admit.
I mentioned earlier that I’m newly 45. For the most part, I wear my age lightly, though I perhaps work too hard to work it into the conversation when I first meet someone. I’m grateful to look young, but I do want to be taken seriously for the decades of life experience I have. I know being a wunderkind is all the rage these days, but perhaps it’s the Gen Xer in me, but I still think experience and battle scars count for a lot. The reason my age is on my mind is because today, as I was hoisting myself off the blue couch after a particularly lovely afternoon nap, I felt my age. I actually felt the weight of every single day of the last 45 years (16, 425 days to be exact) pooling in my lap as I tried to stand. It’s not that anything particularly hurt—though I seem to have already developed arthritis in my back—I just felt old.
I did a performance this morning–a reprise of a #blacklivesmatter piece comprising four poems woven together with a song—for a university audience, to kick-off a teach-in with students and some faculty on race and social justice. There were three performance poets on the bill—young, dynamic, strong writers. And there was me, and an acclaimed playwright who I’d once studied with and who’s in her 60s, I’d guess. Like most page poets, I didn’t memorize my poems, and the cadence was much slower and not quite as ferocious as the younger performers. As I performed, I became keenly aware that, given the average age in the room, some of the students might not have recognized the song I was singing (Wade in the Water) or known any of the references in my poems. And while I’m sure they’d all studied poetry in their English classes, I wondered how many of them had been to a traditional poetry reading. And I realized that they just might not be moved by my work not because of the quality of my writing or because they don’t like poetry but simply because I’m decades older than them and they can’t relate.
I freely confess that I, like many middle-aged people, gripe about twenty-somethings all the time and how we couldn’t possibly have anything in common and they can’t possibly understand and blah blah blah. But it’s one thing for me to think they’re too young for me to bother with, quite another for them to think I’m a dinosaur. This is all conjecture, of course, and there could have been kids in that room that were deeply moved by my work or got something out of it. I think maybe what I’m really thinking about is that deep ego blow when you realize that despite the fact that you feel young, and you look young, you really aren’t. It’s not that I’m old, but, still I’m not young. And while I agree that youth is a state of mind, it’s not actually a state of mind that anyone else has to share with me (and about me) if they don’t want to.
Why does it feel more disheartening to be thought of as old (or “not young” than it is to be thought of as fat or not very intelligent?
To be continued…