The Quiet Desperation of the Middle Ages
It’s hard to write or talk out loud these days. I’ve disappeared on friends, but talk to strangers just to know that I still can. I dread the question how are you? because I fear that a flood will pour out. At first, I thought maybe I’d simply had too much solitude. Re-entering the world after periods of quiet is like walking after roller skating. Gliding replaced by a toddler’s gait.
Then the election came, a demoralizing event that made me rally the get ‘er done troops in my head. I started volunteering again, hoping the humility of service would soothe me. And I committed to finishing the rewrites on a novel. I created challenges when I was already playing in the weeds. Sometimes I’m my own worst Tony Robbins.
My body decided that if common sense and rational thinking wouldn’t slow me down, it would jump into the fray. My knees revolted against weight lifting and running, only allowing me a limp that smelled like Tiger Balm. My eye condition came back with a vengeance, leaving me afraid to close my eyes at night. Every single one of my joints began to ache. I started to wail in my head about aging and Minnesota winters.
I walked the red carpet to a massive pity party.
But I live in Minnesota, so I automatically think: it’s not so bad, could be worse. Nothing like experiencing passive-aggressive depression.
I’ve arrived at a junction in my life where all roads look like they’ve been traveled before. Dried up goals tumble across deserted expanses. The discarded skins of youthful hopefulness lay curled near the skulls of dreams past. I’ve lived through a zillion depressions and unaccountable bursts of energy and pulled myself out of swamps and over precipices.
Persistence is often lauded as one of the qualities that lead to success. Except if that persistence is something akin to beating one’s head against a wall. Even if you eventually get through that wall, you’re going to end up pretty bloodied and exhausted.
On an earlier post, I’d written a pithy comment about being “grateful for the struggle”. An honest friend, in the midst of her own struggle, said Really? I think it sucks. I felt a little embarrassed. I know it sucks and I am exhausted by it. Expressing gratitude in the middle of despair is like living in a shitty little house and hoping that a new coat of paint will hide all the drywall patches and lack of structural integrity. But I’m afraid that if I let go of trite positivity, my house will fall down around me.
Insecurity and fear have been my bedfellows of late. One of my volunteer gigs is to help in an office that supports volunteers. My superhero persona is “File Girl” (because all women superheroes suddenly become girls, doncha know). File Girl spends hours filing paperwork with alacrity and remembering that in the decades of office careers, she used to be a contender. I feel the weight of aging and irrelevance and a desperate need to remember that I’m competent.
Physical changes trigger a fear unlike any other. I’ve had the fortune of good health most of my life. My body has been a true workhorse for me. I’m used to strength and endurance, all of which are fading by degree. I’m having trouble adjusting to the new reality, my workouts an uneven jumble of doing what doesn’t cause pain. I’m desperately trying a new regimen of supplements and stretching and kinesio taping to keep moving.
Last week I self-consciously sat next to a teenage boy in a classroom of body sprays and attitude. He’s an English learner who I’ve been assigned to tutor, but he turns his body away and ignores me. I glance about the room. Five kids are furtively texting. Two are sleeping. The rest are in a variety of sprawls across desks with attached chairs. Desks that try to corral and contain.
Being in a high school 32 years after I escaped my own is a bit of a trip. The more things change, the more they stay the same. It reminds me of how painful it is to figure out who you are, trying on and discarding personas and friends and ideas. Becoming middle-aged carries the same issues of discovery – the uncontrolled physical changes, trying to figure out where you fit in and irritated that you spend so much time on stuff that won’t even matter (gym class and Christmas card lists, in case you are wondering).
As a teenager, I spent a lot of time daydreaming and imagining possibilities. I’ve spent nearly five decades eliminating many of those possibilities and discovering that I will not, indeed, become an omniscient librarian with ninja skills and a penchant for rugged, but fleeting lovers. I’m a bit of a suburban lump right now, grateful for my little house, my stable family and a room full of books. What I’ve lost in passion, I’ve gained in binge-watching entire seasons of shows that are cancelled on a cliffhanger. I’m worried that is how my life will end.
The canons of epiphany suggest that I should go wild or eat, pray, love myself out of complacency. There’s not a lot of guidance for those of us who stay in place, cling to our families and believe that change can come in increments. The problem with incremental change is that it is so minor as to be unnoticeable. Nobody is going to be inducted into Oprah’s book club for adding more beans and greens to their diet or meditating five extra minutes in the morning. Nobody will be playing me in the movies. Unless I get axe murdered or come down with an incurable disease.
At the bottom of my despair, this thought creeps over me: This is how it ends. Laundry and dishes and filing. A bit fat and unaccomplished. People saying pithy things at the funeral. People I loathe shedding tears and making scenes. Prayers being said for my atheist soul. My possessions scavenged, my life in an urn.
And that makes me laugh a little bit. Because if that’s how it all ends (and inevitably it does), there’s a few things I can drop off my to-do list. Like being relevant or having something to prove. The elusive teenage cool of saying screw it, but with wrinkles, a credit history and a barely discernible will to live.