Empty Noise is the Gravedigger

607px-Rain_Landscape_MET_DT4465I’ve been living a summer in quiet desperation. Fall is creeping in around the mornings. I smell it in the air and see the frantic scurry of squirrels hiding their winter stores of food. Usually, it brings with it a sweet melancholy that makes me more creative and introspective. This year seems different.

I turn 50 shortly and it’s clouded my mind in all the expected ways. Ways that seem like stages of grief. I’m in the bargaining/rationalization phase. Initially, I mourned that there was less ahead of me than behind me. Then I tut-tut-tutted myself. At least I’m alive. It seems a banal reassurance, because if I weren’t alive, I’d hardly be agonizing over the fact.

This could be the beginning of a long diatribe about the visceral signs of aging now creeping up on me. It’s all been said before – gravitational pull on body parts, the decrepitude of the mind, the regrets of a life half-lived. But I stop myself mid-wail. That is not my story, because that could be anybody’s story.

My story, my peculiar little piece of navel-gazing, is my disappointment that nothing has changed. No grand epiphany about grabbing life by its nether regions and hauling off to Nepal. No reawakened sexuality turning me into a feral alley cat. No heartwarming reunions with high school chums or estranged relatives. No grand realization that turns my nonexistent career into a lecture tour, Times book review, or even a paycheck. It’s still just me.

That’s a little disappointing.

Improvisation_31_(Sea_Battle)Everyone has a life narrative that they tell themselves. Mine was always that I was a late bloomer. It was an easy pattern to see – everything always happened with my friends first – college, marriages, babies, careers. I started college late after a stint in the Army,  married in my early 30s and had a child when I was 37. And I never had a career, just jobs. I could joke about how my whole narrative was one long procrastination.

At 50, the late-bloomer story is starting to wear a little thin. And I have to ask myself, if 50 years of action (and inaction) didn’t lead me to where I want to be, is it time to change the destination? And shouldn’t the journey be a little more enjoyable?

It’s funny when you’re younger. You assume by 50 that things will have been settled, that where you end up is where you intended to be or at the very least, where you’re okay being. But just as society has begun to write me off, I’ve started feeling my oats.

Hatred and empty noise! Old, faithful companions of the strong, the essential.

Hatred is the murderer.

Empty noise is the gravedigger.

But there is always resurrection.

Vasily Kandinsky, On Understanding Art, 1912

Over the last few months, wallowing in a micro/macro depression (woe is me and doesn’t the world just suck?), I’ve realized what a coward I’ve been. It’s a harsh, but necessary realization. I’ve been so distracted by the empty noise. And I’ve wanted to be distracted, because if I weren’t paying full attention, I wouldn’t have to take full responsibility.

450px-Vassily_Kandinsky,_1923_-_On_White_IIIf I were to describe the perfect me of my intentions, it would be a physically fit polymath with strong, loving relationships, charitable works, and a steely sense of integrity. If I were to describe the real me, the one I live with everyday, the picture is quite a bit lopsided, inconsistent, and always, irritatingly, a struggle. That damned human element.

One would imagine I have grandiose plans moving forward. My opening gambit on turning 50 is a real gob smacker. I’m going to stop taking vitamins.

Now hear me out. People say that taking vitamins is like insurance for nutritional deficiencies in our diet. The science doesn’t support that, yet even knowing those facts, I have still been taking a multivitamin and flax oil supplement for years. Does taking those pills make me less diligent about eating a nutritionally dense, well-balanced diet? I would say yes. The backup plan has become the plan.

500px-Wassily_Kandinsky,_1903,_The_Blue_Rider_(Der_Blaue_Reiter),_oil_on_canvas,_52.1_x_54.6_cm,_Stiftung_Sammlung_E.G._Bührle,_ZurichI’ve been thinking a lot about this idea – all the insurances we put in place. I’ve been so set on being safe, carrying all the right insurances, having backup plans to the backup plans, that I’ve filled my life with safeguards for a life I really am not living. Because while I fearlessly fail on a daily basis, I’ve not allowed myself to fail spectacularly. I’ve not put anything on the table worth losing.

So today, I take no vitamins. Tomorrow I submit a short story to a lit mag. Or at least I eat some leafy greens.


Lately, I’ve been reading Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art. Vasily Kandinsky began his professional career in law and economics. He chucked it all at 30 to begin painting studies. All art in this post is his – a testament to his openness and intellect in exploring art. I bet he didn’t take vitamins, either. 

30 thoughts on “Empty Noise is the Gravedigger

  1. …and if you don’t actually send the short story, promise me you’ll send them some leafy greens instead. That should keep you honest.

    I’m 70. And I’ve been realizing lately the ways I’ve been–okay, not a coward but the ways I’ve compromised when I should’ve been out there on the edge, where I belong and where my writing might have been stronger. As a person of the margins, though, I couldn’t imagine getting published if I was fully myself. What a waste of time. Let’s not either of us waste any more, because it’s limited.

    Thanks for writing this. I’ve been thinking the thoughts in that last paragraph for a while, but they didn’t fully come together until now.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I’ve done a lot of things that, at a cursory glance, are pretty bold, but I realized that I’ve avoided (and procrastinated) the things that are scary to me. Talking to my 90-year-old grandma today made me realize it might be a family thing. We stay sharp as tacks to the end, but carry the burden of anxiety and fear that stops us short of living more full lives.

      Still, the first step to any change is the realization that we want it. I feel encouraged to read your comment, Ellen. There really comes a point in time when the consequences of not doing something far outweigh the risk of failure. And I’d like to look back on my life and know that I gave it a good shot, rather than have regrets for not having tried. Courage, friend. Let’s storm the ramparts.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. What I’ve learned about myself, vis-a-vis aging, is that the older I get (which is a lot older than you) the more chances I’m willing to take — because the less I have to lose. Not crazy stuff like giving all my banking info to the Nigerian prince who emailed me promising millions, but saying “to hell with it, maybe my essay will be rejected, but I’m submitting it anyway” … or “I’m going to take the damn trip because one of these days it will be too late and I don’t want my final thoughts to be a check list of everything I never did.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re so right, Fransi. The voices in my head are yelling at me to do something and they are much louder these days than the ones that say I might fail. There’s no life in living fearfully. Time to get some things done, before I am unable to do them. A friend just wrote to me that she is headed to Uganda to see the mountain gorillas. She’s ten years older than I, but lives the motto “Do what you can do while you still can do it.” It sounds like a good plan.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. At 37 I have felt the same feelings and struggles. Like most others, life has not become what I wanted but what I would accept. I guess you can call it the backup plan. Comfort is the thief of life. I started in a new direction recently but many days are filled with a pessimistic feeling. I take comfort though in believing that whether I succeed or fail it won’t matter when I’m dead so maybe it’s not such a big deal.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your last line pretty much sums it up. And I don’t even know if this is about winning or success. I think it’s more about making sure I’m still engaged and challenging myself to be more than comfortable. There should be some freedom in getting older, some clarification of priorities, but we are all creatures of habit and that is where I think it goes wrong. We go along until it hits us that it’s later than we think. And the only way out is to make deliberate changes.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I think we are raised to seek safety and security, not to take too many chances, to insure ourselves against all eventualities. I believe it stems from our culture’s inability to face mortality, our denial of the predetermined end. We are so good at denial. In some ways that is a survival mechanism, but it is very counterproductive when it comes to determining how to live our lives. I don’t have answers, but more and more questions as I am approaching my own half century mark.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a tough balance to live with the knowledge of our inevitable ends, yet still have the protectionist survival instincts. I think I read somewhere that our fight or flight instincts have not yet evolved to suit modern society and therefore, need to be questioned on a regular basis. And really, the worst things that can happen to us are largely out of our control these days unless we go around wrapped in Kevlar bubble wrap and never leave our homes (and then a sinkhole or radon gets us). Which is all to say, we need to get better at assessing risk and reacting to it more wisely. Aging can either make us more fearful or more brave, but we have to make a deliberate choice.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Yes, your 50 is very soon as I recall. Make it splendid! Only once! Better than the ones to follow I should think. Or not, (partly) our choice!


    1. The Rubicon has been crossed. It was a quiet one – spent exactly how I wanted it. Reading, writing, baking bread, hanging out with my family, getting calls and texts from friends. No matter how down in the dumps I’ve been, it was a very meditative and rejuvenating day. Can’t really beat that.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Michelle I can relate to your questions and your thoughts on not taking chances. I felt like that nine years ago when I turned fifty and have struggled with it on and off since. Did I take the easier route? Yes! Yet the direction I went in was not dictated by me alone but by my partners wishes and the needs of other family members, some rather profound. I wonder if that applies to your choices also?

    Looking back I realize it wasn’t necessarily easier that way, either. I did stay more or less in my comfort zone, but quite frankly I’ve never been terribly ambitious about making money or seeking (what others termed) success anyways. I don’t know if that is an excuse or if that is just who I am…

    Now that I’m staring sixty in the face, I have regrets, but if I could see what the alternative choices would have produced I don’t know if I would wish I had done things differently. Still, I find myself wanting to make changes now and not having the courage or the self assurance to actually go out and make them.

    So I say go for it now, Michelle, because it doesn’t get easier to go for it later. As always, best wishes to you.


    1. It took me a while to turn my narrative around, but I’ve begun to think of everything else before as a test run. I’ve spent the last year trying new habits and figuring out what works for me and what doesn’t. We move in our own time. I find starting with one small habit is really working, like practicing a foreign language every day or making sure I do a set of exercises. And then you build on it.

      That’s where I’m at, astonished that I manage to create even one new small habit – it gives me more confidence. As long as you’re not caught up in the idea of an end game, you are probably in a perfect position to do one new thing, one new habit. I think you can really surprise yourself, Ilona and really, that’s the best thing about it all. Best way is to figure the most micro change you can make to support a larger change and start there. Like deciding to do 10 sit ups everyday for the next month or writing one paragraph a day. I suppose this is the advice I keep giving myself and so far, I’ve made more progress than if I’d started off with a grandiose plan and failed.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. So real. I recently hit 40. I was suprised at how quickly I got there and realizing that actually I still yearn to do and achieve many more things.

    Funny that you talk about gravitating body parts. A friend of mine was telling me the other day how her big toe had moved from its position and she stated at it every morning! It is amazing at how we worry so much, yet have no control over what happens to us as we age. All in all, what would be a good point to reminicse is the ability to enjoy your life every so often.


    1. I just think it’s funny how I used think 40 and 50 were so old. I think we’re still in the new stages, as a society, of longevity. If I’d be born fifty years earlier, I’d have likely been dead from childbirth (always looking on the bright side, I am). Then you hit 40, then 50 and you realize that this is likely the zenith time to make things happen, if you’re lucky enough to have relatively good health and all your marbles still knocking about. But of course, there are 60 and 70 and 80 and 90 year olds who feel exactly the same way. As I explained to my teenage daughter, no matter what age you are, you’re still the same person, carrying all the same hopes and dreams and flaws and failings. But we’re still six feet above ground, so might as well get on with things and enjoy them a bit.


  8. At the age of 70 I often ponder my befores and afters…only to realize that it is the todays that matter. Whether they are busy todays or do nothing todays – it is still MY today to relish in since there are so many people (friends included) who no longer have a today. And there is always time to change your todays!


    1. I’m just thinking about all the unintentional living I’ve done – just reacting to whatever comes my way and not making deliberate choices about how I spend my time. There is time at the moment, you’re right, but those moments are so fleeting. It’s a difficult balance, relishing the moment while realizing that most goals are reached only by using those moments wisely.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s so funny how for the first half of one’s life, you feel like you’re running to catch up and the second half you just need to slow down and disconnect from expectations in order to figure out what really makes you happy.

      And that vitamin thing is aggravating. I’ve read study after study now debunking their efficacy in relatively healthy people (there are still benefits for people with chronic conditions). As one scientist put it – vitamins in most people just make for rather expensive urine. Gross, but true. I’m glad to let myself and my money off the hook for vitamins.


  9. “I’ve been so set on being safe, carrying all the right insurances, having backup plans to the backup plans, that I’ve filled my life with safeguards for a life I really am not living.”

    Sounds like a few discussions we’re having at home right now. I’m happy with where I am, but I also maybe playing it too safe.


    1. Your comment reminds me that recognizing being happy where you’re at, is probably more important than recognizing dissatisfaction. We are trained, especially in American culture, to constantly be in want of something, whether it be for things or self-improvement. It’s exhausting and unhealthy to always feel like one is in a state of deprivation, regardless of the reality. Sometimes things are just fine the way they are and all we have to do is have gratitude.


    1. Thanks. I think it’s less about finding new paths and more about widening the path I’m on – no throwing out the baby with the bath water or abandoning my family for parts unknown. Maybe just paying attention to where I limit myself and getting out of my own way.


  10. Oh, yes. Except I turned 58 a couple of weeks ago, so I’ve been doing this same, quietly despairing navel-gazing for much longer than you. I’d like to say it’s generated an epiphany that has caused me to throw off the shackles of daily life and stride boldly into my fresh, new tomorrow…but it hasn’t. I lack your vitamin-ditching resolve.

    The thing is, at least the thing the way that it occurs to me, is that to achieve that fully realized life of your youthful dream, you have to basically be selfish. Utterly absorbed with “me” and “what I NEED.”

    I watch House Hunters (HGTV porn) with the 50-somethings who sell all they own and move from Cleveland to Venice without a backward glance, and I am both eaten up with jealousy and yelling at the TV, “But what about your 20-something-year-old kids? You’re leaving them behind. And your aging parents? What about them? Are you going to let them slide into infirmity and death alone? And your little sister with brain cancer? And your older husband with his health problems – he won’t go. He won’t even visit someplace like that, let alone move there. Are you going to abandon them all???”

    I may be projecting just a bit onto those middle-aged house-hunters.


    1. I’d like to believe there is a happy medium between being self-actualized and completely crapping on the people in our lives. As a member of the sandwich generation, I am saved from being completely self-involved. However, it’s too easy to go the other way and make myself into a martyr nobody asked for. My dreams have parameters, but that’s what I signed up for – family, community, responsibility. Now, though, as my daughter is getting older and our aging parents are in care, I have some room to explore creatively.

      I can’t stand the Eat, Pray, Love narrative where people dump their families and marriages to meditate in the Himalayas or something. Most of us can’t do that and need to figure out how to grow in the context of our lives.


  11. Not taking your vitamins sounds like a reasonable first step. Love it!! Why do I find myself taking more vitamins. I don’t like reading the put downs of your life but I can relate to doing much of the same. I was a less a late bloomer and more of a screw up first and learn the hard way.
    Start small and rock 50!


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