My fantasy as a child was to have a house that was all mine, where I was safe and where all the other children and animals who needed homes would live as well (it was going to be a very, very big house). It would be a long time before I could claim that some part of my wishful thinking had become reality. It wasn’t until my early 30s that I lived in a house with a yard that I owned (with my much better half). Before that time, I lived in 7 rental properties, 9 barracks, an old school bus and a gas station undergoing a home conversion, with gas pumps as part of the landscaping.
During my elementary and middle school years, I lived in a converted office space above a main street tavern in a small town. I shared the irregular rooms with my 3 siblings and mother and stepfather. On any given night, we could look off the porch into the alley and see misdemeanors in the form of public urination. The best place to be was wherever home wasn’t – at the park, at a friend’s house and my personal hideout, in the stacks at the public library. Whether it was the close quarters or the alcoholism or sheer dysfunction, home did not feel safe. I learned to pack light. I would compulsively do an inventory of the paltry, but sentimental items that were mine and I would always know where they were in case I had to leave on a moment’s notice – a practice put to the test in conjunction with calls to the police.
Resourceful kids are made, not born. I sought my own shelter. There were the friends’ homes with the parents that seemed too good to be true, work where the restaurant owners took me under their wing, a bike that kept me in motion and a zillion extra curricular school activities. If I look at my high school yearbook, I don’t look like the shy and awkward nobody that I imagined I was. I was in track, speech, band, choir, school plays and musicals, and editor on both the newspaper and the yearbook. I wasn’t a social butterfly or civic-minded. I was seeking places where I could feel at home and be safe.
The ability to create my own safe haven has served me well over the years. I am an expert at packing and unpacking. I can travel light, which served me well in the military. I knew how to let go of possessions that were not important. The 12 years I’ve lived in this house in suburbia is the longest period of time I’ve spent in one place. I feel very fortunate to be able to live in a house, but I still live as if I’m ready to run. My possessions are centralized in one room, with my necessities in another. I still carry a shower bag, as if I’m living in a barracks. I’m territorial and defensive about the space I claim. My husband, who always had his own bedroom and spent his entire childhood in the same home, occasionally needs to remind me that certain rooms are “ours”.
I have had a lot of time to think about what having a home means and it has nothing to do with yards or ownership or age and everything to do with the feeling when you walk in the door – a sigh of relief, a deep exhale, a relaxing of tight shoulders, the dropping of bags, backpacks, luggage. It is sanctuary, an unburdening of the mind and body. I do not take it for granted, but I no longer lay awake at night, wondering if I’ll be living somewhere else tomorrow. While it is true that the only constant in life is change, I know what it means to be home and how to create that feeling anywhere I go. It’s the proverbial lemonade from living a life in motion.
Life is hard and sometimes it’s not the big events that make it so. Like a badly-played Jenga game, sometimes a week is mired in little frustrations stacked clumsily one upon another until all your intent to be mature and calm and put together comes crashing down around your ears. My intent this week was to be organized, efficient and productive. There’s a lot going on in our household, from remodeling to having company here to preparing for the start of the school year to senior care taking.
Frankly, life is feeling like a lot of straws on this camel’s back. Last weekend, I was stung by a yellow jacket wasp twice in our basement (a sure sign that we’ll be running a vacuum all fall trying to suck up the queens before they take permanent residence) and I got some sort of middle-aged sleep injury that feels like a torn muscle in my shoulder. My knee crumpled beneath me while doing a hip toss self defense move in taekwondo. It made a distinctly crunchy sound (ice, ice baby).
Yesterday the battery died in the car remote key, I stepped in cat barf after putting on clean socks, the Kikkoman soy sauce got knocked over in the fridge spilling on everything inside and out onto the floor and then I had to make a trip into downtown (hate driving there!) to pick up a sick husband. I try to give myself the “this is life, there are much worse things that can happen and isn’t it nice to be middle class with all these petty, minor complaints?” speech so I can “woman up” and move on with things.
The sports bra was really the last straw. For a mixed gender audience, let me just say that a sports bra, of the ilk that you can run and do fast round kicks in without knocking yourself out, is generally very snug and this particular kind is pulled over the head. This should not be attempted when half awake, slightly damp from a shower or in any attempt to look appealing to your significant other. They’re wonderful when on. It’s the getting there that really bites. After wrestling with what looked a tangled bungee cord around my armpits and neck, I finally gave in and had a good, blubbery cry. Now I can get on with things.
My company arrived last night. She is an old Army friend and has a son with a high degree of autism who is the same age as my daughter. He’s an escape artist – hence the quick remodel for a secure guest room. My friend was widowed when her son was a toddler. She’s struggled to take care of herself and her child over the years and despite whatever sense of failings she has about her parenting, he is a happy and safe child. She struggles with the need for constant flexibility – cancelled vacations, absent sitters, a child on the loose and her own personal grief about expectations gone awry. But the things that turn her day are just as small as things that turn mine – an evening of reading sabotaged by a rampant child, car troubles, a terrible recipe outcome, a backed up sink.
It’s good to have perspective and to even to develop a book series telling people not to sweat the little things, but it’s also okay to acknowledge that sometimes a stack of small things makes for a triple decker crappy day. I think it’s the denial, the peppy positive tag lines that make it so much worse. When I acknowledge that a sports bra can knock me down, that it’s just the kind of day I’m having, I’m already preparing to get back up. I’m rewriting the narrative for humorous retelling down the road. Perspective is good, but making someone else laugh with you about the silly, frustrating things that happen in daily life is magic.
My post from earlier this month, Midlife Rebellion (or Why I Decided to Get a Tattoo) got a little “Freshly Pressed” love and now I’m here to say it’s done, here’s a picture and here’s how it went down. Let me just get the obvious issue out of the way: ouch, ouch and #$%@ ouch! Yes, it hurt. This is an expected consequence for getting needles poked into your skin. It was manageable pain in the sense that I did not pass out, vomit or wail. Childbirth has a way of putting these things into perspective.
After filling out the requisite paperwork, showing my ID and approving a quick sketch, I waited in the studio’s reception area to be retrieved by the tattoo artist (tattooist? tattooer?). I had been referred to Shane Wallin, the owner of Twilight Tattoo in the Powderhorn neighborhood of south Minneapolis. His place is very, very mellow – from the anomaly of a small garden bed in front of the building to the warm earth-toned environment inside. Nice artwork, a clean setting, laid back staff – just a nice setup altogether. It gave me confidence that my tatted friends had not led me astray.
I sent Shane my idea for a tattoo in advance. I wanted something simple – a vine or tree representing my love of gardening and of my own personal growth, with my family’s initials worked into it. I wanted it on my inside forearm so I could see it. Thoughts of picking someplace hidden occurred to me briefly, but I did a trial run with some henna tattoos over the summer and decided that I liked it in plain view. He laid out the design for me and I asked that it be pulled back from the wrist a little for the option of a long sleeve cover up. I was thinking of funerals, which gives you my frame of mind for this appointment.
When I get nervous or anxious, I am unnaturally calm and quiet. I’d like to think I’d quickly develop rapport with someone preparing to poke me with needles, but my anxiety was pounding in every vein in my body and I could barely make eye contact, much less conversation. Shane was quiet and polite and got down to business quickly. When he said “Ready?”, I could barely answer as my eyes had been hypnotized by the big ass needles he had just ripped out of sealed packages. My mother and a nurse had to hold me down when I was 9 just to prick my finger for blood. Let’s see how me and the big ass needles play out.
During my research on tattoos, I read that the wrist and near the inside elbow crease would be painful due to all the nerve endings. This turned out to be fact for me and when he started at my wrist, I thought that I would have to wrap up the show early and leave with a solo leaf. The pain decreased as he worked his way up the arm – not sure if that was my adrenalin kicking in or a location issue. I didn’t watch him work for most of the time, but focused on breathing. Then he did that top leaf outline near the elbow and I was yelping in my head like one of those people trapped in their bodies who are only able to blink to indicate that they were still alive. Okay….breathe….I’m sure he’ll be done any minute.
The “problem” with going to someone good at their craft is that they take the time to do a good job. He kept psyching me out by carefully looking over his work and deciding something needed to be better. He’d set one needle down and I’d look up like an eager Labrador. We’re done, we’re done, right, we’re done? Then Shane would pick up the other needle gun thingy (yeah, my research didn’t involve much terminology) and do some more work. Finally it was done, he gave me the care instructions, I paid and headed for home.
I have to say I really, really like it. Which is probably a good thing. Since it’s a tattoo and all.
I have to decide what to do with my grandfather’s military uniform jackets. When he passed away several years ago, my grandmother hesitated about giving them to Goodwill, so I asked for them. I knew he valued the wool jackets with worn patches. They were to him what a wedding dress is for a woman – a barometer of youth and golden days. He was so proud that he could fit into them after a grandma-induced diet, that he modeled them for me whenever I visited.
My grandfather was an old-fashioned gentleman, born into a Midwestern upper middle class family with all the sensibilities and prejudices that came of the time. He was kind to his family, though, tolerating a monsoon of estrogen and talk about “feelings”. I think he was relieved when I got married, if only to have one more player for the men’s team.
For many years, he was a book salesman, traveling all over the Midwest. He told funny stories with enthusiasm and wonderful accents. He loved to tell jokes. After I joined the Army, he was relieved that he finally had someone to talk to about his military experience. He’d tell anecdotes from his stints in the Navy and the Army, about customers he’d met on the road and about an idyllic childhood in Illinois.
Big band music was his bailiwick. He would make tapes of the music he loved, recording himself as the DJ in between songs. Standing in the kitchen with his finger near the pause and rewind buttons, he’d say, “Listen to this part, kiddo.” He wanted me to hear what he heard, to not miss a trumpet solo or drum flourish. When I was younger, I learned to play Glenn Miller, Hoagy Carmichael and Tommy Dorsey on my flute (small band music!) and we’d play “Name that Tune”.
My grandfather also helped me learn the value of civility and respect. He was from a different time – we argued about women in combat, gay rights, economic and foreign policy, exchanging several long and heated letters over the years about our beliefs. It never changed our regard for each other. It was never nasty or mean or irretrievably damaging to our relationship. It was okay to disagree and still like each other.
I grew up abandoned by a father and living in fear of an alcoholic stepfather. My grandfather was there, walking me down the aisle when I got married and then years later, listening to my talkative toddler while she sat on his lap. In a family where men have not come off well, my grandfather was the guy who redeemed them all.
I mourn him now more than ever. My family of origin is extraordinarily private, insular and can be counted on one hand. There was no memorial or celebration of my grandfather’s life. There was no way for me to say goodbye or shed tears. One day he was just gone, with nary a whisper in the universe.
It is human nature to want to leave an indelible mark, to pass on a part of ourselves – to know that we mattered. Sometimes this is what drives us to have children, to work so hard at a career or even to write a blog. Most of us will never pass this way again and only live on in the memories and hearts of the people who loved us.
In a family as fractured as mine, so many memories have been forever lost. There are some memories no one wants to retain, but in the case of my grandpa, I will be his standard bearer. I will write about him, tell my daughter the jokes and stories, keep records, do my best to be a caretaker of the things that were important to him. He mattered in a way that all good people should. Not loudly, but immeasurably.
His tumbledown end began with one stroke followed by another. One of our last phone calls ended abruptly, as I began to cry while he struggled to speak, an effort that surely exhausted him. I miss his stories, even though I heard them a hundred times. I miss his presence in the world. The music he loved so much will remain on my playlist and I will hear him saying “listen to this, kiddo”.
For now, I’ll carefully store his jackets, so that someday, someone else will have to wonder what to do with them and recall the stories and music and that he was loved by me. And the beat goes on.
My husband and I laughed at the antics of our 8 year old daughter when she discovered “Hogan’s Heroes” on YouTube. Lately, she’s been digging an underground bunker in our backyard, as witnessed by the muddy hand prints on every door knob in our house. She is, like her father, an inventor of sorts and loves all the gadgets and tricks in this TV show. We laughed when she stomped around saying “I know nothing!” in a German accent. I stopped laughing when she asked me what “Heil Hitler” meant.
I’ve been fairly restrictive about television habits. A few inappropriate shows have slipped through. She loves snuggling up with her dad to watch “Cops” (I cringe as I write this). When she gets caught doing something naughty, I sometimes sing “Bad girl, bad girl, watcha gonna do?” Supervised television watching leads to less appropriate shows for her, but it also means we’ve had some great conversations about things that don’t happen in everyday life. I’ve rationalized lazy parenting as an educational tool. I have skills.
When she asked me what “Heil Hitler” meant, I was immediately conflicted by what tone the conversation should take. I imagined having to explain to the principal why my daughter was pretending to be a Nazi at recess. She is watching a fictional comedy about a POW camp during WW II – historical events with no context. The question is, how much context do you give an 8 year old? I loved this show growing up, but as an adult, I know too much history to enjoy it anymore. I’ve read WW II history books, seen the concentration camp at Dachau near Munich and visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. Any humor seems much, much too soon.
I haven’t had the classic “watch out for evil strangers” talk with her. I know that evil is often mundane – a family member on the fringe, a quiet neighbor down the street, a helpful teacher or coach. There is no way to tell your child about true evil without giving them nightmares and skewing their view of the world around them. We know that statistically speaking, most people are trying to be decent human beings. I don’t want her to see every stranger as a potential pervert or any gesture of kindness as a threat – that’s my job. Our focus has always been trying to teach her to listen to her own warning system, which gives us a false sense of security. What warning system? Until now, the tense tone in mom’s voice before she starts bellowing is the only kind of “danger” she’s had to deal with. How do you explain Hitler?
As an adult, I’m jaded. In the complicated and frequently re-written tapestry of history, evil comes in all shapes and sizes. Nationality, religion, relationships – these dividers have no relevance when it comes to humans’ ability to be cruel to other humans. But I also know the heroic stories and the amazing things that humans have done. I have a sense of balance and karma. This is what I must give to my daughter – a balanced view of the world. So, I have cautiously explained that Hitler was a very bad man who led a lot of people to hurt other people. In her terms, Hitler is Voldemort. The US Military, the French Resistance, Oscar Schindler and others like him – they are all part of Dumbledore’s Army. It feels like a lie, since history is not so easily divided into good and evil, but it’s harder to explain that the world is full of Umbridges and Snapes. People are not always as they appear.
As my daughter matures, I look forward to having progressively grayer conversations. If she learns that not everything can so easily be labelled and divided and set on opposite sides, her critical thinking skills will sharpen and that will make her a better citizen in the world. Until then, I need to stick with the truths that she can understand, but ones that won’t keep her up at night. Tossing and turning over the dangers she’ll face in the world – that’s my job.
I quit smoking over a decade ago after 2 or 30 attempts, depending on how you count them and I’m seeking to eliminate another addiction: meat – also delicious when smoked. I want to become a vegetarian. The decision to give up my carnivorous ways has evolved over the last few years. My mother has been a vegan since her mid-50s and my daughter, who never really liked the taste of meat, announced that she was a vegetarian at the ripe old age of 4. She learned that meat was from animals and that was it. So grandma, stop sending her vegetarian propaganda – you’re preaching to the choir.
I was raised eating meals where meat was the jewel in the crown. My cooking experience is all about matching side dishes to a meat. I love the smell of grilled pork chops, the spiciness in chicken fajitas and on occasion, a big juicy burger when my body screams for a little iron….sigh. There are a lot of reasons for me to make this change, but foremost is that I want to align my actions with my values. The deliberate raising and killing of other creatures for my benefit doesn’t fit with my belief that I should be a steward and not just a consumer of the planet. It’s hard to think about that when you’re hungry, though.
Since having a child, I’ve made many changes to my eating lifestyle. No more fast food runs or meals without vegetables. And a lot of conversations about what mom and dad are eating. The pleasure of eating meat is ruined when your child grills you about what animal it comes from and how it was killed. Sometimes the simple wisdom of children makes you want to snarf down your meal in the garage.
I grew up in small towns in Iowa. I’ve seen hogs and chickens killed and it felt like watching a horror show – until it lay nicely sliced on my dinner plate. It’s a dichotomy reinforced by the fact that now we get our meat mid-process from the grocery store. It no longer looks like an animal – until my daughter chimes in, “did it want to die?” Her natural curiosity reminds me that I need to make choices that are aligned with my heart, emotionally and artery-wise.
The problem with giving up any addiction is that you pick up other, more awful habits: self-righteousness and talking about your choice ad nauseam. I suspect if it’s anything like giving up cigarettes, I’ll be trailing behind servers at restaurants trying to get a whiff of grilled burgers and salivating while watching someone else eat. Once I feel confident that I’ve kicked the habit, I will become virulently anti-meat eating, making “harrumph” sounds whenever a friend orders it for a meal and announcing loudly that I haven’t had meat in a year. In short, I’ll be a real dick about it.
I’ll admit that I’m anti-smoking. I’ve worked in environments where people lived for the next smoke break or where people were so anti-smoking, I didn’t want them to know I had ever smoked, lest they think less of me. I feel strongly about it because it is a profitable addiction that benefits entities other than the actual smoker. I knew it was bad for me and I still did it, both for the addictive relaxation and for the fact that it isolated me with other self-destructive outsiders. Or as I usually refer to them, my friends.
It takes a lot of self-perception and respect not to impinge upon other people’s choices when it comes to breaking my own habits and addictions. It takes so much effort to make a change that my thinking becomes one-tracked. It’s all I can think about day and night. Before I know it, I’m licking bacon grease from a McMuffin wrapper in the neighbor’s garbage. Change is hard. Explaining to your neighbor why you are licking their garbage, even harder.
I am hoping that my attempts to convert to a vegetarian lifestyle aren’t as numerous as when I quit smoking. All I can do is try, try again until the smell of Chipotle doesn’t give me the DTs. Then I can ride my high horse – just as long as I don’t eat it.
This is just a quick thanks to WordPress and all the bloggers and readers who have allowed me to experience my 15 minutes. As lovely a surprise as this has been, it came at a tough time, as I’ve been dealing with a family member’s medical crises.
I have tried to read, approve and reply to comments as quickly as possible and I know some of the commentary has been repetitive, because I didn’t reply quickly enough. I am going to take a breather, catch up on some housework, some paid work, get some sleep and then I’m getting back to work writing. Thanks again and I look forward to more sharing and conversation with you.
Be warned: If you are young, hip and completely cool, look away. This is an old broad’s lament, with dated references and yesterday’s news, when twittering was something only birds did.
If I’m fortunate, I will be hitting an age that I’ve always thought of as the middle of one’s life. And I may be going off the deep end.
I was raised conservative, Christian and poor. I was raised to be neither seen nor heard, speaking only when spoken to and quieted with a smack across the head. Invisibility was key to surviving my childhood. I carried that skill far into adulthood, testing the waters occasionally outside the mainstream, only to rush back to the camouflage of mediocrity. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become restless and irritable. The status quo makes me nervous – is this it? Even in midlife, I’m a walking cliché.
What is mainstream now, statistically speaking, seems foreign and exotic to me, while other things are starting to repeat themselves. If you live long enough, that seems to happen more frequently. The “Soylent Green” of yesterday is now “The Hunger Games”. The churn is happening faster and faster. Vampires in movies and literature have been through at least three cycles in the last twenty years. Bell bottoms and polyester came back. Apparently bad taste has no decade.
I’ve gotten tired of keeping up and now understand why my grandpa continued to listen to big band music like it was the latest pop sensation. Information, music, trends, culture, politics, books – there’s so much of it and duplication is unavoidable, even if the players are younger. Then one day you read the news and you have no idea who the story is referring to or have never heard of someone just nominated for a Grammy. And it’s okay. I’m part of the “sandwich generation”- raising a young child and helping to take care of aging parents as well. Priorities have changed – I know more about geriatric issues and children’s books and less about American Idol winners.
This brings me around to how I’ve decided to celebrate my midlife urgency. It’s not a “crisis”, which seems like too much of a commitment. I’m exhausted. I really can’t afford to have a crisis. People are counting on me. My bucket list has, in many ways, been emptied. I was always a late bloomer and didn’t settle down until my early thirties, by which time I’d traveled, loved and lost, did my booze and drug experimentation, tried out hobbies and interests. There’s no regrets unresolved, no lost loves that didn’t deserve to be and no desire for death-defying stunts to make me feel alive.
Now this is where being hip, cool and “with it” will make this seem like nothing, no big deal at all. I’m getting a tattoo. Combine my age, my background and my fear of needles and this IS death-defying to me. I find myself trying to justify it to friends who could care less, confessing my plans to people who I know won’t approve, just to get disapproval out of the way. Like any properly trained adult, I did the research, got a recommendation to an artist, weighed the pros and cons and asked myself the hard questions.
It turns out, a lot of middle aged women are getting “inked” (I’m not hip enough to even pull off the terminology). One friend suggested it was a way for women to truly take ownership of themselves in a society that seems intent on telling them what do with their bodies. For me, it is a mark of departure from my first half of life, a mark of departure from where and who I’ve been. It’s a message to myself that moving forward, I am going to be braver and more daring in ways that I’ve only imagined. I won’t be particularly cool or hip, but in my mind, I feel like I did the very first time I got on a plane to go overseas. I was nervous with anticipation, but knew that I was about to embark on a wonderful journey. The journey thus far has been rocky and amazing. I’ve worked through pain, overcome obstacles, and learned to swim on my own. I’m ready for the deep end.
Update: It’s a done deal, folks. See Tattoo Accomplished: The Follow Up. Thanks for all the great comments!
I’ve tried to be a good person most of my life. I followed the rules. I used my manners. I brushed regularly. I felt shame and experienced painful self-consciousness, tried not to speak out of turn, rationalized slights and setbacks, worked constantly to be better, thinner, kinder, and more invisible. I said “yes” when I felt “no”. And I dealt with all the depression that comes from striving so hard to be right and good and never feeling like I was quite good enough (you know – being human and all).
This summer, I took a couple months off from giving a shit about anything. My child is alive and happy. I’m still employed. My husband remains kind and patient with me. Even my garden survived, evolving into a feral jungle of mismatched flowers and surprise vegetables. The other shoe did not drop. The great disaster that I’ve been holding at bay never happened. I’ve decided to give a shit again, but not as much and not necessarily about the same things.
I took a break from writing and read books instead. I took a break from trying to employ proper parenting methods and yelled my head off. I stopped trying to be more attractive, improve my love life, my weight, my hair, my intelligence, my home. I watched dragonflies darting and diving across a Canadian sky. I swam with minnows. I sank my teeth into juicy watermelon. I listened to live music. I walked with my family at dusk and watched my child whiz by on her bike, so exuberant in her newly discovered freedom. I breathed. In and out.
Re-energized and re-focused, I’ve returned with a stronger sense of direction and with some lessons learned. Here is what I learned while my brain went on vacation:
1. If you pull up your Under Armour compression shorts high enough, they work just like Spanx.
2. Put on your sunscreen before you put it on anyone else. Ouch!
3. Don’t try to low block a tall person’s kick in taekwondo unless you like tenderizing your arm.
4. If you are going to weight train until muscle failure at the Y, wait a few before trying to ride your bike home. Thank goodness for helmets.
5. Don’t discuss 50 Shades of Grey with anyone who liked the book (insert retching sound here).
6. If you make the Mean Green Juice touted in the movie “Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead”, expect to have kale breath. Ach.
7. Even when you think no little ears are listening, it’s not a good idea to refer to your cats as “little hairy bastards”. Your kid will surprise you with their newly acquired vocabulary when you least expect it.
8. No one is indispensable. The world will not fall apart when you stop trying so hard.
9. When you don’t know the answers and you’re stuck, just put your body in motion and your brain in park. You’ll be surprised what emerges out of the fog.
10. If you want to be a writer, write. And there it is.