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.
I’ve had to take a time out from my self-absorbed melancholy to focus on a sick child this week. My daughter brought home a virus with a high fever, from that bastion of bacteria and snot, her elementary school. No longer newbies to the high fever (see my March post), 105 has become the new 102 in our household. We’re calmer and once she cleared the strep test, we were able to settle in to wait this out.
There is a silver lining to having my daughter at home during this bout with illness. Yesterday afternoon, she and I sat out in the sun on the deck eating strawberry popsicles and pointing out butterflies to each other (and at least one stink bug). Talking and laughing, we were having one of those magical moments in time that I wish I could freeze forever in my mind. It would be cataloged in my memory along with the mental movie of her as a four-year-old, flying back and forth on our backyard swing set, singing at the top of her lungs – the embodiment of happiness. I knew in that very second that I should not forget this picture, that I should commit it to memory. Someday, when I am on my way out and she is out in the world, I will flip through these savored, kept memories and taste that joy again.
Our moments have been far and few between lately. My daughter is coming into her own as I have been struggling to retain what is my own. She has, in all my efficiency, become something on a “to-do” list to take care of, along with grandma, the cats, my job, my marriage. I’ve been spread pretty thin and have started missing some of the joy that is there, waiting for me to take it in. If only I were forced to stay still and quiet for stroking a fevered forehead. If only I would listen with true, not habitual, compassion and concern. If only I would quickly shuffle through my priorities and come up holding only the truly important ones.
Today we poured through art books, talking about the different painting styles. I’ve never been drawn to visual arts, but I’ve caught her enthusiasm to learn more and we’ve begun planning a summer of museum-hopping. Even if I wouldn’t wish for illness, it reminds me to make room in our lives for those moments to happen. Unlike the “list”which I go through with grim determination, I come away from these brief interludes energized and hopeful. My daughter is an amazing, resilient person. I can’t imagine how many moments I have missed when I was busy multitasking. What will her memories be of me? I can do better. Life is short and time with your child, even shorter. I’ll still enjoy taking her back to school when she has recovered from this virus. I really enjoy showering without someone yelling dramatically through the door, “Mom, the cat threw up!” But that’s an entirely different kind of moment.
I’ve spent much of the last few weeks working in my garden. The timing for hard labor and solitary weeding and planting is perfect. I’ve been fending off a depression that has lingered on longer than usual- perhaps the remainder of an impotent winter – little snow and mild temperatures. It feels more like mid-summer rather than spring and I lack a sense of time or purpose.
By happenstance I began to read The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets by Bill Moyers. The book is based on a PBS series of interviews Mr. Moyers did with well-known poets. When I skimmed through his conversation with the poet Jane Kenyon, her words immediately resonated with me. She suffered from depression and spoke of how gardening and being outdoors helped. Aha. This I can understand. She went on to say “When you get to be my age and you’ve lived with depression for a number of years, you begin to have a context for believing that you will feel better at some point.” I have a context for my depression and I know that I come out of it eventually, so advice from well-meaning friends falls flat and serves to isolate me further. I feel like I have to state categorically that they do not need to call a crisis line on my behalf. I’ve lived with it for so long that I no longer view it as a natural enemy, an illness to be cured. On the spectrum of mental disorders in my family, I inherited the sugarless, low fat, decaffeinated, gluten free variety. It’s bland and serves a purpose in my life now.
For me, depression is a signpost to review where I’m at and to acknowledge that I may have gotten off track a bit. It warns me that I need time to take myself out of my life and mull it over. It’s an indicator that I’ve allowed my internal reserves to become depleted. It means I’ve talked too much, helped too much, and said “yes” too often. It also means that I’ve allowed my unrealistic expectations for myself and others to run rampant throughout my psyche. It’s the indicator to hit the “Pause” button and that’s the challenge. In a world where kids need to be dropped off at school, legal tender must be earned and people and cats must be toted to vet, dentist or doctor appointments, there is no “Pause” button. I become increasingly hostile and maybe a little desperate to step away for a moment or two or three.
And that brings me back to my garden. I get sweaty and covered in dirt, hum manically to myself, occasionally forget and talk out loud to my plants. My knees ache and I can feel the sun searing the back of my neck to medium rare. A smell of thyme or lilacs drifts by and the robins chirp excitedly as I clear the weeds and expose dirt with easy access to worms. Bumblebees dart and hover over bright purple flowers, butterflies flutter surprisingly close and an occasional dragonfly darts by on its commando mission. A whispered, fleeting thought occurs to me.”This is happiness”. If I say it out loud, will someone tell me that I should make a career of it? If I say it out loud, will someone tell me how they can’t stand getting dirty or the heat or the bugs? If I say it out loud, will I be giving away my not-so-secret hideout, my rehab center, my psychotropic drug? How I wish I could capture those feelings for times when I cannot be digging in the dirt, for those moments when I’ve driving from one errand to the next and feel trapped and frustrated and melancholic. If only to have the “inward eye” of William Wordsworth in the poem, “I wandered lonely as cloud”:
I WANDERED lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed–and gazed–but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
Only time will evaporate the dark cloud in my head and bring me willingly back into the world. Until then, I must be patient, work the soil and see what grows.
I drive a hybrid Prius and unlike many ecologically-conscious people, I am constantly filled with guilt. There is a disappointing lack of self-righteousness that should have accompanied the warranty. A friend described her Prius driving experience as “Zen-like”, saying she enjoyed the quiet gradual accelerating and braking. Replace “gradual” with “on a dime” and “hairpin” and well, that’s my driving technique. Add in “the joy of startling pedestrians who can’t hear your car” and taking off from a stoplight using the “Power” mode button and I’m the world’s worst Prius driver. I like to augment the quiet of the Prius with window rattling music and occasionally rouse myself to make rude gestures at drivers with cell phones glued to their ears. Can you hear me now? Yes, I care about the environment. And yes, I still drive like I’m in my ’72 Monte Carlo, in high school.
Freud divided the human psyche into three parts. There’s the “id” as the instinctual part of the thought process, driven by pleasure, seeking to avoid tension. You know – the fun part. And then there’s the “ego”, the planner, the realistic but wanting to please portion of your psyche. And finally, the “super-ego”, or every disapproving teacher, relative or friend you have ever had. In your head. I’m not sold on Freud, but I like the visualization of absolute chaos that takes place every day in the human brain. Every day Id suggests pizza for breakfast, while Ego sweetly offers pancakes, in the hopes that the shape will placate. Just when Id settles down for a short stack and syrup, Super-ego stomps in and insists that Id have a grapefruit and bran. Id delightfully digs into the pancakes while Super-Ego passive aggressively harrumphs. Poor Ego keeps trying to serve multigrain English muffins in an attempt to keep everyone happy. And that’s your brain at breakfast. Now take it for a drive and see which one takes the wheel.
I’m getting old enough now to see that my inconsistencies, my dichotomous beliefs, my irrational and completely contradictory behaviors are exactly what make me human. I grew up in an “all or nothing” environment which made it much harder for me to accept that I wasn’t a complete and utter failure because I held so many opposing beliefs. I believe in the pursuit of peace on earth, but spent four years running around with an M16 in a Kevlar helmet (I was in the Army, not just randomly doing this). I believe in the idea of community, but find myself avoiding groups of more than three people. I think you should know your neighbors, but only between the hours of say 5 and 6pm and then I’d like them to mind their own business. I totally embrace making ecologically sound choices, but lord, those cloth diapers were a nightmare and sometimes I want a friggin’ grape out of season.
It takes a long time to appreciate and embrace the absurdities in one’s own head. There are a lot of things I don’t like about myself. I wish I were more consistent and logical. It’s a struggle to come to terms with shades of gray and to accept that you are not going to get things right every time. And it really, truly is okay. Sometimes Id likes to drive even though Ego bought the car and Super-Ego is white-knuckling the door handle while shrieking. I probably should pull over until all the arguing stops.