Age: Angst, Ambiguity, Acceptance

I am fifty-two years old. God. Yes, I am fifty-two years old.

I have never said that to anyone except my immediate family. It’s not that anyone couldn’t have done just a little math to figure it out, it’s not a secret. I just haven’t wanted to admit it.

Fifty-two.

And still so completely … unfinished.

Not incomplete– that’s a different thing, implying a belief that I am a living error, a woman missing a vital piece, like a jigsaw puzzle that can’t be glued and mounted in a frame because a corner fell on the floor and was devoured by the family dachshund (I speak from experience on this); a book in which vital chapters of pages have fallen from the binding, like every volume of Harry Potter that our family has owned over the years.

There are no missing pages in my story, all fifty-two years are in there, the book a little frayed at the edges, its pages stained with droplets of Diet Dr. Pepper and dribbles of salty tears.

But my story is definitely unfinished; there is a sense of ambiguity imbuing nearly every aspect of my life right now.

Ambiguity. Apathy. Anxiety. Angst.

The angst has become a crutch for me, a companion in my waking and in my rest; it forces me to repeat over and over every single day a litany of financial debts I wish were paid off, it compels me to scrutinize my body for fat, it necessitates constant and unrelenting worry over my job and whether I want to be in it. When we’re teens, we’re expected to be riddled with this angst. The journals of my adolescence are filled with my looping scrawl, passages of woe and worry, wondering what I was meant to do, who I was meant to be, hearts used to dot my letter “i”s as though a charm to lure love. Then I got married and made babies. I raised them. I raised them well. I stayed in a marriage that grew healthy and strong. Deeply rooted. So why the angst? Why the anxiety? Why the ambivalence? Why, in middle age, do I find myself so crippled by the looming question: what am I supposed to do now?

I fear I have become addicted to the inner drama of that one weighty question. What’s next?

img_0186.jpgOr worse– what if this is it? What if, at fifty-two, I have already accomplished any great thing I might have done? What if it’s too late to write that book or land that dream job? What if all that’s left is spreadsheets about ops and procedures and fees and days of hellacious knee pain and buying jeans a size bigger? What if I don’t have another day? And that, my friends, is why I had to face the truth that is at the core of every truth that matters: There is no guaranteed next. There is only right now. This very moment. This very breath.

Oh, sure, it’s good to make plans. Last evening Libby and I were having fun talking about the wood-forest-creature decorating theme for her baby shower next month, and I definitely need to check my bank balance and see that a couple of bills get paid today. I have already ordered a couple of Christmas gifts and started saving for retirement (way too late, I am sure, but better late than never). I just bought the prettiest yellow mitten/beanie/scarf set at Target just in case it ever gets cold in Houston again.

But really, it’s just the right now that is mine.

When I was a first-year teacher, preparing for my first lessons and decorating my first classroom, I spent hours cutting out little laminated shapes for our classroom calendar. Our university had drilled into its teacher prep students that buying ready-made bulletin boards was a cop-out, so I was diligently doing what I believed demonstrated my commitment to my students’ education. My one-year-old would stand, wobbly on her feet in front of me, arms outstretched, and I’d brush her off and keep working. My mother in law, sitting nearby, wisely said, “Kim, you’re only going to have these hugs from her for a little while. Think about putting down the laminated shapes and hold your child.” Good advice. I was missing the now of my toddler for the tomorrow of my classroom. I think it’s easier for us to grasp that lesson when it’s the lives of our children at stake. But I would like to walk this a step farther: our own lives are worth that consideration, too. The beauty of our own journeys as human women and men is as worth intentional presence as are the moments with our babies.

It’s what I have been learning very, very recently. This week, even. We’re raised, from infancy, to look forward. To know what we want to do for a job when we’re five years old. To choose a college track when we’re thirteen. To always strive forward, look ahead. And while that can be good, can propel us to invention and innovation, it can also be demoralizing. To always and ever push forward is out of balance. That skewed way of living can rob us of the joy that is found in being fully present in each moment as it is lived. Spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle says:

“Most humans are never fully present in the now, because unconsciously they believe that the next moment must be more important than this one. But then you miss your whole life, which is never not now.”

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Photo by Kim Bryant, NYC Metropolitan Museum of Art

I recently spent ten hours listening to Tolle teach about this principle, and it was tough to grasp at first. How do I lead an organized life and do excellent work if I am only in the now, just contemplating the present moment? But that’s not what I think he means. I need to set goals and move toward them, but always stay rooted in the beauty or pain that is now. I must notice the smiles of my loved ones, acknowledge the needs of my physical body, savor the sip of white wine, take a moment to feel sun on my face, and listen to the sound of my breath as it fills, then leaves, my lungs; all ways to remain present. But it’s okay to dream about the future, too.

To dream without anxiety is the key. Worry and angst rob me of joy in the now, and they are as addictive and habitual as any chemical. But learning to stay present, connected to my own spirit and to the greater universal Divine is so much better. Already this morning, I have walked the baby while taking in the beautiful sunlight and cooler autumn air (Houston’s temperature finally dropped below 90 degrees yesterday), enjoyed some sparkling water, and answered some work emails. All without angst. All without worry. Without anxiety.

To live this way will take practice. It will call for thought and accountability. It will require surrender to what is balanced with a willingness to look for what can be. 

This, my friends, is where freedom lies. In each moment lived, one by one by one.

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Turning Back

Did you ever pick at scabs when you were a kid? Those big, juicy ones that crusted on your knees and elbows from all the falls you took when on the monkey bars or on your bike? I did. It hurt, it made my scrape open up and bleed some more, but I just couldn’t help reopening the wounds. It didn’t matter if the grown-ups explained that I was going to have scars if I didn’t leave the scabs alone. Potential infection didn’t deter me, I just picked away!

bandaid-heart-As I got older, the wounds became less literal. Not skin and bone- heart and soul. When I was seventeen, I broke up with a boyfriend that I had been dating for over a year. He was a good guy, but timing just was not right: he was in college, I was a senior, yada yada yada. Weird thing, though, I kept driving by his house. I would sit outside, not crying, really, but grieving. Pretty dramatically, I suppose. It felt good to wallow.

In college, I auditioned over and over to be a hostess for our annual Follies. I never did get to do it. That was tough, because I had to sit in the auditorium for chapel every day, and look at the stage where I felt so defeated.

1988_2Until I decided to stop auditioning for the thing I was never going to get and direct my club’s show, a sentimental journey through the tunes of the Andrews Sisters, which won first place. Then that space, that stage, became a symbol of power (as long as I governed my thoughts). Wounds don’t just come from romance or falls. Sometimes they come from being shut out.

When my husband changed jobs and we moved from Texas to Oklahoma, I used to sit at my picture window, gazing out while wistfully wishing to move back to a town that, if I am honest, I was miserable in. I even envisioned my own woe, creating a mental picture of the melancholy pose I struck as I sighed. I looked, in my own mind, as gorgeous as any Gothic heroine. I should have been dressed in a while linen empire-waisted gown, though in truth, I was probably covered with graham cracker goo and baby spit-up, hair going every which way.

When we left Oklahoma to go back to Texas, after two weeks I called a church deacon and begged, “Please let us come back. Please.” They said no. They said, “Look forward. Not back.” It would be a while before I understood how to do that. And did it. I had to figure it out myself, because I hadn’t really seen it before.

Ten years after her divorce, my mom still sat with her wedding album, flipping through plastic-encased portraits of her happy day, remembering a time when she was joyful, healthy, and surrounded by bridesmaids. Really, her entire adult life was spent, I believe, looking back: wishing to undo mistakes, wishing to be young and happy, wishing to have close friends.

Revisiting sites of injury was a family trait. Sometimes those sites were physical, like boyfriend’s houses, scabs, or stages. Sometimes not, though.  I could not possibly account for the hours I have spent, in my own mind, replaying scenes in which I hurt someone or someone hurt me.

But now I don’t. I just don’t go to places that hurt. I have made the conscious choice to avoid hurting myself. When I reflect on it, I think I made the decision to stop visiting hurtful places around the time I also made the decision to stop cutting myself with scissors.

I was a late comer to the cutting thing. When I was a teen, I didn’t even know that was a thing you could do to alleviate sorrow and anxiety, so I tried the pursuit of perfection and the allowance of boys defining my identity, with a bit of disordered eating thrown in for good measure. In my thirties, though, I found it. Cutting, I mean. Sometimes I escaped to the little office in my theatre classroom to grab scissors from the apple crock in which I still keep pens and pencils, and I would dig deeply into my arm. At home, I might grab a kitchen knife and lock myself into the bathroom, cutting my thighs. It burned. It hurt. And it gave me more scabs to pick at.

I don’t cut myself anymore. I am not ashamed of that chapter, I will talk about it if I am asked. But it’s not my favorite thing to revisit.

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There are also places I don’t visit. I have only been to my mother’s grave once, and to my father’s never (beyond the days of their funerals). It is too hard. It opens floodgates of sorrow, sorrow that is close enough to the surface of my heart that tears and heartache don’t need gravestone markers to incite them. For some, visiting those graves is a comfort, and I say, “Go. Please, and tell them I love them while you’re there.”

Churches are a no-go. Way too much hurt inflicted when my husband was in, and then out, of youth ministry. Way too many Sunday mornings when no one said hello. Way too many judgements and proclamations and “encouraging words” masking an assumption about who I am and what I need.

I tried going into the auditorium of the high school where I spent eight years building the theatre program from the ground up, and which I left because of a combative administration. The day I went there, I was laid low, emotionally tender and teary-eyed for days. So I don’t go back in there any more. I know my former students wondered why I didn’t come see their shows, they were so sweet to invite me, but I just couldn’t.

998293_10151606483607711_2070554230_nWe sold the home we spent the bulk of our child-rearing years in, I can’t drive by it, I just can’t. And the house I just sold last year, the one we built from the ground up? No way. When mail was delivered there for a month or so after our move, my husband had to go pick it up.

I don’t visit the local community theatres, not even to see shows. Those are places that have become like great big, giant triggers. Sitting in them feels like little bits of broken glass all over my skin while I am reminded of so many times of being overlooked.

Some places, some people, some memories, just hurt a little too much. Is there beauty in pain? There can be. Is there growth in pain? Often. Is there a benefit, though, in reopening old wounds, wounds that aren’t festering or infected, but are still vulnerable? Not for me. I have had to learn to stop standing at the picture window, sighing and mooning. No more drive-bys to old scenes of hurt.

Like the Fleetwood Mac song says,

“Why not think about times to come?
And not about the things that you’ve done?
If your life was bad to you
Just think what tomorrow will do.”

Everyone’s life has been bad at one point or another. I suppose we all have different ways to heal and protect.

Shielding my quiet soul means choosing where I go. For me, self care doesn’t look like spa facials and chocolate truffles. It looks like a picket fence, covered in flowering vines, protecting me from turning back. It looks like my yoga/meditation room. It looks like my yellow bicycle. It looks like screen shots of texts from my close tribe of trusted friends. It looks like writing a book instead of directing or acting a play script. It looks like my husband and children. It looks like…my life.

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Peanut Butter Cookies and Serenity

 

I just finished my annual attendance at state teacher conventions- and these are in the state of Texas, so they are big conventions- what else would they even be?

While wandering the convention hall, I walked by another vendor’s booth and saw the stacks of boxes, sitting alongside literacy teaching aids. You know the ones- brown boxes for S’mores, orange for Do-Si-Dos, purple for Caramel Delites. I hustled back to my booth to grab some cash, and bought two boxes: one Thin Mints, one Trefoils (the shortbread). That was all the cash I had on me, and I knew two things: I didn’t need too much tempting cookie goodness keeping me company at my booth, and I could buy more when I got home. My husband is a sucker for them, if he goes to the grocery store in February and March, he comes home with at least two boxes.

I believe girl scout cookies are a special enchantment. They are available just once a year, and until recently you had to find a girl to buy them from.  Even though you can order them online now, I still prefer to acquire them from a fresh-faced, optimistic young girl. There’s something really great about encouraging a young lady who’s working hard to make something happen.

Sweets are magical, at least for me. My husband puts a bag of Jelly Bellies or Brach’s Orange Slices in my Christmas stocking every year, my dad used to keep Little Debbie Star Crunches in the pantry for my brown bag lunches. My students used to bring me bags of gummy bears when it was tech week for our plays- the gooey sugar high kept me running on long, stressful days.

Ancient and historic cultures all had sweets:  cakes and pastries sweetened with honey, apple pie in Medieval Europe, sorbet (made popular by Catherine de Medici in Renaissance Italy). I keep trying to resist sugar, as all the health sites and articles tell me to. But I can’t. Or more accurately- choose not to. Because for me, sugar is a decadent delight, one of very few I allow myself, along with glasses of wine and plenty of naps.

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Girl scouts are pretty great, too. Their website features stories of young women and girls on adventure, doing advocacy, embracing refugees, and working on science projects. Though I never got to be a Girl Scout myself, as it required money my family didn’t have for dues and a uniform, as well as a mother who could summon enough interest to actually get me to meetings and help me earn patches, so many of my wonderful friends have been Girl Scouts. My heart-mother, Dorothy, was a GS in the 1950s, I can’t think of a better role model for women than her. Unlike organizations that focus on a girl’s appearance, the Girl Scouts seem to be driven to empower. Girl power goes great with Tagalongs and a glass of cold milk.

Recently, after dinner, I paused Netflix, needing to do my evening meditation before I watched another minute of television. I set two Do-Si-Do cookies on a TV tray by my comfy chair, thinking I would have them after meditation. But during meditation I realized I was too full to eat them, so once I opened my eyes, I put them back in the box.

Waiting can be its own enchantment.

 

 

 

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