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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Simplify

Kim 1967- 6 months
The author as a little one

Last night, I went shopping with my daughter, who is expecting her first child (my first grandchild), and watched as she fought off the panic that comes when you’re trying to prepare for a new situation, specifically a baby, and there have been many voices telling you what you need to cover on your baby registry:

car seat, stroller, carrier, mattress, crib, crib sheets, onesies, mittens, diaper bag, changing table, pack and play, organic wipes, ecologically friendly diapers, crib mobile, breast pumps, butt cream, pacifiers, bottles, nipples, tiny socks, and, well, the list goes on.

One particular dilemma that was plaguing her even after we got home was whether to get a baby monitor that would allow her to monitor her infant’s heartbeat by smartphone from wherever she happened to be.

Playtime, Abilene 1995_3
The author’s daughter, she who is expecting her own wee one.

At first thought, this seemed to be a good idea. Then I paused, and really visualized it: if she happened to have an outing with her guy, or maybe a friend, she might just sit, constantly glancing at the app on her phone, not really present with others, not really taking in her surroundings, not really living her life, except in a state of worry.

Perhaps there are times when simplicity is better. So her dad and I spoke of baskets for baby to sleep in, clothing to keep baby warm, car seat to keep baby safe, milk to keep baby fed, and diapers to keep baby dry. And a whole lot of love.

That’s really all you need.

I have been on a mission to simplify my own life, too.

Many of us have seen the book, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up.  It’s got a couple of things I already like, right there in the title: magic, and cleaning up. The author’s method is, in summation, to make physical contact with each item in your home. If it brings you joy, keep it. If not, send it away.

I do not like clutter. I might have gone through a phase in the early years of our marriage where gathering belongings gave me a sense of security. If I had stuff, it was evidence that I was doing okay. Then I visited a relative’s home, a four bedroom house with only two people living in it, where every closet was full to the brim, every bed had stuff stashed under it, every room had twice as much furniture as could be maneuvered around, and each surface of that furniture was covered in tchotchkes. I felt claustrophobic. I saw my future. And I reverted back to my true nature, the nature that had kept my childhood rooms neat as pins, with only decorations that had meaning and gave me joy.

Now, if something is in my home, it’s because I love it, it’s beautiful, it makes my heart sing. I don’t keep anything in my house because I feel a duty to do so. My own kids taught me the power of this, they say no if I offer something or other from my house that they don’t want. This was a hard thing to set boundaries against- the passing down of stuff you don’t want, the acceptance of the stuff  just to avoid setting new limits. We had to learn. I am even going through all the boxes of family keepsakes: letters, sepia toned photos, letter jackets, etc. All that stuff is being passed through the same litmus test: Does it encourage love? Does it fill my family’s world with beauty? Is it a part of our family’s story, or the story I am creating of my own life? Does it sing a melody in my soul?

I have been reading the letters that my grandfather wrote to my grandmother when they were courting, and then married, in the 1930s; and simultaneously reading the letters between my own sweetheart and me when we were courting, and then married, in the 1980s. What I am learning is that lovers are pretty much the same. Both couples simply recounted days spent at boring jobs while waiting for the chance to see and hold each other again. My granddad called my grandmother “Hun” a lot. My own guy spent a lot of ink describing each part of my body that he had fallen for. All those letters, representing two generations of married love, are staying with me, sorted into two-gallon Ziploc baggies with cedar balls tossed in for freshness, labeled with Sharpie markers, packed in the same box as the old photos that tell the tale of our two families.

Story is, to me, so magical and precious, it requires a corner of the attic and a corner of my heart.

But my house isn’t the only thing that’s being streamlined; I am working on the whole big picture, too.

Distillation. The dictionary defines it as “the purification or concentration of a substance, the obtaining of the essence or volatile properties contained in it, or the separation of one substance from another, by such a process.”

I am all about it. Distilling relationships, life goals, commitments, hobbies. It’s all going through a metaphorical sieve.

Here’s where I am landing, in these early days of my fiftieth decade:

Quiet is good.

Only friends whose hearts operate in kindness get in close.

Those trusted friends can challenge me to be a better human being.

Sometimes, even family requires careful boundary setting and protective shielding.

Routine is wonderful for a peaceful existence.

Spontaneity is essential for keeping routine from becoming mindless rut.

Travel, travel, travel.

Drink the wine.

Hit the yoga mat. Meditate. Get outside.

Get rid of the scale.

Reduce Facebook time. Read more worthy, nourishing stuff.

Only engage in hobbies that engender joy.

It’s okay to walk away.

My days used to be so full of activity, they were really a whirlwind. I was “The Flight of the Bumblebee” personified. I lapped it up like honey when people said to me, “I don’t know how you do it all. I am so impressed by you!” I didn’t realize, then, that I was burning out. My wings were failing to hold me. I was sustaining myself on a diet of anxiety.

No more. Life is gorgeous when it’s simple; like a magic potion, distilled down to its vital ingredients: love, grace, and reflection.

And also sweet new grandbabies.

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