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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Resilience: Body and Spirit

Today, I went for a walk. I do this all the time, my Fitbit data reveals that I make my 10,000 step goal nearly every day. When I don’t, it’s usually because I spent an hour doing yoga instead.

I haven’t been hitting those goals this last week though. I’ve injured a knee, a knee that has been in steady decline for years. I’ve visited the doctor off and on about this knee since 1998, it may have finally reached its tipping point. It’s swollen, it’s limited, and it hurts.

Laid up on the couch with ice packs around the poor, beleaguered joint, I didn’t feel especially resilient, nor strong. What changed this morning? What enabled me to head out on the trails and manage a full hour of brisk walking? Tools. I equipped myself for the task. In physical therapy yesterday, I let the therapist assess my Nikes and she vetoed them immediately: not enough support, not enough cushion, sole worn down. She recommended shoes and a brace, described what I needed, then sent me on my way to do my work: I had to follow through. I had to buy the shoes. I had to purchase the brace. And then this morning, I had to actually put them on. My tools couldn’t help me if they sat in their boxes.

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I had to admit to my doctor, to my physical therapist, to the woman who helped fit me for new Asics, and above all, to myself, that I needed help. That I am in pain. Our bodies can’t recover, they can’t be resilient, if we don’t recognize their need for rest, support, boundaries, and equipment.

Like the worn soles of my old Nikes, our spiritual souls can become threadbare, too. It’s important to learn what is needed for resilience: Boundaries. Meditation. Creative expression. Meaningful relationships. Sleep. Faith. Time with nature.

I’ve bounced back over and over and over: abused as a child, codependent with an addict, lost jobs, damaged voice… every setback made me stronger. How? I drew on the love that surrounded me and nourished my spirit with the joyful memories and experiences I had created and stored in my heart.

Brene Brown says that “Joy, collected over time, fuels resilience- ensuring we’ll have reservoirs of emotional strength when hard things do happen.” And they do: injuries and illnesses, divorces and deaths, betrayals and bruises. I am about collecting joy. I hope you can be, too. Let’s help each other to do that. Blessings, friends.

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Middle-Class Gratitude AKA “bougie kthxs”

I just had the most lovely afternoon.

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The margherita and a glass of wine at Fielding’s

It began with a sunny drive during which I listened to a podcast I love, Astonishing Legends. Scott and Forrest were doing a deep dive into the exorcism case of Anneliese Michel, a gripping story that kept me alert as I drove to one of my favorite restaurants, where I ordered a really yummy Pinot Grigio and Margherita pizza.

Next, I strolled to the spa, where the chipper and absolutely beautiful, trendy young women who checked me in loved my coral shoes and saffron lace kimono. I was wearing my Gaimo espadrilles. Made in Spain, they are not shoes I could typically afford, but I found them on sale at Marshall’s for about $26. The young ladies gushed about my footwear while I drank the chilled coconut water that they brought to me.

 

Then I enjoyed a facial with some sort of “skin brightening” treatment that is meant to begin the herculean task of minimizing the sun damage from all those teenage years of slathering baby oil on my skin, setting a lounge chair in a kiddie pool filled with reflective water, and sizzling while listening to Madonna and Wham! on my Sony walkman. The room smelled like every perfect flower and herb, music was soft and soothing. I am new to the facial thing, I was given one as a gift in December, then decided to keep them up. At fifty-two years old, my skin is now paying the price of my misspent youth. I’d like to save it if possible.

 

I explained to the aesthetician that I was new to the facial thing because, well, you know how moms always put themselves last, aw-shucks.

The aw-shucks attitude was a facade, though. My hesitation to treat myself has deep, old roots, like a gnarled, ancient oak.

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I was a poor kid. I shouldn’t have been, my dad was a CPA, which is a job with a good salary. But my mom was a drug addict and my dad wasn’t great at managing a household income in which the spending was spinning out of control. We kids did without a lot. I don’t just mean we didn’t get Disneyland trips, though those were as impossible to contemplate as a trip to the moon. No, I mean we did without enough clothes and dependable electric service. Daddy worked two jobs, laboring twelve or more hours a day, so our lawn was always overgrown; when I walked home from school with friends, I stopped at the corner of my street and waited for them to get far enough down the block that they wouldn’t see which house I entered. I was deeply ashamed of its unkempt appearance. Sometimes our house was filthy and had bugs crawling all over.

When I was in fifth grade and was chosen to dance in the “June is Bustin’ Out All Over” number for our spring concert, we were asked to wear a solid color pastel tee shirt. I didn’t own one. We couldn’t buy one. A simple top that would have cost no more than $5, quite possibly less at the local TG&Y was out of our reach. The morning of the concert, our music teacher, Mrs. Bell, asked us to show the shirts we were wearing with our skirts made of green paper leaves, and I had to confess, “Mrs. Bell, I don’t have one. My dad doesn’t have the money to buy it.” Do you know how humiliating that is for a child? She was as gentle as a teacher can be when she is thrown a curveball on the day of the big show and arranged for me to borrow from a classmate. Daddy drove me to their house when he got home from work and I had a lilac tee shirt to wear for the concert.

So my espadrilles from Spain mean something to me.

Now I live in an affluent master-planned community. It’s one of the first that was developed in the country, actually. My aunt and uncle moved into this community when it first opened in the late 1970s, and when I visited them for an Independence Day family gathering, I fell in love with the neighborhood’s trees, bike paths, and park fireworks. To be honest, I fell in love with what upper-middle-class cleanliness and architecture looked like; I wanted to move here when I grew up. I finally got my wish when we bought a house in 2017.

I don’t reside in the most affluent part of the neighborhood, our community has homes that range in the millions, owned by oil executives and professional basketball players. I live in a modest (by community standards) 2500 square foot home. It’s fifteen years old and we haven’t updated any appliances or floors. I don’t care. It’s bright and clean, my tiny well-manicured yard is lush and green, and there are flower beds and a screened-in sun porch. We’ll get around to changing out the carpet at some point, but it’s not a priority. I don’t drive a Jaguar, I drive a late model Ford Escape.

But here’s the thing: when I walk into a restaurant in this utterly white-bread upper-middle-class town, I look like I belong.

You know what that makes me? Grateful. Grateful beyond what can be described.

After years and years of deprivation, then joining forces with my husband to do the work to get financially stable, I am, quite simply, grateful.

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A bench at the park by the entrance to my neighborhood, there are 130 parks in our development.

Recently, I encountered a man on our neighborhood’s Facebook group, he was going on about how people who live where we do should not have to deal with rude salespeople in the mall. I questioned him: “The right to common courtesy isn’t limited to people living in ——–. Maybe I am misreading your intent.” No, it turns out I wasn’t. He doubled down, speaking of entitlement and property values and expecting a certain level of service because we all pay a premium to live here. This attitude of superiority and exclusivity rears its ugly head pretty often where I live, to be honest. Sometimes I just want to say, “Neighbors! Friends! Notice our parks and the crews who work so diligently to keep our little hamlet looking pretty! Look beyond your tax rate and resale values to see the people who do the work! And know that it’s all, every bit of it, temporal.”

I was deeply bothered. Perhaps it’s because I came from little, perhaps it’s just my nature, but I can’t respond to the gift of living in this place with anything other than gratitude and joy. Accumulating possessions and running a race to beat others doesn’t resonate with my soul.

Gratitude is, I believe, a spiritual practice. To notice one’s surroundings and be thankful is to nurture one’s own soul; it enables us to walk in a way that opens us to the gifts the Divine One bestows. When we are grateful for shelter, food, transportation, and even amenities, we are ready to receive all the abundance the Universe has to give. More importantly, though, we are able to hold loosely and share graciously. Our priorities shift and we become equipped for seasons of less.

Sometimes I think the residents of my town don’t really know what it is like to be that poor kid who just wants to have a lilac-colored tee shirt to take for the school concert. That’s going to have to be their journey, though. Mine is to just walk an authentically grateful path, to recognize the gifts I have been given, and to share what I can along the way.

What are you grateful for?

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