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February 2015

Posts from January 2015


Winter bloom

I’ve stopped reading novels. That may be a bit dramatic considering the fact that about two months ago I read the first three books in a quadrilogy and am anxiously awaiting number four to come out sometime this summer (the Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante, whoever she really is). But the basic truth stands: I’m barely reading novels. My childhood was composed of reading novels in between doing the other stuff. I always had a novel with me; it was the built-in companion for an introvert who didn’t want to sit at home all the time. In college I changed from majoring in Political Science to English Literature because in one we read theories that put me to sleep and in the other we read about people who captivated me. I needed to be drawn in to other possibilities. I tried going for a masters in literature, but after realizing that it was not to luxuriate in the details of countless classics, but to delve into literary analysis, with barely a hello to the worlds we were killing with critique, I dropped that to return to the couch of casual reading.


And I’m not the only woman of my certain age who seems to be transitioning from fiction to non. The books we read in my book club are steadily shifting from mainly novels, when we started around seven years ago, to today’s emerging emphasis on non-fiction. Even the fiction that we read is generally of the international variety, so it encompasses a “learning about the world” non-fictionish aspect.


This reading realization has me wondering why I’m transitioning at this time in my life. Part of me thinks it must be tied to why I can barely listen to music on the radio any more. Need I say “topic”? I have absolutely no patience to listen to people who can’t breathe without love. I mean really. Get a life. Get a job where you can’t mope. Get on with things. Nor do I care to read about the tribulations of finding true love and a great career while wearing, what is it that they are wearing over their thongs? Nor do I want to read about (must I say it?) marriage and/or divorce and/or man-woman relationships. Is it because I’ve spent/wasted too much life-time thinking about those things that I can’t expend more time in my supposedly relaxing moments to think about them anymore? Or is it because I’m a teeny bit bitter and don’t want to expend my jealousy quotient on a fake character created by another frustrated woman who sets up her alter ego to live happily ever after? Whatever the reason, neither my interests nor my life are in those books. Is it also okay to complain about conversations that aren’t realistic? Maybe I just don’t want to read variations on a life, but rather I want to learn specific things about life. There’s so much to learn about that the vagaries of he did/said she did/said is past my patience level.


Is this my descent into being a crotchety woman or just one of those women “who knows her mind”?


An alternative explanation is that since I spend so much of my life with my students and being aware that I am part of the story that they are creating of their lives, in my time away from class (and all that it involves in and outside of school), I need to fully step away from a deep personal involvement which is required when reading a novel. This is also why, I am sure, I have neither the ability nor desire to become absorbed in a TV drama or sitcom, and prefer the non-attachment of home and cooking shows.


Another possible explanation or part of the whole is that now that I have a good sense of life in its basic configuration (the stuff of those songs and novels that I can no longer listen to or read) when I read I want to learn things that are beyond the realm of what I can grasp through my own filter. What I need is a kind of midlife university where I can fill in the gaping gaps of things I feel I should know more about than simply knowing that they happened, and learn about the things I should have been aware of. In short, I don’t want to skate along on the wonderful plane of pretense.


Life-long learner, indeed.


As I sit here thinking about the books I have read, I remember that I used to have an affinity for biographies: life and history. Maybe this change of focus from fiction to non reflects a realization that not only do I want to enter the imaginations of people through the stories they create, but that I want to learn about their worlds through the stories they have lived. Perhaps when we can start looking back on our own lives, we can appreciate the longer view and detailed examination non-fiction requires, and not focus on the moments that accompany ours. 


Winter Warmth

Parenthood is a strange thing. Stranger even than marriage (surely the person who came up with that idea didn’t understand human caprices) since all parenting ties are undeclared, and are either supportive or subversive, subliminal or coerced. What’s a mother to do when you aim for independence and then have to live with what you have sown so successfully?


We parents who find that our nests have emptied are like trees in winter, all naked and exposed, pitching in the wind back and forward, just not standing in the bareness of now. What the heck are we? Are we trees or are we twigs? Are we parents or people of the world who didn’t need those kids before they came and surely can survive without them cluttering up our lives with all their desperations and dreams? Those who race to redo their children’s bedrooms might not understand what’s going on in my mind and life, but I bet they get it. Yes, I think they face it by pretending that they’re facing it, but they’re really ignoring it. That’s why the formerly postered bedrooms in their homes become bare so quickly, the pain of emptiness is too hard to face.


It’s odd to say, but it kind of feels like having an ex’s presence around all of the time. You know what I mean: you can’t forget them because they were an important part of your life, but you darn well know that you need to move on. You can remember Saturdays that used to be a frenzy of practices and games and friends and parties and shopping, but that’s all gone. It’s suddenly all about you when it never was when they were around. Like I said, like having an ex around.


The divide from life in 1991, birth of older daughter, to 2013, younger daughter off to college, is massive. Then I was married, living in Israel, working in high tech and now I’m divorced, living in Virginia, and teaching from books. It’s like I need to move back into a house I moved out of 23 years ago which I only glimpsed when driving quickly past. Or maybe it’s like I’m my own unknown third child; you know, the quiet kid who no one seems to pay attention to, but now that the other kids are gone, I have been discovered. Yes. Maybe that’s the key, to treat myself like a treat, as I did with my daughters, and not as an intruder.


And if that is to be the case, then I should learn to look on myself with anticipation and pride, and not with the always-ready disappointment and futility that it’s just me, and, yes, table for ONE. 

The Pendulum of Care


In the week that my younger daughter was here for winter break, I focused on cooking the foods she likes, buying the clothes she needed/wanted, and watching the TV programs we could snarkily comment on together. I also put myself on reserve company duty for when she was in between hanging out with friends, which means that I didn’t get together with my friends (of course, she did have my car). In that week I made myself available for as much daughter-time as possible with my eye on her end-of-the-week flight back to Colorado, which is exactly what I did when I visited her sister in California for a week at Thanksgiving.

There’s no getting around the ache of no longer having one of your children, or all of your children, living under your roof. That is, once you celebrate your way through the first glorious months when you no longer have to deal with A-ttitude and aversion to your voice, your cooking, and your breathing (although younger daughter still has issues with my chewing).

My glorification of cooking seems absurd until I realize that it is a testament to my still being needed—or wanting to be needed. The soups, the latkes, the applesauce, the jelly donuts, the scones, the cake, the quiche, the chili: all made on the stove of Mommy Love. When do I get a chance to show my love other than in awkward “I Love You” text messages? At the same time, there’s no denying the feeling of relief when she left and I stopped being an on-duty mother again. It was exhausting: that constant need to prove my love by actions. It’s like a switch is flipped when I’m around one of my daughters and I revert to being the chief provider of physical, mental, and emotional sustenance.

When my mother comes to visit me, I find that we’re at a delicate phase in our mother-daughter relationship. It’s not that we’re dealing with any infirmities; it’s that she’s in her early 80s and ever so slightly my mommy switch is turning on when she comes, rather than full-force daughter switch. At a certain point you begin to realize that as much as it’s been great to be treated as a precious child, you need to look after your mother as you would a daughter. (Though I sincerely hope I get to skip the diaper phase.) Of course, her not being able to carry a pizza up a flight of stairs was a great indicator that the time is a comin’.

A friend took care of her parents who were both in diapers, while a friend of my mother’s took care of her dying daughter. Another friend commented on his inability to care for his father with his slowly seeping dementia. A colleague joked with her son that for every one of his ballgames she attends, he owes her a diaper change.

My daughters are independent. My mother is independent. I am independent. Within all of that independence is the pendulum of care.

Will I rise to the occasion if need be? It’s natural to mother children. What is it to mother a parent? My mother nursed both my grandmother and my father when they were dying from cancer. Will I be such a good daughter? It seems supremely selfish to demand that of a child. It also seems supremely selfish not to answer the call, as subtle as it may be.

Up to a couple of months ago I would instinctively cut short my thoughts about my mother’s aging with the magic words: senior living facility. But my father’s mother aged frighteningly fast in one. And the stories you hear. And my mother’s response when she hears those words is reminiscent of what hearing the word “Ebola” does nowadays.

Perhaps because I have a good relationship with my mother I have begun contemplating a future when she would live with me: a concept I would have mocked months ago. Is the change because now that I have no one to care for all of the time, I can discern that I derive more meaning than I was aware of from this little grouping, this family. Or is it that I’m not as selfish as I always thought I am.

When I first became a mother 23 years ago, I was shocked to discover that I have patience. It was a quality I had never associated with myself. But there it was when I nursed for hours on end, intermittently cleaning up vomited mother's milk, staring at the wonder of a perfect creation for whom I was ultimately responsible. And while at times I have lost my patience, that deep-seated patience whose source is love and connection has become an integral part of my understanding of myself. How can I direct it one way, to a way that is comfortable, suitable to me? While I hope not to be confronted with this as an actuality, the possibility must be confronted. A baby step. 

In Defense of Being Defensive

Traffic calming

At the hint of criticism directed toward anyone I care about, I turn into a mommy lion with hot pink aviator glasses. It’s not that I ignore faults; it’s that everything has an explainable flip side. It all depends on seeing things from my perspective. Perhaps people think I’m delusional, but that’s okay, I have to live with the games my mind plays.

Surprisingly, this defensive stance has, to some degree, extended to my ex-husband. Even at his most heinous, when I needed to talk about what he had done so that I could hear people tell me how horrible he was, and how strong and right I am, there was always a soupçon of the wife supporting her husband, or, more accurately, a woman supporting the woman who fell in love with the wrong man, or, more accurately, the man who turned out not to be the man with whom she had fallen in love.

I am ashamed that I am divorced, not because of a stigma attached to divorce, since I see the divorce itself as positive: I got out of a bad situation as opposed to staying in it because I had a ring on it. No, I’m ashamed because it is a cudgel to my self-esteem. I made a monstrous mistake in judging my ex-husband, and in judging my ability to judge a person. Though I am positive that the man I met in 1982 was not the man I divorced in 2007 (and the man he has become since then), it is still a burden to bear. But the man behind the bear, the original man, that is who I defend. (Or is it the woman who fell in love with that man?)

Perhaps my defense of him comes from a sorrow as deep as love, one whose origin is emotional rather than logical. Logic: I am sorry that he did not remain the man I thought he was. Emotional: I am sorry that he did not become the man he thought he was. If he had gone on with his life, to a new job and a new wife, rather than an unknown mental state and an impoverished state at that, there would have been no psychic need for me to transfer hate and fear to pity and blame. Is this survivor’s guilt? Does it show that I am healthy or unhealthy?

It would be nice to relegate the past to the past, but it is not a set place or time, it infiltrates. There is no pure present. Is this what it means to be middle-aged? This is when you realize that you are unable to cut yourself off from the past because it is your fiber, but you can critique it so that, ultimately, you transform it. Analysis as transformation. Failed relationships are leavened by the air of time and thought.

Perceptions and emotions come back in ways that enable us to accept who we were within past relationships, not to define us, but to refine ourselves. The past is not set, it is discovery. And that defensiveness is not a wall but a permeable barrier between selves, enabling me to live with who I was and who I am, and to accept both—all.