On Turning 55

Michael McGurk

If 50 was raising the timber frame; 55 was me climbing the timbers & tacking an evergreen branch to its peak. (That happened. There was no photo.)

“50 is the old age of youth,” it is said, “And the youth of old age.”

And it’s true. The fifties are all that.

Or is it just me?

I lost Lila at 55. She had more than a dozen grandbabies by then. But with time’s passing, it seems impossibly young to have been taken.

My older sister died last summer at 55 too and just a few years before her—my aunt.

My mother had 2 years on the 2 of them, alive until 57.

Which is to say—While the sun is shining, I’m making hay.

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My Mother’s Cameo

From time to time, I wear the cameo that Mrs. Upperman left my father.

She also left him a rocking chair and a large tin of pistachios–red, tan & unshelled.

Unshelled?
(Unheard of.)

At 16, I was surprised to find that my passion for pistachios was eclipsed rather than enhanced without the effort of finding just the right one to crack open.

(And who had ever seen tan pistachios?)

But maybe I’ve remembered it wrong.

Probably Mrs. Upperman didn’t “leave” the pistachios to my father along with the cameo and the rocking chair (and the furs!), but sent the large tin over at Christmas or Thanksgiving, or maybe the pistachios, like the many other arrivals, were from another patient altogether.

It was easy to adore a man who saved you, particularly if he was tall and handsome and young.

And if you were such a man, it was increasingly difficult to spend much time at home where despite your male birthright, your societal status, and your dashing good looks–you were not the star of the show–not with your teenage daughters, not with your wife who was turning the hormonal corner from sacrifice to self (even as she continued producing your babies), and not with the endless tasks to be done that came and went with any pistachios or applause.

My mother left the cameo in her jewelry box, and so I borrowed it from time to time, until one day I didn’t put it back.

I don’t think she would have worn it anyway. She never touched the furs either. Unlike my father whose family presided over one the largest homes on the avenue, my mother came from “the other side of town,” off a pot-holed side street, where 8 children crowded into a house that leaned up against a motel and shared its backyard fence with a bar.

“Your mother was the prettiest girl in the high school,” my father said.

“I had a single dress all through school,” my mother told me, but she wasn’t complaining; she rarely complained.

Bonnie, aka. Loretta Cecilia Kelly, was without expectations, which made her the perfect fit for a man who was accustomed to snapping his fingers for a pen, and expecting a hot dinner on the table no matter the hour of his return  home, and who regularly brought operating room nurses to tears as they tripped over his every command (which was just the right place to harvest his replacement wife after my mother, at age 40, had the audacity to want more than a cameo role in her own life, and so without voice, offered a scandalous resignation instead.)

“That’s not the Philips!” he would shout, and I never knew which one was, no matter how many times he showed me.

I still don’t want to know, and apparently neither did my five younger sisters, which was something I discovered when I returned home for a visit and came across a fierce and familiar scolding in the garage with one of my youngest siblings.

I still prefer my pistachios in the shell, but now without the color red.

my mother, just after the affair, in her new/smaller house, with her dark-brown hair dyed blonde

 

the legacy of shame

solar-sisters tumblr

Shame. Disappointment. Burden.

With SpRiNg comes renewed attention to my insides as I recommit to what I want on the outside.

I’m curious about your relationship with disappointment.

In a New Year chakra clearing, I gained some clarity around the way I linger with and lay  disappointment onto the men in my home.

It was a painful visual, but it also leads me into compassion for the disappointment I must carry inside. My sense of my father’s almost constant disappointment in me. The weight of disappointment that my mother and grandmothers carried.

I’m no longer willing to be the legacy bearer for that burden.

This sweetly complements my intention to cultivate satisfaction–inside–with a moment to moment practice of saying “Yes,” to what ever arises–on my path, or in my psyche–as an invitation instead of a problem, as something I greet without abandoning, rejecting or shaming myself as “wrong.”

I suspect the practice will be a daily one for the rest of my days.

 

on belonging

One of the hardest parts of being born female is this matter of belonging.

As a girl, I saw that my mother–for good or for bad–belonged to her tribe of sisters; and to all of us children; and most demandingly of all–to my father.

HE, on the other hand, (like all he’s) seemed to belong to himself, to his work in the world.

And so, I set my sights on his horizon, only to discover, ever so slowly, that his choice wasn’t available to me…

At 15, I fell in love, and at 16, I offered up the gift of my body, and then it became my lover’s, increasingly so, demandingly so, guiltingly so, not only sexually, but also with regard to appearance, just as my father had evaluated my mother’s appearance and mine until the very last remark I can recall, just after I became a mother myself, the second time:

“You look good babe, but you need to lose some weight and get some sun.”

We were standing outside the hospital where he worked.
My mother, his ex, lay riddled with cancer inside.
The baby in my arms was 3 weeks old.
I was still bleeding.
I smiled.

I so wanted to “look good” to my father, but I felt pulled to surrender my body to these babies, this fleshy/messy/earthy life of womanhood, and so I did, until one day, my husband asked, when I passed him on the path to the outside shower:

“Would you mind shaving there?”

He explained his awkward request, recalling the sight of a much older cousin at the beach with hair poking out of her bikini bottom and down her legs when he had been a teen.

At thirty-five, he still recoiled at the memory.

I said: No.

If not for the pimples and the pain and how quickly the hair grew back and rubbed between my legs, I might have accommodated his discomfort.

It’s a risk this saying, No, isn’t it? At home. In the office. On a date. Among sisters.And specifically in a romantic relationship.

It’s always risk this being less beautiful than you are able, less attractive than those around you, less willing, less accommodating…

The threat of rejection is woven into our landscape, unspoken.

“Never let yourself go,” my father told me as a young woman. “When your husband arrives home from work, you want to look good.”

“…And don’t be too smart, or too demanding, or too (fill-in-the-blank)…”

And so, I was afraid.
I am still afraid
Only the voice of belonging to self grows louder and louder, overiding the other voices, the ones who still shout:

You are mine.

“Aren’t you afraid he’ll have an affair?” a friend asks when I admit how many weeks we’ve gone without sex.

Like winter into spring, the hormonal changes rock back and forth, so that sometimes it’s less painful and more pleasurable, and I could be sure to “keep” my husband, until the crescendo of Menopause, when the pain became unbearable like it had that first time–at 16–my head arched back, biting my lip, so that I might be desirable first and foremost.

It’s been more than 2 months now, and not without desire, but desire doused with fear. Not fear of pain. I was a home birther. Fear of despair, of no longer being… what?… I’m not sure…

I could take hormones, fool my body into thinking I was younger, like those who dye away the gray, but just like labor and menstrual cramps, I want to be present to what it is to be me in each moment, even aging, and isn’t this physical separation from the man I love and long for offering me something too?

I was never much for foreplay. I preferred it hard and fast, but as I’ve aged, I’ve opened myself up to more and more surrender, less forcing, more delight and awakening and slower unfoldings—in every part of my life.

He is exceedingly patient and kind and without demands, like those I once tolerated from him, back when I was nursing babies all night long, afraid of being left alone, afraid of being one of those wives.

In this new space between us, I am afraid that we will dissolve, and yet I am also finding something precious, recovering something precious, claiming something precious.

Belonging.

To myself.

When I listen and tend, my body is such a friend.

He draws me a bath afterward to soak my tender tissues.

I soften in the water, less anxious about the changes wreaking havoc in me; and when the water drains, I look down to see my pubic hair, full and bushy with the humidity, a dark crescent moon, smiling over creamy fleshy rising toward my belly.

“Remember when you asked me to shave?”

He shakes his heads, disappointed in the man he once was.

“I think it looks so pretty now,” I say, mostly to myself, remembering how I once took scissors to the hair between my legs because it wasn’t supposed to be there. Even men do it now I hear. (I should feel vindicated; Instead, I’m sad.)

After a week of vacation, I am softening into his arms again, but I am also pulling back, uncertain if I was ready to share my body.

When his fingers graze the side of my breast with the permission renewed after love-making, I see myself flip him over and press both my hands around his throat.

I am shocked by this violent vision, and curious too, and even amused–I am half his size.

I’m not sure if it’s Menopause or #45 or #metoo or Climate Change that has unearthed so much anger inside, not only for all the ways my body was claimed by others but for all the ways the body feminine–including Earth Mother–is raped, pillaged, sold, purchased, scorned.

It will be some time before he can touch me so freely again, maybe after these wild bodily transformations have subsided, or maybe never again, unless I have explicitly invited him in, an access pass which must be renewed, and is always, in all ways, worth the wait because a woman sovereign is desirable beyond praise.

Capricorn, My Mother’s Moon

My mother’s moon. Capricorn.

Full moon and fox den and hotflash…
In lieu of releasing into a deep sleep,
I open to the sensations around me,
including the ocean-like rustle
of the breeze through the trees,
and the squeal of pups,
and the fine mist across my forehead & between my breasts & in the crook of my arms;
and I ride it all,
like a wave,
only not the kind that crests & breaks & tumbles
toward the shore,
but the deeper swell,
that rises and falls, rises and falls,
like breath…
And I think:
This is how I’ll die.

And I think…

Thank you Mom.

the gift of wildly fluctuating hormones

651d184b026fb7ecd9f9e6575e822f6bI want to talk about anxiety. And depression.

Do they always go together?

I’m new at this. Not new at experiencing them. But new at knowing I’m experiencing them.

It’s not only that I didn’t have names for my feelings when I was younger,
but that I didn’t fully feel them.
Until I had no choice.

Hormones.

Earlier this week, I found myself humming and singing what has become my tell-tale sad song (it knows I’m feeling sad before I do):

I learned the truth at 17,
that love was meant for beauty queens,
and pretty girls with clear-skinned smiles,
who married young and then retired.
And those of us with ravaged faces…

Oddly enough, I was one of those clear-skinned, pretty girls.
But still, this song comes to me more and more as I age, to the point where my youngest, at 15, hears it playing on YouTube for the first time and says: “I like the original better,” not realizing that he’s only ever heard it sung by me.

This is Janis Ian, I say. It’s her song.

I’m relieved when I Google her and find that she’s still alive: and 64, happily through menopause no doubt, even winning a Grammy in 2013!

Mid-life women inspire me. They are such warriors. So full-hearted.

This morning I wake with a crushing weight on my chest. (Well, maybe not crushing. But pressing.)
I’m unable to take a full breath. (I taught yoga yesterday.)
When I consider the day ahead, even the smallest part of the day ahead, I feel immobilized. (It’s a relatively straightforward day.)

I’m expecting my period. And menopause. (Soon, please.)

I stay put and feel into the sensations of weight and panic until they soften enough. I take a shower, pack my work things–while scaling the items shouting for my attention around the house–and I drive away.

I feel lighter.

Until I enter our Co-op grocery store. I decide not to shop first as planned, but instead take a seat in the corner of the cafe and get to work. I always feel good when I work. Almost always. It’s how I’ve kept ahead of anxiety and depression throughout my life, though I never knew that then. I thought I loved work. Until someone said these words:

What you love brings you balance.

Work never brought me balance. It brought me 100-hour work weeks at 20. And teacher burn-out by 30. So I decided to stay home. For two decades.

That didn’t fare well either. I found at-home-motherhood excruciatingly boring. Diapers, dishes, routines. Sitting down on the floor with the kids was the worst. I couldn’t still myself into their worlds. I thought it was play that I resisted, but now I realize that it was me. Without complexity to consume my mind, anxiety devoured me.

I had a window into those years when I went shopping with my son earlier this week. I noticed that if I kept my focus on items that engaged me, say the household aisle of TJ Maxx, then I could keep the anxiety at bay. But if he wanted to talk to me, or worse yet, show me something, particularly something that held no interest for me, my anxiety magnified.

I wonder when it all started.

Is it genetic?
Environmental?
Universal?
Trauma induced?

I remember a high fever at the age of 4 and the way the world grew too large and then too small and far away for me to handle.

I remember a fire at the age of 9–the one that took the lives of an entire family except for the boy who went to my school–and how I trembled with that news all night long.

I remember my arm in a sling at age 11, broken on the ice–the result of a mind game that I played often that year–counting down how quickly I could get from place to place–before I blew up.

Aha!
That would have been sixth grade,
the first year of my mother’s alcoholism,
the year that my father poured the bottles down the sink,
and said, “You have to watch your mother. She’s sick.”

My breath catches on this memory.
The weight on my chest returns.

I see this young girl, and go to her.
I rub her heart, and lift the weight from it.

I’m here, I say.
I’ll watch your mother.
You go play.

“Ready to die”

cropped-cropped-cropped-cropped-v1_at_8001.jpgMy son returns to college this weekend so I’m thinking about death.
Mainly my own.
How everything good ends.
And how life is such a trickster.
Sucking us in by love, disarming us of our defenses, distracting us with the infinity of doing, and then VOILA–death! Ending. Finality.

Having a family is the worse (or is it “worst.”) Simply because it seems so permanent. Particularly in the trenches. Like the diapers and the feedings and the messes will never end. And when they did, I was HAPPY.

But now, I’m 51. With a second foot into the decade that took the lives of my beloved mother and the grandmother I adored.

Plus it’s winter. A particularly hard and cold and frozen week of January in Vermont. The darkest time of year. And in Paris, a bunch of people were butchered.

“We’re ready to die,” said the terrorists.

A friend relays that he had a moment on his mat this week where he felt that it was okay to die. Really okay.

I had that once too. On my knees. In the garden. Rain soaked. My hands in dirt.

What if we woke every day with this aim?

Without saving any love or expression “for later.”

To be ready TO DIE in each moment.

But not like this: