2012 — a midlife review

I woke up this morning with troubling thoughts swirling around in my mind, and remembered that I started this blog with the intent to write about what was on my mind each morning.

I’ve strayed from that intent.

I think I may look back on this year as the epitome of “midlife.”

I started the year nursing my husband through bilateral knee surgery.

I continue to make every effort to support my mother as she cares for my father who suffers from Alzheimer’s. The needs always changing and shifting. A continuum of problem-solving.

I struggle with denial as I try to make every moment count with my father who slips further and further away.

I’m working to fill my life with meaningful purpose now that my days of child-rearing have come to a close.

I’m trying to nurture and even invigorate a relationship with the man I’ve loved for more than 30 years, well past the days of infatuation. For relationships do require attention to thrive and I want to do more than settle into comfortable routine.

Instead of handling our children’s problems, I discuss them over telephone calls, e-mails, and text messages: a suspended license that defies resolution, teeth implants that will be required, job dissatisfaction.

I look forward with sweet anticipation to the new grandbaby expected to arrive next month.

I make road trips to St. Louis, packing a suitcase, boarding out Arthur, driving, and then doing everything in reverse, to eke out every last second  of time that I can spend with our grandson.

All the while I  try to minimize the strain I put on my arthritic knees and visit the orthopedic doctor at regular intervals for injections.

On a daily basis I deal with ongoing physical issues that result from crashing hormone levels and simply aging, wondering if its time to get a stronger prescription for my bifocals yet again.

Thirty years ago today I first became a mother and was nearly swallowed up by the love and joy.

When I was younger life seemed clearer and perhaps less varied. I was bringing children into the world and caring for them. My concerns were primarily focused on little people whose ages spanned less than a 10-year gap. It seemed busy and complicated at the time.

Now I visit my 2-year-old grandson on a weekend, savoring the joy and laughter.

And I visit my nearly 80-years-old parents on a Monday, holding back and denying the sadness and tears, wondering what changes need to be made so that Mom can still manage taking care of Dad at home. Wondering if we can make those changes. Wondering if she’s going to hold up under the strain. Wondering how long this can last.

Here at midlife, I am smack in the middle of the huge spectrum of life, still trying to understand what it’s all about.

Family reunions and the passage of time

According to Einstein, “an object in motion actually experiences time at a slower rate than one at rest,” (http://science.howstuffworks.com/warp-speed2.htm). According to this theory, which I will likely never fully comprehend, last weekend should have crawled at a snail’s pace. Our children and their significant others were here for a weekend of wine, food, and games. I was in motion much of the time, or at least much more so than my normal quiet sedentary life with Mark and Arthur.

But that wasn’t the case at all. The weekend passed in a fast blur of motion and color and laughter and a baby’s cry. The preparations for the weekend that occupied my thoughts and many of my activities for the two weeks prior, are completed, used up, and cleaned up. The baby gate and porta crib are folded and stored away. The guest set of dishes, warm from the dishwasher, are stored on a high shelf in the pantry again. Clean sheets and towels folded in stacks on top of the dryer and in the dining room wait to return to the lower level where empty guest rooms are bereft of any lingering reminders.

The well-stocked kitchen refrigerator is nearly empty. The refrigerator in the garage, so recently packed full of beverages is now an empty shell save for a lingering can of Diet Coke or two.

The Fisher-Price farm and zoo, the wooden train track running through the room, are all stashed away in containers where they will lie untouched for months.

Arthur, exhausted from his nonstop surveillance of a toddler, lies still and limp in a  curled position on the sofa, then the bed, and now on his pillow in the study.

I stumble around with a foggy head and try to remember what I should be doing.

I may wish that the time we had in motion this weekend passed slower. I may wish it would have lasted forever. But that is not the case.

Now I’ll sit at my desk and type to you, or in my rocking chair on the porch and read, or in my recliner in the evenings beside Mark as we catch up on the news or a television show or two.

And I’ll hope that my slowness will make time pass faster until we are all together again.

The time in our lives

Einstein originally came up with the relationship between space and time known as the space-time continuum. How Stuff Works .com explains this in an article about how warp speed works in relationship to Captain Kirk and his Enterprise team. It all has to do with traveling at or above the speed of light. According to How Stuff Works:

Einstein realized that space and time are relative — an object in motion actually experiences time at a slower rate than one at rest. Although this may seem absurd to us, we travel incredibly slow when compared to the speed of light, so we don’t notice the hands on our watches ticking slower when we’re running or traveling on an airplane. Scientists have actually proved this phenomenon by sending atomic clocks up with high-speed rocket ships. They returned to Earth slightly behind the clocks on the ground.

My mind was never able to fully grasp this concept before and it still remains a mystery to me.

I have experienced time running slow or fast, however. Sitting in a boring 50-minute history class in high school the minutes dragged by. I know this because I saw every one of them pass as I watched the clock on the wall above the door that led to freedom. Now, in these middle years of my life, the days fly past me like a leaf on the wind.

Time is a mystery. Maybe that’s because we think of time as a container for other things. I think of the time spent with our children and grandchildren that flashes past with moments of love and pride and laughter. I think of the finite number of days we’ll spend together in this lifetime and how we spend each one down never knowing how close we are to the end.

I started thinking about the concept of time because I was thinking about the book that I self-published. This has been a tough month with very low sales and it makes me feel, in some ways, like a failure. When I recognized that, I became able to deal with it. I’m not looking for reassurance that I was a flaming success because I wrote the book, edited it, and published it. I understand this to be a big accomplishment for me. The point I think I’m trying to make is that I feel bad about it because I feel like I am running out of time to make a success of myself.

I don’t know if I would have felt that way if I would have had a career with promotions, or a savings account from the money I’d made while working the last 30 years at a job. I stayed at home to raise our children, and although in my finer moments I realize this to be an accomplishment, a success, a fine use of the time in my life, at other times the doubt or inner drive and aspiration unsettles me.

On just a practical level, here in this house I have projects I’ve started that I’d like to finish. For example, I want to finish scanning photos from old magnetic non-archival photo albums to put them in better albums and create digital files to share with our children. I’m about half way done. I have the photos. I have the scanner. I have the new albums with plenty of spare empty pages. What I don’t seem to be able to find is the time.

My writing, reading, photography, needlework, gardening, genealogy—all of these are pursuits I want to follow. But there never seems to be enough time.

And that is the truth of the matter. I realized that in midlife. There will never be enough time to do all the things I’d like to do. Somehow I never really thought in those terms when I was younger and time seemed more of  a friend to me.

Now time chases ahead of me and I am forced to make careful and conscious decisions of how I will spend this valuable, priceless commodity.

I hope Einstein is right. I hope as I slow down with age, time will slow down with me. Only time will tell.

It’s all about me – a worldview

I just finished Traveling with Pomegranates by Sue Monk Kidd (author of The Secret Life of Bees) and her daughter Ann Kidd Taylor. It’s a mother-daughter memoir where chapters alternate their perspectives. I enjoyed reading it very much and related to it quite well. In the book, Sue is dealing with the changes that are happening in her own life as she ages into menopause. She is also trying to understand and adapt to the change in the mother-daughter relationship that will allow her to “let-go” yet stay an important person in her daughter’s life.

I can relate to so very much of this.

But reading this book was a jumping off point for me to wonder about something else, and that is our society’s emphasis on the self.

In one part of the book, Sue mentions a workshop she co-led called Maiden, Mother, Crone. “It wasn’t about chronological phases in a woman’s life,” she writes, “but about an internal process of becoming.” She mentions that she invited her mother to the workshop. Which in turn, made me think of my own mother and that started the ball rolling in my mind, like a game of mousetrap where one unrelated action eventually leads to a series of others.

Traveling with Pomegranates is about finding a “self” or re-acquainting with a “self,” both as it relates to a young woman about to embark on a marriage and career, and an older woman facing her mortality. I’ve read a lot about this in menopausal literature—rediscovering your self. And I’m not criticizing the concept. I just wonder, when did my mom have the time or the chance to do this? My mom went from maiden to mother and basically got stuck there for 51 years taking care of Annie. There was no journeying back to her “self.” Then when Annie died, Mom became a full-time caregiver of my dad whose needs were escalating because of Alzheimer’s.

I think it’s worth noting that our civilization did not always place an emphasis on individualism, or talk much about the self. That’s a fairly new concept that showed up around the 19th century.  One of the most interesting things I did while earning my English degree was take a required series of four “Age” classes. Beginning with the Age of Faith, then the Age of Protest, followed by the Age of Ideology and ending with the Age of Uncertainty, this series of classes looked at philosophical ideas and historical events that were the cause and effect of each other and that influenced the progression of Western Civilization from the beginnings of Christianity through modern times.

For a while Christianity was the center of everything in Western Civilization. You don’t have to take my word for it, just go wandering through an art museum sometime. This reliance on faith was shaken after the 15th century when religious, intellectual, and political protests erupted. The void in ideology these protests created resulted in an age of ideology where different world views were tried out: liberalism, nationalism, and communism. But none of these filled the void of a unifying ideology that had been in operation during the age of faith. So civilization entered into an age of uncertainty. This age, exemplified by people seeking power, was destructive and dehumanizing, as evidenced by the two world wars, the rise of Facism and the Holocaust.

That’s a quick little history/philosophy review for you according to the Age classes. But the point I’m trying to make is that individualism hasn’t always been an intrinsic value of human civilization. It showed up sometime around the 19th century. We highly value individualism today. We have book shelves lined with self-fulfillment guides. We have bucket lists. We emphasize the “self.” In some ways we live in a “it’s all about me” society even though we criticize people who act like “it’s all about me.” I don’t know that I fault this drive to find, understand, and cultivate the self. I’m just not sure that it is the place where our main focus should lie.

My mom was never given the opportunity to search for her self, like Sue Monk Kidd does in Traveling with Pomegranates. It’s not like Mom  ever chose to be a caregiver her entire life. It was the life she was given and she rose to the occasion. What I wonder is, how does all this emphasis on individualism and self have any significance in the life of a caregiver, other than to cause a sense of frustration that something is missing?

My mom’s life has never been about “me.”

Here’s the thing. I’m not sure all this focus on the “self” has really gotten us that far as a society. Road rage and drug addictions come to mind. Are we really happier and better off as people?

One thing I know is, when I’m down or depressed, helping someone else or doing something for someone else helps me.

Maybe it’s not about self at all, maybe it’s about the other.

And maybe we, as a civilization, will get there someday.

Fifty-five years ago today

Fifty-five years ago today a baby was born.

Fifty-five years ago a baby boy was born and thrilled his parents whose first four children were girls. A son at last.

Fifty-five years ago today I knew nothing of it, safe and sheltered in my mother’s womb for sixty-one days longer.

Many babies were born on this day I have no doubt. But this baby boy has changed my life.

What a wonder. A miracle. A gift from the universe.

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What’s it all about?

I woke up this morning with the song, What’s it all about, Alfie? on auto-play in my head. It’s from the 1966 movie “Alfie,” which I’ve never seen. I was 9 years old in 1966.

To this day, I’m not entirely sure what the movie was about.

But I heard the song on the radio, and I used to play it at home on the piano (and sing along)  in high school. I loved the words to the song.

“Is it just for the moment we live?”

Sometimes, and it seems like more and more at this stage of my life, I do wonder, What’s it all about?

“And if only fools are kind, Alfie,
“Then I guess it is wise to be cruel.”

I suppose it’s natural when a person makes it to this point in their life to stop and take a look around, like a mountain climber on the pinnacle. Because, face it, at the age of 54, unless I live to be 108, I am more than halfway along this life’s journey.That puts a certain level of urgency on the choices I make about how I spend the rest of my time. Do I even have a bucket list?

“I know there’s something much more,
Something even non-believers can believe in.”

My life’s work for many years was raising my children. Since that’s been gone, (emergency trips to Buffalo, and an occasional move in a U-haul notwithstanding), I’ve been left with something of a void or loss of purpose. I don’t think this is any different than someone who retires after working for many years. At some point most of us will have to face this turning point where we’re no longer doing what we did.

Also, at this point in my life, as happens for many of us, I have to face the changes that are naturally occurring in my birth family, my rock-solid base for so many years, and recognize that nothing lasts forever.

“I believe in love, Alfie.
“Without true love we just exist, Alfie.”

It’s unsettling for me to stand at this pinnacle and look back into the rich past and all the days I was surrounded by those I love the best. It’s unsettling to stand here and look at the open path ahead. It’s no wonder men buy little red sports cars in midlife.

“When you walk, let your heart lead the way. . .”

I still love the words to the song.

The Pain Comes First

I know some people wonder why I can’t just enjoy life’s shining moments and be happy.

I will be happy.

But the pain comes first.

It’s hard for me to say goodbye to my adult children who live 6 – 7 hours away by car. It’s been impossible, so far, to say goodbye to our little eight-month-old grandson with dry eyes.

Today was particularly difficult after a long planned for weekend here at home. Mark and I cleaned and grocery shopped and changed sheets and set out towels and bought toys and baked.

One by one our kids arrived with fanfare. Some came with a friend. One came with a wife and child. Such happiness to have them here again, all together, sleeping and waking in the morning under our roof.

We filled the few precious days with laughter in our home and love in our hearts.

Now they’ve gone. Silence has returned to our house. Little reminders of their presence linger in a game left here, an empty wine glass there, a baby bottle cap here . . .

With time, I’ll put the baby’s toys away.

With time, we’ll set things to right and erase the evidence of the days we spent surrounded by our favorite people in the whole world.

With time, I’ll upload the photos from my camera to the computer. I’ll burn a DVD of home movies. I’ll revisit the memories, day by day, hour by hour, moment by glorious moment. I’ll remember and laugh and feel a warm glow of happiness.

With time.

But the pain comes first.

Waiting ’round the bend

Moon River, wider than a mile,
I’m crossing you in style some day.

Although it’s been played many times in many ways, Moon River is originally from the 1961 movie, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, based on Truman Capote’s 1958 novella. It is the story of a woman, Holly Golightly, played by Audrey Hepburn, making her way in the big city. According to www.reelclassics.com, this character has become Audrey Hepburn’s most memorable screen persona.

The DJ played Moon River at a wedding reception last night while the wedding party danced, and a wave of nostalgia swept over me. Maybe it is because it elicited childhood memories—my parents undoubtedly played it on the stereo when I was young.

Or maybe its poignancy lies in the vanishing dream of youth that it portrays.

 Oh, dream maker, you heart breaker,
Wherever you’re going I’m going your way.

In some ways it should be a joyful, uplifting song. It is about standing on a threshold, with the whole world before you.

Two drifters off to see the world,
There’s such a lot of world to see.

But the tune is not upbeat and joyful. It is a bit contemplative, reminiscent, or perhaps even mournful. Certainly full of yearning.

We’re after the same rainbow’s end—
Waiting ‘round the bend,
My huckleberry friend,
Moon River and me.

Now that I’m in the middle of my life, this song takes me back to the day when the whole world lay at my feet. Life was full of possibilities and promise.  Maybe I would start a career, find a spouse, have a family. All my own choices to make. And make them I did. Past tense.

When we’re in the middle of our life, we’ve had our children if we’re going to; we’ve made our careers and have either already retired from them, or are planning to as soon as possible.

At this point in my life, I am acutely aware of the passage of time. I don’t recall thinking about that when I was younger. Sure, I watched the clock in high school history class waiting for the minutes to pass when 45 minutes seemed like an eternity. I watched the years pass as we celebrated our childrens’ birthdays year after year. But I don’t think I contemplated the big scheme of things with regard to time. There was always another year, another party, another chance.

Now I know different. Everything is finite. We have a limited number of birthdays to celebrate; a limited number of visits with grandparents, parents, our children; a limited number of days. We’ve already done a lot of the things we set out to do.

We may have a beautiful journey still ahead of us, but we are no longer standing on the banks of Moon River.

We can only hope we’ve lived our life in a way that we will find that rainbow’s end we were after, waiting ‘round the bend.

Moon River, music by Henry Mancini, lyrics by Johnny Mercer, sung by Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

The grandmother, the little dog, and the baby

“The baby’s coming,” the grandmother tells the little white dog. The little white dog doesn’t care. He doesn’t know what a baby is.

The six-month-old baby comes in the night and gets whisked away to his room. The grandmother is elated. The little dog sniffs at the closed door. There’s something different in there.

In the morning the dog is worried about the baby. He wants to smell and lick him. But the grandfather, grandmother and parents won’t let him too near. The dog barks. The baby has strange smells and sounds funny. The baby babbles and cries. He drools and spits up small amounts of milk. His oatmeal gets smeared on his face.

The dog can’t get close.

The grandmother holds the baby on her lap. The dog gets put on a leash and kept just out of reach, close enough to smell but not to touch. The dog barks. The baby smiles. The grandmother says, “Hush” to the dog, and “Down.” The dog lies down at the grandmother’s feet. She gives him a small piece of chicken as reward.

The grandmother feeds the baby a bottle. The dog doesn’t eat breakfast. The dog doesn’t eat dinner. He can’t take time from his vigil of watching the strange creature that has somehow taken over the household. The dog eats only the chicken the grandmother gives him. But he gets a lot of chicken. The grandmother says, “Hush” and the dog lies down. He gets more chicken.

The dog is permanently on guard. He sleeps only when the baby sleeps.

The two short days come and go. The grandmother experiences love, joy and laughter. The dog experiences frustration and fear.

The baby gets packed up to leave. The grandmother kisses the baby. The dog watches the departure preparations.

The car drives away. The grandmother stands at the door holding the little white dog and cries silent tears. The dog watches the car drive away.

The house is quiet. The grandmother misses the gurgling and cooing of the baby. She finds herself listening for his cries.

The dog stretches out on the sofa and passes out for four hours. Relief at last.

Transitions are tough

Baby robins in a nest below our deck, taken May 23, 2010.

I woke up to the sound of bird songs punctuating the silence from the woods outside our open window .

As I got up and started to move about the house I found visual reminders that three of our four children drove or flew in and then back out this weekend—a discarded shoebox on a kitchen stool, a half-empty carton of soy milk, an unmade bed waiting for a change of sheets.

Transitions are the hard part in life—waiting at a bedside while someone wastes away to cancer; adjusting to a move; settling into a now largely empty and relatively quiet home.

Maybe it will feel different in a few years, or if one or more of our children decide to move back to our home town.

Our children are building their own lives and we are happy and feel rewarded by that. It is what every parent hopes for. And at 54 I don’t have the same energy that I needed for parenting when I was in my 20s, 30s and 40s. But our children’s growing independence, by necessity, brings a diminished role in their lives for me. Sometimes I feel like the holiday and crisis parent.

I think I had always imagined, or was hoping for . . . more.

May 27, 2010