Empty Nest: Heartache and Opportunity

“For 20 years, we packed lunches, helped with homework, and paid too many bills…”

Carl Love, columnist for The Press Enterprise

Carl Love, columnist for The Press Enterprise

So begins the lament of the empty-nester, in this case, Carl Love, a columnist at my local paper. I can identify. I’ve been providing child care for my two grandbabies for three years now, and each year is a tidal wave of diapers, teething, bottles, binkies, making breakfast and lunch, Play-Doh, stickers, crayons, building blocks, walks w/ and w/o strollers, buckling into carseats and swings, pool, park, naps, monitors, and potty chairs….

And: (take a breath) being greeted with “GRANDMA!!!” when I arrive in the morning, slobbery kisses, sharing a cup and seeing the little one learn to drink from it, reading the same book for the 3rd time in a row and sensing that someone is reluctant to leave the comfort of my lap, pushing on swings, playing in the sandbox, looking for me in a crowd, two babies crowding to get on either side of Grandpa in a recliner so HE can read the same book 3 or 4 times, stealing my Honey Nut Cheerios because they’re sweeter than the ones Mom buys, holding my hand, hugging my legs, stealing my sunglasses, watching Baby Einstein and turning around to grin with delight at the sight of their old buddy, the smiley caterpillar…all of a sudden, it ends. On the last day of Mommy or Daddy’s work year (both are teachers), I kiss the babies goodbye at their door and turn to get into my car, grateful but blinking back tears.

Such a transitional moment conjures reminders of mortality that cast a pall on the otherwise searing brightness of a late-spring afternoon. For all of the challenges, what can I do that is more precious or valuable? Now that I’ll have all that free time, what will be as meaningful? I think this is what Carl was feeling. He’s happy to have done his job well, but after so many days, months, years of a full house and schedule, living within a Short Attention Span movie, dealing with tired muscles/bones/joints and sleep deprivation, it just ends, and then what?

Somehow, it feels like the parade not only passed you by, but the cacophony faded and now you’re standing on the curb, alone in the silence. Questioning your place on the timeline, the existential questions you’ve been too busy to ask. Who are you now, with nobody to raise? And that seems to me the most exciting, frightening, confusing precipice over which to lean. The view could be sublime, if only we dare look.

The Human Experience

July is a poignant month for my family. My dad died in July, 2008. He and mom had just celebrated their 59th anniversary, on July 17. Three years after he died, Mom broke her leg and, in July, had to move from their beloved home in the high desert of Hesperia, California. That was in 2011. She just celebrated her 89th birthday last month. In spite of leg pain and other challenges, she’s doing great (I know many of you will remember my posts about her resisting the move.)

Just before she moved, three years ago, I wrote a post that reflects our aging experience: us, and caring for our elders, and the drive to be independent. I’m reposting it here in honor of my family. I hope you enjoy it.

I spent several hours at Mom’s house today. I alternate weekends with my SoCal sister. We get Mom’s mail, water her plants, check her phone messages, and just generally make sure all is well while she’s in the rehab hospital.

The sky really was that blue today

Yes, it’s inconvenient (it’s a 90-minute drive), but it’s short-term because she has agreed to sell her house, and this time I believe she will follow through. I’m glad, but also heartbroken. To think of them – them! but it isn’t “them” anymore, is it? It’s just her – not living up there ever again. Well, I’ve held off the tears all day but I guess I can’t forever. Time moves on, and we all get old and die.

I feel conflicted. I want her to move down by me (“up” and “down” relate to land elevation) for all the logical reasons, and then all of a sudden, like right now, I don’t want her to move at all. I want her to risk it, to inconvenience and vex and terrify us with her dogged determination to stay as long as she can in the house that she and Dad built. For me to yank her away from that – and then add in the heartbreaking, elegiac, mind-numbing beauty of the high desert – I can hardly bear the thought.

Poppies grow wild in her yard

It’s an end. I’d like to think it’s a beginning, too, but who can say? Mom is healthy and vibrant for almost-86, there’s no reason she can’t have a great ten more years. But will she have the courage to start over, to walk away from that place?

It hurts to think of losing it, because for ten years, Hesperia was my home, too. It was a difficult time, when I worked harder than any human should have to, and delayed my dreams, and saved everybody.

The memories are good and bad.

As a young single mother, I took my son Danny (now 33) on his paper route some weekend mornings when the snow made it impossible for him to ride his bike. One morning I ran over his foot, but the deep sand saved him and after we got over the shock, we laughed. And then newspapers stopped hiring kids and kids stopped getting up early and riding bikes and getting their first paychecks.

On the negative end, my previous marriage ended there. And Dad died up there! I wouldn’t live there now. Couldn’t. But I miss it.

When Dad and Mom build the house in the ’80s, they preserved the native juniper trees

But I digress. Today I worked my butt off, getting Mom’s house all spiffed-up for Amber to look at next Saturday. Amber might buy it. That would be nice, to know it’s still in the family. Amber is a dear friend of my step-daughter. So we would know the house that Dad and Mom built in the ’80s would be well cared for.

It was so beautiful up there today! I swear, when you live in such a place as the high desert, and especially on a spring day like today, you feel a sense of hope and optimism about rearing kids, growing your own food, having quiet and privacy and clean air and astounding skyscapes. You can pretend that you’re living life on your own terms. I imagine this is what people seek when they move to Idaho or Montana or the Dakotas.

This picture hints at the mountains they can see out the back AND the front of the house

Mom’s coming home to my house tomorrow. I started out being excited, and I still am, but we’ve had a couple of conversations since the hospital said they’d cut her loose, and I realize I’m a bloomin’ amateur. I see that Mom’s looking for ways (already) to cut corners and speed things up; and now I understand it’s not about reveling in the relative luxury of my house as compared to a rehab hospital. It’s about my house as stepping stone to – you guessed it – her house. I think she’s just biding her time until she can go home, and once she’s there, who knows? And my other sister, the one who hasn’t yet adapted to her new home near Canada, would do almost anything, including promising to take care of Mom, to be able to come south and thaw out for a couple of months.

So I rearrange furniture at my house to make Mom comfortable, to encourage her to stay, but like an inadequately compelling acquaintance, I know I don’t have much pull. Because I suspect she’s going home for good, even if she doesn’t yet say it. And the tears and frustration and anger of her children and grandchildren are nothing compared to the incense of creosote and sage calling to her from the high desert.

Turn up the volume and you’ll hear the wind chimes in her back yard.

 

 

Confused and then Freed by Forgiveness

Forgiveness is confusing.

When my dad died a few years back, a family member and her husband flipped out and attacked the rest of the family. I figure they misunderstood something, panicked and overreacted, and then they couldn’t back down for years, probably out of embarrassment or just not knowing how to stop without feeling stupid.

Then Mom fell and broke her leg and things began to change. The family member (FM), moved in with Mom. She helped with Mom’s convalescence and also organized and packed almost the entire house, which Mom had agreed to sell. Mom was scared and angry. She grieved Dad’s loss, that of her network of friends and of her beloved high desert. FM had to deal with that, as well as her own physical pain. She wasn’t in the best of health herself, but she remained stoic and kept working.

As time went by, FM began hinting at remorse and a desire for a better relationship. Which is what happened.

After all that went down, I can’t believe I came around to a place where forgiveness is possible. I don’t mean the kind of forgiveness where you accept that the offender is a total asshole and walk away, just to keep yourself healthy. No, this is the old-fashioned kind of forgiveness, where I actually feel compassion for FM, and derive no joy from her remorse.

Which is confusing. I had clung to my anger out of self-respect. Having been physically and verbally abused all through my childhood and first marriage, I swore I would never allow anyone to do that to me again. Forgiving an abuser feels like I’m still a doormat, like I’m once again capitulating to the dark forces.

Given the above, will I ever be able to maintain a self-protective wall of anger? Isn’t it necessary? How can I preserve my self respect if I go around forgiving all the time?

After a lot of thought, I’ve found my answer. I share it with you because it’s beautiful. It’s my gold watch, my gift of a long lifespan, the reward of having lived through family vitriol and come out the other side with my sanity:

Sometimes, it just doesn’t matter.

That’s the answer, and it’s shocking to me. Sometimes, it’s just not important to hang onto the anger. To quote one of my friend’s favorite sayings, “The tide comes in. The tide goes out.” Everything changes.

Recently, there was another dustup in my family (I know; we must be a bunch of brawlers, right?) But based on all the above experience, I’ve decided this too will pass. Or not. It doesn’t matter. I’ve gone on with my days, and I don’t think about it anymore. It’ll resolve itself or it won’t, but everything changes. You just have to go on, and have a good life. No sense spending all that precious energy hanging on to the anger.

This is yet another gift of older age. After a while, you earn resilience. Quite the silver lining, wouldn’t you say?


Reflections on a Birthday

I turned fifty-eight yesterday, so if you’ll permit me, I’d like to do a retrospective in pictures.

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My love affair with bread started early.

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Kindergarten was magical. At naptime the teacher played a recording of Claire de Lune. I still remember the image I saw in my 5-year-old head: Cinderella (me) and the Prince dancing under a rose arbor.

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Dad used to call me Freckle Face.

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Here I am in sixth grade. Mom made this dress. Slaved over that scalloped collar, I’m sure.

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In my senior pic, you can see I was in love with big hair.

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Happily married to Husband #1. This was Danny’s first birthday. I made that pantsuit. And underneath all that hair, my ex looked a lot like Clint Eastwood. We’re still friends.

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Everybody looked like this in the 80s.

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This was when I was in my thirties, in 1987. I was an up-and-coming
personnel manager, before they started calling it Human Resources.

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My husband, Bill Spreen, whom I was lucky enough to marry in 1997. You’ve read about him in this space before, enough to know he’s a real doll. And speaking of dolls, our granddaughter, Miranda, was born a few years later.

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In 2010 with Amy (who married Danny), and my new granddaughter Ella.

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2012: At fifty-eight, I’m older, wiser, more wrinkly, but still excited about the future! I totally get what Dr. Christiane Northrup means by “menopausal zest.” I haven’t felt this energetic since I was a kid. The other day I hardly ate, I was so involved in my work. Me, forgetting to eat? THAT’S new. Partly it’s because I want to get a whole lot done before August, when I will have the privilege of babysitting my (soon-to-be-born) grandson fulltime.
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Thanks for putting up with this little exercise. I guess I still can’t believe so much time has passed. When Mom laments over being “so old!” I remind her that what seems like a curse is a blessing: we humans, if we’re lucky, get to live many decades.
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Though much is lost, much abides,
And though
We are not now that strength that in old days
moved earth and heaven,
That which we are, we are.
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
made weak by time and fate
but strong in will,
to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
                                                               -  from Ulysses by Tennyson

Finding Friends in Middle-Age

You spent your life working and now, God willing, you’re looking at retirement. You’ll have time, glorious time! So you blow out the candles, go home with your plaque and sleep in the next day.

At first your life is full. You repot those straggly houseplants and organize your closets. Take a bag full of business outfits to Goodwill. Cook from your dusty recipe book. Watch the morning news shows. Meditate. Go to the gym right in the middle of the day. Woo hoo, livin’ la vida loca, girl!

But pretty soon you get caught up. Your calendar says your week is filled, but it’s all mundane: take dog to groomer, get nails done, don’t forget mammogram. Maybe you start a business from the guest bedroom, and that keeps you so busy that you don’t mind the absence of those coffee-fueled morning conversations you used to have with your buddies at work. If you’re lucky enough to have somebody at home whose company you enjoy, that helps. But after a while, you notice you don’t have any women friends. There’s something missing in your life, and it’s uncomfortable.

That’s how it went for me, anyway. At middle-age, I realized I had few friends. Worse, I didn’t know how to find new ones.

I’m an introvert so it was even more daunting.

So I read The Friendship Crisis: Finding, Making, and Keeping Friends When You’re Not a Kid Anymore by Marla Paul. Marla says finding new friends at our age is harder because our peers aren’t looking. By now, they generally have all the friends they need, so you have to sort of sneak up on them. You go where the prospects are, engage in an activity that makes you happy on its own merits, and then you and the targets just naturally fall into conversation (keeping it light at first). If there’s a spark, you’ll know. Bonus points for meeting multiple times at the activity (pottery class, golf, book club) without the pressure of a first date (“Hey, want to get a cup of coffee sometime?” is awkward, IMHO).

I know you want me to end this with “…and then after a while I had tons of friends!!” but that didn’t happen. At the time I was living in Palm Desert, California, where half my neighbors were snowbirds who left town six months out of the year. The rest of the population was at work. Tumbleweeds blew down the street. So Bill and I moved to what Dr. Phil would call a target-rich environment: a 55+ community an hour away where the residents live year-round and are eager to make friends. I joined activities that made me happy, like book club and golf, and friendships began to form.

I now know that the best way to make friends later in life is to find the activity and let the friendship follow. That’s my advice, but maybe you have some ideas, too. Have you had this experience, and if so, how did you handle it?

Were You Raised to Be a Doormat?

Yesterday a difficult acquaintance caught me at the grocery store and cried on my shoulder about a big problem she was having. I was surprised because her problem was really personal and we don’t know each other well, but she was distressed so I listened and made sympathetic noises. When I saw a decent opening, I bolted.

Later, I told Mom that I hadn’t wanted to hear about the woman’s problems because it made me feel obligated, but more than that, I wondered why she’d dumped that load on me.

“She probably feels comfortable with you,” said Mom. “Maybe she doesn’t have anybody else. It’s a compliment.”

A light went off in my brain as I recognized the sound of old, familiar propaganda.

Like many of you, I was taught to sacrifice my own interests in service to others. If a person who everybody else avoids reaches out to us, we feel honored to be singled out. Because we’re special – stronger, more patient, more broad-minded than those wimpy others who would simply give up.

I was taught to think, “I must really have something, that this person needs me.” What I didn’t see was that normal people avoided the abusers. Normal people valued themselves enough to protect their time and energy, whereas I labored to help the crackpots change and do better. When I first got hired in human resources, I was practically codependent.

I had the look of a victim. 

I understand that my parents thought they were teaching me compassion, but they went too far toward love and not enough in the direction of self-defense. It would have been good if they’d taught me to squint, Clint Eastwood-style, when I encountered potential users.

I once read a book called The Sociopath Next Door (yep, that’s what floats my boat) by Martha Stout. Toward the end she said, now that you know everything about a sociopath, you’ll want me to tell you how to protect yourself. How to see them coming. And the answer is, you can’t, not really, because they look for people who are nice, because those people are more easily manipulated.

Well, isn’t that great.

Even if you never meet a sociopath, you still have to have some filters, because even good people can tend to take, take, and take some more. Here’s an article by Dr. Judith Orloff about maintaining balance in a vampire relationship.

Now that I’m older I consciously resist looking like an easy mark or sending out signals that say, “Use me! Use me!” After many years in HR, two failed marriages, and countless one-sided relationships, I have developed a strategy. I offer it to you.

At first you take a little chance on a person, without making an irrevocable commitment. Then you look for reciprocity – does the person give you something ethical in return? Time, effort, repayment, career help, etc.?

Or instead of looking for reciprocity, observe and track the person’s behaviors. Discount any talk of big dreams or undeserved heartache; watch the patterns. If you see a track record of selfish behavior, lack of follow-through, or narcissism, arm yourself. The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Act accordingly.

I understand that there’s a risk in taking this hard-line approach. You can’t shut down or become a recluse. Compassion is good! We need more of it. Also, this rule gets a little wobbly when you’re dealing with children or young people because they’re not fully formed. I cut them more slack than mature adults.

Here’s a weird outcome of my new thinking: I don’t feel quite so special. I’m average, not heroic. I no longer have bragging rights. (More about that in a previous post, The Courage to Be Average.)

Although it’s good to be heroic, I’d reserve that for pulling kitties out of trees. In the meantime, I implore you to teach your kids or grandkids the squinty-eye. It just might save them from being drained and manipulated by the weirdos, narcissists and slackers who depend on a friendly face and big heart for all their energy needs.

This Is What Sixty Looks Like

Renee Fisher

This is a delicate subject.

When people say I look good for my age I feel like I’ve been given an illicit prize. It’s a race I’m not running. I don’t deserve acclaim. Besides, don’t they see my turkey neck? How low are their standards?

But I digress. What I meant to say is, why do we care?

It’s not a competition, or it shouldn’t be.

I feel awkward when age comes up. If a person says I don’t look fifty-seven, I don’t want to say “thanks!” because that reinforces the premium we put on youth. And if a person proudly announces to me, “I’m seventy-five!” I don’t know what to say. “Congratulations”? I admit I have sometimes coughed up what was expected: “You look great!” or “You look so much younger!” But I always feel stupid, because the comment feels wrong.

Ditto if someone says, “You’re my daughter’s age,” or “I could be your mother.” I say nothing. It’s so fraught. What would you recommend? “I’d love to have you as a mother?” If a person says, “I’m so old and tired today, I feel plum worn out,” you would say, “I’m sorry.” But if a person says, “I’m old enough to be your mother,” I just clam up.

Yes, I know this won’t be a problem much longer. Anybody old enough to be my mother will be dead. But still, I swear I am not going to make comments like this to any younger women, ever. Age is going to have to become irrelevant unless I’m going to the doctor.

I saw the same sentiment in a book I mentioned recently, Saving the Best for Last. The authors apparently felt it was important enough to put it in chapter one. When her friend died, Renee Fisher decided that she would view every year as a gift, and she would own her age, whatever it was. If anyone tells her now that she doesn’t look her age, she looks them in the eye like, what did you expect? and says, “This is what sixty looks like.”

Her co-author, Joyce Kramer says,

“As I turned fifty, I experienced myself as the most beautiful woman I had ever been in my life because at fifty I liked myself.”

Isn’t that something to aspire to? At our age, we’re tough enough to achieve that kind of equanimity. If enough of us do it, it could become the cultural norm. Wouldn’t that be a great gift to leave our kids?

Merry Christmas to all my readers. I wish you long life and happiness, and I love you all for sharing this little space in, well, space. Best wishes for a beautiful 2012. I’ll see you in two weeks.

What If We Didn’t Consider Aging a Problem?

Rossellini younger

The world is a magical place limited to some extent by our low expectations.   Today while I was meditating these ideas bubbled up:

  • If it’s true that forming a new habit takes 21 days of repetition, shouldn’t we be able to form a new habit every 21 days? So if you picked three new things you want to groove into your brain (say, meditation, Kegels and exercise), and did them for a month, wouldn’t you have three new habits? Over a year you could develop 36 new habits/behaviors. Is that really possible? What a better person I could be in a year if that were true.
  • What if you looked in the mirror on a regular basis and thought, “You’re smart! You’re pretty! Dang, you’re awesome.” Oh, put away the modesty. You love yourself, right? Why not unabashedly tell yourself that? Oprah does, or at least I assume she does. I wrote about it here. I think it would feel wonderful if we could stop with the negativity and start celebrating ourselves. My shrink used to say, “change the behavior and the feelings will follow.” Isn’t that a lovely thought? What if we could change our feelings simply by acting like we believe it?

Rossellini older

Okay, now that I’ve laid the groundwork, now that you are floating on a bubble of what might be, I would like to share with you a fabulous anecdote. A reporter asked Isabella Rossellini what she does to try to look younger. She fixed him with that half-mocking, studious look of hers and said, “I do nothing. I don’t think aging is a problem.”

Can you imagine feeling this way? Let me create a mental image for you: we look in the mirror and see that our necks are veiny, our eyes are surrounded by a starburst of lines and our hair is thinning. We shrug, because we know that looks go away.

We accept with a peaceful heart and good humor that older women look different from younger women. We marvel at their strength and ability to bend down and reach into the lower shelves, and we hand them things to carry and put away because they can. We laugh, knowing we’re taking advantage. They laugh, knowing it’ll be their turn one day. It’s all good. It’s just the way of the planet.

What would that feel like? What if we acted as if we believed it for twenty one days? Change the behavior and the feelings will follow.

Happy Thanksgiving to all my AST friends. I am grateful for the companionship we share.

The Opposite of a Bucket List

You know what a Bucket List is: that list of the things you feel you absolutely must do before you die.

By definition, that would have to be one heavy list. First of all, it ends with your death, and second, there’s probably stuff on it like sky diving (Nanci can cross that off hers) and start a literacy program and reconcile with that icky family member you’ve been avoiding for the past fifty years.

Well, I’m tired of the pressure. Life is hard enough without having a giant existential To Do list, so I’ve decided to rebel.

I’ve decided to start a “F*** It” List.

On this list, I will itemize all the things I’m going to not do, ever. So far this is what is on it:

  • play piano
  • speak Spanish
  • look young
  • read the classics
  • have beautiful nails
  • care about how I look naked from the back

I’m having so much fun with this list. Every time I add something, my shoulders relax, like I just had a good massage, or therapy.

This list is becoming increasingly useful for another reason. I was cleaning out my inbox the other day, and there was a stack of recipes I’m planning to try. Except I found myself thinking F*** It. And I threw them in the trash.

It felt so good that I figured I’m on to something.

Here are two things people (starting with my Mom) have always said about me:

You work too hard.

You worry too much.

Not anymore, girlfriends! Because I have discovered the F*** It List.

Ahhhhhh.

Go ahead, try it. But first, tell us, what would you put on your very own F*** It List?

The Courage to Be Average

Not me.

I used to be a hero. That sounds conceited, but I mean it in the sense that I put everybody before myself. I sacrificed for the good of others, and refused to accept help. Many women are brought up this way.

In my mid-forties, I began to treat myself as well as I had
everybody else.

But I still I worry about certain people whom I love, and usually I discuss my concerns with my husband, who has been a good mentor to me. (Vice versa, he says. Nice.)

Recently I was venting my pain and confusion about a troubled friend of mine, and Bill said something so smart that I had to write it down. And then I decided to share it with my friends at Any Shiny Thing. Bill said of my friend, “She has a strange life but it’s not your responsibility.”

How liberating to hear it put that way. I’m not responsible for saving her, fixing her, or changing her. (She is not in any mental or physical danger, and has not asked for my opinion or my help.) How she lives her life is not only not my responsibility, it’s none of my business.

It’s her life. Hers to choose, hers to decide. Who am I to “help” her?

I used to try to change people, but I’ve learned that my advice isn’t always useful or applicable. I also have come to understand that most people change when they’re good and ready, not when you want them to. Hell, that lesson was the whole purpose for meeting my last ex-husband. So I have to let things go.

This is a humbling thing to accept, because it means I’m no longer the hero.

It’s hard to sit back and let people live their own lives. You want to help. You want them to like you or think well of you. You want to think well of yourself. Leaving them alone means you have nothing to feed off of, and it takes a pretty strong ego to let it go. But my message is, it’s freeing.

So what if nobody thinks you’re awesome?

Years ago, I told my boss I was a perfectionist. Like many people who say this, I said it with a bit of pride. He smiled at me and said, “Perfectionists fear criticism.”

Crushed! I was humiliated, but he was right, of course. It takes more guts to be imperfect than perfect, and it takes more guts to be average than non-heroic. Now that I realize this, I’m trying to hang up my cape.

What a relief to let it go.