A little while back, I violated three of my own friendship rules.
I was friends (and still am, I hope) with Edie, a woman who was often at odds with her adult daughter, Fran.
We’d meet quite often for lunch, or shopping, or Yoga, or just coffee, and she’d give me her ‘upset smile.’ (We all know what that is – we all have an upset smile, and we all know what everyone else’s looks like.) I’d know she had argued with her daughter again.
Edie was distraught at least once a week by Fran’s behavior.
When Fran graduated from college, she moved to the Midwest, and so the biggest issues revolved around visiting. Fran was not coming to visit. Or she did come to visit but spent most of the day with her girlfriends, so it didn’t count. Or Fran spent too much time with her father (Edie’s ex), and Edie’s feelings were hurt. Or Edie flew out to see Fran, but Fran had an emergency at work and couldn’t take the day off, or Fran invited Edie, but asked her to stay in a hotel.
And there were arguments. In person, by phone, by text. Edie’s house was too dated. Fran’s apartment was not tidy. They couldn’t agree on a restaurant. Edie was too critical. Fran was too critical. Each thought the other was a bad driver, a bad dresser, a bad example.
I listened to all of it. But I didn’t just listen.
And that is why I violated three of my interpersonal rules.
First: Rule Number One: Always remember that there are many different kinds of families.
I never for one minute doubted that Edie and Fran loved each other. But not all relationships are sweet and supportive. I know more than one family whose love is intense – usually of the shouting variety. Some mother/daughter love is based on mutual dependence. Some are formal – like a throwback to Queen Victoria. Some are best friends. And some are combative.
But it’s still love.
That was my first mistake. That I thought Edie’s relationship with her daughter should be different.
Which leads me to Rule Number Two: Don’t take sides in other people’s squabbles.
When I was a kid, my mother had a pact with all the other neighborhood mothers. They agreed never to interfere in the kids’ squabbles. As my mother put it, “You kids will fight and make up in half an hour. But us mothers – if we get involved, we may end up enemies forever.”
But I wanted to fix Edie and Fran.
At first, I tried presenting Fran’s side, since she was not there to defend herself from Edie’s complaints. I reasoned that maybe the stress from Fran’s job spilled over into her personal relationships, and she was just exhausted. But my rationalizing Fran’s behavior made Edie feel like her own friend (me) was not on her side. She even wondered aloud whether Fran had contacted me to gang up on her mother.
So then I took the other side. I told Edie that she had every right to be upset, that her daughter should be more respectful, more flexible. But then Edie felt compelled to defend the daughter she loved so much, and was angry at me for criticizing her beloved baby. That strategy worked better, because then Edie felt more forgiving towards her daughter. But the downside was that she was mad at me.
Which is why Rule Number Two is so important.
I wanted to fix Edie and Fran. But they didn’t need fixing. They always made up, but my friendship with Edie suffered.
Which leads me to Rule Number Three: Listen.
This one did not come from Mom. This was something I learned gradually (and rather surprisingly) during my career.
When I became a manager, I had to deal not only with my subordinates’ performance, but with their personalities, attitudes, and issues.
When my staff was at its largest (about 35), it wasn’t unusual to have at least one person a day come to me upset about something.
I was working at a break-neck pace myself, and seeing another distraught face emerge in my doorway often put my own deadlines in peril.
But over time, I stumbled on an amazingly successful response.
I would say to the aggrieved employee, “I’m swamped, as usual, but I can give you five minutes right now if all you need is to vent, or I can schedule you for an hour later in the week to have a deeper discussion.”
And incredibly, almost every single time, the employee would opt for the five-minute gripe session.
Rule Number Three: Most people do not need or want you to solve their problems. They want you to LISTEN.
And that is my biggest mistake with Edie. I didn’t need to fix anything. I didn’t need to take sides. I didn’t need to give her advice.
All I had to do was listen.
And she would feel better.
And in these times of turmoil and worry, if I am ever lucky enough to have coffee with Edie again, and she complains about Fran, I will say,
“I can see it’s making you sad. I’m so sorry.”
And I hope she will feel better.
It’s July. We haven’t put the lounge chairs on the patio yet. We never opened the hot tub. The peonies and roses came and went without even one gracing our kitchen table.
2020 is half gone, and I know the second half will disappear as well. It’s as if the whole country – the whole world – is in a coma. We’re not sure when we will awake, but it seems distant.
What happens to a lost year?
I feel bad for all the children who never had a birthday celebration. But then again, losing a year when you have so many ahead of you seems – well, not trivial – but manageable.
But what if you don’t have so much time left? Losing a year when you are old seems tragic.
I’m sixty-nine. Not so old. I’ve always considered middle-age to last until age seventy. I am losing the last year of middle-age. When the world finally comes back to life, I will officially be old.
I’ve spent the whole of my middle years in a determined effort to be not middle-aged. But I didn’t intend to lose a year of it.
I worked at being youthful. And I am – thanks to hair dye, sunscreen, makeup, contact lenses, and the most fashionable outfits I could afford. And Zumba and Yoga and crunches.
But now I am out of time. And I (and everyone else) have been cheated out of a year.
I didn’t waste the last six months entirely. I finished the manuscript of my third novel. I painted portraits. I even housebroke the dog who was figuring to be unhousebreakable. (Or more likely, he just finally figured it out, but I will gladly claim victory over peepee.)
But I still somehow feel like I have missed an important deadline.
I am well-educated. I’ve had reasonable success in my career – which I define as making good money at something you like well enough. I retired when I was ready, and returned to my childhood dream of becoming a novelist.
But I had another childhood aspiration.
Despite being grateful for my brains and my artistic abilities, and as shallow as I know it is to admit it, what I have really wanted since I was five was to be beautiful.
Oh, I know I am not ugly. I’m fine. But how I have wanted to be more than fine!
I’m a late bloomer for sure. Really late. I looked better in my forties than in my twenties. It was a gradual process for me, a slow understanding of how to accentuate what I liked about myself. Even more important, I needed to learn to like myself.
I wrote an essay three years ago listing the things I liked about myself. I wrote that I thought I was quite pretty. Imagine that, at 66! I felt that there were three possible explanations of why I would feel pretty after all these years:
A) I finally understand how to make the most of what I’ve got.
B) I was always pretty but I didn’t know it.
C) I actually and mysteriously got prettier as I aged.
And the answer was: D) All of the above.
But now I am sixty-nine, and the year is a total loss. We are all looking ahead to 2021. When I will be seventy.
Pretty in middle age – but not beautiful. I didn’t quite make it. I came so close but I have run out of time.
I think a lot about what it will mean to be seventy.
In some ways, I think it will be freeing.
I’ve always fallen into the trap of comparison. I’m pretty but that woman is prettier. I’m smart but that person is smarter. I’m successful but that guy is more successful.
Or, in my vanity: I’m not athletic, but I’m more athletic than that guy. And at my worst: I’m not beautiful, but I am more beautiful than her.
I hope at seventy I can give that up.
A friend recently told me, “You will never not care about being stylish.”
That’s probably true. I don’t think I will ever go out of the house without makeup. My mother is 96, and still makes sure she has her eyebrows drawn in case anyone visits. It’s genetic, you see.
And I can’t picture myself in elastic-waist pants in lavender double-knit polyester.
But who knows? Maybe I would rock those slacks.
On the other hand, I worry a lot, too much I’m sure, about looking foolish.
I don’t want to be one of those old ladies still trying to look like a teenager. I don’t want long blonde beachy hair in a pruny face. The kind of person who looks great from a distance, but makes folks wince close up. I fear being pathetic.
Years ago, I made a pact with the women in my office that we would tell each other – kindly – if we wore something too young for us. We decided the code would be, “What a cool blouse. My daughter would love it.”
But now I’m retired. I’m afraid no one will tell me.
Someday – soon – I will need to give up my skinny jeans.
There’s an appeal, however, to comfortable shoes. Within limits, of course. Returning back to my genes, last year, my mother tried on a pair orthopedic shoes and said to the saleslady, “I’m sorry, but I’m just not ready yet for ugly shoes.”
Oh, but there’s a lot of room between stilettos and crocs. Between skinny jeans and polyester slacks.
There are luxurious materials and classic hairstyles. There are non-feathering lipsticks. And gorgeous earrings.
And inner peace.
It’s too late to be a beautiful middle-aged woman.
But it is so early to get a start on being a beautiful old woman.
Since I’m writing off the rest of 2020, I think I will be old now.
I may like it.
Like everyone in the world, I love music.
But I am not a connoisseur. I don’t collect music. I don’t have a fancy music-playing thing – are people still using ipods and mp3s? I don’t even know. The last time I bought music it was The Best of James Taylor. I listen to the radio in the car. I like the radio. I don’t mind at all that someone else is choosing the songs. If it’s something I don’t like, it’s only a few minutes before I get to hear something else. It’s like the easiest gambling in the world. Once in a while, the absolutely perfect song comes on. What is absolutely perfect depends. But it’s perfect often enough.
Sometimes when I am doing my hair and makeup, I play some upbeat music to put myself in a good mood. Because I am not a music techie (not any kind of techie, and I don’t even know how to spell it and don’t feel like looking it up, so let’s just go with the spelling I have) – I just go to Youtube on my phone and pull up a song. That’s about the only song I pick, and then I let whatever comes up next surprise me… just like the car radio.
On Saturday, my brother-in-law sent me an email to remind me that “The Music Man” was going to be on TV in a few hours. He knows that’s my favorite movie – he’s been my brother-in-law for more than fifty years, for Pete’s sake – so he often sends me a reminder.
So when I was doing my makeup yesterday – and yes, I still put on makeup every day even though I never go anyplace – I called up Youtube and put on “Seventy-Six Trombones” – not the earlier number in the movie, but the finale number – when the credits are rolling. “The Music Man” is the only film I can think of where I actually get choked up with delight during the credits.
So I listened, and kept stopping my makeup application to peek at the screen, since the scene is so awesome. It’s like a one-thousand member marching band.
And after watching/listening twice through, I went back to my makeup.
With all the fancy algorithms today that predict what you will like based on what you have already chosen, I expected the next song to come up would be something related – a song from another musical or movie or from the same composer maybe. But it wasn’t.
For some reason that I cannot fathom, I heard the opening intro to Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary”: “We never ever do nothing nice and easy…”
I stopped my makeup and backed up the video.
It was a video of a live performance from 2009.
I have now watched it seven times. Then I watched a performance from back in the day – 1971, and then another live version from 2000. And then there was one from back in 1982.
1982 was about when I went a Tina Turner concert. It was an awakening for me.
Tina was in her mid 40s then. She said that when people asked her when she was going slow down and she always answered, “I’m just getting started.”
Well, she wasn’t just get started – she was at her peak. It’s just that her peak was lifelong.
What astonished me about Tina was her open, powerful sexuality.
I had never seen a woman so confident in her body. From up in the balcony, you could feel it.
Tina Turner was good looking, that was a fact. But she was not exceptionally beautiful. Nor did she have a fantastic body. It was good, but not awesome – her shoulders are a bit too broad, her neck a bit too thick.
But those great legs and that wide-apart aggressive stance – she dominated the stage. With every move and with every note in her growling voice, she exuded sex.
It astonished me.
My idea of sexuality was so different from what I was seeing, hearing, and feeling with Tina.
Up until I saw Tina Turner, my concept of sexuality was built on images of Marilyn Monroe. I adored Marilyn. And she was – to me – the epitome of sensuality. And because of Marilyn, I defined sensuality as fragile, vulnerable, self-conscious.
But here was Tina. There wasn’t a drop of fragility or self-consciousness in her. Her sexuality in one word was: Powerful.
I wondered at the time, and still wonder today, what gives a woman that confidence. What makes her know – and love – that she is a physical, sexual force?
Was she born that way? Was it a gradual awakening? Did she have moments of doubt?
I was in my early 30s when I saw Tina. I was as insecure in my body at 30-something as I was at 12. My sexuality in one word: Excruciating.
Every woman I know is self-conscious about her body. How is that the norm and Tina the exception? How we waste the expression of our astonishing bodies! I wished at the time that Tina would teach a course in body fearlessness.
I think of all the videos of Proud Mary I’ve now watched, I think the one I love the most is the one that took me by surprise on Saturday – the one from 2009.
Tina Turner is the age then that I am now – only a few months away from 70. Has she slowed a bit? Maybe, but not much. Can she still deliver the full force of her rough and tough vocals? Absolutely. Is she still aware of her sexual power? Oh yes.
Tina is 80 now. I would still enroll in Tina’s School of Body Confidence.
I’m in the editing process for my new novel.
My narrator, like myself (what a coincidence), digresses quite a bit as she tells her story. One story reminds her of another story, which reminds her of another story. But all these little side trips advance the plot or reveal her character or someone else’s.
But sometimes the narrator digresses a little too far. I had nothing to do with this of course – it is all her fault. But my editor has pointed out that a few of these side trips don’t really advance the storyline. They have to go.
Oh, that makes me so sad. I know there are some authors who doubt every word they write. They worry that their writing is garbage. That’s not me. I love all the words I create. Every sentence is my baby.
One particular non-essential side-trip needed to be cut entirely. It was obvious that the whole thing had to go because lifting it out didn’t make one bit of difference to the story. So okay – out you go.
But here’s the sad part. This little anecdote was really cute.
I know, I know… since I’m in love with my own writing, I realize it may not actually be as wonderful as I think it is. But it’s like when you know your child is a genius even though he’s almost nine and still pronounces it ‘pasghetti.’ He’s your kid. He’s endearing, not weird.
I could save those few paragraphs. Maybe use them someday in some other story. Maybe I could make a blog out of that anecdote. That would be a stretch though, since it totally fictitious. Perhaps I can use it as an allegory.
Ah, wait. That’s what I’m doing now.
Because sometimes something you love just isn’t working for you anymore.
It might be a job or a relationship. It may be as simple as a favorite pair of jeans that are falling apart. Or as complex as a friendship that suddenly feels painful.
But whatever it is, you love it. You don’t really want to stop loving it.
Years ago, I left a job that that had turned very unpleasant. A job I had devoted myself to for fifteen years. I loved that job. But the last year or two had been awful. When I left, I felt terrible for a long time. I hated that job and what it had become. But eventually – thankfully -I saw it differently. I saw it as a great job. It was a shame that it wasn’t a good fit at the end, but that’s all it was – a good job that didn’t last forever.
Like my discarded anecdote, I think you have to say goodbye to good things that are no longer quite so good.
Love what it used to be. Love what it used to mean to you.
So what did I do with the unnecessary but cute anecdote?
I didn’t save it for another day.
I hit ‘delete.’
My novel is fine. I am fine.
I’m glad I wrote it. I’m glad I let it go.
Do not worry about your hair during a pandemic.
You look just FINE.
I have finished the first draft of my new novel. Yea for me!
It is off at the editor’s and now I am stuck.
Stuck between that story and whatever come next.
Because I can’t quite shake that story. I’m still in there.
The story is set in 1968 and the main character is a junior in high school. Which is an amazing coincidence, since I just happened to be a junior in high school in 1968. The story isn’t about me though, except that the kid is funny and smart and oh-so-ready to trade the Funny and Smart for a little dose of Pretty.
And like me, my protaganist is stuck. Stuck between wanting to fit in and wanting to stand out. Wanting to be like everyone else and wanting to be unique.
I think I am stuck there still. Maybe everyone is – throughout their lives.
Writing about high school more than 50 years later is an amazing experience.
Because it all returns. It’s not coming out of the mist. It’s tangible. It’s yesterday. I’m there.
I remember the corridors and the sounds that lockers make when they slam. I remember the smell of the heavy curtains in the auditorium, the worn spots in the middle of every step in the staircase. The display cabinets of trophies, the scratchy PA systems.
I remember every outfit I ever wore, and which ones were my favorites. I even remember specific outfits my friends wore. I remember my friends’ shoes. I remember the emphatic gestures of my French teacher. I remember everyone closing their books thirty seconds before the bell rang. I remember who sat with who at which table in the lunchroom. I remember hall passes and study halls, and pop quizzes.
And love and almost love and crushes.
And now that I have spent months writing about it all, I’m stuck there.
It makes me wonder about memory in general. My memories are so vivid, but does that make them true?
I have some friends from back then who are still my friends. One in particular spoke recently about a high school memory. It was a memory of ME. But the weird thing is that I didn’t remember the incident at all. How in the world can a memory of me exist apart from me? It’s like I’m starring in someone else’s movie.
But there’s no way I can tell my friend, No that didn’t happen, when her memory is as strong as mine is nonexistent.
Now why would that one little incident leave such an indelible print on her and didn’t take up even one cell of my own brain? I believe the answer must be based on what any experience means to you. So then, this little moment meant something to her, and not to me.
But then again, she doesn’t even know what it meant. Because it only meant something to her at the time, when the memory was made; not now. She doesn’t remember the why of it, only the what.
And here’s another crazy piece: Now, just a week or so after the conversation of the memory/memory lapse – I can’t even remember what the incident was. What were we even talking about, and what was this memory that she shared? It’s gone. All I remember now is being surprised that I couldn’t recall that moment. And now I can’t recall THAT moment, if you know what I mean.
How can I not remember the specifics of a conversation that happened a week ago? I remember 52 years ago, jumping up from my seat as the bell rang, and catching my skirt in the spiral notebook of the boy in the seat behind me, and how I lifted my skirt really high so he could unsnag me. How we were both embarrassed and delighted at the same time.
Yes I was stuck then too.
And yes, that scene appears in my new book, but in writing it, I let a friend have that little scene.
Let her wonder why she doesn’t remember it.
I haven’t written much lately – let me rephrase that:
I haven’t been blogging lately.
But I AM writing. I’m working on a new novel. My target to finish the first draft is the end of June. Then comes all the rewrites and edits. As any writer will tell you, that is usually a longer process than the first draft.
There’s a good reason for this. When you’re writing, the most important thing to do first is just get it all down. Writer Anne Lamott calls this the “shitty first draft.” It doesn’t have to be good. It just has to BE.
Making it good comes later. And that’s why the rewrite takes longer.
But I haven’t given up on blogging. I love that too.
Writing a novel is a very solitary business. Until you are ready to share – with an editor, a reader – no one even knows what the hell you’re even doing.
But blogging is social. You write something. You share it immediately. And people respond. Blogging is communication right from the start. Writing a novel is only communication at the very end.
I love both processes.
It’s also a difficult time for all of us right now. Most of us have more time than ever, but stress is making it difficult to concentrate – to make the best use of that time. I refuse to feel guilty when I have unproductive days.
I hope you are being generous and forgiving to yourself too.
On days when I need a distraction, I paint. As I have already shared with you, I have been painting portraits of people who I admire. People who inspire me.
Here are my latest Hero portraits.
My blogs may be irregular for a while.
But I’ll be here.
Do you ever find yourself in this situation? … (Oh, please say you do… I do not want to feel like the weirdest person in the room) …
You are getting a bit low on some product – it could be toothpaste or hair spray or even salad dressing, so the next time you are shopping, you pick up a replacement. But because it’s on sale, or it catches your attention, or you are just a fickle brat, you don’t buy the same brand. You try something new.
And then you are so keen to try the new product, you break it out right away. You start using the new toothpaste. You open the new salad dressing.
And the old product, which was just fine, sits there with 10% left in the tube, bottle, can, jar, vial, bag, envelope, box, tub.
And in the fridge, and under the sink, and in the bathroom cabinet are multiple, almost-empty tubes, bottles, cans, jars, vials, bags, envelopes, boxes and tubs. All these lonely vessels abandoned in your eagerness to try something new. Your eagerness, your passion, your obsession to get to the next thing.
Is this an American compulsion? An illness of Western civilization? Or is it part of the universal human experience?
(Or am I alone nuts?)
I am beginning to believe all the nearly-but-not-quite empty containers are indicative of a distinctly American phenomenon:
The Glorification of ‘Moving On’
I believe in Forgiveness. I believe in it with all my heart.
But I also believe there is something wrong with our inability to hold an emotion (or an idea) for any length of time without people thinking we are fixated. That we should just “get over it” – whatever “it” is.
Sometimes it is appropriate to be sad or angry or afraid. And okay to stay that way for a while.
I know people who are considered overwrought because they grieve for a loved one for what is considered “too long”.
I know people who are considered fantatics because they recognize injustice and make it their lives’ work to right that wrong.
I know people who are considered hysterical because they insist on answers to questions and will not stop asking those questions.
And all these people are told to “Get Over It” – they should just “Move On”.
It’s as if a short attention span is an admirable state.
And yes, maybe we are happier if we just go on the the next thing, and don’t dwell on anything for very long.
But wouldn’t that also mean that love doesn’t last, and lies don’t matter? And people can hurt us without consequences?
It may not matter if the old jar of moisturizer hangs around in the cabinet because I am distracted by the shiny new one.
But it may matter if I don’t hold my government officials accountable for unethical behavior because I am too distracted by shiny new promises to remember the broken ones.
I for one am resolving to do my part:
I am finishing the Colgate before I open the Crest.
I am finishing the muenster before I open the provolone.
And I am reconsidering all my half-used makeup –
To decide –
which ones are worth keeping
which ones were mistakes I made and need to admit
which ones have clearly gone bad.
Maybe there is an analogy here?
- This post was first published in 2017 .
I am painting a series of watercolor portraits of people that inspire me.
It is my way to stay optimistic through this worry and sadness.
This is Tori.
Tori is the daughter of a former co-worker
Tori is a nurse.
Tori is now Covid-19 positive.
Tori is a hero.
I haven’t written lately.
I don’t even know what to say during these horrible days.
But I’ll take a few minutes to ramble. Maybe it will help.
Is it possible to be bored and terrified at the same time?
The hardest thing this past month has been not seeing my mother. She’s 96 and I can’t put her at risk. On the other hand, I need to see her. I spoke to her often on the phone these past few weeks, and afterwords I would cry a bit. After four weeks though, I just had to look at her face. So two days ago I went and picked up her laundry (which she left on the porch) and spoke to her through the partially opened door. And yesterday I brought it back, and looked at her face again. It’s not much, but it comforted me.
Is your patience at the breaking point? I find myself powering through, priding myself on my self-control. And then – over nothing much – I snap. The other day I made a nice roast, and I had just taken it out of the oven to let it “rest,” and I asked my husband to make a salad. This is our normal routine. But I left the kitchen for a moment and when I returned, he was not making a salad. He was carving the too-hot roast. And I cried.
I understand crying because I miss my mother. But crying because the roast was carved too early?
And my poor pets. One minute I am cuddling with them or playing tug of war. The next minute I am yelling at them to stop the very behavior I found so adorable five minutes before. They have a fruitcake for a mom.
I think we (because it cannot be just me) are balanced so precariously at this moment. We are holding it together, but on our very tiptoes at the edge of the precipice. It doesn’t take much to tip us over.
Then there is the balance between knowledge and obsession. I feel this overpowering urge to know every moment the latest statistics, the latest projections, the latest efforts, the latest outrage. But I also know this isn’t doing me any good. I need to understand what is happening in the world, but I only have control over my own actions. I have to force myself to take even one hour off from the problems of the world.
I am at heart a happy person. But I worry.
Once, years ago, my brother, who was perhaps four year old, went missing for a short time at a lakeside party. Even sixty years later, I can clearly see my mother’s panic-stricken face. And all through these many years since, I cannot “just relax” at the water’s edge. When my husband and I go to the beach, I spend most of my time counting heads. I watch every child. Where is the girl in the pink bathing suit? Where is that little chubby boy? I watch the teenagers too. I watch for the adults if they swim alone. They are not my responsibility, but I take them all on. No one can drown on my watch.
And similarly, I worry for everyone. Now more than ever.
And not just for the many stricken physically by this pandemic.
Are there children at the border still in cages?
Are there folks who cannot pay their bills?
Are there women in abusive situations who are more in danger than ever?
Are the elderly getting enough to eat?
Will cancer patients be neglected?
I worry for people I cannot see. I worry for people I cannot help.
And I worry about people who do not seem to care. How can they ignore so much suffering?
A friend said to me recently, “This is a very difficult time for empaths.”
She told me to take respite – at least a little – every day. To protect my heart and my soul from this punishing worry.
So I paint.
I am painting human portraits right now instead of dogs and cats.
I paint portraits of people who inspire me. Of people graced with faith in the goodness of humanity.
So far I have painted Malala Yousafzai, Jane Goodall, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. These people nourish my soul. Painting their lovely faces calms my soul. There will be more to come.
I have also picked up the manuscript I abandoned last year. I’m giving this new story another try. It may not be any good. But at least I will figure out what happens. I can give it a happy ending.
And I try to forgive myself for my temper. I hope my husband forgives me. And the pets. My husband knows why I am a basket-case. My poor dogs and cats have no idea why their mom is bonkers.
The dogs don’t judge me.
The cats, I’m not so sure about.