Turning Fifty Without A Plan

11224118_10208237445398500_8333939483683415706_nI’m about to turn fifty. Like my twelve year old son, I’m experiencing changes in my body that are, at best, confusing, making me feel like an amateur at things like hair removal and feminine hygiene. My girly hormones are in retreat and can’t remember where I put my keys, ever. Or anything, ever. I have a mustache and orthodics  in my Clark’s shoes.

Midlife is a game changer, but like the old cliche says, “it beats the alternative” and, although it has its pitfalls where the ego is concerned, I’m not bummed about turning fifty, not by a long shot. Turning fifty is exciting, a milestone and I’m lucky to have made it here. Not since I packed my car full of record albums and candles, heading off on my own for the first time have I felt such curiosity about what the future holds. Of course, this time I have a husband beside me and two kids in the back seat, but the feeling is similar.

People expect you to do something BIG on your fiftieth. It’s a thing. So important is this rite of passage that some people plan their fiftieth celebration for years. They take safaris and things like that.

“What do you want to do for your birthday?” Friends ask.
“Why do I have to know?” I answer. “It’s six months away.”
“Well, if you want to plan a trip or something—“
“I don’t want to plan a trip.”
“Well what do you want to do then?”
“I don’t know. I’ll figure it out.”
“But definitely plan something. Fifty is a big deal!” The conversation plays out over and over, in much the same way.

“Do you know what you’re doing for your fiftieth?” Asks another friend.
“No. I haven’t decided.”
“Let your husband throw a big party for you!”
“I don’t think I want a big party. That sounds just super stressful.”
“Why?“ She asks, utterly confused.
“Because you mix friends who don’t know each other, you piss people off who aren’t invited, or you have some huge thing that feels overwhelming.”
“Well, definitely plan something. You’ll regret it if you don’t.”
This last comment is sort of the friendship equivalent of your mother saying “Put a sweater on, I’m freezing.” Some friends have major regrets over not planning a big fiftieth thing, others are working through anxiety about what to do for their own, looming on the horizon.

It’s not like I haven’t thought about it. Originally, I figured the best plan would be to get started on something early so that, when November 30th arrived, I would ring in my second half century feeling great.

This is why, a few months back, I decided that I would lose weight. I have put on almost twenty pounds in the same number of years and decided fifteen of them had to go. I resolved to go to the gym and got that little point counter thingie on my iPhone just for, you know “fun.” A newly trim body would be my birthday gift to me!

Ok, fuck that. Moving on.

Then I decided I would start meditating again and take this herbal supplement that a very smart and healthy friend of mine told me about. During the last year I’d noticed an increase in anxiety of the snapping, steering-wheel-gripping kind, and I was looking for relief. Twenty minutes of mindfulness meditation, a pill, and within a month or two I would hit fifty feeling full of energy, in a good mood and that my elbows wouldn’t hurt. I shelled out the bucks and bought a few bottles. Lets just say the jury’s still out, but yesterday I cried on the phone with Time Warner, so draw your own conclusions.

Like many of us, since having kids, my personal productivity has gone down the drain. I do all kinds of things for my sons and husband, but have I’ve left my own creative aspirations dying on the vine. To me, turning fifty means reclaiming what I’ve let fall away. I decided that I would challenge myself to fifty days of writing a thousand words a day, but to do that I’d have had to start on October 10th, and I think I was busy that day swallowing herbs and calculating the calories in half a Pop Tart with the frosting scraped off, so I missed that window.

I knew that if I set a creative goal of any kind for my birthday month, I needed accountability, a plan, and NaNoWriMo seemed like just the thing. To win the month long writing challenge, you write fifty thousand words of fiction in thirty days, spurred on by the energy of thousands of other writers doing exactly the same thing at the same time. It’s like running a marathon but instead of running you type and eat muffins. I’ve always wanted to try it, but that’s a lot of words and November is a busy month. Still, if I managed to succeed, completing fifty thousand words of a novel ON my fiftieth birthday (the poetry of it all!) then that would really be something, wouldn’t it?

I don’t feel a lot of shame when I don’t finish a project, or when I’m not the best at it. For better or worse, I’m sort of used to being embarrassed, as that is practically my default setting, and fear of failure doesn’t tend to play into many of my decisions. But failing on the very day that I turn fifty might be too much, even for me. I want to feel like a winner that day, is that so wrong? Maybe NaNoWriMo should wait a year.

This whole thing has been a little stressful. My friends can see it. In the past month alone, people have suggested I try yoga, take a vacation, get regular massage, hypnosis, one texted me the name of a doctor who can check my hormone levels and “work wonders”, and I’ve received a pile of Xanax and a baggie of Valium, separately, as gifts. People know I’m in the weeds.

Then, I saw this poem by Mary Oliver. I had read it many times before, but this time, as I read the first few lines over and over, they resonated through my body, like a bell:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.

That reminder, gentle and perfectly crafted, unscrambled my weary mind. Like so many of my women friends, I have been walking on my knees and repenting for most of my life. The career flubs, family issues, weight gain, lack of education, lack of accomplishment, lack of patience or talent or goodness— correcting or covering all of these imagined shortcomings is the equivalent of walking a hundred miles through the desert, and the last thing I want to do is meet the end of my fiftieth year like that.

What if I celebrate this birthday by forgetting, for once, the tweaking and improving, the five year plan and the thirty day challenge, and simply let my body “love what it loves?” Right now I love the quiet hours I devote to writing in the early morning. I love drinking a glass of wine with friends. I love walking. I love the family that has grown up around me, like a miracle, and I love the frosting on my half a PopTart.

Why Ricki and the Flash Bugged This Midlife Mom

Why Ricki and the Flash Bugged This Midlife Mom

Looking around my home, I see a lot of my mother’s artwork. She didn’t give it to me, I stole it. By the time I made it there to pack up her things, she was past the point of noticing and the pieces only collected dust. Most of her work is signed and dated and tells a story that many women know to be true: it’s an uphill battle to raise kids and make art. By reading the dates, I can see that all of it was made either before she had my sisters and I or after she abandoned us. I do remember her doing some work while we were little, but it’s nothing compared to the stacks of paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures, tiles, ceramics, textiles and more that I found in her tiny one bedroom apartment.
When my husband and I met yesterday for a drink after I saw the latest Meryl Streep movie, “Rickie and the Flash,” I expressed my frustration at some of the more cliche elements of the film.
“I have to believe that it was the work of the suits that ruined that script,” I said, imagining Diablo Cody’s story being punched up and dumbed down by executives, rendering what might have been a thought provoking story about a motherhood, work, responsibility and passion into a shallow stab at a summer hit for mid-lifers.
“The big feel good family dance number? Are you kidding??? And are we to believe that Rickie pulls her daughter out of the pit of depression with the power of a mani/pedi and a cute haircut?” I really asked this, because judging from the Facebook posts I’d already seen, a lot of people believed just that.
“But that’s what people want to see.That’s Hollywood. How do you not make a movie like that here?” my husband asked, as we sat in an outdoor cafe on LaBrea.
“You tell the truth,” I answered.
There’s a line Rick Springfield’s character says in the movie, “It’s not your kids’ job to love you, it’s your job to love them.” I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that that line makes me feel pretty damn good. Sweet relief! It reminds me to stop worrying whether or not my kids will one day want to come home for Thanksgiving. The line, a passionate plea for Rickie to chill out about the fact that she wasn’t there to raise her kids, refers to the fact that children grow up and have their own lives, which may or may not include frequent phone calls or visits and, to a great extent, that is out of your control. But it was delivered by a character who, though foxy, admitted to not being around for his own kids. And it was meant to comfort a mother who very much loved her children, but left them when they were young in order to fulfill her dream of being a musician.
What was his point when he said that? Was he saying you can do whatever you want as long as you love your kids? As long as you love your kids, you are a good enough parent? Newsflash: almost all parents love their kids. That does not make you special.
The fact that our culture has long given men a free pass to do this kind of damage (Rickie gives a pretty good speech about this, citing Mick Jagger’s choice to make kids and leave them) is worthy of discussion, but the film doesn’t really go there. They are not saying we should now even the score and give the same pass to mothers, but they come dangerously close to saying the equivalent of, “no biggie.”
Put down the popcorn everyone, and let’s think this through.
Leaving your family is very different from taking time out to finish your novel, leaving them with friends every Saturday night so you can record your new EP, or having the father take over while you are workshopping a new play in another state for a month or two. I was never the woman who could make art while my toddler played in the tupperware drawer at my feet and, although I’m sure these women exist, I now put them in the category of the Giant Squid, so rare as to be almost mythological.
But it is those decisions, the everyday Sophie’s Choice (shout out to Meryl fans everywhere) moments that tear most mothers apart. We wonder if our five year old knows how desperately we wish she had not just walked in the room and asked for dinner. When a tsunami of rage, similar to the more culturally acceptable rage of a mother bear protecting her young, hits us when our partner brings the kids home early from a trip to the park, a trip meant to give us quiet in which to work, we send them out again, locking the door behind them. We guard those precious hours with tooth and claw, often hating ourselves for it, and sometimes our children.
Life is more complicated than can be sussed out in an hour and forty-two minutes. Film as conversation starter is great, as long as it actually starts the conversation, a real conversation with room for the truth.
The inconvenient truth is that people who make kids should know that those kids need them. Not 24/7, but for a good chunk of the time.
To me, the most touching moment in the movie, which also happened to be a heaping helping of Hollywood bullshit, was when Rickie thanked the stepmother of her children, the woman who stepped up and did all the things that one simply can’t do from a distance, i.e. the doctor appointments, graduations and lunch making. Make no mistake, when a parent leaves, they do so on the back of other parents who come in to pick up the slack. That is, if you’re lucky. If you’re unlucky, no one steps in and you walk around like a stray, tending your own wounds as best you can.
In my life, help came in the form of other people’s mothers. I’ve never actually thought about this, but it’s interesting that it was the women who came to my rescue. I knew a few really wonderful men who did no harm and might have actually helped, but it was the women who I needed and the women who showed up again and again with rides, advice, loans, hugs, books and fierce protection when the chips were down. We might shout from the rooftops that this is unfair or that it’s only because it’s what is expected of women and not of men, but I’d challenge us to just sit with this for a minute. I don’t know what it means, I only know that it is so.
To the parents who say that their kids were better off because they left to pursue their dream, you may be right. I most certainly was better off because my mother packed up her things and disappeared. While my sisters had to live through her tantrums and cruelty through their teenage years, she gave me a gift when she left me on my own.
But still.
But still.
I will always be the child that wasn’t worth sticking around for. Who carries forever the shame that I was so uninteresting, uncompelling, that my own mother, who had an artist’s eye for beauty, would rather leave than be in my presence. Of course it’s also true that my mother loved me, so hey, she did her job, right?
When my mother died a few weeks ago, I was with her. It was one of only a handful of times I had seen her since I was thirteen. At her bedside, with her impossibly small hand, bird bones strung together and curled around mine, I couldn’t help but think, “this is it? THIS is IT???” I simply could not get my head around the fact that our mother/daughter story would end this way. Where’s the arc? Where’s the Big Finish? When will she sing at my wedding and thank the women who filled in for her while she did her thing? Never. That’s when.
Come to think of it, she left me one more gift; she left me with a story to tell. As a mother, it’s my job to stick around and tell it.

Not writing at the Melrose

I recently turned 49.

Not long after, I had this dream where I hid my kids eyes as a middle aged (49? You be the judge) woman jumped from the roof of a building in front of us, impaling herself on a street sign that read Melrose, and losing her right hand on the way down. It was a disturbing dream, made all the more poignant when I remembered that Melrose is the name of the diner back in Chicago where I used to write for hours and hours next to a gigantic chef salad. For the price of a chef salad I bought myself a writing studio and I was there at least three days a week and countless nights, working longhand.

I had forgotten about the Melrose until that dream.

Around that time I did another thing: I started reading Just Kids, Patti Smith’s memoir of her early years in New York.

Oh, Patti.

Talk about an artist. You think she looks like a man? Whatever. (That’s Patti speaking. I channel her now. But only in my head, and here on this blog.) You don’t like that she tells the truth on paper and reads it out loud to whoever cares to stop and listen? That’s cool. Keep walking. I love the idea of living at The Chelsea Hotel , writing songs and collecting little bits to make jewelry for my maybe gay boyfriend. And I think I may need to tattoo my knee.

So, because of the dream, and the number 49, and because I had fallen hard for Patti and wanted to impress her, I put together a little writing group.

The three of us started meeting at Jude’s apartment because there are no pesky adorable children, so we can think and muse, and drink wine if we want.* Or we can write. We do all of these in equal parts, at least so far. I didn’t tell anyone else about the group or our goal of writing 30,000 words our first month. The truth is that I knew how it looked, three white middle aged women in the San Fernando Valley, rediscovering themselves with their ipads and snacks from Trader Joe’s, so I kept it pretty secret. What can I say? I was embarrassed.

Patti Smith would never be embarrassed. But then, she probably wouldn’t have joined a writing group. Although, maybe she did. I haven’t finished the book. But she certainly wouldn’t have spent this much any time thinking about what people thought of her writing practice.

Also, she would not have been scared to read her work to real live people, but I was. My writing pals and I agreed, in the beginning, to read at least some of our work out loud to each other. I could hear their thoughts: poor Maggie, what with that huge desire to be an artist and no talent. It would quiet the room. Who would say it first?? It was too dangerous, so I simply refused to read.

Here’s the thing with a tiny writing group. There is no fading into the background. If you’re lucky, and have chosen your circle wisely, they call you on your shit. They will insist that if one of you wears a bikini then you all wear a bikini. (we never have done this, it’s a metaphor— how writerly!).

So, I read. And my face got hot and my voice shook and I couldn’t get quite enough air, and that was it. That was the worst it got and now I can almost read out loud without drinking wine. Happy Birthday to me!

But there was still the problem of the 30,000 words.

That month, I tried to keep up with my word count. We’d worked out how many words we’d need to write per day, and I obeyed the rules.**

The light in my dining room is perfect for writing, and I clocked a lot of my words in that room, with it’s bright green walls and yard sale dining table. I do sometimes have to make my grocery list before getting down to the actual work, so I decided that a grocery list counts, and that upped it a few hundred. Then I found that all the seats on the dining chairs were loose and must be screwed back in, otherwise I could have gone flying off onto the floor at any moment and that would never do. And I often need Chapstick before writing, so there was that.

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see her. Sitting on the stone steps near her apartment, drawing people to her because she was fucking on fire with her pen and paper! Of course Jimi Hendrix chatted her up! Of course Janis Joplin confided in her and Sam Shepard fucked her. She was the real deal. Well. Some of us have to watch the little word count thingy and just cheer it the hell on as we sip our green smoothie. It’s a different time, Patti.

About ten days in, I was falling behind. I bargained with myself and thought a lot about what actually constitutes writing. It’s like Clinton asking what the definition of the word “is” is. Since grocery lists count, then so does journaling, right? (Obviously!) What if I type wordswordswordswords over and over? (Oh shit— that didn’t have any spaces so it only counts as one word!) All the while I am doing complicated figuring in my head. I see a sentence that needs to be cut in order for me to make my point more clearly, but I don’t cut it because then I’d be down one, two, three, how many words? Twenty-seven!? (Twenty-seven words? Forget it— no way.) The description of the baloney package stays in.

What would Patti think? Did she ever feel blocked? Did she feel like a fraud? A narcissist? Did she ever just want so badly to give it up and go home? If so, she doesn’t speak of it.

I never made my goal of 30,000 words that month. The big chunks of uninterrupted time were too few and the distractions too many. My dining room, with it’s dusty bookshelves and family foot traffic, was never going to be The Melrose Diner. I thought of packing it in. It was hard to schedule our group meetings and, when we did meet, we sometimes talked about writing more than we actually wrote. As Amy Poehler says in her book, “Talking about the thing is not the thing. The thing is the thing.”

But I also thought about that dream, the woman who had given up, and that it was so awful that I didn’t want my boys to see…

Now, I write at my kid’s basketball practice. I write while waiting at the skate park. I write when I’m supposed to be running errands or returning phone calls or having my lip waxed.**** And I do it knowing that, most likely, I will not end up with anything that will have a life beyond what I give it here. I started this blog, a form of “reading out” that fits my life right now and I have to think Patti would totally dig my process.


*** Patti Smith lived among some pretty heavy drug users but when she used drugs she did it mindfully, and not very often, as far as I can tell. She steered clear not because she judged it, but because she had work to do, damnit. The gals and I drink wine most times we meet, just because it’s fun and tastes good. In this way I am nothing like Patti Smith and I’m cool with that.

**Another way Patti and I are different. She worked and wrote and created with absolutely no need for rules or homework assignments. Jesus, she’s a badass.

*** Although, maybe not. Maybe she’d hate it and laugh at me and throw her box of baby teeth (she has one– isn’t that weird?) at me. That would still be pretty awesome, Patti throwing something at me.

****Do I really have to tell you what Patti would think of the choice between lip waxing and writing? No. I didn’t think so.