Life as Lorianne


Forefathers Burial Ground

This morning I drove to Chelmsford, MA to attend a postcarding group that meets at The Java Room, a coffee shop where I’d gone with A (not her real initial) to a book group more than 15 years ago, when A lived in Chelmsford, I lived in New Hampshire, and I was still married to C.

When A and I went to that long-ago book group, I was 35 years old, newly graduated with my PhD, and in the throes of a precocious midlife crisis, not knowing where my path forward should lead and idling in a haze of discontent in the meantime. A and other women in the group were in their 40s, on the other side of divorce and other reinventions, and I quietly envied them for the self-assured confidence that comes from being women of a certain age.

I don’t think I could have imagined then that 15 years later, I’d be divorced, remarried, and living in the Boston suburbs with a mortgage, two dogs, and eight cats. Back then, I had vague hopes of scoring a tenure-track job somewhere; first, though, I had to find the strength to leave my marriage, pay off my credit cards, and re-create a life for myself and my dog some 700 miles from my closest family.

I managed to re-create a life, but I never found a tenure-track job. Instead, all these years later I’m still in New England, still supporting myself as an adjunct instructor: no closer, it’s true, to the permanence and prestige of a full-time professorial job. In lieu of stable employment, I’ve settled into the predictability that comes with a house, money in the bank, and all the obligations that come with middle age. It’s not the life I’d envisioned, exactly, but it’s a living.

Yesterday I turned 51, and I can’t imagine how I ever grew to be so old: it feels like yesterday (or at least last year) that I was 35 and struggling to find my way. Last week, I heard an NPR story about Nirvana’s iconic “Sounds Like Teen Spirit,” a song that somehow is more than 25 years old: had Kurt Cobain lived, he’d be in his fifties now. How is it possible that the rebels and misfits of Generation X–my generation–are now middle aged?

During today’s postcard meeting, there was desultory chatter about politics and the world we live in: how is it that one woman’s smart thermostat responded to her loud laments about Trump, and how have we come to the point where handwriting get-out-the-vote postcards is a major method of preserving our sanity? At the end of the meeting, one of the women concluded with a wry observation: “I’ll see you next time, if we’re all still here by then.”

After the group dispersed, I ordered a cookie and a cup of hot chocolate to go, then I crossed the road to explore the old cemetery across the street. When you’re 51, you have a good idea where the path forward leads: on the drive home, I heard that Elizabeth Wurtzel, a writer I’ve never read, had died at 52. When you’re a woman of a certain age, you know how your story ends, eventually. What’s uncertain, however, is how many reinventions stand between then and now.

2020 planner

I bought a 2020 weekly planner in late October, back when I wasn’t sure I’d ever dig myself out of my paper-piles to survive what I secretly referred to as my Semester From Hell. While I blogged every day in November, this past month has been largely consumed with teaching tasks: reading drafts, grading final projects, (finally) submitting grades, and then recovering from all of the above.

Now that 2020 is only hours away, I’m looking forward to starting anew, again. Every year, I set more or less the same goals for myself: I always want to walk, write, read, meditate, and blog more. This past year, I didn’t meet all the goals I set for myself, but I’m proud to say I continued to track those goals all year: when I wasn’t walking, writing, reading, meditating, or blogging as much as I’d like, it wasn’t because I’d forgotten my commitment to do those things.

So today, I set-up the planner and calendar I use to track my daily, weekly, and monthly goals. I look forward to this routine every New Year’s Eve in part because I enjoy any excuse for buying office supplies. But I also appreciate the fresh start a new year, a new semester, or a new planner gives: a chance to turn the proverbial page. So as the end of December wanes into a New Year, I wish you and yours all the best for 2020.

Flames

This past summer I read Darcey Steinke’s Flash Count Diary: Menopause and the Vindication of Natural Life. Steinke’s book is one I’ve been yearning for since realizing I’m perimenopausal. Unlike the countless books that describe lowered hormone levels as a malady to be fixed, Steinke’s book describes menopause as a passage to be navigated.

Steinke’s book is part memoir, part cultural history. Steinke recounts her own experience with hot flashes, insomnia, and the crazy-making changes of middle-aged womanhood, and she also explores cultural attitudes toward post-reproductive women. (Spoiler alert: these attitudes aren’t pretty). In a society that fetishizes nubile women, women who have outlived their natural fertility are a nuisance and a threat. As a result, menopause is either marketed as a medical problem to be cured through hormone replacement, exercise, and other products or it is dismissed as the punchline to a misogynistic joke.

Several years into perimenopause, I’ve come to see the experience as inherently spiritual: a kind of involuntary retreat where you are subjected to physical discomforts you didn’t choose and thus can’t control. There is no escape from the suffering of insomnia, night sweats, and hot flashes because your own body is the source of that suffering.

When I teach meditation, I explain how the body is chained for better or worse to This Present Moment. The mind can (and does) wander across time and space: close your eyes, and you can immediately transport yourself in your imagination to distant lands or far off eras. The mind can and does wander, but the body is itself a root. Regardless of how flighty or scattered my mind may be, my body is always Right Here.

Meditation is nothing more than a conscious decision to bring the wandering mind back to the rooted body. The moment you focus your mind on your body–the arch and angle of your spine, the tender gaze of your eyes looking toward the floor, and the rhythmic rise and fall of your breath–you witness the most wondrous of reunions: your mind returning to your body, your self unified with itself, at last.

On a long retreat, your body’s aches and pains–all those pangs, itches, and grumbles–are a goad urging you back to your practice: a reminder to your Mind that your Body is still here. Instead of running away or trying to distract yourself from physical discomforts, you hunker down and make a conscious decision to stay: stay in the moment, stay in your own body, stay in your own experience. This simple act of staying is transformative. By staying with your own discomfort, your suffering transforms into strength.

In a battle between mind and body, body always wins. When we are young and able-bodied, we tell ourselves otherwise, internalizing the myth of Mind Over Matter. But the wisdom of our elders–the wisdom of our own aging bodies–is that Matter Matters More.

When I told a middle-aged friend that my meditation practice helps me cope with nighttime hot flashes–the middle-of-the-night eruptions of heat and restlessness I call my Dry Roasts–she misunderstood, thinking that meditation somehow made these surges less severe. But that’s not what I meant. Meditation doesn’t stop the waves of heat roiling through my body; instead, meditation helps me weather them. Instead of running from my body–instead of recoiling, resisting, or refusing–I return to it. I recognize these waves of heat and energy as a call from my body to my mind to come back from from its restless wandering and stay with my body as it smolders in its own dying fires.

In Zen we say you have to digest your karma like a cow chewing its cud. The flames of a hot flash are not unlike the flames of karma. In either case, the heat arises unbidden; in either case, you are powerless to time or temper the emotions that are visited upon you. What you can do, however, is choose to return–return–return. Here is my body, damp with sweat, sticking to my own skin. Here is a heat that arose without warning and will last as long as it chooses before passing away.

When I am lying in bed awash in what I call my waves–surges of heat that originate in my torso then pool and pulse in my extremities–I think of the ancient anchoress Julian of Norwich, whose visions of the embodied Christ are full of fire, sweat, blood, and tears. Julian didn’t have a cerebral Savior but a bruised and bloody one. That rooted embodiment is how she knew her Savior was real.

Reading Darcey Steinke’s Flash Count Diary was a relief, like finding a wise companion who whispers “You’re not the only one.” It is a rite of passage for female teachers to explain to adolescent girls the changes that will come when they start to menstruate, and for the questions our teachers didn’t answer, my peers and I turned to the well-worn copy of Judy Blume’s Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret we secretly passed among ourselves.

When you hit menopause, however, you’re largely on your own: no more teachers, no more Judy Blume. In a culture that loves to ogle nubile femininity, post-reproductive women are largely invisible, left to figure things out for ourselves. Thank goodness for women like Darcey Steinke who are wise enough to light the way.

After dinner

For the third year in a row, J and I went to Davio’s in Chestnut Hill for Thanksgiving dinner. Instead of ordering a traditional turkey dinner, we ordered off the menu: J had filet mignon, and I ordered scallops. We split a cocktail between us and shared his and her desserts: a cranberry tart for J, and maple creme brulee for me.

Although J and I often go out to lunch, we rarely have dinner out, so Thanksgiving is our annual splurge. We make reservations for the late afternoon so we can get home in time to feed the dogs and do our evening pet tasks. This year, we were home and I had changed into pajamas by 5:30 pm, long after dark.

Gone to seed

Last night I had a long and rambling dream about being at a party in an old abandoned building. Throughout the dream, groups of party-goers and I set out to explore the building, which was dilapidated and structurally unsound: at times we had to climb ladders and crawl through windows to move from one floor to another, and we took care to warn one another whenever we found a loose floorboard or (in one instance) open trapdoor.

At one point we stopped our explorations to have a Secret Santa-style gift exchange. I had brought a handful of gifts to contribute to the swap, figuring there might be people who would show up without a gift. When the gifts were distributed, however, there wasn’t anything left for me, and I tried not to act disappointed. After another round of wandering through the house, though, someone gave me a gift they had found: an audiobook narrated by Ellen Degeneres.

After the gift swap, we resumed our wandering, and in one of the rooms I met and briefly talked with Magic Johnson. He had just gotten a new phone, and he wanted to add me to his contacts. Magic wanted me to take a picture of him so I could add it to his contact information, but I told him I had to explore the building and would take his picture later. Through several rounds of wandering in circles through the maze-like building, I saw Magic patiently waiting for me, but when I finally returned to take his picture, he was gone.

Gerbera daisies

At Framingham State, I have two potted Gerbera daisies on my desk. I received one from my officemate right after my Dad died, and I received the other from my department chair a few weeks ago, “just because.”

I’m not good with plants–I like both wildflowers and the flowers in other people’s gardens because I don’t have to tend them–but I’ve been careful to water both daisies regularly and have tried to find the precise place on my desk that receives a lot of sun without being too drafty. Even though one of the daisies is done blooming, it’s cheering to walk into my office on even the coldest, grayest day and see something green and growing.

Bittersweet

I occasionally check the social media feeds of my ex-husband to see what he’s been up to since we separated. C and I divorced in 2004, and he remarried soon thereafter and subsequently had a child. Now that C and I have been divorced longer than we were married, I sometimes wonder about the path his life has taken in the interim: the relational equivalent of “The Road Not Taken.”

Even in the early, bone-achingly painful days after my divorce, I never regretted my decision to end my marriage. C and I had decided to separate many times over the course of our marriage: every year around our anniversary, in fact, we’d revisit the same litany of complaints. But in August, 2004, I was the one who was finally ready to step away for good: no regrets, no second thoughts, no reconciliation.

This isn’t to say, however, that I don’t sometimes wonder what life would have been like if I had stayed in my first marriage. C and I married in November, 1991, so had we stayed together, this month would have marked our 28th anniversary, a solid span of time that seems unfathomable. The person I was when I divorced seems remote and foggy–some other person–and I can’t remember much less understand the person I was when I got married in my tender twenties.

Had I stayed in my first marriage, my life would still be governed by C’s mercurial moods and moves. When I was married to C, all I ever wanted was to settle down and set down roots, but C was too restless for that. In the nearly thirteen years C and I were married, we moved seven times; in the fifteen years since my divorce, I have moved exactly once. My need for roots, stability, and predictability were at direct odds with C’s need for change: in order for me to have stayed in that marriage, I would have had to transform myself into a person I simply was not destined to be.

With his current wife, C has lived in Massachusetts, Vermont, Michigan, and most recently Nashville and New York, the latter two being far more appropriate for an aspiring musician than Ohio, Massachusetts, or New Hampshire ever was. The first time I saw C with the woman he would later marry, I understood what it was he needed in a wife: someone to walk several steps behind him while he took the lead. There was room for only one full-blown person in my first marriage, and ultimately I couldn’t efface myself into my husband’s shadow.

When C and I were married, we agreed not to have children; now that he has remarried, C has a ten-year-old daughter, and I look for her when I secretly creep her father’s social media feed. I have never wavered in my decision not to have children, and when C and I were married, I thought this was a mutual decision. It’s strange, then, to see a person I thought I knew embrace the role of father, and it’s stranger still to see the face of his child.

I have never had children of my own, but I feel a strange connection–some sort of odd karma–with C’s daughter, whom I have never met. Had C and I stayed together, R would have never been born: viewed in this light, my decision to end my marriage–my refusal to efface myself–helped bring someone else’s child into the world.

Had C and I had a child when we were first married, that daughter would now be in her tender twenties, ready to make commitments she might later look back upon with bemusement and regret. The hypothetical child from my first marriage never saw the light of day, but today in New York there is a ten-year-old girl who wouldn’t have come if that other child hadn’t stayed away.

Holly berries

I used to wait until after Thanksgiving to start listening to Christmas music, but in recent years I’ve loosened my own rule. During the light of day, I don’t yearn for holiday music, but last night while I was running Friday afternoon-into-evening errands, I switched from the news on NPR to Sting’s “If On a Winter’s Night,” a CD that is perennially appropriate in late autumn-into-winter.

Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the pagan nature of Christmas: a holiday of light at the darkest time of year. Years ago when I taught in New Hampshire during the week and spent my long weekends in Massachusetts, there were many weeks when my Thursday night commute was brightened by isolated houses on lonely roads that had colorful Christmas lights. Those lights guided my way like beacons in a storm.

These days, my commute is significantly shorter, but I dread the darkness of winter more than the cold. Even a short commute feels long when the way is dark, so while I don’t need the cheer of Christmas carols when the sun shines, after dark I appreciate the company of songs designed for the longest nights of the year.

What's your superpower?

Most days, I don’t feel like a superhero. On teaching days, I arrive home drained and depleted, tired from the exertion of prepping classes, grading papers, and delivering lectures. I became an English major because I like nothing more than curling up alone with a book, and standing in front of a classroom of college students is the exact opposite: an activity that requires an extroverted persona. But like Clark Kent, when I step into the telephone booth that is a college classroom, my alter-ego takes over.

November shade

Today marks seven weeks since my Dad died. It is customary for Buddhists to grieve in cycles of seven: first you chant every day for seven days following a death, then you chant every seventh day after that. When you reach the 49th day after a person has died–seven cycles of seven–the mourning period official ends with a loud ceremony featuring chanting and ritual offerings to send the dearly departed on their way.

I haven’t observed this traditional Buddhist practice: my Dad wasn’t Buddhist, and I’m not particularly observant, being far more familiar with Catholic smells and bells than Buddhist ones. But I’ve mentally marked every Monday–every seventh day–since my Dad’s death. I like the idea of cycles–the idea that grieving follows its own season–and I’ve appreciated the practice of marking each Monday as a stepping stone from dazed and newly grieving to still grieving but ready to return to normal life.

The main thing I’ve struggled with these past seven weeks is the strange havoc grief plays on time. For the past seven weeks, I’ve largely functioned as if everything were fine. Apart from a quick trip to visit my family the weekend after my Dad died, I’ve kept my normal schedule: I’ve planned and taught classes, collected and graded papers, fed and cleaned up after pets. My daily routine has been its own sort of stepping stone. Every day, out of sheer force of habit, my everyday life has gone on.

But during this stint of ordinary time, time has felt anything but ordinary. For the first two or three weeks after my Dad died–already, I’ve lost count–I was forgetful and disconnected. Grieving felt like an out-of-body experience where I saw myself doing tasks without really being there. With both my head and heart elsewhere, I’ve felt like a ghost haunting my own life, my zombie-body going through the motions of my daily to-do list while my mind was absent, elsewhere, unengaged.

Is this what it’s like to be dead, I’ve occasionally wondered these past seven weeks, wandering like a restless and untethered soul through my classes, my dog walks, my errands. Do living survivors–those of us left behind on this side of the sod–focus on ensuring our lost loved ones Rest In Peace because rest is exactly the thing we lack and sorely crave?

For much of the past seven weeks, grieving has felt like a curious combination of numbness and exhaustion, like running a marathon in lead shoes. More recently, I’ve had moments when life feels almost normal, as if my spirits is flirting with the idea of coming back to my body and staying.

Grieving, I’m learning, is like navigating a strange terrain you’ve never seen before. Previous travelers have laid out rituals like cairns to guide you: nobody but you can walk the path, but the way has been marked long before you. Each Monday since my Dad died has been a milestone and a marker, a reminder to keep walking until I’ve reached the other side.

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