Life as Lorianne


DeCordova Sculpture Park

I’ve had 52 birthdays in my life, and yesterday’s was by far the weirdest.

For many years I’ve had a tradition of going to the Museum of Fine Arts on my birthday, but since the museum is closed due to COVID, J and I reserved timed tickets for the DeCordova Sculpture Park in Lincoln, MA. It was a lovely change of pace, a chance to take a stroll on a gray day. I was enchanted by the stone cairns next to Andy Goldsworthy’s Watershed as well as an impromptu collection of wrapped and painted stones (“small hopes”) created by local children and wedged into the stone walls in the now-empty rectangle where Big, With Rift used to stand.

That was the normal part of the day, where J and I celebrated my birthday and relished the morning news that Rev. Raphael Warnock had won his Senate race in Georgia. As we wandered the sculpture park taking pictures, I occasionally glanced at my smartwatch, awaiting word of Jon Ossoff’s projected Senate win.

But then the day turned strange. On the way home from the DeCordova, J and I stopped at the bank to get a document notarized, and while waiting our turn with a teller, I saw a notification on my phone that pro-Trump protestors had breached the Capitol where Congress was certifying the Electoral College results. With the Capitol on lockdown and lawmakers evacuated, the certification was paused, DC was in chaos, and we spent the rest of the day watching the news in dismay.

Nothing I saw on the news yesterday was surprising: Trump has been encouraging rebellion since he lost in November, and it was widely known that right-wing zealots planned to gather in DC on January 6. But what was disheartening was the way security basically stood back and allowed riotous thugs to run roughshod through the Capitol. Apparently it’s easier to storm a joint session of Congress than it is to get through airport security or into a municipal courthouse.

And if the news out of Washington wasn’t bad enough, yesterday afternoon I learned a longtime friend had lost his week’s-long battle with COVID-19: a bright light extinguished on the darkest of days. While my heart already ached for America, it broke again for M’s wife and many friends, and for all the people who have died because some people’s definition of “freedom” ignores the simple responsibility of keeping other people safe.

So, yesterday was a strange day…and an even weirder birthday. By nightfall I was wrung out by a mix of emotions: happiness and small hopes, heartbreak and incredulity. After 52 years on this strange planet, I still don’t understand what possesses people to behave the way they do.

CLICK HERE to view an album of photos from yesterday’s trip to the DeCordova Sculpture Park.

Turning oak

Today is one of those Mother Hubbard days: I want to write, but the cupboard is bare. Yesterday I conferenced with my students at Babson College, graded some papers, then came home, exhausted. I took a nap, read, and felt infinitely better for both.

Today I’m teaching at Framingham State, where I have a long break between my morning and afternoon classes. After teaching my morning class, I held office hours, prepped my afternoon classes, checked discussion forums, and graded (and am grading) yet more papers. At this point of the semester, my paper-piles are endless.

My office here at Framingham State overlooks the main street through campus, and I have my window ajar to let in fresh air. Along with the air wafts the incessant sound of leaf blowers. At this point of the season, the work of leaf-clearing is endless.

Resting in peace

After another whirlwind week, it’s a relief to reach the respite that is Friday. I teach in-person (and thus wake up early) on Wednesdays and Thursdays, so on Fridays I sleep in and look forward to simple domestic pleasures: the morning dog-walk, a cup of tea at my desk, a half hour spent reading before I turn on my laptop to face another day of email, virtual meetings, and the mundane juggling act that is my work-from-home life.

November parking garage

One of the (many) strange things about teaching a hybrid class during a pandemic is the ghost-town vibe on campus, with few students and even fewer professors, closed meeting rooms and shuttered offices, and plenty of parking.

Yesterday's news

I’ve been tethered to my laptop for most of the day, commenting on a fat pile of student essay drafts in advance of tomorrow’s in-person classes. Reading student papers is an excellent way to ignore the news: paper-grading requires concentration, and concentration is the antithesis of the obsessive checking of the news and social media I did four years ago on Election Day.

Earlier when I stepped away from my paper piles to pick up our usual Tuesday night Thai takeout, my smartwatch began vibrating at urgent intervals, each buzz an admonition to Check My Phone for the latest predictions, punditry, and speculations. J and I will watch the news later tonight, but for now, I swipe away each urgent buzz and turn back toward that fat paper pile.

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.

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