Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Notes After a Fall

I don't want to be a perennial. I just want to take a nap. Detail
from "The Garden of Earthly Delights," by
Heironymus Bosch, c. 1490-1510
Why I Don’t Want to Be a Perennial

On a golden Friday summer afternoon sometime in 2017, I tripped and fell. One minute, I was walking home from the neighborhood pool with my tweens (a new word that, like so many things, seems to have been invented by marketers to sell me stuff I don’t need), trying to engage in a conversation with my 12 year old daughter about her favorite Minecraft machinima star, Aphmau of "My Street."

And the next, I was lying on the ground, my cheek pressed against the cool, sprinkler-soaked concrete sidewalk.

The moment when my ankle turned and I realized I could not maintain my upright stance was a slow one. I think it’s what enlightened people call “mindfulness” or “living in the moment.” I was definitely living in the moment as I resigned myself to an inevitable and embarrassing collision with the concrete. I noticed the white SUV approaching from up the street. I noticed a peach that had rolled from a nearby tree, its fuzzy surface pocked here and there where opportunistic insects had enjoyed its succulent flesh.

“Mommy, are you okay?” It felt like hours but must have been just seconds when my daughter asked me the obvious question. I considered her words as if they were the first premise of an Aristotelian syllogism, noting with dispassionate curiosity that adrenaline numbness was flooding my body and masking any pain. My elbow had erupted in a bright flower of blood, and my pants were torn and blood soaked at the knee.

My new pants. As in, I had actually paid real money for these pants in a real boutique, which is something I do maybe once a year. Of course, I bought them on sale, but still.

“This is what I get for not buying these pants at a thrift store,” I tell my daughter, moving swiftly to the question of cosmic accountability. It was clear that by violating my own commitment to sustainability, I had incurred the wrath of something or someone I don’t believe in, resulting in my inevitable karmic crash on the pavement.

Lying on the pavement, experiencing enforced mindfulness, I realized two truths. First, I was in fact “okay,” except for the kinds of bloody scrapes that were a regular fixture of my summers when I was my daughter’s age and spent most of my vacation days running around in the woods (if I let my own children do that today, I would likely be reported to CPS as a negligent parent).   

And second, the same kind of fall, forty years from now, will likely kill me.

Everything is relative.

As I hauled myself to my feet and walked up the hill to my house, half-listening to my daughter’s cheerful commentary on the “My Street” ‘ships she was predicting for the next season, I thought about an article shared widely by my Facebook circle of friends a few months ago. The title of the article was as clickbaity as they come: “Why Women of 40 and 50 Are the New ‘Ageless’ Generation.” 

The article’s premise, in case you somehow managed to miss it, is that women of a certain age are no longer constrained by age. They are, in fact, perennials. The 40-ish woman who coined the term, Gina Pell, defines it like this: 
“Perennials are ever-blooming, relevant people of all ages who know what’s happening in the world, stay current with technology and have friends of all ages. We get involved, stay curious, mentor others, and are passionate, compassionate, creative, confident, collaborative, global-minded risk takers.”
My female friends of a certain age were pretty self-congratulatory in seeing themselves this way, and I honestly am happy that they can identify with this lovely idea. But when I read the article, I laughed until I cried. Let’s just say that the life I live right now is anything but blooming.

Why did I fall on a summer afternoon? Probably not because the thrift store gods were punishing me. It was probably because I have a lot of things on my mind. Among them:

Is my mom okay? My indomitable mother, the woman who dragged her children to the top of Mount Whitney for her 64th birthday seven years ago, got sick this summer. I’ve never seen her this sick. She’s the only parent I have left.

Are my kids okay? My older two boys are both trying to navigate the college admissions process, one as a transfer student, the other as a high school senior. Don’t know how scary college is? Try reading Sara Goldrick Rab’s Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream,  which really opened my eyes to the crisis our country is facing in higher education. I now understand that I’m not alone in wondering how on earth the federal government expects me to allocate one fourth of my family’s gross income as our “expected family contribution” toward soaring and unpredictable college costs. When I went to college, I worked long hours in the summer to save up enough for the school year. Twenty-five years later, my son works the same long hours for roughly the same pay I made in 1992, which is nowhere near enough to afford the costs of our state school, let alone some fancy college.

Is my community okay? Like many areas around the country, my Boise community has experienced acts of hate directed at our most vulnerable populations. I volunteer and donate and protest, and so do many others, but it feels like nothing we do will ever be enough to fill the void created by hate and fear.

Is my country okay? I probably don’t need to expound on this one.

Am I okay? My daughter asked me the question, and I’m still working on the answer. I bandaged the wounds, and they are healing. I’m bandaging the more complex wounds to my soul by reading biologist and essayist Lewis Thomas’s 1974 collection, The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher.   Lewis writes:
We are, perhaps uniquely among the earth’s creatures, the worrying animal. We worry away our lives, fearing the future, discontent with the present, unable to take in the idea of dying, unable to sit still…. We have high expectations and set high standards for our social behavior, and when we fail at it and endanger the species—as we have done several times in this century—the strongest words we can find to condemn ourselves and our behavior are the telling words “inhuman” and “inhumane.”
My middle years are marked by pervasive failures of those high expectations for social behavior. In public, men say unspeakable things about women, about people, about each other. The danger to our species seems never to have been greater, and Lewis’s twentieth-century hopes that humans would unite to become the conscious mind of the planet seem naïve and idealistic, like something a young white male Bernie Sanders supporter would say (also, he would want free college).

Midlife is not, for me, a time of exploration. It’s a time of existential exhaustion. And no $50 jade eggs for my vagina or yoga classes with beer or any other ridiculous self-care concepts are going to make me less tired.  

I don’t want to be my personal brand. I don’t want to take some time for self-care. I don’t want to have a glass of wine. Or two. Or six.

I want my younger children to know the joy of running free in the woods on a summer afternoon. I want my newly adult children to be able to graduate from college without crushing debt. I want my mother to be able to consider retirement without fear of financial consequences. I want my community to be safe for everyone—refugees, trans folks, atheists, human beings. I want justice. I want freedom. I want a healthy planet. I want to leave the world a better place than I found it.

I don’t want to live forever, blooming and taking risks and staying current with the latest technology. Mostly, I just want a nap. Also, a new pair of pants. This time, I’ll buy them at a thrift store.

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