40: The tween years of adulthood, minus the braces.

Sometimes, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror while cleaning the toilets, I catch a glimpse of someone who looks slightly startled at her reflection.  There are more grey hairs than I thought, there are faint little crow’s feet that I can see if I lean in real close.  I look tired most of the time.  I can remember bouncing out of bed at 6:00 and going for runs by 6:30 when I was single and in my twenties.  Now, when I get up in the morning, it takes me at least an hour and 2 cups of coffee to limber up.  I’m asleep by 9:00 at the latest.  Ask my friends.

I will be turning 41 in just a couple of months although, I’m not quite as upset as I was about turning 40.   Truth be told, I think I had been having a hard time with 40 for the past few years.  I may or may not have had an early mid-life crisis now that I look back.  I headed toward 40 digging in my heels, kicking and screaming Father Time dragging me by the wrists.  I tired to evade it at every turn.  I didn’t want to be “old”, but wanted to stay “young”.   I remember my own mother turning 36 and thinking she was old.  I remember she married for the second time at 40.  I was there.  I was in college.

A hundred and fifty years ago, 40 was ancient.  You were absolutely a grandmother by the age of 40, if you weren’t already dead.  You were over the hill.  You were worn out and washed up.

These days, 40 is so much different.  Life isn’t over at 40 like it was back then, but we’re not exactly Spring Chickens either.   We’re told “40 is the new 20”.  Is it really people?  Is that why I’m at the gym 4 times a week doing a thousand crunches?  Because I have absolutely no recollection of doing that in my 20’s.   If “40 is the new 20”, then how come when I have more than two or three glasses of wine in one sitting I feel like I have Swine Flu all the next day?  Because trust me, in my 20’s I imbibed way more than that and still made it to classes on time.

My 20’s were all about getting through school and making as many bad decisions as I could, as often as I could.    Check.

My 30’s were all about marriage, babies,completely losing my sense of Self and making all of the best decisions of my life.    Check.

But 40?  What the hell am I supposed to be doing at 40?  I am too old to go to the clubs anymore.  The college students would say “who is that old lady out there?   Why does she only come on 80’s night?   Why does she keep requesting Gloria Estefan?.  I’m also not having anymore babies, so that’s out.  My two boys are old enough now that I’m becoming less of an urgent or constant need for them, which feels good and lonesome at the same time.  Mostly good.

I feel a bit lost I suppose.  At almost-41-years-old, I’m feeling a bit un-moored, like a lot of my 11 and 12 year old clients must feel.  They’re not kids anymore, but they’re also not teenagers.  They’re in this weird in-between place where girls start getting hormonal and cranky and withdrawn and boys get these ridiculous peach fuzz/mustache combos that are embarrassing, but a sign of budding Manhood, so they wear them for far too long; they’re too old to play kids games anymore, but not quite old enough to have a boyfriend or girlfriend.

Essentially, I guess I feel like 40 is not in fact the new 20, it’s the new 12.  No clubs, no babies, but not yet time for Menopause………so what?

So, I bought myself a camera.  I real, honest-to-goodness camera.  I drove all the way to Best Buy one day, when I was angry at the world (in particular my husband), and told myself I wasn’t leaving that damn store without my own camera.  I told myself that I deserved it.  I had attempted to purchase myself a real camera twice during my 30’s, but was so overcome with guilt and shame at such an extravagant indulgence, that I immediately returned them the next day.  Both times.

But not this time.

I kept the camera.

Each day, after work, and after dinner has been served and eaten, I find myself grabbing my new camera, hanging the strap around my neck and venturing out to my backyard to explore.  It has given me a chance to look at my surroundings in so many different ways.  Before, my backyard was just my backyard, strewn with discarded toys and the occasional chicken strutting around.  But now, I step out onto the cool grass with my bare feet and feel so eager and excited about what I might find.

I look at things more closely.  I walk around my backyard more deliberately now, taking time to really look at things I took for granted.  I’ll look at the same things from different angles.  I’ll alter the focus so that different things are in focus at different times.

For instance, had I ever noticed how lonely the clothespin bag looks, hanging outside all alone, without any clothes?.

Or what about my Barred Rock Ginger?  She’s actually kind of pretty, even if she poops in the very water she drinks.

I’ve learned that when it’s 5:30 am and I’m on my back deck, alone having my coffee, that I much prefer the foggy mornings.

 

There is probably some existential symbolism in there somewhere about how, at 40, you start to look at your life differently, from different angles.  Maybe even relationships and people too.  That your age and wisdom has given you a new lens through which to see everything around you, and therefore a greater appreciation for it.   Sometimes I think I’m just bored and need something to occupy myself.  Who knows.  Maybe it’s both.

 

My older son asked me recently, “Why are you so into pictures lately mom?” (a bit of irritation in his voice, as he himself stands at the cusp of his own grumpy tween years) to which I replied, (my arms spread out wide for effect), “Because it’s all I have for a hobby right now!  It’s all I have that is just mine for nothing but enjoyment!  So please, let me have my pictures!!  And get over here and stand right here for me please because the sun is going to set soon!!!”–He looks overjoyed to be my subject.

I imagine a lot of other moms might be able to relate.  We spend our 20’s “finding ourselves”, spend our 30’s “losing ourselves” to our children and then comes 40 and we wonder what we’re supposed to do next?  Or maybe not.  Maybe other women have figured it out earlier than I have.

A friend of mine, who is decades older than I, posted on my Facebook Timeline last year for my 40th birthday, “Now the fun begins”.

I’m going to hold on to that one.  It gives me hope.  I trust that I’ll know what he means at some point.  Maybe my camera is helping me get there.  All I know is that at the moment, I just can’t stop taking pictures, so I’m thinking I probably shouldn’t.

 

 

The Exorcist,or, l’Exorciste.

There is nothing, and I mean nothing, more ludicrous than a bunch of twelve-year-old girls performing a séance. The 17th century Salem Witch Trials come to mind when I think about the levels of hysteria that took place in each of our bedroomsproof that adolescent girls had changed very little in the last three hundred years. Oftentimes, it wasn’t until someone went a bit too far that things would come to a halt, and oftentimes, that someone was me.

“Are you moving it?” I asked Deborah accusingly, our fingers shakily and lightly resting on the plastic planchette. Three or four other girls would be hunched over the OUIJA board in a semicircle while two of us sat in the middle, summoning a spirit, any spirit, to come to our bedrooms. Bedrooms that were plastered in Kirk Cameron posters, or New Kids On The Block, or Ralph Macchio while our teddy bears lay strewn about the bed. We were all inhabiting that space somewhere between boys and bears.

“No! I’m not!” Deborah would protest, looking around at all of us for reassurance that we believed her. Our young, prepubescent faces were illuminated by the numerous candles we had lit in an effort to make the room look and feel a bit more séance-like, our eyes as big as saucers.

“Yes she is! Let me do it!” Raquel would take over, kicking Deborah out of the middle and taking her spot across from me. It only made sense that Raquel help with the board, since this was her room. Deborah took her place among the rest of the huddled girls, hands clasped in fear, shrinking from the dark corners of the bedroom. Raquel dramatically closed her eyes and carefully placed her fingers on the edge of the planchette, her head slightly raised, perhaps to more easily reach the ghosts we were all certain were hiding just behind us in her closet, or under the bed.

“Is someone there?” she would ask in her most theatrical voice. Collectively holding our breath, we all stared as the planchette slowly made its way to “YES.” My eyes met Raquel’s in a mutual look of horror and delight.

Someone gasped and frantically whispered, “Someone just touched my shoulder!” causing the whole lot of us to grab on to one another, look all around and over our own shoulders in gleeful terror.

Placing our fingers back on the edge, Raquel would ask, “Who are you?” and again, it would slowly move to the letters beginning to spell out a name.

“‘J.’ ‘A.’”

“Oh my God, did you hear that? Did you hear that?” someone would squeal, and we would again grab each other and huddle, waiting for a dresser to be thrown onto us, or someone’s closet door to randomly swing open. Suddenly, the board would fly off our knees and spill into the middle of the floor. The six of us would scream and run out of the room, beckoning to Raquel’s mother that there were demons in Raquel’s room.

Another time, my friends Tami and Tiffany were at my house. I met Tami in the 5th grade when she came to our school as a new student. She stood all of 5’1”, wearing pink overalls and a cast on her right leg. The teacher had asked me to show Tami around and help her out that day. Tami was nervous and shy and hobbling everywhere and I was given a job to do, which made us fast friends. I first met Tiffany from afar, a couple of years alter.  It was recess in the winter time. She was surrounded by a group of her friends and was holding their attention with her antics. I remember envying her charisma.

The three of us were next to my bed, huddled on the floor over my Ouija board, whispering and trying to contact Jennifer Stife. I channeled my best Abigail Williams and feigned being possessed by an evil demon. Mid-séance, I held out my arms zombie-style, moaning and making wide-eyes, causing Tami and Tiffany to scramble back toward the door, screaming in terror as they threw it open and raced down our stairs as fast as their feet could take them.

“What the hell are you girls doing up there?” my father asked, taking his feet off the ottoman, his cross-word puzzle half done. He craned his neck to look up the stairs, Tiffany and Tami practically jumping over the banister toward him.

“Michelle! For crying out loud, what is all the screaming about!?” My mom emerged from her bedroom where she and my sister were cuddling and watching some TV show. “It’s past 9:00 and it’s time for you girls to start calming down!”

My dear, sweet friends, huddling at the bottom of the stairs, reluctantly came back up as I hid in the bathroom, stifling my laughter. Once they reached the top of the stairs, I again came out of the darkness moaning, arms outstretched, which caused yet another barrage of screams as they scrambled to get back into my bedroom. It was all fun and games for me until, trying to follow them, they slammed my bedroom door right into my face, nearly giving me a concussion. I started crying. There is no limit to the hysteria that can happen among a few girls in Junior High within the span of 15 minutes.

Here again, I felt a bit badly for my parents. Things would have been so much more cut and dry if we had been boys. We could have just beaten the crap out of each other, given a couple bloody noses, and been done with it. But where’s the imagination in that? Where’s the ingenuity? The innovation? It was far, far more creative to feign demon possession.

This is how the large majority of our sleepovers went when I was 12. Always the Ouija board. Always the screaming. In particular, Tami and I had an unnatural preoccupation with the paranormal, and when we weren’t trying to psychologically torture ourselves, we seemed to enjoy putting others through it as well. Especially unsuspecting 7th grade French-Canadian exchange students.

Sophie and Karin came to Swanton, Vermont one early winter weekend after Tami and I spent some time in their country several weeks prior—one of the perks of living just a few miles from the Canadian border. During our visit to St. Jean, Quebec, Sophie and Karin took us clothes shopping, played French board games, and introduced us to their favorite weekly show that resembled America’s Little House On The Prairie, save for the occasional boob shot now and then. Karin, my exchange student, was a stickler for only talking to me in French, despite her family’s attempts to speak to me in English and give me a break.

“Eh, eh, eh! En français!” Karin would scold her sweet family, while I looked helplessly at her parents, desperate to know what they were all trying to tell me. No amount of tutoring seemed to help me.  I would never learn French.

In exchange, when Sophie and Karin arrived in The States and to the front steps of my house for their first-ever American sleepover, Tami and I swiftly brought them to my room, shut the door behind us, turned out all of the lights, and subjected them to the horror movie of all horror movies.

The Exorcist.

In our defense, The Devil did speak some French during one point in the movie.

The only reason we even had access to such a terrifying movie (and clearly not age-appropriate) was that my father had recorded it off of the TV. It was his hobby. I would venture to bet that we had one of the largest underground operations of piracy taking place right from our living room. And when I say “operation” I’m not talking about a few recorded movies here and there. We had thousands. For all intents and purposes, we had an in-home video store for our very own personal use.

Each VHS tape had at least two or more recorded movies on it, along with a cut-out of the TV Guide synopsis taped onto the outside of the VHS jacket. We had dozens of VHS drawers stacked on top of one another lining our living room in lieu of end tables. In addition, my father had put together a typed catalog of his movies, which included genre, rating, title, length and tape number.

In sharp contrast to the hysterics I brought to the house, my father seemed to be desperately trying to find some order. So many lists, so many categories, so much time spent labeling and organizing. I imagine it gave him some kind of solace to have at least something in his life that made sense to him. It was too bad you couldn’t categorize or label a marriage, fatherhood, or a confused and melodramatic 12-year-old daughter.

As Tami and I took out the seemingly endless list of movies in an effort to locate The Exorcist, my father tried to communicate with Sophie and Karin. Unfortunately, he was under the impression that he knew more French than he actually did. He sat in his chair, stumbling over his French words, adding hand gestures and throwing in an English word here or there. Sophie and Karin were visibly confused and uncomfortable, swapping perplexed glances with one another, until I finally grabbed our movie and rescued them from my father’s sweet but embarrassing attempt to seem cultured.

Once in my bedroom, which was strewn with sleeping bags and duffle bags full of clothes, and teddy bears, Tami and I cued the movie and immediately fast-forwarded to the best parts: innocent little Reagan being whipped back and forth on her bed like a rag dollher head spinning 360 degrees, her green vomit landing all over the priest’s face. When she began speaking in French in her sinister Satan voice, we paused the movie to ask Sophie and Karin, “What is she saying at that part?” but were only met with the violent shaking of their heads as they cowered beneath their sleeping bags. At each horrifying scene, we all screamed in unison and laughed afterward. Well, Tami and I laughed. Poor Sophie and Karin sat, huddled in each others’ arms on top of their sleeping bags and screaming something in French—I didn’t know what, because I had a C in French and had to be driven to my French teacher’s house twice a week to get tutored. Eventually we shut down the movie and sat around and talked about boys, which seemed the only other exciting topic at the time, and one in which we all shared common interest.

After all of the frightening fun of sitting through scary movies—and forcing Sophie and Karin to watch them—and having performed séances with my friends while feigning demon possession to get a rise out of people—the truth was, as I lay in bed at night unable to sleep, I was terrified. Maybe I had become preoccupied with demon possession, because at twelve I was starting to feel a bit out of control myself. I was starting to change in ways I didn’t understand, almost as if someone else was taking over my body or my mind.  I felt things I didn’t understand and did things I didn’t always understand.

Maybe little Reagan and I had more in common than I liked to admit.

In the dark of my room, I would lay flat on my back and wait for odd sounds or random movements. I would lie there, certain that my own bed was starting to tremble, expecting to be thrown around in my nightgown and start speaking in tongues like Linda Blair. That’s when I would start to pray to God. I would clasp my hands in desperation and plead, “Please God, keep me safe. Please God, keep me safe. Please God, keep me safe.” My bedroom door, which was directly across from me, slowly opened. The light from the hall would shine in, and my mother’s silhouette appeared.

“Chelle honey, don’t forget you’ve got your class pictures tomorrow, ok? I washed your favorite red shirt to wear.”

My mom gently placed a warm and folded pile of clothes on top of my dresser. Of course I forgot tomorrow was class picture day. Of course I wouldn’t have remembered to wear my favorite red shirt. Those were things that I took for granted at my age. My mother remembered all of those kinds of things for me. While I was busy indulging in hysterics all day long, she was keeping tally of everything that needed to be done to make sure real life went smoothly for me. I never seemed to have to worry about having clean clothes. They were just always there when I opened up the drawers. And with a kiss on my forehead, she shut the door behind her and I fell fast asleep.

The Good Dinosaur and The Chicken Whisperer.

My older son Silas and I had just returned home from my Zumba class on Tuesday evenings.  Since my husband and younger son were off at hockey practice, he had the choice to hang around the rink for two hours, or hang out with his good friend Payton while her mother taught class and I desperately tried to keep up with her.   Pulling into our driveway just before 8:00pm, Payton and her mom dropped us off and headed back to their house right next door.

As we headed toward the house, the wind was so strong I had to re-gain my balance.   It was also completely dark outside, being almost 8:00 at night.  The trees along the small woods that surrounded our house on three sides were swaying back and forth and I had to yell in order to be heard.

“Si!  We have to let the chickens in!”.  We had let the chickens out earlier that afternoon and needed to make sure they were all back in their coop for the night.  I motioned for Silas to follow me to the backyard and down to the edge of our woods where our coop sat, but he stood at the corner of our garage, still on the black top.

“But mom, it’s so windy!  Is it a hurricane?  Is it a tornado?”.

Silas has always been more afraid than my younger son, Sam.  I can remember nursing Silas when he was just weeks old, looking down at him peacefully eating.  Almost sleeping.  I sneezed once and the poor kid practically jumped out of his skin.  His arms flailed way out to the side and he screamed for several minutes until my rocking him and kissing him and cooing him had calmed him down enough.  He was also my first-born.  I had no idea what I was doing and so was cautious and over-protective myself.  His already-amped-up nervous system combined with my Newbie mom skills has supplied him with a good dose of anxiety.   He is terrified of thunder and storm clouds and is obsessed with the scene in The Wizard of Oz when the twister comes.

Pushing myself against the wind as I made my way to the chicken coop, I yelled back, my voice probably lost in the wind, “No honey, it’s not a tornado! It’s just windy!!”.

But he wasn’t moving.  “But mom…..”.  I saw his silhouette against the kitchen light of the house, just standing there.

Down by the coop, I took my phone flashlight and shone it near the hen-house my husband had built and noticed that all of our chickens were huddled on top of the mesh fencing, bracing themselves against the wind and trying to stay warm.  Their door to the coop was shut for some reason, so they couldn’t get in.  I hollered back to Si that the chickens were locked out and that we were going to need to pick them up and carry them back in to the coop.  But, he wasn’t behind me and I couldn’t hear him or see him.  I’d guessed he retreated to the house, which is what Dorothy’s whole family did when the tornado hit Kansas.

The thing was, Silas was “The Chicken Whisperer”.  He had a way with animals and was able to coral them back to the coop whenever.  I’d often find him sitting out back of our house, in the grass, just hanging with the chickens, talking to them, always holding at least one in his arms.

I stood there trying to figure out what to do.  I didn’t want to have to pick them up.  They squawked and made a fuss and their wings felt gross to me and I was nervous around them.  How was I going to get them in there??

But, before I even had to decide, Silas came up from behind me and I heard him yelling so as to be heard over the wind:

“Mom!  In the movie The Good Dinosaur, Arlo’s father says, ‘Face your Fears!!'”

And with that, he marched over to the chickens, his jacket flapping wildly in the wind, leaves and small twigs blowing haphazardly all around us, and he picked them up one by one, talking to them gently and putting them back in their coop.

Arlo reminds me very much of my son Silas, and I am so proud of him for already working hard to push through his fears and see the beauty on the other side.  He’s an inspiration to me.  God, I love that kid.

 

We’ve all got our blankets about something.

“It’s not so much that we’re afraid of change or so in love with the old ways, but it’s the place in between that we fear….It’s like being between trapezes.  It’s Linus when his blanket is in the dryer.  There’s nothing to hold on to”.  –Marilyn Ferguson

 

Maya sat cross-legged across from me, on my proverbial “Therapist Couch”, and fiddled with the long, dark hairs on her leg.  “My cousin came over the other day and said, ‘Ew!  Why don’t you shave your legs?  That’s not very lady-like'”.

Shifting in my rocking chair, I stifled my contempt for her cousin and asked, “What did you say?”.

Maya shrugged her shoulders, “I just said, ‘Whatever.  I like it'”.  She ran the pads of her finger-tips up and down her shin.  She was 16 and looked more like a teenage boy than when I first met her.   I have watched Maya grow, incrementally, into the person she wants to be over the last year.  The changes she has made to her physical appearance, the questions she has asked, the decisions she has made.  I have had the honor of witnessing someone shed who they were told they were supposed to be, and slowly, (often painfully) begin to accept and become who they  have wanted to be.  Who they truly are.

But with each step forward in her accepting ourselves, there is always someone nearby who will not.

“But then”, Maya continued,”my cousin….she caught site of my boxers and said, ‘What the hell are you wearing boxers for?  You tryin’ to be a boy?'”.

I allowed myself the private, fleeting fantasy of me punching her cousin in the throat.    After my indulgence, I swiftly pushed the thought away and again shifted in my seat.  “It sounds like your cousin is a bit scared”.  Maya looked up at me, suspicious and confused.

“Of what?” she asked, “Me?”.

“Not you exactly.  But, maybe your courage to do what you want to do.   Your bravery to be who you want to be.  That’s scary to a lot of people because they’re too afraid to do it themselves”.

Maya and I had been meeting for just over a year.  She first came in with long, thick, hair down her back and a shy and quiet demeanor.  She had sought therapy because of her overwhelming anxiety.  Today, a year later, she wears her hair extremely short, often comes to my office on her skateboard or BMX bike, and fidgets on my couch.   She tells me about her classes and her family and her new skateboard tricks.  She also tells me about the how alone she feels.  And judged.  And scared.

Today, the more we talked, the more restless Maya became.  She would try to say something, but the words would stay lodged in her throat and she would give up and go quiet.  Or, she would contradict herself and then shake her head and say “never mind”.  She leaned forward on the couch and ran  shaky hands through her short hair, rocking back and forth a bit.  “I’m just.  I’m so confused.  I don’t know.  My mom says that I shouldn’t be worried about this stuff.  She makes comments about other people like me that I overhear.  Like my cousin”.

I didn’t know what to say.  I could have lectured her on how ignorant so many people are.  About how fearful they are and how it has nothing to do with her, but I didn’t.  I just sat there with her.  Sometimes it’s all you can do.

I noticed that Maya had stopped rocking and simply sat cross-legged on my ouch, her arms folded tightly across her chest and her head slightly bent down.  Her face had become red.  And her eyes were glistening.  I watched her avoid my gaze.  She seemed to be using all of her strength to hold something in.

“Figuring out who we are– growing into who we are truly supposed to be, can sometimes take a long time.  And sometimes it sucks to go through”.

On the heels of my comment, I watched her tears spill over the edges of her brown eyes.  Her shoulders lurched forward as she bent into herself and finally gave up trying to hold back the glacier that had been coming.  “But when will it stop?  When will I know?”.  And she cried.  And she covered her face with her hands and she cried, and my tiny room was filled with her exhausted voice.

“I think I know more about myself than I think I do”.

**********************************

A few months ago, my older son Silas and I were sitting in the truck outside of Bob’s Meat Market.  My husband and younger son had gone inside to get some things for grilling that night.   After a long week’s work, I’ll admit, I was surfing Facebook on my phone and zoning out when I heard my son from the backseat.

“Mom, is that a boy, or a girl?”.  I looked up from my phone, looked out the passenger-side window, and saw a person getting into their car just next to us, a paper bag full of things for grilling, just like we were.

“I don’t know honey.  I’m not sure”.  I looked back down at my phone.  Figuring out if someone was a man or woman is not high on my list of priorities.  I really don’t care as long as they are a decent human being.

Silas was silent for a few seconds, until he then explained to me, “I bet I know.  I bet that she was born a girl.  But then, I bet….I think maybe she was born a girl, but felt more like a boy on the inside.  I bet she felt more like a boy and so she wanted to start dressing more like a boy so that how she felt on the inside matched what she looked like”.

I again, looked up from my phone yet this time, much more engaged in what he was saying.  I smiled and touched the side of his face with my hand.   “I think you’re exactly right honey.  I’m so proud of you that you understand that”.  I had explained that reasoning to my boys on more than one occasion, but I honestly didn’t think they were really listening to me all that closely.  And then, just like that, just as if he and I had been talking about the weather, he asked the next question on his mind:

“What are asteroids made of?”.   We asked Siri, “What are asteroids made of?” and watched a YouTube video on it because really, what asteroids are made of is far more interesting.

 

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