My theory of life and maturation is that we have to go through all the stages of life sooner or later. I missed out on my adolescence, so I had to make up for it. This happened in my early 40s. I was floundering around trying to figure out where to go next with life and this transition — the one I’d missed — was necessary if I was going to move forward. Since I don’t want to write a true confessions here (fascinating though the story is!) suffice it to say that when I think of the music I grew up with, I think of bands like Primus, Alice In Chains, Nine Inch Nails, and Ministry, not The Beatles. I was a huge fan of industrial punk music (still am). It was a natural transition from loving hardcore in the 80s.
I have a clear and happy memory of going to a movie with some friends and sitting in the back seat on the way to a bar, singing “Jesus Built my Hotrod” with Gavin. “Jesus built my hotrod. It’s a love affair, mainly Jesus and my hotrod.”
So, Gen X? Thank you for the music.
What was it like being 19 at age 41? For one thing, I wasn’t underage, but I might have had to buy a six-pack at a 7-11 for friends (from Europe, truth). The people I hung around with were mostly in their 20s. I was pretty well-preserved (at that point) and the only giveaway (according to one of my friends) was my “old lady hands.”
Music. The Boys on Bikes (with whom I hung out more than anyone else, the kids in my neighborhood) were at the age when people define themselves by the stuff they listen to. My truck had a tape deck (88 Ford Ranger) and out of that thing blared Metallica (often) Pearl Jam (not for long) and then the day came when Jimmy (age 16) said, “You’ll like this,” and plopped a Sex Pistols tape in. Of course I liked it. I’d always liked it. That was followed by Dead Kennedy’s (“Holiday in Cambodia” was their favorite but it’s profoundly truthful so why not?) Then there was Fart No More.
That whole moment of my life was filled with hiking, mountain bike riding, concerts, friends and music. Teaching? I was earning a living. I remembered thinking that the whole idea of a midlife crisis was stupid but I was having one.
As I write this blog, I listen to a radio station in Kansas City that plays this music every morning between 9 and 10 (their time). It’s great. Brings back my youth.
(featured photo: Hallowe’en costume. It made people scream because they didn’t see it until they got close enough)
Long long ago in a faraway land a young woman wanted to find herself. “I have to find myself,” she told everyone. That was cool because back in those days everyone else was trying to find themselves.
It was amazing how many people were lost back then, but, whatev’…
So in the process of finding herself she set out into the world not knowing that she would get to know herself by what she did in the actual world. As she bumped around, OK, bumped and banged around, she didn’t feel like she was getting anywhere. She let the wrong ones in and kept the right ones out over and over.
Once in a while she managed to do something that was in harmony with her nature, but ultimately the tug-o-war reasserted itself, and she was back in the dark. Then, through a series of very crazy events covering the better (“better” is questionable) part of a five years, she had a complete nervous breakdown, a major depressive crisis. She was told not to come to work, put on disability and sent to a therapist who gave her the DSM-IV.
The therapist sent her to a shrink and told her not to drive as she was a danger to herself and others. Luckily (luck has two sides, right?) she wasn’t living alone. Life was just dark for her in those days. The hole in which she found herself was covered with a perpetually gray sky. Black fingers of dead grass and dry branches reached across the hole. Some days her roommate almost had to drag her out of bed. Sometimes the smallest life stress would cause her to pass out.
The big challenge was that she had no insurance, and it took weeks to find a shrink who would take her without it. Without a shrink, she couldn’t get the antidepressant the therapist told her she needed. Finally she found one.
Getting PROZAC was fairly challenging and involved many trips to Tijuana to pharmacies on the border. It was cheaper there. No insurance, remember?
She read Listening to Prozac and puzzled over the fact that some people would rather be a danger to themselves and other than to lose “themselves.” She knew she wasn’t THIS, but what was she? She got more useful information from Touched with Fire. Years later she wrote one of the two fan letters in her life to this book’s author, Kay Redfield Jamison.
As the PROZAC began to work, she started drawing and painting and thinking. The climb out was slow and interesting. The morning she got up on her own and washed the dishes felt like a triumph (was a triumph). “This is great,” she thought.
What she didn’t know is that she had found herself.
“Don’t be afraid of falling backward into a bottomless pit. There is nothing to fall into. You’re in it and of it and one day, if you persist, you will be it.” Henry Miller, Nexus
Normal life attempted to begin, again, and she returned to work that fall. As she walked down the hallway to her classroom, her co-workers stood back against the walls, and one of them said, barely under his breath, “Lazarus!” The stigma of mental illness? It was as if the thirteen years of sanity (was it really?) and all the contributions she had made to the school had never happened. Little by little her hours were cut. It became almost impossible to make the ends of the month meet. The credit union threatened foreclosure which she staved off somehow. But with her new clarity of mind, she was able to act with conviction in her own defense as she’d never been able to before.
Pulling her shit together from a breakdown had given her — or revealed to her — power she didn’t know she had. The next few years were rough financially but at least she wasn’t lost any more. In case you’re looking within, hoping to find yourself, don’t. Actions speak louder than words. We know our friends by what they do. Same with the self.
“The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.” from The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
In my thirties — when I went through my Dostoevsky period — that quotation would have taken my breath. I would have questioned what I was doing, spun into a life-examining journal writing frenzy about it. I think, in fact, I did that, over that very quotation.
But now, my children (ha ha) I’m not the same person. I KNOW what I lived for and it’s the same thing I’m living for now.
Long ago, back in Denver, during another presidential election, I worked hard for an independent candidate. I wrote speeches, TV ads, organized events. It was fun and I believed in him. He didn’t win, but his campaign garnered 10% of the vote in Colorado. One of the events I planned was an expensive fund-raising dinner at an elegant Indian restaurant called, appropriately, The Bombay. Entertainment for that evening was a popular Denver jazz band featuring a fantastic saxophone player named Tom. It was an elegant and successful evening.
Back then I was well on my way to being a ‘mover and a shaker’ in Denver, and I knew Tom pretty well.
Time passed — two and a half years. I went to China, and I came back. Four months after the return, I was emotionally evacuated. I was homesick for China. I had also realized that my husband didn’t like me. I’d come back to the states because he was sick and I shouldn’t have. My beautiful dream was over and I was left with a bad marriage.
I walked down to the King Soopers nearest our Capitol Hill Apartment to buy stuff for supper. It had begun to snow. Outside the store a man in a wheelchair was playing the saxophone for tips. I got closer and saw it was Tom. I sat down on a bench to talk to him.
“Where you been, lady?” he asked.
“China. I went to China to teach.”
“Yeah.” How did I ask the question without hurting Tom? Finally, “What happened?”
“Oh, babe, you won’t believe it. I got the flu.”
Tom chuckled at the amazement in my voice. “I know. It don’t make sense. It attacked my spine. I was flat on my back, for six months, paralyzed. They said I’d never walk or play the saxophone again, but, a man gotta’ eat and a man’s gotta’ play, right?”
My heart was in my throat.
“I could live without walking, but, honey, I wasn’t living without my sax.” He gently pressed the keys and levers on the shining instrument. I knew how he felt about it. It was both his livelihood and his life.
Just then a young woman I’d worked with some years before approached the door. “Martha? My god! It’s been forever!!! What are you doing these days?”
Tom looked at me and saw I was about to cry. I was but at this moment I don’t know exactly why. There were plenty of reasons in that cold early-winter Denver moment.
Tom answered. “She’s livin’. She’s jus’ livin’. That’s all any of us do and if you think otherwise, you’re wrong.”
After that, I knew the goal of my life was to live. To live for life itself. It’s not so easy, either.
Several years ago I was at the Getty Museum in LA looking at an exhibit of medieval books of hours. The raison d’être for the exhibit was the 14th century Tres Riches Heures of the Duc de Berrythat had traveled from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Along with the exhibit of books was an exhibit of pigment, but I’ll refrain from another rhapsody in THAT direction. 😉
A book of hours, “…derives from the practice of reading certain prayers and devotions at the different ‘hours’ of the day.” Not a literal hour (as we think of it) as back in those days time was not measured as we measure it now, in sixty minute increments, but a space of time “…allotted either to business or religious duties.”
Books of hours that belonged to nobility — such as the Tres Riches Heures — are elaborately decorated. Others are worn, plain, well-thumbed and simple. These books are small enough for a person to put in his/her pocket; pouch hanging from a cord worn around the waist. General literacy in the Middle Ages was higher than we usually give them credit for.
In the Getty exhibit, some of the books were intact. Some were just loose pages. All of them were in glass cases. Many of the pictures depict life as it was at the time the books were painted — agricultural scenes frequently illuminate the passing seasons. The little books could give their owners a sense of order in the universe, calm and hope in the unpredictable storms of human life.
Most of the paintings are of moments in the life of Christ, important moments from scripture, the lives (and, more often, deaths) of the various saints.
One of the pictures in the exhibit — a loose page, part of the Getty’s own collection — was of a man sneezing. All the people around him looked at him in fear and were leaning away from him.
The first symptom of the plague was said to be sneezing. “Bless you!” probably accompanied by the sign of the cross, a kind of anticipatory last rites.
The 14th century was the first known epidemic of bubonic plague in Europe. Paleoarcheologists now know that there were earlier bubonic plague events, but the 14th century was unique in that Europe’s population exploded in the 13th century, and people were writing down their history.
*Books of Hours, Phaidon Press, 1996 — a beautiful small semi-replica of a book of hours that contains hundreds of pictures from various books of hours from the 13th — 16th centuries.
“We aren’t even in spring yet. That’s a couple weeks away.”
“A couple of WEEKS???”
“Yeah. Thank goodness.”
“I want SUMMER!!!!”
“I don’t think you’re in charge, EJ.”
EJ. Elizabeth Jane.
“I’m going outside. I’m sure there’s some green grass somewhere.”
“You can go to the back yard, but come in when I call you.”
Outside, EJ began a systematic study of the grass. Starting at the fence, she walked down to the alley, back up to the house, down to the alley, back to the house, each time a foot or two further inside the yard. When her mother called her for supper, she’d only finished half the yard and the sun was going down.
“EJ!!! Elizabeth Jane!!! Come in. Your dad is home, supper’s on the table.”
Cuyamaca Mountain east of San Diego is 7000 feet/2100 meters and is snow covered for part of the winter. My second ex and I had lived in San Diego not even a year. We had a VW camper van which was great in snow, so we piled in our back country skis and headed to the mountain. We’d never been there, but one thing about California is that trails are marked. It’s also a bad thing, in a way, but this isn’t that post.
We headed up the mountain trail. It goes straight up for a while then winds around the mountain for a view of the city 30 miles distant and the ocean beyond.
The snow was wetish but nice, about a foot deep, heavy enough to hold our skis, but soft enough to ski. As we went around a curve, I saw fresh cougar tracks in the snow. It was the second time I’d seen them. The first was outside of Red Lodge, MT, when we were skiing in the Beartooth foothills. My ex insisted that we turn around. We hadn’t skied very far, and I was disappointed. I thought the cougar knew we were there, had run for cougar-cover, and we would be fine. A little argument ensued. Strangely, I would have gone ahead, no matter what happened.
It was an interesting thing to learn.
At that time we lived across the street from Balboa Park which is the home of the San Diego Zoo. We always got a membership and we loved the shows. One of my favorites was “Animals of North America” which included a mountain lion whose best friend was a golden retriever. The zoo often put big cats used for shows with golden retrievers when the cats were kittens and the dogs were puppies. They grew up together. The golden retriever was good at making friends with the cat, gave the cat a playmate, and helped the zoo accomplish the kind of relative domestication they needed for the educational programs. The first time I saw this, I got tears in my eyes. I’m sappy. At that time I did not yet have a dog of my own. I didn’t even know I wanted one…
The cougar came out with the golden. They were clearly buddies. They jumped up onto their platforms, got treats. The zoo keeper gave a talk about the importance of mountain lions in the wild (what else would she do?) and then showed us the mountain lion’s attributes — giant teeth and claws — and discussed his diet and behavior. She explained that humans were not his preferred prey and briefly touched on safe hiking in lion country which was really all around us. Having scared everyone into respecting the big cat, she then scratched his ears. The cougar leaned against her chest and she hugged him, still scratching his ears. She said, “The mountain lion is the only feline, other than your kitties at home, that does this…” She held the microphone to his throat…
The show also showed us common raptors — retail (red tail, you stupid autocorrect) hawk, golden eagle, kestrel, turkey vulture — then a wolf, a coyote and a bear. All but the raptors had a golden retriever companion. Of all the amazing shows at the zoo, I liked “Animals of North America” the best.