Monday, June 15, 2015

Midlife Crisis, No Convertable

I remember being five years old and walking into my Auntie’s living room, the grown-ups in stylish flowered casuals, the oversized graduated tint on the sunglasses hiding my mother’s entire face, her hair cascading around her slender shoulders like Bridget Bardot. I had no idea that my Aunt lived a life of privilege, and that by proxy, so did I. I knew that her avocado-colored carpet was soft on my feet, that I could lay underneath her glass coffee table, that when the balcony door was open, I could hear the sound of the waves rolling endlessly like a relentless hammer.

I was too young to understand class or separations, all I knew was that this home was magic. It represented everything that formed me as a person, everything I learned about what kind of a person I wanted to be, and everything I knew about who I currently was. It was populated with writers, artists, scientists and military men with the skill of story telling that left you tasting the food in Saigon. What, I wondered, in the world, could Saigon be? Would I ever go there?

At five years old I had no inkling of the alcoholism, drug abuse and divorce, death and depression that was circling, closing in on this family just as it does all others.

It didn’t matter, I couldn’t see it. I could feel, I remember existing like a big living/feeling antenna, and in this house in this place with these people is where I felt my antenna was best and most acutely attuned to receive. In this house, in this place, I was surrounded by characters of ridiculous admiration, I saw them as giants, but not unapproachable ones. I couldn’t see their problems, only their beauty.

To me, it was a magical nest, I don’t remember ever being scolded, other than for forgetting to take the tar off my feet or for being too sandy. I remember running down onto the beach with my cousins, I remember the clink of ice in the grownup’s cocktail glasses, the smell of bourbon, the smell of scotch. I remember the smell of the low wooden gate that separated my aunt’s front lawn, full of succulents and sand, from the beach proper.

The low-slung gate, always latched, and always fighting the upheaval of the ever-shifting beach seemed like a pathetic and unnecessary marker, when the beach was hers, her home, her front yard, the shin-height crooked gate (which must always be closed) a one hundred million extra millisecond obstacle standing between myself and the ocean, the ocean, the ocean.

I remember the mysterious under-the-house storage of water and beach toys that we were allowed to pull out and play with, I remember the jug of turpentine that sat on the steps leading back up to the house. It sat on the step just outside a glassed-in three season room that my Auntie used as a painting studio. I remember pieces of amplifiers and cords tucked into every other small storage place that I probably wasn't supposed to be; my cousins sometimes played music but often built speakers and amplifiers.

I never saw them working, mostly because I never looked for it, I was too busy running down to help with the giant sand mermaid sea sculpture complete with real breasts and luxurious seaweed hair which my irreverent and ridiculously talented mother was casually, yet audaciously building at the water’s edge.

I remember laughter, and ease. I remember long afternoons of sunburns, I remember seeing my mother, beautiful, exotic, her legs impossibly long and tanned, her smile perfect, her laugh throaty and contagious. I remember feeling the security of being hers, of running away but feeling tethered in a way that let me know I was so free. I remember hearing my Aunties say how much they loved my mother, that they wanted to see more of her. I remember resting securely in our bond as a family, I remember feeling that bond wrap around me in a way that made me feel as though the wonder of becoming a person in this world was an unlimited palette for me to play with.

I remember sitting on the steps and rubbing the tar off of the bottoms of my feet with a rag before I went back into the cool of her tiled home, rubbing fast and not well enough, hoping no one would notice. I wanted to hear the sound of the evening, I wanted to sneak a Dr. Pepper, I wanted to shower the sand from the liner of my bathing suit where it had rubbed my bottom raw. I didn’t care about the tar, it was like a badge of honor. I had been on the beach, in the sand, I was marked by it, it loved me so much it came home with me. It would adhere to the soles of your feet like little black stickers.

I remember that I wasn’t supposed to be sandy or wet when I came back into her comfortably elegant home, which was filled with relics from exotic travels abroad, collected over a lifetime of adventuring, writing, and being married to a high-ranking marine who would bring home real things, things that were normal in the far-flung places he had traveled but were nothing but foreign amazements to my opening eyes.

I remember the softness of the layers of the nest of these people, each an intellectual force in their own right, some more scientifically bent, some more artistically bent, all of them incredible at writing, speaking, arguing, singing, thinking, and accepting me. I remember knowing that I would grow into my place among them, and that my own children would too, one day.

I remember hearing one of my cousins say to my mom as I walked out of the room to go play again, “Cathy (that’s what I was called back then) is like a ray of sunshine when she walks in the room. She can’t help it, she doesn’t even know it, but she is so very bright, so full of happiness, and everyone she smiles at feels it.” I remember hearing that and being surprised, I remember feeling my heart fill full, I remember floating down the steps back toward the beach, past doors whose secrets I would never have access to. I was somebody of worth! I had a purpose!

To me, Auntie Whiz’s house was a simple structure of Living Room, Piano, Tiled Hall, Stairs to beach, Scary Door of apartment of People I didn’t Know Well, (this, I think now, is where my Cousin Matt lived, but it was all very spotty to my very young self), the studio where yearnings for painting went on, hours and hours slaved away in the most perfect of creative spaces, giving birth to only the most mediocre work, according to those in the know, whispered.

Hours of  willful voice and skillful technique and will and desire to the unyielding canvas. I loved the smell of the turps, of the linseed, I loved to peek through the window at the accouterment of desire. I loved that my mother admired her drive. "Painting," my mother would say, gravely, "Is the hardest thing you can ever do. She is very brave."

I liked the idea that my aunt had made her way as a writer, this was where her true talent lay. But more than that I loved that she insisted on painting, and painting in oil, regardless of her skill, perhaps out of love, or stubbornness, simply because she loved it.

I remember the scorching patio I had to run across, the oily railroad ties irregularly placed as steps to hold the sand back, and the black gate loosely indicating that the beach began… here.

There was a TV room, but I don’t remember spending much time in there, I preferred to sit next to my Auntie when I was indoors and listen to her tell stories, none of which I can remember.  I do remember sitting next to her and hearing her scratchy, throaty indulgent laugh, and seeing the elegance of her son Chree walk through silently, one eyebrow skeptically raised as he observed our nonsense, a drink, expertly mixed, in his hand. He would go and talk to my sensible older sister, or whatever writer or painter was over for dinner that night. He was a playwright. He knew better than all of us, and yet was an essential part of the silliness, a character anchoring the sea of creativity in critical thought.

I loved my aunt’s long tapered cigarette holder and the way her sons scolded her for smoking. I loved her twinkling naughtiness as she snuck an early cocktail, to me it had all the sense of fun and intrigue and none of the fear or worry about what it meant to begin drinking so early in the day.

I remember skipping down the stairs, those words echoing in my mind, in my heart, “I am a ray of sunshine, when I smile, people feel it.”

Maybe it was like a superpower, but more subtle than that, like leaving tracers behind you that you didn’t know were there. I could be sunlight entering a room. I could lift spirits, I could magically erase sadness, I could bring joy. I remember distinctly feeling that this house, the house on the beach in Emerald Bay, Laguna was the source of this mysterious power, it was the wellspring. And it wasn’t really the house. Because after all, a house is just a house. It was this thick coalesced layering of excellence I was growing up in that was lighting me on fire and making me feel like if I wanted to, I could grow wings, I could be a writer, a painter, and actor, an athlete, a marine biologist, I could be a professional walker-into-a-room-and-smiler, it was my family that made it true.

I am thinking about this today, because while many things changed very dramatically in the next few years; my mom and dad got divorced and I didn’t return to Laguna for twenty years, my father died from a combination of alcoholism and drug abuse which had been invisible to me as a child (he died in the TV room in the house in Emerald Bay while I was away at boarding school in New York ), my mother remarried an aggressive, abusive narcissist who sexually, physically and emotionally tore down myself, my mother and both my sisters for the next twenty six years, alienating the other side of our german catholic family as a result, and so there was suddenly no one, just myself, my mother the slave to her husband, my angry older sister, and our newest edition, my baby half sister, born PL, post laguna, which evaporated as though it had been a myth, a movie shown by the gods as one possibility, and then agonizingly shown to be just a dream, just a drug, as heady as an 11 am cocktail. I fell into a pattern of cutting and smoking and getting arrested, developed an eating disorder, a drug habit, and learned instead of sunshine that I was a worthless whore who could not be trusted, all by the time I turned 14.

But here is the strange thing, the thing I’ve been thinking about all week: no matter the derision and abuse I suffered at the hands of my step father, the longing and loss I held for the utter destruction and loss of my father, my cousins, the woman who had been my sparkling, creative mother, the sudden absence of parents, of the ocean, of the jar of turps, all disappeared with one gesture of the new master of our existence.... no matter the number of times I allowed myself to be raped by
'friends' I didn’t know, boys in a line on a couch or a bench, or under a bush or in a tool shed or under the bleachers, numb and cold and dispatched and as disappeared as the ocean had become to me… because I knew my body did not belong to me, no matter how much I tried to find control by hurting myself with food or sharp instruments, no matter how many times I was told I was stupid, slow, unthinking, always had to learn the hard way, stubborn… no matter what, there was a piece of me that still always heard the faintest echo of my childhood: I am a ray of sunshine.

It kept me alive, that off handed comment, said not even to me but to my mother one normal afternoon on a normal day in a normal life. And it saved me. It stayed beating, the only piece of truth I knew, in the deepest part of me. The nest of my real family, the careful weaving of experience for my first six years had performed some sort of protective cage around the smallest part of me, the stubborn part, and I refused to be diluted.


A lot of me was derailed, destroyed, made to feel worthless, confused and lost. But the most essential piece of me thought, knew, I am a ray of sunshine, that is my true self, I have a purpose, and that is to spread joy. You can’t take that away from me, and one day, one day, I will grow into my potential. It is coming. It is big. It is coming. They told me I was a story teller, they told me I could do it the way they had done it, strangely, not by the rules, but through my own uniqueness. I had believed them.

And as I heal and get on track, I will be who I am capable of being. I will burst out of the paper machee lie that my step father told about me, like sun focused through a magnifying glass, and I will become who I am capable of being. AND THEN, I can begin.

I’m thinking about this today because for the last two years, on and off and more today than other days, I wonder how I can be not there yet.

I’m 43. And a half. Today, again, it’s the middle of off-season, and I have about $426 in my pocket, $400 of which I’ve borrowed. Again. As I walked to my car, I feel the weight of the fact that I haven’t done it yet. That my computer is full to the brink of stories and plays and screen plays and novels, but I can’t put them out to the agent I have, who likes my work very much.

I hear my beautiful yoga teacher, Paul Dallaghan looking very intently into my eyes and saying to me, “you are who you think you are, you are right where you think you are, what you need now is single pointed focus.” I see the giant tattoo on my arm that says “FINISH”, a note that I wrote as I went through the National Alpine Team Tryouts three and a half years ago, the first thing I had publicly committed to finishing, the first time I had stood up and said, hey, SUNSHINE. Here I come, I’m going to do something that I think I can do, no matter how improbable.

And now, for the first time, maybe, I doubt. Just a very little, I doubt my little kernel of self. Its nice that I can be sunny. But I thought I’d be further along by now. I thought I’d have had one of them hit, that the blog would be books, bound and on the shelf, that I would have taken this thing and found my single pointed focus. Lately, I wonder if my creative rationalization, that my insistance on being a writer, artist, athlete, social anthropologist, serial romantic failure, intrepid adventurer will not turn into who I see myself as becoming, because I should have become it already… ten years ago or maybe more.

Should I stop? Should I get real? Does single pointed focus mean giving up questing for truth and buying in to a job that makes me $32k a year instead of $12?

I try to remember that timelines are manufactured, and that things come as they come. I try to remember that I have been working diligently on myself, and that is the true project, and there is no end in sight for that. I wonder if the cousins of yesterday still see the potential they believed in and wonder what the hell I did with it. I wonder if the time has past and I just don't know it. Was there a deadline? Am I tripping along, happily heading toward some evolution that only happens if you are under 40?

I wonder if this is a mid-life crisis. I wonder if this is actually the definition, getting to an age where you think you should be somewhere and realizing you are not there. I have a fairly spectacular life, which I love, the last two years have become more and more like I hoped they would, but I want to keep it up and for that I need to FINISH. 
I need to apply SINGLE POINTED FOCUS to my life’s work, to writing about my life in order to make some sort of income that allows me to not scrabble and scramble to afford bindings for my skis and space camp for my kid.

In the space between my front door and my car, I vacillate between gratitude for what I have learned and been able to accomplish and shame that I don’t have a degree and a bank account like a normal person. I wonder if I was a man if this is the day that I would go out and buy a Lamborgini, even though I have an 11 and a 13 year old and a minivan is more appropriate for their muddy shoes, ski boots and baseball gloves. Our paddle board wouldn’t fit in a Lambo anyway.

I smile at myself as I reach my dented, cracked Subaru, and squeak the door open. What the fuck, if I sold everything, and I mean everything that I own, I couldn’t even buy THIS shitty car again. There’s no mid life-lamborghini for me. Which means, really that there’s no where to go but up. And I don't really want a Lamborghini, although I do miss having a motorcycle. Mostly because I love driving my kids around on it through the traffic in India, because finding our way up Chamundi hill in a pack of motorcycles driven by a Kiwi, a Sweede and a Thai means more to me than knowing I can pay my rent.

As I sit down and reach for the seatbelt I look out across the lawn of someone else’s ranch where I live, where my children run over the sloping lawns filled with dandelions and dip their feet in the frigid ice-melt pond and realize that it takes however long it takes. Maybe it is taking longer because it is. Maybe it doesn’t matter how long it takes as long as I keep learning, growing working toward it.

I know the book won’t finish itself. I know that teaching yoga and practicing, traveling to get my boots fit, trying to be a mom and a writer and a woman all at once leaves precious little time for writing.

But the reality is, I can’t stop writing, I’ve tried. So I breathe as I head out to the yoga studio to teach a class, make sixty bucks, give a massage, make sixty more, put forty of that in my car and head back home to clear my mind on the slack line. There are pockets of single pointed focus.

Someone once told me that my gift was entering a room. To me that turned into writing. I can regret and wonder and anger and rail at myself for my lack, my failure, my loss, I can listen for the ocean when I live in the middle of the mountains, or I can give myself a moment of grace.

I can not turn back the clock and even if I could, what in the world would I do differently? Here I am, now. The life I was handed and the one I made after gave me something to write about. I want to be more than I am, I want to be useful in a broader spectrum, I want my writing to go somewhere other than the black hole of the internet and the pages and pages and pages that litter the discarded hard drives of my life.

The midlife crisis, it appears, is a judgement vibrating off of a society that says if I was worth something, it would have been apparent earlier. Most people of worth have accomplished their import before they are 30, some in their 20s even, whispers the lie in my mind. But I don’t believe in dying young, I don’t believe in edicts that say I should be more, better, finished already. I don’t believe that just because I haven’t yet that I can’t ever. When I get to that point that says I should have by now, and I feel the collective disappointment that I haven't, and the logical progression is to give up, I feel my hackles rise, I feel the pride of my roots, the stubbornness of the creative gene that runs deep in my family and I just can't... I can't let go, give up, or stop. I also don't know if I can find the single pointed focus. I don't know if that means letting go, re-tooling, or just working in ever more focused spurts. But I know that regret gets me no closer.

That’s the one that does it. Just because I haven’t yet doesn’t mean I can’t ever. I can continue to write. I can ask for help. And when the help isn’t helpful, I can’t let that derail me or sink me or make me loose hope or heart. I can get to work, again, focus down again, and see if I can’t find that sunshine, walking around, unashamedly, in the body of 43 year old me. 

3 comments:

Susan Terra said...

Whoa Sister- Powerful truthful writing-
Heres how I see it: There is no outline in how life is to be played. There is no timeline. There is no point system. You may be a ray of sunshine yes, but you are also a snowflake. Different from every other in every way. Light bounces off of edges and curves differently- we float through time and space differently- sure we are made of the same stuff, but we show up in a completely different way. Don't pay attention to the have to's- should haves-couldas. That's the folly of the ordinary person-striving for sameness. You my dear, are anything but ordinary. Embrace that like a life raft and be cool with the fact that you have gifts that I wish I had-physical strength, focus, follow through on your goals. We both have tenacity and no fear of truth. Ya know how many people would feel free if they had even a moment of truth? You know how many people would also-faced with truth-fall into a despair of their own making? But you and I - we may not have a 401K a Lambo or a guest cottage but we live in truth. We have amazing kids who have amazing Moms. Dont count the money or objects you dont have, the number of summers past, the men you have given yourself to who didnt deserve it. You have now. You got this.

Susan-

Kate Howe said...

Susan, thank you so much for this wonderful comment and for your support, I really appreciate it! You have it just right. I'm using that life raft right now... Wrangling this blog to the ground and forcing it to beg for mercy... It doesn't want to be under 750 pages, but that's its problem, not mine! Ha!

Ginger Polish said...

There are no labels on this post. The existing labels on the 856 pages have already sorted your posts into buckets/categories. If you find a way of using those labels together with highlighted sections and notes, your work will be sorted.
But, why sort it all anyway? You are more than capable of sitting down and writing it from 'scratch'. What does it matter if you rewrite the ideas and stories from your blog? Writing doesn't take you a long time, it doesn't fill you with anguish and discomfort, for you rewriting the most fitting ideas and stories from your blog is not actually a laborious task - but the structure of the book IS. All that is needed is the narrative to be mapped out, its all about the foundational structure. Writing is easy for you, you could write the book ten times over, but the fear of finding and sticking to a narrative is reminiscent of the single point of focus that you mention, that same pointed focus that your yoga teacher talked about.
This IS your yoga, right? This is the thing that you're going to run at. I believe you will find an ease in FINISHing this book once the biggest hurdle becomes something of a vehicle in which to tell the story - after all, is that not the key to unlocking the POINT of the book?