Things I have learned

Twenty-five years ago, I was a different person. At the age of 21 you are just in the process of figuring out who you are. 21 year olds are stupid, green. They seem so sure of themselves, but they really aren’t. More times than we would like to admit, at that phase of our adulthood, we are still running on autopilot of what our parents, or usually our friends prepared us for. Our values come from our community, our peers, our places of worship, and the books and movies and television we like and relate to. All of it is our care package that runs out pretty quickly when we are first on our own.

We begin to experiment with things. Drugs. Sex. Religions. The things we read. Some of us might go through a phase where we only listen to indie rock or watch foreign films. Thank goodness for getting that our of our systems pretty quick. In the middle of this experimentation phase, we often think we’ve got the code cracked. We’ve done what no other adult in the history of ever has done. We have solved the problem that has affected generations stretching back to the beginning of time. We know better.

Or we think we do well enough to partner up and reproduce.

There’s a thing called emotional maturity. Some of us are stuck at a certain age. Most adults we know are walking around in ageing bodies with a ten year old or a fifteen year old at the controls. Many uphappy relationships stem from the fact that one partner finds themselves raising the other.

I went through that phase too, mutually raising the other partner. The only reason it was “mutual” is because I dumbed myself down enough to need to be raised from time to time myself. Mostly because of fears. Like I said, it was mutual participation, so it became a contest as to who could be the most helpless sometimes. I hope that was as much of a phase as watching movies where mimes play tennis or death plays chess with someone.

We, as humans, are awfully good at putting each other in boxes. We recognize patterns and categorize accordingly. My ex used to say I was just like her father. Only that couldn’t have been further from the truth. She wanted me to be just like her father, and dragged me into that kicking and screaming. In the end, I considered it. It would have been easier to just step into someone else’s box.

I went to the dentist one time while I was married. It wound up being for a full-mouth debridement. They scraped 20 years of crud off my teeth. That was one of the most painful experiences of my life. Underneath, I had beautiful teeth. No cavities. Just some gums that needed some TLC. I had a hard time taking care of myself or putting myself first. Though my wife at the time went to the dentist, got new cell phones, drove the new cars, etc., I made sure she and the kids were taken care of first. If I didn’t, I heard about it. That also became a competition. She would say she was nearly blind and needed new glasses, when I was the one working. I needed glasses to work, but I had the same prescription since college.

When I finally left, I started dating someone who gave me a taste of being selfish. She told me I needed to see an eye doctor because one night when I went to her apartment to go for a walk, I nearly walked right past her. I couldn’t see her face in the dark. I got glasses and I could see again. Work was easier. Writing was easier. Driving…was much safer.

Later, I went in for a teeth cleaning and they found a cavity. My first. I was 40. The strange jump my life had taken from being 21 and just starting off at figuring out my life brought me back to 21. I mean in the meantime, I had worked regularly, was in the process of raising three kids, but I had not done some things for myself that many adults take for granted. I was terrified of getting a tooth filled.

The woman I was seeing told me to close my eyes and think of her holding my hand if I got scared. Then that was comforting. That someone cared. Someone had that kind of compassion. Someone wanted to take care of me for a change. I felt better. Today, I’m not the same. I’ve been catching up.

Back then, I had never gone anywhere on my own, much less booked a hotel room, plane tickets, bought a car from a dealership, or done much for myself. By myself. Nearly every experience was raw, new, and scared the shit out of me. I had been captive. I would say my wife had done all of those things, but she hadn’t. She had her mother book rooms and car rentals and plane tickets. Her mother was always center stage, from buying our house to our cars, and so much more. We were dependent on her, which meant whenever we wanted to do something different, we had to clear it with her, since she was the one doing all the leg work. She was the only one who was allowed to watch the kids. My ex was just as much at her mercy as I was.

The things I was good at were taking kids to the ER in the middle of the night. Taking care of sick kids. Fighting with my wife and trying to hold a marriage together for a very long time. I became very good at shutting down. At blowing things out of proportion to suit the narrative. Everyone else was bad. We were poor and always going to be that way. Everyone was always out to screw us over.

I’m learning now that your 40s get to be a new time in your life where you decide what your values are. It’s sad that for so many of us it takes this long. We finally give ourselves permission. The last several years has been trying to unlearn a lot of what I was taught wrong in my youth. Mostly by two young people who had a child together and were faking it themsleves. Living in a small town. Under the disapproval of family who had their minds made up about the world and our place in it. Like I said, this stuff goes back generations.

Some things still make me anxious, but not as much anymore. I figure it out. I like to problem solve. In my forties, I’m learning to worry less about what others think of you. Chances are if they’ve made that call already, it’s not your problem. It’s theirs. I’ve been held back from doing so many of the things I have wanted because I’ve been afraid of what other people might think. Every single one of us has done something new for the first time, and most of us have failed spectacularly at it. If we keep getting up and trying again, we usually get better at it. There’s no other way to master something. And if we were instantly perfect at doing it, maybe we didn’t aim very high?

Very few of us are born into a position that is guaranteed success. I’ve met people who were and they are a mess. When you are born into your life, you’re no different than that 21 year old who is just going by everything they were taught. You aren’t learning it for yourself. Those are the kind of people who aren’t happy. They aren’t sad either. They have a weird feeling they cannot describe because they’ve never wanted for anything. They don’t know what it’s like to want more and not just be able to have it. And they can’t understand that not everything we have is even something we want. That wisdom comes from loss. Or looking beyond what is familiar, and maybe wondering if it’s a cage or not.

Anyway, I’m getting better at getting out of my comfort zone. Over the years, I have been paying attention to the lessons I have been given. I no longer need someone to hold my hand at the dentist. If I need new glasses, I make an appointment. I am prepared to make mistakes and once I weigh all the options and think things through. I jump anyway.

21 year old me would have told me that was what I should have been doing all along.

Dance me to the end of love

I went outside tonight to let the dog out and noticed the stars in the sky. The Milky Way was visible again, cutting a path from almost due south to north. Over time, the constellations take their places and creep across the night sky, until Orion is back and the Seven Sisters rise in the east again. Soon it will be Winter again. Already, the trees are beginning autumn’s first blush. The night air is chilly and in the morning, you can see your breath.

This will all happen again and again, long after I am gone. Forever.

But sometimes it feels like nothing changes. Each year is a slog and it feels like I’m getting nowhere. But I had to think tonight that things have changed. This year, there have been many, many changes. My son no longer lives with me. I lost that fight. I fought hard and spent more money than I had just to go nowhere with it. The system is broken, and not only will my children have lost out, but generations after them as well.

I have been unattached for the longest period of time so far since I was 17. Not chasing anyone. No talking stage. No situationship. Just getting my shit figured out. It has been an important thing to do. A year of working through it, in spite of my usual efforts of trying to fix things that of course were unfixable. The most recent one is engaged now; that was fast. That’s three women I have been involved with. I used to joke with her about being the foster, helping rescues find their forever homes. I found some closure in knowing it was her turn. After a lot of insomnia last night and wondering why I don’t get chosen, I realized I sounded like her for a minute. Yeah, I found out through the grapevine. It’s only fair, since she still reads my blog and knows what I am up to. I’m just over here shaking my head. I don’t need to know anything else.

I know why I don’t get “chosen.” Like so many others today, it isn’t that I’ve “Given up” it’s that I’m working on me. I’m not compromising anymore. I’m not settling for a life that is “adequate.” I used to tell people I didn’t plan on dating again unless I met someone who truly knocked my socks off. Or maybe someone who I could trust with an open heart. But now, I know what I would rather do. Unless it was someone truly spectacular, I’m going to just enjoy my own company for a while. I’m going to enjoy sunrises, and remember the chill of the air on my legs on a morning in St. Louis at dawn when I was young. Or the way someone gently sang off key in my ear as we danced to Chris De Burgh at Homecoming, my palms slick against her satin red dress. Or the loves that have come and gone from my life since. Kitchen dancing. Holding hands as we drive. Speaking in a whisper as though the moment was so fragile we could break it with our voices.

Shrill piping laughter of my kids who invented a hilarious joke or rode really fast down a hill on their skateboard.

It isn’t a fear of never finding these moments again, it’s a fear that I might forget how all those other times felt, the little details that shined through with each of them. A sparkle in an eye, the cool way someone held a clove cigarette, the silent belly laughs, the rants about out of state drivers or a big smile and a shy wave whenever I came home, or when someone was speechless when I said they were beautiful.

My biggest fear in life is forgetting. And sometimes I really have to stop to remember those beautiful moments. Even when they are shadowed in pain. I wonder if there will be another who has one of those details, like some thread connecting them all, some aspect that resonates, as though I knew another soul before there was time and like the rest of it, everything shattered and was spread across the universe in a jumble, and sometimes we recognize a part of what we loved in someone else, glimmering, standing out from all the rest.

Will there be another face to stand out of so many others in a dark room?

One of my best friends has heard my sad stories too many times. More than she would like to admit. She told me once when I was wondering what I do with all of these memories of people who are gone: My lost children. Those former loves. Family who are no longer with us. I said I wished I was like Leonard Cohen, who kept all of these people from his life in his songs and poetry. She told me I get to keep them safe in stories. She’s a wise one. So, I write my stories and I keep those memories there for now.

I’m done trying to fix anything. There is a wide, unbroken world I want to see finally. A place of beauty and laughter. Of sunbeams that hang in tattered clouds, dappled on a grey sea. I’ll try my best to remember those sweet moments, but sometimes it stings too much to look at them too often. Like someone sitting in an overstuffed chair, wasting the day looking through pictures of their youth when there is still so much more to see.

That is why.

It’s not worth playing the game anymore, because so much of that just seems to be an attempt at a do-over. Righting the things that went wrong in a bad marriage, or trying to bring back that feeling you had when you were first in love with a new face. It’s the same picture, it’s the same You, just with someone else standing in place of another.

I would rather see what happens next. I can’t fix what went wrong and I can’t replace what was lost. It will never be the same again. It is never what you planned anyway. But you can open the next door and see what else awaits. To walk into a place so unfamiliar that you could be anywhere. You could be anyone.

It doesn’t matter if I become a catch in someone’s throat when they remember the little things and for a brief moment wonder where I have gone and if I’m still sad. Of course I am. I have the heart of a poet that I wear on my sleeve. But I’m somewhere else, lost on the infinite tides on my own adventure. I’m also happy. At last. Making all new memories.

Saying goodbye

It’s something I have told myself many times over for years. Anytime I have ignored that advice and stayed in my comfort zone, I think I have derailed myself. Years and years of doing what was expected of me. What I was “supposed” to do always felt like paddling upstream.

My life is different than I expected it to be.

For a long time, I felt that fear of missing out. I felt that insane pressure to follow the crowd and dreaded the looks I would get by doing my own thing. Growing up, it was never good to stand out. You were weird. You didn’t get invited to the parties. You didn’t get to date anyone. Being different was bad. Being different was synonomous with being lonely.

I’m trying to voice this thought without sounding bitter, because today, right now, I am anything but. My heart feels light. The world is open to possibilities. So many possibilities that the choices and variety of what comes next feels endless. Like stepping out into infinity.

I’m alone, but I haven’t felt lonely in a while. This morning though, I felt something. Some kind of pull. I felt a sadness. A loss. Like turning and saying goodbye forever to an old friend. I knew that old friend was a version of myself I tried to be. I’ve outgrown him and what he thought he wanted. He had that last vestige of clinging on to an old value. The need to be wanted. Or rather the need to provide for someone else–family, relationships, friendships, his job–to find value in himself. He knew it wasn’t right to see his value through someone else’s eyes, through someone else’s approval, or their need of him. But he did it anyway.

I am moving forward, and that version of myself knows he can’t come along. He knows I won’t write to him anymore, and he’s telling me not to feel guilty about it. We have to grow. He has known it was coming for a while. I am no longer him.

The next steps ahead, leave my head swimming. I feel so light. Unsteady.

I’m not saying that old path was wrong. It just wasn’t right for me. It might be right for someone else. I might have been right for me if I hadn’t kept moving forward. Right now, I feel vulnerable in the way that someone must when they set out on a long journey with no compass and no goal in mind. Whatever I encounter now is directed by only one plan.

To live. To experience what this life has to show me. To savor the things that I experience.

It’s the plan I had when I was seventeen, but the idea of being an explorer in our lives is terrifying, because we are told what we “need.” And as it turns out, most of us drive ourselves crazy chasing those things, when we really never really needed any of that. Security, stability, A then B then C then D (or someone’s perceptions of these things) can turn into a prison. All of my life I have been lazy, because I thought it was easier to just do what was expected of me, rather than what I wanted. Now I’m finding out that the opposite was true, fighting to be someone I wasn’t was much harder. My life has not been easy because I’ve tried to cram myself into a box. Really, it was a cage.

Today, I feel like I have breath in my lungs. I don’t feel like there was one more thing I could have done to fix something. I am no longer haunted by my regrets. I have dug a hole, and now I get to fill it with anything I want. For the rest of my life.

The possibilities of what can come next are so, very frightening. But I no longer feel trapped by a “plan.” I’m no longer fighting to be wanted, I’m no longer settling for a prepackaged life that seemed adequate. And to those who walked away from me, they can wonder one day how life would have been if they had taken a different path. I’m not going to concern myself with it anymore. It is their loss.

I’m seeing my real worth just now, and it has almost nothing to do with anyone else’s approval. It is no longer bound to any sense of injustice or something I “deserved” but didn’t get. I’ve thought what I have wanted and chased after it many times, only to discover it wasn’t what I wanted after all. I’ll be another year older soon, and maybe I still don’t know what I really “want.” I know what I don’t want. And I also know what I’m not willing to settle for.

I’m breathing. I can smell the rain as the next shower is about to begin. And the world I have been living in has been parched for so long.