Sunday, March 28, 2010

Crisis: The Wellspring of Renewal

Most of us know what it’s like to find ourselves behaving in ways contrary to our nature from time to time; to forget ourselves in choices that lose sight of consequence. That 3am bout of insomnia – coupled with the realization we have settled for a life we never intended – can happen to the best of us. We all fall off the path; or more accurately, we all, at some point, make the mistake of following someone else's path, or asking someone else’s questions, or living in accordance with someone else’s agenda.

This is where “the watershed moment” can be a real blessing – the way that life has of stepping in and tripping us up – to open our eyes to some powerful truth. The death or loss of something or someone we love is guaranteed to have this effect. A dear friend called me the other day to tell me that someone very close to him had died. Riddled with heartache, he lamented over unseized opportunities and (as he saw it) unspeakable failures. He bemoaned all the times he wished he’d been there for her or spoken what was in his heart. His torment was palpable.

Listening to that unbridled anguish, I felt as if I might crack wide open. Yet there was something quite poignant about it. He projected an air of self possession I had never heard before. He was being honest with himself at an entirely new level, and the whole world looked different. I felt this opening to life, and to healing. So I told him that. I told him this was his chance. He had access. He could take advantage of this shift in perspective. And he could live his life in a way that honors her memory. Only he knew what that meant.

I could hear in his voice, he was determined to make meaning from this pain. And I thought to myself, this is the nuts and bolts of life. Taking a moment such as a tragedy or a crisis and allowing it to open you to the change your soul longs for. Powerful catalysts come in all forms. Some of us glide through half of our lives without one, until one day, we finally come up against the inevitable truth: we’re getting older. Is this what we want to be doing the rest of our lives?

Also known as the entry into midlife crisis. My take? Give thanks for this rude awakening, because it’s offering you choices you never knew you had. Cling to your youth, and you’ll miss it.

“Crisis” in the Concise Oxford dictionary, by the way, is defined as a “a decisive moment; a time of danger or great difficulty; a turning point.” Websters adds, “to bring to a culminating point”.

A convergence? A fork in the road? Whatever it be, it often brings with it all sorts of goodies – turmoil, anxiety, grief. All of it, arguably, a nudging toward life. Educator and counselor Stephen Jenkinson describes grief as a skill. A skill. “Grief is a sign of life stirring toward itself,” he adds. I am going to be interviewing him soon, and I plan on asking him precisely what he means by that.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

A Bout of the Crazies

There is a time in a woman’s life when everything she has known (and counted on) is called into question; when the earth opens up and threatens to swallow her whole; when the neatly-drawn perimeters of her sane life are seemingly cast into a mesh of shady intersections, all of which obscure loopy or erratic creatures waiting to emerge at unexpected turns. It’s called Menopause – also known as The Change or, as I think I will name it today, A Bout of the Crazies.

Hormones are freakishly-powerful things. They can make you bawl your heart out for no apparent reason, out of nowhere; they can make you feel chilled and on fire at the same time; they can turn you into a no-holds-barred nymphomaniac one day and an utterly barren entity the next. They can torment your mind with the big What If? ....until you’re absolutely convinced that a) you’re on the verge of a nervous breakdown, or b) some adolescent version of yourself has time traveled back into your 40 or 50-something body. Oh, and I’m just getting started.

At 48, I’ve been aware that on some level, my system has been gearing up for The Change for a number of years now. Mood swings, the occasional night sweat, and skin once baby-soft now impossibly dry in places – nothing too scary. Until recently. Now, I want to start a movement. I want to rally together all the women like me who have been caught off guard by this Bout of the Crazies; this on-again, off-again feeling of cracking up, or becoming unhinged, however fleeting. Of being temporarily possessed or taken over, and then left to recover my level-headed self, wondering what all the fuss was about – over, and over again. Is this when womens husbands tend to leave them, because they no longer recognize the woman they married, or they’re ill-equipped to deal with the swings? And if you’re single like myself, do you resign yourself to another 5 or 10 years of solitary life, until which time the storm has passed?

The medical profession – along with the pharmaceutical industry – has worked tirelessly over recent decades to pathologize (and medicate) this life transition, which makes me sad. Because while it has been quite hellish, I passionately believe it is not an illness, and I would never trade the experience for a more convenient, synthetic way of life, the way some women do when they take those pills to stop menstruating. A life with soul, I think, of real creativity, is often born of that which is messy, beast-like or wretched. I don’t want to be a cardboard cut-out of myself. I want to live my life, and learn to find strength and wisdom in what nature intended. And I want to find a man who is strong and unwavering; who will not bolt in the other direction at the first sign of troubled waters, but who also won’t take on my crazies as if they were his own.

My friend Amy Ferris, whose book on menopause (and on marrying George Clooney) has lightened my load many times over, says that menopause is all about giving birth to yourself. That you go through a lot of the same shit you did when you were a teenager, but on a deeper level, and this time, you are challenged to respond to it in a life-giving way. I keep telling myself that.

But I’d also like to hear from other women who’ve been through it. Is it sort of like being in labor? What’s your story?

Friday, March 12, 2010

Bringing Sexy Back

It could be argued that one of the most common hallmarks of growing older is how your perception of “sexy” changes. Not a slight alteration here and there, but rather an upside-down, inside-out, shake-up-my-world kind of shift in experience, where every time you look back, you can’t believe how off the mark you were.

I refer here not to the qualities we are drawn to in others – for some of us, this is determined by what is intrinsic to our nature, and remains pretty constant through our lifetime. No, what I’m talking about here are the things we have trouble pinning down; that “something about them” feeling that we can’t put our finger on. Though we may point to specifics now and again – a woman’s walk or the nape of her neck; the cadence in a man’s speech or the way he fills a room – it always just seems to flirt with the real essence of it. But no matter. Because whatever the “it” is, we’re finally feeling it. With age comes a deeper relationship to the senses; the capacity to see or feel in a thing so much more than we had ever seen or felt before.

When I was in my early 30s, I was totally caught up in appearances. I thought sexy meant jean shorts, fishnet stockings and doc martens, topped off with a biker jacket and John Lennon-esque sunglasses. Hip looking, perhaps – for the times. But it was never enough. I was always missing the glove, or the guy, or the cleavage, or whatever. I was hanging on to sexy by a very thin thread indeed, and I was searching for the same kind of sexy in others, too. For everyone I knew, it was all about image, and personality – and whether or not these met the criteria set by your peers. Quadruple this when you’re in your 20s.

Now, roughly 20 years later, what I experience as sexy is much more real and far more reliable. It’s a vibe that doesn’t depend on a passing trend or approval from others, because it is intricately woven with my values and the woman I have grown to become. The more I focus on how I want to feel over how I want to appear, the stronger I feel its presence. In the movie It’s Complicated, Alec Baldwin’s character – after a bout of passionate lovemaking with his ex-wife (played by Meryl Streep) – sighs, “why is it that it’s so much sexier than it used to be?” ….to which she muses, “I don’t know……”

The implication is clear. Sex over 50 is hot. And like a good bottle of wine, our relationship with “sexy” gets better with age if we can just learn to relax and go with it. As many of us have found, when we stop wasting time on how things were, we discover that “sexy” can actually have real substance. We abandon the need to prove ourselves and focus instead on relating to others.

It’s refreshing, invigorating and liberating. It’s bringing sexy back to the place it was meant to be.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Power of All Things Make-Believe

I had a dream two nights ago about Johnny Depp. I was surprised – I never dream about movie stars. But there he was, in all His Deppness. Not the red carpet royalty and eccentric pirate we know now, but Johnny Depp the person – original, full of character, highly creative, the height of coolness. We were supposed to be hooking up for a sort of a date. Sort of.

Now I say “sort of” because my sense of who I was in this dream is vague: my age, state of physicality (which has varied greatly in my lifetime), my nature (I am multi-faceted) and even my societal status are not defined in any real way, so I don’t really know which “me” His Deppness is into. In any case, we are supposed to meet in this public place, where he is going to take me to meet some Very Cool people, and somehow, I manage to not make it in time. And being the Very Cool guy that he is, he leaves me this phone message extending me the benefit of the doubt, and telling me where they’re all going to be.

Except I don’t know how to find this place.

Well suffice it to say that I wake up in a state of utter frustration at (what seemed like) a missed opportunity. It’s funny how dreams work. Even after you come to and realize it was “just a dream”, you still can’t seem to shake the feeling, which was strong enough to wake you up – and you walk about your apartment or loft or wherever, telling yourself how silly you’re being and to just forget about it, but it’s already crawled under your skin. Part of you struggles to put it out of your mind; the other part keeps trying to grasp the fragments, make sense of it, translate it somehow to your real life.

My friend Amy Ferris has a thing for George Clooney – she even put him in the title of her book. Me, it’s Johnny Depp. Not so much in a sexual or romantic way, but in a creative longing sort of way. His extraordinary trust in the power of the imagination; his courting of all things odd or offbeat – both, I find deeply stimulating. In Benny & Joon, he climbs trees in a top hat, and makes french toast with an iron and an ironing board. I am drawn to, and delighted by, this kind of strangeness in others; people who are a little bit mad, but who always maintain a good measure of sanity when it’s called for. People who can balance living on the edge with finding their centre; who experiment with re-contextualizing stuff for fun, or to see how it challenges their perception of things. Those who see life in the so-called inanimate, or who flirt with mythical creatures in some way. People who question their own assumptions, test the boundaries of reality, indulge their idiosyncrasies or abandon the need to be socially acceptable.

Like performers. Or artists. Or menopausal women.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Where Pain and Pleasure Become One

I’ve been thinking a lot about death and dying lately – how it shakes things up; makes you look at life differently. There is this Hindu goddess named Kali who is widely regarded as the bringer of death – but not in the same way we think about it here in the west. More accurately, her mythology speaks to the ability to “look with the eyes of death” on that which no longer serves us; to face, and learn to accept, the gradual demise of that which we once held sacred....beliefs formed in youth that no longer make sense; values long cherished now feeble, cursory remnants of their former selves. All of this resonates with me strongly right now. As a woman in her late 40s, it seems to me that the older I get, the more important it becomes to be able to roll with the punches; to welcome new ways of seeing things, and to allow life’s lessons to open me up to change my soul longs for.

Maybe that’s because the alternative is stagnation; an arthritic clenching of everything I know in my addiction to comfort and all things familiar. Now, more than ever, I feel a great need to resist this inclination. I want that “something more” out of life. I don’t want to live in fear that something I identify with today could be gone tomorrow. Because it could be. Everything’s happening so darned fast. I look back on my concepts of self even as recent as two years ago....I mean, it’s all turning on its head.

The beauty of aging is how it opens your eyes to all sorts of stuff. You realize how stupid you were when you were young; how utterly fooled you were by the appearance of things. For so many years, I chased after what I was so sure I thought I wanted, only to realize, as time went on, that the form my life takes matters far less than how closely I can live in accordance with my values. Whether it be my professional aspirations, in what country I reside, the man I am intimate with or how I spend my days – as someone I know once said, “I just want to be where I am supposed to be.”

So bring it on. This anguish I feel, with the recent passing of my beloved – this, I cannot numb, for it can take me to that sweet spot I’ve pined for all my life; that place where pain and pleasure become one, and rupture the shell of my long-embittered self.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

What We Fall In Love With

When Meryl Streep’s public interview with a veteran journalist in Toronto was announced last year, I was one of the first people in line to get a ticket. Even if I were 10 rows away from her with a shoddy view, I had to be in the same room as her; to bask in her radiant presence. I was not disappointed. Though she was dressed casually with her hair back in a pony tail, she glowed – just as she always does. I was intoxicated.

I remember many comments she made that night, but one that stands out for me now is this: what we fall in love with in people is the light that surrounds them, comes from them. That’s the thing we fall in love with. This resonated with me quite strongly, but until just a couple of days ago, I never experienced this truth so directly; so powerfully.

On Monday night, after many sleepless days and nights, my beloved cat passed away – on the same day as what would have been my grandmother’s 100th birthday. She was the love of my life, and I have never dealt with death before in such an intimate way. The experience of her passing; of the hours just before her death and the actually process of dying itself, was bittersweet – brutal, poignant and beautiful. As I cradled her in my arms and felt her spirit leave her body, anguish filled my heart and soul. For two hours I held her, rocked her, sang to her; and when rigor mortis began to set in, I curled her up onto her favorite blanket and gently kissed her precious, golden body.

In the hours that followed, I would continue to return to this ritual: on my knees, bending down to kiss her, my tears dropping down on her fur, soft as silk. But I was surprised by something – a profound revelation I had not seen coming that brought both disappointment and awe. And that is, she was not her body. This kissing her was not the same. I stroked her body but she was not there. The spirit, heart and life force that I loved so madly was gone.

Okay, so this is what death is. Of course this wasn’t her, I told myself. This is the body she inhabited. But to understand this intellectually and experience it firsthand were two different things. The comfort and sheer pleasure I found in kissing her before could no longer be found with this body, however beautiful it might be to look at. This wasn’t her. It was time to open up to a different way of experiencing her; to a new way of perceiving, and feeling, her presence.

But back to my point. As Meryl Streep so wisely pointed out, what I fell in love with was the light that emanated from her being; what I communicated with was this vitality; this force of life – the spirit that danced in her body. And though I can’t quite articulate yet why this realization is so astounding for me, I can say this: if humanity in general were more attuned to this truth, we would be much more accepting of death as a natural part of life, and we would be far less hung up about growing older.