On Aging, Coping, Self-Pity and Moving Through

How are you?

Everything is a mess. I mean, I’m awful. I’m fabulous. Everything’s fabulous! How are you?

I had called A on my way home from a work event. That night I’d planned to stop by a party, but in the end, couldn’t bring myself to do it.

“It’s exactly the kind of party I should go to,” I told her: hosted by friends who I like a lot but am not super close with, a party where I knew I’d see a lot of people that, under other circumstances, I would be inclined to talk with and meet.

But I couldn’t.

“I just don’t have the energy for small talk right now,” I said. “Also, how am I supposed to answer when people say, how are you?”

As you know if you are reading this, I am an intensely open person: incapable of lying, hopelessly transparent. I can’t pretend to be okay when I’m not okay.

I (like, apparently, the co-worker of A’s who delivered the candid, cocktail party response quoted above) was not okay.

It’s been a month. A month in which I’ve gone through an (unexpected, unpleasant) breakup. Navigated pretty heavy conflict relating to family relationships. Reconnected with an old, unavailable flame–flaring up that familiar cycle of intense connection and disconnection that does not, despite past efforts to convince myself the contrary, get any easier with (relentless) repetition.

I’m inclined to write that “on top of all of that” I’m still acclimating to the new and rigorous responsibilities of college teaching, editing the journal of our prison group’s work, and balancing a handful of freelance jobs.

But the truth is that work has been a welcome escape.

It is also true that there have been days when I’ve felt so overwhelmed by emotion that I’ve had to cover up tears while teaching. It’s also true that I’ve lost many potentially productive hours to feeling sorry for myself and staring vaguely at the maple trees outside my pleasant porch windows.

Mostly, though, I have felt thankful for the direction(s) in which to focus my energies.

As A put it, in the wake of a hectic professional time of her own: “It’s so socially acceptable.”

As in, it is much easier to say, as I did to the small group of close friends assembled in my kitchen last Saturday night, that I had to go do transcription work, for example, than it is to say, I’d love to hang out with you guys but I’m feeling too sad and self-pitying to socially interact.

It is vaguely less depressing, in other words, to have one’s work to immerse oneself in–especially when that work feels meaningful–than it is to not have that.

Still, small talk is hard to avoid. Even amidst this anti-social spell, I still have to go outside. (And to the coffee shop, and the gym, and, you know, the campus where I teach.)

And it is a struggle to put on a simple, Midwestern grin and act as though I’m alright when (barely) beneath the surface I feel like I am falling apart. And so, to the extent that I can, I am avoiding situations that require me to do it.

Be choosy, my therapist advised.

As in: be careful and cautious about who you open up to.

This (see above) is hard.

There is a large part of me that yearns to open up to every other co-op shopper about the hardship of mother-daughter relationships. (That would be the part that writes this blog; the part that falls in love once every Thursday.)

But there is a sensible part of me, too: a part that understands that not everyone has the interest or the capacity to “go there”–at all, or when it comes to someone else’s or my particular problems. That all our energies are limited.

And that one of the gifts we must give ourselves during difficult times is the gift of space, and of being selective about who we bring in close and how much.

I can never write about hardship without nodding to my many good fortunes, so indulge me (in this other way) a moment: besides the basic privileges of being healthy and here,  I have so many strong, wise people from which to choose. I have generous girlfriends who feed me and then dispatch me home with bread and wine and framed art; who check in and check in and check in, who listen and listen and listen more. I have an older pseudo-mom who makes me vegan cookies and cloaks me with deep care. I have a brother and sister-in-law who are (if geographically distant) relentlessly present and funny and kind. I have books and money to buy them.

Another thing that happened in the last month is that I turned thirty-two.

Birthdays don’t feel cute anymore: they are beginning to feel, rather, like markers of mortality and stress.

But for this moment, at least, my age feels like something to a little bit celebrate: because as tough as things may feel in certain moments, I’ve lived enough, now, to trust that things will get better. That I will move through this as I’ve moved through things in the past, that things will shift, that there will be other parties that I will feel like going to, and that, yeah, everything is fucked up and a mess but also, everything is fabulous, and it’s going to be fine.

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