When I saw this image posted on the Facebook page Fly, Hip & Ageless the other day, it reminded me of how many of us have lost our way “home;” the way back to the essence of who we are…or were. We’ve been whoever we needed to be, for whomever needed us to be whatever that is (daughter/wife/sister/boss/mother/employee/grandmother/etc.) for so long that we no longer remember who we used to be. Back before the world crept into our sense of self, our dreams and our belief in possibilities and re-shaped who we were…who we might have been.
I realized this about myself about 25 years ago and began my journey “home,” my journey to finding the girl I had left behind. When I came across these childhood photos of me as a toddler. I was struck by how completely self possesed I was. I decided to have the picture enlarged, matted and framed. I hung them on my bedroom wall as a daily reminder not to forget “HER”–that little girl who so seemed to know exactly who she was. The Virginia who took life just seriously enough. The Virginia who felt and expressed more joy in a laugh than words could ever communicate. The Virginia who believed that a pretty dress could always make her feel pretty.
These grainy old snapshots helped me find my way home…my way back to me and I haven’t lost my way since!
Look for whatever it is that will be YOUR trail of breadcrumbs, your Glinda, your GPS. It might be a song, a book, a photo, a memory…it doesn’t matter what the trigger is, as long as it leads you back to YOU. When you find your way back home, LOVE the YOU you find there, invite her back into your world and LISTEN to her when she speaks to you in the midst of all the noise you are surrounded by. You will soon realize that because she has no guile, that girl will always tell you the truth–and I’m sure you will find that being in your own skin, the skin that was made just for you as opposed to the skin you’ve been trying to fit in, is pretty gosh darn comfortable! Because…there really is no place like home!
What’s the difference between a classic car and a junker?
(You will get the answer at the end!)
Ever notice how carefully collectors of old stuff— cars, antiques, books, works of art, treat their treasures? Vintage autos are sheltered in temperature controlled environments, their finishes, interior and exterior, are regularly polished and buffed until they gleam. When they do venture out of their protected luxury garages and onto the road, there are special license plates designating them as exceptional and unique, and these classic vehicles are exempted from the compliance standards and regulations that apply to newer models. And whether it’s a stately sedan or a racy roadster, these classic cars get noticed. People slow down, take a second or third look and toot their horn or wave as an expression of their admiration—or envy. Sometimes the driver acknowledges the admiring glances with a nod or a casually tossed hand in the air. Other times they continue on their merry way oblivious to everything but their own enjoyment.
Collectors of these rare and beautiful automobiles have their own societies and they gather regularly for the express purpose of displaying, comparing and discussing their four wheeled treasures. Owners stand around proclaiming the virtues of chamois, sea sponge, sheepskin and wicking towels as the care tools of choice. But whatever they use to clean, dry and polish, they are full of nothing but praise for each other’s gorgeous classic wheels. And between these public displays of affection, the owners of these gems can peruse magazines and websites devoted to these treasured autos.
The same type of behavior applies to antiques and those who collect them. Antique stores are jewel boxes—purposefully designed and lighted to display their venerable contents to best advantage. No sunlight fades or damages fine woods or upholstery. Lamps cast perfect shadows and highlights to make an item appear imposing, delicate—and most importantly, precious.
Ever notice on the Antiques Roadshow how those clever Keno brothers carefully examine the craftsmanship and handiwork of a piece of period furniture? They don special white cotton gloves so as to protect the precious satinwood or walnut finish from even the most imperceptible trace of oil from human skin. The Keno boys salivate as they oooh! and aaah! while smoothing their gloved hands over inlay, scrollwork, curved legs and of course those amazing claw feet. They exude an almost sexual excitement and tension as they examine the console table or settee, and you can feel it. You’re in your living room, hundreds or even thousands of miles away from the Oklahoma Convention Center or the Peoria-Dome, but your excitement grows right along with theirs. Their saliva very nearly turns too drool as they turn the table or chest upside down and find original dove tail joints or look at the inside of a drawer and find wood older than the surface, indicating even more specifically a period and style in furniture history. We’re at home holding our breath. Hoping for a huge climax— (a financial one of course) we’ve been teased and toyed with long enough. Then at last, they give us all what we want. The Kenos are gleeful as they tell the now drop-jawed possessor of this mighty treasure the value of the commode/desk/highboy that has been languishing untended and undusted in an attic corner, ever since Great Aunt Gertie (who got the piece from her mother who got it from a neighbor who got it from…) went on to glory.
But back in the real world most of us live in, old sofas and tables are moved to the basement or storage room until-well until they end up donated to charity, left on the curb for the trash collector or carted away by the kindly New Furniture Company that is delivering their shiny replacements.
And as for cars? The clunkers and wrecks are traded in, abandoned in a junkyard or stashed behind the garage. They are left at the mercy of the elements, are subjected to the games of neighborhood children, fall prey to vandals who shatter windows, scratch obscenities on their once lustrous finishes, or become unlikely planters for anything wild enough to take root in the inhospitable old steel. Then they finally rust their way to oblivion.
So it seems the appropriate determination of worth for “old stuff” has something to do with the intrinsic value it was originally assigned. An object is deemed special because it is well crafted, beautiful to the beholder, and therefore desired. But the assignment of value and desirability also has a great deal to do with the perception of worth and importance.
Beyond the basics of food, clothing and shelter, we live in a society where most of us want what we are told we want. Really. I will repeat that sentence. We want what we are TOLD to want. We are all consumers. And we are being marketed to every single minute of every single day. I mean who knew that one day I’d actually WANT a phone in my purse? If someone had told me that twenty years ago, I would have thought the notion absurd. Why on earth would anyone want to carry a telephone around with them? Ludicrous! But now, nearly everyone has a mobile phone in their handbag, pocket, wirelessly hooked up to their car—or worse, their ear—all the time!
So we’re back to the original premise. Making something valuable enough to want, is either a result of the object’s value because it is rare and finely wrought of the best materials. Or it is worth something because someone has told us it is worth something by desiring it?
Think about this…a 1948 Ford that has been well cared for can be worth much more than a 1998 Mercedes Benz. The fifty years the Ford has on the Benz is not a problem, but rather the thing that makes it worthy. And if you can authenticate provenance—who owned it when, and for how long—the value of that Ford can go up even more.
So here’s the good news—you are the original owner of you. You may have done some long term leasing of yourself—to build a marriage, raise children, develop a career—but there’s never been another owner. You are it. How have you treated yourself? How much of your intrinsic value have you retained? How much of it do you want to reclaim?
The difference between a classic car and a junker has nothing to do with age. It’s all in the way it’s cared for.
Whether you want to be a Classy Classic or a Walking Wreck is up to you.
Get up now and go stand in front of your full length mirror. (You can keep your clothes on—this time.) If you don’t have a full length mirror, shame on you, but find the closest substitute. Take a long look. What do you see—a valuable collectible or a junker? Right now, DECIDE that you will follow the example of the collectible car enthusiasts and antique aficionados—who know something special when they see it. You are a treasure, so treat yourself like the special, classic babe you are—starting now!
If you haven’t shined yourself up and taken yourself out to be admired lately—put that on your calendar right now.
If you have shined yourself up and taken yourself out to be admired lately—do it again!
These are things I learned early in life. And like most things we pick up early, I learned them at home. Which I know may seem like a pretty unusual place to learn about the importance of having fun.
When my father was a boy, he and his brothers coaxed a cow from the pasture into the house—and up the stairs to the second floor, just to see if they could do it. AND because they thought it would be fun. At least that’s how the story went every time Daddy told it, and believe me, he told it dozens of times. Many years later in a house of his own, and with no livestock of the bovine kind readily available, he enticed a semi-willing, fairly gullible squirrel into our back hall and up the stairs, for what must have been the exact same reasons. Why else would he do it? And to the delight of my brother, sister and I, that little fluffy tailed rodent stopped by often for a visit and a treat (peanuts in the shell). We named him Tony. And sometimes he brought a friend along. Tony (and his descendants) became a regular visitors to our home and when my mom sold the house after my dad passed, she adopted a new squirrel family at her new digs…because it was fun.
My mother, somewhere in her mid seventies at the time, was caught red handed, in a contest with my nephew who was then seven or eight, to see who could stuff the most grapes in their mouth. My sister found them sitting on the sofa, cheeks bulging with grapes they weren’t allowed to chew—how else could you keep count and determine the winner?
And these comical, entertaining parents of mine had the nerve, the temerity, to call me their “silly” child!!! Duh?! I say “takes one to know one!”
In one of the novels Donna and I wrote, one character admonishes another saying “the surest way to end up with nowhere to go, is to forget where you came from.” And although it still feels odd, even after all these years to quote our own work, I think the words Loretta spoke to Pat in Tryin’ to Sleep in the Bed You Made are a wise warning we should all heed and a sentiment that is perfectly applicable to aging.
The surest way to get old, is to forget what it was like to be young.
I’ll repeat that just in case you missed it the first time.
The surest way to get old, is to forget what it was like to be young.
I don’t know how much of our forgetting is truly a failure to recall – goodness knows most of us, at this stage of life, have more than a touch of “CRS” (Can’t Remember Shit), and how much is a deliberate choice not to recall. This is choice results in a peculiar form of amnesia we can all be found guilty of. You watched your parents come down with it, promised yourself it would never happen to you, and yet, here you are—so far long life’s rocky climb to wherever it is you think you’re supposed to be going, that you can’t even remember that fun used to be important—hell, it was everything. In your full speed ahead quest to reach adulthood—and you really were in a hurry weren’t you? You deemed certain behavior childish and unsuitable. And since we have been taught that there is a time and a season for everything under the sun, in the name of being a grown up, one of the first things to be declared out of season and cast aside, is play.
Play means doing something simply because it brings you pleasure. No other reason is needed—just plain old fun. There may be some tangential value that comes from playing, but it’s a by-product and should be considered gravy. So while your workout at the gym may leave you invigorated (or exhausted) and the hour you spent in spinning class makes you feel strong and smug, these activities do NOT equal play. Yes, they are healthful, helpful and undoubtedly important, but they are not to be confused with playing.
Just in case you can’t even conjure up a picture of what having fun really looks like, take a gander at any four year old seriously engaged in her most important task—playing. She can be lost in an imaginary scenario involving an ersatz family of dolls for whom she has created specific relationships, and will tell you so in no uncertain terms. “No!! That’s the Mommy not the Big Sister!” She may be moving sand from one pile to another, watching with delight as the grains spill through her hands, repeating the process over and over again. Or she may be running in circles until she’s dizzy with glee and vertigo. It doesn’t matter to her—as long as she gets joy from the experience—and she will.
And because, as a general rule, children play every day, she will wake up the next day anxious to seek and find joy in play once again. Of necessity, as we get older, the amount of time we spend playing diminishes proportionately until we’ve reached the age of presumed maturity— at which point we proudly kick play to the curb permanently, declaring fun a “waste of time.”
This is a BIG MISTAKE. One you are now in a position to correct.
The honest truth is that men are way better at keeping play as a part of their day to day life than women, and we give them grief for it. Whether it’s golf, poker, fishing or a pick-up game of hoops, we are more likely than not
to harp on the amount of time they waste being childish– playing silly games or complain about the hours they spend glued to the tube, playing vicariously. How dare they goof-off when there are errands to be run, gutters to be cleaned, garages (attics, basements, spare rooms) to be cleared, lawns to be mowed? Their “Honey Do” list of chores is relentlessly endless. What immature, childish oafs they are! And what conscientious, hardworking, mature adults we are by comparison.
But what if, instead of being indignant at their irresponsible, juvenile behavior, or flexing our passive-agressive (“It’s ok. Go on…play games with your friends. “) muscles, we considered the possibility that maybe, just maybe, there is a little something we could learn from them?
I know, it may sound like sacrilege. I’m probably even in violation of some secret female code of conduct known only, and instinctively, I might add, to the members of the XX Chromosome Club. And I will probably be hunted down like a traitor and forced to cut
up my XXCC membership card for uttering this. Don’t you think it pains me to admit that areas might even exist where women are not equal or superior to the XY Guys?! But I willingly make this sacrifice because I call ‘em like I see ‘em. When it comes to honoring play- and the spirit of play, the boys win– hands down.
When is the last time you exhausted yourself having fun instead of worn yourself out with duty or obligation? Can’t remember can you? So what’s a woman to do? Well in the case of the play- challenged chick, the answer is: definitely not what she’s always done. You must accept first that play is not ageist—
OK, I grant you my knees don’t hold up as well during a kitchen floor game of jacks as they once did. But like with everything else about this getting older business, I’m smart enough to compensate–I don’t play jacks often, a pillow is helpful, I only play for a short time and I’ve even played standing at a table. The point is that I still enjoy jacks so why not play? Of course, there are other, more mature things I have fun doing as well— going dancing, cooking for friends and sex (Yep!), but I thought my love of jacks, precisely because it’s silly, would offer a better illustration.
The street lights haven’t come on yet, the day isn’t over and your Mom is not waiting at the door for you to come inside (or maybe she is, but that’s an issue for another book.)
There’s still time…but the clock is ticking. It REALLY IS OK to have fun—for no reason and have no guilt about it. You don’t need excuses, or apologies, or to make it look like work in case you get caught. Keep in mind—YOU are the only one who can define what fun is for you.
Think back. Way back. No. No. Longer ago than that. Keep going—-until you can remember what it felt like to be on a swing. Flying and free. You had waited and waited until it was finally your turn. Your braids and the laces of your sneakers were both coming undone. You didn’t care. And when the swing slowed, didn’t you pump as hard as you could to keep aloft?
Now take that feeling, not the image, the feeling of pure delight, and tuck it somewhere easily accessible (your heart, your brain, your purse—whatever you’re likely to open fastest.)
Done? Are you sure you can grab it at a moment’s notice?
Now each and every week, you must make a play date with yourself, or someone else—as long as it takes you to experience that feeling of delight. So whether it’s a kite, a karaoke machine, a kiln or a kayak, unearth your inner little girl and carpe play!
As our life expectancy increases, fifty, long considered “solidly middle aged” may well be earning that spot legitimately. There was a time, not even that long ago, when it was pretty clear that despite being referred to as middle age, fifty was considered the spot that marked the downhill approach to the finish line. Expecting to make it to seventy-five wasn’t an unreasonable presumption if you took good care of yourself, but your best years were, without doubt, long gone—part of the past for you to remember fondly.
But that was then.
Now, all it takes is a look at the exponential growth in the number of centennial birthday announcements made on the Today Show (by Willard Scott and continue after his recent retirement) to let us know that living to 100 and beyond is not as much of an anomaly as it was a scant ten or fifteen years ago. So– thanks to the miracles of modern medicine, as you hit the half century mark, for the first time in recorded human history, (not counting Methuselah and other Biblical ancients) at fifty, you may really, truly, be in middle age…how about that?
And once you’re there, whaddaya do? I strongly suggest your next step is to get a firm grip on what that really means, and in order to do that, you need to take a good, hard, honest look at yourself. No, you don’t need the mirror, or your reading glasses for this particular examination, so relax.
One of the greatest benefits of having made it through more than a few decades of living, is the gift of perspective. And lucky us, perspective is the kind of gift that keeps on giving. When we put down childish things and begin our journey toward adulthood we don’t know that perspective even exists. We live our lives in the present and the future and we have little, if any, ability (or need) to see the “Big Picture” through the lens of past experience.
When we were young(er), like countless generations before us (and countless ones yet to come), despite what parents and elders tried to prepare us for, and caution us against, we ignored the helpful warnings and sage advice and plunged ahead hell-bent on whatever goal we were pursuing. We ignored roadblocks or assumed they were meant for someone else…certainly not “me.” Blindly we stumbled along, bumping into the stuff along our pathway to wherever it was we were going. Sometimes we ran into the obstacles head first, fully expecting that the desire to get where we wanted to go, combined with the sheer force of thrust and our determination, would move the impediment out of our way. Sometimes we were right. More often than not, we were wrong. (Which, by the way, is how our novel Tryin’ to Sleep in the Bed You Made, which is about young people who think they have all the answers, came to be!)
Fortunately, the injuries we receive from collisions with these roadblocks and deterrents are usually minor–not serious enough to cause any permanent disability. After all, when they take place, we are young, resilient, fearless and last but not least, clueless. We are, as were those who went before us, living, breathing object lessons for why phrases like “youth is wasted on the young” and “if I knew then what I know now” will never become obsolete. And when you when you hear these words uttered by a head-shaking, know-it-all solidly grown-ass man or woman in response to someone younger making a mistake, you can be pretty sure they have conveniently forgotten to remember their own rocky, pothole-filled path to their current place of wisdom and insight. Because while the gift perspective affords us a view of the whole picture, it can also make micro memories of the dumb stuff we all did.
A few years ago, I was having a conversation with a good friend, a man who was in his late sixties who would hate being described that way, but he’d hate it even more if I used his name! In the twenty plus years I’ve known him, he never has a conversation with me when he didn’t find a reason to reference the good old 70s. These were the years when, according to him, life was great-nearly perfect in fact. But in that chat he said, “I’ve been thinking. And you know how I hate to do that—much less admit that I’m wrong about anything. But…I’ve finally realized that the past wasn’t better.” He took a sip of scotch before he continued. “I was just younger. My life is much better now, way, way better than I wanted to remember it was back then.” He actually looked relieved once he said it out loud, like he was giving himself, permission, finally to let go and live now. His self-revelation did not lost long however and in short order he was back to complainingabout the present and exalting the past.
Getting older is not the time not to either lament or glorify the good old days. It is the time for an affirmation of who we are now, in this moment, and what is yet to come—which, believe it or not, might just possibly be even greater than our youth. Victor Hugo said, “Forty is the old age of youth, fifty is the youth of old age.”
He was right. This is just the end of the beginning. Relax and enjoy getting to the good part.
If you are a journal keeper:
Find an old one and pick half a dozen entries you made when you were younger–during your twenties or thirties.
Read, from your older perspective, about the things that were rocking your world. The stuff that was going on in your life that was so monumental as to make worthy of a page or several in your diary. Because let’s face it, pre-Oprah and her “Gratitude Journals” most of us (and many still do) used our journals as a place to vent. We did not use them as a place for saying “Thanks Universe for the good things and for the lessons I’ve learned from the not-so-good things.” Our journals were a place to hold our very own “bitch until it feels better” fests so that we could face the next day relieved of a little bit of our frustration with parents, lovers, jobs, bosses, school, co-workers, friends who “didn’t get it” and the like.
Now, as your aged, wiser, reading glasses wearing eyes gaze upon these pages, digest them, and ask yourself how much of what you were so worried/hung up/angry/stressed out about then, matters now. My guess is probably not much.
Think about how much SHE didn’t know, that YOU now do. Remember how easily SHE was consumed by self-doubt. SHE survived all the stuff SHE thought SHE would never live through.
Smile at her.
Smile for her. She’s become lower case now because she knows what’s important—and that it’s not all about her.
Close the book.
If you are not a journaler:
Grab your high school or college yearbook from the bookshelf, or the box in the basement. (It’s not still at your parents’ house is it? If it is, it’s time to bring it home!) Find your senior picture. OK. Try to look past the wardrobe and hair—it won’t be easy, but you won’t be able to see “you” in there if you don’t ignore your unfortunate fashion faux pas and questionable coiffure choices.
Look at HER. Think about how much SHE didn’t know, that YOU now do. Remember how easily SHE was consumed by self-doubt. SHE survived all the stuff SHE thought SHE would never live through.
Smile at her.
Smile for her. She’s become lower case now because she knows what’s important—and that it’s not all about her.
Several of you have asked why the blog background/header image is red lipstick. The image has changed from time to time but it’s always some version of red lipstick. The answer is two words…My Mother!
My mom, who passed away in 2013 at the age of 89, wasn’t a fancy society lady who lunched at swank restaurants with other fancy society ladies. Juanita made us pressed ham or tuna sandwiches on Wonder Bread for lunch-which we ate at our kitchen table. (In those days kids actually went HOME from school for lunch!) Sometimes, when were out of school and Mom was feeling a bit on the fancy side, she would make us “Eggs ala Goldenrod” for lunch–chopped hard boiled eggs served in a cream sauce over toast points, and my sister, and maybe even my brother, and I would eat in the dining room and feel a little fancy too. But Mom didn’t get facials or manicures or have other fancy beauty rituals.
Juanita was a wife, a mom, a daughter, a sister, a school teacher, a singer, a friend– who lived her entire life never believing she was attractive—she said it often…not in a way that was a sneaky plea for compliments, or a statement to be protested, but simply as a matter-of-fact personal observation about herself. And I didn’t grow up feeling pretty—or being told that pretty should be my goal—being kind, getting good grades, laughing often—these were the things I grew up thinking important-the things that were rewarded.
But despite Mom’s self-assessment as “plain,” Juanita was seriously dedicated to the idea that Cute Counts. And Mom was CUTE! Please remember the CUTE I’m writing about in this blog is much more about attitude than pulchritude. The CUTE I’m writing about is found by keeping the girl you used to be (or wished you were) alive and kicking! Other than lipstick she didn’t wear makeup until later in her life and even then it was just a swipe of drug store eyeliner pencil and the faintest brush of blush. She didn’t spend much time in front of the mirror, but LIPSTICK WAS HER GO-TO—and her hair was always done. EVERY SINGLE DAY.
I mentioned earlier (LESSON 5 – Mirror Mirror) that when my mom was in her early 80’s some fairly debilitating health issues finally slowed her down. But even after months of being house or hospital bound—she rolled her hair every night (but was NEVER seen outside of the house in said rollers) and put on her good robe and lipstick every day because she never stopped being concerned about her appearance.
Pictures of my mom early in her life—before she was a mom, and after,
tell the story. She didn’t go to work, the super market, the drug store, the dry cleaners, choir rehearsal…anywhere without lipstick! She wore red until she was somewhere in her 70’s. Then she switched to a deep rose color.
I remember being a kid (we all got home from school at roughly the same time) and watching Mom, somewhere between 4:30 and 5, before my dad got home from work, run a comb through her hair and refresh her lipstick. There was no lip liner or brush or gloss. Just a swipe from
the Helena Rubenstein or Coty tube (Most often without a mirror-which totally fascinated me!)
It all took less than one minute.
At the time I wasn’t really aware what that simple one minute act represented.
Honestly, I was in my early 30’s before I understood, that my mom, had not, like many other moms I knew, surrendered whatever “Cute” she possessed to motherhood. I had not understood until my early 30’s that my parents had a relationship, between the two of them, that had absolutely NOTHING to do with being Mommy and Daddy to my brother, sister and I. I had not understood that my mother cared about her appearance—not just for my dad, but for herself. I had not understood that my mother was aware that PRESENCE was important. I had not understood that perhaps lipstick was her way of countering the kind of invisibility women in general and Black women in particular were so easily subject to in those days (and perhaps still in these days.) I had not understood when I watched our neighborhood White pharmacist and White shoe repair man, call her “Mrs. DeBerry,” apologize if the prescription or heel replacement wasn’t ready, tell her thank you and to have a nice day- how different that was. I had not understood that my mom’s self-care and the personal dignity that behavior manifested, made people treat her with respect. I had not understood that she was teaching me, by example, (which we all know is the best way to teach anything) that it doesn’t have to be a big thing to make a big difference. It can be something as simple as combing your hair and putting on a little red lipstick.
“Not much is as important as you once thought it was.”
By the time we are on the approach to midlife we have accumulated quite an extensive collection of rules—most of which we don’t even stop to question. Through repetition and indoctrination we have learned to take many these rules as gospel. Some of these edicts are legitimate, necessary and actually protect us from behavior that can be harmful to ourselves or to others. Following the Ten Commandments and Rule of Law, washing your hands after you use the bathroom (or ride the subway), understanding the rules of the road—including speed limits, “yield,” “pass on the left” and “right” of way are all decrees that keep us safe, healthy and enable us to live with each other in a relatively civilized society. All in all, this is a good thing.
However, on the other hand, there are the arbitrary societal rules that don’t necessarily make any sense, but we follow them anyway—mostly because we haven’t thought about the logic behind them. Rules like the recently done away with, but hard to get out of our heads, “You can’t wear white after Labor Day.” And I won’t even go into the zealous dogma of wedding etiquette—who pays for what and who sits on which side of the church—what if you’re friends with the bride AND the groom?!
There are the rules that become obsolete because life changes and progress happens. Rules like “When walking with a lady, the gentleman walks on the outside near the curb, the lady on the inside.” This was to protect the woman’s voluminous dresses and petticoats from dust and muddy splashes sprayed up on the sidewalk from horse drawn carriages passing in the street. Now many urban pedestrians have experienced an unwanted and unpleasant shower from a speeding taxi or car while waiting for the light to change. But sidewalks are much wider than they used to be, we don’t have horses hooves tossing divots into our path and our dresses are, under most normal daily activities, hardly dragging along the sidewalk, but the “rule” still exists. I find myself, if I’m not on my guard, looking at a young couple strolling down the street and wondering “Doesn’t “he” know he’s “supposed” to walk on the outside?” Duh…
And we have … “Ladies do not shake hands either with gentlemen, or as a general rule, with each other.” (Emily Post 1922) This little antiquated dictum was clearly established during a time when there was not a clue about how society might evolve and shifts in the norm might affect what constitutes decorum and acceptability— before there were women in the
workplace holding meetings and making deals where the shaking of hands is standard business practice. And now of course, women shake pretty much anything they want in public, including their booties while admonishing that “if you like it then you shoulda put a ring on it…”
Then there are the rules that are not rules at all; they only indicate preference. The over/under toilet paper roll debate is a good example—the 160,000+ Google entries on the subject notwithstanding. There is no rule or right or wrong here, only what you like, and of course, habit.
We also have traditions, usually holiday and family related, which are passed on to us either directly or indirectly, with a complete set of rules—many of which are unspoken. At least until they come into conflict with a differing tradition—like when a Christmas Eve gift opener marries a Christmas morning opener, or the jack-o-lantern pumpkin carver decides to take up with the plastic pumpkin picker. Sorting out the “when and if” of breaking our long-held rules and flying in the face of sacred and inviolate family policies is a subjective undertaking and, I have concluded, best left to be negotiated (or duked out) by those who are involved. So you’ll get no advice (or judgment) from me about whether the dressing goes inside or outside the turkey—or for that matter, the semantics of calling it dressing or stuffing.
No…those rules are the easy stuff.
The rules I want to talk about here are the ones we impose on ourselves and on our families with steely will and determination— the rules about things we want done in a particular way. This includes everything from declarative statements that start with “We always…” or “I never…” to the way towels are folded, the place we keep our plastic bags and our hair-dos and don’ts. (Which will be addressed in a future Lesson – Hair Story). We don’t even see it happening, but slowly and surely our own rules lead us to trade “cute” – not as in “pretty and perky” but as in delightful, adorable (read loveable) and savvy, for being “right.” By then, we are well on our way to shrewdom—a frame of mind that is so totally non-cute.
Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t have anything against order, logic and convenience. And certainly I have nothing against being right, after all, this entire book is an ode to my notion that “I am right.” But what we have to ask ourselves is how much does being right really matter in the long run? So what I do have a problem with, is when we no longer have any idea why we follow the rules we do—when we just continue doing what we’ve always done without even considering whether or not our behavior or attitude is useful, helpful, or even necessary.
“Set in their ways.” Is what used to be said about, and even by “old folks” as kind of a catchall dismissal of a resistance to things that were new or might require some kind of change of mind, attitude or behavior—however slight. There is some validity to that as a description of what happens to us when we get older and “new” starts to mean the same as “bad.” Years of repetition breeds—well, more repetition and we do get awfully comfortable with the familiar.
My sister Valerie, a veteran HR executive who daily fights the uphill battle to institute change and encourage flexible attitudes, customs and mores in the workplace, tells a story she calls “Ham in the Pan.”
Once upon a time at a job long, long ago, there was a staffer, who for the sake of this story we’ll call Mary, who always made a ham for office parties and potluck gatherings and the ham was always a delicious, resounding hit. Valerie asked for the recipe, which Mary was happy to deliver (this was pre-email) to my sister’s office the next day. Val read the
ingredients for the sauce for basting the ham (clearly the secret to such a successful hunk of pig) and then the instructions, which said, “Cut the sides off the ham…” More than a little curious, Val asked Mary the reason for cutting the sides off the ham. Would this somehow allow the hulking haunch to absorb more of the fabulous basting nectar? Was that the secret? “I don’t know, this is the way my Mom made ham,” Mary said. My sister didn’t probe any deeper, and decided she would just use the removed sides to season some green beans or dice and add to a quiche.
A few days later, Mary saw my sister in the hall and said, “You know…I asked my mom why she cut the sides off the ham…” My sister smiled, still eager to learn about the magic kitchen wisdom that lurked behind performing the hamectomy. She wanted, and was fully expecting an “Ah ha!” moment when it would all become clear, make perfect sense and she’d end up wondering why no one else had discovered this seemingly simple step before. Mary continued. “Mom said when she started making the big holiday ham, she didn’t have a pan large enough so that’s how she made the ham fit. I guess I watched her do it, so that’s the way I’ve done it in my house ever since— even though my pan is plenty big.”
My sister uses “The Ham in the Pan” as an example to shake people out of their set in ways on the job—her own “Who Moved My Cheese” story, but “The Ham in the Pan” is a parable we can all learn from. We need to take a look at the things we “always do” a certain way and ask ourselves if it’s possible that just maybe, there is another, equally effective approach— like a bigger pan.
We women in particular, can be rigid and unyielding about the how we want things done, and complain when someone else (husband, significant other, child, parent or even a neighbor—in their OWN house) chooses to do the thing differently (read incorrectly). Sometimes we are forced to hold our tongues like with our boss at work or with our neighbors, and we find ourselves secretly stewing in the bubbling juices of our rightness—a decidedly bitter brew. But lucky for us, in our own homes and families, we not only are free to let the wrongdoers know, in no uncertain terms, they have done the thing, whatever it is, incorrectly, we then set about to redo it—“the right way.” Feeling enormous justification and more than a small degree of self-righteousness, we next convince ourselves that it’s really just easier to do it ourselves in the first place, or we berate the other person for not “getting it.” “How many times do I have to tell you…?”
And with every silent, resentful “do it ourselves” initiative, or incompetency rant, we grow just a little more bitter and a little more “set in our ways.”
The question you have to ask as you prepare to “get over yourself” and the need to be right, is — does it really matter if the light bulbs are put on the third shelf instead of the fourth? Is there a life hanging in the balance (yours or anyone else’s) if the flat sheet is not folded around the fitted sheet and the pillow cases? Obviously, the answer is “No.” Try giving yourself a break from your own rules. Ease up on the need to be RIGHT. You just might like it—and realize that the world didn’t stop spinning on its axis.
If you have no little, intractable “rules” in any part of your world, (think carefully) you may skip this homework! Congratulations!
On the other hand if you do have a few teeny tiny laws in that secret little Rule Book of yours, write down five of them on separate pieces of paper. Fold each piece so they are the same size (in quarters, then in half usually works well) and place in a bowl, basket, hat—any container of your choosing.
Once every week (until you empty the container) remove one of your rules, read it, then throw it away—literally and figuratively.
You will go an entire week without adhering to that rule. You will in fact, deliberately break that rule. (Fold your towels in half instead of thirds, eat takeout on the “good” china, part your hair on the other side…you get the picture.)
If you make it through the week without breaking into the shakes or a cold sweat because you left an unwashed glass in the kitchen sink overnight, ran the vacuum on Tuesday evening instead of Saturday morning, or returned phone calls before you do your email at work, instead of the other way around—which is the way you’ve always done it (or vice versa), you’re well on your way to getting over…yourself.
If you find yourself backsliding, (recidivism is not unusual) repeat the above steps as necessary.
2 years ago the doctor told me to stop eating sugar and “white” foods for my health-I was “pre-pre-diabetic.” I’m not a “SWEETS” person -give me salty every time. But sugar is hidden in so many things that it was really hard in the beginning- but eventually I got used to it because I had ZERO intention of becoming a diabetic if I could help it. Yes I’ve cheated every now and then. But my health is now great…all threats of diabetes gone AND I’ve lost nearly 50 pounds-which I can’t always see. But here are pics from then–the journey and NOW…
I posted this on Facebook yesterday and received dozens and dozens of positive comments, support and encouragement
I am grateful for the positive changes in my health–even though when I went to the doc two years ago, I was feeling well–it was a routine checkup. Diabetes is, as you all know, no joke. Type 2 diabetes disproportionately affects African-Americans, American Indians, Asian Americans, Hispanics/Latinos and Pacific Islanders–all us brown folks.
My doc told me I’d be surprised by what contained added sugar and likely surprised by the weight loss, since my body was producing too much insulin because I was not metabolizing the excess sugar. He said it would start about 3-4 months in and be slow but steady and he was right. He also said I could have vodka or red wine on occasion- so I was good to go! And while I’ve cheated a few times, over the past 2 years-for me it’s ice cream, it’s never been a big or long transgression and I return to my new habits instanty. I’ve learned to ALWAYS read the nutrition labels.
My grandmother had diabetes and I remember when I was about 8 years old, she had her leg amputated. I can see, clear as day, her sitting on the side of the bed “wrapping” her “stump” with an ace bandage before attaching her artificial limb. I did not want that to be me–especially if I could do something about it! And now, thanks to a pretty simple (relatively speaking) change, I AM WELL!
I have literally been up and down the “scales” for most of my adult life. I never felt sick or tired. I didn’t feel disillusioned or dis-enfranchised. I didn’t feel unattractive. I didn’t feel unsexy. I didn’t feel lots of the things you’re supposed to feel if you’re a big girl. I ate pretty healthily (no fast or processed foods, rarely sweets, no sugar laden “mocha-machiatto-caramel” lattes, maybe a bagel or donut once or twice a year). I did my time on the treadmill and kept on stepping-believing that my weight just was what it was -15lbs up, 15lbs down was just my regular fluctuation. I didn’t think much about weight or size–I NEVER have. It never inhibited me, kept me from looking my best, doing my best and having a full, rich life.
So this weight loss, (and I am by no means skinny-just lighter than I was), which no doubt adds to my current positive health, from simply watching my sugar intake has been a lovely and wonderful extra added benefit!
The takeaway: Sometimes it’s not the biggest changes that can make the biggest differences in our lives. Sometimes it’s the little things… but you have to DO THE LITTLE THING, not just think or talk about it!
“The only alternative to getting older is—you guessed it, so stop watching from the sidelines and get in the game.”
Let’s face it—the only viable alternative to getting older is not one most of us are interested in. Yes, there’s that icy cryogenic thing, but other than megalomaniac nutjobs in the movies, who really wants to get stashed in a freezer with the baby peas and cauliflower? So you can be thawed fifty or a few thousand years later like a flash frozen ice age T-Rex and try to pick up where you left off before you decided to try life as a Popsicle? Not me. And I suspect not you.
So, what are you gonna do when getting older is the only game there is?
You are going to play as though your life depended on winning—because it does.
I’m about to dabble in a sports metaphor and those who know me well will fall out laughing, swear that I know as much about sports as I do about quantum mechanics and wait for me to make a fool of myself. But I think the comparison is apt, so I shall plunge ahead, risking ridicule and derision and hope I do know enough about sports to fake my way through this.
Most athletic games are divided into periods—quarters, innings, sets or the like, which only theoretically correspond to actual time telling devices used by regular people because in sporting matches, they have the miraculous ability to stop time. In real life however, we have no such power and must let the clock run—minutes, hours, days, years flying by—whoosh! Never to be seen again. We have no pause, instant replay or measures of time that hang in the air endlessly awaiting our decision to restart the clock.
The game of life stays in progress and whether you are ready or not, we have to keep on keepin’ on. In addition to the magical “stop action” that occurs in sporting contests, many games also grant the competitors the privilege of a half time. A break right in the middle of the game! It doesn’t matter who’s winning or who’s losing—
everyone gets an intermission. Yep. Just like that, the gift of a time out is yours without even asking for it! So no matter how the game is going half time offers an opportunity to regroup, change strategy, evaluate, assess strengths and weakness—yours and your opponent’s. Back in the locker room the coach uses pep talks, threats, prayers, shame, rants, praise–whatever is necessary for the team to either maintain the lead, or snatch victory from the wide open, hungry jaws of defeat. Half time is the chance for the game to begin anew. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if life could be the same way?
That’s what this time of your life is.
Although becoming a centenarian is more and more common these days, I accept that I’m pushing it when I say 50 is the half way mark in the game of life —but since our forties and fifties have long been considered “middle age”, there is plenty of precedent for this argument. So humor me, OK?
I used my late 40’s to assess what I liked and didn’t like about my life, to examine where I was, where I wanted to be, who and what I wanted to keep in my life, what needed to go and most importantly to decide how I wanted to approach living the next half of my life. At 50, I took myself a half-time and so should you.
We don’t have an undo button in life. What we’ve already done, the part of life we have lived already is past. But we certainly can make completely new kinds of choices going forward—you still have the have the rest of your life—however long that is.
You’re in the game.
You need a break.
Take one while you can.
1) Draw a circle—one you will think of as an old fashioned analog clock—you know like the ones we learned to tell time on with the “big hand” and “little hand” before the digital revolution relegated time telling skills to the same “has-been” pile of memories as an abacus and gathering the family around a rotary dial phone to share a “long distance” call. Make your circle big, really big.
2) Then draw a vertical line through the middle as though it were six o’clock. Except I want you to think of six o’clock as 0—where your life began and twelve o’clock as 50.
3) Freely fill in (using any method you choose) the space between zero and fifty (six and twelve)—in other words, fill up the left side of the circle—with what you have done—the significant achievements and happenings that have taken place in your life thus far: school degrees, jobs, marriage, children, moves, even divorce and deaths. It may be pretty crowded or fairly empty—that depends of course on what you have done with the first half of your life.
4) Then look at the wonder of the other half of the circle—the part that goes from 50 to zero (twelve to six). What you have is a huge blank space that you can fill in any way you choose. Using the experience you have gained through the grace of aging and consider carefully, thoughtfully, whimsically what you would like to see take the place of the empty space. And remember—you are free to go outside of the lines!
I watch the zillion makeover shows we are now being bombarded with on TV (How far are we from a Makeover Channel—all makeovers, all the time?) but instead of being simply amazed at the transformation, I’m astounded that Susie Schlub, in her sweats or mom jeans, oversize frumpy top (whether she is oversize or not) and sneakers didn’t do something before she was ambushed-or secretly submitted as “deserving” (which means they’re tired of her looking like hell) by a well-meaning daughter or friend. I am particularly intrigued by the programs that show Ms. Frump actually looking pretty fly at some point in her past. What happened?
I sit in front of the boob tube transfixed, not by the jaw dropping results, but by the fact that Susie didn’t seem to notice that her boobs were taking a nice nap on her waist before the Makeover Magician showed her what a proper bra could do. Is poor tired, tragic, overworked Susie visually challenged? Does she live in a world without mirrors? How could she not know that her hairstyle, which was probably only marginally fashionable in 1982 is hopelessly outdated in the 21st Century?
How could she not know that her sensible denim skirt isn’t appropriate for every occasion—heck – that it’s hardly appropriate for ANY occasion? Couldn’t see that shoes with run over heels need a visit to the shoemaker or maybe just to be thrown out? Never mind the help available from fashion magazines, catalogs, stores, TV shows and movies. A plain old mirror—purchased at your local discount store and nailed on the inside of a closet door or even leaned against the wall— would have done the trick. Why oh why didn’t she see herself?
Then Susie Schlub is whisked off for some dazzling duds, a clever coiffure and magic makeup. And in the reveal, Voila! We have the modern, refreshed, jazzy— Susie Sharp! We’ve all seen these memorable moments and old Suze looks great! Mostly not the Naomi or Giselle unrealistic/unattainable standard we’ve been taught to compare ourselves too, but so much better than before that she’s hardly recognizable to herself. Then Susie breaks down and begins to weep—“I didn’t know I could look like this! Oh! Thank you. Thank you….” Now we’re not talking plastic surgery makeovers here—maybe a little teeth whitening – but the rest is the easy stuff.
And I’m still sitting there shaking my head wondering why didn’t you do this sooner? What were you waiting for?
The more I watched the clearer the answer became. These women, young and old, fat and thin, tall and short, married and single all had one thing in common. They had given up. Some may have given up before they started, some after getting married, having children, retiring, becoming ill, losing a job, husband, parent—but to a one, they had each become resigned to the idea that how they looked no longer mattered–that cute didn’t count anymore.
Well, I’m here to tell you that’s a big ol’ crock of “*ish”. CUTE STILL COUNTS. I will say it another way. CUTE ALWAYS COUNTS. It counted when you were a baby and your Mom dolled you up. It counted at six when you got that new dress to wear for your birthday party or Easter Sunday. It counted when you were fourteen and hoped “he” noticed how cute you looked in your heather blue box pleated mini skirt and matching knee socks. It counted at twenty five when you were trying to impress them on the job. It counted when you planning to say “I do.” It counted when you put on those awful, (pre-Liz Lange stylish maternity-wear) “hatching jackets” with the dumb, sweet Peter Pan collar and bow meant to conceal your baby bump. And CUTE COUNTS now too, you have just forgotten how much.
I will concede that I probably have a predisposition to Cute Counting I understand (because I was too young to remember- but there is photographic evidence) that when I was little, in the small southern town where I was born, I was “everybody’s baby” and was gifted accordingly. My mother, in order to make sure I had a chance to wear all the adorable clothes I was given, took to changing my outfits, from hair ribbons right down to socks, several times a day.So CUTE was a part of my agenda before I knew or had any control over it. I admit, remnants of the changing clothes a few times a day thing are still a part of my life.
Even in the housedress hausfrau 1950’s, my mother always did her hair and wore lipstick every single day. My dad, who worked in construction and dressed accordingly, had his Sunday and Friday/Saturday “Up the Street” suits, sports jackets and tuxedoes tailor made. As a girl, I remember going to Charlie Baker Clothier with him to look at fabric swatches and pick out buttons—because all of it mattered. Now back to my mom. In her early 80’s she brought quite unexpectedly to a halt by some fairly debilitating health issues. Even after months of being house or hospital bound—she rolled her hair every night and put on her good
robe for company because she never stopped being concerned about her appearance. Her first trip out was to the hairdresser. A few years later, when my sister went shopping and returned with a selection of dresses for Mom to choose from for an upcoming outdoor summer wedding— Mom hinted in a not so subtle aside, “and you know I think I’d also like one of those long flowy peasant skirts everyone’s wearing this spring,” My sister got her a purple one.
So whether it’s nature or nature, my awareness of the idea that how you look affects how you feel, and how you feel affects how others see and treat you, is now so thoroughly ingrained that it no longer matters from whence it cometh.
What does matter is that you goeth out and get some CUTE. Do not let the dreaded closet doldrums—which creeps and chokes like kudzu—take over. Do not surrender. There’s help aplenty available.
So if you are still boxed in business suits leftover from our “I Am Woman Hear Me Roar/Dress for Success” days of the 70’s and 80’s, dressing up to go out to dinner in the same outfit you wore to the Mother’s Day luncheon at church, and your donning your fancy formal duds means a dowdy evening gown that screams “Queen Mum”, or a repurposed Bridesmaid’s dress circa 1987 you drag from the back of the closet, you may not be totally lost, but your trail of breadcrumbs has definitely gone stale.
It’s time to get yourself back on the road to CUTE.
Get help if you need it. You go to the doctor, dentist, and hairdresser for their expertise don’t you? Every major department store has a personal shopper and it’s her job to help you find clothes that suit your body and your lifestyle requirements, whatever the size of your butt or your budget.
Contrary to what you may think, what you wear is not solely about vanity, it is largely about self-esteem. Back in the days when I used to commentate chubbette (plus-size) fashion shows for Hanes Fitting Pretty Pantyhose, in department stores around the country, I was not nearly as interested in what was on the runway as I was in convincing members of my audience that they could and should treat themselves as well as they did others—that being on the “stout” side— didn’t mean that unflattering clothing was somehow a just punishment for avoirdupois. It was a hard fought battle and I suspect this one may be too.
But I won much of the time—no actually the women in the audience won. They went into the dressing room and tried on something new and fashionable and more often than not, they walked out of that store with much more than a new outfit. They also had a new attitude.
Then it was fat frump I was fighting, now it’s age frump (and maybe fat frump too.) But do not let the unlined, uncellulited youth corps get you down. There’s a lot of clothing between teenage trashy—oops! I mean teenage trendy, and resignation retirement rags. No you can’t dress like your fifteen year old daughter or the twenty-three year old hostess at your favorite restaurant, but even without belly baring shirts (no navel piercing please) and low rise pants (I also suggest that you pass on the above-the-crack, tramp-stamp tattoo) BELIEVE ME, you can stay hot—or get hot for the first time!
Re-read this Lesson
Write “Cute Still Counts” 100 times.
Say “Cute Still Counts” 100 times—it’s now your mantra.
Try on something you ordinarily wouldn’t. (Other than short shorts and a tee shirt that says “Jail Bait” in glitter.) THIS IS IMPORTANT!!
If you look cute, not shocking mind you, CUTE (that’s what the three-way mirror is for) BUY IT!
“Stop worrying about being good enough. You are good. And you are enough.”
Congratulations! You’ve arrived at the place where it is time to take your inner critic off the clock.
I’m not talking about your inner Wise-Her—she tells you things you need to know, like you really should check the air pressure in your tires before you get on the road. I’m talking about your Inner Harpywith her little negative barbs aimed squarely at your self-confidence. Like the Harpies of mythology, she is fierce, bad-tempered and relentless. She’s the one who makes you wonder if you’re good enough. By now her nagging little voice has been whispering bits and pieces of self doubt into your psychic ear for decades, so long in fact, that at this juncture it seems like harmless white noise—you aren’t even aware of her presence any more. But she’s anything but harmless and she needs to go. Now.
Your Inner Harpy probably uttered her first words back when you were a little girl and she was just a little Harpy in Training (H.I.T.). You hadn’t begun to “develop” yet—as they used to say, much less develop any anti-Harpy skills. So she went to work on your young, defenseless, happy little self. “How come you don’t have a Barbie book bag?” (Translation: The CUTE girls all have Barbie book bags while you have the practical blue one your mother insisted would last a couple of years.) “Why don’t you have streamers on your bike?” (Translation: But even if you get streamers what if they’re not the right color?) “Only a B in geography?” (Translation: Not quite as smart as Melissa huh?) “If you could jump higher you would have made the volleyball team.” (Translation: You’re too tall/short/fat/awkward— what ever gave you the idea you could be an athlete?)
And there you are, all of eight or nine years old and already the seeds of insecurity, of not being good enough are starting to germinate, and you don’t even know it.
The persistent little H.I.T. was good at her job and you weren’t trained to deflect her slings and arrows—so she grew stronger. By the time you were in your teens, traveling the harrowing hallways of high school, when the desire to fit in is at its most virulent, your Harpy really came into her own.
You name the area of vulnerability and she found a way to attack you there. Her voice became insistent, shrill, unrelenting and far more direct than it had ever been before. Her words poked whatever spot was most tender and she reminded you in a non-stop barrage that you were not smart enough, pretty enough, tall enough, skinny enough, curvy enough, popular enough. Others were. You were not. It didn’t matter WHAT they were that you were not. Whatever it was, they possessed, in abundance, all the qualities that you lacked. Tsk. Tsk. How sad. Too bad for you.
And so the plague begins. Its most telling symptom is unconscious comparison—almost always to other women. We compare ourselves to our friends, sisters, mothers, cousins, co-workers, neighbors, strangers, bosses, movie stars, and sadly even to our daughters. Sometimes we know we’re doing it, but mostly we’re unaware of how many times a day we think of ourselves in terms of how we measure up to someone else, or someone else’s expectations. Those expectations are, more often than not, a presumption on our part—because if we don’t think we’re good enough, how can anyone else possibly miss the bright flashing neon marquee on our forehead announcing our long list of shortcomings to all the world? Believe me, despite the fact that it blinds YOU nearly every time you look at yourself, THEY don’t see it until you point it out. Why? Because they’re far too busy worrying if you are scrutinizing their list of personal inadequacies.
Now of course I’m not saying we’re all perfect—far from it. And I’m not advocating the “good enough for government work” standard here. Nor am I endorsing complacency or mediocrity as acceptable. We should all try to improve, to be the best we can be—to live the best lives we possibly can. But what that best is should not be determined by a comparison to an unfair and often impossible to achieve standard we have imposed on ourselves.
It’s time to stop being so self-critical. Give yourself some slack.
You know, or you should know, there will always be someone more beautiful, smarter, thinner, richer. And she may even appear more successful and happier, but so what? What she has or is, in no way adds to, or diminishes you. And you my friend, with your flaws, blemishes, frailties and peccadilloes are good enough.
1) The next time you go to the movies, buy yourself a BIG box of Good & Plenty. You remember the Day-Glo pink, and white candy from days of yore? ChooChoo Charlie and that train? They may even still sell it in stores, but the movies are probably a pretty good source.
2) Put the Good & Plenty wherever you keep your vitamins and have one piece every day along with your multi-vitamin. Even if the black licorice flavor isn’t to your liking, eat it anyway. This isn’t candy, or dessert. It’s to remind you that not only are you good enough–you are good. AND you are enough.
3) If you’re not convinced when the box is finished. Buy another one.