I Hide My Chocolate

Midlife observations

Tag: Elizabeth Gilbert

Forgetting to Breathe


The Aftermath

The dreams have begun. Mainly anxiety nightmares. Like the one where the memorial service is happening for my mother and I am not ready. Confused at the presence of many people I don’t know and frantic that I haven’t written the eulogy I want to write. (I wish I had shared my blog with her.) Like the one where my new plants that seem so beautiful and alive are actually infested with microscopic bugs.  (Ugliness lurks, even when the outward appearance seems to thrive.)  Like the one where I am navigating an avalanche, struggling upstream on an iceberg. If I fail, I die. (No interpretation required.)

And then there was the one Friday night where I am sitting on a bench between my old father of my now and my vibrant mother of my youth. She is wearing one of her fantastic colorful handknit dresses and has black hair without a speck of gray. She is speaking to me, but no sound is coming from her voice. I urgently tug at my father, “Dad! Look! Mom’s alive! She’s speaking!” I am the bridge between the past and the now, between the physical and the spiritual, between my mother and my father.

It doesn’t help that it’s the holidays. The busiest time of year. Not the most joyful time of year. Bah humbug. I had promised to enjoy the holidays. That was before my mother died. Sigh. The finality of death seems, well, final. How can I possibly enjoy the holidays now?

How can I not? There is so much to live for! So I talk to myself. Fight with myself. Pretty much every waking minute is a negotiation with myself that goes something like this:

Oh my god, I have so much to do! It’s never going to get all done.

Remember, Sally, every year it gets done.

But this year is different. I’m too tired and sad.

Breathe and do what you can.

Ack! My father is coming for Christmas. Now, I’ve got to deal with my father. Is this some joke that God is playing on me?

Well, as Elizabeth Gilbert has said, our most challenging family members are the most powerful spiritual teachers of our life.

What am I going to get him for Christmas?  What am I going to get everyone for Christmas? What do I want for Christmas?

Nothing! I hate Christmas!

My kids love Christmas. Pull it together. It doesn’t have to be perfect.

Smile. Breathe. Go to yoga.

I don’t want to go to yoga. I’m too tired to breathe. I’m too busy to breathe.

Why do we resist doing what feels good for our souls?

Oh my god, I have so much to do! I want to go back to bed.

Breathe. Be kind to yourself. Do what you can.

Remember, Sally, you can choose to not be anxious and depressed. It’s not your go-to place any more. Choose life. Choose joy.

The finality of death can seem final, but life goes on. Clearly, not the same life as before. The new normal is one where my mother is no longer “declining,” but gone. The new normal is one where my father is alone and cognitively not sharp. I am his only child and feel love and sadness for what he is experiencing and anxiety about what the future holds and, frankly, some dismay and anger and selfishness. (Those evil bugs infesting my beautiful growth.) What if I don’t want to take care of him? The new normal is one where my children are growing up and leaving home. What is next for me, for my family, for this next phase of my life? The new normal is one where my mother lives in me and my dreams. Death is not final. Death changes life.

When I am sleepless from a nightmare, in the grip of anxiety, I tell myself not to shut down and close myself off. I can tackle the avalanche coming my way.

Remember to breathe.

Find Bliss in What You Follow


But Whatever You Do, Don’t Be an English Major!

Right on schedule, a little bit more than halfway through her first semester of college, my daughter is wondering what she wants to be when she grows up. Enrolled in the engineering school, slogging her way through Calculus and Chemistry for Engineers, elbow-to-elbow with “nerds,” she is wondering, “Do I really want to be an engineer?”

College is the transition time where you begin to fully absorb that you may not be a prima ballerina or a number one tennis champion or a talented singer-songwriter with millions of screaming fans or any number of other glorified, popularized, famous and lucky celebrity success stories that get served up as role models. How do you integrate your childhood dreams into a viable career that is fulfilling, soul-satisfying, contributes to the world, and earns you a living?

Since I still wonder what I want to be when I grow up, I have a host of reactions to the smorgasbord of life choices she is now facing. Hope, anxiety, and excitement mingle with some midlife regret and wisdom. What kind of advice and support can I give her? Follow Your Bliss versus Gotta Get A Job? Live for Today versus Plan for Tomorrow? Whatever you do, don’t be an English Major (like me)!

Mainly I stay calm and coach her: “Be patient and be open. You will be surprised at the opportunities engineering will offer you.” Inside, I am less calm. The thoughts swirl:

  • Please don’t go into communications. There are a bazillion girls like you working for nothing in Manhattan.
  • When the apocalypse comes, we will not need more pop rock and fashion critics, we will need engineers!
  • You want to be a healer? Engineers do more to heal and build than celebrity talk show hosts!

(Nobody is more surprised than me, the ultimate humanities/arts girl, that I am championing engineering. Go S.T.E.M for women!)

Really though, if life is uncertain, unfair, and short – how do you want to spend it? When all is said and done, what I want her to be when she grows up is … happy.

I grew up with parents who wanted to encourage me to do or be anything I wanted to be. The fortunate benefit of this philosophy is that I was exposed to many different activities and allowed to try new things and quit things as I tired of them. The downside is that while I became good at many things I never became great. I expected to feel a calling, a life purpose, and that I would follow this path to great success. The reality of earning a living was glossed over.

Very few of us have one specific life purpose. Very few of us are so talented and so disciplined and so well-connected that we rise to the top. Very few of us don’t have to earn a living. We do our children a disservice to hold out a vague promise that they should follow their bliss (if they even know what their bliss is) and the money will come.

Oprah is on tour with many people I follow and adore. (I love you Elizabeth Gilbert!) I am not an Oprah fanatic, but I do appreciate that her charismatic message of responsible self-empowerment is important and transformational, especially for those of us lucky enough to have the resources to transform. I am, however, having trouble with her mantra (intermixed with commercial marketing messages) that “You are the master of your fate!”

Well, yes and no. I believe we have the power to control our attitude towards our fate, which very definitely can affect the choices we make and the direction of our lives. But we do not have control over whether we are born into freedom or wealth or an educated environment. The Nigerian girls (remember them?) are not in control of their fate. My nephew’s girlfriend’s 23-year old friend who died suddenly of an aneurysm last week is not in control of her fate. (God forbid! Can you imagine? Those poor parents.)

The truth is, dear girl, that there is no clear-cut path for you to choose. You must make your own path. Your Own Path. The one that makes you happy. Not me. Not Dad. Not anyone else. It will have many turns and branches along the way. Any path you choose will require some boring and tedious and frustrating and just plain hard tasks along the way. It is your approach to your path that will contribute to your happiness and success.

Perhaps, though, the question should be reframed from “What do you want to be when you grow up?” to “What kind of person do you want to be?” When reframed in this way, it becomes more clear that there is no one answer. There is no one direction. Grow up to be you. Wise, honest, and compassionate. The rest will follow. Find bliss in what you follow. Because if you wait for bliss to find you, you will be disappointed.

Oh, and be patient and be open. You will be surprised at the opportunities life will offer you.

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