Growing up, I lived in a bedroom my mother said she decorated ‘especially for me’.
The truth is that she decorated it for herself, but I didn’t know that at the time.
All I knew was that she loved the way the red furniture looked atop the plush, lime-green wall-to-wall carpet. She loved the way the floral bedspread matched the curtains, which matched the desk chair cushion, which matched the teddy bear that had been crafted out of the same material.
Unfortunately, it was a room that did not suit me.
While my friends had posters of rock stars tacked to their walls, or pictures of famous super-models or bulletin boards with pushpins, or shelves with trophies and ribbons, I had pink and green floral wallpaper that my mother selected for me before I was even born. For me, home was more like being in a hotel room: a place that you stayed temporarily.
“This house belongs to me and your mother,” my father explained. “One day you’ll have your own house which you can decorate however you’d like; until then, you go by your mother’s and my rules. And that means no holes in the walls.”
I remember complaining about these rules… and then being grounded for complaining.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I now realize I was being taught to submit, to ignore my needs to take care of the needs of others. My father always told me to listen to the little voice in my head, but the voice in my head contradicted the voice he heard. The voice I heard told me to challenge, to speak, to do things that other people told me were scary. The voice I heard told me to create, to organize, to decorate, to beautify in my way.
When my (now ex) husband and I separated in 2015, I wound up in an apartment. It’s not a bad place. I have plenty of square footage in which to roam about, a storage area in the basement, a garage in which to park my car at night. There are two elevators, one of which is often not working. The long hallways are painted in drab neutrals and feature crystal light fixtures and plenty of enormous mirrors. The carpets are worn. Fresh cut flowers sit in a decorative vase in the lobby. Various doormen help folks with their comings and goings.
But living here has not been good for me.
And I finally realized why.
For the last 24 months, I’ve been experiencing that same stifled feeling I used to feel when I lived at home with my parents as a teenager.
I can’t decorate the way I’d like to.
Can’t entertain the way I’d like to.
Can’t listen to my music at the decibel I’d like to.
(also, my neighbors know waaaaay too much about my comings and my goings)
For me, a home is not just four walls, a floor and a ceiling.
My home is an extension of my creative self.
It never occurred to me I would feel this way when I signed the lease two years ago.
While moving in, I watched the movers as they attempted to cram my beautiful leather couch through the door.
“Lady,” one guy said, wiping his brow. “This thing ain’t gonna fit.”
A few days later, I purchased an unattractive sofa and chair combo from the “scratch and dent” side of a local furniture store.
(because, you know, I wasn’t going to have it forever)
I made a lot of decisions that way.
Since then, I’ve acquired many temporary items.
Things that I wouldn’t want to bring into a real home.
Today I realized that the reason I’ve been doing this is because I haven’t been able to visualize myself staying in Rochester long-term.
When my son heads off to college in August, I have the opportunity to relocate and start over.
Or I can stay where I am and continue to build on what I’ve created for myself over the last 2 years.
I don’t know where I want to do this starting over – but I can see it, this home.
It’s bright, a single-story home with lots of natural sunlight. It’s clean and new and open. There are 3 bedrooms and two bathrooms. Wood floors. A space I can use as an art studio with white walls and shelving and easy access to a working sink. I can see the patio in the backyard, my little patch of grass.
I get panicky when I think about starting over all by myself somewhere far away from where I have spent the last 20 years of my life.
But I also know that wherever I go, I always meet new people – some of whom who become dear friends to me.
So I’m putting my desire out into the Universe.
Show me where you want me to go.
Bring the right people to guide me.
Help me to trust myself and others.
And let me live long enough to know what it feels like to be at home again.
Ever moved somewhere alone? How was that for you? What’s the worst thing about moving alone? What was the best thing?
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**NOTE: I’d like to thank my parents for taking & sending this photograph to me, knowing full-well that I was writing about my childhood bedroom. They are beyond generous and mostly understand that I have this strange need to write about it all.
Nearly a year ago, I joined Neutral Ground, a peer support group for people who are divorced, widowed, or ending a significant relationship. A non-profit organization, Neutral Ground has no religious affiliation and is open only to adults.
Actually, that’s not true.
A year ago, I Googled “NeedHelp During Divorce.”
It took me nearly 6 months before I got up enough courage to attend my first meeting.
That Thursday night, I sat in my car in the parking lot for over a half hour, bawling my eyes out, grieving too many things at once.
I’d lost the person I thought was my best friend, the person who’d promised to love, honor and respect me for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.
From the outside, it must have seemed like I had it all: a beautiful home in an affluent suburb; new cars to drive; a country club membership. We took regular vacations and owned a second home in Florida. I had fancy friends who threw fancy parties.
I was desperately lonely.
No one is going to understand why I left, I thought. These people are going to think I’m nuts.
But the thing is, they didn’t. The people at Neutral Ground made me feel welcome. Despite the fact that we’re all going through the same thing, we all process things very differently. Where one person is angry, another is sad. One woman misses the dog; another misses the snowblower. We listen to each other’s stories and monitor each other’s progress from week to week. We attend social events with each other and encourage each other to keep going. Every few months, there’s a communal dinner and everyone brings a dish to share.
Not too long ago, I actually got to a meeting a little early.
(This doesn’t happen very regularly.)
Anyway, this guy was there.
And I just so happened to have my backpack with all my art supplies inside.
He was kind enough to let me paint his likeness.
And he was extra kind to let me post it here.
If you’re going through a difficult time in your life, I urge you to seek community. Everyone needs a place where they feel understood. Neutral Ground has been that place for me. We are not alone. We are never alone.
Today, I worked with a student who needed assistance with an essay. Intelligent and conscientious, this woman — let’s call her Alecia — makes thoughtful comments regarding the assigned reading material; however, because she writes the way she speaks – in urban English — her writing hasn’t been earning top-notch grades from her professor.
“I be askin’ him what he wants me to do,” she said. “He told me come here.’”
Together, we’re working to get her to recognize some of her most common grammar errors.
“I be writing like this my whole life!” She rolled her eyes toward the ceiling. “Gettin’ good grades, too. How come nobody teach me this?”
When she expressed frustration about not being able to consistently catch her grammar errors, I encouraged her to be gentle with herself. “You’re learning a second language.” I told her. “That doesn’t happen overnight,” I said. “It’s going to take practice.”
In our instant-gratification world, we want to be good at everything today.
But it takes time to learn new skills.
And people are creatures of habit.
We learn something, do it for a while, and it becomes second nature.
We can unlearn a behavior or a habit, but it takes time. The longer we behave a certain way, the longer it takes to change that pattern or habit or behavior.
Unlearning is hard.
But it is possible.
Over the last few semesters, Alecia has been developing her book smarts.
Meanwhile, after living in an insulated bubble for my entire adult life, with only minimal exposure to people from outside my predominantly white, suburban community – I’ve been developing my life skills.
Over the last year, I’ve learned:
1) It’s possible to live alone.For the first time in decades, I’m making my own decisions about everything: how I want to live, where I want to live, what I want to do for fun, the type of people with whom I want to associate. A homebody by nature, it’s really lonely without having anyone to come home to. I need to get a cat.
2) It’s necessary to make new friends. When my marriage ended, nearly all of my friendships died. One woman with whom I’d had a 45-year relationship actually shouted at me when I cried about being separated.
“You’re going to have to figure out a way to be happy and stop complaining about how hard it is to be alone,” she hollered. “No one wants to hear about this anymore.”
It was a clarifying moment. There was no “I love you” or “I’m here for you” or “This sucks” or “What do you need?” or “You’re not alone.” I was crushed, and had to realize that – despite out long history – that person was not a supportive friend. So I’m meeting new people by participating in activities that I enjoy. I joined a divorce support group, several art groups, and I’ve invited people over to my place to play old-fashioned board games, to paint, and to talk. It takes a long time to develop intimate friendships, but I’m doing it.
3) I’m not conventional. Conventional people have jobs they attend mostly Monday thru Friday from 9-5 or any other combination that equals a minimum of 40 hours per week. They have a certain number of weeks of vacation days each year. They marry and have 2-3 children. They look for happiness in things and enjoy shopping and accumulating stuff like computers, cars, homes, and cell phones. They are born in one country and remain in that country their entire lives. They own many televisions and use them regularly. They say things like “Be realistic” a lot. They don’t question authority and believe in doing things the way they’ve always been done. They criticize people who are different. What can I say? I have minimalist values. I don’t believe in big corporations or big government, and I can’t bear the idea of doing the same thing every day. Being unconventional means having the courage to stand up for myself. It means doing out of the ordinary things and, oftentimes, going against social norms.
4) It’s important to invest in myself. Somewhere along the way, I stopped doing things for myself. I became the person who did the shopping and the laundry and the cooking and the cleaning – and I stopped writing and reading and painting and riding horses and playing on swing-sets. I also stopped laughing. I’m trying to connect with the person that I was long ago. She’s in there. Somewhere.
5) Having feelings is normal. For over two decades, I lived with a person who was unable to express love, sorrow or pain. Unwilling to cry, he physically left the room whenever I tried to discuss an emotional issue. He often called me “crazy” when I showed even the slightest bit of anger or sadness. With the help of a great therapist, I’ve learned that I’m not crazy. I’m a whole person who feels things deeply.
As far as I’m concerned, Alecia and I are both warriors: learning how to take what has happened to us, good or bad, think about it, and learn to improve from it.
What unlearning have you done lately? What new idea/practice are you incorporating into your daily life?
At age 48, in the throes of a divorce, I’m figuring out who I am.
What I like to do.
After not investing one iota in myself for the last 20 years.
People keep telling me to do things that I enjoy.
“Have fun,” they say.
It’s awful to admit, but the concept of fun has become completely foreign to me.
In an effort to find fun and fill my craving for a creative community, I joined a sketch group. Convening mainly on weekends, we travel to different locations to meet and commit art together.
I’ve found that I feel less lonely while making art in public, so in-between meet-ups, I’ve taken to visiting local coffee shops to practice painting strangers.
In stealth mode.
Unfortunately, people often got up after only a few minutes, leaving me with an unfinished piece.
Which was unfulfilling.
I was taking too long in an effort to get it right.
I realized I had to speed up my efforts and focus on capturing the essence of an individual – his or her energy – in a quick sketch completed in just 4 or 5 minutes.
Once I stopped trying to be perfect, an interesting thing happened.
I started smiling.
Suddenly, people are approaching me. They call me “brave” for painting in public. Sharing how they used to love to knit/weave/paint/sew/make quilts … until someone told them they were terrible, and they stopped.
Sometimes people pull up chairs to sit with me and we end up talking about art, children, politics, love, divorce, grief.
And then they aren’t strangers anymore.
This morning, I went to the gym and, in addition to my mat and my sneakers and a change of clothes, I brought a backpack filled with pens and pencils, watercolors and brushes. Settled next to a cozy fireplace, I spotted a man with a strong profile, staring at an iPad.
After I finished sketching, I decided to walk over to introduce myself.
(You know, because I’m still the same dork you’ve come to know and love.)
Anyway, Taylor graciously allowed me to interview him and take his photograph. I received his permission to post his face and his likeness here on my blog.
So I’m setting a goal to complete one new sketch each day for a month. I’ll see if I want to continue after 30 days.
The most important thing?
I’m having fun again.
And I’m meeting new people.
How’d I do? What brave new thing have you tried to do recently?
Back in August, I walked 5 miles on a really uneven surface.
In cowboy boots.
I knew I did something dumb almost immediately since both my knees started making audible popping sounds.
I tried anti-inflammatories and ice and heat. Nothing helped. At one point, it got so bad that I couldn’t walk at all. That’s when I got scared.
I don’t like to run to the doctor too quickly, and it takes me a long time to admit that something is wrong.
In November, when I couldn’t walk without tears, I knew it was time to make an appointment.
After an exam and x-rays, my doctor determined that I have arthritis in my knees and meniscial degeneration. That’s simply a fancy way of saying that my knees are old and plum worn out. He also said that things weren’t so bad that we had to consider surgery.
My right knee healed quickly, but my left knee earned a cortisone shot (holy big fat needle!), and I’ve been wearing a heavy-duty knee brace for the last 8 weeks.
I seriously didn’t think I’d ever walk without pain again, but it’s getting better. It’s just happening slowly.
Apparently, that’s the way healing works. It takes a ridiculously long time so we feel grateful when we finally get thru it.
All my knee stuff got me thinking about pain.
Some of you may know that my husband and I recently separated.
It’s confusing. And it hurts.
Some of the time, I appear to be fine. Some of the time, I’m lonely. And sometimes, I’m downright afraid.
It’s an invisible wound.
I never appreciated the pain associated with divorce before now. In fact, my ideas about divorce came mostly from movies. I imagined two people screaming and trying to push each other down a staircase.
But my situation is nothing like that.
My husband is a good man.
We’ve just grown apart.
These days my heart actually aches the way knee aches.
My day is punctuated by awkwardnesses.
I still like to receive his texts. I still reach out to touch his knee when we’re seated together because it feels natural, even though I know I shouldn’t do that any more. I want to confide in my husband the way I once did because… well… he’s been my confidante for over 20 years.
How do I ask my parents to take down that painting of me that they’ve got hanging in their living room: the poster-sized me wearing my wedding dress, holding all those purple irises? What do I do when a someone I’ve known for my entire married life decides to ignore me in the grocery store? And how do I stop crying when I hear love songs on the radio?
People keep telling me to be brave, to stay strong.
That the pain will get easier.
Unfortunately, no one can predict how long my heart is going to hurt, and there are no cortisone shots to take the edge off the pain.
Which is worse? A broken body or a broken heart? Any practical advice would be appreciated.
In the middle of December, I pilfered some of my son’s leftover Halloween candy; I had been craving sweets, and his box of purple NERDS looked strangely enticing. I dumped the entire box in my mouth and proceeded to chomp down on the little pellets, which turned out to be grape-flavored rocks in disguise.
Seriously, those things were friggin’ ridiculous.
I had hoped for sweetness – and initially, they were sweet — but I was utterly unprepared for the unyielding, rock-hardness of those tiny artificially flavored stones.
I felt my teeth crunch against something unnaturally hard, but my sweet tooth was unrelenting.
At some point, it occurred to me that my particular pack of NERDS had come from somebody’s leftover Halloween candy from one maybe two years ago, and I just so happened to be the unlucky recipient of that box.
Nevertheless, I kept chewing until every last bit of tart purple goodness had been devoured.
Later, my husband came home after an unseasonably warm day. The world was clearly confused. There was no snow. The sky was blue and tiny flowers were trying to bloom in my garden.
My husband asked me if I had heard that The Pretty People had separated.
I hadn’t heard.
I opened my mouth but there were no words.
“What’s wrong with your teeth?” he asked.
I stood in front of the mirror and stared at my teeth, or rather, the now missing parts: the pieces that had been there but that had disappeared at some point along the way without my even noticing it.
I started to weep.
Partly for my broken teeth, but mostly because of The Pretty People.
Early the next day, I made an appointment. I couldn’t wait to see my dentist so he could get his gloved hands all up in there and make things right again; it didn’t seem like it would be too hard.
But it was.
My appointment lasted over an hour during which time I lay back in the chair and listened to the dental assistant go on about another employee whose dog had recently run away, how devastated she was to have had him unexpectedly wander out of her life.
When the dentist finished shaping and bonding, I had two new teeth: nearly as good as the originals – but not exactly the same. I kept looking at them.
“Will they last forever?” I asked my dentist when he finished.
“They’ll be good for a while,” he said, “but once something has broken… well, all fixes are temporary.”
I thought of The Pretty People.
I’ve always assumed every marriage has cracks and weak spots, but that these minor imperfections are things we can excuse in our spouses. Short of infidelity or abuse, I’ve believed most grievances are petty things that we can forgive in each other because we all possess our own heinous fault lines.
I mean, on any given Thursday I want to strangle my husband after I have punched him in the throat and given him a Super-Atomic wedgie.
But Lord knows, my husband is a patient man.
It is January now, and I can’t stop thinking about the impermanence of things.
I can’t stop thinking of friends who are wrestling with health related issues; another friend whose son had to be airlifted from Bolivia to Miami to receive treatment for something doctors have not yet diagnosed. I am thinking about the dental office worker whose puppy ran away. And I am thinking about the Pretty People – their children, their home, their lives.
An eternal optimist, I’m hoping the best for all of them. I’m praying that a Divine Spirit will cure my friend’s tumors, that my friend’s son will miraculously turn around so that his father can stop worrying about diarrhea and measuring urine output. I’m hoping that The Pretty People will rediscover what they once saw in each other after a little time away from their daily routine. I’m hoping that dental assistant’s puppy will find his way home.
Also, I’m hoping that my new teeth will hold.
I know nothing is solid, but I suppose in matters of the heart I prefer the illusion to reality.
Up until that December day, my biggest worry had been getting my sugar fix.
Who knew I had it so sweet?
What has rocked your world lately?
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