I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve suffered from a serious personality defect most of my life. This condition probably stemmed from me playing the leading role of anxious pleaser daughter of an alcoholic father/ middle girl child between two boys in my own personal After School Special that ran for most of my childhood. As I grew up, I completely bypassed any opportunity to be a part of the “me” generation in order to focus all of my energy on making everyone else happy. In a nutshell, I’ve been incapable of putting my own needs in front of others since I was about ten years old.
I’ve only just discovered (thanks to a good therapist) that I did this so that I wouldn’t have to face my own painful feelings relating to the experience of living in the chaos of an alcoholic household. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, it’s always been easier for me not to deal with painful emotions. And it’s worked pretty well for about forty years. But as I face the second half of my life, I’m realizing that it’s just not working for me anymore. I want to feel—even if it hurts!
It’s utterly exhausting trying to please everyone all the time, and truthfully, it just can’t be done. This is the year of turning fifty, and I’ve finally realized it’s time for me to pay attention to me. Thanks to some life-altering experiences that have taken place in the past few years (the pivotal one being my daughter being diagnosed with cancer) I’ve begun to do just that—I’m finally starting to try to figure out what I want, whether it be writing again after thirty years of self-imposed literary exile, or even just choosing what I want to cook for dinner. I’m finally seeing that taking care of my needs and doing what I want to do is not only best for me, but it’s best for those who love me.
Let me give you an example of the struggle I face when thinking about doing something for myself. First of all, I need to let you know that I’m the least spontaneous woman on the face of the planet. I’m a complete homebody and rarely go anywhere, preferring to stay home and putter about the house and garden. But this past weekend, I did something totally out of character. I left the kids and husband, got in my car alone and drove five hours north to Bass Lake (near Yosemite, California) to spend three days in a spectacular lake-front cabin with nine of my junior high school girlfriends (you can read how we met here http://allegronontanto.wordpress.com/2011/12/18/my-girls/) to celebrate that we’re all turning fifty this year.
Now most of you wouldn’t have thought twice about going, but I, on the other hand was my usual pathetic worry-wart and worked myself into a tizzy about whether or not I should cancel my Friday and Saturday piano lessons. I fretted about not showing up to play piano during the church service on Sunday, and I got anxious about leaving my youngest daughter for the first time. I knew I couldn’t miss this reunion for the world, but I wondered 1) how in the world my family would get along without me, and 2) who was I to think that I deserved to do something enjoyable just for me?
But the thought of missing out on this reunion weekend for any reason was just too unbearable, so I rescheduled lessons and managed to figure it all out. Friday morning, I dropped the kids off at school and hit the road.
It was a soothing and quiet drive to the lake—it was incredibly peaceful with no one asking me for anything, no one telling me what to do—I was free to stop and get coffee and listen to whatever I wanted on the radio. Yet I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I was doing something wrong—that I didn’t deserve to be so blissfully happy. Why in the world did I feel guilty?
I arrived at the lake house to a clamor of squealing teenage girls masquerading as fifty year-old women and almost burst into tears of gratitude that I was actually there with all of them. The house, with its view of the lake and surrounding pine trees was more beautiful than I could have even imagined. I took a deep breath and decided to let it all go—all the useless worry and guilt and angst that I’ve held onto for so long and just be. If this house on the lake wasn’t the perfect setting to relax and regroup, well then, I might as well give up the dream right then and there.
I had been rifling through the kitchen cupboards of the lake house, looking for a loaf of sourdough bread on which to make a sandwich, when my friend, Corrine yelled those foreign-sounding words at me from across the dining room.
At first my girlfriends and I all cracked up, because it was so hilarious at the time—the way Corrine said it so loud and fast, like she was an impatient New Yorker and it was her job in life to figure out what I needed at that precise moment and then tell me where to find it. It became our pseudo-mantra for the weekend— when anyone was looking for something, or even if they looked contemplative or distant, we’d all shout, “WHADDYA NEED?” in a gruff, nasally voice. It was actually quite funny.
It may seem like a silly thing—having someone ask you what you need—but as women with families and relationships and responsibilities, we aren’t often asked what it is we need. How truly magnificent it was to hear someone ask me what I needed! And for me to ask my friends the same question back, over and over, even if it had become somewhat of a running joke, meant something to them, too.
As the weekend went on and the conversations became more personal and intimate, all of our hurts and secrets began to spill one by one like little droplets of red wine onto the spotless white tablecloth. It was useless to try to wipe up the stains—it’s nearly impossible to clean up all of life’s messes, no matter how hard we scour and scrub.
There was some deep and serious stuff revealed around that table—painful and devastating tales of sadness and loss were told involving our husbands, our children, our siblings. As we talked and laughed and cried, I suddenly felt less alone. I began to understand that every single one of us was dealing with some sort of pain. Every woman at that table was still just a little girl inside, worrying about the mess they had in front of them, and how in the world they were going to clean it all up.
This is why I love turning fifty. Our differences have become less defined. All of us are getting older and our bodies are not what they once were—wrinkles and gray hair are our common denominators. But it no longer matters now—superficiality and vanity has flown the coop like a couple of squawking chickens. We’re at the point where we can truthfully admit to each other that our lives are not perfect and that we’re vulnerable and scared and often sad, but that’s okay. We can lay it all out on the table and feel safe in the knowledge that we’re not going to be judged or criticized. We recognize our own fragility and imperfections in each other and that’s what makes our love for one another even stronger.
A storm blew in on Saturday night and the rain pounded the roof like an arsenal exploding above us. It suddenly stopped in the middle of the night and I thought the tumult had finally passed. The next morning it was eerily quiet as I awoke to a soft cotton blanket of snow wrapped around the lake and mounds of creamy whipped frosting on the trees. A late spring storm had dumped over a foot of snow on the lake.
The snow sparkled like quartz rock in the early morning sunlight. I went out on the deck and breathed in that cold clear air and thought about how the worry and anxiety that I carry around on my back and in my heart were gone for the moment. My pain had been covered up by the blanket of love and support offered so freely by my friends.
“Whaddya need, Jessie?”
I know that the snow will melt eventually and reveal the dirt and dust underneath it—I know that there will be many more of life’s messes to clean up. But at that moment, staring at the beauty of that uncontaminated white snow, I know I’m part of something so miraculous I can barely put it into words. I’m part of a group of women who love me for me, and that’s just what I need.
And I don’t have to think about anything else except that the love we share is like the newly fallen snow—glorious and pure and full of grace.