One of my absolute favorite things about being in a foreign place is getting lost. Wandering around streets, stopping whenever something catches my eye. Looking up every once in a while, just to notice what’s there. Nothing feels better than hanging out in a public place sipping excellent coffee, people watching and just soaking up the vibe.
Since I’ve settled into Vancouver, my life can mostly be described as trying to fit as many things into a day as possible. It’s my fault that my quality of life has dropped from an 8 to a 5. In a city as laid back as this place, there’s no reason for my cortisol levels to be this insane.
This week my challenge is to treat at least one day like an exploration rather than a mad rush to get from one appointment to another. (more…)
My mother used to irritate the shit out of me whenever we had a party because inevitably she’d haul out the same four stories about the only four interesting things that ever happened to her and tell them over and over. Even though we’d all heard them about nine thousand times.
Sometimes when I was an especially bad daughter, I’d finish the story.
“Ya. Ya. And then the Dalai Lama asked if he could use that line in one of his talks.”
Sadly, three of the four exciting things that happened in her life are completely made up.
This weekend my family hosted a BBQ. Once the drinks start flowing, I get that familiar itch to be the center of attention with one of my witty stories. I’m about four sentences in when my husband fake coughs.
“I think you’ve told that one before.”
“Ya like a million times,” my daughter pipes in.
Some of my friends nod or stare at their drinks.
Not one to so easily give up the spotlight, I launch into another one. When a voice from the crowd says,
That’s not a toast that’s my friends begging me to shut the fuck up
“Isn’t that the one where you meet Tommy Chong at a salsa club?”
And it hits me. Every single notable, exciting thing I’ve done in my life happened 20 years ago. My stories are old and tired. And now so am I. Total humiliation.
So I do what most middle-aged women having an attack of social anxiety do – pretend to be busy in the kitchen.
I recently watched a Netflix special about the Queen of England. In this one scene, Elizabeth realizes that the only two topics she can speak intelligently about are horse breeding and dogs. Bent over the dishwasher, my nose prickles and I frantically blink away tears. I’m just like her. I’m like the Queen, except for my table manners and also I don’t have a yacht.
It’s a scary moment when that realization hits: my life has shrunk. That free-spirited, adventurer who’d take impossible risks has morphed into the cranky, play-it-safe woman I swore I’d never be. What’s next? A pair of mom jeans, a mini-van on the slow, steady descent to death?
Just kill me. Please.
There are some great things about having a mid-life crisis. But as with any shitty gift from the Universe, the benefits are not immediately apparent. I go through the same process before I get it. Which looks like this:
1. Freak out because some part of my life sucks and I can’t take it anymore.
2. Wallow around Whole Foods until I see an eye-catching poster for a self-help guru, healer or workshop.
3. Make a list of things that make my life suck.
4. Fix those things. (more…)
Just at the moment, the walls of my crisis viper pit started closing in. Just when I had resigned myself to a life of wallowing in mucky bad choices I’ve made, a little crack of light appears.
I enrolled in a watercolor class.
First attempt at a self-portrait. So keep your shitty comments to yourself
It occurred to me that the only difference between a wealthy, successful person and me is that she would probably take this gift of free time to take a watercolor class instead of binge watching Frankie and Grace (which I’d already finished).
There’s a certain freedom in taking these classes in my mid 40’s. I no longer feel pressure to make a career of it. In my 20’s, if I invested in a yoga program, it was to pay my way to travel the world, by offering yoga retreats to wealthy unemployed women. If I took a cooking class, it had to be the first step to opening a restaurant. Now all I want is to get out of the house.
“Wow,” says Alice when I tell her why I can’t meet for our Wednesday coffee date. “You’re so brave.”
Alice says this only because she doesn’t follow the news and also because she knows I have zero artistic talent.
Is it a Canadian thing not to try anything we aren’t already good at?
It used to be my thing until I just impulsively signed up.
In the first class, I’m totally blown away by how loud and limiting my creative process is.
As soon as I walk in the room, I can tell everyone is better and more experienced at painting than me. For starters, it’s obvious no one else had purchased their paint set from the dollar store. My stomach squeezes a little.
Done with ZERO drinks. Can’t you tell?
The voice in my head says, “You’re going to suck.”
My asshole voice is super pleased when people pull out their paintings – most of which are already half finished and awesome.
Then I remember seeing an ad at Whole Foods for a painting class called, “Anyone Can Be A Great Artist If They’ve Had Enough To Drink.”
At the very top of the supplies list was:
One bottle of wine – or 1 pre-rolled joint – whatever works for you. Wine quiets that asshole voice, the editor that bungs up any creativity that wants to come out. Every time someone stops painting to criticize their work, the teacher pours them a glass of wine or offers a lighter and tells them to keep going.
I remember thinking I should sign up, but I wasn’t ready to dedicate my life to becoming a professional artist.
I start to sketch out what I want to paint. I’ve got a thing for abstract designs of nature. Like Emily Carr, because any moron should be able to paint like that on her first try. I look around the room and notice most of the excellent artists use a picture or photograph as a guide. But since this is my first time, I decide to enter at pro level and freestyle.
When I write, I also start off by comparing myself to Margaret Atwood or David Sedaris and immediately start freaking out because my writing totally sucks compared to theirs and now I’m going to die a miserable failure. And then, if I can pick myself up from that, I attempt a project that will cause me the maximum amount of stress possible – like deciding to write, act in and produce an hour-long one-woman show.
And when I can’t manage that, I toss myself back in the viper pit and wallow.
Sitting in this painting studio, brush in hand, I can see this whole pattern laid out in front of me.
This is why I’m here – to break free from that shitty cycle – without the aid of medication (although, don’t think I wasn’t tempted to smoke a joint right then and there.)
I tune out everyone around me. Stop looking across the table at the woman feigning humility as she adds finishing touches to her beautifully executed “Still Life in a Zen Garden.”
Instead, I just let myself breathe. Feel the bench beneath me. My feet on the floor. Then I pick up a brush and begin, first with the light colors, then carefully layering the darker details.
Every time, I tell myself that it’s not going well. Every time I make a mistake, I tell that asshole voice, “It’s just an experiment. I just want to see what happens – so fuck off.”
Then, I hear a voice that isn’t my regular asshole voice say, “Whatever wants to happen will happen.” Because no one can totally control the paint. It goes where it wants to – especially if you add too much water. But you just have to go with it. Watercolor paint demands that you follow and make the best of it.
It was supposed to be the sun, but I have no idea what happened
Whatever wants to happen will happen. That’s the great take away. That’s the new metaphor I’ve been searching for. The one that erases my compulsion to foresee the next five steps before I even take one. The one that makes sure I don’t try anything unless success is assured. The one that equates success with perfection and so keeps me safe in bed, popping Ativan, like Melania Trump (probably).
Anyhow, none of that prevents my painting from seriously sucking. Even now when I look at it, I have no idea what I was trying to do. But I don’t even care. And I’m still going to go back next week.
When I was in my early 20’s and my Grandmother was still alive, she tried to impart her best advice to me.
She knew what she was talking about
It’s too bad I was scornful. But that’s mostly because she was very old and extremely proper and exceedingly capable. In other words, we were nothing alike (though she was my favourite person in the whole world)
I wish she was still alive because back then she was talking about stuff that didn’t at all apply to my crazy, 20-something, hard-livin lifestyle. But now as I go about my day, I can’t tell you how many time, I stop, slap my forehead and say, “So that’s what she meant.”
I remember one Sunday dinner, when I was around 12.
I tried to help my grandmother as she bustled around in the kitchen, cooking a stuffed chicken, baking homemade rolls, setting the table and prepping dessert. While, my grandpa, her husband, sat on the sofa reading the Globe and Mail. Like he did every Sunday. In that same tradition, he’d frequently shout from the living room: “Dinner ready yet?”
Grandma turned to me and said, “Never get married.”
Later she amended that advice to – “Only marry someone who’ll divorce well.”
Now that so many of my friends are separating from their husbands and life partners, I understand that advice to mean: “if your chosen mate shows a hint of vindictiveness – use him for sex – but never, ever marry him.” Watching how shitty people can behave when divorcing, I believe that unsolicited advice is absolute genius. I will impart it to my daughter…but only after college.
She said a whole bunch of super intelligent shit – most of which I remember. When I repeat these little sound bites with anyone in her 40’s or older – I sound super wise and insightful. (thanks, Grandma. I couldn’t have done it without you.)
Here are some of my most repeated examples:
- Poor people can’t afford cheap stuff
- Three things you should never cheap out on:
- Food, shoes and mattress. (She once said in way of a caution: “Every time my mattress started to sag in the middle, I got pregnant.”)
- A lady always knows when it’s time to go (If only I’d taken this advice after drinking
- A wise woman always knows when to keep her mouth shut (if only I’d EVER taken this advice)
- Gardening is the best stress reliever – nothing beats unmercifully pulling weeds, for working out aggression
- Money is never a reason not to do something important (so when I use that excuse I know I’m really freaked out about something else)
A few years ago, I volunteered at Hospice. Sylvia MacNeil asked me to write her life story. She was 94 and dying from breast cancer. I won’t go into the details except to say that her life was inspiring and remarkable. I felt very lucky to have known her.
As Sylvia got closer to death, I could sense she had something she wanted to tell me. One day, when she was drifting in and out of consciousness, he waved me into close so I could hear her hoarse whisper. She said, “Sex in your 80’s kicks the crap out of sex in your 30’s.” And then she fell back on her pillow, unresponsive.
If it hadn’t been for the nurse in the room, I would have grabbed Sylvia by the shoulders and shaken her awake, yelling. “What do you mean? For God’s sake. How? How?”
Photo credit: Jean Malek
But I’ll never know exactly what she meant.
Although, after some thought, I think she was talking about gumming.
What good advice were you given that you’re only really getting now?
One of the reasons I keep freaking out is because I’m aware that something irreversible has happened to my brain. Something untreatable.
I think like someone’s mother. And now it’s permanently affected the way I see the world.
The most obvious example:
I never used to think about food. Except in the most pleasurable terms.
Now, food anxiety invades and overtakes my mind at least 10 times a day. What to make my kids for breakfast that will keep them full until recess without any sugar crashes?
What to pack for lunch now that every other kid has an annoying nut allergy?
What to make for dinner so I won’t have to listen to a constant whine about how gross dinner is?
How to go to Costco without wanting to slit my wrists?
How to go to Whole Foods without hyperventilating over the price of organic grapes? (more…)