How Do You Confront an Identity Crisis During a Pandemic?

2020 has prompted me to question everything.

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No death, no doom, no anguish can arouse the surpassing despair which flows from a loss of identity.
― H.P. Lovecraft

To my family, friends, and acquaintances: please read the following at face value. It is not a cry for help, a play for sympathy, or a prompt to initiate bringing me back into the fold. It simply is a reflection upon the uncertainties I, along with many others, are feeling at this time.

Truth be told, I have been feeling tenuous for a while now. Many of the ideologies I have woven into my identity have become threadbare. The events of 2020 have prompted me to take stock of my mental wardrobe: Are my convictions valuable or vintage? Can they continue to spark joy or do they provoke dismay? Do they fit me any more?

The modern definition of identity was proposed by Erik Erikson as his fifth stage of psychosocial development. While our primary personality is established during adolescence, he postulated that our sense of self develops throughout our entire lifespan. Our “ego identity,” according to Erikson, is constantly being shaped by our interactions and experiences with others. A challenge to your ego identity can occur at any time, most likely when one experiences a major life stressor such as losing a loved one, loss of employment, confronting health issues, or experiencing a traumatic event such as — I don’t know — a global pandemic.

Developmental psychologist James Marcia further elaborated on Erikson’s theory. He proposed identity is based on the exploration of a variety of life domains including intimate relationships, religion, politics, and occupation. The status of your identity is either in crisis — “a time of upheaval where old values or choices are being reexamined” — or committed to a role within these domains.

Fear of commitment

Welcome to my 2020. Or should I say, 5150? Except my current detention is looking more like 72 weeks instead of hours — perhaps even longer.

Full disclosure: This is not my first identity crisis rodeo. That occurred a dozen years ago when I became a widow. I envision identity like a lasso — twisted of multiple strands and used to secure yourself to someone or some ideal. When I lost my role as a wife, I clung to the other fibers of my life for strength. I was able to keep the rope somewhat intact until recent events have caused it to further unravel.

The first thread to break loose was with my church. Don’t misunderstand me, my core faith is as strong as ever, if not stronger. It’s just the man-made constructs that have disappointed me. When I was initially widowed, there were the standard outpourings of support and they were much appreciated. But once the dust settled, things took a turn. Slowly, steadily, (and I’m sure unintentionally) I was isolated. No longer included in couples’ events, I was relegated to coffee meetups and the occasional ladies’ lunch. Dinner party invites became nonexistent. I looked into the widows’ support group, but at 44, I was significantly younger than the rest of the members. There was no place I felt I belonged — or noticed for that matter. I would sit in the pew by myself, missing my husband more than ever. Feeling lonelier each time, I eventually stopped attending.

The next thread tattered by disillusion was my political affiliation. A lifelong Republican and Californian, I will never forget the feeling of being 18, newly registered, and attending a local Ronald Reagan reelection rally. I was thrilled to see a sitting president in person and proud to cast my first presidential vote for a man I felt possessed honor and character.

I wish I could generate anywhere near the same feeling of admiration for our current candidate. When did buddying up with our adversaries become a GOP construct? Putting policies aside, I wish my president to be a person of integrity. I continued to be baffled by how many Christian leaders (and friends) can support him as a man of God. They somehow excuse or refuse to acknowledge his consistent name-calling and slander of opponents, mocking of the disabled and women, and utter lack of humility. This list can go on and on, but suffice it to say, I feel like I’m in an alternate universe where right is wrong and up is down.

So now I’m left, or rather, was left, with my occupation. I had finally settled into my dream career: travel event planning. COVID-19 not only unraveled that thread, it chopped it with an ax and seared the ends. I’m a 56-year-old woman with a convoluted resume looking to reinvent my career yet again. California has more than 2.5 million unemployed workers. How do you like those odds?

Compounding matters, I suffer from an autoimmune disorder that has flared and left me at limited capacity these past few months. I’m not sure if it’s safe for me to return to work, let alone be physically up for it. As an added bonus, my current medication has caused me to gain 20 pounds and completely altered my appearance. Not only do I not feel like myself, but I don’t even recognize the woman in the mirror.

Temporary Restraining Order or Stay of Execution?

Marcia would most likely conclude I am residing in the moratorium identity status: in the midst of a crisis but seeking alternative identities. Working through the explorations leads to a commitment or “identity achievement.” Major life events — such as the death of a spouse — can create instability which triggers a MAMA cycle: moratorium-achievement-moratorium-achievement. I went through such cycles when I lost my husband, working through the identities of the widow, single mother, and middle-aged single woman.

Healthy adults will go through many MAMA cycles in their lifetime. It’s the natural progression of aging and growth. Some may term these events as reaching a “new normal” or acceptance of whatever stressor has been thrown in their way. Here’s the thing: most will encounter one upheaval at a time. What’s one to do, as in my case (and I’m sure many others) when you doubt multiple affiliations (religion, politics) and experience more than one loss (occupation, health) simultaneously? When a global crisis has disrupted society so much you’re constantly on guard, wondering what tomorrow’s shit show will be.

Do we hide, locking the world away? Do we appeal to God or fate to give us more time to sort this all out and/or complete our penance? Is there a remedy for this dilemma? Or vaccine to prevent it from happening again?

At the end of my rope, but not alone

I may be feeling unstable, but I’m not the only one. 2020 has taken its toll on everyone. A recent government survey reported 41% of U.S. respondents felt symptoms of anxiety and depression, compared to just 11% in 2019. As the year drags on, uncertainty continues to litter our collective psyche. We try to discard it, but our dumpsters are overflowing.

In a Popular Science article discussing mental health and the pandemic, Dr. Mary Alvord, a psychologist in Rockville, Maryland, states:

Humans look to have a known universe. That is how we keep ourselves safe,” he says. “It’s frightening to feel out of control. Sadness, hopelessness, fear — those will wear you down.

I honestly don’t know if these statistics make me feel better or worse.

What I do know is a few strands of my rope have remained intact and will be no matter what my revised identity turns out to be: My two sons, who not only support but motivate me to keep it together. My parents and siblings, who continually encourage and assist in any way they can. And my posse — my closest friends — who are always available to provide a listening ear, words of wisdom, and a glass(who am I kidding — a bottle) of wine when needed. These are my lifelines.

Eventually, with some introspection, exploration, and a little luck, I’ll channel my inner Wonder Woman and reconstruct the lasso of my truth. Surprisingly, I have found a gentleman who doesn’t view me as frayed and fragile, but as a woman of substance and strength. He wants to join me on the journey to discover a more suitable church to grow our faith. From now on, I’ll let my conscience — not my political party — be my guide when voting. As for health and occupation, I will keep praying and hoping that good news is just around the corner.

It has to be, doesn’t it?

Into The Deep

I’ve waded through the shallows often. Colorful, glistening creatures tickled my toes and skimmed through my heart. Alluding to promises never to be granted. I’d nearly forsaken the expedition. Weary of the fleeting encounters, apparitions of affection and shipwrecked expectations. Prompted by tedium. Coaxed by kismet? I endeavored once more. Hope beckoning like the North … Continue reading Into The Deep

Answering a Craigslist Ad Led Me to the Job of My Lifetime

How a random ad and a bit of kismet transformed my career

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Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

I had spent months perfecting my corporate interview attire: Navy sheath dress. Mid-heel black patent pumps. Black leather tote just the right size to stow spare copies of my resume and sturdy enough to stand upright beside my discreetly crossed feet. My online research had indicated that a slouchy handbag puddled on the floor would project unprofessionalism.

It never occurred to me that sheer desperation would soon prompt me to answer a small ad on Craigslist. I certainly didn’t envision that hitting send would embark me on the path to self-discovery and career fulfillment.

Not your typical job applicant

I was at the end of my rope and at the precipice of drowning in debt. Widowed eight years earlier, working full-time at this stage in my life was not part of my initial life’s plan. But, my sons were now both away at college. I had depleted what reserves I had. I needed a steady income — and a reason to get up each day.

Out of work for quite some time, I was the most unlikely candidate for every position coming across my Indeed feed. I was just recovering from a six-month stint on disability and over 50. My resume was all over the place: Public Relations straight out of college, stay-at-home-mom, part-time elementary school librarian, full- and part-time volunteer positions, and a recent stretch as a content creator. (Turns out, their particular office environment was not a good fit and partially led to my illness.) Instead of presenting a steady rise to success, my CV read like an Emergency Room EKG: Glitchy ups and downs and currently flat-lining.

A kind relative had treated me to a session with a job counselor. Since the traditional format would only highlight gaps in my experience, she suggested I create a skills resume. This style did not have to be linear but focused on my areas of expertise. She also advised treating my volunteer work skills with the same importance as those garnered from paid employment. When all was said and done, I thought my innovative document conveyed I could tackle anything presented to me.

When people would ask what type of job I was looking for, I could never give them more than a vague answer. I could only describe the feeling. “I want to work at a small company where I can make I difference,” I would attempt to explain. “It could be public relations, event planning, insurance, I don’t care. Just somewhere that appreciates my work more than just hours on a timesheet.”

And so, I applied for nearly every position that struck my fancy: Public Relations Manager — I’d carnival pitched with the best of them. Administrative Assistant — Gatekeeping? Making copies? Correspondence? I’m quite adept at multitasking. Non-Profit Volunteer Coordinator — I had just spent four years rallying troupes and raising funds for a large high school football program — I could do that one in my sleep.

I visualized myself being a star employee in any of these positions. The problem was no one was taking a liking to my sparkle.

Take a chance on me

When I realized my unconventional resume wasn’t making it past corporate filtering algorithms, I decided to take a chance on Craigslist. Nestled among the posts for telemarketers and dubious work-from-home opportunities was an ad for a Customer Service/Office Assistant position with a small, family-run company. There was a little subtle wit in the ad that told me these could be my people. The ad ended with a “Must Love Dogs” tagline, so I included a postscript in my cover letter. Written in the voice of my pup, Jenny, I assured them of my dog-friendliness and snuck it a bit of my creative writing in the process.

A boisterous Samoyed greeted me upon arrival. While attempting to avoid him, my heels scraped into the cracks of the shale path that led to the office — a converted detached garage next to the owner’s home. My straight dress was a bit snug causing me to do a little shimmy and then “plop!” into the rolling chair offered to me. Careening across the floor, I quickly regained my bearings and faced the staff of three: Founder (S.A.*), Son (M.A.*), and Assistant #1(Q*). M.A., the main interviewer, was clad in a faded millennial style t-shirt — appeared threadbare, but most likely brand new and purchased on Melrose — and shorts. The others were dressed just as casual. “No need for an office attire budget,” I noted to myself as the white beast of a dog rummaged a Luna bar out of my tote.

The meeting started with brief company history: Just over 30 years earlier, S.A. was a newly sober travel agent. He realized that most vacation spots are rife with alcohol and loads of temptation. Counting on strength in numbers, he reached out to his friends in the twelve-step community to see if they would like to join him. He had over 200 people on that first trip. By the next year, they were buying out entire resorts for a week and the company was born.

Fellowship, self-care, and fun were the hallmarks of the trips — nicknamed “Sober Villages.” The entire premise was you could have just as much joy — if not more — on a vacation without the assistance of alcohol. Their signature trips had grown so popular, they were adding additional events to their roster. Hence, the need for another assistant.

I hesitantly noted that I wasn’t “in the program,” certain it would be an immediate disqualification. They assured me it wasn’t an issue. While S.A. and Q were sober, M.A. was not. I would just be balancing the foursome.

The trio then took turns commenting upon and complimenting nearly my entire resume. It was the first time my volunteer experience was given equal weight. I was flabbergasted. There was no need to pitch how my atypical skillset could best serve their company as I had at countless other interviews. “If someone is bright and willing to learn,” Q explained, “you can teach them anything. What you can’t force is chemistry.” I knew all my random talents and bag o’ tricks could be utilized and appreciated.

Call it providence, serendipity, the universe’s plan — whatever you’d like — but there are times when things inexplicitly progress like a prewritten tale. You feel a little unsettled. You can’t quite control the narrative, but it’s oddly comforting. This was one of these times. I knew within ten minutes I wanted the position. By twenty, I knew I had pretty much nailed it. Before I even arrived home, I received the call asking when I could start.

Alchemy is the art that separates what is useful from what is not by transforming it into its ultimate matter and essence — Philippus Aureolus Paracelsus

To date, I’ve worked on four Sober Villages and several side tours. My job has allowed me to visit Mexico, Turk and Caicos, Jamaica, Italy, Greece, Croatia, France, Spain, Monte Carlo, and Hawaii. An extremely limited traveler before the position, I am now the envy of my at-home friends. “If you should ever need an assistant…” is a common request when I regale tales of my adventures.

I’ve made my mark on the company by creating a Day of Service on each of our big trips. Giving back is a pillar of the twelve-step program. The projects entail identifying a local school in need of assistance, then soliciting our guests and our host resort for donations. We have collected and distributed thousands of dollars in school supplies, water systems, and playground equipment. It all culminates in a single workday where hundreds of man-hours are devoted to repairing and beautifying the school. These days are my proudest career moments.

This position has provided the opportunity to create my personal job title: Director of Client Relations. I have been able to craft something uniquely precious — and entirely my own. I’ve been granted the gift of knowing my talents are valuable. With each trip, I have become more secure in my role and confident that this amalgam of tour operator, travel logistics, party planner, and client care was my true calling. I have discovered my artistry.

COVID Epilogue

Travel bans have placed my career in limbo and I am uncertain whether it can be resurrected. Will I be able to forge a new path? Transform yet again? With a stroke of luck and, perhaps, a bit of help from Craigslist, anything is possible.


*Initials used instead of names in keeping with twelve-step protocol.

This post previously appeared on
Change Becomes You | The Good Men Project | @Medium

Dear Twenty-Something Self: Your Dreams Aren’t Going to Come True and I’m Good With That

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Image by Yuri_B from Pixabay

I can’t go back to yesterday — because I was a different person then — Lewis Carroll

Look at you my lovely, once-upon-a-time self. 25. Newly married to your high school sweetheart, your story is just beginning. Everything is on schedule to begin your modern fairy tale. The outline has been predetermined — by you. Exhilarated, you await the fleshing out of the finer details, certain they will meet your expectations.

What you don’t realize, is the best-laid dreams of starry-eyed ingenues don’t always come true.

Life’s journey will take you through inconceivable storms. At times, you will feel stripped and shattered, certain you will never be whole again. But, I’m here to tell you — three decades later — you will weather the tempests. Your memoir will be illustrated with the colors of a sweeping saga. You will recover, replenish, and rebuild time and time again. You will forge a heart of restoration and hope.

You will be your own heroine.

Prologue

Our life’s quest was a typical middle-class narration: Vivacious college-educated woman marries a smart handsome man who adores her. They start out in a modest home, eventually settling down in an upscale neighborhood with their four children — two boys, two girls. Money never being a concern, it is her choice whether she spends her days at an office or volunteering, or perhaps, a little of both. Summers would be filled with pool parties and family vacations. All her children would be athletic, smart, and popular. Soon, they would meet their own mates, have successful careers, and provide grandchildren. The blissed-filled grandparents eventually ease into a comfortable retirement and enjoy the fruits of a fairy tale legacy.

If you haven’t guessed already, younger me, that is not how our story turns out. You might think I’m seeking to dampen your naïveté, but that is not the case. To do so would douse the sparks of our history. I’m here to highlight some of the events that will steer you to roads less traveled. Annotate some of your preconceptions. Not to have you switch course, for that would result in a different destination, but to provide you with the faith you’ll need to continue your path.

To become the woman of character you aspire to be.

Being a zebra will be limiting

In our twenties, everything was black and white — politics, faith, parenting. We were crafting our cornerstones and needed a firm foundation to build upon. They served us well — provided strong roots, made us feel secure — until they became confining. They distracted us from soothing shades of grey and the charms of nuance. I shudder when I realize how dogmatic we were, failing to recognize another’s sense of right and wrong could be just as valid.

There will come a time when society feeds like vultures on such assumptions. When those who may think differently from each other are regarded as enemies. It will grieve our soul, but we will be mindful to have practiced perspective — preserved our humanity.

We won’t be the perfect parent

Infertility issues will limit our offspring to two. Blessed with a couple of fine young lads, we will throw ourselves completely into their nurturing. Education, nutrition, sports, discipline, recreation, family time all mapped out to promote optimal growth. We oversaw with a loving, not overbearing, hand — providing just enough oversight to assist direction and encourage independence. It would be practically perfect — or so we thought.

It will take a while to acknowledge some mistakes — an unnecessarily heavy hand, a few minor (and major) misjudgments. But we will eventually comprehend we did the best we had with the resources available. It will bring us a sense of peace and a newfound insight into the caring nature of our own parents.

Our hero will die, but we will survive

The ultimate breach to the fairy tale contract, our hero dies midway through the story. The dissolving of the partnership is a long, drawn-out process. We were a team and when the hero began to falter, we picked up the slack. Our role expanded to include caretaker, nurse, and, finally, widowed head of household.

We will be proud of ourselves for enduring. For maintaining some moment of normalcy each day, even if only in a robotic function. It will take decades to fully process this forced single ownership of our sanity — cultivate our acceptance of personal sovereignty.

We will need to go to the well repeatedly

Fiercely independent, it will crush us to ask for help. After all, we are the primary caregiver, not the recipient. We will be prideful, convinced that no one else is equipped to provide quality assistance. Adding insult, this will not be a single occurrence. We will find ourselves in numerous states of injury, dipping in the well of kindness again and again until we are sure it will run dry.

Like the miracle at Cana, our community wine never depletes and we are inebriated with gratitude. We develop empathy — foster humility. We acquire debts we have no chance to repay and are awestruck by their joy in giving.

Villains will serve a purpose

We will encounter more than our expected share of villainy. After all, every fairy tale needs a counterbalance of dastardly deeds to keep us engaged. Some will be overt and others will be wolves in sheep’s clothing, but all will catch us off guard and cause us to briefly doubt our judgment.

Much to the scoundrels’ dismay, however, each conflict will bestow a gift. These endowments will cause us to develop skills or discover hidden kernels of truth within ourselves. We will garner discernment — be wiser when the next challenge arises.

Our children will write their own stories

Regrettably, we were somewhat judgmental of others’ styles of parenting. If they didn’t align with ours, we surmised these offspring would be spoiled or — gasp! — unproductive members of society. Gradually, we began to appreciate the true nature of a child — of a human — will come to be no matter the influence. They will bloom in their own time and be beautiful.

As much as we tried, we could not prevent our sons from suffering, enduring hardship, or making mistakes and living with the consequences. We could only strive to provide a safe haven and a strong moral compass to chart their own paths. Like us, they have prevailed and grown sturdy, strong. Watching them navigate their courses will be our greatest accomplishment.

Epilogue

Picking up the pieces will be a never-ending process. Initially, our defenses will want to cover our wounds, camouflage our scars. But those shrouds are too difficult to maintain and we will never able to fully rest within our story if we continue to try.

And so, we will come to embrace our imperfections — honor our unique broken history. Like the Japanese art of Kintsugi, we will highlight our fractures with gold, delighting in our resilience. Our modern fairy tale may have an unforeseen conclusion, but it will end happily ever after all the same.


This post previously published on Illumination | @Medium

From Dread to Hope: Making Peace With Father’s Day

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Photo by Mockaroon on Unsplash a caption

As a Widowed Mother, the Day Kinda Sucked

When you’re newly widowed, family celebrations often trigger waves of grief-laden anxiety. Eventually, you progress to tolerance. At some point, you’re able to rediscover the joy in such occasions. But for the widow and a mother  -  for me  -  the third Sunday in June was an entirely different ballgame. Father’s Day took my sons’ loss and ruthlessly thrust it into the limelight. Worst of all, there was little, if anything, I could do about it.

Not that I didn’t make an effort. I spent countless hours trying to fill the void created by their father’s death. But my attempts were largely in vain. My persistence was futile. I simply didn’t have the tools. I wasn’t him. It was like plugging a deep chasm with a shallow cork. Sure, it may have sealed it for a moment, but it was always an imperfect fit. It settled and slipped, leaving gaps and exposing cavities.

I blame my late husband.
He didn’t make it easy - not by a long shot.

My husband, Matt, was meant to be a father. It was an integral part of his soul and, quite honestly, one of the reasons I married him. From the get-go, he was intricately involved in our boys’ upbringing. When they were infants, he requested to take the midnight feeding so he could have some bonding time (and I could get some extra sleep.) He coached every sport they participated in from the age of three. On Father’s Day, he bought them presents.

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Typical Father’s Day Haul

When Matt realized time with his boys was not to be a marathon but a sprint, he strove to make each step count. He aspired to impart a lifetime’s worth of mentoring as swiftly as possible. Initiating what he dubbed “Daddy Breakfasts,” just the three of them would go out about once a month. The date wasn’t announced ahead of time; it was always spur of the moment. I was invited, but invariably declined. (What mother of two young boys would pass up a quiet morning all to herself?) During the meal, they would talk about whatever was on their minds. It was a safe zone where nothing was off-limits. Their father’s insight seasoned the conversation and his compassion was the syrup on top. What they discussed was never disclosed to me, but they always brought me back a treat.

Leukemia may have stripped away Matt’s vitality, but it never robbed him of his spirit. He spent every hour of his last seven years in some degree of pain, yet each morning he would wake thankful to have “another day above ground.” Our sons were ages six and eight when he received his initial diagnosis. My greatest heartache is that they have few recollections of him well. Doctors’ appointments, treatments, and fatigue governed our daily agendas. They don’t remember life without these overbearing dictators. But even as cancer therapies and their side effects corroded his physique, his exuberance for life - for us - remained and flourished.

After Matt was gone, I daydreamed that some man or men would come alongside my sons to mentor them. Like a beloved Lifetime movie, a gentleman - perhaps an uncle, neighbor, teacher, or coach - would recognize the “missing piece” in their life and do his best to compensate. Whatever crisis that might be looming would be adverted, their souls would be soothed and the credits would roll. In reality, a few men made attempts, but only for a short time. These were temporary positions. No one developed into a lifelong father-figure for either one of them. I never was a fan of tear-jerkers anyway.

We muddled through the first Father’s Days without Matt as best we could. At first, I thought about purchasing presents for my sons, but it felt off  -  like I’d be adding fuel to their continual smolder of loss. I rejected the common single mother’s mantra of being both a father and a mother. They had a father  –  a damn good one  -  I could never take his place.

Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written… Herman Hesse

It’s been over a decade of fatherless Father’s Days. The wounds of mourning have been assimilated into our history. Like tree trunks integrating the scars of fire, we have endured. The rings of struggle bear witness to our survival, rather than constricting our growth. We have matured and become resilient. My boys are adults. It is no longer up to me to tend to their grief.

The festivities of the holiday that once seared and stung now invoke comforting remembrances of a fatherhood well lived. Memories have ceased highlighting his absence, but serve as guideposts for our sons to become men of character. Perhaps, God willing, continue the legacy of exceptional parenting. It’s time to delight in Father’s Day once again.


This post previously published on Illumination | @Medium

The Worst Gets Better: A 30th Anniversary Love Letter to My Dead Husband

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May 5, 1990

It’s Cinco de Mayo, 2020. Five years since I wrote my first letter to you. Thirty years since our wedding day. Eleven and a half years since I lost you.

 

So much has transpired since those monumental dates in 1990, 2008. I am no longer the girl you married, nor the same woman you left behind. I wonder if you would even recognize me. Half a generation has passed. Very little in the world appears the same.

 

Your parents have both made their pilgrimage back to you. I wish I could have witnessed those reunions. The void that shadowed them after you left spilling over with joy. The pride in seeing their only son bursting in celestial technicolor.

 

Our two teenage boys have become adults. Complete opposites in looks, personality, and temperament. Yet, each one is a perfect reflection of you. My DNA fills in gaps here and there. You coached them on how to be men. They are your living history.

 

No more talk of darkness
Forget these wide-eyed fears*

Although we knew your time with us would be abbreviated, we were still caught off guard. Ill-equipped for the abruptness and finality of it all. It took all three of us some time to regain our bearings, reset our compasses. Each of us veered off course, sometimes plunging to the depths of despair. Thankfully, our squalls and tempests didn’t occur simultaneously. The other two were able to shore up the one faltering   – holding the tethers tight until we could stand on our own feet again. Still, it took nearly a decade for our quartet minus one to complete the journey.

 

I’ve long since sold the house. Most people nodded in approval. “Too many memories,” is what I’m sure they supposed. But they would have been wrong in that assumption. It was our house, but our foundation was in us. You taught me that. Counseled me to view our abode as an asset, not a mausoleum. When it became too monumental to manage, we moved on  – the memoir of our life together tenderly stored in our hearts.

 

When seeking our next home, I set my heart on an area that common sense  –  and my realtor  –  told me was out of budget. I was determined not to compromise, somehow secure in the conviction that I had located my new neighborhood. Your years of faith in me had instilled a confidence just beginning to bloom. My perseverance was rewarded, the market took a dip, and I found a lovely townhome. I knew you would have commended my triumph.

 

You’d appreciate where we settled. Compact and cozy, yet not too confining. No cumbersome yard to tend to  –  that was always your domain, but a small patio shaded by magnolias and adorned by a few low-maintenance flowers. I do miss our rose garden  –  our quests to discover uncommon varietals that caught our fancy. “No humdrum track home shrubs for us,” was our landscaping motto.

 

It was more than a relocation. It was the beginning of a rebirth  –  a life conducted by a soloist, no longer a duet. Downsizing was cathartic. I took very few furnishings with me. Only those cherished deeply transplanted to the new home: The photo albums you meticulously curated. The bedroom furniture you said we couldn’t afford  –  until I negotiated a deal too good to let pass. (My refusal to pay retail for anything was one of the traits you found most endearing.) Almost everything else was sold to finance the move, except for a trio of toolboxes. Each filled with implements and gizmos carefully selected from your considerable collection – one crimson case for each of us  –  to help us tend to our domicile in your absence.

 

Promise me that all you say is true*

As much as I protested during our wee hour “what if” conversations, you were correct in asserting the benefits of companionship – of reopening my heart to love. I was in danger of becoming too comfortable in the inertia of loneliness. So, I started dating. My first few experiences were like the spits and spats of an old jalopy restarting after a decade in storage: cobwebs clogging the valves, a couple backfires, and the groanings of a “mature” engine resisting movement.

 

It took me more time than most to regain my momentum, but I did end up having my first real boyfriend since you at sixteen. He was a good man. He honored my parents, our boys, even you. He would light up at my smile, but it began to flicker. We were mismatched puzzle pieces trying desperately to force the connection – only able to bend so far before the relationship snapped apart.

 

All I want is freedom
A world with no more night*

Next year, the scales will tip. I will have more years of my life spent without you than with you by my side. I can feel them teetering. At times I feel quite precarious, unbalanced. More often, however, I feel the rush of anticipation. Looking ahead with hope instead of dread. I used to feel unprepared about what is to come. Perhaps, I am ready now.

 

Happy Anniversary!

Loving you always, 

Lisa

 


 

 

*All I Ask of You – Andrew Lloyd Webber
Sung at our wedding. May 5, 1990


This post previously published at Hello Love | The Good Men Project | @Medium

Breaking up During a Pandemic

How wine, chocolate, Fritos and the tenacity of good friend can still comfort a broken heart.

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Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash a caption

 

The text went out to the posse at 2:23 pm:

So…
Today sucks
We just broke up 😦

 

Responses from the rest of our sextet came almost immediately:

OMG Noooo!
Wait, what?
What happened?
I’m so sorry!

This was out the blue for them. Not entirely unexpected on my part.

Consolation calls came next. My attorney friend had the swiftest speed dial. Swamped with work — her job might kill her before the viral load ever reaches her house — she made the time for a consoling chat. The first, “Take care. I love you, my friend,” of the day.

Then Karen called. “Screw the quarantine!” she proclaimed. “Meet me on your patio in 20 minutes. I’m bringing supplies.” I knew alcohol and junk food were en route.

Without delay, I prepared for our safely distanced playdate. Chairs were positioned six feet apart. (Yes, I measured — fearful that my tears would cause me to under calculate the state-mandated range.) Side tables stacked with paper plates, napkins, disinfectant wipes, and a vitally important wine glass were placed by each. I unlocked the gate and impatiently waited.

Karen is a former gymnast — current personal trainer to an elite LA clientele. She’s Mighty Mouse in both stature and personality. “Here she comes to save the day!” echoed in my head as I anticipated her arrival. A huge plant with lavender spires and bronzed, spring-loaded legs soon bounded around the corner. Karen placed the lumbering foliage on my garden table and her sunny face was revealed. “I’ve got no idea what the hell this is, but it looked cheery,” she explained. “Sit tight. I’ll be back with the rest.”

Bags and bags of provisions were carted in: Prosecco, Fritos, Cheetos, gummy bears, red wine, chocolates and a slab of cake slathered in fudge. A perfect smorgasbord for a dejected spirit. We started with the sparkling wine. I threw in some fresh orange juice to “keep things healthy.” The salty snacks were our main course. We determined the wine and chocolate should be reserved for dessert.

My sorrows spilled out as the libations and carbs flowed in. We went over the particulars of the breakup; surveyed the peaks and valleys of my year-long relationship. I catalogued his shortcomings and acknowledged mine. Karen listened as I reminisced over the days of splendor, contemplating if settling was better than life without a plus one. She commiserated over each detail, seasoning my emotional stew with alternating “That bastard!” and “He treated you well.”

I sniffled and cried. Got indignant and fumed. Laughed at both his expense and mine. The Prosecco was soon depleted. The vino was uncorked.

We dove into the final course of our therapeutic feast. Gooey frosting was the icing on the cake for our forlorn conclusion: Imperfect love can’t last forever.

As she began to leave, Karen lamented she couldn’t reach out and hug me. She didn’t comprehend the potency of her visit. Effervescent bubbles were the tender kisses of friendship. Decadent chocolate was the embrace that soothed my broken heart. She braved a pandemic to let me know I was going to be ok — to remind me I was still loved.

Searching for Love After a Thirty-Year Hiatus

My reluctant plunge into online dating in my 50s

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I met my husband at 16. We were married when I was 25.  I was widowed three days before my 44th birthday.

Our two sons were in their early teens when we lost their father. He had been ill for quite some time, but the way he eventually passed away was sudden and traumatic. PTSD complicated our grief. I threw myself into tending to my boys, work and volunteering. Once they graduated, I created a this blog to finally process the sadness I had suppressed for years. My mind was too preoccupied and my spirit too full of heartache to allow time for dating.

And so, I waited nearly a decade to reenter the dating world.  If you do the math, this seemed to be a pattern with me.  What can I say? I needed to be REALLY sure before I truly committed.

Single and out of date

My husband was my first kiss, my first love, my first everything.  My friend used to tease me that I had the dating skills of an adolescent: awkward, unsure and pretty much clueless. I had no playbook – no references to what I liked or disliked in a relationship. Flirtation was a skill that had dissipated long ago. Now in my fifties, I was about to enter foreign territory without comprehending the language or rules of the domain.

Back in high school, my biggest concerns were whether my side ponytail was attractively askew and the horror of my butt cheeks protruding beneath my Dolfin shorts.  I could never have fathomed that a bodacious bootie would be considered alluring in the 21st century. I only wish a muffin top wasn’t an unwelcome collaborator in my middle-aged physique.

Looking for a Match made in OKCupid & other digital heavens

I had been pondering dating for a couple years before I resolved to be proactive.  It was my hope that someone in my circle of friends would introduce me to a “nice guy” they knew. He would be properly vetted as engaging, financially secure and safe. There was one enormous snag in this scenario: Most of my friends were married. I was the only unattached mare in the posse. No stallions for miles.

And so, I reluctantly thrust myself into the realm of online dating. I honed my relationship seeking resume (aka profile) to the best of my novice ability. Dating Objectives, Activities & Interests and Bio were all crafted with a touch of wit and hidden desperation. Previous Experience was glaringly absent. I appraised pictures of myself until I found the few that I hoped portrayed subtle sexiness while concealing my double chin.  Filled with apprehension, I shuddered as I posted it.

The responses began flooding in almost immediately. This is not to say I’m any more eye-catching than the previous gal to swipe across their screen – far from it. But if you’re female, new on the dating auction block and assumedly breathing, you’re a hot commodity.

Never in my wildest imagination could I have ever envisioned the types of characters soon parading through my account. There was an inordinate amount of men donning bizarre hairstyles including mullets and a Flock of Seagulls triple mohawk. I’d somewhat expected the gentlemen who obviously were lying about their age, but many were clearly decrepit. One even used a photo of himself in a hospital bed as his profile pic. Another chap sported a neck brace and still another proudly presented only his elbow scab. WTF? Did was he seeking someone to kiss his boo boo?

Call me sheltered, but I had never been propositioned to join a threesome, let alone on a daily basis. The erotic mischief requested included a “submissive guy seeking his dominant queen” who pledged to be castrated for his future mistress. There was the married fella searching for an addition to his polyamorous relationship. Only semi-good-looking gals need to respond as his wife “was quite homely” and abundantly jealous.

Then there were the usernames: AwesummaCumLaude, Eatyourkitty and Chocolate Reggie whose self-summary proclaimed, “Just a funny man with a big dick and full wallet,” were a few highlights of this brigade.

I came to the realization that I needed to apply some filters to sift through the invitations infiltrating my inbox and “likes” tallies. There were the simple sorts regarding age, height and marital status. Long distance romancers and professed CIA operatives were weeded out. Then there was the Not a Chance in Hells:

  • Dudes who posted more pictures of possessions – boats, motorcycles, guns, etc. than themselves. Boys bragging about their toys repelled my interest.
  • Grand displays of hunting and gathering prowess. Apparently, a lot of women are enticed by all sorts of aquatic life dangling from hooks. I had better fish to fry.
  • Costumes of any kind. Save your pirate garb for Halloween.
  • The inability to compose a simple sentence. I was a sucker for well-written note demonstrating they had actually read my profile. Terse missives such as “Hey Baby,” “Yummy,” and “Mmmm,” did not set this essayist’s heart aflutter.
  • A sprawling list of dislikes. Profiles spewing negativity and demands of “no drama” signaled someone who was seeking compliance, not a relationship.

Getting with the dating program

The laws of attraction are a bit cockeyed in the virtual world. You are introduced as the result of a succinct CV processed through an arbitrary algorithm. Physical mannerisms, nonverbal cues or pheromones are not in play just yet. Charm and other nuances are compressed like dough through a pasta machine, then transmitted via an LED display. This two-dimensional showmanship was superficial at its best. Counterfeit at its worst. It took me a while to acclimate and learn how to decipher these exhibitions.  I’m not sure if I ever actually did.

With the simple click of a button, your interest in someone is proclaimed to the technological universe. Hopefully, they “wink” or like you back and the initial courtship begins. Last time I was in the dating arena, you danced with one partner at a time. When utilizing an app, one engages multiple prospective mates simultaneously. No more waiting to get home to check the answering machine. Messages appeared at all hours of the day and night. On some days, the frequent alerts buzzed my phone like a bumble bee stuck in a window shade. The cacophony of it all left me woozy. I soon became addicted to the rush of electronic seduction. On other days – many many days – the notifications fell silent. I checked and rechecked my phone, desperately seeking my fix.

“All that is gold does not glitter” – Tolkien

During this period, I relied heavily upon a close single friend for guidance. She was my Obi Wan – gifted in the ways of dating and an excellent counselor. Her eager apprentice, I regularly divulged the ups and downs of this unfamiliar terrain. We regaled each other with tales of fleeting passion, being ghosted and assorted profile oddities.

She recognized my dating immaturity, gradually teaching me to trust my own instincts and realize my self-worth. Each time I would come to her sorrowful from a rejection or breakup, she would always bestow the same advice, “I’m so sorry you’re in pain, but every relationship provides a valuable lesson. Whether it identified a trait in a man you can’t abide or gained an awareness of what brings you happiness, you have gleaned an insight into what you want out of a relationship.” Her mentorship proved invaluable.

This is not meant to be a manifesto railing about the perils of online dating. I know quite a few people who have successfully found their soulmates and/or future spouse. Personally, I frequently connected with men I found attractive, had a decently active dating life and various brief relationships. Did I find the next love of my life? That story is yet to be told…

 

 

 

I Wasn’t Going to Cry on Valentine’s Day – But the Google Doodle Shot That all to Hell.

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Valentine’s Day, 2014 began like any other day. After all, five VDs had come and gone and I was sure this was going to be the one on which I didn’t cry. No more feeling sorry for myself. This was the year.

Then I saw the Google Doodle.

It started out innocently enough. A lovely illustration of conversation hearts headlined the page this holiday. “How adorable!” I thought. “How charming! I love conversation hearts.” (Yellow is my favorite.) My eyes glided, enchanted, across the sweet sayings of “Crush” and “First Kiss” and settled on the soon-to-be insidious PLAY button on the lower right-hand corner. “Bonus!” I thought. “It’s animated.” Naively, I navigated my mouse over the triangle and clicked, fully expecting the hearts to begin their pretty pirouettes, choreographed to a delightful ditty and magically morphing into a cupid-filled depiction of their illustrious logo. My need for alliteration satisfied, all would be right in Googleville.

That’s not what happened.

Instead a voice, a male voice, starts emanating from my speakers. What’s this? Where’s my syrupy sing-song or powerful piece of classical music? I’m confused. He explains that all the stories I’m about to hear are true. ??? Did I drop into an episode of Dragnet?

Hesitantly, I click on the pink “Mr. Right.” Another voice, this time an older woman, begins to tell the tale of the day after she got married. Worried that she has made a horrible mistake, she sets out on a walk that lasts well into the evening. She arrives home to her frantic husband and soon realizes this is where she is supposed to be. Forty-two years later, she has never had another moment of doubt. As the story is being told, line drawings come and go on the selected heart, animating the dialog. And so it continues on down the line from “First Kiss” to “Puppy Love” to “Blind Date.” Each story heart touching and poignant.

Commence the tears. You know the routine. Small pools form in your eyelids. A quick sniff or snort to try and make them retreat. Deep breaths — and then all is lost. Floodgates are open.

DAMMIT!

My expectations for the day completely derailed in the first thirty minutes, I began to ruminate over what just transpired. I was doing so well! My grief had evolved into an attribute — no longer my definition. I pondered this self-disappointment all morning — getting dressed, driving to work. Preoccupied, I had forgotten to pack a lunch. Then, in the drive-thru, the revelation struck me — I wasn’t weeping out of melancholy, I was weeping out of empathy. I had been responding to the tender moments of someone’s history. For so long I was pushing and compressing my emotions deep into the bedrock of my being, fully expecting them to fossilize. Meanwhile, my subconscious was constructing a derrick and had begun the gradual and cautious drill into my sentimental reservoir. The Google Doodle was just the final twist of the bit spewing the tears up and over.

I should have seen it coming.

There were hints. The previous summer, I attended a wedding. The bride was the daughter of an old and cherished friend. I traveled to Spokane with another lifelong cohort; the three of us inseparable since childhood. Our bond had survived through countless trials. We were bridesmaids for one another. This was the first wedding for one of our children and it was special.

The big day came and I was composed. No tears expected from me. Heck, I had been to funerals and not spilled a drop. You think a wedding could unsettle me?! Cue the music…

Release the Kracken!!!

It didn’t help the procession music was the love song from Princess Bride, one of my husband’s and my all-time favorites. But what the heck was this?! Hold on second — it’s not just crying — it’s blubbering!!! I wasn’t prepared for this assault. There was no feminine handkerchief in my pocketbook. I struggled for something to sop up the onslaught streaming down my face. Frantically, I grabbed an offering envelope from the pew and cradled it under each eye. Not their intended use, but it was better than nothing.

Completely taken aback, I struggled to make sense of this phenomenon and gain my composure. I had never, ever cried at a wedding. Why now was I bleary-eyed and snot-nosed? But the bride was the spitting image of her mom on her wedding day. In both appearance and mannerisms, she was a reflection of a date more than twenty-five years earlier when all was right with the world. Plus, I had held this wife-to-be when she was only a few days old, a little peanut of an infant. She was our collective first child. There wasn’t going to be enough envelopes to last the weekend.

My dear friend and closest confidante asserts I never stood a chance. “It’s the beginning of menopause,” she explains. “Those hormones will get you every time.” I suppose some of that is true. There could be a biological component bringing on the waterworks. But is that all there is to it? I hope not. That would mean that there will be an end to this epiphany. The change will eventually complete and I will return to being unresponsive and dispassionate. I am finally at a place where I feel it’s safe to express my vulnerability and I don’t want to retreat. I want to feel the sting of raw emotion and be confident that it won’t scorch my soul and turn me to ash. I want to shed a tear and be happy about it.

I want to cry at the Google Doodle.


Originally published in @HumanParts @Medium.com

In Search of Big Girl Panties

I have very little tolerance for martyrdom. It’s the helplessness and the “feel sorry for me” mindset. I am the first one to say, “Put on your big-girl panties and deal with it, woman!” If I see someone continuously curled up in a ball, my initial instinct is to kick him or her down a staircase. Not my most empathetic attribute.

A little over five years ago, my husband, Matt, died.

There. I said the “D” word. I’m a regular user of all the euphemisms — “passed away,” “the day we lost him,” “left.” There is nothing wrong with any of them and most likely I will continue to use them. It’s just that I have specifically avoided the word DIED. It seems so irrevocable — so harsh —

so … dead.

Maybe that’s why it has taken me so long to write this. Why it has taken over half a decade to begin the process of putting on my personal panties and dealing. I always had something else more important, someone else who needed my attention. In retrospect, there is no doubt I erected those “somethings” and “someones” as barricades to protect (obstruct?) my own recovery. These barricades even had their own set of panties: the mother, high-waisted and lacking all femininity; the candy striper, supportive and sticky sweet; and the trooper, camouflaged to disguise any hint of vulnerability. I need to get a new pair. My own fresh and unique undies.

Now — for the first time in my life — I am living alone. An empty-nester. A widow. Single. Honestly, I dislike all labels. I would rather be known by my personality and accomplishments than my “situation.” The situation is whispered about at parties or school functions. Occasionally, I’ll catch an attempt at the discreet finger point. No one introduces me as the Widow Gastaldo, but the title is there. It’s my aura.

Then there are the times that I want to scream it from the rooftops. I want to stand on a stage yelling into a microphone,

“Do you know who I am?!

Do you know what I have gone through?!

SYMPATHIZE WITH MY SITUATION!!!!”

I then consume an entire cherry pie, sit down to watch an episode of Parenthood and sob.

I guess it’s time to dissect and digest these classifications. Empty-nester. When my husband died (there, I said it again) our boys were thirteen and fifteen, in eighth and ninth grade. Resolute to make up for what they had lost, I threw myself into volunteering for their football team, their track team, whatever. If they were on the field, I was on the field. Matt had coached every sport they were in from the age of four and I was determined to continue that legacy. This was the era of the mother and the candy striper. Then the boys went off to college and suddenly high-waisted and sweet didn’t fit quite right. Don’t mistake me; I have never been one to pine for days gone by with my boys. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed each stage of their life as it occurred. Ecstatic for what they have accomplished and what their future brings, #proudmama is my most frequent hashtag. But the nest is unoccupied now. It is too silent. I can go an entire day without uttering a single word. I need a new focus.

Widow. Wearer of the trooper. Most days I don’t feel old enough to have the title. Yes, I am aware of how cliché that sounds, but it is authentic. In my mind, I am that 16-year-old naïve teenager that my husband fell in love with. (High-school sweethearts, another cliché.) I still have years left to achieve and witness much. Other times, I feel extraordinarily ancient. A lifetime lived-and-done-with, begun-and-completed-earlier than most. Then there’s the look the word generates. I hate the look!!! It passes across their face when your situation is explained and people contemplate you like a caged dog in a shelter that needs rescue.

I swear I can hear Sarah McLachlan singing.

Now the worst of all — Single. Ownership of that designation is still difficult, maybe because I did not chose to be single. It was thrust upon me like a lance that I could not avert. Single sounds whole and complete. But I don’t feel whole. I feel hacked, a fraction of what I once was. For better or worse, clichés and all, Matt was my better-half and I was his. We shaped each other into adulthood. He was my seatmate in life’s roller coaster and now I’m the single rider — the extra. Sometimes, I wish people could see the giant scab that runs the length of me and has yet to completely scar and heal. They unknowingly pick at it and would be mortified to find out they do. Yet each time a husband lightly strokes his wife’s back during casual conversation or a wife gives her husband a look that can mean anything, but only he understands, the scab bleeds just a bit. I quickly wipe it away so no one will notice, but the sting lingers. It is the actual physical sensation that NO ONE warns you about and thus you are unprepared. Unprepared for the craving of non-sexual intimacy and chemistry you used to know. A forced detox if you will, constantly longing for the fix of a hug or caress or casual conversation. There are no undergarments for this, only bandages.

So that’s it. That’s the situation. I know I won’t be able to shed these classifications easily or entirely, but a girl has to start. It’s time to remove the roadblocks, resist the urge to roll up like a pill bug and shop for my new big-girl panties. Perhaps I will head to Victoria’s Secret and settle on an eye-of-the-tiger-wonder-woman hipster. Or (gasp!) a thong. If you see me veering towards the clearance rack located in the Aisle of Martyrdom, please take me to the top of the nearest staircase and kick.


Originally published in @HumanParts @Medium.com