The Good Days are Now

I attended an Administrators of Pasadena holiday event in December where Principal of the Year, Mark Anderson, made the opening comments.  He talked about a lot of important issues around educational leadership in the city of Pasadena, but one thing he said really struck me on a personal level.  He said, “The good days are now.”

My particular make up, whether it be kvetchy Jew, middle aged woman, or a combination of both, leads me to look forward with anticipation or backward with a sense of nostalgia while I numbly “get through” the present.  The days can feel like a chore, tumbling one after the other, mired in bills to pay, tasks to accomplish and minor daily annoyances that leave me longing for the weekend, only to realize that Monday is looming just over the horizon to start the treadmill back on high again.

But his words struck me.

These really are the good days.

Just like every other chapter of my life, excepting my childhood, I will look back fondly at these days of discovery; how exciting empty nesting can be, the beauty of personal growth as I learn to be a better, more competent educational leader and how strong my body and mind still are as I sponge up all that I am learning and experiencing.

Several years ago, after my beloved grandfather had passed, I went on a trip to Israel with my beautiful grandmother and all her “old lady” friends from the local synagogue.  They were hilarious, hobbling along cobble stoned streets in heels, laughing together as they wrapped pilfered breakfast jams, pastries, bread and cheese from the buffet, and slipped them into their purses for later.

I was in my thirties and haughtily mused to myself as I judged every quirk and embarrassing behavior of these women. But my grandmother, she was amazing!  She was up each morning before sunrise, in the bathroom administering her morning ablutions with care.  She kept up a full steam ahead pace all day and well into the night and when her friends called her cell phone to say, “Hey Jean we’re all meeting for a glass of wine at 10 p.m.”, I laid exhausted in my bed watching, as my grandma grabbed her wool pea coat and headed right out the door.

I said, “Grandma, aren’t you tired?”  She gave me a wise smile and said, “I know I’ll never be back here.  I want to enjoy every moment.”

It has been said over and over again in song, poetry, film plots and sound bytes in a hundred different ways, but I think the nearer I get to 50, with the realization that I’m two thirds of the way through, I am internalizing the concept that these are the good days and we should enjoy every moment of this beautiful, wonderful life!

Me and Grandma

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Where are the Clowns?

I never understood the song, Send in the Clowns; all these older actresses singing it in the seventies.  I was so filled with frenetic, fresh-faced, joie de vivre, I just found it obtuse and irritating.  What in the world did this song mean anyway?

Oh, hello there 50!  Now like a boomerang, the song is back on auto repeat in my head and I know exactly what it means. Me here at last on the ground out of sync with the rest of my world.  You in mid-air.

Nothing is wrong and yet, there is an acute emptiness.  No one above to talk with, grandparents, aunts, uncles, all mostly gone, (a once vibrant and fortifying extended family vanished).  No one below me, (the children have begun their own lives). Why only now when I see that you’ve drifted away, what a surprise, what a cliche.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s still all this adult awesomeness like being stable and financially secure, being able to look back on a path and point to markers of greatness, good decisions that make you an admirable character on paper. And as I look back on those hectic days of child rearing, I remember weeks of wishing to be free to focus on what I wanted.  What was it I wanted?  I don’t remember.

And friends, there were so many friends around all the time.  It was fun and exciting to go places and see things with our friends.  Now, no one has time, I’m making my entrance again with my usual flair, sure of my lines but no one is there. Where are the clowns?

I used to think that older people were so quiet because they were born that way. They’d struggle for words because they were bad speakers who did not have much to say. I was not a wise child.

Now, when I stumble for my own thoughts to make words, it is because the thoughts and feelings are too rich, too heavy, too wide and too deep.  All the idioms and cliches of our language seem trite to express my fifty years of time passed.

Even the purest life can have some regret.  Did I invest in the wrong things? The wrong people? How do you communicate richly around such mundane activities as a dinner out or another boring, pointless party of “How are the kids?  How’s your job? Where will you spend the holidays?”  What is there to talk about anyway?  

The deep joy you feel is yours alone as well as the palpable melancholy.  It does not spread to others like it did when we were young. No one wants to talk about your phantom pains; physical or spiritual.  Your awesome kids’ accomplishments seem redundant in this era of private prep schools and bottomless parental pockets. Your experience is not unique and you are not special.

So you wait.  There’s the treadmill of up at 5, pack a lunch, go to work, read a book, watch a show, go to bed, up at 5 and on and on until retirement I guess.  But still you wait.  You wait for those intangible moments of pure glee, the nostalgic blip that passes through you like Carol Ann passed through JoBeth Williams in Poltergeist, and it makes you cry because you can’t catch it.  It is gone as soon as it appears.

Oh I remember that un self-conscious feeling of harmony, when I didn’t have to worry about being “right” or “okay.”  I liked the world before social media made us feel like we are constantly marketing ourselves to some unknown buyer.  Has Facebook become the new Schwabs, where we go in hopes of being discovered, while we sip the milkshake of witticisms and political commentary, being mindful of our ‘Likes’ and ‘Shares’?

I thought that you’d want what I want, sorry my dear. The paths diverge, the roads change.  People get off and on at different stops.  And it is here I’m reminded of another favorite Sondheim lyric, Sometimes people leave you, halfway through the wood. But how do you go on?

I guess mid-life is the time to map out new roads you will travel.

Perhaps it would have been smarter to have children later in life, like so many of our friends.  The chaos of raising a family surely dampens the din of aging.  Maybe you look up, when your kids are 18 and realize you didn’t have time to ponder a mid-life crisis.  You sailed right through it with parent play dates and school Casino Nights.  Now you’re 60, so who the hell cares?  Live it up on your yacht and sail off into the sunset.

But for those of us who married young, raised our kids and find ourselves at the end of our forties wondering, “What the hell happened?” we have, hopefully, so many years left to quietly contemplate the ache of purposelessness as we suddenly find ourselves irrelevant.

The Perils of an Open Heart

In meditation, and in yoga, we ask to have an open heart.  And it feels good.

But living always with an open heart can leave one vulnerable to feeling like the floor dropped right out of your soul.

Although this open heart posture is fairly new to western civilization, raised on Victorian conventions and deeply rooted in Christianity, some of us… artists, are in the words of Lady Gaga, “born this way.”

I remember being in the 6th or 7th grade at Garfield Elementary School and having just come from an appointment with my mother’s hair dresser, Mr. Terry. I was so excited to show all my friends my new Farrah Fawcett hairdo.  Oh the feathering of my dusty blonde hair, I felt positively glamorous and knew I looked just like her.

When I got to the playground, there were some eighth graders who begged to differ.  They did not appreciate my new hairstyle.  In fact, they did not appreciate me. They thought I was stuck up and snobby in my girly, short, petticoated dresses with satin ribbons from the Adorable Shop, instead of the popular Chemin de Fer jeans all the cool girls were wearing.  So, they enjoyed letting me know by pushing me off the monkey bars. Chemin de fer

As I fell to the black mat, (that must be there just for bullied girls like myself), I picked myself up, dusted myself off and began to walk off campus toward home.  They followed me and one girl, called Mona, punched me in the face. I did not cry. It actually didn’t hurt very much and I remember thinking as I walked home that I was rather confused by Mona’s aggression.

When I arrived home, my mother saw my rapidly bruising face and asked what happened.  “Oh, I got hit by Mona.”  “Why didn’t you hit her back?” asked my mom.  I shrugged and said, “I didn’t want to hurt her” and made my way to my bedroom.  I could feel my mother’s stunned look behind me as it bore into my shoulder blades.

I had always been a constant source of consternation for my mother, who was herself, a bully by nature, unable to comprehend her irritating, goody two shoes, daughter.  But it was true, I just never wanted to hurt anybody…even if they were hurting me.

I’ve always felt like I’ve had this weird helicopter view of the emotional landscape of others.  Maybe it was being raised by an alcoholic mother, or perhaps a narcissistic, absent father.  Who knows? But, much to my own irritation, I’ve always felt like I could see into the pain of others and if they were hurting me, their own pain must be much deeper than any superficial pain they could inflict on me.

And so off I went into the world with a goofy grin on my face and my little, beating, open heart.

As a grown up, this is great… and terrible.

Like most characteristics, this open heartedness or optimism or naiveté, has given me a type of sensitivity that makes empathy second nature, but is also like being made out of a giant sponge that, like it or not, naturally pulls up the sludge others are laying down. And when the sponge gets too full, it has to be wrung and set out to dry for a spell.

It sounds annoying to say, “Artists feel too much” but it’s true.  What makes a great novelist or beautiful painter is the ability to completely relate to the human condition.  Maybe that’s why I like opera so much.

Now I find myself at almost 50, and I marvel at the white, fluffy inner-tube (no, not my belly) that seems to surround and protect me because I walk around with this big, wide open heart.  And I think about how we complicate our lives by thinking too much about motives and manipulation.  It’s exhausting.  Not everyone is good and not all hearts are pure, but I think it’s our job to keep our hearts open and to think about the truth.

Maybe that’s what growing older is all about, hearing our truth and being at peace with it.

 

Week Four – Inside Out

In the summer of 2006, I had just turned 40 and I knew something was different.  We were on our way to Hawaii and I noticed my hair seemed more like tufts of fluff rather than the silky, obedient locks I once had.  My skin was now “crepey.”  (What in the world did that even mean?  I’d seen it for years on beauty potions claiming to, “help crepey skin” but now I actually had to know what that meant.)  But worst of all, I just didn’t feel like myself.  I was bloating like Violet Beauregarde, from the inside out, and I could not seem to stop it.  My energy was waning and I knew I was heading down Menopause Avenue.  I told my girlfriend I thought I was peri menopausal and she said I was crazy, far too young, and it was all in my head.

It was most definitely NOT in my head!

At 49, I can tell you that I am almost at the end of this crazy trip, and it has not been easy at all.  Hormones control absolutely everything in our bodies and for what will be a flip of the calendar page for one woman, will be a long, arduous journey from fertile years to fully hatched womanhood.

And that is exactly how I see it, fully hatched into the third quadrant.  It is not bad.  The process is complicated, but the result is awesome.  I think it is a period of moving inside oneself to listen to the shy voice that we had once been too busy to hear.

It is in fact, perfectly timed. As grown children leave the house and intimate relationships and careers stabilize, a woman can go inside to brood.  The hormones, physical discomfort and dissatisfaction with ones reflection in the mirror can cause a woman to start asking internal questions about her journey, where she’s been, where she’s going and would she like to change course. There’s a visceral understanding now that life really is fleeting and that deep satisfaction from a well-lived life can be accomplished with some soul searching and deep reflection.

Like everything else, it takes work to cull the greatest results.  There is a shedding of skin. You will see things that no longer work for you and will have to be let go and that can be sad.  It’s like breaking up with a favorite lover.  You enjoyed them but you know they are not good for you, so you say a poignant “farewell and thanks for the memories.”

Once you realize what no longer works for you, you cannot unknow these things.  You have to be able to hear the whisper in your head first, and then speak it out loud to yourself, and then say it to someone else with whom you share your life. And that can be scary and upsetting.

For some women it is realizing they want a divorce, or perhaps they want to change jobs, move neighborhoods or start a vegetable garden.

For me, one of the things I realized was that although I had been categorized my whole life as a social butterfly, I actually had begun to experience some social anxiety and awkwardness.  I think years of being a people pleaser had done wore me out! Going into loud, crowded, social situations, was no longer exhilarating, but now exhausting, and seriously taxing on my adrenal system.  I had to face the fact that my big party days were over.

The things that bring me joy now are synonymous with those that bring me peace.  I require a lot more down time than ever before and I covet the quiet time in my own home with my husband and grown girls around me.

I learned to say “no.”  No I will not spend time with lots of strangers, exchanging meaningless small talk to pass the time.  I want substantive play time now with a few close friends whom I really enjoy.

I think I got more serious.  Whatever happy hormones used to be plentifully washing over my brain, had now disappeared and I have become thoughtful, deliberate…serious.

These qualities had always lived within me, but I had never given them room to take up residence in my conscious mind. Having less energy, creates a need to sit still, be quiet and notice your inner life.  When I stopped spinning and flitting about, I turned inside out and I like it!

Menopause

Week Three – Love and Stuff

Lately, I’ve been filled with light, sentimentality and a sense of romance.  Tuesday, July 21st will be our 25th Wedding Anniversary, and it has been an incredible love story!  I don’t know what love is like for my girlfriends, but for me it has been a beautiful, life giving experience.

Sometimes, I think that if you have a strong family of origin, you may not need to cling so deeply to a romantic partner. When you have been so completely and unconditionally loved, maybe that is enough, and a husband comes as a standard feature that you need to raise a family, and to be invited to couples’ parties.  But I was not loved like that by a mom or dad, so from my first conscious moment, I have been seeking love.  “Real love. Ridiculous, inconvenient, consuming, can’t-live-without-each-other love.” – Carrie Bradshaw

As I age, I’ve begun to think of everything in my life, including hardship and heartache, as a gift; a blessing that has allowed me to see and experience other beautiful aspects of life. Perhaps I am delusional, and hardships are just hardships.  But I feel happier taking my lumps with a spoonful of sugar, and my Dominic has been a giant bowl, full of sweet, raw, brown sugar.

When every day is turmoil and marriages begin and end like seasons, the mundaneness of morning coffee at six and bedtime at ten, one set of children from the same mom and dad and a mortgage on a tiny, little house in a suburb of Los Angeles, seems glorious, romantic, exotic even.

If I had not been raised with a giant Google Map with all the traffic jams, fatal accidents and detours clearly marked, I may have needed to create some hazards of my own to feel fully alive.  But I had more “alive” than any young person should ever need.  I guess that’s why drugs and alcohol have held no mystique for me.  I’ve seen the ugly of the morning hangover while cleaning the vomit off my mother’s face.  I’ve witnessed the loud, out of control behavior that comes with too much vodka on too late nights and I’ve felt the visceral pain of a mother’s regret in the wee hours, accompanied by Larry Gatlin’s “Broken Lady” with unmuffled tears, while she thought I was asleep.

Mocked for being too cheerful, teased for being too optimistic, I smile to myself knowing that it is okay if people see me as a happy woman, who has led a blessed life.  I am and I have.  But those who have traveled a few ragged miles of their own will know that there is more to a person than the life they’ve built, it is most certainly a response to the life they’ve left behind.DolceVita

Week Two – Be Bold!

When I was 16, I was working as a waitress at a local Marie Callender’s restaurant.  There was a sweet older woman, who came in every morning, ordered a hot tea and sat at a small, tucked away table to read her bible.  She was very kind and unassuming. One day, when I presented her with her check, she presented me with a photocopied article titled, “Be Bold.” She quietly handed it to me and I knew that she was giving me a precious gift.  She seemed to know that I was in need of some guidance; a floundering young person, unaware of my gifts and strengths

I took the article, read it several times and tucked it away.  Then, I got bolder.

When I set out last July to become an Administrator, I had a clear idea of where I wanted to go, but no idea how I was going to get thIMG_0237ere.  I’ve always had a lot of confidence in my abilities to succeed and perhaps too much vision for what’s possible, without seeing the practical steps I need to take to achieve my goals.  I get impatient.  I know what I can do, so I expect doors to open.

Last summer, I took a calculated risk. I knew that if I did not leave my current job as the Performing Arts teacher and IB Coordinator, I would most likely remain pigeon-holed as a wonderful “creative” but not someone seriously capable of leading a school.  I have an English credential and in fact, began my teaching career as a High School English teacher.  But you know what they say about passion? My passion for musical theatre soon led me to a satisfying career as a musical theatre director and even a playwright.  And just like in Hollywood, when you’re good at something, you get type cast and I certainly was.

My friend, Krsitin Maschka, http://kristinmaschka.com/, talks about unconscious bias in her TEDx Pasadena Women address. And I see it everyday.  If you’re creative, you’re flighty, too emotional and sensitive.  And if you’re a female, you lie under a very intense microscope that is fixated on your every gesture, facial expression, tone of voice, clothing and attitude. Female leaders are scrutinized by men, but even more harshly by other females.  We expect competence and benevolence, beauty and brains, kindness and firmness and plenty of humility and deference. But we forget, sensitivity is a good thing, in all people. It is an indicator of emotional intelligence, which is 90% of what it takes to be a good leader.  http://elitedaily.com/life/psychology-sensitivity-9-signs-youre-emotionally-intelligent/993834/

Do artists make good educational leaders?  Who are some great female principals with an arts background?

Those of us who teach in the arts, particularly if we’re successful, know that it takes incredible administrative leadership skills to pull off a theatrical production.  There are so many moving parts, temperamental designers to manage, dwindling budgets and resources, stage moms and dads, community members and volunteers, and kids, lots and lots of highly emotional, creative kids who just want their moment in the spotlight. The ability to pull off a successful public performance with hormonal teenagers, is all administrative leadership.  Perhaps, this will be my doctoral focus someday.

So, I spoke out loud about what I wanted.  I pushed myself to gain some new skills and I shouldered some acute discomfort. I stepped out of my comfort zone to start along a series of steps to get where I wanted to be today, exactly 1 year later.

  • Was it difficult?  YES
  • Was it painful?  YES
  • Did I question myself and my decisions?  YES
  • Would I do it again?  YES

I listened to my inner voice and I challenged myself to feel all the bad feelings we try to keep buried.

In this past year I experienced, grief, loss, humiliation, fear, awkwardness, despair, loneliness, judgement, and defeat.  But I also experienced elation, moments of glory and clarity, tiny little tidbits of hope that I was indeed on the right path, even though the immediate road up ahead was dark.

I worked on assuming positive intent and trusting those I respect, to have my best interest at heart. I forced myself to stay positive, professional and kind.  And I am incredibly grateful to all those folks who showed up along the way to say, “Hey, you’re doing great!” “Good things are coming for you.”  “Keep up the hard work!”

I embrace the growth I’ve made this past year and at exactly 49 weeks till my 50th birthday, I can so proudly say that I attained my goal.  I have just been named Assistant Principal at a really wonderful 6-12th grade public school in Pasadena!

But this is just the beginning of a new chapter.  Now I am thrust, once again, into unknown territory, laden with new skills to learn and growth to experience, both personally and professionally. Was it worth it?  Absolutely!

And my advice to you, be bold!

Week One – Family

Today marks exactly 50 weeks to my 50th birthday and my mind is focused on family.  It is summer break and I am an educator, so that means it’s time to recharge, reflect and look inward for awhile.

We’ve been watching old home movies to decide which ones to send out to be digitized.  Did you know you can buy “Cloud space”?  Well, that’s for a different post entitled, “Middle Aged Rants on Technology.”

Anyway, the home movies are filled with family, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, and I just kept thinking, where did everybody go?

This is our first year as empty nesters, with our youngest daughter in college on the east coast, and our oldest who just moved out.  It seems as you travel further down the road, people get off and leave you.  “Sometimes people leave you, halfway through the woods.” 

Most of my relatives are dead now and those who are still around have moved out of our lives. It seems quieter now, smaller.  Not sad really, but just smaller.

Is it for us to pick up the family torch and keep it lit for our children and someday grandchildren? When did we become the grownups?

And what makes a family implode exactly?

I was the oldest grandchild and cousin, a trailblazer, who did everything boldly and without fear, before my younger cousins.  Married at 24 and two children by 30, life seemed happy, promising and full.  I saw my extended family as functional and warm, a happy place where they loved me and I them.  But there were secrets, like in all families, devastating secrets that once revealed, could no longer be ignored.

After abandoning my mother and I before I was even born, my father was estranged and had been for twenty something years.  Married to his fourth wife, who was not much older than me, in their strange Shining type, custom built mansion, with no furniture and white walls, off a private road in the woods of Olympia, WA, he was more legend than actual person, and no one seemed to care much for him anyway, except that they did and I missed the signs.  My grandmother yearned for her son and made mention of him often on film. There it was memorialized on my old video tapes, but lost on me all those years ago.

I realized that my great aunt and uncle were the butt of every joke and relegated to play “The Fools.”  Often publicly ridiculed for their childish behavior, they played along good naturedly, as though unaware they were being put down. My aunt, my father’s sister, was a depressed, woman, spending her lifetime trying to gain approval from her narcissistic mother and my uncle, her brother, could never get the love he was seeking from his father, and developed bladder cancer, and passed away too soon.

Once my grandfather died in 2003, the staples and glue that held our family together slowly undid itself.  Uncle Ben died soon after, saying he’d lost his best friend and Aunt Ida, his wife, went mad and was found in her pajamas at the bottom of a ravine looking for her “Benji” and died soon after.  The family parties got smaller and more infrequent and the prodigal son, my father, swooped in smelling money and took his revenge.  A lifetime of being a parasite and divorced again for the fourth time, he needed to find his next host.

I’ll never know what he said to my grandfather in those last few moments of his life, but whatever it was, it must have been powerful, because everything shifted after that.

My husband says it was guilt.  My grandmother felt deep guilt for whatever she had done wrong to her son, my father.  Their whole lives were built on secrets and deceit.  My father was the son of another man, my grandmother left in New York.  She and my grandfather literally stole his baby and moved to the west coast, swearing all their relatives to secrecy.  My father did not know my grandfather was not his father until his 13th birthday when my grandparents needed the real dad’s signature in order for my grandfather to legally adopt my dad.  So in a casual, very casual way, they just said one day, “Hey, by the way, this man, the one you call, ‘dad’ is not your father.  Get in the car and we’ll take you to meet him.”  Talk about your world turning upside down.  Secrets.

So in the end, my grandmother turned inward and would only see her daughter and son, my father. No one else could visit her and when I called, she sounded strained, far away and sad.  Then one day, near my birthday, she died.  I didn’t get to say goodbye.

After that, money, lots and lots of money, property and jewels were inherited by my aunt who shared it with her children.  My father got a lump sum of a few thousand dollars and each of the grandchildren, excepting one, received a $10,000.00 check from her attorney.  My aunt cut off all contact with the rest of the family and sold my grandmother’s things at an estate sale that none of us were invited to.

I guess she got her final revenge, making sure we all knew that she was the matriarch now.  But what struck me was, matriarch of what?  If you push everyone away, you are left with nothing, no matter how much money you have.  And what about the bonds, the years and years of love and closeness and shared memories?  What kind of person can so easily truncate a whole chunk of family from their lives?  Were there no genuine bonds formed?  There must have been.  But the psychic wounds must have been so much greater, so that in order to survive, she felt she must take the nearest lifeboat, her millions and float away.  Plus the familiarity of shared sibling experience with my father was deeper and more long lasting than anything that came after.  They had their family’s secrets in common.  I was from the other, unknowing side.

So they all live on in my memory, my beautiful grandparents who loved me so much and whom I loved in return, my crazy estranged father who is still estranged, and my loving aunts and uncles who showered me in bagels and lox, and summer brunches with swimming pools in Palm Springs and lots of Jewish kvetching.

I don’t really have secrets, in fact, my husband chides me for having no unexpressed thoughts, but as I make my way to 50, I am proud of this little family we’ve built on an honest, solid foundation.  If it implodes someday, which I hope it never does, at least it won’t be because of secrets, lies and deceit.

And I guess I see now why older people warn the younger ones to take care, to enjoy every moment because I never thought those Fourth of July parties in Palm Springs or the agonizingly long Passover seders would end.  I thought the “old people” had always been and would always be here to love and guide us.  I see now, it is us.

Christmas Card Photo 2010

Fifty Weeks to 50!

My good friend, Candace Lacy, who is also 49, told me about her idea to commemorate the 50 weeks leading up to her 50th birthday by doing amazing things every week until the big 5-0.  Since I have no desire to leap out of a plane or learn to jet ski, I decided to start this blog.  Beginning on June 16th, exactly 50 weeks before my 50th birthday, I will begin blogging, uploading video, photos and music to document this journey into the 3rd chapter of my life.

Candace is an amazing woman, music teacher, mother of awesome children and an all around inspiration to me.  I hope this space provides insight, peace and perhaps a good laugh or two, just as Candace has provided these things to me.