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April 11, 2008

Waking up

Have you ever noticed that when you're in the middle of something bad like an illness or a divorce or grief or some hardship, there are folks who tell you heartily or sympathetically or cheerfully to keep your chin up! Look on the bright side! The sun will come out tomorrow, etc. You want to believe them, you do. But the sun seems kind of far away. Or maybe nonexistent. And then after a while when YOUR pain has gone on too long for THEIR liking, they will say .... haven't you agonized long enough? C'mon now, stop wallowing! Stop moping! People have it so much worse! In fact let me tell you this story of the so-and-so gal who has it worse than you do ...

But here is the funny part. In what can only be described as a ridiculous twist of fate and conversation, when you do emerge from under the rock of despair and piece your life back together and work to regain your footing in this life, people start acting surprised that you're not in a corner eating your hair anymore.

They say, "Oh my! Look how much you've changed!" And the undertone is Hey, remember back when you were really tragically screwed up? Remember? Remember how bad-off you used to be? Remember what a big ol' mess you were? REMEMBER?

Just in case you didn't get the memo. You were a mess. Remember?

And every time you move forward or try anything new or change your hair or make an effort to be healthier or happier they say, "Gosh, you sure have changed!" It keeps on happening, too, even three or four years down the line. After a while it just gets to be hilarious and absurd, because MY GOD PEOPLE. But it's not particularly amusing when it first starts happening, it sometimes takes a while to develop a sense of humor about it.

After a while, though, something magical happens and you go selectively deaf. You maybe still hear the comments, but you stop listening to them. Others may be commenting on how much you've changed (remember how screwed up/broke/fat/sad she used to be?) but you don't hear it. They're still in a relationship with a ghost of the past, hung up on someone who doesn't exist in that same way today. And even when someone walks right up to you and says, "You sure have changed! Remember how pathetic you were that one time?" you can smile and thank them and thank God you're not there anymore. And be grateful that it's true -- Wow! You sure have changed!

If you're still in the Big Ol' Mess stage of life, don't worry. You'll get to the "Wow, you sure have changed..." stage. I've been to that particular future and let me tell you, it is bright! And the very best thing about changing is that you don't have to do a damn thing -- it happens whether you like it or not. Your life changes whether you fight it, resist it, ignore it or deny it. And more good news is that you don't have to change magnificently. You do not have to dramatically quit your job, sell all your possessions and move to an ashram. You don't have to take up yoga for nine hours a day, give up food and exist on air and mantras in your search for a new you.

You change in mundane little ways and after a while they add up and they are good. And you're more your real self than you imagined possible.

- - -

I think we're sometimes deep-down afraid to change because we're scared of what people might say about us. Or think about us. We're afraid to achieve our true desires because we know that somebody somewhere is going to peck at us like a hungry duck or pipe up with the "My, you sure have changed!" bit. Even something like changing your hair color can bring on the judgy chorus so maybe you eventually stop making changes or reaching for more in life and that way you never provoke the ire of those who sit in judgment of you. Right?

But you can't win at that game. I couldn't win at that game, anyway. Because when you follow what you think others want of you and you repress and conform and be a good girl and don't change (just like they want!) before long someone comes along and tells you your problem is ... you just never change! You never take chances!

As my father says, you can't win for losing. And that is not living at all.

It's like being afraid to lose weight because folks might comment on your weight loss. Or being afraid to share your news of promotion/book deal/boyfriend/new car/splurge/vacation/whatever because you're afraid someone will say, "Looky there! Fancypants! Who do YOU think you are?" Sometimes you don't want to have to defend your choices. Sometimes you just want to enjoy something without being pecked at by hungry ducks.

Now I haven't done a scientific study or anything, but from what I can see in my life and from watching others it seems like something happens to you, something shifts, and you eventually stop caring so much what other people say or think about you. Maybe it's aging, or maybe it's a health scare, or that big life-altering event, or a crisis, or maybe it's nothing at all but the mellowing of time. But eventually what other people think about your life becomes a lot less important than what you think.

I was watching an interview not too long ago with Dr. Christiane Northrup, author of "Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom" and "The Wisdom of Menopause" (two MUST-have books if you're nearing 35 or over -- did you know menopause begins at age 35? Crazy, I tell you!) and anyway, one of the things Dr. Northrup said in this interview about bowled me over. She said that we have a wisdom about our true selves, the essence of who we are, when we're very young (around 11 or 12 years old). Then we begin to socialize and change and our true essence becomes suppressed. We don't re-emerge until we're much older, when we have the wisdom and skills to handle our real selves. And she said she's seen it so many times in her practice -- women hit a certain age and they start making changes, they begin a whole new career or they take up horseback riding or start painting or writing or singing or all the sudden they can't stand another plain white wall and go wild for color. Life is fresh and deep again.

It sounded a lot like waking up to me. Waking up from a long, dreamless sleep.

Looking backward, I know I was asleep. I spent a lot of time resisting change when I was married. I tried to keep the facade going and tried to live up to expectations and in time I became someone who was dreadfully afraid of change. I clawed onto the status quo like nobody's business. And of course you see how well THAT worked out.

But before all that -- back before I lost myself a little and nodded off -- I was just one big adventurous change after another, always onto something new and interesting. It clashed with my Southern people-pleasing gene a lot, so one day I up and moved west.

When I first came to California I met a woman at the Daily News named Irma. She was amazing, one of the most self-confident women I had ever known. To this day I remember the one piece of wisdom she shared with me, I even wrote it down way-back-when in my diary. She told me, "Listen honey, people grow up, they change, they buy new boobs, whatever. Others might talk about you. They might not like the changes in you, that's life, mija. When you change, people either change with you or they leave your life forever."

Irma, if you're reading this: you were right! I never bought any boobs, but I did change. I got older. Life moved along and people either kept moving with me or we lost touch. And even though I resisted the big changes in my marriage and its eventual collapse with a lot of crying and whining and carrying on, once I just surrendered to it and stopped fighting against my life path ... things got better. Then things got GREAT.

When you make changes in your life some people won't like the "new" you. It happens even when the change wasn't of your own doing -- when I got divorced, for example, none of our married couple friends spoke to me anymore. Maybe our divorce seemed contagious? When you or your circumstances change, people either change with you or leave your life. It sounds scary but it's not so bad once you stop fighting it. Yes, it's painful to lose old friends. But new people come into your life and you keep flowing with it.

So yes, of course I have changed, we all change, or at least I hope we do. I don't want to remain the same as I was when I was 19 or 22 or 33! At age 19, I was a patchouli-scented bookworm wearing incredibly unflattering broomstick skirts. At age 24, I was insecure and broke (but my rear-end was so tiny!) and at age 33 I was going through a messy and expensive divorce -- so long, farewell, tiny rear-end. Now at age 36, I'm learning to work a blender and travel alone and stop taking stuff so personally. Lord only knows what age 37 will bring. A juicer? A dog? A Jeep that runs on veggie oil? LASER HAIR REMOVAL? I have no idea! But thank God that we get to move on. If we didn't grow and change I'd still be working a massive wall o' bangs and wearing acid-wash denim. Or tragically stuck in the blue eyeshadow phase.

The changes in my life have been slow, tiny, some are incredibly mundane. It's just like waking up slowly from a very deep night's sleep. I feel like I went to sleep for a whole decade of my life. I got so caught up in trying to find a man and keep a man and have a good job and buy a car and make enough money to pay my bills and look a certain way and act a certain way and achieve socially-acceptable milestones that I started focusing all my energy externally on the appearance of a good life. And then I got married and we accumulated all that debt and there were dinners to make and housework to do and a full-time job and all that fussing and carrying on.

All my energy was then focused on The Relationship and I just unplugged from myself. I went to sleep inside for a very long time.

Then of course my life went ass over teakettle. Being newly single and untethered was the scariest thing. I was terrified. I was sad. I was a big ol' mess. But it's funny the way things work -- slowly it became bearable, then it became okay, then it became exhilarating because with no one left to focus on but me, I woke up. I am awake.

I am not sharing this so you can pat me on the back or let me know how far I've come or how much I've changed. I'm sharing this for the one woman out there who is stuck dead in the middle of her own shitty situation and is wondering how it gets better. She's wondering why people keep telling her it will be OK when all she sees in a long black tunnel. How on earth does it get better? How?

It gets better because we just change. Whether we resist it, cry about it, write about it, knit through it, drink it down, we still end up changing. And it gets bearable, then okay, then pretty damn good, then one day it's your new normal. People in your life will change with you or begin to fade out of the picture. New people come into your life. You get to know yourself. You will get through it. You will wake up, too. I'm not sure, but I think it's what we're meant to do. I think it may be the whole reason for all of it.

And before long people will be telling you how much you've changed. I hope you laugh about it, enjoy the irony of it, enjoy the feeling of being more your real self than you ever imagined you could be.

Posted by laurie at April 11, 2008 1:13 PM