never married, over forty, a little bitter

Month: December, 2013

the sum total

But I would look elsewhere, away from how we might want to define ourselves in opposition to Amy and more in terms of how we’re all like her. We are all the sum totals of our failures, the times that our hearts broke or our lives crumbled or our worlds fell apart. We look at other people with envy and bitterness. We want what we don’t have and when we get it, we want something else. We’re often not very nice to the people who most count on us to be so, and we sometimes don’t understand just how much we hurt those around us. Just like people scatter from Amy, there are those who simply don’t want to be around us, who run when they see us coming. What Enlightened got right, particularly in its second season, when it was the best show on TV, was that the act of simply being alive, of sitting in your home or standing on a street corner or driving through the night, can hurt so much. Every second is another opportunity to feel alone or useless or washed up. Every day is a new chance to wash up on the island of your own lost opportunities.


Hmmm… I will have to get to this one soon, as Henry James, Emily Dickinson, and Edie Sedgwick have all been mentioned in this blog:

How much of Nora’s fantasy is true — and to what degree the Shahids must share blame where it is false — is at the core of Messud’s novel. Though she invokes Ellison, the writer Messud brings to mind is Henry James — with his involuted prose, often unreliable narrators and focus on the disconnect between American innocence and European experience.

It becomes increasingly clear that we can’t always rely on Nora’s view of events. Even as she pointedly tells us that she is the woman upstairs, rather than the mad woman in the attic, her art commemorates suicidal figures such as Alice Neel, Edie Sedgwick and Virginia Woolf. Nora herself suffers a breakdown of sorts in the aptly named Galerie Werther.

But like Emily Dickinson — the predecessor that Nora’s art most fully honors — Nora’s heightened state lets her see things others miss: how postmodernism reduces meaning to pastiche and art to easily consumed images; how women continually “glimpse freedom too late, at too high a price”; and, in an exquisitely rendered nod to that most Jamesian of themes, how she has failed to fully live because she has been overly afraid of dying.


I have a friend here who, in my late thirties, encouraged me to break up with a guy because she felt he wasn’t the best fit for me personality-wise. She said I still had plenty of time to find the right guy, get married, and have kids.

I agreed with her about the personality mismatch but disagreed about the latter. When I broke up with the guy, I realized I was most likely saying goodbye to having a family.

This same friend thinks I should hold out for a “dream job,” even though she has never managed to find such a thing for herself.

I have a lot of issues with The Secret and the idea that we can manifest our every desire. It’s not that I totally disagree with the premise– I do think that getting in touch with our dreams is a worthy pursuit and one that gives us focus– but that I think it is an incomplete idea. The thing is, we can get in touch with our dreams, but those dreams will eventually collide with reality.

My mom is a big fan of those “house hunter” shows on HGTV, so occasionally I catch one with her. The person looking for a house narrows his or her search by formulating an ideal vision, but then he or she inevitably meets up with the reality: the house that is the right size but doesn’t have a pool, the house that has a pool but is too small, the house that fits both criteria but needs too much work. Eventually the house hunter weighs the pros and cons of each and goes with the best fit out of what is available.

I think that is a good metaphor for life and that the job I am in the process of accepting is the right house for me.


About six weeks into my tenure here my mind was alerted to two potential trouble spots: the roommate situation and the job situation.

In regard to the employment search, early on I was rejected from a couple of positions in my former organization, and a visit to a placement agency yielded a discouraging response. My friends told me I was being paranoid, and my roommate advised me to just (shut up) and take a low-level, low-paying job that was open at another agency (I pulled out of that one and was later told by numerous people in the know that I made the right decision).

My mother flew immediately into panic mode, but although I felt in my bones that things did not look good, I also thought it would be ridiculous not to press on looking for a bit longer while pursuing the other goals I had in mind when I moved here.

Within those first six weeks, I also developed niggling doubts about the roommate, doubts that were confirmed in the end.

During that time, while I was signing up for classes and moving ahead on my other projects, I expressed my doubts and fears to a friend about the job search and my roommate’s behavior, and she shut me down with a lecture about how I “was never happy.” It felt terrible to be shut down that way, especially as I was right in both cases. We haven’t spoken since.

I thought about sending that friend a holiday card but decided against it. I spent a couple of years feeling disappointed in the friendship yet hanging on, remembering the times it had been a satisfying one. In the end, she doubted me and left me to my own devices during a time I sorely needed a sounding board. She didn’t believe in my intuition, and now I can’t see the point.


We’re the quiet woman at the end of the third-floor hallway, whose trash is always tidy, who smiles brightly in the stairwell with a cheerful greeting, and who, from behind closed doors, never makes a sound. In our lives of quiet desperation, the woman upstairs is who we are, with or without a goddamn tabby or pesky lolloping Labrador, and not a soul registers that we are furious. We’re completely invisible. I thought it wasn’t true, or not true of me, but I’ve learned I am no different at all. P. 6


The Woman Upstairs is a curious and compelling book—a contemporary Jean Brodie on steroids. Nora’s passion and onslaught of emotions for these people will strike some as peculiar or frightening. It feels as if nothing good can come of it but where will the fabric tear and who will cross the line? What makes a life fulfilling, and if what you think is not real, what do you do with what is left? Messud brings these questions to the forefront with her intense prose simultaneously creating sympathy for Nora in her loneliness but unease at the need that suffuses her every thought. With a surgeon’s precision she lifts the top of the collective cranium of an entire subset of women who, in having been given so much, feel left with so little. The Woman Upstairs is fiction that will resonate. There is what, to many, will be an unseemly rage but out of it comes an empowering sense of triumph.

after thoughts

It’s been easy enough to find people here to go to a movie with, or play tennis with, or catch a show with. When it has come to real needs, however, I’ve found little in the way of substantive assistance. Needs such as:

I need help moving.
I need help finding a job.
I need to vent feelings of confusion, sadness, and anger.

I’m very happy with this upcoming job opportunity but now suffering some of the emotional fall-out– stress, anger over things not working out here, sadness. Last week I invited two of my more empathetic (and older) friends to lunch, telling them only that it looked like I’d be moving again for a job and I wanted to see them and to try out this restaurant before I left town.

We got to lunch today and they spent much of the first hour discussing their recent vacations with their kids. My brain is overwhelmed with thorny logistical issues at the moment, but I put those aside and tried to listen with interest. Eventually one of them said, “So what date are you leaving?” I answered with a short description of my new job, a brief bit on recent positions I had lost out on here that factored into my decision to leave, and some of the logistical challenges I was facing as far as a moving date. I immediately felt that I was saying too much and needed to keep it short and sweet– that there was little interest or comfort with real expressions of sadness or frustration. The man expressed again that he felt I hadn’t given it enough of a shot here (he got his job through a tight connection); the woman simply said it sounded like I made the right decision. End of discussion.

Turns out childlessness is not the only taboo subject in town.

ranty women

“How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know.” Those are the opening lines of Claire Messud’s new novel, The Woman Upstairs. The novel is about a single woman, Nora, who hasn’t fulfilled her dreams of being an artist and having children. Nora’s plight is complicated when she befriends a woman who has done both.

The book explores deeper themes about what it means to sacrifice everything for one’s art and the inner life of a person whose dreams have been thwarted in relation to external realities. Part of that inner life, says Messud, is anger and she has long been interested in how anger manifests itself in the form of a rant.

“As a reader since very early I have found myself drawn to rants,” she tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross. “I was in my senior year of high school when I read Notes From Underground by Dostoyevksy and it was an exhilarating discovery. I hadn’t known up until that moment that fiction could be like that. Fiction could say these things, could be unseemly, could be unsettling and distressing in that particular way, that immediate and urgent way. And in the many years since I have read and loved a number of ranting narrators, and it struck me eventually that they were all men and that I didn’t know of a book in which a woman expressed her anger and I thought perhaps I should write one.”

the wilderness

I’ve written this before, but the forties must be the loneliest time of life to be single and childless.

Hints of this future state begin appearing in one’s thirties, as friends pair off and procreate; that’s a common point for baby panic to set in.

But I am here to say that the forties are when one can feel truly on one’s own. This move has hammered that home to me. My friends here have children or partners (or both), and they are all working, so I talk to and/or see them once every few weeks. I’m sure they could help out in small ways, but overall, I’m on my own.

Ditto with my friends in L.A.; even the ones who are childless and single are scattered too far and wide to easily assist.

The thing I miss most, outside of actual physical assistance, is having someone I can vent to about the stress I am under trying to pull off this move and get started on the job in one month’s time. It’s brought me to my knees again, and having an ear would certainly help.


Or perhaps the book is more nuanced than I suspect:

Nora Eldridge, a US primary school teacher, is single and 37 when her story begins and has also grasped that 37 is an age of reckoning: ‘The time at which you have to acknowledge that your life has a horizon… that you will never be president, or a millionaire, and if you’re a childless woman, you will quite possibly remain that way.’

Eldridge has other cultural touchstones: an artist in her spare time, she is making a miniature version of Emily Dickinson’s bedroom, while she is also possessed by the Chekhov short story The Black Monk. Her name, too, is a clear reference to Nora from Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, while the novel’s title, The Woman Upstairs, could be read as a riff on the Victorian cultural obsession with the mad woman in the attic.

In other words, Messud has written a novel not just about a single childless woman in her late thirties, but how women who live alone, or who are trapped by their domestic lives, have been represented – and thus further trapped – throughout history. Nora, bright, educated, and stingingly self aware, is alert to this too.

bunny boilers

A book entitled The Woman Upstairs was on a bunch of year end “best of” lists. I haven’t read the book myself, but the plot synopsis makes me uneasy, and this essay confirms my suspicions:

Like, I think, a lot of women readers, I have lately been discomfited by Nora Eldridge, the protagonist of Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs. Nora is pushing 40, single, and childless. She has several close friends, throws fun birthday parties, and makes “serious” art in her spare bedroom. She is also a devoted caretaker of her elderly relatives, and quite good, even excellent, at her elementary school teaching job. Nevertheless, Nora’s placid life is disturbed, from the inside out, when she becomes obsessed with the Shahid family, an artistic, intellectual couple and their precocious young son, who is in Nora’s third-grade class. The Shahids represent for Nora all she has missed out on: marriage, motherhood, and a career in the arts. She stews in a jealous rage toward these people, even as she attempts to attach herself to them; to vicariously experience a life so much richer and more satisfying, the book tells us, than her own.

What’s so bad about Nora? It’s not, as some reviewers have implied, that she is unlikeable in a way female characters ought not to be. The problem is that Nora is a stereotype. Messud has written her as a minimally-updated (Nora has a job, after all, and a sex life) version of a nineteenth century Old Maid: a caricature made nearly revolting by her alone-ness; a sort of leech on the breast of (re)productive womanhood.


Irrational, unpredictable — even obsessed and crazy, under a surface of stable independence. That is Messud’s vision of the single, childless woman. It made me sad and scared and angry. Sad for Nora. Scared to ever become like her. And angry on behalf of all the single women leading impressive and rewarding lives, who have to confront these stereotypes day in and day out, and who might expect something richer, and more unexpected, from one of our leading novelists.