thebitterbabe

never married, over forty, a little bitter

Category: books

the scorched earth

Mary tried to be fair, but her jealousy was beyond all bounds. Possibly Mrs. Herbert had been shy. Possibly she might be something more than beautiful, rough, rude, brainless, vulgar. This was Mr. Herbert’s serious permanent choice. She had been an amusement, a very small incident. “But I am superior,” she thought.

— F.M. Mayor, The Rector’s Daughter, p. 152

Sometimes the old dog in the corner can still be roused; it will, on occasion, still prick up its ears or wag its tail. This particular old dog will, on occasion, even be roused enough to leave its solitary cushion, if a smart, witty, sensitive, like-minded soul comes around.

This weekend I made a bold move; I reached out to someone I barely know in an attempt to forge a connection with someone I’ve long identified with and admired. I put aside my sense of shame and took a chance, something I do about once a year, when I realize that any semi-satisfying relationship of any duration that I’ve ever had resulted entirely from my efforts. In the midst of my communication, however, I heard from a decades-old friend, someone I normally keep at a bit of a distance due to a long history of empathy fails. Long story short, wires got crossed, paragraphs were sent to the wrong person, and I ended up revealing a lot more to Mr. A (as I’ll call him) than I ever in a million years would have wished to reveal to him or almost anyone else.

Modern communication being what it is, however, I have no certainty that Mr. A received the messages. If he has received them, he has not responded. The power of vulnerability, indeed.

On a bigger level, I don’t know what, if anything, the universe was trying to communicate to me. “Shed old friendships that are standing in the way of more fulfilling ones” or “stick with the ones who actually call, no matter how frustrating and dispiriting they can be.”

In any case, in a week in which there has been a public outpouring of sympathy over a celebrity, I could have used a small show of kindness from Mr. A. On one hand, I could be totally humiliated over this; on the other, Mr. A could find the whole thing funny or touching and reach out. It appears, however, that there will only be silence; perhaps I don’t rate a response.

This old dog, however, with a head so weakly raised, easily returns to slumber in the absence of encouragement. There was nothing to be roused for, after all.

The internet is not much help in moments such as these. At worst, it provides the glib platitudes one encounters enough of IRL; at best, there is a feeling of “me too” solidarity and connection. What is missing is an empathetic ear that can take in all the specifics of the disaster that has happened; even better would be an empathetic ear that has some general familiarity with the players involved. This used to be known, back in the day, as friendship.

In my student period I was acquainted with a group of friends; of this group two were always my favorite. Over the decades, those two have only grown in my estimation, showing kindness, creativity, and wit in our encounters. They have both become writers. There was another member of that group whom I cannot recall saying a single thing of substance, intelligence, or charm, and who was unable to give me the time of day when I first moved to L.A. She moved here with no real career plans and ended up marrying a successful writer and having a brood of kids. It feels like she is living the life I would have liked to have lived. I was reminded of her again in all of this, because she is loosely connected to Mr. A, and were she a nicer person, I could try to glean some insight from her. Were she a nicer person, in fact, perhaps I would not have had to advocate for myself in the first place.

I feel, at this point, that I must just let all the embers die. The embers of unsatisfying friendships from my past as well as the last remaining embers of certain kinds of hopes for my future. That I must sit with the dark void for a spell, here at the bottom of the U-shaped curve of happiness, at age 44.

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limitations

The two friends talked every night. Not for many years had the spare room walls heard such animation. Mary had received many confidences; it was part of her business in life. To impart, to confide herself was an unfamiliar delight.

Dora was very sympathetic within her narrow range. Outside it she was often astray, and did not follow Mary.

–F.M. Mayor, The Rector’s Daughter, p. 87

duty

To sit half an hour by an elderly lady getting deaf, another half an hour by some awkward spectacled girl, such was generally Mary’s fate at the parties of the neighborhood. When it was over she had accomplished a duty; for pleasure she preferred reading under the chestnut tree. To-day the one of all others she most wanted to talk to most wanted to talk to her, and there was no archaeology to spoil her happiness.

–F.M. Mayor, The Rector’s Daughter, p. 82

day jobs

I feel like I’m entering a period of life when childlessness will feel like a blessing:

Thank God the girls are away for another ten days.
In my twenties and thirties I was into expansion.
Nearing fifty, I am now in retreat.
Full of loathing for this mortal coil, I just want to step outside the shell of myself, leave it behind like a wrinkled skin, and drift on, perhaps becoming a point somewhere beyond, hovering in space like an infinitesimal dust mote.

[…]

…now I have lost that dreamlike forty-ish haze I was in during nursing and babyhood and toddlerhood, when the peach fuzz of my daughters’ cheeks made for a heady narcotic, when my heart thrilled at all their colorful pieces of kinder art, when I honestly enjoyed… baking birthday cakes. Almost fifty now, when I squat over to pick up their little socks and snip quesadillas into little bowls and yank fine hair out of their brushes, as I have now for the thousandth time, I feel as if I’m in a dream, but a very bad, very sour-scented dream. I have totally, finally, lost the will to continue this day job of motherhood.

–Sandra Tsing Loh, The Madwoman in the Volvo, p. 177 & 212

conclusions

For the most part, I found Bryan Callan’s interview of Kristin Newman to be sensitive, supportive, and astute (I could only get it to play in iTunes):

http://bryancallen.com/2014/05/19/ep124-kristin-newman/

At about the 19 minute mark, however, his co-host says something to the effect that we all know “the conclusion is a family and kids” and then goes on to say that she can appreciate those things more for having taken a detour. He probably didn’t intend it this way, but again it makes it seem that it’s okay to take a detour, even a lengthy one, as long as one comes back to marriage and kids. But what if one doesn’t?

What if the story has no conclusion?

the squandering

I had a place I could afford to write and live in alone in New York City, and I was squandering my time there. I tried not to think about that, and so I stopped noticing. But the years ticked by, quite linearly I might add, and somehow one day I was twenty-eight, and the next I was thirty-eight. I assumed I’d have that rent-stabilized apartment forever, which at twenty-eight seemed like a great thing for a struggling writer. But at thirty-eight, still lonely and with few details of my life changed, I started to imagine that I’d grow old and die alone in that run-down shoebox, and it scared me.

— Sari Botton, “Real Estate,” Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York, p. 158

When living in Hollywood, I, too, was scared of becoming one of those odd older women still living alone in a small apartment, hanging on to a rent-controlled space. Yet none of my moves seem to help me escape that fate.

Ms. Botton, on the other hand, despite being a self-proclaimed odd bird and die-hard loner, did eventually meet her match, a fellow artist and peer (42 to her 39). They married and shortly thereafter left NYC.

I’m almost at the end of the book and I can’t quite recall if every essay ends with the writer leaving NYC with a partner or spouse and (excepting a few cases that I can recall) one or two children in tow. They still miss the excitement of New York, but it seems to me that those feelings are tangled up with nostalgia for their heady days of youth.

One of the essayists moves away with a spouse and a child she adores in order to live in Europe, where she can afford to stay home and write. And yet, she still rues the fact that she can no longer live in New York. I am inclined to roll my eyes and think “boo hoo, poor you,” but I realize that a lot of people would look at my life– decent job, living on the beach– and feel the same. I do count my blessings.

And yet. There are so few stories out there about women like me, women whose stories don’t get tied up at the end with the nice pink bow of marriage and kids (even if it happens a decade later than the norm), that I feel compelled to convey the reality of it, warts and all.

adding up

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/24/fashion/From-Joan-Didion-to-Andrew-Sullivan-some-writers-leave-behind-letters-when-they-leave-new-york-city.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

For Ms. Didion, in other words, money was simply an excuse. The reality was, in the relatively cheap New York of the 1960s, even a Vogue junior staff member like her — making $70 a week — could secure a centrally located Manhattan apartment with a view of, she thought, the Brooklyn Bridge (“It turned out the bridge was the Triborough,” she dryly amended) and pay for taxis to parties where she might see “new faces.” Sure, the early days were tough — “some weeks I had to charge food at Bloomingdale’s gourmet shop in order to eat,” she wrote. But in general, she could afford to hang around long enough to determine when she had stayed “too long at the Fair.” In sum, she could afford to fall out of love with the city slowly.

Not so for the would-be Didions of today. In their New York, the nice apartments with the bridge views tend to go to the underwriters of bond issues, not to the writers of essays for literary anthologies. The unaffordability of New York on a writer’s budget is a theme running through several contemporary variations on the theme.

I’ve been enjoying the book Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York written about in the article above; in doing so it’s occurred to me again that many of our stresses are caused by the fact that there’s just too damn many of us:

http://www.populationmedia.org/issues/population/

The world’s population is now more than 7 billion and continues to grow by 82 million people per year. During the last half-century, the world’s population more than doubled. Between 1960 and 2010, the world population rose from 3 billion to 6.8 billion. In other words, there has been more growth in population in the last fifty years than the previous 2 million years that humans have existed. Currently the rate of population increase is 1.2% per year, which means the planet’s human population is on a trajectory to double again in 58 years.

Which of course makes the idea of this movie laughable (and I can’t help but think how much better off the planet would be with less baby food jars, diapers, toys, etc.):

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/07/18/lifetime-lottery-infographic_n_5297746.html

The combined stressors of too many people competing for jobs, wealth inequality, and the lengthening lifespan (elderly parents to support, the idea of supporting one’s own self through all the extra decades)… it all adds up. It’s no wonder the number of childless women is increasing.

the reserved

Myself, I am having to adapt to my new environment.

But that politeness is not a temporary shield, not a shell, not a surface: that reserve is bottomless. As a foreigner you will never reach the end of it. I understood the language, but communication was impossible. How could I justify a desire to stand out, to make something of myself in the context of a complicated culture that values fitting in over individualism? How could I even begin to describe this to someone who desperately and rightfully wanted me to follow their clear social cues and talk about the weather? “That’s quite a change,” people would reply, when I said where I was from, and the right response– the only response– was “It is, a bit.”

— Ruth Curry, “Out of Season,” Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York, p. 45

double Ms

Although I don’t have kids, I’m in a care taking profession, and I know I’m going to be tired of it all by my fifties. I’m starting to appreciate the fact that I won’t have that middle M to contend with on top of everything else:

http://www.aplaceformom.com/blog/7-14-14-sandra-tsing-loh-sandwich-generation/

Loh calls these women the triple-Ms: middle-aged mothers in menopause. “You’re losing your nurturing hormones and you don’t feel like taking care of people any more. But you’re at an age when suddenly you’re caregiving.” Loh has two adolescent girls and a 93-year-old dad, and like other triple-Ms, she’s starting to feel like her multitasking is getting out of hand.

Handling my elderly parent might be more than enough. Very interesting quotes here from (childless and single) author Jane Gross’s A Bittersweet Season:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/03/daddy-issues/308890/

In the space of three years … my mother’s ferocious independence gave way to utter reliance on her two adult children. Garden-variety aches and pains became major health problems; halfhearted attention no longer sufficed, and managing her needs from afar became impossible … We were flattened by the enormous demands on our time, energy, and bank accounts; the disruption to our professional and personal lives; the fear that our time in this parallel universe would never end and the guilt for wishing that it would … We knew nothing about Medicaid spend-downs, in-hospital versus out-of-hospital “do not resuscitate” orders, Hoyer lifts, motorized wheelchairs, or assistive devices for people who can neither speak nor type. We knew nothing about “pre-need consultants,” who handle advance payment for the funerals of people who aren’t dead yet, or “feeders,” whose job it is to spoon pureed food into the mouths of men and women who can no longer hold a utensil.

[…]

I know that at the end of my mother’s life I felt isolated in my plight, especially compared to colleagues being feted with showers and welcomed back to work with oohs and aahs at new baby pictures. I was tempted, out of pure small-mindedness, to put on my desk a photo of my mother, slumped in her wheelchair.

muck

There was a fashion just now, Noel complained, of writing and talking about women as if they were some separate, peculiar and rather contemptible species, instead of ordinary human beings, with ordinary human qualities…

“They’re not,” Humphrey put in, with lofty scorn. “They’re impenetrable by ideas. That means they’re animals.”

“We’re all animals, stupid,” Noel crossly returned. “Human animals. It’s people like you, Humphrey, talking that kind of muck, who invent and spread this silly myth about women.”

–Rose Macauley, Crewe Train, p. 211