The Time to Enjoy the Ride is Now

There are some expressions that you never truly understand… Until you do.

It took me until I was 29 years old and a weekend spent at Lundy Canyon during a freakishly cold June to understand what “not a happy camper” meant. Dressed in every article of clothing I had packed, I climbed out of my tent to warm my numbed toes by the fire, putting my feet so close to the flames that I melted the soles of my Ugg boots. The expression that I’d long been acquainted with, and had probably used on occasion, finally made perfect sense. I’d shivered my way through most of the night, barely sleeping, and trying to climb inside my husband’s skin when it dawned on me: I was NOT a happy camper.

Eleven years later, I think I finally understand what it means to be Over the Hill.

For the past three years, I told my husband that for my 40th birthday we were taking a trip to The Grand Canyon. I had never struggled with any birthdays before– I mean, aside from being still slightly intoxicated during college finals the day after I turned 21. Yet something about turning 40 seemed downright ominous. There were all those stories: suddenly requiring readers after a lifetime of 20/20 vision, the way the scale creeps up…and up….and up despite working out harder than ever before, and let’s not forget (I shudder to even say the word) perimenopause.

I suppose I figured that if I had any reservations about turning the big 4-0, standing on the rim of one of the world’s greatest natural wonders, one that was millions of years old, could help put things in perspective.

And if I was wrong, I could always jump in.

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Visiting the canyon was a bucket list item for both my husband and me and it seemed like the perfect way to celebrate a milestone birthday. And it was. We got to take a road trip through the desert with our kids, spend some time hiking and taking in the sights, and catch up with close friends in Vegas on both ends of the trip.

Perhaps turning forty wasn’t a big deal.

That morning, I woke early and snuck out of our hotel room to watch the sun rise over the canyon. There were plenty of other tourists doing the same, but by walking a short way down the rim trail, I was able to find solitude as the sky was painted in breathtaking hues.

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I was officially forty.

That night we were back in Vegas. We met up with our friends at a Mexican restaurant to celebrate when I made the mistake of telling the waiter it was my birthday.

“And it’s a big one.” I joked. “Guess how old I am?”

He didn’t even really pause to think about it. He took one look at me and said, “45.”

That’s right. Cuarenta y cinco.

What. The. Actual. Fuck.

There was an awkward silence that fell on the table as I added more salt to my margarita with my tears.

My husband quickly rationalized how women in Vegas all have “work” done and so many look much younger than they are. When I glared at him, he proceeded to insult the man’s intelligence, which only made me feel slightly better.

From that moment on, I was headed downhill.

Since turning 40, ironically, my hearing and eyesight have both improved.

One morning, I woke and noticed that the bed sheets had left strange marks on my chest. Hours later, the marks remained. If these small creases in my skin weren’t from my linens then…

Oh—Shit.

Suddenly, I recalled all those times as a teenager that I’d slathered up in baby oil and laid in the sun, sucking down Slurpees and chain-smoking Parliament Lights.

I whispered a silent prayer: Dear God, Please bring back the turtle neck this winter. And the mock neck the year after that. And then the cowl neck. There’d be no more décolletage for me.

And that’s when I heard it:

Tick. Tick. Tick.

I assume it’s the sound of the clock counting down what’s left of my life. Everything will gain momentum now as I race towards a finish line I’d prefer not to cross. Within a month of turning 40, my youngest will partake in her graduation to the first grade, my oldest has started saving money for her first car, and I have scheduled my first mammogram. My closest friends ask me how it feels to be 40, which only serves to remind me that they are still 39, and no matter what I do, I can’t seem to shake these five pounds that showed up around my midsection just in time for summer.

Every anti-aging cream, wrinkle reducer, fine-line diminisher, and work-out regimen are appearing on my timeline, and I’m questioning why I didn’t invest in these things sooner…before it was too late.

But truth be told, I know why. It’s because I wasn’t 40 and when you’re still headed uphill it’s a slow climb that feels like you’ll never reach the top.

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The other night, my husband asked, “Do you think you might just be having a hard time with the idea that you’re getting older?”

I hollered at the younger man I married, “Me?! Me?!”

“No. Me too.” (He stopped reacting to my histrionics years ago.) “I’m surprised I don’t wake you up in the middle of the night when I try to straighten my leg and groan.”

Huh. Maybe my hearing is going after all.

But then, I hear it again:

Tick. Tick. Tick.

Still..When you’re headed downhill, there’s really only one thing to do.

It’s time to stop pedaling so hard, let the wind blow through your increasingly gray hair, let go of the handlebars, and learn to enjoy the ride. 

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#MeToo

It wasn’t rape. There was no penetration. I was not beaten, nor was I abused. I wasn’t a young girl. I hadn’t been drinking. There were no drugs involved. I didn’t wake up the next morning questioning my memory of the events that had transpired.

Every year in June, I remember. Every time I see that tailored dress from Banana Republic in my closet, I am reminded. The truth is, I won’t ever forget.

As a high school teacher, the two events I like to chaperone are prom and graduation. Both rites of passage, at prom I get to relive my own high school memories as girls kick off their high heels as soon as possible and boys offer their dates their tuxedo jackets to keep warm. Graduation is the culmination of all the work we do; it is the ultimate goal for both students and teachers.

Several years ago, I volunteered to work graduation; I haven’t done it again since.

I wasn’t thrilled to learn that I had been assigned to supervise the boys’ waiting area. Separated by gender, there are two rooms where students leave their personal belongings and put on their caps and gowns. They act as holding cells until the students are told to line up. The energy is high. You can smell it in the air. I would have preferred to be with the girls, holding mirrors for them while they reapplied make-up and fixed their hair. Instead, I was caged up with the boys, counting down the minutes.

When the time had come, this mass of young men assembled in the hall and waited for the doors to open to begin the procession towards the stage. The girls, positioned down another hall, would enter through separate doors. In alternate colors, they’d meet as they walked in. Purple, White, Purple, White, Purple, White.

It was in this hall, packed with eighteen-year-olds on one of the most significant days of their lives, that I experienced my Me Too. As I made my way through the crowd of bodies, a hand grabbed my right butt cheek and squeezed, hard. Then it released its grip.

It shook me. I stopped and turned towards a sea of purple robes. Panicked, I quickly exited the hall.

There was no way of knowing who had done it, but I still felt the imprint of that hand on my bottom. Finding a friend, I told her what had happened, but I was embarrassed and ashamed.

What if it had been one of my former students? The thought deposited my stomach in my throat. Yet I was aware of the statistics: most sexual assaults are performed by someone the victim knows.

I am a professional. I was professionally dressed. I was a couple of decades older than these boys. And yet, I was stripped of all of that by one faceless grope in a crowd. I felt dumb, and young, and vulnerable. I felt disrespected as a person, as a woman, and as a teacher.

Part of me wanted to get far, far away from what happened, but a part of me wished I could go back, grab that wrist, yank that pervert from the crowd, see his face, identify him, drag him to administration, demand that he not be allowed to walk the stage, pull his parents from the audience, make him explain to them why he was not able to get his diploma that day, press charges even.

That was what I fantasized because that would have given me back my power. But like all the comebacks I’ve never spoken, I didn’t react quickly enough.

I was powerless: a common denominator of Me Too.

I imagined this being some kind of testosterone-induced dare. How many other students were in on it? I envisioned the same boys next year as college freshmen, gang raping a sorority girl. I thought about how I’d never once walked a campus at night without practically running, holding my keys like a weapon.

As co-workers met after the ceremony at a local bar, I told a male colleague what had occurred. “I heard,” he said. “A bunch of kids were talking about it, but when I approached them, they all clammed up.”

My integrity was stolen and they were bragging about it? But I wondered, why hadn’t he done more? Why hadn’t he rounded them all up, made them confess? In my mind, I told myself that it was because no one thought it was a big deal. So a kid grabbed your ass. So what?

Someone suggested I take it as a compliment. Degraded, I left and went home.  

When my husband asked how graduation went, I told him what happened. His first response was a chuckle of sorts. With tears welling I looked at him, and for the first time, I saw him as one of them. How could you laugh? I was sexually violated. He quickly apologized and admitted that he had the wrong reaction; he wasn’t sure how to react. Of course he was upset by this. Of course he was angry. I believed him if only because I couldn’t fathom the ramifications if I chose not to.

This past Sunday, when I started seeing the posts on Twitter and Facebook of friends and family members who were writing Me Too, that memory surfaced. It’s always there, but I hold it down until something triggers it to rear its head, take another gasp of air, and sink back to where it continues to dwell.

 “And the sooty details of the scene rose, thrusting themselves between the world and me…”            

                                                                                              –Richard Wright

Earlier that same weekend, my book club met. We were discussing Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Four white women, we quickly turned from discussing race to discussing gender. Often our book talks veer off-topic, but we hadn’t been sidetracked. This was how we could relate. We are not black, and we are not black men, but as women, we all knew fear, and much of what Coates writes about is fear.

In Between the World and Me, Coates is speaking directly to his teenage son. He tells him, “You have seen so much more of all that is lost when they destroy your body.”

When they destroy your body…

That when, I read, as inevitable. It is bound to happen. When you are born black, they will destroy your body. Coates was speaking to his son with the knowledge that one day, he too, would be destroyed. Perhaps that is why this line made it hard for me to breathe.

As I look at my beautiful daughters, I know in my heart that a day will come when they each will face a Me Too. I can hope it won’t happen, but I know the statistics: because they are female, because they are girls, because they will grow to become women, it probably will.

Soon, I will need to have a very real, very painful conversation with each of them about the risks they take just by existing in this world.

In the meantime, I pray: Let them not be raped. Let there be no penetration. Let them not be beaten. Let them not be abused…

I may not have posted it on my Facebook feed. I may not have Tweeted it to the world. I couldn’t bring myself to like anyone’s status, nor can I share anyone’s story but my own though I have been witness and confidant to many more. But for each post I saw, I thought, Not you too.

I went to sleep that night and with great sadness, those words replayed in my head: Me Too. Me Too. Me Too.

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STOP SEXUAL ASSAULT

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The Universe is Speaking

I am 39 and The Universe is speaking to me. Or maybe, I am 39 and I have finally started to listen. Either way, there are signs all around me as of late; I am paying attention to them and they are leading me places I otherwise may not have travelled.

At 39, I have found my authenticity. I make time for myself in ways I never would before. I am learning to say no to others and learning to say yes to me.

Last winter I took a class in meditation simply because I wanted to. The email that informed me of the course came from the city’s recreation department, but The Universe hit send. Establishing a meditation practice has not been easy, but it’s been beyond valuable. Summer mornings, I roll out an old yoga mat and sit on my deck; I close my eyes, pop in my earbuds, and listen to guided meditations that remind me to breathe. I tell my children not to disturb me unless the house is on fire and for the most part, they don’t. I hear the chirping of birds in my back yard as I inhale and exhale to the voice of someone I’ll likely never meet.

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The more I meditate, the less I want to drink, and the less I drink, the healthier I feel. I can tolerate more and am better equipped at dealing with stress, which ironically is why I drank in the first place. I stopped coming home at the end of a long work day and pouring a glass of wine; I poured, instead, a cup of tea. For this unexpected gift, I have The Universe to thank.

When a friend of mine spoke of her newfound love for reflexology, I thought, I’d like to try that, so I did. Though the reflexologist kept telling me how healthy I was, I learned that it wasn’t reflexology that I needed–I needed to hear other things she had to say. The Universe had sent me there to receive those messages.

We talked about homeopathy and our casual banter led to her mentioning Arnica, a remedy used for healing. For my father, being scheduled for double knee replacements only a few weeks later, this message from The Universe was perfectly timed. I immediately bought and shipped him the small blue vial along with the instructions for him to begin taking it three days prior to his procedure. In the coming weeks, I felt more at ease about his going under the knife knowing that The Universe was looking out for him in ways I personally could not.

The reflexologist and I also spoke about our love of TedTalks. One of her favorites was by Brené Brown. Currently, she was reading one of her books on vulnerability but she mentioned another called The Gifts of Imperfection which sounded vaguely familiar.

It wasn’t until a few days later when I was searching for something that I pulled out that very book from my nightstand. A gift from my friend who, much like my mom, sends me links to articles and buys me books that she thinks I will benefit from; it had sat within arm’s reach of my bed untouched for several years. I blew off the dust and began reading. The Universe had spoken. (My friend would probably have you note that she had also spoken about three years prior, but I wasn’t listening then…nor was she “The Universe.”)

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It was within the pages of this book that I learned about shame. At 39, I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t fully understand what shame was or how it operated. Oh I struggled with guilt, but shame was not something I would have admitted to. I was prone to claiming no shame to my game…but there was, and now that The Universe pointed it out to me, it was abundant.

When I finished the book, I checked out Brené Brown on Ted where she said that, “for women, shame is do it all, do it perfectly, and never let them see you sweat.”

For so many years I have been a self-proclaimed perfectionist, but do I really want to be the woman who runs the vacuum before the babysitter arrives? Those gourmet sandwiches that I packed for the beach were delicious, but each time my friend suggested we menu plan for an outing, I felt my anxiety rise. All I needed was a PB&J and a juicy plum from the cooler but there was this pressure I felt to say yes, to do more, to be better.

Brown says, “Shame for women is this web of unobtainable, conflicting, competing expectations about who we are supposed to be. And it’s a straight-jacket.”

When I became a mother, my instinct was to put the needs of my children before my own, but I clearly forgot I had needs altogether. As women, we nurture and we please to the extent of our own detriment.

In a Dear Sugar podcast, The Power of No, the Sugars suggest only saying yes to those things that feel good, that light a spark within you. People shouldn’t feel shame or apologize for having their own needs. Later, when they interview Oprah Winfrey, she shares her own journey with learning to say no.

“I used to be spread so thin, there was no room in my life for me. There was No Room in My Life for Me.”

As a wife and a mother and a teacher, I felt like Oprah. It has only been in the past few years that I have started to make time for me—time at the gym, time to write, or simply extra time by allowing myself to serve chicken nuggets for dinner. Thanks to The Universe, I’m making room with shameless abandon because I want to raise children without shame and guilt, and I cannot do so without first modeling what that looks like.

I’m still practicing the art of no. As it turns out, the easiest person to deny is yourself. Yet as I learned with meditation, there are twenty-four hours in each day; you are worth ten-minutes.

In the preface of her book, Brené Brown writes, “People may call what happens in midlife ‘a crisis,’ but it’s not. It’s an unraveling… a time when you are challenged by the universe to let go of who you think you are supposed to be and to embrace who you are.” While I cringe to think that I have hit the mid-point of my life, I am certainly unraveling. After being wound tight for so very long, there is freedom in that.

She then adds, “The universe is not short on wake-up calls. We’re just quick to hit the snooze button.”

I am 39 and The Universe is speaking to me. It hasn’t suggested I grow out my hair or buy a Harley, yet the other day, after I told my friend about my upcoming Reiki appointment, she jokingly questioned: Who are you? Rhetorical or not, I responded: This. This is who I am. And I felt confident in that answer in ways I never had before.

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