I’ve been thinking a good deal about my life lately. About the ways that my life no longer makes sense. And of course, the ways that it does.
At this time, my assessment is not so much about who I am or what I care about, but rather, about the framework within which I conduct my day to day existence. If I find that my life no longer makes sense, either that framework is off or my view is off, or both.
But how do I know? How do I arrive at answers?
How do I decide on necessary changes?
I realize one could easily say life makes no sense at almost any point during or following a major life change. And I won’t go into the insanity of man-made devastation or natural disasters.
As for the usual suspects, I’m sure you’re as familiar with the standard list as I am. “Stressful” events include relocation, marriage, birth of a child, new job, loss of a spouse, divorce, significant illness or accident, layoff, death of a friend or loved one, and financial loss that requires a radical lifestyle change.
And then there’s empty nest, which so often triggers the end of a marriage as a couple no longer feels compelled to “stay for the children.” Or, one or the other decides it’s time to exit in pursuit of freedom to chase whatever (or whomever) is next.
For those of us who hit empty nest solo (as I did), our cocktail contains a mix of sorrow, disorientation and relief. (Perhaps this is the same for married parents.) My own experience seems to feature the sorrow portion of the program in periodic waves. That fact alone was a surprise to me, or rather, it has been, over these past five years.
For those of us who deal with a barrage or a cluster of expressly unwanted life changes, particularly that continue for an extended period, perhaps we suffer a sort of shell shock. We’re in perpetual survival mode. We’re on high alert too long. As the years pass, we grow smarter, we grow harder, and we grow incredibly tired.
Just Because It’s Recognizable, Doesn’t Mean It’s Good
This morning, I’m thinking about my children, my relationships, my work life, my sense of self… I have not lost the steel and sweetness of my identity; I have not lost the functioning of my compass; I have, I believe, lost my purpose. And in the clarity of my particular circumstances, it occurs to me that my life no longer makes sense.
Among other things, I’m relying on old rules and an old template. They no longer fit. They may be recognizable, but what is recognizable is not necessarily suitable. What is recognizable is not necessarily good. Just because your life is recognizable, that doesn’t mean it’s good.
That doesn’t mean it’s bad either, but if it’s neutral or if it feels detached, or if it just doesn’t feel like it’s you, then what? What if you can’t isolate the elements that no longer make sense and you feel trapped — hands tied, no MacGyver in sight, and without any tools to acquire the awareness necessary to understand? What if you can isolate the elements that no longer make sense, but your hands are still tied? You see no “good” choices?
Do you stand on your head to attempt some other view? Do you bust apart whatever framework you’re living in and worry about the fallout after? Do you stay silent, motionless, cocooned as long as possible… and run out the clock?
Surely, there are more options than these.
Finding Ourselves a New Normal
Have I lost myself?
Am I going through a midlife crisis?
I don’t think so. Assessment is a better word. Taking stock. Anticipating change. Admitting to a need for change.
As I work to restore substance, practical functioning, and value in my world — is that too much to ask? — I realize that the parameters within which I operate no longer make sense. It isn’t that I don’t know what I like (or what is missing), but it’s the fact that I no longer believe that having what I like (or what is missing) is achievable.
What does that mean?
I’m not entirely sure. But this isn’t careless cynicism. I’m inching my way toward insight.
Perhaps this issue involves the question of whether or not to move to a new place. But where? And realistically, what location is sustainable for some semblance of the life I want, or the life I could tolerate, now that it can be — theoretically — my own?
- Where will I be able to make friends? Friends with whom I will have something in common? Friends of my own sex, once so dependable and always, much loved?
- How much credence should I put in the damning demographics for single women over 50? In every part of the US, it’s not a pretty picture.
- Where will I be able to afford to live? Once I thought that could be Paris — a city I know well — in a “small” lifestyle, but with the quality and culture I care about. I no longer think this is an option.
- What about my kids in different parts of the country? Considering moving closer to their locations, what if they don’t suit me? And given how young my boys are, isn’t it likely they will relocate several times? Do I really want to become an Old Lady Rolling Stone?
As I see it, my desired “new normal” is a fiction. At least, a fiction without proper funding. Therein lies a part of the challenge. (Yes, money.) Or, is the challenge my current (defection of) vision?
No Safety Net
As I consider the enormity of starting over — yes, again — I look at the pros and cons. I look at the support systems that I have in place, because the success of starting over is certainly served by support.
My reckoning: I have few support systems in a nation of few support systems, and no viable way to put more in place. At least, no way that I can see, and no way to accomplish it in a useful timeframe.
I wonder if I am among the countless women destined to grow old alone.
Some will call me a defeatist merely by voicing these sentiments. I recognize that these are declarations of how I feel, which surely reflect elements of both fact and fatigue.
It is in this context that I’m trying to identify what makes sense. For example, the way I earn my living is reasonable. I am skilled, I am experienced, my work is portable. But by assuming that this is how I should make my living, an uncertain one at that, am I ignoring options that I’m not considering? Am I making age-based assumptions that are knocking out opportunities for myself? What about the increasing age bias that I’m running into? Or am I simply being realistic about the 50+ job market?
What about the emotional “juice” it takes to restart, restart again, and continue to restart every three months or six months or two years?
Can I really manage to keep this up for another decade, or until I’m dead? Like millions of other Americans over 50, do I have no choice?
Ah, Fearlessness. How About Some Truth in Advertising?
Adventurous. Courageous. Fearless. We all know and use these adjectives. We minimize their subtlety. We cook them into formulaic slogans. We assign them to acquaintances and strangers alike, labels doled out without data or discretion.
It’s easy to be adventurous at 18 or 24. Courage comes more readily in theory than in practice, and let’s remember the distinctions between physical courage, moral courage, emotional courage.
Fearlessness? Really? Do we oversell it? Are we hoisting the “fearlessness will triumph” flag in order to quiet conversation about practicalities, probabilities, problems we don’t care to consider? To shut up those we would rather not listen to? To blame the individual for an attitude issue, rather than share responsibility as a society?
Here I sit, puzzling over the pieces. Admitting to fear. Weighing risks. Knowing there’s no one to catch me if I fall. And understanding that none of this is “personal.” Sadly, I’m in excellent company.
Does this mean that the only thing that makes sense are options involving no risk… or very little? And if so, what are they?
Please Pass the Common Sense
I ask myself if I have lost my adventurous spirit or if I’m just out of practice. I don’t have an answer. I ask myself if I can find courage or if I spent it all when my children were in the picture. I don’t have an answer. Fearlessness? That’s a big, blurry, bully of a word. I feel too small to tackle it.
I tell myself to pick up a damn pencil (again) and make a list of options, and their respective pros and cons.
And I chide myself for what I know to be unhelpful emotionalism as I look at my personal life, which has changed in recent months, and which has drained me more than I could have imagined.
When you’re married or involved in a committed relationship, whatever you do impacts others. Decision-making is not a one-woman enterprise. You become We, Inc., rather than Me, Inc. That fact can be an advantage, providing someone to talk to (at the very least), a buddy system in stormy waters, a reason for soldiering on. It’s also a potential albatross.
When you’re on your own, you can choose for yourself. Trust me, that kind of freedom has its advantages, and you may find yourself lightened as the life that makes sense solo may present a broader set of options. Then again, beyond the mutual built-in cheering section (if you’re fortunate), a couple may have more financial latitude than one does on her own.
A Meaningful Life
To say that our millennial happiness industry gets under my skin is an understatement. I’m a believer in happiness as much as the next guy, but it isn’t something I spend time thinking about. What I do and have spent time considering is what comprises a meaningful life. And a life that is meaningful will make me happy.
As I sit and ponder elements of my routine that are familiar — my cluttered home, my morning writing, my dental cleaning, my weekly trip to Trader Joe’s, my comforting silence — and a certain amount of quiet is truly nourishing for me — I am (momentarily) numb. I am (remarkably) detached. I am (thankfully) analytical. I’m asking myself if I am leading a life that I want, a life that feels meaningful, or merely existing.
And does merely existing make any sense?
My life as a student made sense. My life among women friends in my twenties made sense. My life as a mother made sense. My life in the corporate world made sense. My life as an art reviewer made sense — though too few dollars and cents to continue. Each of those lives is behind me.
Once upon a time, my life in France made sense. For years, my life as an independent marketer made sense. Also for years, my life with a man I loved and his family made sense, though there were issues that made no sense at all, which no doubt is why we are where we are. And I tell myself that’s fine.
But my life, at the moment, makes little sense. Now, that doesn’t mean it’s terrible, but it is disorienting. There is simply too much that I care about that is MIA, and to pretend otherwise is increasingly impossible.
I don’t “belong” to anyone. (Yes, I belong to myself. It isn’t enough.)
I don’t “belong” anywhere. (No, this isn’t new.)
I am not adding value in a world that sorely needs precisely that, and knowing myself to be a person who thrives on giving — giving meaningfully — perhaps I am arriving at the heart of my dilemma.
What else reinforces my awareness of disillusionment and disconnection?
My life in the region where I currently live doesn’t make sense, though it was fine when I was raising children, especially solo. My cozy little home? I love it, but it may also no longer make sense, given the requirements of upkeep.
And then there’s this. Working every gig you get to make ends meet, to raise your kids, to get through the day, counting down the days, wishing the days were different, knowing you have to do right by your kids, loving your kids, falling into bed at night, starting all over at the crack of dawn, counting your blessings, still counting down the days. You may be lucky and stumble into love for awhile, and the echo of family for awhile, and a giving-taking “you” that makes sense for awhile, but that demands so much you’re unable to keep it up. Nor can you make up for living so long in a non-neighborhood and in the absence of community, neither of which makes sense, and neither of which you could have changed when it might have made a difference.
There is no tragedy in any of this, but you recognize seepage of a self you could’ve been. And you mourn.
You look up when the dust settles, albeit briefly, and the community you have (and an excellent one at that) is the online world.
But the online world can’t drive you to the doctor. The online world can’t join you for a brisk walk. The online world can’t meet you for coffee. The online world can’t take your hand when you’re frightened. The online world doesn’t allow you to comfort another individual who needs nothing more than the warmth of a human embrace.
So I come back to square one — my life makes no sense — not the framework, and possibly not the view.
As I search to reconfigure what I have to work with, well aware that I am not alone in this situation, I also know that I am very much alone, practically speaking. That is a factor I am actively working to change. And while I recognize that this process of grappling with an evolving reality is necessary and even good, it’s hard, it’s painful, it’s complex… and the clock is ticking.
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