The Corner of Bitter and Sweet

When fall comes early, it throws everything off — or maybe it just highlights things that a person isn’t prepared to face. For those of you not in Seattle, we’ve had the rainiest September on record, a record-breaking soppy month that drove us into our tall boots well before it should have.

Seattleites ticked off at the rain sounds like Alaskans complaining about snow or Kenyans fretting about heat, but like all humans, we want things to play as expected. When it dumps in November, we shrug and bear it because we know that any November that doesn’t suck is a rare gift from the almighty. When it does the same thing in September, we take umbrage.

Likewise, the phrase, You can’t count on summer until July 5th, is a much-hated truism that we begrudgingly accept during those years when we’re still wearing boots after Memorial Day. Fine. Just don’t mess with September.

September contains those last few warm days of the year that always begin as brisk mornings — ideal scarf weather. For a month, we are lured outside by clear blue skies and amber light, called to sit on patios before the restaurants pull in their tables until spring. The catch phrase for September is, Better soak it up now, who knows how long this will last?! Evoked with glee, these words are usually coined by people playing hooky from work, spending long lunches and coffee breaks at cafes rather than desks, or leaving early to meet friends at pubs with roll-up doors for happy hour.

We say these words as if we fear that September will be taken from us, but inside we scoff. After all, it’s September, the best month of the year (unless it’s one of those magical Octobers where September continues on for another 31 days.) This year, we got stiffed.

The line between summer and fall is a tender one not to be taken for granted, like the division between youth and middle age. I’m drawn to fall mostly for the changing leaves and the fashion (pull out the suede boots and sweater coats, baby!), but also for its bittersweet fragility.

With September comes an ill-fated optimism that summer will last; we get that one terrific afternoon where people lay out in parks or drink beer and eat fried clams at the waterfront like it’s early August, yet we know that it’s our final warm day of the year. Afterwards, we embrace mid-50s days as long as we have them, settling for what is beautiful in its own way even if it isn’t full-bloom summer.

This is what mid-life is about. Where six months ago I said that I could see it, today I’m beginning to feel it: the injuries, the shift in my contacts prescription, even my writing. Everything I’m composing right now seeks to make sense of this state, actualizing that neither my body nor my mind are exactly like I’ve known them to be.

Yesterday morning, my first yoga class in six months was about testing the new limits and capabilities of my shoulder, whose impingement has kept me on the bench for months. Upon learning of my injury, Jessica, who teaches Pilates, quipped that shoulder impingement is a common ailment faced by her middle-aged female clients. Who’s middle-aged? I thought, frowning until I realized that I was deepening my creases.

A year ago, if I hadn’t been able to keep up with the class, I would have been frustrated; yesterday, it felt so good to practice, to reach 95%, that I left elated. Who cares if I couldn’t do three-legged dog? My strength has waned, though I’ve kept up as much as I could with physical therapy. Surely, with time I’ll see improvement… unless this is like a sunny moment in fall when we delude ourselves into thinking that a chance of summer remains.

Still, I appreciate coming to my practice without expectation or self-castigation. Looking around the 9 am class, which is mostly filled with practitioners in their 50s and 60s, I understand why they come even if many struggle to touch their toes or curl into backbends. Finding joy in what is accessible and expanding into that is something that takes years to learn, one of the rewards of mid-life.

While it’s easy to embrace certain changes, like resisting the temptation to get upset over little things –who has the energy?– there is a darker side to this. In order to advance, we have to give up what we had, which is to say, release the identity of the young acolytes we once were. That involves letting go of the self-image that we might still be clinging to unwittingly, as much as making room for the budding youngsters in line behind us. A few ladies I know, myself included, struggle with our descendants whose energies manifest as uppity and vaguely threatening in their powerful ignorance.

We’re accustomed to being the barrier-breakers, to receiving affirmation for our brains and spunk; understandably, we don’t want to lose the sense of being prodigies, but that’s not who we are anymore. We don’t need to be who we were to be special. Part of this mid-life shift is about realizing that we have arrived at the base camp we’ve been climbing towards for the past twenty years, even if it looks different than we had imagined, as it often does.

Reaching it means that it’s time to set our eyes further up the mountain, but we’re sometimes loathe to go, especially if we didn’t reach our intended destination. Instead, we try to push the younglings out of the tent and into the cold so that we can stay longer and somehow cure the situation. We find it hard to share the precious warmth and light, even if we ourselves had generous guides along the way who made sure that we, as their apprentices, were able to advance in their footsteps.

As each generation inhabits its own zeitgeist, I strongly believe that there’s a nuance to the mid-life of Gen-X. In a recent article on Salon.com, Sara Scribner addresses the Xer mid-life crisis (it’s good – check it out) including a comment by Neal Pollack who notes that Gen-X wasn’t raised with the illusion of the perfect home but the realization that everything isn’t going to be alright—ever. We X-ers are sad sacks sometimes, perennially searching for happiness and also certain that we’ll never find it. Then we reach mid-life and really come unhinged.

These sentiments hearken back to the tender aura of fall: the sense that, in spite of the sun, dark days inevitably lay ahead. We can divert ourselves with the happy varnish of walks in the fresh air or the aroma of wood fires, but we’re afraid underneath, loathe to admit that winter that will drive us into bleak isolation. How does one cross these portals without collapsing on the other side, or approaching the whole transformation as a fait accompli?

It’s an uncomfortable dynamic that’s worth examining, in my opinion. I just finished writing a fiction piece inspired by this struggle, focusing specifically on female transition into midlife. From the outside, the push/pull between young and old[er] women looks like a battle between sirens and crones, a refusal to relinquish the promise of youth and inhabit the role of wise mentor.

Because women generally refrain from physical confrontation, our warfare plays out through social manipulation and passive-aggressive behavior. My story wipes the slate clean, granting the antagonist all the physical aggressions she might care to exercise — and more. Without spoiling it, I’ll say that things don’t end well for either the diva or her understudy.

Living with these fictional characters, however odious, was a means to explore my own flailing experiences with this transition. Real or fiction, it isn’t pretty, but writing about it gave me a playground to act out feelings that I don’t fully understand yet and certainly haven’t mastered. What I gained was the realization that, at some point, mid-life makes a person choose: will I fight it, embrace it, punish everyone around me or simply give up?

For those who laid shaky groundwork in their youth, 40-something comes as a brutal uppercut that can only yield dramatic changes, for better or worse. (Instead of Corvettes, I predict that the mid-life crisis vehicles of Gen-X will either be Teslas, Vespas or razor scooters.)

There’s much more work to do, for me at least, in considering what this all means, but it’s enough for today. It’s sunny outside, inexplicably reaching toward 70 degrees even after all of this rain. Time to take a walk, shop the market, study Spanish and grab a coffee in one of the Adirondack chairs outside. Somehow, knowing that none of it will last –September, October, youth, mid-life– makes it just a little sweeter.

p.s. Thank you for reading! Launched in March 2010, this is the 250th blog post. Here’s to the next 250…

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