Archive for October 6th, 2009

Why the Walkabout?

Normally at this time of year, I find myself pining for and planning a trip to the Berkshire Mountains of Western Massachusetts.  I love to go up there in October and do the Zen/birthday/foliage thing.  But this year, I am feeling an overwhelming pull in the opposite direction.  I want to go west, not east; I crave movement, not stationary rest.  I long for the expansiveness of wide open skies, not just the beauty of turning leaves.  I need to go on walkabout, feel breezes blow through my brain, and let open skies rip the lid off my life.  So I am going.  And so I begin this blog, hoping that maybe, somewhere buried in my personal  musings, observations, and ramblings, there may be a kernel of something universal that could possibly offer a modicum of comfort, insight, or at least a sense of  “less-aloneness” to somebody else out there.

Much as I detest the notion of  being a cliché, (and I really, really, really do), I am approaching a certain birthday, which can not help but evoke the hackneyed phrase that is overdue for some sort of replacement.  I am rapidly coming up on my forty-fifth birthday, and I am in distress.  There, I’ve said it.  I am a woman “of a certain age” who is possibly, just possibly, having a mid-life crisis.  Even though no one believes I am 44 (I’m sticking as long as I can), and I don’t feel like I’m in midlife, no matter what my birth certificate says.  Now, seven-plus years ago, my then-husband left our marriage for his non-mid-life crisis.  Of course, he was only 42, and his non-mid-life-crisis turned out to involve a 24-year-old soprano from New Zealand.  But that’s another story.  My point is that it’s never ourselves who are having the <insert new vernacular phrase here>.  We all seem to agree that the phenomenon exists, yet it is never what is happening to us, nor anyone with whom we identify.

Yet I stand by my refusal to accept this label, if only because mine is clearly an existential crisis, and frankly, it’s the same one I’ve been wrestling with for lo these last 25 years.  (At any point during which I was ostensibly not in midlife.)  So I’m not buying the cliché. But maybe I’m quibbling over semantics here.  The short of it is, at the conclusion of my 45th year, I still haven’t a clue what to do with myself regarding how to live a meaningful life day in and day out.  I have been vamping ’til ready since college, somehow always waiting for my life to begin, or for the answers to manifest with each new dawn, geographical move, the next trip, or the new man.  Even though we all know it never works that way.  Instead, I now feel as though I’m looking back at a life littered with false starts, few finishes, and endless soul-searching.  But to my astonishment, I am learning that I am not alone.

My breaking point happened recently, although as is always the case, it was a long time in the making.  The last year or so, I have been doing a little dance with my health, wherein I am fortunate enough not to be seriously ill, but sometimes unwell enough not to be fully functional.  Late this summer, I got sidelined again.  Just as I was ready (I thought) to charge out there and do certain things, I was immobilized and bouncing from doctor to doctor, watching each in turn cock their head and go, “Huh…”  Champing at the bit to get out there and meet my life, I had no choice but to rest, take care of myself, and try to muster patience in the face of few medical answers.  Frustrated, I cancelled a variety of plans, and hoped against hope I would be able to meet the few left on the docket.

Among those plans I managed to keep was a Labor Day weekend visit to a special, longtime friend, who does extraordinary work as an asylum attorney (as in immigration, not insanity).  He has spent nearly 20 years as that mythical creature, a lawyer who never has any money – because he can’t quite bring himself to charge his clients more than they can afford.  And as people who are often literally fighting for their lives, his clients  rarely have much money.  This friend of mine (let’s call him Pedro) has, like many of us (and by us, I mean me), made a hash of some personal relationships; but his ethics, dedication, and purpose have always been pure and clear.  He has always striven in his work to serve the noblest tenets of social justice, and the neediest populations.  He is, singly and at 44, adopting a teenage refugee who has now been abandoned in not one, but two, countries.  So I spent a long weekend with Pedro and his charge recently, during which I offered to help out Pedro in his office.  I ended up doing some research on an asylum case for a young man facing deportation to a politically oppressive regime, where this man had already been incarcerated and tortured. Four hours of internet research was enough to convince me that if this fellow is deported, he will be executed upon return to his homeland.  I learned a lot in those four hours, during which I also overheard glimpses of Pedro – still working diligently on the Saturday of a holiday weekend – meeting with other clients in the next office.

I came away from the experience deeply disturbed.  Because inhabiting Pedro’s life for a few days, and his work for just a few hours, shone a bright light on our juxtaposed lives, and I found the contrast excruciating.  Now, I can say that Pedro is overextended, and always late, and oblivious to certain niceties.  But he is out there, doing not just good, but making a real difference in real lives.  He lives to make our world a better place.  I, on the other hand, am sitting here sucking wind.  Vamping ’til ready, waiting for the real material to start.  Sticking with little once it gets hard, trying to figure out how to do something meaningful with my (by now quite privileged) life. Which, by the bye, is already at least half-over, if you buy the cliché.  And I can’t bear it any longer.  I simply can not keep on waiting, or stalling, or whatever it is that I’ve been doing.

A little bit about me, for the benefit of those who don’t know me:  A former English major, I have been making my living as a technical writer for the last decade or so, and have been a semi-professional classical ensemble singer since childhood.  (That means you have to pay good money to hear me, but I don’t see any dough.)  But typically, the singing always has been the priority, rarely second to my job, and that is where the truest and best of me has usually found expression.  (The notable exception to this was my marriage, during which I did not sing, which tells you pretty much everything you need to know about that.)  So many who know me have, and still do, counter my existential agita with the assertion that my making music is a contribution; that to quote conductor Dale Warland, “when we make music, we leave the day more beautiful than we found it.”

I don’t in principle disagree.  In fact, at the end of last summer, after some traveling and singing overseas, I returned home determined to make some changes in my life:  to try to switch the priorities and go from a semi-professional singer who made her living as a technical writer, to a professional singer who occasionally had to take tech-writing assignments.  Obviously, it wasn’t about the money.  I knew there would be a few very lean transitional years; but I also knew that if I had to stay a corporate slut every day for the rest of my natural life, I would be forced to sail off the nearest bridge.  Thanks to the fortuitous timing of several bittersweet events, I had lately come into some financial security for the first time in my life.  It was time to give this “living a meaningful life” thing a go.

But things have not gone as hoped.  I got a little singing work, but kept encountering different obstacles or “issues” (has anyone noticed how we used to have “problems” but now we have “issues?”).  By the end of a year, hampered by health concerns which seriously put the kibosh on my momentum, I approached this fall looking at an arts scene decimated by the current economy.  I had exactly one gig (unpaid, at that), which would occupy the three weeks immediately after Labor Day.  And as of last Wednesday, my life fell off a cliff.  No plans.  No commitments.  No real goals.  Just a bunch of doctors’ appointments, bills, and paperwork.  Because of all the cuts in the arts, this year I don’t even have the illusion of singing being a worthwhile contribution I am making.

So I am staring down the barrel of my 45th birthday, unmoored by the conventional tethers of spouse, children, and career, and wondering how on earth I am going to step up and doing something worthwhile.  Over the years, I’ve had many ideas of how else to live a meaningful life – heaven knows there is no shortage of causes or need out there.  How very privileged of me to not know which one to grace with my oh-so-valuable presence.  Because slinging stew at the local shelter requires such a specific skill set and commitment.  But I don’t want to be a dabbler or dilettante. Nor do I want to be under-utilized.  I want a way to spend my days that will serve the greater good with the best of me, while neither burning me out nor becoming tedious day after day.  I’ve no wish to first try this, then try that, and seem non-committal in the end, or bail when it gets boring or quotidian.

I have read a number of psycho-spiritual books that teach how this plane of existence is all an illusion, based in ego; how we are all part of  “source” and oneness and bliss.  And I get it, I do.  But it’s a razor’s edge, that understanding.  Because if this existence is illusory, why bother to do anything at all?  It is a razor’s edge, with the abyss of nihilism on the one side, and I’m not yet quite sure what, on the other.  But for the first time in my life, despite feeling deeply distressed, disturbed, brooding, even somewhat depressed, I am not remotely engaged by the nihilism.  (Is that a speck of midlife’s “wisdom” surfacing at long last?)  I don’t know or even give a crap why I’m here, I really don’t.  I just know that after that weekend with Pedro, in the midst of sitting on my ass for weeks waiting to feel “well,” I can no longer tolerate being here and not making a contribution, and I mean a real contribution.  If this is, indeed, the midpoint of my life, I will be god-damned if I don’t do something truly useful with the rest of it.  So mid-life crisis or existential crisis?  I suppose the difference is the breadth of a hair.  And while I realize the answers never lie “out there” somewhere, I do believe that open air, new vistas, and encounters with yet-unmet friends may yield the change in perspective that can help approach a puzzle with new eyes and a refreshed spirit.

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