I’m hunkered down inside. It’s pitch dark out there. I’m cozy as can be.
I can hear the blustering wind, things are flying through the air occasionally hitting the house, and the rain is attacking the roof with steady determination.
My sign hanging next to the front door was banging incessantly against the house and just like in the cabin, I had to go outside and take it down for the duration of the storm.
When I opened the door, I was hit with the smell of sage and the thrill of rain in the desert, and I realized that I’d been clenched up on the couch, unconsciously and viscerally preparing myself for a foot of snow come sunrise.
If I play my cards right, that will never be my reality again.
I spoke with a friend the other day who described me as having lost some of my lightness.
I said I know, I am damaged.
I remember the first time I thought that. It was in the early courting days with TAM, when I realized that I liked him very much.
And instead of doing my usual dive in head first, declare undying love, and neurotically obsess, I freaked out and considered ending things before they really got started.
Instead of pouring my heart out with every sordid detail of my life, exposing every vulnerability, I held back.
I was guarded.
And still am.
Because I know that I can’t handle again what I’ve handled in the past, and I have become disillusioned, wary, and some might say, pessimistic.
I’ve taken off my rose colored glasses and no longer see love as the romantic-happy-ever-after-end-all-and-be-all state of affairs that I used to.
I have moments where I think, “Oh, the honeymoon is going to end any second, things will turn south, and my life will soon be destroyed again.”
My heart has been bruised and battered, my trust betrayed. I have suffered deep trauma. I have lost my lightness, my carefree, optimistic, romantic self.
I have been broken.
And that’s the thing about dating during midlife; chances are, anyone who is single at 50 is probably carrying around some pretty hefty baggage. So two people getting involved may each have fears and defense mechanisms that make intimacy more challenging to create and a whole lot more frightening to maintain.
A lot of damage on this side of the hill.
I don’t know how others do relationships at this point, but I know that for me there has been a lot of push and pull, some panic and anxiety, and a disbelief that I can be loved for who I am even though I know I deserve it.
I’ve spent hours on end waiting for the other shoe to drop.
But instead of having the worst come true, I’m findng that my little heart is reopening.
And that’s what I see is the story of my relationship. It’s what can happen when two people come together after life has beaten them to a pulp. But when two people connect, bringing their combined hurts and triggers and fears, it can be, as I am finding, an incredibly beautiful thing.
Early on, couplings are often about passion and first love, or marriage and children, or a post-divorce freedom-fling. But there is such deep sweetness about a relationship that is all about loving each other for the damage and heartache instead of in spite of it.
I look at this man and understand that he too has gone through his share of brokeness and I all I want to do is love the shit out of him and see his being lighten up. I revel in seeing deep happiness in his eyes. I find so much beauty and joy in accepting him completely.
I look at him and want to love him through his pain. I want to be the person who reminds him of his goodness.
We all need to be reminded of our goodness.
We need to be reminded that imperfection is loveable. I know I need that.
He gives this gift to me.
I am healing because of his love. Healing because I am not the only one who comes to this with flaws that are welcomed. Healing because I am able to love someone else without expecting perfection.
Healing because someone loves me without expecting perfection.
I feel like my heart is a little less guarded. I smile more. I laugh more. I feel less on edge. I feel more joy.
There is sweetness and kindness and gentleness.
My love for this man shares space in my heart with gratitude for this man and this relationship.
I sometimes think “Why did it take so long to find this? Why did I settle for less? Why did I have to fuck up so many times before now?
And I realize that this tenderness comes from having fucked up so many times?
How could I possibly appreciate this for what a gift it is if I didn’t have anything to compare it to?
So in my very rambling way, what I am getting to is this:
Something happened the other day that triggered an eruption of emotion.
It’s totally unnecessary to go into details, they’re not important. What is important is my reaction.
You see, once again I am having to sift through yet another layer of understanding of my past and where it bumps up against my present whether I want it to or not.
And that past bit – I don’t even know how far back it goes, but what I do know is that something happened with my ex husband, when he was only my future husband, that I never quite got over, no matter how hard I tried.
And in trying to figure out why I never got over it I relaized it’s becuase he did something to me that was not okay and trying to forget about it is impossible because it was wrong and it shouldn’t have happened and therein lies the problem, and the reason that I can’t just move on.
To simply put it on the shelf would be to deny my experience, which is what I spent my entire marriage doing.
I pretended that all was good when it clearly wasn’t.
I allowed myself to be convinced that whatever was bothering me was either petty, insignificant, or simply my own fault.
I accepted that problems were about my reactions, not about his actions.
When he crossed lines physically, sexually, and I spoke up, his anger caused me to immediately start backpeddling, to take back my words, to deny my feelings, so that he wouldn’t be upset.
I would end up apologizing and trying to win back his favor after he did things to me that made me feel like shit.
Once, I even used the word “rape” and was punished for weeks until I caved, blamed myself, convinced myself that I had overreacted, apologized, and then, practically begged him to do it again.
To feed his ego? To keep the peace? To avoid punishment?
This one scenario with him has played over and over in my head for years. He would bring it up, “Remember when I…that was so sexy.”
When I still believed in him, I convinced muyself that yes, it was sexy and that yes, I did enjoy it.
Then why has it kept me up at night for all of these years?
Because I didn’t like it, didn’t want it, didn’t give permission, and was told that it was great.
It wasn’t sexy, it was invasive.
And that was the story of my marriage. What he deemed sexy or flirting didn’t ring my bell. When he violated my space, it was because it was his right as my husband and I should have welcomed his advances.
I told him how I liked to be touched (or how I didn’t like to be touched) and if he wanted to do things differently and I complained, I wasn’t accepting his love.
I stuffed my feelings in order to protect his.
How did someone like me, someone who made a living supporting rape victims end up in a marriage where I was being sexually assaulted regularly?
Why has it taken me 25 years to admit to myself that I did not find that incident sexually gratifying – in fact, it was quite the opposite?
Why oh why did I marry the man who stomped all over my boundaries?
And isn’t it amazing that one small thing can trigger such a landslide of heartbreak, grief, and ultimately, healing.
so this evening I was driving home from hours of rearranging my storage unit, and I am exhausted and hungry and really needing to hunker down and work…
I was less than 2 miles from my driveway and I passed a well-used pickup with Arizona plates sitting lopsided in the dirt on the side of my very windy road. Also sitting in the dirt are two middle-aged women.
I think, Arizona plates on an old pickup? They’ve got a long drive home.
Just wanting to make sure they were okay, I pulled over to see if they needed help and yes indeed, they did.
Flat tire. Broken jack.
I retrieved my gear from under Elvis’ seat and handed it over to to Rachel, the younger of the two sisters. Sarah, the elder, was busy limping (recent hip surgery) and dehydrated, neither of which stopped her from bending down and lifting up the truck herself.
It took some finagaling; we had to find a bunch of rocks to stack under the lift. Then we had to dig out a hole around the tire to make room to exchange the good for the bad. Super rocky soil and we dug with our finger nails.
I would like to point out that I have a reputation for having everything a girl might need in my truck. Hammer? Check.
Dog food? Check
Neck brace? Measuring tape? p-cord? corkscrew? dry erase markers? a selection of snacks? more tools? mascara? beach towel?
Yes to all of the above and so much more.
But, since I had just been on the river and then emptied my truck into storage, I had nothing useful, so when I stopped to help these gals, I had no gardening spade, entrenching tool, or work gloves, so we had to dig our rocks with our bare hands, while we lay in the dirt in the hot sun.
They’d been sitting on the side of the road for over an hour hoping for some help. I wanted to offer them some sustenance but the only thing I had available were the melted ghetto ice blocks I made out of old running bottles, and had just removed from my river cooler. I had no other water. None of my usual snack bars or chocolate. I pulled out a towel and some Meyer’s soap to clean up but then saw that the towel was covered in black grease so I was absolutely useless.
We got the tire changed. Gave ourselves a couple of pats on the back. Celebrated the power of three women putting their minds together.
We shook our heads and swore a bit about all of the cars that passed Sarah and Rachel, not stopping to see if they were okay.
I thought about why folks wouldn’t stop to offer aid. Too busy, in a hurry, didn’t notice, afraid of being murdered, can’t be bothered.
I don’t pick up hitchhikers, I avoid situations where I think kidnapping and torture could potentially be the outcome of stopping.
But seriously – two middle aged women, in broad daylight, plunked down in the dirt next to their turquoise dodge dakota, with a broken jack in hand?
Not really threatening.
So why wouldn’t anyone stop?
What happened to neighbors helping neighbors?
Sure, it was a bit of an inconvenience to me. I had to come home and shower the dust off of myself and my dinner was delayed by an hour. But think of their inconvenience.
We laughed. We talked about our kids. We commiserated about shopping in these bizarre times.
I showed them where my house is in case they ever run into trouble in the Canyon again.
Then they headed off to Many Farms and I made the short drive home with a smile on my face having had an unexpected adventure with two lovely ladies and wondering why no one, in over an hour, pulled over to assist these gals.
I want to write about my friend, but am still totally reeling from the news of her passing so that I am not so sure about what to say, except,
I am really really sad.
And totally disbelieving.
How can such a huge presence suddenly vanish?
I went on the river with friends for a few days. Checked out from civilization, we floated in a news-free, politics-free bubble for 4 days. On the way out of the canyon we wondered, Are we at war? Is there still a global pandemic? Has the president been assassinated?
When you go off into the hinterlands and lose connection with all of connectivity, you never know what you might come back to.
Especially in 2020.
But as we drove back across the rez I had a fleeting thought, “Gail.”
And sure enough, she had taken her last breath just a few hours earlier.
There was an email waiting for me. I read it, continued to unpack, make dinner, shower.
Then the phone calls. The circle of friends who love her and therefore love each other; because she only brought the best into her world. Some calls last night, a few this morning.
Each of us shaking our heads in disbelief because how can she be gone. No one’s ever been able to get rid of her – once she loved you she stuck like glue.
I loved this woman. Loved her deeply and dearly.
We used to have long heartfelt discussions about who could go the longest without showering. She said one time when I walked in the door,
“Eight. Eight! Eight squirts of shampoo to get my hair to lather!”
Sometimes when I take my hair out of the elastic that’s been holding it in place for days, my hair spectacularly sticks straight up from my head, held motionless by its own grime.
I then take a photo of it and send it to my friend knowing that whatever she might be doing at the time, she will stop and laugh.
Last night after I cut out the rubber band and my hair didn’t budge I picked up the phone to take a photo and thought,
And the question that I am most often asked – primarily by other women – often single women is,
“Are you going to move in together?”
The question doesn’t really surprise me but the reaction to my “No” response does.
“But you guys are so good together…
Don’t you want to take it to the next step?…
Don’t you want to create a life together?”
And the best: “He doesn’t want to? Is that okay with you?”
Let me address your concerns:
We are so good together because we don’t live together.
The next step, in my experience of cohabitating, would likely be a breakup. So no, I don’t want to take it to the next step.
We are creating a life together. That life doesn’t have to include bickering about how to put the toilet paper on the roll.
But doesn’t he want to? Well, frankly, no. But since when is it entirely up to him? And why would the assumption be that I am dying to live with him and I just wish he’d let me?
Which leads me to three things:
Questioning our society because the consensus seems to be that as a woman, I would naturally want to live with him, not alone. And that if I do live alone, it’s because my man made an executive decision that this lonely heart has to go along with, like it or not.
Questioning my reasoning for not wanting to live with him, or anyone else for that matter. Am I being a puss? Am I avoiding real depth in our relationship? Am I turning into a shrewish crazy cat lady (without the cats) who will spend her final days alone with her weird little dog?
Questioning why so many women (but, certainly not all) that I know feel that a relationship isn’t a success unless it looks more like a traditional marriage?
Here’s what I say to all of that…
I like being alone. It has taken years of struggle, pain, introspection, and “experience” to get to the point of truly relishing my own life, my own space, my independence.
I don’t want to fuck that up.
As it stands, I think this man is perfect. If I started finding his little beard hairs all over my toothbrush, I might not think so highly of him.
I don’t want to fuck that up either.
When we see each other, it’s always a date. We stop everything else and choose to be present with each other. No work, no housekeeping, no wandering into the other room to get some space.
We have sex every time we get together. Not spending every single night together, not scrubbing the toilet free of the other person’s morning eliminations, not staying up late working or watching television, not getting into a rut – not having these issues keeps us from getting into the habit of falling asleep with our backs to each other.
Certainly don’t want to fuck that up.
There are times when I want to skip the shower, let my armpit hairs erupt, eat cereal for dinner, smoke pot and veg, watch Bewitched at midnight, work at 2 am, and snore freely. And I want to do those things completely uninhibited.
I certainly don’t want interference. Or or a witness.
I’m haphazard in my interior design style. He’s tidy. I have plastic beaded curtains while he has original artwork.
We each pay our own rent. We pay our own bills. We clean our own toilets, do our own laundry, buy our own groceries, have our own routines.
We have routines and rituals together, but I have some of my own that I am not willing to give up that wouldn’t be as fulfilling if done in company.
Like painting my nails.
Reading late into the night.
Watching Bridget Jones 223 times.
Eating cookies in bed.
Rearranging the furniture.
Letting Elvis snuggle in my bed first thing in the morning.
And who wants to fight about closet space?
Am I avoiding reality? Avoiding really putting in the work to deepen our relationship? Avoiding conflict (without which there would be no growth)?
Nah. We’ve had plenty of challenges, tests, trials. Real things too – surgery, loss, children, moving, overwhelm. We’ve sailed through those things. We’ve got each other’s backs. We have been forced to communicate about awkward issues. We have been tested.
Sharing an underwear drawer is not the only way to grow.
I have a friend who is beautiful – stunning really – and smart and funny and just lovely. Divorced. Single mom. She wants so badly to have a partner in life. To her, a piece of that partnership is cohabitating.
She wants it so badly that she is willing to over-compromise, to look away from red flags, to try to force compatibility, to have her vision come to fruition.
She’s so amazing that it hurts me to watch.
I am so amazing that it would hurt me to over-compromise.
I might sound like I think that I am right on, that I think my way is the best, or only way.
I might even sound a bit cynical and disillusioned.
I used to listen to middle-aged women talk about independence and think, “She’s just trying to comfort herself in the face of failed reltionships and singlehood.”
Now I understand that it is through failed relationships and hardship and forced independence that many of these women have developed the strength and self-awareness to have reached the conclusion that no, they don’t want to give up that freedom.
I admire these women.
24/7 togetherness does not a successful relationship make.
Just yesterday we were unexpectedly invited to go on a river trip with a couple of TAM’s friends.
The mighty Upper San Juan.
Ho Hum, many a seasoned boater will yawn.
It’s not Cataract or the Lower Dolores or The Grand. There are 3 rapids in 27 miles and at this super low water level, we will be able to run those rapids without even being aware of them.
This stretch of water is not remote; the put-in is an hour of paved road driving from my house. The river corridor parallels the highway. You can check your email from almost every camp along the way.
I don’t do that. Kind of defeats the purpose of “getting away.”
There are no massive cliff walls or dripping springs or wild horses.
And yet, with all of those things not going for the San Juan River, it is the place that tugs at my soul unlike any other.
I haven’t spent a ton of time boating in the last few years – not like I used to, especially when my kids were young. And it’s been years since I’ve floated my home river.
My friends, K, K, Dodo – we ran laps aboard rafts, sometimes one weekend after another. We were on a first name basis with the oxygen sucking woman at the permit office and the sexy, charming river ranger, who was married to a woman who felt the same way as I do about the gift of 500 cfs in the middle of the desert. She wrote about it, sang its praises, put words to the feelings evoked by the quiet meanderings of silt washed down from the red cliff walls. We became friends, bonding over shared emotions stirred by the existence of a teradactyl-like blue heron guiding a boat downstream.
This is the river that raised my children. They joyously ran naked along these beaches with their friends, forming lasting relationships with other feral children and with this river, canyon, landscape.
We’ve camped on the banks of the San Juan more often than any other single place. Boating or car camping, the sand, the cottonwoods, the geese, the ravens, the sound of subaqueous rocks shifting with the current – these are the elements that have given my children and me a sense of place.
The silty water, the shady trees, the quietude, combined with the easy access to a locale just an hour from my house, have given me an escape when the world has been too harsh for me to endure.
My family has built forever-friendships here. My children have hunted for plastic eggs filled with rocks and flowers left by The Spring Bunny in the crevices of limestone in the sinewy Perched Meander. We have hunkered down in our tents for days on end waiting out snow storms playing Mad Libs and drinking Fresca, the river treat of choice.
My friendships – the three most valued of my adult life – were, if not formed, then certainly solidified, on this corridor of water, surrounded by layers of red and ochre and buff. We have shed tears, laughs, and tequila on the shoreline.
After the divorce, I ceremoniously tossed my wedding band into the depths. Perhaps some child will catch a catfish and find treasure in its belly.
In the midst of a nervous breakdown, the only place where I could find solace, the few times I found any peace, was a beach, with a ginourmous cottonwood and a cliff wall loaded with ravens’ nests and bullet holes; a place where my sorrows and instability washed downstream leaving me drained but sane.
This is where I want my ashes to go when I die.
I’m rowing MY boat. The boat that I won in the divorce. I gave up a lot of other things in the process, including the power tools and my marbles, but I was determined to get the raft.
That and my children.
My boat. My river. My place.
Peace. Joy. Contentment
I said to my son, the river guide that has traveled many a liquid mile across the deserts of the Southwest, “It feels like home.”
He said, “That’s such a good way of describing it, Mom. It is home.”
My excitement about returning brings tears to my eyes and warmth to my heart.
The “beauty” of living in a small town is that whoever you are, whatever you present about yourself to the public, someone knows something about you that you might not want the world to think about every time they see you.
The problem with having been one of the town confidantes is that I’ve heard a lot of those secrets about people whom I often see.
And since I know those things, I can’t help but think about them when I run into that person.
And sometimes I wish I didn’t know these things; sometimes these tidbits of knowledge make me think less of that person.
Maybe to the point of not liking them. At all.
Here are a few that I wish I could un-hear:
He’s cute but worst sex EVER.
She had a foursome that included a dog.
He hits her.
She hits him.
He cheated on his wife with her.
She loves anal sex and he has a GIANT…
She is bat. shit. crazy.
They never paid him for work he did on their house and now they’ve ghosted him.
She drowns skunks.
She sends racist cartoons to her friends.
He drinks himself into a stupor every single night.
She slept with a high schooler.
His idea of pillow talk is about how much he misses his ex.
She sends nude photos to the married men in town.
He took nude photos of children.
He shoots mountain lions for sport.
She’s having an affair.
He drunkenly propositioned his best friend’s wife.
She doesn’t wash her hands after using the restroom.