Wake Up, Sister. It's Your Turn
"There is a fallow time for the spirit when the soil is barren because of sheer exhaustion."
Recognize That You Are Lost
A full life requires cultivation. The minute we take our hands off the plow, fail to reseed, forget to fertilize, we've lost our crop. And yet most women I know have, in the service of some greater good, let their very lives wilt on the vine.
Having been taught the fine art of accommodation, most of us have developed a knack for selfless behavior. We've dulled our personal lives while propping up everyone else's, and we're no longer able even to imagine having any sort of adventure, romance, meaning, or purpose for ourselves. In short, we've gotten way off track and taken the wrong road to self-satisfaction, foolishly thinking that, after all of the doing, giving, trying, and overworking, someone will offer us a reward. But Prince Charming was a bad joke, and all the fairy godmothers are dead. Instead of happy ever after, most of us end up with the ache
. We wake up each day with an inner gnawing, a hunger for more, a craving for an overhaul, but we are too listless, tired, or depressed to do anything about it. We have spent the greater part of our lives pouring ourselves out like pitchers. No wonder we feel so empty. But we lack the necessary energy, a helpful roadmap, and any type of guidance and support. Well, it's time to change all of that.
The first step is to recognize that you are lost. In Ingmar Bergman's film Face to Face
, Jenny, an accomplished yet empty woman, says: "We [women] act the part. We learn the lines. We know what people want us to say. In the end, it's not even deliberate, because we are so very conscientious about our behavior." It may seem almost impossible to get back behind the habit of performance to that raw-material person we once were. But it's not.
I was a suburban mother of two sons, a supportive wife to a busy man, a devoted daughter and daughter-in-law to four aging parents, and a reliable nurturer to multiple members of our extended family and friends. Chained to my agenda and telephone, I prided myself on being a multi-tasking wonder, fixing, along the way, my share of scraped knees, hurt feelings, and even some of my friends' failing marriages. Just call on me and I would happily run the school bazaar, handle the pledge drive for church, slice the oranges and pour the Gatorade for soccer and basketball games, all the while writing features for a local newspaper in order to earn some petty cash for extras. My calendar was so full that I took to taping extra paper onto the margins.
I would jump out of bed in the morning, throw on some clothes, make breakfast, pack the lunches, wave goodbye to everyone, clean up the kitchen, go for my walk, run errands, tackle my work assignments, return to the kitchen to prepare dinner and then do another round of cleanup, kiss everyone good night, and finally fall back into bed. For the most part, I performed so well that no one else even bothered to pitch in. If people did, I usually pushed their help away, confident that I had everything under control.
I was frenzied, but I felt important and full of my accomplishments. After all, didn't I produce the most beautiful dinner parties, holidays, and special family events? I was helping others, and both their progress and their smiles seemed like reward enough for me. My self-worth came from being the resident caretaker. It was as if I had been bred for the role.
In hindsight, I see that the training began back in puberty, when my body took on a life of its own. Once the hormones began to pop, the next forty years mapped themselves out for me. I was no stronger than my urge to mate, procreate, caretake--swept along all the way by the rush of giddy excitement, desire, and role-playing.
But eventually there was a downside to being this invisible sustainer, a hovering sense that I wasn't really as fulfilled as I thought. A pang of doubt would often sneak up on me unawares, when, for instance, my mother would help me serve dinner and repeat her age-old mantra: "Mothers always eat the chicken wings." It was a joke that went back to the Depression era, when a clever housewife was able to feed a family of six on one tiny roasted chicken. Yet, every time I heard my mother talk about taking the least desirable part of the bird, I felt sorry for her. After all, weren't mothers important? Didn't they need nutrition just as much as anyone else?
The doubting thoughts and questions became more frequent when our sons went to college. Blank spaces began to appear on the calendar, and I suddenly had too much time to spare. What should I do now? Distressingly, I hadn't the faintest idea. Enthralled with nurturing others, I had all but forgotten that I, too, had needs, desires, and goals. So I huddled with my girlfriends as we sipped too much wine and complained about our plight. We were all waking up to the stark reality that none of us had bothered to invest in our individual futures. What's more, my friend Cheryl concluded, "You don't get a gold watch for menopause!"
Searching for ways to assuage our ache, we began renting films about women at the crossroads, just to see how each protagonist found her way out of the quagmire. Ellen Burstyn ran away in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore
, as did Shirley Valentine in the movie of the same name. Jill Clayburgh escaped into a series of affairs in An Unmarried Woman
, and poor Gena Rowlands simply went crazy in A Woman Under the Influence
None of these stories really offered us a strong solution, so we each went our separate ways. Virginia applied to law school; Adelia got her real-estate license; Judy, a recent widow, took a lover, and together they started traveling the world; Helen "came out"; Julie embraced the joys of grandmothering; and Cheryl ran off to her favorite island in Maine with her husband. I applauded my friends' actions, but their particular choices seemed to me to be more about finding something to do or a new relationship that would serve to distract them from their ache. I was craving something else; I just couldn't seem to put my finger on it.
I suppose I was hoping for a sign or event--some kind of ritual to occur that would free me up for a new course and identity. There were rituals to be sure: my sons graduated from college and moved into their own homes; one got married; another engaged; my father died; my husband turned fifty. But all of these transitions revolved around others. Although I was intimately involved in and changed by these events, none of them put the focus on me. Once again I was producing special-occasion moments and then feeling let down after the intensity of the event dissolved.
Then, one Christmas, during a visit to the married children, I truly began to understand that I had to stop looking for help from others; any change in my life was mine to initiate. From the moment Robin and I arrived, I felt very much out of place. The children had a clear vision for the holiday, and though they had included touches from both of their families, most of the plans were unfamiliar to me. What was worse, all of my offers to help seemed to fall on deaf ears. I repeated to myself that children have to reject us in order to get on with their lives. But I wasn't prepared to handle the power shift, or my brand-new role as bit player. So I took to retreating to the bedroom to hide my awkwardness. I had learned long ago that the Chinese character for "conflict" is two women under the same roof, and regardless of my own discomfort, I was determined to have none of that.
If truth be told, I wanted my old role back. I wanted to continue to design and control the traditions--to make my grandmother's coffee cake, open our stockings, and then have brunch before presents, complete with eggs Benedict. But I had realized long ago that staying in the "I want" place was ego-driven--I want to still be important to my sons, I want holidays to be my way, I want traditions to stay as I have always dictated them. I needed to let go of my wants and start concentrating on "I am" in order to find a new life and the bliss I sought. It was time to take charge of becoming a new me, and the first step was to admit that I was lost.
Soon after Christmas, something strange happened that forced me to listen to my invitation further. I developed a sensation in my throat that gradually made it almost impossible to swallow. Esophageal cancer, I thought, or, at the very least, a bad case of acid reflux! I raced off to my internist in a panic. After several tests, she concluded that the presenting symptoms amounted to nothing. Rather than a prescription, she handed me a book she had just read, You Can Heal Your Life
, by Louise Hay. In this little book, Hay explains how negative emotions and high anxiety frequently produce pain--the body's way of telling us to change our patterns and live differently. In my case, I had to admit that I simply couldn't swallow the way I was living anymore. So, despite my fears, the lonely work of finding a new self commenced.
The psychiatrist I had started seeing applauded my realizations. "Good for you for wanting to be your own heroine," she said. "It's difficult, isolating work. You've got to break with the patterns of your past--not an easily achievable endeavor for a compassionate woman such as yourself, but well worth the effort." Although she continued to raise my consciousness, she didn't tell me how to break from these stultifying patterns, how to appease my inner gnawing, or how to become my own heroine. I remained puzzled, at a loss as to how to proceed, and I continued to struggle with feelings of apathy, tedium, and stagnation.
A Leap of Faith
That's when fate intervened. My husband announced that he had found an exciting new job in a neighboring state and that we would be moving in two months. We
, I found myself thinking--what gives with the assumed we
? As I listened in disbelief, I found myself countering with a plan of my own--I would view his opportunity as a chance to do something for myself and take a short refuge in our Cape Cod cottage. The words were out of my mouth before they were formed, and I shocked us both. Previously after being loose-tongued, I would backslide and apologize for my desires and opinions. This time I didn't. Instinct told me to hold to the course.
But taking a leap is one thing--landing on your feet is quite another. It was an impulsive decision, to be sure, and I hadn't the faintest idea what I was in for until I arrived at the cottage, with no one there to greet me and no agenda for distraction.
Unlocking the door and walking into a place darkened by shades was anticlimactic in light of the commotion that had surrounded the announcement of my great escape. I quickly whipped the covers off the fading furniture and threw open the windows to clear the air of must. But nothing I did made me feel any less uncomfortable in this familiar place. So I hurriedly left my empty nest and raced off to the sea. Walking on the beach has always cured my jitters, and I eagerly anticipated the exhilaration of frothy waves and wild surf. Instead, I found a glassy sea with no visible energy or motion. On closer inspection, I noticed the familiar circle that indicates that it must be ebb tide--the time when the sea is neither coming in or going out, simply turning itself around. Perhaps, I concluded, the ebbing sea was meant as a sign for me to indulge in a sort of psychic slumber--that I, too, was to ebb--that being in neutral for a while might help soothe my aching soul.
For the next several days, I packed my duffel and went to the beach, plotting my arrival in time for the ebb. As I squatted in the dunes, gathering my knees up close to my chest and rocking to the rhythm of the water, I tried to look backward to discern a vision I must have had for my life before it ran amuck.
Although I could remember numerous events from long ago, the recent year was a total blur. It took hours to recall even the smallest detail, let alone the big moments. But, sticking with the exercise, I was finally able to recall my birthday, a trip out west, getting a writing assignment from a magazine, and being bedridden with a bad back. Once I had the year in focus, I spent a rainy day reflecting on each event: was it fun, exciting, difficult, unfortunate, sad, depressing? For the most part, my memory remained sketchy, and many of the experiences, in retrospect, just seemed downright exhausting.
I decided to put squares around all the exhausting moments, triangles around those that were exhilarating, hearts around any moments shared with my husband, and, finally, circles around those activities that had been just for me. When I looked at the whole picture, I was more than startled. The page was, for the most part, all squares! What had started out as a little exercise turned into a major eye-opener. Surely I was living more for others than for myself, and I had given a lot more pleasure than I had received. I was exhausted, and what's more, it was my own fault. I had become an unwitting victim of my own obsessive planning, facilitating, and organizing!
The saddest example of all was our son's wedding. Because the bride's family lived so far away, I was left to organize the wedding on a tight budget. Although I thought I was having fun, I got so caught up in the minutiae of making sure it was perfect (of course) that I simply didn't remember a thing. Days later, I frantically ran off to have the film developed so I could see, and, I hoped, recall, all the pageantry and splendor that I had missed.
Give Your Life the Focus It Deserves
I'm slowly coming to the conclusion that it takes time and stillness to ask yourself during and after both major and minor events how you actually felt about them. "How did I feel about the surprise party I gave my husband?" Now, I don't mean: "How did the cake turn out? Did the guests have a good time? Did he like his presents? Was it better than the party he had thrown for me?" I mean: "How did I feel? Did I enjoy doing it? Was the work exhausting or exhilarating? If I had it to do over again, would I even have had the party? What did I want for myself going into this party, and did I get it?" These are not questions we ask ourselves when we are busy sustaining others and playing the roles.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from A Weekend to Change Your Life by Joan Anderson. Copyright © 2006 by Joan Anderson. Excerpted by permission of Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.