Tuesday, September 9, 2014

All We Wanted Was A Selfie

by Amy Ruhlin
I recently spent an evening with three childhood friends, one of whom I hadn't seen in 38 years. Not that it mattered.
More than three decades had passed since we were together as young teens. Between the four of us, the years gave us marriages, divorces, children, death, fancy degrees and impressive careers.
We proudly shared photos of our grown children. We reminisced a bit.
We spoke of our spouses, successes, failures, and regrets. We could have easily spent the entire evening sharing our personal histories and our oh-so-important life stories. But we didn't.
Because in the midst of that mysterious, sacred bond that connects childhood friends, something even bigger seems to emerge. In the small intangibles that remain from the innocence of youth.
We listened to music from the 1970s and tried to guess the artists and the names of songs.
We watched a clip of the great 1984 Talking Heads concert film, "Stop Making Sense," where David Byrne gesticulates wildly in his over-sized white suit while he performs "Once In a Lifetime": "Time isn't holding up. Time is an asterisk. Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was..."
We drank lots of wine and lots of water and spent most of the night in uproarious laughter, as we posed for the perfect group selfie. One where we maybe looked 32, instead of 52.
Early on in the evening, I announced that at our age, I wanted to make sure that I didn't waste any time. I wanted to spend it on what's important.
And by the end of the evening, I had our perfect selfie: a circle of old friends, sprawled out on the floor, in the midst of hard laughter. Tangible proof that the small things are often large. And now, a constant reminder to spend time on what's important.
 

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Why Your 20-Year-Old Self Wants You To STFU

by Amy Ruhlin

It seems popular these days to read headlines such as, "10 Things I Would Tell My 20-Year-Old-Self." Or, "5 Words of Advice I Wish I'd Followed In My Youth." When I read these articles, I can almost hear my younger self: "please, please STFU. Can't you just simply love me?"

As if we all somehow were supposed to know better. As if we all somehow, were just awful. Because we did insanely stupid things. Because we made dumb mistakes. Because we were really ridiculous, and oh my GOD, what were we thinking?

As if we were not enough. As if things could have somehow been any different than they were. As if we were not doing the best that we could.

In my thirties, I became a mother. And motherhood swallowed me whole.

I was a good young mother. A good enough mother. I don't think for one second that I was better than any other mother, but I worked hard at motherhood. I gave it my all.

I loved having young children in the house. I loved having my heart pried open by the sight of small, precious hands and the depth of wide, innocent eyes. Some days, it was just a lot of hard work, but mostly, it was a blissful time. My happiest years, when everything, for the first time, felt so right.

In fact, it all felt so right, that I think I decided, on some unconscious level, that everything before, including my younger self, must have somehow been wrong.

So, I left that part of me behind. I ditched her. I pushed her underground. I lost her. I think a lot of us do.

She hadn't understood anything, after all. She sweated the small stuff. She didn't have her priorities straight. She didn't know to enjoy the little things. She actually cared what other people thought of her. How silly she was! How foolish and shallow she had been.

But, as my kids grew up, and prepared to leave the nest, my younger self seemed to resurface with a vengeance.

Once, when I was cleaning out a closet, I stumbled upon my college degrees and suddenly found myself in a rage, waving my diplomas in the air like a wild woman, and shouting, "I HAVE my Masters degree!" Some days, I would find myself lounging on the sofa, eating greasy potato chips and flipping through magazines, just like it was 1982.

For a while, I struggled. Hadn't I  gotten myself all together in my 30s and 40s and left my foolishness behind? Was I going crazy? Was it all just hormonal? Was I having a midlife crisis?

Eventually, I realized, that in some strange way, I was making peace with my past. I realized that my younger self, like most all of our young selves, had actually kicked ass. I realized that in the midst of all of her flaws and lack of wisdom, she got me here.

I realized that making peace with our past, with our crazy younger selves, works so much better than beating up on them or giving them advice. It makes us whole. It allows us to move forward and to age with gratitude and tolerance for ourselves and for others.

I think my 20-year-self wants to write an article. I'm not yet sure what all she has to say, but I think I know her title: "10 Reasons Your 20-Year-Old Self Wants You To STFU."

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Motherhood Never Ends

by Amy Ruhlin

It's almost Mother's Day, and my 19-year-old-son is preparing to move into his first apartment. My 22-year-old-daughter is getting ready to graduate from college. I have made it through my first year as an empty-nester. And life feels huge.

At times, I've felt like I'm the one who went off to college. I adore my kids. I miss them so much that sometimes I physically ache. But, also, right alongside of the hurt, I've been having the time of my life remembering other loves.

I've attended rock concerts to see musicians who I haven't even thought of since 1975. I've traveled to the beach, and to the mountains, and to nearby towns, all on a whim, at the spur-of-the-moment, for my own enjoyment. I've been responsible for no one other than myself.

There was a time when I would have considered all of this unnecessary, or maybe even selfish. But now, after 22 years of motherhood, I realize that it has been one of the most loving things that I could do.

I've remembered what it feels like to be 20-something. I've remembered how to be wide open to the world around me, to stand at the edge, to feel possibility.

Yesterday, I visited the kids at their college. I took my son some items that he needs for his apartment: bedding, towels, utensils, toilet bowl cleaner. I took my daughter shopping for graduation dresses. I took my whole self into that familiar sweetness of mothering.

And this time, it felt bigger. It had expanded. It included me.

I was able to fully embrace and celebrate the thrilling place where my children are in their lives, because I have been doing the same for my own 52-year-old self.

Thankfully, motherhood never ends. Even in the midst of facing an empty nest and watching our kids fly away. It simply stretches, and shows us that it is a love that is huge.

This article was previously published on The Huffington Post

Friday, April 4, 2014

What My Children's Art Taught Me About Aging

by Amy Ruhlin



When my kids were young, I displayed their works of art all over the house. I taped them to their bedroom doors, framed and hung them on my kitchen walls and held them by a magnet to the refrigerator door. Youthful innocence, hope and truth greeted me around every corner of our home. They sometimes even called out to me by name: "For: Mom," in black or red crayon at the top of the paper. Somehow, seeing my children's art everyday made me feel forever young.

I had my favorites. Once, at an art festival, my daughter painted a face with a square head. It floated in the sky, surrounded by heart-shaped clouds.

"Why is it square?" I asked her. "It was supposed to be a house," she said. "But I messed up, so I just turned it into a happy face!"

When she started school, she drew a picture of a school bus. It was blue instead of yellow, and above it she wrote, "It does not take you to school, it takes you to the candy store, and the bus driver pays for all of the candy." I laughed each time I saw it, and I applauded her audacity, at least in her imagination, to change things up, to rebel with a crayon.

In the third grade, she brought home a drawing from art class: a beautiful creature with a large, yellow head; orange, droopy ears; and a green body. In each hand, it held a brown maraca. "What is this?" I asked her." "It's a kachina doll, mommy. It shows you that there is life in everything, and I think it's supposed to protect you." I hung it on her bedroom wall and whenever I was having a bad day, I'd lie on her bed and stare at it, and I swear it made me feel better.

My son painted apple and orange trees. Red and orange balls danced on the ground and lined the top of popsicle-shaped trees and I have never, ever seen happier fruit since.

When they started high school, I knew it was time to take the artwork down. Otherwise, I just looked pathetic: an old mom clinging to old memories. But all I could muster was to move them upstairs, to my office, where I could secretly look at them. After all, I was trying to be strong, to move on, to reinvent myself and to prove that I could let go and begin the process of aging gracefully. Once the kids started college, I finally moved their art to the attic, and even managed to throw some of it away.

A friend recently asked me, "What keeps you open?"  "What do you mean, open?" I asked her. 
"You know," she said, "like when your kids were young, they kept you open." I thought about that for a long time, and I wondered if I'd somehow begun to close up since they left. I wondered if I was
turning into a cranky, old woman.

I asked my husband. "Am I becoming a cranky, old woman?" He knew better than to answer, but the truth is, that, at times, I am. Especially when I catch myself saying things like, "Kids today! They don't know what real music is!" Or, "Been there, done that!" It's so easy, at least in my case, for cynicism and distrust to creep their way in, without the magic of little kids in the house.

So, I decided to make a conscious effort not to let that happen. For a while, I thought about dragging the kid's art back out of the attic. But, I don't think that will be necessary, though I admit, I sometimes wander around up there just to look at it.

Yesterday, I watched a cardinal fly from tree to tree in our backyard. I found myself gasping at how red and alive he was. Then, in the evening, when I looked up at the sky, the crescent moon was outlined so perfectly against the blue glow of early evening, that it nearly made me cry.

My children's art, or rather, what it pointed to, is actually still all around me. I just need to remember to stay open as I age, so that I can see it. I think that may be the real fountain of youth, the one true thing that keeps that cranky, old woman at bay.  

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Empty Nest is Just Another Begining

by Amy Ruhlin

I ride shotgun as my husband drives south on a Georgia highway towards Atlanta. Day has turned to night, and I stare out the windshield at the steady glow of a star. Stability in the sky.
We’ve spent the day looking at houses, north of the city, towards trees and mountains and lakes. Towards possible homes for our newly emptied nest. Towards possible places to begin a third act.

It took me a long time to get here. To this beginning. To even wanting a beginning. I reveled in the glorious middle of my story for so many years, and I didn’t like it when I reached the end. I wanted it to continue.
We come closer to our suburb and the star disappears. I see the lights of Target, where we’ve shopped for the past 18 years. I see the red, neon open sign in the window of Kroger, where we pushed our babies in grocery carts, and bought them candy in the checkout lines. I see the lights of the dry cleaners where we’ve dropped off countless bundles of our clothes. I see artificial lights, but remember real love.

I thought our life here would last forever. I loved it all: swing sets in the backyard, bikes in the garage, crayons throughout the house. The sound of my children's voices. Everyday. My son was only one, and my daughter was 4, when we moved into our current home. I never thought I could leave it. I was too attached.
But those years didn’t last forever. Our kids grew up. They opened my heart and blew my mind and then they left. And though I am grateful and happy and free at last, I, like most parents, have struggled with the loss and grief of letting go. It hasn’t been easy, and I’ve had to make a concentrated effort to move on. But somehow, despite all of the conflicting emotions, or more likely, because of them, the ending is turning into a beginning.

Today  I wasn't looking for backyards suitable for swing sets. I wasn't looking for neighborhoods full of children. And at times, what I wasn’t looking for scared me, and made me sad.

But then I saw porch swings. And backyard hot tubs. And gentle walking paths down to the water’s edge. I saw possibilities that we never could have considered when our kids were young. And I remembered the many things that we loved before we were parents.
Ageing brings the realization that there is always a beginning, a middle and an end. And that the only real stability is in the heart, down deep, where we store all the things we love.

I can’t wait to find our empty nest house. If you drive by, we’ll be the slightly graying couple on the porch swing, rocking it to and fro, reveling in our beginning.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Intelligent, Beautiful You

by Amy Ruhlin
As the year moved from 2013 to 2014, I played one of those silly word games on Facebook. A square made of rows of letters, with instructions to look for words, and a notice that "the first three words you see, will be yours in 2014."
I'd seen these games before. I'd scanned the rows before. I'd found words before, but I dismissed them. Always.
But this time, they would not be dissed. They attached themselves to my underbelly. They entered my bloodstream. They became a part of my cells.
They had messages: Can you take us in now? Finally? We've been here all along, you know. You just didn't see. You were busy. You were young. You were listening to lies.
Intelligent. Beautiful. You.
I'd never owned those words. Most women don't.
We try, we really do. But we listen to a culture that likes to tell us what is smart and what is beautiful. We think we know, but deep down, we don't really feel it. We never measure up. We're never enough.
But then we turn 50.
And we realize that always having the correct answers to the questions is not intelligence. We now know that "I don't know" is often the smartest response of all. And we're not afraid to say it. We know that not knowing is where real learning begins.
We know that perfectionism is a fool's game. We've learned that our flaws are what make us beautiful.
We know that mistakes are how we grow, not how we fail. We don't care what others think of us, as long as we like the company we keep when we are alone.
We listen to our gut and we follow our instincts. We find our voice and we speak our truth, at least some of the time. Even if it is unpopular. Even if it makes another feel betrayed, because we refuse to betray ourselves.
We know how much kindness matters. And that is very smart. And beautiful.
So Happy New Year Post-50s. Happy New Year to intelligent, beautiful you.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Why I Bought An Artificial Christmas Tree This Year

by Amy Ruhlin

I’ve never been fond of artificial Christmas trees. Actually, in my younger days, I thought they were hideous. I wondered if the folks who put up fake trees in their homes had sad childhoods. Didn’t they understand that the house was supposed to smell of pine? Did they not watch A Charlie Brown Christmas?  You know, the one where he walks through the tree lot filled with pink, aluminum Christmas trees, but manages to find a small, real tree in their midst.  I felt sorry for people who had artificial Christmas trees. I felt like they just didn't get it.

I've had a real Christmas tree every year for the past 30 years. I’ve stood in the cold night air on Christmas tree lots, pinching the tips of countless pine branches to make sure they were sticky with sap. I've sniffed every tree in the lot to see which one smelled the most piney. I've dragged my husband to five different lots in one night to find the freshest tree. I've even removed all of the decorations from a tree that died before Christmas day, bought a new tree, and then placed all of the decorations back onto the new tree.

But yesterday, I told my husband that I was thinking about getting an artificial tree this year. This was not an easy decision. I agonized over it for months.

 "I hate artificial trees," he said. 

Both of our kids were home, visiting from college. So, I tried the idea out on our son.

“What do you think about an artificial tree?” I asked him.  “I think it's better not to have a tree at all, instead of getting a fake one,” he said.
 
I tried the idea out on our daughter. I think she's figured out my midlife hormones and state of mind, because she said, “Whatever you want to do is the best choice, mom!”

I reminded my husband about his bad back. I reminded him of all of those years of strapping the tree to the top of the car, carrying it into the house, and TRYING TO GET IT STRAIGHT IN THE STAND. I hadn't even begun to remind him of how long we spend tangled up in lights, when he said, "Let’s go buy a fake tree."

I struck up a conversation with a woman my age in the fake Christmas tree section of the store, an angel on aisle 5. I was feeling anxious and shameful and fake, so I made sure to mention that this was my first artificial Christmas tree EVER. She sighed, and with kindness, she told me that she understood, that it was her first time too, a few years ago, and that well, at our age, an artificial tree is just easier. 

One of the great things about the sixth decade is that we allow ourselves to do things for simple reasons. Because it's fun. Because it's true. Because it's time. Because it is less stressful.  

My husband and I stuffed our new fake tree in the trunk of our car (it came in three easy-to- assemble pieces). As I was putting the last piece in, two young boys walked by with their father, another angel, this time staked out in the parking lot. “Look!” he said to his sons. "That lady has so much Christmas spirit that she is putting a Christmas tree in her car!” The boys giggled and their eyes sparkled and I felt calm and happy and real. On our drive home, we stopped by another store, and I bought a pine scented candle.

Our house smells great and our tree looks real. I'm actually quite fond of it. I think Charlie Brown would approve.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

I Miss Things

by Amy Ruhlin
Lately, I've been missing things. I miss seeing my kids everyday and I miss my youth. I miss the bar that my husband and I went to every Friday night in our 20s, to eat thick burgers and drink cold beer. I miss being a teenager and listening to the Rolling Stones when Mick Jagger was 30-something. I miss being a driven graduate student. I miss being a young mother.
I looked up the word miss in the dictionary. I know it's a simple word. I know what it means. But I needed to see it in writing: miss; to feel regret or sadness at no longer being able to enjoy the presence of or at no longer being able to go to, do, or have.
That's how I've been feeling. And I've been wondering if that's okay. After all, I have no deceased loved ones to miss. I still have all of my body parts. My husband and I still love each other, most of the time, after 30 years. My kids are doing well, and I see them frequently. Plus, I'm a happy empty nester. I love my newfound freedom and I'm having a great time. I've embraced midlife. I've worked hard to let go, move on, reinvent, and joined the chorus of voices proclaiming, "thank god we are not clueless 20-somethings anymore."
I've been a good little midlifer. I've taken note of all the slogans: Don't look back. Don't live in the past. Move Forward. Appreciate what you have now. There's so much more to come. Aging is a privilege.
But still.
I miss places where I've lived. I miss the small, friendly town that I grew up in. I miss steamy nights in New Orleans when I was a college student. I miss the first house that my husband and I bought, with the solid oak doors that he painstakingly stained and installed in each bedroom.
I miss my daughter's crib and my son's tricycle. I miss watching my little girl's eyelids flutter, angel wings, as she slept through the night. I miss seeing my son running towards me, anticipation and joy on display just for me, as he got off of the yellow school bus each day.
I thought I had this midlife gig figured out.
But all of this missing. It has taken me by surprise.
But I've decided that it's part of the deal. I've decided that missing is appreciation. And gratitude. Even a prayer: thank you, thank you, thank you for all of that.
I've decided that in the midst of all of this busyness to embrace, reinvent and move on, I will also allow myself a simple, human experience. I'll give myself the space and time and quiet to miss things. Even though it makes my heart hurt. Even though I really just want to ignore it, pretend it's not there, and just get on with being 50 and fabulous.
I've decided that missing is important. It is the recognition of a life fully lived and a reminder to keep paying attention, to keep on keeping on, and to make these years count.
Because one day, when I am in the midst of the busyness of being a kick-ass 94-year-old, it is these days, these wonderful, rich, creative midlife days, that I will be missing.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Parents Weekend, Aging and What Matters Most

by Amy Ruhlin

My husband and I visited our son last Saturday. It was parents weekend at his college. We ate brunch with him in the dining hall, sat with him in the rain at the football game and in the evening, took him out to dinner.

We asked him lots of questions. He told us about his classes: most of them are hard and some of them are fun. He described his professors: all of them are brilliant, some of them are interesting and one has big hair. He said that he's joined the whitewater club and that he can't wait to go kayaking. He's become a certified wall climber and he's discovered coffee houses and literary readings. He's decided that he doesn't want to be a Math major after all. He's changed it to English and History. He was happy and enthusiastic and I could tell that a whole new world has opened up for him. It was thrilling to see.

He also told us that between classes, he likes to sit under the big oak trees on campus. And that one of his professors is especially kind. These were my favorites, kindness and oaks, among all of the exciting things that our son told us.

"So what do you guys do? " he asked us over dinner. Now that your kids are gone. Now that you are old parents left in an empty house on an aging suburban street. I remember being his age. Everything was new and exciting and the next big thing was around every corner. I remember feeling a little sorry for the folks over 50. They were sedate, and seemed boring and trivial.

I thought about what would sound impressive. We're planning a trip to Paris! We're selling the house and moving to Costa Rica! We're taking up sky diving!

I thought about telling him the truth. We take walks to the river in the evenings. The wildflowers along the way are so beautiful. We're trying out the Paleo diet and I finally convinced your Dad to schedule his colonoscopy. It feels good to take care of each other, still, after 30 years. Yesterday, I refilled the bird feeder. I've been noticing so many different types of birds. In our own backyard. I had no idea. We think about you and your sister. About how much fun it was raising you and that now we get to see you move out into the world. We watch the leaves in the backyard. They are already turning gold and orange.

But I didn't want to sound old and lame. So, I said, "We're having fun! We've been to concerts and festivals, stuff like that (which is true). Anybody want dessert?"

Later, I thought about what I'd really wanted to say to my son. Ah, buddy, it's all so simple. I've finally learned that it's not what you do but how you do it. I've finally learned that the small things really are the big things. I love my days, son. I can see the small things. But they feel big. And new and exciting. Keep sitting under those oak trees. Notice their beauty. Keep seeing kindness. Take it in and pass it on.

But what 18-year-old wants to hear that? What 18-year-old is ready? It has taken me 51 years to figure it out. It's simple but it is not easy.

I needed youth and mistakes and wild goose chases and disappointment and disillusion. I needed whole new worlds. All of it brought me to where I am now. And I know that I'm not alone. I know that this is a gorgeous part of the aging process for all of us lucky enough to experience it. We get to whittle everything down to what matters most. And while our kids may see us as a bit lame and a little boring, I think that we just might be showing them what the phrase "life begins at 50" is actually all about.