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.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Life in the Empty Nest

by Amy Ruhlin

My nest has been empty for three weeks. The first night was the hardest -- the night my husband and I drove home from dropping our son, our youngest, off at college. Neither of us spoke a word in the car. Speech was too small, so we sat in silence, but I could feel us moving, together through the seismic shift.

When we got home, I sat down on the sofa and finally, I wept. My husband wrapped his arms around my shoulders.

"You did a good job," he told me. "You were a good mom."

I heard his words and the vise around my body began to loosen its grip.

Love comes to us in different forms, but when it comes to us through our children, we seem to claim ownership. Mine, we think. But the truth of it is, they are only passing through. And still, we give it our all, so it's hard to let go.

That night, my husband and I both had dreams about our son. Nightmares, actually. In my husband's dream, he sat on a beach and saw our son being attacked by sharks but he could not save him. In my dream, I sat on the floor with my son cuddled up to my side. He was small and frail and afraid as we watched a man in the room circle us with a loaded gun.

In the light of morning, I knew that our job of protecting our son was over. And despite the bad dreams, or maybe because of them, I knew that our son was safe and that he was now able to protect himself.

My husband went to work. I work from home, so I was on my own for the first full day in our new nest, a day that I had been dreading. But as I moved through it, I found my rhythm. I worked and I stretched and I piddled, but mostly, I felt grateful. I walked through the empty rooms of our house but they felt full: of love, of memories, of possibilities.

In the evening, I heard my husband's car putt-putt into our garage and I leapt up to greet him at the door. This surprised me, as I haven't done any leaping in a long time.

"Hey!" we said in unison, as he walked through the door. I felt 26 again. And I could tell that he did too.

We had a roaring good time together in our 20s, my husband and I. We married, began our careers, renovated a house and at the age of 30, had our first child. I thought those early days would last forever.

"Wanna go out for tacos and margaritas?" my husband asked me. I smiled and grabbed my purse and we got back into his car.

At the restaurant, the waitress offered each of us the 32 oz. sized margaritas and we laughed when she brought them to the table. Neither of us had had a drink in that large of a frosty mug since our early days together.

Over the next few weeks we went out for mimosa brunches, drove our boat across the entire length of the large lake near our home under the moonlight, visited a new blues club to hear a jazz harpist, had a spur-of- the-moment weekend beach getaway and sold the family car.

Our nest is different, but it is not empty. All the good stuff is still here: love and hope and joy and laughter. It feels a lot like it did in our 20's, when it was just the two of us. But this time, we know that these days will not last forever and that we are only passing through. We know that there will be more seismic shifts and how lucky we will be if we can continue to move through them together. And we know that a time that is often seen as empty, is actually the richest time of all.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

A Ring for the Empty Nest

by Amy Ruhlin

I recently lost one of my favorite rings. A "mothers ring," it was called: a band of studded white gold with a small, peridot gemstone in the setting. The peridot is the birthstone for August, the month that my son was born. I wore it on my right hand every single day for the last 17 years, along with a second, identical ring, except for the aquamarine gemstone in the setting, which is the birthstone for March, the month that my daughter was born.
The rings were handmade by a jeweler in Texas when my children were very young. I cherished those bands of gold and I loved how they looked on my hand. I wore them as a celebration of my children and of motherhood. And then one day this spring, I looked down at my hand, and the peridot ring was gone. It had slipped off of my finger without me even noticing. It was a strange thing to happen after all of these years. The ring had remained snug and safe on my hand through all of the rough and tumble years of child-rearing, and then as if on cue, it quietly slipped away. For a while, I continued to wear just the one ring, my daughter's birthstone, but it didn't feel or look right without the peridot by its side.
"Maybe it's a sign," my son said to me with a grin. He knew that his old mom had been working hard at letting go. He knew that I had been preparing myself for the empty nest, which will be here in three short weeks, when he goes away to college. He understood, at least in some vague way, that I have been reclaiming parts of myself, pieces that went underground during the intense mothering years. Years when I needed to focus most of my energies on raising him and his sister; years when I had to put aside some of my own creativity, ambitions, wants and needs. I guess its called sacrifice. It's what we do for our kids and it is good. It has meaning and it takes us out of our own small selves.
I was devastated by the loss of the ring. I tracked down the jewelers in Texas and asked them if they could make me another one. I even sent them a photo of the ring that I still have, my daughter's birthstone, so that they could match the two, just like they did when my kids were small.
But then, I discovered an old ring in the back of my jewelry drawer: a band of yellow gold with a beautiful diamond-shaped garnet in the setting. The garnet is the birthstone for January, the month that I was born. My mother gave it to me when I was in my 20s, before I had children, before I was a mother. I had forgotten about it. I had even just about forgotten that the garnet is my birthstone or that I even have a birthstone.
A few days after I found the garnet my husband asked, "So, did you get in touch with the jewelers in Texas?"
"Yeah," I sighed.
He waited for me to continue, and when I didn't, he probed further. "Well, are you gonna order the mothers ring?"
"Nah, I don't think so." I told him.
I let a few minutes pass, for dramatic effect. And then I said, "I'm really liking the look of this garnet on my hand." I held my right hand out for him to see. "I think I found it for a reason. I think it's here to remind me of something. I think it is reminding me of me."
My husband is used to me talking like this, so he kindly smiled and nodded his head in agreement.
I plan on wearing my garnet next week when we drop our son off at college. And I will raise my ring high into the air as I wave goodbye to him. And though I know that I will feel sad, I will also know that it is now time for me. It is now time to wear my own birthstone. It is now time to celebrate my own self and to cherish these years of freedom that I will have with my husband in our empty nest.
Until, of course, it is time for a grandmothers ring.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Shiny Happy People Everywhere

by Amy Ruhlin

I sat on the sands of a crowded South Carolina beach last weekend with an old R.E.M. song playing in my mind. I figured that everyone would assume I was listening to my iPod(don’t own one), as I bobbed my head to the beat, singing along with Michael Stipes: Shiny happy people laughing.Then I pretended I was Kate Pierson (of the B52s) as she joins in: shiny happy people holding haaaands. 
I don’t remember ever having so much fun people watching. The little kids were adorable, as little kids always are at the beach: baby girls in pink, tutu swimsuits; little dudes in swim trunks emblazoned with the eyes of Spiderman or with the “S” of Superman. Proud parents taking photos. A grown man running into the ocean like a 6-year-old boy, a beautiful fool: his legs like pumps, lifting his knees all the way up to his chest; his arms spread like wings on a plane; his smile covering most of his face. Meet me in the crowd. People, people. Throw your love around.

My daughter stretched out on her lounge chair to tan her 21-year-old body in a yellow bikini. I sat beside her on my beach chair in my black, one-piece swimsuit wondering why the hell I had stopped wearing a bikini in my mid-20s. I seem to remember that I thought my stomach was beginning to look old. Those words are as sad for me to write as they are for you to read.  
“Don’t stop wearing a bikini until you are at least 40!” I told her.

She grinned and turned herself over in her chair but I hope she heard me. I hope she wears a bikini until she is at least 65.

“Do you notice how happy everyone is?” I asked her.

“Everybody is always happy at the beach,” she said.
I knew that. But I noticed it now in a way that I never had before. It was a symphony laid out in front of me.  It was the sun and the sand and the waves turning us all into beautiful fools.

I heard laughter behind me. I knew before looking that it came from women my age. Five women who wore dark, one-piece swimsuits, their bikini days behind them. They played paddle ball like 12-year-old girls, arms flailing and mouths giggling. They ran into the ocean and I watched as they floated over the swells and hooted and hollered and waved their colorful, foam noodles in the air. They were stunning, all five of them. Everyone around, love them, love them. Put it in your hands. Take it, take it.
I’ve been happily going to the beach every summer since I was a child. But this time, here at the ripe old age of 51, with my bikini days behind me, and my eyes and heart wide open, was the happiest I’ve ever felt on a beach. I believe the saying that happiness increases as we age, is true.

I can’t wait to go to the beach again. I’ll be wearing my one-piece swimsuit and singing and looking like a beautiful fool. Happy, happy. Put it in your heart. Where tomorrow shines. Gold and silver shine.
Hey, here we go!

Monday, May 20, 2013

Why I Need A Good Cry

by Amy Ruhlin

When my son, our youngest, began kindergarten, I sat down every morning and cried for two weeks. I felt overwhelming sorrow. I looked like an idiot. I sat in puddles of my own tears.  

The time of spending my days sitting with my son on a curbside watching trucks go by, or standing in a sunny park pushing him on a swing, was over. He was moving on: to yellow school buses, to new friends, to teachers who would touch his life. I was happy for him. But, I was sad for me, and I felt a great loss.

I did not analyze or rationalize my feelings away. And for once, I did not judge myself. I did not run from my sadness, nor did I "get busy." I did not berate myself with statements like, “He’s only going to Kindergarten!" or, "What’s wrong with you?"  Instead, I sat on my couch and allowed myself to cry. 

It felt good. And somehow, I knew that if I did not cry, I would live my life as a big, fat, fake. I would be busy. I would be productive. But, I wouldn't be real. And I didn't want that. Instead, I wanted to keep what I had been with my son: a woman who feels fully alive and excited at the sight of a truck passing by; a woman who feels joy at the sight of a child swinging up to the sky. I also wanted to be a woman who lets her son go. I could not figure out how to do any of these things intellectually, but I did know that the only way out is through. So, I sat down, felt my sadness, and cried.

Our society isn't big on grief. Instead, we prefer to say things like, "Get over it!" or, "Put your big girl panties on and deal with it!"  Don't get me wrong: I know that we do indeed need to get over it and move on. But I can't even begin to find my big girl pants, much less get them on, if I don't first have a good cry. Otherwise, those tears get stuffed down into my bones and they become dead weight. 
From those weeks of sitting alone on my sofa, I developed a parenting strategy that has worked well in helping me to let go and to move on.  When I feel silly grief over silly things, I do not discount it. Instead, I allow myself to look like a blubbering fool.   When I finally removed my son's preschool artwork from the refrigerator, I cried for three days. When I rode in a plastic boat with my kids through the simple, painted beauty of "It’s A Small World" at Disney World, I wept behind my dark sunglasses for a full 15 minutes, because I knew that such innocence was fleeting. When I looked out at my backyard one day and saw an empty swing being pushed by the wind, I wailed. When I watched our old home movies of my children in their first school plays, I lost it for days on end. 

But after each cry, I felt great. My grief disappeared and I could see the gorgeousness and rightness of whatever was in front of me. I no longer yearned for it to be as it once was. I loved it for whatever it had changed into.

 My son will graduate from high school next week. The time of spending my days looking forward to him walking through our front door every afternoon is almost over  He is moving on: to college, to independence, to a life without me.  I am happy for him. And I can honestly say that I am ready. I do feel sad at times, and I will probably have a good cry on graduation day. But most days, I feel fully alive. Most days, I feel joy at the sight of so much change happening right before my eyes.  And most days, I know that I am a woman who can let her son go. Because on most days, I have allowed myself to cry.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Best Thing I Learned From My Mother

by Amy Ruhlin

When I was a young girl my mother would open the front door of our home in the evenings, tilt her head to look at the sky and say, "Look at the moon!" Instead, I would look at her face. And I would see pure joy. At the time, I wasn't aware of what I was seeing; I was a distracted teenager and for the life of me, I could not figure out why the sight of the moon made my mother so happy. I would tilt my head to look at the sky too, and though I saw the same moon, I knew that I was not feeling what she was feeling. I also knew that it was important, this mysterious connection that my mother had that I could not quite yet grasp. I knew that whatever my mother was feeling when she looked at the moon, I wanted to feel it, too.

She loved trees. My aunt once helped her look for a house to rent, and years later, after I was grown, my aunt said to me, "Your mother was going through so much turmoil when I helped her find that rental, but all she cared about was making sure that she found a property that had plenty of trees!”

When I was 12 years old, my mother decided to have a small house built on an acre of land that had once been her father's garden. It was an acre without any trees. Once the house was completed, she spent the next ten years planting and growing trees: crepe myrtles lined the driveway, pin oaks stood in the front yard and cedars edged the sides of the house. She turned the backyard into a field of fruit trees. And she did it all while working full-time and being a single mother.

We spent many days and nights sitting together on her screened porch, surrounded by the beauty of her trees. And I knew that the sight of them brought her comfort.

My mother had a great sense of humor and one of her favorite expressions was: "The world is going to hell in a hand basket!" Whenever she said it, I’d roll my eyes and laugh, thinking she was just overreacting or being funny. But I now know it was her quirky, southern way of expressing concern for the environment – her grief over trees being bulldozed for “progress” and the moon becoming obscured by pollution.  In fact, she once gave me the book, “The Sense of Wonder,” by the noted environmental writer, Rachel Carson. It still sits on my bookshelf today.

I currently live in a house with a lot of windows. And through every window, I can see towering trees with thick, green leaves in the summer and beautiful, bare branches in the winter.  Each evening, when the moon shines through the highest window in my family room, I tilt my head to look at the sky and I say to my family, "Look at the moon!” As my chest expands, I feel as if the glow of the moon is coming from inside of me.

My mother showed me that in the midst of life’s pain and turmoil, grief and loss, I can find great comfort in the beauty of a tree, deep joy at the sight of the moon and a sense of wonder by simply noticing the world around me.


Tuesday, April 30, 2013

I Feel Bad About My Shoes

by Amy Ruhlin

I discovered Crocs when I was in my 30s.  I would wear them to walk the dog or to work in the yard and even to my children’s bus stop where other young mothers stood in more fashionable footwear.   And though I did understand that my shoes were not the epitome of high fashion, I also knew that what they lacked in sex appeal they made up for in comfort. And frankly, I just didn't give a damn. I had so much else going for me: 30-something bouncy, thick hair; a young mother’s plump complexion and nary a grey hair in sight.
As I moved into my 40s, I began to wear my Crocs more often. I discovered that I could walk an entire amusement park from sunup to sundown and I would still have happy feet. While my kids complained that they were tired and their feet hurt, I would brag that my feet were just fine and suggest that we stand in that long line for the roller coaster one more time. I learned that I could explore new cities by foot for days on end without a complaint of fatigue ever crossing my lips.   

When I entered my 50s, I began to notice that my hair did not look 30-something anymore and that my plump complexion was gaining some creases. In an attempt to ward off my panic, I began to read about how to be “50 and fabulous.” Unfortunately, fashionable shoes seemed to be part of the deal.
I did some research and discovered that my beloved plastic shoes now came in different styles. So, I ordered four pairs. I made sure to buy them all in black so that I could be a sophisticated 50-something.   I bought a few that had little straps, which made them look more like sandals and I even found some that had no holes!  When they arrived in the mail, I modeled them for my young-adult children who of course know all of the latest shoe trends.

“Look at my cool shoes!” I said. “They're black and clunky which makes them look hip and retro when I wear them with my jeans, don’t you think?”
“No, mom” they said.  “They are plastic and everyone makes fun of them. You really shouldn’t wear them.”

Then I began to read terrible things about my shoes:
“They’re bad for the environment!” “They can’t be recycled!” “They will cause your arches to collapse!” And worst of all, I began to see cruel Facebook posts about them. One particularly heartbreaking one went something like this: “Wow, that's a nice looking pair of Crocs. Said No One Ever.”  I began to feel bad about my shoes.

Recently, my husband and I explored a new city. I wore stylish black flats to walk in during the day but by evening, my feet were not happy. And neither was I.  But still, hoping to be “50 and fabulous” I wore suede boots out to dinner, but on the walk back to the hotel I slipped and fell in the middle of the street and I broke my foot.
“This never would have happened if I’d been wearing my Crocs!” I screamed.

My husband helped me out of the street and the next day the doctor gave me an air cast to wear on my left foot for at least six weeks. He told me to wear a supportive shoe on my right foot to balance the weight, but I didn’t think that would look very fabulous.
This was not good timing. I had a beach trip to go on with my girlfriends from high school.  It was bad enough that I had to go in an air cast so I was determined to wear a nice looking shoe on my good foot.  I did look pretty cute hobbling around in one great shoe, but it gave my foot no support so by the end of the trip both of my ankles were blown up like balloons from walking around with uneven weight. I know without a doubt that this would not have happened if I had worn my Crocs.

I’ve decided that holey, plastic shoes were sent to Earth from the shoe Gods and that I would be kicking a gift horse in the mouth if I did not graciously accept. So, as I move into the remainder of my 50s and into my next decades, I will proudly and gratefully wear them and I will feel good about my shoes. My feet and I will be happy, and that will make most everything fabulous.

Friday, April 5, 2013

I Still Love a Road Trip

by Amy Ruhlin

James Taylor released a song in 1976 called, "Nothing Like A Hundred Miles." Whenever I'd hear it, I longed for the road and for the sight of that yellow line disappearing behind me in my rear-view mirror. I loved the refrain: "There's nothing like a hundred miles between me and trouble in my mind. There's nothing like a hundred miles somebody show me the yellow line."

The lyrics have stayed with me all of these years, rumbling around in my head as I envision black tires moving along faded asphalt. When I get restless, which is often, those words roll into the back of my throat and up to the tip of my tongue, and then I know that it's time for a road trip.

I'm not sure when my love affair with the road began. Maybe it was the summer my mother and I loaded up my tiny Honda Civic 1200, which had no air conditioner, and drove from our small North Carolina town all the way to Portland, Oregon. My mother was 54-years-old and she didn't think twice about the driving conditions or how she'd fare on such a long trip. She had boundless energy and in fact, years later, when she turned 70, she traveled through Europe for the first time.

I was 17 when we drove to Portland. Each time we crossed a state line, I entered a new world where a surprise seemed to be waiting just for me.

In Kansas, we made a pit stop at a gas station. As I opened the door to the ladies room, I heard familiar voices and then I saw two faces I knew, girlfriends from my hometown who were on an adventure of their own with a teen camping tour of the West. We screamed and giggled because honestly, what were the chances? We were on a dusty road in the middle of the prairie, 900 miles from home. Kansas opened me up to the possibilities of finding magic anywhere, even in a run-down gas station surrounded by empty fields.

In New Mexico, my mother and I drove along two-lane roads weaving my car through towering pink canyons. One late afternoon I saw a blue flashing light behind us, so I pulled over to the shoulder of the road and stopped the car. I rolled down my window and a police officer wearing a cowboy hat appeared over my left shoulder. I'd never seen a cop wearing a cowboy hat. He glanced at our license plate and asked us what we were doing so far from home and if we realized that we were speeding. We told him that we had no idea. He looked up at the sky for a few moments and then he told us that $55.00 should cover the fine, so we handed over our cash. Later, after he was gone, my mother said that she hoped he bought himself something nice with our money.

When we drove back home and crossed the North Carolina state line along the edge of the Appalachian Mountains, I told my mother that I hadn't seen anything prettier than these ancient, green hills that I had grown up in. It's amazing what you learn out on the road.

My husband had a different travel experience during his formative years. He lived overseas so he grew up with transatlantic flights and Eurail passes. After we married, I had to convince him of the glories of the road.

One summer when we were in our mid-20s and living in the Midwest, I said "Let's drive to California!" And he said, "Are you crazy?" But once I got him on the road he leaned his head back, shut his eyes and said, "This is great."

By the time we made it to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, he was smitten with stark beauty and vast space. But then our air conditioner broke and I began to worry that he wouldn't think all of this driving was fun anymore. As we neared Nevada, a casino appeared on the horizon and when we reached it we went inside to cool off. It was the first time we'd seen a slot machine and after we'd used up our roll of coins we got back in the car and drove to Oakland, California in the cool evening air.

A few weeks ago, I began to hear the rumblings of the old James Taylor song rolling around in my head. Our son was going on a high school spring trip soon so my husband and I would have some days to ourselves.

"We have a whole week," I told him. "Let’s go somewhere!"

"How about Santa Fe?" he suggested. "You've always wanted to go there."

He knew what was coming next because we've been having the same conversation for thirty years. He suggests a flight and I offer an alternative.

"Well," I said, "We could always drive somewhere."

He said that would be fine. He's a good sport, my husband. Although I do sometimes acquiesce, and travel his way.

I flew to Italy with him a few years ago and I must say, those nine hours of my white knuckles and constant fear that the plane was going down any minute and we'd never see our children again were worth it once I stepped onto the streets of Rome. I was thrilled to be in the Eternal City but I sure was glad when our plane landed safely back home so I could start planning our next road trip.

I got out my map to see where we could go while our son was away. We began to make plans, but then we began to have doubts. Maybe the driving would be too hard on my husband's fragile back. Maybe we were getting too old for long road trips. Maybe I needed to load up on Xanax and fly away to some far-off land.  Instead, we drove to Nashville, Tennessee.

Music City was great and on the drive there we discovered a winery that makes a delicious Cabernet, a beautiful University in the Cumberland Plateau and the factory where our favorite cast iron pots are made.  There were so many surprises waiting for us out there along the Tennessee roads.

We hope to travel a lot in the years to come. And I will fly when I must. But all I really want is for somebody to just show me the yellow line.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

I'm Glad My Husband Kept His Albums

by Amy Ruhlin

I met my husband in the early 1980s while we were in college. He was a DJ at the campus radio station and sometimes I would visit him during his shows. I can remember just how he looked sitting at the microphone flanked by two turntables and surrounded by four walls of albums. He had a contented smile and long sideburns and there was always a cold can of coke on the desk and a smoldering Marlboro Light in the ashtray. He'd queue up songs and speak to his listeners with knowledge and passion about the music and the musicians. He was a boy of twenty and he was clearly in his element.
Sometimes he would play songs just for me. I'd sit in my dorm room dressed in my flowing skirts and leather boots and wait for them, and when they played, I'd swoon. We were living in southern Louisiana where the culture was thick, the nights were steamy and music was everywhere. It was a gritty, dreamy place to fall in love and to consider the possibilities of a life together.
He had his own personal collection of albums. There were 800 of them, each album placed inside the album cover and then protected with a plastic sleeve. He liked to organize them by the name of the band or by the type of music and he'd dust them with a vinyl cleaner called a discwasher. I was the great love of his life but those albums were a close second.
We got married and began our journey together and the albums came with us. In our first apartment, we stored them in wooden crates on the living room floor between large wood grain speakers. But then we moved to a different state and the albums got moved to the basement. We were busy and happy with our careers and our lives and though we still loved music, it didn't take center stage as it once had.
In the years that followed, we had two children and we moved three more times. And during each move, the 800 albums were carefully loaded onto the moving truck. But then they'd get tucked away into the back of a closet while we mostly listened to lullabies and children's television theme songs and storybooks.
As the kids grew, we watched CD's and Mp3's burst onto the scene. And then my husband's albums didn't seem to matter much anymore. I didn't think much about them until I was cleaning out a closet one day.
"Why do you still have all these albums?" I asked him. "Don't you think it's time we get rid of them? They take up too much room in the closet."
"I'll build shelves for them," he said. "There's nothing like the sound of an album. They'll make a comeback one day."
He built sturdy shelves in the closet, making sure they would hold all of that weight. "They look great," I told him. But secretly, I rolled my eyes and thought he was being silly and juvenile and wondered why he couldn't just move on and get rid of the damn things.
The albums have been on the shelves and out of the way for several years. I had almost forgotten about them until I walked into our office last week and saw my husband converting them to CD's. I sat down on the sofa in my yoga pants and fuzzy socks and I watched him as he tenderly slid an album out of its sleeve and placed it on the turntable. I watched him pick up the same discwasher that he had 30 years ago and run it across the smooth vinyl.
And then I watched the worries and concern of a 51-year-old man melt away and in their place was a twenty-year-old boy in his element. My yoga pants felt like a long skirt and my fuzzy socks turned into kick-ass leather boots. I felt full of grit and dreams as I considered the possibilities of the second half of our life together.
"This album sounds great," I heard myself say. The sound has so much...depth. It's so much better than a CD or Mp3."
My husband gave me a contented smile and I swear I smelled a Marlboro Light burning somewhere.
My husband is right. There's nothing like the sound of an album.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

My Daughter:The Same And Different As Me

by Amy Ruhlin

My daughter is home from college for the weekend. I see her walking towards me from across the room and for a moment, I am looking at myself when I was a girl of 20. The sight of her as a young me is so startling that I catch my breath. Since the day that she was born, I have watched in amazement, and often with relief, how different she is from me.
She has her father's eyes and the shape of his face. She has her own upturned nose and perfectly square jaw. She is well-proportioned and I am long-limbed. Her features are subtle and soft while mine are sharp and angular.
She dresses in colorful, flowery prints while I wear dark solids. She paints her nails: light green on her fingers and royal blue on her toes, colors my own hands and feet have never seen. She is sweet-natured and she is a good listener; she gives you her full attention with genuine concern. I am easily rattled and I talk too much, intent on making my point, sometimes failing to hear hers. She is patient and I am not.
She comes closer to me and I wonder if maybe it's the hair that makes her look like me: She wears it long and parted down the middle, as mine was at her age. But her hair is sleek and smooth; mine was coarse and wavy. She smiles at me and I realize that her smile is the same as mine: wide with straight teeth, a subtle similarity that seems to be asking me to take a closer look.
It's been so easy for me to see how my daughter is not like me. Our differences have created healthy boundaries and stark contrasts. They've allowed me to see that she is her own person and not an extension of me. I've seen in her traits that I only wish I had. I've seen in her, a quiet strength that made me question my own strength.
But today, I've seen myself in her and it made me smile. It made me think of ways in which we are alike.
We both move through challenges with fierce determination in the face of persistent self-doubts. We are both conscientious workers but we prefer lazy days. We both enjoy company but crave solitude.
2013-02-18-IMG_0466002.JPGWe both love words and we both write and we read books together. We both like yoga and we can strike a pose of downward dog or half moon together. We share an interest in politics and we laugh and cry together during romantic comedies. We both feel a little afraid when the plane takes off and breathe out together when it lands.
She will be 21 soon. And I now see that the old cliché, "a daughter is a little girl who grows up to be a friend," is actually true. And like most friends, my daughter and I are very different, and yet, at the same time, so very much the same.

Monday, February 4, 2013

I Thought We Were In This Together

by Amy Ruhlin

My husband has grown a beard. I've known him for 30 years and he has not once, not ever, tried to grow any type of facial hair at all.

Our 20-year-old daughter became concerned when she saw it. She said that surely he would shave soon; it is so unlike him to grow a beard.

And then she asked me if this could be his midlife crisis.

"Why, yes," I told her, trying to contain my excitement, "actually, I think it is."

"Well," she said, "if this is the extent of it, then that is good news."

I know that she said this with great relief, even though she said it by text, because she witnessed my own midlife adjustment. She was often in the room as the hormones shifted, the tears spilled and the mood changed.

I agreed with my daughter that her Dad's beard was benign midlife angst. But I was also secretly thrilled. For years, I had been hoping that he would exhibit some mild hysteria so that I didn't look so bad.

My husband is a rock. He is calm and patient and kind and level-headed. And although I love and appreciate these qualities, they made him seem like a saint as he sailed through midlife while I turned into Medusa.

He and I have been together for the majority of our adult lives.

We carved out our careers and moved into full adulthood together in our twenties.

We created a family and built a home together in our thirties.

We entered our forties together and after a few years, I fell apart. But he did not and it didn't seem fair. I thought we were in this together.

I began to toss and turn at night and wake up in sweat while he peacefully snored beside me.

I began to face the reality that I had to let go of my babies because somehow, they grew up.  It was not easy letting go and I struggled. And since my husband was just as involved in raising our children as I was, I assumed that he was struggling too.

"Aren't you sad that the kids aren't little anymore?" I would ask.

"Not all all," he would say. "Those were great times but now they are older and these are good times too."

I was sure he was in denial , so I found old photos of the kids when they were small and adorable and held them up close to his face.

"Look," I'd plead, "doesn't it just kill you that those days are gone?"  But he would only smile and say, "Nah, those were fun days but now we've just moved on to different days. You know, circle of life and all that stuff." He was taking it all in stride and it was maddening.

I began to count the number of grey hairs on my head and I noticed that my husband didn't have any. Not one. As I increased the number of highlights in my hair, he combed through the same thick, dark hair he's had since he was 21.

I didn't like this solo trip. But things are looking up now that we are in our fifties.

My husband has grown a beard.  A crazy, woolly, middle-aged , grey beard.

Thank you, honey. I'm so glad we are in this together.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Thank You, Jodie

by Amy Ruhlin

On the night of the Golden Globe Awards I watched the news as my husband cooked lemon garlic pork chops and mustard greens.  Our plan was a quiet dinner. We had no intention of watching the awards show; it’s really not our thing.  But during a commercial break from the news, I caught a glimpse of the red carpet interviews.
Over the hiss of sizzling pork I asked my husband if he wanted to watch the Golden Globes, just for fun.  He said sure, so I found our old bamboo TV dinner trays in the pantry and we parked ourselves in front of the television to take in all of the glamour and glitz.

I knew our college-aged daughter would be watching. I knew that this was something that we could really talk about; something that I could text and tweet to her that would get her attention.  Sometimes she ignores her old mom’s silly texts and tweets.  

I looked for her in my twitter stream. I tweeted about Anne Hathaway’s hair; my daughter adores her and we both think Anne’s short hairstyle is terrific. I sent her texts about Adele and Amy and Tina, three women whom I know she admires.
And then Jodie spoke. And I wondered if my daughter had seen any of her movies. My daughter is 20 after all, and Jodie is my age.  I wondered what she thought of Jodie’s speech so I sent her a text: “Did you see Jodie Foster’s speech?” I wasn’t expecting a reply but she surprised me and texted right back: “Yeah.  She’s so cool.”

Jodie made me glad that I ate my pork chops and mustard greens on a bamboo tray.  She made me proud to be fifty.  She bridged a 30 year age gap between my daughter and me with her simple yet powerful words of love and with her honesty in expressing the universal longing to be understood and to be seen.
Thank you Jodie. Thank you for being a model of vulnerability, authenticity and true strength. This fellow 50-year-old mom and her 20-year-old daughter both think that you are so very cool.

Friday, January 4, 2013

My Wish For An Ordinary Year

by Amy Ruhlin                   

It's New Year's Eve and my husband and I are at home. We are dressed for the evening in our favorite sweats, soft slippers and fuzzy socks. We sit in front of the fireplace as our dinner simmers on the stove. The food smells good and the fire is warm. We open a bottle of red wine and it tastes especially smooth. "It was on sale," my husband says, and we grin as we take our first sips, enjoying the pleasure of a good wine at a cheap price.

Our son walks into the room and shows us that he is dressed for the evening, too."Do I look OK?" he asks. He is wearing dress pants, a collared shirt and a striped bow tie. He is 17 and tall and handsome.

"You look terrific," we say. I can see the excitement in his face as he anticipates his evening: dinner out with a large group of friends and a bonfire at midnight.

Our daughter is away on a trip. She bought a new black dress for the occasion and tried it on for me before she left. She looked young and beautiful and for a moment, I wished I was 20 again and off to New York in a black dress to celebrate the New Year. The morning she left, I could feel her excitement.

When our son leaves the house, my husband and I turn on the television to watch a football game, but the power goes out and our home becomes dark and quiet. We light candles and talk about the past year and our memories seem especially sweet as we share them in a room illuminated from the light of three small flames.

From our window, we can see that the entire street is dark, so we step outside to take a look. There is no electricity for as far as we can see and the light from the moon shows off the bare limbs of the trees in winter. It is cold and the night looks especially beautiful .

Later, when the power is back on, my husband watches the football game while I read in another room. We both have our cell phones nearby in hopes of texts from our children. We don't hear from them, so my husband sends me texts, pictures of himself making silly faces and it makes me laugh. He has been making me laugh for 28 years, but tonight I think he is especially funny and tonight I laugh especially hard.

Sometimes, I miss the excitement of my youth, but tonight I do not. Tonight, I realize that I have exchanged it for something even better: I have exchanged it for the ability to see that our extraordinary times often happen in our most ordinary moments.

And I realize that as this year begins, I am no longer concerned that I have no list of resolutions. Instead, I am content knowing that my only wish is to have a most ordinary year.