Saturday, March 31, 2012

Scenes of Devastation

Thursday morning: I’m walking past the Marriott Center, trying to fit in 35 minutes of exercise, on the morning of the first day of the rest of my life. You know those days when you decide that something has to change, and that you will be as committed to exercise, and fresh food, and wholewheat bread (if bread is necessary), as you have been to Cheetos Puffs, slightly stale so they’re chewy, and working late into the night, with 2 liters of Diet Mountain Dew for company.

I’m walking by the place where I used to take Julia and Christian when they were preschoolers to swim everyday of a summer, as Nanci Griffiths says. Deseret Towers Pool, built for student recreation in the sixties, but available to community residents for $2 a swim. It was about my experiences around that pool that I wrote an essay about a woman’s body. I waxed lyrical about how we shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves, that the lessons we learn from having a woman’s body have nothing to do with size, or with lift or the ability to defy gravity. That we, the ones who have actually been pregnant, and labored, and breastfed (or at least given it a shot), should be the ones strutting in our skirted one-pieces.

That was fifteen years ago. Back when, if I looked up at the Bell Tower south of the hill, I could actually see the hands of the clock on the top in HD. Not the Degas-like vision I’m seeing now. Back when I could get pregnant, and labor, and give breastfeeding a try. Back when it was actually a pool, not just the parking lot of the new dorm towers.

I’ve changed my mind.

I live on a battlefield

Having a woman’s body is great—when you’re in your early thirties and if you put in the effort, you could actually lose thirty pounds, and run a marathon, or skate the frozen canals of Holland from north to south in an afternoon. But what about when you’ve just turned 46, and realize that your warranty’s about to expire. I have less time to live than I’ve lived; I’m closer to fifty than to forty; I’ve slipped from my mid-forties to late-forties; and my little sister is going to turn 36, and Margo, the oldest, is going to turn 56 and be able to order the chopped steak off the senior citizen’s menu at Sizzler.

Sweet memories of a bygone situation are scattered all around

Alexandra ( she who will turn 36 in October) texted me on my birthday, “Happy Birthday. I can’t believe you’re 46.” I replied, “I’m a bit afraid myself.” Bewildered might be a better word for it. My brain’s never felt better. Getting to where I feel like I might know some of the answers. But my body, well . . . . There was a moment there, between about 42 and 45 and nine months, where it could be said about me that “she’s fantastic.” But now, as the family joke/warning goes, “I’m heading for ‘handsome’.” As in, “My, she’s a handsome woman.” Normally said about a lady, a little past her prime and a little larger than her best, who, with the help of a girdle and stockings held up by a suspender belt, sails forth in the world in her Margaret Thatcher haircut, leading with her bosom and bestowing gracious, no-teeth showing half-smiles on its constituents.

As I stumble through the rubble, I’m dazed and seeing double,

I’m truly mystified

I’m thinking as I walk about all of this, about the challenge of being embodied. Fancy way to say, “I’m thinking I’m getting old. And I hate it.” I’ve only walked about a mile, and I am intensely aware of my hips, which seem to be throbbing in time to the rolling rhythm of Amy MacDonald’s “Barrowland Ballroom.” I’m also resisting the temptation to put my right hand on my stomach to take actual measurement of how much bigger it is than it was in August. But I can’t resist. Every block or so, I sneak in a stomach grab to check that, yes, it is still convex. I’m living testament to the unavoidable truth that menopause makes the metabolism slow down, the memory fail, and the sheets end up soaking wet at night.

All around there is desolation, and scenes of devastation . . .

I wake up drenched at last once a week. If not drenched, on the verge of a full-on sweat that is triggered if Kevin so much as puts a hand on me. I sleep with only the sheet, as Kevin shivers on the other side of the bed. On the nights when I don’t sweat, I still don’t sleep. I have to get up to empty my bladder. It’s not holding as much as it used to for as long as it used to. Which I can’t say for my teeth.

And everything that can has gone wrong

I carry a paring knife in my purse so that I can cut apples and prevent most of the apple ending up wedged between my gums and the crown on my lower right. Makes going through security at the airport interesting if I forget to take it out. I carry dental floss in my pockets, my purse, the center compartment of my car, because with my receding gums, I get a two for one every time I eat, hiding a snack for later with the meat that gets stuck in my teeth.

It’s going to take spine to carry on

And my eyes. I don’t know whether it’s the screen failing on our bedroom flatscreen or my eyes. All the players on Manchester United are fuzzy around their edges on a Sunday morning. I can’t stand face to face with Kevin anymore; he’s out of focus. Have to push him away to arm’s length so I can see him clearly. I won’t have to wait too long until I can’t see at all. The fold on my upper eyelid is threatening to lose its tenuous grip on gravity and cover my eyeballs completely.

My new home is a shellhole

What else? I color my hair every two weeks, because the re-growth is so outrageous, I’m skunk-like within the month. I suppose I could just go white. But, even in my very limited primer on personal beauty tips, I do believe there is a cardinal rule about not going grey when you can still get pregnant. So, I have about two years to go. Then, Heloise white might be an option, if not for the other cardinal beauty logarithm: one can be a) grey and skinny; b) brown and fat, but c) not grey and fat, until you can also order the chopped steak at Sizzler at 4.30 of a Monday afternoon.

If I look at the skin of my neck in the rearview mirror of my car, it looks like old dinnerware—covered in crazing, like a spider’s web. The skin on the back of my hands has been fired by the same kiln. (Madonna wears gloves.)

There is no consolation

A few weeks ago, Amy, the mother of one of Adam’s teammates calls me to remind me to open up the church for practice that will start in ten minutes. I tell her, “I’ll run down there in just a minute.” Forty-five minutes later, I see Kimberly, the mother of another teammate walking by my office window. I can’t for the life of me figure out why she is there. Maybe something to do with volunteering with the storytelling festival? Then the apparition of a promise to open the gym raises itself up in the cottage cheese my memory has become. I spring out of my chair in search of the key, slipping in a stomach grab on the way out the door.


I’m thinking all these things, and onto the ipod comes Nanci Griffith, “Battlefield.” I listen to the lyrics with that morning’s ruminations in mind. . . . Yes, I was the middle-aged lady laughing out loud as she strode (favoring her right hip slightly) through campus on Thursday morning. Listen to this song.

I would wish on all my lady travelers just what Nancy had as she sang about living on a battlefield: a chorus of very peppy male Fates, strumming their steel guitars, rollicking behind us as we slide into the second half of our bodies. They sound like they would be good company along the inevitable descent.

Nanci Griffith, "Battlefield."


  1. Your writing is magnificent--keep it up!

    Best to you,
    Sarah Hinze

  2. 1. You are not allowed to change your mind about the lessons of the mother body idea, because I have clung to those words since the day pregnancy launched its first all-out assault on my body back in 2005.

    2. I read an essay by Nora Ephron some years ago called "I Feel Bad About My Neck." It caused me to invest heavily in nighttime face and eye creams, which I dutifully rub all over my face and neck each night, hoping to learn from Nora's mistakes. Don't tell me it's all for naught.

    3. I love Nanci Griffith. L-O-V-E.

  3. Oh my goodness. I laughed so hard while reading this essay that I almost wet myself. (Another benefit of getting older.) I love how you think. I love how you write. I love that you can put into words what I am feeling. Thank you for a wonderful morning treat!

  4. I still share Take, Eat with someone at least twice a year. It was my favorite personal essay, yes, 15 years ago as a college freshman. I love the addition/addendum to it. :)