Seeing Time in Colors: On Turning 50

There it is, I’m turning 50 in a few days. That’s a lot of years to have lived a mostly blessed life, and, although a recent FB test I’d like to curse claims I will only live to 65 – or was it 67?– I plan and hope to be just about half way through my life’s journey. Perhaps it’s myself I should blame for having been suckered into taking the stupid “How Old Will You Get?” quiz and not the quiz itself. Hmm.

When I turned 40, I celebrated with a huge birthday bash: a sit-down dinner for 40 marvelous girlfriends, a super-long beautifully decorated table set up in our cleared-out living room for the occasion. The evening was not just grand, but meaningful as well. In addition to a constant flow of the then newly popular pink libation known as Cosmopolitan, bar tendered and generously poured by my at the time husband and his at the time best friend – the only males present aside from my 3 sons – it was the flowing of all the abundant words of inspiration, friendship and gratitude that left me in awe. The combination of extreme happiness, multiple Cosmos and beautiful speeches and toasts is about as good a time as anyone can have.

Much has changed since then. I am no longer married to that fun and larger-than-life husband, I no longer live in that gracious ginormous home where guests and parties made so much sense; my boys are mostly all grown up, and life has been marked by – enriched by – what Dante names traviamento, moments of getting lost. Friendships have waxed and waned, money has come and gone (mostly gone “whooozz”), and I am at the brink of a new dawn, a new leg of the journey. The empty nester. The midlife re-configuration. Being in love. The appropriation of the 50+ right to say “Frankly, I don’t give a damn” more often, and to stop feeling guilty about…so much. So much.

“What would you like for your 50th birthday gift?” my mom and sister asked me a while back. Old habits made me think about objects. Gorgeous bohemian tchotchkes that would beautify me or my home that they could send me in the mail. However, new habits made me think about an experience and time. With them. So, we are meeting up in Iceland for a long week-end – a sort of half-way point between Norway and the U.S East Coast, to relish in each other “while we have us” as my dad used to say.

Despite all of my existentially profound talk of more lofty goals and ethics than the lowly accumulation of earthly goods, the fact is that my watch is broken, and I could use a new one. My boyfriend has generously offered to bestow me with one, and the model I covet, yes covet, is a pricey, sleek steel Scandinavian design with a colorful face. The problem is, I can’t decide on what color. I can easily imagine each vibrant, inspirational shade look fabulous on my wrist, but alas, I can’t have them all and will have to choose one. Woe is me.

The good news is I have managed to narrow it down to three: Purple – the hue of a perfect, voluptious eggplant, or aubergine, one of my favorite foods and colors; orange – the tint of the brightest, happiest and most productive day; lime green – the hue of a cool spring morning, crisp, fresh and full of hope. The bad news is, each color brings with it all sorts of associations. I used to joke with my ex, the accountant, that he saw the world exclusively in a relationship of numbers and percentages, whereas I understood it through a lens of intense color awareness, symphonies or cacophonies alike.

With purple comes the memory of the loving home where I raised my boys and lived as a married woman, where I had sought to bohemian-ize the stately foyer and main stairway walls by painting them in a luscious Benjamin Moore purple – was it “exotic purple” or “purplicious”? – a color that was painted over by my ex’s new partner – and so, do I want to carry with me, like a shackle on my wrist, a reminder of what could no longer be, of loss and change and inevitability?

With orange I see the inspiration of creativity and the feeling I have when I must write the next word, and the next and the next until they pour out of me like molten lava to form another idea and paragraph that give my life energy and purpose. But with this commitment to letting go also comes the danger of too much, of exploding emotions and a more rapid heartbeat. Of loosing control. Do I want the visual, ticking reminder of how I feel too often inside, when my emotions get the better of me, like licking, greedy flames consuming my ability to be rational and calm?

With lime green, that delightful and tranquil stop on the color palette that beckons me to rest for a while, to stop worrying and allow myself to be carried along without so much effort; as if I had checked in to a sanatorium somewhere in the Swiss Alps, where a nurse wearing a crisp and white uniform addresses me in compassionate whispers with a strange but soothing accent, bringing me my medicine and tea on a tray while I sit in a teak chaise long on the sprawling lawn, overlooking the orchard and the blue mountains in the distance. Nodding off, letting a pain-free life pass by. Do I want to cast furtive glances at the time that remains, the time that has passed, the time of the present, feeling the detached coolness of this inviting hue of hospital-ity?

My broken watch is beside me on the counter. It’s strong steel rim and band, unproblematic white face with several fine hairline cracks, arms that aren’t quite in synch with passing time anymore. They seem to lag, to be heavy, to be lacking some energy despite the battery that works just fine. Like its owner, age is having its effects on some of the mechanics, but it still shines at me with a seeming timeless willingness to keep trying. To keep going. To keep doing its job. I think I’ll take it back again to the jeweler and ask her to take another look.

A Prologue to Memoir

Working title: Tribal Matters: Diaries of The Viking Jewess

“So, are you going to stay Jewish?” the woman asks me as she had learned of my recent divorce. We stand in line at the local Starbucks and she says it just loudly enough for the man in front of us to hear. Holy crap, is it possible she thinks I divorced my identity? Holding a stainless steel coffee mug, with a Bluetooth blinking from his left ear as if he heard what I was thinking, the man turns and glances at me in a way that probably feels discreet to him, but the added attention makes me just feel more flustered. A wave of indignation mixed with frustration flush through me. I am in my late forties, and I have been Jewish since, at the age of twenty-three, I immersed in a mikvah[1] just a few weeks before I married my Jewish boyfriend in an Orthodox ceremony. Somehow, the timing and formulation of this woman’s question made a seemingly mundane instance in the Sunday morning line at the coffee shop feel like I was hurled into the epicenter of the sudden impact of all the moments –the good, the bad and the beautiful – of my Jewish life thus far, and that it was up to me to justify it all. And she wasn’t even my own conscience. Or God. She was an acquaintance whom I knew from various synagogue events and run-ins at the kosher market. Before I respond, with as much patience and compassion as I can muster, I take a deep breath. I swallow. Be kind. Don’t cry. “Sure,” I begin, “it’s not like that’s a switch you can just turn off.” I think I even manage an optimistic smile, but it was probably a smile that I couldn’t help lace with a slight air of surprise, hoping maybe my interlocutor would notice; my eyebrows raised just so. She smiled back at me the way you might see a person labor to beam sympathetically at a handicapped participant at the Special Olympics who bravely battles through an event only to win the consolation prize. As if she were thinking, “Poor soul, after everything she’s been through.”

But the truth is, the journey had been extraordinary so far, and was only just beginning.

Journey

[1] A mikvah is a Jewish ritual bath or pool consisting of part rainwater and part tap water, used for immersion in conversions, for monthly use by women after menstruation, before the Sabbath and holidays by some orthodox men, and by some to immerse new household kitchen utensils, in order to render them “kosher” and fit for use in a Jewish home. The main idea is ritual and spiritual purification.

When Athens isn’t in Greece

Unless you are one of the twenty four thousand students enrolled at Ohio University, in Athens, or you count as one of the twenty thousand inhabitants of the town which is built around the university, chances are you think, like I did, that Athens is in Greece, and not an hour and twenty minutes south-east of Columbus, Ohio. At first sight, the conference call for papers for the African Literature Association got me excited when I saw that it was being held in Athens, thinking I may finally walk in the footsteps of the fathers of western philosophy, and possibly be inspired by pure osmosis. Of course I was soon to realize that the Athens I was headed for was not in Europe but slightly more westward. I admit my knowledge of names and places in the U.S. is a bit limited, since I still have a hard time dealing with the fact that Paris and Norway are in Maine, and not just two places in Europe where I like to eat crêpes sucrées and herring.

Anyway, after I attended the conference, I learned a few lessons on the way.

Lesson number 1: Don’t assume the shuttle service from the airport will actually coordinate with your flights, but shop for flights that will coordinate with the twice-a-day shuttle service.

Lesson number 2: Don’t get too excited when the domestic ticket seems inexpensive, as America is a place (ok, continent) with huge distances, and so when you travel from A to B, there is usually a C involved, and it’s even further away from A than you had initially imagined, and thus B usually turns out not be your final destination. This I learned after packing at 1:15 am the morning of my 5am flight from Connecticut, as I started cold sweating while clicking my way around the web, searching for alternative ways of getting from the airport in Columbus (B) to my final destination at Ohio University (C). Athens Car Service would take me in what seemed like style, though I didn’t care much about the style part (pictures of limos and sleek sedans on their website) since I just wanted to get safely from A to B, which had now become C.

As I arrived in Columbus and emerged from the baggage claim looking hopefully at the various drivers standing around holding little signs with hand scribbled names on them, my cell phone rang. It was Tony the driver, telling me he was just pulling up to the terminal, did I want to go out to the curb and look for him? Sure, I said, and we stayed on the phone while I made my way outside. I’m the tall blond Norwegian woman with a red suitcase, I said, thinking I’d stick out like a sore thumb with my near six foot frame, forgetting that he couldn’t see the “Norwegian” part. He informed me that he was in a non-descript retired cop car, with the search lights still intact. Ah, I said, I’ve always wanted to ride in a cop car. Tony pulled up and came out to greet me, and immediately offered an excuse for the banged up, dirty and decidedly tired looking vehicle, slightly off from the glossy images on their web site.

Lesson number 3: Don’t believe everything you see on the web. While Tony was shoving junk aside in the trunk to make room for my bags, I thought to myself, ok, Miss Snooty, let it go, the guy’s nice, it’s a sunny day, and after all, your plane landed safely. Tony was a doll; a young, friendly, inquisitive fellow, with a fashionably scruffy, grunge-ascribed amount of facial hair, an overgrown goatee, a generous middle and a few tattoos. I wondered briefly about how he perceived me. Did I seem older, foreign; could he tell I was a mother by the way I spoke, that my heart was broken? We talked about a host of different things on the road from Columbus to Athens; family, love, travel, education, religion, to name a few. You can cover a lot in an hour and twenty minutes when you don’t shut down, and find your fellow humans in general a source of endless inspiration and wonder. Each and every one of us has a rich reservoir of thoughts, ideas, feelings, passions and aversions, in short, a walking story to be told. Tony never knew his dad, and told me he was born out of wedlock. Young people still use those terms?- I thought to myself and listened to his narrative of Scottish heritage, dropping out of college twice, girlfriend woes and dreams of one day traveling abroad.

Almost at our destination, he pulled over to a liquor store, for I had asked him to stop if we passed one so I could pick up a bottle of wine for the hotel. I felt like I had been on a road trip of sorts, and for some reason unknown to me, I bought a bottle of gin also, thinking for a brief, impulsive moment I might want to have some booze after my cop car ride. Perhaps the cultural undertones of Appalachia were calling out to me, since I was after all in the neighborhood, just barely west, and I felt happy and almost excited, as I had enjoyed my unpretentious conversation with Tony.

But alas, I never opened the gin bottle during my stay, and that was probably a wise thing, since drinking hard liquor alone in ones hotel room is not necessarily a good thing, generally speaking. So, I was planning on offering the bottle to Tony as a token of appreciation for our pleasant conversation, when he was picking me up at 4 am a few days later, for the airport run in reverse. This time he had talked about bringing the limo, so that the dame (that was me) could travel in style.

While it is not fun getting up before 4 am, I was soon to enjoy a few smiles when I saw the limo pulling up the morning of my departure. At first I thought my early riser’s vision was still adjusting to the darkness but I soon realized that the blurry image of a long, gray, amorphous structure on four wheels with a grating sounding engine and tinted windows was indeed the royal limo of Athens, the pride and joy of the company, the hip–mobile for special runs and special customers. I imagined Quentin Tarantino or the Cohen brothers getting excited about having this kind of prop for one of their films. To my disappointment Tony had overslept, and in his stead was the company dispatcher Terry. Since I felt a little weird offering a guy I didn’t know a bottle of gin before 6 am, I decided to hold on to it, and gave him some cash instead for tips. Whisking past the sleepy small towns of suburban Columbus, nodding off from time to time with Terry’s radio humming low in the background, I appreciated the quiet and the opportunity to check out, while being transported, perhaps not in grand style, but in total comfort and a certain je ne sais quoi of recyclable hipness, and I was just happy that I was going from C back to B, and then eventually to arrive at A, where my kids would be waiting for their mamma’s safe return.

Thinking about the things I learned as I journeyed, the experiences that never make it onto our CV or matter when we interview for a job, I imagined that this Athens too had inspired me by osmosis. This is the stuff of life that is simply called living, another few days filled with seemingly trivial events as we journey on, insignificant happenings perhaps, but that we may share with our children or friends as we create the stories of our lives.  Every day, different and new adventures, through the letters of the alphabet, from A via B to C, until one day we reach the end. Z.

Except in Norway there are three more letters at the end of the alphabet: Æ, Ø and Å, and I think that’s why I want to retire there, so perhaps I will continue to be inspired, by osmosis, meandering the distance of a few more letters, giving way to another story or two.