On New Year’s Eve at the dawn of the last decade, I was fairly miserable. Not by the “foreign power laying siege to my homeland” standard, or the “bank repossessing my house on Christmas Eve” standard. The “finding out I have a catastrophic disease” standard also did not compare, because I know people who have heard that news and seen the effect it has had on their lives. I have to make the distinction because qualifying my unhappiness by comparing it to that of others is part of who I am. The guilt that surrounds whatever feelings of dissatisfaction I may have with certain life circumstances is palpable regardless of what those more knowledgeable of the human psyche have said. “There is no hierarchy of suffering,” states Dr. Edith Eva Eger, holocaust survivor and author of The Choice: Embrace the Possible. “There’s nothing that makes my pain worse or better than yours, no graph on which we can plot the relative importance of one sorrow versus another.” Still, I tend to measure, and that’s what I was doing ten years ago. Telling myself I had nothing to be unhappy about and everything to be grateful for.
After an unexpected, but welcomed early retirement when I turned 50, and three years of relatively carefree life, I took a position at a school to help pay off some debt. I was resistant to the idea because the thought of working in a school again wasn’t something I ever thought I’d do. It wasn’t the kids–they were never the issue. It was more my inability to deal with the intensity of my approach to it all; I wasn’t a duck and had I been, water would not have rolled off my back, ever. I let school consume my life. Everything and everyone else took a backseat–myself included. I never learned how to balance it all. In the end, I only wanted to be as far away from it as I could get. Yet there I was, about six months into my new position and wondering how I would make it until June.
I thought Mark Bittman’s “101 Simple Salads for the Season” might save me, but I ran out of gas about 25 salads in. It wasn’t the salads. It was the salads plus the photos plus the writing after a full day at work that had me questioning why I’d ever tackle a project like that. Julie Powell of Julie and Julia fame had tackled something far more complicated than assembling a few months worth of salads, so what was my problem? I knew and admired several others who had full time careers and happily baked, photographed, and wrote about their creations with impressive stamina and glee.
Fully immersed in self-pity, I happened upon a photography project. It seemed simple enough and the perfect distractor. I was to take a photo a day for 365 days. It could be any kind of photo, taken with my phone or my Canon–no theme, just shoot. And so I did. I shot and I explored and experimented my way to June and beyond. When I look through the photos now, I see more closely what else was going on a decade ago.
My youngest son was soon going to be graduating from high school and looking ahead to college. We weren’t all that sure whether living in a city away from home was such a good idea for someone who tended not to be organized and neglected to consistently consider that passing grades mattered. But the larger issue of having an empty house affected me far more than I had anticipated.
My mother had recently moved from the area as well. She was off on an adventure with her newest husband; they were going to see the US from a huge motorhome she had spent her life savings on, searching for the perfect place to make their forever home–a home where she could enjoy the changing seasons and especially Fall. I remember telling her husband to take care of her as we said our goodbyes. I remember that as much as I was excited that she was doing something she had wanted to do for a very long time, I was sad she was leaving and wondered how long it would be before I saw her again.
It was a time of trying to hang on to blogs and writing in general. Of thinking about middle age and what to make of it. I had confirmed without a doubt I was no longer an educator, but did I have any idea of what might come next or who I should be?
Trying to lose weight fell under the guise of trying to be more healthy. I’d eat better, drink less wine, and get more exercise. In the process, I’d tear the meniscus in my right knee just about the time we expected to leave for a much anticipated trip to England. I should mention that along with the photo a day project, planning this trip also motivated me to suck it up and deal with the sad sack I had become. That a knee injury would keep me from going on that trip seemed impossible. It didn’t, but I still needed surgery and physical therapy would follow.
Nearly ten years had passed before I realized I was once more mired in a glumness that I couldn’t shake. I was taking more photos than ever, and working to learn more about how to improve my skills. A major international magazine purchased rights to one of my photos for two of their issues so surely, I must have been headed in the right direction. I actually made good progress on a couple of different lose weight/exercise more goals which helped me hike nearly 100 miles from Inn to Inn in Southwest England. I even managed to draft a novel. But an unexpected event–one that might have had dire consequences–took a much different toll.
The brain hemorrhage I sustained and survived late in 2017 with only the slightest trace of a deficit left me with something else. It was as if a fog had settled over my life. I thought I felt fine, but every day, I sensed a sort of disorientation. What mattered before tended not to as much as it had. My mantra became, “It doesn’t matter” whenever I felt myself getting worked up over anything. My attention span became more erratic. My emotions, also, tended to have more lows than highs and take wild swings when melancholy set in. A pervasive sadness about life in general hovered no matter what I was involved in.
To complicate things, my oldest son was involved in an accident that would leave more than one mark on his life and as a result, decided a change of life was important. He moved away from our area. His younger brother continued to struggle at times with his job, his relationship, and his future in general. Our youngest, back at home after college, was working to build a business as an artist by taking commissions, but was still not making enough to support a life for himself–especially one in expensive Southern California. My mother’s relationship with her husband was in a nose dive from one day to the next, and the drama surrounding it sucked myself and other family members down with each flare up. My husband’s career was like a runaway train on a track with no end in sight; he worked seven days a week most weeks, and as many as 12 hours a day. As someone who is wired to help others, to lay out plans and find solutions, the weight of the challenges people I most cared for in life was unrelentingly crushing.
Taking a photo a day wouldn’t necessarily make a difference at this point, because it was something I did by routine (regardless of whether my Instagram gallery illustrates that or not). Nor would making a personal challenge to join a theme based photography group, even though I had the very best of intentions. What did help was making a commitment to get out and explore the larger area we’d lived in most of our lives by taking hikes, short day trips, and excursions we’d heard about for years but had never taken advantage of. They were pleasant distractions–something to look forward to. I also began to explore a hillside near our house where native plants grew. I photographed them, learned their names, and read about how indigenous people once used them. I kept projects going in the house on a tighter turn around schedule. I worked on revisions for the novel I’d written (and still have done nothing with). I planned two more extended trips. In short, I stayed busy. I counted my many blessings. I made new plans.
There are some uncanny coincidences to consider as I write and think of where I am a decade later. I’ve injured my left knee–and this time, there will be a much more prolonged recovery. Although there is no trip planned and waiting, getting out to enjoy our first winter in Maine has certainly been affected. I’ve decided the message is to take things slowly, observe the many differences from any winter I’ve known, and enjoy time to engage in sedentary activities. Moderate with some dedicated time on a stationary bike. Enjoy my husband’s company now that he’s semi-retired. Think about the day trips and weekend get aways we can take now that we’re in a completely different area of the country. Invite people to visit and stay. Get involved in our new town. Grow some roots.
I’ll be 73 years of age when this new decade rolls into the next, and regardless of my circumstances, I plan to keep busy. I will continue to learn and grow as a good human should make every attempt to do. I’ll wish those I care about most happiness in their lives–and if they aren’t sure about where to find it, suggest they step away from sameness and cycles that repeat to no good end. To make a change for themselves.
We did and it’s made all the difference.
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