Midlife Maps

I love maps. Always have. I credit my father with helping to develop this affection, and specifically his list of qualities all great women should have. I love maps visually (in particular I love the abstract representation of subway maps, most of all the London Tube map) and I love what they represent. I love the way maps empower you to find your way around the world.

For most of my life, the map was always very clear. I simply aimed for the most obvious achievement and followed the map to it. This of course requires privileging the desires and adulation of the world over ones own internal wants, but I did that long ago and so successfully that I fear I’ve lost all ability to read my own compass.

The map was obvious. Sure, I had to work hard at some things and occasionally there was a fork in the road: Exeter or Andover? English major or Chemistry major? Live in Boston, New York, or San Francisco after graduation? But seriously, in retrospect, I was always very clear on what my next goal was. Guided by the approval of the world, I navigated my way from achievement to achievement.

Getting married and having children was even, on some level, on the map. I knew that I wanted children, and while I got pregnant by surprise and a year earlier than I had intended (something that I am certain contributed to my crippling post partum depression) it was all a part of the general plan.

But now I face my 35th birthday and a growing conviction that the map is no longer clear. In fact, I fear that there is no map anymore. And I don’t have GPS.

What do you do in midlife when there are no more obvious achievements to aim for? I suppose I could turn this need for approval and adulation onto my children and live vicariously through their successes. I am glad I’m not doing that. I do not recall making an explicit decision not to; my parenting has always been instinctive rather than measured, gut-driven rather than carefully constructed. I must realize the toxicity that would result from that choice.

So I guess that is one small thing I’m glad I did right (at least I think that is the right choice). But I wonder what price I paid by so thoroughly internalizing the world’s criteria as my own, by seeking validation from external rather than internal sources. When did I lose touch with my own desires, when did I stop being able to hear the internal voice that should be directing me now? I’m clear on a few things and tremendously murky on the rest.

It reflects immaturity that I am still hoping I’ll discover what The Thing I Am Supposed To Be Doing. It’s like I expect to show up at my office one morning to find the map to the next 35 years gift-wrapped on my desk. I do realize, intellectually, that this isn’t going to happen. I know in my brain that what I have to do now is learn to tune in, but I can’t figure out how.

I am sure that my internal map is going to be complex and inscrutable, with destinations less clearly marked than those I’ve sought so far. I suspect, too, that they may be some uncrossable marshes between where I am now and where I am going to end up. I hope I still have my sixth grade gumption and confidence when I head into them. But of course, what I know now that I didn’t then is that you can never know what is crossable and what is not before you set out. And I am sure that is truer in the landscape of the heart than anywhere else.

Advice on where to find my map is welcome.

Nothing gold can stay

Life is elegaic right now. Maybe it’s the closing of the school year, maybe it’s the coming of spring and the turning of another year, maybe it’s just some new shot of melancholy coursing through my veins. It’s a sad time. Things feel as achingly beautiful as this sky – blue with scattered pink clouds, light after rain, with the promise of night falling.

As I round the curve to 35 I find myself unexpectedly introspective about Life: what it means, who I want to spend it with, what I want to spend my time doing, who I want to be. How is it that I am 35, firmly in midlife, and I still feel utterly unsure about the basic questions like What I Want To Be When I Grow Up? I feel 18 and 75 simultaneously – immature, unprepared for this level of responsibility and adulthood, absolutely unqualified to raise actual children, and at the same time fragile, aware of the fleeting nature of it all, cynical and afraid in ways that only Real Life can make you.

This is surely the Middle Place, and I feel overwhelmed lately, unable to figure out how to navigate. I am trying so hard and yet so ineffectually. How can I balance the demands of those close to me, the obligations of my life, and the continued effort to figure out who the hell I am? Plus I feel an overriding sense that good God I should have figured this out by now! Didn’t I think 35 was Grown Up? Adult? The prime of life, some would say? I feel more confused and unsure than ever.

What I wish is that I could stand and admire a sky like the one above. Instead I fret about its imminent turning to dark, I worry about the rain coming back, and my mind races to all that is unknown and uncertain and scary. If only I could stand and breathe and look at the sky, at the sparkles on the cement pavement, at the guileless smiles on my childrens’ faces. How, how, how do I learn to do this? I positively ache for guidance here, so any wisdom welcome.

Seeking refuge, as I’ve been accused of lazily doing, in the words of others, I’ll share the poem that has been running through my head for days. Much like my Asbergers-esque habit of counting things (cars in a parking lot, people on a train, letters on a license plate, bottles of wine against a restaurant wall) in units of 8, I often find myself hearing short snippets of poems or quotations I know in my head. More than hearing them, actually, I see the words unspooling in my mind’s eye, over and over again (am still trying to figure out what exact font they seem to be in), as they chant themselves inside my head. Today, this is the anthem, whose images I find as terrifyingly true as its cadence is soothing:

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold

Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.

Then leaf subsides to leaf.
As Eden sank to grief,

So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

(Robert Frost)

Around the bend

The reason the earth is round is so you can’t see too far down the road. – Isak Dinesen

To have courage for whatever comes in life – everything lies in that. – St. Theresa of Avila

The first step on the journey is to lose your way. – Galway Kinnell

That photo of the curving bench reminds me that we can only see so far. And that attempting to plan beyond this horizon – as I so desperately try – is a futile effort. Consider this a new effort at rolling with the punches; hearing my own daughter say that was like a reminder from the universe. Oh these unintentionally funny, occasionally annoying, endlessly entertaining children of mine can be wise!

middle places

The Middle Place made me think about the various contradictions we hold in our hands at any given time. Our lives can be defined, I think, by the tensions between these contradictions, and by the ways that we address their competing needs and implications.

Tonight, I am holding a difficult set in my palm.

Young – Old
Lost – Trapped
Daughter – Mother
Wired – Tired


Disney’s film Earth opens on April 22nd (Earth Day). And if you buy a ticket during the opening week, Disney will plant a tree in the Brazilian rain forest (considered one of the most endangered on Earth because only 7% of it remains).