Confession: Over the past couple months, I’ve noticed that my husband and I have behaved rather curmudgeonly towards each other. Sure, almost 26 years of marriage can do that to a couple. I get it. But, truth be told, when I’m not just downright apathetic, I’m actually a bit concerned. From outward appearances, we have a beautiful life—two stunning, well-adjusted teenagers, a lovely home, successful careers, wonderful friendships, fulfilling opportunities, travel, companionship, adventure. There’s really not much more we could ask for. It’s just that, well … we’re cranky.
Marriage has worked well and easily for us. We’re actually a darn good team. We’re in sync. We want the best for one another. We’ve got each other’s backs. When the going gets tough, we pull together brilliantly. However, it’s during the daily ins and outs of life that we’ve fallen into this “odd way” of cherishing one another. You see, our relationship has an abundance of commitment, trust and love. Strangely, though, somehow it’s all tied together with a big bow of ill-tempered mood swings. On Doug’s substandard days, I feel like I’m living with “the Troll Under the Bridge.” Dare to cross his path, and you may just get eaten alive! And on my disagreeable days, I’m sure he feels like he’s married to a PMSing “Maleficent, the Mistress of All Evil.” At times we snap and snarl. We complain and curse. We fight and fuss. Believe me, there are moments when things just aren’t very pretty.
Last week, I was watching The Bachelorette. (I know, I know, absolutely SHAMEFUL. Mother, puh-leeze forgive me for admitting publicly that I indulge in such scandalous drivel. So, so sorry.) I think one reason I watch is because I’m intrigued with this deep universal longing everyone has to find true love, that one great romance, someone to spend the rest of our lives with, to marry and grow happily old together. I watch because I’m an over-the-top romantic. I get hooked by words like “kindred spirit,” “soul mate” and “lifelong love.” My heart not only desires to create epic love in my marriage, but it also longs to live an over-the-top, richly fulfilling life—one full of travel, adventure, romance, and, yes, breathtaking love. Still, after each episode of The Bachelorette ends and the final rose ceremony is over (when heartbroken saps are sent home packing), I’m always left wondering how it’s possible that my actual ”one true love” (whom I married nearly 26 years ago) and I get so cranky so often.
My husband Doug and I both turn 50 this year. Crazy what a sneaky thug time can be, isn’t it? He creeps up on you without warning, whacks you upside the head, and when you finally “come to,” you suddenly realize you’ve turned into a crusty old curmudgeon. Perhaps people get this way because they haven’t thought through what they really desire for the years ahead, for their second half of life. For Doug and me, everything just got so doggone busy. Looking back, it seems years were spent dodging the barraging demands that life relentlessly hurled at us—paying bills, keeping up with the loads of laundry and dirty dishes that reproduced like rabbits, focusing on advancing our careers, paying attention to our salt intake and blood pressure and cholesterol levels, raising the kids to be competent and productive, housetraining the dogs, mowing the lawn, running to hockey and basketball practices, going to church, feeding the horses, inviting neighbors over for cookouts. Too many years have been spent out of breath, huffing and puffing through it all just in order to jump the next hurdle.
I’ll never forget the time when I realized not everyone lives this way. Funny how it’s often the ordinary, most insignificant moments that create profound meaning for us to ponder. I was running late that day. Company was coming over in about an hour. I pulled up into my driveway and frantically unloaded groceries from the back of our Jeep. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted my neighbor, Caroline, sitting on her porch, drinking a Bloody Mary. I remember instantly feeling irked that she looked so content, so serene, and, well … so freshly showered. She waved sweetly, calling over to me, “Hey, Melissa, got time for a drink?” What the heck? Was she completely insane? “No, no, sorry, Caroline. Can’t. Gotta hurry up and get dinner made!” As I lugged my pasta and produce through the front door, over my shoulder I inquired enviously, and with more than a hint of edginess, “What are you doing, anyway? Taking the afternoon off?” She smiled and said something that still perplexes me to this day: “Nope, I finished up everything on my to-do list about an hour ago. I’m just hanging out. Relaxing.” I won’t forget that encounter for some time. I think about it often. In fact, it still has me in a quandary. I mean, how is it possible that someone can actually finish up EVERY item on her list? I mean, really? You got EVERYTHING done? Is that even humanly possible?
For me, life seems to demand more than I’m usually capable of giving. I feel forever behind the eight ball. And somehow, somehow I guess I’ve gotten stuck in a reactive mode instead of a creative one. Somewhere between “I’ve had it up to here” and “Don’t push me, I’m on the edge,” perhaps I gave up a wee bit too much and compromised more than I care to admit. I let “survival mode” become the norm instead of just a crucial way of getting through another crisis.
As a Professional Life Coach, it’s uncanny how often I attract clients who are challenged by the very same issues I struggle with. For example, if you have difficulties with procrastination, most likely you’ll end up coaching someone on the importance of meeting deadlines. If you have problems with intimacy, no doubt you’ll soon be coaching a client’s sex life. If you wrestle with a low self-esteem, chances are you’ll have to challenge someone’s negative beliefs around worthiness. It’s part of the job. It comes with the territory. A month ago, I coached a client on … wait for it, wait for it … growing old gracefully. And yes, you guessed it—of course this is one area of my life that needs major doses of focused attention.
When you’re coaching on a topic that you also desperately need improvement in, one of two things happens: Either you paddle even harder up the River of Denial, or, out of integrity, you become convicted and inspired to dive in and really “do the work.” This, I suppose is one of the “perks” of being a coach: We glean great wisdom from our clients’ personal journeys. Our clients often inspire and inform us. They take our breath away with the courageous acts they choose in order to design better lives for themselves. (Can you tell I LOVE my job?) So for me, the past month has been all about looking myself squarely in the mirror and accepting my greying hair, the deepening wrinkles around my eyes, and those unwanted extra pounds that add cush to my butt and belly. But even more importantly, it’s been about figuring out what I want to create during this second half of my life. What does it truly mean for me to grow old with grace? For starters, I know for sure that I can’t go on cranking the way I’ve been!
Truth be told, this past year has been really rough; one of those relentless times that kicks the crap out of you and then just keeps right on pounding on you when you’re already down. I’m exhausted, and I’m also constantly aware of the pesky presence of sadness, who, like a true nuisance, shows up uninvited to family gatherings, birthday celebrations and date nights. The other day, Doug and I had an hour free in the middle of the day so we decided to run a few quick errands together. On the way to Home Depot, Doug suddenly veered the car in the opposite direction. “Hon, where you going?” He replied, “I’ve got a migraine coming on. Let’s go to the State Park. I need some fresh air.” As we entered Moraine Hills State Park, I instantly felt myself breathing a little more deeply. We drove past the gorgeous wetlands, filled with cattails beginning to green from the bottom up. Doug parked the car. We rolled down the windows and sat there in silence. It was a perfect moment. Sacred. Words seemed pointless, almost irreverent. A gentle breeze wisped and twirled the helicopter pods falling from the maple trees, which danced like whimsical little fairies descending from the heavens. Doug reached over and held my hand. My eyes flooded. Tears began to stream. He wiped them away with quiet knowing. More tears flowed, purging some of my suppressed sadness. Sunrays winked through the newly budding trees as birds sang a cappella. Then, as if The Almighty Himself had commanded the universe to “cue the birds,” not one but two blue jays (the first I’ve seen this spring) soared overhead, hitting their mark perfectly on the birdfeeder right in front of our car. Moments like these take my breath away.
Now, I’m a big believer in finding and paying close attention to the extraordinary moments in everyday life. So as we got ready to head back home, I curiously took out my iPhone and Googled the “symbolism of blue jays.” Here’s what it read: “In the spiritual realm, the blue jay speaks of vision, truth of the heart, and clarity of thought … of higher consciousness, of focus and of taking action.” Remarkable. This was exactly what I’d been longing to create in my life going forward: clarity, vision, truth and action. I’d been researching blogs on “aging graciously” and found most to be humdrum—droning on with the typical blah-blah of how getting regular exercise decreases the likelihood of dementia, or how crucial it is to keep well-hydrated to fight off afternoon fatigue. While it’s useful information, the concepts left me bored and uninspired.
“What comes to mind for you when you hear the phrase ‘aging gracefully’?” I asked Doug as we headed home. “Hmm … well, to me it’s all about self-awareness. Knowing who you are and being secure enough to stand in your own truth and not compromise.” Okay, good. Interesting start. Better than most of the palaver I’d been reading on the Internet, anyway. Doug continued on with his thoughts: “I think it’s also about learning to live fearlessly, about being done with toxic people, eventually becoming a rock-star grandparent, and continually surprising and challenging yourself.” Wow, my grumpy troll was starting to look a lot more princely! I treasure this remarkable ability we have to bounce around ideas, playfully tossing them back and forth like a ball of twine that grows bigger and bigger as it ravels up our thoughts, hopes and dreams.
This initial conversation has evolved into an ongoing dialogue over the past couple weeks. Together, for the first time, we’re beginning to consider what’s most important to us during our aging years ahead: travel, creativity, family, spiritual growth, boatloads of goofiness, fun and laughter. We’re starting to get back on the same page again. Sure, we’re still moving at lightning speed, juggling too many plates, with an endless to-do list, but we’re actually lightening up a little more as we design an emerging life-scheme for aging well. We’re getting unstuck. Life has evolved and morphed and changed. We arrived through the first half of life without overwhelming and excruciating heartbreak. I think we’ve been cranky because we didn’t know where to go from here. (And because we’re also really tired.) Anyway, now we’re starting to get a clearer picture. We’re creating a map. Personally, I want to do this aging thing well—really, really well. I want to age graciously with Doug, the wonderful troll/prince love of my life. You see, that to me is truly epic!