Sylvia, somewhat preoccupied by deadlines and preparations for the upcoming week, asks, “Two weeks? Til what?”
“Christmas! Honestly, where are you these days? You’ve got me a little worried.”
Sylvia, with pen and another to-do list in hand, chuckles at the thought of Santa, Christmas, elves, and all the rest that overwhelms the actual spirit of the holiday. She knows all too well that it was her mother (and other women in her life) who made the magic. She decides to make one list to get her through the next fourteen days: Naughty & Nice. Don’t make her choose, Santa. She knows exactly what she deserves!
Her life is not yours to judge. Only Mrs. Claus knows what every woman faces and overcomes during this most joyous season, and sadly, it’s not all joy!
“Still in many 21st century homes, there is ‘the taken-for-granted notion that a mother is in charge of the tracking and the knowing and the thinking and the planning and the feeding and the caring and the checking and the doing unless she has worked to make other arrangements (which then entail more knowing and more thinking and more tracking and more doing),’ Darcy Lockman writes in “All the Rage: Mothers, Fathers, and the Myth of Equal Partnership.” (https://www.cnn.com/2022/12/06/opinions/holiday-labor-toll-on-women-alaimo/index.html)
Sylvia hangs up the phone; her early morning chat with Erma leaves her motivated but strangely empty. The plan was to get a lot done today, perhaps even to move at lightning speed to complete the remaining items on her to-do holiday list. Plans change, though.
As she gulps the last from her late-morning cup of courage, she takes in her surroundings. The tree in the great room is done. The small tree in the foyer, which she adorns each year with a thoughtfully curated collection of hummingbirds, sits atop a round entryway table. It waits to greet holiday visitors. And as if those decorations were not enough, Sylvia’s collection of Santas – many gifted to her from Erma over the last three decades –carefully situated in open nooks, crannies, and shelves throughout the rooms on the first floor, affords her a feeling of mild accomplishment. So, completely in the moment, Sylvia sits on the ottoman and reflects. She purposely decides to practice the nobler art for the remainder of the day. Self-care entails leaving some things undone.
Some days demand the noble art. Today is one of them.
“Besides the noble art of getting things done, there is the noble art of leaving things undone. The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials.”― Lin Yutang
Erma, with hope in her voice (almost always tempered with at least a modicum of worry for her friend), asks Sylvia, “Did you hit the ground running today?”
“Running? No. When my feet hit the floor this morning though, I didn’t stumble. I sat on the edge of the bed and stared, not at my feet but at the floor beneath them. It occurred to me that I could fall no farther.”
Upright and moving, she found comfort in the incidental reminders surrounding her that allowed her to forge ahead.
“Ooh-la-la-la-la. What a soothing feeling to carry with her today!”
“The floor seemed wonderfully solid. It was comforting to know I had fallen and could fall no farther. (Sylvia Plath)
Sylvia: Erma, how have you survived that mother of all relationships? You know. Marriage?
Erma: Oh Sylvia, that’s a biggie. The question of all questions. Too early for wine or an old-fashioned, so put a fresh pot on.
As the cooler temperatures set in and the daylight hours grow shorter, Sylvia contemplates all the ways to bring possibilites for happiness to life. It seems a bit inconsistent though since autumn for many carries darker thoughts. Death and dormancy even for some. However, Sylvia, ever hopeful given the company she keeps and her best friend’s soothsaying abilities (Erma predicts that everything works out as it should in the end), is thinking about what makes people tick this time of year, especially other women who appear wildly happy with themselves and almost annoyingly contented in their marriages. And for the purpose of this conversation, marriage according to Sylvia means a long-standing commitment between two grown people who have vowed to be true to one another in good times and bad, yada-yada-yada, and who lack the possibility of easy escape or abandonment. How does one survive, thrive, grow, bloom, and blossom – keep the soil tilled so to speak, during and even after years of marriage?
Of course, as Sylvia has learned at Erma’s urging, a steaming cup of coffee and a daydream often help nourish the spirit and soothe the soul. On occasion, both even assistin maintaining a woman’s self-esteem and satisfying her amply. Undoubtedly, the recollection of Sylvia’s best cup of coffee which led to the conjuring of Cam’s bulging biceps and hypnotic hazel eyes often serves Sylvia well. And as Erma has told Sylvia time and again, it’s okay to wind your own clock to keep it ticking on and in your own time. Sylvia and most women, married and unmarried, need to know that lovers, partners, and spouses cannot keep time sufficiently for them if they haven’t spent the time on themselves uncovering, discovering, and exploring that which makes their their toes curl and their skin glisten.
Erma (looking for a little nosh to accompany the freshly brewed dark roast): Sylvia, I have a really simple recipe that only took me more than forty years years of marriage and togetherness to create and follow. On the surface, it’s pretty easy – to me anyway. You know, Sylvia, how you made me think about “to B or not to B” a while back? Well, I have my own alphabetical application that I use to keep the marriage and relationship ground alive. “I” before “U” always!
Sylvia (mug in hand as she hurries towards the carafe for a quick refill): Hold that thought, Erma. Something tells me I need to be sitting for this next piece of info. I’ve got a feeling I should even be taking notes.
Erma and Sylvia spend the next several hours discussing, sharing, and lamenting the lack of true and unbridled fulfilment in many relationships, but namely marriage. While Sylvia interjects her own tales of woe due to feeling less or smaller in her relationship, Erma repeats what she knows to be true after oh-so-many years of being committed to one person.
“Sylvia, there are only two ways to be fulfilled in this life. First, ask for what you want. Be clear. Crystal. Don’t leave your happiness and satisfaction to chance, hoping that your friend, lover, spouse, or partner will pick up on your cues and read your mind. Be specific. Be direct. You want eggs for breakfast and you know that only eggs will satisfy you completely, then why are you settling for oatmeal? Don’t be afraid to ask for eggs – and any way you want them! This leads to the second way to fulfilment, by the way, and I don’t think it’s coincidental. If you can’t get your eggs over-easy just the way you like them, want them, and need them, make them yourself. Often the only way to get something or to accomplish what you want and desire is to do it yourself. Anything and everything. This doesn’t mean you don’t want the person to share the meal, but it means that you know how to shop for, prepare, and feed yourself if they are unwilling, incapable, or unavailable. So, Sylvia, to recap: Ask for what you want. And if you don’t get what you want or don’t feel like asking, do NOT settle.
Erma collects her mug, places it gingerly in the kitchen sink, and turns to her friend with one final utterance before heading out. “To recap, Syl, remember that ‘I’ always precedes ‘u’ in every way imaginable.”
“Always putting others first creates deep resentment, destroys your happiness, and is unsustainable. Putting yourself first allows you to meet your needs in the most skillful way. This, in turn, increases your happiness, joy, and capacity to love, so you can give freely and create healthy relationships.”– (Aziz Gazipura)
Once she realized that she had the monster within her, the monster she had allowed to decimate her self-esteem and destroy her self-worth, she began to rise. There were so many times when the monster would return – plague her with doubt, pummel her emotionally and spiritually to the point of exhaustion, nearly convince her that the only way forward was to succumb to its power and settle for joylessness – she knew she wanted more and she knew she was more. How though? How would she rise from the ashes?
She would set herself free with her words. It didn’t matter if no one else would read them or understand them. The mere act of putting pen to paper, recognizing that she was the one who muddied the waters and sullied her own spirit by allowing others’ judgments and opinions to define her, her pen became her sword. She began to slay the monster.
Wednesday Wisdom: Face your demons. Decide to beat the shit out of them. And if you need help, ask. There is a tribe out there that has your back! You are something!! YOU ARE. ******************************** I have this demon who wants me to run away screaming if I am going to be flawed, fallible. It wants me to think I’m so good I must be perfect. Or nothing. I am, on the contrary, something: a being who gets tired, has shyness to fight, has more trouble than most facing people easily. If I get through this year, kicking my demon down when it comes up, I’ll be able, piece by piece, to face the field of life, instead of running from it the minute it hurts. ~Sylvia Plath
She felt as if she had been disappearing, and the worst part of it all was that she knew better. She could write. She could direct. She had allowed those who were supposed to care for her the most erase parts of her. No more. While there were parts she would never see again, she knew that her story – the one that she had been living and that still had chapters left to be written – lived deep inside of her. She would hold the pen this time. No chance of being erased. Indelible. That is her victory no matter what else lies ahead.
Sylvia and Erma invite you to introduce yourselves and tell your stories! The revolution is the best part of the evolution! *************** “Some women get erased a little at a time, some all at once. Some reappear. Every woman who appears wrestles with the forces that would have her disappear. She struggles with the forces that would tell her story for her, or write her out of the story, the genealogy, the rights of man, the rule of law. The ability to tell your own story, in words or images, is already a victory, already a revolt.” —Rebecca Solnit, Men Explain Things to Me #writingcommunity #womenover50 #womenwritersofinstagram #tuesdaytip #midlifewomen
“Are you looking for trouble, Sylvia?” Erma, hoping for a juicy reply, asks her friend.
“No, I don’t think so. Well, perhaps – maybe a little,” Sylvia admits.
“Good, get out there, and do it for the team!” Erma adamantly encourages. **************** Whatever you choose, however many roads you travel, I hope that you choose not to be a lady. I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there. And I also hope that you will choose to make some of that trouble on behalf of women. [Commencement Address, Wellesley College, 1996] ~Nora Ephron ****************
Fresh from a walk on the beach with her canine companions, Sylvia rushes to get toher cellphone which she had purposely left on the counter before scurrying out of the house. Now tangled in both the arm of her down parka and the infinity scarf around her neck, she realizes that the phone in her pocket might have been a wiser idea. As she attempts to remove the final layer of winter garb she wore to insulate herself from the frigid temps on the lake, she manages to pick up the call before the fifth ring.
“Hello, hello, I’m here. Hang on and let the message play,” she advises. “Erma, I know it’s you, so give me a second.” Sylvia tucks the scarf into the arm of the coat and then hangs it on the rack in the entry. “Okay, I’m back. I can put the kettle on while we chat.”
“The kettle? Tea, Sylvia? What’s happened to you? I don’t think I’d recognize you were it not for the lighthearted energy I hear in your voice. It reminds me of the Sylvia I would laugh with at the cottage on the Cape decades ago,” Erma reminisces. “Wherever you are at this very moment certainly agrees with you. Maybe you should think about extending your stay – perhaps even a move there,” Erma jokes half-heartedly as she worries what Sylvia’s response might be. It is not that she doesn’t want her friend to be happy because she prays for Sylvia’s happiness more than her own these days, but she knows that this location, while just what she needs now, is not the answer for the long-term.
Sylvia, able to discern Erma’s suggestions as mere jest, plays along for the moment. She grabs what has become her favorite mug at the lake house, drops in a licorice spice sachet of tea, and pours the boiling water. And as if on auto-pilot, the two friends get caught up on life in the time it takes for Sylvia’s new favorite beverage to steep.
“So, as you now know, nothing new on my end. Same old stuff. I refuse to complain though, Syl, because it gets me nowhere and just brings me down. And even though we both enjoy a good bitching session every once in a while, after all we have indeed bonded over common annoyances and and mutual pet peeves, I recognize that the current state of affairs, personally and globally, requires a great deal more than whining. Don’t you agree?”
Sylvia, trying to digest Erma’s remarks and cultivate a witty reply, sighs. She knows that Erma is right. Complaining is not the answer. “Complaining is noise. It really is just a whole lot of barking without any bite,” Sylvia grumbles.
After a pleasantly uneventful call with her friend whom she has come to rely on for making every non-event memorable in its own way, Sylvia contemplates the “noise” in her life at the moment. She smiles, amused by the irony of her earlier comment to Erma, as she listens to two of the three dogs in her charge. The youngest and the oldest, both males and large breeds, bark and growl playfully as they romp in the great room. The middle child – and anyone familiar with the personality of hounds knows that they are as close to humans as dogs can come – is female; and stereotypes notwithstanding, she demonstrates many of the traits of a middle-aged woman. Sylvia watches as the seven-year-old basset who is eerily close to being her canine counterpart ricochets between muttering to herself (as she feigns disregard for those in her line of sight) and issuing a loud, wide-toothed warning which includes a little chomp should the Landseer puppy infringe on her personal space, i.e. any of the private parts beneath her tail. The noise in Sylvia’s life, literally and figuratively the barking and whining; and the unveiled distaste and intolerance for the barking, well, that might just be the absolute root of a midlife woman’s bite, Sylvia’s especially.
Midlife women, according to Erma, have earned the right to bite. All women – hell, all people on occasion – deserve to let their distastes and dissatisfaction surface and be known. And loudly at that! Erma, always the one to break down what seems complex and unnecessarily troubling to Sylvia, points out to her friend, “People are basically dogs; dogs are just more honest about their feelings. I’ll leave you today with this: If humans barked and bit as decidedly as canines, we would have fewer mixed messages.”
As she hangs up the phone and steeps another bag of comfort and determination, fittingly she has chosen Lady Earl Grey, Sylvia considers Erma’s remarks.“People are basically dogs.”“Maybe dogs are more like people,” thinks Sylvia. Before she allows herself to become mired down in a “compare and contrast” internal diatribe, Sylvia observes the three fur children in her company. The two males wh poo are now comfortably in their beds after a short-lived yet energetic dose of raucousness remind her of…well, men. The younger one, the largest and youngest of the three, Eustis has just celebrated his first birthday; in human years, he’s the equivalent of a sixteen-year-old boy. He’s playful at inappropriate times, demanding at inconvenient times, and endearing as only a good-looking teenage boy can be at any given time that he wants something. He does not seek to make trouble, but he risks it all in good fun, primarily because his hormones are raging. Everything he does he does with the underlying motivation of being fulfilled. The other male, less spry and more refined (despite the gobs of drool gifted to him by virtue of his breed) is older, the eldest of this mismatched albeit devoted pack of siblings. Kramer, long and lanky, conducts himself with both contradictory grace and inelegance, much like a man on the cusp of retirement. He has learned to put up with barking and biting. He knows when to engage and when to head for the hills, in other words his favorite tufted bed in the corner of the kitchen. There he retreats when he has had enough. He has appeased the baby of the bunch with some minor play, just enough to warrant another rest. Kramer wants nothing more than to maintain his seniority; he has earned it. And if on occasion he gets the opportunity to rest his head in the lap of a woman, then he considers himself a lucky guy. He is sixty-six, and he accepts his plight, knows his worth, and knows that life amounts to barking, biting, and his willingness to accept both because at the end, there will be a treat in it for him – either a nap in a sunbeam, a walk on the beach, or a warm cuddle as he leans on his favorite human. (Sylvia stops for a moment. A tear has fallen. She can think of no one more like her dad than Kramer.) So, yes, in a nutshell, men provide much of the barking. According to both Erma and Sylvia, barking is complaining; and while most men do not think that they whine, the midlife woman knows differently. Enter the basset.
The bite. The almost eight-year-old hound has had her fill. She is a woman, fifty-six years in the making, who knows when to bark and when to bite. She has finally learned that the barking – the incessant complaining and whining from herself as well as others – is exhausting. The only sure thing to alleviate her angst and assuage her feelings of worthlessness is a good bite. Reese, the butterscotch-hued friend at Sylvia’s feet most days, parallels Sylvia’s life. When she is bored or tired, she retreats and curls up – alone. She does not need anyone to relax her. When she is hungry, she eats. Sometimes it must be early, and other times she’ll sleep in and awaken slowly. She decides. Her clock, her rules. And then there is the issue of desire. Reese does not want to be groped or prodded by either a horny, young man looking to get his rocks off or an older man seeking to claim her as his prize, his bitch. No, Reese will have none of that. She is done with all of that. The barking has taken its toll. As Sylvia listens to Reese snore in deep sleep, she wonders what makes up the basset’s dreams. A good bone like a nice wine or bourbon. A walk on the beach solo with no one giving her direction asking her either to lead or follow. Does Reese dream of companionship? Perhaps, after all she is a pack dog; she loves company. Sylvia, like Reese or vice versa, does not require full-time engagement though. She has been there, done that, and she is not going to make herself smaller to stop the barking from others. She will just drown it out. And the worst that will happen might just be the best thing ever. She’ll bite and move on.
Let the barking cease. Take a bite. Grab a bite. Bite me. The bite of a midlife woman conquers all.