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Archive for March, 2011

Today is my sixtieth birthday, and the only way I can describe it is surreal. To give you an idea of just how foreign the number “sixty” is to me, I first typed the title of this entry as “On Turning Thirty.” Even my fingers are in denial.

Unlike my teenage years, or young womanhood, or my years as a wife and mother, this is an age I never took time to imagine. It snuck up on me when I wasn’t looking; perhaps while I was asleep, or stuck in traffic, or playing my zillionth game of Spider Solitaire. Somewhere between forty and sixty, I lost time.

Despite feeling a little shell-shocked, reaching my sixth decade doesn’t bother me as much as I expected it might. I’ve watched so many of my friends die much too soon. How can I not appreciate each day that I am given? I’ve been so lucky. Healthwise, I don’t feel any worse than I did at forty. It may be one advantage of having the aches and pains of fibromyalgia for so long. My age has simply caught up with the way I’ve always felt. The asthma that plagued me at a younger age is under control now, thanks to medical advances. To think I once believed that it would probably kill me someday. I never could have predicted that I’d feel this good at sixty.

Surprisingly, I have developed a fascination with the aging process, as if it’s happening to someone else, as if the person in the mirror is not really me. I study the gradual appearance of lines in my face as if noticing them for the first time. I am spellbound by the skin on my hands, how much thinner and drier it seems. My nails have changed. I wonder when all of it began and why I didn’t notice.

And then there’s my neck.

A few years ago, I watched author Nora Ephron being interviewed on a women’s talk show. She discussed her new book on middle-age, and the procedures some women endure to appear younger. She ended by saying “but there’s nothing you can do about one part of your body.” The title of her book was “I Feel Bad About My Neck.” She was right. And the irony is in knowing that at a time in my life when I prefer to cover my neck, I can no longer stand the heat!

Yes, I am now sixty. I may have to say it again and again until it sinks in. I’d like to think I’m a bit wiser than I was at thirty, but the reality is that inside, I am very much unchanged, with the same values, the same passions, the same sentiments. The greatest difference comes from acknowledging that time has passed more quickly than I ever anticipated, too much of it forgotten.

From this point on, I have to try harder to savour each moment, to make the days count for something. Life is much too fleeting, and there are still memories to be made.

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As someone whose life has had its share of ups and downs, I am often asked how I’ve managed day to day living without showing more signs of the stress around me. The question always surprises me, because I don’t see myself as particularly complicated or brave. I simply do what I have to do, and much like Don Draper of Mad Men says, “Move forward.” But there is another coping skill I freely admit to. When faced with a stress that feels overwhelming, I sometimes give myself a break. I lock the problem away “Delay & Denial Depot,” deep inside my brain, and leave it there until I’m stronger. I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes, problems have stayed there too long.

My father-in-law used similar tactics. The older he got, the more he repeated a phrase that irked me no end. It was “I don’t want to know.” He used it whenever the mood hit him. He’d ask a question of you and if he realized he wouldn’t like the answer, he’d stop you halfway and say ‘I don’t want to know.” If a news story disturbed him, he’d begin to comment on it, and midway through his own sentence stop and say “I don’t want to know.” There were variations on the theme. If he felt someone wasn’t giving his opinions the respect they deserved, he’d say “he doesn’t want to know.”

It’s only as I’ve aged myself, and lived through my own trials, that I’ve come to understand his thinking. Many of us “don’t want to know.” It goes beyond ignoring warnings of impending doom if we don’t work harder to save our planet. It also happens much closer to home. We choose not to see what is right under our noses – job problems; issues with our children, substance abuse, adultery, rising debt, health issues – all because of fear. We fear the panic we will feel, the loss of control, if we face the demon head on. We surround ourselves with people who will support our denial, perhaps even share a similar altered reality, because they don’t challenge us on it. And all the time, we fool ourselves into thinking that problems that developed while we weren’t looking, will disappear quietly, the same way.

It’s dangerous thinking. It allows us to be manipulated, because we are deperate to believe these orchestrated “best case” scenarios. It’s rampant: among soccer moms, in company boardrooms, in political office. The more control a person is expected to have, the more perfect he/she is expected to be, the greater the chance of living in denial. As a former teacher, I can tell you that it’s everywhere in the education profession, particularly among teachers who worry more about everyone’s perception of them than admitting they need help. Image become more important to them than the welfare of their students.

We’ve seen a perfect example of willful blindness in the current media fiasco around Charlie Sheen. Somehow, over years and years, he’s been in denial of his condition, and surrounded by people who are too cowardly and/or self-serving to confront him on it. Do the people around him truly not recognize the illness that goes beyond his addiction? Can’t they see it in his eyes and hear it in his words? Do they care so little, or do they care too much to face it?

Margaret Heffernan, a former BBC producer and CEO of several multi-media companies, writes about this very human tendency in her book “Willful Blindness.” Yesterday, the Toronto Star carried an article on her book, and on the pitfalls of denial. I read it, and I thought “Wow! She’s dead on. That’s the perfect name for the self-sabotage of “survival by denial.”

To be honest, the subject fascinates me, so much so that the idea figures prominently in some of my writing. Years ago, I wrote a small piece on a woman whose life was built around “willful blindness.” It’s short and a little rough – never published – but I’m including it here.

SMALL MERCIES

Lorraine has learned to be grateful for lies.

She isn’t sure when it happened, for it was without her knowing; perhaps while she slept years of half-sleep laced with worry. It wasn’t always that way. Once, she demanded truth and would accept nothing less. She faced reality without flinching; watched the brutality of war and the viciousness of violence objectively, an emotionless observer; then went on with her day, her veneer unscathed.

Her entire world gleamed then. Her floors reflected satin images and her appliances gleamed. She clipped recipes from homemaker magazines and devised clever filing systems to catalogue them. Bills were paid the day they arrived, not days late. She ironed clothes straight from the dryer, before they were needed. In afternoons, while her babies slept, she sat outside, next to a vibrant climbing rose bush, and wrote long, gossipy letters to distant friends, or read sweeping historical romances with predictable happy endings. She nibbled fresh-baked scones and drank tea from a favourite china cup. Her world was free from blemish, her sleep peaceful, her vision nothing but blue skies.

Now, Lorraine mourns the loss of those times. Optimism has blurred to delusion, fairness to blindness, and she treads on ground that threatens to collapse beneath her feet. Nerves jolt at the first midnight ring of the phone. She flinches at the start of a harsh word and avoids the eyes of those she fears to understand. If the enemy is not seen, it is not there. Evidence stays buried, her gaze averted from that which she cannot bear to know.

Instead, Lorraine nods in agreement to half-truths, the small mercies meant to reassure her. She realizes, but does not acknowledge their feeble attempts at deception, necessary to protect the fragile illusion of her perfect world.

Lorraine has learned to be grateful for their lies.

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