Forties fun

One Word – Live

When you’re young, you don’t think that one day your best friend might die. If she called you three times in a row, it was probably to tell you the same story she had already spilled on the bus, during lunch in the cafeteria, and then again while lingering in the hall and avoiding algebra.

Somewhere in time, however, this shifts. When you get older, have parents who are aging, and have become fledgling parents yourselves, repeated phone calls from people close to you take on a different meaning.

So the day Liz called me, not once, not twice, but three times in a row, I had a sick and surreal feeling that something close to death was happening.

“What’s wrong?” I picked up on the third call. I have no memory of what she said next, just like I don’t have a childhood memory of us becoming friends. She was just always there – from playground wars, to sleepovers, to teenage drama – through every stage of life she was my loyal defender and confidante. Her not being there was never an option.

Even when she uttered the phrase, breast cancer, denial ensued. This wasn’t our life – her life – we were just brunching on the episode of Sex in the City, when Samantha reveals her diagnosis to the group. It wasn’t real.

“You bet your ass it was f-in real. And it sucked.”

That’s Liz, in my ear, today, thankfully still able to use the same flat tone and vernacular she’s used since 1985.  She fought, kicked cancer in the teeth, and if you knew her, you wouldn’t be surprised. What did surprise me, however, is how the fallout of this experience affected Liz – and me. Sure, we own the privilege of using macabre humor about her playing the cancer card, but we also, within the confines of conversations only people with 30+ years of friendship can have, discuss how we’ve come to look at life, in our mid forties and, for Liz, thank God, cancer free. She and I can also make jokes regarding annoying cliches about life, but behind the laughter, there is an unspoken agreement: they are all true.

It’s sad, but also true that it takes a near catastrophic event for a real shift to occur.  In a bizarre and beautiful way, I’m a little thankful my best friend had cancer. Without it, I’m not sure she and I would have adjusted our outlook on life, which is to just f’in LIVE, as Liz would say. It’s safe to say we did not make any new year’s resolutions. I even abandoned the recently touted practice of choosing one word to commit to for the year. My word was going to be “better.” It was  short lived, pun intended. I had no desire to commit, and as soon as I revealed my word, thus began the litany of imperfections I needed to improve. Not really into that right now. I’m into the cliches and quotes. I won’t make you throw up and list them, but I will say, I’m not wasting my time here. Simply put, I’m working on doing what makes me happy, telling people how I feel, acting normal when I’m nervous, showing love to people I love, and accepting that life can shift in a moment. What I’m trying not to do? Be insecure. Wait for something to happen. Punish myself. Jump to made up conclusions.

I guess in some ways, this is trying to be better. I can commit to that.

Forties fun

This One’s for the Girls

I’m embarking on a crusade, and I want you to join me. The mission? To instill courage in young women and girls. If you didn’t have it when you were younger, you know how important this is. The reason Rachel Hollis, (who, aside from my husband, inspired me to shed my fear and get my ass in gear more than anyone else), and others like her, are so successful is because there is such a need. And there is such a need because we don’t get it done early enough. The empowerment movement is on, but it needs to extend beyond women and reach out to our girls.

I don’t think boys are immune to insecurities. I constantly talk to Joe about our sensitive son and how to help him navigate the different situations he encounters. However, we can’t pretend that society does not still place archaic stereotypes on boys and girls. Many girls are still taught that in order to be successful or liked, they must please other people, take care of everyone else, or the worst – self deprecate. Being female, having my own baby girl, and a near 20-year career teaching middle schoolers, have made the need to reach young women glaringly clear.  

Take what happened the other day in my seventh grade classroom. The class was writing about truth, and as usual, I asked for volunteers to share. (If you’re cringing, you must know that in order for this to happen, a teacher has set up a safe environment from the first day of school; you’d be amazed at what some students have to say.)

“Who wants to share first?” I asked. Six hands shot in the air – all boys. Surprised? I wasn’t. Despite the stereotype about our boys not wanting to show emotions to others, many love to assert their opinions and talk about their experiences. After three boys shared, I tried again and asked if any girls wanted to read what they wrote.

Finally, a lone girl’s hand shakily rose. “I’m weird, I’ll share my writing.” Olivia spoke up, God love her. She met my eyes with a shy half smile. Then she said, “It’s not that good, but I’ll just read it.”

People, if I had a dollar for every time a female student uttered that phrase over the last 17 and a half years, I’d own a penthouse or an island – maybe a penthouse on an island.

It could be that I’m heightened to these scenarios, but I noticed the next one a few days later. Every new year, my husband holds a beautiful celebration for his former students, called Alumni Classroom. If you’re familiar with Joe’s work, you know this annual tradition is a chance for kids he taught to come together and attend one more English class with Mr. Ferraro. Volunteers share where their lives are headed and how they continue to benefit from Joe’s teachings. This year, I was fortunate to be an audience member and a speaker. Not only did I have the privilege of watching my husband in action, I was able to hold court and share stories of my own. Love, community, and respect were oozing from the walls of this venue. But there was one thing missing: female speakers. Even though Joe has cultivated many lasting relationships over the years, with boys and girls, not one young woman spoke at Alumni Classroom. That’s when I knew something had to give.

Why is it that once people, girls in particular, reach a certain age, the obsession with what others think of them shatters the freedom to show the world who they are?

I’m convinced there is a window of time when girls freely behave like Charlee, my five year old daughter. She puts on concerts every night. She throws back her head and guffaws. She raises her hand. She questions. She wears tutus. She dances whether or not anyone is watching. She, my students, and the younger, insecure version of myself are the reasons I want to teach them – and my son – that there is no shame or comparison when it comes to being yourself.

When I tell people I’m a teacher, they do one of three things: widen their eyes and suck in their breath, call me crazy, or bless me and ask why. The reasons why have slightly changed over the years, but one thing remains the same: I understand young people, and I emphasize with them. One thing about teaching is that you age, but your students don’t. This makes you see things differently as times moves on. So Girls, here’s what I’d like to teach you. And Sisters, I need you to help me:

Have the courage to take risks.

Exude confidence in what you know.

Stop comparing yourself to others.

This really is an awkward stage – embrace it.

Most of what you see on Instagram is just that – an instant – not a whole life.

Someone will judge you, make an assumption about you, or take advantage of you. Protect. Defend. Tell. Stand up. Walk tall.

Take care of your fellow females. Celebrate their successes.

Move away from those who don’t do the above.

You are not weird, Olivia. You are beautiful. Share your stories.

Forties fun

Leave Balance to the Gymnasts

My fifth grade phys-ed teacher wore the same t-shirt every day for a week. “Gymnastics is flippin fun” spread across her non-existent chest as she demonstrated various drills on all kinds of equipment. As she vaulted, flipped, and tumbled, I watched in awe and became determined to defy gravity, just like her.

I was ten. I could do anything.

Then I approached the balance beam. It was taller than I expected, and not nearly as wide. My small hands could wrap around its diameter, and the thought of standing on it made me uneasy. Nevertheless, I stood tall in line, waiting my turn. Some of the girls before me were “gymnasts” and could jump and land solidly on the four inches of leather. As I watched them, and my teacher cheered them on, I figured since I was good at most sports, I could handle the balance beam.

Hoisting myself up wasn’t too hard; I was able to swing a leg over the beam and straddle it seamlessly. However, unsure of  my next move, I let my legs swing and contemplated my fate.

”Let’s go, Potenza!” (my maiden name) Mrs. Sawler clapped her hands and shouted, but her tone was just short of encouraging. “Get on up there!”

My legs still, I leaned forward and managed to place one foot on the beam. Foot number two remained, dangling in the air. I was not flexible enough to hold this position. There was nowhere to go but up.

I butt planted on the mat one millisecond after I stood. My arms flailed, and my legs shot high over my head. My butt didn’t hurt as much as my ego, and I lay there, wishing the mat would swallow me whole. Eventually, my teacher’s face loomed into view.

“Stick to soccer, Potenza. And work on your balance.”

Well, I’m here to report, after 35 years, I’m officially done working on my balance. People, especially women, are supposed to strive for balance. We can have it all; we can learn how to balance family, career, self care, side gigs, and we can look fabulous while we do it.

I call bullshit.

There is no such thing as balance. A balancing act is just that – an act. I realize this is contradictory to everything we have heard since the age of 25, but guess what? I have a family, a career, I work out, and I blog, but I do NOT have balance. That would mean all things listed above get the same amount of attention, all the time. Impossible. I typed this post during my lunch break. My husband and I have to set a time to have an actual weeknight conversation. Working out after work means dinner is an hour later, or I have to work out at 5am, and lose sleep and time with my kids in the morning. And there are nights when I have to look at those children and decide whether to give them a bath or a home cooked meal. Don’t judge me.

The point is, every time something is gained, something is lost somewhere else. That’s not balance. And I’m finally okay with that. I spent many days telling myself I suck at life because I didn’t get my hair done, I didn’t fold the laundry, or god forbid, I missed the gym. Even on the days I manage to do everything, nothing is done perfectly. It’s been really hard to accept this, but I’ve learned it’s more important to feel balanced and calm in my mind than in my life. That could also mean skipping out on everything for an hour and roaming aimlessly around Target. Again, don’t judge me.

So, sorry to disappoint you, Mrs. Sawler, but I am no longer working on my balance. It’s not that flippin’ fun. In fact, we should all get credit for the Olympic style juggling acts we perform, not the balancing ones. 

 

Forties fun

Wait Till You’re…..

If everything everyone ever said after that phrase came true, we’d all be overweight, sick, miserable, or dead. I think about this all the time, and it came to light the other day at another work gathering, when a coworker announced she was expecting her first baby. She embodied the familiar emotions of joy and fear; however, by the time she left our so-called party, the latter mentioned f-word had her headed for the hills. Some sound bytes:

“Wow, great news! You look great – just wait till you’re near the end.”

“Congratulations! A girl?! Oooh, wait till she’s able to talk.” This one was followed by an exchange of knowing looks and eye rolls. (Don’t even get me started on people’s reactions when you tell them you’re having a girl. It’s an outrage.)

“How are you feeling? Just wait till she makes you sick to your stomach.”

“Are you tired now? Just WAIT till she’s born.”

“Oh, yes, just you wait. Life will never be the same.”

No shit, I thought, staring down the sustainable straw of my cocktail. Isn’t that a good thing??

The poor pregnant woman finally threw up her hands. “You guys are scaring me!”

No shit, I thought again. That’s almost all I could manage that afternoon.

I thought about all the times in my life people had uttered some form of the phrase, “wait till you’re blank.”  Any of these sound familiar?

Wait till you go out into the real world.

Wait till you get a real job.

Wait till you get married.

Wait till you turn 30.

Wait till you have kids.

Wait till you turn 40.

Well, guess what, people? I’ve hit all of the above, and I’m still standing. I’d love to banish this sentence starter, or at least change the tone of how we say it. Imagine if someone jumped for joy and told my coworker, “WAIT till you have your baby – it’s LIFE CHANGING!”  Or when you announce your engagement, people said, “OH, just you WAIT. Life is going to be even more wonderful now that you found someone to share it with!”

Call me Pollyanna – whatever – I’m okay with it.

There’s no doubt we’ve all been through hard days, weeks – years even – but why does that have to be the focus, especially when we talk to someone who hasn’t even lived through one of these events? A job is a job, and it’s real to anyone who has to wake up and do it. My students are only 12 and 13 years old, but their world is real to them. Vera Wang designed her first dress when she was 40, and Julia Child was 51 when she got her own cooking show. So there.

As for me – my thirties were better than my twenties, my husband makes my life sweeter, and there are no words for the love and gratitude I have for my children. Getting older and the 40s f-word still scare me, but every day I discover another really cool thing about this decade.

Just you wait.

Forties fun

When The F Did I Become 45??

I’m not 45. I mean, I am, but I am NOT.  If you’re only as young as you feel, then I’m definitely 27. Maybe 32. It was only yesterday that I hit the double digits! Ten was a magical year. It felt so cool to young, but old enough to have two digits to my age.  Now I’m someone who may have more years behind me than I do in front. It’s not getting old that scares me, it’s death. I’ll get to that later.

This suspended belief about my age could become a problem, or it could start to piss people off, because I think everyone is older than me. This has happened more than twice in the past year. The first was when I took my first Orangetheory class. I had heard the workout was super hard, and I was feeling intimidated, when I looked to my right and saw a group of women on a row of treadmills. The inconspicuous sidelong glances I threw their way assuaged my fears. “If they can do this, I can. They are old.” Two minutes later, Coach Victoria started blasting the music.

“IIIIIIIt’s 90’s week, Everybody!! Let’s rock it out to the Spin Doctors!” (You know what’s coming. The “yeeeaaah one, two princess here before me, let’s go ahead now,” your head is bobbing) The next thing I know, the “old” women next to me are whooping, high fiving, waving hands in the air, and screaming, “College baby! WOOT WOOT!”

I almost face planted on the treadmill belt. The Spin Doctors performed at Fordham my sophomore year. Two Princess blared at every bar, every night. My college roommate, Francesca, still sends me texts with the picture of the song blaring on Sirius XM.

I had to shrug it off. Denial is survival for us ignorant middle agers. These women had to be seniors when I was a sophomore, right?

The next time it happened was at a work function, the perfect place for me to put my foot in my mouth. It was holiday season, and I attended our annual “gathering,” (I don’t think we’re allowed to say party), at a local restaurant. Christmas angels must have been watching over me because I had decided not to drink, which is not the norm for me at any gathering. It must have been the daunting commute home that deterred me, and thank god it did, because if I had swilled two glasses of pinot noir, things may have turned out differently. I was politely listening to a co-worker I didn’t know very well drone on and on about how tired she was. Her two kids were going through a phase, they weren’t going to bed, they were fighting, and she had no idea how she was going to get all her grading done when she had to play referee. Between sips of sparkling water, I nodded and made the mature noise that communicates universal agreement. I was thinking she’s probably tired from talking so much, when I heard her exclaim:

“And I’m getting too old for this. I mean, I’m 39 – imagine what it’s going to be like when I turn 40?!?”  

Everyone laughed, patted her arm, and told her she’s not old. I stood there like a prize carnival fish, eyes wide and plastered against my temporary baggie home. This woman, this sweet, well intentioned woman, was FIVE years younger than me. I thought she was going to say she was at least 50! You can understand why I was happy to be sober, for once.

I’m not telling this story to poke fun at other people, but more so myself. Once in a while, my age smacks me in the face and reminds me that I’m not so cool, especially to people who are seriously younger than me, like my students – or millenials.

I try to think that getting old is good because it means I’m not dead, which is really never happening. Starting to lose my breath just typing about it. I’ll be happy as one of those old, eccentric women who wears elaborate clothing, drinks champagne, and calls people “dahling.” For all I know, people may see like that right now. I don’t see that myself, but then again, I could just be old and delusional.