Thursday, 12 June 2008


I have a tendency to think of things as "fixed," even though I know they are not.

You would think that a person who moves every year or so would have a worldview that resembles constant flux, yet it is not so! Changes catch me unaware; change can still surprise me.

In the last week or so, relationships all around me seem to be undergoing changes . . . and I am reminded, again, that life is just one ongoing transition. Those famous lines of Yeats', "things fall apart; the centre cannot hold," keep occurring to me. People die; marriages end; friendships fade; children grow up. All of our seasonal ritual, and all of our attempts to fix routines, are just flimsy, imperfect bulwarks against the inevitable encroachment of change.

On the weekend, one of my husband's "aunties" died. Not an aunt by blood, actually -- she was in fact "just" a neighbor and family friend, elevated to "aunt" status many years ago. Yet in every way, her connection to the family was unassailable. None of the (now middle-aged)children of the family could remember life without her. As a woman without children -- from the time when childless women "just got on with it" -- she had become a surrogate mother to the five rambunctious children who at times overwhelmed their own mother. She had offered food and a quiet place to study; she had replaced buttons and let out hems. In later years, roles reversed a bit and she became more taken care of than caretaker. Her place at the Christmas table was more consistent than that of any of the children. Every Friday, she came up for a shopping outing -- followed by tea. She was always there; always seemingly the same. Ninety when she died, Auntie V was a relic from a previous age. She never learned to drive, and her activities were confined to an almost rigidly circumscribed domestic sphere. Her attitudes, her beliefs, her topics of conversation, her stories, her clothing, her hairdo, even: all of these were fixed and unchanging. "Isn't she marvellous (for her age)," people would say. But gradually, almost imperceptibly, her conversation drifted from predictable to repetitive; her clothing, which always looked much the same, turned out to be the same outfit, worn over and over again. A nephew (her heir) took the decision to put her in a nursing home, and then she quickly declined. She seemed to be eternal, Auntie V; but of course she wasn't.

Isn't it strange how things can drift for awhile, before you properly notice? And then when you do notice, you realize how utterly they have changed.

I have an old friend in the area -- not so much an intimate as a fixture -- who I've socialized with for about ten years. When we moved back to England a couple of years ago, I sensed that something was not quite the same. She had lost a lot of her zest and sparkle. She seemed withdrawn, not just from me, but from all of our old crowd. Last week an unusual circumstance threw us together, and I guess that I probed a tender spot with the kind of direct question which sometimes disarms. She confessed that she was laying down plans to end her marriage. Years ago, as fairly new parents, we had met. She and her husband seemed so close then. Convivial and generous to a fault -- the champagne was, literally, always flowing -- they seemed so simpatico. But apparently they have been drifting for a long time now, and not even anger remains. Just indifference on her part, and unkindness on his.

Once you get to a certain place in a marriage, it seems like all of that accumulated experience should add up to an insoluble bond. And yet it doesn't; not always.

On Monday, a friend confided in me that her little son was experiencing his first heartbreak. "Daisy" had been his best friend since the first day of school, and she had given him a reason to want to go to school -- a place that he otherwise associated with unhappiness and frustration. For months they had been inseparable, but then -- perhaps unsurprisingly -- she began making new friends. The tighter he clung, the more she wanted to get away. He had developed a sort of fixation with Daisy, and she had eventually withdrawn from him. Maybe it was nothing personal. Maybe it was nothing more than discovering that she was a "girl" and he was a "boy," and that in the world of six year olds they could not have the same interests or loyalties. But whatever the reason, his innocence has taken a knock. Being rejected for the first time has opened his eyes to the sometimes harsh world of social interactions.

We are all obsessed with romantic love, but friendship love can die, too, and it can hurt just as much. The expression "fast friends" implies a bond that is fixed firmly in place, but I've also noticed that friendships which are fast in the sense of forming quickly and intensely have a tendency to fade. I try to keep all of my friends, but some friendships have eluded me. Once or twice in my life I've had a friend who withdrew from me and I never quite knew why. Was it something I did? Or was I just incidental -- just in the way of someone who was undergoing changes?

As my teenaged daughter has put together her "list" for her 14th birthday party I cannot help but notice how much it differs from last year's list. As she tries on different identities, as she moves up the ladder of "popularity," the friendships seem to come and go. Last year she was new to the school and happy to be friends with (almost) anyone who befriended her. This year she is more selective. Last week I took her and a friend to a concert for her birthday treat. In their navy school uniforms, pony-tailed and fresh-faced, they look like young girls. But clothing and makeup can utterly transform, and this new vampy young woman is a stranger to me. How did she learn how to put on eye makeup? Where did she learn those dance moves? As young teens all around me swayed to the Jonas Brothers' insipid music, and sang along with Avril Lavigne's rather strident voice, I felt as mumsy and old as I never thought I could or would be. When did concert music get so loud?

When my children were younger, I derived a more (shall we say) genuine pleasure from doing the things that they wanted to do. But as they have established their own independent lives, so have I . . . and now I notice that I am more grudging about sacrificing my interests and likes for theirs. As I trudged around Legoland yesterday on my youngest daughter's school trip, I couldn't help but reflect that I am more conscientious than enthusiastic about dispatching certain parental duties. I freely admit that I do not like "amusement" parks. I do not want to pay a lot of money to (mostly) stand in line in order to eventually be made nauseous or bored. And that is the high point! Never mind the long drive to get there, the crowds, the bad food, the inevitable whining and tiredness (both mine and the children's). The last time I went to Legoland was seven years ago. It was cold and wet, and the three year-olds were too young to ride anything. I mostly remember sitting in a canteen, feeling miserable, and trying to clean up the hot chocolate that my toddler had spilled over her last change of dry clothes. On this visit, the toddler had turned into a tall and fearless girl who actually found most of the rides a bit babyish and "lame." As we left the theme park, it occurred to me -- and it was a most happy thought -- that perhaps my Legoland days were over. Not all changes are bad, after all.


Alyson said...

This is the same thought I've had for a few years, and you described it beautifully and thoroughly. I'm so sorry for the loss of the auntie, by the way. I hope your husband's family is doing well with the loss.

A few years ago when our lives all-of-the-sudden fell apart financially and we were forced to move, then realized we needed to find a new job and through all of this I was experiencing major post-partum depression with my 4th child, and then my grandma died all within a few short months. The realization hit that life is change. Change is the constant. You can't stop things; things don't stay the same. Even though that concept seems obvious, I was completely shocked.

I find though that most change is bittersweet. There always seems to be ups and downs to all change, with rare exceptions. Even though I'm someone who enjoys change in my life (obvious from my many moves), I've discovered that I have to let myself mourn after every big change. I read of this concept soon after my little brother moved to Norway for a church mission for two years a few years back. I had never thought to mourn for anything other than death. I realized that I was depressed with his absense. I had to mourn the fact that he was absent from my life for a short time. It actually makes me feel much better to just know that I should mourn and allow myself that for a little time.

Alyson said...

To add, quickly, to my previous comment (I know, it was quite long enough as it is!), I just wanted to say that it's even healthy to mourn for really good change. When we moved to CT, I really REALLY excited. My husband got a great job and I was thrilled to live in New England, but I still had to mourn what I left behind and certain things that would never be the same again. Of course, when the change is mostly positive the mourning process is usually very short.

Bee said...

"Change is the constant" . . . Alyson, you said it best! Why does it still surprise me, though? There IS no status quo, and yet I keep trying to establish one!?

And yes, most changes have a tradeoff or a loss of some kind. (Except for not having to go to Legoland anymore. That is win win for me.)

Thanks for the condolences for our Auntie. Her life was very sad in the end, though.

Just a Plane Ride Away said...

You are thinking deeply today, Bee. Sending you kind thoughts on this blue-skied day. Your husband's Auntie sounds like she had a lovely life with people who cared about her.

Regarding amusement parks, I hate to tell you if you don't already know... Thorpe Park. *groan*

JaneyV said...

I was reading a piece on this very subject recently which warned that trying to keep your life "fixed" is foolish because even if you are happy with it now, resisting the inevitable shifting sands of time, will, in itself, bring unhappiness. Life is in a constant state of flux and although some changes are so minute they are inperceptible, over time the picture will change dramatically. Resist the flow at your peril! Perhaps we just need to make our peace with the currents of life.

I'm so sorry about the loss of Auntie V. She sounded like a wonderful woman. I know how difficult it is to come to terms with losing a mother (figure) when the manner of the loss, in my case the degradation of dementia and decline in the sterile setting of nursing home "care", is almost as upsetting as the loss itself. It is important to remember that she had a good life, she touched many others in a positive way, she had purpose. That should be her testament. I send you peaceful thoughts of love and kindness.

But as you say change brings many many benefits too. Amen I say to never going to a Theme Park again. Torture. And I have to say that being able to pop out and walk the dog without a small child now is blissful. Eldest can watch Youngest now for short periods and I love it.

I appear to be humming David Bowie's Changes. Look out you Rock 'n' rollers[.......]
Pretty soon you're gonna get a little older
Time may change me
But I can't trace time

Sarah Laurence said...

I know a child who lived in chronic pain before his condition was diagnosed. After he was successfully treated with surgery, he would burst into tears from any minor bump in play. You’d think that sharp pain would make him immune to everything else, but supposedly chronic pain over-sensitizes a child, even an adult.

Perhaps for you, Bee, chronic change has had the same effect. Sometimes there can be too much change in life, even if it’s a good thing. I know living abroad this year, I’ve had less desire to travel, same as other times.

It was interesting how you looked at the element of change over several generations. Your auntie story is beautiful and a fine reflection on your in-laws. My daughter is an Avril Lavigne fan too. Music defines generations more than taste. Next time ear plugs at the concert and motion sickness pills at the carnival? No quick remedy, however, for kids growing up. Lovely post!

Janey, that Bowie song was running through my head too as I read Bee's words. His music, and others, define our generation.

Alyson, that's an interesting concept - mourning change. I had post-partum depression after weaning my last child. I also feel a bit low when I finish a manuscript after the manic high of creation. It can be hard to let go and enter the next stage in life, even if the change is for the better.

Brave Sir Robin said...

What a beautiful post Bee. The only constant in our lives is change.

What a wonderful tribute to "Auntie". I hope I'm as well remembered when I go.

Once you get to a certain place in a marriage, it seems like all of that accumulated experience should add up to an insoluble bond. And yet it doesn't; not always.

There was a time, not really that long ago, that I couldn't understand a couple getting a divorce after 10 or 15 years of marriage. Obviously, I understand now.

One can never hope to live a life without change, but one can hope that with each change comes growth.

When I look back at the last few years of my life and the changes that formed those years, I realize I may not be a happier person, but I am a better person.

Wonderful post.

Alyson said...

Not going to Legoland is the up side of your kids growing up, of course one of the downsides is having to go to headache-inducing concerts.

I don't know if you believe in an afterlife. I do. If you do, it's nice to think that after all the hardship of your auntie's last years, perhaps she is free of all sickness. Perhaps she is clear-minded now and free of all the downfalls of mortality.

Bee said...

Thanks to everyone who has joined in on this one . . . your thoughtful comments to me are as enriching as "in person" conversations.

Sorry I'm a bit maudlin!

Actually, the first title to this one was Ch-Ch-Changes . . . because I was thinking of David Bowie, too! (It is my favorite song of his.)

When you are a mother, most sad changes get replaced with good ones . . . like having a bit more freedom, Janey! (Oh, I so agree!) JAPRA and Janey, I avoid Thorpe Park like the plague!

But there is a certain point, when it comes to getting older, when one's life just seems reduced to inevitable and irreversible physical decline. I haven't come to terms with dying -- AT ALL.

I'm not sure if I do believe there is an afterlife . . . but I would like to think that there is something.

Your point really interests me: Because I have had SO MUCH change, I mentally resist it in some way. (Evidence for your theory: I can't bear it when any of my friends move!)

Whether it's friendship or romantic love, there is nothing more upsetting than "losing" someone you were once close to. We've talked before about the sadness of erasing one's history -- all of those precious memories.

Thanks again for the good thoughts.

debski beat said...

Firstly, condolences Bee, Auntie V sounded like a lovely woman.

I am late in this post due to experiencing a major birthday milestone, I thought it would bring great change but 3 days later I believe it didn't, so, I was wrong on that one ! I have thought about change since this posting and suspect that most change happens minute by minute every day and it is possibly just life, just a normal part of life. When we notice the change I suspect is when the dynamics are large but that is only a momentary shift, its like an earthquake really, but like a quake we become comfortable with the aftershocks and we move on.

Amusement parks are awful places except I have to admit Disney world, I'd go back on the 'its a small world' ride easily leaving Space Mountain to the Bearded One . Amusement Parks are like zoos to me, I really do not understand the point.

Bee, this has been one of the best postings I have read, it comes from the heart and it shows in your writing, thank you.

Audrey said...

I know this is supposed to be all serious and everything but, it comes down to this: change sucks.

Barrie said...

I've come to visit from janey's blog. Your post is so timely for me. My 14 y.o. son is planning is birthday and I was noticing how much he's changed. As teens go, he's fairly easy (so far!), but there's an edge, a moodiness that wasn't there as little as a couple of weeks ago. Interesting times ahead!

Lucy said...

Audrey's comment made me smile - yes, we accept it, yes we learn it's OK to mourn, but in the end it's just painful, for a bit at least.

I lived a fairly unsettled life for years, even when I was settled with Tom it was a while before we came to rest in one place, and I think there's something in the idea that too much change makes you cling a bit more tightly to what you hope is fixed. And the clinging itself causes pain; I know I will lose those who are dear to me one day and it's hard to bear, sometimes anticipating the pain of it ruins the good times.

And I remember those hurtful childhood makings and breakings of friends, both being on the receiving end and doling out the unkindnesses. I feel for Daisy's little friend.

Having no children, I sometimes feel relieved that to some extent I'm not in that current of life to the same extent as those who do. The fear of a lonely old age is mitigated by having fewer expectations! But the thought of deterioration is not a cheerful one.

Yet I have seen those who have moved into unexpected new phases, often painfully and often quite late, and their lives have a fullness and richness one wouldn't think possible, my sister is one. It's not all bad news.

And anyway, Bee, you're so young! Have you read Jane Smiley's 'The Age of Grief'? That age, it concludes, is about in one's mid-thirties, not much older, when the true measure of grief really comes home to one.

This was a wonderful, well-crafted, thoughtful post, very satisfying, vintage Bee!

Taffiny said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Taffiny said...

left a comment that was far too long, I shall come back again when it is proper day around here, and leave another less weedy one.

Bee said...


It is such a pleasure bouncing ideas off of you.

I wonder if "the thing" about these milestone birthdays is that they gradually change the way we conceptualize ourselves. Just a thought. (BTW, Happy Birthday -- slightly late, but no less sincere for it!)

Yes, change does mostly suck . . . especially the ageing process, no matter how anyone tries to rationalize it.

Welcome! I think that mothers of 14 year olds need a support group! It's a shame that my daughter's moodiness cannot be harvested as an alternative energy source.

Bee said...

I feel like my age (like my height, which is just under 5"6) -- exists only in context. In other words, I can feel "old" or "youngish," "short" or "tallish" -- depending on who I'm talking to or standing by. Middle age is such a transitional time, and you become very aware of how rapidly the ones older and younger than you are changing.

I like the idea of one's later years as a Renaissance of sorts, but physical decline is still unavoidable . . . and that's the rub. (BTW, I'm pleased to have the word "vintage" applied to me when it comes to writing style, though!)

I HAVE read "The Age of Grief;" and I think Smiley is a genius.

Weedy comments are welcome here! I like to think that I have created a safe place for those whose comments run a bit overlong.

Dick said...

Mutabile semper. I have a grown-up son and daughter from my first marriage and, second time around, three kids aged 5, 4 and 2. I am acutely conscious both of my own aging and the swift evolution of my children. All is change and there is only one accommodation that can be made: to live in the moment. So simple a solution, so difficult to embrace!

Taffiny said...

I didn't mean the space did not seem safe, or generous, I meant my reply was/is a bit self indulgently long. More than a bit overlong. Really really long, and wanders off course a bit. But as it has been sitting in a pile on my desktop (so I could prune it), and I haven't yet (did prune some plants today though), well here it is in all its, -ness-ness.

you mention lots of change.

Bob has been a bit dreary on the point of late, talking about how the eldest gen is pretty much gone, leaving just our parents generation between us and our time of dying. I point out that as most of the eldest has/and is dying in their 80's and 90's, both our parents and us, still have time. I'm not even half baked yet.

Loss of friends is sad (and hard).
This is my son's first friendless summer (age 12). And our relatives around his age have all moved too far away to see except for on holidays. Some friends moved, some moved on, and here he stands alone. And at a time when I expected to be less important, I find the heaviness of value attached to all of our interactions. I enjoy him more than I ever did before, but I do not enjoy talking video games, and pokemon, et. cetera, (for hours) more than I ever did before. But over and over, I remind myself, if he doesn't get to share these things with me, with us (mom and dad) who does he get to share them with?

I recall the pool party we were invited to last year, just after the last day of school, and he wouldn't talk to the kids, just sat there on a rock looking forlorn, till I felt bad for making him go to it. I left the women I was trying to join in with, and sat beside him, he pleaded to leave, and soon we did (it seemed cruel not to). We weren't invited to go this year. I listened to those kids playing and laughing while I did my gardening, and while my son was inside on the computer doing a photoshop tutorial, and I just felt sad. I know we were (and are) both content doing what we were doing, but it seems there is this whole other world that buzzes and hums that we are not a part of (should we try harder to be a part of it?).
And I am not sure what to do about it. What to do for him. Do I force him to do things, or let him be? A socially avoidant child, of two socially avoidant parents. I know we will have him take a week long computer summer camp, and we will take him to the pool (where he will no doubt swim alone, or swim with us, or rather his Dad, unless he begs and begs and begs me), and I am thinking perhaps I should get him a dog (though I am not overjoyed at the thought of taking care of one. And a dog is not another child, but still a dog can be a buddy of sorts. So I don't know. He is asking for a racoon dog, they come from Japan, look like racoons and are not fully domesticated, goodness me, I hope it is illegal to ship them here). Do I try to move heaven and earth, and make it a mission GET FRIEND, or do I just lean back, and say this is this year, this time of our life, and it is fine, we are fine, let's just enjoy what is special, unique about this time, and if it is just us, then it is just us?


Oh, I hate amusement park rides! Very unpleasant. I no longer apologize for it either, I will take people to one if I must, but I will not be going on any rides (no amount of begging, or pleading, can induce any sort of guilt that can change this). My husband likes rides, and has thankfully taken up the notion of saving money by leaving me at home. (or even on occasion in the car with an ipod and a book. This makes me sound oid and dull, but truly I much prefer being in the car with my ipod and book than out at an amusement park).

Its kind of neat, and a bit unnerving, watching them grow up, they are literally changing before our eyes, in little increments, that seem to accumulate and then burst through. Suddenly my son's feet are the same size as mine. I still look down at him, though he is gaining on me, and I wonder how long it will be till I look directly over into his eyes. We were at the shore on Saturday, a place I have gone to my whole life, and I thought about the passage of time, and change a lot, all the people who had died, or moved away, people I used to go to the shore with. And seeing all the people with little ones, just remembering when my son was little. The mix of sadness, nostalgia and gratitude, for the passing of time. (aka change)

I think it is even more striking with girls, for the reasons you mention (like make-up, and dancing), some of those middle school girls, as they walk past my son, my jaw drops, they look like women, very young women, but women. I think too soon, nowadays (in USA at least), they leave the little girls in themselves behind.

Sorry about your aunt, it is hard to lose people we care about, in our day to day lives, I still can't quite wrap my mind around it. Moving I can sort of get, buy dying, no, I can't understand that at all.

Sorry so long, apparently you tapped on a spot here as well. My mind is so boggy lately it will take hours to chop it up and put it back up here, nice neat and short (I've tried), so I hope you will forgive me for just letting it be. My thoughts as is, an unweeded bed. I promise to be tidier next I visit.
I will indeed be tidier next time.

Nimble said...

I have my moments of disgust at my body's aging and changing. But they are pretty fleeting. Physically everything works and I can do what I want to do. Since having kids I have been slammed with the notion of time passing. And it's been mostly liberating. There are so many alternatives (death, illness, misfortune, DEATH) that haven't befall me and my immediate family. I feel very grateful for these days and years and I am curious to see what comes next. I wonder if I'll feel so chipper at sixty.

Bee said...

It must be fascinating going through it all again. Are you very different as a parent?
I'm very fond of the word "mutable" . . . it doesn't get used enough -- in English or Latin!

I've thought a lot about what you wrote here . . . may I tell you that I "listened" with great interest?

I have a child with "loner" tendencies, too . . . which are dominant in my husband, and latent perhaps in me. My other child is excessively sociable and despairs at the three of us -- content to do our own solitary things. I suppose I think it's good to be self-sufficient to a certain extent, but I understand why you worry about your son's loneliness. Hopefully this "friendless summer" will prove temporary.

Physical change is almost never for the better after a certain point . . . but I do think that other things can improve -- and there lies our consolation.
I was at a 50th birthday party last night and it was a bit of a shock seeing some of our "old" friends . . . when you see people irregularly, the changes register more, don't they?

Kate said...

You are a wonderful writer! I thoroughly enjoyed reading your post. I intend to peruse your blog over the coming weeks.
Are you a published novelist?
Your style is fantastic, refreshing.
A quick question: How does a girl from Texas wind up in Scotland?

Bee said...

Thank you for the very nice compliment! (You've made my WEEK.) And no, I'm not a published writer -- unless you count a college literary magazine from 20 years ago. Actually, I meant to be a writer . . . but somehow got waylaid by life. I've really just started writing again. For myself, I mean.

To answer your question: The Scotland visit was just for the weekend, but I live in England because that is where my English husband has found a steady job!

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