Just swimming in metaphors

You are suddenly a mermaid. Swathed in cloudy turquoise light, you dive down, down, down toward sand and tiny threads of seaweed growing from the bottom. Soaring through the water, for a second you are almost certain you are part-woman, part fish.

Ripples in the sand, not a creature in sight. Surrounded by unbreathable faded blue, this Atlantean water feels familiar, like you know it. You feel like you could stay there forever, making waves of your body beneath the waves of the ocean, bright yellow fins propelling you along the sand you’re grazing with your chest.

No one is watching you, no one knows where you are. You remember hearing about bull sharks in this area. You haven’t speared any fish, and you’re not particularly afraid, so you’re not high on a shark’s radar, but the fact that you can’t even see two feet in front of you does make you a little uneasy. They say the sharks in your mind are scarier than the real thing.

You turn over, do a quick 360 scan for dorsal fins and recline into your favorite place in the world—on your back, in the ocean, submerged in water, breathing air, staring at the sky, your body rolling with the waves. Your feet rise, then fall, gently, so gently. The water raises and releases your knees, your hips, chest, head and eventually your arms, the swell at last lifting your fingertips and setting them softly back down where they were. And the next swell comes. And another. And the clouds are beautiful. And you are certain there’s no more mystical place to be than in between earth and sky, buoyed by the sea, which you equate with God or Spirit, all by yourself, and somehow nowhere near lonely.

At the same time, it’s hard being alone sometimes. As a single, working mom, that is. You’re thinking about it a lot on this trip, which you’ve been anticipating for two years. One of your best friends curated her best friends for a birthday trip to her parents’ home in the Bahamas, and these women are awesome in all kinds of ways—funny, graceful, powerful, kind, running companies, raising families, blazing trail, nailing it in general. They each delight in their respective marriages and you’re very aware—because of you, not because of them, and no more clearly than when they wrest you away from the dashing Southern sportsman you all call “Marky Mark” at the bar because it’s just time to go home—that you are unaffiliated.

They jokingly wish that the guy, provided it’s a guy, who owns the ridiculous yacht in Baker’s Bay (Podium, if you’re curious), whoever he is, will find and fall in love with you. That, or a fun, kind, open, spiritually evolved, sexy, athletic hedge fund owner who likes you and your kids. In other words, a unicorn. You well up about the sense of aloneness at dinner one night, and one of the girls says very clearly and directly: “This is just one moment in time in your life.”

Right. It’s easy to forget. This transition you’re in, it won’t last forever. You’ve just got to move through it.

You can’t help spotting the metaphor in the opaque sea around you, and tying it to this broader moment in time. You’ve been swimming in “unknown waters” with limited visibility for a while now. Not ideal conditions. You wish it were clear, like some of your dives off the Ambar III in the Sea of Cortez, or like the deep blue off the coast of Kona. You want to see in front of you and behind you and beneath you. When you dive down, you want to behold something wondrous and to reach for it. But here you are in a cloudy, unknown corner of the ocean. You have no idea what could be swimming—or not—around you and you are not entirely sure where you’re heading.

It feels a little nerve wracking, this not knowing what surrounds and awaits you. And yet you don’t get out of the water. You heave a deep breath, pop your snorkel out of your mouth and go down, fin tips the last to disappear beneath the surface, dolphin kicking, clearing your mask and ears, to the sandy bottom, which you cannot see until the very moment you touch it.

That’s what this season of your life must be about. Diving, going, trusting, moving forward fast and hopeful into unknown waters to see what’s there, open to whatever you find. (But you think it might be nice to come across that unicorn…)

Eventually you do come back to shore, the setting sun shining a light so magical you can’t believe it. Stepping out of the hazy turquoise breaking on the beach, a mermaid transformed, you look down to see your skin appears golden. It actually looks gold in this light. And although you don’t have anything figured out, and you don’t feel any lighter, wiser or more secure than when you entered the water, in this moment in time, you know you are exactly where you’re supposed to be. Slathered in sun and saltwater, glowing and unknowing.

Note: This is just one tale from your visit to the Bahamas, a mere snippet of a broader four-day experience, which involved all sorts of succulence you embraced with abandon. Lobster salad, island hopping, fast boats, strolls through quaint towns, conch fritters and cold rose, meditation under infinite stars, dance parties, conversations with awesome women, yacht gawking, rum punch, daily solo SUP-ing, the world’s most generous hosts, private air travel, delightful new acquaintances, swimming, paddling, laughing, reading, writing, eating. A beautiful journey. You are ready to return immediately. Still, the ocean brings stuff up for you, and even amid all the wonderment, shit gets real, so that’s what you write about.

 

Mama does Lolla

photo 2

Daytime crowds.

You’ve never seen crowds like this. This is all new.

You’re trying to make yourself as narrow as possible to sneak through a converging labyrinth of girls in high-waisted denim shorts and crop tops or sheer bodysuits, and shirtless guys sipping from CamelBaks. You don’t even bother to say “excuse me” because, at this point in the day, the teens are well into their molly, their cocaine, their smoke and no one cares. But they’re also not moving. Because, like you, they’re here to see The Weeknd, and they won’t budge.

You first started listening to The Weeknd three years ago, when one of your friends said he thought you should. So you did. To all his mixtapes, almost every day, but only when the kids were in bed and you were alone because he sings about sex and drugs and pain in a way so real and so raw that it feels private, like a secret you’re keeping for him.

This guy sings words and ideas you can’t believe one would admit so openly. He comes out with darkness—society’s and his own—in a way that slays you. You’re mesmerized and a little bit floored. The boldness! His music becomes your escape to a totally different life, not one you want, but one you want to understand. You’re intrigued by the “XO” (ecstasy + oxycodone) devil-may-care sensibility that The Weeknd embodies. It’s a middle finger to everything judgey and a thumbs up to recklessness. Essentially, a complete departure from your entire existence.

The intrigue is not about recklessness for you—it’s that you want to be that open. Wide open. Without a thought to who might care, and without a care of what they might think of you.

At the time, the only people you know who love him as much as you do are your friend in LA, the radiant chick rapper you met at the resale shop (Loretta Mars. Check her out.) and the rival gangbangers who showed up to your block party that one summer and scrolled through your iPod like, “Damn, mami!”

This night, though, thousands of kids are holding up XOs with their hands and talking about how much they hope he does “I can’t feel my face.”

First Aid Kit in the grove with your girls.

First Aid Kit in the grove with your girls, just before Sylvan Esso and, later, The Weeknd.

Bye-bye, buddy system.

One hour earlier, you were watching Sylvan Esso finish her set in the grove with two girlfriends. “I don’t care at ALL about The Weeknd,” one of them says and the other one just smiles. “You’re on your own for that show. See you at 11 at the Givers after show.” Your girls go to Paul McCartney to hang out with dad jeans, high fives and pyrotechnics. You plan to meet at a bar in Wicker Park to see a show at 11 p.m. You head a different direction.

You push through crowds of very young people until the density is such that you are in some way touching another human being on at least three sides of your body. You stay there.

You text this pic to your friends, who are at the Paul McCartney stage, with the words

You text this pic to your friends, who are at the Paul McCartney stage, with the words “Everyone is 20.” If you look closely, you’ll notice a shirtless male wearing a CamelBak. Take note. You’re about to meet him.

“Hey, um, why are you so dressed up?” a voice asks over your left shoulder. You look up to see a tall, shirtless guy wearing a CamelBak.

“Oh, am I dressed up?” you ask.

“Like, yeah. I mean all the other girls here are in like, bras with their asses hanging out of their shorts, and you’re in a full-on dress.”

“Oh, yeah. Looks like you’re right,” you say. “Maybe cuz I’m not 20?”

“Oh, ok,” he says, smiling. “Cool.” He’s adorable in his strapping, blond, youthful glory. And he seems nice. So you ask a question.

“So, hey, is The Weeknd, like, hugely popular with all the 20-year-olds? I mean, when did that happen?” You decide it’s best to go all in with the Old Lady bit. “I thought I might be able to get up closer 30 minutes out of his show. But this is crazy!”

You really had no idea. You just figured he got popular when he did that 50 Shades of Gray song. “I dunno. I’ve been listening to The Weeknd for about three years,” the guy says. “His music helps me focus. I love it.”

The young guy introduces himself, asks you why you’re there. How did you first hear about The Weeknd? What are your favorite songs? What do you hope he plays? Do you live in the city? What do you do for work? What do you write? How old are your kids? He’s just turned 21. He tells you that you don’t look “old.”

“Definitely not 35, not that that’s old at ALL. C’mon, you’re only 14 years older than me. That’s nothing. I mean, you’re really pretty, too. That’s why I first talked to you. I would NEVER have guessed you were as old as you are. Which isn’t old, for the record.” Two girls centimeters in front of your face turn around to survey you and smile-scowl. You think maybe they would like to be talking with him, so you smile at them and turn your body away from him to give them an in.

He moves in closer to you, says it’s so nice to have a conversation with a girl who’s not like all the other girls there. You tell him to keep an open mind to the younger girls. You’re sure there are young women his age who are devastatingly lovely, but sometimes being 20 is not about knowing or showing it. But 20 is good and fun and important.

You wonder if you should move, because you’re not there to get your swerve on with a 21 year old, but this guy and his friends are so cute and warm and good, so you stay put and chat casually until the sky goes dark.

Waiting for the show to start.

Waiting for the show to start.

The Weeknd comes out and opens with one of your favorites from “House of Balloons.” It’s almost exhilarating. You wish you were up closer, but the energy is still buzzing. Arms are up, everyone is dancing. You know all the words.

“Can you see ok?” the guy asks right in your ear.

“Yeah! I can. It’s great!” you say, still watching the stage.

“No, really. Can you see ok?” he’s yelling in your ear. “You love this guy. Don’t you want to see him better?”

“Ummmm? I think this is good,” you call back to him, eyes on the stage.

The guy leans down and his face drops in front of yours. “I’m asking if you want to get on my shoulders.”

What the hell? Those are words no one has EVER asked you. You burst out laughing.

“Oh, no way! You’re sweet to offer, but I’m a big girl and I’d probably hurt you. There’s no way. But thanks!”

He gives you a discerning look and steps back. You notice he’s ridiculously cut. (because he’s shirtless and wearing only a CamelBak. Right. How had you missed this till now?) “As long as you’re not more than 500 pounds, which is what I bench, I’ll be fine. And you’re nowhere close to that, so don’t worry about me. C’mon, Emily. It’ll be fun!”

You giggle nervously and fear streaks through you. Would it be fun? You wonder for a split second. No! The answer is no! Wait. It’s NOT appropriate for a woman your age to do such things. What would people say? No!

You emphatically decline again and you keep dancing. Nervously. You notice several girls on shoulders around you. But they’re 20. You are embarrassed and terrified that you even considered the invitation for a second, but he won’t leave you alone about it and deep down inside you really, really want to say yes.

“Emily. Everyone else is up, so you might as well get up, too. Come on. You’ll have fun.” He takes your hands in his and squats down in front of you.

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?

As if out of body, you watch yourself agreeing to this nonsense before you can stop it. Because you’ve wanted to go to Lollapalooza since Pearl Jam was there in 1992 and you’re fucking there and you are free to do as you please and you don’t know a soul in the crowd and as you place your thighs on either side of the back of his neck, you panic because you are just way too sweaty, way too heavy, way too sober, way too amazon, way too scandalous, way too old to actually do this and the next second you’re in the air, wobbling precariously—it’s seriously kinda scary for a couple ticks—till you find your balance on the shoulders of a 21-year-old body builder and the girls in front of you are looking up at you with absolute glee (must be the molly) and you know you look shameful perched above the crowd in your blue dress and 35-year-old-ness and you had your 7-year-old son there with you earlier in the day for goodness’ sake and it all feels obscene and deplorable and Absolutely. Fucking. Amaaaaazing.

For reference, see 7-year-old. (this is just before leaving for the show. he's pissed you did not get him a pack of gum at the store on your way to pick him up.)

For reference, see 7-year-old. (this is just before leaving for the show. he’s pissed you did not get him a pack of gum at the store on your way to pick him up.)

You cannot stop smiling. At first it’s out of embarrassment, but then you realize you are literally in the clouds, high above a sea of people all rocking to an artist you love. You note that The Weeknd would probably be extra proud of you for not caring what the people think. You laugh and relax slightly as the guy dances beneath you and you can’t help but think of the Guns & Roses concerts you watched when you were a kid and MTV still played videos, and when you confess this tale to your sister the next day she asks you if you flashed your boobs because that’s what you do on shoulders at concerts, right? (No. Der. It’s not 1985.) Up there on this adorable kid’s shoulders, it’s just you, arms outstretched, bathed by stage lights in front and a blue moon behind. A literal blue moon. You look up at the sky, at the stage and throw your head back in laughter. Then a couple euphoric minutes later, you ask the guy to kindly bring you back down. He doesn’t hear you, so you have to touch his face and repeat your request. Your cheeks MUST be as flushed as the hot pink lipstick you’re wearing. And you don’t even care.

The girls in front reach their hands out to help you land safely. “Why so soon? I could’ve held you for so much longer,” the guy says with a huge smile. “Did you have fun?!”

You had SO much fun.

“Any time you want to get back up, just let me know,” he grins.

You know you won’t ask him—or anyone—to hoist you up again. It was sort of like crowd surfing…it was awesome that one time in college, but you don’t need to do it again. The ground is fine for concert viewing, thank you. You feel strangely grateful to this guy and you wonder where he came from and why that just happened. And you’re still smiling. And you dance. And the night is young. And The Weeknd plays on.

###

Just because, here are pics that tell a different story from the day…

Emilee, her little man, Charlie and me taking in Cold War Kids.

Emilee, her little man, Charlie and me taking in Cold War Kids.

Rappin'

Just some cats rappin’

Mamas and boys

Mamas and boys

Drummin

Lil drummer boy

We actually had the best day ever together.

Silly faces.

Up front. Charlie's first rock concert. First Lolla for us both.

Up front for Cold War Kids. Charlie’s first rock show. First Lolla for us both.

Excavating

“Oh my gosh, I love Sarah McLachlan!” you hear your 19-year-old self say from somewhere deep within your 35-year-old body. “I’d love to be your date! Thanks for inviting me.”

Fast forward. The house lights are dimmed. You’re seated close enough to Sarah McLachlan that the definition in her triceps as she plays the piano is making you think about doing planks when you get home. You’re expecting this show, which she’s performing with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Center, to be a night of throwback nineties nostalgia. (Silence, haters. I see “cool” shows sometimes, too.)

Hold on. Hold on to yourself. This is gonna hurt like hell.

All things considered, you’re doing well and feeling pretty light and airy these days. But, to your surprise, what looked to be a fun date on the surface becomes, three songs in, a private excavation of buried grief.

You’d neglected to remember that Sarah McLachlan writes about lost love laced with gratitude, acceptance and well wishes, which are themes that parallel the path of you and your former husband. Sure, some aspect of this music once spoke to you as a teen, but it hits you dead-on at 35.

Nevertheless, there’s a hand on your knee. It belongs to a smart, handsome man you’ve been seeing.* He’s fun. He’s clever, generous and chivalrous. A bespoke investment banker with higher ed street cred that both inspires and kinda annoys you. He’s one of those people with an insane bandwidth for both doing the demanding work he does and finding spare time to write screenplays, cook like a chef and do improv. Which makes you feel kinda dumb because you know you’ve never had that kind of bandwidth. He obviously doesn’t have kids, though. Duh. Your friends know him by the moniker “Gucci Loafers.”

“Are you sure he’s not a lesbian?” your co-worker asks the day of the show.

Not likely. But he’s complex. And maybe worthy of your attention. However, a few bars into “I Will Remember You,” you’re zooming to the center of your heart and staring at the ceiling to stop the tears from coming. You know all the words and yet it is as if you’re hearing them for the very first time.

You elect not to create a detailed grid of all the lyrics and the emotional response they trigger (you’re welcome, haters) but let’s just say you spend some time eyeballing the ceiling to ward off tears, holding your sniffles till the applause, laughing inappropriately and turning your head to the side to hide your far-flung facial expressions from Gucci Loafers. You basically look like a crazy person.

This is not at all what I expected out of the evening, you think, accepting the situation and chuckling to yourself as tears pool in your eyes, I guess I needed to feel a few things?

Sidebar: What becoming a single, working mom really looks like sometimes

Moving through a transition as massive as this one is odd. You know it’s big, and yet you just keep putting one foot in front of the other—sometimes walking, but mostly running, eyes up—because it seems like that’s what you have to do. It’s harder to slow down and breathe deep than it is to keep a fast pace.

You go to work at your new job, you probably try too hard, you attempt to build co-worker relationships and navigate office dynamics, you hold it together, you hold it in, you dive into time with the kids when you have it, you try your darnedest to cook and do housework when you don’t, you scrounge for time to exercise, you try to keep up with dog walks and dog hair, you call your lifelines in heavy tears when you fail at all of it. You use your newfound kid-free weekends to make up for lost time with girlfriends and you date around, you work your ass off to stay grounded and keep it all together. Even when you pause to meditate at night, it doesn’t matter how long you sit in physical stillness because you barely ever slow your mind down enough to actually check in and ask yourself, “Sweetheart, what are you feeling?”

So when Sarah McLachlan is singing your precise story, and you can’t turn the station, it gets real.

You suddenly know what Roberta Flack was talking about

After the show, you write a long email to your former husband:

“It was like she was singing about all my own heartache and grief and love for you as we part ways as husband and wife. I literally found myself streaming secret tears during certain songs. Could not get my abiding appreciation for you, nor the deeper sense of loss, though it’s the right path, out of my heart. It hit a deep, deep nerve in a really cool, if not hilariously inappropriate, place (on a date with someone who probably didn’t pick up on the fact that I was totally engrossed in my grieving rather than the fact he was treating me to a nice concert.)

…On listening…tonight…it reminded me so much of how deep and sad and pure and beautiful this all is. And how, even in sadness and grief, we are both so supported by God, the masters, our guides, angels and each other.”

This email opens up an exchange between you and your former partner that you previously couldn’t have imagined. You show him your true vulnerability, the sense of loss you feel and the hope you have for the future. You let him know it’s not all rainbows for you right now, even though you made it look like it was. You honor the love that was always there and still is and always will be. You both exchange the equivalent of a monumentally awesome e-hug.

The next day your eyes are swollen from all the feeling of things and crying, so you work from home. Feeling this stuff is hard work in and of itself. And, for whatever reason, it was Sarah McLachlan who made you do it. It wasn’t a cool show by hip-guy standards, but it was one of the most important shows you’ll see this year. When you do go back to work the following day, the haters make fun of you. And you laugh really hard. Because it’s funny. Really. It is.

*Epilogue:

It’s been over a month since the concert. It was a legit turning point for you in your grieving process, and you still have a way to go, but you’re soaring higher than you were when you originally drafted this blog post, which was the day after the concert. (it takes you longer to actually post stuff now that you’re a working girl.)

You haven’t seen Gucci Loafers since the show and, because you love tales of irony, here’s why: You’d suspected it for a while, but following the concert of Madame Lilith Fair Founder, conversations in the black car—it was always a black car—on the way home confirm his patriarchal (and potentially misogynistic?) leanings. Hilarious, right?

Fitting daintily within the patriarchy was fun for a minute, but it’s not really your scene, so you fade out. “Well, at least until Tori Amos goes on tour and he calls you with tickets,” your co-worker chides you over lunch, making you almost choke on your food.

You don’t hear from Gucci Loafers much after that, either, so you figure he saw something equally glaring and repulsive in you during that conversation. In other words, you probably won’t be crying about him at your next girl power concert. And he’s not crying over you.

You wish him general wellbeing and expansion, and you’re thankful to him. After all, he facilitated your all-important excavation and the subsequent connection with your former partner, freeing you to move to the next level of healing. Gucci Loafers also taught you, as dating does, a few things you know you want in a man at some point, and a few things you know you don’t. And, single lady friends, that is some valuable information…