Life Lessons

Aging is an Attitude: Who do you envy?

Conjure up the most desirable image of your dream house you can think of. Mine is by the beach: just about anywhere fairly close to the ocean would do. I can see the beauty of it, feel the calm and smell the sea. But — a house is just a house, no matter the location — if life all goes to hell.

Growing up— the youngest of three — my family was “middle class” but I always felt poor. Both of my parents were community college professors who scrimped constantly: shopping bulk and “warehouse” before warehouse was in vogue, always generic items, and only necessary staples. (All of our veggies and fruits were from our own back yard — an oddity at that time.) We never went hungry, but there were no luxuries. New clothes came from places like K-mart; our cars were old: out of style and convenience. If ever there was talk of buying a new appliance, the lecture began, “What’s wrong with the old one?” Even if the oven door had to be held closed with a strip of metal my father had screwed on it — the ultimate Survivalist Handyman.

None of this mattered in my childish perspective until it did — coinciding with our change of home just as I entered the 6th grade. Suddenly I lived in what was known as “the rich people’s part of town” (even though our house was actually small and funky-looking, compared to the artful and luxurious homes around it). I attended school with children of heart specialists, surgeons, lawyers, and wealthy ranchers. I knew in an instant, by looking at clothing, perfect hair and even makeup (in the 6th grade??), that I was an outsider. But, I fell into a girl-group that actually stayed intact until high school, when we all went to different colleges, chasing success, learning life lessons.

I never attended the announced high school reunions until — I think it was my 40th. I was so curious as to how these women, the childhood friends I’d been so envious of, were living their lives. I soon found out that my envy was completely unwarranted. “Barbara”, who’d always wanted children, had been in a horrific car accident which prevented her ever getting pregnant. She and her husband had chosen to adopt, but the child turned out to have significant behavioral problems (the home-wrecking kind). “Jackie”, a close friend of Barbara’s, had married for money (dropping out of college) and had recently come-out to her husband and children. Jackie told me she’d known she was a lesbian since high school but lacked the courage to reveal who she really was. She continued to live under the same roof as her husband for six years, having affairs as women appeared in her life. She was living in agony but was in a holding pattern. Jackie was also ostracized by her son after she came-out and was mourning not being invited to his wedding. As Jackie told me her story, she also told me that Barbara had actually — on top of everything else going on with her adopted son— fallen in love with a married man who had just dumped her claiming overwhelming guilt over the affair.

I came away from this high school reunion pretty much stunned by how things had turned out for my friends: two women who’d grown up with all the advantages wealth could provide. All of the competition, mean-girl bravado about who had more perks (a horse at the nearby stables, the promise of a posh summer camp every year, a second home at Pebble Beach ) was so irrelevant and stupid. On the long drive home from the country-club venue of the event, I repeated Gratitude mantras until my eyes became teary. I let myself enter into a full blown sob (brief, but cleansing) as I pulled into my own driveway. What a relief to be reminded that comparing ourselves to the progress and outcomes of others makes no sense at all. There’s always a story we can’t see, until it’s time to see it.

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