The writing in my head syncs with the rhythm of my gait as I walk through the familiar grounds—not familiar in that I’ve ever been inside of this ubiquitous, quasi-suburban condo complex, but in that I could get perfectly lost here. This evening, rather than going north towards the farm, I decided to go west, down the hill, then took a right and wandered into a backdrop unexpectedly perfect for feeling my way into something I didn’t know was waiting when I left the house: a memory, maybe, of who I used to be. A mirror of who I’ve become.
I’m walking, and I’m overcome with the need to find the way out. There must be a hidden path from the neat contours of this neighborhood into the semi-wilds of an in-town farm. I just know it—and I’m determined to discover it. I follow the winding sidewalks and cut through the cookie-cutter parking lots. I’m moving deeper and deeper into something, the way one might walk through a house in a dream. The further from the street I get, the grey-blue condos like a hall of mirrors, the more I move into the feeling of how I related, as a woman in my twenties, to women in their forties and maybe to other women, period.
When I was in my twenties, women in their forties seemed not old exactly, but… how can I put this? Like women.
There was something so foreign to me about the divorced ones. And also about the married ones, the ones with careers and husband and kids—all of these, really, lumped together in some category of grown-ups, of having figured something out that I had not and wasn’t sure I wanted to. A category of… Other. Other than what? Other as in mothers? Other as in adults, whatever that meant but was most definitely not me?
At twenty-five, I was newly married, completing the graduate degree that would mean little more than that I’d marked a few years’ time, written more poems, felt unseen by female professors, and wondered if my advisor and I were flirting or being literary at the Irish pub, his Guinness to my Diet Coke with lemon. (Was I afraid to drink, to let loose, of him or of myself?) And then there was the cigarette I’d scrub from my skin—hands, mouth—before turning to walk home to the tiny one-bedroom I shared on Summer Street with my new husband.
We moved to Vermont and I donned an official title as director of a small nonprofit, where I inherited a board of alumni and faculty that included some women in their forties. I was once again the girl among them, young, smart, small, and mighty—and regularly mistaken for an undergrad. Their lives seemed to me an unattainable blend of alien and enviable, far from mine for reasons I couldn’t name except to say that there was always some nagging—I’d feel it especially after running or sex—that I was longing for something. I began to name the longing “myself,” and this would go on for many years.
Walking tonight among these ubiquitous middle-class condos with their flowerboxes, a single lonely bench, automatic garage doors closing out the outside world, and decks turned inward rather than towards each other, the sensation comes rushing back and now I’m writing in my head in earnest. I’m forty-one and suddenly I realize that now I’m the woman in her forties.
She felt like a girl—I felt like a girl—because to really become a woman, to actually grow up, would require something of me big, scary, destructive and off-limits—something like cheating, like an affair and with another woman no less, like breaking all the goddamn rules, like making my own prayer books and play books and plans. And none of this would accommodate the sweet house with the French doors, the earth mama I also knew myself to be, the role as wife by way of the only models I knew, and the babies I knew were waiting for me. I could not reconcile the leaking breasts that would nourish then shrink back to perky young with the running with wolves and reading other people’s poems, never my own. And so I didn’t. I looked at other women and I looked at myself and one of us had, always, to be Other.
I’m flooded with the memory of running with him, my husband, through a golf course—a conventional landscape not all that different than these condos. There’s a full moon. We don’t have kids yet; I’ve never been pregnant. We are a year or so married and why am I so angry, so agitated, so full of rage that I have to stop right in the middle of that manicured green to scream a rare scream while he looked on, at once supportive and—I can only wonder now—befuddled?
Do I still feel like a woman in her twenties filled with longing? No. I am the woman in my forties now. And yes, too—because I carry this girl-woman who really truly didn’t know how to become, to break open by breaking with what I’d been told, taught, and shown.
The parallel rhythms of writing and walking are now in full swing, having felt my way towards and indeed found my way to the path, the one I knew would free me from the condos into the wild of the farm’s back gardens, where lie row after row of stunning beauty, well-kept secrets finally revealed.
I’ve gained a few pounds since this latest round—I hope my last—of quitting smoking. And these few pounds on my small frame mark the difference between a more angular and an ever-so-slightly softer and fuller body. I am no longer a girl and no longer a child. I am no longer longing, at least not in that way that had me looking at all the women around me thinking, they are The Real Women.
How did I get here? By leaving the apartment I share with my wife of one year for a sunset walk alone. By going down the hill instead of up and taking a right instead of going straight. And finally, by walking towards the sun instead of turning my back for another minute on the light.
These are the ways I find my way to the path, the existence of which I only imagined and intuited. And there it is—beyond the lonely bench, and all those years of not belonging.
JENA SCHWARTZis a poet, writer, and facilitator, known for leading rich, safe, creative, and deeply nourishing online groups and real-life retreats. She is also co-founder of The Inky Path, an online writing school and community. Jena lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with her kids, Aviva and Pearl, and her beloved wife, writer and artist Mani Schwartz.
Though the forecast semi-promised rain, the afternoon of our upstairs housemates’ clothing swap was ushered in to the best Memorial Day weekend in New England weather. It was hot, yet fresh in the sunshine, comfortable in the shade, bright, clear blue sky with puffy white clouds above and thick, healthy green grass below.
Em and Nell—the two sisters from upstairs—and a few friends began to lay down sheets and unpack clothing from bags and boxes. Other friends walked down the grassy hill with more, which were placed by category onto the ground. They brought shirts and pants, skirts, dresses, and shoes. Home baked goods—a plate of brownies, another of cookies dusted on top with powdery confectioner’s sugar, and chocolate chip cookies—appeared, as well as bags of salty snacks and plates and containers with watermelon and grapes. Beer and a big bottle of wine arrived, too. There were no cups. People shared, swigged.
Nate and Ben, the two sisters’ boyfriends, looked on. The ponytailed boyfriend was a housemate, the shorthaired boyfriend a visiting beau. Ben walked from his woodshop in the barn and back to the grass several times. For a year, every Saturday morning he drove off early to attend a boat building class. His canoe was lodged on a rack in the open middle barn. An onlookers’ corner formed in the shade, more males than females. There wasn’t much for them to do but sit and chat and drink a beer and look moderately bored. This was a big step up from waiting at a ladies’ clothing store while your girlfriend tries stuff on, but that vibe endured, just a bit, the price of boyfriend-dom or of being part of any group that wasn’t engaged in your dream activity. It wasn’t quite a Memorial Day Party.
In the thicket of swappers, though, hugs and squeals and vamping ensued with gleeful abandon as clothes came on and off of bodies and bodies moved between states of dress and undress. A pause in the action occurred about an hour in for everyone in that swapping circle to make introductions: name, gender, preferred pronoun—the icebreaker trifecta for twentysomethings in the twenty-teens.
One of the most beloved in the group had recently announced her transition. She’d changed her name, completed a course of testosterone blockers, and begun estrogen. Short dark hair growing out, Marta graced a new-to-her blue dress quite stunningly—to everyone’s accolades. The male clothing she’d had—work clothes, play clothes, and so much workout gear—couldn’t come along. Her former drag items no longer worked, either. Whatever those had been, playful or experimental, no longer applied. What to wear and who to become melded now and, amongst the heaps of clothing, she found nothing else she really wanted. Meantime, a rainbow-striped baseball cap made the rounds of heads. Eventually, it was left on the roof of our black sedan, and I brought it inside to our mudroom. Perhaps some child or tween might take a shine to it.
The big yellow house we live in has an apartment on the top, which, for over a dozen years, we’ve bartered for hours, mostly for childcare and the light housekeeping duties that keep a family functional: laundry assists and kitchen cleanup and some cooking.
The barter tends to be with young adults in the twenties, a changeable time. Newly graduated from college, newly cohabiting, newly married, newly out (but not to the family), newly employed or trying to become employed, or applying to graduate school, no one who’s moved here planned to set roots from a top floor flat. Transition, even when there’s a person who stays for a couple of years, is implicit, because the apartment’s appeal is the bargain—no cash money, just time and utilities and Wifi and laundry and a place to park off-street in the winter—and the feel of your own place but in such proximity to a family. It has a separate kitchen and bathroom and entrance, yet it shares heat and laundry and Wifi and off-street parking in the winter. In over a decade-plus, the two-bedroom has housed somewhere near twenty people—it’s hard to keep count. Perhaps it’ll click for someone for longer, but somehow I don’t expect it, at least not in this incarnation.
The spring and fall swaps started two years ago with these sisters. My closet and drawers emptied in increments over time, to my relief. Clothing and shoes of my twenties and beyond that had lingered in my possession unworn were released—and I was freed of whatever the threads held over me. The sisters pluck favored items from my contributions to the swaps before they begin. A running top went to Nell; that morning, Em and her best friend appeared in linen sundresses, sleeveless with collars and big buttons down the front I’d released from my closet, sundresses I used to wear. My best friend, Penny, wore those dresses, too. I had three. I kept just one for the dog days. I know Penny still has at least one left, because she wore it when visiting last summer. Once, a grey and white striped cotton tank dress was handed to me. I put it in my closet, never felt comfortable in it, and placed it in a bag six months later. The way I want the swaps to work for me is as license to push the extraneous away and let my closets and drawers speak to the life I lead right now—or as close to that goal as I can get.
A swap cycle ago, my daughter received the metallic lacy tank shirt—a shirt for Em, a dress for my daughter—that she’d coveted; it’s become a dress-up staple. There is an element of dressing up to the swap culture—and to the twenties. “The clothes have gotten nicer, more professional,” Em observed earlier this year. “More of us have real jobs, ones you need to dress for.”
One of our dearest of babysitters—a friend and former housemate, too—moved to New York just over a year ago, and she’d come up for the weekend’s swapfest. In belted jeans that fit perfectly and a tee, Lila looked fantastically herself, but a sleeker version, as New York can bring out. Her reddish hair was longer but seemed to have been cut recently. She seemed neat, put together. She loved her job and the chance to go to art openings and film screenings and her housemates in Brooklyn. She awaited another position at the auction house, and grad school loomed more as possibility than pressure. “It couldn’t be better,” she said. She’d pieced together work, first in a store and then increasingly “in her field” here for a couple of years before the right New York opportunity arose.
Nell spent more time with her visiting beau in the onlookers’ corner than in the swap heap of clothes and people. She held up clothing that came from her not-quite-two-years-older sister and shrugged. “I almost always end up with Em’s clothes in the swap.” The older sister lost a lot of weight over the past year and the beloved green sweatshirt dress already went to her taller, broader-shouldered (former swimmer), barely younger sister. Both are high achievers, highly engaged, competent, capable and lovely. Their sisterhood is obvious, especially their arresting oblong eyes, and yet they come across with completely different energies—one more muscled in her upbeat-ness and drive, the other lower-keyed, yet more serious and at the same time, funnier.
Another former babysitter friend and housemate for a summer flashed her gentle smile. “I’m in Montague, now,” she’d explained—a thirty-minute drive from our house, “an herbal garden, my herbal practice and then work with a program for youth. It’s coming together.” I’d listened to the ups and downs of managing the piecemeal work and the herbal training. And on this bright day, it was all smiles and a sense that they all were nowhere near finish line but rounding the track and feeling fine.
What of the other moments? I remembered them so clearly—tears in the kitchen, eyes pooling puppy-dog wide. “I didn’t get the job,” choked the recent college graduate. It was a halftime position at a local parents’ center and while it was closer to her desired field—public health and sex education—it really wasn’t that at all. A parent from the center had gotten the job, assisting other parents and kids at the drop-in center.
“You’d have been great,” I cheered her on, “and yet you’d have been frustrated, too, because it’s not exactly what you want to do. Already you have a job doing what you want and you’re not six months out of college. The right thing will come along. It will. You’re doing so wonderfully already.” More tears, big hug—and onward, that’s the twenties. That’s life, really. She’s getting her PhD now, full ride, and the last position she applied for—sex educator at a local college—she got.
Jobs missed and gotten is only part of it. Long ago, our babysitter’s eyes blazed with adoration and she smiled like the cat that ate the canary. She and I stood with the laundry basket of clean clothing in between us. We both folded. “We’re… dating,” Hallie offered. The other half of “we” was another babysitter. Although Nic did not live in the house, she did, which meant that while the romance burned brightly, we often had moon-eyed twofers of babysitters, because they could hang out with the two kids, cross-legged amongst the blocks and books and trucks. Distracted by love, there was so much laughter that the romance was, for the kids, infectious. They loved both the very fair and self-declared sensitive young woman and the beanpole young man with slack eyes and a zest for Buddhism, so the pairing was kind of magical. Please don’t break up in my living room if it comes to that, I remember thinking. I hope I didn’t say it out loud, but I might have. I wasn’t so very far from breakups myself, and I still had enough single friends searching for love that the potential for disaster felt fresh enough—coupled with the fact that my kids were small and I felt dependent upon the babysitters for my emotional survival.
Hallie is married now—not to Nic—and has an eighteen-month-old boy with carrot hair and blue eyes that will bore holes into her heart.
What sticks? What do you let go? What returns? Like the clothes on the piles, there’s not really one answer. Answers form a shape shift, the questions blend in, the colors are your favorite and then you’ve worn them so much they’ve worn out their welcome. There will become, in your mind, a bright green era or a vegan period or a time when the relationship was all about starry-eyes and then… not.
Meantime, the afternoon’s happy, hugging crew strewn across the lawn like so many to-be-swapped clothes included a reluctant eleven-year-old boy and a toddling one-year-old boy. The clothes and people continued to arrive. The neighbors’ grandchildren looked on at first and then disappeared, having seen some bras and tattooed bellies. People in states of undress reveal things about themselves that you did not know in inked bellies and backs with flowers and words and leaves. My daughter, who is six, went from the swing to Lila’s lap. Our two-year-old neighbor pal stuck to the climber and swings, mostly swinging on her belly. Yoni, her babysitter, found clothes. I snapped photos; I chatted with former and current babysitters and their friends, my friends through them and hoped my clothing found happy homes. Besides the linen dresses, this time I’d unearthed some things from deep in a closet—a brown jacket and pleated skirt that would be retro now, and likely in style again, a flowered corduroy dress that I’d loved, brown, grey, reddish hues and drop-waist with buttons in front (I guess I liked buttons), leggings and comfy black pants that straddled the line between clothing and pajamas.
I love to watch these young adults grow, to see the ways they reach toward dreams, and especially perhaps the way they revel in friendships. They sew a world together between them like homemade fabric flags waving. I envy their time—the potlucks and parties and nights out dancing, the brunches and weekends and hikes—not because I want for friends, or because I never see mine. I do, in fact. But I miss the way these young adults’ time unfolds opportunities to hang out abound so amply. Friendships take up a particular kind of space, edged out by romantic partners and children and extended family. Things become more encumbered, more weighted, less blowy. My friendships were like that once: juicy, time consuming, and filled with rituals and catch phrases and photos of one another that we passed around, hand to hand.
I’d let go of the electric blue suede short boots with the pointy toes and chunky heels a while before, but they were emblematic of my twentysomething self. They were as hip as I got, a little sassy, cute, and hopeful. They were confident boots and in them, I felt confident. That’s a sensation that I experienced fleetingly—and remains, frankly, fleeting. When Em nabbed low cowboy boots a couple of swaps earlier, she’d declared, “I think I know what you were like when you were my age now,” and in a way, I think she did.
Some of the clothing I’ve offloaded over time is very big and baggy, other things are small and clingy. My body, my style, my stage of life changed over those decades. I worked. I went to graduate school. I moved away as a newlywed for an eighteen-month adventure in London. The wedding was a huge affair, with so many friends spilling in from afar and from near. We feasted on the friendships, the old ones and new ones and middle-length ones. For years and even decades when someone became important to us, we wished that somehow through magic or time travel, we could have shared that friend-fest with that person, too. We returned from London barely three months before our first baby arrived. I became a mom, and despite conflicted feelings, a Mom, too. I became a writer. I volunteered.
I’d joked for years that our house served as excellent birth control, filled with one, then two, then three, then four kids—but the fourth brought infant lust to the towheaded artist on the top floor. Sloan wanted a baby so badly and adored our tiny gal so much that it saddened him to leave for graduate school. Being gay served as excellent birth control just then, too. I cried when Sloan left (in our old car, sold to him for cheap) because I so adored him. But with all these people, something reminds me of them and I can reach out and they reach back, because we did happen into one another’s lives during rich times, ones that we hold tenderly.
The whole time, with all those practice twentysomethings I thought that by the time I began to launch—or prepare to launch—my own kids, I’d be able to do it better because of all I’d learned. And maybe that’s true: I saw that encouragement is what older adults can offer and the willingness to brainstorm and write endless references for as many years out as requested. I saw that you could love new things via younger people: music and Zumba, a better way to make jam or put the toys away. You could remember how poignant and how free and how confusing freedom felt and how much it cost to have your car towed.
But now I have to let go. I have to not worry about the fact that things will go awry and the place will be a mess—and then maybe clean, maybe not, depending. I have to trust that trial and error is, it turns out, inevitable. Nothing is smooth, not really. All that effort to smooth the way for my children, not so much to do their laundry (although there’s that) but to manage things for them—the many check-ins with teachers and the many lessons and classes and teams and enriching books and rules or letting go of the rules, the endless, endless bedtimes—wasn’t a recipe for these next steps. How much is rent? How much is insurance? What do I do when I can’t do the math assignment? Do I ask her out? I couldn’t have pre-answered those questions and so many others. I tried; I whispered to my eldest son as an infant all the important stuff, like “don’t drink and drive,” or “use condoms” or “respect women.” I like to believe he heard me, and when he needs that critical good advice, it’ll rise up like the long buried memory it is, soggy and warm and still intact.
The swaps are the young adult version of offloading the kids’ hand-me-downs. You keep letting go, and eventually, you realize you’ve grown. Each one of you has grown, not just the kids. The thing that remains isn’t a shirt; it’s not a moment or a skill; it’s love. You’ve done right because you’ve loved. You’ve loved and you’ve done right. That’s how it comes out in the wash. That’s how every one of you gets to the thirties.
SARAH WERTHAN BUTTENWIESER is a contributor to Full Grown People. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, Salon, and the 2014 anthology The Good Mother Myth, amongst other places.