Four Decades

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I turned 40 almost a year ago. That’s right; I’m almost 41 — less than two weeks away as a matter of fact. It still feels weird to say and see in type — not because I necessarily feel old. Although I sometimes do… like when I heard one of my coworkers say she graduated from high school in 2005, I had to sit down and let that sink in. Then I used a cane to get back to my desk.

I started THIS BLOG in 2005 — in April as a matter of fact, so happy eighth anniversary to Sappy Chick.

I suppose I still hold on to the belief that many people do when they hit their 40s — that they should have accomplished more. Sometimes I feel regret that I haven’t worked harder on my writing and pushed to get more fiction published, but I know that there are writers who never published their first novel until they were in their 60s.

Harry: And the kitchen floor? Sally: Not once. It's this very cold, hard Mexican ceramic tile.

Harry: And the kitchen floor?
Sally: Not once. It’s this very cold, hard Mexican ceramic tile.

When I was a teenager, I thought my adult years would seem more glamorous. I was 17 when I saw When Harry Met Sally, and I thought Meg Ryan’s character was so sophisticated — even if she was also quirky and  OCD. I wanted to be that woman: living in New York, writing for the New Yorker, strolling around those iconic NYC neighborhoods, having the guy I was friends with but also harbored deeper feelings for confess that he couldn’t live without me — on New Year’s Eve at midnight, no less. (Faking an orgasm in the middle of a crowded deli was an act I was never brave enough to do, though.)

That movie, as well as most others, don’t show the less glamorous side of being an adult — the humdrum of grocery shopping, watching your bank account dwindle down after paying the bills for the week, the job interviews you go on and never hear from again. All those scenes end up on the cutting room floor — or a montage.

Eventually, I realized that I’m not the NYC type. I like my mild winters with little snow, and when we traveled to Chicago in 2004, I realized after four days that I missed looking out the window and seeing a back yard. Nora Ephron, however, remained a writing hero of mine.

I’ve entertained the idea of grad school for the past couple of years. I think my interest peaked when I started working in a post-secondary setting. I told my mom some of my goals of trying to attend a low-residency MFA program for creative writing — what was involved, what the program was like, why I wanted to go, among other stuff — and she said, “Don’t you wish you had done something like this ten years ago?”

Much love to my mother — who I know did not necessarily mean her question to sound as if she thought I was too old to go back to school — but ouch!

Sure some snot-nosed teenager is always going to be around scoring some multi-million book deal off some from something they posted on the internet (Jealous? Me? Heavens, no…), but I believe that my life experiences are helping me (and will continue to help me) write deeper stories. I think there’s something to the ability to look back upon what’s been gained and lost, loved and hurt, accomplished and failed that adds much more relatability. (Yes, I know that’s not a real word.) The advice of writing what you know doesn’t always apply to the main plot.

It’s not such a stretch to think that I’ve got lots of writing years ahead of me. Nora Ephron had the bulk of her movie making years in her late 30s and beyond — including an Oscar nomination for When Harry Met Sally, and writing the classic Sleepless in Seattle. So at 41 (almost), I definitely wouldn’t mind having what she had.

To My Fifteen-Year-Old Self

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Me at fifteen at a friend’s house

In honor of International Day of the Girl, CNN asked a dozen or so powerful, popular, impressive women what advice they would give their fifteen-year-old selves. Since a quarter of a century has passed since I turned fifteen (moment of silence to let me regain my composure on that one — scratch that; I’ll be back in an hour), I thought I’d take a turn and write something to myself at that age.

Dear fifteen-year-old Carla,

I’m forty-year-old Carla. I know! I surprised a few people when I told them I was turning forty. They thought I was in my early thirties — even late twenties. I attribute it to giving up on getting a tan, which you haven’t done yet.

Congrats on surviving your first two years as a teenager and your first year of high school! That Civics class was a bitch, huh? And so was the chick who “borrowed” your textbook and never gave it back. You’re about to spend your last summer freeloading off Mom and Dad; next summer, Mom is gonna drive you up to Eckerd and parade you in front of the manager, and you will enter the wonderful world of retail. Sorry about that.

Nothing I say in this letter will alter your future, and that fact is unfortunate — because you’re also going to experiment with lightening your hair this summer. This experimentation will lead you to use Sun-In, and you’ll start off with a sun-kissed look to your locks only to watch that color turn into an orange-y mess. To make matters worse, that stuff will take. For. Freakin’. Ever. to grow out. I’m not kidding; that atrocious color will still be hanging on the ends of your hair in your JUNIOR YEAR photo.

Luckily, you will learn your lesson and decide to keep your hair dark. Then it’s going to start turning gray in about ten years, and at 40, you’ll color it every five weeks to avoid people seeing that you’ve got more gray than Mom does. You see all the gray MaMa Grant and Nanny have now? Yeah, we were doomed from the start.

I’ll come right out and say that August 1987 will not be easy for you. Papa will pass away on a Sunday afternoon just hours after he and Nanny are at the house for lunch — massive heart attack. You’re going to be devastated at the death of your first close relative; there’s no getting around it. You’re going to cry and be bitter and take that sadness out on some people, but it’s just your way of handling that particular death. You’re fifteen, and it’s going to take you a while to master dealing with and expressing  your emotions.

Something will come out of this loss, though. Someone will discover a poem in Papa’s Bible — surprising the whole family because we never knew him to write — and then you’ll find another in one of his Bibles that Mom has. Everything will click: You’ll realize that the ability to compose all these poems you’ve been writing —which, I’m sorry honey, are super cheesy right now but you will get better — was passed down to you. You’ll feel connected to him in a way you probably would have never realized.

Papa won’t be the only loved one you’ll lose in the next 25 years, but I’m not naming any more names — just gonna say that a couple of them will come out of left field and knock the breath out of you.

But you’ll make your way through — through a lot of things, actually. You’ll be the only person from your graduating class to go to Columbia College, knowing only one soul on that entire campus. Despite two bad experiences with roommates, you’ll end up with someone who will make your bed for you while you break down on the phone with Mom explaining how you had to move all your stuff in your new dorm room by yourself. Just stay strong; you’re gonna love it.

In ten years, you’ll find your soulmate. Yes, ten years. You’ve got a while to pine over that boy you’ve been crushing on for the past two years, and you’ll meet other guys that you hope are The One — but they’re not. You’re gonna live that cliché saying that when you least expect it, you’ll turn around and realize it’s the guy in the group of friends you’ve been hanging out with for two years. He’s a comic geek, but he’ll make you laugh all the time, and get this — he does dishes.

Some other things down the road: Mom and Dad ditch the well water and hook up to the city water system next summer, but they still don’t get cable until you’re in college. The Mauldin High football team finally makes the playoffs the year after you graduate (figures, doesn’t it?). Hope you like Dad’s Chevy Citation, because you’re gonna be driving it for five years. MTV quits playing videos but doesn’t change its name. George Michael comes out of the closet (no surprise there, I’m sure), but Michael Jackson gets married… then divorces… then has kids… then dies in an Elvis-like OD.

For you, overall, you’re gonna be okay — even when what you’re going through seems like the end of the world. When you look at the big picture — especially compared to what other girls your age are up against in other countries, even in my time — you are extremely lucky. You’ll have a roof over your head, a family that loves you, a good education, and so much more. Some girls all over the world have no idea what that’s like. They’re sold to a husband as a teenager, or they’re considered second-rate citizens who don’t deserve an education, or they experience so many other horrible fates than the broken hearts and limbs (enjoy that left ankle while it’s still perfect) you’ll experience.

You are growing up to be a smart, caring, funny, talented, and blessed woman. Never forget that.

Happy International Day of the Girl,

Forty-Year-Old Carla

For Carmen

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I have a list of topics that I’ve meant to write about since last year. Every once in a while I hear them call out to me in my mother’s voice, “Have you done this yet?” And I have to sigh, roll my eyes, and say, “No.”

It’s not that the topics or the writing is a chore. I have this perfectionist mentality that the just-right moment has to arrive when I can sit down and compose from start to finish — because I know if I get started I won’t want to stop. I have the same relationship with popcorn (homemade, not the microwave crap).

Last December, my friend Carmen passed away. I had known her since second grade, maybe even first. She was one of the first friends I made after my family switched churches, but we didn’t go to the same school until high school.

I don’t remember many Sundays from our elementary school years. I suppose middle school was when we became friends — brought together through GA camps, youth group beach trips, and notes passed back and forth on church bulletins or offering envelopes.

She had brown hair and brown eyes, long elegant limbs, and one of those laughs that made you smile just to hear it. She never pretended to be anyone else just to fit in with the popular crowd, and when she became your friend, she would never leave you outside of her circle — something so hard to find in the fickle friendships of adolescence.

There were four of us who grouped together at church — sometimes five if M. showed up. We got matching T-shirts on a church youth group beach trip to Garden City — pastel teal green with a “Hunk Watchers” decal on the back. She had a knack for meeting new guys on any trip we took. While I always stood in the background, terrified and paralyzed to speak to boys I didn’t know, she navigated the waters of flirting like an expert. It didn’t necessarily translate into relationship bliss as an adult. By the end of her twenties, she had had two kids and two divorces, but she still believed in love.

We had fallen out of touch after I graduated from college; she started going to a different church and then moved to a neighboring county while my church attendance slowed to a stop. Then we saw each other at the mall about ten years ago, and while so many things had happened to us in our time apart, getting back in touch never really felt like catching up; it felt like we were back at school after a long weekend.

She told me during that time that she was done with marriage, and one night she admitted that she felt like she had failed to create the best environment for her family.

“You can’t compare yourself like that,” I said. “Look at what you’ve done so far. You’ve got two great kids as a single parent. That’s not easy to do.”

She paused for a split second before saying, “Thanks, Carla,” with a little surprise — as if she didn’t believe anyone thought that of her.

She had started dating an old boyfriend from high school, Steve, and they were together for the next ten years. She and I had not maintained the regular phone calls and visits, but we commented on each other’s Facebook photos and statuses.

Then she had an outpatient procedure done on the day before Thanksgiving last year. She took some medicine before going to bed that night and slipped into a coma before lunch on Thanksgiving. She never woke up.

After a week of refusing to leave her side, Steve conceded to go home and get some rest. He never made it home; he collapsed outside of the hospital from a heart attack and died that night. A week later, Carmen officially passed away.

Her death was surreal — one of those situations that just wasn’t supposed to happen, not after years of passing notes, secrets confided,  giggling in church about boys (and getting in trouble for it), slumber parties, late night car rides on the other side of town.

When my mom first told me that she was in a coma and not likely to wake up, my first thought was a memory from being at her house when we were in eighth, maybe ninth grade. We were sitting in a car parked in the driveway at her house — the car that would be hers when she got her driving permit. The car’s stereo included a cassette player, and she popped in a single of “Let the Music Play” by Shannon. We sat there in this parked car making plans about what we would do when we had the freedom to drive.

We lose touch with our friends and then think posting a comment on Facebook is a sufficient substitute, but it isn’t. When you’re sitting in a church sanctuary watching your friend’s short life pass in front of you on a PowerPoint presentation, you realize you have missed stuff. It’s a hard lesson to learn. I pray you don’t have to learn it the way I did.