Stepping into the Present
plus, what’s going on with your feet
Something I mentioned in last week’s post about clarifying our eyebrow expectations got me thinking about expectations in general: It’s pretty easy, I thought, for them to lead to disappointment. Not the expectations themselves, but the having of them. And then I thought about the happiness that can result from either setting low expectations or eliminating them altogether. And that idea led me to a story I wrote a while ago for O, The Oprah Magazine about a certain expectation, along with another surprising one, that proved to be wrong.
I had spent the summer Saturday by myself, meandering through a part of the city I was still, after 30 years here, unfamiliar with, and it had yielded up a banquet of pleasure. A small, old, redbrick church, and next to it, protected by a black wrought-iron fence, a pristine lawn dotted with pale, deep-set gravestones, tilting one way and another in the dappled late-afternoon sunlight. A hidden lane, bright green moss sprouting thickly between its cobblestones, leading down toward the riverbank and a series of playful bronze sculptures of baby animals tumbling in the grass.
Around suppertime I realized that I wasn't far from one of my favorite restaurants. I rarely go there, because it's expensive and always packed, but I thought I might be able to sit at the bar and have a dozen of their tasty oysters and a glass of wine. After all the meandering, I was very hungry. I could see from the street that there was one seat left at the bar, already crowded with people who seemed to have recently napped and showered and spent some time figuring out what to wear and who now looked especially fine and happy to see one another. I was feeling a little bit like Pigpen, in my dusty sandals and shift. But I wanted those oysters. (And that glass of Chablis.) So I went in, navigated the crowd, excuse me'd over to the empty seat, and sat down, a bit self-consciously. I was a middle-aged woman alone at a bar among strangers. Where were my friends? Didn't I have any? My own personal bugaboo settled over me like a soggy towel, dampening my pleasure: Was this experience my first step on the path that leads inexorably to rubber-soled flats, loose, tentlike garments, and an obsessive interest in public television?
I sighed aloud. If that was my future, I might as well enjoy myself getting there. I asked the bartender to recommend a wine. He offered me a taste of something delicious. The first dozen oysters were so astoundingly good, I had to have a second. As I was savoring them—deeply savoring them—I became aware of the couple sitting next to me. He was chattering animatedly while she, half-listening, watched my every slurp and sip. Finally, she interrupted him: "I have to have what she's having," she said, pointing at my plate.
I was completely happy. Why had I felt a need to judge or label myself? (Middle-aged woman eating and drinking alone, no friends, crazy lady.) I've been running away from being alone all my life, even though I often enjoy it. I've avoided it because Loneliness, Being Alone's ugly stepsister, is uncomfortable, sometimes painful. It's the pain that sociologist Robert S. Weiss, PhD, describes as "separation distress without an object": You're longing for connection but don't know with what or whom. Which—in me, anyway—leads to a kind of emotional chaos. Not long after my date with the oysters, I began to wonder what would happen if I could tolerate that distress without reaching out to anchor myself with a phone call or an e-mail, a book, the television, a plate of shellfish. If I could just be with the loneliness without trying to fix it. To do that, I'd have to let go of the judgments I'd attached to being alone—that it's a problem, a punishment for not being good enough in some way.
One night alone in my apartment, I felt restless and sad. I missed my husband. I missed my son. I even missed my mother. What to do with myself? I was staring out my window with nothing to do, no one to speak to. Just a person, staring out the window. Can you understand what I mean when I say that as I allowed the feeling of loneliness to arise in me, I felt a heartbreaking compassion, recognizing that every person everywhere throughout history has been subject to the very same loneliness I was feeling in that moment? I started to weep, with sadness and awe and grief and joy. I felt connected to the world in a new, different way, admiring the capability of the heart to hold all those feelings at once. And of course because it was my heart, too, how full I felt, and complete.
This profound loneliness was, in fact, exactly the opposite of what I'd always been afraid of. I had, I realized, once again meandered into a place that I was, after many years, still unfamiliar with. And once again, it had yielded up a banquet of pleasure, unexpected and glorious.
According to the Pew Research Center, more older people live alone in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world. So it seems like a good idea (not to mention a healthy one) to try to figure out how to do that happily—in a way that doesn’t cut off the banquet-of-pleasure tap.
Reading this story years after I wrote it, something else struck me about expectations. Those rubber-soled flats, the tent-like garment, and the excessive interest in public television pretty much describe me—and some of my friends—to a “T” today, but so not in the way I thought it would. The fear of what I might become, signaling a kind of doom, was dressed in the very outfit I’m wearing as I write this. Glorious? Not exactly. But it’s us.
And speaking of rubber-soled flats…
“Ask Val” answers your urgent questions, Vol. 14
Yes, you, soaking your feet in a tub of—what is that, warm water and lavender Epsom salts?
Q: A couple of my toes have suddenly become gnarly and I’m developing what looks like a bunion. I’ve always taken good care of my feet! Why is this happening to me?
A: I feel you. Even if we wear shoes—rubber-soled or not—that don’t strangle our feet, eventually we all lose some elasticity and flexibility in the soft tissues—the tendons and ligaments. This can lead to increased stress on the bones, potentially causing them to change shape. And when the bones start to change shape, you're looking at hammertoes and bunions. (All right, don't look at them, but there they are.)
A tight Achilles tendon from years of wearing high heels can predispose you to such foot problems, so don't wear heels when you don't have to. (Duh.) Also, stretch your Achilles and the plantar fascia (the ligament that runs from your heel to the ball of your foot) and if your feet are hurting, consider getting a doctor's evaluation; orthotics can prevent ugly problems from getting uglier.
A friend recently pointed out to me that someone who’s been walking around six miles a day during the year and a half of this pandemic has basically walked from coast to coast across the continental U.S. This same friend, a great walker, encouraged me to get a pair of Hoka sneakers, because they’re cushioned in such a way that make walking more comfortable if you’re prone to foot, knee, or balance issues. Once aware of the brand, it looked to me like almost every woman over 50 wore them. Different styles fit differently, so it’s best to try them on rather than ordering them online.
Val Asks You
Don’t be shy! What’s your most vexing or intractable appearance issue? Send me your beauty-related questions. If I don’t have a good answer, I’ll find someone who does.