On the phone with my childhood friend Silvia, our customary Sunday call, I confess to being rather crabby. Not sad, or melancholy or down in the dumps – just crabby. And I use the English word as I can’t come up with an adequate Italian translation.
“What does it mean, exactly?” Silvia asks, and while I am wrecking my brain, she looks it up.
The Italian translation of crabby is “acido” which aptly conveys the acidic subtext of crabby. These days I have a tart retort for anyone or anything not to my liking, like the Chinese man who was compelled to stop the entire flow of traffic at LAX while trying to park, unsuccessfully, his minivan at the very entrance of a lot with thousands other empty spots. I didn’t think twice and hopped out of my car to harangue him, only to be chastised by a look of incomprehension and confusion that made me feel like the bitch I was.
If I were a fruit, passion fruit would best embody my state of affairs: sweet and inviting to look at but bite at your own peril. As sofagirl said, given enough rope, we can complain about just about anything.
Not that I have any reasons to be crabby, other than minor annoyances and mishaps – and of course everything can be put into perspective by imagining how it would be to live in Gaza or Afghanistan, but that is a myopic way of looking at one’s moods: by empathizing with anyone in worse shape than us is supposed to make our problems feel insignificant and so First World, as it has become fashionable to say. But it’s a gimmick that only works in the short term, and forces us to soldier on and shut up, rather than go to the root of our ills.
As crabbiness is not one of my most usual moods, I took the time to trace its origins. A few days ago, an e-mail from sofagirl mused how nice it would be not to have to work at this stage in our lives and have enough money to tool around, take classes, go on trips. But, in the end, she concluded “on the upside, we have real lives. And many women our age don’t.”
That comment about real lives struck a chord in me. Books, that have an uncanny habit of inhabiting serendipity, also played a part – a book in particular, “The Woman Upstairs” by Claire Messud that I had begun a few days prior to receiving the email. It’s the story of a 40 something pleasant woman, a third grade teacher adored by students and parents alike, single and childless and, by her own admission, with abandoned aspirations of becoming an artist, a painter, a wife and a mother. Her bitterness, kept hidden from the world, finds an outlet in the hijacking of a couple’s life – the parents of one of her favorite students – artsy, worldly and intellectual types, the sort of people she thought she would become.
While taken to an extreme for the sake of fiction, it’s not uncommon to find women who wake up middle-aged to the bone chilling realization that their dreams and aspirations are not coming to pass. When do you stop believing in your dreams? I wondered. How do your readjust your focus? How do you fill a life that feels too solitary and yet not as free as it once did? How do you not succumb to self-pity and to the ghosts of what should have been but wasn’t and, now, will never be? How do you find happiness again? Do you rearrange your priorities and push under the radar what seemed so important just a year ago? And how do you pinpoint the moment real life comes knocking and you can’t ignore it anymore?
And what’s a real life anyway? Is it the jumble of emotions and aspirations and wishful thinking that trail our everyday actions? Or is it the total sum of all the actions that brought us where we are?
We all start out thinking our lives will be extraordinary and moulded around our dreams. We factor in some obstacles, even some tragedy, but the future is bound to hold and deliver everything we are capable of conjuring: a career, a walk down the aisle, a brood of sparkling children, eternal love, a two-story house, a Nobel prize. Until the future becomes a freeway with only a few exits left and none of the big prizes have found their way to our doorstep.
These women are not me but the difference between my life and theirs is just a matter of shades of expectations, and possibly just dumb luck. Thinking about all the women I know or come in contact with, I wondered how many put a happy mask day and day out; how many feel things haven’t gone according to plan and still they soldier on and shut up?
I am crabby because yes, it would be nice to have enough money not to have to work, and maybe right now I am not exactly where I want to be but the exits left on my freeway are still appealing. I do have a “real life”, where I am asked to juggle chaos, and family members’ problems, and random mishaps but also love, and laughter and moments of utter bliss. My outer life is messy and full and hectic and my inner life is rich and dreamy and at times hyperbolic but, by and large, the two are aligned. Is that the key to a “real life”? What do you think?