October 29, 2010


A friend gave me a magnet that reads: Barbie wants to be ME. It's pink, of course, and yes, there's a heart on it. I thought it hysterically funny. Still do. But I don't believe it. Friends have said (some even publicly, in comments made on blog posts) that Barbie has nothin' on me (aside perhaps from the nifty convertible, the padded resume, and the height), but I don't see it.

What I see: a short, overweight, glasses-wearing middle-aged woman who is also--when she's not spending insane amounts of money to keep from looking 50--going gray.

I read a story the other day (by the fabulous Jo Pilecki, one of my workshop writers and a newly-minted Amherst Writers  & Artists workshop leader) about a woman who bought a special mirror that made her look thin. Of course it would be wonderful to own such a thing, but what if the mirror on the wall reflected who we really are? If we could see ourselves as others see us?

Probably I would avert my eyes--just as I do whenever I stand before the bathroom mirror in the dark, for fear that what I will see there will be as hideous as the vengeful Bloody Mary, whose spirit can be summoned by the triple invocation of her name. For fear that I could never un-see how others see me. (Short, overweight, glasses-wearing, middle-aged, going gray, bossy, self-righteous, judgmental...) 

But what if the magic mirror showed me the good things I don't see: wit, humor, kindness, generosity, intelligence, tolerance, talent. Would I then believe that Barbie wants to be me?

Actually, you know what? Who cares who Barbie wants to be. Who does Barbara want to be?

On the morning of my 50th birthday, I took a sunrise walk along the ocean. It was the last full day of our annual trip to Garden City Beach, South Carolina. We had had two full days of rain and several completely-overcast/partly-rainy days. Winds from Hurricane Nicole had blown through the night before, but Friday morning the sun rose unobscured by clouds. Due to the rain, or the winds, or maybe the hour, the sand was sprinkled with the kinds of shells that, in ten years of visits and ten years of sunrise walks, I had not seen before.

I am not a shell-seeker. (Good thing: Garden City Beach does not offer much variety, and the usual shells are often broken.) When I wander along the sand, head down, I am most often in search of tiny oval stones that, when I fold my hand, fit perfectly in my heart line, and which I take home in plastic baggies each year. But that morning of my birthday, charmed by the novelty of so many unbroken shells, I gathered several, thinking to show them to my husband.

In the weeks leading up to my birthday, I had thought of the significance we place on birthdays, particularly those we consider milestones, and of the likelihood that my life was more than half over. What, I asked myself, do you want the rest of your life to look like? I had not come up with an answer, had not expected an answer. It was enough just to ask, to realize I had a choice.

And then I knew I needed to leave the shells behind. I laid them at the water line, one for each of the selves I wanted to leave behind: a whelk for the depressed one; a starfish for the one that must always be right, because being wrong means being bad; a spiny sea urchin for the one who assumes that everyone won't like her; and two intact oyster shells for the overweight, unhealthy one and the fearful one who must always be on guard. I told them goodbye, and that they no longer served me. Then I turned and walked away from my repudiated, outgrown selves. I didn't look back.


  1. Wow! You're making both Barbie and me envious. A beautiful, winsome piece. Love the line, "Who cares who Barbie wants to be. Who does Barbara want to be?" That's life in a nutshell--or should I say a "SEE-shell." Love the practice of collecting the small rounded stones and the ritual of leaving behind the broken bits, named. Another great post. And, from someone who's on her way to 55, happy 50th.

  2. I see all of these when with you: "wit, humor, kindness, generosity, intelligence, tolerance, talent." Welcome to what I consider the better side of 50! Of course, I welcomed myself to the better side of 30, then 40 as well... And now, I will go write for an hour before getting ready for my other job.