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Getting Real

<i>Life Lessons</i>

By the time I was ten, I had really learned quite a bit: (1) Being lost is only temporary; (2) there are mean people everywhere (but fewer in the library); (3) knowledge is power, but make sure you know what you need to know (e.g., I may have had vast knowledge of Charles Dickens’s books, but socially this was no substitute for my failure to grasp the nuances of The Barbie Game); and (4) the gap between what people say and what they feel is like the rain forest: fascinating and uncomfortable.

I learned a little more while I was a teenager, the kinds of things one is forced to learn, just to live through those years.

After that, I learned how to be a wife (which, I can testify, is quite different from how to be a partner or a girlfriend) and how to be a mother. I also learned how to drive a stick shift, take down a dead tree, ride a motorcycle, hem with Scotch tape, cook with wine, and play tennis. I didn’t learn how to ski, and now that I’m over 50, I can say with confidence that there are some things—say, snowboarding, mountain climbing, break dancing, reading Sanskrit or Greek or Latin—which, if you haven’t learned by now, maybe you shouldn’t, or needn’t. This, after all, is the stage of life you’re supposed to spend settling in, forgetting where the keys and reading glasses are, and behaving sensibly. As it turns out, the universe is BlackBerrying me all the time.

Forgiveness, Both Ways

To err is human, to forgive divine…and sometimes it’s a big mistake. In seventh grade, I got beaten up almost every day by a big, mean, redheaded girl with eyes like a prison guard’s. She followed me from class to class, terrorized me during lunch, made me miss my bus, then—for reasons I’ll never know—beat the crap out of me. For years I used to think about her whenever I saw a school bus, but sometime in my 20s I discovered I didn’t anymore. I couldn’t even remember her name, even though the mere sound of it had once gripped me like the hand of death.

Then one day when I was pregnant with my first child, I ran into her, and she bought me a cup of coffee and reminisced about those days as if we’d been great pals. (“Didn’t we have fun at the bus stop!” she said.)

I just don’t want to hear bull****, and I don’t want to offer it—at least not with people I care about.

Had she forgotten? Did she think accepting the coffee signaled that I’d forgiven her? She wished me harm and made me suffer, and she never regretted it. I decided there’s no reason to forgive people like that, although there’s every selfish reason not to seek them out or to try to gain revenge. People who devote themselves to addressing every grievance ever accumulated are not only exhausted, with not much left for their ongoing life, but all their bitter musing and tracking down has a corrosive and drying effect on the soul.

On the other hand, since disappointment and misunderstanding are inevitable, I’ve become a huge fan of forgiving people who act badly, whether during a divorce, the sale of a house, the death of a parent, unemployment, or just a real bad patch. Not mealy-mouthed forgiveness (“Sure, no problem,” said as I turn away). Not sulky or reproachful forgiveness.

The real thing.

The same goes for my own apologies. I was always pretty good about apologizing for the accidental elbow in the ribs, whether actual or emotional, but I’ve learned that apologizing with feeling and gravitas is important, even if I don’t ever quite understand how I’ve hurt someone. That I’ve hurt them counts—exactly how, not so much.

Dangerous Politeness

Decrepitude of all kinds (bad knee, bad back, bad hip, bad eyes, and so much worse) will hit our generation just as hard as it has hit any other, and even our better meds can’t protect us from the broken heart, the inevitable disappointments, that one deep sadness that never disappears. At 50, 60, 70, 80, grief and fear are part of the mix—and I wouldn’t want to know anyone who thought the two were completely avoidable.

What is avoidable, as it turns out, is bull****—in myself and others. I’m not talking about the polite social interaction for which I happen to have an old-fashioned liking (for instance, the chitchat of the supermarket, dry cleaner, and video store). Nor do I feel the need to assault people with facts they can live without (“Yes, you are too old for that hair color/style/piercing” and “Don’t worry, sweetie, everyone knows it’s a toupee”). I’m talking about bull****. As in:

“It’s nothing. I walked into a door—again.”

“Business is great. Everything’s great.”

“Happiness is a choice.” (Admirable if said by an elderly person in a fifth-floor walkup in the worst part of town. Disgusting if said by a person with money, luck, and looks.

“It’s not my fault.” (See also: God’s will.)

I just don’t want to hear bull****, and I don’t want to offer it—at least not with people I care about. I don’t want to have to pretend that bad things are not happening when they are. I don’t want to have to laugh off a loved one’s drinking or gambling or cocaine addiction, as if it were occasional, amusing, or harmless. I don’t want to agree that mean-spirited bullying is affectionate teasing. Or sit with a couple I like while they snarl and bicker, then have to call and thank them for a lovely evening.

Undeserved Good Luck

I’ve learned in the past few years that I am not entirely the person I thought I was. I thought, for example, that I wasn’t very interested in cooking. Then I met and married my great love, and my cooking passion blossomed like a zucchini flower. I am now the kind of person who walks into a supermarket and thinks, “He loves roast pork.” And then: “I’ll make pernil and habichuelas rosadas—what’s a few extra hours?” I didn’t see that one coming, at all. Nor that I would watch and (sort of) understand football.

Frankly, there’s a lot I didn’t see coming. Now, I value time more than I ever thought I would. People who say time is money are wrong. Time is better than money, and I want as much as I can possibly have. I want 12 hours of Saturday morning in bed and 3 hours over a cup of tea with my best friend. A few years ago I never thought about time at all. When a very dear friend was coming to the end of her life, she decided to help me out of the indecisive, puzzled, puzzling spot I was in (about marriage, about work, about almost everything).

“Look, darling,” she said, tapping her watch. “From age 50 to 80 it’s not minutes—it’s seconds. Pay attention.” I must not have looked as if I was paying enough attention, because she put her hand on my wrist and squeezed. “It’s seconds. You think you know, but you don’t.”

I’m beginning to know.

Amy Bloom’s most recent novel is Away (Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2008). A new collection of her short stories will be published in 2009.

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