One of the benefits of Cheeto Nixon winning the presidency, such as there have been any, for me has been taking a very deep look at who I am, what my values are, and the life that I want to be leading. For the past year and a half of what I have come to term my Managed Midlife Crisis™, at times I felt as if spinning all of my plates up had not been working the same way as it used to. Whether my business or my blog, my social media or my relationships with those closest to me, it has been a curious feeling. A feeling of living in slow motion, as if surrounded by some invisible, annoying sea of metaphoric molasses.
It proves I’m not out of the ordinary. How mundane is it to spend one’s midlife crisis realizing that you don’t feel like the person you used to be? Bo-ring. Last month I joked in social media that I had just finished living through the most over-analyzed, over-questioned, ad nauseum-documented, carefully planned, anal-retentive midlife crisis on earth. Finding themselves in a similar situation, as eventually we all find ourselves, other people might freak out.
I made flow charts.
Still, I love a good pivot, so I tried and tried to get to the bottom of why my forward momentum wasn’t so forward anymore, no matter in how many different ways I tried to get out and push. It took eighteen months to finally have my Shirley Valentine moment. For the past few years, it’s as if I silently decided to start living somebody else’s life.
I really didn’t mean to do that. It’s like the boiling-frog syndrome, you change a little and a little and a little more until you’re completely different than you used to be, and you don’t know why or necessarily even realize that you’ve changed in the first place.
Meanwhile…My nephews remember my outspoken nature. My friends from my GLYNY days remember my sarcasm and indignation when I sensed wrongs against myself or others. My colleagues from my transit-planning days once told me I was full of “piss and vinegar” when speaking truth to power.
Regular readers of my blog would probably be familiar with my propensity towards all of that. Holding my sense of what is right and what is just higher than any picayune concern about what people might think of me, I certainly made a name for Chicago Carless as a social-justice based newsmaker during the first half of its existence. From the moment I began writing Carless in June 2005 and for the next several years, my words and my bravery worked in tandem with my forward momentum and sense of purpose.
And then life became lifey and a lot of things changed. I self-identified as codependent and ADHD. I lost my original consulting shingle and my apartment in the Great Recession. I changed allegiances about Downtown Chicago. I changed religions. I moved in with my life partner. And I did all of that in pretty rapid succession.
Without assigning blame to any of those things or second-guessing my decisions, that’s a lot of drama to throw at anyone’s sense of identity. A lot of baggage to weigh down the backseat when you’re trying to keep your life moving forward up the hill of your quickly approaching and arriving forties. Any one of those things would be a lot to take in on its own. Taken together, that’s a lot of mourning, celebrating, rearranging, realigning, learning, and relearning in a small span of years.
The lesson of my Managed Midlife Crisis™, arriving this year in my post-Trump emotional spring cleaning, is that through all of it I never really paused to consider whether I was still heading where I wanted to head, or even moving forward at all. I could have a handle on my ADHD, brand a new business, and chant a Torah portion from a bimah, but how well did all of that fit together?
In the famous Willy Russel play that became a movie, the eponymous Shirley Valentine took stock on an unexpected vacation to the Greek islands and realized that her life as a Liverpool housewife wasn’t going the way she thought it was. Shirley’s solution was to throw everything off and start an entirely new life on the island. A crowd-pleasing ending, but I doubt it truly ended well beyond the telling of the tale. After all, I pretty much pulled that stunt when I moved to Chicago from New York. In real life, running away is a hell of a lot messier. But she was definitely onto something in realizing that she missed who she used to be and was brave enough to risk change.
In my case, I think I’ve spent too much time in the past few years defining myself and directing my action by dint of all the self-definitions I picked up along the way. If you’re not careful, you wake up halfway through your journey and realize that you’re living a compartmentalized life, and that none of those compartments necessarily fit together. At least not in the ways they should.
And how should they? I can acknowledge my childhood issues without assuming that they will always control me. I can acknowledge my attention issues without interpreting my life in terms of failure. I can own that I took a detour from urban planning without ignoring the core of the city I live in. I can spend my life with my partner and not engage in guilt for my persistent need of alone time.
I can celebrate and observe my religious tradition of choice without feeling an obligation to channel my words and actions and goals and desires into directions sometimes severely limited by the status quo. And maybe this one is the biggest one of all.
For most of my life, I was unafraid to express myself, share my story, and advocate for justice with the words and actions and in the venues that outer circumstances and my inner vitality together seemed to warrant. It’s a kind of honesty in action, and it took me far. In the middle of my journey, clearly I started to throw myself under the bus of second-guessing. But the world isn’t perfect, nor are we meant to be, either.
Not all strong words are negative. Not all aggression is destructive. Not all fierceness is objectionable. Yes, compassion is strength, but sometimes it dresses in mighty clothes. And if you don’t believe that, then you have never watched Congresswoman Maxine Waters verbally take down a demagogue on MSNBC. Her repeated admonition to people of compassion is never to be afraid to be who you are in the great work for change.
I can’t tell you how much pause I have placed on myself from time to time about the political niceties and limitations that status quo clergy, board members, fellow congregants, and community leaders so often expect “nice Jewish boys with a blog,” so to speak, to abide by. Not just in terms of adulterating my own words regarding Jewish issues, but in terms of adulterating my approach to expressing who I am as a person of compassion with a political opinion to begin with.
And none of that is to blame anyone or anything else except myself. My choices about my life, my words, my actions, my responses are my own responsibility. I made the choice to define myself in terms of my perceived limitations and the expected limitations of the communities in which I had chosen to embed myself. My midlife lesson is that I didn’t need to do that—and that without rejecting the places I’ve gone on my journey, I don’t have to do that anymore. That realization is the impetus for my reclaimed political voice on my blog and in social media since the election. The impetus for not just the subject matter that my writing and sharing has dealt with lately, but also for my reclaimed lack of fear about my own voice in all of its inflections.
The Michael I used to know would never have silenced his voice on issues of social justice when suggested to do so by a person in power for the sake of not rocking the boat. The Michael I used to know would have told them to go fuck themselves and rocked for all he was worth. And if you don’t believe that, then you’ve never read my battle with Brendan Reilly over the Chicago Children’s Museum, or the time I called out Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic Blair Kamin for acting like an asshole towards ChicagoNow bloggers.
Everybody should have a calling. This is mine. I knew what it was once, and now in the second half of my journey I intend to remember it. I hold no sacred cows. I speak truth to power. I am motivated by the strong desire to help actualize and support social justice, racial justice, environmental justice, religious tolerance, the protection and welcoming of immigrants, the defense of a compassionate social safety net, and the building of community power to foster safe, just, economically healthy cities in a country where the majority of the beloved community is already urban or suburban.
I am informed by my Jewish ethics. I will no longer fear my own words. The revolution may include cursing.
Cover your ears as you may desire.