The center cannot hold.

I once wrote a lighthearted little guide to determining whether you’ve achieved the middle years of your life. Attracted to gray and wrinkly folks? You’re middle-aged. Can’t find your glasses without your glasses? Also: middle-aged.

But the other thing (the significantly less lighthearted thing) about being middle-aged is that shit just plain starts to fall apart.

Of course, there’s your body — why, just the other day, I broke a tooth on a piece of candy. And I could only stare at the chunk of enamel, because if you hadn’t know it had just emerged from a mouth, you would never have known it was once a tooth — because in addition to being rather crumbly, middle-aged teeth are not all that white, either.

The fact of my slowly disintegrating outer shell didn’t come as a surprise, though. Not really. So much of our cultural output — whether it be the jokes on our sitcoms or the products on our shelves — revolves around the notion that aging bodies are not to be trusted that I can’t claim genuine ignorance.

What I was shockingly unprepared for is all the other shit that falls apart: Families. Marriages. Relationships. Jobs. Mortgages. Hopes. Dreams.

Everywhere I look, someone I love is going through something awful. Marriages are ending, or should be. Jobs have disappeared. Houses are threatened. Beloved parents have died, siblings have gone off the deep end, friends have walked away without explanation. And the world itself, in all its glory, lurches from mess to disaster, from war to earthquake, dead children to oil-soaked birds.

The notion of a mid-life crisis now makes sense to me, and not in a particularly humorous sense. Because of course it’s a fucking crisis: You look around you, and what you knew would always be so — is gone. Disappeared. Never to return. Angst and ennui are quite possibly the only things that make sense, some days. And if you can push either one into the distance with a fancy new car? Go for it, say I.

Because it’s not going to get any better, is it?

I mean, I may well get used to it (I hope I get used to it). And I genuinely believe that one can achieve a place of peace in the midst of all the endings. Indeed: Some things should end, and when they do, the people in question are able to find a joy they may never have known before — I know one person for whom this process began at age 40. I know another for whom it looks like it may happen by 50.

And I do know that new joys will come. News discoveries, new places, new people, grandchildren (am I the only one who started looking forward to grandchildren at roughly the moment her youngest emerged from diapers?) — not to mention the fact that the old joys remain, and deepen. I could never have guessed that being with the same partner for closing in on 18 years would lead to what I have right now, today, with the husband. The depth and the quiet of it, the bone-deep knowledge of where and how my skin fits against another’s, and why.

But in spite of all that, around all that, scattered in between and amongst, the losses will continue. They will pile up, they will surprise in their cruelty, they will shatter people I love — God knows, they may shatter me. The one thing I can know for sure right now is that they will not let up.

And today, after the hours I spent on the phone last night, that knowledge is a heavy burden. I thought we’d all get a chance to just be happy, at the same time.

Apparently not.


William Butler Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?


  1. The plug has been pulled, tho’ we’re not yet circling the drain. Over the hill and on the other side of the mountain.

    Perhaps it would help to remember that while it’s a long way down, it’s still a long way down.

    As for aging, perhaps one measure of how well we do it is how well we bear our losses, how burdened or un- we become.

    Certainly one measure of how well we do friendship is that we let our friends unburden themselves to us.

  2. Lise

     /  June 11, 2010

    Thank you so much for the poem. I never knew whence the line “the center cannot hold”. It’s so beautiful. I am comforted (oddly?) by remembering how our parents questioned, in 1959, if they were doing the right thing to bring children into such a world. And how much beauty and wonder we’ve seen. The world, despite it all, is a vast, fascinating, and lovely place to be alive for as long as we’re here. (((e)))

  3. dmf

     /  June 14, 2010

    no it’s not going to get better but perhaps one day we/i will stop expecting to hit some magical plateau were all is well, in the meantime i’m going to continue to wallow a bit in taking it personally that my rotator-cuff is torn and my wife’s tenure track job has been sacrificed to the almighty bottom line so we have lost our little rented home and have had to seek shelter with my teabagger/birther faux news loving conspiracy theorist midwestern inlaws, if misery loves company good ee perhaps mine might bring you some comfort as your blog brings me but failing that from wallace stevens sunday morning on a monday morning:

    Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
    Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
    And the green freedom of a cockatoo
    Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
    The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.
    She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
    Encroachment of that old catastrophe,
    As a calm darkens among water-lights.
    The pungent oranges and bright, green wings
    Seem things in some procession of the dead,
    Winding across wide water, without sound.
    The day is like wide water, without sound.
    Stilled for the passing of her dreaming feet
    Over the seas, to silent Palestine,
    Dominion of the blood and sepulchre.

    Why should she give her bounty to the dead?
    What is divinity if it can come
    Only in silent shadows and in dreams?
    Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,
    In pungent fruit and bright green wings, or else
    In any balm or beauty of the earth,
    Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?
    Divinity must live within herself:
    Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow;
    Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued
    Elations when the forest blooms; gusty
    Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights;
    All pleasures and all pains, remembering
    The bough of summer and the winter branch.
    These are the measure destined for her soul.

  4. DougEMI

     /  June 15, 2010

    Damn,my 41 year old girlfriend chipped her tooth last week in a similar fashion.

  5. Gosh,

    The depth and the quiet of it, the bone-deep knowledge of where and how my skin fits against another’s, and why.

    maybe someday. That’s a beautiful line right there. Says so much because some people should get divorced they just make each other miserable, but others have that knowledge. You know what I mean, the knowledge that says I can trust this person, I don’t have to say anything I can just let it be, and I’m safe here. Everything else sort of falls apart, the body, the house, but a person’s relationship to someone else, if it gets built right it can stay through anything.

    Thanks for this.

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