When I was in college, I had a summer job at a big (but not grand) hotel on Mackinac Island. I lived with a bunch of other waitresses in an apartment above a bike shop. We had incredible fun – making piles of money, sunbathing on the dock, and going out for gin and tonics. It was the perfect summer – until Barrie Lee showed up. Barrie Lee was a new waitress, who arrived in the middle of the season to live with us. I hated her on sight.
We were completely different. While I tap-danced and people-pleased, Barrie Lee stood still and said whatever she thought – unfiltered. She spoke directly, staring you down and cocking her head as if to say “oh yeah, what’re you gonna do about it?” She was tough and pushy and certain. I was insecure and deferent and moody. It was not good.
Whenever we were in the same room, I silently seethed. She just pissed me off; she didn’t even have to say anything. I, of course, was afraid to say anything. I became obsessed with wanting her off the Island.
One day when the other waitresses were at work, I called my Dad on the common-area payphone. We got in an argument over his paying (or rather, not paying) for my school. I was yelling and crying before I hung up the phone and ran sobbing to my room.
Though I didn’t know it, Barrie Lee was also in the bikehouse and had overheard everything. She wandered into my room and sat at the end of my bed while I wiped my face. When she asked if I was okay, I unleashed an explosive rant about my father, my parent’s divorce, my stepmother and their money. Barrie Lee matched my rant with one of her own – turns out, her childhood had been rife with divorce and drama too.
We went back and forth, trading stories of divorced-parent offenses until we were both laughing hysterically. From that day on, she was my best friend on the Island. I found her audacity liberating. I learned I could stand up to her without any consequence. She told spicy stories and made me laugh. After we left the Island, we remained long-distance friends. Eleven years later, she stood up in my wedding.
We still talk every once in a while but we haven’t seen each other in years. We have things in common that keep us connected: we’re both stay-at-home moms, we both love to read, and we both wander through the world feeling things far too deeply.
But while I’m navigating Stepford, clad in Jcrew knock-off’s — she’s out in San Francisco raising three boys, hiking, going to hear live music and eating locally grown produce. I call her whenever I crave something different. During one recent “is-this-really-my-life?” phone calls, Barrie Lee argued that mid-life is a reminder to keep learning new things. It’s why she recently started a drawing class and listens to classic literature on her iPod.
Last year she wandered on to my blog and left this poem buried as a comment. I really don’t get poetry. It’s one of those things, like the cello, I keep saying I’ll tackle one day. But I love this little poem she left for me — it’s like finding a surprise chocolate-chip muffin on your desk. Something about the poem makes me think of the Clarissa character in Michael Cunningham’s “The Hours.” I can’t explain why – but maybe that’s the thing with poetry – you just respond to it?
Meanwhile today is my 44th birthday. Rather than mourn the depressing slide into my mid-forties (MID! forties), I am going to try and stand up to it Barrie Lee-style. I’m going to raise a fist to the wisdom of unexpected friends and all good things still left to discover in the second half of life.
So let us pour ouselves a glass of wine, eat cake, and crave something different as we (or rather, I) start Chapter 2 – but first, take a moment to enjoy Barrie Lee’s beautiful poem:
Peonies (peaked already) ants run out long
before they were discovered leaning
listessly into plastic-wrapped laundered suits
in the trunk of my mini-van
Baked slightly, forgotten
yet supple still, ok for the sojourn
will make it though the day
Set in water, they opened graciously
ready to serve as centerpiece
The company enjoyed the brunch.
Peonies, peaked already (not surprising)
now exhausted, limp
cast long shadows on the table
bacon grease, smelly afterglow clings
to petals that drift
like washed-out ballet slippers
– BLZ, 2004