Searching, Searching, Searching

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I’m like the child who can’t stop asking questions, although I try with all my might not to fidget.

“Why is the sky blue?” becomes, for me, “What shall I do with the rest of my life?”

“I want to be a fireman when I grow up,” sounds like “Should I have been a social worker? A priest?”

“Can dogs fly?” makes me wonder, “Can I get everything I want out of this life?”

“Give me more candy” translates as “Give me more: Time. Energy. Dreams.”

And, like the voracious child, I will have to learn to accept that sometimes the answer is “no,” and sometimes the answer is “maybe later,” and sometimes the answer is, “settle down.”

And every once in a while there is no response that will satisfy.

On Being 52: Trust Me, It’s More Than a Number

DSC_0326Please, I beg of you, don’t tell me that my age is “just a number” or “all a matter of attitude.” I get it, really I do, that you mean well, and that you think I’ve got a youthful spirit and that 52 is not 92. But I am here to tell you that being fiftysomething is more than a number. Regardless of one’s perky outlook, it is the startling—although it shouldn’t be a surprise seeing that I’ve had five decades to get used to the idea—realization that more than half my life is over. With that comes, if you’re paying attention at all, some kind of evaluation about where you are and where you want to go from here. 

Here’s what being 52 is: weakening eyesight, creaking knees, a need for naps, an ever-present countdown toward the rest of my life’s goals, missing my dead father, learning the language of Mother’s dementia, dreaming of going back to school yet again, wanting to make a difference, a longer list of books I haven’t read, grieving misplaced relationships and lost opportunities, wondering what will become of me. Thankfully, being middle-aged (humor me, please; I know I’m stretching the math here) also brings sharpened awareness of even the smallest joy, an appreciation for what I’ve accomplished and what I’ve avoided, a heightened curiosity, increased energy for what simply must get done and a gentle release of what won’t, discarding what no longer fits me—from old clothes to worn out grievances—without guilt, overflowing gratitude for steadfast friends and supportive relations, and trusting it will be okay in the end.

On this icy winter morning, as I consider my next steps, I raise my decaf latte to the fabulous Elaine Stritch, who bears witness to the “courage of age” with such blazing fortitude that I am made bolder simply by listening to her on National Public Radio.

Sing it, sister, I say. Shout it, growl it, live it.

Why I Don’t Hate Valentine’s Day

IMG_3362While I understand people pushing back against the over commercialization of Valentine’s Day—and certainly I don’t think today is the only day we should express appreciation to our loved ones—I’m not a hater. I’m going to revel in the heart shaped mug Precious used for my coffee this morning, the roses that were just delivered to my front door, and the candlelight dinner he and I will share tonight because I waited a long time to be loved like this.

I’m lucky that my parents didn’t raise me to think a prince was coming on a white horse. Frankly, they didn’t tell me anybody was coming and instead made sure I got enough education and sufficient professional chops to be able to support myself. By the time Precious presented me with his mother’s diamond when I was 40 years old, I had decided I would never marry and that, yes, that would be okay. I had a good life and I trusted I would continue to do so, even without a ring on it.

I was used to being alone by then, intimately familiar with being passed over for dates to proms, formals, and college fraternity parties. When I lived in DC in my late twenties, I think I went two years (it was probably longer but I don’t want you to pity me) without so much as a flirtatious glance from a man. Occasionally I’d get a little sad about my apparent lack of womanly skills, but I tried to make sure I had enough inner resources to be content, and enough outside interests to stay connected with the world.

I had single friends who made noise about being happy: “I’ve got a good job,” or “I love my apartment,” they’d say. But they didn’t seem happy to me, disengaging from society and rarely leaving their homes. How they planned to meet anyone that way I have no idea. Although I realize not everyone will—or even wants to—partner long term, I dare say your chances of meeting someone special increase exponentially if you get off the couch. I did the hard work, because I wanted to live the fullest life I could regardless of my love life. I went to a workshop for singles led by an Episcopal priest, based on imago therapy. I saw a psychiatrist, who helped me realize I was not the only woman in Davidson County questioning my self worth simply because I wasn’t married. I did online dating, mainly to make sure I didn’t forget how to powder my nose and engage in polite conversation with men.

“Weren’t you scared?” asked a friend when I told her I’d joined an online dating service. “No,” I responded. “I was never scared, although I was very nearly bored to death on more than one occasion.”

It all helped. It helped by reminding me I was not alone in my search for wholeness, and that such completion was my responsibility, not someone else’s, not even a handsome, smart man. It showed me how to reach out when I got so lonely I worried I might expire on a Friday night and have no one notice until the next Tuesday. It reassured me I was still connected to others, at least in the cosmic sense. Although at the time I was probably more interested in having a companion to go the movies with than I was in any spiritual union with humankind, I remain grateful that I confronted the depths of my loneliness in order to befriend myself.

So on this day so many have come to hate, I’m going with love.

Singing the Blues

IMG_2556Not really, because I can’t sing, at least not in any meaningful or memorable way. Although I’ve been known to belt out a little Van Morrison or John Hiatt when Precious isn’t around, it’s not pretty, or melodic. Just cathartic. These days, though, I’m not much in the mood for singing, or for anything other than reading, napping, and eating. Oh yeah, and wallowing. And maybe a little ruminating.

On paper, I shouldn’t be depressed: loving husband, fine friends, spiritual underpinnings, work I enjoy (although not always enough of it as a freelancer), warm home. But those of us who “suffer” with depression know that paper has nothing to do with it. I put the word suffer in quotation marks because I wonder about what it implies, that maybe people will pity me. I don’t really find pity an appropriate response to depression. I vote for acceptance and understanding instead. Because on this very day, in this tender place, I don’t need you to cheer me up (smiley faces begone!), or pat me on the knee while saying  “it’s going to be okay” (I trust it will be), or remind me I have a lot to be thankful for (indeed I do). I just need you to sit right here with me.

So far, I’ve kept my appointments, met my deadlines, gone to the gym, and, on most days, managed to practice proper hygiene, but I haven’t done those things with my usual levels of energy and involvement. Instead I’ve met the minimum and then hurried back home to hunker down. Sometimes, while hunkering, I find myself mulling over mistakes, worrying about the future, and wondering where I might have made a different move. And although I enjoy a little introspection as much as the next middle-aged goober, I suspect such intense “what if-ing” isn’t healthy, not for the long term anyway, and I’m working to make sure I don’t over do. But I also know this is part of me, this depression, and that it deserves my attention, and maybe even my respect.

It’s cold and gray here in Nashville, without snow to make the weather seem worth it, so that doesn’t help. I don’t know if I might be susceptible to seasonal affective disorder (SAD), but I plan to check it out just in case. 

So tonight my depression and I are listening to the soundtrack on NPR devoted to cabin fever and trusting in tomorrow. Maybe we’ll light a candle, and even sing a few bars. What do you listen to on dark winter nights?

 

On the Occasion of Mother’s 92nd Birthday

IMG_3336When my precious mother turned 80 in January 2002, my sisters and I hosted a lunch in her honor at the small church my parents had helped found in 1956. There was chicken spaghetti and cake, flowers and balloons, and lots of love for my mother. People told us how much she had meant to them over the years, shared stories about my sisters and me, and remembered my father, who died in 2000, with affection. Mother stood up and thanked them, cried a little when talking about Daddy, and made sure folks got second helpings.

This year, Mother’s birthday looked different. She’s 92 and living in a care facility, diagnosed with dementia. There was cake and and pink lemonade, flowers and balloons, and lots of love for my mother. My sisters and I didn’t know if the residents would want—or be able—to sing, but one of them started belting out “Happy Birthday” so we joined in as best we could.

Mother stood up and thanked them, smiled over at her three girls, and made sure folks got second helpings.

Christmas Past

IMG_3294What the ornaments hanging on this wreath lack in finesse they make up for in memory, and tradition, and family. Like when my father was still alive, his arm wrapped around whichever of his three daughters happened to be within reach. When my mother didn’t have a diagnosis of dementia, and we painted wooden cutouts shaped like snowmen and Santas. When my sisters and I were young. These ornaments are as much a part of me as my green eyes and my tendency toward impatience. I pack them up with a heart made full by tenderness for what was, gratitude for this present moment, and acceptance of what will be.

Keeping My Balance at the Gym–And in My Life

IMG_2469An older man stops my trainer at the gym to ask if she is trying to teach me balance. I am struggling to stay upright atop what feels like to me is a mound of Jello. (It is, in reality, something called a Bosu ball.) It is so challenging for me that I must reach out for my trainer’s arms more than once to steady myself as I raise one leg, then the other, to her count.

“Yes,” she tells him. “This exercise strengthens your core and helps your balance.”

“That is good,” he says before walking away.

I talk to my trainer a lot about such issues that matter more and more as I age. I hear stories from my elderly friends about falling at the least provocation. These exercises are no guarantee, of course, that I will remain upright. But I want to do everything I can to be ready. And so it is with the rest of my life.

At 52, I find myself a bit unsteady about what to do next. Another degree? Open an arts studio? Take a part-time job? Finally see if I’ve got a novel in me? But instead of relying on my old habits of signing up for yet another workshop or scheduling an appointment with one sort of therapist or another or, my personal favorite, ordering books about living the creative/mindful/spiritual/healthy (insert your personal predilection here) life, I am trying, simply, to be. I’m resisting with all my might the desire to make sudden moves.

For most of my life I’ve felt that as long as I was moving, I must be living. (Can you say avoidance?) Now, though, I sense there is something to be gleaned from spending time with myself without an agenda, or a goal, or a to-do list. It’s harder than it sounds.

One of the best career breaks I ever got happened years ago when, although I was not happy with my employer, something told me to stay put instead of packing up my red pencils and my thesaurus and moving to another job, trying a different city. By sticking around, I enjoyed one of my most fulfilling creative assignments to date.

The voice that said “stay” was not loud or threatening. It did not belong to a friend, or, dare I say, even a divine entity. It was my own, and I’m just hoping I can recognize it now.

How Many Books on Writing Does a Writer Need?

In preparation for my upcoming stint as an adjunct professor and writer in residence at the Earlham School of Religion, I’m making my way through all my writing books, to see what I can glean that might be of interest and benefit to the students. I thought about counting how many books I had on the topic, but at about number thirty-eight I became embarrassed because  I know, like many of you, that there comes a time in a writer’s life when he has to put down the how-to books and resist the urge to plan yet another trip to a writing conference, and simply, well, write. But we also know it’s not simple. Anything I can to help another person learn to call herself “writer,” I want to do. So I’m starting with my vast library, and I plan to pick out what I think are the juiciest parts and share them with my students. For now, though, I’ll be posting some of them here, in the hopes that you might let me know which resources you rely on most for your work. In the end, I’ll pass along the books I no longer need. Sooner or later I’ll feel compelled to buy some more anyway…

From May Sarton, in A Self-Portrait (Norton, 1982):

“It’s thought and feeling together, this is what makes the poem for me, when you can think and feel at white heat.”

“You have to be willing, as Yeats says, ‘there’s more enterprise in going naked.’ You finally do have to give something terribly intimate and secret of yourself to the world and not care because you have to believe that what you have to say is important enough.”

Writing That Takes My Breath Away

Often when I am struck by a powerful gathering of words I feel compelled to share. Here is one such example:

“While we were in Midland, Mom painted dozens of variations and studies of the Joshua tree. We’d go with her and she’d give us art lessons. One time I saw a tiny Joshua tree sapling growing not too far from the old tree. I wanted to dig it up and replant it near our house. I told Mom that I would protect it from the wind and water it every day so that it could grow nice and tall and straight.

“Mom frowned at me. ‘You’d be destroying what makes it special,’ she said. ‘It’s the Joshua’s tree struggle that gives it its beauty.”

Jeannette Walls, The Glass Castle (Scribner, 2005, 38).

Have you read anything lately that takes your breath away?