Hiking Toward Home: In Which a Middle-Aged Woman Forges Her Trail

IMG_8334I have hiked five miles of the Appalachian Trail. It’s true, but I usually announce this with my eyes cast downward. Not because I think five miles is paltry; for me, it’s an accomplishment. My reticence is due to the circumstances of my achievement.

So, yes, I did cover a handful of miles of the North Carolina portion of the AT. But I did it with guides, people who walked before me as an example of where to put my feet; how to navigate a root-heavy curve; when to steady my pace. Those same people also toted my luggage from inn to inn as we spent our nights in soft beds after eating delicious meals prepared by hands other than ours. We awoke to smiling hosts and hot coffee before setting out for the day. (Over the course of the trip we logged more than five miles, only part of which was on the AT.)

Does it matter that I’ve never “roughed it” a day in my life? What if I mentioned the ice storm that cut off our power for four days, causing my parents and me to huddle in blankets around the fireplace, or reminisced about rolling out my sleeping bag onto the hard ground outside Mentone, Alabama, while at Camp DeSoto, or noted the semester I spent in Indiana living in a cold, sparsely furnished rooming house while teaching? Without wireless or cable? Without my husband?

If I were to talk about any of those experiences as real challenges, you would not reward me with your awe.

There are other things I might impress you with, like not marrying until I was forty-one and being okay with having lived alone so long. Trusting that my life has purpose, even though I never had biological children. Spending three days in the hospital with an undiagnosed infection that threatened to wipe out my white blood cells.

Still, I have not “roughed it” a day in my life. When I was single, I had good friends and encouraging role models who crafted fine lives for themselves without romantic partners. When I was diagnosed with endometriosis and told that any fleeting chance I might have had for bearing a child had passed, I did not think that meant my life had no meaning. I had not dreamed of having children, even though almost everyone around me assumed I longed for offspring. And with the hospitalization two years ago, I was lucky to have access to good healthcare, and to be blessed by a peace that passes all understanding.

In my younger days, I needed your approval. Never one to take a chance and then beg forgiveness, I sought permission even when none was required. Back then, I hungered for your acknowledgment. If you praised me, all the better.

My younger days are gone. It’s one of the joys of aging, this trusting of Self. At long last I no longer crave the noticing of the world. My own awareness is enough.

In the writing workshops I facilitate, we write in response too prompts. I wrote this after reading “The Hike,” by Genie Zeiger, as printed in The Sun Magazine. I encourage the folks gathered around my table to go where the writing takes them, without worrying if it relates directly to the prompt. So I took my own advice, and this is what I came up with on a Saturday morning in Nashville. What does the poem bring up in you? Write for twenty minutes. I’ll set the timer. Go!

https://www.thesunmagazine.org/issues/395/the-hike

 

A Good Enough Day

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Upon returning home from an idyllic two-week trip to my favorite place, Chautauqua , I was met by a frantic puppy with sharp little teeth, loads of laundry, work to catch up on, and a world in upheaval. Being the highly sensitive person that I am–a middle-aged goober who can feel overwhelmed in crowds or when witnessing conflict–it all seemed too much. So yesterday I concentrated on the basics: Take a shower, make at least a little progress on an editorial assignment, and keep the two appointments I had scheduled. I’m glad I did, as I’m always made better when I get up and go, even if the movement is slight, like a short walk through my neighborhood. As evening settled over Nashville, I headed for my gratitude journal. This practice of stopping and taking stock both reassures and renews me, and I can get off center fairly easily if I don’t do it. Honoring that which matters is a sacred act.

To wit: Friends who didn’t freak out when I met them for lunch and said, “Good to see you. I may cry while we eat.” Instead, they offered, “Go ahead. We might, too.” The three of us are in that stage of life where we’ve lost—or our losing—our parents; our health is throwing us curve balls; and we’re letting go of some time-bound dreams while still pursuing the ones we care about the most. We are doing the best we can, and we are not giving up even if we have to slow down a bit and order salads instead of cheeseburgers.

In my younger days, I probably thought “good enough” meant I wasn’t living up to my potential, or that I was settling. At this stage of my life, I know it means the freedom and self-assurance to live well, without comparison to others’ accomplishments or accumulations, without wondering “Would my life have been better if…?”

So on this day, I’m thankful for a good therapist, the playfulness of said frantic puppy with the sharp little teeth, a husband who knows how to cook, my writing partner who sat across from me for three hours as we wrote our hearts out, and this amazing sky.

It is good enough and plenty.

Amy Lyles Wilson

P.S. What are you grateful for, at this very minute?

MayBelle on Marriage {Don’t Worry, This Won’t Take Long}

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Back in 2002, at age forty-one, MayBelle, who theretofore had been considered an “old maid,” transitioned to someone who “married late.” She resents both those descriptors, as you might imagine MayBelle would, because there were no guarantees—or requirements—she would ever marry. MayBelle is delighted that cultural norms have shifted at least somewhat although not enough to suit her–especially in the Deep South where she lives–toward realizing marriage is not the only route to happiness.

One element of such partnering is a numbers game, along with a dash or two of serendipity and a handful of what might only be described as “secret ingredients.” MayBelle’s parents did not promise her a prince, riding a horse or otherwise. They were too busy telling her she had to go to graduate school so she would be positioned to support herself. MayBelle is driven to distraction by people who fill little girls’ heads with seemingly surefire notions of weddings and white-picket-fence happily ever afters (is this really a thing?) as if it’s a done deal. Some folks get it, and some don’t. (MayBelle knows she’s talked about this before, but that’s how much it bugs her. She appreciates your indulgence.)

Several of MayBelle’s mentors have been women who never married. Her Aunt Vannie, for example, who lit out from Water Valley, Mississippi, for Greenwich Village and made a life for herself by herself. What a fabulous broad she was. MayBelle still wears a shawl (black and white, from England) and a big ol’ topaz ring she got from Vannie, that enticing woman now long laid low. And her Aunt Theora, who took up painting later in life and developed into an acclaimed, self-taught artist.

Here’s another thing MayBelle loathes: “Why did you wait so long to marry?” Because, she wants to snap back, it took that long for Precious to get here. Plus, if you must know, the only guy who asked her before that was drunk at the time, and the only one she thought she might have wanted ended up marrying a friend of hers. Two friends, actually, after the first one divorced him.

MayBelle may have been a little slow to matters of the heart, not having dated much in her life, but she did know enough not to say “I do” simply to avoid living alone. So when MayBelle and Precious, who is six years older than she, announced they were getting married she thinks they were as surprised as anyone. And really, really, grateful.

MayBelle heard the whispers, though, people saying they wondered if she knew everything about him, and did he know how much MayBelle adored (the word “worshipped” might have been employed, for emphasis) her father?

“No wonder she didn’t marry until after her father died,” was an especially insightful barb tossed her way. (Did MayBelle’s sarcastic tone come through there? If not, let her know and she’ll try again.) Baggage all around. Of course there’s baggage, MayBelle wanted to shout; we’re alive, aren’t we? And in our forties, for goodness sake. No baggage, no fully lived life, thinks MayBelle.

Those comments reminded MayBelle, in an intensely personal way, about the need for minding one’s own business: Don’t think you know best about other people’s lives. Tend your own instead.

And here they are, celebrating fifteen years of marriage. It’s not a lifetime, they realize, or an assurance of fifteen more, but it’s what they’ve got, and they’ll take it. They celebrated, in part, by hiking to a beautiful spot in western North Carolina, even though Precious’ idea of outdoorsy is being on the golf course and MayBelle has only recently taken to exercising. This is what marriage looks like to them: Walking side by side, even when the husband wears shoes meant for strolling, not trail trekking, and the wife keeps asking if they should turn back. Four feet, two hearts, one team.

MayBelle and Precious are not the kind of people who think love is enough. They don’t post on social media (Can you imagine Precious on Facebook?) about having “the most perfect spouse in the world,” and they don’t take much for granted. They think you need love, sure, but you also need luck, and a bit of work. Commitment helps, and trust, and all sorts of other intangible components that contribute to tangible sustainability.

So MayBelle and Precious can both tell you when they “ just knew” they were meant to be together, although they can’t necessarily tell you one another’s favorite flavor of ice cream. And no, they don’t have an “our song,” but if they did, it would be John Hiatt’s “Have a Little Faith in Me.”

 

 

 

 

From Wallowing to Reaching Out {On Friendship}

DSC_0310A friend texts to say she appreciates me, and that I make a difference in her life. Just like that, lickety-split, my mood shifts from somber to celebratory, from grasping to gratitude. My energy morphs from wallowing in my own gunk to remembering to check on an older neighbor who is ill. On a gray-sky day in Nashville, a handful of words from a fellow pilgrim in a different time zone seek me out and everything shifts. I don’t know if it’s some sort of spiritual manifestation of the butterfly effect or not, but I’ll take it.

Now go tell someone she matters.