At a social gathering over the weekend, in which MayBelle was not, by a long shot, the oldest person in the room, she was asked this question:
“What did you do in your former life?”
Granted, the questioner appeared to be younger than MayBelle, maybe even by fifteen years or so if she were to speculate. MayBelle was taken aback, which is not her favored position. Quickly she realized the woman assumed she was retired. Or capable of having past lives, maybe living in alternate universes.
“I’m still living that life,” said MayBelle, who is pretty good at thinking on her feet, even if those feet are clad in sensible, low-heeled shoes these days. MayBelle is not exactly sure what she meant by that response, but she was trying to give as good as she got. Quite frankly, she found the question well, rude. And misguided.
As MayBelle began to talk about her work in the world, what gives her life, she could see that the questioner was not really all that interested. Just as MayBelle was getting to the good stuff, the part about her belief that it’s the sharing of our stories that saves us, the woman zoned out. Maybe she was looking for someone who had a more scintillating former life.
The encounter reminded MayBelle how important it is not to make assumptions about people. She’s guilty of it herself, although she tries to be careful. More often than not, whenMayBelle has made assumptions, she’s been wrong. And MayBelle hates to be wrong.
MayBelle has not been one, usually, to adopt the “word for a year” practice that has been prevalent on social media for several years now. She likes to avoid fads and trends and the like. But this year she’s in, and her word is “No.” (With all due respect to Shonda Rhimes and her “Year of Yes.”)
When she mentioned this to her church’s women’s group this morning, via Zoom, someone asked if she meant “know.”
“No,” she responded, already practicing her Word for 2022. Woot! This is partly because she is, more often than not, so hungry for knowledge, so sure she can “figure things out,” that she misses the point entirely. So now she’s trying to know less and trust more. (This is not a new theme for MayBelle, so if you’ve heard it all before, please accept her apologies.)
For MayBelle, this will mean saying “No” to*:
Buying items she doesn’t need. MayBelle sometimes use shopping as a coping mechanism when she’s feeling sad, lonely . . . insert challenging emotion here _________. (She should also add “Eating my emotions” to the list, but let’s tackle one challenge at a time, shall we?) Practice Run: “I really do have enough scarves, even if that particular shade of mauve is stunning. And Fair Trade. And on sale. And probably the only one available in the world.”
Taking on work projects that don’t suit MayBelle’s schedule or professional goals. (MayBelle is self-employed and lucky to have the luxury of choice.) Because she likes to be needed/sought after/appreciated, MayBelle has more than once signed on for a project that was much more draining than fulfilling. She realizes, of course, that not every task related to her professional life will be fun-tastic, but she’s aiming for equilibrium. (Yay for MayBelle! She’s a Four on the Enneagram and balance is sometimes a challenge for those folks.) Practice Run: “I applaud you for wanting to write a book about the history of foot powder, but I’m probably not the best editor for you.”
Hanging out with folks who don’t want to grow, develop, create, question, wonder, connect, forgive, appreciate . . . insert life-giving practice here ______________. MayBelle realizes there are times when we need to complain and wring our hands, so it’s the people who always adopt such an approach, the ones who don’t even seem to consider there might be another way, that she’s thinking of here. Practice Run: “I respect your right to be so critical, dismissive, and convinced there is only dark in the world. While you’re doing that, I’ll be over here in the sunshine.”
Thinking she should be able to solve the problems of every single person she encounters. That sounds more grandiose than she’d like, seeing as MayBelle is actually a pretty humble sort, but she has, in the past, inserted herself where she didn’t belong–it was not hers to do, in other words– thinking she could rescue someone/mend a rift/correct an injustice. Practice Run: “I’m sorry you’re experiencing such a hard time. I hope you can find your way to a place of peace. I am happy to pray for you if you like.”
We’ll see how it goes. So far, MayBelle hasn’t bought anything she doesn’t need, eaten more than one serving, or offered to finance someone’s sketchy start up, some three days in to the New Year. It’s a start.
Back in 2009, when MayBelle was on a retreat in New England, she wrote this:
“I am not at home. I am far away from everything, and everyone, that I have worked so hard to mold into a representation of what home means. In my youth, home was a ranch-style house painted blue-gray in Jackson, Mississippi. It was a mother and a father and two older sisters and a dog named Sloopy. It was jumping on the Robinsons’ trampoline, walking down to Shellie’s house, and swinging in the hammock in the backyard. Being scared of boys, learning to play the piano, and earning badges in Girl Scouts. Today home is a two-story number in Nashville, Tennessee, with a husband—the presence of whom still shocks me after seven years—a stepdaughter, and a dog named Quay. It is overstuffed bookshelves and grocery shopping and trying to be successful at self-employment. In between, home was an unremembered street name in Oxford, Mississippi; Glebe Road in Arlington, Virginia, and Deane Hill Drive in Knoxville, Tennessee. It was graduate school and career and loneliness. Now, though, it is more than stucco chimneys and supper at six. It is where I draw the deepest, most satisfying breaths of my life. The kind of inhalations that can make you woozy with gratitude, and relief, and wonder. After so many years of not wanting to ‘settle down,’ it is, in the end, the only place I really want to be, surrounded by all that mundane glory. I am not quite as at home with my calling, however, although I feel I am tantalizingly close. It is, I suspect, a destination not to be reached as an endpoint but instead a beginning and returning, over and over again until some satisfaction and fulfillment are encountered. Like pornography, or finding your soulmate: you’ll just know. It is harder to describe than the physical structure of any house. It is grief and longing and joy. A bit of pride, maybe too much at times. Spirituality and semi-colons; silence and word counts. Story and regret. ‘Both and’ instead of ‘either or.’ It is syllables on paper and whispers in the dark. I trust that soon it will feel as familiar as the front door that sticks when it rains, the grandfather’s clock from my father’s office chiming the hours, the sound of the dog’s snoring through the air vent in my studio. Any day now, my vocation will feel like home, too.”
MayBelle is happy to report that on this particular day in March 2021, she does feel more and more at home with how she makes her way in the world and what she tries to offer back to her fellow pilgrims. She understands now, more fully than ever, what Frederick Buechner said about vocation: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Now MayBelle’s not meaning to say she’s meeting some great need in the world by helping people tell their stories. Just that she’s trying, and she’s content. She is, for one of the first times in her life, able to say “it is enough” and mean it.
MayBelle has confronted her thin hair for decades now, so it doesn’t really bother her—not too much at least—when she catches glimpses of her scalp on a sunny day when the wind is up. It’s worse when you loom over her and look down at the top of her head, so please try not to do that. According to the Harvard Health Blog, at least one-third of women have thinning hair. (Notice MayBelle does not use the phrase “suffer with.”) MayBelle’s mother (pictured here) did, and her maternal grandmother, Eunice Eula, did too.
Thankfully, MayBelle has a lovely, old-school hairdresser who is familiar with hair that is less than luxurious. And the salon itself is cozy, not intimidating. Even MayBelle feels comfortable there. You are not offered kale smoothies or wine spritzers when you arrive, although you can usually score a Diet Coke. It is not decorated with expensive chandeliers or modern art. There is a sofa, and the magazines are current. You do not have to use an app to make an appointment. Before Covid, MayBelle would often see cars from area retirement communities dropping off women for their cuts and curls.
MayBelle knew Liz was the one for her when she was not greeted with a cry of alarm, or worse, pity, at their first meeting. Liz has kept MayBelle’s hair short enough to look fuller, and worked with MayBelle to find a “magic shampoo.” And she’s even okay with MayBelle’s going gray.
Last week MayBelle went in for a sprucing up. Just as she was getting out of the chair and putting her sensible shoes on the floor, she heard Liz say, “Stop. I need to get that hair.”
Not a strange thing to hear from your hairdresser, so MayBelle sat back down and waited for Liz to get her shears or her little neck brush. Instead, Liz came for MayBelle’s chin.
“Got it,” said Liz, smiling. “I’d noticed that earlier and wanted to get it taken care of for you.”
During her mother’s later years on this earth, MayBelle would sometimes drive her around their hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, on Sunday afternoons. They would drink iced tea from McAlister’s and talk about the old days.
“Isn’t that where what’s her name used to live?” her mother might ask.
“Yes,” MayBelle would say. More often than not, she knew exactly which what’s her name her mother meant.
On several such occasions, just before her mother would get out of the car to return to the senior living community, MayBelle would grab her tweezers (she prefers Tweezerman), which she always keeps handy, and pluck any stray white hairs on her mother’s chin.
“Thank you,” her mother would say. “I can’t seem to take care of things like that myself anymore.”
MayBelle will most surely have her mother’s white, sparse hair one day, for hers is not only thin, but also thinning further as she ages. Down the road, as MayBelle winds it into a small bun and secures it with bobby pins before dinner at the retirement home, or while she wraps a scarf around her head before her niece comes to take her shopping, she will be reminded of the women kinfolk who have come before her. It will most likely make her self-conscious on occasion, but she’ll be fine.
Liz and MayBelle laughed about how their husbands never seem to notice their chin hairs.
“Precious told me I was beautiful one day and sent me out in the world with an inch-long white whisker poking straight out,” said MayBelle. “I’m surprised it didn’t leave a mark when he kissed me goodbye that morning.”
“My husband, too! He never seems to notice.”
Surely this makes them lucky, Liz and MayBelle, to have partners who consider them attractive regardless of how their bodies surprise them as they get older. Of course, it could mean that their husbands are not really looking at them. Or maybe, just maybe, it means they’re being seen by people who know where real beauty lies.
MayBelle knows that retail therapy is not often advised by counselors or therapists. Friends sometimes suggest it, thankfully. With Covid, MayBelle has not gotten out to shop much, which is actually a good thing as MayBelle all too often has shopped (and eaten) her feelings instead of processing them. She is working on that. She has, of course, made use of online ordering during these trying times. As a matter of act, MayBelle should this very day receive a long, blue sweater–oh the richness of the color!–from Anrthopologie. (Please make note that MayBelle paid less than half of the original price.)
She’s tried to be good, though, ordering mostly only what she needs, and absolutely no more than three books and two candles a week. She’s vowed to be more conscious about where her clothing comes from and has actually found a couple of good resources for funky clothing that is sustainably sourced and appropriate for someone who is quirky and middle-aged. (Bless her calcifying heart, MayBelle still thinks she’s in midlife.)
A memory: Years after she graduated from college (MayBelle knows that line should be, technically, “after she was graduated from college,” but MayBelle thinks that sounds awfully stilted.), MayBelle ran into a friend from those days who said, “We used to gather in the cafeteria to wait for you to walk by on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings after French 101 just to see what you were wearing.” MayBelle does not know if she should be flattered or humiliated.
Anyway, MayBelle couldn’t take it any longer last week, so she hopped out for a couple of quick errands. While tooling around, a dear friend called and asked what she was up to:
“I’m out doing some retail therapy,” MayBelle said. She could taste the glee in her voice, so happy was she.
“Oh!” said the friend. “What fun places have you been to?”
MayBelle paused for a few moments, wondering if she should tell a fib and say “Victoria’s Secret and Nordstrom, with a quick stop at the Tesla dealership,” but MayBelle never has shopped at Victoria’s Secret (well, maybe that one time….) and she long ago gave up shopping for clothes at places like Nordstrom when she found herself, seemingly irreversibly, ensconced in the land of size twelve. She drives a Subaru. And, most importantly, MayBelle does not like to fib unnecessarily.
“Er,” said MayBelle. “Um…the Office Depot and the Hallmark Store.”
“Wow,” said her friend. MayBelle did not hear the glee in her friend’s voice.
“I know,” said MayBelle, “but I got this fabulous office chair on sale and they put it together for me in under an hour and it’s in the back of my car right now. Oh! And some Christmas wrapping paper at seventy-five percent off.” MayBelle was practically hyperventilating she was so excited.
“Wow,” said her friend again.
They laughed about it, MayBelle and her friend, who happens to be a tad older than MayBelle and much, much hipper. And they both, in the end, knew they would take this kind of contentment any day of the week.
MayBelle has already learned a lot during the first ten or so days of this whatever this is we’re going through. To wit:
You can freeze bananas! Just as she was noticing the bananas on the kitchen counter turning brown, and wondering aloud to herself, “I wonder if you can freeze bananas,” one of her friends posed that same question on Instagram. Voila!
Facebook is not all bad. In fact, MayBelle is learning, dare she say it, to like Facebook. She’s been a naysayer for a while—sometimes it takes MayBelle longer to catch on than others—mainly because she can’t stomach the political vitriol. (Or the cat memes. Pluto the talking dog, though, that’s something MayBelle can get behind. Seriously, that dog makes MayBelle’s day.) Poor MayBelle can’t handle confrontation of any kind very well, if the truth be known. It’s one of her weakest points. If you yell at her about something, she’ll have a great comeback between six and eleven hours later, but in the moment the most she’ll be able to do is clam up. Or cry. And maybe tell you off in her mind.
Even middle-aged goobers can learn how to use Zoom. What an amazing, technological world it is out there, boys and girls. Look for MayBelle to start hosting something or another on Zoom in the near future.
Taking the time to connect with people you’ve meant to get to know better is worth every minute. Through extending her reach just a tad, MayBelle has found another soul-sister; met a neighbor she’d never seen before even though they’ve both lived in the subdivision for more than a decade; formed a bond with a former student from her divinity school days; and been exposed to this fabulous YouTube video from The Moth, “About to Eat Cake”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_969XrYeuw4
Just think what else MayBelle might encounter before this is all over.
This is pretty much how our outings go. I move, Norval doesn’t. If he’s not sniffing, relieving himself, eating sticks, or barking at Gus the Goldendoodle, he’s most likely defying me. He knows he gets rewarded for “good walking,” so when he loses the mood, and he doesn’t see me reaching for the treats in my pocket, he simply plants himself. Dog as immovable object.
“No peanut butter crunchies, no walkie-walkie, Lady Who Thinks She’s in Control,” he seems to say.
“Spoiled,” offers a friend.
“Stubborn,” declares Precious.
Just as with some other concerns in my life, I need to adjust my thinking about this daily routine. For if I continue to focus on my frustration, we’ll never make any headway, the dog or me. If I see only what’s going wrong—dog not training as fast as I would like—I won’t notice what’s going just fine—dog making some progress and spring on its way.
Lately I’ve been feeling put upon, what with Precious being sick, and my books not being published. Granted, I haven’t written them yet, but several authors just had readings in town and I’m hooked on the acclaim and the accomplishment, not the hard work and the hustle.
So this morning, while Norval splayed himself on the pavement, I listened to the birds and admired the trees about to burst. I gave thanks to God for the progress Precious is making with his cancer treatments, and for my writing that has been published. I waved at the new neighbor, and wandered down memory lane upon seeing the forsythia on the corner, as that particular yellow always takes me straight back to Grandmother Lyles’ house on South Ninth Street in Oxford, Mississippi.
These are simple things, and they may sound hokey to you. But such small shifts led to my looking heavenward and saying a prayer, instead of cursing under my breath. They reminded me how adorable Norval is most of the time, and what he means to Precious and me. They convinced me that pulling on the leash was not the answer. Waiting was the answer. And so I did.
Eventually, Norval deigned to move, and we made it back home at our own pace, one paw in front of the other, with our behavior, and our gratitude, intact.
When I tell people my husband has been receiving treatment for cancer, many ask—almost reflexively—“What kind?”
After thoughtful consideration, much of it conducted in waiting rooms, doctors’ offices, and pharmacy lines, I’ve decided this is not the most appropriate, or helpful, response.
At fifty-seven, I am sometimes fixated on causes of death for folks my age and younger. Hoping, I guess, that I might avoid their fates if I just have the facts. Take a different route, get a second opinion, stop the unhealthy habit.
So I get it, the curiosity. I just don’t like it.
If the answer to the question “What kind of cancer?” turns out to be one of the more aggressive types, will you label my husband a goner? If it’s categorized as “lifestyle related,” will you condemn him?
Each time I’m asked this question, I’m taken back to occasions when I’ve inquired, or wondered, upon hearing such announcements from others. All the times I made assumptions. I hope I never do that again.
From where I sit now, in a chair beside my husband as he receives chemotherapy infusions or next to him on the couch as he rests after radiation, the only real question is, “What can I do?”
The dream came over the weekend, the one with her dead mother in it. MayBelle hasn’t dreamed about her mother regularly in the two years since her death, although MayBelle often senses her mother’s spirit with her. And certainly she feels her mother’s influence, even lives it out. On separate occasions just last week, MayBelle quoted her mother to a friend, heeded a piece of advice delivered decades ago, and missed her with such fierceness that she had to step outside a restaurant to collect herself.
Maybe MayBelle will make that her Lenten practice, “collecting herself.” She will gather up the pieces she’s lost hold of, the ones she either thought didn’t matter or was told didn’t count. She’ll root around for her childhood dreams and begin to honor those goals she let fall by the wayside. She’ll walk as far as she has to, searching for the just-right shards and fragments. Hers.
Along the way, MayBelle will have to put down some things, she realizes, for one middle-aged goober can’t carry it all. She’ll start with that pesky self-doubt and the tendency to see herself through a distorted lens. Then she’ll move on to a constant need for approval and an everlasting refrain of: “You are not doing enough.” She’ll get rid of clothes that don’t suit and accessories she doesn’t need. (Why in the world did MayBelle buy that mustard-colored sackcloth tunic?) Out with the affectations that never did the trick anyway, and say goodbye to being unduly influenced by every piece of advice—sought or otherwise—that comes her way.
As she hunts and gathers and sets aside, MayBelle will focus on collecting what counts and what connects. All she cares about and all she can offer. Those dreams, people, and activities she can tend and nurture well. She hopes she will need a big basket to hold it all. For now, MayBelle will start with this basket, one her mother used for taking food to potluck suppers at Briarwood United Methodist Church. MayBelle knew she kept the basket for a reason.
In the dream, MayBelle’s mother is happy. She is not worried or anxious. She is not scared of the dementia that garbles her memories, or the death that looms. Instead, she is laughing merrily with one of her precious great-grandchildren, a young girl with a big bow in her hair who pushes MayBelle’s mother in a wheelchair. They are both smiling, big toothy grins, as they loop round and round. They exhibit such joy that MayBelle chooses to believe it is more than a dream. It is the stuff of life.
I’m beginning to realize that my current sensitivity around the state of the world and the state of my own emotional well-being is not just a day or two of the blues. It is a tender stage of life I must make my way through.
At fifty-six, I find myself restless, wondering if I’ve done enough and curious about what more there might be to do and what it might look like. New career? Different town? Stay the course? Get a facelift?
Some folks say I think too much, worry more than I should. Guilty as charged. But I’ve spent a lot of time trying not to be what I am: highly sensitive and hyper aware. And I’m too old for that now. Instead I choose to embrace these qualities and work with them as best I can. There are some upsides: curiosity, empathy, creativity, trustworthiness, and a willingness to hang out in the trenches with people who are hurting. Some of the challenges include: taking on problems that aren’t mine to solve; an inability to filter out what I don’t need to absorb; overreacting to perceived injustices; and accepting what’s mine to do and laying down the rest.
In order to make my way in the world without becoming completely overwhelmed, I need to get quiet and listen deeply—to myself and my Creator. One way I’m doing that right now is by working my way through The Artist’s Way Workbook. The current assignment is to list “Ten Tiny Changes” I’d like to make and then crafting goals from those. This an effective way to streamline what’s important to me. For example, from “I want to publish a book,” I get, “I will write every day.” From “I would like to teach part time,” I move to, “I will apply for the adjunct job at the university.” From “I would like to start my spiritual direction practice,” I come up with, “I will reach out to friends in the spiritual community for advice.” Wanting to lose weight morphs into, “I will walk five times a week.”
It may seem straightforward, like a “no brainer” to those who are more single minded and pragmatic, that you would list your goals and then set about tackling them. But for someone like me, who can become convinced fairly easily that I should be doing something else–or worse, that I should “be” someone else–the act of breaking my goals down into “tiny changes” is helpful. Let’s see how it goes…
P.S. How do you focus and make progress on your goals and dreams?