During the night, I had an attack of something — maybe it’s seasonal allergies (central Texas is certainly known for them) or maybe it’s a cold — but I woke up all night with my throat feeling sliced every time I swallowed, and my head ached, and my chest felt heavy. Just an ordinary bit of bad, nothing more, but kind of low-level misery, you know? My ears hurt. I sound like Edward G. Robinson after a week of heavier-than-usual cigar smoking and scotch drinking.
I’ve been taking care of other people a lot lately, and cooking for others, and my cupboard was bare. What I wanted more than anything was to be good to myself, to make some very good food for me, some food that would restore and be good for my body, and my tiny miseries. I wanted to make myself a cup of tea, tuck a little blanket around my feet, make my bedroom extra cozy and welcoming for when I’d go back to it tonight.
This is a sea change. I didn’t belittle myself, berate myself for “whining,” wag my inner finger at myself, call myself names. I also didn’t wish someone else were here to take care of me. This is such a wonder.
On my way to the very good market, I listened to an interview with Gloria Steinem. She said she did not know how to make a home for herself until she was 50. Without thinking too much about it, she’d kind of had a background assumption that homes are made for husbands and children, and she hadn’t seen many women (or any women, maybe) making permanent homes just for themselves. This resonated with me too.
So I bought fresh, organic vegetables of all the colors — ruby red beets, glowing yellow-orange butternut squash, deep green kale, okra, peas, rainbow colors of heirloom tomatoes, deep brown wild mushrooms. I bought whole grains, wheat berries and farro and wild rice and French lentils. I bought tea. I lingered in front of the small batches of store-made fresh soup — vegetable, lentil, tortilla, potato, split pea, so many delicious options — pondering whether to buy one or just make a batch for myself, trading off ease since I feel bad against the pleasure of making. While I shopped, my heart felt the same as if I were taking care of someone I loved.
When everything was stowed away in my refrigerator and pantry, I made my bed and folded back the sheet and comforter so it was ready for me later. I went ahead and moved an armload of candles into the bathroom, and got out the eucalyptus salts, so I could take a soaking bath later. I put on my most comfortable clothes, my softest socks. I made a big cup of tea. I brushed my hair, a comfort to my aching head, and took some medicine. I smiled at myself.
“As if I were taking care of someone I loved.”
My dearest wish is that every woman would feel this way about herself, as worthy of all these things as all the others she cares for. Even if it doesn’t start to become clear until you’re 50, even if it takes hard work, even if it feels selfish at first, no matter what or how long the path, I wish this for you, too.
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It’s very far from perfect, and I only enjoy about 1/3 of it, but the Netflix series Grace and Frankie is one of my favorite shows. With those qualifiers — very far from perfect, only enjoy about 1/3 of it — how can it possibly be a favorite, then? That’s pretty nonsensical.
But it is about women in my general age group, and they are not a joke. When the story line cuts to their ex-husbands, I could not possibly care less. It’s so easy to find stories about men, just try not to! When the story line cuts to their grown children, I could not possibly care less (ditto) except as it relates to the various ways they treat their mothers. I want to see these women and how they figure out and live their lives. Grace and Frankie, the title characters, not their gay husbands or their spoiled (or indulged) kids. Grace. Frankie. (Especially Frankie. Lily Tomlin is wonderful.)
Have you noticed how rare it is to find mainstream entertainment that is not about raping and murdering women? Pay attention, you’ll see. Sometimes there’ll be a female detective, but before it’s all over she too will be raped. Just wait. You’ll see. I read an interview with Lidia Yuknavitch and in the midst of it, she commented on how exquisite and rare it was when Daenerys hopped on the back of her dragon and flew away, saving HERSELF. She left, gaping below, the men who were there to save her and she fucking saved herself.
And then older women, rare rare rare. Rarer than dragons. One reason I loved Lucia Berlin’s short story collection A Manual for Cleaning Women was that the main characters were all women, who were either saving themselves or fucking up their own damn lives. But very real, in every way, and often older.
And so along comes Grace and Frankie, 100% imperfect in every way, but when the story focuses on them, alone or together, I feel overwhelmed. There are women like me, look. (Well, not really, obviously, but they’re in my general age group.) Look! Look! Older women! When you’re younger, you hear about the way women become invisible as they age and even then it’s discussed in the context of men — as in, men no longer even notice you. For many that’s a relief, but even still it’s about men and that just pisses me off.
But the broader invisibility does matter to me, cultural invisibility. I want stories of real older women. Unfortunately, what seems to be interesting is what happens to older women when men no longer want them — oh no! Will they crumble? Will they find a way to survive anyway? I’ve loved watching Grace and Frankie figure out that it’s each other they need. That it’s themselves they need, and each other, and that’s rich and sometimes moving. They’ve got stuff going on — Frankie says, once, “We’re old, we have to pack a lot in a day.” At the end of season two, they discover a business venture to do together that is specifically for older women (a line of vibrators that deals with arthritic hands, etc) and the response of people, a kind of disgust and abhorrence at the mere idea, just kills me. There was an actual bedroom scene with Grace and a man (Sam Elliott, luscious as always), and it wasn’t played for gags. It wasn’t about embarrassments of aging. It wasn’t about being dry. It wasn’t about anything except what it was about — an intense connection and fulfillment of long-held longing between two characters, one of whom was an older woman. And they showed her old-looking hands on his back, gasp! [It wasn’t odd at all to see an older man, of course…..though it was odd that he wasn’t with a 20-something woman.]
Almost all of my friends are women (Craig and Sherlock are the only exceptions), and most are roughly my age. I know for a fact that their lives are interesting, and rich, and not just about men or the tick-tock-tick-tock of life ending. But where are our stories? Where are the stories of grown-ass women whose lives aren’t just about their children, or their husbands? I am grappling with my own life as it exists beyond those aspects, with who I am beyond those aspects. I’d sure love to see and read stories of others like me. If you have any recommendations, please let me know.
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As we continue to wait for Marnie and Tom’s boy to arrive, I’ve been feeling cracked open with tenderness for her, and for Tom too. My primary focus is on my daughter, if only because of my own experiences of labor and knowing that she will be going through her own version of it and I can’t ease any of it for her.
Every time something generational happens — a birth into our family, obviously, but also celebrations of birthdays and anniversaries — I feel myself in the wheel of time. I experience where I am in that river, on that wheel, in that chain, whatever metaphor makes sense to you. For me, it’s always a wheel for some reason.
Lately, in witnessing the changes happening to my body, such as my hair getting grayer, the underlying muscles softening on my chin and jaw, and the subtler changes that show aging, like changes to teeth, skin, and fingernails, I’ve been seeing my grandmother in me. I’ve always favored her, my father’s mother; I’ve looked like her in the face, my hands are hers exactly, I was always told my legs are like hers. I don’t have pictures of her (but I remember her face and hands SO clearly), except for this one and unfortunately her face is turned away:
I love this picture so much because my dad looks uncharacteristically happy, and I feel like I see the person he might have been if his life had been otherwise. It’s no accident his mother was turned with her back to him, but rather a perfect representation of how she treated him, always. I called her Mamo (for non-US southerners, that’s pronounced Mah-maw), but her name was Delma Faye. And that’s Papo there on the far right — even though he was my dad’s stepfather, I only knew him as my grandfather because he married my grandmother the very same day my parents got married, unbeknownst to either couple. I loved Papo so much; I really lucked out in the grandfather department. He adored me, and always brought me doughnuts, which he called “goldfish” for some unknown and never-asked reason. (Perhaps the origin of my childish passion for doughnuts. 🙂 )
Anyway. I can easily remember Mamo’s hands making biscuits, which were her specialty. Our fingers are long and thin, and our fingernail beds are very short, out on the tips of our fingers. My dad’s hands were the same, he had her hands too, but as I age, and my fingernails get thinner and develop ridges, they look SO much like hers it’s often shocking when I see them. I’ll be making something and my eyes fall on them and I literally feel a shock of both recognition and disbelief.
And as my face softens with age, I look so much more like her, especially in the mouth and jaw, and it frequently takes me back. I’m turning into her, physically, and it really does take me by surprise even though it shouldn’t, since I’ve always favored her.
But maybe it’s striking me harder because my role as a grandmother is becoming fuller, and a bigger part of my life. Soon another little boy will call me Pete, the name that links me back to my own grandfather Big Daddy, and I’m looking more and more like my grandmother. And so I feel the wheel turning, and I feel deep tenderness for myself. I hope when my grandsons remember my face and hands, they remember them with tenderness too.
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Before I get to the point of the post, the title reminds me so much of one of my favorite songs from Cabaret (maybe because it’s titled “I Don’t Care Much.”) This video shows Alan Cumming singing it from the pre-revival show — and I got to see him back then! The performance I saw had Natasha Richardson as Sally Bowles. He was so amazing. Here’s the beautiful, sad, wistful song.
Sigh. I loved him in that show. I love him in anything. But back to my real point in this post, which is that I don’t care too much any more. WHAT A RELIEF! Of course I do care too much about so very many things, and in fact my caring-too-much (though I would argue with ‘too’) is one of my central tendencies. But mercifully there are things I just don’t give two anythings about anymore, and this is such a relief — such as:
Whether my house is perfect when friends come over. Floors? Stuff? Nah, I don’t care. I have beautiful dark espresso tile floors, and this means that dust is quite visible. When I come home from my 12-day NYC trip each month, the layer of dust everywhere is noticeable, and the cobwebs in the corners are noticeable too, and often dotted with dead pillbugs (I’m sorry, little pillbug subjects, your queen mourns you). Usually I dust and de-cobweb right away, but this time I didn’t. And a couple of days after my return I had some book club friends over for dinner. Dust and cobwebs and all. Didn’t care. Assumed they didn’t care either. Having a friend over for dinner tonight and guess what: still haven’t dusted, still don’t care. Assume she won’t care, either. And if she does (she won’t), I don’t even care about that. (But she won’t.)
Whether my appearance is as perfect as I can make it. You might not think it, since I usually wear jeans and Converse, but I used to do whatever it took to be as ‘perfect’ as I personally could be. Even if I’d only gotten an hour of sleep, for instance, I’d set the alarm early enough to wash my hair and blow dry it before going out, even though it would be absolutely fine as it was. So I’d be exhausted and internally cranky, but my hair would be right. And no one cared! Because of course I’m not talking about having greasy, nasty hair, or anything like that. No one noticed, or cared. Since I’m growing my hair out it’s frequently kind of awkward right now, and I have a couple of gigantic waves in spots that make for a goofy growing-out. Meh, who cares. I sure don’t. Now I brush my hair, brush my teeth, put on some moisturizer, and head out if it’s an ordinary day. I’m meeting a friend for lunch today and had I gotten up early enough to wash and dry my hair, I could’ve forced that giant wave on the left into submission, but whatever. Good enough. I really don’t care at all what anyone thinks about my appearance. Why should I?
Doing things alone that everyone else is doing with someone else. Actually, I had to reach for this one, because this has never bothered me. I may be the only person at the movies, or at a restaurant, who is there alone while everyone else is with someone else, or a group. I don’t care! Why should I! It isn’t that I don’t enjoy doing those things with someone else, I do, but it is that I don’t care what people think about me being there alone. It doesn’t even occur to me to wonder if anyone notices me.
Just as broadly as possible, I don’t care what people think about me any more. I used to, for sure. I used to assume I was being very harshly judged all the time — thanks, Mother, for setting that baseline by very harshly judging me and everyone else all the time — and it was horrible. It’s actually narcissistic, if you think about it, to assume that other people are focused on you. People are actually focused on themselves. 🙂 I mean, I don’t want to overstate this. It isn’t that I really don’t care, I care enough to do what I can, but if I miss some potentially-judging-me point I don’t care about that. I tend to my appearance. I clean my house. I don’t violate basic social norms. I just don’t care what others think about imperfections any more. Because actually, it’s almost all imperfection! And also, if you allow people to see yours, they are freer to show you theirs, too. See my cobwebs? Maybe you won’t stress out if your place isn’t perfectly perfect, and we’ll see each other more easily.
Maybe, too, it’s that I’ve let go of people who are cruel judges. And if anyone has come to my house and noticed the dusty floors and cobwebbed corners, they haven’t mentioned it to me. This is a fantastic, fantastic stage of life, and if you have a judgey little voice driving you to make everything perfect all the time, no matter what the expense, you might want to work on a little less caring, too. xoxoxo
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Today’s word for the August Break 2015 dealie is skin. I imagine Instagram will be flooded with tagged images of suntans, sunburns, skin slathered with cream, or skin dripping with water. For the first time in my entire 56 years of life, I actually have a suntan, and it astonishes me every single time I see it. There’s a full-length mirror on the back of my bathroom door, and when I step out of the shower I don’t recognize that tanned person, especially since my stomach is also tanned. I almost flinch, like it’s someone else’s arm or leg or body, because I have historically been pale, pale, pale. Not exactly gray-white, but definitely pale.
But my skin has always been my very best feature, always. I never had acne, or even many pimples. Once in a while as a teen I’d get one on my chin before my period, but that was it. Rare as hen’s teeth, blemishes of any kind. I always knew I was lucky to have the skin I had. And it has always kind of glowed, like it’s lit up from the inside or something.
During periods of robust happiness and health, it sometimes looked like peaches and cream. Lucky, especially since I did nothing at all to help it along. I never used moisturizer (because I also didn’t have dry or oily skin, it was just kind of perfect), and no real washing except a quick rinse in the shower, as long as I was at it. I got short legs, buck teeth with a very narrow palate and big gums, but I got that skin, it was the best visible physical thing I got in the genetics lottery. (And I don’t know where it came from — my mother’s skin is ruddy, my father’s was very dark and oily, and none of the grandparents had my skin. Hmmm. Thanks, distant unknown ancestor.)
It still looks good — for 56, yes, but even if you don’t qualify it that way. Now, though, I have started moisturizing it, massaging luxurious cream into my face and throat. Since my skin has become dry, that’s a totally eyes-rolling-back-in-the-head pleasure. In the mornings and at bed time, a few moments of cream and that pleasure, and I appreciate my skin more personally than I ever did. You can look at my throat in the picture below and see how unretouched and unfiltered the photo is. 🙂
And there is the fact that my skin is decorated! My spine is tattooed, as you know if you’ve been around here for long; those tattoos tell a version of my life and who I am. Several years after I got all the tattoos, my husband told me how beautiful my back is. He tells me that all the time. One time when he was telling me that, I suddenly remembered that my mother always told me I had such an ugly back. (She was great at doing that — things you never even dreamed you might be evaluated on, you’d suddenly find out you were failing at it.) So without realizing it, I made my back beautiful. Take that, mother (the 8th tattoo from the top).
And then a couple of summers ago, I got a large tattoo on my right outer calf. When I was in college, I’d gotten a barbed wire tattoo of a heart on my right ankle. It felt true of me (and the barbed wire connected me to Texas); but mostly, it was about keeping my heart safe. I came to hate it, because it didn’t feel true any more, but there it was — a barbed wire heart, glaring at me with its wrongness. I wanted exuberant growth to come out of it, a representation of the beauty of the family I made, and all the love we share for each other. A very dear relative once told me that when she was pregnant, she always wanted to paint a giant hibiscus on her belly, and that image stuck as one of life and love and children, so there are two very large red hibiscus to represent my daughters, and one very large sunflower which I chose for my son. Then there are little buds of both flowers scattered throughout, representing the next generation of my family to come.
I want to get a spray of flowers on my right upper arm, starting at my shoulder and spilling down my arm toward my elbow. Working on that. My only hurdle is that my husband really really really doesn’t want me to do it. But: my skin. And I have become very, very comfortable in it, a blessing of aging.
It’s odd to see all the ways my skin is changing — the fans of soft wrinkles on my face, the crepey skin on my arms, the way my skin on my thighs is connected differently, more loosely, to the muscle underneath. I don’t yet have age spots, and my hands don’t look that different, but those things will come. I don’t mind any of it at all, and have even become fond of it. My skin is the outer wrapper of what’s inside me, and it shows my life. Scars, stretch marks, and now age, there it all is. I look at the odd little scar inside my left knee and remember the childhood accident that caused it. I search my left forearm for the very long, thin, now-ghostly scar I got from my little brother’s diaper pin when I was 6. The large scars on my right arm and hand from the external fixator when I broke my wrist in Boston. Round 1 of stretch marks, Katie. Round 2, slipping in between the ones from Round 1, Marnie. And Round 3, Will, found whatever little bits of unbroken skin were left. Surgery scar, hip bone to hip bone. Stories, my experiences, my life on my skin. I kind of love that now.
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My last posts have focused on the biggest part of my life — the way it’s so happy right now, the way I am so happy right now, and the fact that my life has been peaceful for almost a year and I am eating it right up — and that’s all true.
Even in the midst of my happiness, sometimes I wake up already crying and missing my son, and I just cry throughout the day. Sometimes it goes on like that for a few days. I’ll be cleaning the kitchen and tears are just seeping out of my eyes. My heart aches, my chest literally hurts. Sunday was one of those days, and when I was driving up to Katie’s house to stay with Oliver while the kids celebrated their anniversary, I found myself wondering how much longer I can bear this pain . . . and feeling like I surely can’t bear it for much longer. I very sadly have a couple of dear friends who are grappling with their kids’ absence from their lives. We talk about this a lot, because it’s a big comfort to share this pain with someone who understands. All my friends are compassionate and kind and loving when I talk about it, but these two friends get it because we’re all members of a club we never dreamed we’d join. A club no one would ever want to be in. (But how wonderful to have that darling little Oliver to spend time with — balm for an aching heart, to be sure.)
So I didn’t write about that when it was happening; I kept it close to myself and wrote about my happiness, which is also true. “Secret” #2 is that I’m drawing, and feeling a story pulling at me that I am nowhere near skilled enough to illustrate. I won’t be showing you any of it because it’s just for me.
And “secret” #3 is that I have a big and wonderful thing in the background (it’s about me, it’s not secret news of a daughter’s pregnancy or anything like that), and I won’t be sharing that until the time is right.
Three little things to keep to myself, kind of, and this marks another shift in my life. I’ve never really understood privacy where my own self is concerned. I definitely understand others’ privacy, and find it easy to hold others’ secrets — or even just their ordinary stuff, because it’s theirs and not mine. I always wanted to say whatever was true for me, after a childhood of lies. It was almost a philosophical mission of mine, a militant mission, to get to be the one who says who I am and what I’m thinking and doing. Of course, I do write about my son and his absence and how much I miss him, so that’s not private in the same way as the other two things; I just ride those waves of sorrow when they come and don’t write about them every time. That’s not about hiding them and presenting a false story (“Look how happy I am!”), but rather a tender holding of something so personal, a desire to take care of myself as best I can, and it happens in the context of my greater happiness. So within my deeply happy day taking care of my sweet little grandson, and being available to my darling daughter so she had the ability to go out alone with her husband, within that I was also crying and nursing my slashed heart. (That picture of Oliver cracks me up; he’d just gotten up from a nap (nap hair!) and was watching that Disney movie Cars. The hair, the focus, the little hand on his hip….. )
As I told Marnie yesterday, shame is a big enough reason to keep my drawings private — I’m grinning, and wish I could put that word in a smaller sized font — but not too long ago I would’ve shown them and made great fun of myself: look at how badly I draw! I’m glad I don’t want to do that now.
And the big and wonderful thing in the background, oh I look forward to telling you about that one. I know you will be happy for me. I could tell, there’s nothing stopping me, no requirement that I keep it quiet, but I am relishing holding onto it and waiting until it’s ready to tell.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, and again, and again — for 56 more years, I hope — getting older is so magnificent. If you’re already magnificent at 30, that’s incredible and I’m so happy for you and can only close my eyes and try to imagine how amazing you’ll be in your 50s. Earlier this week my incredible friend Nancy and I were talking about aging, and I said, “There are two kinds of people — one kind who thinks there are two kinds of people……[joke]…..–one kind who becomes more and more certain the older they get, and another who becomes less and less certain.” I think that’s true, and I think becoming less certain about things allows new things to happen, new thoughts to emerge, and new ways of being to come forth. It’s not just about aching joints and failing memory; it’s about letting go of things that don’t fit any more. Maybe they never really did, and you just get old enough to finally notice.
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Not surprising, since he was a drink-himself-to-death alcoholic, my poor old dad had a lot of stomach trouble. During one brief period it was hurting him so much I finally suggested that he see a doctor. He scowled and told me he’d never go, because they’d just cut him open, see that everything was black inside, and then sew him up and send him home to die.
Wow. Poor guy. He did mean it literally, of course, and I’m slightly confident that he meant it metaphorically too — he was black and dead inside, filled with rot. Hence his suicide at age 44. He looked like he was 70.
When your inside is like that, of course it shows through. The smell of all that blackness seeped out of his pores, literally, but he also wore it in his posture, on his face, in his expressions. He wasn’t at all good about hiding it, disguising it with clothing and fancy psychological tricks. (Though he was one of those 70s guys who got perms and carried a “man purse.” )
I’ve been thinking a lot about the hiding we do, the disguising. We walk around with a sense of who we are, inside and on the surface, and a good bit of effort is directed toward hiding some of those aspects. Well, of course! We want people to think well of us, to see the best of us, to see us the way we wish to be seen and that’s rarely perfectly aligned with the fullness of who we are. We’re aggregates — plenty of good and shiny bits, plenty of solid stuff holding it all together, and some measure of grit and weird and unpleasant stuff. So many people, including me for almost all my life but mercifully no more, have a deep well of self-loathing, impossibly sad self-esteem. For some that oozes out wearing its true color, but some slap a thick coat of defense on top of it. Sometimes it’s the ones who are shouting the loudest about how great they are, or the ones who are constantly finding fault with others. It’s always hard for me to remember that their super loud self-esteem might be a mask.
Lately I’ve been thinking about hiding and masks in terms of aging (obviously, given the previous post too!), and how I want to proceed in the next decades of my life. Many women my age are undergoing a wide range of treatments to lift and tighten this part or that, and coloring their hair, and they should definitely do what makes them feel good! More power to them, and I mean that from the bottom of my heart. We all should help ourselves any way we need and want. Life is hard enough.
For me, though, it would feel like who I really am is just hiding underneath that mask. Some kind of Dorian Gray, perhaps. This isn’t about throwing up my hands and giving up and letting time and gravity have its way! I eat very well (except for the donut yesterday morning, ugh please never again, Lori, please), I do yoga almost every single day, I walk a lot, I do some strength training, I meditate, I moisturize my skin. But I’m not coloring my gray hair, and I’m not lifting my face and I’m not doing any of those kinds of treatments. My face is developing fans of wrinkles, the skin and muscles of my throat have been changing for a while, the pads of skin along my jawline are changing, and my hair is going gray. This is who I am out of the shower and with nothing on but moisturizer and damp hair:
I’m 56. This is how 56 looks on my face. It’s not bad at all! I almost feel political about it; I want the actual appearance of women to be in our culture. I wear mascara and lipstick, and enjoy dressing to look the way I want to look, and finding jewelry I like. I enjoy playing with my glasses, having a bunch of different colored frames. I’m growing my hair out again because when it’s long it’s very nice hair and I can do a lot with it (and it’s easier to travel with it).
My eyelids are starting to hang so heavily there’s no point in wearing eyeliner, because they droop all the way against the eyelash line. They may eventually droop so much they interfere with being able to see, but that is certainly at least a decade away.
For me, if I were to color away my gray hair (which I actually love), I’d know it was simply getting grayer and grayer underneath the color, and the day would come when I’d stop and it would be a dramatic shock. It had been doing its thing underneath the color all along, and I was busy hiding it from myself. If/when I color my hair it’s to play with a wild and fun color, not to hide away the grays. In fact, when I colored my hair magenta a couple of years ago, the main reason I hesitated was that I’d lose my grays.
For me, having the fans of soft wrinkles around my eyes, the changing skin on my face and jaw and throat, it all feels like it’s exactly where I am, and what should be happening, and it’s just so fine! I don’t look like I’m 20, or 30, or 40. Because I’m not.
Whatever my face and hair are doing, the age I look and seem has much more to do with the great inside — right? You and I have both seen people who are dancing as fast as they can, more and more and more and more plastic surgery, hair color that is so fakely not-gray it never appears in the real world, and they do not look young. When I think of the oldest people I know, not a one seems his or her age. . . and that has zero to do with the color of their hair or the tightness of their skin. They look and seem young because they are engaged with the world, they’re interested in the world and other people, they are curious, they read and think, they are [at least mostly!] very glad to be alive.
Inside me are several worlds. Inside me are deep pools of quiet. Inside me are moods and emotions. Inside me are hundreds of stories, good and happy and sorrowful and painful, and an eagerness to collect more stories. Inside me are lists of hopes and dreams and plans. Inside me is a yearning to connect with other people about things I care about. Inside me is a powerful longing to know and be known. Inside me is a restless, unquenched need to see more and more of the world. Inside me is a very alive spirit that hopes to see decades of tomorrows.
So my hair is getting gray? The skin on my face is changing? So? And?
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Yesterday a friend of mine wanted to acknowledge his mom’s birthday on Facebook. He posted a lovely photo of her with a caption noting that she was celebrating her [redacted] birthday. Maybe that was her request, not to broadcast her age. Or maybe it was just his assumption that she would prefer that.
This, I do not get. Maybe the day will come when it makes sense to me, when perhaps the gap between my age and how I look/feel is so big that I don’t want my age noted. I don’t think so, but of course it’s possible.
It isn’t that I don’t already feel this disparity with a big measure of surprise. One morning a couple of weeks ago, Marc and I were texting each other and including photos of the kind of weather we were having — his was dismal and drizzly, mine was sunny. I snapped a picture to text him outside, on my patio, right after I finished doing yoga. The sun was kind of bright and I obviously wasn’t taking care with my appearance because it was just a quick “how’s your day honey” kind of thing. After I sent the picture to him, I looked at it:
I have no idea when all that happened, when I developed a soft fan of wrinkles around my eyes, when my one smile line turned into so many. It isn’t that I mind them at all, it just surprises me whenever I see it.
Why in the world do people not want to say their age? I just don’t understand it. I wonder if it’s just that people often think it’s what they’re supposed to say — “29 again!” Maybe it’s only meant as a joke. But as obvious a statement as this is, it really is just a number. The only meaning it has is how many times you’ve been around the sun. There are some things your number means — you’re old enough to drink legally, to be sent to war, to receive your retirement benefits. Otherwise, it’s just a number, it really really is. I have a whole lot of numbers clinging to me, you know? 56. 81. 99th. 4.0. 128. 5’9″. 3. 35. Social security numbers. Telephone numbers. Driver’s license numbers and credit card numbers.
Those don’t tell you that much more about me than 56 does. Madonna is 56 for heaven’s sake, which means 56-year-old women wear grills and date severely too-young men. That’s what 56-year-old women do.
Or we are in extremely poor health and suffering a lot. Or we’re still trying to get the last kids out of the house. How many 56-year-old women are there? There’s about that many ways to be 56. So what does that number mean, anyway? 56 times around the sun, that’s about it.
I’ll turn 57 in November and (assuming I’m still here!) I will celebrate the hell out of it. In 2018 I’ll turn 60 and celebrate the hell out of that. In 2023 I will throw a big “woo-hoo I’m 65!” party, you know it. If that number means anything else, it’s something to be proud of. I am so proud to be 56. I’m so glad I’m still here, wearing my Converse and doing yoga. I’m so glad every day that I get another day. My number reflects that. 56, hell yeah.
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Oh, you younger people, you unripe. You bursting with pink and flower and raw energy. You fresh and unlined. Our culture envies you, we exalt you. I like you well enough, I do, but I do not envy you.
Last night I watched Annie Lennox perform a live concert on PBS. For the bulk of the concert she was performing old standards — like, from the 1920s. Or songs like Georgia On My Mind. Hmph. OK. None of it felt all that interesting, and in fact I couldn’t wait for her to stop singing Georgia. But then she sat down at the piano and sang two of her own songs from early in her career. I love those songs, from the Medusa and Diva albums. I loved her in The Eurythmics too — and “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” will always make me think of tiny Katie, who absolutely went crazy when she heard that song. But it’s the Annie of the Medusa and Diva albums that lives in my heart.
The second song she performed last night was “Why.” This song is the title track of my divorce from my kids’ dad, Jerry. This song was nearly unbearable to listen to back then and the pain all comes back every time I hear it — from the first note to the last brilliant aching chorus:
This is the book I never read
These are the words I never said
This is the path I’ll never tread
These are the dreams I’ll dream instead
This is the joy that’s seldom spread
These are the tears…
The tears we shed
This is the fear
This is the dread
These are the contents of my head
And these are the years that we have spent
And this is what they represent
And this is how I feel
Do you know how I feel ?
’cause i don’t think you know how I feel
I don’t think you know what I feel
I don’t think you know what I feel
You don’t know what I feel
She sat at the piano last night singing a much quieter and somehow even more moving version of the song, and I thought about us as women. I wondered who she was when she wrote the song, what of her life informed that song. Who it was who didn’t know how she felt. And I thought about the thousands of times she’d performed that song in the intervening years — so many times she surely became kind of autopilot about the song, the origin blunted. But then I thought about that woman sitting at the piano, and the woman sitting in the chair watching. Two women with a long and deep collection of experiences that relate to this song, and as we experience this song now, so much older, so much more wisdom, such a deeply different experience of what this song means….well, I felt grateful beyond words to be ripe. The song still makes me cry, and I guess it always will. When I listened to it in the early 90s, I truly was not sure I’d be able to survive that pain, it was too central and excruciating.
Now, 2015, I have survived — that and so much more. So many things, so much emotion that felt too much, too hard, too sad, too big. Now I still do want to be known, I do want my feelings to be known and understood, and I know and understand myself, my feelings, and I know my emotional strength and courage. And I know that I’m good, just me, and I’m not broken. Neither is Annie. This isn’t the performance from last night, but it is beautiful Annie singing this song live:
As long as I live, I hope there are always things that surprise me, and I hope there are always things I do for the first time. Yesterday something happened for the first time in my 56 years of life: I bought a two-piece bathing suit.*
My middle has never once seen sunshine. It rarely saw inside light either, for that matter. Like so many women — especially those who have given birth — I was not a fan of the way my tummy looked. Three kids, stretch marks, and the consequences of a hip-to-hip incision for a hysterectomy left me thinking my tummy looked horrible. And losing weight never helped; without the fat plumping things up, there was a certain mudslide quality to it. I didn’t even like to look at it myself, all alone.
That’s sad. I’m sorry that I felt that way. I’m sorrier still that I ever said that aloud in the presence of my daughters, or any other women.
It isn’t that my tummy has magically become lean and svelte, by any means. (Although I do have abdominal muscles showing — the vertical ones — as a consequence of doing yoga.) And it isn’t that I’m going to ever wear a bikini of any kind, string or otherwise. But I am going to wear my two-piece bathing suit out in public. And I’m not going to hide my middle by holding my towel in front of it either. This is my body, the body of a 56-year-old woman who gave birth three times and had major surgery. It looks like this. This body is being taken care of, absolutely, but it would never be mistaken as a Photoshopped image.
There’s a certain funny thing that happens to the understructure of aging skin, and a slackening not just of skin and muscle but of the way skin attaches to muscle. This is what it looks like, women I will pass at the pool. Mine is a real woman’s body, and it’s mine, and I’m proud of it for doing so much.
It will feel very strange to feel cold pool water right on my stomach. It will be very strange for the sun to hit me there. I’m lying in the sun on my patio every day, just short spurts, to get some sun there, partly so it’s not so dramatically starker white than the rest, and partly to slowly build up some color there. To ease that skin into the world. And to ease me into the private world of my patio, so I can step off my towel at Deep Eddy and walk to the pool without being so self-conscious.
Here’s to firsts, no matter how old you are.
*I did not go into a store and deal with those horrible lights. That’s a step too far. I bought my suit online (Dillards) because my size is pretty reliable. Buying a two-piece let me get a medium bottom and a large top, and so I hoped for the best. It fit better than my wildest dreams, and taking my first look was much less scarier in my own home than it would be in a tiny and badly lit dressing room in a store. Buying this still required bravery, even though I was ready to do it.
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When I was a little girl, I thought my mother was the most beautiful woman in the whole wide world. Even more beautiful than Cher, and I adored Cher. My mother was just 18 when she had me so she was always young, but still — aging happens to us all. I remember one evening I saw the softening of the skin and muscle of her cheek and told her how beautiful I thought it was, the way her skin was getting so soft. (I hadn’t been paying attention, apparently….) Ooo-wee did she get mad about that! Super mad. She got her first big face lift when she was 48, apparently, though I haven’t seen her since she was 47 and I was 29. She’s 75 now.
But I really did think that was beautiful, the softening of her face and features. I’ve always believed that I will never get plastic surgery. That’s me. You do what you need to do, obviously. But I want to look like who I am, I want to have the face I earn along the way. George Orwell said, “At fifty, every man has the face he deserves.” That needs to be my actual face, whatever it is. (And I passed 50 six years ago.)
It’s still startling to see the physical changes. The slight sag of the skin in the middle of each jaw. The sagging and wrinkling of the neck. The strange thing that is happening to my arms and legs, the way they’re looking like my grandmother’s. And the other day I even noticed that I’m getting fans of wrinkles coming down from my eyes onto my cheeks when I smile. That the smile marks around my mouth are more numerous. It’s startling! It is. It seems to be happening when I’m not looking.
I’ve noticed that there are two broad ways women approach aging. One has what sounds to me like a hostile edge: Fuck you, aging ain’t for sissies! Everyone will be eating my dust, I won’t be one of those tired old women, eat my dust! The other has a gentler sound to me, focusing on being exactly who I am, with grace. Embracing aging and changes, aging gracefully, accepting and taking very good care of what is. For me, that just fits my own way of being a little better. It’s certainly less prone to cartoons of old women shaking canes while wearing purple hats, but it’s the way for me. I suppose a third way is just to age without spending too much time or energy pondering it and worrying about it!
Of course you rarely see older women. You rarely see them in the media, except to make some kind of point (even if the point is that she is sure old and so….you know….surely too old for whatever the issue is). I mainly use Pinterest to collect vegetarian recipes and fitness stuff, but it occurred to me to look for aging-related pinners and boards because I do want to take the best care of myself now, and as things continue to change. My body requires more care, my skin requires more care, and my appearance has changed. Since I rarely see older women in the media, I turned to Pinterest and of course there were lots of photos of models with flawless, wrinkle-free skin and flowing, thick, snow-white hair. I guess you never get away from Photoshopped perfection, no matter how old you are. But there were images of more ordinary women too, and material about taking care. Beautiful hair styles and clothing, all on older women. And so I’m collecting the images for myself. And some are wearing a leather jacket with a lot of zippers and Converse, and they have tattoos. Because it’s still me aging, I’m not turning into a different person. Just an older version of me.
And I know some beautiful women my age and older, including my gorgeous friend Nancy who is my role model for all things. If you saw her and talked to her, you’d think she’s my age. She isn’t. And my book club friends, all but one of whom are roughly around my age, and who inspire me with their style and with the honest conversations we have. Various women I know around the world who are being who they really are at every age. That’s really all I want to do, and I want to do it with grace. Be my very best self for all my remaining years, whatever that is, and do that as gracefully as I can. And maybe my best self as I get older becomes a bit wilder! If that’s who I become, ok! But I don’t want to set it up as a battle, a war, a fight.
One very cool thing about Marnie has always been true, even when she was three. When she was three, three was the age to be. She didn’t want to be four, three was the best age. When she was four, she didn’t want to rush to five, four was the age. And on, and on, and on. I’ve felt the very same way; I haven’t wanted to go backwards to an earlier age, and I haven’t longed to get to an older age (when I was younger!). I’ve always kind of liked the age I was. And so now I say it again: my favorite age is now.
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Marc was here five solid days, and just left this morning — his flight out at 6am. We had a lot of fun together while he was here, and enjoyed just hanging out at home, in front of the fire. It was very cold, so we watched movies and ate and finished planning the Colombia trip. He often asked me the dumbest questions, apparently assuming that this place is essentially a foreign country. Yes honey, we have ordinary grocery stores. No honey, they aren’t like the tiny markets and bodegas in New York City. Yes honey, lots and lots of people — in fact, most of the country — have the same general kind of life I have, which is simply not-NYC. Sigh.
But it was unsettling in many ways too. Marc is really aging, and not so well. He is very easily flustered about things that never bothered him — in fact, things that were fun. Sure, he’s always super obsessed while he’s planning our trips, but this time he seemed anxious and almost scared about being able to do it. When I dropped him at the airport this morning, I pointed him toward the security line and he got upset and frazzled because the JetBlue sign outside was in the other direction. He didn’t need to check in, he only needed to go through security and go to his gate; the Austin airport is tiny, one little terminal, so it couldn’t be easier. It would be virtually impossible to get lost. He said security lines are never where this one is.
It’s hard to understand, and I think I need to start remembering that he is more easily confused than he used to be, or else I get irritated and even angry at him. He doesn’t help, because he deals with his own confusion and uncertainty by presenting with very loud, forceful arguing and certainty. So I need to not argue with him, I need to remember that perhaps he’s confused and maybe even scared.
It’s very strange to see this, and sad. One thing I’ve always loved about Marc is that he has the most unusual mind I’ve ever encountered. Because he has a bunch of neurological difficulties, including profound dyslexia and dysgraphia, and face blindness, I think he took all that and went his own mental and intellectual way. I’ve never known anyone who thinks the way he does, and he knows SO much (especially for someone who cannot read!), so it’s not just the content of his mind but also the process . . . which means I don’t get to the end of it. It’s never the case that I’ve heard his stories already a dozen times. I’ve noticed that he’s been getting slower, cognitively. He’s always very slow at restaurants, reading the menus, because he can’t read. So he has to work his way through each word, one at a time. But now it’s something else too, he is overwhelmed by it. His horrible, horrible mother is in her mid- (or maybe late-) 90s and apparently still very sharp. I don’t think there is Alzheimer’s in his family, and this doesn’t seem like that. It just seems like he is declining cognitively.
But otherwise, I was very proud of him because he did things that were hard for him. He talked with my book club women and held his own in the loud crowd much longer than I ever dreamed he would. We went out with Katie, Trey and Oliver, and he was lively and conversational (for him). I watched him in both of those settings and knew how hard it was for him, knew what it cost him, knew how difficult it was for him to be pushing himself as he was. It touched me a lot.
Ordinarily, when we part I feel a bit of relief on a number of fronts. Mostly I’m glad to get back to my comfortable home that looks and feels like me — which his place definitely does not, even when I lived there full-time — and that is clean — which his place definitely IS NOT. I’m also glad to get back to the quietness of my life. This time, though, because we were in my space, in my life, and mainly because I feel sad seeing these changes in him, I just feel sad that he’s gone. I miss him and my place feels a bit empty, instead of just quiet. I’ll head up to NYC in 17 days and I’ll be glad to see him.
Tonight, though, poetry group in the house. And a good time will be had by all.
p.s. OH! My friend Laura mentioned an app she uses to note daily gratitude. The site I’ve used for two years has shut down and boy have I missed it. I’ve been using the app (Day One) and it’s fantastic. This has the benefit of allowing you to easily add a photo, since it’s a phone app. I love it so far….so I’m using that instead of posting here, as I’d thought. xo
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I am not vain, as you would agree if you observed me without my knowledge. Since I work at home, all alone, I often don’t get dressed. And since my work involves sitting in a chair, I sometimes wear the exact same thing for a couple of days running. OK, fine. But I go to the grocery store like that too, and in my fleece-lined moccasins. And often without remembering to brush my hair. And almost never with make-up. So I’m really not vain, that’s not what this is about.
Increasingly, when I look at photos of myself I’m shocked by the changes to my face and throat. Increasingly, it takes a dozen or more photos before I see one I can bear to show the light of day, and even that one will surprise me. Really? That’s how I am looking? When I see the skin on my arms it reminds me of my grandmother’s, kind of crepe.
It’s like having a very precious treasure, priceless even, in a cardboard box. And you carry the box around, you move it a bunch of times, ship it in the mail, accidentally bump it, perhaps even drop it a time or two. Over time, the box is going to show all of that — the corners will be rounded, it’ll be scuffed and dusty, it might be dented in one spot, it’ll just look as old as it is. But the very precious treasure inside is still exactly the same. It’s been protected by the box all those years, so it is pristine, still.
Yeah. That’s what it’s like. Inside me is every young woman I’ve ever been, and my mind’s eye seems to take some kind of average of them. It isn’t that I’m expecting to see myself at 23, or 30, or 40 when I look in the mirror or see a photograph. My encounters with my face have at least shifted that average up to the last dozen years, maybe. But the image I do hold doesn’t look like the face I now encounter.
And it’s not about feeling terrible about what I see (well, maybe a little bit but not more). It’s more the shock of it, that my box looks like that, because Iam the treasure inside. That is the being you interact with, sit across the table from, laugh with, walk with. And if you love me, it is the treasure inside that you are seeing, I know that. I see yours too. But if you are a stranger and see me passing by, you see an aging woman (who is clearly not vain or she’d have put on real shoes and brushed her hair).
So the thing about it is it shows me — every single time I look in the mirror or see a photo — that my time is passing. I cherish and value the ways I’ve grown inside because of my time passing, but my time is passing and I need to do SO many things. Of course I’m not ready to call it a day, far from it (I hope!), but my body, my container, it is getting old.
I do not want to be like my Aunt Charlotte. She died at home, in bed, clutching the sheets and yelling I’m not ready, I’m not ready, I’m not ready, no, no. That’s excruciating, and the worst natural death I’m aware of. I do not want to be like that, so I guess this will be one of my big projects over the next few decades, reconciling myself and accepting that the box doesn’t match the treasure.
This post was stimulated by a scene from one of my favorite movies, The Trip. I watched it last night, a comfort movie, and there’s a scene where Steve Coogan looks in the mirror at his actual face, stretches it back a little, drops his hands and just looks. And the look on his face is exquisite in its perfection. I know exactly how you feel, Steve. Watch The Trip — it’s available streaming on Netflix, and it’s charming and wistful and sad and funny, quotable lines, and extremely moving. Here’s the trailer:
Sometimes it’s so frustrating not being able to draw. Of course I could probably learn to draw a little bit; Marnie insists I could, that I just need to learn how to see what I see, and practice. I’m sure she’s right but I’m so embarrassed by even my private efforts that I freeze and give up. But sometimes you have something in your head and you see it so clearly but it only exists in your head. That’s true for two things that kind of torment me:
An extremely thin bone china teacup and saucer with big yellow roses handpainted on the cup. I know just what it looks like and can’t find it anywhere. Cynthia Ozick described it in Heir to the Glimmering World and I’ve never been able to stop thinking about it since. If only I could have that teacup. Just one, I would be so happy. I want to hold it up so the light comes through it. If I could draw the shape of it — because I know the shape of the cup, and the handle — I could show it to people. Instead, all I can do is look for it endlessly, in stores and online, and nothing is ever right. I want to draw it for you right now.
A very particular image of a giant wheel in the universe. This image really does haunt me in such a deep way. I wish I could draw it and get it out of my head.
I think about (what I think of as) the great wheel all the time, and talk about it. It’s no mystery where the image came from, and I’m only the hundred-million-and-a-halfth person to understand the world and time like this. So yeah, things whirl in wheel-like shapes in the universe. But I’m such a literal-minded sort (sometimes embarrassingly so) that for me, it’s more like a universe-sized wagon wheel in the sky. Maybe that’s specifically from my childhood in rural north Texas where couches with half-wagon-wheels on each end were common.
Anyway. The big wheel. I often feel my place on the wheel, especially when I am around my grown children. I see and feel them moving around the wheel, taking the places I’ve been — newly married and happy, struggling with money and work and making it all work, becoming the masters of their homes, and soon, raising children. The last time I felt it so powerfully, I was at Katie’s house watching her make dinner for us all. Her ease in the kitchen, her ability to somewhat effortlessly make us a wonderful meal, her attention to her home and her husband, her happiness at being pregnant, you know what? I could actually hear the wheel turn. A little creaky, a little rusty maybe, but I swear I could hear it in my mind’s ear. Katie is ascending on the wheel, and I am necessarily moving around on the other side. This doesn’t make me sad, or feel bad at all — it feels like the course of things on the wheel.
I assume when I watch little Oliver run around and grow up, and become a big brother and a cousin, and when my health or life become a little frail and my kids help me in a different way, I’ll feel it even more powerfully. I hope this never feels sad to me, though I want to live several more decades and I may not get to, since I’m 55.
In addition to loving the wheel, I also love time-lapse video [of the wheel]:
I will be 55 in November, and I’m not really a fan of the odd numbers. For some reason (and I’m sure there will come an age where this becomes less true) the even numbered ages sound younger than the odd numbers. Still, I’m not bothered by my age, at all, partly because it makes so little sense to me. What, I’ll be 55? What’s 55? What is that? What does it mean, other than the fact that I was born in 1958 and it’s 2013? What does it mean about me, anyway? I’ve had really bad eyes and have worn eyeglasses since before kindergarten. I’m about as spry as I’ve ever been. I don’t know what 55 is supposed to look or feel like — since I’ll be 55, I suppose it looks like me and feels like I feel.
Do you feel like an adult? I never have — though again, I have only the vaguest idea what that really means. When I was raising my children, when something bad would happen I’d get a kind of cold watery stomach and look around hoping the real mother would show up, the one who knew how to handle things. The one who could look at the torn-open knee from the rollerblading accident, the one who could pull teeth, the one who knew what to say when tragedy struck. I haven’t felt like an adult, even as I have done very adult things: given birth to and raised three children, become educated, married and divorced, held important jobs with a lot of responsibility, struggled hard to find a way to pay bills, and those are surely adult things to do in life right?
And there’s another age separate from the year-of-birth age; for most of my life, until I was 51, I felt like I was 27. And then, quite mysteriously, on my 51st birthday I felt like I was 28. That’s pretty hysterical; it was a clear feeling, and still today I feel 28. Twenty-seven is just too young now, I’m no longer 27. I wonder how old I’ll be when I turn 30? Maybe 90.
This morning I realized I feel like an adult. I’m still not quite sure what it means, but I feel it. I am responsible for my own life, I am the mother of (OH MY GOD! A pigeon is trying to sit on the woodpecker’s head on my bird feeder!) . . . sorry, that was distracting! Anyway. I think it’s due to being solely responsible for my life now. That car in the garage? It’s mine, and if something happens it’s up to me to figure it out. This house and all the stuff in it, my belongings? If I move, it’s mine to do. Those kids I gave birth to, and now their husbands? They’re adults, I am the mother of adults and so definitionally I guess I am adult too, but I feel it now. (Good heavens, it’s happening again! That damn pigeon!)
While I’ve been doing some housecleaning today I’ve had music on in the background, and instead of playing my “gee I’m so happy!” playlist, I played the “quiet music” playlist, because it’s rainy outside, and I feel quietly happy. The songs on the “quiet music” playlist all have very specific meanings in my life, are touchstones to specific events and moments in my life, and each places me back in those times. And along (BIRD FIGHTS! The blue jay is attacking the pigeon! WTF?!) And along the way, this morning, listening to those songs and revisiting those moments, I see the very long path of them, the long story over time, my journey (boy I really hate that word), my life. I really love my life, and a lot of it has been really hard, and I love my life and am so grateful for it.
Aging means having been around these parts for a number of turns around the sun, it means having survived hard things, having been graceful and clumsy, having had joy and happiness, it means learning as you go and gathering that learning and those scars into you, and I guess it’s captured in some way by that number, but only marginally. I change, life changes me, I lose some things (memory) and gain others (grace), and I’m squarely in the middle of things. Almost 55. Maybe halfway there, if I play my cards right.
In the family I grew up with, judging other people was blood sport. And woe be onto you if the judgment lashed you and you had any kind of upset response, even a flinch. “I can’t help it if you are just too [fill in the blank with cruelty] to handle the truth. I’m just being honest,” my mother would respond with a sneer. But judgment landed on everyone, which I guess helped? She was an equal opportunity judge. The highlights of her entertainment year were the various beauty pageants, which (a) we never missed and (b) we watched as a family. No contestant escaped her cruel and withering commentary, always delivered with dripping relish. At the time I failed to realize the ripples it had for me — for if those often-beautiful women were so stupid and hideous and every other bad thing, what was I?
As I grew up, and setting aside judgments about physical appearance which — I think — can be difficult in subtle ways, I labored against being so judgmental. It was hard, because I’d been deeply trained in judging the world, but I’d been so terribly judged I didn’t want to be that way. I wanted to see that others were trying so hard, I wanted to know that everyone has a context, I wanted to believe the best. When a friend kept returning to an abusive husband, I wanted to feel empathy and understanding. And then when I took an undergrad psych course on learning I did fully feel empathy and understanding for her, and in fact felt despair that, given all the various learning she’d experienced, she might never escape from him. And she didn’t — he died, that’s how she escaped. Despite my careful and examined efforts not to be so judgey, I know I have been judgmental of people. Hell, I’m judgmental all the damn time about other drivers, and people walking so so slowly on the sidewalk, and people who just act as if no one else exists but them. [But somehow I don’t feel so bad being judgmental of them.] Of people I love, though, I’m sure I’ve been judgmental at times and I regret that, I truly do. (If you’ve felt I judged you, I’m so sorry.) I believe I’m more likely to suffer from an excess of excusing than of judging, but I’m a person so I’m sure I’ve made every kind of mistake there is to make.
And I’m also sure that people sit in judgment of me — I know they do. Not everyone, not all the time, I’m not paranoid, I just know what I sense, at times. Another of the really cool things about aging, and especially about making it through this last gauntlet, is a kind of not-caring about that. But OH how I cared, as a younger person. I realized yesterday that it’s not that I wanted everyone to like me, it’s that I was terrified that someone might hate me. In some ways that’s a too-subtle distinction, right? Because if you don’t want people to hate you, you are constantly trying to make them at least tolerate you, but liking is so much safer. I’m surprised by how little I care about that, now. If you like me you do, and maybe that’s a treat for me (if I like you too!). If you don’t like me, that’s just fine (unless I really like you, then I’ll be disappointed but I’ll be fine). If you don’t like me you don’t, and I don’t have time to waste worrying about that. If you judge me that’s fine, you can do that, that’s your thing to do. And I mean that. The possible results are these:
For you, a missed opportunity to understand me, and perhaps others, and perhaps something to learn for or about yourself. A missed chance to exercise compassion.
For me, a missed opportunity to be understood, and maybe you like me less if you believe your judgment tells you something about me that really matters to you. And who then will I have lost? A judgmental person. OK.
In my earlier life, my first husband and I took an action that brought down swift and mean-spirited judgment on us — from people in his family we knew would judge us, saying exactly what we knew they’d say. So none of it was a surprise. But it was something we had to do (or, more appropriately, it was something I needed to do, and my husband supported me so much even though it cost us nearly everything). So did we care about the judgment that fell on us? No, not really. Actually, no, not at all. The judgers did not understand — nor did they try to understand, try to get outside their self-righteous attitudes — what the situation was about, what it meant to me, and so their judgment made little to no sense. I think it’s usually that way. Their mean judgment made a difficult time even more difficult, and I still remember that with deep disappointment and distance, but I had to do what I had to do and that was that. And aren’t we usually just doing what we need to do? Aren’t you? Aren’t you weighing all kinds of issues, trying to make the best out of the dozens of balls you’re juggling, some too heavy, some whiffle balls, some with sharp edges?
Last fall, when I was in the midst of experiencing some repeated scathing judgment by a person who is no longer my friend, I overheard someone on the subway say “if it’s so easy, she’d have done it.” And that struck me to the core, so I said it to my mean and judgmental ‘friend’ but it had no effect. (Of course. See “no longer my friend” for explanation.) But I thought it was such a great tiny nugget, eight little words of such truth and weight. If it were really that easy, we’d all do it. And so, therefore, it must not be all that easy. Why she (or I, or he) does it, whatever it is, must not be all that clear, no matter how crystal clear it is to you. If it were just that easy, we’d all lose weight/ exercise/ end our various addictions/ leave the wrong people/ accept only the ideal/etc. Gee, as I think it through, I guess we’d all be nearly perfect. If only it were that easy.
This post brought to you by the glory of life and aging.
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I’ll tell you how magnificent it is to get older, not that 54 is old. It’s just older, that’s all. I am so lucky to be in excellent health, and I don’t take that for granted, even though I don’t take care of myself the way I intend to. When I get home from Indonesia, I hope to jigger my mornings to make space for a long daily walk, which will be a great change to my wholly sedentary life. Right now is just such a sparkling period of happiness and growth for me, I can hardly see, my sight is so dazzled. The light inside me is brilliant. I’d give back the troubles if I could, but since I can’t, I just cherish the things that have come in their wake. Here are some things I know.
At this point, I accept that I am never going to be an astronaut. Or a prima ballerina. Or a professional singer. Or a dinosaur-egg-discovering paleontologist. There were periods in my life where I felt so torn about all the various things I wanted to do, and to be (which never included astronaut or ballerina). Directions I thought I might go, interests I might pursue to excellence, things I wanted to achieve. I’ve never been ambitious, or driven by thoughts of power or big achievement; my desires were smaller, more local, but I was so torn and always trying to make things work around my 3-kid family. When I had looms and spinning wheels, oh there wasn’t time to play my guitar. Etc. I did some things: I went to college, I went to graduate school and earned my PhD; I raised my children the very best I could and loved them always, with all my heart. And I piddled — a bit of guitar or banjo, some knitting, some writing, some baking, lots of pleasures but no mastery. What I know — for me, now — is that this is just fine. Marnie said a friend of hers gave a year to being an amateur, to trying this and that, to allowing herself to just be new at things, to try things. I will die in some distant decade a professional amateur, making music for myself and enjoying it (picking on my banjo, strumming on my guitar and dulcimer, and maybe even taking up a little ukulele, and singing); making things for people I love and enjoying it; learning new things and enjoying that; writing every day for my own growth and happiness. And that’s pretty fine. It’s about being vs achieving. And if someone gets an idea from my experience that it’s just fine to pursue interests and talents for their own pleasure, that’s good too.
Other people are as necessary as air. My shy introversion is wound deep into my history, my story of myself, and many of my experiences in the world. I’ve so often wished to get food poisoning just before a social event so I wouldn’t have to go, only to thoroughly enjoy myself when I go. I’m always working and make a lot of social plans — these days, instead of wishing for food poisoning I fret, thinking I can’t spare the time because I’m pushing to finish a work project. That is a shift, right there, but it’s gotten even shiftier. Last night I met Cyndi at an Ethiopian restaurant, and on the way I was really anxious about missing those two hours because I’m up against a hard deadline of my trip to Indonesia, and have a LOT of work to finish. On the way, I realized just how much I love seeing my friends, and how important they are to my life and my well-being, even if they’re casual friends. I don’t reach out to them to schedule things, because I always think I’m too busy, but that’s nuts. Having some very close friends, a bunch of casual friends, my gang, and old friends scattered around the country and the world is amazing and invaluable. All those years I felt so afraid, I missed out on so many good things. It’s never too late.
It’s never ever too late to look at the data and see a new story. For most of my life, my story of myself has been dominated by tales of trauma and devastation, shocking and horrific. The first ~18 years of my life were truly, truly, truly nightmarish, filled with relentless terrors. And I am 54, so there have been twice as many years away from those experiences. Literally. Of course it’s not a simple issue of numbers — 36 years of not-that surely trump 18 years of that — because there are deep and sometimes deadly consequences of things that happen to you when you’re a kid. I know that. And yet I’ve been so troubled by the fact that even though those experiences are long gone, I was still living them. Enough already, I’d think over and over. So that’s a version of my life I could tell (and have told, relentlessly). But there’s another story in there, so intimately connected you can’t pry them apart. It’s both sides of the same hand. The other story: WOW, what a story of survival and triumph. What a story of bravery and creativity. What a story of courage. Little-me was amazing. My spirit and mind and creativity, what a thing. It’s not a twisting-the-facts story, it’s not a making-lemonade-out-of-lemons story, it’s the fullness of the true story. You can look at any story from your life and see another story in there too. Like my very favorite Mister Rogers story that is now popular, about seeing the helpers when you witness a disaster. The disaster is real. And so are the helpers.
Why can’t you see who you are? That’s partly rhetorical, because I may understand the reasons we can’t more than anyone else. We can’t because we were always told lies about who we were, as my mother calling me fat cow. We can’t because we’re too self-critical. Because we see those clumpy thighs and others don’t see them, if we can help it. Because we know all the bits hidden in the dark corners that we don’t show others, the ways we can be small and petty. And sometimes we may even have moments of insight — well other people have dark corners too! And other people are unhappy with their thighs, or their teeth, or their posture, or their tummies, or whatever they see that no one else sees, because no one is perfect. And being so critical of yourself just feels so bad, and if it doesn’t motivate you to change something, maybe it’s time to back off. And if we were lied to, we can learn to talk back (“Am not a fat cow! Am not!”). But for me, a miracle of aging — combined with a run of hard times and the not-having-it feedback from a new friend — is a willingness to see who I am. I’m not all that, but I am, at the same time. You are too and if you can’t see who you are right now, I hope you can see pretty soon. Maybe you’ll be lucky like I was, and have a friend laugh and ask why you can’t see who you are, and then tell you what she sees. It doesn’t make the world perfect, it doesn’t melt away those little thigh clumps, it doesn’t solve any problems, but it does make it harder for you to belittle yourself and give yourself away to the lowest bidder. And that’s pretty fine stuff.
I strongly recommend getting older. Not only is it better than the alternative, it’s better than youth, any day of the week. Any day. I hope today is a beautiful day for you, and I hope you see who you are.
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When I arranged this trip for myself, I was coming to the desert for a specific reason, to rethink things, to figure things out, to find myself again because I’d felt so lost when I made the reservation. By the time it finally came around, I’d done a lot of that work already so the trip became a pleasure trip, to revel in the desert, to be alone in a new place, to try to look hard and see closely. To practice being alone in a new setting, to see if it was scary (it’s not). I’ve always loved road trips, and I’m so easily blissed out, and sure enough, so many times on the drive here yesterday I burst into tears. The landscape chokes me up and reminds me that I’m moving around on the face of a planet. The scale gets to me. The big sky opens me up. The old style windmills pull me back to happy moments from my childhood at Ben and Maizie’s in Bunger, TX, and the new style windmills make me laugh almost hysterically, dozens of them along the ridges as far as I can see, waving their crazy arms at me like wackadoo giants. And then that kind of joy slips into another, as I realize their movement is making the wind visible, the wind that flies over the face of the earth. And then a Spice Girls song comes on the stereo and I laugh and cry. I haven’t passed a car for more than an hour, and I stop the car and stand square in the middle of the highway with my face turned up to the sky. My grandmother was Comanche, but out here it’s Apache territory, and I think I see Injuns lined up along the ridges everywhere I look. I feel the past and the now all wound up and existing at once.
This morning I did the first exercise in my Exploring the World book, which was to jot down 10 things where I was sitting that I hadn’t noticed when I sat down. I didn’t feel I could do this one at home, because everything in my home is brand new, chosen and placed by me, and I live and work there so I don’t think it’s possible there’s a thing there I hadn’t noticed. Dust, maybe (but I notice the dust). I decided to start this project here, in Marfa, where what is present is the desert, all one thing unless you look closer. After breakfast at Squeeze, oatmeal and a cappuccino, I returned to my little trailer, made some coffee, gathered my books and notebook, and sat on the porch. I was a little intimidated by the instruction to do it quickly, not to censor. That produced a mild panic in me, like I could only fail, I couldn’t possibly take in 10 things with a rushed glance, an uncensored opening of the eye, like a camera lens flashing open for a millisecond. And then I laughed at myself for my old easy way of falling prey to a rule, even a tiny little lighthearted rule. I took a sip of coffee, opened my notebook, and sat still. It took me several minutes to get my list of ten things, and that is OK [obviously]. I had to have time for my eye to settle, to quit noticing the sand and scrub and yucca, the prevalence of brown, the flatness of the all-blue sky, the heat burning my neck. Finally, I noticed
The singing mockingbird in the bare tree behind me
Flat-faced flint rocks on the ground
Murmurs of people around the trailer behind mine
The complete absence of clouds in the sky
A huge broken branch lying sideways in the top of a tall tree, completely broken off
The soft breeze blowing the hair around my face, and blowing the soft grasses around my trailer
One big, tall, sharp mountain on the horizon
Nearly invisible birds scrambling around in the dirt, eating something, perfectly camouflaged
The sound of trucks prowling the distant highway
The hot sun burning my left cheek
I wanted to know the names of things. Exactly what kind of birds are on the ground, and gathering in the trees? What kind of rocks are those – sedimentary, some, but others were clearly igneous. What kind of plants grow here, besides the yucca? The tall patch of scary bramble, what kind of plant is/was that? Where are the snakes hiding right now? I wish I’d brought my Birds of Texas book to help me identify the different kinds of brown birds. No red or blue or pink birds out here, at least not that I’ve seen yet.
At the last minute I decided to leave the Jack Gilbert collection behind and bring only the Louise Gluck book, and it is wonderful – even the poems I don’t linger over or mark in some way are echoey. I found one, a long one, that made me laugh with the knowing. I’ll just put a bit of it here and encourage you to track it down. It’s called Averno.
You die when your spirit dies.
Otherwise, you live.
You may not do a good job of it, but you go on—
something you have no choice about.
When I tell this to my children
they pay no attention.
The old people, they think—
this is what they always do:
talk about things no one can see
to cover up all the brain cells they’re losing.
They wink at each other;
listen to the old one, talking about the spirit
because he can’t remember anymore the word for chair.
It is terrible to be alone.
I don’t mean to live alone—
to be alone, where no one hears you.
I remember the word for chair.
I want to say—I’m just not interested anymore.
I wake up thinking you have to prepare.
Soon the spirit will give up—
all the chairs in the world won’t help you.
I know what they say when I’m out of the room.
Should I be seeing someone, should I be taking
one of the new drugs for depression.
I can hear them, in whispers, planning how to divide the cost.
And I want to scream out you’re all of you living in a dream.
Bad enough, they think, to watch me falling apart.
Bad enough without this lecturing they get these days
as though I had any right to this new information.
Well, they have the same right.
They’re living in a dream, and I’m preparing
to be a ghost. I want to shout out
the mist has cleared—
It’s like some new life:
you have no stake in the outcome;
you know the outcome.
Think of it: sixty years sitting in chairs. And now the mortal spirit
seeking so openly, so fearlessly—
To raise the veil.
To see what you’re saying goodbye to.
This is just the first of five parts. My own children do not treat me like this, at all, but my stepdaughter does/did. She would roll her eyes, say this kind of thing, think of and talk about her father and me as relics of some kind, something so different from her, “I guess it’s just different for your generation.” I know the kind of dismissal Gluck describes in this piece of the poem, the arrogance of some young people in the face of life.
There are so many things I’m grateful for it’s an endless list. But right at the top has to be my survival, by which I partly mean surviving myself, surviving old efforts and wishes to end myself. Thankful thankful thankful that those efforts and wishes are past, and that they were not successful when I wished them to be. At 54, I feel sure that I am the best I’ve ever been, that my future has so much in it, so much of everything, and that I can’t wait to see it all, whatever it is. There’s something so powerful about surviving, about gathering into yourself all the years, all the pain and lessons, all the scars and marks, and having your eyes gradually open more and more. I wouldn’t be younger for any amount of money in the world.
Marfa is beautiful, West Texas beautiful: spare, bleached, straight up out of the flat ground. An old Mexican man in a white cowboy hat sweeps the sidewalk in front of his shop; windburned women wear long no-nonsense hair pulled back in utility ponytails; hipster young people wear all black and skinny jeans and clearly-not-from-Marfa haircuts. Marfa now has trendy ornaments, a couple of food trucks with delicious treats like the Marfalafel sandwich I ate yesterday, folded in a soft handmade flour tortilla instead of pita, accompanied by a Mexican Coke with real sugar. Old gas stations are remade into art spaces, studios and galleries, and the art is not of the old west variety. There is no Mexican food here, or barbecue, though you can get it in Alpine, 26 miles away. Fried pies in Marathon, I’ll be getting one (or more) on the way home.
The sky was beautifully black last night, and I sat on my little cedar porch wrapped up in a thick, coarse blanket. It’s so very quiet at night, no birds, no voices, car traffic becoming nonexistent on the road past El Cosmico. I wish I could hear the Milky Way wheeling.
My plan for the rest of the day is to write, prowl around, poke at things, maybe eat another Marfalafel, poke some more, read, rest, drink water, prowl a little more, and then sit on my deck under the Milky Way for one more night. What a wonderful trip.
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Two of my favorite topics — the emotion of wistful, and the broad story of aging and life. All at once. Because there’s an awful lot of wistfulness in living life and finally being old enough to see more of the past, more of your life with greater clarity, with seeing the patterns in your life, seeing how you keep doing the same things over and over. At least for me that produces a wistful feeling, a kind of yearning and longing tinged with desire, sometimes with a bit of melancholy, because it’s just been so precious.
You may be surrounded by your life; maybe you still live relatively near where you grew up, and maybe you never really left. Maybe you went away to college but came right back. Maybe your childhood friends are still your friends. Maybe your family all lives nearby and y’all have spent your lives involved with each other. Maybe your home holds the memories of your life, the things that become objects of stories, those lines on the door marking the heights of your growing kids.
I don’t really have any of that, although it’s true I am here back in Austin. If you cobble together all the various bits of time I’ve lived in Austin, it’s where I’ve spent the most time in my life. When I came back for graduate school, a subset of those earlier times haunted me and I never really understood why it was those things. Ah, that corner, that’s where my dad tried to run over me. There, that’s where he killed himself. There’s the park where I hid under a bush all night long when I was 14. Even then, I was aware that I had so many more memories in Austin than just those.
Luckily, this time I don’t feel haunted by anything, and the memories I find are sweet, somehow, even though there wasn’t very much sweet in my early life here. Still, I live very near the same railroad track I lived near when I was in 2nd grade, I hear that same train late at night, passing through. (And is there any sound more wistful than a train?) Big Daddy used to drive the 5-hour trip from Graham to Austin to see us, and while my grandmother was hugging us, Big Daddy would walk to the railroad track — and then he’d come back, have some coffee, and say that they’d better get back home to Graham. So I lie in bed at night and when I hear that train, I remember in my body how it felt, standing on my driveway at 3304 Whiteway, straining to see around the corner as I watched for Big Daddy’s car, and the thrill of seeing it, and of jumping on him for a silent grunt and a hug (he didn’t say much). I can smell him, and I know myself then. I know the part of me that’s still the same person, the part that continues, the part that has loved so many people, watched for so many people to pull into the driveway, felt sad at their leaving. And then I also remember what it felt like to be that little girl otherwise, walking home from school, saving the pillbugs, wondering what the evening would be like, daydreaming about the books I was reading, loving with all my heart my 2nd grade teacher Mrs. Barbaria, who had a pet raccoon. I remember my little blue dress that I loved so much.
The part of town I’m living in now is so familiar; I lived here when I was 5 through 10, and then again when I was newly married and a new mother, so ages 23-27. Those ages seem ripe for making and holding memories, and now, with the perspective of all the life I’ve lived, I’m enjoying having this chance to feel all those feelings I had then, and to understand them as I do now.
It isn’t at all about wishing not to be who and how I am now. It’s not a wish to go back in time. AT ALL. It’s much more just a feeling of tenderness toward myself and my little life, toward the spirit that has always lived in me and tried so damn hard.
Another great thing about aging is that I’ve learned the grass is greenest on my side of the fence. Or at least, that’s the only side I have the possibility of doing something about; if it’s not green, at least I can water and fertilize my side of the fence. That other side, it’s not mine. And anyway, on that side the same old troubles exist because the fence is not a real thing, so loneliness and anxiety are over there too. There are stickers in the grass, and bugs. At least on my side I can do some weeding. Happy Saturday y’all. I hope you are well today. xoxox L
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