Mary Oliver’s Poems and Sacred Trees

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This morning, I awakened to a gift. A poem that my eldest child, my daughter, sent to me. It was by Mary Oliver. I read it. I was stunned. And then I was intrigued. So I decided to find some more of Oliver’s work. What followed was no less than a descent down a white-rabbit tunnel into a wonderland of beautiful words and exquisite thought. It seemed I had found a poet who spoke to my soul. It turns out Mary Oliver is also a deep-thinking, dream-driven introvert who loves nature, and she has drilled deeply into the questions of Divinity. God’s nature. God’s revelation in nature.

Unitarian Universalist minister and blogger Fred Hammond described it beautifully, and he quoted author Kathleen McTigue as well:

“Kathleen McTigue writes regarding Oliver’s theology, ‘By that word [theology] I mean not only what her poems reflect of her beliefs about God, but what they reflect about a host of other religious questions: What is holy? Who are we? What are we called to do with our lives? What is death, and how do we understand it when we turn our faces toward its inevitability? These questions matter to all of us. And the answers in Mary Oliver’s poems feel so resonant and so true…’”

These are the questions that have become the very litany of my new existence. I now have an empty nest. It’s just me and my husband and our two dogs knocking around the house. I always believed my calling to be a mom was holy. I know it was. But it’s pretty much over. Now I wonder what I am called to in this new chapter. And with each arthritic pain and new wrinkle, I am forced to turn my face toward the inevitable. My parents are gone, my husband’s parents are slowing down. Beloved aunts and uncles seem so much older. These days, my heart is tender. Tears hover behind my eyelids, waiting just out of reach for a bit of tender piano music or the sight of a mother nursing her baby to call them forth, dripping down my lined face.

I have begun to embrace the idea that I am holy, in and of myself. Not my motherhood. Not my wifehood. Not my artistry. Not my vocation. Not my voice. Not even my silence. I am all of those things. All of those things are holy. But even without them, I am holy.

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And trees are, too.

This poem moved me to tears:

When I Am Among the Trees

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”

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I love trees. I love them. I just got back from a walk, and the photo above is where I walked: a quiet lane completely enfolded in green leaves and branches. The trees whispered in the spring breeze. Like Oliver says, trees save me. Daily. All my life.

I have always loved trees. The first tree with whom I fell in love was a locust that lived in my neighbor’s yard. My seven year old self, a neighborhood pariah, would climb into the tree and nestle in its branches, eating the little brown beans that grew in pods, watching the kids play without me from the safety of my perch.

My ten year old self adopted the tree in our new house, wedged into the V shape that just fit my scrawny behind, Beverly Cleary and Madeleine L’Engle books nourishing my lonely little soul.

Near my house there was an enormous weeping willow, and I would stand in its fronds, imagining that I was in a safe and magical world where no one could find me. I recently visited that street. Both of those precious trees were gone. I grieved.

In the yard in front of the house where my husband and I  spent most of the child-rearing years of our family, there was a giant oak tree whose leaves created a canopy outside my bedroom window. All of every spring and summer, I felt like I slept in a tree house. I kept a chair on the balcony just outside my bedroom, and when my spirit was angry or in despair, I sat in that chair and simply let the tree speak to my soul. I hugged that tree. Literally. I hugged her. And when we left that house, I had to spend time with her, saying goodbye and thanking her for taking such good care of me.

Psalm 52:8 says: “But as for me, I am like a green olive tree in the house of God; I trust in the lovingkindness of God forever and ever.” I think that oak tree in Shenandoah, Texas was a gift from the Divine One, to show Her lovingkindness for my soul.

Have you ever seen a giant tree? Maybe a California Redwood? When I visited Sydney Australia with my younger daughter, we found what I think might have been a giant gum tree in the Royal Botanical Gardens. It was stunning. I almost couldn’t walk away. I had to stroke her trunk and talk to her a bit, much to my daughter’s amusement. She’s a bit more pragmatic that her older sister, who balances her chakras and talks to trees like I do.

My daughters, my son, my husband, our parents and grandparents back and back and back have created, as have all families, forests of family trees. Roots go deeper than we can imagine, soaking up nourishment of love like water. Branches reach toward the azure sky and the vibrant sunshine as the seeds of dreams are created and carried. Sometimes there is disease. It might cause a branch to fall, or perhaps even need pruning. That is the great cycle of life that the Divine One has created and set in motion, isn’t it?

What I know today is that my walk amongst the trees fed my spirit, so will the rich poetry of Mary Oliver. Her inner monologues, as revealed in her poetry, just seem to affirm that there are other introverted and tender souls out there who are like me. God has given me my soul, Mary’s poetry, and gorgeous trees to hug. His lovingkindness is everlasting.

How Do I Love Thee?

Two nights ago, after a particularly devastating episode of “This is Us” (who am I kidding…nearly every episode is devastating when you’re either: child of an addict, recovering addict, married to recovering addict, estranged from a child, watching your daughter divorce, adjusting to the empty nest, a singer whose voice is in her past, struggling with body dysmorphia…), my sweet husband, who was sitting on the floor with our beagle, looked up at me with the most woeful, teary eyes. I climbed onto the floor and into his lap and we just cuddled and comforted. And with my arms wrapped around him, I wondered: Why? Why do I love him so? Why does he love me? Why? And not for the first time, I settled on this answer. Who cares why? It’s enough to know its truth.

We have, at times, even asked each other, “Why do you love me?” It’s an unanswerable question. This morning, I was listening to SuperSoul, and Pastor A.R. Bernard said that when we love each other for no reason- that’s unconditional love.

I mean sure, I can make a list of things I love about my husband. I love his laugh, his blue eyes, his easy access to deep and profound thought, his capacity for peace-keeping, his legs. I love the kind of father he is. I love how he wants to protect me from harm, whether it’s an advancing category five hurricane or a work colleague who is showing me something less than respect.

But why do I love him? I just…do.

I guess it’s what bothers me about making lists of why we love someone. This last Valentine’s Day, I saw one of those social media posts that tells you how to be a good parent. And you would put all these cut out hearts on your kid’s door with the reasons why you love them (specifically it said that, not “things you love about them”). And one of the hearts said along the lines of “You play basketball well.” And I thought…If I am a kid whose well-meaning mom said she loved me because I played basketball well, what would happen if I couldn’t play any more? What would happen if I couldn’t play well anymore? Kids want to know that they’re loved. Just because. Same with spouses. Just because.

Someday, my husband’s brain will be less sharp. His laugh will be creaky. His legs will be veiny. I know I won’t care.

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Elizabeth Barret Browning put it so perfectly in her famous sonnet, in which she enumerates the ways, not the whys of her love:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day's
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

Truest, deepest love doesn’t have a reason. It just is.

Skeletor or Staypuft?

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I find myself in a corner. A prison of my own construction.

I want to take a moment to talk about weight. I know this is not an original topic, nor will my message be a great revelation. But I am okay with that, because I think we just have to keep talking about this. We have to own what we have done to women in this country, and that takes constant, repetitive chipping away at the wall.

Yesterday, I went to the preview of a show my husband has been working on, a 1920’s murder mystery at the Prohibition Club in downtown Houston. Prohibition is the home of the Moonlight Dolls, a premiere burlesque troupe. Their photo is below. Look at them. They are all beautiful. And after weeks of rehearsing with them, my husband says they have body image issues, too. What the hell is wrong with us?

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I knew it was going to be a rough afternoon for me. About ten minutes into dinner, after watching a tiny twenty-something girl in a cute, wee outfit spin on a trapeze, then having four tiny twenty-somethings do the Charleston in g-strings and bandeau tops, I fled to the bathroom, where I sobbed on a toilet for pretty much the remainder of the show.

When I emerged from the stall, I found a large woman bent over the sink, eyes squeezed shut, breathing deeply. She, too, looked traumatized. She finally stood up, squared her shoulders, and went back to her table. I didn’t. I stood in the lobby and read a novel on my Kindle.

There’s a tape that plays in my head, almost constantly. It goes something like this:

“You shouldn’t eat that…suck in your stomach…look how thin that lady is…I bet she has more self control…I bet she is more lovable…how many minutes have I exercised this week so far?” You get the picture. I count calories on an app and worry if I forget to enter something.

When I was a kid, I remember two media moments that embedded themselves profoundly in my psyche. The first was the Special K ad campaign “Can You Pinch an Inch?” The commercials showed people playfully pinching their tummies,and if they had more than an inch of pudge, they needed to go on a diet. For a twelve year old girl approaching puberty, that dangerous message sank its claws deeply. I understood that my body must stay thin to be acceptable. The second media moment came when Cosmopolitan magazine declared that thighs must not touch, and featured an article in which perfectly lovely women who were at healthy weights were shown at a ten pound weight loss, and trumpeted for how much more beautiful they were after that weight loss.

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I was not getting affirmation from my family when it came to weight or looks. When I tried to get my mother to tell me if I was pretty, I was told I was shallow and vain for wondering about my looks, when maybe a simple compliment for an insecure girl would have done a world of good. When I was about thirteen, I remember I hugged my maternal grandma and when I told her how much I loved hugging her, her reply was something like, “I’m fat.” when I protested, she told me that my grandfather would love her more if she could just lose twenty pounds. How’s that for a message about weight’s affect on your worth?

One time, though she didn’t think I could hear, my other grandmother, while looking at pictures I had just had made and was so proud of, commented that I looked like I had put on about ten pounds (I was fifteen and wore a size eight, which would now be a 4).

In drill team, we had to weigh in once weekly, and the officers were allowed to know our weights. I was always on the cusp of being sidelined, at 5’6″ and 128 pounds. In my freshman year of college, the coed p.e. instructor, a man, did a caliper test on all of us, in front of everyone, and declared me “obese” on my form. I weighed 135 pounds and wore a size 8.

A photo from the shoot when I had gained a few pounds!
A photo from the shoot when I had gained a few pounds!

You see, I was coming of age in the 1980’s, when Jane Fonda was everywhere and Karen Carpenter was the first celebrity to die of anorexia. Now there are scholarly articles on the prevalence of weight loss articles and images in the media in the ’80’s and what effect it was having on women’s body image. Health was out, thin was in.

(Fittingly, while proofing this post, I heard a commercial for Medifast “Be the best version of you!” on Pandora. It’s everywhere and all the time, I tell you.)

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I have never, ever been able to shake the worry about my weight. I worked as a fitness instructor through my twenties, and spent most of my thirties teaching beginning dance to eighth graders. Now, after one knee surgery, a severely sprained ankle, a possible rotator cuff injury, and a spinal surgery that removed two cervical discs and replaced them with a steel plate, I still work out as hard as my body will let me. I hurt, but I keep trying, because I want to be thin. I have ten pounds that I keep gaining and losing, but it’s always the same ten pounds. I will lose it, it will come back. Thankfully, though, it’s only the ten. I don’t lose ten then gain back twelve. I have been wearing the same size for five years now, an 8 or ten, depending on fit. (In the interest of full disclosure, I did have to buy a dress in a 12 recently. Stupid boobs. It’s too big around the waist, but I had to have the room at my chest!)

I tried my hardest to instill healthy messages to my two daughters about their own bodies. I knew how much I craved doses of reassurance when I was young. I fear my own insecurities rendered me a hypocrite, but I did try. Kate Winslet, an exquisitely beautiful and gifted actress, was recently cited on Huffington Post: “I was chubby, always had big feet, the wrong shoes, bad hair,” Winslet told Bear Grylls during an episode of his NBC show ‘Running Wild With Bear Grylls’ that aired Tuesday. “When I grew up, I never heard positive reinforcement about body image from any female in my life. I only heard negatives. That’s very damaging because then you’re programmed as a young woman to immediately scrutinize yourself and how you look…I stand in front of the mirror and say to Mia [her 14 year old daughter], ‘We are so lucky we have a shape. We’re so lucky we’re curvy. We’re so lucky that we’ve got good bums.’ And she’ll say, ‘Mummy, I know, thank God.’ It’s paying off.”

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There has to be a place between Skeletor and Stay-Puft for this woman in her 40’s (child of the 80’s pop culture reference!) If I get too thin, my face looks drawn and skeletal, if I am too heavy, I look puffy and unhealthy. I must find the balance. More importantly, I need to change the tapes that play in my brain. I need to stop looking at myself in the mirror and castigating myself. And though I haven’t carved the word “FAT” into my own thigh with a pair of scissors since 2009, I still recite it to myself in a million ways every day.  It’s time to move forward, to come out of hiding in the bathroom stall, to see myself for what is deeper than cellulite, and to be grateful for my healthy, strong body. Hell yeah, I can pinch an inch. What of it?

I found this wonderful blog by a sociologist who spent a year without mirrors. She researches how body image affects women, and spent a year living without a mirror. I intend to spend lots of time at her site!

http://www.ayearwithoutmirrors.com/

Somewhere between Laurie and Aunt Eller

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Anyone out there seen the classic and hilarious film, “Waiting for Guffman?” It is the perfect spoof of the unique world of community theatre. Travel agents, a Dairy Queen cashier, and a dentist all come together to create a piece of performance art for the delight of local citizens. In community theatre, a bunch of oddballs can become minor celebrities, recognized at the Piggly Wiggly like local versions of Patti Lupone or Hugh Jackman.: “Didn’t I see you in…?” “Why, yes! yes, I did play Rosie in Bye, Bye, Birdie! It was so much fun, thank you for coming to support us!”

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Rosie Alvarez, Bye Bye Birdie, Ace Theatre, 2006

I love community theatre. It’s chock-a-block full of regular folks who love theatre, but for whatever reason, don’t make it a profession. For some (like me), marriage and stability were a better option than the gamble of New York, Chicago, or L.A. For others, they discover their creative side later in life and volunteering at their local community theatre is the most accessible route to artistic expression. For others, the community theatre becomes a surrogate family, a place to let your quirky imagination out to play without the judgement of straitlaced cubicle mates.

I have spent most of my adult life in rehearsal at the community theatre house for one musical or another. In my 30’s, I had the chance to play dream roles like Marian the Librarian, Sarah Brown, Julie Jordan, Nellie Forbush, and Annie Oakley. I have sung the great ballads, from “Moonshine Lullaby” (Annie Get Your Gun) to “How Could I Know” (Secret Garden). I’ve performed Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Berlin, and Sondheim.

Moving into my 40’s, the roles began to be harder to come by, though I have had the utter joy of playing The Chaperone (Drowsy Chaperone) and Joanne (Company). Community theatres like to play it safe. They have aging audiences, and they are afraid of alienating them. Chestnuts by Rodgers/Hammerstein or Lerner/Loewe are proven ticket sellers. I get that, I really do. But younger audiences (and by younger, I mean 55 on down- not exactly spring chickens) like to see shows written sometime after 1980. I know- it’s radical to imagine doing a show that’s got thirty years on it, instead of sixty!

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The Drowsy Chaperone, Stage Right Theatre, 2013

Interesting roles for women in their 40’s and 50’s are being written. Roles full of interesting character, gripping dilemmas, heartache and humor, and problems that don’t always find resolution in a wedding march. Dammit, there are great roles in musical theatre for women who are somewhere between Laurie and Aunt Eller: no longer the ingenue, but not ready for the granny wig.

Of course, all musical theatre aficionados recognize Mama Rose, Miss Mona, Adelaide, and Miss Hannigan. Gypsy, Best Little Whorehouse, Guys and Dolls, and Annie are community theatre staples. Wonderful shows. Tried and true. Worn and exhausted, some might say. Cliche, even.

Hollywood has long had a problem with this, constantly forcing women in their 40’s to play the discarded wives, or heaven help us, the mothers to their forty-something male counterparts. But the stage has always been willing to take risks on women in their middle age, when their talent is ripe, their life experience rich, and their voice in its prime.

So as a forty-something actress/singer who longs to play great roles, maybe even alongside actresses in her own age bracket, I present the following list of musicals for the local community theatres to take a look at. They are great shows, they will sell tickets, they will capture new audiences, and they will excite your theatre ensembles. As an added bonus, they feature major roles for women in the middle:

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Light in the Piazza: Margaret Johnson is a mother visiting Italy with her developmentally delayed daughter. Her marriage is dying as her daughter falls in love with a young Italian dreamer. The vocal score is exquisite, the emotional journey heart wrenching.

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Kiss Me, Kate: Lilli Vanessi is an aging star. She gets to sing “I Hate Men” as Kate, and “So In Love” as Lilli. It’s Cole Porter and Shakespeare combined. The 1999 revival ran for two years and received numerous Tony nominations and several awards. It’s a crowd pleaser!

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Mamma Mia has three (!!!) fantastic roles for women in their 40’s. They don’t have to be movie star gorgeous with size 2 figures! They still get to be fun and sexy! With a score built upon the songbook of Abba, it’s got a guaranteed fanbase.

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Ragtime is just the most beautiful musical. And it’s got fantastic roles for all sorts: age, color, body type, vocal range; it’s all there. Including a plum role, Mother, a woman who discovers that her sheltered life is not fulfilling and takes the plunge into uncharted territory.

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Nine to Five is not necessarily a masterpiece of the Broadway cannon, but with the popularity of the movie and name recognition among those over forty, its catchy numbers and physical comedy are sure to be popular.

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Next to Normal’s Diana Goodman is bipolar. Not exactly the feel-good premise that community theatres often go for. But this story is contemporary, relevant, and resonant. The music, a rock score, reverberates long after the notes have faded. For a theatre that takes risks, this one is a powerful choice.

I did a little reading on roles for women over 40, here are a couple of articles/blogs I found that had good stuff to say:

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/24/theater/24cohe.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

http://thefilmexperience.net/blog/2013/10/21/hollywood-is-mean-to-older-women-lets-help-them-with-a-chart.html

Where Are The Stairs?

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It’s so weird now. My husband and I raised our kids, for the most part, in two-story houses. The first one we bought was a cute 1,750 square foot house built in the 1980’s, with high ceilings and a loft playroom. The kids liked to raise and lower toys in a purple plastic bucket tied to a jump rope, and the older two tormented the baby by dangling her toys in the bucket just out of reach. It was the first two story house I lived in, and I felt so uptown! The next one was an early 1970’s number. We had driven by it, and I hated the exterior- ugly arches and hideous outdated paint were a deterrent, but eventually we did go in and see it. It had yellow kitchen cabinets, which I loved, so we made an offer after just one tour. When we walked into it after closing, I sat down on the window seat and bawled. I had just bought the ugliest house on the planet. Dated Brady Bunch wallpaper, carpet that had been just cut and spread by the owners,  not properly installed (there was so much furniture in it when we looked at it, we couldn’t tell), dingy walls, and mildew soaked powder blue carpet in the master bath. But it did have a second floor! And bedrooms for each child, a separate formal dining room, and the most beautiful pine and oak trees. I immediately set about transforming it. I’ll tell all about that in another post.

As our youngest child approached her high school graduation, we decided to sell this two story haven/money pit and move into an apartment. We wanted to be ready to relocate- we thought we might look for jobs in Florida, New York, California, or maybe even overseas, and we didn’t want anything concrete, like a piece of property, to be an anchor. As so often happens when we mere humans make grand plans, the universe giggles and throws a curve ball. We ended up taking jobs just 25 miles from the house we sold.

Back to the drawing board!

We hated apartment life, so we embarked on building a new house.

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I have always known that building a truly custom home would be too overwhelming for me- finding an architect and contractor, choosing from ALL the faucets and doorknobs and paints, trying to find a plot of land…just…too much. So we opted for a neighborhood where we could choose our builder, choose from a list of floor plans and options, and choose from a specific set of finishes. A year ago this week, they broke ground.

I love my new house, and in another post I will write about the building of it. But what is striking me about my new house this week is its mostly-emptiness. And its lack of stairs.

We don’t really need all the space of a two story house anymore. It’s just the two of us. We have our bedroom, a guest room, and each of us has his/her own room for personal use. Mine is a yoga retreat complete with laminate flooring, a dance barre, and lots of sunlight thanks to the biggest double windows of the house. Trav’s is a study, furnished by a wooden desk, sleek leather recliner, and vintage Star Trek posters.

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Our kitchen table has four chairs. The two yellow ones get dusty because no one ever sits in them.

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I can do laundry just once a week. The attic is no longer full of toys. Trav and I can watch whatever we want to on television.

I no longer make Kraft Macaroni and Cheese for summer lunches, I no longer decorate my refrigerator with kid art, and I don’t have to stand at the bottom of the stairs, bellowing for one child or another to get a move on.

Because there are no stairs.

Because there are no children.

Since this whole blog is supposed to be about “finding peace in the middle,” I gotta say that this part is hard. I am conflicted- I want my kids to be independent, but I keep having to transfer money into their bank accounts. I miss throwing noisy birthday parties, but I love that birthdays now consist of alcohol filled brunches and dinners with the kids (no more babysitters). I miss the Disney movies, well…scratch that one, Disney movies still happen. I love the quiet and the neatness, but I miss their noise and energy.

I miss climbing the stairs at night to kiss each one and tuck them in. But my knees love having no stairs. It’s all part of the journey, I guess. Loss and gain, tug and release. All on the same floor.

Gray, the trending neutral!

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Last night, I took a long, luxurious soak in my awesome new bathtub, washed my hair, drank wine, read my Entertainment Weekly, and felt pretty good. Pretty relaxed. At ease. A couple hours later, it was time to brush out my hair and get ready for bed.

HALT! HOLD EVERYTHING!

What the hell are those atop my head? Last month there was only one. Now there are three: gray hairs. I know, I know, it’s just part of the whole getting older thing. I won’t be able to say anything here that hasn’t been said before. But seriously, I don’t feel like a gray haired lady yet! I still love to dance and wear high heels! And what is it they say about wisdom? I feel like a goofball most of the time, short on words and advice, long on self doubt and gaffes.

I have taken care of these infiltrators with a box of Loreal #60 Medium Brown, but I know they’re there.

Here’s the thing: with age, you’re supposed to get wiser, right? More at peace. Calmer. Sophistication personified. I feel like a drooling monkey, pudgy in all the wrong places, troubled by memory loss and inflexible joints (seriously, who thought PiYo would be a less stressful workout?)

Getting older sucks. Seriously. But…

Two of my favorite people in my entire life were my grandmothers. And they got older. They did. And I adored them anyway. And so did their husbands. And their children. And their grandchildren.

My grandmothers were awesome. Both were elegant and loving, and gifted in their own ways.

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June was a Paula Deen style cook, worthy of her own television show. She could decorate the most beautiful home and was even featured in a newspaper once for her unbelievably verdant houseplants. She never had a mother of her own, her father was murdered when she was a young woman, she lived in a tent alongside Lake Brownwood with her new husband, so that he could heal from health problems. She was fashion model beautiful. When my grandfather came home from work in the afternoons, she and my grandfather would dance the Foxtrot in the kitchen, he oblivious to the flour covering her hands.She taught me about the importance of skin care, the principles of three in decorating and that sitting on the porch watching birds was, in fact, a valuable way to spend time. She died at 61, of breast cancer, and her hair was just starting to go grey. It was a lovely salt-and-pepper mix, and always styled in that gorgeous set that women wore in the 70’s.

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Juanita was a Victorian throwback who always sat with impeccable posture to visit with her guests, including yours truly, no matter if I was seven or seventeen. She looked straight at you when you talked, and listened with her complete attention. She was not the master chef that June was, but she always provided warm, nourishing meals and made jam from the muscat grapes that grew in her back yard. She was a master seamstress. I, along with her daughters, countless debs, and the majorettes of Texas Tech University, all stood at attention in the pink bedroom while she hummed, pins held in compressed lips as she marked hems. She was a polio survivor, and her poor twisted limbs never, ever stopped her. She learned how to drive and got her first license in her late 70’s. Her own long hair stayed red with the most striking white streak right into her 70’s, and I loved to watch my Aunt Molly brush it and pin it up for her. After chemotherapy caused her hair to fall out, it grew back in tight white curls. I missed her red locks.

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Last weekend, I went and saw “The Age of Adeline,” a film in which the main character, Adeline, experiences a scientific miracle that halts her aging. She is forced to watch her own daughter age into an old woman, she can’t spend a life being married, she protects herself from all long term commitments and ties, lest someone discover her secret. Played by the stunningly beautiful Blake Lively, she looks perfect in every era of fashion, from 1920’s flapper to 1960’s hippy to today’s beaded column evening gown. You think you would make a pact with the devil to have that time, and that figure, for all time to come! But at the end (spoiler alert!) she does begin aging again, and that first grey hair, after 80 years of being ageless, is a miracle to her.

Aging is, unbelievably, a gift.

So, here’s what’s coming, though not gift wrapped with a pretty satin bow: a wattle neck (dear jesus, I will need strength and humor to get over that), floppy arms, long boobies, and spotted hands. A cool gray pixie, a la Judi Dench. Continued efforts to stay fit, like the 85 year old lady in China who works out 90 minutes a day at home. Sewing for my eventual grandbabies. Gardening and developing a green thumb for my fairy garden. Time on my patio watching birds. And hopefully, with concerted effort, the grace of my grandmothers.

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Phony Baloney!

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Last night I learned that an opening in the sort of school I have always dreamed of teaching in is about to be posted. It’s a private prep school where the students have been raised to excel, where the artistic strictures are looser (the kids get to do musicals like “A Chorus Line” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”), and the Arts are not treated like step children. Their Theatre faculty consists of one MS teacher and three HS teachers. A team! Their web page shows images of productions that look lively and innovative. I was so excited! I spent the evening imagining myself applying and interviewing, accepting the position, relocating…then I crashed to earth.

I think I am such a fraud in this profession! Sure, I started doing Theatre in high school, but I didn’t major in it in college, I didn’t step on a stage during my baby making years, I sort of fell into this position.

In 2000 I was seeing this brilliant therapist who was helping me get through some stuff. One of the questions she asked me that day (because I was, as always, expressing my dissatisfaction with my career- at that time I was a second grade teacher) was whether I wanted to teach at all. I answered that I did because I wanted my schedule to stay compatible with my kids’. So her next question was “If you’re going to stay in teaching, what’s the one thing you want to teach more than anything else?” My answer: “Theatre.” Where the heck did that come from? I had only renewed my love for theatrical performance within the last five years, performing in four musicals. I only had one college Theatre class, the only one that was offered, an appreciation and history class. I had not ever once had an acting class.

About a month later, I was interviewing for an English position at one of the district’s junior high campuses and the principal mentioned that he had just lost his Theatre teacher. I was hired for the position before I left that day.I commenced to study for the certification exam and passed it handily on the first try.

My friends Sylvia and Margy have long said that when one truly and deeply desires something, one must speak it aloud to the Universe, believing fully that the gift of your heart’s desire will come to you. I have always wondered about that. With no more than a valid teacher certificate and a verbal wish, I found myself plopped in the middle of a junior high Theatre classroom, complete with small stage, costume and prop storage, and pubescent students full of energy, wiggles, and attitude!

My early years in that Theatre classroom consisted of a lot of trial and error: I accidentally took two ineligible actors to my first UIL OAP because no one explained eligibility to me, I had seventh and eighth graders reading “The Crucible,” and I spent way too much time in the text book.

I have ended up being okay at what I do, but I always want to be better, so I went to UH and got a Master’s Degree in Theatre. What? I have an M.A in Theatre?

While I was getting my M.A. I just kept expecting the professors to look quizzically at me and remind me that the Education classes were in another building and would I please leave the Theatre classes for the real Theatre folks (for the record, none of my profs ever even hinted at such a thing). On the first day of class one of my classmates was asking people how many times they’d been to U.I.L.State One Act over the meet- and-greet pastry buffet, for goodness’ sake! I was just finishing year three of high school teaching, I had not even advanced out of Zone once yet!

Somehow, I still always feel like an impostor. I go to events where there are a lot of Theatre teachers and I wonder if they can see the sign that I feel like is flashing over my head: NOT ONE OF US! I wonder if my students sense that most of the time I feel like I am reaching for wisdom to share with them, hoping that what I ask them to do on stage will actually work, and expecting any one of them to lead a coup and assume responsibility for instruction.

When I get home, I have to try to sound like I know what’s up in Theatre with my husband and eldest daughter, who are so ridiculously talented I feel like an utter charlatan when I am with them. Their theatrical instincts are so good, and they know how to dig to get to the characters’ truths (my son is a rock musician and stage combatant, my younger daughter is more fitness and dance buff, I am none of those things so I feel less intimidated by them.)

Maybe one of the hallmarks of middle adulthood is that we realize how much we don’t know, how much we are just muddling through each day trying to do what we’re paid to do without screwing up too badly, how much we hope no one else realizes how clueless and lost we actually are. When I was a young adult in college and into my twenties, I was so sure that I knew what was best, that my contemporary and freshly minted knowledge trumped experience, and that the old folks over 40 had no clue. No that I am over 40, I absolutely know that I have no clue.

I don’t know if I will work up the nerve to apply for this position. It’s junior high, it means relocation to Austin, and it’s scary. I fear getting called for an interview, I fear not being called just as much.

What I do know is whatever I do, I will most likely be faking it until I make it, whether it’s teaching, designing, or working in an office.

Will the Real Theatre Teacher in the room please stand up? Oh wait, I think that’s me.

Friends: the family you choose.

Most of my original nuclear family is dead. My mother passed away in 1991 at the age of 46 from the complications of drug addiction and starvation. My father passed in 2008 due to pneumonia, heart failure, and diabetes complications. My brother was found dead in a hotel room from an apparent drug overdose in 2009.

I have one brother left. He is a cop in Arlington, married to a lovely lady who is a cop in Mansfield. They have two precious daughters. I am not part of their lives. My brother made it known to me that he really did not want to continue any sort of relationship past my father’s death. We got together to distribute our brother’s ashes in 2009 and have not spoken since.

My extended family is…distant. On my mom’s side, lots of cousins live way far off. It’s hard to get together. There has been lots of divorce, lots of fragmentation. With my mother gone, sometimes people forgot to let us know there were events. Years in youth ministry and renaissance festival have kept us from going to family reunions and connections have been lost. On my dad’s side, everyone is busy with their own kids and grandkids. I am not Christian enough or conservative enough to fit in, the mutual connection of my father is gone. Trav’s family doesn’t gather as a large group, and we feel somewhat alienated there, too (I think it’s the tattoos. And maybe the Obama/Biden sign from 2008 still in our garage). I absolutely think my brother and sister in law and their two kiddos are the cat’s meow, but somehow we just never manage to spend time together (for the record, walking the nature trails this Easter with Mason and Abby was an honest-to-goodness 2012 highlight).

So, who do I think of as family? Who do I think of when I need to laugh or cry, or borrow something?

My friends.

Dorothy is the mother I never had. She is kind and generous. She loves without judgement. She only gives advice when asked (do people realize how valuable that is, to wait to be asked for advice, rather than offering your opinion so freely?) She shares enough of her own struggles that I feel like I am privy to her own inner life.

Ellen is the mentor I adore. She is in her seventies and in chemo but her spirit is indomitable. She is a passionate theatre artist, a fiery liberal patriot, a loving (if unconventional ) mother. She has refused to sit down and accept aging as an excuse to wither.

Serena is the cool aunt. I may never have met a more independent woman who still manages to nurture and love so selflessly.

Sylvia, Sherry, Brandi, and Stacy are the sisters I wish I had. The first feeds my spirit, the second two feed my need to laugh, and the third feeds my need to talk about absolutely anything (but especially kids).

Jeff and Jono are the brothers to replace my lost two.

Dane cannot be explained. But I love him like no other.

Robby, Shannon, and Piper have become the surrogate brother, sister, and niece that I lost. I see their family growing in love and adventure and I feel so blessed to be a part of it.

Rileigh and Mandy and Daniel and Brandon are the children of my heart.

I have looked with envy at friends like Chellie and Dorothy, whose nuclear family bonds are so tight they are a true force to be reckoned with. In those families, if there is a crisis, the brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and grandparents answer the call. They spend holidays together. They have slumber parties with all of the cousins.

If you have blood family that is close, be thankful. Revel in those memories, for nothing can replace them. If you don’t, create your own family. Love can be found and nurtured in any old place. Last Sunday, I think I may have met some new sisters to add to my list. I cannot wait to spend time with them.

Tell your family, whether biological or heart, that you love them. This is my love letter to my heart family. Mwah!

Getting older and trying to stay pretty…dang!

When I was about twelve I saw an Oil Of Olay commercial in which a devastatingly beautiful woman, probably in her thirties said,” I don’t intend to grow old gracefully, I intend to fight it every step of the way.” That, my friends, is my mantra. My mother in law has been trying to tell me I am getting older and need to accept my adult limitations since I became a mother in my twenties. I say phooey to that! So I still wear a two piece swimsuit (not a string bikini, I was never that much of an exhibitionist, even at sixteen), I love rock music (hate rap- always did), and I love the sun. There lies the rub. I love to bake. I love to swim, bike, and float. I love to read outside. My forehead looks like some crazy speckled brown chicken egg with creases across it. That’s why I wear bangs. Sometimes I consider growing out my bangs, then I pull my hair back and take a good look at what the sun has done to my forehead and I know I am doomed to banged hairstyles until I just do not care anymore.

Last fall I had my hair braided at the renaissance festival. The large frizzy haired earth mother asked me if I wanted my bangs braided in or left down. “Down,” I tell her,” I am not ready to show the world my awful speckled wrinkled forehead!” She laughed and told me I would eventually get over it and not care.

I am pretty sure she is wrong.

I know that true beauty comes from the spirit within, and that “pretty is as pretty does.” I try really hard to be kind and positive (really, I cannot imagine any more damaging ager that negativity). However, I also think I would like to be one of those ladies who can rock heels and an age appropriate pencil skirt, whose skin is smooth and moisturized, and whose aura oozes confidence and magnetism.

I’ll let you know when I get there.

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