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FairyMiddlin

Reflections on finding peace and magic in the middle of…

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Growing Older

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?

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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.

Loneliness in Mothering

 

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This morning, I woke up about an hour before the alarm went off. I was lonely. Specifically, I was lonely for my son, who has not spoken to us for nearly six months. And you may be thinking six months is nothing-moms who send their kids for military service go far longer. And you would be right. But these have been six months of angry, insistent silence in a family that has always been close. Not only did he unfriend his father and me on Facebook, he unfriended his sisters. If there is one thing I have always felt joy in, it is that my kids loved each other as children, and they still loved each other and spent time together as adults. Until…

In anger, I took a stand and made an ultimatum about a relationship with a woman we (the whole family, hence the shunning of sisters) think is unhealthy for him. I made him choose, because I couldn’t stand to keep watching him struggle. I made the mistake of confronting them both in public, after an exhausting week of moving out of my house and getting our festival opened and physical therapy for two bulging lumbar discs. I had spent two straight weeks being bombarded by the needs of my colleagues at work while packing a house, arranging for utilities to be shut off, and gathering paperwork to prep for closing. And after months of renewed, impending panic attacks. I was, quite literally, at wit’s end. And my son and his girlfriend caught the brunt of it.

I have asked for forgiveness, it’s not coming. I have told my son that I will wait with arms open for as long as it takes, and I will.

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Each child you raise brings with himself or herself a unique set of gifts…and challenges. I remember with utter clarity the first moment I looked into my son’s eyes- they are a rich blend of blue, green, and brown, and they are deep. His hours-old eyes were like deep pools. I don’t even know how long we stared at each other that first day, we had been given the unexpected gift of quiet time with no one else in the room. It might have been two minutes or five minutes or forever. He was the one with the sour tummy-I had to nurse him in the restroom (in those days you did not nurse in public and I am glad that has changed) and I would set him on my knee to burp him. He could spit up so hard it shot straight to the stall wall and dripped down. At night, he could only sleep if I laid him against my stomach and patted his back. If I fell asleep and stopped patting, he awoke. If his dad tried to comfort him, it didn’t work. It was just me, and I would prop myself up on the headboard, patting his back and catching little snatches of sleep. I also fell asleep at my desk when my first graders were doing desk work. Those kids were so sweet- they would just sit and color or play with their math manipulatives while I caught a few zzzzzs.

He is also a master of hide-and-seek. Just like me. Once, in Tulsa, he buried himself in the middle of a round rack full of jeans. We couldn’t find him, the store did a full lock down, and he just quietly giggled in his hiding place until we finally heard him. When he was about ten, he wanted to take dance classes- he was really graceful and had a marvelous ear for rhythm, but one day when it was time to go to the studio, he ran. We found him in the bushes a couple of houses down the block. We found out later the boys in the dance class were bullying him. Sometimes we would find him out on the roof of our house. There were nights in his early teen years that we would have to walk the neighborhood to find him. But sometimes, he hid in plain sight. I get that. I do it, too.

There is a lot of loneliness in parenting.

It starts at that first moment when the nurse walks out of the hospital room, leaving you alone with your new baby for the first time. That’s when a hint of it drops- This little round headed, wrinkly, red tiny human is mine. To take care of. Loneliness sinks in a little deeper when you’re rocking the crying baby at two in the morning, wiping spit up off your robe-whether you’re the mom or the dad. It’s lonely when you’re hiding in a dressing room, nursing the baby. It’s lonely when you drop your five year old off for their first day of Kindergarten-especially if they go in happy. You want them to go in happy, right? It means they are well adjusted, confident, curious. Except…you kind of wish they would run back and clutch your legs just one time.

That doesn’t change when they head to California or Australia, either. You watch them drive away, or you watch them pass through airport security, and their eyes are sparkling with hope and excitement, and you wish they would run back for one last hug.

Laundry was lonely. My husband and I did share laundry duty, but as he took over more and more of the cooking, I made it up by handling more laundry. There was so much. We did cloth diapers, so there were buckets of soaking dirty diapers for a long time. Lots of bleach and fabric softener and scrubbing and folding there. Later, there were baseball uniforms, and even later, Renaissance costumes. If we came home from a wet, rainy weekend at the festival, there were piles of damp muddy velvet to wash.

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When the kids were really young, I somehow managed to get all the laundry folded and in its proper drawers. But as the years went by and we got busier, laundry ended up sitting in a clean pile on the window seat in the living room. Every morning, kids visited the seat looking for socks or undies or a particular shirt or dance leotard. Folding laundry was a lonely job. I didn’t do so great at it.

Parenting was really, really lonely in the months of early 2001, when I was separated from my husband and had to manage everything pretty much by myself- cooking, driving, homework. I fell to pieces in a parent teacher conference when I tried to explain what was happening. I got my kids to bed, the six year old sleeping with me because she couldn’t sleep anywhere else. I cuddled with her until she nodded off, then sat up and played Freecell on the computer while listening to Norah Jones and bawling. My oldest daughter just found the courage to tell me last summer that she had blamed me for every minute of that marital separation when it happened. That was lonely.

When your kids are young, it seems like the loneliness is found in the physical- the moments of exhaustion that accompany midnight potty trips and bouts of fever. But when they are teens, the loneliness is found in the moments you reach out to them- never really sure if they’re going to return the affection or use the moment to assert their burgeoning independence. You’re caught standing in the high school parking lot, watching your kids walk away to join their friends at Sonic, when you were hoping for time to take them for a milkshake.

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But in my experience, the loneliest time of parenting has been this one- kids in their twenties, going off and living their own independent lives. My eldest is divorcing after just two years of marriage. That’s lonely. My son is dating a young woman who is, ultimately, a good person. She’s got some damage. We want, for her sake and his, for her damage to heal. We hope it does. My youngest daughter just moved out (again), she’s figuring it all out and having a lot of fun while she does. At 23 years old, that’s how it should be.

Of course, it’s what parents want- we don’t really want them to live with us and use up our toilet paper and laundry soap indefinitely. Each time my adult daughters visit, then drive away, I hurt for them. I wish for a day when they climbed in my lap for snuggles.

And I keep wishing, on every dandelion I can find, that my son will find his way back to the lonely mom who longs for him.

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Loss- The Middle Age Wrinkle They Don’t Prepare You For

Today, I will be going to another funeral, this time it’s a college friend who took his own life. I will be seeing folks I have not seen in nearly thirty years, most of us a little thicker, a little grayer, with aching backs and aching hearts. Some of us are still raising kids, some of us have started the grandparenting gig. The man being laid to rest today had one infant grandchild, and another getting here soon. Some of us never married, some of us just won the right to be married in this country. We attended each others’ weddings and threw each others’ baby showers. There have been divorces. Remarriages. Career victories. Career humiliations. Addictions. Illnesses.

We will look at each other and I know that what we will see will be our young selves- dressed in the silly banana costumes or milkman costumes of our college’s annual Follies, hanging out in the SUB between classes, dressed as nerds at our brother/sister club Valentine social. The years will fall away- most of us have not gathered together in a long time. We will say goodbye. We will come home and resume our daily lives. Because that’s what you do.

Three weeks ago, another friend died. Heart attack at a convenience store. He was not a perfect man-he had his struggles and mistakes. He left behind a lot of questions. And maybe for that reason, there was ambiguity in the grief. But there was, and is, grief. Make no mistake. I didn’t get to go that funeral, it was out of state. But I held my own private ritual at home, drinking toasts to a scallywag pirate with whom I had been friends for eighteen years, while catharsis came in the form of a “This is Us” marathon.

Three weeks before that, I lost a relatively new friend, the police chief of our little town, and head of security where I work. He was a truly good man, the very kind of cop you wish every cop would be- leading and serving with a compassion for the citizens he had sworn to protect. He had a charming smile and a sense of humor, until it was time to wield his authority. He was trustworthy. He had a heart attack while on duty and received the full police burial. Watching the line of law enforcement officers stand at attention while his body was borne to his grave was moving, hearing his mother sob was wrenching.

I lost my brother in 2009 to a drug overdose, my father in 2008 to pneumonia and complications from Type II Diabetes. Ten years later, that grief is still too profound to burden the public with. At least, not in a short blog post.

All my grandparents are long gone, my husband’s grandfather is the last remaining person of that generation in our family.

My mom died much longer ago, when I was in my twenties.

On either side of me, my office mates have each had major deaths in their families during this same period-one lost a nine year old nephew who had spent six years battling leukemia, the other lost the birth mother she had just found.

Loss.

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When we get to middle age, we kind of know that there will be loss- hair starts falling out, vision gets blurred, memory starts to be something we joke about. We buy Rogaine, get Botox injections, add knee braces for our workouts, and keep drugstore reading glasses at multiple locations- I have an upstairs pair, a downstairs, pair, and a work pair. We watched this stuff happen to our parents, we see jokes about it on shows like “The Middle” (that show is brilliant, by the way- it’s about the only thing that has made me feel humorous about this whole ridiculous phase). We ladies keep fans in our purses to calm the misery of hot flashes and get really aggressive with the pharmacists when there’s a problem with our hormone prescriptions.

I expected all of that.

What I didn’t really expect was the loss of people. I mean, in an intellectual way you know it’s going to happen. You do. But it’s like a kick int the gut. When you see the text message from your husband that says “Call me as soon as you can,” you get a sinking feeling- because now you know what that very well mean. You ask yourself “Who is it this time?”

Every week, I watch friends post their losses- parents and friends, usually- Facebook has become a place where we see the struggle, we mark the anniversaries of death as well as birthdays and anniversaries. Last night, as I crawled into bed, I wondered if loss and funerals are the new norm.

I am not making any big revelations here- it’s all the circle of life, we know it. It has ever been. It will always be.

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But I am beginning to realize that it’s time to dig deep, to know what is important to me. To identify what I want to leave behind. Not in a material sense, but in a spiritual one. It is imperative that I get a will written. But it’s more imperative that I figure out what my purpose is for the next phase. As Princeton says in Avenue Q- what lights a flame under my ass? What gets me up and moving? Who do I want to impact? How? Why?

The tears sit really close to the edge on days like these. Today will be a day for grief, for goodbye, for sending sustaining love across the aisle of the church to the family members left behind.

But tomorrow will be a day for renewal. For being present and grateful. For life and love. Namaste.

The Magic of Menopause

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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 used to say phooey to that, though it’s gotten harder since I hit my fiftieth birthday.

I wore a two piece swimsuit into my forties (not a string bikini, I was never that much of an exhibitionist, even at sixteen), I love rock music 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.

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I have been blessed with a nearly wrinkle free face. I turned fifty last year, and I still have no crow’s feet except when I smile, no lines around my mouth. Just the strategically hidden forehead. When I meet new people and they learn my age, they are usually surprised. I have very few gray hairs, they didn’t start showing up until I was forty eight.

I think it’s partly because I drink water and don’t smoke. But also because of Clarins and that very Oil of Olay that I saw advertised as a kid. When I was in my late twenties and between teaching jobs, I worked for the cosmetic company Clarins, and spent a week in training. Oh, I was excited! I had a red Clarins coat with brass buttons and slept in a hotel in Tulsa at the company’s expense, and I spent the days in classes learning all about skin care ingredients and regimens and self tanner. While I worked for the company I had access to all the products, and I got hooked on skin treatment twice a day: serums and multi-regenerante creams and even a bust lifting gel- all mine to use. I skipped the self tanner because I loved to lay out, and as my old youth minister said, I could get a tan just standing in the shower. When I went back to teaching and had to reduce spending, I switched to Oil of Olay. I remembered that commercial from the 1970s, and my Grandma June had used it, that seemed like a good recommendation to me; and I have applied it faithfully ever since, though I did move from the regular stuff to the anti-aging stuff ten years ago. Fortieth birthdays require such moves.

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My face and hair haven’t caught up yet. But my knees and back have. Oh, yes. I may look younger, but with four ruptured discs and two grinding knees, I walk like a 98 year old granny if I sit in one position for too long. Two nights ago I almost fell out of bed because I couldn’t make my joints bend fast enough to catch me when I stood up to go to the bathroom for what seemed like the fifty second time overnight. My hands hurt if I try to sew, my eyes require reading glasses, and to my horror I have started snoring if I try to sleep on my back. God, that is humiliating.

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But the worst is coming. It’s happening right now. The Change. That mythical transition from Mother to Crone. That evolution from fertile to dried up husk. That proverbial factory shut down. If mothering is magic, what is it when you lose the ability to become a mother? Is it still magic? I don’t really know just yet.

I don’t have hot flashes. Thank all the goddesses that ever lived in moons or trees or clouds or water. No hot flashes.

For me, it’s been about anxiety and insomnia. Oh, and gushing. And clotting. And cramping. And headaches. And desert dryness. And pudge.

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Right now, it feels like really dark magic. It feels like pain and loss. Do I want to have any more kids? No, not even a little bit. I am not even very excited about the prospect of being a grandparent. I am not that cliche’ mom asking my kids when they are going to make me a grandma. I will love on the babies of extended family or former students. That’s enough for me.

I am embarrassed that it’s even happening. But it’s nice that I don’t have to shave my legs as much. Though if there is even a musical about it playing in Las Vegas, aptly named “Menopause the Musical,” I guess I shouldn’t feel so lonely about it. Maybe it’s something to laugh about?

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, squishy in all the wrong places, troubled by memory loss and inflexible joints (seriously, who thought PiYo would be a less stressful workout?)

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, except cigarettes. Those are brutal). 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.

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.

Maybe you have seen “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.

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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 (they are inevitable and I know I will love them when it happens). 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.

Birthdays Blow.

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I hit a big milestone birthday tomorrow. A really big one. You know the one- Party City has a whole rack of “Over the Hill” black decorations for it.

It’s got me thinking about things like the MEANING OF LIFE (how trite and predictable is that?), what happens next (career is at a crossroads), knee pain (oh my god, it is excruciating), and learning to care less about pudges and plumpies on my tummy. It’s got me wondering what happens when my kids are grown but all I ever really wanted was to be a wife and mother, so what the hell do I do now? It’s got me wondering if I want to stay where I am: it’s comfy and safe, but the wanderlust that I have held at bay for thirty years is getting really itchy.

It’s got me looking back.

I was kind of “The Girl Without A Birthday” throughout my entire growing up. I know, cue the sappy violins. But seriously, I never had a birthday party. Not one. The only cakes I had as a child were when I turned one (so all I have is a  photo, no memories) and six, and it was an awful thing with shredded coconut on top. I didn’t even eat it. Who gives a six year old a coconut-topped cake? I don’t think my mother even waited for my dad to get home before she gave it to me, cut me a piece, then went to lay back down on the couch. I ate it (or rather the ice cream- no way was I eating coconut) pretty much alone.

That was it until seventh grade, when my friends Tricia and Angela brought me a Carmex jar filled with dried flowers and my very first bag of gummy bears. They delivered them at the cafeteria lunch table, sang the song, licked the gummy bears and stuck them to my chest like a corsage, and that was probably the best birthday of my life until my Travis came along (for my nineteenth, he proposed by way of decorated birthday cake at one of the swankiest restaurants in Lubbock). When you’re in junior high, the public demonstration that you actually have friends goes a long way, especially when you just humiliated yourself with an ill-timed cartwheel at cheerleader tryouts. And when you’re nineteen and came from a broken up mess of a home, being publicly told you’re loved is pretty awesome, too!

Sorry for the seemingly unrelated cheer photos- I don’t have any birthday ones!

When my sweet newlywed husband learned of this birthday party deficit, he planned a big shindig for my twentieth birthday. It was my first birthday party! We held it in our tiny little apartment on 34th Street, just a bunch of college kids in the middle of finals. Probably only five of the 20 invited guests came, but that was fine with this introvert- all that really mattered to me was that I had a cake (blessedly coconut free) with candles that I could blow out, a few gifts to unwrap, and a handful of good friends.

I healed. Unconditional love will do that.

When you look at Pinterest, Instagram, or Facebook, it’s clear that the elaborate birthday party is a crucial measurement of how much one is loved as a child. At least it seems that way. Intricately decorated gourmet cookies, giant bouncy houses, and even, for the love of all things holy, pink limousines are how today’s American youngsters celebrate another year on the planet.

 

For our kids, we alternated parties-one year would be a party for friends, and the next year would be family dinner at the restaurant of their choice. I did my best to decorate theme cakes with zero training and no fancy supplies, I usually made the decorations out of what was in the art cabinet in my classroom, and enlisted the help of elder siblings. Hilary had a rainbow party at seven, Travis had a Nintendo party at nine, and Libby had a makeover party at the same age. Other themes over the years included Thomas the Tank Engine, Hippy, Secret Garden, and Teddy Bear Tea Party. Family dinners usually involved Valley Ranch BBQ in Tomball, Mr. Gatti’s Pizza, and later, as their tastes became more sophisticated, the Olive Garden or Buca di Beppo.

My kids turned out just fine.

I am not especially excited about this birthday. I know I should be- my mom died when she was 46, so I have already lived longer than that. At a recent Willie Nelson concert, he sang a song called “I Woke Up Still Not Dead Again Today.” That’s a pretty excellent song! I truly am grateful for each day that I wake up.

But there is  shadow with it. A life-is-short-so-what-are-you-still-doing-in-the-same-place shadow.

A your-kids-are-grown-so-you’re-not-needed shadow.

A your-body-is-changing-and-you-can’t-do-a-damn-thing-about-it shadow.

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Heck, even Pres. Obama looks birthday sad! Maybe he’s as worried as I am about our current POTUS.

It’s all quite silly, I know. I am actually in a good place: happy marriage, wonderful kids, good health (except for the goldurn knees), a job that I like. Friends who sang “Happy Birthday” at Sunday Drunch (that’s not a typo, Drunken Brunch=Drunch) last weekend. I adore my house. Look at all those blessings!

But still.

Am I the only one who gets blue on birthdays? Surely not.

I imagine we will have a simple birthday- we are working a big event, so there’s really no time to celebrate. When I wake up tomorrow, I will try not to cry as I curl up in my chair with my dachsund for daily meditation. I will try to remind myself that getting older is okay. Some people even say (rightly so) that it’s a gift.  I will try to be grateful and ignore the handful of grey strands in my hair and the deep wrinkles on my forehead. I will endeavor to remember how dearly I loved my grandmothers, and that there are older women in my life like my mother in law, aunts, and dear Dorothy, whom I love, and who continue to live beautiful lives.

I will not, repeat NOT, accept any black over-the-hill cards or decorations.

And by God, I will start figuring out what I want next out of life. Because time’s running out for dilly dallying.

http://www.peacelovefree.com/2013/10/08/15-things-to-do-when-you-wake-up-sad-on-your-38th-birthday/

 

 

 

 

Letting Go of Lucy

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Lately, my heart and head have been swimming in thoughts of friendship. I think it’s because I recently had the last birthday that begins with a 4. I am living the last year of my fifth decade. I have started saying goodbye to friends who no longer live and walk this earth. It makes you think. It makes you remember. It makes you evaluate.

And what I have been evaluating is friendship.

If you’re a grown up of a certain age, you probably remember the Peanuts cartoons by Charles Schulz. I always loved the Peanuts gang: droopy Charlie, thoughtful Linus, and sassy Sally were favorites. I loved Snoopy, but he puzzled me with his ambivalence toward Charlie.

But I never loved Lucy. Never did. I thought she was mean. I thought she had a big, rude mouth. And I hated that she always pulled the football out just as Charlie swung his leg at it. What kind of friend does that?

As you grow up, you find out just what kind of friend does that. When you’re in junior high and high school, you may be so desperate to be included, that you allow teasing at your own expense, or join in the laughter at someone else’s, just so you can belong. You allow the queen bee at the lunch table to proclaim your outfit out of style in front of the whole group, or maybe you snicker at the overweight kid right along with everyone else, even though you know it’s hurting their feelings.

“Mean Girl” behavior doesn’t stop when you throw that mortarboard in the air at graduation though. And it’s not limited to girls. It can continue right through college and into adulthood.

In adulthood, it plays out in a veiled comment about weight, or maybe resentment about someone else’s promotion or new car or nice vacation. It may be seen in catty comments over cocktails, or invitations denied.

One of the things I am discovering as I near my 50 th birthday is that my tolerance for unkindness and gossip has gotten significantly smaller. I am not world-weary, it’s not that. And I am not superior to others- most definitely not that.  It’s more a realization that I want the things that influence my life and impact my spirit to be healing and nurturing. I want to live life as a daily celebration, even if it’s a small one. And to do that, I need to surround myself with people who also see the world as a beautiful place, who approach life through a filter of love, not envy. I want to spend time with people who count blessings, not who find reasons to complain.

This realization hit me hard a couple of weeks ago when we came back from vacation and heard about some pretty ugly things that had been said by friends. I really faced what I had suspected for a long time: I have to protect my heart and mind from pettiness,jealousy, and score-keeping (you know what I mean- counting who has the best wardrobe, fanciest vacation, best tv, or more dinner dates). When a friendship is one sided, when all conversations are from one point of view, when a friend no longer asks about you and interrupts your story to redirect the conversation back to him- or herself, it’s time to rethink the friendship.

Somehow, I don’t think I am the only one who  struggles with these issues. This showed up in my Facebook feed this morning:

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The world has always been full of toxic people. Social media has made it easier for them to spew. Sarcasm has become the language of the land, with celebrity watchers like Perez Hilton tearing people right up, and readers swallowing their blogs and tweets whole. But I prefer following Brene Brown. This lovely lady’s entire career is spent helping people feel empowered and loved. A research scientist at my alma mater, the University of Houston, her life’s work is teaching people authentic leadership skills and how to live wholeheartedly.

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Of course, since I can’t have Brene’ (we’re on a first name basis, even though she doesn’t know it) over for tea and chat every week, I can hope to find friends like her. More importantly, I can strive to become a friend who empowers and encourages others.

Last week, I took a couple of days of vacation and traveled to DFW to spend time with some of my dearest college friends. We had not been together, all four of us at once, since December of 1985. We had gone through freshman orientation together, endured pledging together, sung together, gone to Dairy Queen together. Heidi and I were the quieter ones, she with a hip asymmetrical haircut and me with my first pair of Justin Ropers. Cheryl and Kayla were the attention getters, Kayla with her fantastic fashion sense and Cheryl with her amazing alto belt. Between us are six marriages and twelve children. As adults we have endured illness, job loss, and addiction. When we were undergrads we had disagreements about borrowed clothes, boyfriends, and social club obligations. And these three beautiful women reminded me what forgiveness and grace look like. They served as a reminder of what sorrow over hurt inflicted and the power of an apology can do to help a relationship heal. They are a reminder of what shared history can mean.

The universe has been kind enough to place people in my life now who, with nurturing and time, will be life long friends. Friends with whom sarcasm is not the default language and score-keeping is not the modus operandi. Friends who, knowing I have been lonely, have stopped by the office to say hi, or sent encouraging messages, or sent precious gifts. People who are proving how powerful it is to be “seen, heard, and valued.”

To be a good friend, parent, spouse, child, sister, niece, or coworker takes intention. It takes thoughfulness. It takes grace.

 “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.Love never fails.” (I Corinthians Chapter 13)

Someone recently asked me if I’d rather be “loved or feared.” There’s no question there- I’d rather be loved. And I’d rather love. The world doesn’t need more fear, there’s plenty of that to go around.

So I am vowing to make a change. I can’t change a lot in this world, like policies about guns or hunger in third world countries or corrupt governments. But I can change me. I can keep eyes and ears open for opportunities to share grace. I can choose the energy I walk through my days with. I will probably never be the big life of the party. But hopefully I can begin to create and encourage connection.

Anyone up for a game of football? I promise to let you kick the ball. Hut, hut!

Changing the Tapes: Oct. 6, 2015*

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I had been doing really well on feeling more peaceful with my body. But today, I had a turn. We went to a party Saturday night, and I saw the photos today. I look big to myself, soft around the top of my halter dress.

What’s so frustrating is that I had felt pretty that night. Not Jennifer Aniston pretty, but me pretty. Hair up in curls, my usual understated makeup, pretty coral shoes. Bam- photos arrive in  my inbox and on Facebook.

So I have spent the afternoon trying to change my talk.

Here are my reminders for today:

No woman in either side of my family is willowy. None. We are all, both maternal and paternal lineage, athletic in build. Some are more fit than others, but none of us has that tall, thin, size 4 figure with long slender legs. I have got to understand my gene pool.

I exercise. I do. I don’t try to run anymore, the doctor told me I could stop that nonsense because it truly hurts my damaged knees. But I walk, I do cardio and yoga, I just laid almost an entire pallet of grass by myself. I do bicep curls with rocks and tricep dips on benches. I am as active as my poor joints will allow. I will always try to do more and do it better, but for this moment, with a show just behind me and a faire season three days away, I am doing my best.

I eat fairly well. Could I cut a few carbs? Yes. Could I reduce my wine intake? Probably. But if I am honest with myself, I don’t want to. I don’t have wine every night, but some nights (like last Saturday) I have too much. I know exactly how many donuts I have had this year (for the record, it’s four and a half, so I still get another one and a half in 2015). I rarely have big dessert, but I do allow myself a few shortbread cookies or vanilla wafers every once in a while. I eat salads, but yesterday I had a kids sized mushroom Swiss burger. Because here’s the thing: I honestly believe good food and drink are one of life’s pleasures. Like a beautiful cloud formation lit with a setting sun, or puppy breath, or baby toes, or hugs, or trees (or hugging trees for that matter, which I have in fact, done), food is good. It is part of what makes it wonderful to be human.

Not for me the diet shakes and rice cakes. Life is too precious. Does that mean I eat all of it, every time I want it, in unlimited portions? No. But I eat some. Occasionally.

See, I am going to do a thing that is very brave for me. I am going to publicly say what pants size I wear: a 10. Mostly- today, my pants were size 8. Eight years ago, I was wearing sizes 6-8 in everything, but when I injured my neck, that went to a size 8-10, and there I have stayed. It’s the largest I have been, ever, except when pregnant.

For some people, a size 10 would be their dream size. For others, they will never own pants this big. For me, this seems to be where my middle aged self has landed.

When I see myself in the mirror, I see a healthy looking mom, until I look at photos.

BUT, DAMMIT, I DON”T WANT TO NOT LOVE PHOTOS OF MY LIFE JUST BECAUSE I THINK I LOOK PLUMP! MY LIFE IS ACTUALLY PRETTY WONDERFUL.

The trauma inducing photo from Saturday night!
The trauma inducing photo from Saturday night!

So here is what I propose: All photos of myself will be looked at through a filter of love. I will be grateful for the experiences being photographed. I was having a blast with my darling husband and awesome friends Saturday night. I was laughing and dancing my fool head off. That must be my photo filter. Not Toaster or 1977 or Earlybird- just me being grateful for a body that is pretty healthy, that can climb around and lift stuff, that can hug my loved ones, that houses me in all my weird, neurotic glory.

Not one more minute of today will be wasted on worrying about my body shape. Only joy. And maybe a shortbread cookie for good measure.

*This is part of an ongoing series in my journey, today is the first time I am posting publicly. We’ll see how it goes!

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?

Dolls

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.

Cosmo

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/

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