To age gracefully is to age with gratitude. I embrace, believe and experience this truth every day. Walking life in gratitude is not just a desired quality to aging well, it’s also an antidote for fear, anxiety and mistrust. Our evolution, our awakening as loving human beings is a lifetime journey that constantly asks us to practice gratitude.
As a young woman, I read Ram Dass’ book, Be Here Now. It’s the title that inspires me today. Recently we’ve all experienced worry and stress around the COVID-19 virus. I can find plenty to be upset about, what with panic buying at the grocery store, and the turn-down in the economy. But, I still can only live one day at a time – I can only be here, right now. So, all of the what-if’s that are in my head are just thoughts. They’re not reality. I try to remember that just because I think something, doesn’t mean it’s true.
Today I’ll find three things to be grateful for and I’ll do my best to dwell upon those things instead of worries and concerns. Once I get started, I may find fifty things. My experience of gratitude practice is that when I begin thinking about the things I’m grateful for, the list naturally expands. Sometimes I like to write down what I’m grateful for and describe the “why” of it. Other times I let the gratitude be a reference point that I return to throughout the day. I find that breathing deeply when I discover something to be grateful for, enhances the calm feeling in my being.
When we get anxious, we might think that there isn’t anything to be grateful for. Or, we think that we’re just faking it and that everything really is terrible. When this happens, rather than search for a thing, an event or a person to be grateful for, it’s best to just sit comfortably, close the eyes and breathe in the word “thank you.” Then breath out the word “thank you.” Do this several times until the body starts to relax.
Gratitude is a perfect de-stressor and stress, as we know, is a precursor to disease. One of the ways we can keep our immune systems strong is by practicing gratitude. When I’m feeling grateful, I tend to be inspired by a spirit of generosity. I want to reach out to others – a quick call to a neighbor when I’m headed to get groceries, “do you need anything?” Long-distance phone calls to let friends and family know that I’m thinking about them. These actions offer hope. Like so many people practicing social distancing, I’m letting myself feel close to the people in my life as I hold them in my heart and memory with gratitude.
While it may seem challenging to be grateful during times like these, it’s essential to our sanity. We were never meant to live in just the dark places, but also in the light. Let’s keep opening to the light of hope, grace and love as much as we can. I’m grateful for all of you and thank you for letting me into your life for a little bit. Sending you goodwill and good wishes . . .
One definition of the phrase aging gracefully means that we look younger than our years. But that’s a sorry and shallow definition, and one we’d do well to put aside. Our worth has never been about how we look. The message that older women want younger women to receive is that value in life has nothing to do with our looks and everything to do with what’s in our heart. And that message is one that we need for ourselves too as the years increase.
The body changes. Wrinkles appear. Things sag. We look differently than we did in our youth. We have little control over that. What we can control is what’s in our hearts. To age gracefully means to age with a grateful and loving heart. And that’s something that we can work on every day.
In order to age gracefully we need to care for ourselves differently. I don’t mean the trendy self-care that’s all over the Internet. I’m talking about a deeper care, a compassionate self-care. This care starts with loving ourselves. And loving ourselves begins with how we talk to ourselves.
What if we were to wake up every day and say thank you for my life, before ever getting out of bed? What if the first task of our day was to get up and dedicate a half hour to slow, gentle stretches and breathing? Compassionate self-care means keeping our body flexible so that the heart and mind will follow.
Count the gifts of the years. Joan Chittister wrote an inspiring book called The Gift of Years. Her writing inspires me to count what those gifts are. For instance, I love the idea of slowing down. Not so much slowing because of a lack of energy, more a slowing that makes us more thoughtful about how we walk in the world. To me, it is deeply self-compassionate to sit quietly without restlessness and breathe in the world around us. I appreciate the bird song, my hot tea, the budding trees, the clouds that drift across the sky. Life gives us poetry when we slow down enough to just feel ourselves in the world.
Compassionate self-care gives us permission to say “no” to things that don’t nourish our hearts and minds, and to say “yes” to the things that feed us, expand us and bring us delight. To grow older with a gentle humor and a heart intent on loving is the non-apologetic way to age gracefully. It’s what makes us truly beautiful. Let us be aware of the grace that has brought us this far. Let us find ways to take care of ourselves with so much self-compassion that it naturally spills over to everyone in our life. Aging gives all of us the potential to age gracefully, to be beautiful human beings living life with the intent of love, joyfulness and gratitude through the practice of self-compassion.
Writing is one thing. Marketing yourself to the world is another. On the one hand I don’t think that the desire for readers is an unreasonable one for a writer to have. On the other hand, I feel like that little kid on the diving board screaming across the pool to her parents: “watch me, watch me, watch me,” just before she dives into the pool.
Marketing myself, my message and my book is in part exciting because it will bring me readers. But another part of me, the old-school, older-generation part feels awkward in the me, me, me, proposition. Plus calling attention to yourself to a point where you actually get people to turn their heads and watch you go off the diving board takes a lot of energy and time.
An assembled marketing team that’s walking me through the process of reaching out on social media tells me that when I post a picture of myself, I get three times more engagement than if I post a picture of something else. They ask me to make video and get more pictures taken. I wince a little bit, hearing the sound of old Catholic nuns in my head who tell me that vanity is a sin. Obviously those nuns never had to promote a book.
Everything has two sides. I feel passionately about my message which is: Embrace your years. Growing older is a privilege not a sentence. Take note that this is a creative, vibrant and noble passage. We are never too old to make a difference.
I love that my message and my book might inspire someone to be a little less afraid of growing older. That’s the gift I want to give. But the me, me, me, me, thing often times makes that lovely message feel less like a gift and a more like the kid on the diving board. And we all know that kid after three of four shouts across the pool of “watch me, watch me, watch me,” becomes annoying.
But here I go, head first into the pool. And just in case you didn’t see the dive, I’ve posted a picture of myself to go with this post.
There aren’t a lot of photos of my mother as a little girl. Personal
photography was not a common thing when she was growing up. Rather, it was the
work of a hired professional. For an ordinary family, it was a big deal to
memorialize a moment of life in a photograph. Yet a handful of images from my
mother’s young life exist.
A framed photograph on my living room bookshelf shows mom
when she was about two years old. Holding onto her small toddler frame is her
father, my grandpa, Paul. They’re sitting on the floor of the back porch, his
arms around her, holding up a holster that he’s wrapped around her simple
cotton dress. While her face is serious, my grandpa’s face reflects a
The year would have been 1921. My grandparents were farmers with a few cows.
They lived in Elbert, Colorado and were raising three daughters. So, who took
the picture, the casual pose, with mom, grandpa and holster? My grandparents wouldn’t have owned a camera.
Did they have a friend that was a photographer?
It’s an imaginative musing to see my grandparents as young
people. To think that they may have sat
in their living room when the kids had gone to bed and talked with a friend who
had a camera — that the friend would have offered to take some pictures of
Later in life when I knew them, mom had a Brownie Camera. She took pictures of my brother, sister and I standing in front of the giant lilac bushes in our grandmother’s yard; and pictures of my grandparents standing in the dirt driveway of their home, a grandchild balanced on my grandma’s hip as she smiles for the camera, the look of pride on her face.
Recently, my nephew Dan found a picture of my mom in a
moving box as he was getting settled into his new home in Oregon. He emailed it
to me. Eventually I will print it, frame
it and place it next to the other photo on the bookshelf.
It’s not the framing of the photo that feels important; it’s the reframing of what those photos mean to me: a way to see my mother as an innocent; an appreciation of my grandpa’s quirky sense of humor divorced in memory from the man who drank too much. It’s the act of reframing that helps me to see that we all do the very best we can do to love each other and ourselves and yet fall terribly short. To put it in perspective, these photographs of my mom are from 100 years ago. They represent the passage of time, mortality, innocence, ancestry and the most basic of human longings, that of love.
In the photo sent by my nephew, mom is seven years. She’s wearing a white dress meant as a First Communion dress. It had probably been worn by her sister Anne and would be worn again by her younger sister, Mary. The photograph is staged. In one hand she holds a missal and a rosary. In the other she holds a candle. Again I wonder who the photographer is. Did each child at my mother’s Catholic School get a picture like this at the occasion of their First Communion?
I imagine the picture being taken at the church her family
attended. I saw that church once. My brother
and I visited it when she died, but it had been turned into an antique
store. The day that we were there, it
was closed and I was sorry about that. I had wanted to go inside, to walk
around in a place where she had walked, where my grandmother and my great
grandmother had gone to worship.
It’s easy to forget that my parents and my grandparents lived
long, full lives before I was born. That they were filled with dreams and
ideals like all young people, dreams that took a beating when life intervened.
It’s the story that we all live out.
When I look at my mother’s little face in the picture of her
First Communion, I don’t see the woman I fought with as a teenager. I see a
child that I didn’t know, but eked out in our relationship nonetheless with
stories that she made up and shared with me at bedtime about the little town of
Elbert Colorado, her horse Duke, and a Catholic family with three girls living
in a cabin on the hill
Paul Simon sang in the song, Old Friends: Long ago, it must be, I have a photograph. Preserve your memories;
they’re all that’s left you. Now living closer to the edge of my life, I’m
grateful for the memory, for the image of a little girl whose life I can only
imagine, but imagine in sweetness and love’s longing, nonetheless.
Launching my podcast, Coffee Table Wisdom, reminds me of when I first launched a blog. Although my first blog wasn’t really launched; it was more like a shy tiptoe into a world where stories and essays became public and could be read by anyone. I have to admit, it’s still thrilling to click on “publish” and see my work come up on a colorful page that has pictures and headings.
Podcasting is just another way to tell a story. It’s a new take on what radio used to be when we’d gather round and listen to programs and public figures. In today’s world though, people can put in their ear buds, and listen to a podcast just about anywhere.
My podcast is about positive aging. I advocate for embracing the years as a noble passage. All of us fear getting older to some degree. That fear is un-necessarily exacerbated by toxic myths in the culture that have all of us sitting around in Depends after the age of 60, just waiting to get sick or die. And that’s why it’s time for a revolution in positive aging!
My experience of the accumulating years is that there is a tremendous potential for aging well and finding joy in the process, stereotypes be damned. I’ve invited guests from the worlds of health, psychology, spirituality and the arts to be on my podcast and share their perspective on the grace and gratitude of growing older in spite of any challenges that we may face.
Podcasting has given me an opportunity to fall in love with the
ordinary people that I interview, all of who reveal the extraordinary in their
lives. Every time I meet a new guest and
record a new show, I marvel at how much magic there is in each of us. Podcasting has truly become my labor of love
So, I’m inviting you to take a listen and enjoy the power of
story in this format. You can find Coffee
Table Wisdom wherever you get your podcasts. On my web site you can click on the Podcast
Tab to discover Season One.
We live in the most literate time in human history. We have so many writers and so many stories that can be told in virtually unlimited ways and formats. My great hope is that all of this will help to remind us of how we are connected by our stories; and that it will demonstrate how none of us is ever as alone as we think we are. Isn’t our human family just amazing? Happy listening from this grateful granny!
I’ve had a couple of rough weeks. Free floating anxiety. Restless sleep. Self doubt. It was as if my psyche developed little cracks and all of that seeped in. I didn’t immediately recognize that I was in distress. Then, this morning, I was awake at 4:00am, swimming in worry and anxiety that wasn’t attached to anything real: would I lose my wallet in the airport when I travel next week? Is my book any good? Am I any good? Such moments of suffering are wake up calls. There’s no outside solace to heal one’s heart; I have to begin at the core. What do I need? What do I want? How can I help myself?
From time to time, we all feel like imposters in the world. We stumble and fall into a hole of despair and then wonder how we got there. Visiting the wounds of childhood past doesn’t seem to provide anything but an excuse. Finding ways to psychologically and spiritually hug myself, does. A lifetime of dealing with depression and anxiety has taught me that if I get too angry or too afraid of too many things, I’m bound to fall.
All love must begin with the act of self-love. That’s easy to state and more difficult to do. What does it mean to love your self? I know that I’m not alone in wondering this. Here are some steps toward self-love that I used this morning. May they be helpful to others. Self-love is like going to the gym. The best results come from continued and consistent practice.
Step One: Meditation
is a practice that can relax, comfort and soothe the beast of anxiety. It seems surprising that such a practice can be
so easily forgotten in the face of emails, texts, social media, deadlines, and
the seduction of creating self-importance through our digital life. Liberation lies in deliberate breath,
deliberate mindfulness, deliberate letting go and surrendering into the
vastness and awe of the miracle that we are.
Step Two: Tears. Holding back the tears of life creates anxiety and strife. Right now, our world seems likes its come off the rails. In witnessing the fallout from gun violence, the suffering of children, the divisions that have turned into an “us and them” mentality, then surely there are tears waiting to be set free. I cried this morning. I cried for our country. I cried for myself. I cried for the people I know who are facing struggles. The act of tears, softened my heart and brought me home to myself a little bit. The list of too angry and too afraid began to dissolve.
Step Three: I’m a
sixty-seven year old woman and one might think that all things from childhood have
certainly been worked out and healed forever by now. But the wisdom of age has
taught me that the wounds of childhood inform throughout one’s life. They are part of our spiritual and
psychological work. This morning, I
closed my eyes and remembered the child I’d been. In my imagination, I got down on one knee so
that I could meet her face to face, and then I wrapped my arms around her and
said, “You are so precious to me. I love you so much.” More tears and a sweet feeling of release
begins to set me free.
Step Four: Listing the things I’m grateful for. I
take a walk every day. My dog and I went
up to the park and along the way, I counted the things that I’m grateful for:
legs strong enough to carry me a couple of miles, neighbors that wave hello and
call out greetings, a belly that’s full, and cooling temperatures that made
today’s walk in the middle of Texas very pleasant. Practicing gratitude helps me to shift my
mind-set and ease the torments of self-doubt.
Step Five: Give this reclaimed love away. Wave back at the neighbors. Call out my own greetings of good
morning. Silently bless the gaggle of
teenagers waiting for the school bus — they’re our future. They deserve my
goodwill. Plan to cook a special
breakfast for my husband.
Step Six: Bow my head and say thank you. Thank you for
my life. Thank you for this day. Thank
you for jogging my memory and helping me make it to the toolbox, thus bringing
relief and a way home. Thank you.
In a perfect world, I would wake up every day and practice all of this. However, I’ve come to see that the imperfection of slipping into the darkness is the invitation and the opportunity to re-engage with my heart. The imperfection and errors that come with being human is the path to humility, appreciation and thankfulness. Today was a reminder to stay the course even though I know that I will stumble and fall again. My heart is all about practice and imperfection. This is the work of living out this idea of love.
The memories of my father are like dreams. They exist in the ethers and have a floating sense about them. They come from younger years, when I thought of him as “daddy.” He wasn’t enough a part of my life to ever become “dad.” In my time of adolescence and angst, he was missing in action, thousands of miles away from me, never picking up the phone. When I left home, I always thought of him the formal sense of “my father.”
Looking back, I try to figure out what his absence wrought and what his presence gave. I cling to the romance of ghostly memories that have formed into stories that light up my imagination. There is quality of longing to the stories. I can see him, but he’s not there. I can feel him, but can’t touch. The stories are what I have left from our fractured life together. They console me; let me know that in spite of distance and circumstance, I really am my father’s daughter.
One story stands out like a favorite fairytale. I recall it again and again because of the magical qualities it holds. It’s 1958 and I am visiting him in Glacier National Park, Montana. I’m six-years-old. He has spent a week in the woods. He was studying something, maybe notating it. I’m not quite sure what it is that park naturalists do, but I know that my father is brave, because he knows how to talk to animals, and animals talk to him. Those things make me feel proud of him.
He’s fascinated by the natural world. Sometimes his work takes him away for a while and I stay with my brother and sister in the cabin, waiting for his return.
This time, when he came back, he came back with marks. I stared at his face, a little afraid. Both of his cheeks reveal long, red scratches that have scabbed over. “Did you fall on branches?” I asked him, trying to think of what would have caused the injury.
“No,” he replied. “I was making friends with a bear.”
I thought of my Goldilocks book. The three bears in that story were made-up, because I’d seen real bears in Glacier and was pretty sure that they didn’t sleep in real beds or eat porridge. A real bear pulls the kitchen rug off of the clothes line, taking it up a nearby tree. A real bear wakes you up in the middle of the night trying to break into the trashcan. And there was one real bear who stole a huckleberry pie off of the kitchen table where it was cooling; reached right in through the open widow. He ran off into the forest with it, leaving my sister in tears because she’d worked all day to gather those berries and then bake them into a pie. Those bears weren’t our friends, so what did my daddy mean? “How do you make friends with a bear?” I asked.
“The fellow came to where I was camped every morning, a small cabin, like this one but just big enough for one person. I saw the bear through the open window and he saw me. I was excited to see him.”
“Weren’t you scared?” I asked.
“No. Bears don’t like to get too close to people. There was no screen on the window, but I wasn’t worried. I was curious and so was the bear. So I sat there for a while talking to him. I spoke in a soft voice and I asked him how he was doing.”
I could picture my dad talking to the bear in his calm voice. I’d seen him talk to animals before. Before the divorce, a raccoon that he called Wilbur, used to visit our house. My dad would sit in his chair on the front porch and talk to her.
“Did the bear answer you?” I asked.
“In a bear sort of way,” he said. “He stood up on his hind legs and sniffed the air. He wanted to catch my scent and know whether or not I was a threat.”
I tried to imagine the little cabin, big enough for only one, and my father leaning on the windowsill having a conversation with a bear. I wanted to talk to a bear sometime. When that one bear took my sister’s huckleberry pie, I stood on the back porch with her while she cried. I yelled, “You’re a stupid bear,” hoping it would comfort her. I don’t think that my daddy would ever call a bear stupid.
“He looked like a young bear,” he continued, “and I was happy for the company.”
“But didn’t he get mad at you?” I asked, pointing to the scratches on his cheeks.
He shook his head. “No, he didn’t get mad. I think he just got brave.”
I wrinkled my forehead.
“Every morning he came by at the same time. I was alone up there and appreciative of the morning conversations. I pulled a chair up to the window and rested my arm on the sill. I drank my coffee while we talked. He mostly stood on all fours, but sometimes he’d stand up and move his head, as if he were trying to understand me. After we’d talked for a time, he headed off toward home.”
“Where does he live?”
“Probably in a cave on the mountain.”
My little girl brain pictured the large bear with a bear family living in a cave, but coming out every day to talk with my father, as though the bear were going to work.
“But how did you get the scratches?” I asked again. “Did the bear do that?”
“Yes, he did. Every day for a week,” my father said, leaning forward toward me, “the bear and I talked. I noticed that he kept coming a little bit closer to the cabin each day. On the very last morning that I was there, I’d packed up my gear and was sitting in the chair by the window. I was waiting for him while I drank my coffee. Along came the bear at his usual time. I said good morning and he studied me. He was closer to the window than ever before. The sun was shining. The air felt warm and I felt comfortable with this beautiful bear. As I was telling him goodbye, telling him that I’d be going back home to be with my family, it was as if he understood. He stood up on two legs and moved very close to the window. He was just inches from me. It was breathtaking to see him that close. I smiled at him and that’s when it happened. It was so fast. The bear raised both of his arms and moved forward, placing a paw on either side of my face. It startled me and I pulled back quickly. That’s how I got the scratches.”
“Was the bear was trying to hurt you?”
“No. I think that the bear was as curious about me as I was about him. I was alone and I got too comfortable with something wild and I forgot how unpredictable the relationship with wild things are, so I got hurt. But I don’t think the bear meant harm.”
“What did the bear do when you got scared?” I wanted to know.
“He got scared too. We both remembered who we were.”
I didn’t understand that answer for a long time. How could you forget who you were?
“Did the bear go back home?” I asked him.
“He probably went back to his den. Or maybe he roamed the mountain looking for food.”
“Do you think he’d remember you if he saw you again?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
And that was the end of the story. The bear. The scratches on my father’s cheeks. It was the thing I remembered most about that summer. My father was not afraid of the animals. He knew how to talk to them.
In late August, he put me on a bus with my sister. She’d return to Glacier, but I would stay with my mom. That’s the way things were now, my siblings lived with my father and I lived with my mother. My mother and I lived next to a city park, but there were no special animals there. I told the bear story to a little boy at school and he called me a liar. After that, I only let the story belong to me.
When I was a young woman, I dreamt about my father and the bear, but I was the bear in the dream. I reached to my father’s face and put my hands on his cheeks, but he pulled back in fear, and my hands left deep scratches.
Looking back, I see that my father felt a kind belonging in the wild that he didn’t get anywhere else. He dedicated his life to studying the natural world and preserving natural environments.
When I think of him now, I think that in some ways he was afraid of getting too close to me. Maybe he saw that after a few years, we would stop being a regular part of each other’s lives. Maybe he thought his heart would be broken. I never got to ask him why we drifted so far apart and why it was at such an early age in my life.
When I saw the movie, The Horse Whisperer, it reminded me of how my father could talk to animals. I wish that I could tell him now that I’m proud to be the daughter of an animal whisperer and that I know how to whisper to animals too. Then maybe we’d both remember who we were to each other.
As a young woman I starved myself to stay thin. My relationship with food was not a healthy one. My relationship with my body was worse. The angst about body image came from two places. One was cultural. In my generation, men often commented on women’s bodies in disparaging ways, leaving us to question if our worth was somehow related to the size of our thighs. The message about thinness also came from my dance studio where I spent most of my teenaged years. We were constantly told by our instructors that no extra weight was allowed. By fourteen-years-old, I knew to order the burger without the bun, no fries and a side salad without dressing. I was always hungry.
As the 1970’s dawned, the feminist movement was taking on the cultural narrative about body image. Women were encouraged to love their bodies as they were. The new message was a needed one, because trying to sculpt your body to fit a man’s idea of what he thought you were supposed to be, was right up there with sculpting your mind to fit his image of you, too.
The decade of the 70’s and 80’s pushed women to know themselves. Changes came about as more women entered the work force, aspiring to be the CEO and not the secretary. Women demanded equal access to higher education. The patriarchy was met with a rising matriarchy that would usher us into a new cultural paradigm.
By the time I was middle-aged, I was eating again and I did gain some weight, healthy weight that made me look like a woman instead of a starving waif. All around me the world was changing and now women have become much more comfortable with their bodies than they were in my generation. Plus, they’re much more comfortable with their smarts and their ambition.
Yesterday, I walked into the salon where I get my hair trimmed, and my stylist came to greet me in a form fitting, rose-colored dress. She’s seven months pregnant. She looked beautiful. It’s such a pleasure to see women showing off their baby bellies. Not that long ago pregnant women were expected to hide their bellies. I celebrate the change. I celebrate that a woman’s body takes on so many different forms in the course of a lifetime.
Even though women are feeling good about who they are and we’re mentoring younger women to do the same, there is one group that still suffers a poor body image. Too often I hear women my age talk about their bodies in mean and unloving ways. They lament the loss of muscle tone, curse sagging skin, and try to cover arms and legs that used to turn golden in the summer months — an attempt to hide what they think has grown unattractive. They criticize a natural process that is part of the cycle of life.
I’m the first to admit that I too mourned the loss of my younger years. That’s just part of the process. I understand the grief of losing one’s youth. And I understand not wanting to succumb to the inevitable. Part of that is a fear of mortality and part of it is that we lose our way in loving ourselves, because there still exists a false standard of what beauty is.
Beauty for an older woman is a truly natural state. It is health. It’s joy. It’s the happiness of
living long enough to tell the tale. Wisdom is beautiful and earning the title
of elder is beautiful. Those definitions
must be what we strive for in these silver years.
I recently joined a Facebook page made up of a couple of thousand women who are letting their hair go grey. I’ve tried, but I keep adding streaks. But after scrolling through the posts on that page, I was inspired by the self-acceptance and self-love that these women possessed. I made another appointment with my stylist in a couple of weeks and I’m going to ask her to help me transition to grey.
I want young women to understand that their value in life has nothing to do with the size or shape of their body. “Ignore the advertising industry standards,” I tell them. They’re toxic and unrealistic. This morning though, I realized that the conversation I’m having with the younger generation is a conversation that I need to be having with myself. My value and my significance does not rest in how toned my muscles are, or whether or not I sag in places that I didn’t used to. Or my weight. And regardless of softer arms that have lost most of their definition, I want to wear sleeveless tops and shorts in the summer months.
I believe in health and in supporting each other to be healthy. I believe in the power of self-love. And I know that self-love not only heals our own selves, it shines as a light to others.
How do you feel about your body as you grow older? Please share your precious thoughts with me in the comment section.
For most of my adult life I have been a carrot juice swilling, veggie chomping, sugar eschewing, fitness buff. I’ve made good choices. I value health. I stand strong and somewhat smugly in the light of that truth. And then I moved to Texas.
Texas women are belles. That means they are beautiful,
elegant, smart and gracious all in one package. I’ve never met women like them anywhere. And they all have a certain gene. The more Texan they are, the more dominant
the gene. It’s a cross between
mothering, welcoming, sisterhood and baking.
Oh my God, the baking.
Early on in my new Austin life, I was invited into a book
group. I’ve been in groups before.
Writing groups, book groups, bang-on-a-drum women’s groups, but nothing in my
past could have prepared me for the change that this group would thrust upon me
with its room full of belles, seeking expression for their dominant gene.
I’m talking about Texas hospitality. I was warmly welcomed into a sisterhood that conducts its book group in a way that would put Martha Stewart to shame. And they make it look easy. First, a light dinner is served. It’s perfect. Everything is arranged in an inviting way, and even though the food is being dished out as guests arrive, the kitchen remains mysteriously clean and sparkly.
Only after the meal is consumed, and wine is poured is there talk of the book. The conversations are smart, and emotionally intelligent. Once the book has been discussed, that genetic snip raises itself up, and the hostess brings out dessert.
Please keep in mind my earlier statement about “sugar eschewing.” The first time dessert was served at a meeting, I wanted to be polite, and so I took a little bite. There are no store-bought desserts in this group. The gene to which I refer concocts an alchemical decadence of creamy, sweet, tart, crunchy, luxury that has powdered sugar sprinkled on top. Like a siren calling to the mariner, I am moved to another bite, as I try making deals with myself: “Okay, just one more bite, and that’s all.” Ha!
And then came the second book group. Dessert was brought out and my mouth began to water. Are you kidding me? Who bakes like this? I knew that I was hooked when I began to moan. “Oh God. Ohhhhhh. Oh, this is so good. So good, Yes, yes, yes.” I’ll have what she’s having takes on new meaning.
We have no control over the events in our life, only our attitudes. So here’s my attitude: “Bring it!”
My life is changing before my eyes. I think about building a shrine to Paula Deen on my front porch. I dream of what ingredients these women keep in their cupboards. I fantasize about being in their kitchens and licking bowls.
Last night, I wanted to throw myself into a tray of banana pudding, so I can’t really be held responsible for what escaped my lips as I finished the last bite of pudding. In front of these warm, kind ladies, the words just wouldn’t stay in my head and without my knowing it, escaped into the space: “This is so fucking good,” I moaned, unaware that I had pierced the veil between thought and, “did she just say that?”
But, no one judged. They laughed, so I don’t think I’ve been thrown out of the group for bad behavior just yet. I am not a belle, more like a street urchin who has probably been exposed to one too many Fitbits and too much kale.
I’ll get in my 10,000 steps today. I’ll prepare vegetables and protein for dinner. I’ll drink a protein smoothie for breakfast . . . with fiber. I know that for the next month, if I have dessert at all, it will be fresh berries with coconut milk and a little stevia. Then in May, it will happen again. I’ll go to the book group. I’ll adore all of those wonderful women. I’ll participate in the book discussion and hope that when dessert is served, I can behave.
My life is different now. My design on the pure and healthy diet has met its match. The sweet taste of homemade dessert served up on a bed of southern graciousness is too difficult for me to resist. The truth is I want to fill a bathtub with their chocolate torts, vanilla cakes and banana puddings, inserting myself naked into the center of it. This is probably an indication that I need serious therapy.
I was talking to a woman the other day who told me that she and all of her friends think that getting older sucks. Her mind set was the opposite of my own. We all deal with this phase of life differently. Some people go into it with a smile on their face and a heart full of gratitude and others dig in their heels, incensed that they are losing their physical beauty as well as flexibility and strength in their bodies. They may be taking care of an older parent, whose physical and mental changes seem daunting and frightening to them, and that can certainly color the way that we view getting older.
My close friends and I are all still planning hikes and trips, bike rides and book groups. But I don’t want to sugar coat it. Even though we are living full and robust lives, aging is set against a backdrop of loss. Connective tissue grows brittle. Physical beauty wanes. Friends, siblings and parents pass away. People we know and love get sick and succumb to a greater vulnerability. Loss takes up a home, right next to the love in our hearts.
Still, this is the best time in history to grow old: In our parent’s generation, if you broke your hip, you were consigned to a wheel chair. Today we can replace body parts like car parts. Seniors are living active, vibrant lives due to new knees or new hips. My neighbor across the street had a stroke a couple of months ago. Within 40 minutes of that stroke, the emergency room gave her a drug that reversed most of the stroke’s effects and prevented worse damage. The outcome? She had six weeks of physical therapy and some exhaustion to deal with from the trauma. Now, it’s like she never had a stroke. Medical advancements contribute greatly to the quality of an older life.
What you think and
how you talk to yourself determines how you feel: We know that what we eat determines how
our body feels. Food creates certain
chemicals in our body. You won’t feel
very good if you’re drinking sodas all day and eating sugar and carbs with nary
a vegetable in site.
Similarly, what we feed our minds also creates chemicals in our body. Self-talk that berates age and the aging process, will not help us to feel good about life. Attitude counts.
Physical Activity: My husband’s favorite advice about aging
is to “keep moving.” Walking everyday,
yoga, Pilates, biking, dancing, anything that gets us out into our community to
move helps us to feel good. Exercise
increases blood flow, gets our heart rate up and strengthens our lungs. We benefit from the endorphins released
during exercise that helps to stave off depression.
Prayer: As I grow older, I notice
that my prayers tend to be more about “thank you,” than asking for things. Maybe
I’ve finally learned that God is not a cosmic bellhop. Whether it’s prayer,
meditation or conscious breathing practices, some form of deep stillness
everyday contributes to an overall sense of well-being.
Letting go: Letting go is the antidote to the sense of loss that youth has abandon us. And, letting go is the encouragement we give to a younger generation with whom the hope of the future rests. The shedding of thoughts and attitudes that don’t nourish our heads and hearts can unburden our creativity and our sense of wonder.
Curiosity and Engagement: The world is an interesting place, but we need to be involved. Women’s and men’s groups, book groups, film groups, church groups and classes are readily available. We can learn a foreign language if we want to. The library provides any book on any topic and also has an array of free classes. We can knit or garden or walk the dog. Aging with a positive outlook depends upon the lens through which we see the world, and curiosity offers a beautiful overview.
We cannot change the events in our life. Things happen. We might get sick or injured
in older age. But sickness and injury can happen when you’re younger too. Regardless of how we face the years, we have
control over our attitudes. We can make
gratitude and kindness a daily practice. We can engage with our real and
digital communities and our families in ways that inspire us to keep trying to
be better people.
Life is so precious in this third chapter precisely because we are vulnerable; because of the expiration date stamped upon our souls. But I find comfort in the fact that I can can change and grow spiritually and psychologically until the day I die.
Knowing that we are in the last chapter, shouldn’t we come to peace with our selves and the world by nourishing gratitude, kindness and love in our lives? Shouldn’t we go out like shooting stars, having lived as fully as we could, until we’ve wrung every last bit of joy from our lives? That’s one choice. The other is, that getting older sucks.
I’ve recently come to realize that I’ve been a part of a movement that I didn’t look for, didn’t ask for, and didn’t see because it was right in front of my face. Funny how that works. I began writing about and advocating for Positive Aging, several years ago. I’m now a part of a growing movement that seeks to dispel the toxic myths of what it is to be an old person. And I have been blessed with models like Ruth Bader-Ginsburg, Carole King, and my heroine, Betty White. None of these women “retired” from life. Instead they embraced their years with a great love and gratitude and continued to thrive.
Don’t Define Me: Leave it to the Boomers to not go gently into that goodnight. Growing old is a pleasure and a gift. I live an active life both physically and mentally. And while yes, people my age may get dementia, have cancer, or arthritic knees, those things are not a given. The truth is, you can get a disease or an injury at any age. But go on the Internet and look up “top issues for seniors” and you will find statistics and studies that make every last one of us look like frail, fragile, sick and forgetful souls, withering away from our precious significance.
What The Accumulating Years Look Like: I recently saw a television show of Carole King’s concert in Hyde Park. Behind her on the stage was a huge screen that projected her image so that the crowd could see her playing and singing. She looked up at the image and then said to the audience: This is what 74 looks like. I love it that she said that. I say that too, this is what 67 looks like, and it’s not the B.S. that is on the Internet telling me I’m ready for Depends. We all have to realize that Big Pharma, and advertising directed at “senior products” is big business. And that’s what’s primarily responsible for stereotyping aging in a toxic light.
Engagement: Most of my peers travel are well read, adhere to an exercise program and try to eat well. I meet them in book clubs, writing groups, Pilate’s classes and on the hiking trail. Though they may have retired from full-time work, many still work as consultants or in part-time jobs that bring them a sense of purpose. It’s good to have something to get up for everyday. Some, like me have entered into encore careers. But none of my peers have decided to put their feet up and watch the paint dry. We all feel that we have much to offer and to share with the world. We are wildly in love with life.
The Most Truthful Stats: I loved reading Aging Well by George E. Vaillant, M.D., Director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development. After collecting and studying decades of data on aging populations, Vaillant concluded that aging well is not just about diet and exercise (though that helps) and it’s not about your cholesterol numbers. Rather your health and happiness is largely dependent upon your attitude.
So, the Positive Aging model is really about seeing and embracing your years as a process of vitality and continued psychological and spiritual growth.
When Are You Old?: Ask a Millennial when old age begins and likely they’ll tell you “59.” Ask a 65-year-old when old age begins and they’ll say 73. Ask me and I’ll tell you that old age begins when you disengage from life, when you shrink away from a your hard won sense of confidence and purpose. Don’t let anyone define you or put an expiration date on you. As we come to the end of our journey, we will know. Only then will we naturally and organically surrender to the pull of eternity and return to the stardust from which we came.
Love Where You Are: Positive Aging is not a means for finding ways to stay young, rather it’s a way to embrace your years and see how rich they are. Stand proudly in the light of your truth. Live fully and love well.
Badass Grannies: I intend to dance for as long as I can, to breathe in the rapture of the experience of being alive. That’s badass living. That’s badass aging. I’ve taken to heart the words from the great poet, William Ernest Henley, “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.” And I’ve taken to heart that attitude gets you a long way when it comes to health, happiness and aging. Hey, no body puts granny in a corner!
This isn’t the first time that I’ve overthought something and maybe tried a little too hard to get something right. Relocating from Oregon to Texas had a lot of moving parts and being a logistical queen, I handled most of them efficiently. There is, however, a kind of weariness that ensues when you’re dealing with so many challenges and changes. My little Type-A personality won’t rest when it’s tired if there’s more work to be done. So that “trying-too-hard” thing tripped me up and resulted in a demonstration of what I’d call, a super-mighty fiasco. In other words, I just wasn’t paying attention.
According to the Texas Department of Public Safety, which oversees drivers licenses, you need to get a license within 90 days of moving here. What they don’t say however, is when that day starts. Is it when you close on your house? Is it when you actually move in to your house? Or maybe it’s when you register your car, because that’s the first time that you are in the system. I chose the “I’m in the system, date” as the official marker for my residency. That’s when I started counting — October 31st. Therefore I must get a Texas driver’s license by January 31st.
Somewhere around January 10th, my husband and I went into hyper gear. We downloaded the Texas Driver’s Manual from the Texas Department of Public Safety web site and began to study. Reading the manual, the first thing that I noticed was that there was an awful lot of information about DWI ‘s and DUI’s, the fines, the jail time, how many years, yes years, it would take you to get your license back if you’re convicted of a DWI.
On the practice tests that I took, there were so many questions about DUI fines and convictions that it began to dawn upon me that maybe Texas had a little bit of a drinking problem. Seems that there was a ton of legislation passed in 2014 meant to deter the bad combo of the drink and the drive. Studying how that legislation applied to me, the Texas driver, also proved to be a deterrent for committing to memory every fine, sentence and charge that comes with a “driving while under the influence” conviction. And yes, it was enough to make me want to drink. I was never going to be able to pass this test. I spent three hours on a Sunday afternoon trying to memorize what could happen to someone who was bonehead enough to consume an over abundance of alcohol and not call an Uber.
On the day after the Martin Luther King holiday, I was ready. Hubby and I made our way to Texas DPS to take our written tests and get our licenses. It’s important to note at this part of the story, that the last time I took a written driver’s test, I lived in Ashland, Oregon — population 20,000. There were exactly three people in the line in front of me the day that I took the test.
Austin though, has a population of 2 million. There were 65 gazillion people waiting in line in front of me to get their license. Someone in a uniform announced to the masses that it would be a minimum 3 and a half hour wait. That same official person told us that we could make a reservation to stand in line by going to the website. So we did. We got on our phones and reserved our places. We went home, had some lunch, walked the dog and returned to the DPS almost four hours later.
On our second trip to get a driver’s
license in the same day, we checked in at the kiosk and found that the
mysteries of the digital universe had recorded my information and my
reservation to stand in line, but not my husbands. So we cut our losses, went home, ate
chocolate, and whined about the wasted day.
Three mornings later, we were now
old pros. We got up early, got on-line, made our reservations to stand in line;
and it was then that I noticed the fine print under the check-list of documents
we were supposed to bring to the Texas Department of Safety. It said something to the effect that if we
had an unexpired license from another state, we would be exchanging it for a
Texas license. Wait. What? No written
test? I searched the website and found a
second reference to “no written test when you hold an unexpired license from
another state.” How the hell did I miss this?
An odd combination of relief in knowing that no one would question me about how many days I’d spend in jail if I was convicted of a DUI, and regret that I would never get back all those hours when I studied the meaning of signs that contained pictures of cows, little men with flags and speed limits. The cows do not mean rodeo ahead; the men with flags, do not connote football game nearby; and the speed limits are more than just suggestions.
I think that one of the ways that you can tell you’ve settled into someplace new is that you start relaxing and you stop trying so hard to do everything right and right away. At this writing, I’m lying around in my pajamas hoping to master the art of doing nothing today, while simultaneously laughing at myself and the super-mighty, Texas drivers license fiasco. I’m told I should receive my license in the mail in the next couple of weeks. Sigh . . .
Cooking is a sacred art to me. It’s an act of love. It’s a gratitude and awareness practice, that requires thoughtfulness and care in order to be done well. I’m not looking for convenience in my kitchen as much as I’m looking for ways to celebrate the earth’s bounty and the gift of health. That requires a little bit of slowing down so that I can enjoy the experience and process of creating a good meal.
Eating food is the single biggest chemical reaction that happens in your body in the course of the day. If you want to demonstrate cause and effect to your self, nothing is more profound than the correlation between what you eat and how you feel. Eat carbs smothered in cheese with nary a vegetable in sight and chances are you are going to feel sluggish and achy. Eat fresh food, prepared sanely (i.e. no deep fat frying or over cooking innocent vegetables), and you’re probably going to feel more alert and healthy.
The other day I was shopping at Central Market in Austin,
and there was a table of fresh, local, organic tomatoes that made me realize
that I don’t eat many raw veggies in the winter months. I always feel more energized and focused when
I’m eating a wide variety of veggies, especially raw ones. So, I was inspired to buy ingredients for
gazpacho. Gazpacho is a cold soup, usually eaten in the summer months.
Even though it’s February, I decided that the gazpacho would
be a super-healthy breakfast for the coming week. If you serve it with a half of an avocado and
a hard-boiled egg, it’s the ultimate way to start a healthy day. And here’s the magic of this soup with
Spanish origins: It’s a low-calorie,
nutrition dense food, filled with fiber, minerals and anti-oxidants. No wonder
I feel so great when I eat it.
Here’s how to make
Wash the following veggies and cut them into chunks:
2 sweet tomatoes 2
carrots (don’t peel em)
1-2 green scallion 3-4
stalks of celery
a cup or so of jicama 7-8 mini-peppers in assorted colors
a handful of fresh parsley 1
In batches, pulverize everything in a food processor and
transfer the pulverized veggies to a bowl. I use a Tupperware bowl with a lid
because I’ll store it this way in the fridge.
When you have pulverized all the veggies, squeeze in ½ lime.
The lime adds some flavor, but will also keep the gazpacho fresh tasting.
The final step is to pour a quart bottle of Knudsen’s Very
Veggie over the pulverized vegetable mix and stir. I like the low sodium Very
Veggie because vegetables naturally contain sodium, and you get a cleaner and
more distinct flavor if you don’t over-salt.
Chunk up a half of an avocado and put it in a bowl. Ladle
the soup over the avocado. I have
friends that like to add a dash of Tabasco.
For breakfast, I love to eat a bowl of this along with a hard-boiled egg on the side. It’s the complete meal – veggies, protein and a good fat.
The soup is best served chilled, but when I make a fresh
batch, I just eat it at room temperature and it’s great.
Refrigerate the leftover gazpacho in a covered container.
When you cook for yourself, it’s an act of self-love. When you cook for others it’s a celebration
New Year’s Day: Even if you don’t make resolutions, which I don’t, there’s a feeling of freshness and excitement about starting a new year that makes us want to be better people. I like having New Year’s Day as a holiday. It’s a good day to prioritize and set up a pattern for the coming year.
Priorities: Recently I read a post by my favorite psychologist, Benjamin Hardy (if you don’t know who he is, look him up). He wrote about the concept of prioritizing. I’m paraphrasing him when I share: “If you have more than three priorities, you’re not really prioritizing.” That keeps it simple, doesn’t it? For me, priorities really have to do with lifestyle. My three priorities for this year are the same as they were for last year: I write every morning. I walk or do Pilates every afternoon. And I prepare one great, healthy meal a day for my husband and I. That’s it and it won’t trip me up by being out of reach.
Goals and the Magic of Consistency: Goals are a different animal. They’re like New Year’s resolutions in that they can become unmanageable. If they get too big, too many, too fast, after a couple of days I can’t meet any of them, so I abandon them. I learned a long time ago that goals are best done in bite size chunks, because it’s easier to experience success with a small goal that takes just a day or a few weeks to accomplish.
For example, I work on a novel length manuscript every year, but I only set monthly goals for it. This January, one of my goals is to complete research and preparation on the next novel so that I can start writing prose in February. The goal of pounding out a novel in a month or writing an article every day aren’t in my program, because too often I’ve experienced failure with goals like that. The consistency of one step at a time, one page, one good article will get me to where I’m going. When I attain priorities and meet little goals, it builds confidence, and confidence has far-reaching, positive effects on everything.
Dreams: I like to dream big. I dream about publishing houses that want my work and an agent who gets me and wants to help me. I dream about having all the energy I need to complete novels and articles for the time ahead. I dream about writing for Texas Monthly. I dream about long and healthy years with my husband. And I dream about the success of my 2020 release of A Delightful Little Book On Aging. Dreams are not goals, but surrender to their largesse and vision is crucial to prioritizing and setting attainable milestones.
Balance: I’m at a time of life where I want to focus less on accomplishment and more on the gratitude of experience, but that doesn’t mean that accomplishment isn’t important to me. In addition to priorities, goals and dreams, I take note of what feels nourishing and creates balance in my life.
As a writer, I spend a lot of time in my head. So balance means being in life. Again, it’s real simple: I take walks with my husband. We enjoy sitting on the front porch with our dog and watching our neighborhood. Side by side, with our hands wrapped around cups of tea, we take in our world. Just being in the experience of sunshine or gray, kids who are throwing a ball and laughing in the cul-de-sac, making note of who is pruning roses or cleaning a garage. . . I relish “being” in this world, on this little block, in this community, watching life happen. This is my balance and it fills me with appreciation.
I always start the New Year by affirming that this is going to be a great year. This is going to be a healing year. In spite of the infection that nibbles away at Washington and the world, there are good things happening too. I can’t forget that. None of us should. There are things and people to get enthusiastic about. Humanity has not lost its way. I know, because I’ve seen the best of humanity from my front porch.
I’m excited about living another year. I’m excited about being in life. I’m grateful. I’m excited about witnessing the neighborhood kids grow another inch. And I’m excited about priorities and goals that I’ve set forth, balanced by a nourished and loving heart. Life is good.
May 2019 be a great year for us all. HAPPY NEW YEAR, everyone!
When I first saw Jesse, he was standing in the front yard, talking with my husband. From a distance, his body looked like a “C.” His shoulders, neck and head curved forward, as if he were studying something that lay at his feet. His stature was small. He shuffled slowly as he followed my husband into the house. How was this somewhat frail looking man in his mid to late 70’s, ever going to cut and carry stone into my house for a week to build a new fireplace?
Jesse had come with a glowing recommendation, that he was the best mason that there was, that he worked slowly, but his work was impeccable. The person who told us that also said “ . . . and he’s the best man I’ve ever known.”
Jesse stood in the corner of our living room by the old fireplace and looked up and down the wall, holding onto a piece of the dusty sample rock that he’d brought with him.
“Here,” he said pointing at the old fireplace. “We’ll place the rock in an arch around the top of the fireplace box. Then we’ll go straight up.” He gave us a timeline and told us when he could start. Leaving that day, he shook our hands, addressing us as “sir” and “m’am.” He was the kind of gentleman that has grown rare in our culture, so respectful that he compelled deep respect in return.
Limestone is easily quarried in this part of Texas. The stone comes in a few shades of white and beige. It’s soft enough to be cut into large bricks, its ragged, rough edges adding character to homes, garden walls, and in our case, a fireplace.
The whole thing was my husband’s idea. He wanted a substantial fireplace that would anchor the room. Rock from floor to ceiling. I was the one who suggested the limestone. I wanted the fireplace to be like something that you’d find in a sprawling hacienda, long before these hills became housing developments and sub-divisions.
I was relieved when Jesse showed up for work the first day with an assistant. But my relief was short lived when I realized that his assistant was just as old as Jesse. The two men shuffled in and out of the house, the air sliced by the high-pitched sound of a buzz saw that cut the stone to make it fit. Heads down, stopping only to drink water, they moved deliberately, focused on measurements and mortar; back and forth from the stone on the front porch to the fireplace. Jesse was no longer recognizable as the old mason we’d hired. Instead, I saw him as the master he was, imbuing his work with a sense of agelessness.
Cutting and chipping stone is not a glamorous job. It’s hard and it’s heavy. It’s fraught with dust. But as I watched Jesse work, I started to feel that I was in the presence of nobility. A man who can make something with his hands, something that will outlast my lifetime and his, is special. Stone by stone, the fireplace grew. Jesse climbed on and off of the scaffolding as if he were 30 and not 70-something. The stone eventually made it all the way to the ceiling. The familiar, sure-footed dance that he’d learned over 50 years of masonry was something sacred. He never dropped a stone, never dropped a tool, never swayed out of balance and never spoke anything that wasn’t positive.
My husband and I went about our daily routines, stopping now and then to view the slow progress and the accumulation of dust. One day, standing at the kitchen sink, I heard Jesse singing softly to himself as he worked. Every day thereafter, I listened and he was always singing. Sometimes he sang in Spanish and sometimes in English. Like a monk with a mantra, the sounds became part of the creation he was birthing.
In a week’s time, the three of us stood back and admired the new fireplace. Jesse held a rag in one hand having just wiped the dust from the hearth. We marveled at the monolithic art that he’d built with his hands and with his heart.
Here is the story that I made up about the new fireplace, a story more fitting of Jesse’s noble work. In my story, I tell you that my family has owned this land for 7 generations, and that the original hacienda was a majestic architecture of limestone and hand-hewn beams that looked over Lake Austin. I tell you that when the hacienda burned down and the family scattered to make new lives for themselves, that this fireplace was all that remained. So we decided to build a house around it. Of course, none of that’s true. We live in a development, but I like the story I’ve made up — because it seems more fitting for the fireplace that Jesse made.
When the work was finished, Jesse returned to looking like the old man, shaped like a “C.” When he drove away in his slightly dented truck filled with rocks, I was left with a sense of having witnessed greatness. The anchor that my husband had wanted for the room was a true masterpiece. And the original recommendation turned out to be true. Jesse did beautiful work and I he is definitely one of the best people I’ve ever known.
Friends nourish us by seeing our goodness when our own eyes are clouded.
I’ll never forget my 5th grade friend. It was Steck Elementary, a new school in a new neighborhood and I didn’t know anyone. The very first lunch break of the very first day found me sitting by myself in the lunchroom eating a sandwich my mom had packed for me. There was hardly anyone there. That’s because the kids at Steck all went home for lunch. It was uncool to eat in the lunchroom.
I didn’t finish my sandwich. I walked around the playground and watched the kids come back from their “at-home” lunches and gather in groups. Boys congregated by the fence and the monkey bars. Girls played a game called Four Square. A ball came flying at me from the Four Square games, and I dodged it just in time. The girls playing the game were staring at me. “Throw it back,” one of them yelled. I picked up the ball, but when I threw it, it went off to the side, bounced and hit a piece of playground equipment, then rolled several feet away from the Four Square game. The girls laughed at me, shook their heads, and I heard one of them say “a real knucklehead,” which made them all laugh more.
That was an all is lost moment. I fought back tears. I hated this school. Why did my mom always have to move us when she got a new job? I turned away from the laughing, balled up my fists and jammed them into my jacket pockets.
I felt her standing there before I turned around and saw her. With confidence and comfort, a little girl with thick glasses and a big smile eyes looped her arm with mine and pull me away from the side of the building. “Four Square is so stupid,” she said. “I’m Jeannie Stein. Have you ever been a Girl Scout?” And thus began a friendship that assuaged the pain of being the new kid.
What I didn’t know then, was that welcoming the stranger is a core principal of Judaism and Jeannie Stein was a Jew, but I found that out when the Girl Scout question led me to a meeting room at her temple. When I finally learned the piece about welcoming the stranger, I was in my 40’s. Memory transported me back to 10-year old Jeannie Stein, the kind little girl who had welcomed me when I was a stranger.
I didn’t get to know her for more than a year, because my mom got another job, and we moved again. But for a year, being friends with Jeannie Stein was like having another home. We played Barbies together when I was starting to feel like maybe I was too old to still be playing with dolls. She was the last little girl that I ever played dolls with. When she looped her arm through mine that day, I didn’t know that we’d be crossing a bridge together, one that led from childhood to something else.
I’ve been the new kid quite a few times since that day in the 5th grade, most recently, since my husband and I moved to Austin. It was a courageous thing that we did, uprooting and transplanting ourselves in a matter of months.
A big move is filled with risk, unknowns and excitement. Eventually, I’d adapt. I’d discover the best grocery store, the favorite restaurant, the closest bookstore. But just like it was in 5th grade, my biggest concern was whether I could make new friends. The feeling of being the new kid, standing alone on the playground comes back. My eyes are searching the horizon for a Jeannie Stein. Under the big Texas sky, my current and closest relationships currently amount to repairmen and contractors.
Women are social creatures. We need each other’s company in order to thrive. In this new place I’ve been taunted by thoughts that all the friendships have already been made, that women are already coupled and in groups and there wouldn’t be room for me. That proved not true, of course, but I had to muster the courage to reach out.
On a website called Next Door, a resource for individual neighborhoods, I posted that I’d like to find a writing group or a book group. In less than 24 hours I had 5 responses from people who shared my interests. The response that touched me the most was from a young woman who wrote that she’d moved here in April and hadn’t made any friends yet. Then added, “How do you make friends when you’re a grown up?” I reached back to her with an invitation for coffee, but she never responded. It made me think that perhaps she didn’t really want new friends, that she was closed off to them.
My new Jeannie Stein showed up in the form of a woman named Melinda who’d asked for a phone conversation. I learned that she was a 7th generation Texan who had horses and a book group, a perfect combination for a Texan in my eyes. In her gentle drawl that was as sweet as dripping honey, she extended an invitation to join her group. Metaphorically, she looped her arm through mine and I knew that everything was going to be okay.
What we learned as children continues to inform us, regardless of how grown up, sophisticated, or world wise we think we are.
Melinda told me that the book we’d discuss at the book group is Educated, by Tara Westover. Westover’s book is now a part of my extended Jeannie Stein story. The book is a memoir about self-invention and becoming the best kind of human being that you can be. I’m hoping that I will be a good friend and remember to reach out to the stranger in the same way that the Jeannie Stein’s of the world have reached out to me.
My new neighborhood reminds me of the opening credits in Desperate Housewives. Behind the beautiful front doors, the manicured lawns, and the gentle southern curb appeal, most certainly lurk all kinds of stories with a sharper edge. Or at least that’s what I’m hoping.
Recently transplanted to southern Texas, by way of Ashland, Oregon, we don’t really know anyone yet. Aside from walking our dog, our days consist of digging through unending boxes and looking for a place to put things. Consequently there is no television hooked up yet to numb our brains at the end of the day. So Dean and I spend our evenings sitting on the front porch, talking in whispers and wonderings about this new place we’ve moved to.
Directly across the street from us is Richard. (All names have been changed in order to cover my ass and protect the innocent.) Richard walks Domino, a black Portuguese water dog. On the day that we first said “hi” to one another, I commented about the plethora of inflatable ghosts and goblins, dozens of pumpkins and skeletons that seemed to be reproducing themselves on his front lawn. It’s a veritable blow up doll convention out there.
“My wife,” he said. And then followed it with “Wait until Christmas,” a comment that left me with a little shudder.
The man has three daughters and a wife who is obviously determined to give her kids happy childhood memories. But as the object of my fascination, Kinky Friedman, once said “A happy childhood is the worst preparation for life.”
The neighbor next door to them have two boys. They throw the football in the evening causing Dean to recount his childhood: always in a relationship with a ball game with other boys — football, baseball, basketball, come over for a catch, kind of days. I never tire of those stories, imagining my 67-year-old husband as an 11-year-old with fresh eyes, a dimpled grin and a fair amount of mischief that he never lost.
Stella is the mother to those boys. I met her when she was walking Lennon, named after John. If not for my dog Jeter, it might take me months to meet and greet the neighbors, but a goofy Labrador retriever is a ticket to an introduction. A few minutes of canine sniffing gives time for an exchange of names and a sincere welcome to the neighborhood. Stella’s yard is decorated for Halloween too, but not crazy over the top, over compensating for something decorated, like Richard’s yard.
Dean and I speculate about the lives here, the intersection of old and young, reckless and measured, all of it with a Texan texture and the smell of barbecue in the air. Welcome to Austin, a fun and foreign land.
“Do you think that we’ve bought enough Halloween trick or treat stuff to give out” I ask him.
“It doesn’t matter. The neighborhood kids are going to hate you anyway because you’re giving out little bags of pretzels and popcorn. You know the holiday is all about the candy, right?”
“What about healthy treats?” He rolls his eyes. “Am I going to be that old woman whose trees the kids in the neighborhood wrap in toilet paper because she doesn’t give out Snickers at Halloween?”
He shrugs. “Maybe.”
I’d hate to wake up to that the morning after. Especially since we just gave our yard got some autumn love this past week, a toned down version of Halloween blow up dolls. We planted winter-hardy pansies and mini snapdragon. I placed three baskets of mums on our porch and an autumn wreath on the front door. I put out a couple of pumpkins. I confess to putting out fake ones, having dealt with the carnage wrought by aggressive squirrels over the years. It all looks very tasteful and welcoming. Then again, maybe my decor is screaming that I’m giving out stupid bags of popcorn for Halloween.
A car pulls into a driveway a few doors down from us and I wave. The driver waves back. “Have you met her?” Dean asks me.
“No, I just want to be friendly in case all the neighborhood kids wind up hating me for giving them pretzels and popcorn for Halloween.”
“Or if you write about this on your blog.”
“That will take longer to discover than the fact that I’m not giving out candy,” I say.
We sit in silence, lost in our thoughts about the lives of polite people in a polite neighborhood that is showing signs of straining at the seams from too many blow-up dolls. Not giving out candy could potentially add to the strain. I’m pissed off that fitting in means so much to me. I hate blow-up dolls and I hate the idea of loading up kids with sugar. But my stomach lurches and before the evening is over, I know I will succumb. I’ll run to Costco tomorrow and buy a bunch of candy to mix in with the healthy treats. That and a glass of hard cider should assuage the Halloween guilt and discomfort.
My decision was really a whim. I didn’t think it through — I just knew that I wanted it. “I’m on a quest,” I told my husband and my friends, “to meet Kinky Friedman.”
It seemed like a good goal, given that we were moving to Austin, Texas. This was the place where Kinky had once made his stand. As I started to put things into boxes, Kinky bumped against something in my brain and I became obsessed with him. This was more than just a quest, it was an invitation from my psyche.
When we decided to make the move, it was because of the smoke that clogged our little valley in the summer months. For the past weeks, I couldn’t see, couldn’t breath for all that smoke. I became sick and sluggish. I felt trapped and stuck, but not just physically. I felt that way about my writing. And I felt that way about the unrelenting scandal, corruption and wreckage that filled the national news. I think the whole country was experiencing idiot fatigue, the kind of weariness that comes from so many grown-up men giving away their nuts. The result was a sickening lack of courage to stand up for anything, let alone the “right thing.” The move to Austin was a yet unformed promise of liberation from all thing blocking my view. It gave me hope, and a reason to unplug from the news. I’d pack up the television and lose myself in the whimsy of finding Kinky Friedman.
People asked me over and over again, “Why Austin?” I didn’t have much of an answer. I said things like, “They have a great music scene. I like the rolling hills. Warm weather is appealing to these old bones.” But I didn’t really know why Austin. Was it because I might possibly find Kinky Friedman? Could I be drawn to Austin because of a greater rising that was beginning to happen in the Lone Star state — a new nation being birthed, while I again, was experiencing a rebirth, too?
Once, a long time ago, when I was a 20-something, I’d met Kinky. He brushed by me in the hallway at NBC studios. I worked for a television show called The Midnight Special. It was on at 11:30 on Friday nights, hosted by Wolfman Jack, who started out each show with a deep, booming declaration: “Let the midnight special shine its ever lovin’ light on you.”
Armed with a hit record, Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jew Boys were guests on The Midnight Special. They sang irreverent songs with political overtones. All messages are made more palatable through the activism of laughter. His popular anthem, They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore, was a memorable sing-along ode to anti-racism. That was long before any of us could imagine MTV, cable television or the likes of a Stephen Colbert. I’d thought that Kinky was hysterically funny. But he was also brilliant, a Mark Twain of the times, dressed up in the 1970’s. He said and sang what was on his mind, without worry about what others thought. He was genuine. And I wanted to possess that same kind of smart, funny, edge that made him so interesting. There was a time when I had it, when I felt it.
In that part of my life, I drank hard and stayed up all night listening to music. I wrote poetry and lyrics. I wrote my first short stories with a sharp wit that wasn’t afraid to make fun of things in the word that seemed hypocritical or otherwise disingenuous. There was in me a sense of wild mischief and quirk. But as the years went by, I started to care too much about what other people thought of me, how I was seen. I tried harder than anyone I’d ever met to “get my act together.” The result was that I broke off that wild and quirky piece of myself and buried along the road somewhere. I developed a sense of pride that I’d worked my ass off to become a responsible, upstanding citizen and contributing member of the community. So I forgot about Kinky, except to note he was still making music, and had also became a novelist who cranked out a lot of murder mysteries.
Life happens on more than one level at a time. Moving to Austin was now part of a search for the edgy kid of my 20’s. It was also a bold statement of my 60’s. Hubby and I saw this as a great adventure — doing a huge interstate move at a time when most people are downsizing, simplifying and slowing. I’ve taken risks before and the risks were always worth it, even when I seemingly failed. It wasn’t that I wanted to relive that earlier time, but I knew it was crucial for me to pull it forward to where I was now. Kinky Friedman became my symbol for that, a light that would help me rediscover that sense of wild again.
So where to look for this 74-year-old Texas icon? A bar in Austin? His animal preserve in San Antonio? To start, I bought his book, Armadillos and Old Lace. That might give me a clue. Then, I started to think about what I would say to him if I actually found him.
I pictured myself sitting in a bar in Austin, ordering a soda water and lime, and pretending that it was vodka on the rocks. I imagined leaning forward and asking the bartender if he knew who Kinky Friedman was. I’d tell him that I was on a quest to meet the musician, writer, and political activist. The bartender would nod toward a stage, where outlined in the smoky haze would be a guy tuning a guitar with a cigar in one hand.
I’d walk up to the stage. “Do you remember being on The Midnight Special in the 1970’s?” I’d ask. “Do you remember the young secretary on the show back then, the kind of funny one?”
He’d shake his head no and look perplexed.
“I guess it doesn’t matter if you remember her or not, I’m just looking for her, is all . . .”
“You might check somewhere down that road between happiness and despair,” he’d say, quoting one of his novels.
Then again, the bartender might just shrug at my question and say, “Everyone knows who Kinky Friedman is.” When pressed, he’d answer that he’d “never met the guy personally.” And I’d walk away remembering that I had met him personally, once when I was of a quicker wit, a faster step, and sharper edge. It was back in the days when the vodka in my glass would have been real and irreverent poetry was the prayer on my lips.
The smoky skies of Ashland have cleared enough that I can go for a walk with the dog without coming home and coughing. Nothing like reacting negatively to environmental smoke to get you to appreciate breathing! The past couple of months have been challenging. I’ve been blessed to experience most of my life in fitness and in health, but the smoke from surrounding forest fires that lingers in the valley over the summer months attacked me this year, putting health and well-being out of reach.
For the past six weeks, I’ve been trapped inside. . . a lot. And the thing I missed the most was spending time on the deck hammock, looking up into the oak tree and getting lost in the patches of sun and sky that filtered through the leaves. Whereas summer used to mean home-made popsicles on the front porch and harvesting herbs, now it means staying inside and changing the air filter.
This summer tale is not just mine. It’s becoming all too familiar a story. The climate is changing and when temperatures rise, ideal conditions for forest fires rise too. I fear that this is the new normal for the west. What’s equally as sad is that there are things we could be doing to help the situation. But it will take government and organization and a willingness to listen to scientists who’ve been studying the problem. My greatest hope is that we find the courage to take action. Action number one: Vote out any idiot who doesn’t think that Climate Change is real! That’s at least a start.
One of the things that I remember from the 1980’s about being a strong, independent woman was this phrase: “you can have it all.” Turns out you really couldn’t have it all. What the phrase honestly meant was, “you can do it all.” You can raise kids, have a career, take care of a home, volunteer and have the time and energy to bake Martha Stewart cookies on the weekend .
My life looked more like this: work a 65 hour week, collapse on Friday night. Be grateful that I don’t have kids. Drag my yaya to the grocery store on Saturday morning. Sleep all day Sunday, then get up and do it again. Screw homemade cookies. And what was amazing was that around me were lots of women who did have kids and managed far better than I could without them. Most of the women I knew back then were always on the edge of burnout. Because, we wanted to have it all.
Fast forward to present time and another insidious phrase is clawing its way into the psyche of the culture and it’s STILL about “You can do it all.” It refers to superwoman and their superpowers. Seems like everyone has a breast-plate and a friggin’ super power. I think women today have it only slightly better than my generation did — if they’re with a partner, chances are the division of labor is more equitable than it was in the 1980’s. Except that you have to allow for a wave of women raising kids on their own without any physical or emotional support from the outside. We can call these women superwomen with super powers, but sometimes I fear that saying is just a way to make women feel bad that they can’t do everything and have any energy or balance left at all.
Could it be as simple as redefining the words and phrases that we use? Does strength and courage have to mean bad-ass? Or can it mean standing up when you get kicked down, even if your knees are skinned? Can independence mean saying “no” to some of the stuff you didn’t want to take on in the first place?
I’m retired now, but I haven’t let that stop me from grasping at the same kind of drive that I had in my thirties — the one that told me I could have it all. Though I now have the time to write, read and study, I do so with a ferocious discipline that puts me back in a time and a place where I believed that I was supposed to WANT it all, let alone, have it all.
Recently I’ve begun to think that if I really could have it all; if one day I was awarded it all, would I know what to do with it? That thought gives me pause and makes me consider my Labrador retriever: if you catch the squirrel buddy, what are you going to do with it?
I have to remind myself . . . a lot . . . that life is never meant to be one giant “To Do’ list. It’s meant to be an experience of the senses and an enlivening of the heart — if I could remember that, I think that the rest would probably just fall into place. Maybe that’s what courage really is.