Holy Days

The End of Summer has become a holy season for me. It's not just the waning of summer heat - although I am apt to fall on my knees in gratitude the first night the temperature dips into the sixties. These weeks have become a time-out-of-time to ponder, reassess, and move forward. It starts around my birthday in late August, which I've often thought of it as a last gasp opportunity (after the New Year and Lent) for "resolutions" and the possibility of actually following through with a few of them. It continues through the early weeks of September. In recent years, the anniversary of my son's cancer diagnosis has added to the pondering, and to its complexity.

A bit of wisdom I feel I've gleaned from this is how perspective shifts over time. This year, Ben called me the day before what is known among a lot of cancer survivors as "D-Day" to confirm that it was indeed that next day - a very good sign that the memory is receding a bit. He was planning on celebrating the six year anniversary with a heroic bike ride up a very steep, 2-mile mountain road near his college - six times (he did it!). He said what I have often thought in recent years: "If I had only known during those years how things were going to turn out, it would have been so much easier."

Yes, indeed. That is what perspective is all about. Six years out, things look different than we saw and lived them at the time. From my own perspective as a mother, I was almost entirely focused at that time on protecting my child,  whatever it took. But the fact that I was also responsible to Ben's three siblings - all young adults at the time: a brother beginning his sophomore year in college, a recently graduated sister starting her first week at work, and another sister who had just become a mother - called me out of that laser beam focus occasionally. My own head and heart would be crumbling with despair at his latest complication and his overall prognosis, but I would gather myself together to explain things to my children in the best light possible, with hope and the details that supported that hope. Ben was strong and young, he was getting the best care possible, we were with him day and night. Telling the story to them helped me reframe it for myself. And it was all true, as true as my fear.

Even in regular day-to-day life, I've found this to be a helpful technique in gaining perspective. During stressful times, telling your story from a different angle - in the third person or from a different time frame can truly help one get a grip on the complex reality of it.  "It was a strange year, full of change and confusion ..." or "She sometimes wonders if she can make it to Friday, much less to old age." A bit dramatic, yes, but somehow seeing myself as a character in an un-folding story, or an actor in the middle of a movie, helps me see that more is coming that I don't know yet, and that I have a hand in shaping at least a part of the tale. 

This is the key, I think. To somehow get yourself to wondering what will happen next, instead of dreading what you most fear. Curiosity instead of cringing. One interesting thing about life is that we never know the ending. And as comforting as it might be to have someone whisper to us what happens next, what kind of life would that be? We need possibility in all its limitlessness - we need the capacity to realize hope, even in the darkest times.

Pema Chodron was one of my guides during that hard time and still. "The gloriousness of life and the wretchedness of life need each other. . . We can become quite arrogant whenever everything is going our way." Wretchedness, and even the depression that sometimes follow, is the muck we work with to create something interesting at least, if not always beautiful. We have to find a way to open up to "the whole thing," she says.

I think we must have an innate capacity to do this. The anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11 falls during these holy weeks too. This tenth anniversary seemed to me to focus less on politics and more on individual and communal loss, and love for one another. Watching footage from that time and listening to the immediate commentaries, what you heard from the "(wo)man on the street" is not the rhetoric we heard from our leaders justifying retaliation. What we heard was heartbroken grief at the immensity of the loss of human life and wondrous gratitude and love toward the people who reached out to one another that day. You hear deep pride in our resiliency, and in our ability to suffer great loss and open up instead of shut down. A glass of water to a stranger, a held hand, and "are you okay" echoing all over the blasted cities and rippling outward.

Because it is possible to let sorrow and grief and shocking twists of fate soften us, I want to believe in it as a way forward. It is hard to stay there, as we saw post-9/11 and as we witness in other tragedies. There is choice in there someplace - to cringe and harden or to reach out and wonder. From my current vantage point in middle-age, I can tell you that on a personal level it is an ongoing struggle that does not get easier. But it does get interesting, more so with each year. And that is why all anniversaries are worth celebrating, or at least observing - the ones obviously life-giving like a birthday, and the ones that continue to shape a life, which are often hugely difficult at the time. It is so big, so complex, so difficult, and so beautiful. C'est la vie. In late summer, I am reminded to keep my eyes open wide, seeking wonder, giving gratitude.  


Going gray

I like the idea of calling them “sparkles,” but they are - honestly - a pretty dull gray.  I began to notice the transformation underway on my head a few years ago, when I was in enough personal tumult I couldn’t bear to add one more thing to my list of life-changes. I dyed my fading hair several different colors, badly, before getting some professional help from my sweet, nearly lifelong hairdresser who began blonding-up the new hairs every few months. But it's costly, and after a few years of it I began to wonder what it would be like if I just let it be.    

I remember imagining, as a child, what I might look like when I grew up. Then, there was no sense of dread or loss, just curiosity. I simply "wondered"  - in a que sera, sera kind of way - what would be. If we lived in a culture that appreciated aging, if we acknowledged the growth and the wisdom obtained over the course of a human life, might we be a little more open to this change, or even see some beauty in it? As it is, I have an oppressive feeling that going gray is failing somehow. But at what? Beating back time? Keeping myself up (as opposed to letting myself go)? Who says?  

A lot of us, unfortunately. The hair-dying is just the tip of the iceberg. I have a friend who, at forty, went to a well-respected dermatologist to have a mole looked at and also got a free lecture on all the ways he could improve her face - removing laugh and frown lines, plumping up her lips, "a little here, a little there."   I have a younger friend whose husband gave her a breast-lift and tummy tuck for her birthday following the birth of their second child. God forbid we appear to have actually lived during our lives. This does not happen in the same way to men whose graying temples are considered distinguished and whose wrinkles add a certain amount of panache in the middle years. This worries me too. Is it simply biology? Instinct makes us perceive signs of aging as indicators of security and experience in men, but only of lost reproductive potential in women? This is kind of dreadful.

But I have been gradually going gray in other areas of my life too, and this has been - honestly - wondrous. Things are simply less black-and-white than they were in the brighter days of my youth when I thought I knew so much. The world I inhabit these days is much more nuanced. I have seen, heard, and done a lot I would not have imagined when I was a young woman. As I look at those thirty years of choices - my own and those of others - with some distance, I tend to see the whole thing as a lot more mysterious that I would have thought possible back in the day. I couldn't see then the wonderful outcomes of my worst decisions or some of the difficult times that followed the ones I made most carefully. Real life is even more colorful than I had imagined. Categorizing, labeling, and judging is complex to the point of being futile. 

Looking back from this place in the road, I see a winding path indeed, partly of my own making, partly coincidental, with plenty of unexpected twists and potholes that put an end to some of my careful plans and assumed ideas. Following some of those bumps off the path, I found myself looking for tracks in the mud from those who had gone on ahead of me, for some worthy guides in the fresh territory.

I still seek those tracks. When I look at the women I most admire, they have had the interesting, unexpected lives that those who resist falling into role-playing, or truth-hiding, can have. They had false starts, and backtracks, and a certain amount of floundering. They aren't necessarily "pretty" and neither are their lives. They are "beautiful" instead, with their skinned knees and messy play-clothes, their deep wrinkles, bright, curious eyes - and gray hair.  

What does the world need now? More women desperately trying to quash the consequences of the adventure of living? Or those wearing their real age proudly? I think we need more graying women out there, dancing. More hard-laughing, recklessly ageing grown-ups delighting in the mystery and wonder of it all - as it is. We need women who just don't have the time to keep checking themselves in the mirror or against the latest magazine ads. Srong and resilient, gracious and flexible women, appropriately worn a bit around the edges; women who are gray, silver, and whitening, lightening up. And while I entertain the real possibility of a bright-headed future version of myself down the line, it will not be because she is hiding something, but because she is expressing on her head a true inner brilliance, vibrancy, and  joie de vivre. We deserve some joy after all this living, not shame-filled slinking around. For me, for now, that means going a bit grayer. 


[photo: Advanced Style - I love this blog!]

The Food Underground

Eggs 1 sm
Each week they're in production, we have eggs and goat cheese delivered to the house by our farming friends: beautiful, colorful, eggs in different shapes and sizes to boil for the Breakfast Brigade, and mild, tasty goat cheese for the cafe (among other things).  

We're happy to pay a fair price for this local food offered by people we know well. We know that by buying from them rather than from a national chain - even one that offers organic produce - we're keeping money circulating in our local economy. We also trust the care both of these suppliers put into their particular operation; their animals are well-loved and healthy, they pay attention to sanitation because they eat this food themselves, and they are careful with the environment ramifications of animal ownership because they live on the land where the animals are kept. Kelley (the goatherd) has been able to expand her clientele by having our house be a pick-up location for others buying the cheese. One other buyer referred to the whole operation as the "underground cheese railroad." 

I love being able to participate in something so homegrown, healthy, and basically good. Fear has often been the basis of our overly complicated food system - where complex methods of sanitation have been required to guard against bacteria and disease resulting from overcrowded animal quarters and mechanized production. Many of these safeguards have been made into laws that keep small producers from making a living selling food that is healthier for the environment, for the animals, and for us. Our friends, Susan and Kelly, living on the land with their animals and eating the same food they're selling to us offer real food security.