Becoming a Classic: Aging with Grace is a blog about aging with enthusiasm, optimism, and satisfaction. No, I haven’t yet figured out how to deserve these labels, but I’m working on it. Through my writing I’ll be looking at what I’m doing wrong (and very occasionally right) and how I can do more to grow as I age. I’ll be sharing my writing because you may have been wrestling with some of the same challenges that have resisted solution for me.
Because I love books—from the greatest classics to the most frivolous just-off-the-press fluff and everything in between—I will relate my musings to things I have read that have given me guidance or ideas, or at least suggested that my feelings and failings are not unique. In some cases, the books and their insights will take center stage.
One morning when I had escaped from Plattsburgh, New York, and the job I loved at the college I detested, I sat in a Montreal natural-foods restaurant and wrote a poem about my ideal day. The poem—now more than twenty-five years in the past and long misplaced—explained that I would write all morning in my city (ideally Montreal) apartment. Then at noon I would meet a man of my heart, also a writer, for a long lunch at the restaurant where I was composing my poem. The man and I would share what we had written that morning. And then we would return to our solitary writing. Perhaps the man and I would meet again in the evening—my poem didn’t explain. Whether with the man, with another friend, or alone, I would no doubt choose to spend nearly every evening at the opera, concert hall, or theater. But certainly the man and I would repeat, over and over, our mornings of solitary writing and our sharing over lunch. We would each be glad for what we, ourselves, had written and fully fascinated by the work of the other.
I love Montreal—and New York City, Paris, Rome, and other captivating cities—and a day such as my poem described continues to retain its full measure of appeal. But the years have spun on and I am living now in a large retirement community outside of Philadelphia. No one gets to my age without loss, and I have known and know intense loss. But I am also finding years full of ideal days—ideal, of course, within the frame of life as it now presents itself.
Ideal for me comes in a variety of guises. I love my courses, taken and taught, at the University of Delaware’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. I have more than once, at the end of a full day of classes, said aloud, “I loved, loved, loved today!” I likewise love my church choir and my activities in our community: billiards, a writers’ group, tap dancing and line dancing, an annual musical. Above all, I love the people with whom I share these activities. And I thrive at the nearby Franciscan Spiritual Center; the Franciscan sisters fully live their spirituality. They’re as radical as I am—but a lot better at putting their beliefs into practice by serving the world community.
Now in this time of the coronavirus, all my classes and group activities have been suspended. But I am still finding beautiful days because I still have the joy of one of God’s profound blessings in my life: my best friend in this world, my sister of the soul though not of blood. Every evening, I pack something for supper and walk over to my friend’s apartment within the community where we are living. Her apartment is larger than mine, so at her place, we are able to do our social distancing—six feet apart—and yet visit and share our reading and wrestling with its meanings; our experiences, thoughts, and emotions; laughter; the devastating news; and the pleasure of each other’s company. And each evening, my friend and I share with each other what we have written during the day.
Entering a church in Rome, I step out of time into stillness and peace between moments of ordinary life. A few tourists pause in front of the frescoes. Someone puts coins in a slot to illuminate the apse for photographs, and then the light is dusk again. Romans from the neighborhood pray silently in the pews. A priest is busy at the altar with some preparation. Time stays suspended until I step back out into the street.
The first Swiss Guards my friend Dora and I saw stood in their costumes in front of the gate to the left of St. Peter’s Basilica. We had just entered Piazza San Pietro through the middle of the embracing colonnade, and I was feeling unequal to branding into my memory the details of the piazza, Bernini’s colossal columns, and the basilica itself. In guidebooks, the scene looked untouchable and remote. In life, the scope, flamboyance, and magnificence were just as extreme, but when I was standing inside the scene, it also felt welcoming.
Within the Basilica di San Pietro, with its shimmering splendor, I found a living church, not merely a museum, in spite of the treasures. I was a Quaker then, not yet a Catholic, but I’d always felt at home in a Catholic church. I felt so even there in St. Peter’s, the grandest in the world. Perhaps a reason was that Catholicism had woven through my life. For a time in college, I had played the guitar for the local folk Mass—that was the late 1960s. I remember strumming along as we sang, “And we’ll sing a song of love / Allelu, allelu, allelu, alleluia.” I’d studied medieval Church history fairly extensively in college and had later dated a former priest for a few months.
After Dora and I entered St. Peter’s, Michelangelo’s Pietà was just to our right; Bernini’s swirlingly ornate ninety-foot altar canopy, the Baldacchino (Balachin), was straight ahead. Bernini remains one of my favorite sculptors because his captivating, often graceful saints, angels, and other figures have strong personalities. Restraint was not Bernini’s watchword.
I couldn’t absorb more than a little of the rich vision the basilica offered, and so I did such things as look up into Michelangelo’s dome; stare at Bernini’s Monumento a papa Alessandro VII, with its skeleton hand holding up an hourglass from under marble draperies; touch both of St. Peter’s feet, not just the right one as was expected; meditate by the tomb of Pope John XXIII; and sooth my sense of inadequacy in grasping it all by resolving to come back many times over the years.
Our map showed the Vatican Museums (the plural is correct) to be located right next to the basilica, and they were, but the entrance was a ten-minute walk around the Vatican walls, past the wagons selling souvenirs and bibite (soft drinks). Because it was by then about two o’clock, to enter the museums, we didn’t have to wait in a line like the two-blocks-long throng we passed one morning later in the week. It had drizzled a little as we’d left St. Peter’s, but the only real rain fell while we were inside the museums, climbing up and down stairs, walking from room to room, from masterpiece to masterpiece.
Visiting the Vatican Museums was a succession of, “Wow, this is here!” and “I wish I could assimilate all these wonderful things”: the Hellenistic Period sculpture Laocoön and His Sons, a Roman emperor’s mosaics and stone bowl the size of a small swimming pool, Raphael’s School of Athens, and the grand prize at the end, the Sistine Chapel. I thought, “Popes are chosen in this room. Michelangelo himself painted these scenes. Now I’m standing here. I’m numbed by the responsibility.” I willed myself to see, really to see, the images I had looked at so many times in reproductions—above all, God giving life to Adam and the Delphic Sibyl, my favorite. From time to time, an official hissed, “Ssh!” to the milling crowd.
We reached the bottom of the museums’ dramatic, wide spiral staircase and stopped into a small snack bar to rest and drink mineral water. Dora was ready to return for a nap in the convent guest room where we were staying, and I set off for Castel Sant’Angelo. Loving opera as well as churches, I wanted to see the setting for Puccini’s Tosca.
The next day, after exploring the Pantheon—where I felt the stones hadn’t yet absorbed the overlay of Christianity—we were ready to find the Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. This church is almost adjacent to the back of the Pantheon, but we took a circuitous route down the wrong street and around the block, so that I decided to ask directions from a woman of perhaps sixty who was talking with two men. I liked her appearance and manner, which were typical of the self-confident, friendly, and efficient middle-aged and older Roman women I saw throughout the week—the kind of woman I want to be.
Following the woman’s instructions, we walked around another corner and were then in front of Bernini’s statue of an elephant carrying an Egyptian obelisk on its back. I love elephants for their wisdom and personality, as Bernini apparently did, too, and I had admired pictures of this statue. So rounding the corner was one of my many gratifying Roman moments of desire opening up into reality.
There behind the elephant was Santa Maria sopra Minerva, with its plain exterior that leads into interior color and light—Gothic, but with its own Roman character, so that the church is not just a small transplanted cathedral from the North. Santa Maria sopra Minerva is beautiful, with its celestial blue-and-gold vaulted ceiling. At one time, a Roman temple to Minerva was on the site—hence sopra Minerva, meaning above Minerva—and when I sat in that church, I was with those ancient Romans, as well as with centuries of Christians. The great religious buildings of the world reach across time.
Every church I visited in Rome was filled with works of profound beauty inspired by the artists’ devotion. I could not hold information about all of the art in my mind. Because of the vast magnificence, I could barely even see each fresco and statue clearly and consciously. All I could do was store the most outstanding impressions, buy books for later study from the small gift shops, and carry with me the feelings I found in the air as I sat and walked in each church, absorbing its aura formed by the centuries.
I had seen pictures of the inside of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, and Andrea Bocelli’s Aria video was filmed there, so I wanted to wander through the basilica, turning pictures into experience. There was Michelangelo’s sculpture The Risen Christ, and I found St. Catherine of Siena, co-patron saint of Italy (along with St. Francis), interred beneath the altar—but without her head, which is in Siena. Wandering beyond the altar to the left, I came across the tomb of the 15th century painter Fra Angelico, important to me because my father and I took an art-appreciation course together when I was a senior in high school, and I first heard about Fra Angelico then.
When I joined her, Dora was sitting in front of the Cappella di San Dominico, also to the left of the altar, and meditating on a statue of the Madonna with three children—Jesus and two St. Johns. Dora had lighted a candle, and I lighted one, too, for the people meaning the most to me. I wish it had not been the only candle I lighted in Rome, because a prayer for the wellbeing of another is not an empty gesture.
The churches of Rome carry a sense of permanence and meaningful tradition. Traditions have the potential either to support or to bind, depending both on the traditions themselves and on the way they are used or misused. Some are excuses for continuing injustices—for example, the traditions that subjugate women and those in whose name violence is committed. Other traditions, the kind that deserve nurturing, link us to other people without pushing away or diminishing those who do not share our traditions.
By the time I visited Rome, I was not finding a sense of permanence and tradition in my own spiritual experience. While I thought my religious views meant I would not make a good Catholic, I felt more spiritual satisfaction from sitting in a hundreds-of-years-old Catholic basilica than I did from meditating in my own Quaker meetinghouse, where, by then, all but the barest traditions seemed to be kept assiduously scraped away.
When I was a little girl, vibrant Quaker traditions were maintained and nurtured, and in those days the Meeting felt welcoming and so comforted my parents and me as a place where we belonged. Then we were a part of something worthwhile that had been built up over time, even though Quakerism’s centuries are many fewer than those of Catholicism.
For the first few years after my parents and I joined Friends Meeting, when I was five, every Sunday morning before meeting for worship, a lively woman played the piano for us children to sing songs and hymns. I loved to sing. Then for many years, after meeting, adults and children sang together, always ending with the same hymn:
As we leave this friendly place, Love gives light to every face; May the kindness which we learn, Light our hearts till we return.”
Meeting was a friendly place, with older Quakers who still used “thee” and “thou” and were looked up to and respected for their ministry, with younger adults who took an active role in the life of the Meeting, and with children of all ages. At Christmastime, we children decorated a mitten tree for needy people, acted out the Nativity story, and made gifts to sell at the Meeting’s annual fair.
By the time I visited Rome, nobody sang hymns in the meetinghouse anymore, most of the “weighty Friends” were gone, and those of us who were left sat scattered around the meetingroom on Sunday morning, often, it felt to me, without much intimacy and shared spiritual energy.
When I was in Italy, I wasn’t yet ready to turn Catholic, but I did want to take my Quaker heart into St. Peter’s and Santa Maria sopra Minerva and the other churches I especially loved in Rome—Santa Maria in Trastevere, Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, Santa Maria della Vittoria—gaze at the art that appealed to me and up into the ornate ceilings, and think about all the people of the world to whom I was linked through this art and architecture: those who created it and those whom it has helped to make their way in the world and understand life’s mysteries.
I want to be told
My writing is approved.
I have elevated you
So my own assessment
So my conclusion
That I have written well,
Put worthwhile thoughts
Into phrases and images
To inspire reflection,
Is to be crumpled,
Deemed of merit
And anyone else
Inhabiting the judgment seat
Of the moment,
And so I despair.
And so I prayed:
Dear parents, dear God, dear guides, dear angels, please help me to find my writing way. What is the way I can use writing to serve and also to find my wholeness, my serenity for the time in this life remaining to me? Please help me; please help me. If writing about books is the best way for me to help, what is the focus I should take? On what aspect of books should I focus? Is it on the lessons, the insights from each book. . . . Or perhaps I should combine that approach with inspired writing . . . and with poems, even if others don’t usually seem to know what to make of my poems. Please guide me. Thank you, dear ones and God. Please guide me to the answer, to the enduring way forward. . . .
I was given this answer:
We want to help you, and will help you if you are able to still your mind enough to listen, to hear. What is most important for you is your message, not the vehicle through which you express your message. Be clear about your beliefs, as we think you are. But to help you relax and move forward, write an in-depth piece setting out your gospel, as your understanding shows you now. Your understanding will continue to change and grow through ongoing conversion, continuing revelation, and so the pieces you write will reflect your spiritual evolution. But the principle holds: be thoroughly clear about what you want to say, and vehicles to express your understanding will open to you. You had things backwards, worrying about finding a grand vehicle for writing when all you need to move forward is to be immersed in your understanding. Namaste
And so I have begun moving forward by expressing some of my central beliefs:
Every person, without exception, has gifts to offer the world.
Most individuals need encouragement from others, from us, to recognize and cultivate their gifts fully.
To value others’ gifts above our own is to denigrate and obscure God’s gifts within us—leaving not only our lives but also the world itself poorer.
We are each part of God and loved by God, regardless of our religious affiliation (or lack of affiliation).
Every human being is equally valuable, to God and to the world. Gender, age, and infirmity do not change this fact. (Note: Denying women the right to become priests is about power, not Christianity.)
God is within all of creation.
A single consciousness links all creation, including every human mind, and that consciousness is of God.
If we do not protect and love the Earth and all creation, we do not love God.
Fear is a powerful producer of hurtful, harmful behavior.
If we can understand how the world looks to another person, we can better understand her or his behavior.
Success is wrongly defined as power and status over others.
The essence of being a true Christian is being kind and loving our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:31).
Without kindness and love, religious practices are meaningless and are a significant source of suffering, prejudice, hate, and violence.
If we feel inferior to others and fear rejection and isolation, we may struggle to be kind and loving.
Honoring life means respecting and protecting all of life, including the planet itself and nonhuman animals. Protecting some lives at the expense of others is not Christianity (or any other spirituality) in action.
We must address the causes of suffering and harmful behavior, and not only respond to their symptoms.
There is an afterlife, a heaven, and we will rejoin our loved ones there. Even as we continue in our earthly lives, we and our loved ones in heaven continue to be a part of each other’s existence.
Heaven to at least some extent corresponds to our needs and desires. (“In my Father’s house are many mansions,” John 14:2.)
Based on the evidence I have read, reincarnation exists, but I think that we have a choice about returning and that soul growth continues in heaven as well as during earthly life. Perhaps it is not that I, Winifred Hayek per se, will return but that a new personality that is another aspect of my soul may come to earth for a human life. Maybe somewhat as Jesus is both an individual human and God, our own souls experience human lives but are at the same time more than those individual lives.
Religious and political leaders who preach division and who seek to control through fear and feigned superiority are false prophets.
Lived examples are more persuasive than words. At the same time, we must speak up against injustice and on behalf of others.
Our individual thoughts and words help to create the world in which we live.
Rituals are valuable if they help us to feel nearer to God and closer to all the souls across the planet and throughout time. On the other hand, if we think that our traditions and precepts serve to show our superiority to outsiders, our theology is among the causes of misunderstanding, bigotry, hatred, poverty, violence, and war.
No one can know the entire truth of who and what God is and how creation came to be. Over the course of our lives, we have the responsibility to use our own ongoing seeking to accept or refute, expand, mold, and clarify the religious teachings we have encountered.
Because there is that of God in each of us, we have the capacity to listen to and learn from the best within ourselves, and personal experiences can be powerful teachers.
The idea that good people (i.e., those practicing our religion) will live charmed lives and that other people (those who haven’t joined our church) will suffer is false and pernicious. Jesus was not only good but was also God, and he suffered. His mother, Mary, suffered. Suffering is an inevitable part of being human and helps to temper and teach our souls. As Franciscan Richard Rohr writes, “We must all carry the cross of our own reality until God transforms us through it. These are the wounded healers of the world, and healers who have fully faced their wounds are the only ones who heal anyone else.”
I don’t think God cares about my church membership unless it helps me to become more loving and kind and to see that all people are one within God.
Hell does not exist. Some souls in the afterlife are far from the Light of God, but these souls have the opportunity to grow closer to the Light.
The arts and humanities have as much to teach the human race and are as vital as the sciences.
God never gives up on us, and neither should we give up on ourselves or others.
In The Time Is Now: A Call to Uncommon Courage, Joan Chittister (Convergent Books, 2019) writes, “The prophet is the person who says no to everything that is not of God. No to the abuse of women. No to the rejection of the stranger. . .” (15). She goes on to explore in depth what it means to be a modern-day prophet and asserts that we are all called on to be prophets. Yes we must help those in need, but we must also address the causes of suffering, from the suffering brought by hunger and violence to that brought by the destruction of our air, land, and oceans. Reading Chittister’s book and attending an Advent retreat at a nearby Franciscan Spiritual Center prompted this poem:
Trying to Follow the Star
I wish to be a prophet of everything And so am a prophet of nothing, Wanting to right all wrongs And caught in the snare of wanting.
What, and where, is the star I am to follow?
I have been drawn by alluring lights All my life, Many casting beauty and meaning, But then I have wandered, Mistaking others’ stars for mine.
And in a world, a life, of surface glow with faded centers, The brilliance of the true seems dimmed, eclipsed, But if I turn my eyes away And into the pure darkness Of the soft, benevolent night, I will see the miraculous constellations Holding peace, joy, and God And bathing us in starlight.
I am blessed to have numerous interests and to have been able to sample many of them so far in my life. For instance, while I’m no ballerina, I did get to take ballet lessons and to see Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn in Swan Lake. My French and Italian have notable flaws, but I’ve been fortunate to have visited France, to have traveled in Italy twice, and to have had happy adventures in both places. I’m no singer, but I do get to be in a church choir, have had season tickets to the Delaware and Philadelphia Operas, and have been in the audience at the Metropolitan Opera, in New York, a handful of times. This story tells about some of the adventures surrounding and during my first opera at the Met, twenty years ago this month. I hope the story inspires you to revisit your own special times.
The health-food-store lentil soup is memorable for its setting on the Upper West Side. The only grumpy person I will cross paths with in New York is the middle-aged woman at the check-out counter. She is in an area that serves also as a juice bar. At first she tells me I can’t pay at her register, but I say my tea is from the juice bar, so can I pay her, after all? She grunts. I ask if she said yes. She grunts. I pay her.
As my companions, Tina and Alice, and I finish our lunch on a wide island in the middle of Broadway just south of 90th Street, I sense myself apart, of the city but separate from it, observing. I am with Tina and Alice but also alone with my own thoughts and the images passing in front of me. A heavy-set woman in running shoes sits down next to me on the bench, but we never acknowledge each other or look each other in the face.
While Alice was driving us to the hotel, she was repeatedly frustrated in efforts to turn a corner by the pedestrians crossing the street. But when we exchange driving for walking, we become part of the ruling pedestrian tyranny, forging across the street with the light, or before it, watching out only for taxis who don’t care if we have the right-of-way.
Having finished our lunch, we walk down Broadway, stopping at Zabar’s to explore what must be the world’s most complete selection of kitchenware. It makes me think that cooking might not be too bad. I like the colored vases and glasses made in Italy, the hot mitts with puppet faces sewn onto them, and the huge copper kettles. On the first floor, the rich smell of cheese almost overcomes the odor of raw fish. A child in a stroller squalls as his mother tries to push him through the narrow, crowded aisles. “We’ll go home right after this. I promise,” she tells him.
Back on the street, children pass in Halloween costumes, a tiny girl in a long organdy dress, a little boy dressed as an unidentifiable (to me) cartoon superhero. A woman walking with her elementary-school-aged son and daughter talks on a cell phone: “I’ll take Ella to her music lesson, and you can take. . . .” The dogs are the most interesting of all. No one in New York has a dull-looking dog.
An elderly homeless man sleeps in a doorway with his head on one of the run-down Nikes he’s removed. Other homeless men ask for money. One man I will wish later I had helped is both old and frail. I don’t know what to do, so I do nothing.
We walk about fifteen blocks south of our hotel and then return so that Tina and Alice can change their shoes. Fortunately, we have to be at the restaurant, Josephina, at 5:00, so we can’t waste time in the hotel. After a quick return stop at the health-food store to buy dessert for later, we hustle down Broadway and make it to Josephina exactly on time. Alice called for reservations after we finished eating lunch and was told that all the reservations for times we could come were filled, but that if we come right at 5:00 and leave by 6:15, we can probably get in. That’s what we do.
On the way to the restaurant, we pass Giuseppe Verdi Square, a pleasant little elongated rectangle of ivy and trees, but on some of the trees a sign has been tacked: “Rat poison in use in the area.” Down closer to Josephina and Lincoln Center, we find Richard Tucker Park (with no mention of rats).
Josephina has a clean, open, peaceful, and well-polished feel. On two of the walls are large, colorful murals of Italy, done in a Cézanne-like style and emphasizing hills and cypresses, houses with red-tiled roofs, and people having fun in outdoor cafés. On another wall is a mural of Cézanne-like fruit. A large and pretty portrait of the real Josephina, someone’s grandmother, hangs over the bar, and on a post is a huge photograph of her wedding in a crowded village church. The wedding couple and their guests were intensely alive then. Now their day has passed and we are trying to live our lives.
For dinner, I have St. Peter’s fish, which I have never heard of before but which is about the best fish I ever ate. I can enjoy the meal because the opera will not start until eight, and all we have to do is cross the street. Walking down the block ending with Josephina, we passed Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Opera to our right—a dream, a mirage become real.
After dinner, Tina and Alice want to sit on the wall around the fountain, but I can’t be that close and not go in. In the Met store I find—and buy—the copy of the original La Bohème poster that I’ve wanted since I first saw a photo of it on the Internet, a box of notecards that have prints of several old opera posters, and Christmas cards that show a painting of the Met from the perspective of a balcony looking out over the chandeliers in the entrance and a Christmas tree outside. The inscription talks about singing. Simply to be in the shop thrills me. I can pass up the pretty cloth purses made from the fabric of old Met costumes—and sold for high prices—but seeing all the CDs and videos of operas and singers makes me feel like a mouse loose in a cheese shop.
When I’ve temporarily had my fill, I go back out to Tina and Alice. They share their chocolate cupcake between them, and I eat half my cookie while we watch the gathering crowd and a couple of men trying to interest passers-by in their tickets. Just indoors, Chagall murals on musical themes hang on either side of the opera house as an integral part of the Met’s facade.
Tina and Alice want to see the store, so I happily go back in with them. Franco Corelli is singing Puccini over the loudspeakers, and the store is crowded now. We join the line waiting to go into the theater itself. We see a couple of beautiful sequined tops, but many people are dressed as we are and could have come right from the office to the opera. The somewhat chaotic line of waiting people is happy, excited, or maybe I am so happy and excited that everyone else looks that way, too. One older couple cuts in line, as if waiting an extra thirty seconds after the ticket-takers let us past would be too much.
“All the way up,” the man who takes our tickets tells us. I don’t mind being very used to hearing, “All the way up,” in concert halls and opera houses. The Met carpets and seats are red, as they should be. Our seats are on stage left in the fourth row of the highest section, which goes on to slope gradually upward, far above us. We love our seats, although no sequins make it up that high.
As we wait for the curtain to rise, the chandeliers float above us like masses of delicate, sparkling Christmas stars suspended below the gold ceiling. The house begins to darken and the still-lighted small chandeliers that have been below our line of sight rise slowly to the ceiling. “I’m going to cry,” says Alice, overcome by the beauty. I feel the same way.
The overture to Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro—and among the peak evenings of my life—begins. How can I describe perfection of sound? Some of the voices are perfect, and others are beyond perfection to celestial: Susan Graham’s as Cherubino and Hei Kyung Hong’s as the Countess. I think to myself, “For the rest of my life, I want to listen to music like this without pause.”
Except for the applause and bravos, the audience is quiet and attentive—no candy-wrapper rattlers—and I don’t see any empty seats. Instead of being projected over or beside the stage, the translations are on a small screen on the back of each seat; one can engage them or not. I love the system—no getting behind, as occasionally happens at OperaDelaware, no trying to look up at the titles and down at the action simultaneously. Some of the words to Le Nozze di Figaro are delightfully humorous.
During the second intermission, my friends and I buy $3 glasses of mineral water to quench our thirst from the salty dinner. After each act, I am happy that more is to come. But then the opera ends. Although I am tired from not enough sleep and too much walking, I would gladly watch the opera through again immediately, and then again, and then again. Even in the Met, some people rush out during the applause. I have a passing urge to trip them.
If it didn’t mean my first evening at the Met is over, I would love being in the milling crowd making its way downstairs. Outside, a row of limousines waits. It is midnight as we walk a few blocks to the Mozart Café, for which Alice has seen an ad mentioning live classical music. The live music turns out to be jazz tonight, but the place is open until 3 a.m. and serves unsweetened apple pie, which Tina and Alice order. I choose a pot of passion-fruit-and-peppermint tea, which turns out to be about the best herbal tea I ever tasted. The crowd is nearly all young. At a table near us, a handsome couple spends as much time gazing at each other as talking or eating. Another nearby table is full of wholesome-looking young people who remind me of the music students at West Chester University, where I work.
We leave the restaurant around one in the morning and walk all the way home—about thirty blocks—although we could have taken the M104 bus, which seems to run all night. I am a little nervous walking in some of the quieter spots, although we are far from the only folks out tonight. Alice says a few times, “You’re going too fast.”
Two boys on bicycles aim their bikes right at Alice and me. A young man passes us as he talks—or pretends
to talk—on a cell phone in a frighteningly crazed rush of words. After these encounters, we speed up and Alice
doesn’t seem to think we’re going too fast at all. I am glad to see the hotel. It has been one of those times when I’ve
heard but haven’t heeded my better judgment, thinking that I don’t want to be
difficult and that probably, possibly, everything will be okay. Fortunately, for the three of us this night, it
Alice is quick in the bathroom, and then it is my turn. I cannot go to sleep while someone else is stirring in the room, and back and forth Tina goes, back and forth, back and forth. I think, this time will be it, but then the back and forth repeats. Finally Tina goes to bed. I fall deeply asleep.
 The store we
visited is Gary Null’s Uptown Whole Foods.
restaurant was wonderful and the site of many memories for me, but it has since
At the University of Delaware’s Osher Lifelong learning Institute (OLLI), I’m co-teaching a course called Weaving Your Legacy. My colleague teacher designed the course. It provides a setting and encouragement for class members to work on substantial projects, projects that weave life experiences into meaningful “tapestries” for the benefit and pleasure of current and future generations. While most members of the class are focusing on written work such as memoirs, blogs, fiction, or poetry, projects using other types of creative expression—for example, photograph collections, oral histories, needlework, or drawings—are equally at home in the class.
One of our texts for the course, Creating a Spiritual Legacy: How to Share Your Stories, Values, and Wisdom, by Daniel Taylor, includes a chapter on the “spiritual will,” a document that explicitly or implicitly shares what the author has learned about living a meaningful, satisfying life. A spiritual will can take many forms—among these, a short list of the author’s “truths” (as of that point in the writer’s life), a letter, an essay, or a complete book. The short essay that follows is an example of a spiritual will.
“Outside the Lines” expresses some of my truths, however limited or subject to change, and tells a little bit about how I learned these life lessons. The essay also provides an example of a piece written in the second person (“You. . . .”). I find that writing in the second person, imagining—or perhaps hearing in my mind—what a friend, a mentor, or the wisdom living within us all would say to me, can help me be more objective about challenging topics.
When you were four, your Sunday school teacher asked, “Why
don’t you color nicely the way Chrissie does?” You stopped thinking about how
you wanted to color the picture and instead scribbled all over it in black
A couple of years later, your
elementary-school classmate criticized your shoes, your voice, your answers to
the homework, the way you ran in gym class—pretty much any fodder she could
find. You thought the lesson was that people didn’t like you, and you learned
it well for life.
Beginning in fourth grade, your
flute teacher talked a lot about intonation, breath control, and accidentals
but never mentioned your expressive sense of melody. You no longer wished to
take flute lessons because they were filled with unmet rules. You understood
only what you still did wrong, not the musical strengths already your own.
Not only childhood but all of life is filled with such teachers. To move forward and find your peace, you must release these damaging teachers now. Most have done their best as they knew how. Retain the good they have given you, but then no more.
In nearly every facet of life, we
all are teachers, as well as students. When we share our knowledge, we can
contribute much. When we encourage others to nourish their individual gifts, we
contribute vastly more. You, led by your
are the wisest teacher for your own talents, vision, and possibilities.
Also take as your teachers those
who have kept their courage in spite of life’s buffeting. After editors
tampered with her poems to make them fit the poetry rules of the day, Emily
Dickinson no longer published her work but continued to write prolifically.
Most would instead have tried to write for the market or given up entirely, but
Emily valued her own voice above pleasing those who saw themselves as experts. Think
of what the world would have lost if Emily had succumbed to meeting others’
Whether your gifts are in dancing or painting, cooking or planting, inventing or healing, solving equations or easing suffering, being cheerful or being kind, you give most to the world through what makes you different: your unique voice and ways of being. If you believe in others’ dictates while denying your own, you will spend your life seeking to fill gaps and fix flaws with borrowed wisdom, rules, and ways. Learn from others, but recast their lessons to match the best of who you are and are becoming, from youth through oldest age.
 Part of this post appears in A Woman in Time, by Winifred Burgess Hayek.
The “Inner Light” is a Quaker term for “that of God within.”
“Why Dance?” grows out of some of the memories in “Snapshots of the Mind,” a collection of random recollections that came when I allowed my mind to float by free association from memory to memory. The essay below expands the recollections about dancing. A quick read of “Why Dance?” may give a few ideas for exploring one of your own lifetime passions—its roots and history, its highlights and byways.
Dancing designs a new reality Within but apart from the old.
Dancing is motion Inside of rhythm and melody.
Dancing releases everyday rules of being To follow the reign of music.
Dancing aligns the life force In all the muscles and organs of the body, Especially the heart.
The patterns of the dance Invite my spirit in To paint a scene And describe a dream Made of feeling and flair Enveloped in music.
At supper one evening when I was four, as we sat at our table in the kitchen of our little white house on Nichols Avenue, Mother and Daddy asked me if I would like to take ballet. I couldn’t believe such a magnificent possibility was mine. I rose from the table and spun around the kitchen, spinning my joy that I was now a ballerina.
My ballet teacher was Miss Peggy. Her mother played the piano as we little girls in pink leotards crossed the room with our small grands jetés, as we stood at the bar for our pliés in the five positions, and as we practiced our routines for the recitals we gave for our families. Before the recitals, our mothers basted short net skirts onto our leotards, and then more than ever we were real ballerinas. I wished I could wear my pink ballet slippers every day, and not just once a week to dancing class. We carried our slippers to class in little cases with felt dancers glued to the front.
For Christmas when I
was six, Santa brought me a recording of The
Nutcracker and The Sleeping Beauty
along with a little blue record player, which could be snapped together like an
overnight case. Sometimes I put on my
ballet slippers, rolled up the rugs in my bedroom, and twirled to Tchaikovsky’s
music playing on my record player.
Beginning in first grade, Friday afternoons brought ballroom dancing lessons: the foxtrot, waltz, cha cha, and Lindy Hop. I especially liked the cha cha and Lindy for their turns and speed. At the end of each class, we marched around the room to the Grand March from Aida. We little girls wore our party dresses and white gloves, which covered the eczema on my hands and joined the music in giving me confidence. The boys wore their Sunday suits and seemed happy to be dancing and to dance with me. I remember that a friend’s mother told my mother that I was graceful. I wasn’t a particularly vain child, but I was proud of the things I could do well, and so I kept the compliment in memory.
Mother and Daddy took dancing lessons for many years at the DuPont Country Club, to which any DuPont employee could belong. I felt relaxed and happy hearing their bossa nova and tango music floating up from the basement, where they practiced while their dance records spun on my little blue record player. Mother was exceedingly graceful, and Daddy, like me, had most enjoyed gymnastics in gym class and so also danced easily. In the kitchen, when I was grown, Daddy sometimes taught me the steps to the Latin dances; that night, I‘d go with my parents to the Saturday dance at the country club. Not only Daddy but also a couple of my parents’ friends would dance with me.
Boyfriends who could dance were scarcer. Karl was a top-of-the-line jitterbugger, and we polkaed together at the rollicking German House parties at the University of Delaware. But then until Fred, with whom I only danced on three occasions, all the other men of my generation with whom I danced did the shake-it-all-around and make-it-up-as-you-go moves that went well with “Proud Mary,” “My Guy,” and “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter.” I liked the self-expressive, free-for-all dancing, too. It could even be done alone, if necessary.
Fred had evidently gone to childhood ballroom lessons, also. We danced together briefly the night we met and then during a visit with my parents, when we attended a Saturday-night dance at the country club. As we stood in the middle of the floor, Fred and I had words over the correct execution of the foxtrot. But then on New Year’s Eve, a couple of months before we’d utterly and completely had more than enough of each other, we whirled on the red carpet of the Kennedy Center as National Symphony musicians played Viennese waltzes.
Other opportunities to ballroom dance with a man have been scarce. I’ve spent a couple of evenings at dances with guys who needed to be steered around the dance floor as if they were lawn mowers. One lovely evening in Massachusetts, I attended a singles’ dance with three friends—interestingly, they were all former nuns. An Italian man who was a miraculous dancer (and quite beautiful himself) danced with me much of the night, but only because my skills were the best he could come up with on that occasion.
I have always loved to move my body, even before the time of swinging on the jungle gym that Daddy built for me in the backyard and of showing off my handstands, cartwheels, and somersaults. In motion, then and now, I am cleansed of shyness and self-doubt. In some adult decades when dancing was scarce, ice skating was my happiest way of moving. Ice skating felt like dancing with extra speed, a lovely combination. In recent years, as I danced around the apartment after an episode of Dancing with the Stars, I thought how fine it would be to find enough fame to join the show for a season, to dance hour after hour and day after day.
In my earlier years, I could not have imagined that the greatest outlet for my grownup dancing drive would come after I retired: tap dancing on Mondays and line dancing twice a week. Then at a recent Road Scholar (formerly Elderhostel) program in Kentucky, I was probably the most enthusiastic participant in our daily square-dancing and line-dancing lessons. In retirement, I can once again dance as often as I did as a child.
I do still sometimes dream of dancing with a willing partner:
Wishing for a man— To love and be loved— Crept back today As I danced with the women In our line-dancing club To a country tune our leader played.
The singer was holding his lady dear, And I waltzed-two-three, Turned-two-three, Wrapped within motion, And the words pulled longing Out from under the years, And it waltzed with me Again-two-three.[*]
But my life is full and happy, and I don’t think I have time for a dancing boyfriend just now—even if a man should decide he’d like to fill that role. When our dance groups perform, I seem to give some pleasure to audience members, and I am grateful for that blessing—it and the joy inherent in dancing are treasure enough.
When the urge to write is not accompanied by a promising subject or theme, one possibility for answering the writing call is to begin with an image, a scene—any image, any scene. Then free associate, letting one image, one scene, lead to the next, no matter how circuitous the path through memory. Taken together, the seemingly random recollections create a sketch of the past and suggest ways the past has led to the present. Here’s a short example of the approach that does, in fact, help to remind me of who I was, and still am. If I choose, I can mine these memories for subjects to explore in more depth.
I carried my pink ballet slippers in a blue case decorated with
a felt ballerina.
I liked spending school lunch hours in the clearing under
the weeping willow beyond our playground.
I wove bracelets from the long willow branches, but I don’t remember
wearing or even keeping the bracelets.
The act of braiding the pliable thin branches was the pleasure, much as
with making clover chains in the front yard at home. With my fingernail I poked a slot near the
end of the stem of one clover and inserted the stem of the next through the
slot. Sometimes I put a clover crown on
my head or tested a clover jump rope, but any such usefulness was
superfluous. I imagine Daddy had to deal
with piles of discarded clover chains when he mowed the grass.
One afternoon when I was in first grade, I was showing off
my handstand skills for a neighbor girl and a boy from school. When I flipped over after the handstand, I
sat in a pile of manure that the girl’s dog had left behind. My patient mother took crying me to a sink in
our basement to clean off the mess. I
was mortified by the outcome of my effort to impress my friends.
Daddy made me a pair of wooden stilts, and I was proud of
being able to tramp around the yard on them.
When I was small, Mother helped me bake a chocolate
cake. A picture from that afternoon
shows frosting smeared across my smile.
Mother told me I once said, “It’s the frossin’ what makes it
We put salt or sugar on grapefruit in those days to cut the
sour taste; I preferred sugar.
I made meatloaf for some of my fellow teachers at the
boarding school where we taught. I put
eggs, ketchup, and breadcrumbs in my meatloaf, which was the centerpiece of my
most reliable menu. When my friend David
came to eat meatloaf with me one night, my dog, Maggie, chewed his wallet, so I
had to buy him a new one. I don’t recall
having to replace any cash.
On the first evening David and I were in Germany with the
students we were chaperoning, I asked him how to say, “Could I please have some
change?” in German. On subsequent days,
when I had a chance to get away from David and the students, I used my
phrasebook to figure out how to meet my needs.
When I was fourteen or fifteen, I cried listening to Gerry
and the Pacemakers’ “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying.” I wanted a boyfriend—if not a Beatle then one
of the boys at school.
Ringo was my favorite Beatle, probably because in the early
days he looked more like a little boy than like an intimidating young man who might
My love for Ringo—if not my affection—faded by the time I
was in college. My love for Andrea
Bocelli hasn’t diminished in twenty-two years.
When I was six, Santa Claus gave me a record player in the
form of a small blue suitcase.
Coordinating with Santa that Christmas, my parents gave me two
records. The first included Tchaikovsky’s
The Nutcracker and The Sleeping Beauty. The second was Haydn’s Surprise Symphony and the Toy
Symphony, then attributed to Haydn but now more often attributed to Leopold
Mozart, Wolfgang’s dad. Even after we
moved to our new home, I often rolled up the small blue hooked rugs in my
bedroom so I could dance to a Tchaikovsky ballet playing on my little record
Sunlight filtered through light-green leaves on the first
morning after the last day of school.
At summer camp in Maine, after we campers were in bed, the
camp director’s Doberman thundered down the cabin line like a galloping pony.
When I was a camp counselor, I played taps on my flute in
the evening. The sound drifted out over
the lake as infinite stars drifted overhead.
The Milky Way was a broad stripe across the sky.
And so, as perhaps these memories suggest, it’s nearly impossible not to be able to write if the mind is set
free to jump here, there, and anywhere.
About thirty years ago, my parents bought
me a mountain dulcimer in Berea, Kentucky.
We were in Kentucky to attend a cousin’s wedding in Harrodsburg; it was
the last Kentucky trip the three of us would take together. Since the passing earlier in the 1980s of my
mother’s mother and sisters, my parents and I were no longer making our frequent
trips to Harrodsburg, where my mother’s sisters and parents had moved after my
mother was grown. While my mother and
her sisters were growing up, their family had lived in the little village of
Paint Lick, Kentucky, about forty miles south of Lexington. My dulcimer symbolizes for me both my parents’
infinite kindness and encouragement and Kentucky’s vast place in my heart. Seeing, holding, or playing my dulcimer opens
a trove of memories.
When I was a child, Harrodsburg, the
oldest town in Kentucky, was thriving, with Main Street filled with busy stores,
including the Gem Drug Store—my uncle’s store.
The “Gem Store,” as we called it, had a jewelry counter and a lunch
counter, two amenities that especially attracted me as a child. My Aunt Winnie worked nearby, managing the
office of the Landrum Insurance Agency.
She and others who worked in town regularly took their coffee breaks or
ate lunch at the Gem Store, which my Aunt Ruth kept supplied with her homemade
pies. When my parents and I were
visiting Harrodsburg, we and our relatives often ate at the Gem Store after
church on Sundays. I was particularly
partial to the five-cent ice-cream cones.
By the time my cousin married in the backyard of his grandfather’s (my uncle’s) home, my grandmother and aunts—who, other than my parents, most meant Kentucky and family to me—were gone. The wedding ceremony itself was something of a miracle since the day had begun with torrential rain and a backed-up sewer, but by wedding time, the backyard was dry and lovely and filled with family and friends, including a friend who sang and accompanied herself on a small harp. Nevertheless, I strongly felt the absence of departed dear ones and later wrote a poem that began, “If you are avoiding ghosts, / Do not go downstairs in search of an extra platter or chair. / Downstairs, no living voices muffle the past.” By contrast, “Upstairs, their voices mingle with ours, / And I watch them being as they were. / Aunt Ruth is cooking oyster stew. . . .” I could imagine our lost loved ones mingling with us as we tidied the house in preparation for the wedding guests.
The day following the wedding, my parents and I visited some of the several friends still living in my mother’s girlhood village of Paint Lick, and I had the joy of going inside the home where my mother grew up. What a treasure to be able to picture the rooms my mother talks about in her memoir of her Paint Lick years. The house was torn down four or five years ago to allow for highway construction. I feel pain when I think of my mother’s home being gone.
With its Kentucky roots and heritage, my dulcimer carries with it what was, not only for me but especially for my parents. My father, who was from St. Paul, Minnesota, moved to Louisville for his work in May 1943. There he met my mother, who was then teaching school in Louisville.
On another day after my cousin’s
wedding, my parents and I visited Berea, not far from Paint Lick. Berea is the site of Berea College and of numerous
notable craftspeople and craft shops, many of them associated with the
college. My grandfather played football
for Berea College more than 110 years ago, and my grandmother attended the
academy that was on the college grounds.
My parents and I stopped by Boone Tavern, the inn where my parents had
had their wedding dinner, on October 18, 1944, and had stayed before heading on
to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, for their honeymoon.
Not far from Boone Tavern is the shop of woodworker Warren A. May, who is especially known for his beautiful handmade mountain dulcimers. On our visit to his shop, my parents bought me a lovely cherry dulcimer with traditional wooden pegs and a traditional fretboard (the metal spacers that make it easy to play the notes of a scale or melody). I had spoken for years of wanting a dulcimer, and my parents, as with so many of my interests, had encouraged my desire to own and play the instrument.
I’ve been back to Kentucky four times since my parents have been gone. Their ashes are buried in Harrodsburg in our family plot, and even though I know my parents’ souls are not there in the cemetery, I sit among the quiet stones for a visit when I am in Harrodsburg. And I visit, too, the places that were part of Kentucky as I knew it when all my dear ones were present in this life. When I was in Kentucky in 2015, my cousins took me to Boone Tavern for lunch, and then we visited Warren May’s workshop, where I bought a music book for the dulcimer, new strings for my instrument, and a CD of Warren May’s dulcimer playing.
But until a few weeks ago, I had far from done justice to my beautiful instrument. I had played with it but never joined a group or taken lessons that would have given me a clear sense of the instrument. Finally, this month I attended the Road Scholar (formerly Elderhostel) program Appalachian Folkways, held in south-central Kentucky near Lake Cumberland. I chose this Road Scholar program in part because I wanted to spend time with and honor Kentucky itself. And I wanted to begin playing my dulcimer in earnest.
Every morning of our Road Scholar program, musician-songwriter Anne MacFie played traditional music for us, often on a dulcimer. Scots-Irish settlers in the Appalachians—perhaps some of my own relatives—played dulcimers beginning in the early 1800s. Our music teacher, Anne, gave dulcimer lessons in the late afternoons to the four of us who wanted to learn to play. Sitting on the porch of the comfortably rustic Lake Cumberland 4-H Education Center, part of the University of Kentucky, I didn’t want to stop playing on those afternoons to get ready for dinner.
Now I better understand my dulcimer’s range of musical possibilities. The simplest approach is to play the melody line on the two closely spaced melody strings, with the two other strings creating a drone effect as with a bagpipe. (Some dulcimers don’t double the melody string, or the two strings may be spaced farther apart. Other variations include metal tuning pegs, which make tuning somewhat easier, and a 6½ fret—in the middle of the seventh space from the left—which allows the player to add a sharp.) In the drone style, the player may use a noter, which is a wooden dowel used to press down the melody string or strings and to slide from note to note.
Dulcimer players may also create
chords with their left hand, somewhat as a guitar player would. Chords substantially expand the pleasing musicality
and versatility of the instrument. I most
enjoy playing hymns and folksongs, and I get excited when a few chords make a
song especially satisfying to my ears. Whatever
approach the left hand uses, the right hand sounds the strings by strumming
with a pick or the fingers or by plucking the strings.
I have a very long way to go in my dulcimer learning—including building up calluses on my left-hand fingertips, which get rather chewed up now on the metal strings as I practice my chords. But if I wait until I have wonderful skills—not to mention impressive calluses—my dulcimer will go back to sitting nearly ignored in its case for many more years. The dulcimer is an instrument on which would-be musicians can make music from almost the first moment of holding it on their lap. So the dulcimer offers an excellent opportunity for me to send into the past one more vestige of my perfectionism, my tendency not to do something at all if I can’t do it well.
I vow to hold in my mind—and
regularly recreate—the pleasure I felt strumming away on the porch of the 4-H
center in Kentucky. In addition to the delight
of its music, my dulcimer carries deep meaning. Instead of feeling I can never do it justice,
I will play my dulcimer at least a little nearly every day in honor of my dear
parents who gave it to me and the memories of Kentucky that resonate through
its vibrating strings.
When you create—whatever
you create, from music to meals—what memories and meanings are carried on your
acts of creation?
One of the goals on my
Becoming a Classic—for Ourselves and
Others list is to play the piano at
least once a week. I played this
week. Here is what I felt, remembered,
and realized as I played. Perhaps my
experience will be relevant to you, whatever the creative endeavor you might
like to resume.
I played the piano for perhaps an
hour and found joy and longing in doing so.
The session began in a review of the songs I need to know for our
community’s production of South Pacific. Then came the “Maple Leaf Rag,” a relatively
easy Beethoven sonata I first learned when I was thirteen or fourteen, and
Handel’s Largo, which is also the melody for Handel’s aria “Ombra mai fu.”
When I left my apartment later in
the afternoon, two of my neighbors were talking in the hall. One said, “We enjoyed the concert.” Then she added, “You don’t do that much, do
you.” As I was playing, I both regretted
not having played more in recent years and understood why I haven’t.
I haven’t played the piano much because playing reminds me forcefully that I haven’t kept up with my music (Playing reminds me that I haven’t played!) and that I never fulfilled whatever musical promise I showed as a child. In truth, though, I am not suited to a career in music, to the long hours of practicing, to focusing on a single pursuit. I am a wandering explorer of varied life experiences rather than an expert, a specialist in one field.
As I played this week, I revisited memories
flowing over me, recollections riding on the music:
Twelve years ago, shortly after she moved to the
apartment we would later share, sweet Mother loved looking at photographs of her
newborn great-grandniece Sadie as I played Handel’s Largo.
Over many years, Mother played the “Maple Leaf
Rag” and other Scott Joplin pieces with skill and joy.
On July 21, 1998, as I waited for a friend to
pick me up so that we could drive to Philadelphia and my first Andrea Bocelli
concert, I played the “Maple Leaf Rag” over and over, and with increasing speed
and volume as the time grew later and later.
A somewhat older girl named Julia gave me my
first formal piano lessons. My parents
stopped those lessons and signed me up for the Wilmington Music School when
they realized that Julia didn’t want me to learn much on the piano—out of her concern
I might become competition for her.
When I was in junior high, I usually practiced
the piano before dinner with my parents.
In our first little house, before I started school, I was banging on the
piano one afternoon when Daddy arrived home from work. He thrilled me by kindly telling me I was
playing just what was written on the music in front of me.
When I was fourteen, I waited with painful
anxiety to play a Beethoven sonata—the one I still play—for a contest at the
University of Delaware. I received an
honorable mention. The year before I’d received
an actual award. I still feel rather ashamed—as
if I didn’t try hard enough—over the honorable mention. I eventually gave up piano lessons in large
measure because I didn’t want to pursue the contests and competitions my piano
teacher had in mind for me. I also wanted
more time to be with friends. I tried
briefly to major in music in college, but again the will was not there.
At summer camp and, later, after dinner when I
was living in the French House at the University of Delaware, I often played
show tunes on the piano, proving that at least for brief spells, I was capable
of playing the piano just for fun.
And as I played this week, I
meditated as follows, showing myself that maybe I can overcome some of my hang-ups
okay that I didn’t keep up my piano studies to become a professional
musician. I clearly lack the temperament
for such a life, whether or not I might have had the potential. Studying the piano has given me a deeper
connection to music and a pastime I still enjoy—that is, when I throw out the regrets
and sense of insufficiency and simply play.
Playing the piano stirs countless memories, from the bittersweet to the
painful to the blissful and beautiful; memories are to be welcomed as a life
garden. I am blessed that piano music is
woven through my life, sometimes creating a bold pattern and sometimes present
only in an almost invisible thread. I
honor the piano’s gifts to me by playing with pleasure now as inspiration
strikes. I dishonor its gifts by still
imagining I must find a way to achieve some lofty level of mastery.
Is there a pleasure
from your past that you would like to rekindle?