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.
This is a meditation about floundering and about renewing connections—with memories, dreams and joy, courage, and loved ones on the Other Side. If you don’t wish to read the entire essay, then choose the last section because it may offer comfort and assurance if you are missing people dear to you.
Returning to the Patio
I’m sitting on my patio for the first time since sweet Mother and I were able to sit here together. Because of regrets, I have resisted enjoying the patio since Mother’s passing. But now I seem to be here with the three of us—Mother, Daddy, and me. The birds are singing for us, and although it’s already July—yesterday was the 4th—the bird chorus sounds like dawn in spring. While the air is almost hot, a little breeze makes the morning inviting.
The summer that I moved here, the summer of 2011, Mother and I often sat on our patio together. We used the antique wicker chairs on the patio then. I’ve since had them repainted and moved inside to preserve them; they were in Mother’s girlhood home. Four years ago, I bought two pseudo-wicker chairs from Target to use outdoors. This morning is the first time I’ve sat in either of them.
On that summer I moved to our apartment, I often sat on the patio as I wrote on the small, inexpensive notebook computer that I’m using now. Mother and I also sat outdoors into the night, past dark, talking and being together. And the patio takes me back into our screened porch at 113 Rockingham Drive, where Daddy loved to do his writing, and where all three of us ate countless summer dinners and then sat together as the insect chorus tuned up and swung into their full-throated renditions.
Holding Back, Weighted Down
In much the way that I’ve waited to sit on the patio, I’ve been waiting to begin life. Yet I’m already what most would consider old. If I were to be the subject of a news story, I’d be called an “elderly woman.” I don’t feel elderly, and except for my wrinkles, I don’t look elderly. I’m blessed to be physically agile and quick, in spite of my limited store of energy, a lifelong limitation. It seems as though life was fresh—a bud just opening—and then, bang, it was two-thirds over, at least. What am I waiting for?
Even though I’ve been retired for a little over five years now, I’ve let myself feel weighted down with “shoulds.” Almost all of these shoulds are things I like to do or at least value, but there have been such a host of them that many days, and especially evenings and into the night and on to early morning, I have sat in paralysis, wishing I could or would move forward.
You’d think I would have figured it out before this morning that I can, right now, begin living the life I want to lead—that living life the way I choose does not require that I first master and fulfill everything on my ideal to-do list to prove my worthiness. And when I speak of living the life I want to lead, I’m not suggesting that problems won’t appear—health, financial, social; mice in the kitchen; who knows what. Rather, I’m speaking of my attitude toward each day, toward each moment of the day.
Turning Blessings into Joy
I have so many blessings, including wonderful friends and enticing interests. I love to take classes, especially in French and Italian. I do love to write, in spite of writing’s smothering shadow and sometimes-burning sunshine in my life because of the power I’ve given writing to tell me whether or not I am sufficient. I love my apartment—the apartment that was first my mother’s and then ours together—although I see so much that needs doing to return it to its loveliness. I want to play my piano and flute, learn to play the dulcimer and ukulele (both of which have sat waiting for me for years), make more bead necklaces. I have lines to master for the play that I’m in. And on and on. But I’ve let my interests kidnap my peace of mind because they became expectations rather than hobbies.
When I was merely “middle aged,” I daydreamed about someday having a small cottage. I’d sit on the comfortable couch in the living room, feeling cozy and reading books. I don’t own a cottage, but I live in a cozy apartment. It needs a big dose of my love to rise to its full potential, but I can return to loving it immediately. And that is what I am doing this morning by sitting on the patio and writing.
Getting rid of the shoulds, I can relish each moment of the day: making my simple meals in the kitchen, turning on the computer to see what interesting e-mails have appeared, reading, meditating, writing without letting the shadow of judgment take away the nourishing light and air, doing chores, greeting neighbors, playing music, even paying bills, which after all are a sign of my blessings. If I’m not worried about being insufficient, I can relish what I have and do. I can shed the fear that has continued to bind me, even as my world of blessings offered itself to me.
As I’ve often told myself and others, part of the reason that I had a thoroughly rewarding three weeks in Italy several years ago is that I decided ahead of time to find everything about the trip interesting and to have fun no matter what. And I did, in spite of a few days of upset when a traveling companion and I clashed (we soon parted ways), a national train strike that threatened to strand me alone in Naples when I needed to be in Pisa, and a bad case of sunburn and hives (from mosquito bites) decorating my face. Nevertheless, I was massively happy in Italy.
And one reason for that happiness was that I had decided ahead of time to be happy. Throughout the trip I also released my normal shoulds: I simply lived. Everyday life usually offers more challenges than even strike-laden travel, but the principle, I believe, holds true: Being content and serene are as much a state of mind as a state of external reality. I now choose contentment and serenity. And I will do my best to maintain this choice when true hardships come.
Hearing an Answer to My Prayer
Although over the last couple of days I had one of my confidence meltdowns (since passed), I have a new profound reason for experiencing contentment and serenity. In spite of many signs from my dear ones since their passing from this life, I had been feeling alone and even uncertain that my past experiences of our ongoing connection were real. I prayed for a new sign and wished for the kind of irrefutable direct communication that a few people have known. And then my prayer was answered.
I am playing Eliza Doolittle in a much-cut-down version of My Fair Lady. (A chorus will be singing the songs, although I will sing along.) To help me learn my part, I recorded my lines and the lines surrounding mine into a digital recorder. Then, using a line in, I transferred the digital recording to my PC. I opened my recording in iTunes and also copied it to my iPod, for use on my evening walks. The first time I listened to the recording on the computer, I was astounded to hear, behind my spoken words, a voice softly singing, “on the plain, on the plain,” and then more clearly, “in Spain, in Spain.”
When I made the recording, I did not own the movie or soundtrack, and I did not sing; I only spoke the words from the printed script. And the singing voice is not mine. To make sure I wasn’t mistaken in that belief, I tried transferring a new recording from the digital recorder to the computer. During that transfer, I sang vigorously; none of my singing registered in the transferred recording, not a peep. Interestingly, the singing voice that I hear when I listen to the recording on the computer (and on my iPod) is not present on the original digital recording, only on the recording after it had been transferred to the computer. On the computer and iPod, I eventually discovered a softer addition: a few notes sung just after I mention the song “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly.” I’d not noticed those notes at first because they are faint—but absolutely present.
In this life, my mother had a beautiful voice. Daddy said hers was the most beautiful soprano he’d ever heard. Mother was also a truly talented actress, and she loved the stage. How appropriate that she would answer my prayer for a tangible sign by singing a few notes from the play that I’m in. I am blessed by this gift beyond words. I think that Daddy, too, had a hand in making the gift possible. Mother and Daddy are my universe, always and forever. And each time I hear that pretty voice singing, “in Spain, in Spain,” I am comforted that we truly are together in the universe, even now.
If you are interested in afterlife communication, you might like to read the following:
Through the Darkness, by Janet Nohavec (In this memoir, Janet Nohavec, a former Roman Catholic nun, tells of her experiences with those in spirit. I have spoken with her and find her impressively credible.)
In this short story, two sisters confront memories and their strained relationship.
Sarah Bright opened the door to her sister and gave her a welcoming hug. Hugging Rebecca was like hugging a straight-backed chair. Rebecca had never been affectionate, even as a girl, but Sarah tried to act as if the sisterly bond she so much desired actually existed. “Your house smells like cats,” said Rebecca before she removed her coat.
“How’s life at Westside Manor these days?” said Sarah, trying to rescue her sister’s visit from early disaster.
Rebecca rejected Sarah’s offer to hang her coat in the closet. She painstakingly draped the pale-blue coat over the back of the chair nearest the front door, as if to be ready to leave any time.
“I’ve joined a new duplicate-bridge group. They were eager to have me, but I didn’t know whether I’d enjoy a group Marge Amstel organized. She always has to be the center of attention. I decided to go ahead since Helen Clark was joining too.” Rebecca finished smoothing the pleats in her gray skirt and sat down with her handbag beside her on the chair.
“Relax, Rebecca,” Sarah wanted to say. “You look as if you’ve come for a job interview.” Rebecca did not take kidding well, so Sarah said instead, “I don’t believe I met Helen when I visited you last summer.”
“Yes you did. She was at our table for at least two meals. She’s the tall, well-dressed woman—a little younger than you are—who always wears beige.”
Sarah recalled a woman who had not spoken to her except to request something from across the table. “How come your friends seem so unfriendly?” she asked, knowing she was venturing into a risky area.
“I prefer friends who know how to keep their distance. Rebecca looked around at Sarah’s tidy but battered living room. Sarah was still using some of the same furniture their parents had brought to the cottage when it had been the family summer home. “I suppose we’ve each selected friends appropriate to our personalities. That woman I met at your house last year—what was her name—Louisa something?”
“That was it. She looked as faded and sagging as some of your furniture.”
“Louisa’s my closest friend. You’d like her if you got to know her.”
“I can’t imagine wanting to get to know her.”
“We’re picking at each other already. Come sit over here by me on the window seat. I want you to see how pretty the mountain looks with snow on it.”
“I saw snow on the mountain last year,” said Rebecca, but she moved over next to Sarah. Rebecca brought her purse with her to the window seat and placed it between her sister and herself. She straightened her skirt again. “I’ve got to look decent for dinner. I’m sure I won’t get back in time to change.”
“You only come to see me once or twice a year, even though we live just fifteen miles apart, and then you can’t even stay through dinner time.” Sarah gave up pretending to be pleased with her sister. “Every time we finally make arrangements to see each other, I hope this time the visit will be different, but you never change.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. You don’t come to see me any more often than I come to see you.”
“That’s because you can never find time for me to visit. In the past year I can think of at least five occasions when you called at the last moment and told me not to come.”
“Things come up,” said Rebecca. She examined the nail on the ring finger of her left hand, took a file out of her handbag, and repaired a corner of the nail that had not been to her liking. “You know how busy I am. I have responsibilities. Why don’t you give up this place and move out to Westside Manor yourself? You complain about not seeing me. Seems to me you couldn’t see much of anyone way out here. One reason I don’t come more often is that terrible road. I’m sure it’s damaged the suspension on my car already.”
“I have lots of friends, and Louisa lives less than half a mile away. We walk over to each other’s house nearly every day.”
“You’re not a young woman anymore, Sarah. If you’re not careful you’re going to turn into one of those eccentric old ladies who live in some forsaken hovel with a dozen cats—the kind who keep money in the mattress and never wash the dishes.”
“Perhaps I am an eccentric old lady, but I keep one cat, not twelve, and you know I’ve always been as neat and clean as anyone. You’re the one who never straightened her room when we were growing up. As for my home being a hovel, have you forgotten that our own father built this house?”
“For a summer place. It was never intended for year-round living. What if you were sick or fell? Who would find you out here?” Rebecca picked up the cat that had jumped on the window seat to greet her and threw him to the floor. “After I visit you, it takes me a week to get the cat hairs out of my clothes.”
“Why do you dislike my home so much? Every time you come to visit you try to talk me into coming to live in your retirement community. I can’t believe it’s because you’d like to see more of me. When we were little, you never could stand it when I made up my own mind about what I wanted. I don’t think you’ve changed a bit. I was your big sister, so I was supposed to be ready for all your commands. If I wanted to ride my bicycle and you wanted to play princess, I had to play princess with you because you needed me to be the ugly stepsister, or the prince, or some other undesirable part. If I didn’t do what you wanted, you ran to Mother, and together you shamed me into compliance.”
“I won’t have you criticizing our poor mother,” said Rebecca. She had turned in her seat to face out the window at the snowy meadow, with the woods and mountain beyond. She stared at the scene as if it drew her into it. Sarah had seen that vacant, distracted look many times before, however. Rebecca was not absorbing the natural beauty; she was doing her best to shut out a discussion she did not want to continue.
“I’m not criticizing Mother,” said Sarah. “I’m talking about you and me. You even told me where I had to go to college. I was accepted up at Bates, but you fixed it so I had to stay home and commute. That way I could continue to be at your service.”
“I didn’t make you do anything.”
“You got Mother and Father to talk to me about responsibility and how you needed me. Sure you needed me—to do your homework for you, to do your chores, to drive you on your dates. I think you still can’t stand not to have me standing by just in case I might be useful.” By now Sarah, too, had turned toward the snow and the mountain. She looked at the scene for the courage to keep trying to tell her sister what she had been attempting to tell her for more than fifty years. At eighteen Sarah had finally begun to understand that Rebecca was controlling her life and that—as much as her parents believed it and forced her to believe it, too—Rebecca was not helpless.
For more than fifty years her relationship with her sister had shifted back and forth from anticipation of her visits, to tolerance of her insults, to determination never to see her again. She did not know what had made her feel so resolved to try once more to explain, unless it had been going through the old picture albums yesterday with Louisa: all those pictures of people who were gone; all those people she had loved, tried to understand, and too often resented for the ways they had sometimes made her childhood difficult. Her mother had been a woman who never seemed to want anything but what was best for her family. She had not seen that by making Rebecca the eternally helpless darling, she had doomed her daughters to spending their adult lives as distant acquaintances. Their brother, Jeremy, had left home as soon as he was eighteen because he thought he was a failure in his parents’ eyes. Her father had loved his older daughter best and then, because he was ashamed to have a favorite, had expected more of her than she could give. Her father had never forgiven his son for leaving them and had never stopped blaming himself.
She and Rebecca were the only ones left, but when she looked at the photographs, Sarah could barely connect Rebecca to the tiny girl in the white ruffled dress and pink hair ribbons. They had all loved her so dearly. And finally Sarah had seen photos of herself, almost as tall and big boned at fourteen as she was now at seventy. After Louisa had left yesterday, Sarah had gone through the pictures again. It was something much more than a little lingering resentment that made her ache.
“Do you think Mother was happy?”
Rebecca seemed startled by the question. “I imagine so. She loved our father. She loved us. I suppose Jeremy’s leaving so young and moving across the country hurt her. She never talked about him much after he left. I guess she was about as happy as most women of her day.”
“Yes, but what did she want out of life? What did she want to achieve? You wanted the prestige of a wealthy husband and socially prominent friends. That wasn’t for me, but I always assumed you found pretty much the life you were looking for. I wanted a career, and the chance to be as independent as I pleased. I’m still living that kind of life. I even feel I’ve been a little bit useful to some of my students and not such a bad friend to my neighbors. But what was Mother looking to find? We always just expected her to be our mother, even after we were grown. The year before she died I was still calling her up for advice about handling my students.”
“What’s gotten into you, Sarah? I think you’re making a whole lot out of nothing. Women’s lives were different then.”
“Their lives were different, but were the women themselves so different? Inside, what did they think and feel? We never asked ourselves that about our own mother.”
“I’m getting uncomfortable sitting here,” said Rebecca, who had turned back away from the wide window. She picked up her purse and moved to an overstuffed chair by the stairs. She sat forward in her chair, as if she were waiting for a convenient moment to stand and say goodbye.
The big Burmese cat settled into Rebecca’s vacant spot on the window seat. Sarah scratched him between his ears. She forced herself to keep talking. She had lost the chance to say all she wanted—all she wished she had said—to her parents and brother, but Rebecca was alive. “For years I’ve been saving some things to show you. Come with me. Don’t worry about your purse or your coat. Willy doesn’t claw things.” Sarah walked over to Rebecca and extended her hand.
Rebecca stood but ignored Sarah’s hand. “I really can’t stay long. I promised to pick up a pair of gloves for Helen at the new shop that just opened next to the bookstore.”
Sarah led Rebecca up the stairs to the large bedroom over the living room. “I bet you haven’t been upstairs more than a dozen times since the summers we spent here as girls. This was our parents’ room. Do you remember?”
“Of course I remember. I’m not senile, although I’m beginning to wonder about you. You’re starting to live in the past. The past is dead and gone. Why bring up what can’t be changed or brought back?”
“Mother and Father kept this wedding picture here. I’ve tried to keep everything on the bureau the same as it was. I guess it’s because Mother’s fancy little bottles, and Father’s mirror and brush, and the wedding picture are part of the people Mother and Father were, part of the complete human beings, with likes and dislikes and disappointments and plans for the future that I never thought much about because they were just Mother and Father. They fed me and kept me safe and made me be nice to you when I wanted you to disappear. In my world they were just parents.
“Now when I touch this little violet perfume bottle, I see Mother picking it out and setting it here so the room will be pretty and homey. I imagine Father brushing that wavy dark hair of his each morning so he’ll look handsome for Mother.”
“What else do you have to show me? I don’t have much more time.”
“Remember that wicker chair by the window? You probably hated it because Father made you paint it once. That was the only real work I ever remember him asking of you, but I had the flu and for some reason he wanted it painted right away. Do you recall how you and I used to pretend that chair was a throne? We’d put our dolls in it so they could hold audiences with their subjects. Of course your doll always got to be the young queen. But we didn’t fight every time. We made up some lovely stories using that chair. Beyond the mountain was the Kingdom of Flavoria, and we had to protect our people from the evil Flavorian count.” Rebecca looked at the chair, but Sarah could not guess what she was thinking.
“Come across the hall a moment,” said Sarah.
Rebecca stood at the door, and at first Sarah thought she would refuse to enter the tiny room that Sarah now used as a study because it had the morning sun. “I told you I don’t like to think about the past,” said Rebecca. “Why have you kept my room this way when you hate me? I think you’ve planned this little tour so you could have lots of opportunities to remind me how awful I’ve been to you. Do you think I need reminding?” Sarah was not sure, but she thought Rebecca’s voice was a little unsteady.
Sarah sat down on the single bed in the far corner. “I know you won’t believe it, but I kept your bed just as you had it because I like to think of you in this room the way you were when we first started coming here. You were the daintiest, prettiest little girl I’d ever seen. I was so proud of you. I wanted all my friends to see my beautiful little sister.”
“I was five when father finished this cottage,” said Rebecca. “Mother and Father let me pick out the bedspread and bring up my favorite doll to set on the pillow. Why don’t you get rid of that spread? It looks as if it will disintegrate with one more washing. I don’t know why I liked that silly doll so much; she’s really quite hideous.” Rebecca picked up the cloth doll and turned her over to examine the back. “There’s the place where I ripped her dress trying to yank her away from you. I wouldn’t stop crying until Mother made you mend the hole. I could be a brat sometimes, couldn’t I?” For the first time all afternoon, Rebecca smiled.
Rebecca continued to speak as she sat down on the bed next to Sarah. “The first summer here doesn’t seem like over sixty years ago, does it? I don’t remember when I stopped playing with this doll. One day she wasn’t a toy anymore, just a decoration for my room, and then before long my room wasn’t my room any longer. I married Jim, we made a life together, and then that life was over. You think I’ve just bulldozed my way along, getting what I want and not caring about anyone but myself. If I’m so selfish, why is it I feel so terrible right now, thinking about everything that’s gone by?” Rebecca stood and walked over to the side window, where she looked down at the brown remains of the garden poking through the snow. Sarah came up beside her, and Rebecca let Sarah put her arm around her waist. Unlike earlier, Sarah felt she was holding a living woman and not a piece of furniture.
“Even by the time we started coming here, the losses had begun. Jeremy had left the year before. That’s one of the reasons why Father wanted to build this cottage, so Mother could get away from our house where he had grown up. We only saw him once after that, so I always felt I’d lost my brother before I could ever know him. At least you were old enough to remember him.”
Without conversation Sarah led Rebecca into the third bedroom and sat down on the battered hope chest at the foot of the twin bed that matched the one in Rebecca’s old room. Rebecca sat beside her.
“Sometimes when I was sure you wouldn’t catch me, I used to come in here and just sit,” said Rebecca. “I used to imagine that I was you, that I was tall and sophisticated and beautiful like you, and that I was smart in school and had lots of friends. I was sure you’d marry someone handsome and rich and then you’d leave me. I thought I’d be stuck at home and be the baby sister forever, always waiting for you to come back and pay attention to me so I’d be happy again. I envied you because you always knew what you wanted to do without asking anyone. Mother even helped me choose my clothes until I was married, and you told me which boys were nice and which ones to watch out for. Except for painting that one chair, Father never made me do any real work. I just helped with little chores like making beds and setting the table. I remember when you and Father built those bookcases you still have in your living room. I thought I’d never be old enough or smart enough to do something like that.”
Sarah and Rebecca sat quietly. Sarah could hear the old clock downstairs tick and then strike the quarter hour. When they had been girls that clock had stood on the mantel in their home outside Manchester. Sarah remembered early mornings when she would get up before the rest of the family in order to sit on the red velvet sofa and read while the clock made its comfortable, family sounds. Sarah had liked being up alone but knowing her parents and sister were just up the stairs.
“I could never live here,” said Rebecca eventually. “There are too many ghosts.”
“It’s because of the ghosts that I want to be here. I can look at the mountain and think of climbing it with Father, and whenever I bake bread I imagine Mother’s perfect loaves in place of my lopsided ones. Even Jeremy’s here a little. That desk in your old room used to be his. And just as much as I think of Mother and Father and Jeremy, I think of you.”
“I’m no ghost.”
“Until today, you were to me. I sometimes walk through the house thinking of all the things I might be able to tell you to bring you back so you’d be my sister again—not just some woman who disapproves of me and whose life I can’t understand. Mother and Father and Jeremy are gone, but we still have time together.”
Once again Rebecca was quiet. She let Sarah take her hand.
The clock struck the half hour. “I have to be going,” said Rebecca. “I promised Helen I’d be back through town before that shop closes.”
Sarah followed her down the stairs. Rebecca checked her coat for cat hairs, let Sarah help her into it, and picked up her purse. She was almost to the door when she turned back to Sarah and gave her a tentative hug. “I may have a free afternoon next week,” she said. “Do you still have those picture albums Mother put together? I might like to see them.”
I am shaken by sadness and distress over what is happening in our country. A horrifying example is the Trump administration’s actions in separating children from their parents at the southern border of the United States. The facts and implications of this situation show we have not learned the lessons of history. Those lessons might have taught us to turn away from fascism and authoritarianism, racism, and government-sanctioned cruelty and injustice. I do not understand, or do not want to accept, how we have allowed the current situation to fester and thrive.
Yes, I understand that Donald Trump has the desire to have authoritarian control. I understand that he and members of his administration are (based on the evidence of their words and actions) racist and lacking in feeling and empathy for their fellow human beings. I am gratified that a majority of Americans oppose the policy of separating children from their parents who are attempting to enter the United States. But I do not understand why, nevertheless, the majority of Republicans are not also outraged at the administration’s actions. How would they feel if their children were among those being held? What if these Republicans were facing gang violence and threats to their children in their home country? Wouldn’t they try to get their children to a better situation? And if they did try, would they then accept having their children taken from them?
Particularly shocking to me is the support that Trump’s policy is receiving from some who pride themselves on their religious faith. I believe that whatever our spirituality, we need to do our best to follow Jesus’s teaching to be kind to one another, to welcome the stranger, and to recognize love as the law that matters above all others. Many of Trump’s religious followers claim to be pro-life, but how is it pro-life—being loving and supportive toward everyone, especially children—to rip families apart?
The situation here is not one of saving children from untenable parental behavior, such as physical abuse and starvation. Most if not all of the children held at the border are from families trying to rescue their children from violence and poverty—trying to make a better life for them, just as was true for the ancestors of all of us Americans who were not Native American.
Supporters of the Trump border policy air a variety of claims to justify their behavior. Most of these claims are false or are incomplete truths. But none of the excuses matter. No “facts,” no “history,” and no “scripture” can justify what is happening: the cruelty to children and to their parents, the real and enduring harm that is being done to children through the separations, the shocking parallels to the worst of our and the world’s history, and the life-threatening wounds being inflicted on the Constitution and our country’s finest values.
Please: let us care about one another—all of us, about everyone. Please, members of Congress, serve the entire country, and not merely your future as politicians. All of us: please care about people and help people—all people, not only those who look like us and lead the kind of life we lead. If you are pro-life, please be pro-life by working for the needs of all people from the cradle to the grave, not just for their needs before they are born. Please, please, can’t we treasure, respect, and provide for our children—everybody’s children—and one another, around the globe?
Here is another of my short stories about an older woman who is determined to stay fully involved with life, in spite of the challenges. I envision Montreal as the setting for the story.
Emily felt a little stiff as she climbed the steps to the restaurant, but she made a point of keeping up with the young couple ahead of her. Saturday evenings were lovely at the restaurant. Musicians came to entertain the patrons. It was only a cafeteria, but a nice one with wholesome food. Emily liked cafeterias because she could eat just what she wanted and not feel self-conscious about staying long after she’d finished her meal.
Two young men played flute and guitar duets. Some of the melodies were familiar, though she didn’t know the titles of most of them. The traffic on the street below was muted; the melodies drifted above the soft clattering of dishes and whispered conversations. The flute player looked like the sort of young man she’d have liked for a grandson. The smile he gave the audience between pieces was not conceited, and his flute had a sweet tone. If she had been young, she would have hoped he’d notice her.
Over the musicians was a garish painting of a woman with two heads. The pictures in the restaurant changed every few months. Emily studied them to see if any would speak to her, but most were hard to understand. Sometimes she could admire the colors or a whimsical figure. Both faces of the two-headed woman grimaced, although one was young and beautiful. The artist must have been very angry, thought Emily.
Emily placed her book and umbrella conspicuously on the table so no one would take her seat while she went for a second cup of tea. She always had three cups of tea with her dinner. Her little rituals, like the sliver of pie with the third cup, were part of the joy. “Don’t you feel guilty taking up a whole table?” her neighbor Laura had asked recently. Emily had told Laura she’d feel more guilty not getting out to enjoy life—and what was she supposed to do, stand all through her meals?
At a nearby table, a young family with two children finished their dinner. The girl and boy had started a game of rock-paper-scissors while their parents listened to the music. Emily had played the game when she was a girl, all those years before. The woman was sturdy, not beautiful but healthy and self-possessed. Her husband watched her as she watched the musicians. The little boy, the younger of the children, whispered to his mother, and the family cleared their table and left. Emily saw them pass on the sidewalk below, each child on a parent’s shoulders.
Three girls sitting in a corner of the room stared worshipfully at the young musicians. One of the girls was heavy, with long dark hair; she wore a startlingly skimpy pink top over her jeans. Her companions were slim and attractive, a gift of their youth. Emily wished the heavy girl would realize that she was lovely, too; it pained Emily to see young people trying too hard to be accepted.
Among the many couples were a man and woman of nearly her own age. The man had plenty of white hair; Emily liked a good head of hair on a man. The woman was smartly dressed in a blue linen suit that didn’t even look wrinkled. She had artistically draped a gauzy scarf around her neck and anchored it with a gold sunburst pin. To Emily’s mind, the most fashionable women were the ones who used scarves and jewelry dramatically. Emily felt her own attempts at fashion flare were notably unsuccessful. She always looked so prim: the perfect slim little old lady whose only extravagance was her refusal to wear sensible shoes. Oh well, she didn’t much mind. She was hardly unique.
During the day Emily saw many other older women alone. Independent old men were somewhat rarer. This morning, walking along one of the city’s most fashionable streets, she had passed a woman with jaundiced skin and dirty, torn clothes. How long could the woman survive—certainly not through another long northern winter. How long had the woman survived in the streets, with nobody?
Strictly speaking, Emily had nobody, either. Most of her friends had moved in with children or found a retirement home to suit them. Emily kept up with her friends, but she rarely got to see them. An only child who had never married, Emily didn’t find it strange to be alone.
On Saturday mornings in mild weather, she visited the open-air market near her apartment. She never tired of seeing the rows of flowers and lush fruits and vegetables, or of watching women from the city’s ethnic neighborhoods buy the ingredients they’d combine in a thousand different ways. She had so many places she liked to visit, especially the bookshops near the university. Tonight they’d be open late.
Fifty and more years ago she’d walked near the university with her young men. She’d had her opportunities, but in the end she chose none of them. Without a husband and children, she’d had more freedoms than most women of her generation. Summers she had traveled, teaching herself to read a map and to make her needs known in other languages.
Young women who live alone have an easier time as old women, Emily believed. She knew women who wouldn’t leave their apartments after dark, who were afraid to ride the Metro. Until they were old they’d never been alone. They didn’t know how to learn self-confidence now.
The evening world was a world of couples and companionable groups. If she wasn’t on her guard, the useless melancholy would find her. She was lucky not to be hiding in her apartment like so many of the others.
The young men were playing another familiar melody. Her parents would have liked it here this evening. Her father had loved music, and her mother had loved people. It would be easy to be sad; they’d been gone so long. The hardest times were early in the morning and late at night, just before sleep. The trick was knowing which memories to let in.
When she was twenty, she’d had long hair, and at least a couple of boys had thought her pretty. One had wanted to marry her. They’d picnicked by the river and played duets on her parents’ old upright. Silly girl—it had seemed so important to her to be pretty and to have a fiancé. But he’d had a temper that she knew one day he’d turn on her, so she had broken the engagement.
Her parents had paid for her to go back to college when she was twenty-five. Already she had a teaching degree, when many girls of her time never had a chance to go past high school. The master’s degree made her more determined to be an independent and strong woman, but then she turned thirty and the longing for a child grew more instead of less. Still the men were not right for her, and she turned forty and moved forward into spinsterhood. She had a career and parents who loved her and never pushed her to be like other daughters. Nearly every fair Saturday night up through the summer of her forty-fifth year, the three of them had gone together to hear the orchestra play in the park. The smell of warm August nights still carried on its fragrance the memory of her family and those Saturday evenings.
It was better not to walk down the street where she’d grown up, at least not to pass the house after the lights were on and Emily could glimpse the life going on inside. It was too easy then to believe her life had ended in another era.
She wouldn’t let herself feel like an intruder in the young people’s world, in the world of couples. From where she was sitting, Emily could see the old couple holding hands under their table. She turned and looked at the girls. They had so much life to get through.
While Emily was finishing her third cup of tea and slice of walnut pie, the musicians put away their instruments. Maybe in one of the shops she could find a good copy of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. She’d never read enough from the reclusive poet who shared her name. In her master’s degree, she’d concentrated on Wordsworth and Coleridge, Keats and Shelley, never realizing then that no man, no matter how perceptive, can prepare a woman for the life she will live.
Near the bookshops she would watch young people milling around outside their music clubs and hear their rhythms spill out on the sidewalk. The floating flute and guitar melodies mustn’t make her forget that life still drives forward.
In this story, in spite of being alone in her later years, Mrs. Marigold turns her back on loneliness. I created this character to encourage readers and myself.
Old Mrs. Marigold passed in front of Emma’s house just after three o’clock. Watching for Mrs. Marigold was one of the important events of Emma’s afternoon. Her other regular activities were looking for ducks by the stream she crossed on the way home from school, checking under the beds and in the closets for scary people, and exploring along the path through the woods to find interesting plants and wildlife. Emma added pressed leaves and flowers, curiously colored or shaped pebbles and twigs, and the remnants of birds’ nests to the natural-history exhibit she was assembling in her bedroom.
Emma was allowed to play outside after school, but she didn’t want her mother to know about her walks in the woods. Some things were just too special to talk about. Emma let her mother think she found all her nature treasures between school and home. Emma was careful to leave for her walk every afternoon right after eating the snack her mother had laid out for her and to be home in time to set the table before her mother’s bus stopped at the corner.
Mrs. Marigold was alone today. There were never any people with her, but some afternoons a big yellow cat with a thick tail that switched back and forth followed along or ran a few steps ahead. To Emma, one of the notable things about Mrs. Marigold was that she seemed to like walking as much as Emma did. Other grown-ups walked when they had to in order to get someplace—the way her mother walked to work when the bus didn’t come, but Mrs. Marigold never seemed to be going or coming from anywhere in particular. She was just walking.
Emma didn’t know Mrs. Marigold’s real name. She liked to associate the people she met with plants or animals, and to her mind the old lady with the big cat was a flower, just the way Emma’s teacher at school was. Emma decided the first day of class that Mrs. Montgomery was a sunflower—big and bossy with an overpowering cheeriness. But it took Emma a whole afternoon of looking through garden and wildflower books from the library to name Mrs. Marigold. She was a plain little woman, with clean but faded clothes and white hair worn in a bun. Her face was composed of concentric wrinkles that made her always seem to be smiling. Like a marigold, she was unpretentious and small but held her head up proudly.
Emma particularly wanted to see Mrs. Marigold this afternoon because school had been even worse than usual. Mrs. Marigold was always alone, but she never looked sad. Emma thought maybe she could learn her secret if she observed her carefully enough. Today Mrs. Montgomery had read to the whole class Emma’s composition about what she wanted to be when she grew up. Recess had been terrible. Her classmates called her Paul Bunyan and asked when she was going to chop down a tree for them. She didn’t want to chop down forests when she grew up; she wanted to save them. Her classmates were only trying to get even with her because of her good grades in English. Just because she liked to write about some things—it wasn’t a big deal, but Mrs. Montgomery acted like it was a big deal, and then all the other kids gave her a hard time. At lunch Susie Croft and Megan Silvo, the two girls she could usually count on to sit with her, sat with some girls who liked to make trouble for Emma by doing things like ripping her homework papers and making up stories about her. Emma ate her sandwich as fast as she could and then ran out to the willow grove at the edge of the schoolyard to make bracelets out of the willow branches. It would be nice to have some friends you could count on. Emma wished her mother would let her get a cat like Mrs. Marigold’s.
Mrs. Marigold stopped nearly in front of Emma’s house and turned toward the meadow across the road. The grasses and wildflowers were already thick from the warm spring days, and Emma could see bees in the purple clover beside the road. Mrs. Marigold stood with her arms a little way out from her body. The breeze blew the grasses and then moved into the road to billow her skirts and the wisps of hair that had fallen from her bun. To Emma she looked like the scarecrow her father had put up in the meadow when he had turned part of it into a garden and raised pole beans and tomatoes. Emma thought of her father and of helping her mother string and break the beans.
What was Mrs. Marigold thinking about? Was she remembering her parents? Had there ever been a Mr. Marigold, or children, or friends who came in for coffee? Why didn’t Mrs. Marigold ever look lonely? Emma watched her bend down and pick a purple clover. She pulled the petals from the stem and sucked on them, a few at a time. Emma decided to taste some clover herself when she went on her walk that afternoon.
Once when she had been at the county fair with her mother, she had seen Mrs. Marigold looking at the exhibits in the 4-H tent. Emma saw Mrs. Marigold smile and mumble something to herself as she stood looking at a large buttercup squash. Emma didn’t ask her mother about the old lady. Her mother never mentioned her, even after they had stood practically next to her in front of the pumpkin pies. Asking about Mrs. Marigold would mean sharing her, and Emma wanted to keep her special for her private after-school world.
On Saturdays Emma often rode her bicycle past Mrs. Marigold’s house. Emma knew where she lived because sometimes when Emma pedaled by, Mrs. Marigold was in her yard picking off faded blossoms or weeding. She didn’t wear a sun hat or gardening gloves, and, although she stood up slowly, she didn’t groan or say, “Oh, my poor knees,” the way Aunt Rose did when she gardened.
The house was the smallest Emma had ever seen. Two pillars held up the roof over the front porch as if the builder had secretly wished he were constructing a southern mansion. The white paint was peeling up near the eaves, but the shutters hung neatly, and no weeds mixed in with the flowers under the front windows.
Mrs. Marigold resumed her walk and disappeared from Emma’s view. Emma hurried into the kitchen for her snack. She gulped the milk and took the brownie with her as she grabbed her door key and ran outside into the humid late-May afternoon.
Emma’s path started about a hundred yards up the road beyond her house. First it meandered through a small, uncultivated field that belonged to the neighbors. The stubby grasses along the edge of the path tickled Emma’s bare ankles. She kept a lookout for birds and other creatures hiding in the tall weeds. A few days ago a pheasant had startled her by flying into the air from practically at her feet.
The woods always looked dark until Emma was inside. There the sun filtered through the leafy tops of the tall, straight trees and created little speckles of light that lit the lichen and mayapples on the forest floor. Emma wondered who had made her path and who tended it. She liked to think that Native Americans had worn the path by following it to the lake to fill their water jugs. Emma had only once followed the path all the way to the lake. There were so many ferns and mosses and insects that attracted her attention along the way. She had to be careful to start home in time.
It had been hot in the open, but the air felt cool and peaceful under the trees. Emma shuffled along trying to suck nectar out of the clover she had collected in the field. The thin petals felt smooth and pleasing in her mouth, but she couldn’t taste much of anything. Maybe Mrs. Marigold had a special clover-tasting technique Emma didn’t know about.
Emma dropped the clover in the path and picked up a dry twig, which was pleasant to snap into little pieces as she walked along. A butterfly hovered over a plant full of tiny flowers that were almost as brilliantly blue as the butterfly. Emma put a small branch from the plant in her shirt pocket to identify at home. Two chickadees chased each other across the path, scolding and flying back and forth. “Stop arguing,” Emma said to the birds, who noticed her then and flew off.
Walking wasn’t working for Emma today the way it seemed to work for Mrs. Marigold. Mrs. Marigold had no friends that Emma knew about, but she always looked happy on her walks. Emma herself usually liked walking alone, but today the kids at school had made her feel different from everybody else. It was hard to forget school and just enjoy her woods.
Emma scuffed the decayed leaves and twigs under her feet and thought about what she might do. She was so preoccupied with her problem she didn’t even notice the baby rabbit until she was close enough to startle it into hopping away. Emma considered whether all the kids would like her if she curled her hair like Lisa Abner’s and wore nicer jeans. “Maybe I could talk to Mrs. Montgomery and ask her to pretend I’m not any good in my schoolwork anymore.” Emma thought about Mrs. Montgomery reading her composition to the class, and the thought made her so mad she kicked a small birch tree. “Teachers are stupid,” she said aloud. Mrs. Montgomery wasn’t going to be any help. Emma would just have to learn to be like Mrs. Marigold and not need other people at all.
Because she had been thinking about her, Emma felt a little thud inside her chest when she realized Mrs. Marigold herself was just down the path by the old fallen oak that Emma used as a resting spot on her walks. Mrs. Marigold was picking something growing beside the path. Emma had seen Mrs. Marigold in the woods twice before. Emma hadn’t felt scared then. But today she had already made up her mind to speak to her the next time she saw her.
Mrs. Marigold seemed to pay no attention as Emma cautiously walked up to her and stood beside her, watching her pick a small bouquet of violets. Emma’s heart thumped again when Mrs. Marigold said in an unexpectedly strong voice, “I only pick a few flowers so there’ll be plenty left for the bees and for other people to look at.”
Not knowing what to say, Emma said, “My name’s Emma.”
Mrs. Marigold straightened up and smiled. “I always knew you’d have a pretty name, but I’d guessed you’d be called Robin. You’re sturdy and determined like a robin.”
The idea that Mrs. Marigold knew who she was and even had a secret name for her convinced Emma that Mrs. Marigold was as wise and magical as she had imagined. She felt less timid.
Mrs. Marigold continued to speak as cheerfully and naturally as if she had been expecting Emma to join her. “My name is Abigail, but you may call me anything that makes you feel comfortable. My husband used to call me Abby. Some people who don’t know me very well call me Mrs. Waters.”
“Mrs. Marigold,” mumbled Emma.
“Mrs. Marigold it will be. I love marigolds. They’re bright and cheerful, and they aren’t ashamed to be unexciting. Would you like to sit up here with me. I like to rest a little and watch the forest life before continuing to the lake.” Abigail Waters settled herself slowly but gracefully on the broad, decaying tree trunk, and Emma climbed up beside her. Emma was pleased to see that Mrs. Marigold didn’t seem to think at all about whether she would get her skirt dirty.
“You must be in the sixth grade by now,” said Mrs. Waters. “I didn’t enjoy the sixth grade very much. I wonder if children are any kinder to each other these days.”
“The kids think I’m weird because I want to be a conservationist and save the forests when I grow up.”
“I bet they tease you for being smart and liking to study.”
“How did you know?” Emma wondered again at Mrs. Marigold’s powers.
“I just guessed. Tell me why you weren’t more afraid of me. Most children are.” Mrs. Waters smiled her crinkly smile.
“I don’t know,” said Emma, who was trying to find the right words for the question she really wanted to ask.
A sharp, two-note whistle came from a tree to the left of their perch on the fallen trunk. “There’s the father cardinal,” said Mrs. Waters quietly. “I saw him here yesterday. He must have a family around here.”
“Do you come every day? I’ve only seen you on the path twice before.”
“I think mornings are best for visiting the woods, but sometimes like today I have chores to do in the morning. In the afternoon I like to walk down your road and watch the children coming home from school.”
“Why do you walk so much?”
“Probably for the same reasons you do. Tell me more about your school.”
Emma didn’t want to talk anymore yet about her school. She fidgeted with the dry bark and powdery wood from the old tree. She still hadn’t asked the important question, the question that had made her brave enough to make Mrs. Water’s acquaintance. Emma forced herself to stop thinking and worrying and pushed out the question before she could stop herself. “Don’t you ever get lonely?”
Mrs. Marigold’s face crinkled again in a kindly way, and she looked at Emma as she answered. “I used to be lonely sometimes when I was your age. Being eleven is hard. I’m afraid it will go right on being hard for a few years. But you mustn’t think it’s just because you’re a little different from the other kids.”
Emma’s need to understand everything now that she had asked her question made her bolder. “Don’t you hate being different?”
“How many old ladies do you know who get to go exploring in the woods every day, or who can spend their afternoons walking up and down a pretty country road where the breezes smell sweet and wholesome? I have all I need, too. I have my own little home, and Alberta–she’s my cat–keeps me good company. I’d rather live my life than the life of any rich old woman in a typical retirement home–forced to answer to young people who think I’m as capable of taking care of myself as a five year old and stuck pretending I want to play bingo and learn to hook rugs.”
“But don’t you miss having other people around?” In her frustration with not finding the essential information she needed, Emma turned to straddle the tree and face Mrs. Waters.
Instead of responding right away, she said, “Come sit here closer to me if you like.” Emma swung her right leg back over and moved up next to Mrs. Waters. For a few moments they sat together watching a squirrel flap his tail and cluck in response to some unknown displeasure.
“I never had a little girl or boy of my own,” Mrs. Waters said finally. “Sometimes I’ve been sad about that. When I’m baking cookies on Saturday morning I imagine how nice it would be to be listening for my grandchildren coming up the walk.
“Other times I miss my husband. He was a teacher at the college, and when he was alive we had lots of friends among the other teachers. When Oliver died, I lost touch with those friends. I’ve never thought of myself as lonely, though.”
“Can’t you make new friends?”
“I hope I’ve just made a very special new friend.”
Emma smiled up at Mrs. Marigold. She liked sitting next to her. She smelled faintly like the meadow—not the kind of fragrance that comes from perfume or powder but the light sweetness of clover and wild grasses. “I’m not much of a friend for you. I’m just a kid.”
“You and I like some of the same things. I don’t think I could find many other friends who would sit here on a dirty log with me and watch beetles in the rotting wood.” Mrs. Marigold had pulled back a strip of bark to reveal a dozen black insects that she and Emma were examining as they talked. “I can’t expect most people to put up with me. They might not even want their friends and families to see them with someone as odd as I am.”
“Can’t you change so other people would like you?”
“Would you really, deep inside, want to change to be like the children at school who tease you, even if changing could bring you a dozen close friends?”
“Don’t you like other people?”
“O yes, especially my family. I loved my husband and my parents and sister. I liked our friends from the college.”
“But aren’t they all gone?”
“Not in my mind. I’ll always remember them. And I like seeing people when I’m on my walks. I saw you and your mother one day at the county fair. Watching you enjoying yourself made me happy, too.”
They sat silently then, listening to the forest sounds of nesting birds, insects, and squirrels digging in last year’s leaves.
“I have to go. My mother gets home at five.”
“Maybe some Saturday when you’re riding your bike up by my house you’ll stop in for some cookies.”
“I’m very fond of chocolate-chip cookies,” said Emma.
Emma ran every few yards to make up for the extra time she had spent in the woods. She let herself in by the kitchen door, hurried into the living room to turn on the television, and left it on while she went back to wash the plate and glass from her snack. She had shut the television off again and was setting the table for dinner when she heard her mother at the front door. Emma straightened the place settings and went to greet her mother.
“You look happy today,” said Emma’s mother. “Was there a good program on the after-school special?” She felt the television as she walked toward the couch to set down her briefcase. “You watch too much television. I wish you’d try to be more sociable. Why don’t you visit one of your little friends from school in the afternoons. I wouldn’t mind as long as you told me where you were going.
“I have a new friend,” said Emma. “She invited me to come see her.”
“How nice, dear. What’s her name?” Emma’s mother sat down next to the briefcase and slipped off her office pumps.
“Abby Marigold,” said Emma softly.
“Marigold—what an odd name. Well, let me know if you plan to play at her house after school instead of coming home. Find out her mother’s name and her telephone number. Dear, run to the kitchen and get me a glass of ice water. You’ve been sitting all afternoon and a little scurrying around won’t hurt you.”
I am reading the novel Trick, by Domenico Starnone (New York: Europa Editions, 2018, trans. Jhumpa Lahiri). The original title, in Italian, is Scherzetto (Rome: Giulio Einaudi, 2016). The novel is told from the point of view of an aging artist who fears he has lost his edge. My own version of that feeling has been having a starring role in my life.
May 30—Memorial Day each year before it was moved in 1971 to the last Monday in May and became a national holiday—was Lower School Field Day at Wilmington Friends School. I liked Field Day, on which classes were canceled and the whole elementary school took part in races and other competitions. I have a vague sense of having participated in burlap-bag and three-legged races, but the clearest recollection I have is of taking part in the long jump. We had a sand-filled long-jumping pit that I can still see in my mind. I was good, that is for a small grade-school girl.
My friend Lee was better, but she was taller and a year older—and anyway, I was a close second. Other children must have taken part in the long jump, but my memory houses only Lee and me, jumping away and feeling good about the results. I liked being good at things. Long jumping, dancing, playing Becky Thatcher in our fourth-grade production of Tom Sawyer, and beating the boys in math were an antidote to ostracism by the class bully and her court.
All these decades later, I continue my mix of feeling socially inadequate but hoping to win notice for some physical and intellectual skills.
May 30, 2018, brought the first of this year’s three performances of The Follies, our community’s annual talent show. For the sixth time, I am tap dancing as part of a small group. This year three of us are dancing to “I Got Rhythm.” I always get nervous when I dance or act in front of an audience, and now I have let my nerves unbalance my confidence even more than usual. The root of the problem is my reputation for dancing competence—I’m afraid of not being able to live up to this reputation. (The syncopation in “I Got Rhythm” adds to my fears because it makes timing the steps somewhat more difficult.)
Each year, of course, I am a little older and a little more tired. I think to myself, “I may not be able to do as well as I did last year. And [here’s the key] people may talk about me and say, ‘Winnie’s slipping; her dancing isn’t as good this time.’” Do I think my right to a place in the world demands that I never lose a step, literally or figuratively?
That is exactly what I’ve been thinking. Not surprisingly, I let my nerves sabotage me during the two full-cast rehearsals for the 2018 Follies, experiences that then added to the pressure I felt for the opening show. The mistakes I made during the full-cast rehearsals did remind me that audiences pay more attention to the overall pizzazz in a performance than to the exactness of the details. Nevertheless, I was worried. I knew I could do the dance when no one was watching, but my close friends would be in the audience for the opening show, and the production was being filmed for our community television.
On May 30, 2018, I awoke feeling good, in spite of the ongoing sleep problems I’ve been having—largely from agonizing over the focus and purpose for my writing. For a show day, I was even reasonably calm. Showtime came, and the dance went well. The timing was a little suspect at a point or two, but the three of us were together and the steps were solid.
Did I love the compliments that followed, including a kind woman’s saying, “You could be on Broadway”? You bet I did! My confidence roared back into life.
But how am I going to use the fact that I got through the May 30 show? Am I going to ratchet up the pressure for the remaining Follies performances? I hope not: I have evidence now to tell me, “I can do this,” and the performance with my close friends in the audience went quite well. More dangerous is the effect on me for next year’s Follies tap dance—and for all other future public displays of whether I still have it or not.
Really, am I going to live the rest of my life the way I’ve lived it since second grade: believing that I can hold my head high only through prowess in the skills by which I define my acceptability?
It’s long, long past time for me to live—and not just give lip service to—this principle: The reasons for doing something such as acting in a play, learning a language, writing poetry or prose, dancing, participating in sports, studying literature, or playing music include personal satisfaction and growth, the desire to create, and the wish to share aspects of ourselves and the things we love with others. The reasons do not include proving our worthiness to take up space in the world.
I do think that enjoying congratulations for something done well or in a manner that is pleasant for others is okay: We naturally value another person’s appreciation of us and prize our own skills. But if we are performing in order to impress or prove ourselves to others or to keep ourselves from sinking into the despair of not counting, we are probably addicted to praise. Praise addiction brings with it the suffering of withdrawal when praise doesn’t come. Praise addiction also brings a suffocating fear of aging and all other reasons for “losing a step.”
Okay, I get it: It’s in my power to stop letting the false gods of approval, expectation, and judgment trample my joy in self-expression, and any good my self-expression may do for others. It’s a lot more important for folks to see an aging person who is still dancing, creating, and learning—and having fun doing so—than for them to see me getting every one of the steps right.
Update: During tonight’s Follies (the second of the three shows), I didn’t entirely live up to my newest resolution. I intend to keep working on it.
Most of us tend to think of the second half of life as largely about getting old, dealing with health issues, and letting go of our physical life, but the whole thesis of this book [Falling Upward] is exactly the opposite. What looks like falling can largely be experienced as falling upward and onward, into a broader and deeper world, where the soul has found its fullness, is finally connected to the whole, and lives inside the Big Picture. -Richard Rohr*
I’ve been in a slump—hunkering down with a brick wall in my face: the brick wall of “I don’t have any ideas worth writing about”; “My friends are going to get sick of me, if they aren’t already”; “I’ve messed up so many things in my life”; and “If I don’t hurry and get it together, it will be too late.”
Don’t get me wrong: all sorts of wonderful things have filled vast expanses of my most recent slump time: happy and deeply meaningful experiences with friends, the arrival of the beautiful weather and blossoming brilliance of late spring, the royal wedding (which I watched live and then watched again later in the day). . . . But the sense of time ticking past with frightening speed while I fail to catch hold has once again thrown me up against that brick wall. Life has been and is profoundly good to me, but I’m not doing my share, or so it seems.
Father Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest with an embracing and ecumenical spirituality, not only writes of the value and strength of later life, he also does the same for our mistakes: “Losing, failing, falling, sin, and the suffering that comes from those experiences—all of this is a necessary and even good part of the human journey” (Falling Upward, 21). Richard Rohr’s books and daily meditations, available by e-mail, speak in harmony with my needs and personal philosophy. They give me comfort and encouragement. But I have continued feeling bogged down along the path of my particular journey.
And so, as I have before, I asked my Loved Ones in the Light to give me their perspective. Here is what I think they told me today:
We think you’re doing pretty well, better than you recognize. But there is room for improvement for the sake of your peace of mind and sense of purpose. This is a prime time in your life. You think that many possibilities are behind you—and they are, those of your now-past life stages. But the possibilities available and offering themselves to you now are just as vibrant, interesting, and important as were those of your youth. Such is the case for everyone.
The key is in not regretting what has slipped through your life and into the past but, instead, valuing the lessons distilled from
Missteps, wrong turns, right turns, and byways along life’s journey
Opportunities—taken or not
Challenges—muddled or surmounted
And dear memories
Who you were, you are now. Your four-year-old self and your forty-year-old self are with you, transmuted but not abandoned or lost.
You know very well that if you spend your days mourning what no longer seems possible, fearing you cannot meet your own high standards and others’ expectations, and feeling like residue left behind after those you love have crossed to the other side, you will damage or destroy your health, your serenity, and much of your joy.
This evening, you have finally wrestled aside your fear enough to pick up a pen again after a long siege by the paralysis of self-doubt. Look at the pleasure that writing even these few lines has given you. This small success has reignited a sense of living life instead of merely bouncing around with its buffeting—back and forth between happy times, like those with friends, and the desperation of sleepless nights spent tangling with the What Am I Going to Do Monsters:
What am I going to do to bring life and purpose to my blog?
What am I going to do to become calmer and stronger?
What am I going to do to be a better friend to my friends?
What am I going to do to bring order to my days?
What am I going to do to bring stability to my finances?
And so on.
Richard Rohr reminds his readers of the value of mistakes. To give our own analogy: wrong notes cue you about what the right notes are as you continue playing your life symphony. As the late Adlerian psychologist Rudolf Dreikurs, an acquaintance of your family’s, said when someone pointed out a wrong note he had played on the piano, “But look at all the notes I got right.” Besides, the “wrong” notes you have played may not, in fact, have been mistakes so much as modulations into valuable new improvisations, or into the development section of your current symphonic movement.
Okay, so some of the notes you played really were sour. Yes, entire measures of your life have been filled with missed accidentals and a failure to follow the key signature. But you are now a much more skilled musician of life as a result. While you may not be able to present your life’s music with the full force and vigor that you could muster when you were fifteen or thirty, you are able to play with greater finesse, passion, and virtuosity. And remember that pianissimo moments can be captivating and lyrical; they complement the fortissimo, con brio, and con fuoco passages.
So play the melodies of your days with gusto, even in the minor keys. Remember that while nothing, including practice, makes perfect, practice in interpreting life with determination and courage makes meaning, satisfaction, and fulfillment. Play on.
* Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011), 139 (Nook edition).
My lifelong-learning French course (which a late friend began more than thirty years ago) is now run like an ongoing book group conducted in French. This week was my turn to lead the class—a daunting prospect because of my miscellaneous insecurities and deficiencies. Some in the class are native French speakers; many of the others are retired French teachers or lived in France for an extended time. I merely studied some French in high school and college, lived for a year and a half in a dorm where we were supposed to speak French all of the time, and spent three miraculous weeks in France in January 1972.
But I prepared carefully for Monday’s class, and my classmates were kind and encouraging, so I survived and even enjoyed the experience. We were talking about the last four chapters of Philippe Claudel’s novel Quelques-uns des cent regrets (Some of My One Hundred Regrets), which prompted lively discussion. In the novel, the narrator describes his return to his childhood town for the funeral and burial of his mother, with whom he has been estranged for half of his thirty-two years. The short novel (154 pages) is not available in English. Its vivid scenes and characters—including some elements reminiscent of magic realism—account for both the book’s difficulty for non-native French speakers and its power. Quelques-uns des cent regrets is well worth the effort if you have a fairly solid reading knowledge of French.
The title comes from a parable-like story that the hotel owner in the novel tells the narrator: Human regrets are like the pearls that oysters create, treasures “qui possèdent le souvenir, la mémoire de la blessure”—“that possess the recollection, the memory of the injury.” Each person, according to the legend, is allotted one-hundred regrets in a lifetime. Each regret is written into a magnificent illuminated book called The Book of Debts. Shortly after a person’s one-hundredth regret has been written in the book, the person dies.
Making Meaning Out of My Entries in The Book of Debts
I imagine that I have company—billions of companions—in struggling with guilt, with how to move from inundating guilt to regrets transformed into meaningful memories. And so I have asked my higher self and guides for their advice. Here is the response (which I’ve also included in my book A Woman in Time):
Making mistakes to learn from is part of the point of it all. As you know, of course, you can’t change the past, but if you look back, you will see that you made your mistakes out of a lack of understanding, knowledge, and insight, not from a desire to hurt or harm others. As you have grown in wisdom, you have made better choices. You have more to learn, more to grow, but that is why you are on Earth: to learn and to grow. If you allow the past to weigh you down, you will restrict the potential inherent in the present and future. Some of the wisdom you have now grew out of your errors and mistakes. Such is the way of life on Earth. If you were perfect, you would not be here.
See the attitudes that misled—and mislead—you. Because of things that happened to you in school and your lack of understanding at the time, you grew to believe that even small faults or infractions make you unacceptable to others. You thought—and to a degree still believe—that some inherent flaw in you meant you had to be even more careful of slipping up than others needed to be. Others could make mistakes and do or say wrong things and still be acceptable, but you had to be pretty much perfect even to have a chance of being accepted. And to an extent—too great an extent—you still feel that way. Even though you have close friends, you fear you are one gaffe away from having them throw you overboard.
Because they loved you—and love you—your parents disliked your reflex of saying “I’m sorry,” but you even now continue to fear and act as if failing to sprinkle the magic powder of “sorry” over what feel to you like your slipups and transgressions will mean the loss of the possibility of forgiveness and continued inclusion by those you want to please and whose company you value.
Your attitudes have brought you great suffering and pressure and have contributed, to a large measure, to the hurt and harm you have inflicted on others, especially your dearest ones. It is hard to live under such pressure to be perfect as you have endured and not have negative symptoms appear from the strain. And the irony is, of course, that your behavior was anything but perfect as a result. But it and you were and are very human, as are all people on this Earth: getting along as you can, given your level of insight and experience.
Creating Pearls Out of Pain
About some things you know better now. As hard as it is to change ingrained conditioning, it can be done, and you can do it. But if you allow yourself to live in regret, you will never become the whole, mature, compassionate, confident, loving, creative person you wish to be. You gave up smoking and other destructive behaviors; you can also give up thinking you have to be perfect to find even the hope of approval by others. And you can learn to release regret, letting the sad thoughts float through your mind and out again without anchoring there.
You want to make up for all the causes for regret in your life, and while doing so per se is impossible, you will make up for your past lack of wisdom by moving forward buoyed by what the years have taught you. Find missing courage and be yourself, doing the best you can but not beating yourself when you stumble. You will stumble less if you refuse to see yourself as less than others, refuse to look down on yourself, mourn what is lost without wallowing in guilt and fear, and celebrate what your errors and unhappiness have taught you. The way to find your way is to be, knowing that life is about becoming, not about figuring it all out at the start.
When you make a mistake, consider the lesson and move on. Keep going. Hold your head high. Have compassion for yourself, as well as for others. Expect yourself to be a good human being, not a perfect being.
Those you love will be cheering you on, are cheering you now. They are not counting your flaws and failures; they are celebrating your courage and your victories.
 Philippe Claudel, Quelques-uns des cent regrets (Paris : Éditions Stock, 2007).
On March 18, 2018, I was in an audience of several-dozen Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia and companions in faith. We were listening to a lecture by Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton, retired auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Detroit. (Even though since childhood I have been a member of the Religious Society of Friends—the Quakers—I am a Franciscan companion, meaning in part that I meet for faith sharing with several other lay companions in faith and with Franciscan sisters.) Bishop Gumbleton was the founding president of the U.S. branch of Pax Christi International, an international Catholic movement working for peace.
Bishop Gumbleton is profoundly committed to peace, and therefore, I believe, profoundly committed to the fundamental message of Jesus. Bishop Gumbleton said, for example, “If Jesus did not reject the use of violence for any reason, we know nothing about Jesus.” Pax Christi International includes an inspiring Vow of Nonviolence on their website. Bishop Gumbleton is also thoroughly devoted to full equality for all, within the Church and throughout society. I was so moved by the bishop’s message that at one point I turned to my friend sitting next to me and said, “I am going to join the Church.” I wish to spend the rest of my life doing what I can to live the Pax Christi International Vow of Nonviolence, which I believe reflects Jesus’s teaching and example.
My decision to join the Catholic Church has followed three years of active participation with the Franciscans, including frequently attending Mass and taking part in numerous retreats led by the Sisters of St. Francis. Until hearing Bishop Gumbleton, however, I believed that I would always remain a Quaker and never convert. Since March 18, my sudden decision to join the Church has continued to seem valid, but I have felt the need to examine my decision, and I do so as follows. As in some other blog posts, I write as though wiser voices are speaking to me in answer to my question—and perhaps they are. The response to my question is probably much more than you will want to read, but I include it all in case anything is useful to anyone.
My Question: Am I doing the right thing to resign from the Religious Society of Friends and join the Catholic Church as a Franciscan?
You are not doing the wrong thing to come to this decision. You were dangling, not knowing where to go, how to move forward, and so it is right now to make the best choice you can and go in that direction. You are finding a spiritual home that speaks to you. It will not be perfect. Nothing in this life is perfect.
You wish that you could return to the Quakerism—to the Religious Society of Friends—of your childhood, with the weighty Quakers of your parents’ generation and the generations before, with your parents’ wise and inspired messages, with the Philips sisters and Robert Maris and Edith Rhoads, with hymn singing before and after Meeting, with the sense of mystery and beauty, of something grand and lovely, meaningful and ready to accompany you throughout your life.
But your parents’ generation and those before are gone. As much as you like those Quakers you know from your own generation and respect their sincerity and their community involvement, much seems missing from what you once knew. And as much as Meeting members speak of the wisdom they have inherited from the past, the Meeting you hoped to find again lives only in memory. Whatever the degree to which the changes you see are in your own perception, they are nonetheless true for you.
In contrast, you find a wealth of what you love in the nearby Franciscan convent and their chapel, where you enthusiastically attend Mass. The sisters are warm and seem sincerely happy to see you. When they teach and share, their spirituality is as vibrant as the spirit you used to find within the beautiful old meetinghouse at 4th and West Streets. In part it is the Franciscans’ music that envelops you: even when the choir is not singing, the congregation sings with gusto and conviction, knowing music resonates throughout the universe in the love of God, creation, and one another.
You are not in complete alignment with all of the Catholic beliefs, even among the Franciscans. But like Quakers, Franciscans consider themselves seekers, believe in continuing revelation and ongoing conversion, have nonviolence as a central value, and embrace all people as brothers and sisters. You profoundly admire and wish to advance the Franciscan commitment to peace: to serving and valuing all people; to welcoming strangers; to feeding, encouraging, teaching, healing, and clothing those in need; to honoring and preserving the Earth. You feel that Franciscans such as the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia are living Christ’s and St. Francis’s messages of love and kindness.
You see every human being as a child of God, and the Quaker belief in that of God within every person is not contrary to the Franciscan view of creation. But the most daunting area of doubt for you is your uncertainty about Christ’s nature. You do not know if Christ was more completely the child of God than are all other people throughout time. You wonder whether the difference is that Christ expressed love and kindness through his life vastly more fully, deeply, and profoundly than the rest of humanity has done and is doing. In other words, is the difference between Christ and other people a difference in essence, or is it entirely in the way he lived his life?
Clearly the doctrine of transubstantiation is another source of questions for you, but you have decided that the ceremony of Communion is a beautiful way to nurture your commitment to taking Christ’s life into your life, into your heart, soul, and all your being and ways of being. And you are seeking to become clearer in your beliefs through reading, as well as through attending programs in the Franciscan Spiritual Center, continuing as a companion in faith to the Sisters of St. Francis, and talking, as you love to do, with your dear friend who is a Franciscan.
Let’s look at your spiritual journey as an adult. During the many years that you lived away from the Wilmington-Philadelphia region, you never found a Quaker Meeting that felt like your spiritual home, and you tried quite a few. A Meeting outside Washington, D.C., came close to drawing you, but only briefly. In Ellsworth, Maine, you attended the Congregational Church fairly regularly, as you also did in Northampton, Massachusetts, where you joined the choir. In both cases, eventually you stopped attending. In Washington, D.C., you liked to attend the Episcopal service in the National Cathedral from time to time. The magnificent church and pageantry pleased you. You tried the Washington Ethical Society, but without continuing.
After returning to Delaware, you were unable to attend the Wilmington Meeting for a time because of the smell of gas in the meetinghouse. You visited a couple of other area Meetings, but always something ruled them out for you. For example, one Sunday you entered a meetinghouse and sat down to quiet yourself and wait for Meeting to begin. But a woman already present said in a haughty voice, “We’re going to be having a Meeting for Worship here,” as if you were an intruder rather than a visitor to be welcomed. You left immediately and did not return.
You began regularly attending the Unitarian Church in North Wilmington. You enjoyed the services and minister, sang in the choir, and were thrilled by the quality of the music in the church. You’d had a similar experience in Chevy Chase, Maryland, at a small Christian Church (as the Disciples of Christ denomination is known). But then you changed apartments and didn’t make the trek back to Chevy Chase on Sundays. And so on, and so on.
In Delaware, you left the Unitarians after the heating system in the 4th and West Meetinghouse was repaired and you were able to return. That was a happy time. On Sundays you sat between your parents on your family’s favorite bench. You were active on Meeting committees. You had come home, or so you thought. Even after your father’s passing, you and your mother were active in the Meeting until after your move to southeastern Pennsylvania—not a long distance to return to the meetinghouse on Sundays, but life changed, and then the Meeting seemed gradually to forget, and you felt sad and that your mother had been betrayed through the Meeting’s neglect.
When you expressed your hurt recently, you found the members of Meeting exceedingly kind, and you realized that loving feelings and appreciation toward your parents still remained among the Wilmington Quakers. Yet after a few Sundays of thinking that perhaps you had, after all, returned to stay, you did not continue to attend Meeting. Your affection and appreciation for present friends and Friends (as Quakers are also known) did not recreate the Friends and Meeting of the years now lost. The Meeting has gone on without you, and in spite of the kindness shown to you, you are no longer at home there, and you are not drawn to try to rekindle your belonging. The contrast between your approach-avoidance relationship with the Meeting and your enthusiastic attendance at Mass, retreats, companion meetings, and other events with the Franciscans is notable.
Not So Unexpected after All
You have had a fascination with Catholicism for much of your life, even though it was not until you became involved with the Franciscans that you understood how Quaker-you might find a fertile spiritual garden within the Catholic Church. Consider some of your connections with Catholicism over the years. At summer camp, you spent hours discussing ideas with your best friend, who was Catholic. You played your guitar at folk masses in college. Within your second college major, your emphasis was on medieval history, which was largely a history of the Church. One of your favorite activities in Europe was visiting churches—Chartres, Notre-Dame de Paris, and countless churches in Italy. And remember the joy you felt in waking up to church bells in Rome.
You have been inspired by Gregorian Chant and adore the magnificent religious music that has followed it through the centuries. And who was your best friend when you were in Pisa for a couple of weeks to learn Italian? It was a Franciscan brother. Your fascination with the Vatican has included reading several books on that subject. Consider your satisfaction in viewing religious art of the Renaissance. Of course, as a literature major, you have a strong appreciation for spiritual poetry and prose, from the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins to Franciscan Richard Rohr’s many books that speak to your heart and mind. And then you also feel the strong appeal of being part of a spiritual tradition that joins you with a billion current followers and with worshipers from the entire two millennia since Christ.
You will not find a perfect match anywhere. You will not agree with every quality and characteristic you find in any of the world’s religions. But paradoxically, the Catholic faith now seems closest to who you are and want to be. No real contradiction exists between the spiritual hearts of Quakerism and Franciscan Catholicism. Some of the externals are different, but not the essence that matters most.
So yes, you can take your Quaker heart into a Catholic church without denying parts of yourself or turning your back on your spiritual history and the beloved heritage given to you by your parents. You are not changing who you are; you are finding new settings for expressing your spiritual beliefs and values more fully than you are currently managing to do in the meetinghouse that once felt entirely inspiring, comforting, and embracing. While you continue to be a seeker and are growing somewhat in your understanding, you have not fundamentally changed your spiritual outlook. Circumstances have changed, however, and to continue to grow as you wish to do, you need to feel free to embrace new means of nurturing your soul.