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.)
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.”
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).
No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. -John Donne (1572-1631), Meditation XVII
I first read Island of the Blue Dolphins at summer camp, several decades ago. I remembered that I loved it, but the storyline had left my memory. Out of curiosity I reread the book this weekend. Island of the Blue Dolphins is a children’s novel published in 1960 by Scott O’Dell (1898-1989). It is a story about getting on with life no matter what happens. And what happens to Karana, a Native American girl who finds herself alone on San Nicolas Island (known as the Island of the Blue Dolphins), off the coast of California, is among the worst fates that I can imagine.
The story—which won the 1961 John Newbery Medal “for the most distinguished American children’s book published the previous year”—is based on a real situation experienced by a woman who lived alone on San Nicolas Island from 1835 to 1853.
Karana’s mother has died before the novel begins. Then in the novel, Chief Chowig, Karana’s father, is killed in a battle with Aleuts who came to the island to hunt sea otters and have reneged on their agreement to share the pelts equitably. Later, because most of the men on the island have been killed in the fight with the Aleuts, the remaining islanders decide to abandon their home and leave on a rescue ship.
When Karana quickly discovers that her little brother, Romo, is not on the ship, she jumps overboard to be with him and await rescue by another ship. Before long, however, Romo is killed by wild dogs. Karana is then completely alone—to me, one of life’s most terrifying possibilities. Most of the novel tells the story of how she survives until her rescue years later by a missionary ship. It turns out that the ship that had taken her people to California had sunk before it could return for her and Romo.
Karana has lessons to share.
Here is what I admire most about Karana:
Karana comes to recognize that animals are to be valued and treated with respect as fellow sentient beings, rather than exploited. She befriends the leader among the wild dogs and his son, birds, and an otter and stops hunting or eating animals (other than fish).
Of course Karana finds her life difficult—facing, for example, ferocious wild dogs, a tsunami and earthquake, and the eventual return of the Aleuts—but she finds pleasure, too, and never loses her hope, her courage, or her ability to get on with what needs to be done, no matter how challenging.
In order to survive, Karana accepts the need to break the boundaries her people have set concerning appropriate activities for women. She tackles the tasks she must surmount to overcome each of the daunting obstacles she faces.
Even though she is alone, Karana has self-respect and an appreciation for beauty. She makes herself a pretty skirt of cormorant feathers. During her brief, secret friendship with Tutok—a girl who has accompanied the Aleuts to help with chores during their return visit to the island—Tutok gives her a beautiful necklace that Karana admires. She makes a seashell headband as a gift for Tutok in return.
Karana understands the need for and gift of friendship. Her animal friends are deeply important to her, but she never loses the desire for human companionship. And so when a missionary ship finally comes for her, she is willing to leave the Island of the Blue Dolphins. She has proven herself able to go on alone, but solitude is not her choice. The lesson for me is that she was able to live, even thrive, while waiting for human contact to return.
I am blessed with exceedingly close and dear friends, but sometimes when I close my apartment door, the weight of being alone smothers me like a blanket thrown over me. Can you imagine what life must have been like for the real woman who was alone on San Nicolas Island for almost two decades? In Island of the Blue Dolphins, Karana, though a child and a fictional character, gives us an example to emulate.
No one is truly alone.
Beyond following Karana’s example, what can we do to overcome our feelings of being alone, whether we are truly without human companionship or are in the throes of temporary loneliness? Let me share what I imagine wise and loved ones in the light have advised me—and perhaps they truly have: Here is an excerpt from the essay “Alone,” from my memoir A Woman in Time:
You are not alone. You think you are alone, but you are not. Yet each person feels alone on this Earth to a certain extent. That is the human experience, but it is not the eternal experience in God’s world. It is a mirage, but a hard one, and a great gift to others is to help take away their loneliness.
You think that you are an odd duck, that you don’t fit in. You fit in as well as all do. Great popularity is rare, and even where it exists, there is the sense of being alone at the center. But it is just a sense, not reality. “We are born alone and die alone” seems true but is false. Your mother and father are with you, your Father is with you, and we are with you—and many more are with you, too. And on top of all these eternal connections, all human souls are connected, united, and you are with the woman in Africa and the woman and man in the Far East, and they are with you.
You can help others realize that they are loved and that they have love to give, even when they feel completely isolated and alone.
Enjoy the day, enjoy life. Give joy and help others by showing them that they belong, that we all belong to one another in caring and responsibility.
When I am feeling alone, I can also follow Karana’s example: confronting my challenges with courage, maintaining my dignity and sense of purpose, reveling in nature’s companionship and magnificence, and never allowing myself to lose hope.