It was a busy week last week on both work and social fronts—hence, a short post. My birthday was this past Tuesday. The celebrations stretched over several days. The festivities began with brunch out with a few friends on Sunday. Then on the day itself, I had dinner at a friend’s house, out on her deck looking out at the shade garden. The centerpiece of the meal was a beautiful big salad, perfect for a hot night. And then on to a concert by the Lorelei Ensemble. And today it’s off to another event (the Rock Voices Endless Summer concert) with a friend. So, a heartfelt thank you to all my friends for their birthday tending.
Birthdays. Someone at work asked if I had big plans for my birthday. This was before the various meals and concerts had gelled into plans. I shrugged and said this wasn’t a big deal birthday, not one of the landmark 0 or 5 birthdays. But when I think about it that’s such a strange concept, marking the decades or half decades with bigger celebrations. Every birthday–every day, really–is a cause for celebration. So, at the end of this “not a big deal” birthday week, I pause and rest for a moment in gratitude. This poem by Stanley Kunitz reflects my thoughts.
By Stanley Kunitz
Light splashed this morning
on the shell-pink anemones
swaying on their tall stems;
down blue-spiked veronica
light flowed in rivulets
over the humps of the honeybees;
this morning I saw light kiss
the silk of the roses
in their second flowering,
my late bloomers
flushed with their brandy.
A curious gladness shook me.
So I have shut the doors of my house,
so I have trudged downstairs to my cell,
so I am sitting in semi-dark
hunched over my desk
with nothing for a view
to tempt me
but a bloated compost heap,
steamy old stinkpile,
under my window;
and I pick my noteboook up
and I start to read aloud
the still-wet words I scribbled
on the blotted page:
I can scarcely wait till tomorrow
when a new life begins for me,
as it does each day,
as it does each day.
Although it was hard to get started writing I knew that I needed to write about aging because at this stage of my life, vulnerability has to do with aging. I still stand tall. I’m still strong enough to do what I need to do (although not as much as I used to do). My mind is reasonably agile. I manage a complex job with grace most of the time. My stamina isn’t as good as it used to be but I get through the days OK. But in my mid-60s I’m aware of the vulnerability of age.
I don’t want people to think of me as old. Is this ageist? Probably. Or is it a realistic recognition of how society views older people–as frail, as weak, as not really quite a person? In the grocery store check out line, at the post office, at work, I make sure that my posture is good, that I stride with ease and confidence even if my knee and hip hurt, I speak quickly and assertively.
I may have white hair (I have had silver hair since I was in my 30s) and wrinkles but…don’t make assumptions about me. I get snarky when someone I don’t know calls me “honey” or “dear.” In another part of the country it might be just the way people speak but here in New England I hear it as a patronizing tone used with “seniors.” Ugh.
I broke my ankle a few years ago. It healed well. No lingering effects. Except–there’s a heightened sense of physical vulnerability–a desire to hold the railing when I go up and down stairs, a mild anxiety when there is no railing. I look more closely at the ground when I walk; I move more slowly through the world.
In England, there are road signs signaling, I think, that an older person lives nearby and might be crossing the road–on the sign is an image of 2 bent, hunched figures with canes. Really?? I push that image away. Not me. Not me. But someday it might be me.
Work out, I tell myself. Get in the pool! Go for a walk! All good advice. And I square my shoulders, take a deep breath, and step out into the world.
I’m halfway through an online writing group called One Story, Ten Facets, led by Jena Schwartz–we’ll be together for 2 weeks. There are 8 of us in the group from around the country. Each morning we get a prompt from Jena in our inboxes. We each write for 10 minutes and then, if we want, post what we’ve written in a private Facebook group. I’ve been writing a lot about my mom and me, which surprised me a bit. This post evolved from one of the prompts.
I don’t have a view of full-on sunsets from my house but on summer evenings I can see a faint rosy glow, the edge of the sunset, through the branches of the evergreens at the back of the yard. Sometimes that faint glow draws me out of the house and down the block to the field at the end of the neighborhood where I can watch the full display across the valley.
My mother loved sunsets. She kept a journal, beginning in 1966–she would have been in her late 50s then. She wrote in it sporadically, an entry or two and then a gap of years before another entry. The last entry was dated 1976. She wrote several times about the sunsets she could see from the kitchen window. In the first entry, written on a January afternoon, she describes a sunset that was a delicate rose in color with black tracing of tree branches. She goes on to say how frustrating it is that my father and I didn’t see this beauty: “I say, ‘Look at the sunset–it’s fabulous.’ They say ‘yes very nice’ and they don’t really see. It’s so beautiful it hurts.”
And she’s right. As a teen ager I didn’t see the sunsets–or at least I didn’t see what she saw–the painful beauty of them.
I wrote about sunsets in my own journal once a few years ago. I’d had a string of conversations with friends who were dealing with illnesses of various kinds. I wrote about driving home from work along the river one winter afternoon. The sun was setting behind the hills across the river and it took my breath away–the hills, the scarlet sky, the reflection in the river. I wrote that I wanted to give this sunset to my friends as an antidote, a balm, something to hold onto when all else seemed to be giving way. The redemptive power of sunsets.
Maybe that’s what my mother saw in sunsets, those many many years ago. I wish I could come up behind her, circle my arms around her waist where she stands at the sink, rest my chin on her shoulder and see the sunset along with her. Yes, it’s gorgeous I’d say.
Here’s what’s happening in the garden in these early days of July, a time of hot, bright colors.
And the raised bed has taken off–it’s bursting with lush plants, with the cleome ruling all.
Happy almost July 4th!
There was an obituary in today’s paper for Margaret Robison, poet, artist, and teacher. I met Margaret in the early 1980s when I took a 2 week summer writing workshop that she taught. I continued on for a year or so in a weekly poetry writing group that she led. It was my first venture into writing workshops, my first toe dip into taking myself seriously as a writer, and her playful, supportive group was the perfect place to take those first steps into exploring creativity.
I eventually recognized that I was more drawn to prose than poetry and left Margaret’s group–and lost track of Margaret, although I did hear that she’d had a stroke.
A year or so ago something sparked my curiosity about her and I found my way to her website. On the “About” page, she wrote about her life after her stroke. She wrote about living in an apartment with a view of a river and hills rising on the other side and that her relative immobility didn’t confine her. Her wise words have stayed with me:
“While it’s true that I had a difficult time feeling trapped in my body for a while after my stroke, I am anything but trapped in my body now,” she wrote. “First, I learned I could flow with the river with my eyes, just as I could climb the mountain to its top and back down again. I discovered that freedom from a paralyzed body not only had to do with my eyes. More importantly it had to do with memory, imagination, meditation, and prayer—and the boundless nature of the spirit.”