The Key

In less than two weeks, I’ll cross the threshold from 49 to 50. This year, and this blog, have flown by. I haven’t written much of late because I’ve been fervently and joyfully working night and day on the things I intended to do to make myself ready for this new decade!

To approach my fiftieth birthday with intention and attention has been a great gift to myself. I’ve shed both the limiting habit of self-doubt, and fifteen unwanted pounds. It’s been no secret to anyone but me that I’m exceptionally smart, but for the first time *I* am fully confident that my tremendous intellect, imperfect creativity and bold curiosity have an important place in this world.

In reflection, a few things have been key to this “training up” for turning toward my decade of power.

One has been recognizing the things that drive me, and putting them to work on my own behalf. I have always been someone who carefully calculates, then takes, profitable risks. Once I recognized this, I intentionally cultivated that risk-taking into entrepreneurial savvy, creating both a successful small business and a growing social history project, right in the middle of this economic recession.

Another  key has been learning to treat my self – especially my embodied self — with kindness. This has led to greater patience with pain, and more energy. It’s also had the unusual side-effect of putting my most serious illness, a fatal tendency to take myself too seriously, into remission.

But the key that matters most isn’t metaphorical; it’s a literal key. It’s the door key to a place called The Writer’s Mill, a co-working space for serious writers. It’s a place full of people who are, in the words of Mary Heaton Vorse, “applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair” every day to write  articles, and blogs, stories and books. It’s a place for people who say without mumbling “writer” when asked who they are in the world. It’s the place I’ve been too afraid to say that I belong. Until now.

I plan to unlock my fiftieth year with the key to that front door.

Gratitude is not the same as Perspective

I was on a mountaintop in Vermont during Hurricane Irene.  I was anxious for days before it hit , obsessively following the NOAA weather report as if I was a farmer or a meteorologist. In fact, I  was teaching at a retreat center high on a mountaintop. I feared what 55 mile an hour winds would do to our tents and tree limbs.

We sat out the worst of it in a 150 year old barn. Under flickering electric lights, we learned that such winds are not unusual high above the Mad River Valley in winter. We were safe and warm during the windstorm, cared for by people who knew the landscape and the way to live on this land. Retreat participants and staff all  contemplated the power of nature with our hands wrapped around mugs of tea.

The next morning we walked around in wonder at the streams and small waterfalls nature had carved overnight. The sky was washed clean and blue, and sun sparkled on water gurgling from culverts. The sound of trickling run-off across water bars on the logging road lulled us to sleep at night. Our greatest misfortune was the loss of a lamb, taken by a coyote under the cover of the driving rain.

It wasn’t until we left, three days later, that we witnessed the devastation of the towns at the foot of our mountains. The road home had been washed away. The farmers whose crop had fed us stared at the destruction of year’s labor; we drove slowly by homes and stores shuttered against debris in a road that had become a river. Even 100 miles away, the bridge that takes me home was closed down, twisted and unsafe from the power of all that water.

It took me eight hours by backroads to make the three-hour drive home. The stretch of  highway that would take me home had been twisted and crumbled, as if by a giant’s hands. This gave me a long  time to think.

I wondered about  privilege and gratitude, and how I often think that the former can be cured by the latter.  I noticed that  am full of gratitude, but mostly for the  things I that can see. I thought about the lives that mine depend on – those who feed me, make wool for my sweaters and power for my electric toothbrush — and how  I cannot see them until the work of their hands has been swept away.

I count my losses – a host’s lamb, a nights sleep — and notice that there is a difference between being grateful for what I have,  and having perspective about where I stand in the world, and how this bounty arrives to me.

The Responsibility of Story: A Fifty Year Passage

We humans are social beings; we live on food, water and the power of story. We linger at the holiday dinner table (or, as children, hide beneath the tablecloth) to hear the stories of who we are and how we became a family.  We pour the small-town shanachie another Harp lager, and settle in to listen to the old, old story of our tribe and clan, even if it’s a story set in our lifetime. We answer every krik?  with a resounding krak! calling out for stories of our essential selves cast as tricksters and mermaids and foolish men. We honor the tellers of facts with riches and staying awake through their Powerpoint presentations  and lifetime academic posts. But we honor our storytellers with praise, publication and positive reviews, and sometimes a small measure of fortune.

As I move toward fifty, I have discovered new work that makes me the keeper and the teller of precious stories told anew. I am deeply immersed in understanding what makes a story compelling, and what makes a story precious and true. To do this work with honor, I must summon my decades of skill as a writer, a scholar and a lover of culture in order to transmit these stories with great care.

The care with which a narrative is passed on can shape what kinds of stories a people are allowed to tell ourselves ever afterward. Commercial advertising has told us stories amplified and specially designed to build temporary connections based on the gift or illusion of a briefly shared common language. Now, a five minute performance poem or a popular, if dubious, memoir offers equally fast, brutal stories that gather us together just long enough to feel something other than lost and alone. Casual artists and serious journalists stream three minute bites of digital video to tell us the story of who we are now, flashing instant connection and stories of difference, with or without context, across the globe. The speed of these stories draws us in with their immediacy; their one-off nature, and hearing them in private, prevents us from testing their truth across generations or noticing whether their wisdom still applies when shared with new people in new places.

This week I am grateful to be almost-fifty. Those decades of understanding story help me keep my balance as I wade the stream between stories that tell the truth about difference and stories with verisimilitude: the comforting appearance of being true or real. The bottom of that river is slippery and full of stones: the way popular movie The Help helps some of us to dwell in illusion and while providing others the occasion to tell a counter-narrative; my effort to help a client release their desire to appropriate a “truthy” story about indigenous culture and to grasp instead a story that is resonant because it is powerfully true.

As I learn about the responsibility involved in carrying an authentic story, I am learning to strip the geegaws of verisimilitude from the story I tell myself about who I am. I need fewer of the tools of drama to say who I am in this world with you: no costume, no special lighting, no symbolic colors, no props. I can choose to use some of them occasionally and lightly, but without depending on them because I know how to tell a story strongly rooted in veracity: my half-century practice of finding and telling the many, many stories that make up the truth.

The responsibility for telling my story, and the story of others, will require at least fifty years of wisdom. I will need to offer more than just engaging stories told with good intention. I will need all the wisdom of my fifty years of practice of humility, fifty years of strength from holding the creative tension of diverse points of view, and fifty years of learning what truly nourishes us. At fifty, I become an elder who is responsible for telling stories that are more than entertainment. I am becoming one who is responsible for bearing stories to help each of us stay connected and alive.

Right Where You Are Now

“When I grow up, I’m going to be a trillionaire, and you are going to be right where you are now!” said an angry Zach to his dad.

How easily a seven-year-old kid can chill a grown man’s soul.

Zach’s taunt goes straight to the heart of unspeakable fear of middle age: This is it. The best you are ever going to be is right where you are now. And right where you are right now,  quickly approaching fifty, is not where you ever dreamed you’d be. Not even close.

I spent my youth cultivating dreams. What kid didn’t fantasize that she would grow up to be a millionaire (back before the wealth gap made mere billionaires irrelevant) or a famous writer, or simply well-known and better-liked than she’d been in high school? As we got older, those dreams became more modest and concrete in their intentions.  After a few glasses of wine, one friend confesses a long-held secret plan to live in Paris, at least for a little while. A peripatetic artist tells me that he dreams of coming home to a house instead of an apartment, and seeing a light on at the window because someone inside is waiting for him.

Our forties mark the last, best, chance to make those dreams come true. They are latest reasonable years for white weddings and fat babies; the last chance for promotions that say we’re still somehow climbing the corporate ladder. Our late forties are the last time we’ll get to start over in a new place with the idea that someday, here, we will have old friends.

This is sobering news. It leaves me breathless to think that my life is now composed of middles and endings, not beginnings.Forty-nine is a map of reckoning, marked with a big, red arrow that says “You Are Here.” It’s not where I imagined I would be.

And I am terrified of a life in which I might remain here, fixed but still aspiring; trapped, in Zach’s words, right where I am now.

Overheard at Costco

“I sometimes feel bad about my saggy fifty-year old boobs.

But then I see saggy man-boobs, and it makes me  feel better!”

Change

I spent last night talking with a group of hopeful, eager young women at a progressive, elite college in the northeast. I talked with them about my life’s work, helping to shape a world that makes possible well-being for black women, and the many shapes that work has taken. Over dinner we talked about the difference between doing work that feels good and helps people, and work that makes social change.

They want to be activists, yet feel helpless and hopeless. They were born in 1990, and wondered if social change can really happen quickly enough for them to see it.  I talked about the impacts of social movements during my lifetime, which began as a passenger on northern buses that were segregated by fear and violence, not law. I reminded them that sexism has not ended, and yet American women now routinely leave their homes without heels and a head covering. They gasped when I explained that when I began my work in domestic violence 30 years ago, it had just become illegal to beat your wife. They pondered having “change that takes a lifetime” simply means a lifetime longer than the one they have lived.

And I felt my journey toward Intentional Fifty as potentially dangerous, with the risk of becoming closed and preachy.

Afterward, we walked to an auditorium, where I gave a speech. When the faculty had offered their congratulations and the line of eager-to-impress students had drifted away, three young women of color waited to speak to me alone. They described the brutal open hand of racism in their lives on this peaceful, leafy campus with its intercultural dialogues and student multi-cultural center. They told me about being disrespected and abused even during the small group breakout session in the workshop I had just lead. We talked for a long time about how much this hurts. We considered what part of addressing that hurt is the work of intercultural groups, and what part is not.

And I felt the weight of  the stereotypes of fifty-year-old women. One such stereotype is that I should become an   ever-giving, wise, big-bosomed mama who wants to take care of other people’s feelings.Now, I am both wise and buxom, but I actually don’t hold much truck with gushing feelings, especially among strangers. I save  emotional intimacy for trusted friends.  I am a hearty hand-shaker, not a hugger.

So I surprised myself by standing fully on my threshold of fifty-wisdom and reaching out my hands to three strangers on the threshold of  twenty-one. I asked them to take exquisite care of their hearts, for I know that hearts can grow numb from living in this kind of place. I confessed my longing for them to be in the world as brilliant and joyful and thoughtful and whole.

And my own  fear of standing in the place of my deepest knowledge and desire fell away from me as I welcomed my young sisters, weeping,  into my arms.

How Can I Keep From Singing?

I was fretful all last night and half of today, trying to decide if MasterCard and I should register for the singing workshop with Dr. Barnwell So, I asked my sisterfriends for counsel. You know, those wise friends without whom the journey through this mid-life passage toward 50 is dangerous and rough.

Here’s what they told me

It has been my experience that when I submit to something that I can intellectually repudiate but still covet, magic happens. Go.

Go! Your soul’s voice is asking for what you can’t deny.

A former choir mate said: Go! You gotta sing so your soul can be nourished by cool, melodic notes sung from the depths of your heart and mind that reach your ancestral roots.

Another reminded me that my intention in arriving matters more than my assumptions about who else might show up. She described a similar circumstance where the one person who targeted her for mistreatment was the one face she was happiest to see walk in, because it looked like hers.

But the clincher was my no-nonsense friend Lynn, who said “Ok…be practical…YOU NEED THIS EXPERIENCE. It isn’t about the white people or the cost or living in a place of lack. It’s your personal celebration of an Intentional 50!

So, I won’t be blogging on my 50th birthday this October. I’ll be up in the Berkshire Mountains with Dr. Barnwell and a hundred strangers, belting out my intention to be a powerful voice in this world, singing from my soul.

And I’m gonna have to trust that MasterCard and I will work this one out, somehow.

Singing, with Strings

Sometimes the thing your heart wants, perhaps the very thing your soul most needs, falls right into your lap. It comes to you beautifully wrapped, an unexpected gift. But on closer inspection, you discover that those decorative ribbons are really strings attached. Do you accept the gift? Or reject the possibility because it carries unknown risk?

Yesterday I discovered that the phenomenal Ysaye Maria Barnwell is offering her workshop Building a Vocal Community:Singing in the African American Tradition at the Rowe Conference Center,  a place not far from my home.  On my fiftieth birthday.

I love to sing. I came to singing late in life, not until my forties. Growing up in a family of prodigiously talented singers and self-taught professional musicians, I always thought my modest voice was broken, better suited to poetry than song: “Poor thing. That child couldn’t carry a tune in a paper bag.” But when I was home alone doing ancient womanly tasks, like tending my garden, or  ironing,  my throat would open and overflow with my mother’s Baptist hymns  and my grandmother’s  quavering spirituals and Lady Day’s blues.

Nine years ago, I found my voice in a community choir. I was persistently invited to join Joyful Noise Gospel Choir even though I explained that I “couldn’t” sing.  For five years, I found my proper place in that choir– no longer a misplaced alto or soprano, I found my seat between the tenors and the baritones. I learned to sing out loud, in the choir and in the world. I became bolder in my work and more willing to take risks in my art. Joyful Noise dreamed of us collectively attending a workshop with Dr. Barnwell, because singing gospel and spirituals with others was a profound gathering home.  That gathering taught me that singing is a dialogue between the song you raise, the support of my response, and our shared listening for the possibility of harmony. This is a deep spiritual practice, one that healed my broken falsetto, leaving a strong, honest tenor in its place. When our choirmaster, and many members of Joyful Noise moved away, I cried for months.

And yesterday I discovered that Ysaye Maria Barnwell – the scholar and  bari/tenor from Sweet Honey on the Rock, the organizer of great Community Sings — is offering her workshop. In a place not far from my home.  On October 28th –  my fiftieth birthday.

And

This workshop costs hundreds of dollars, at a time when money’s too tight to mention. OK, not as tight as a long-line girdle, but definitely Spanx-tight.

And I don’t know if I can open my tender voice and heart in a room full of strangers to my culture, who are likely to treat it, and me, with some degree of unintentional disrespect. (I live in rural New England. Not exactly a bastion of racial diversity.)

If my intention is to act more powerfully in the world, how do I discern when something is an empowering but emotionally risky opportunity , or just another place to get deeper in debt and hogtied in somebody else’s  strings?

Triangle

On this day in 1911, 146 women burned or leaped to their deaths in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory  fire. Without the right to organize to demand  safe working conditions, these immigrant  sweatshop garment workers were locked inside when the building caught fire.  It took until this year for the official record to record all of their names.

The building still stands at 29 Washington Square in Greenwich Village, as part of the NYU campus. I wrote the following poem three years ago, while sitting in that very building.  I post it here to remind myself  that my assurance of reaching fifty, and of having choices, is governed by history, circumstance, privilege and the suffering of women who came before me.


Triangle

When they fell like angels
winged in fire, god was
watching the clock. Gates

locked, he stood by meting out justice:
the mechanical hell of stitch and brown lung
or the hunger. What’s worse now,

to leap or to burn? Some hope of heaven
must have tugged their garments upward,
immodest ohs of mouth and eyes

reflected in grimy windows as they passed.
Others took the long way down dark
chutes for elevated freight. One survived

the passage to America, the Uprising and then
the burning and the falling and the drowning.
Her sister’s bodies held her head afloat.

The bodies are still there, crushed
violets on the lawn. They wait for us
to claim them. Each one has a name.

– Mistinguette Smith



Perigree Moon

Last night I witnessed the moon at perigree, the “super moon”. The close lunar orbit revealed the dark seas and impact craters on that celestial body more clearly than I have ever seen them.  Three of us stood shivering  out on my stoop, hours past moonrise. We gazed up with wonder at a light so bright that a nimbus glowed around it. It was hard to remember that light was just a reflection, a dim repetition of the light from our sun.

Writing Intentional 50 cultivates in me a similar heightened state of reflection. Closely observing how I want to move forward in life surprises me: I find new satisfaction, and deeper appreciation for the life I have made.  This reflective approach toward marking my fifth decade is its own kind of perigree – an occasional chance to look at things close up that I would otherwise take for granted.

And perhaps this capacity for reflection is why our culture insists that we should fear turning fifty. Getting close enough to mortality that we can see its features clearly could render us fearless and bold. If we are not afraid, we may grow into autonomy and no longer need the approval of others to light our way.

They say that a perigree moon is a good night to set new intentions: much is revealed by moonlight that is invisible in the harsh light of the sun.  The power of that reflected light was something I could not have fully witnessed when I was young enough to sleep soundly through the night.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

%d bloggers like this: