Category Archives: Aging

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.

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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.

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



Confession of a Faithless Reader

There are some things I’m just too old for now. Short dresses; rude service staff; yelling at people who drive even worse than I do.  And I am  conscious that my time is not unlimited, which  makes me avoid wasting it on bad movies or dull company.

But then, there are deep questions about my integrity that give rise to dilemmas that paralyze me. Like this one:

Is it a virtue to read a book that is well written, one that was selected to deepen one’s  understanding of the world and one’s self – but is boring one to tears? It’s not just  The History of Western Europe that cures my late-night insomnia. I can’t seem to plow my way through Ha Jin’s perfectly lovely  War Trash, either.

Tell me, dear reader: do you feel faithfully compelled to finish a book once you’ve started it? Or, does  knowing there are more books left to read than lifetime in which to read them, do you cut your losses early, take your booklight and  move on?

Does leaving “good” books unread make a lazy and  perfidious reader? Or is my literary judgment maturing along with the rest of me?

Now, this is going to hurt a little bit

I’ve never been very good at this part. I have no tolerance for pain, little sufferance for suffering . I was the child who needed the lollipop before I got the shot. Anaesthetic is my favorite Triple Word Score move in Scrabble.  Raised on ibuprofen and OxyContin, discomfort has always been optional in this life. Mostly, it’s an option I’ve not taken.

But for two weeks, I have been sick with the flu. The real influenza, not some 24-hour bug.  As it turns out, the real flu is a debilitating and painful viral infection. What’s worse, it’s one of these $%^&*  Character Building Learning Experiences.

When you are in your latest-possible-forties and have the flu, you get limited sympathy for your troubles. Friends are sorry and offer advice, but they generally expect you to have grown accustomed to a few physical aches and twinges by now.  For a discomfort as temporary as the flu, they expect you to buck up and carry on.

Learning to bear suffering with grace is so … grownup. So dignified. So beyond my ken. Apparently, learning this discipline is part of my transition to this new place in life. Full womanhood includes accepting discomfort and bearing pain while staying focused on my intentions to be  awake and alive.

It seems that to be grown up is to know the difference between analgesia and anesthesia. It’s fine to slug down NyQuil for the flu, but there are no Band-Aids for the boo-boo of discovering a parent is losing his ability to communicate. There are no fizzy tablets that will ease the pain of a sibling’s sudden, but not unexpected, death. It’s undeniably mature to wake up to that old, familiar ache in the ankle or a hip and realize that this morning’s need for pain relief isn’t  a temporary situation, it’s the way you’ll wake up for the rest of your life . Difficulty  becomes an old friend we can count on to show up every day.

Pain is part of the way life is. Its presence does not diminish joy, unless I let it. We’ll never be friends, pain and I, but I’m resigned to learn to walk alongside it. Ignore me if I limp and whine for a little while. I’m only beginning  to learn how to take this in stride.

Community

The first month  of a new year awakens my deepest  longings. As January draws to a frigid close, and North Africa awakens in the streets, I realize that one of those longings is a hunger for community.

I grew up in a place where relationships were woven as densely as underbrush. The separation between extended family and the network of close friends and near-relatives was indistinguishable; “Auntie” was a title bestowed  on any number of elders who could be trusted to look out for my well-being.

As a young adult, my tendrils extended further and wrapped themselves around friends, people who worked beside me on community projects and were companions in constructing the kind of lives we wanted to lead. I matured in the thorny shelter of family of choice, my gang of friends, and an assortment of teachers, coworkers, and neighbors who made space for me.

At some point, I discovered I didn’t need so much support and protection.  I wanted to live out in the open, far from the thicket of in-laws and cousins and committee volunteers. In my 30s and 40s, I traveled often. I found deep contentment in being alone. Estrangement became my friend.  It helped me to know who I was, without others to define my attributes and attitudes. The self-knowledge that comes from being a stranger was productive. I dreamed big, and wrote poems and plays. I moved away from the place where I was born. I lived for awhile in new cities: Paris, Geneva, Manhattan.  I settled down in a small college town. I grew strong in new ways, and learned to make space for myself.

So I am perplexed to find myself here, in my Latest Possible Forties, feeling rootless and without connection to a community. Adventure and estrangement have their costs, and I am paying them now. My closest friends are far flung; I can call or email them daily, but a hug is still a plane ride away. My nuclear family resembles Chernobyl, with the attendant intergenerational radioactive waste. Casual friends and colleagues are busy — parenting, succeeding at the peaks of their careers, or leading important community endeavors. And, like my younger self, the people around me are transient. I have learned to wait and see if someone plans to stick around before I offer them my heart.

But  there’s the rub. If I intend to live a life of significance, rich in relationship and meaningful engagement, I must begin it now. But where? And how? And most importantly, with whom?

Witness

Last week there was an attempted  political assassination in Tucson, Arizona.  This event opened   debate about the tone of public discourse, and whether violent political metaphors contributed to this violent act.

Like most folks, I had my share of things to say about this. Some of the statements I made were thoughtful; others were just part of the feast of avid conjecture.

But I was particularly surprised by the opinion of someone who advised me to stay neutral. She thought I should withhold judgment about whether the violent rhetoric that passes for political speech was responsible for this bloody act. She counseled me to draw no conclusions and to refrain from analysis until all the details about the individual shooter were known.

She asked me to stop making sense of what I see.

But I am old enough to have seen some things. I have lived in this country during other eras of violent rhetoric, and I have lived through its aftermath. I have watched verbal assaults escalate into political  violence before.  I have watched the illusion of comfort and neutrality go up in smoke. I have seen my city burn.

I don’t need a TV news analyst to tell me that there are a thousand reasons why someone might want to kill a member of Congress. I don’t need a police investigation to know there are as many reasons for shooting eighteen people in a Safeway as there are civilians who feel a need to own handguns. I know that a single shot fired by an “unstable” person is no more an individual act than is a riot, and I know that his bullet seeks to kill something greater than the human being within its sights.

So, I am surprised to find my journey toward  awakeness includes discovering things to which I am not open.

I’ve grown comfortable being my own witness, staying open to the claims of others while being deeply rooted in what I have experienced and what I have  seen.

Being a grown-up means believing myself when I’ve seen something happen enough times that I can call it by name.  I am old enough to be the author of my own history.  I am strong enough to have compassion for folks who get uncomfortable at the way the world looks when seen through my eyes without disbelieving myself.  I am learning to take myself seriously as a witness

Keep Moving

I recently watched a  wonderful  film called  Been Rich all My Life. The story of five  women, and their 70 years of professional dancing and friendship,  has kept me thinking about many  of my intentions. The one it brings most clearly into focus is that moving toward fifty consciously means that I have to keep moving.

If my intention is to be ready to live my  biggest, best self at fifty, my current sedentary life is not gonna  get me there. In my vision of my future I am in motion: strong, lithe and flexible.  In my daily reality, I am portly and spend most days sitting behind a desk. This contradiction leaves me with a choice. It also leaves me face to face with the difference between an intentional stance and a wish.

An intentional stance, says cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett, is a mental attitude which  suggests that certain material actions must logically follow. “Wish!” said Red Jack , my grandfather who was not a philosopher. “Gal, spit in one hand, wish in the other. See which one fills up fastest.”  Neither Mr. Dennett nor Red Jack believed in supernatural  intervention when plain old effort would suffice. Both of them would counsel me to stop pretending that wishing is an aerobic activity.

My friend Melissa’s blog contains a public declaration of her intention to keep moving for 30 minutes a day. To get where I’m going, I guess I’ll have to join her.

My wife offered to take salsa lessons with me this year. If we start now, perhaps in twenty-five years we’ll look like Paddy Jones:

She’s only 75, not 92 as rumored on the Internet. But it’s true that she started dancing to move through grieving the loss of her husband. And that young man she’s dancing circles around? He’s not her grandson. He’s her teacher.

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