Category Archives: Turning Fifty

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.

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.

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.

Groundhog Day

This Groundhog Day, sleet covers the eight foot drifts of snow. There’s not a chance in the world that any woodchuck can get out of its burrow today, much less catch a glimpse of sun.  There’s a joke in this, of course. The lore says that if a groundhog sees his shadow on the second of February, he’s come out to gather food for six more weeks of winter to come.  But, if the weather is overcast and the groundhog sees no shadow, spring will soon arrive — in just a month and a half!

It’s all in how you look at it.

I’ve been looking at my positive intentions as I hurtle toward fifty: learning about magic and mercy, making community and closet space.  But this forty-ninth year is not simply about choosing how I will look forward.  it also involves looking back and taking stock. I can only set realistic intentions for going forward if I understand where I am now and how I got here.

And where I am today is stranded indoors, thinking about opportunities unseized and chances missed. This is a well-worn track in my life, I fear.  I’m the sort of person who mostly sees opportunities in hindsight – the missed connection, the offer of help ignored – and then feels bad about it.

I dwell on things I lacked the courage or know-how to pursue: why, I have friends who could have helped me become a famous poet or a fashion writer! I had the opportunity to remain an American ex-pat or become a great organizational leader! I could have been someone who played tennis, who spoke French flawlessly, who wrote important works from a snug little cottage deep in the Canadian woods! If only I’d had the discipline, or the vision, or the nerve. If only I had understood the opportunity that was there. If only,  if only.

If only life was like the movie Groundhog Day, where Bill Murray gets a “do over” of a single awful day. He slowly comes to appreciate the opportunity present in every moment,  until he finally learns the secret : it’s all in how you look at it.

Some days I want to believe George Eliot : “It’s never too late to be who you might have been.” But facing fifty with integrity is about looking missed chances dead in the eye.  I can still learn to publish poems, but my youthful dreams of fame are unlikely. These knees may get better, but they will never, ever play tennis.

Facing fifty means facing the fact that some trains have left the station: I am too old to mortgage myself into a house, and will likely spend my life in this tacky little condo surrounded by noisy American neighbors and riparian woods and scrub. Now that I’ve hit my Latest Possible Forties,  potential employers  take a look at me and  pass — they say if ever I was going to be a great organizational leader, I’d have become one by now.  My bookshelf indicts me with 23 dusty French novels.

Getting to fifty with clear intentions requires me to look at who I’ve become with a flinty eye. I have to accept who  I am—and mourn my lost dreams – before I can set a path for who I want to become.

If the lesson of Groundhog Day is that it’s all in how you look at it , then the first requirement  is to bear being able to look.  Because an unflinching look at the past is the only Groundhog Day do-over we get.

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?

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