Tag Archives: 50

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.

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.


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?

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.

The gift of a year

My friend Lisa’s husband started it.

For her fiftieth birthday, he gave her the gift of year. A year without the need to do paid work, or take on new family projects; a year in which to explore who she would like to become in the world for this next part of her life. Lisa’s family isn’t rich, so this offer was a gift made of sacrifice, one she accepted gratefully and took seriously.  I learned a lot about how to turn intentionally fifty as I watched as Lisa deliberately, confusedly, impatiently and enthusiastically trying on new identities like clothing and jewels.

Lisa has a great sense of adventure in the area of vocation: she’s a dancer, educator and artist by training, and once she told me that she learned to juggle when she was a cook for a clown camp. So I watched with fascination as she discarded some old work identities that she had outgrown, and handed down to others social roles that no longer fit her but still had lots of life in them.  She redefined the role of home and the meaning of work in her world.

Starting from scratch, she became a yoga teacher; then she started her own business, helping folks who are Not The Usual Suspects to gain strength and wellness through yoga. She refreshed an old love to become a masterful landscape gardener, and she brings home the bacon – OK, brings home the tomatoes – as a grower of food. She’s moved her time and attention from mothering a young adult daughter to daughter-ing an aging father from afar.  And all the while, she has let her sassy red hair grow out curly, silver and long.

Witnessing Lisa’s transformation makes me ask myself: What would I do with the gift of a year to decide how I want to spend the next passage of my life?

What would you do?

And what if we already have that year, starting now?

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