Tag 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.

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!”

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.

Body of Life

And it is always, eventually, about the body.

Although I try to avoid it, this business of growing older is inevitably about facing my diminishing corporeal capacities. This shapely body has grown merely sturdy; the long lovely architecture of bone becomes buried deeper each year beneath hard-earned muscle and the luscious endurance of fat.

I’ve grown used to the small indignities, like frequently needing reading glasses yet losing them often. Fortunately, I have not had to face this ignominy alone. Friends laugh in familiar recognition at my dilemma, and hand me their readers to see the memo or the menu.  Together, we have become people whose vision is better suited to the long view. We don’t need to remember everything, only what we cannot borrow or lend.

But privately , I’ve been forced to notice a deeper falling down, the kind we don’t share over a   casual lunch.  I live in this body like an old house. Its inner contours are well furnished and      familiar, but the siding is constantly in need of a paint job and routine maintenance and repair.  Of late, the girders and joists have begun to groan, reminding me that no house stands forever. My doctor swears I’ve lost a half-inch in height. And my knees demand professional attention.

So I’ll be away this week, attending to the needs of this body. I’ll be spending quality time with my orthopedic surgeon, and reflecting on the kind of  growth that only shows up on the inside.

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