The Lead-Up

People have birthdays everyday, for heaven’s sake. So no reason to get all intense about it, right? Wrong.

71 is some business.

You try being 71 and come tell me birthdays are mundane, everyone has them, and, oh, age is just a number. 71 is some shit.

Earlier this week, I read in the morning paper about a colleague who had died. He was 82. I went in the shower and did the math. Just 11 years older than me. Just 11. I have shoes that are 11 years old. And they look like new. Time flies. Go figure.

It depressed me mightily, thinking about my dead colleague and my rapidly advancing age. I fell quickly into thinking like a patient with a terminal illness, my days are numbered, I thought, but whose aren’t? Living is a fatal illness when you get right down to it.

My dad died when he was 89. So if I’m my dad’s girl, I might live another 18 years. And I could be tooling around the two lanes just like him in his big Oldsmobile, hitting the hills in the Michigan countryside like Steve McQueen sending his Shelby Mustang flying over the hills of San Francisco. Honest to God, I sat in the passenger seat and heard the bottom of my dad’s car hit the pavement on the way down. He was no piker when it came to driving. All in, the man was, all in.

Growing up, I heard the term “hell bent for leather” a lot. My dad was often hell bent for leather but I hung back. It wasn’t my nature. First of all, you have to be pretty out there to be hell bent. And secondly, there’s a fair amount of risk implied being hell bent for leather and I never liked risk unless the odds fell entirely in my favor which is contrary to the whole notion of risk.

But I’ve changed. I’m not afraid of risk anymore. I don’t know what happened. The only thing different about me is age. A lot of age. A lot of age got me out from behind my safety glasses. And it’s great. I can see better and drive a lot faster.

The definition of “hell bent for leather” uses the term “recklessly determined” which I think is impossibly perfect and beautiful for what I want to be in my remaining minutes or 18 years. Recklessly determined to be healthy, to be strong, to make change, to show up, to drive like a wild woman who scares the passengers.

Tomorrow is my birthday. Here’s to 71. It’s the shit.

Slow Walking

We have another dying dog here.

Our beloved Minnie is on her last legs. She stumbles going around corners and down stairs, her back legs weak and spindly, sometimes going in the direction opposite her destination. It’s awful to watch.

On top of that, she has an ever-increasing dent on the right side of her head, the consequence, the vet said, of some neurological event which paralyzed that side of her face. As the muscles in her head and face atrophy, the dent deepens. She is still beautiful, this dog, despite all this.

Our old girl has an aura of patience and forbearance, tolerance and peace. And loyalty. She will always find where we are and lie down. She will wag her tail at the prospect of a walk and so we walk around the block slower than one might with a baby just learning to take her own steps.

So we are wrestling with the prospect of putting her down which we know we have to do and probably should have already done because we are treating her the way my grandmother treated her 99-year old mother, smoothing all the creases from her wrinkled sheets every twenty minutes.

A dying dog is a sad thing. But there are 10,000 sad things on any given day. This one is hardly the most tragic, it’s just the culmination of the relentless passage of time which, I suppose, is itself tragic if you’re in a mood to think of it that way.

I miss the young Minnie, the Minnie who ran on the beach and could fetch a stick in Lake Superior’s waves and bring it back to the shore holding it in her mouth like a cigar. I loved that dog, that fearless, quiet, sweet dog who swam in water just freed from the spring ice.

Who are we talking about here? You or the dog?

I don’t know what you mean.

You’re old enough to know that old dogs die.

Of course. It’s not my first rodeo.

Maybe it is. I guess it’s all about how you think about it.

 

 

 

 

 

Revelation

What you realize when you get older, well, quite older, is that your life has boundaries, not in the way you might think, in terms of finite time, having a life sentence of short duration, a terminal illness, as it were, but in terms of your life rightfully becoming the thing of fenced-in pastures instead of limitless prairie, where your own horses graze and you don’t assume that all horses roaming the hills are yours to own, or capture, or manage in any way but rather you’ve gotten definite in your mind which horses truly belong to you and which you ought to let go because you never owned them, you were only kidding yourself, thinking you were anointed to decide which horses would graze where and with whom and from which river they would drink, that time is over, and it couldn’t have happened sooner, it could only happen now.

Ambition

What a good trip gives me, oddly, is ambition.

And to feel ambitious is wonderful. I love the potential of ambition, the hopefulness of it, the sense that there are things still to be accomplished, the belief that I could do so many things if I decided to. It’s all in the deciding, not in anything else.

Ambition is powerful.

Here’s why this good trip to Alaska gives me ambition. I only have with me the possessions I can carry. I have my jeans and a hoodie and a lot of socks and three pairs of boots and my parka. I don’t have my office, the shelves full of books, and the drawers full of papers. I don’t have the ice on the driveway, the aged dog on the carpet, people wanting me to show up places. So I’m unencumbered except for my traveling companion with whom I am fine being encumbered.

Seeing people doing different things than I have done gives me ambition. The last Iditarod musher to leave the chute yesterday, #53, is a 67-year old nurse practitioner. She’s run the race before, never won, never placed, but she has finished. She’s 67 and she’s going on a 1,000 dog sled journey by herself, stopping at checkpoints for brief periods where she alone has to care for her dogs, and then taking off in the dark across rivers and mountains alone. So, yeah, she makes me feel ambitious, she makes me feel strong, and not old enough to have already reached my full potential. 

Imagining how it would be to live in Alaska makes me feel ambitious, knowing that I could move here if I wanted to, that I have the gear for it, at least, and the weather is no worse than Wisconsin in most places. There is nothing keeping me from becoming an Alaskan. One could say that about becoming an Floridian as well but it would not be relaxing moving here. I would really have to pay attention, this doesn’t seem to be the place for layabouts. 

Ambition is a gift.

I have been making a mental list of my ambitions – writing, publishing, advocacy, service, travel, physical challenges. There are a dozen beautiful things to do and knowing that makes me feel like a million bucks. It’s what a good trip does – charges me up to go be great. It’s magical.

If you are feeling stuck, go somewhere, anywhere, with your phone in your pocket and a change of clothes in a bag. Go remember how to get excited about what comes next, about what you will make happen next. Trust me, new ideas and new goals will sprout everywhere you look and you will need to keep a list.

 

 

Everything I Did Was Extra

I was raised to be secondary.

That never occurred to me until the other night when I was talking with a friend about his possible retirement. It’s a big challenge for anyone whose work life has been central to their identity.

But I realized that it was less of a challenge for me than I thought it would be. And it wasn’t because I didn’t love my work. I did. Almost more than anything. 

When I quit, I felt like I had nothing left to prove. I’d already exceeded people’s expectations of me. Actually, I’d probably done that five minutes after taking my first professional job forty years ago. 

All I was supposed to do, all I was shaped and raised to do, unwittingly, just naturally because that’s how it was, was this: get married and have children. And maybe help my husband if he was in a situation where my help would be needed which, if I made a decent match, would be unlikely.

Remember I am a person who took shorthand in college. I wasn’t a gal in the aim high club.

So when you think about how I was raised and what was expected of me, I’ve done okay. Moreover, being raised with low expectations gave me a weird kind of freedom. Nobody expected much of anything from me. So in that context, my whole professional life has been gravy. 

In contrast, my male friend, having been raised to be primary, feels burdened by the expectations laid on him by his parents, by society, by himself. Though he has done an extraordinary amount, he can’t be finished yet. There is a pinnacle he thinks he hasn’t yet reached. It’s burdensome, those expectations.

I think things have changed for women and men but I don’t know that to be true.  And until this conversation it never occurred to me really that I was raised to be secondary. But I was. And it has had its peculiar benefits.

 

My Face, My Beautiful Face

It was my first time. I’d never had anyone fuss with my face, shape my eyebrows, those were things other women did, not me.

I lay back on the table and she put a pillow under my knees. As she studied my face, she pulled a bright light down to help her get a closer look like a dentist might do looking for an especially subtle cavity.

After she was done with my eyebrows, the waxing and tweezing, I asked her a question I’d been wanting to ask somebody for a long time. “Do you think anything can be done about my face?” I was sixty then and had long vertical creases in my cheeks, lines across my forehead, and branches of worry on the side of each eye.

She studied me for a long moment and then stood back, returning the examination lamp back to its place.“No,” she said, “I can’t do anything. Maybe a doctor could.” She seemed repelled somehow like she wished she could roll her eyes but it would be unseemly, not appropriate in front of a paying customer, especially one so seemingly unaware, unlearned, so naive. She turned away and then she said this.

“I bet you wash your face with soap.”

The creases in my mother’s face had been even deeper than mine, so deep that it seemed that her skin had been borrowed from a much larger person and hung on her head by mistake. I remember when the creases in her face were made. I watched from a window in the kitchen while she lay on a lawn chair in the backyard.

She wore a tiny halter top, one with no straps, just elastic top and bottom. It was white and maybe just three inches wide, just enough to cover her mastectomy scars. Running from the center of the halter top to the top of her shorts was a long thin scar where surgeons had removed her gallbladder or appendix or had explored. She had had several exploratory surgeries which I envisioned as doctors hunting for something to make real her complaints of illness. There had to be something the matter. We kept asking but she said, “No, nothing’s the matter.” As a child, I probably asked her that question 10,000 times.

She would wait until noon,when it was hottest, to go in the backyard. And then she would lay, first on her back and then on her stomach, always in her white halter top and her blackshorts, the rest of her body bare, offered up to the heat and the sun. She would lie flat on the lawn chair, perfectly flat, until the sun began to set. She didn’t read or converse unless I spoke to her, asked if I could go to my friend’s house or whether I should start dinner. She just baked herself until she became brown, my fair, freckled mother became as brown as the table next to me as I write this. Not mahogany, lighter, but just barely as I remember. But I was a child.

My mother was lovely and soft, not hard, her toughened brown skin notwithstanding, and she was very gentle, all the time gentle, and melancholy, this last thing being what I remember most. She gave me her wisdom as much as she could and one important thing was this, “You don’t have to be pretty as long as you’re neat and clean.”

“I bet you wash your face with soap.”

I was in the bathtub one night. I remember this so clearly because I was concerned about one of my toes and thinking I should ask my mother if something was wrong with my toe and then I heard sirens. The sirens came right at me, right at our house, and I waited for them to pass and go to the house across the street where the dad sometimes hit the mom and then she would come running to our door and my dad would let her in and go talk to the dad and then say he calmed everyone down. But instead the sirens stopped and doors started slamming.

I stood in my pajamas, wet and dripping because I’d jumped out of the bathtub and dressed so fast, wanting to see what was the matter. The firemen were in the living room and my mother was on the couch. She was breathing into a brown paper bag and one of the firemen was patting her on the back. “Just breathe, ma’am, just breathe.” And she did just breathe while the revolving lights of the fire truck flashed through the window and I realized the truck was on our lawn, not even on the street. It was such a terrible thing, I thought, that they had to drive on the lawn and not even use the driveway.

The next morning, I took my Girl Scout sash and my new badges into my mom’s bedroom. It was dark in there, she was still sleeping although my dad had left hours before to go to work. I wanted her to sew my badges on, she sewed everything, drew patterns for dresses on newspaper, and made curtains out of old skirts. But she said I should find some safety pins to fasten my badges because she couldn’t sew them now. That would have to do, she said. And so I went downstairs to her sewing table and found safety pins but I couldn’t make the badges look like they’d been sewn on because they hadn’t.

“I bet you wash your face with soap.”

When I got older, I understood why my mother had roasted in the sun day after scorching day, why she sometimes lay on the couch, facing the wall, for hours on end, so long sometimes I would stop what I was doing to watch her breathing. Was she still breathing, I would wonder, sometimes sitting on the slimmest edge of the couch to rub her shoulder and ask if she wanted me to turn on the television or make her some tea. She always said no, she was fine. But she was not fine, she was never fine, but eventually I left home and I didn’t think about it all the time.

The lines in my face deepened every year. They weren’t as extreme as my mother’s, no, but the time I’d spent in the sun, the afternoons swimming in lakes and then lying still on a towel, so pleased to feel the sun on my face, all those times added up to a time and sun-worn face so dramatic that only a doctor’s intervention could repair the damage. I considered that, I thought about plastic surgery and Botox shots, wondered what might be possible to restore my face to an earlier version and I emailed my daughter in California and told her of my thinking.

I told her how my face was bothering me and I thought I should try to fix it and what she wrote back made me decide to do nothing. She wrote, “Your face, your beautiful face.”

I still wash my face with soap. I stand in the shower with the hot water streaming and I lather up and wash myself, my arms and legs and chest, and then my face and I let the water run on my face like it is rain falling on grass that has been parched by the sun.