Behold What the Eye Can See

Photos by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

It happens to me often and here it was again as we moved through the scenery. Beguilement.

Expansive views of the acreage of Asheville, North Carolina’s Biltmore Estate (built in 1895 and owned by the George Vanderbilt family known for their shipping and railroad empires) are majestic and bucolic. They thrill the eye, the sweeping views evocative of tranquil order, supported by nature and hidden human industry. I absorbed each vista with breathless anticipation of the next bend we would round. It wasn’t so much being impressed by the property as being impacted by the changing scenes. Each bigger picture was mesmerizing in breadth and scope. I could have looked and looked and never been satiated. Such plenitude of detail that at moments I could hardly absorb it all. Even withstand it. That’s just how it is for me. I’m certain it’s the same for others, especially those who have a passion to observe, to know more intimately what they see.

Not that it was overwhelming in a deleterious way. The copious beauty was varied and intense. There is something within me that, though filling up to overflowing expands further for more. I feel hunger for it all, want it imprinted within. And to partake of any wisdom moving beneath the robust and delicate scenes. For what my eyes see, ears hear–they teach me things. Our senses are gifts, conduits to greater understandings, not just of a moment but of complex universal designs. I follow my eye and instincts to discover an abundance of intrigue.

But I need to dismantle it a little. I take camera in hand and as all who love visual arts, focus on separate tableaus with their telltale clues, delights. Eye/mind/soul zero in on minute parts, look into shadows. Seek one cloud’s shape within greater configurations. Each piece is cohesive in its specificity, sometimes even more so than the extended view. They all have value; I am drawn in by a propulsive curiosity. I want to see well the exterior but also find an interior liveliness that is like a secret. It’s a treasure hunt for mind and senses. Any moment can harbor possibility and that is the real magnet that draws me. I can define an object before me , but what does it mean? How did/does it function in space and time? What matters or mattered about it within a garden, in a room, a life?

This is what attracts me in daily living: about everything. Put another way, what exists in this present can well hold my attention, but what has captivating potential–and everything does–is a series of magic doors I seek to open. If a glimpse offers a story, even a tiny one, I have been granted access to a journey that leads to challenges, a certain enchantment and most often, fulfillment. I can’t really lose. All of life is a story within another story within another, like Russian nesting dolls or better yet, a puzzle that is partially solved while added to over time.

I used to pretend being a reporter when I was a kid. I sat at a child-sized roll top desk with cubbyholes, took notes of various household and neighborhood goings on, filed them away in their slots and  folders. Diaries to detail more thoughts and experiences were required. I wrote and produced plays with neighborhood buddies and tried in vain to charge admission. We attempted full make up and ragtag costumes and hung a sheet for a curtain. We had decent turnouts. And then there would be a brief song on the radio which evoked extemporaneous movements–lo, a dance unleashing its tale. There was always something to hear, see, smell, taste, touch–and to read! and a cohort to do things with!– that jogged an expressive impulse. Take the navy, wide brimmed hat with sheer white and pink flowers at the ribbon my mother made with her own hands. It settled onto her silvery hair. It had presence all its own as she wore it; it did things with her. Another story idea.

Let’s take dolls as inspiration. Owning some of the first Barbie dolls was a blast.  I became stage manager and director of their adventures. I’d get the big square floor pillow–brown corduroy–and then cover a matchbox with a handkerchief for a couch or bed, bring in rocks, twigs and grass for a yard, sneak my mother’s fancy scarves to create exotic wardrobes and floor covering. The finishing touches were always changing but each mattered in that moment.  (I know, it’s not PC these days to say I enjoyed playing with Barbie and gang. She did not do dishes and Ken did not mow lawns. It’d now likely be demoted to mere play therapy as well, sadly.) Barbie et al and I got all sorts of events going; those dolls unlocked ideas and enlarged experiences like crazy. They led lives with fine sensibilities but had a talent for spontaneous fun. Or I should say it seemed they did but I was the supposed director.

It took very little to have a good time. From seemingly nothing could come anything at all. A sunny spot by or even under the scarred baby grand piano was a world to be reckoned with, mine to develop and claim. A starry night and a blanket. A cozy camp out within evergreens.

The back yard, with its shade trees and pines and bushes made a great stage but so did various living rooms and bedrooms, a porch or park or back steps. I didn’t even have to make much up, though. Tall tales unfolded all around me as life was textured and colored with people, places, events. I was charmed and mystified by myriad scenes, found them dramatically provocative of ideas and emotions. There still might arise an urge to embroider it–seeing an abandoned plaid, overstuffed chair or a cafe umbrella shading a person at a table whose single booted foot and “talking” hand were seen. Something had already happened, was happening or was about to happen. And I wanted to know, even if I had to fill in the gaps.

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This capacity for probing with problem solving–the urge to learn–is an attribute we all enjoy. It has been a powerful driving force in my everyday life. And because of this, I am never bored. Entertainment is within reach at any given time. There is endless mystery. I am duly humbled by how little I yet know and understand and experience a thrill from ongoing explorations. Even the momentary, least noteworthy ones. Or perhaps those are the best, at times.

It’s all in the details, that was what I was thinking on my power walk today. Walks are interrupted frequently as I pause to examine something. I spot a teal green gate at the side of a rambling house and above it is a heavily leafed branch; amber light is streaming through treetops. There is a soft splash, cat’s whiny meow, breath of wind. Leaves on trees shimmy, almost singing. How all this transfixes me… there is a sense of prescience. But of what? Of life happening and about to happen. Of  intricate connections, from behemoth tree to blades of grass to wooden gate to all creatures to crown of sky and beyond and to this moment. I am flabbergasted by the wonder of it. It is an intimate place in which we live and learn.

I am not naive. I have not lived a breezy, protected life. Surely no one truly does, for so much of what we do and hope for is a grab bag, like it or not. The very beauty that we need to love can hurt beyond measure when we’re vulnerable or anguished. As a young teen I still recall a moment when I experienced the unbounded extraordinariness of just being alive yet also felt  bereft. I stretched my arms around a favorite oak tree and wept. Later I wrote a poem, a terribly adolescent poem, and there is a line that’s stayed with me over 60 years: and yet beauty bites the bleeding heart. I loved so much and easily and still was rent by life’s bitter parts. As we each are.

But nothing is wasted in life; we experience it and let it go or keep it close, even recycle it sooner or later. We reinvent ourselves any way we can and need to do. It is our story to make happen. There is much to be unveiled as breath enters, nourishes microscopic cells, exits the miraculous lungs; while this fist sized muscle of heart beats its tireless rhythms for me. So I listen and watch, reach out, seek more. Wonder visits me like a loving old friend and we root out bits and clues, celebrate even when I get worn out and crabby. I do not want to be careless with the  bounties offered, nor dismiss the grace of moments I am allowed to inhabit. Big picture or small, the scenes of life are ours to unveil.

My visit to the Biltmore Estate gave me a renewed appreciation of my life situation, the assortment of whims, choices, dreams and labors. I left with a more vivid view of settings and circumstances within which the Vanderbilts conducted parts of their lives. The estate might have fleshed out the family more with traces of their individuality, remnants of yearnings. (George man loved books, that was encouraging, and hopefully the women did, as well. ) A visible legacy other than only wealth, with signs of daily interactions, musings and matters of the heart that roiled, pacified and beguiled–those underpinning and perhaps secreted away from such power and industry. I have more investigating to undertake. But I couldn’t help but think of them traversing the stone steps, gliding across endless rooms, seeking solace or joy in the gardens as they spoke in hushed tones. Can we have Act 1 outlined and set up, please?

Then again, maybe I will move on to fleeting moments of lives being lived, scenarios created this very second. Wait, see how the summer light moves across the grass and street? All it takes is observation plus a dash of imagination, same as it did as a kid.

A White Attire Matter

Are they happy because it’s finally, after a grueling, claustrophobic winter, going to be SPRING? Then summer!

I’ve been considering the somewhat peculiar realm of white duds lately. It has to do with the faint possibility of spring. Of Easter coming up already. But it began when I took a long moment to consider my closet’s contents. What I beheld was an impressive spectrum of dark to darker colors that complement Portland’s steely grey weather, which is standard beginning November, ending sometime around late May; the city refuses to show off until then. I guess we tend to dress in sync with our environment except for rain gear, which needs to be vibrant, even garish, in order for us to be seen as we head out and about in the drenching downpour.

My current shirts, pants and a handful of skirts embrace respectable black/charcoal grey, muted berry tones and a faded red that gets ignored, deep purples/blues, a handful of piney and dark teal greens. There’s something fiery orange in there that must be a leftover from August or just a stray that should be recycled. Then hanging near the end of the wooden pole is a spot of white. Two spots. Why no white, even off-white, save for a shirt and a light tunic-type thing (got on sale, haven’t worn yet)? I’m not counting my old white (well off-white now) Gap long sleeved T-shirt for layering.

I have always had at least one wrinkle-free white blouse or shirt–the first being, I think, more form-fitting and maybe with an embellishment such as a discreet ruffle; the second being clean lined and tailored as possible. It’s what most of us include in our wardrobes; it’s a classic staple. Yet for me it tends to peek out from under a sweater or jacket, to complement a look. It doesn’t seek to bring attention to its own regrettable lack of rich pigment. Unless worn with excellent dark blue jeans or black slacks, sleeves rolled up to three-quarter length. Or with, say, artisan-made cuff links–then it becomes classy, not just an endurable classic, I suppose. At least, that’s what I see in fashion magazines. I’ve tried to be that woman at times; it takes a decided dash of panache, like an aging French actress who still dares to leave top buttons undone and glorious hair tossed about. But I wouldn’t know, anymore, just what I can do with it. It’s remained mostly uninhabited since retirement, before which I really dressed, and generally enjoyed it. I should throw it on to recall what it’s like to feel pulled together, refreshed with flair. Things have gradually gone south a tad. (Though I do still wear earrings and a favorite bracelet, tend to match things up–even when just at home. I mean, why bore myself? I enjoy even the facsimile of verve.)

But white is not something to play with when you’re a pale-to-sallow-skinned person like me; it can make me appear like death has one foot in the door. It actually gleams on someone with a warm color to their faces and eyes. Thus, it scares me; a little can change a lot, whether you are painting a picture or dressing. So much light bounces off of it so that there is a dual impact of innocuousness and dazzle. And am I supposed to accessorize it to add a bit of jazz or let its elegance or sportiness speak for itself?

Which brings me to the other thoughts about this wardrobe choice. I’m no fashion historian but I saw somewhere that the color white began to show up more in the 1930s, when the wealthy started to wear it in warm months, especially during leisurely activities. I conjure up a rousing game of croquet on a vast emerald lawn, or an outdoor court replete with tennis whites worn by attractive athletic couples. I imagine perspiration didn’t show on crisp togs. Finally by the fifties the wearing of this color trickled down to the middle class. Another few years white was just another color, take it or leave it, but stay mindful of that seasonal rule.

The more I think of it the more I realize white has tended to be a class marker as those who’ve worn it from the start were more likely (in this country) to be the “leisure” class– certainly when it first came in vogue. There are the whites that indicate summer or vacation life with sailing or outdoor games and sports, luncheon-and party-throwing. White has tended to more often be reserved for formal occasions– for women, at least (though men don white tuxes in warmer climes)–including grand dinner clothing or debutante gowns. I have heard that winning beauty contestants wear white more often. Formal attire and the color white do seem made for each other; you expect to stay clean for such events. The Navy has its dress whites. And let’s not forget brides who for an eon donned only a white wedding dress inspired, of course, by societal and moral expectations of “purity”–unrealistic or not.

White fabric, especially more expensive types, can mark a uniform so that it denotes a certain status, generally professional. The clothes of a doctor or nurse, dentist or scientific lab employee, chef, barber–these have traditionally been white fabric. (Why, I have wondered, given the various types of matter making their way onto such a pristine canvas? White collar workers came from the shirts (and suits/skirts) professionals in offices tended to wear for a few decades.

Generally white is a color one avoids when planning on getting dirty. Outdoors workers rescue personnel or police/military employees and various manual laborers–all have traditionally worn darker clothing, if not also uniforms of some sort. It makes most practical sense. Someone working on a construction site, engaged in gardening or putting out fires or doing field work tracking cougars or trumpet swans tend to get dirty. Their clothing gets messy without revealing wear too soon–then can be washed repeatedly without undo damage. My father didn’t work on his cars, the yard or even fix musical instruments in white clothing. (Though my son is a painter and wears white pants that quickly become an abstract painting…there must be a reason for this choice.) I don’t generally hike in the mountainous Columbia Gorge wearing my one pair of white jeans and have never scrubbed my long-ignored kitchen floor in matching white socks, shorts and top.

But when I began this post I was thinking a little of Easter. Wearing white meant it was the time to get fancy when I was a child. And the best occasion for this was Easter Sunday. My whole family spiffed up to the “nth degree” for church during such a time, and there was usually some white going on our bodies. The men in freshly pressed white shirts, the older females in perfectly white high heels and faux pearl-decorated gloves. Perhaps it had something to do with Jesus’ resurrection being equated with our own rebirth, but it was also–after an interminable wintry season–spring heralding nature’s glorious rejuvenation.

My childhood Easter dresses were often bright florals to reflect the special occasion. My favorite had a white cotton sateen background with large butterflies of blue, yellow, purple flitting about, and a belt tied in a big bow at the back. I was excited to put on white anklets with lace at the edges, paired with white patent leather Mary Jane shoes and topped off with short white gloves and often a small white bonnet with a small flower on it. I felt like a, well, a kind of princess. I wouldn’t dream of messing anything up before getting home where I changed for Easter Bunny time outside.

The notion that, as a general rule, white should not be worn before Memorial Day nor after Labor Day was ironclad most of my life. It seems particularly important in the South where my parents grew up; it just wasn’t done and I didn’t dream of making the gauche error of breaking of that rule. I suspect it had as much to do with the weather as anything, as everyone knows warmer months mean lighter clothing in both weight and coloration for comfort. Where the temperature rises into eighty or ninety degrees Fahrenheit and certainly above that, it is wisest to allow for even, rapid cooling of the body. In desert climates, people typically appear to cover themselves fully and loosely in lighter colors, more often white. Sun’s punishing heat is not so readily absorbed.

Fashion rules have been altered endlessly since my youth. And the rules for wearing white have, too. More women have gradually worn white and ivory woolens or other heavier and textured fabrics as autumn and winter months come and go. I’ve noticed white in shoes as well in all seasons for at least dressy affairs. I can barely keep up with what is in or out but I think it’s great styles have evolved into far more mix and match. It’s more playful, evocative and outright creative than in the more tradition-bound days. I can see fashion as an expressive art more and more, not just a whim or a necessity or something that denotes status. I have tended to feel less was more; my fashion-loving daughter and sister have had to nudge me toward more experimentation and I still swing back to a more classic style, certainly more casual. She’s in the forefront of these things; I am one standing middle of the road or the background, and that’s alright. Since not working for money, if I can’t wear it long hours writing, reading or making a little art or dancing about or working up a sweat outdoors, it doesn’t interest me much.

But I did buy that tunic-type, three-quarter-sleeved, white top not long ago at a great sale–maybe it was last year’s style. It’s a light linen blend and can be worn outside in the heat of summer’s day on a walk or dressed up with a long elegant necklace and shiny earrings or rich-hued scarf. For Easter, I’m thinking. That’s not really early and even so I’m wearing it, maybe with a pair of coral pants and goldish flats. Not so keen on white gloves or hat. But rainy chill or not, it’s time to liven things up around here, reawaken that warm weather brio, share a splash of sunshiny zest, add a good dash of elan. It seems white duds have their place and can even inspire, after all.

 

Elemental Changes

Partway into a hike at The Pinnacles National Park.
Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

There are people who vigorously embrace life and if necessary, make it happen when odds seem against them; their vibrancy spills over. Others feel life is a fight they seem meant to lose, become embattled and embittered until giving up. What makes the difference? Who not only survives but can flourish– and who may not discover their potential or even the sudden beauty of living? We already know–don’t we by now?– that it isn’t money, although it makes a difference in obtaining necessities. Health can surely tip the balance at times.  It may well be love–partner, family, friends– that colors a life which overcomes hardships and setbacks.

Or might it be something more? Consider two people I have known.

He was a soldier once and it gravely altered things. There were times when I wasn’t so sure who he was, anymore, but that worry is long passed. He kept putting one foot in front of the other and worked it out in time. He regained the trademark warmth that signals extra kindness on offer.  He’s in Costa Rica now, then will be off to Germany, then to India, then Dubai and Australia and that is not the entire schedule for 2017. This itinerary despite having serious heart events in the past year, with more recent emergency and surgical interventions just weeks ago. He verbalizes little to no anxiety about expansive travel plans regarding health challenges. Rather, he shares the usual enthusiasm, a growing excitement that is leavened by decades of travel experience. He is also a photographer (as is his travelling partner/wife) who once took pictures for his leisure (as do I), perhaps also for documentation in military and private sectors. But he is far beyond that, having won several awards and exhibiting as well as selling many photos. Every trip, small or major, he expects to be a part of fascinating events happening in animal, mineral and vegetable worlds. His curiosity pulls him forward; he expects events to go well, despite hazards of travel off the beaten path, despite tough-to-treat heart disease. Despite knowing well how cruel the world can be. And he could be out of reach of medical help or even die. But he will not give in to health risks nor ease up on his passions. He forges ahead with anticipation of the good to come. His photographs will be rich, detailed, compassionate: full of the human (and other) life he so loves. Full of his determination to thrive.

He found the wit and will to carry on. He found the way to burrow through the ills and hardships and hew another door and then another where before there were few sound ones or none. The work of it–that is what kept him going, and faith in a greater scheme.

The woman was in treatment with me (I, her counselor) for a DUII (driving under the influence of intoxicants) but it was more than that. It was a result of too much pain. She often needed to bring her autistic son who wailed, kicked and growled if impatient or bored, tired, hungry and just because that is what he did. She managed the tantrums resultant of sensory overload and what she could not name with soothing words and firm arms about him. She gritted her teeth, blinked back tears as she dodged more flailing. It was tiring. She worked long nights; he got just fair care from neighbors. Her rent was increased too much so she had to move–again. She was tempted to return to an abusive ex-husband but finally admitted she’d live on the street with her son if needed just to avoid it. That choice was circumvented by cousins, not her favorite family but they had space for awhile. She and her son squeezed into a cramped room, made it their tiny new kingdom. There was the question about how much longer she could bear working the bar life, making drinks for men there for the strippers. This work and all that preceded it had made her brittle, eyes glittering with anger even when she forced a smile. I worried she would not find a way to open to the healing of being cared about even in treatment. But she dreamed of being a dental hygienist or an x-ray technician. If she could make it through this day intact. Which she just would. Her son needed more help so she worked double shifts here and there to pay for his needs and costs of her DUII. But she didn’t drink or use drugs. Showed up to all appointments, listened, shared her hard truth. Worked day by day to develop ways to heal, to strengthen. She completed that program, hugged me, told me she’d strive for a long term healthy lifestyle. Happiness did not seem so illusory to her: “I’m making it happen–for me, too, not only my son.” Later she called. She was looking into funding for college.

What makes various individuals go forward rather than stall out–and finally give up?

Hope has something to do with it. If one cannot begin to envision any positive future, even if it is the next hour or day, it is terribly hard to muster a shred of strength to hold on. That extremely tender seed of hope can generate more roots to keep a life upright but is at risk of withering without nurturance.

It may not be a person who affects the difference, or not direct contact. Sometimes reading something by one you admire clicks and you become connect the dots for yourself. Books helped profoundly sustained me while growing up and beyond childhood abuse, whether it was fiction or nonfiction (drawn as I was to philosophical or spiritual writings as well as good yarns and poetry) or even choice children’s’ books (a too overlooked go-to–try Peter Speirs’ picture  books or Shel Silverstein’s tales of fun and wonderment). Or it may be a teacher or boss who becomes a mentor, an ordinary neighbor who never fails to be interested in how you are, or a dear friend who supports you by just showing up with love. Many can offer us good doses of strength or hope without fully realizing it. We need to be ready to accept it, even when doubtful.

They all cannot likely save us, though the poet Rilke offered me more bravery with one short line. We learn we alone can only truly save ourselves, that’s what he meant–even if/when God is called upon and we are certain we’re at last heard. Our necessary labors are distinctly human; we are charged with handling a great deal. There is no better way through life than staying alive, anyway, taking stock and going on and rooting out the beauty. Because it is everywhere if we look and see.

Anything that augments healthy possibilities and inspires us can provide more impetus to stay with small or large goals, whether just getting up in the morning or addressing a tenacious problem or designing bigger dreams. I find music, nature, walks, spiritual teachings and prayer, family members and friends can make a fine difference in helping me sustain a good attitude and better energy. They are hope inducers. Yet there are times when hope may seem a kind of foolishness, a teasing concept that cannot be applied to complex and critical needs. And then what is the doable choice?

I maintain even when there is not nearly enough hope or inspiration, not a wealth of support or wellspring of handy resources, still the human will can accomplish wonders. Yes, a most basic human characteristic. (Better, in my opinion, coupled with the Divine.) We were given such an iron tough and resilient will for good reasons. What else comes to our service countless times? What enables us to endure when all else seems impossible, irrelevant? We don’t have to live only by basic instinct, by fleeting intuition and feelings that come and go. We can be decisive, make a choice to keep on despite the odds. To attend to the need of each moment and be open to options, no matter how far fetched they may seem. And if we also offer and welcome a little cheer, we might, too, have more hope replenished as we go. There are those pesky birds that sing for one another and us at dawn, the caring that arrives in a surprise card or well-timed compliment, a moving scene in a film or story that opens us to loftier thoughts and hearts that re-engage. But even without those luxe moments, we share a common denominator of a human status: that sometimes unattractive yet awesome might of a deep internal urge to just persevere.

Our will. To hold on. To go on.

As an addictions counselor, it was interesting to see who could and would make needed changes–that is, who would stay clean and sober and who would succumb to the siren call of substance abuse and dependence even while in treatment. Or, shortly thereafter and return to services again. My teammates and I would wonder over clients, try to tailor treatments to match the Stages of Change. Developed by Prochaska and Di Clemente, two psychotherapists who developed the model in 1977 to first address nicotine dependence. It remains a useful model, a guideline, regarding many sorts of behavioral change.

Were my clients “Precontemplative”, i.e., yet unable to even see the problem? Were they in Contemplation, aware but not interested in commitment to change? Was the client in Preparation, now planning to take some kind of helpful action? After that, perhaps in fits and starts, Action begins, when one is engaged in the work of altering problematic behaviors. By the time someone manages to land in Maintenance, new habits are taking hold. Both behaviors and attendant attitudes are visibly different. But without a person’s considered moment of decision to make a choice for something different, there can be no contemplation or planning, no action, no ultimate difference in lifestyle or mental health. It was my challenge to provide opportunities for insight and–I hoped–resultant change, to help the person come to that critical point. However, in the end, it was always the individual’s will to change or not to change that made the actual difference. When the stubborn will is engaged, so much can begin to occur. The process of healthy change is a wondrous thing, a human architectural feat of light and flesh. Believe me.

The original question posed was: why do some gird themselves and go forth to seek solutions to problems and embrace life wholly–while others quit? I posit that it is finally our will to go one way or another, our choices to make the helpful or harmful difference. Wanting things to be different doesn’t do much–we can desire change for all sorts of motley reasons (even specious ones) but in the end we often really don’t want to go there.

It is up to us to determine what we most need and then what we are willing to do–what sacrifices are acceptable to us, how much suffering can we endure if required? Because this living is full of those matters; no one gets away with blithely slipping through their time here. There will be matters of heart and spirit, mind and body that will charge right into our tidiest days and nights; losses that will empty us of grief more than once; circumstances that we never planned, that care nothing of who we are or what we have. But if we possess the will to endure, greater courage will build. If we foster that will to hang on, better possibilities can unfold in time. If we have that will to say yes to this life rather than no–even with heartaches and what is unfair and far worse–the strength to stand up and live in more hope will grow more than might have been imagined.

It may take time to pause and sort it all out before choosing. The essential decision to hold fast or just let potential opportunities slip away has to be made. That turn of mind will generate momentum that may radically change your life; it can also just keep it moving right along no matter delays or hurdles. Like my brother, a still-undaunted, big-hearted traveler who meets each challenge; and that good if toughened woman I think of with chin up, stride strong and vision more clear and bright. Many came through my counseling office and returned to the world with lives salvaged: they hurt and struggled and they persevered.

The two people highlighted here take a firm hold of circumstances and determine choices which have greater value for their aspirations, ordinary or grand. And they reach beyond themselves, strive for some greater good. As such they remain two of my everyday, unique heroes.

 

My (Very Loose) Plan for Becoming an Old Woman

snowy-january-106
A mosey about the neighborhood with the real me; cannot keep me from daily power walking! (No, not my medium-sized mansion in background)

I was struck today by this thought: I may at times, with a sideways glance, look for a way around the inevitability of aging.

This lit up my thinking recently after trying to find a decent and authentic photo for my Facebook account. They tended to look a bit pasty, and as if some stealthy tilling was done along jaw, neck and eyes and then hadn’t tidied up well afterward. I gave up and used the one that is above. It’s authentic–I adore being outdoors! Plus I like seasonal photos. And it’s casual, my basic style these days. And not posed, really, a simple smile. I have a couple that I call my “semi-glamour shots” and they are kind of stagy/cheesy, as if I am expecting to appear on the jacket of a bestselling book shortly. I even took one of me at the computer. Well, that’s where I am much of each day, working on writing. (Pros must photograph those lovely other authors.)

But this was only the first of the triggers for my current ruminations about having once been younger (for quite a good amount of time) and getting older (I am so pleased I made it). And finally, what comes next (hold on awhile as I cram a lot more into my living). But I will get to the other reasons this matter visited me. (It’s not another essay on health issues.)

I realize this thought–that I may be avoiding the reality of aging–is not shocking in youth-centric societies. At least, US culture daily accosts us with a barrage of messages stating that appearing or even acting over the age of 30 or so (i.e., an adult)–or is it now 21?–is undesirable. Perhaps one day to seem more akin to a crime. This brings to mind the seventies film, “Soylent Green”, that disturbing sci fi story that determines various people quite expendable, primarily the aging. Charlton Heston did a bang-up job as our film hero in that year of 2022 (five years away…), a time when overpopulation, environmental crises, and food shortages are deemed of paramount importance. Sound familiar? I read there may be a new version coming out for our pessimistic pleasure.

We are, one has to agree, exhorted to be young– please fake the appearance. Until one’s dying breath, if possible. Our looks, habits, clothing, interests. People remain socially more visible until we start to age discernibly, so the goal is to fool the human eye. (Though I heard someone remark that by late thirties she felt already less visible, was called “Ma’m” as if verging on matronly so required the kid gloves of customer service reserved for older adults). But I am not needing or seeking public scrutiny so this is a relief in the end. I have shone and tarnished, have often rejuvenated and been laissez faire. It’s important how I feel about my life, not the best shot. Yet this culture insists that, as a woman, I am not expected to allow myself to age gradually, naturally and without rancor. It is admittedly a pressure I half-yield to some days. And then I consider that men have so few demands in this regard. I’m for a more level playing field. We are persons first and last, are we not? My husband isn’t forever young, either, and it doesn’t concern him much, if at all.

If it was only young people who were making these rules I might have more conversations with them about it all. I do recall once vividly thinking that “over thirty” was the end and there were moments I did not expect or desire to pass that line. Little did I know that this was the actual start of vaster and better beginnings. But I might ask today’s kids why age seems such a clear marker of human acceptability as well as desirability–and what do their ages actually mean to them in reality, and also to me? How does this impact our respective perceptions, except to bring into focus that we all are at blurred crossroads of one sort or another? But it’s not just young folks, it’s all of us. And it’s such big business, the attempt to stall one’s aging. Companies scheme and undoubtedly shout hurrah as they make their products a little more affordable to a greater population. I personally shop for bargains in face moisturizer but if Lancome (not even close to the most expensive brands) gets cheaper…well, there you go. If only we spent as much time on our insides as we do our outsides. Hopefully, we do, a vast amount more.

Growing up with parents who were older than almost anyone else’s when I was born was not a big deal.  I rarely gave their age a thought. They were busy, ambitious, thoughtful persons until they died at 83 (Dad) and 93 (Mom). I did feel there was a more “ageless” atmosphere at home than in many of my friends. It might have been also due to being last to get born; my oldest sister was thirteen at the time. The age span was fine; it was what I knew.

My parents entertained and my father taught private string lessons after his day job and Mom did alterations on the side so all ages came and went. I was as at ease with older people as I was with younger, perhaps more so. I early learned how to be conversational and courteous as I served coffee and cookies at bridge parties. But I also was included in discussions around a dinner table with astute grown-ups, many of whom were scientists, musicians and educators. Later, I could identify as well with them as with my funky or firebrand friends. It seemed a good thing. Adult interchanges were interesting, whether or not I agreed with or fully comprehended topics. I could ask probing questions; I could offer opinions and be counted.

That inter-generational style of living was repeated, though, in many friends’ homes, as well. We were not as segregated as we are now. Family dinners with as many as possible were common. The truly old were respected, beloved, looked after. They were not left to their own devices or shunted off willy-nilly. Who could afford fancy nursing homes? Who even sought them? They weren’t another part of the big business of aging yet. People took care of their own.

My parents seemed and appeared fine to me in their fifties when I became a teen and far beyond. Their hair was always grayer, then white by the time I hit 21–but there is an early grey-to-whiter hair gene. One niece had long, lovely and mostly white hair by late thirties or so. Others got a characteristic white streak in their twenties. That gene skipped me, the only one to yet have some auburn brown hair striated with silver. Siblings razz me about it. (And by the way, have others noticed young women are lately stripping their hair of natural pigment, then coloring it white-to-silver?–What is that about? A practice run? We older gals should be flattered to be so imitated.)

The parents we had did not grouse about aging. They did not tell me to beware the gnarly ills that awaited me. They were not complainers, true, but they also were lively spirits. I recall my dad sailing a small craft for the first time again in decades when in his sixties. He played tennis with me in his fifties. He took up photography when I was a teen, engaged and bored us with his indexed slide shows of travels they–and we–loved to take whether across the ocean or around the bend. They made music, designed attire, invented games, volunteered at church and elsewhere, went pop-up-camper-style camping until early seventies. I got breathless trying to keep up even though I ran close to the same pace. Their health was problematic at times. Heart disease is the family affair, but that didn’t slow them for long. And they remained lucid as they aged, luckily. How they enriched peoples’ lives, as their friends did, as well.

So what was undesirable, what was wrong with getting older? I truly didn’t see it a liability. We each had our own place, skills and talents and energy and caring to spread around. It wasn’t near what you’d term idyllic. I am not all that nostalgic; there were several trials and losses. They were people who carried burdens, too, as we all can do.

But now I am beginning to think of aging differently. For one thing, my husband has begun to speak of retirement, not yet but sometime in the not-so-distant future. Five years. Perhaps. I stopped working awhile back but he’s a tad younger than I am. It’s a shock to hear him say it, however. From the start of his then-unplanned career when only  20 and still in college he has had a passion for engineering, later landing in management with expertise in quality assurance. I’m not sure how he does the long hours he does. It can worry me. I left my career as a counselor at 63; now I am looking towards 67. It took us awhile to get here. We are supposedly going to soon just hang out together… until those sunset days and nights wind down? Seems like someone else’s story line at times–and will until it materializes in full. I am big on not borrowing from the future when we can inhabit only this moment.

I mentioned a second reason the light bulb went on about avoiding aging: one of our daughters just landed a nice chaplaincy job in management. It’s at a fine assisted living facility. It struck me that she is close to the age, early forties, when I finally left my position managing a thriving home care department in a senior services agency. Whereas she may be edging toward a pinnacle of her career. It seems funny it ended up like this.

I felt pretty young back then. My 350-plus older clients were often frail, with serious health crises and multiple life stressors. I had a calling for that work in much the same way our daughter does. But she is a chaplain while I was just a somewhat besieged mother and wife needing work, then discovered a knack for human services (but still wrote in ragged snippets of time). I fast took to the work as they were some of “my people”; i.e., familiar to me after years of enjoying many older aunts and uncles, my parents, neighbors and family friends. I found myself eagerly absorbing their colorful life stories and worrying about them after work. I wanted to help make their lives safer, more comfortable and valued so they could remain at home if they desired. It was a privilege and it altered my direction; it felt as if God had drawn me to service. My next work was with high risk, addicted, mentally ill youth and adults and it, too, was a passionate commitment. But I never forgot those older adults who gave as much or more than they required of me. I think of them, still, long after they’ve gone. Muse that I’m so close to the ages they were when I was with them.

Now here I am, smack in that part of the process forward and it is like entering some foreign portal I hadn’t mapped out.

When I got the news of her great job I checked out the place she will be working. It looks swanky to me. It is very different from the places I saw while visiting various   homes to assess my clients’ needs. The text states it is “a life plan community”–it was previously called a “continuing care retirement community”. It serves a few hundred people. I studied the attractive grounds and wondered at the money it cost, marveled at the diverse services, the recreational options. The gym was chock full of cheerful persons with pleasing wrinkles and crowned with gleaming white hair. They looked classy on stationary bikes, vigorous in the bright swimming pool. The lawns are very green, houses and apartments uniformly in good taste–it’s clear why people gravitate to such a place. I can see how it might stay a fear of fragility.

It’s a great place for our daughter to work, I’m sure. Still, the lifestyle it espouses alternately fascinates, perplexes and repels me. Plus I could not afford it, I’m sure. But would I want to live there? Set apart from a greater cross section of people? In such an organized and pristine environment? My innermost being resists it. I would rather have a refuge of unbridled countryside and the grit and creative vibrancy of a city–each close to the other as possible, as it is now. Retirement community settings appear limiting to me–at least now– whereas to others they may appear to abound in happy, healthy options at one’s back and call.

But mostly, it seems exclusive and finally lonelier. I want to be all hands and feet in the greater realm of living until I can truly no longer be so. And then, who knows? I might even live in an RV, a studio apartment downtown or in a small room at the edge of a grown child’s abode. I hope to not be an aggravating burden to myself or others; I’d hate to leave this world with a bad reputation.

Alright, the rest of it may be that I don’t yet want to think about where this aging business will take me. It appears to be a bigger jog in the journey. I do know I don’t want to fake it. Nor make it more or less than what it is, another movement through a short time on a small planet. I don’t need to be anything more than who I am, just a better version, I hope. I barely feel much older than I did a couple decades ago except for a monitored, repaired ticker. Surprisingly, I even feel a great deal  better despite those telltale lines on my face that reveal my life. An elderly woman told me once that is a marker of aging: our deepest personhood not matching up with external changes.

I will get to the end, whatever that is.  Right now I never feel as if there is enough time to explore all that captures my scanning attention. There are people to admire and love and learn from, many of whom I do not even yet know. There are scads of books to read and stories to write (I can barely keep up with either), forest trails to hike, bodies of water to get wet in, visual art to make. Places that might use my hands, some care. And, ah, music to bring into heart and mind, to hum and sing. Today I bought two new CDs and played them at a good volume as I wrote, then danced about a few times. I have a mind to put on a long swingy dress and videotape the swooping about, pretending to be an interpretive modern (or let’s say “contemporary”) dancer again. For my children and grandchildren. So they’re assured I have always managed to have fun–and they remember to do so, too.

Life is a place I’ve made a decent, often very good, home and aging seems simply one more thing to accommodate. I am not one for the prosaic as much as for invention. I may not change much of anything. And I am more apt to plan for today, not tomorrow.  I have had personal experience with life being taken in a flash and then having it returned just in time. Best to take it a step at a time, see what unfolds, what I can do. Soul, heart, mind and health the priorities. Broaden those horizons as I move right along. Being old will feel like me, likely with all white hair.

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My sort of “semi-glamour” shot–ok, I know, it doesn’t qualify. There have to be more pretentious ones…(My Gravatar looks fancier!) But subject would benefit from retouch at the least; perhaps teeth capped, a vigorous hair brushing with full-on color, Botox, jawline and neck fix-all according to “Cease Aging Now” experts. I hereby protest! Will go on as is!
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Just kidding, here it is, a dubious semi-glam shot. Not so fancy! A bit of a hair trim (shows off the white; stays unruly by itself, just a tad snazzier. Fully 66. Cheers to all from the 1960s: we protested and braved new paths, fought, dreamed, achieved and stumbled, raised families, labored long and hard, and a great many of us have survived!
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Fave but current second best choice for fb picture, perhaps move to first choice if winter’s blast goes on: having fun outdoors, authentic while incognito. No ageism accepted no matter what faces I show! Let’s all just be people together. 🙂

My Heart, My Queen

My Heart, My Queen via Discover Challenge: The Greatest _______ in the World

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It’s the happily blood thirsty and nutrient-carrying, industrious and curiously adaptable heart, when all is said and done–isn’t it? That would qualify as the greatest of something worth noting, this being the organ in the human vehicle that propels us into the world. The one that gets us up and at ’em, then transports us through velvety caves of thought and architecture of sleep and even blurred somnambulance.

I know a little something of hearts, of working ones and failing ones. How mine leaps, thrums and flails, at least. It alerts me sometimes late and sometimes early to what is to be reckoned with: it is an organ that has its own intuition and its own mutable barometer. It shimmers like a rich scarlet light inside the brazen frame of my ribs. I am part of a small percentage of those who literally feel its responses daily and nightly, as if I am its default keeper (am I?) and not the other way around, as if it means to accompany me on every tiny turn of earthly or other pathways I skim and trod. This is a blessing. It can seem to be a curse. Having a heart that whispers and sings, then shakes it fisted mass at me–it is a thing that cannot be ignored for long.

As a child it was quieter. That is, it was in the same league as the rest of my functioning pieces, neither brighter or dimmer than the other parts as I blithely used the body I was given. I could do all things, I thought. I might well have done if there was time, who knows? My heart wanted so much. That I felt early.To care for it meant to live, simply put, and my heart obliged, letting me love it as much as feet and belly and head and fingertips and teeth that fell out and grew in and tiny hairs on arms that prickled in sudden delight. Or, later, fear.

And the heart grew with me, or so it felt. It seemed bigger in my chest, as if the one who commanded and filled me up. I noticed it took up more of my life. It started to flinch a little and toss about and lie low when uncertainty hit. It often generated poetry of the moment and prayers that had no succinct words. It rocked with the wisdom of ages and stole away into shadows during our brazen escapes. We were partners, co-conspirators. I knew my heart was a thunderous engine that kept my life humming and reaching but even let it make mistakes.

It didn’t show signs of weakening as I grew, changed and became that adult that had once seemed like a distant dream or a warning of likely hardship to come. Yet, wait, that is a lie. It surely wanted to back down, even collapse on bent knee in its autonomic muscular manner; there were times it held back or lurched, but it was incapable of retracting its grand intent way back when. Because it is a heart. It has its duty, its job. It was and is meant to work, to shift and seem to fly easily like silken wings or groan like rusty gears. To draw attention, then harbor itself in its inner sanctum, deep into its chambers so the rest of the body can go about its business.

I had to abuse it some, ignore it more, pretend it mattered less than what I accepted. I had to be a bit heedless of its messages, reckon with its temperament, which well reflected mine too often. I was an amateur trying to live like a pro. My trusty heart waited and gathered intelligence for our future.

We forget about its greater meanings. Its multiple uses. How it is not a paper heart, not a clay or stone or ever actually a smiley heart. It is a serious and unequaled creation of sinew and electrical impulses and valves and rich blood flowing in and out, up and down, without which we cannot live one more mundane or extraordinary moment. It is the Queen/King of our private territory, our fleshly boundaries, our brain’s acrobatics and investigations and musings by candle light or sunrise or at our desks when all else is just ticking about us. It pumps and pumps and we go forth and ignore it if possible, do we not? Until it aches or adores or grieves or exalts. That sort of a greatest thing is part of what it is.

Nonetheless, my companion heart, my devoted and tough and touching heart walloped me hard at 51. Yes, this heart that reflects my greater peace, creative passion and upsurges of soul-inspired kindness and love; despite random terrors survived and frequent conundrums; that thrives on my adoration of its workings and mysteries. It just took me down at the base of a riotous waterfall in the Columbia Gorge forest.

Now, it said, hear me well. Alter your life choices further. Respect your particular genes. Reappraise your forgotten dreams and arduous agendas. Revere the miracles of science as I signal an SOS to keep you sentient.

I obeyed. I found a way to stay alive. Would you not obey a heart that cried out and desperately wanted to rally, strictly on your behalf? I am telling you the truth, you would listen and you would follow that decree and if you had the will and the fortune, you would somehow walk out of that forest to find salvation.

And so, I know that the heart is the greatest. I yet live. It beats its own alternating rhythms and even when shocking or cranky it yet keeps its agreements with me and with God, if unknown in full to me. I follow its lead. We manage to embrace each day with thanksgiving. It knows far, far more than do I and that makes me a willing student. This heart–our hearts–they are given to us as guides, lest we forget we are profoundly, maddeningly human, lest we forget we are here this minor but powerful time. It is a body of light wrapped in sinew that we have been gifted–lest we forget we may even be angels in the making, carrying beacons for this day and beyond time.