30 January 2012

Oh, the Things You will Think

A few months ago I stopped seeing my therapist on a regular basis.  For several months before I’d been looking at our time together, considering what work was still to be done.  I couldn’t help but see that, since we’d begun, four years earlier, much of the growing up I’d needed to do had happened.  Terry and I had talked about this, and the idea of stopping was broached, several times.  Then, as I prepared for that last visit in November, I knew it was time.

Almost immediately after that ending new opportunities for expression began showing up in my life.  I’m just now realizing that one of them was, and is, to express my fixation on becoming sixty.

It makes sense that, having attained a modicum of maturity through the work with Terry, among other things, I now have greater capacity to see myself as I am.  I do see much more clearly what my reality is.  And that reality includes grief – a deep and profound sorrow about all the years before I began this journey of awareness, the years I couldn’t, or wouldn’t see myself truly.

My reality isn’t all grief of course.  Seeing myself truly includes knowing myself as “one of the juiciest women I know,” - according to a friend of mine.  What’s true of me is also that I’ve discovered my voice, gained appreciation for my body and appearance, learned it’s ok to say “no” as I need to.  What is true, and real, for me is that I like and care for myself more than ever.  Yet I also truly wish I’d learned how to do all of this earlier – wish I hadn’t used up all of those earlier years trying in vain to be who others wanted me to be.

It’s a paradox really.  For this journey of self-knowledge began because I’d spent all those years in the boxes of others’ creation.  The years I grieve over were my teachers, as much or more than Terry, or the deep learning from my California experiences, or even my heart attack.  Those years of actively pushing myself down, smoothing myself out, making myself small so others could feel more comfortable or ok – those years in the dark enabled me to see the faint shining light at the core of me as it flickered, determinedly.  Once I saw it I couldn’t abandon it.

It’s the fact that that didn’t happen until I was fifty that I grieve, especially now, a decade later.  I wonder, if I’d awakened to an appreciation of myself sooner, would I feel less anxious about becoming an elder now?   Would I have the capacity to love, rather than simply accept, the entirety of my life’s reality if I’d made the move earlier?  Yes, it’s navel gazing.  I wonder too if I’d do so much of that now if I’d begun this journey years before I did.

I’ve been seeing sixty as something I’m not ready for, much less ready to be or be defined as.  Yet, in writing about my grief over those ‘lost’ years I begin to see this age differently – as another opportunity for expression.  From here I can view the entirety of my life true.  From this stage of life I can realize, as in the words of a prayer for Yom Kippur.

From grief to understanding, from fear to faith.
From defeat to defeat.
Until, looking backward or ahead, we see that
Victory lies not at some high place along the way,
But in having made the Journey, stage by stage.

Having made the journey is what matters.  The when and how and where matter less than that the journey is undertaken.  Here, at 2012, at nearly age 60 (17 days and counting), with what I have in my purse and my life – is what’s real.  From here I can look backward and peek ahead, rest and take in the view.  And I can tell you – it ain’t really all that bad either.

15 January 2012

Not Done Yet

A coworker married recently.  In telling about her wedding she spoke with strong emotion about her disappointment at the job the (non-professional) photographer had done.  My coworker (we’ll call her L) repeated several times that, “It’s OK.  She [the photographer] is a friend.  Nothing to be done now, I guess.”  Well into the conversation L finally admitted that she was angry at not having the pictures she wanted, that she felt angry every time she thought about it, and that, even though she knows it’s the marriage that counts, more than the wedding, she’s still mad.
     L has been angry for weeks about this, telling herself she needs to let go of it, but feeling unable to.  Another participant in the conversation (call her M) said, “When I get angry over something I can’t do anything about, I just let myself BE angry for 24 hours.  Then I let it go.”  L replied that she wasn’t sure she could do that.
     In the silence that followed I knew what to say, but hesitated, not wanting to appear like a mother or counselor to these young women.  Yet my knowing wanted to be offered, so I told her, “The trick, or the key, if you want, is to truly feel your anger, to live with it, and allow yourself to release it – punch pillows or holler or cry – talk about it.  Let yourself know just how mad you are during those 24 hours.  You’ll be able to let it go if you do that.”
     In sharing this story I’m not bragging about my helpfulness.  Rather this story needs to be shared because I need to remind myself that I do possess knowledge and wisdom that can make a difference – but only if I share it.  The gift of age, I am coming to understand, is a body of knowledge – if we have sought it out over time – and a plethora of experience – ditto – that makes us wise.
     To become an elder is to have understanding – a combination of knowledge and experience gained over time.  We must have lived through and with our experiences and learned from them – even, especially, the difficult ones.  AND we must do something with it all – speak, or act, or in some way share what we have learned.
     It’s this last part that transforms us into an elder.  Hanging around on the planet for six, or more, decades simply makes us old.  Owning our experience, our learning from it and learning generally, intentionally spending time and energy weaving knowledge and experience together, and offering the resulting wisdom to others – in whatever ways we can – we become an elder.
     I’m at the beginning of learning this – of learning that my upcoming sixtieth birthday doesn’t just, or even necessarily, symbolize becoming old.  Since I began facing my belief that 60=old I’ve received numerous opportunities to learn that this stage of life holds gifts – if I dare risk opening them.  Sharing what I know to be true – as I did with L (who appeared, at first, surprised, but then interested in the idea) – as I do when I sign up to tell my story at The Moth Story Slam – as I do, more and more often, even in random encounters with others – sharing both validates my experience and encourages others to do the same.
     It feels scary to me – opening up and risking like this.  Yet I see only two options available to me as I approach 60:  to disappear into the accepted cultural view of a dried-up and pitiful old woman, or, to embrace the vibrant, juicy, experienced, and perhaps wise woman who lives inside.  The first feels like only existence, while the second feels of life.
     I’m reminded – quite often recently – that, when I experienced heart attack almost four years ago, in the moment that dying felt so seductive – the moment of understanding that dying meant not having to try any more – there came a clear voice that said, “You’re not done yet.”  And that voice – though I didn’t want to hear it or accept its message – made my body fight to live.
     Now, as then, the acceptance of life includes acceptance of responsibility.  It means I must fight past the fear of opening up and offering who I am, who I am becoming.  Yes, even at this stage life seems to be about becoming.  I choose to become an elder rather than an old lady.  No, I’m not done yet.

09 January 2012

Rumination on Changing

     I downloaded this picture, from early in the Occupy Wall Street movement, onto my computer desktop.  Every time I open the computer the image moves me, particularly the disembodied hand holding the sign reminds me – that no matter what we’re supposed to believe, in truth changing the world begins in changing oneself.  Not changing to fit in with greater ease, or even changing so our own life will hold fewer problems or challenges – but changing as an appreciation, changing through greater and more loving acceptance of who we truly are.  In her poem, “The Wild Geese” Mary Oliver writes - “You do not have to be good. You do not have to crawl, on your knees, across the desert.  You only have to let the soft animal of your body Love what it loves.”  That kind of change.
         That kind of change, like the Occupy movement, requires faith.  It means understanding that loving what we love, acting from and on what is authentic in us, we may never know how we have changed the world.  Mostly, changing oneself, opening to what is genuinely and uniquely us – to the darkness as well as the sunny side – gives permission to those around us to make their own changes, live with their own authenticity.  And that’s a pretty good payoff.
         I think of this a lot as I approach my 60th birthday – in a bit over a month.  I can’t deny that I view this birthday as the beginning of the last stage of my life.  But, more and more, as I move toward this day and consider the ways I want to honor and celebrate it, I notice “what if” thoughts.  They leap around in my head as if they’d been suddenly freed from cages.  And the animal of my body responds to these “what if” thoughts with energy and juiciness.
         What if this could be the most freeing, satisfying, and fully lived part of my life? 
         What if I let go of worrying about failure, or punishment, or rejection and did what I feel to anyway?
         What if the best things about me are the earthy, audacious, loud, sensual, and humorous things?
         What if I just listened to my body and what it wants instead of trying to convince it it’s wrong?
         I don’t yet know what I will DO with or about all of this, but I know that this is changing, coming to appreciation of who I truly am.  Even in the last stage of life it seems there is faith in possibilities – which flies in the face of the conventional wisdom, the norm.  But as Frank Zappa said, Progress is not possible without deviation from the norm.”  I tried so hard, for so many years, to live according to the norm.  After all those years I’m coming to accept myself – particularly now in the last stage – as I am – not as people want me to be, so they can feel more comfortable. 
         Changing the world begins in changing oneself – and I’m OK with that.  Better than OK really.  Even though it is inconvenient and uncomfortable, we must do it.  At least I must – I need to continue, even in the last stage of life, to ponder the “what if” questions.  I need to live those questions, holding them lightly – not as requirements for being an elder woman but for the opportunities they present to live fully – no matter what stage of life I’m in.