A Note From My Mother

I was born on Friday, February, 14,1964 in Waterville, Maine. That makes me fifty today.  I harbored a hope that a new decade would make me feel different, like discovering a latent super power.

Instead the morning greeted me like most.  I wrangled our teenagers up and off to school.  Leo texted me Happy Birthday, no call.  Lila annoyed me as she finished her math homework in the car, even though I promised myself I would be more patient in my fifties.

I guess patience is not my latent super power.

The plan for today is to lay low because of the marathon this weekend. I need to conserve my physical and mental energy. Tonight Matthew and I are going out to listen to music. Later this spring, I’m taking a short trip with a friend to mark this milestone.

I have absolutely nothing to complain about, I know.

That’s why I feel so terribly guilty for emotionally flailing today.  I didn’t expect this. It began with the ordinariness and gained momentum when my mom called.  I started to cry.  She said exactly what I needed to hear.  She reminded me that the big birthdays with zero’s need time for grieving as well as celebration.  My mom gave me permission to meet fifty on my terms.  I didn’t have to be happy.

I’ve flailed about all day, with breaks to be grateful and laugh with friends.  It’s OK though, I have a note from my mother.

Fifty.  Downtown Austin.

“Look, I really don’t want to wax philosophic, but I will say that if you’re alive, you’ve got to flap your arms and legs, you got to jump around a lot, you got to make a lot of noise, because life is the very opposite of death. And therefore, as I see it, if you’re quiet, you’re not living. You’ve got to be noisy, or at least your thoughts should be noisy, colorful and lively.”  ― Mel Brooks —

Women!

I was running out the door last night to pick up Georgia from practice when I saw the package in our mailbox on the porch. It had Richard’s distinctive handwriting and I knew what was inside. He was sending me something for my birthday on behalf of Marcia, my dear friend who died three years ago this spring.  I am blessed that she loved me like a daughter.

The letter ends with, “This remembrance of hers is sent with much love – Richard.” The cotton in the box and the black velvet pouch smell like her. I didn’t know that I remembered how she smelled, but there it is, distinctively Marcia. I had seen the silver chain of dime-sized hammered metal links around her neck many times, usually with a casual sweater.  Marcia was sophisticated and stylish but this necklace was a rare piece of her jewelry that could fit into my simple, athletic, thrown-together approach to fashion. She would have picked it out for me.

Richard got it right.

In my thoughts and heart, Marcia accompanied me in the car as I made my way to the gym. We both agreed that middle-age is the time when your friendships with women move to another level of meaning that is unimaginable when you are younger.

If I could only pick one word to characterize my last decade it would be WOMEN.

The family of women I have built during my forties has been my most treasured achievement outside of my life with the kids and Matthew.  When I was younger I was somewhat of an outsider, most often by choice. I didn’t really understand other women, particularly when they moved in groups. I preferred men or to be by myself.  It was easier that way.

A shift occurred in my late thirties. It began in playgrounds and the hallways of preschools, over cups of coffee and during long runs on hilly wooded trails, on desperate calls and through inside jokes. By my forties I found myself surrounded by women I loved.

They hug me when I’m undeserving, don’t flinch when I’m imperfect, lead the way, and shine the light on my strengths.

Together we belly-laugh, shake our fist at the sky and cry, get sick and recover, raise families, bury parents, volunteer, cook, downward dog, travel, play, console and celebrate.

They are the people I design escape plans with and then go back home.

They get me through all the bruises and triumphs of kids, the realities of marriage, and the painfully joyous process of growing up. I know with a devotional certainty that I’m a better person for letting their love and courage lift me to a place that is always safe and accepting.

To the women in my life, you know who you are, thank you for seeing me through to fifty. Our lives are joined together like the silver links of Marcia’s necklace.

I love you.

And Then There’s Maude

“You’re turning fifty?”

Now imagine that question asked in slow motion by a wide-eyed incredulous twelve-year-old girl from my daughter’s gymnastics team. The words came out of her mouth laden with disbelief as if I said that I was turning into a lemur.

Her sweet mom took a quick read of my facial expression to gauge my reaction. I laughed and asked her why she was surprised.

“You don’t look fifty,” she answered.

I’ve noticed that people think that telling someone that they don’t look fifty is the best compliment they can come up with for a person on the verge of turning fifty – particularly a woman.

What they are really saying is that I don’t look old … yet.

Fifty is definitely the gateway to old. Little kids think the number is dinosaur ancient. Teens associate it with their parents. Twenty-somethings pity the loss of youth. Thirty-year-olds are way too busy with career and family to have an opinion.

On the other hand, people in their forties are a little leery of fifty, like perhaps it may be contagious.  It is, if you’re lucky!

I’m not sure what fifty is supposed to look like. When I was a kid I thought the coolest “old” person on television was Maude, played by Bea Arthur in the sitcom of the same name. I liked her flowy sweaters and jackets that traipsed after her as she paraded across the set. She was bossy and wise-cracking and did what she wanted. She did not look or act like any of the middle-aged women from my life as a child.  I suppose that I wanted to be Maude when I was old.

Fifty-year-olds don’t share a uniform profile. I will wear the number differently than another. Instead of focusing on what I look like, I want to celebrate arriving at this milestone healthy and content, surrounded by family and friends and curious about what’s next. It’s more about who I’ve become and where I’m going.

I am a partner, mother, daughter, sister, aunt, dog mama, friend, social worker, marathoner, gardener, artist, writer, yogini, traveller, volunteer, photographer.  That’s what my fifty looks like and yes, I feel the most beautiful when wearing flowy sweaters that trail behind me when I walk.

Maude

Lady Godiva was a freedom rider,

she didn’t care if the whole world looked.

Joan of Arc, with the lord to guide her,

she was a sister who really cooked.

Isadora was a first bra burner

Ain’t ya glad she showed up?

And when the country was falling apart

Betsy Ross got it all sewed up

And then there’s Maude

And then there’s Maude

And then there’s Maude

And then there’s Maude

And then there’s Maude

And then there’s Maude

And then there’s that uncompromisin’ enterprisin’ anything but tranquilizin’ Right on Maude!!!

Lyrics from theme song for the sitcom Maude

One final note: I know flowy is not a word but it should be.

Stones

Wisdom’s a gift, but you’d trade it for youth. Age is an honor, it’s still not the truth – Vampire Weekend

Fifty looks like a scary number. I’ve been barrelling toward my birthday with all the genuine optimism I can muster.  I know I’m surrounded with so many blessings. I truly feel it.

However, with less than a week to ground zero I’m starting to lose my enthusiasm. Fifty. The word makes me grimace and my eyes well up. It sounds old.

I’m having one of those days where I willingly pile a lifetime of regrets, wasted days, faded loves, squandered opportunities and loss on my chest like heavy stones. I can’t breathe.

So much stupidity. Not enough courage. Days I can’t get back. People I can’t touch.

I will rally. But for this moment I take a certain comfort in laying under the stones. I want to hold on to them, feel their heaviness, and remember every mistake, misstep and careless gesture.

The weight is a summons to live purposefully.  To have more courage.  To find the acceptance to leave the stones on the ground as to not burden what’s left.

Almost fifty.

 

I took the photo at Pedernales State Park, Johnson City, TX.

Metamorphosis

When I was a girl of eight or so, my grandmother showed me how to carefully cut the stem of the Milkweed plant after we discovered a fat yellow, black and white striped Monarch caterpillar on a leaf. She talked me through how to gently place the plant and the creature in our empty glass jar. We had already poked holes in the metal lid. Carefully holding the jar, we walked home and put our guest in a quiet corner of the kitchen.

Every other day we added a few fresh Milkweed leaves until we found the caterpillar hanging from the lid forming its chrysalis. Like magic, a butterfly appeared in about a week. If we were lucky we witnessed its outing but more often than not the butterfly emerged alone, the torn translucent remnants of its chrysalis still hanging. We let the butterfly go at the end of the beach path where the Milkweed grew.

We were midwives to at least a half dozen butterflies that summer.  It was pure wonderment.

Over the years, I attempted to recreate the scene for my kids with the store bought kits that send the caterpillars in the mail – they were not Monarchs. The mealworm looking caterpillars arrived in a plastic jar.  I placed the larvae in their snazzy butterfly habitat along with the provided food.  We waited and watched.

Metamorphosis is an intrinsically stirring event. However, the mail order version never matched my memories of Milkweed and Monarchs. Back then metamorphosis was more than a common science project or YouTube video – it felt more mystical and connected to nature.

Across cultures and in many religions, the butterfly’s life cycle is a symbol of transcendence and rebirth.  I have learned that a caterpillar’s astounding ascent to butterfly has less to do with death or decay and more with actual transformation.

Within the chrysalis the caterpillar dissolves into a soup of cells that looks a lot like snot. The light yellow and green goo contains the cells of the caterpillar’s brain, nerves and muscles.  How this goo recombines to form a butterfly is still a mystery. A clue lies in the blueprint of its future form that each caterpillar carries within itself. When scientists dissect a caterpillar they find that some of the butterfly structures have already formed before pupation.  It resembles a hologram that is super thin and gets pushed tight up against the chrysalis exoskeleton. It does not liquify like the rest of the caterpillar.

Here is the freaky part.

Scientists have conducted experiments to determine if the butterfly has any awareness of its life as a caterpillar. They want to find out if there’s any “being” continuity through the stages of the butterfly’s life-cycle.

In one study, caterpillars are exposed to an unappealing odor, something like nail polish remover, while being administered a non-lethal jolt. They are exposed to the combination over and over again until the caterpillars try to escape when they smell the odor and are trained to loathe the smell.  Weeks later, the caterpillars pupate and, in this experiment, become moths.  All of the moths that were exposed to the jolt as caterpillars hate the smell.  Only half of the moths in the control group had the same reaction.  It appears that the memory of the caterpillar survived with the adult moth.

It follows that within each caterpillar is its future and within each butterfly is its past. Metamorphosis seems more like a process not an annihilation, a transformation not a death. Perhaps we are not so dissimilar from the earth bound caterpillar and just maybe our version of our butterfly self is already within. We live in a culture that tells us to look outside ourselves for answers, buy-this-do-that quick fixes.  At almost fifty,  I’ve come to know that it’s about finding the blueprint inside and then letting the magic happen.

Endnotes:

I took the above photo (one of my last film rolls) in 2008 when I was in Xilitla, Mexico at the remote surrealist sculpture park at Las Pozas.  We hiked to the top of the waterfall pictured.  While walking along the stream above the falls, we saw four Blue Morpho butterflies silently fly across the water.  I had my camera but it all happened so fast and I remember not wanting to miss the experience by trying to get a picture.  I will never forget the sunlight and the iridescent blue of their wings.

Visit RadioLab to learn more about the study referenced in this blog.

http://www.radiolab.org/story/goo-and-you/

Heart Rocks

I want heart rocks for my fiftieth birthday. Not the fancy polished kind that you can buy in a store but the ones chiseled by nature found on a deliberate search or by luck when you glance down at the ground.

My first decade spent as an only child afforded me a lot of time outside time by myself.  That is when I began my relationship with rocks. It’s not as strange as it sounds. I was, and still am, drawn to each stone’s color, texture and sense of place. There’s a story, millions of years in the making, to be discovered if you slow down and pay attention.

I spent summers at my grandparents’ house on the coast of Maine. I filled my pockets with the round smoothness of the weathered stones from Timber Island. I knew them by their names: Basalt, Granite, Mica Schist, Sandstone, Feldspar, Quartz, Gneiss. Some were painted with sedimentary and metamorphic bands while others were speckled with geometric igneous patterns forged in volcanic furnaces.

This connection began a lifetime of collecting. Rocks are placed throughout our house; some stand alone while others sit together as evolving altars. When I travel to a new location or want to remember an event I find a stone from that particular spot as someone else might bring home a memento from a gift shop.

Our kids grew up surrounded by my rocks. They don’t share my affinity and yet they appreciate the earth’s artistry. They accommodate, even support, my geologic idiosyncrasies.

Leo gave me my first heart rock when he was three on a day hike at Pedernales Falls, one of our favorite state parks in the Texas Hill Country. I still have it. Throughout his childhood he would find heart rocks and present them to me with much fanfare. Other times he would simply press them into my palm and run off. When he was older he would leave them in obvious places for me to find later. I have kept them all.

The younger three continued the tradition and added round and egg shaped stones to their offerings. I gladly received them, and again have kept each and every stone they presented. My mind’s eye can still see their sweet faces looking up at me, so pleased, as they open their hand to reveal the treasure.

On the trail where I run there is an art installation that at first glance appears to be a simple grey wall topped with azure blue tiles in the design of a river.  It’s lovely but the true gift of the piece is reserved for the more observant passerby who discovers that the plain stucco wall is really a mosaic of hundreds of natural shaped heart rocks of all sizes.

The section of the trail that takes me by the wall has been closed for renovations and re-opened just last week. When I ran by the wall last night I felt a tinge of sadness. I couldn’t remember the last time when one of my kids gave me a heart rock.

I know it’s not deliberate.  The world is pulling their attention upward to the brightness of getting older. There is not as much time to linger and look down, kick at the dirt and search for rocks.

My birthday is on Valentine’s Day. I have always rebelled against the sentimental imagery of hearts, candy and flowers.  I want more out of the fusion of love and a birthday.  As you can imagine, my expectations were burdened with more weight than most partners could ever bear.  It’s come as a relief to my poor husband that I have mellowed over the decades.

This upcoming birthday will also be my fiftieth Valentine’s Day.  I’m blessed to be surrounded by love and have no need for more stuff.  I am still not a candy, nor flowers nor jewelry kind of valentine.  My birthday request is simple – a heart rock would mean the world to me.

End note: The photo is of a mosaic stepping stone I made with some of the rocks that the kids have given me over the years.

The Unexpected

As I walk into the airport bathroom, a nun is putting a bouquet of fresh flowers in the center of the counter supporting a long row of sinks.  She is a tiny old woman wearing a neat blue and white habit, a pressed matching belted dress and comfortable shoes. It isn’t until I’m in the stall that I appreciate the quirkiness of the scene.  Determined to ask the nun about her unorthodox altar, I hurry in the cramped stall, caught in the tangle of my computer bag, luggage and purse.

Another voice enters the bathroom and compliments the flowers.  The conversation quickly turns to tears as the admirer tells the nun that her son and his wife refuse to baptize her only grandchild. She also confesses to not liking her grandson’s name – Wolf, short for Wolfgang.  By this time I’m standing at the sink watching their conversation reflected in the mirror. The miniature nun takes the lanky grandmother’s arm and tells her – in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear – to love her son, his wife and Wolf and then let go.

I like her practicality.  If there is a God, I think God approves of the nun’s suggestion.

The two walk out of the bathroom shrouded in a discussion about prayer. I want to follow them and listen but I need to be at my gate. I never get to ask the nun to explain her mission. Perhaps she is the patron saint for travelers like me. Travel is my go-to remedy for spiritual discomfort.

At almost fifty I’m at a natural place to make changes to my life.  I’m having a hard time figuring out how that will translate into action.  I don’t want to shake the Etch-A-Sketch clean but I know I need to draw things differently to better match my goals. My Mother & Sons’  Road Trip through Grand Teton, Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks was in my mind going to be the headwaters of all cures.  I imagined epiphanies of intense beauty and majesty.  There was the hope that geysers, snowcapped mountains, red rock canyons, and summertime icebergs would clear the fog and a focused vision of my future would appear.

It didn’t happen that way.

It has been almost three weeks since the boys and I returned from Montana and I find it hard to describe our eighteen days together.  I would like to report that we all came back as improved 2.0 versions of ourselves but that would be too predictable and neat.

The scenery was spectacular and yet each of us saw it through a different lens.  For me the landscape was endlessly invigorating and just the fuel for the forward momentum I crave.  Leo saw the tactile earthiness of it, a test of his physicality. More often than not Eli saw monotony in so many mountains and lakes and liked our days in Missoula and Bozeman best.

The differences surprised me.

Instead, the common ground that best shapes my memory of the trip is more subtle and usually comes with a DQ vanilla cone while listening to Leo give a tutorial on new music or Eli’s hilarious recounting of Greek mythology.  All garden variety experiences that could have happened anywhere but became more noticeable in the confines of the Ford Focus.  It had nothing to do with the dramatic gestures that the landscape had to offer. The road trip stripped away the routine of daily life and left us exposed. We did not have our usual places to hide and there was an unspoken contract to negotiate new rules of engagement.

Some days were more successful than others.

It starts as a friendly Romaine lettuce leaf war between the boys while I am driving the country roads of Montana on the last leg of our trip.  Leo, in the back seat with our box of leftover food from the previous stop, starts eating lettuce loudly, bothering Eli our resident mesophonic.  From behind the driver’s seat headrest, Leo begins hiding my eyes with lettuce as I drive.  It’s funny the first couple of times.

He tries to force feed Eli lettuce, which ends with both boys taking off their seat belts in preparation for in-car combat. At the same time I discover I missed our turn and have driven sixty miles out of our way, adding another hour to our three-hundred-mile drive. The lettuce blinders, Eli’s refusal to re-belt and the Code Red level of teenage boy excess energy bouncing around the car has me yelling and threatening like a scene out of a formulaic road trip movie.  I pull over and abandon the Ford Focus.

I could not have found a stranger place to stop.  The wide gravel roadside is more like a parking lot.  There is a deserted rusted trailer, the kind that delivers new cars to dealerships; a guy cleaning out his car, furtively watching our antics; and an odd dilapidated ranch house at the far edge with a sign in the window that read Sodas 50 Cents.  I decide to grandstand and tell the boys that I will not get back in the car until they apologize.  As predicted, the game is on for Eli and Leo digs around the car for change to buy soda at the misplaced ranch house.

We are at that point in the cycle of a family meltdown where we all bring out our lists of each other’s faults. I find that we carry our clipboards a little too close. The boys love to make fun of my yoga practice and warn me not to hit them with my hippie-yogic-bullshit.  I do the adult thing and break out into a few yoga moves next to the trailer.  Mind you, we still have an audience of one during this tirade.

At this point nothing makes sense.

I’m in Down Dog ready to be the last Warrior standing. I look at my hands pressed into the cracked ground and realize I’m being swarmed by raisin-sized ants. My arms and legs are covered. I scream and Eli comes to my rescue.  Meanwhile Leo is walking back from the ranch house with cans of soda and gives me a Diet Coke. Truce.

Ants save the moment.  A reminder that the smallest things can both start and stop the biggest arguments.

We make it back to Bozeman without further mayhem but it takes us until the next morning to catch our rhythm again.  We have breakfast on the postcard-perfect Bozeman main drag, visit the world class dinosaur exhibit at the Museum of the Rockies and slack-line at a local park before catching our plane back to Austin.

A perfect last day together, the yin to the prior day’s yang.

My tendency after a lettuce-like incident is to over-analyze and pathologize the situation to death.  If it were up to me we would talk it out ad nauseam.  In contrast, my teenage boys have no use for my armchair middle-aged-mom psychology. They roll with the absurdity of life more readily and don’t nail their self worth to every itchy interaction.  We have all come out of this trip with a higher tolerance for the fluctuations within our relationships.  One moment does not have to define the next.

Without a lecture or forced meaningful conversation the boys re-taught me the power of second chances and DQ vanilla cones.  I don’t have to take everything so seriously.

During our road trip I did not have an epiphany to guide me through my fifties and I was certainly not cured of my defects.  I’m a little more comfortable with life’s messiness, my own loose ends.  I learned that my constant need to move brings me full circle to the value of standing still and that inside jokes and road trip theme songs are as life-affirming as any mountain vista.  The tiny nun told me everything I needed to know in the airport bathroom three months before I headed to Montana with my boys.

We need to love each other and just let go.