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On Meeting Jesse & Margaret

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I run into Jesse and Margaret at the spring, or “down to the spring,” as they would say here in the Granite State. And a more perfect New Hampshire couple I have yet to meet.

Jesse is tall and lean, wearing well-worn blue jeans and a dingy white knit cap. His shirt is even more worn than his jeans. It’s one of those generic green shirts with his name over the pocket that he probably wore back when he worked at a garage or service station.

At eighty-three, he’s not working anymore. “Me and Margaret, we like to go for drives,” he says. “We went up to the Weathervane in Lebanon yesterday — had our Thanksgivin’ dinner there. Ayup. That’s almost an hour away,” he informs me.

Margaret nods her bundled-up head. Her blue eyes are clear and shining with delight at the prospect of befriending a new person. “We get out as much as we can,” she says enthusiastically.

She is a particular type of older woman that you meet up here, the kind that exudes health. Her skin’s as deeply wrinkled as a peach pit from the sun, but it’s got a fresh glow to it and her cherubic cheeks are rosy pink from the cold. She is beautiful, actually.

We chat as Jesse helps me fill my water bottles from the spring. It turns out that they used to live on the same back road that my grandmother’s house is on. In 1955 —  the year I was born and started spending summers here — they moved to the next town over, but they know my house and call it “the old Tainton place,”** as all the old-timers do.

We share stories about long-gone neighbors and agree that Hattie Bunker was the sweetest woman we ever knew.

Hattie and her husband Arthur lived in a little tar-paper shack down the road and were a big part of my childhood. Hattie was twelve years old when she got married, and she carried a childlike simplicity well into old age. Arthur always looked like he was at least a hundred years old. He was struck by lightening multiple times while riding his tractor in the fields. One bolt stole his power of speech. I never heard him utter a word in my whole life.

I tell Jesse and Margaret how I spent hours listening to Hattie’s stories while we milked her cows and harvested veggies from her garden. I ask if they have a garden.

“Not anymore. Our daughter liked to garden, but she’s gone now,” Jesse says.

“Cancer, like my mother,” Margaret says. “You probably knew Carolyn. Didn’t you? Carolyn Wheeler — she was at Prudential for thirty-two years.”

“Thirty-two years,” Jesse confirms.

I nod and say yes, I think the name does ring a bell, which of course it doesn’t but they really need it to, and so I give them this small gift.

“I’m so sorry about that. I’m really glad you have each other,” I say.

“Married sixty-one years,” Jesse proudly tells me. He hoists my crate of filled water bottles into my car and invites me to stop by if I’m in their neighborhood. He shakes his head and laughs because for a minute he can’t remember the name of the street they’ve lived on for sixty-two years. Margaret doesn’t remind him; she lets him remember for himself.

“Center street!” he finally declares. “That’s it. Right across from the old saddle shop. Come by anytime, we’re always there unless we’re out for a drive.”

Down to the Spring

** Not wanting to broadcast the most common security query, my mother’s maiden name, I have substituted my grandmother’s maiden name.

 

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Bits O’ Blog

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I don’t seem to be able to finish a blog post lately. My thinking is fractured, what with all the shootings and bombings, the Brexit vote and the ensuing financial chaos, the potential of violence at the upcoming political conventions. Or it could be my late-night binge-watching of Downton Abbey. More than likely, though, it’s Donald Trump’s fault . . . most things are.

Anyway, all I can do is offer you fragments of what were to have been several brilliant and insightful blog posts, possibly capable of moving you to tears or laughter or a personal epiphany.

One: A Memory

I remember the moment. I was nine years old, crunched between my older brother and sister in the back seat of our Dodge Dart as we drove along a main street in Miami Beach singing along with Petula Clark on the radio at the top of our lungs. “When you’re alone and life is making you lonely you can always go, DOWNTOWN. When you’ve got worries all the noise and the hurry seem to help I know, DOWNTOWN.”

My Dad glanced in the rearview mirror, probably deciding at what decibel level he should intervene. My mother rubbed her forehead.

“DOWNTOWN!”

“OK, enough,” Daddy said.

My sister Lannie let out a dramatic teenaged sigh and said, “I just loooove the city.”

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I heard my voice say, “Not me, I like the country much better,” and then I froze. I couldn’t believe I had disagreed with her. I worshipped my big sister and always tried to emulate her taste in food, music, clothes, movie stars — everything. Even though I spent my afternoons squatting on the muddy banks of our backyard pond catching minnows and frogs while Lannie spent her afternoons sunbathing by the pool slathered in Johnson’s Baby Oil and reading Glamour magazine, I still aspired to grow up to be just like her.

I think this memory sticks because it was the first time I expressed an opinion all my own without first hearing what everyone else thought. I’m sure that psychologists have a term for this — differentiation or some such thing. That moment as a child when you realize that you are not actually part of one family organism, you are separate and can have different opinions . . .

Two: Afraid, Afraid, Afraid

Going back to work. A phrase that strikes fear into any “fake retired” person’s heart. I’ve been trying to come to terms with the words for months now, to decide what they mean and how I feel about them and why.

I’m afraid, that’s for sure. Afraid I’ve forgotten how to apply myself, afraid I don’t have enough energy, afraid I won’t take to someone telling me what to do, afraid I have lost all ability to learn, afraid I won’t be able to master new technologies, afraid people won’t want to hire an “older” worker, afraid I won’t be able to muster the confidence for interviews. Afraid, afraid, afraid.

Even so, I think that taking a seven-year break in the middle of my working life has been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, if you can call it a decision. In a way, it just happened. I definitely decided to leave my career as an environmental lobbyist, and then I decided to go back to school for a Masters in writing, but did I envision leaving the working world for seven years? No, I don’t think so. I didn’t have a plan . . .

Three: My First Day Back at Work

I wake up thirty minutes late for my first day at my new job, can’t find the number to call the supervisor, curse myself, step in cat vomit on the way to the bathroom, and then burst into tears while brushing my teeth.

This anxiety dream woke me at 6:10 a.m., five minutes before my alarm was set to go off. Flooded with relief that I had not actually overslept for my first workday in seven years, I turned off the alarm, made it to the bathroom without incident, and brushed my teeth. Victory!

The next challenge was making lunch. I figured PB & J would be fastest, but then noticed mold on the lovely multigrain bread I’d bought at a little bakery in upstate New York a few days earlier. Oh well. I quickly boiled some eggs, tossed them in a brown paper bag with an avocado, a banana, and half a cucumber. So they think I’m eccentric. At least I’ll be on time.

Now I’m at my desk in the front office of my housing co-op. I’m feeling capable, if somewhat winded.

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So far today, I’ve dealt with phone calls or visits from co-op members who have asbestos in their basements, ants in their kitchens, mildew on their aluminum siding, burst pipes in their bathrooms, and clogged sinks in their kitchens. Phew!

I look at the clock, figuring it must be about lunchtime. It’s 9:30 a.m.

Contractors come to fix the internet, pick up a broken computer, drop off gutter-cleaning reports. A guy comes in to say his brother has died and he has to rehab his home. How should he proceed? I do not tell him my brother died. This is progress, I think. I am (at last!) more than someone who has lost a sibling.

I am given a tour of a back room lined floor-to-ceiling with bulging folders and files and binders. I feel at home here amidst the piles of papers in this old-fashioned, uncomputerized office. I can hear the clicking of a keyboard, but I haven’t turned on a computer all day. I like that.

Finally, it’s noon. I feel shell-shocked and ready to escape. I did not get a chance to meditate or pray or journal this morning, and I’m a little off-kilter. I’m surprised how much more introverted I’ve become in the past few years. It’s tiring having to deal with all this humanity . . . 

Four: A Blackjack Poem (Three Lines of Seven Syllables)

Involuntary:

Soon they will take me away

I will protest as I’m dragged:

“It’s not hoarding, it’s just books!”

Stack of vintage books isolated on white

Pilgrimage Day Two: Tears in the Desert

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If you’re prone tears as I am, you’ve got to expect that at some point on an eight-day spiritual pilgrimage in the desert, you’re going to dampen a few hankies. Especially when your one prayer for the pilgrimage is to open yourself to God. God is real and raw and authentic and takes no part in denial, false pride, or stiff upper lipping.

I see my emotions as part of who I am, gifts from God that help me understand what is going on in my soul and recognize areas in which I want to grow and heal. I used to stuff my emotions in a misguided effort to protect myself from pain, and then I tried simply hiding them so that I wouldn’t riffle anyone else’s pond. But now I’m a grown-up and allow myself to be fully me (mostly).

Mortification and Defeat

Nevertheless, I was mortified to find myself on the first full day of our pilgrimage, standing on a dusty trail in the middle of nowhere with ten virtual strangers, sobbing kindergarten tears onto a nearby shoulder. I knew none of these people and was pretty sure that none of them would want to know me after witnessing my wailing: “I’m so frustrated! I’m so tired of hurting!”

I had not been sure that I could make the hike, but thought I’d give it a try. Thrilled that I needed no cast on my recently fractured shoulder, I wanted to take full advantage of the beautiful surroundings at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico. I’d taken care of myself and honored the limitations of my injured arm by skipping 7 a.m. body prayer yoga (always glad to have an excuse to smack the snooze button), and by resting after lunch, journaling and reading J. Brent Bill’s little Quaker book, Mind the Light.

Now I took a handful of Advil and responded to my father’s Texan voice in my head telling me to “Buck up! You can do this, you’re a Griffin.”

I laced up my hiking boots — a feat that would have been impossible just a week before — slung my daypack over my good arm, and headed to the trailhead to meet my fellow pilgrims. Our trip leader Tiffany had asked me to wear my arm brace for her own peace of mind and advised me to carry a walking stick for the steep trails.

I quickly fell behind the others, juggling my pack, stick, and clumsy brace. A sweet guy quoted some scripture about helping one another with our burdens and reached out to carry my pack. His kind gesture, coupled with my pain and the growing realization that I was already slowing everyone down, sapped my energy as surely as the altitude had sapped my breath.

When Tiffany said kindly, “I don’t think you should go on this hike,” I threw myself on her shoulder and moaned “I don’t either,” and the waterworks started.

I was face-to-face with my imperfection, my brokenness, my inability to do absolutely anything I put my mind to, and yes, my age (this trip being a sixtieth birthday present to myself). My familiar mantra, “I should be able to…” was crumbling like the red sandstone cliffs that surrounded us.

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Even rock cliffs crumble

Letting Go

That morning we had begun our main work of the pilgrimage, looking at the cycles of call — the phases and transitions in life — and reflecting on resistance and the need for release. What’s holding you back, and what do you need to release in order to move into the next calling in your life?

“What needs to break is often our competence,” warned our pilgrimage leader Marjory, clearly prophesying my afternoon breakdown. “Call often comes after suffering.” Moses had lost everything before he was “called” by a burning bush in the desert, and Jesus spent forty days in the desert suffering trials and temptations before he was ready for his earthly ministry.

The desert is a great place for suffering. It’s a harsh place, a place that reminds us of our mortality. Droughts, razor sharp foliage, whipping winds, and killing sun. One doesn’t look to the desert for mercy.

No mercy here

No mercy here

Now I headed back the way our group had come, my broken competence stowed in my daypack and my broken shoulder throbbing. I turned to watch the other scrambling up the rocky trail and felt humiliation and defeat.

Desert Mercies

After I’d walked a while, I sat down by a narrow creek and took my water bottle out of my pack. As I leaned my head back to drink, I noticed that the branches of the cottonwoods lining the creek were bursting with tiny buds, reaching fuzzy chartreuse fingers into the brilliant blue sky. I wiped the dusty red tears from my cheeks.

Two robins arrived, tilted their heads at me, decided I was safe, and then hopped into the creek and began to splash exuberantly, creating haloes of sparkling water in the air above them. The juxtaposition between their mood and mine made me laugh out loud.

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I pulled out my binoculars, camera, and notebook and settled in for an afternoon of desert mercies. As She so often does, God was speaking to me through the natural world. I realized that I was now feeling intense relief — relief that I did not have to prove anything to myself or to anyone else. I could just be, like the robins . . . Day two.

Strolling into the Future

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He’s walking fast, Starbucks coffee clutched in his right hand, rolled black umbrella in his left.  As he strides past me — confident eye contact, slight nod, no smile — I can smell the fresh scent of his morning shave and shower. His posture is erect, made more so by a tightly tied, tidy backpack. No lose straps here; he’s all business. Although he’s dressed in khakis and wearing gym shoes, everything about him says suit and tie.

I, on the other hand, am strolling. A teabag tag dangles from my dented and decidedly uncool thermos mug, and my umbrella swings in lazy circles from my wrist. I’m wearing my hiking boots because they are the only walking shoes I have that don’t hurt my feet.

He’s headed somewhere. I’m headed nowhere.

Boots on the Ground

Boots Going Nowhere

Church Lady

I spent last evening organizing greeters for my church and preparing to lead an Advent Quiet Day later in the month. I read my Bible and did my centering prayer meditation. I wrote a couple of memos for a local environmental group, had a cup of chamomile tea, and went to bed with a heating pad because I was sore from the gym after a four-month hiatus with broken ribs.

When did I become an achy, middle-aged church lady? One who strolls while others stride? Sipping chamomile instead of espresso? I used to be cool; I really did.

Way Cool

Way Cool

This transition to the other side has been gradual.

Why, just the other day I was striding the halls of Congress doing my best impersonation of a mover and a shaker. I was becoming like the young strider. Creating myself, shaping who I would be in life, looking eagerly to the future.

Unbecoming

Now, I’m unbecoming. Well, not in the traditional sense of the word. I do still shower and brush my teeth. Rather, I’m dismantling the ego-driven, competitive persona that built a successful lobbying career. I’m taking the time to heal childhood emotional wounds that have always caused me to be less than who I wanted to be. I’m stripping away the character traits that used to serve me well, but which now only make me wince.

I’m processing, reflecting, and writing. Most of these young folks don’t have time for that. They hear the call of success, whatever that might mean for them. Nothing wrong with that — it’s what they are supposed to be doing at this time in their lives.

A Call to Aging

I’m still figuring out what I’m supposed to be doing in this phase of my life. We all have unique cycles of call in our lives, right up until we breathe our final breath. Learning how to navigate aging is one of our most important calls.

Tick Tock, Tick tock

Tick Tock, Tick Tock

I’m not there yet. There’s a lot I want to do before I’m deposited in a rocker to relate and re-relate stories of my youth to a circle of what I’m certain will be enthralled children. I’m finishing up my Masters in Writing and might be doing some teaching in addition to becoming a famous author.

OK, maybe I am still shoring up my ego in some ways.

But I feel pretty good about where I am and where I’m going. I don’t think I’m going to be one of those bitter older people who resents the young. Yeah, I wish my feet and knees didn’t hurt, but I don’t begrudge the spry among us.

I wouldn’t trade any of my experiences to be back in striding mode. Even the grief, loss, and failures are golden. They help me empathize with other people who are going through those things. The Bible says you comfort the suffering with the comfort you have received from God. God has been there for me, and now I can share that comforting spirit with others, whether or not they personally believe in God. That’s a calling to aspire to.

Acting Your Age is Overrated

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There are things about aging that truly suck, for lack of a more graceful word. They just do. For instance, my knee is all funky today. No reason, it’s just not as young as it used to be. So I decided not to go to the gym. Which reminded me that in the olden days, or rather the youngen days, I could drop 10 or 15 pounds just by switching from bagels to yogurt for a few weeks.

I’ve been working out regularly for nearly a year now, after a long spell of being about as active as a marshmallow that rolled under the couch a few years back and has half-melted into the carpet.

No weight loss. Nada. Please don’t tell me that muscle weighs more than fat; I tell myself that all the time. But wouldn’t you think….

Still, I have changed shape a little, and I can go upstairs without getting out of breath. That’s a good thing.

Sometimes my hip hurts; sometimes my back hurts. I can’t see close-up without reading glasses now. And here’s something – I have wrinkles on my earlobes. ON MY EARLOBES.

But I guess that Mother Theresa had wrinkles just about everywhere, and she did OK. She had a lovely wrinkly smile.

My Birthday is a Big Secret

Regardless, I still love my birthday, which is this week. I want everyone to know about it and treat me extra super special.

But I won’t tell you exactly when it is, lest you then seek out my address, my mother’s maiden name, the last four digits of my social, the name of my childhood best friend, and the nickname of my oldest sibling, with which you could find out all my passwords and bust into my accounts and steal my identity, and then I would crack, just crack under the strain because I would feel so violated and all, and I would start losing sleep because nobody would understand why this was a total intrusion into my actual self, you see, as if someone had broken into my very soul, and then my friends would tire of hearing about it and start thinking I should get over it, and even my therapist would say, “Enough,” and then I would feel isolated and alone and get weird.

And we wouldn’t want that.

Here is a picture of me with a corn chip on my nose.

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Parties, not Prose

Suffice to say, it is my birthday week, and I don’t have the inclination to create a truly insightful, spiritually enriching, or even mildly entertaining blog post this week. I have a Monty Python play to attend, dinners to ingest, long lunches to linger over, and parties at which I must embarrass myself.

I’m going to my first “pub trivia quiz,” which should be seriously embarrassing, because some hold the notion that with age at least comes wisdom. They will find out otherwise at the pub quiz. But my buddies and I will laugh, and they will insist on buying me a few drinks and maybe some hummus with pita, and I will feel grateful for the fact that at least I’m still around to discover new wrinkles and experience new aches and pains.

Here is a picture of me in Saint Croix on my 21st birthday, trying to feed a leaf to a hermit crab.

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And here is a picture of my “birthday frog,” which I bought on that same day in Saint Croix, and which I still wear around my neck for the two weeks bookending my birthday. Isn’t he a charming companion? (Charming, get it? A frog charm? HA! Am I not the funniest person you know?)

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Cheers!

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