Friday, April 30, 2021

"I wish I was 60": Contemplating the Middle Ground


For the last year, I have been working as a contact tracer. This is not my life’s passion, it was just a stop gap job to transition from selling my business. I wanted a job and the pandemic was on in full force so it worked out. About ten months into contact tracing I felt totally burned out and knew that I needed to move on. Move on to what I wasn’t sure about, but I needed to get out of that job.

Yesterday I was in my dingy basement office finishing the last day of my job when my neighbor texted me asking me for an egg. Grateful for a break from the arduous last few hours, I happily agreed to run it over to her. My neighbor and I are both in our early fifties. She’s planning to leave her job in June and so we were talking about next steps.

“I want a job with meaning, but I don’t want a job with responsibility,” she said.

“Me too,” I agreed, “I want a job that is meaningful but I don’t want a job where I have to take care of anyone’s needs or wellbeing.”

“I don’t want a job that has any stress,” she added.

“Same,” I said, “I want to work on a team but I don’t want to supervise anyone.”

We laughed about how absurd our job requirements were. Do meaningful jobs with no responsibility and no stress even exist? As I latched my neighbor’s gate and walked towards my house, she yelled, “I wish I was 60!”

I sometimes wish I was sixty too. Being sixty is a milestone that, while not that far in my future, seems a million miles away. There is something about sixty that entitles you to finally relax. After forty years of striving, grinding, achieving, proving oneself, it seems like a legitimate move to chuck it all and put your feet up when you turn sixty.

I see my other neighbor who’s in her early sixties tending the garden at 11 am on a Tuesday and think nothing of it. She’s sixty, I think, she deserves to do whatever she wants.

Being in my fifties feels like a nebulous space between working hard and relaxing. By the time we hit fifty, we are tired. For many of us the kids, if there are any, are grown or nearly grown. And we’ve worked hard for a lot of years. We’re over it. Work isn’t actually the end all be all. We can see the light at the end of the tunnel and it’s hard to be in this middle ground.

I feel like I’m on a lifeboat in the middle of the sea. In the distance in one direction, I can see a yacht, a nice one with a pool and luxurious sleeping quarters. The people on the yacht look lazy. They are reading, napping, and playing cards. That looks nice, but a little boring.

Closer to shore I spy a group of people kayaking. They are decked out in athletic gear, sunglasses, and baseball hats. They have strong arms and good posture. They are working hard, kayaking on these ocean waves, but they are having a blast, paddling like little machines, engaged in friendly competition. They are supportive of each other but deep inside each of them wants to win, to be the best.

Sitting on my wobbly life raft I feel deflated. I don’t want to go on the yacht. I worry I’d feel trapped and uninspired. I worry that once I was there I’d slowly degrade mentally and physically and never return to a feeling of youth and vitality.

But that crew of kayakers makes me want to curl into a ball and hide so they don’t invite me to join them. They’re too fast, too energetic, too caught up in doing something productive and being accomplished. 

This lifeboat I’m on is actually like a giant pause — a chance to look back and look forward at the same time. I have the luxury of being slowed down enough that I can actually see in both directions. This lifeboat is a place. It’s the place where I reflect on where I’ve been and where I want to go. It’s where I use the wisdom from my kayaking years to design my path towards the yacht. I do want to be sixty someday, but not yet. I think I still need a little more time here.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Hamilton: You Get the Job Done but You Die in the End

                                    



                                     Hamilton: What are you waiting for?

                                    What do you stall for?

                                    Burr: I’ll keep all my plans close to my chest
                                    I’ll wait here and see which way the wind will blow

A few years ago my partner and one of my best friends nicknamed me Hamilton. They were out paddleboarding and somehow started joking and laughing about how I was always doing something; like I was running out of time. Hamilton was like a rabid dog of inspiration. He worked tirelessly to make changes and build our constitution and economy but his approach was not always welcome. He was too much and he pissed people off. In the end, Vice President Aaron Burr killed him in a duel. 

Like Hamilton, I can be too much too. I’m forever taking a new class or introducing a new activity or challenge for myself. I find it hard to be idle and I have lots of ideas. Everything inspires me. I think it would be amazing to work at Costco. The people there seem so happy. I fantasize about becoming a school teacher or a librarian. When I travel I think to myself, “Maybe I should live here.” 

There are certain strengths in my Hamilton personality. I get the job done. I don’t wait. But not waiting means I’m not very patient. When something doesn’t go my way — like not hearing back on an email about something work-related or not getting a timely response from a friend or family member to an idea or suggestion I make — I react impatiently. I cannot sit with the waiting.

For me, getting the job done means putting myself out of my misery by taking matters into my own hands. I want results and I want them now. Currently, I have a friendship that is limping along. This important person in my life is taking space from me and I don’t totally understand why. My other friends say that I just need to practice patience, to wait this period out and let this person have their own process. It may have nothing to do with you, they say, just let it go. 

But for me waiting is like water torture. Why would I wait when I could take action, when I could possibly fix it? Why would I wait when I could fold the laundry, make granola, do a quick watercolor, write a blog, or plant the lettuce starts? I’m that person who sends an annoying reminder email when I don’t hear back in my personally designated time frame (that no one else knows about or understands). I’m the one who assumes a co-worker is mad at me because they don’t reply to my text about getting a birthday card and chocolates for the boss. 

Waiting makes me crazy because I have to stop moving. When I stop moving there is stillness and with stillness comes space to feel things that I don't want to feel. Yesterday morning as I felt tempted to send another annoying text to my absent friend, I stopped myself and tried to get connected to what was really going on.

I wanted to change the course that this friendship was on. My impatience was raging and I just wanted to do something to fix the situation. But experience has taught me that this habitual reaction — to keep scratching at a closed door like a desperate golden retriever— only brings disappointment for me and irritation for the person on the other side of the door. 

My pace is not everyone else’s pace. The rhythm of my life — to do things like I am running out of time — is only one way. When an idea or opportunity arises, I think, “Seize this moment! ” But someone else might think, not incorrectly, “What’s the rush?”

Productivity is widely valued in this society we live in. Patience is not. Waiting is viewed as a hassle, a hurdle, something we don’t want to do. It’s true. Who wants to wait several hours for their plane to be de-iced? Or sit shivering in a paper gown waiting for the doctor to see you? 

But as I contemplate how my own impatience affects those around me I see the value of cultivating the practice of waiting. Waiting is like holding a bowl of water in an earthquake, watching it ripple and splash and then, as the ground settles, noticing it slowly start to settle. During the tremors, it is hard to hold the water in the bowl. It’s stressful and a little scary. But then once the water is still there is a calm beauty to the bowl.

I imagine putting the bowl of water on the counter and leaving it. I might notice the bowl of water as I move around the house doing chores but it’s not a big distraction, just something I’m aware of. Over time the water in the bowl evaporates and one day, as I pass the counter I wonder why that empty bowl is sitting there and I stick it in the dishwasher.

When I stepped away from my desperation yesterday and did not text my friend, it was hard at first. I felt an internal disruption, a discordance with my get the job done energy. This was different, to just wait. As the day went on I still felt the niggling desire to fix this problem, but instead, I just acknowledged it, and eventually, it passed. Today I notice that my desire to take action is running neck and neck with my newly developing muscles of waiting. 

Not everyone lives life like they’re running out of time. I do, and Alexander Hamilton did. But many people don’t and people like me need to make room for them; we need to stop acting crazy, scratching at the door all the time. It’s true, Alexander Hamilton did get a lot done but look what happened to him.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Jack of All Trades, Master of None

 

I recently applied for a job that I thought was perfect for me. It called my name from the end of a long road, waving its hands and gesturing me towards it. The position was a big change for me, going back to a career path that I’d left more than twenty years ago. But I wanted this job and judging from all of the signs along the road, it wanted me too.

The job was at a large public institution and there were lots of bells to ring and whistles blow along the way. When I got to the end of the road we finally met and greeted each other. We chatted, exchanged pleasantries. The smiles were natural and heartfelt. The conversation flowed. We liked each other. This could work. 

After waiting a few weeks where I dreamed of a life with my new job — the trips we’d go on, the masterpieces we’d create — the job went with someone else, someone with more relevant experience. Instead of shaking hands and walking further down the road with my new job, an enormous sinkhole appeared in front of me. 

As I stood there, at the edge of this massive hole in the earth, I felt completely lost. This new job was supposed to define me. I’d left one career, one I’d been successful at for twenty years, and this was going to be my next step. Now what?

To my right, there was an infinite field of wheat as far as the eye could see. To my left an eternal forest of old-growth Douglas Firs and Western Hemlock. And behind me the road I’d just traveled. Where would I go? 

I contemplated going towards the wheat, walking through the scratchy fields until I found a clearing and maybe a calling. And I imagined going into the forest, towards the darkness and mystery of that world where I might walk far enough to find the perfect plan. But neither of these directions harkened me forward the way that job had called me so clearly.

And when I looked behind me, towards the road I’d just traveled, I knew I didn’t want to go there. I’d left there for a reason and I was certain that I didn’t want to return to that place.

My mind swirled. Who was I now if I couldn’t travel the road where the sinkhole now blocked my path? The phrase, jack of all trades, master of none flashed across my brain in bright pink neon letters. This was a saying I’d heard for years, one that referred to people who didn’t really focus, undirected people, losers. That would be me now. I wouldn’t be the person who stepped from one path smoothly onto another. Without this new job, I would have to stand alone, just me. And who was that?

Looking again to the right and the left I knew I wasn’t ready to go either of these directions. My mind, still spinning with the catastrophic knowing that there was no new job to hold my hand, I realized that I had no choice but to just sit down on the road and wait. 

Being here, alone on the road, waiting for a direction to make sense, I feel naked and alone. Without a job, a cloak of definition, I am just me. Everything I’ve learned in my life — in school, from my family, my peers, the media — tells me that I should be something. I should have something to say when people ask me, “What do you do?”

Right now I don’t have that. It’s just me sitting on the road. Maybe I’ll take the path towards the wheatfields or maybe I’ll take the path into the forest. Maybe I’ll spend a little time wandering in both. It felt really good when that job was beckoning me towards it. I loved the feeling of belonging, of connecting to this new exciting venture. And now that feeling is gone.

Like everything, there is a lesson in the loss of this perfect job. In my time here, sitting alone, open to the elements on this road next to the sinkhole, I am aware of other options. To be a master again, to find a new role and be in it for ten, fifteen, twenty years is to step into another role that defines me. But to just be me, without that definition, I am opening up an invitation to become more myself.

Without the cloak of a role or a label, I have to build my capacity to simply be me: a baker, a gardener, a yogini, a writer, a tinkerer, a wife, a mother, a daughter, a neighbor, lover of road trips, long walks and Netflix binging. I truly am a jack of all trades, master of none right now. And truth be told, I kind of like it here. 


Saturday, April 24, 2021

Going Beyond Gossip: Say Goodbye to that Dirty Little Practice


Yesterday I took a walk with a friend and we ended up talking at length about how upset we both were with a mutual friend who’d been checked out, unavailable and unpredictable lately. During the course of our two-hour walk, I felt like my personal complaining digressed into gossip. I wanted to stop, and I tried several times, but I couldn’t. 

When I got home I felt irritated and uncomfortable. I was walking around with a metaphorical layer of dirt on my skin, grimy with guilt. I grew up with a lot of gossip. It was part of our family culture. My parents had a lot to say about pretty much everyone they met. I thought it was normal to assess and judge everyone. I learned that this was how people talked about each other. Naturally, I grew to believe that people talked about me like we talked about other people in our house.

Gossip is everywhere. People do it every day, unconsciously most of the time. I don’t think people who gossip are malevolent. I don’t think most of us even realize that we’re doing it. But why do we gossip? 

As I sat in my soiled skin thinking about why I’d digressed into that form of communication I realized that the regressive gossipy conversation my friend and I had yesterday was serving me by creating a bridge away from my own feelings. 

In finding this common topic and feeding it with tidbits of gossipy details, I was joining my friend on a bridge. We could stand there together and be in this neutral place, neither of us being truly with our feelings.

If I had been able to be with my own emotions of sadness and disappointment about our mutual friend, I wouldn’t have needed to build the bridge away from myself. But it was easier to walk away, meet my friend, and stand on the bridge, biding time away from the pain of my own feelings. 

Gossip is a way to not be alone in whatever emotion we are having about a person. Yesterday when both my friend and I regressed into caddy gossip about our mutual friend we were finding a way not to be alone. Each of us felt hurt in our own ways and it was painful to experience that emotion. So we joined each other on the gossip bridge and kept each other company, neither of us alone in the discomfort of what we were really feeling.

Gossip hurts the people we are talking about, but it hurts those who are gossiping more. Over time, if we manage our feelings using this method, the grime builds up and becomes more difficult to scrub off. When we look in the mirror it becomes harder to see ourselves clearly. We are so covered with the dirt of others that we don’t even remember our true selves.

Not gossiping is as much a practice as gossiping. And it’s a lot harder. Sitting in the discomfort of whatever we are feeling — sadness, discomfort, insecurity — takes a lot more emotional muscle than ranting about someone’s character defects or personal choices. But it’s possible. Most of us know when we’re gossiping. Maybe you feel it like I do — that dirty layer of silt on your skin. Maybe it’s that sinking feeling in your gut or a tingling in your cheeks. 

Notice when you are walking towards the bridge, colluding with someone else, about someone else, and try to turn back towards yourself, to listen to what you have to say, what you are feeling. The conversation might change. Instead of talking about someone else, you’ll have to talk about yourself, about how you feel. And that’s harder work, but it’s also kinder. And it’s a lot cleaner.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Goodbye Old Friend

“I always thought you were a bitch.” I’ve heard that statement from several of my closest friends. I used to be very shy and through my twenties and part of my thirties I was painfully insecure. It took me a long time to get comfortable enough with people to step into the realm of friendship. But once I crossed over there was no turning back. Once you’re my friend, it’s impossible for me to let you go. 

It’s why I’ve never wanted to move. Making new friends seems too hard. One of my oldest, best friends dumped me about six months ago. It’s strange because we used to talk every day. We lived within walking distance of each other. We’ve known each other since seventh grade.

But we had a crisis in our friendship. In these last six months, I’ve been trying to sort it out. I’m stuck. It doesn’t make sense to me. I thought I was doing the right thing by telling her how I felt, about problems I saw in our friendship. But I was wrong.

When I expressed my discontent with aspects of our friendship, instead of creating an opportunity to connect and deepen our relationship, it made her turn on her heels, walk quickly away from me, and shut the door to our friendship. I realize that I’ve been moving through the stages of grief with this forty-year friendship. 

Denial

Since the breach first happened I’ve reached out a few times but there’s never been an invitation back. I’ve sent a few emails, dropped food when she’s been sick, sent an envelope of old photos, and texted. She’s texted back a clipped, “thanks” but never extended any olive branch of her own. I’ve been waiting, thinking, of course, this will change, but it hasn’t. 

Bargaining

I’ve spent a lot of time peeling away all the layers of our history, trying to rationalize what’s happening, trying to figure out what I’ve done wrong. I’ve thought that maybe just giving her some time would be enough for things to get back to normal. But I always end up back at the beginning with the same question, “Would I have done things differently if I knew she’d react like this?” My answer is always no. Our friendship was not working for me and I needed to say something. If I hadn’t told her how I was feeling the friendship would have ruptured in another way, a more passive and indirect way.

Depression

In the waiting, I’ve lost faith that there is a place of healing for us. And I have so many questions: Do I want to heal from this? Do I even want this friendship? Did we ever have a real friendship? I am aware that what I miss in the friendship is not the friendship itself, not the substance of what we talked about or the activities we did together. I have other dear friends who I see regularly with whom I can talk about my feelings, go on walks with, and have dinner with. What I miss about my old, long-time friend is the familiarity of our relationship, the predictability and comfort that came from our habituated daily conversations, and our shared history. The absence of this regular part of my life has left me sad and lonely, longing for the way things used to be. 

Anger

And now I’m angry. I imagine running into her on the street. I imagine her saying, “Hi Laura, how have you been.” I imagine looking at her with disbelief and then rage and screaming, “How have I been?!!! What the fuck is your problem?!” My imagination stops there. I can’t see beyond my anger. 

Her rejection of our friendship, her inability to engage in an adult conversation with me when when I shared my feelings enrages me. Her sustained silence conjures all the moments in my life when I have felt neglected, unseen and unheard and wraps them into a fireball that spews flames from my nostrils, ears, and eyes. 

Acceptance

But if I’m honest and I look at this friendship breakup through a lens of growth and personal evolution, I have to wonder if maybe the end of this friendship is the best thing for both of us. Maybe she knows more than me. Maybe she has accepted the problems in our friendship and is completely clear. Maybe she’s understood this for six months. 

So how do I release it? I long for closure — some way to know that the friendship is over. I’m waiting for that confrontation on the street or a letter or email to come to me. But maybe closure doesn’t happen in situations like this. It’s not a romantic breakup. We’re not splitting up our belongings and going our separate ways. 

But it is like a breakup in the sense that I still feel the absence. And like a breakup, time will heal this. It’s sad. I feel the loss every day when I walk by her house. Sometimes I see her in the window and I change directions because I can’t bear to see her face. 

It’s like a death, the end of something. And like any mourning, I have to move through the stages of grief and loss. I’m coming out of that period now. I see that I’ve been moving through those stages and I can see more clearly now. My friend is done with our friendship. She’s that person in the RomCom who’s just not that into me. 

And so it is that I come to this last stage of grief — acceptance. I face the truth, that I have to take this emotional next step, to move on, close my own door and fully say goodbye to this friendship. 

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Spinning a Web of Her Own

Last week my sixteen-year-old, daughter Lucia and I went on a road trip, just the two of us. Lucia's best friend thought this would be a disaster. She imagined the two of us in a car for hours on end would be a catastrophic power struggle. But it wasn't. It was one of the best trips we've ever had.

We drove over 1700 miles across three states and back. We drove through farmland, over mountains, past lakes, and rivers, through small towns and cities.  With just the two of us confined to one small car hour after hour, we breathed in the simplicity like two lazy monk seals napping on the dock. There was nothing to do but drive and talk.

There was a magical energy that permeated our little fiberglass bubble. Lucia asked question after question about life in general, about theoretical situations, about my experiences as a young person. I lapped up the experience of being with my daughter without the distraction of cell phones, school, or other people. I was aware as we drove and talked and laughed and were sometimes quiet that these were rare and special moments. Every once in a while I'd close my eyes and try to capture the feeling like a snapshot in my body.

When we got home Lucia went back to her true calling. Once the road trip was over it was time for her to get back to work being a sixteen-year-old. I tried not to take it personally that she couldn't get out of the house to drive herself anywhere without me. I understand on an intellectual level that Lucia's job right now is to create a world outside of her parents. 

In the days after we got home Lucia was rarely home. She'd sleep late and then pop into the car to drive to the drug store or Goodwill. After a brief stop home to drop the car she was off on her bike to go meet friends at the lake. Home for dinner and then down to her room to do her own thing. 

This need for privacy and autonomy felt like a stark contrast to the experience Lucia and I had on our road trip. As Lucia came in and out I imagined her like a spider weaving a web. Spinning her silk, she'd go out into the world alone, exploring and finding new places to land for a bit before coming back home. She was weaving a web or her own, a place where parents don't belong. 

Lucia is doing what all teenagers do. She is creating little road trips of her own, and coming back home to check-in. Like a spider, she is tiptoeing back and forth from adventure to safety, all the while logging her experiences to use as wisdom on her path towards adulthood. I, on the other hand, am deep into adulthood. I'm like a big heavy beetle who would destroy her web if I tried to traverse it. 

I thought I'd be sad when our magical road trip ended, but I'm not. I understand that there is a time and place for everything. When we first got home my inclination was to plan another trip like we had, to try and recapture it before too much time went by. But as I watch Lucia spinning her web, leaving the big old beetle at home, I remember what it was like to be that age.

I remember the compulsion for independence and privacy. I remember the feeling of freedom I had from being in charge of something, anything. Every time Lucia dashes off with a mumble of where she's going and when she'll be home I imagine her spinning a new line of silk for her web. Like any mother, I worry. As she's getting older, she taking on bigger and bigger adventures, growing her web further away from home. 

By the end of our road trip, Lucia felt confident and secure driving on mountains, superhighways, and country roads. She asked if I would be okay with her driving to Portland by herself this summer. "We'll see," I said, playing it cool while freaking out inside at the thought of her on the road alone.

But now that we're home I know I'll say yes to my little spider. Her web is expanding and she needs space to grow.



Monday, April 12, 2021

Swaddled No More


I remember many years ago when my younger sister tried to teach me to drive stick shift. She had a new white Ford pickup truck and we were driving to Iowa together. A very late bloomer, I had recently gotten my driver's license at twenty-two and was practicing driving with anyone who'd have me. My sister thought learning stick shift on the freeway would be easier than in the city where I lived. We started at a gas station outside of Chicago and by the next off-ramp she had booted me back into the passenger seat. I never did learn to drive stick shift.

When my other sister Katherine and I drove across the country a few months later I was driving in the left lane somewhere in North Dakota when she looked over at me and said, "You know you're not supposed to stay in the left lane right? It's just for passing." I didn't know that and there's lots more that I didn't know. I learned along the way, pushing through the fear with every new driving experience.

This week I drove 800 miles from Seattle to Northern California with my sixteen-year-old daughter Lucia. We planned a much-needed getaway to see my sister and her two sons during her spring break. Like so many, we've missed our family during the last year of COVID and figured that this drive, though long, was worth a few days of being with them.

Lucia got her driver's license about a month ago and is a good in-city driver. But she's had minimal experience on freeways. On our first day we drove to Ashland, Oregon. Normally the trip would take about seven hours but with Friday traffic it took us over nine hours. Lucia drove the middle stretch of the trip and did great. She managed to pass big semis. She figured out how to yield to faster cars. She seemed relaxed and happy. After witnessing Lucia's highway driving for an hour or so I too relaxed and settled into the luxury of looking at the scenery and eating snacks.

Our second day would be another six hours. Lucia was eager to take the first leg and I was happy to let her do it.  We left Ashland and very shortly after entered a several-hour stretch of mountain highway around Mt. Shasta. This is the kind of driving I am most afraid of. Growing up in the midwest I wasn't regularly exposed to mountains and elevation. Though I've lived on the west coast for thirty years, driving on windy mountain roads still renders me panicky, rigid, and fearful. I lean into the windshield and grip the steering wheel with each mountain curve, settling behind slow-moving semis instead of cruising with the rest of the drivers.

With Lucia at the helm,  I quickly realized that my control tactics-- leaning in, white-knuckling, having a stare-down with the lines on the highway-- wouldn't serve me. I had no control over the car. I spent the first hour micro-managing Lucia. I told her when to speed up, when to slow down, when to pass. Lucia was patient at first but eventually became irritated.

"Mom," she said, "you are stressing me out."

"I'm sorry," I said, "this is the scariest kind of driving for me. It always has been. It really stresses me out."

"Yeah," she said, "but I'm not scared and your fear is making me more nervous."

Oh my god, I thought to myself, "she's not scared of this mountain highway." She's been driving for a month and this is just one of the many roads she's being introduced to at the beginning of her driving career. So many times, as a parent, I have wanted to put my daughter back into the swaddle that she used to love when she was a baby. When she has a hard time with a friend or in school, or during the many moments over the past year when her threshold for isolation and restriction has reached an edge, I've wanted to wrap her up and make her feel held, protected, and safe.

But here, now, as we drove, my beautiful, competent, comfortable daughter was not feeling unsafe.  She was loving the feel of this-- country music blaring, speeding through time, infinite blue sky above, massive mountains close in and in the distance. She was not afraid. She was alive. She was invigorated. In that moment I was the one who wanted to be swaddled. 

When we finally reached our destination, a house in the mountains outside of Sacramento, we had to travel up a winding one-lane, pot-holed, dirt road with a steep edge. Lucia was still driving and I could tell it was challenging. At one point another car was coming down the hill and Lucia had to navigate pulling around it. I saw us dropping off the edge, our Prius wedged between two massive Sequoias. But we made it. She'd driven the entire second leg. We were safe and sound at our destination. 

We have eight hundred miles to go on our journey home and I understand myself and my daughter a little bit better. The main thing I can see clearly now is that my fear is not her fear. I see her differently now. She does not want to be swaddled anymore. She cannot go back there. Like a butterfly who's no longer living in her chrysalis, she won't fit anymore. Her wings are too wide. Her desire to fly is what guides her now. 

I can't say that I won't still worry and back seat drive a little bit. I'm still a mother and my instincts to protect are strong and everpresent. Lucia still has things to learn and there are things I can teach her. But I can let go a little bit too. I can celebrate this new stage of my daughter's life, this time where her wings are open and strong, carrying her to new and wonderful places. I'm looking forward to the drive home. I don't have to grit my teeth through the mountain roads. I'll let Lucia drive while I settle back in the passenger seat and enjoy the ride. 

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Aging with Grace


This past week I went to Chicago to spend time with my mother and stepfather. My mother is 80 and my stepfather is 93. About fifteen years ago they moved to a 100-unit apartment a block from the house where I grew up. They have a vibrant community of neighbors and are wholly independent.

Flying to Chicago was my first time traveling since February 2020, the last time I saw my parents. The travel part of the trip was a harrowing experience. Sitting in a packed plane for two four-hour stretches was the most exposed I've been to the world in over a year; it was a physical and emotional challenge to be around that intense infusion of humanity.

But my time in Chicago was relaxing, easy, and calm. Every morning I took a long walk around my neighborhood, a dense square mile on the south side of Chicago. Having been born and raised there, I know every square inch. I walked south and west, then north and back east to Lake Michigan before turning south again past the Museum of Science and Industry to my parents' apartment. 

No matter which streets I took there was a memory. On every block, there was the apartment building where a friend had lived or the park where we used to hang out as teenagers or the bank where I got my first money order. As familiar as the neighborhood felt, it has changed too. With every recognizable sighting, there was something I hadn't seen before.  The space of the bar where my friends and I hung out on our visits home from college was now a yoga studio and the bike shop where I got my first bike was an investment firm.

Every day I walked the block of the home where I grew up. Because my mother never loses contact with anyone, she is still friends with everyone on the street. Most of the people who lived on the block when I was a kid four decades ago have moved on. My mom is still in touch with those who are still alive and can tell me a little bit about what the old families are up to. Mom is also friendly with all of the new families with young kids who've moved in.

During my morning walks my memories were constant, like the Small World ride at Disneyland where you travel all over the world seeing different sights. Like watercolor brush strokes, I remembered a little bit about a lot of people, places, and experiences. Walking by my elementary school, I passed the apartment buildings of two friends. I was reminded of the days when I'd go to Jorie's basement apartment after school or to Meredith's sun-filled third-floor apartment to have lunch during fourth grade. 

Every day my parents and I would eat our meals together. My stepfather Al, mostly quiet, would ask a few questions about what my mother and I were up to for the day. He savored every bite of food, eating huge quantities and commenting on how delicious it was. His body has become very small and it was a surprise each meal to witness how much he consumed. My mother, a fount of energy, would sit patiently next to Al, craning her head to listen to a comment or a question. Often Al would forget that he'd already asked the same question five minutes earlier and ask it again. Mom calmly responded as many times as he needed her to. A few times Al tried to articulate a big idea about days past. On one occasion he tried to express his disappointment about the way research in his field of sleep research was going. When I asked him to explain more he couldn't. He didn't get frustrated but simply said, "I know what I want to say inside but I can't explain it."

My mom, still vital and filled with energy and always a collector of information sat in stark contrast to Al. During dinner, if the name of an old friend came up, Mom dashed to the counter to get her phone so she could look up where they were living now and what they were doing. She is still collecting data, feeding the machine of her mind with new input every hour. Her memories are sharp and vibrant. 

During my time in Chicago one of Al's colleagues, a woman younger than my mother, died of cancer. Mom tried to refresh Al's memory about who she was, reminding him how she used to bring her baby daughter into the lab and how she arrived in Chicago from California in a light blue Camero. Al could acknowledge bits and pieces of the history but not the full vision.  There were lots of moments like this-- Mom or I painting a picture of a person or experience from times past and Al participating in the memory as much as he was able.

As the days ticked by, my short visit with my parents coming to an end, I became aware of the stages of memory I was experiencing with my parents. Every day I walked the streets of this familiar neighborhood where so many of my foundational memories live and breathe. My ability to recall different people, places and experiences is still very possible. As I walked, different images, smells, and sounds and sensations were enough to bring me back to a moment in time thirty, forty, even fifty years ago. But I don't live there anymore. I haven't added memories from this place that shaped me for over thirty-five years. When I visit this beautiful place that I knew so well many, many years ago,  I am transported to the past.  My memories are like a vacation into my childhood. 

My mother is still very much alive in this little village, an elder now, holding memories and sharing them with the new families who live there. She is like the bridge between me and Al. Mom holds so many memories of the past-- from her own life, from the lives of my sisters and me,  and from Al's life.  Al is at the age now where his mind only holds what it needs to hold. Like muddy water strained through a sieve, all the memories from Al's life that he doesn't need right now are filtered out. What he has now is just the clear water that gets him through each day. He holds the important memories, the deeply rooted ones. What he remembers now is how he feels, what he appreciates, who he loves.

When I left for the airport I hugged and kissed Al goodbye. As we were driving Al called my mom's cell phone and we put him on speaker. "Where are you?" he asked my mom. 

"I'm taking Laura to the airport honey. Remember, you were going to take a nap," she replied.

"But I didn't get to say goodbye," Al said.

"Al," I piped in, "We did say goodbye. I gave you a hug and a kiss but maybe you forgot because you were getting ready to take a nap."

"Oh," Al replied softly in his old Bronx accent, "Well, I really enjoyed seeing you kid. I love you so much."

In my forty-plus years of knowing Al, he has never been so unabashedly effusive and open. In that moment I saw clearly how memory works. Memories come in layers. We make them as we evolve. As we age,  we keep some of the memories while others fall away. In the end, we only hold onto what we need. 

 

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