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I will be writing a blog entry every Monday, starting in April. I welcome response, so that women can begin a dialogue here, with one another and me, on topics that matter to us
Week before last I woke up with a crick in my back. It wasn’t bad, so I took my Nia class Thursday and swam on Friday. Monday when I woke up it was worse. By Tuesday I could only walk around my house by holding on to furniture and the walls. Obviously it was time for a visit to the chiropractor. She adjusted me, and said that should do it. She is right 99% of the time. By Monday night, I was a mess again, and if possible, even worse. I called her office on Tuesday morning and went in again. By then my back was swollen where it hurt. She told me that I needed to ice for twenty minutes, rest for an hour, and begin all over again. I was to follow this procedure for three days. I could not do any of the activities I normally do, because doing them had quite obviously made me work. The order: to be immobile for days. Icing was actually easy and felt good. Lying around all day was a whole other story. I hated it. Realizing my internal struggle was not helping my back or my emotional well-being, I tried reminding myself that this would be a good time to read, to stack pillows behind me on the couch, get a yellow pad, and try the old-fashioned way of writing. Yeah, right! My back did improve, although here it is Monday again, and sitting at my computer still does not feel good at all. I’ll get another adjustment today and start icing again, but…does this endless process have something to do with my age? Which makes healing takes longer? If so, wow! I’m really healthy, knock wood, and look what’s happening here! The thought of not working any more today, or again heading for the ice pack and my couch, ugh, horrible, awful thought.What if I had something serious wrong with me? How would I handle that? At this point I have no answer. But I do realize that I have a problem. I fight being sick, resent having to slow down, and resist doing what I know I need to do for however long it takes. How to change my own outlook, I do not know. Acknowledging I have that outlook is the first step. Ugh. Another personal issue to ‘fix’. I don’t like that either!
Sometimes, though not frequently, my partner does something that really disturbs me, or angers me, or feels just plain upsetting. If I bring it up, he often tells me it’s his business, not mine. Last night he said, with some asperity, if he wants to let his body rot, that is his right! Silly, but I got the point. My rejoinder: not quite; if it rots, I’ll be the one taking care of it! Which I think is spot on. We were discussing some medical issue that could be nothing, or could be something serious. We rarely go to sleep angry–I don’t remember ever doing that, actually. Last night I was crying, and he put his arm around me and pulled me close, whispering, “We’ll be fine.” I wasn’t so sure, but though the mood was a bit rocky when we awakened this morning , we talked a little more, and then did what couples do. When he arose, he kissed me several times, whistling as he left the bedroom. The preceding afternoon a friend remarked that over the years she has learned her husband has a right to be angry, as does she, and that if she leaves him alone for a few days, interacting with civility, whatever was bothering them both sort of drifts away. That advise resonated, and will stay with me for along time, I’m sure. He and I did talk, but I was also willing to let it go by the time he got into bed, and I think that helped us both. Bottom line for me: when something he is doing, or not doing, could have a real impact on my life, I think have a right to talk about it honestly. Even with anger, if that’s how I feel. Actually, I think I have the obligation for my own emotional health to speak up, even if I have to take a few days to think about what I want to say and how to say it.
Years ago my first husband and I created a show based on the writings of Richard Farina, who died in a motorcycle accident shortly after his first novel was published. He was married to Mimi Baez, who sent me lots of unpublished materials which I combed through to create the theater piece. For those of you who haven’t read my memoir, Richard Gere played Richard Farina, but that’s another story. The show had a try-out in Lenox, Massachusetts, under the auspices of Lyn Austin, and Mrs. Baez came to see what we had created because she thought it might be too upsetting for her daughter. Both were also concerned we would ‘get’ him, and Mimi, ‘wrong’ and that would be even worse. Mrs. Baez loved the theater piece, and said it felt eerie to her because the evening truly captured the essence of her son-in-law. The tone of it, the order of the numbers, both spoken and sung, embraced his spirit, she said. Mrs. Baez couldn’t believe neither of us had ever met him. I was really honored by her words, and found her genuine, funny, interesting and utterly beautiful I can still picture her sharing cantaloup with us on the floor of our little room in Lenox. We served it on paper plates–all we had–and she didn’t even blink. I don’t remember her first name, though I know she preferred we call her by that and not ‘Mrs. Baez’ but all these years later I still think of her that way. She looked very much the way her daughter does now, except that she had long silver hair. Remembering her also brings back memories of creating that first show with my husband, and what a joyous experience it was. Not just the words and music of Farina, which we both loved, but our ability to create an evening of theater with each other with such ease. He helped with reordering the poems, narrative and songs I chose to include; I made suggestions to him about the production. We each respected the other, and worked well together. Given that we later divorced, and had difficulty even talking to one another for years, it is really good to remember times like these, when we met Joan Baez’ mother and ate cantaloup with her on the floor of a little room in a country building in Massachusetts. There was a reason we married each other, there was love between us; working together was never a problem and it gave both of us pleasure. It’s good for remember what was good in a marriage that failed. I only wish it hadn’t been the death of Mrs. Baez that brought these memories back. I’m writing this in thanks for that. And she did live to be one hundred. If anyone deserved to live such a long and rich life, she certainly did.
In the past few months I have come to accept that I am in the last third of my life. Next year I will be seventy. Typing those words makes my stomach heave. As my daughter, who is worried about my living so far away from her and her sister said, “You’re getting old mom.” I laughed, explaining that I knew that, but in truth, it didn’t seem at all funny to me. I really don’t like that fact a whole lot, and don’t like thinking about it. I can avoid the topic because I am in such good health, other than memory loss, which is a real bother, and even frightening at times. That topic will have to be tackled on another day, perhaps in next month’s blog. To get back on task, for now I take Nia four times a week, a dance/exercise form that is really fun and raises a sweat,, walk or swim on the fifth day, and often walk on the wooded trails around my house on the weekends as well. I’ve eaten organic for years, and am weaning myself off sugar. And yet. And yet. None of these things will keep me from aging, and eventually becoming ill, and at some point, dying. We all do. Which brings me to the title of this piece. If I accept all of the above, how do I want to live these final years? Final, even if there are twenty or more of them left to me. One of my Nia friends has just taken a class about dementia. Apparently, an organized form of exercise, like Nia, which utilizes your body and your mind (keeping track of the moves), is the best thing you can do to keep that one at bay. Phew. I know I want to keep writing, because I love the process and it activates my brain. A new novel will be listed on Amazon.com within the next month, and I am already over 300 pages into the next one, called Mishpucha. That means ‘family’ in yiddish. The research has taught me a lot I didn’t know about my own genealogy, which has been both fascinating and exciting. Spending time with my grandsons and my daughters always makes me feel vibrant and alive, even if the girls and I have minor tiffs now and then. We work our way through them – they are their mother’s daughters – and move on. And finally, my partner in life, whom I loved over thirty years ago, and now live with, enriches my life beyond any of my expectations, and says I do the same for him. We laugh together often and hard, and can talk about anything, even the personal stuff between us which is often so difficult to do. Our sex life is alive and well, though I sometimes wonder if the mother who yelled at me when I was four: ‘you are a dirty little girl,’ when she caught her daughter and me looking at one another’s private parts, was right. Only now I’m a dirty old lady. My partner thinks that’s hilarious, and says ‘thank God for that!’ These are the ways I engage with life already, and the ways I will continue to engage, I suppose, since all of these people and activities help keep my life fertile, abundant. I can’t imagine not doing any of them. There was an article in the New York Sunday Times yesterday about people who are dying but keep on doing all the activities that give their life meaning, and who leave this plain content. That seems a good prescription to me, and a perfect answer to the above question. So be it.
I do not like change. Never have. The discomfort I experience around change has gotten worse with age, though I know there’s nothing I can do about it. When a friend, or one of my daughters, calls to tell me something big in their lives is about to change, I become very uncomfortable. Because I know this is my problem, not theirs, I try to roll with the punches. I keep repeating ‘acceptance’ in my mind, but it still aint easy! Perhaps it never will be.
I am leaving for Portland to visit my daughter, husband and two grandson’s in a half hour. So there isn’t time for a long, thoughtful blog. My older daughter may drive down to join us from Bend, but maybe not as she’s been on a trip herself the past five days. What’s up for me is again being pulled in two directions. Maybe I feel this as strongly as I do because I’m a Pisces. Or just because I’m me. I am excited to be seeing them all, sad that it will be my last visit to do so because they are moving to Bend, where my older daughter lives; but I also feel unhappy leaving my partner. I have waited for him for so many years–a man who would be willing to share ideas and feelings and sexuality (even at our age, yes!), commit to a life-long relationship and to work on whatever we had to, however we had to, so that would be so, someone whose company I thoroughly enjoy–that leaving is always difficult. Seems ridiculous since it’s only for four days, but so it is. So many gifts: the two girls and the grandchildren, and this caring, supportive partner. That’s what I’ll focus on as I pull out of the driveway, and commence the four-hour trek to Oregon. At least from now on I can drive to SeaTac and fly to visit the girls at the same time. And I can read on the way! Another gift.
A few days ago a woman told a friend of mine that she was amazed that she no longer felt ‘empty.’ She had felt that way most of her life, but had realized she no longer did. That gave me pause, and has given me much food for thought ever since. I haven’t felt ‘empty’ in so long, I had to really think about not feeling that way, and what had changed for me. I know I didn’t feel ‘full’ because I was married, when I was, nor did I feel ‘empty’ once I divorced for the second time. Back then, 13 years ago, I was very sad, and grieved for several years, which I don’t say lightly. I would sometimes walk in the trails across from my house and scream and scream. But I didn’t feel empty. My life was full of so many gifts: my daughters, my work, creativity in general, my friends, and eventually my grandsons, that ‘empty’ just wasn’t part of the equation. If all of those people and activities weren’t a part of my daily life, would I feel empty? I don’t think so. Again, I would be sad, probably very sad. My one daughter moving further away to Bend, even though my other daughter lives there, has made me sad because I won’t be able to just get into my car to visit her and my grandsons. But, again, I still feel ‘full.’ As I sit here writing, I realize that what seems to fill me is spirit. My spirit, which I connect with on a daily basis when I sit down to write, when I dance in the Nia studio, when I walk in the woods, when I look out my window at Puget Sound, when I saw ‘good morning’ to my partner and he leans over to kiss me–so many ways. Another thought that’s come up as I write is that I feed my soul in the ways that are particular to me, and learned to do that years ago, when I was a single parent. Not at first, because I felt so alone and bereft, but as years progressed, and perhaps because of the help I found in my women’s group, I rebuilt my own sense of fullness that was not dependent on anyone but me. Probably if I didn’t keep nurturing what keeps me alive, as well as healthy in mind, spirit, and body this would not be so. I don’t wake up in the morning thinking ‘what do I need to do to keep me full’ or some such. It’s become a natural part of my everyday, as much as writing, reading, affection with my partner, and calls to my kids. So, no, I don’t feel empty, and the choices I make every day on how to live my life are a large part of the reason.
When I woke up this morning I was going to write about a completely different topic, but when I walked into my kitchen and saw the sun streaming into my window, glittering on the water in Puget Sound, and filling my house with light, I felt so grateful for where I live, that I decided to go in a whole other direction. Last night I attended a farewell dinner for a friend; there was lots of laughter about aging, and all the things we forget, from names, to eye glasses, to necessary shopping items, which was a joy. One of the women is quite ill, although she still has a great sense of humor. Nevertheless, on the way home I knocked wood for my health. Aside from minor aches and pains, forgetfulness, and other signs of aging, the rest of me is holding up admirably. Pulling into my driveway and seeing my partner’s truck gave me such a feeling of safety and warmth: another fortunate part of my life. And then to awaken to the sun, a big deal to those of us who live in the Northwest this winter: perhaps being grateful for all of it should be the topic of the day. As I’ve said before, I have a very meaningful relationship with both of my grown daughters, who are doing well in their lives and are reasonably happy. I live with a man who is kind, gentle and loving–not perfect by any means, but a totally decent human being who not only helps people in need in our community, but helps me in the house on a daily basis without being asked. For someone of my generation that is a big deal. To top it off, he’s really smart, so we always have interesting discussions about issues of the day, which is what I thought I was going to write about this morning. Maybe next week for that. Then there are my grandsons, who video chatted with me this morning, big smiles on their faces when they saw me on their computer screen. Gus, the older boy, said he couldn’t remember my kitchen, so I took a walk with my laptop and heard his excited voice, “I remember now, Grandma!” I then showed the two-year old the ocean, with appreciative words I couldn’t understand, though his excited yelps were crystal clear. When my morning chores were done, I sat down at my desk to write this blog and answer email, with the prospect of returning to my new novel later in the day. Really, I have a very full and rich life, I thought, good health, loving family and friends, beauty of place, which is a hell of a lot to be grateful for. When the mess of the world gets to me, which it does almost daily, I try to remind myself of all of this. If I take the time, which I’m obviously doing today, my anxieties about rich vs. poor, possible war with Iran, injustice and the like recede and I’m able to feel truly grateful for the way my life has unfolded. This doesn’t mean I won’t raise my fist in protest anymore. But it does make bearing the burden of awareness much easier. Without sounding maudlin, I long ago realized it was important to list the things I need to be grateful for, and am usually amazed when I do at how good it makes me feel. I thought today I’d pass the idea along with the suggestion that anyone who reads this take the time today to do the same. It’s a great way to begin the week.
Over the past few weeks I have found myself thinking a great deal about mental illness. I have two friends, one of whom is being stalked by a young man who has been in and out of mental institutions as well as jail, and the other, the boy’s mother. The situation has been extremely painful for all concerned. The women have even talked with one another, and commiserated about ‘the other side’ but neither really knows what to do. Last week the police came to tell the younger woman that the stalker was back in town and that she should ‘be careful.’ She took out a restraining order months ago, so really, what more can she do? What do the police expect? The young man is no longer a kid–he’s in his thirties–so there is nothing the parents can do about the situation. Even if he was younger, like the shooter in Newtown, what could they have done? They certainly never supplied him with weapons, but he could certainly get some if he was so inclined. What do we, as a society, offer any of the participants in this drama, including the young man? He has no job because he can’t hold one. Even if his parents could persuade him to get some counseling, who would pay for it? If they had the money, they could pay, but if they didn’t, then what? And if he is resistant to the very idea that he needs help, which he is, then what? Would court-ordered outpatient counseling be helpful? Probably not. In the meantime how does the younger woman ‘protect herself?’ Does she enlist friends with guns to stand outside her store in town, and her apartment? We certainly have a good idea about how that might go. This young man has four siblings. Why is he troubled, and the others fine? What makes one person in a family mentally ill, even at an early age, when no one else in the family seems disturbed? Where can parents go if they know there is a problem with one of their children? How does a victim who has been threatened by this ‘crazy person’ handle ‘he’s in town, he’s not in town’ and live a normal life? Where does the victim go for help, especially when the police are the ones who warned her to be careful? What other steps could they have taken or take? What makes someone crazy? I am beginning to think mental illness has a lot to do with brain chemistry, but Iknow that isn’t the only answer. And even if it was, what solutions does that suggest? I have no answers to any of these questions, but I find the whole situation very disturbing, and I worry about both women. They have very different problems, but our culture offers neither of them help, let alone solutions. What is wrong with us that we don’t?
Sometimes you don’t know if you’re on the right path or not, which is what has been happening for me. Then a new friend thanked me for writing “Little Nancy: The Journey Home” because it helped her remember, and accept parts of her life as well. I had been thinking it was time to stop doing these blogs, video and written, but her words made me realize ‘not yet.’ For that I thank her, and for all of you out there who watch and read these, and send me responses to what I have to say. That’s the reason I keep on keeping on.