Tag Archives: aging

The View from 50

Making the Path

Today’s post owes itself to two exquisite poets.

Caminante by Antonio Machado

Caminante, son tus huellas               Walker, your footprints are
el camino, y nada más;                       the road, and nothing more;
caminante, no hay camino,               walker, there is no road,
se hace camino al andar.                    the road is made by walking.
Al andar se hace camino,                   Walking makes the road,
y al volver la vista atrás                     And to turn for the view behind
se ve la senda que nunca                     is to see the path which will never
se ha de pisar.                                        be tread again. 
Caminante, no hay camino,              Walker, there is no road,
sino estelas en la mar.                        only the wake on the sea. 

 

That’s my translation, and while it’s certainly not as poetic as Machado’s lyrical Spanish, it expresses the message.

I first came across this poem when I read Miles Horton and Paulo Freire’s book We Make the Road by Walking. Horton paraphrased  Machado as a way to express the importance of intentionality and awareness as we live our lives. It’s one of the most inspirational and affirming books I’ve ever read, told by two men who made an enormous difference in the world, both of whom were near the end of long, well-lived lives.

We all mark our lives in a series of milestones. Birthdays, especially the ones that indicate decades, assume a particular significance. Aging itself carries weight;  many cultures bestow status upon young people when they have been on the planet for a certain number of years. Civic privileges and responsibilities such as voting, legal independence, and military service are dependent on a person’s age. What would otherwise be arbitrary birthdays (13, 18, 21) take on a level of importance because of the stature determined by a societal norm.

Birth and death are the only universal life cycle events, and humans have honored  them throughout history and across the world. Other milestones– coming-of-age ceremonies, marriage, and religious rites–are often recognized or honored as well.

And then there are the unique milestones we achieve in the course of living our lives. What are they, and what makes them meaningful? More than that, what do these milestones contribute to our narrative?

I’ve been thinking about these questions quite a bit this summer. If there were a map of my life, this season would be represented by an amazing series of crossroads and bridges. From this vantage point in the path of my journey, I can see back over five decades. Some of those distant experiences are clear and shining; others are blurred. Looking ahead, I can hope that the view extends the same distance. I choose to believe that I am at the midpoint.

On this part of my map, there are some very flamboyant road signs. One says 50FIFTY50FIFTY50FIFTY50. Or maybe, just maybe, it is identical to every other tiny marker along the way. Maybe it simply says, in all lower-case letters,  “today.”

Getting to 50 meant passing 18,250 of those little “today” signs. Like my 50th birthday, each of those days only happened once. And as the path unfolds–as I make the path, all of the upcoming days will only happen once.

The milestones along the way are markers that I placed. Reaching 50, to me, is a chance to pause briefly and be grateful for all of the people and experiences that helped me shape this path.

Another milestone this season is the one that I recognize today. July 18, 2011 was one of my own personal markers. Today is the 2nd anniversary of my third spinal surgery. I’ve written about my back and about the gifts of tolerance, balance, and gratitude that accompanied my injuries, recoveries, and discoveries.

DICOM Frame 2

This morning began early, with open-air yoga in an idyllic space on Martha’s Vineyard. Every time I do yoga, I find moments of sheer joy and power. Every time I can achieve a deeper bend, a greater lift, a stronger extension, I am energized. Every time I can become entirely present in my breath, or hold a challenging pose for a few more seconds, I am more alive.

photo

There is no road sign for that type of moment–or is there?

The Summer Day
Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

 

 

Advertisements

Plotting Our Own Course

The Boy inadvertently gave me the metaphor for this post. On the way to school the other day,  he said, “I wonder if you could use the quadratic formula to create a set of coordinates for a circle.” (This is a good question to get your mind working at 7:15 on a Wednesday morning). He quickly realized that a different function would be required to create a shape that arcs back to connect to itself on a coordinate plane. Then we talked about how the quadratic equation always results in a parabola–a perfect, symmetric curve with two arms that reach, ever wider, into infinity.

It’s a beautiful thing, the parabola. It’s anchored somewhere on the y-axis, but otherwise, its path — and the points within its branches — are limitless. What an elegant image to represent the path of our own lives: grounded in at least one base point, and open to possibilities. Every time we add new experiences and new relationships, it’s as if we’ve plotted more values on an enormous sheet of graph paper. The shape grows wider to hold more of the grid, but the formula guarantees that it will retain its integrity.

This week, my own parabola got wider, but my intercept values are still secure. On Monday, I signed a contract and accepted a leadership role at a new school. After 12 years of deeply gratifying work at an extraordinary place, the decision to leave was not an easy one. I have loved my students, my colleagues, the families, and the guiding principles of my school. I have watched children grow from wide-eyed, diminutive pre-kindergarteners into mature, poised, and confident teenagers. I have cried at graduation speeches, delighted in the progress of young readers and mathematicians, had my heart warmed by community celebrations, been nurtured and supported during my own challenges, and have been given the honor and the privilege of sending more than 100 novice teachers out into the world. I love my job. And yet, it’s time to reach further.

For the past year, I’ve been looking for the “just-right” position, relying on my inner quadratic function to guide me in the proper direction. After many conversations, interviews, school tours, and careful reflection, I have found it. Or, to be more accurate, the job found me. An inquiry from the Head of School nearly two months ago led to an exchange of increasingly exciting e-mails, a Skype call, a long day of travel and meetings, more e-mails and calls, and finally, a mutual sense of connection. It is right. It is a new x-intercept.

The Boy will graduate from my current school (his school, our school) on June 7. That morning will also be my last day as an official member of the faculty.Five days after graduation, I will turn 50. It is poetic, and fitting, to start my second half-century with a significant change. The Boy’s teachers have been my colleagues and friends; those points on my graph have been plotted and will always remain.  The Boy and I will walk out of the building together, each of us on the way to our respective next schools, with a summer vacation to serve as the buffer between the known and the new.

When September arrives, our lives will be quite different. My new job is 126 miles away from our house. I’ve reserved a fantastic (yet small) apartment in the heart of New Haven, where I’ll stay from Mondays to Fridays. On weekends, I’ll be back at our house in Massachusetts, or the Husband and The Boy will come to Connecticut. We’ve all made the trip, toured the city, seen the school, met the people, and begun to envision the future.

I believe strongly in the power of intention. I also believe that as long as we are alive, there is always time and space to learn, grow, embrace new challenges, resist inertia, and do our very best to contain all the points we build into our parabolas.

Coming Unraveled

Did you know that the words ravel and unravel mean the same thing? Merriam-Webster explains that they are both transitive verbs that relate to the process of separating the strands or threads in a woven material. When I checked the dictionary before I started this post, I was hoping  and expecting that ravel meant the opposite of unravel. Part of my interest was poetic; I wanted the perfect label for the topic of this post. Also, though, it just seemed right and logical that if one word starts with un-, it should mean the opposite of the root word that follows the prefix. Once again, the English language baffles us.

I wanted a word that means “pull together.” I hoped that ravel was the correct one. The best word for my reflections today is probably knit, which is ironic, because I can’t. Knit, that is. But the word carries so many relevant connotations that I’m going to leave it there. It’s the metaphor I want, after all.

About five years ago, my friend Carol made me a pair of socks. They are among the most treasured gifts anyone has ever given me. Part of their value certainly rests in the fact that Carol died, too soon and too young, more than a year ago. But whenever I wear those socks, they bring her right back. I love those socks because the best gifts we can ever give are the ones that show how well we know someone. Carol and I worked together for ten years. We shared stories about our sons, recipes for stews, risotto, breads, and fresh vegetables. We knew each other’s favorite books. We shared our own special bond around the change of seasons in New England, choosing the date and temperature when we would start, or stop, wearing socks for the year. My soft, colorful, warm wool pair were a recognition of my Friday footwear: Dansko clogs in purple or orange leather, fuschia felt, or bright blue suede. Carol was a clog-wearer, too, and she loved my bold end-of-week choices.

Carol was an avid knitter. She could transform  a skein of yarn into practically anything. She was the go-to guru at our school whenever anyone was having trouble with a stitch gauge, a color selection, or a pattern choice. She was there for all of us who a needed a companion for a late afternoon of needlework or quiet talk. She held onto secrets, provided wise advice, and made us laugh. I am not the only one who misses her every day. She was one of the strands that held our community together. If you are a part of a group that is bound by someone like Carol, you know how lucky you are.

In my extended family, my dad is one of those strands. As his generation ages, his role has become more evident to him and to everyone else. My father grew up in a time and a place where his best friends were also his first cousins. They spent their childhoods in each other’s living rooms and backyards, played high school sports together, swam together at the beach all summer, engaged in who-knows-what-kinds of mischief, served as each other’s best men and as the godfathers of their respective children. They  played golf, went to college sports events,  met for Wednesday breakfasts, and lately, have sat in hospital rooms. Gradually, they are leaving us. One of those guys, Neal, died last week. My father was with him 20 minutes before he passed. On his way home, my dad took three calls on his mobile phone. His was the first voice that Neal’s eldest son, daughter, and sister needed to hear as they processed their loss.

My son, The Boy, was with my parents for the weekend before Neal died. He saw my dad preparing for the imminent news, and he felt the depth of my father’s grief. When Neal died that Tuesday, The Boy said, “I have to call Papa.” He understood what it meant for my father to be that strand.

We are all bound to other people. We need those connections, and we make the ties stronger as we grow together. Those socks that Carol made–they are made of one strand of yarn. One single thread.

Hello world!

Me with my mom and my sister

Today’s my 47th birthday. I’m now older than I’ve ever been, and younger than I’ll ever be again. A few weeks ago, my friend Susan and I were talking, as we often do, about what it means to be women of our age in 2010. We are so fortunate to have the lives we have, and to have filled our lives with the people we have found over the years, and to have the luxuries of time and companionship to discuss these issues. One recurring theme in our conversations is the recognition that we are not held to the assumptions and expectations that our mothers faced. When she was my age, my mother had three children out of college. I have one child entering 6th grade. When she was my age, my mother had been married for 26 years. I’ve been married for 14 years. When she was my age, one of  my mother’s daughters (not me) was already married. I have no daughters, and my son is only 11 (and still single). At every age, my mother has been surrounded by women whose lives paralleled hers. They were, and continue to be, each other’s confidantes, reality checks, and group consciences. Many of those friendships still endure, and they continue to define my mother’s life in a wonderful way. At every age, my friends and I have made every possible choice and followed every possible path that presented itself. The amazing range of professions, locations, partners, accomplishments, interests, experiences, and views that define us makes it impossible to describe a “type.” I jokingly told Susan that rather than defining ourselves as middle aged ladies, we should begin to think of ourselves as role models. Given what I’ve been saying in this post, I really have no idea what that means. But bear with me. Let’s get a whole bunch of us to be role models–Not because we’re doing everything (or anything) particularly well, but because we’re all out there doing things.