Monday, February 28, 2011

Coming of age at 54

Last summer, while staying at my summer home in northern New York State for several months, a combination of benign neglect and the lack of a good hairdresser kept me from tending to hair that for a good decade I'd been trimming and dying as a matter of course. As my hair grew richer (I'd added a silver crown to my gold), I became more curious: what the heck did I really looked like these days?

By the time my guests were due to arrive for my fall writing retreat, I had collaborated on the sly with one of them, a hairdresser: for the first morning’s writing prompt, we had a bit of performance art in store. Roxanne would cut my hair. Short.

My resolve was immediately put to the test when Lisa walked in the door. “I love your hair!” she said, referring not only to its inordinate length but also its sun-bleached state. And I thought, "I love compliments!" I smiled and thanked her and wondered if I’d really go through with this.

But the next morning, when the women had assembled in the living room, I marched straight to the sink to wet my head, threw a beach towel over my shoulders, and sat in a chair in the center of the room. The other women were quite surprised when Roxanne pulled out her scissors and began combing my hair. She explained that she’d been watching my hair since she arrived, and that it had told her what it wanted to do. (And I'm thinking, thank God it knew!)

I then described the writing prompt, which was one part a theme of transformation, and one part a randomly drawn lyric from a Kinks song (I’d printed those up ahead of time—the Kinks were big my with my lake friends while growing up).

Retreaters Ellen and Nancy took these pictures of the process. All was fun and games until I started seeing four-inch sections of my hair fall to my lap. Fear and anticipation duked it out for dominance.

To me it felt no less important than carving out an authentic sense of self.

That's a re-emerging theme these days. As I write my memoir, I seek a sense of my own developing character within a story over which I had little control. In a parallel process, as I strive to lose weight, I feel I’m carving out a physical sense of self from the excesses that protected the unfurling woman whose shell shattered from Ron's suicide. I see all of these events as connected.

After taking a moment to contemplate the new me, the women and I got writing. Having these women witness my transformation raised the experience to the level of ritual for me. It was fun, and meaningful—I think all aging women should gather their friends to celebrate the dropping of the hormonal veil that keeps us from truly knowing ourselves. I tried to wrestle my feelings into my usual prose style but they just wouldn’t go—these images felt more raw and untamable. The result was this poem. I've put the Kinks lyric in italics.

The Urge to Push
by Kathryn Craft

An urge asks no permission.
The body simply knows
how to accept a lover, or birth a child.
Yet I needed pills, thermometers, surgeries.
Split second timing. Chemical induction.
With no urge to push, a monitor’s line graph supplanted instinct.

Growth seeks its own path.
The soul finds a way
to bend toward ample light.
Yet I needed journal pages, tough circumstances, therapy.
Life or death choices.
I would be a widow before I could call myself a woman.

Gravity will have its way
with materials meant for temporary use.
It breaks down bone, washes out hair, tugs on skin.
Yet I dammed the inevitable with calcium and hair dye,
pitting my desires against erosion and entropy
and the very spin of the planet.

Time offers up trials
that blister and bolster the enduring spirit,
rubbing, peeling, revealing.
Growth and gravity and time have finally made me
so swollen with experience
that I sense, at long last, a true urge to push.

Impulsive courage seizes me.
The lie of my hair weighs heavily
and I seek rebirth to self.
The scissors snip and shape,
a glimmer of silver feeling freer than
the lock of brass that falls to my lap.

Naked truth emerges,
seeking the light, embracing the gravity, honoring the time.
People take pictures of youth to prove it really existed.
I push my aging self into the open
while I have the chance
before modesty dictates that I don the robe of the crone.

It took four months before the blond was all cut out. Here's the final result:

Sunday, February 20, 2011

How old will you be tomorrow?*

Now that I’m fifty-four-and-a-half I’m starting to feel it, you know?

Younger, that is.

When it comes to aging, not all is equal. If my life were equal to my first husband’s, for example, I would be dead in another 191 days.

That’s sobering. In so many ways I feel I am still awakening to myself—how could all this be over any time soon? There is so much to see and learn and do. And READ!!

If my life were equal to my grandmother’s on the other hand, I’d have a leisurely 15,888 days remaining to accomplish all I’d like. (Excuse me—may I choose this option?) My grandmother traveled with my uncle to Europe in her eighties, and read many a book while rocking in front of the fireplace at our summer home in northern New York. When I project forward to think of myself at that age, I mix in a little Laura Ingalls Wilder so I can still be writing. Why not?—Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books were published while she was between 65 and 76 years of age.

My grandmother’s life was no picnic. Her physician husband worked long hours and died early, so she raised her four children largely on her own. A series of small strokes left her wheelchair bound and unable to speak for several of her final years. But I never sensed she had left us. She never had that frighteningly blank look I saw on so many faces in the nursing home where I once worked. Even when she couldn’t speak she looked as if she were listening, and wore a sweet smile. (She also smiled while rocking and reading—Harlequin romances.) Thanks to my ever-attentive uncle (pushing her wheelchair in the above picture, which was taken at my wedding to Ron), my grandmother always looked put together, wearing rouge and lipstick and a dress (never once in the thirty years I knew her did I ever see my grandmother wear trousers).

My grandmother died in her sleep on February 13, 1987, at the age of 97. It was a Friday the 13th, and the moon was full. I hope she'd understood when I told her I was pregnant—in a wonderful affirmation of the circle of life, my son Jackson, left, was born on her birthday that year.

So why bother thinking about this? I know I can't control the number of my days here on earth.

But I can allow the days of the people I’ve known to inspire the way I choose to live them.

As to the 191 days: To honor that, by the time I reach Ron’s “deadline,” I aim to finish my memoir. To put the story of that part of my life to rest at a time in my life that corresponds with his decision to end his life. It feels right.

As to the 15,888 days: If I am lucky enough to have a marathon of days still before me, I’d better get in shape. I’ve always been active, and at fifty could walk and run and swim farther than I could in my early twenties. Yet I had belly fat that just wouldn’t budge, putting me at risk for all sorts of physical maladies that could shorten my life, or worse, disable it.

Thanks to fitness tips from my younger brother, who’s a personal trainer, I’m finally losing that weight (more circle of life here: new science has supplanted the fat burning principles I learned in exercise physiology when I got my master’s degree in health and physical education in 1980). My arthritis bothers me less. I’m fitting into clothes I hadn’t worn in over a decade. And whose arms are these? In many ways I'm turning back the clock, and becoming my younger self. Any wisdom accrued is mine to keep.

*I borrowed my title question from the tagline of Lifespan Design Studio, an architecture firm which utilizes universal design to support the comfort and function of people of all ages and abilities in commercial and residential settings. It's run by my friends Doug and Ellen Gallow, who printed the question on the back of the tee-shirt advertising their business. (We've been friends a long time—Doug took this picture of my grandmother.) I guess when they read this they’ll know how I value the question on that tee-shirt. It adds a philosophical punch to my workouts.

So: How old will you be tomorrow?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Are you living a chosen life?

At Thanksgiving I learned that my son Marty’s winter band tour would dip into Mexico. Monterrey, to be exact. Due to increasing drug war violence—and despite the fact that Marty has been gunning for banditos since a young age, as this picture shows—no one in my extended family thought this part of the tour was a good idea.

As the facts filtered in, I forwarded them to Marty in an unrelenting push. From Thanksgiving until Christmas, when the tour was scheduled to lauch, an additional 8,000 people had died, bringing the total killed due to Mexican drug violence to more than 30,000. Travel advisories had been posted. The children of diplomats in the very city where he was headed were evacuated. Monterrey was listed as an increasingly dangerous locale.

The evidence was overwhelming: for one show, this trip was too dangerous to justify.

In response, Marty pointed to the odds of getting killed on his daily drive to work. My experience tells me this about about odds: someone is always on the losing side.
Current estimates are that one out of four pregnancies ends in miscarriage. I was on the wrong side of those odds.
The chance of repeat miscarriage decreases to one in ten. I was on the wrong side of those odds.
One in 10,000 American takes his own life. My husband took his.
Only 3 out of 1,000 guns owned by Americans will be used in a suicide. My husband used one of his for this purpose.
Like many who’ve seen too much in their lives, I know bad things don’t bypass you just because some statistician says it’s unlikely.

To his credit, Marty read and responded to e-mail after e-mail full of reasons why he shouldn’t go. In addition the band was set to go, he had a renewed passport burning a hole in his pocket, and there was an irresistible a groundswell of interest in hardcore among Mexican youth.

His conclusion:
[Because] I will either be on a bus, in the guy running the show's van, or in the venue, I feel like my safety is fairly well accounted for. I'm never going into any public places or interacting with locals outside of the hardcore scene. We are strictly going in, playing, and leaving.

There's probably nothing I can say to you that will make you think it's a good idea but I hope some of this at least helps.

If Marty died I would miss him terribly, but death will one day claim us all. I was more concerned about reports of kidnapping. Starvation. Torture. Dismemberment. Ugly, drug war-fueled stuff. Americans unable to ever find out what really happened to their loved ones after they disappeared in Mexico.

Because Marty was 21, once I delivered the facts there wasn’t a whole lot else I could do. But while I still had the chance, and so I wouldn't regret it for the rest of my life, I took the opportunity to say: “Please, don't go.”

He went.

And he came home, praise be, and once he was back in the country he called to tell me that.

Despite a small snafu with paperwork that required him and his bandmates to return to the border, all went smoothly. They had their guard up, but ran into nothing frightening, although their host told them he sometimes hears shots in the night.

Once Marty left for the tour I was surprised at the way my worry lifted. This wasn’t about keeping him safe, after all. I realized then why I went to the wall on this: if Marty was going to put his life on the line, I had to make sure he did so while living the life he wanted to live.

In failing to waver despite the mounting evidence against that trip, Marty told me: This is the life I want to live, and I’m not going to let the odds determine my pursuit of it.

That Marty. A chip off the old block.

I too am living my dream against phenomenal odds—I’m trying to get a novel published. But every now and then, someone does succeed. And I’ve fit within the small odds so many times before, why not now? Granted, getting published might not kill me, but I might just die trying. On my tombstone I want written:

“She died pursuing her dreams.”

I want nothing less for my sons.

As for Marty and me, we weathered this storm. We’re still tight.

But when his band left the country on a three-day tour last weekend?

Even though their destination was peaceable Canada, Marty decided not to tell me until he got back.

Are you pursuing your dreams? Are your children? I'd love to hear about it.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Is optimism cockeyed?

Sometimes you can record life. Other times, when multiple opportunities beckon, you just have to live it.

That pretty much sums it all up for a writer, doesn’t it?

Okay, I’ll admit it: when I first drafted the second sentence, above, I wrote: “when multiple obligations beckon.”

That’s the expected verbiage: I’m too harried, too many people are pulling at me, it’s all about what I can give, give, give, and nobody ever asks me what I need. We Americans do want to feel put out and put upon, don’t we? Maybe overfilling our plates until we explode, whether in McDonald’s or our day planners, is the only way to feel self-important. Anyway, the party line of this modern sorority is so pervasive it even infiltrated my language as I began this post, thereby hijacking the topic I’d planned to write about today.

But that’s okay. I must redirect, because I rejected the party line long ago. That’s just not the way I feel about life.

My obligations are my opportunities; I chose each and every one for what it can bring to my life. I’ve missed blogging for—ack!--two weeks now because the living of my life swelled to the point that my recording of it had to take a back seat.

But I’ve been writing my memoir, which is so meaningful to me. I've been editing steadily, which is work that I love, and provides some income. I’ve been exercising daily. I took a quick road trip with my son to look at a graduate school program, and on the way, introduced a fourth generation of my family to my favorite pizza in the world (and that has been a serious competition): Twin Trees Pizza in Syracuse, New York.

I’ve been preparing for several talks about writing that are coming up (you can see them in the sidebar). I LOVE to talk about writing! I went to my new neighborhood’s book discussion group, attended the Writer’s Coffeehouse and a book launch party, and met with my new Doylestown writing group—the only thing I love more than living here in Doylestown is combining my life here with literature.

Can we tame time? While I can try, by selecting my projects carefully, I can’t really control it any more than I can control my fate. Things come up; things I long to embrace; things that make me feel wonderfully alive. I have surrendered: my life is a constant, free form triage. The activities I choose are nothing less than the expression of me in this world, and for that reason I will get them all in.

Living this way makes me happy to get up every single morning. I’m a glass-is-99%-full kind of gal.

But when the milk starts to spill over the edges, I hope you’ll forgive me an occasional brief absence from this blog. Just picture me in Doylestown, mopping up the spill, with a big smile on my face.

But I don't think it's just me—I believe optimism is in the air. After only spotty editing work since the economy tanked, I suddenly face a 7-week backlog of manuscripts, that I am steadily (and happily!) chipping away at. Maybe others are sensing what I thought from the start: the economy is simply the economy, and we’re all in the same boat. And now my personal economic indicator (my self-employment income) tells me that either 1) the economy is on the upswing, or 2) writers are sick and tired of allowing the economy to dictate their writing dreams.

Either way is a cause for optimism. Fellow writers are even talking less about the "death of the book" and looking for ways to embrace the unknown possibilities of e-books.

What hopeful signs have you been seeing?