Thirtieth Reunion

I suspect we all wanted to be Jill Ker Conway.  Or at least to grow up to be just like her, our much adored and admired college president.  Surely we listened, rapt, as she greeted the Smith College freshman class of 1980. Perhaps we wondered if perhaps just by being there, in her bright orbit for four years, we might somehow come to possess something of her grace and intellect, her clear sense of purpose, her quiet charisma.  It was not lost on anyone that she happened to look really great in her clothes, too. Slender, tidy, a mite Katherine Hepburn-ish–though Jill seemed kinder and more cheerful, elegant without the slightest bit of an edge.

Arriving on campus in the fall of 1976, a slightly pudgy, shy, utterly intimidated freshman from small-town New Hampshire, I had not a clue as to what to wear, let alone what I was meant to do or who I wanted to be. I had never seen a Lanz nightgown, read the New York Times, or heard of Virginia Woolf or Dana Hall.  I didn’t own a pair of sneakers, had never listened to jazz, or heard poetry read aloud. I had never eaten with chopsticks or had a pizza delivered to the door.   There was a lot to learn.  The very first night, over dinner in Martha Wilson house, someone declared that we should all go around the table and say whether we were virgins or not; I remember being enormously grateful that I had at least relieved myself of that burden over the course of the summer.  “I slept with an actor,” I said, feigning nonchalance.  My Smith education had begun.

Saturday night, there were quite a few of us members of the class of 1980 hanging around in the living room of Northrup House, doing what women have done at their college reunions for decades–paging through exhumed yearbooks, drinking wine out of plastic cups, dancing (to “Brick House,” of course, party anthem of my era) chatting with old friends, finding ourselves deep in conversation with strangers who should have been our friends thirty years ago, but who we somehow missed during our four years on campus.

The black and white yearbook pages were a jolt, a layer of the distant past suddenly superimposed upon the present.  Clearly, quite a few of us had resolved our seventies fashion dilemmas easily, if not elegantly, as revealed by the photographic record:  we were either Annie Hall or Dorothy Hamill; we favored long straight hair, mens’ shirts and vests, and baggy pants, or, alternatively, wedge haircuts, turtlenecks, and Fair Isle sweaters.

But answers to the real questions–of identity and ambition and experience–could not be found in the yellowing pages of the Madeleine, any more than they could be revealed as I walked around the idyllic campus, stealing looks at name tags, trying to match fifty-one year old faces with thirty-year old memories.   Who are these women now?  I kept wondering, wanting to know every single life story.  What are my classmates feeling and thinking, as they walk these paths, poke their heads into our former classrooms, brush their teeth at the communal sinks, and turn down the narrow single beds in our old dorm rooms, with their high ceilings and well-worn wooden floors?

“I feel as if I’m finally becoming the person that I used to imagine myself being when I was here,” my friend Wendy said the first afternoon, as we wandered down the hill toward town. I knew what she meant.  Surely every one of us  must have had visions of ourselves back then, of who we aspired to be and what we wanted to do with our lives.  Role models abounded. In my years at Smith, a parade of remarkable women–poets and politicians, businesswomen and activists, professionals and philanthropists–visited campus to tell us their stories and to inspire us to think big as we wrote our own.  Maya Angelou, Jane Pauley, and Chris Williamson all came, spoke, and made lasting impressions;  we walked in the long shadows of our most admired alumnae: Julia Child, Sylvia Plath, Betty Friedan, Madeleine L’Engle, Gloria Steinem.   Anything seemed possible.  “Anything is,” each of these women assured us, whether in person or by example.

Now we were back, a hundred and fifty of us or so, exactly the same age this year that Jill Ker Conway was when she “retired” from  the Smith presidency in order to go make the world a better place for underprivileged women.  “I was always aware,” she said in an address to our class on Saturday afternoon, “that while I was busy raising money for this entitled institution, there were women who could not afford to feed their children, who had no access to health care, who were abused by the their employers.  The longer I stayed, the bigger my debt to those women became.  And so, at fifty, I knew it was time for me to figure out how I could make a difference for them.”

Jill–we always called her Jill–is seventy-six now, and she is still working full time to make the world a better place for women.  She stood before us without so much as a note, smiling warmly, as trim and articulate and lovely as ever, and told us of her work on the Nike board, her years of travel throughout the third world, reforming factories, bringing nutrition and fair wages and improved working conditions to underprivileged women from Cambodia to China.  Currently, she is writing a book about aging, working on various environmental initiatives, and still active on the corporate boards of Nike and Colgate Palmolive, aware that changing corporate culture from the inside is a powerful way to make everyday life better for women everywhere.  At the end of her talk, the standing ovation was immediate and heartfelt, as it always was and is for our cherished mentor.

Next on the agenda was a book group discussion about The Gift of an Ordinary Day.  I left the Campus Center wondering if anyone would come. After all, we had already been so well inspired and filled up.  And there was nothing I could offer that could even begin to compare to the experience we had just had.   It had been a long day, and now it was the end of a beautiful afternoon, far too nice to be inside.

But my classmates showed up, almost all of them it seemed, and crowded into the room.  I was not about to pull out my little stack of carefully written file cards, after  Jill’s flawlessly spontaneous performance.  And so I took a deep breath and just began to talk — about how it feels to be halfway through life, and still figuring things out. How hard it is sometimes, given the culture that we live in, to remember that real happiness doesn’t have much to do with how impressive we appear to everyone else, or how much money we make or how much stuff we have, or even how much we’ve accomplished during our years on the planet.  That the one thing we do learn,  as we bump up against the inevitable losses and challenges and changes of mid-life, is that what really matters is how we feel inside about the person we’ve turned out to be, and how strong our relationships are with the people we care about.  How much we love and are loved in return.  After years of looking ahead, into some unknown future, I admitted that what seems to matter most now is the fleeting, precious present moment, and learning how to live it fully.  Embracing what is, rather than wishing for something different.

Someone asked if I would read from the last chapter of the book. And so I turned to the passage about my neighbor Debbie, and how she has taught me through her own example that my real work, day in and day out, is simply to be kind, to be present, to mend the part of the world that is within my reach.  Tears were flowing by then; the room was full of emotion.  It was time for everyone else to talk.

“I’m not ever going to be Jill Ker Conway,” one woman said.  “But I guess it’s time to let that go anyway.”  And we laughed, nodding our heads, each one of us thinking the same thing: “I’m not, either.”    We are not all meant for boardrooms, and yet our lives do not matter any less for that. We need not do great things, to paraphrase Mother Teresa, but simply small things, with great love. Sometimes the path leads us to quiet searching, to helping a friend in need, preparing a meal, or celebrating a sunrise.  Sometimes our job is simply to make our own peace with the way things are — an illness, a divorce, a loss.

What a relief it was at last, to exhale. To allow ourselves to be seen, and to begin, one after another, to share our real stories with one another.  Stories not of achievements and bottom lines, but of mid-life reckonings and second journeys, of doubts and struggles and disappointments, lessons learned the hard way, changes in direction and hard-won self-acceptance. Of our ongoing quests to become more fully ourselves as we seek–even now, thirty years  after throwing our caps in the air–to discover the lives we are meant to lead.

“I’m fifty-one years old,” one woman said, “and I’m still not sure who I am.”  There was so much pain in her voice, that I’ve been haunted by her words ever since.  And yet this morning, it occurred to me: perhaps not knowing is actually a good thing.  Maybe this is really what it’s all about–continuing to seek, continuing to ask the hard questions, as we confront the challenging, ongoing work of bringing our lives into alignment with our deepest values.  Finding within ourselves the fidelity to be true to ourselves, even as we grow and change and let go of youthful ambitions and dreams that didn’t turn out, in the end, to fit the people we really are after all.

This is what happens when women come together and speak their truths.  We learn from one another and support one another. We are reminded that we aren’t alone, and that no one, not even Jill Ker Conway, has all the answers.  But that we can always, always, reach out a hand and mend the part of the world that is within our reach. For, as Anne Morrow Lindberg, another famous Smith alum once wrote, “To give, without any reward, or notice, has a special quality of its own.”

(With thanks to Marianne Campolongo for the photos!)

Second Journey

“The call to a second journey usually commences when unexpected change is thrust upon you, causing a crisis of feelings so great that you are stopped in your tracks.”  — Joan Anderson, The Second Journey

I first read those words about nine months ago, sitting alone in an empty kitchen, having wondered for weeks just what I was meant to do next, now that the house was built, the long-awaited book finally written and published, the sons nearly grown.

This weekend, I went to meet the woman who wrote them, the woman who once ran away from home to spend a year in a cottage by the sea, in order to find her way back to her own true self, a self long since lost to the demands of marriage, motherhood, career, and the needs of others.

Packing the car on Friday afternoon, I still wasn’t quite sure what I was looking for on my own “Second Journey” retreat, or why I was going off to spend a weekend with a group of strangers on Cape Cod, when I had more than enough to do right here — weeds to pull and a garden to plant, a manuscript to read for a friend, a husband who’d have preferred to have me around, a to-do list filling the whole right page of my calendar.

And yet.  The ache I’ve felt deep in my breast this year has not been assuaged by any of the small, worthy tasks that fill my days.  I do all I can, in all directions, and then lie awake at night, worrying about things beyond my control. I meditate in the morning, practice living in the moment, and yet carry a deep sadness for moments already gone. I love the people in my life, and yet feel battered again and again by unsettling, difficult conversations.  I reach out to my teenaged son, and feel not connection but more distance, our relationship raw and tender to the touch, like second-degree burns on my heart.  I answer my e-mails, read a little, write a little, spend time with my family, bring lunch to a friend. The days are busy and full and good. Still, the question nibbles at my edges: What now?

Saturday afternoon, standing barefoot on the beach, I glimpsed the beginnings of an answer.  Part of the ache, I know, comes from my own sense of still not being quite up to the job of being me.  Not a good enough mother, wife, or friend, no matter how much I care.  Not a good enough writer, or yoga student, or meditator, no matter how hard I try.  Not a good enough public speaker, or checkbook balancer, or wage earner, no matter how much effort I put in.

I know that where I see only lack and failure, others see competence. But I keep my own secret list of insecurities and shortcomings, certain that what seems to come so easily and naturally to others must be hard-won by me.  I want to be better at living my life than I am these days, to feel sufficient just as I am, more certain of what I’m meant to do now, and how I’m meant to be.

We had arrived on the outer banks by boat, rolling our pant legs up high and hopping into the clear, cold water one by one to wade ashore.  With a knowing twinkle in her eye, Joan had given us each our marching orders back at the dock, along with our bag lunches: solitude and silence.  Out here, both were easy to find.  A few steps along the beach, and I was already alone, heading out toward the breaks, the surf, the wide open stretches of dune and shore grass and wild water.  The sun was warm, the wind so fierce it whipped stinging needles of sand onto every morsel of exposed flesh.

For four hours or so, I wandered in silence, shedding layers of extra clothing along with layers of identity, feeling, thoughts, and inner chatter.  There was nothing to do but walk and look and wonder, no where to go except where my feet carried me.  No sooner had I taken a step, than the next wave rolled in, erasing my foot prints from the sand. The scouring, relentless wind washed my mind empty of thought and judgment and doubt.  Step by step, moment by moment, I relaxed.  First into a kind of inner stillness.  Then, into peace.  And from there, it was not much of a leap to joy.

How satisfying it is, to disappear, and then to be found by the world. How exhilarating, to be relieved of all expectation and commitment, and then to rediscover your own bare-naked self.  What a relief, to lighten my psychic load, to let go of all the worries and judgments and doubts I lug around day after day.  What a blessing, to see what it is that remains, after everything heavy and useless and outgrown has been dropped and left along the way.  What joy, to be slowly but surely filled right up to the brim again with love.

Far from the mainland of my daily life, it dawned on me: love allows me to get out of myself, and to be grateful for all things.  Love enables me to embrace my life exactly as it is, rather than regretting that it’s not precisely as I want it to be.  Love heals that which is split within; it restores my strength and faith, reminds me that who I am really is all right with me.

Joan Anderson calls the beach walk a scavenger hunt for the soul.  And so it is.  Sometime late in the afternoon, as I trudged against the wind, back toward the lighthouse and civilization, I picked up a wide, white, bowl of a clam shell, rubbed smooth by wind and water.  A vessel it was, but not one that could ever hold very much.  Water would flow in and out with ease, passing through this gentle curve of a cup,  as shallow as my own open hand.  This, I realized, is what I aspire to — to unfurl my fist, to allow love to pour in and to spill right out again with ease, without all the grasping and the holding that so often entangles me. How I yearn to be as pure and clean and simple as that bleached white shell:  receiving and releasing, filling and emptying and filling again, eternally open to the flow of life.

I adore Joan Anderson’s books of self-discovery and renewal, love her willingness to laugh at herself even through tears of confusion and despair, her generosity of spirit, her eagerness to share what she’s learned with the rest of us restless, middle-aged seekers. And I am so grateful now that when I first wrote to her, months ago, she answered my letter.  And that when she said, “Come to the beach,” I said I would.  There is not a woman among us who couldn’t use a weekend away, a walk on the shore, a good night’s sleep alone in a bed far from home.  I know I am lucky to have had all those things this weekend, along with the most precious gift of all — time to just be, without one bit of pressure to do.

In the end, I did find what I was looking for, out there on the outer banks:  Hope.  Hope that things will work out for the best. Hope that when the going gets tough, as it always does,  I will remember who am and draw strength from the truth that I already know: love enlarges and sustains us.  Love saves us from ourselves.  Love is pure, positive energy. Love really is all we need.

Joan gave us much this weekend, from a candle-lit lobster dinner in her home, to belly laughs and yoga on the beach.  But I think the words that I treasure most now that I’m home again were not hers, but ones she shared by Robert Frost.  Asked if he had hope for the future, Frost replied:

“Yes.  And even for the past, that it will turn out to have been all right for what it was.  Something that I can accept–mistakes made by the self I had to be, or was not able to be.”

I drove away from the Cape last night refreshed and inspired, and bearing this same small hope in the palm of my own hand.  It is time to forgive myself for not being more. Time to love myself, imperfections and all, just as I am.

Hand Wash Cold

One thing that happens, when you publish a book, is that dedicated, hard-working editors inevitably seek you out, in the hope of procuring an enthusiastic blurb for the back cover of some forthcoming book that is deemed to be similar in theme or appeal to your own.  As New York editor Judith Regan recently admitted, “Blurbs!  Chasing them is agony; getting one is ecstasy.  I’ve written more forelock-tugging, hand-wringing blurb request letters than I can count, which is just as well because I’m sure if I quantified my success rate it would show a sad return on investment.  It’s not that an editor minds writing or sending them – we do it on behalf of books we truly love.  But it’s hard not to sympathize with the successful writer whose mailbox groans with Jiffy bags sent by me and my hopeful peers across New York.”   

Well, my own dented black mailbox has yet to groan.  I am, thankfully, neither famous nor inundated. And, given how generously other authors, friends and strangers both, have read and supported my own work, I feel that I owe a debt in kind.  So when a bound manuscript titled “Hand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life” arrived on my doorstep a few months ago, I didn’t hesitate to take a look.  For one thing, the blue cover looked a lot like the robin’s egg blue of my own book jacket; the words “ordinary life” were immediately resonant.  I wondered:  should I leap out of my chair to defend my “ordinary” territory, or open my arms to welcome a soul mate?

I began to read.  Page two:  “With only a change in one’s perspective, the most ordinary things take on an inexpressible beauty. When we don’t know, we don’t judge.  And when we don’t judge, we see things in a different light.”

Of course.  I could have written these lines myself.  In fact, I have written them, many times, or some variation thereof.  But I also realized years ago, about half-way through the writing of my own first book,  that I didn’t really have a single thing to say about simplifying, or slowing down, or waking up, or not judging, that someone else hadn’t said already.

And yet, I still needed to put the truth that had been written by others into new words for myself. Needed to learn the same lessons over and over again.  Needed to clear my own pathway to the message I still keep hungering to hear:  Be still.  Look.  Love. Pay attention.  Be grateful.  Be here.  Now.  This is all there is.  And all there is, is enough, more than enough.

Day after day, I forget what I  know.  Day after day, I find myself back in the thick of it, thrashing around in my own emotional bog, reaching for a life line.  But at least, over time, I’ve figured out where to turn for help, have learned how to grab hold and save myself.  The yoga mat.  Prayer.  Meditation.  The books I love.  The friends I trust.  The wide open space of the present moment.

So it was with a breath of relief that I welcomed Karen Maezen Miller into my life and allowed her beautiful words to fill my soul.  Here was a fellow traveler.  Her story, it turned out, could not be more different than mine in its details. Our temperaments? Complete opposites.  But, oh, I could tell right away: we are both peering at the same road map, making our slow stumbling way toward the same place, learning how to savor the journey and to be less hell-bent on the destination. How could we not join hands, share the road,  divvy up the burdens, open our knapsacks, break bread together?

I read her book in one day, yellow highlighter in hand.  Sometimes I had to stop, unable to see words through tears.  Other times, I copied whole paragraphs into my notebook, just to savor her wisdom by allowing it to flow through my own pen.   When I was finished, I sent out tweets and taps through the ether:  Hello, hello.  We haven’t met, but we already know one another.

And there she was, saying hello right back, from the opposite side of the country.  A month later, I walked through Maezen’s front gate and she reached up, plucked a lemon from an abundant tree, and handed it to me. We’ve been deep in some sort of conversation ever since, even if that simply means me hopping over to Cheerio Road to see what’s going on, or her leaving a few words of encouragement at the bottom of on Ordinary Day blog post.

Today, in gratitude for friendship, the bonds of motherhood, the healing power of story, and the twists of fate and circumstance that bring far-flung strangers face-to in Zen gardens,  I offer you this shining passage from Hand Wash Cold, a signed and finished copy of which now sits on my own shelf of cherished  “lifeline” books:

 

Gardens, like children, are forgiving; gardens grow. Love, even clumsy and unrefined, cultivates. Time, unhurried, is never wasted. Plants grow heavenward, strong and true, toward the even and ever-present light.

Right in front of me, in plain sight, I have finally seen what the full sun can do. The sun gives attention, and attention fixes everything. It is up to me to put into practice the larger lesson I’ve been shown.

If I encounter you on my way today, I’ll look at you and say hello.

If the phone rings, I’ll answer. If you send me a message, I’ll respond.

When my husband opens the front door, I’ll stop what I am doing to greet him.

When my daughter comes home from school, I will have nothing to do. We will have no place to run. We will lounge on the floor or linger on the lawn. When she speaks, I will listen, without steering the conversation to a conclusion. If she has a scheme, I’ll go along, and let her pull me off course. We will let the hours lapse and the afternoon drift. When she looks at me, and even when she doesn’t, I will embrace her in the shine of my smile.

Today, for a moment more than I think I can bear, I will give her attention. I will give you attention. I will give this world my complete attention. I will give it the sun.

Chapter 16, Hand Wash Cold