dear old(er):
my best apple cake
and the beauty of lying fallow


This is the fourth in a series of letters between me and my friend, author Margaret Roach, on the challenges (and joys!) of aging. I’m Old (just 56) and she’s Older (by 5 years). And since we’re surely not the only ones buying wrinkle creams, we decided to share our exchange with you, too. Be sure to read Margaret’s letter to me here.  (Our earlier letters are here.)

Dear Margaret (my oldER friend),

There is something about these shorter days and longer, darker, colder nights. I’m wondering if you’re feeling it, too: the urge to hunker, to shut off the computer and read print on a page instead of a screen, to sip hot tea from a mug, to dress in layers of soft, comfy clothes, fashion be damned.

I’m turning lights on in my kitchen most days by three in the afternoon. And although I’m able now to drive my car, the truth is I’d rather be inside, cozied up on the loveseat with some pillows under my knees and my new favorite book in my lap. The impulse to stay put, safe and warm at home, is as strong as any pull to be out and about shopping for groceries or visiting friends.

This place I’m in now – mostly homebound, healing from one hip replacement and preparing my mind and body for another in a few short weeks – is definitely an in-between kind of territory, what a psychologist might call a “liminal space.”

I’ve always loved that word, liminal, so evocative and poetic. But I looked it up just now to make sure I’m using it correctly. Turns out, it derives from the Latin word limens, which means threshold – and it refers quite specifically to a discomfiting time of ambiguity, of not knowing, of disorientation.

So, yes! Liminal it is. And holing up at home here between surgeries, I do feel as if I’m being taken apart and put back together again, physically and spiritually. No wonder I feel so bare and vulnerable, so uncertain of the future and so hesitant to make any firm plans – even for next week. My body is busy with its cellular healing, but I seem to be doing some quiet, private, emotional work as well, absorbing the recent loss of my beloved friend, of my own worn-out body parts, and even of my old way of being in the world.

Before you can begin something new, you have to end what used to be. Before you can become a different kind of person, you must let go of the old identity. Before you can learn a new way of doing things, you have to unlearn the old way.   ~ William Bridges

The active, busy, middle-aged life I took for granted just a short time ago is over. No more long runs at dawn. No more scampering up and down the stairs countless times a day. No more teaching yoga, bending over to pick things up off the floor, sitting cross-legged on my meditation cushion, or hurrying across a busy intersection. No more getting in and out of a car without a thought as to how my legs are bending.

I may do these things again in the future. But my new post-op life has yet to begin. Right now, I’m wearing white knee-high compression stockings and having my blood drawn every few days and taking very slow, very short walks as far as the next door neighbor’s house.

IMG_7553Although I do daydream a bit, trying to envision what it’ll be like to be pain-free and mobile once again, there remain some rather daunting challenges between my current perch on the couch and where I hope to end up six months from now: hiking and vacuuming and bike riding and forward bending.

In the meantime, here I am. On pause. Living in my body as a question rather than as a statement. Waiting and wondering what may be possible and where my new sense of purpose will come from. And asking that unsettling, age-old question that always bubbles up when I’m not really sure what I’m supposed to be doing: Now what?

As usual, I turn to wise writers in search of answers. A quick inquiry into liminal spaces yields this from theologian Richard Rohr, who reassures me that no one enjoys these awkward times of waiting and not knowing – but that they are always essential to growth.

It is when you have left the tried and true, but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is when you are finally out of the way. It is when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer. If you are not trained in how to hold anxiety, how to live with ambiguity, how to entrust and wait, you will run away. . . (you’ll do) anything to escape this terrible cloud of not knowing. ~Richard Rohr

Hmmm. Okay. I get it. In fact, I felt the same way when I left my publishing career for motherhood, and again when my two sons left home and I suddenly found myself out of a job, wondering if I’d ever feel needed or useful or fully engaged in life again. The “fertile void” of the newly empty nest was dark and uncomfortable but in time I found my way through it – or rather, I wrote my way through it and gave birth to a book.

Actually, I’m relieved to be reminded that this “cloud of not knowing” is an inevitable part of transformation – even if the only transformation I can see right now is my own self growing older. And it helps to be reminded that the way to rise to this challenge is to soften into it. To be still and listen carefully, to be a bit more open to what the universe seems to be handing me at this moment. Yet another gentle nudge, perhaps, to stop trying so hard to do more, and to “let be” instead?

It’s not so much that we’re afraid of change or so in love with the old ways, but it’s that place in between that we fear…it’s like being between trapezes. It’s Linus when his blanket is in the dryer. There’s nothing to hold on to. ~Andre Gide

I’m thinking of you too here, my friend. Seems to me we are both guilty of filling our days with lots of “to-dos,” only to wonder as the sun goes down what in fact we’ve actually done. We both tend to be hard on ourselves – whether its because new projects aren’t falling neatly into place or because our bellies and our chins aren’t as firm as they once were or because we seem to need nine hours of sleep these days instead of seven.

Well, maybe it’s time for both of us to embrace this in-between territory. Neither of us can call ourselves middle-aged, but we can’t claim crone status, either. We’re each really good at filling our days with busyness, but we aren’t quite sure of our own next steps. We aren’t who we used to be a few short years ago when we first met (each of us shepherding new memoirs into the world), but we’re not quite clear on who we’re becoming or what we’re meant to be doing next.

FullSizeRender-1So maybe we take our cues from nature. There is a difficult discipline to finding ease and beauty in these stark days of November. Autumn is over, but winter has yet to begin. The outdoor chores are finished (I did not get the last of my own bulbs in the ground, but so be it), yet we are still a ways off from snow boots and driveways to shovel. See the parallels? In my own garden, one tiny black-eyed Susan, poking up between the paving stones, seems determined to defy the season. But otherwise, the beds are barren, silent, still. And yet, as gardeners we both know there’s all sorts of work going on beneath the surface. Lying fallow is different from doing nothing.

IMG_7598To lie fallow is a gift. But we don’t really know how to do it. November, it seems to me, is a perfect time to practice a kind of contemplative intimacy with the unknown. Acceptance, yes. Surrender, even? Yes, although surrender isn’t the same as just hiding under the bedclothes and giving in.

Lying fallow is not about stagnating, it’s about making a friend of silence, being where we are, feeling everything, and beginning to listen more carefully to the voice of the heart. It’s about trusting that the old story is already being transformed into a new story, and that growth and healing and regeneration will always happen if we’re patient. Perhaps that quality of humble, willing “here-ness” is what we can cultivate together.

IMG_7582With that in mind, here’s a glimpse of my day. Making my way slowly down the hallway in the early morning, I stop to notice the light. I marvel at a glowing door, at golden shadows dancing before me on the stairs. Stepping outside to watch the birds at the feeder, I feel the cold morning air on my skin and greet the place we live.  My husband, doing most of my chores these days, puts dishes away, tidies the kitchen after breakfast, helps me with my shoes and socks.  Once he’s gone to work, the empty hours stretch before me. I answer email and write some checks, a thank you card, a note.  I peel apples, grate nutmeg into a bowl of flour, stir batter and, slide a cake into the oven.  The sun pours in and the kitchen fills with good smells. I stand on my yoga mat and do some half sun-salutations, bending only partway over, breathing deeply, a beginner again as I learn to work with this new, untested version of my body. I write for a while and water the plants and talk with a friend who stops by to say hello. At dusk I lie on the couch, legs elevated, and reach for Mary Oliver’s luminous new book of love poems, Felicity, allowing her words to land in my heart.

No, I’d never been to this country
before. No, I didn’t know where the roads
would lead me. No, I didn’t intend to
turn back.

And it hits me: when I offer myself this kind of faith in myself, the berating, questioning voice becomes a more compassionate one. When I give myself permission to be with what is, each moment becomes precious. Any fruitfulness – whether it be this letter to you or a cake cooling on the counter – arises from this surrendered openness. It is a rare joy to allow a day to have its way with me. So here’s to liminal time and to not knowing and to this brief season of lying fallow. We can find life right here, rich and fertile, hidden between chapters.  (And we can eat well, too!)

your slow-moving friend

the only apple cake recipe you’ll ever need

I found this cake on the wonderful (and highly addictive Food52 site) and have tweaked it a bit over the course of many bakings.  Here’s my version:

  •  3/4 cups chopped dates
  • 1/2 to 3/4 cups apple brandy (actually any brandy will do)
  • cups unbleached, all purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 cups  sugar (I use half white and half brown sugar)
  • teaspoons baking soda
  • teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon cardamom
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • cups slightly tart apples: peeled, cored and roughly chopped
  • 1 cup roughly chopped walnuts or pecans
  • 1/2 cup melted sweet butter
  • eggs, lightly beaten
  • confectioners sugar for sprinkling on top
  1. About one hour before starting to bake, place the dates in a small bowl and cover with the  brandy. Stir from time to time and if they get too “tight,” just add more brandy!
  2. Preheat oven to 325. Using butter, grease a baking pan (approximately 13 x 9 x 2)
  3. Into a large bowl sift together flour, sugar, baking soda, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg and salt.
  4. Add the chopped apples, dates, nuts, melted butter and the eggs. This will be a very heavy, thick batter but don’t worry — just be sure to mix it well.
  5. Spread in the prepared pan, place on a rack in center of the oven and bake for 1 hour. Test with a skewer — if it comes out still a bit gooey, bake for another 5 to 10 minutes. You’ll know when it’s done. It will be a nice dark tan color and will spring back to a light touch.
  6. Remove from oven, let cool a bit. This is delicious hot, warm or cold, for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. It’s as good served with a slice of sharp cheddar as it is with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.  It’s a humble looking cake; if you want to dress it up for guests, sprinkle each serving with a dusting of confectioners sugar.
for my reflections & inspiration

your comments

  1. from meditation on liminal (i too had not realized the element of the definition that suggests “discomfit”), to contemplating fallow v. stagnant, to delicious apple cake, you feed me, always. may you be wrapped in that golden light that streams in, and may these weeks fill you in all that you’ve been hungering for….

  2. Katherine S says:

    I LOVE the letters between you two. Been following you both for so long you feel like friends. The content today was perfect timing for me. Thank you. Sending much love and healing energy.

  3. Katrina,
    Thank you for this latest post. Here at the end of the year with “threshold” as my word, you remind me of all the things I wanted to feel, get comfortable with, write about and then got busy doing other things. Perhaps this post is a nudge from the Universe to take stock, again, of the liminal. (Great word, BTW).

    How ironic that my husband would be diagnosed with ALZ and I would break my ankle in three places. Talk about new thresholds to cross. And quiet time to pause and regroup. Which of course I did not do. For 2 months I sat with my leg elevated bemoaning my lot in life and doing little soul searching. I knew what I should be doing, just didn’t feel much like doing it. Opportunity lost except for a couple good essays which I’ve yet to submit anywhere.

    In the last week I discovered the magic of compression socks. Even saw a place on line where you can get them in prints. Might as well have a little fun, right? I’m seeing light at the end of the tunnel and realizing I’ve squandered me time, I won’t be able to reclaim.

    But here it is the season of gratitude and giving. My prayer would be to begin to look outward (as opposed to staring at the ground so that every step I take is level). Always your posts remind me of the beauty all around, of friendship, and even the gifts of grief.

    I wish for you a quick recovery and many liminal moments,

    P.S. My grandmother made a similar apple cake. I wonder if the tea-totaler in her forgot to mention the apple brandy!

  4. Bobbie Blythe says:

    Thank you for the apple cake recipe and the term “Liminal space”.
    I’ve been there, but didn’t know what it was called. I’ve written and pondered about it. Anyone who has lived past middle age has experienced that place. I was there during what they usually call a “painful” divorce. I was certainly there — disoriented and uncomfortable in a strange part of the country — during the months I cared for an elderly relative through the last months of his life. I visited that place again some years later while recuperating from a life-altering surgery.
    And, of course, we all have short, minor visits to liminal spaces. I’m in one now, recuperating from a torn rotator cuff which has put my gardening chores on hold. This is the time of year in the subtropics when we get a renewed burst of energy with the abating of the endless summer. But not for me right now. I’m looking out the window at a sadly overgrown border that needs pruning and empty pots on the deck that are hungry for winter annuals to be stuffed into them. I’m feeling that slight discomfort as I look outside at not being able to be my “normal” self.
    A psychiatrist once told me when we are in a transitional state, sometimes the best thing to do is float. Let your mind rest, unwind the mental rubber band that gets tighter the harder we fight mental turbulence. Like being caught in a rip tide, instead of struggling, it’s best to float and swim gently with the current until you make shore.
    I liked your metaphor of lying fallow. Resting, renewing.
    Best regards to Old and Old(er)
    From Old(est)

  5. Marilyn LePan says:

    Sounds like you are taking good care of your body as your new hip
    can adjust to your way of life, and healing takes time. Good for you!!!
    I just turned 69, when I was your young age i really wondered
    what my purpose was and struggled with getting older and then
    when I turned 60 I got my first grandchild and my heart and spirit
    came alive with this little guy, in the last 2 years I have added my 3rd and
    4th grandchild and my first granddaughter after having 2 sons and 3 grandsons
    this little girl appeared in my life and brings me so much joy, and I really hope you are blessed with
    grandchildren because I would love to read about them, they truly are angels
    from above and make senior years very special.

  6. Katrina,
    Thank you for your lovely sharing. Thank you especially for reminding me of the value of lying fallow. Resting a field is nourishing to the soil, allowing for a good yield – more maturity, more ability to accept, more wilingness to surrender? I have been experiencing a loss of faith of late. Your letter reminds me that the mystery of the pain I have been living through and railing against and feeling despondent about – the mystery is so rich. And I will know eventally what I need to know or be healed of or just be with and come out the other side – enriched in some way and grateful again.
    God bless you and yours.

  7. Thank you for the delicious recipe. I will be using it to pay back my wonderful friends when they come for dinner this holiday season, now that I can stand on both of my knees. My operation in September went well and I am so appreciative of everyone who made my recovery a bit easier. I certainly can identify with you, those white compression stockings, and time slowing down. I have had four replacement parts in fourteen years.
    I hope that I am done with hospitals for some time to come. I am so thrilled to be able to walk down even four steps like a normal person. Each day, I wake up and walk. What a glorious feeling to be able to two feet firmly on the ground without limping, and without pain. I feel truly blessed to be alive. My favorite spot is now the new recliner, a gift from my husband, a soft, warm blanket and Netflix.

  8. Thank you for the delicious recipe. I will be using it to pay back my wonderful friends when they come for dinner this holiday season, now that I can stand on both of my knees. My operation in September went well and I am so appreciative of everyone who made my recovery a bit easier. I certainly can identify with you, those white compression stockings, and time slowing down. I have had four replacement parts in fourteen years.
    I hope that I am done with hospitals for some time to come. I am so thrilled to be able to walk down even four steps like a normal person. Each day, I wake up and walk. What a glorious feeling to be able to two feet firmly on the ground without limping, and without pain. I feel truly blessed to be alive. My favorite spot is now the new recliner, a gift from my husband, a soft, warm blanket and Netflix.

  9. Karen Cooper says:

    Thanks again Katrina
    I have shed a tear as this resonated with me completely as I am still “finding my way” after a breast cancer diagnosis and multiple surgeries and chemo.

    All the best to you in your convalsecence and take good care as you prepare for your next surgery.

    i cant wait to try your recipe!

  10. Barbara Weber says:

    I rather haphazardly stumbled across your blog, eyes full of tears after learning from 2 Dr.s
    That a hip replacement was the only route t relieve my longstanding pain. Amid all the googled research, helpful hints, & sites for purchasing handicap gear….your blog gave me a dose of strength.
    Your blog speaks my own heart and mind as I reflect on coping with this surgery in January. I too have young adult kids in their launching stage. I was soooo looking forward to this chapter of life being finally full of adventures of my choosing.
    Anyway, time to pause and pivot my attitude to one of faith in the unknown journey,
    And shifting to optimistic meditations and reflection of making the best of the challenges.
    wIth gratitude , B

  11. Always so grateful for your wisdom, heart, and writing. Diana Fosha is a psychologist who writes about ‘transformance.’ Our innate neurobiology wired to self right and heal. She compares this proc as to a double helix of resistance (how we contract under stress) and transformance – both drives often present. I am struck as I work with many people under stress and trauma and loss by the power of transformation within us. Thank you again for your writing. You are only a few years ah ad of me in this journey but I treasure your willingness to share your thoughts.

  12. To all my cyber friends…we all share the love of Katrina’s posts which so easily put in words our thoughts and feelings, Liminal…a perfect word…sent it off to my 20 something daughters who also find themselves in that space.

    When I think of the things that rock the silence, I end up laughing at myself…I have more food to eat than I should, my health and sanity, a wonderful warm home, five grown, healthy, employed young adults and a wonderful partner to share life’s daily traumas. I am truly thankful for a full life.

    Thank you Katrina for sharing your heart…know that there are many wishing you a speedy recovery. Have a wonderful holiday season.

  13. Thank you for such a lovely perspective.

    Here, we are also in a liminal space. We know we will be leaving our current home for the next country in June, but we don’t yet know what country will be home. We can’t decide what to pack, I can’t decide what to buy as Christmas presents – it all depends on our next assignment. I told a friend last night that 5-year-plan kinda people shouldn’t become diplomats (or spouses to diplomats)- the uncertainty and the waiting is just maddening.

    At least I now know what I should be doing with myself while I wait to get furiously busy: This is the time to say goodbye to what is, before we reach for what’s next. What a gift.

  14. So beautiful, Katrina. I sit here reading this, this morning with our Christmas Tree and twinkle lights aglow. I sit here with Fireplace for Your Home on Netflix filling the room with soft Christmas instrumentals and ponder the words you have written. Thank you.

  15. Oh Katrina. This is wrenching. And a post I will read again and again because what you have described is what it is like to move every two years, to be in your car full of luggage and realize you have no home, that all of your stuff is on a boat or in a truck somewhere far away. And you have written about surgery and aging and being a teenager and having a newborn and getting a new job. You always write about the hard and real universal struggles and for this I am so So grateful. Linus’ blanket in the dryer, the kids leaving home, and the upcoming surgery. Brave friend, we are always in luminal space. Thank goodness we don’t always realize this! Sending you so much comfort and soft blankets in equal amounts of the ease and peace you create through your words.

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