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.
Although 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.
So 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.
To 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.
With 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
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)
- 2 cups unbleached, all purpose flour
- 1 1/2 cups sugar (I use half white and half brown sugar)
- 2 teaspoons baking soda
- 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1 teaspoon cardamom
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 4 cups slightly tart apples: peeled, cored and roughly chopped
- 1 cup roughly chopped walnuts or pecans
- 1/2 cup melted sweet butter
- 2 eggs, lightly beaten
- confectioners sugar for sprinkling on top
- 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!
- Preheat oven to 325. Using butter, grease a baking pan (approximately 13 x 9 x 2)
- Into a large bowl sift together flour, sugar, baking soda, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg and salt.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.