bucket list

photo copy 6On Tuesday afternoons this past year I’ve been a traveling yoga teacher, lugging a bag full of straps and foam blocks and lavender eye pillows to a small elementary school in a nearby town.

My students, a dedicated handful of regulars, are all in their sixties, including the school principal and her now retired husband, who once taught English to my son Jack. We work gently together, accommodating a tricky hip (mine), chronic back pain, osteoporosis, balance issues, and the inevitable assortment of aches and injuries that are simply part of the territory now that we are no longer young.

Last fall, on the first afternoon I arrived at the school to teach, I was surprised by a few sudden tears the minute I walked through the front door. It hit me – suddenly, although certainly not for the first time — just how far down the road I’ve traveled from all that transpires each day in this tidy, welcoming brick building.

Everything I saw brought back a memory: The box of lost-and- found baseball caps and tangled sweatshirts, the collection of canned goods for the food pantry accumulating in the foyer, the children’s bright artwork on the walls, the sight of a lone L.L. Bean backpack forgotten in a corner, the distinctive smell of kids and chalk dust and used books and half-eaten lunches.

The question rose up hot and fierce as a reprimand in my chest: “Had I loved my life enough?”

The honest answer? Probably not. [continue…]

This is 55

H & KI’ve been fifty-five for a little over a week now. Rounding this corner, finding myself squarely in the long-shadowed afternoon of my own life, has given me pause.

I’ve spent a lot of time lately gazing out the window in my kitchen, watching the sunlit leaves float from tree to ground.  The days, the hours, even the moments, feel ripe and full — time to be cherished rather than rushed through.

And so, on this autumn afternoon I shut my laptop.  For the first time in years, I pick up a pad of paper and a pen instead.  I grab a sweater and head outside to write.  Perhaps what I’m yearning for is a different kind of knowing – words that come from the still, silent place in my soul, a glimpse of my own depths, some intimation of my rightful place in the world now that I’ve crested the arc of life and begun my descent down the other side.

55.  How strange it feels to write that pair of fives, to associate them with me. Have I really been alive that long, half a century plus five?  And what exactly am I, now that I’m no longer technically middle-aged but not exactly old yet, either?

I turn to a fresh page, brush a stray leaf from my hair.  [continue…]

A Wedding Anniversary

Twenty-five years ago last week, my husband and I were married in this small church in Maine before fifty friends and family members. When I was in my twenties and living in New York, and Steve was in Boston, my parents’ house on Bailey Island was our favorite get-away, a patch of windswept neutral territory where we could walk and talk for hours, learning how to be together, how to share a bed and a kitchen, how to live together as a couple before returning to our separate lives in separate cities. It seemed only fitting that we marry in this place that meant so much to both of us, a place where we had already begun to create a history of shared memories.

All through the summer of 1987, we worked to get ready; our wedding would be, by design, a do-it-yourself affair, simple and modest and of our own making. We asked the elderly couple who ran the seasonal Driftwood Inn if they’d be willing to stay open the weekend after Labor Day for us. “No kitchen, though!” Mrs. Conrad said, wagging a finger at me. Whereupon I assured her we’d be happy to feed everyone ourselves.

I remember all the weekends Steve and my brother and my dad spent painting the house that summer. My mom and I gathered vases for flowers, scoped out sources for hydrangeas around the island, asked a woman down the road if she’d take the pictures and the firemen’s wives if they’d be willing to put on a fish chowder rehearsal dinner at the library the night before.

I bought my dress off the rack at Filenes, while on my lunch break from work one day, and then came back to the editorial offices at Houghton Mifflin and proudly announced to my fiancé that it was in the bag – a plain ivory lace tea dress that I adored all the more for the fact that it fit me perfectly, cost only $200, and had taken less than forty-five minutes to choose. We picked up a couple of cases of champagne at Marty’s Liquors in Newton and drove them to Maine in the trunk of our car. The morning before the wedding, Steve and a few other guys put up our rented yellow and white striped tent and laid down a dance floor. My mom made fruit salad and cheese strata. While my husband-to-be hit tennis balls with his friends, I took a long run, from one end of the island to the other, taking care so as not to cross paths with my man before we met at the altar. And then I sat down on a rock on the beach and stared up at the sky, wondering what the life we were about to embark upon held in store for us.

My memories of that day a quarter century ago are all good. I loved our wedding – loved the way my family worked with us to realize our vision, loved having all the people we cared about, from all the disparate parts of our lives, gathered together in one place just to bear witness to our vows, loved the fact that our married life began at the intersection of sea and sky, loved the long walk my new husband and I made from the church to the reception, strolling along alone, hand in hand, while all our guests drove by, honking and waving.

Last Wednesday, on our anniversary, Steve pulled the photo album off the shelf. He had taken the day off from work to celebrate with me, but our plans were thwarted. Laid flat by a stomach flu, I was too sick even to look at the pictures, let alone go out to dinner or rouse myself for a meaningful conversation with my husband of twenty-five years. While Steve waxed nostalgic, I lay curled up on the couch under a blanket, nauseated, dehydrated, exhausted, and bearing little resemblance to his radiant bride of yore.

Every once in a while, I’d make my way to the bathroom for a few sips of water and cringe at my own pasty reflection in the mirror. Meanwhile, my husband gave up all hope of enjoying a fun day off with me and tackled a few household projects. Lying on the couch, watching him push the lawn mower around the back yard, I tried to conjure in my mind the guy I married — the lean, handsome publishing executive with dark curly hair and an athlete’s build. Time was, my heart would go wild just looking at him.

What happens now is different, of course. The bright fireworks of first love settle, over time, into a long, slow burn, both darker and richer. The years have humbled us. We no longer believe, as we did on our wedding day, that we can do a better job of being married than everyone else. We’ve had our share of pain and fury, misery and misunderstanding, forgiveness and absolution.

I once read that in marriages that last, each partner can still see in the other the same person they fell in love with all those years ago. Even the physical diminishments of age or illness can’t obliterate the ever-present memory of youthful beauty, or extinguish the recollected spark of first passion. And even as bodies grow old and frail, there remains a powerful spiritual connection, an unwavering belief in the power of this union, a profound sense that each partner is far greater together than either could be alone.

That makes sense to me now. When I look at my husband these days, I see a 63-year-old father of two grown sons, but I can also easily conjure the tender young groom who slipped a ring on my finger half a lifetime ago. Still, I had to laugh, thinking that if I could have had a glimpse, on my wedding day, of the two of us on our 25th anniversary, I would have been seriously underwhelmed: an aging bald guy in a sweaty T-shirt mowing the lawn; a pale, wrinkled woman with a severe case of bed-head, sprawled on the sofa.

And yet, the thing that surprised me on our anniversary was realizing just how content I felt with the way things were, even though the day itself was hardly what we’d hoped for. The celebratory dinner out can wait. And we already have the one thing that really matters: twenty-five shared years, testament enough that ours is a love that will go the distance, for as many more years as time and fate will grant us.

Steve and the boys went out for pizza on our anniversary, and I stayed behind and sipped a cup of mint tea. When they got home, Steve sat down next to me in the kitchen, put his arm around me, called me his “bride.” And so it is that, in the best possible way, love truly is blind.

Kindness

It wasn’t much of a day for celebrating, this rainy Wednesday. In years past we’ve marked my husband’s June birthday with lobster dinners in Maine, or hiking with our boys and our friends on Monhegan Island. There have been poems written, surprise parties thrown, memorable gatherings around our porch table, cards and presents and cakes and people. But yesterday I could offer none of those things.

I’d spent the day before having surgery on my face for a small skin cancer that required excision and some careful reconstruction, and as of yesterday morning I was still loopy from the anesthesia. I had a swollen, bandaged temple, stitches, pain when I smiled or frowned. It was raining. Our kids are both away at their summer jobs. How to create a birthday out of this?

We thought about going out to dinner, but Steve said he’d rather be at home. And so I mustered the energy to shop for food, then stood in the rain in the parking lot at the grocery store, trying in vain to keep my face bandage dry while shoving my key into a car door that wouldn’t open. Of course it wouldn’t — after a few seconds of fruitless key-jamming, it finally dawned on me that I was trying to force my way into someone else’s car. I had no idea where my own might be, so I wandered around for a while till I finally found it, and then I realized I had no memory whatsoever of parking it. No wonder the doctor had told me not to drive for a day!

Home at last, I hauled in the grocery bags, took a couple of extra-strength Tylenol, put the entire Van Morrison play list on the stereo, and spent the afternoon making lasagna, salad, a chocolate cake with chocolate frosting. The rain came down. The kitchen filled with good smells. And I found myself surprised by gratitude.

Twenty-five years I’ve written birthday cards to this man, and it suddenly occurred to me that the only thing either of us really wants now is a decent shot at twenty-five or so more. We are at an age, and at a stage in life, where we’re reminded on a daily basis that we would be fools to take any moment of any of this for granted. Life is a gift, not a promise. And for today, anyway, we hold that gift intact in the palms of our hands — our good health, our togetherness, our love, our future.

There is nothing like a day spent in the hospital to remind you just how precious a day NOT spent in the hospital is. Nothing like a minor health scare to make you praise God for every single working body part. Nothing like a little operation, and a few hours lost to the nowhere land of anesthesia, to make you fall to your knees and kiss the solid ground of your own messy, mundane, incredibly lovely life. Nothing like checking out for a day to make you want to shout with joy at the simple fact that you are being allowed, this time, to check right back in.

My husband came into my post-op cubicle on Tuesday afternoon to listen to the going-home instructions just as I was coming to, landing back in my own body after flying through the oblivion of sedation. He smiled when he saw me and kissed my head, never letting on for one single second that he was shocked by what he saw: my sagging face, my paralyzed brow, my eye drooping shut like a stroke victim’s. He had no idea, then, whether or not this new lopsided version of me was permanent, but I’ll forever give him credit for not registering one iota of dismay at the sorry, crooked sight of me.

(It wasn’t until I got a look in a mirror myself, an hour later, that I appreciated what he’d done for me, comprehended the grace and the fortitude of that smile.) This, I venture to say, is what old, seasoned love is all about: being able to produce a heartfelt, adoring expression even when your spouse looks like hell, even when she can’t stand up to put her own pants on, even when you’re asked to push her down the hall in a wheelchair, even when you don’t know for certain if she is destined to look forevermore like a bad Cubist painting.

Darkness fell early last night, despite the fact that it was the second longest day of the year. I lit some candles, opened a bottle of champagne, served up dinner, gave Steve a card. My husband is sixty-two. I remember the year my own dad turned sixty, how very old he seemed to me then. Now, I can’t help but wonder how we ended up here ourselves, with so many years suddenly behind us and not quite so many left ahead. I want to live them well. When I ask myself how to do that, two simple words come to mind: “Be kind.” Such a modest aspiration. Such a formidable challenge. Such an essential instruction.

This morning, I filled the bathtub with hot water, climbed in, and then called my husband to the bathroom to give me a hand. While he held a towel over my bandage, I washed my hair. Another humbling first. What else, I wonder, will we be asked to do for one another as age creeps in and exacts its toll? “Before you know what kindness is,” writes Naomi Shihab Nye, “you must lose things, feel the future dissolve in a moment, like weakened broth. What you held in your hand, what you counted and carefully saved, all this must go so you know how desolate the landscape can be between the regions of kindness.”

This, I suspect, is the territory that lies just ahead and around the curve of today. A place where loss grows familiar, where joy becomes inextricably bound with sorrow, where endings outnumber beginnings, and where, as we make our tender peace with things as they are, “only kindness makes sense any more.”

A small gift from the sea

It’s a long way — in both miles and mindset — from the silent morning sadhana at Kripalu to my parents’ house in Florida, where my family convenes each March for our sons’ spring break.  By the time I arrived last Saturday night, fresh from my month of yoga immersion, Steve and Jack were already here and in full vacation mode — tennis, hot tub, read, swim, more tennis.  Henry’s plane landed an hour after mine, and then, for a couple of perfect, too-short days, we were all here, making meals, reading our books, playing Scrabble, hanging out with my mom and dad, and catching up in person for the first time since early February.

As usual, we found ourselves crowded into a booth at Chili’s.  Henry ordered a (legal) Margarita; the kids (I still call them that), in deference to me, agreed to vegetarian nachos; and we began to wax nostalgic, recalling the days when the annual visit with the grandparents also included Steve’s folks, as well as stops at every mom-and-pop variety store (in search of the newest packs of baseball cards), shell collecting at the beach, Little Rascals video marathons, mini-golf, and Peanut Buster Parfaits at the DQ.  The memories gave rise to lots of laughs, and I said something about how great it felt, how special it was, to have us all gathered here together. The boys reminded me that I say that exact same thing every single time we are together.  I suppose I do.  These days, when the four of us actually land in the same place at the same time it does feel like an occasion — always too short, always bittersweet, always special.

Monday we drove Jack across the state to meet up with his school tennis team for a bit of pre-season training, and this morning we dropped Henry off at the airport at 6:30 am for his flight back to college.  It was still dark when we pulled up to the curb, the remnant half of the fattest, closest moon on record lingering in the sky.  I watched my older son push through the revolving door and disappear into the bright terminal and felt a similar revolving effect in my own stomach, as the easy togetherness of these last few days was suddenly displaced by a wave of sadness.  It still gets me, just how alone alone feels every time we say good-bye to our sons.

With one more day here before our own flight home, Steve and I drove down the empty highway and up and over the long bridge to Sanibel, where we used to spend at least part of each winter vacation when our boys were little.  It’s been years since we’ve been back, but as we walked along the familiar stretch of beach and watched a new generation of young sand-castle-builders hard at work, every step seemed to give rise to a memory.

I’ve just spent a month practicing being fully present, and yet strolling along the water’s edge this morning I seemed utterly incapable of simply being in the moment.  Sanderlings scurried along at our feet.  The sun rose higher in the sky, the water was perfect, the beach filling with families and sunbathers and shell collectors, all intent on milking their varied pleasures from the day.

And I found myself fighting back tears, trying way too hard to savor a lovely walk with my husband while, at the same time, overcome with a swirl of emotions — missing my sons, missing the life we used to lead together, missing their vanished childhoods and our own younger, more innocent parenting selves.  How clearly I remember every bathing suit they ever owned; the big, cheap beach towels with hoods in the corners that could completely envelop a small, shivering boy; the bright, indestructible toys we stored at my mom’s house and hauled out year after year; the small, irresistible  plastic shark Jack once “borrowed” from another little kid and failed to return, and his tearful confession at the end of the day when his guilty conscience got the better of him; the smell of suntan lotion slathered onto a small bony back; the taste of gritty cheese crackers and warm iced tea; the scrim of sand in the rental car; the bags of prized shells ripening and stinking in the back seat as we headed back down the causeway, windows open wide. . . .

Steve and I walked side by side, mostly in silence, for a mile or so, waves lapping at our feet, and then we turned around and made our way back.  I stooped and picked up a pale gray piece of a shell, broken, unidentifiable, but worn smooth as satin to the touch.  Somehow it seemed like the right one to slip into my pocket at the end of this less-than-wonderful morning, a battered fragment, far from perfect, yet weathered and beautiful in its own right.

There is an abbreviation known to everyone at Kripalu:  BRFWA.  It stands for Breathe. Relax. Feel. Watch. Allow.  In yoga class, this is a fine way to move into and out of poses, slowly and with awareness and compassion.  I think it is probably a pretty effective strategy for negotiating the inevitable ups and downs of everyday life as well.  I’ve been worried about how I can possibly incorporate all the learning of the last month back into my “real” life, how I can assimilate some of the changes I cultivated in class and turn them into new ways of being, even when I’m not on a yoga mat.  It was so easy to stay calm and centered while ensconced in “the bubble” of Kripalu, where all I had to do was show up and be myself in a room full of like-minded, equally dedicated souls.  But it’s so much more challenging to bring my “yoga self” back home and layer her onto my “mom self,” that self who seems at times to be comprised of equal parts of nostalgia for what’s over, worry about what might yet come to be, and yearning for the physical presence of grown children whose lives have (quite rightly) carried them away from home.

Breathe. Relax. Feel. Watch. Allow.  I wish I’d remembered these simple words at the beach this morning.  They might have given me a little more room to simply experience all my swirling feelings, without so much recrimination and self-judgment.  I might have allowed the sweet memories to wash through me rather than wishing for what can’t be.  I might have  allowed my tears to fall and then I might have taken a few deep breaths and allowed the sea air to dry my cheeks.  I might have held my husband’s hand and shared my feelings with him, and  allowed him to comfort me a little, instead of trudging along in silence as I did, convinced that I should somehow be doing a “better” job of walking on the beach.

So. Transformation doesn’t happen overnight after all, or even in a month.  And good-byes are always hard.  In the meantime, though, I will remind myself:  Breathe. Relax. Feel. Watch. Allow.