Dear Older (Love, Old)

sonata - Version 2This is the first in a series of letters between me and my friend, author Margaret Roach, on the challenges (and joys!) of aging. I’m Old (just 55) and she’s Older (facing 60 this year). Who knows where it’s going, but since the subject keeps coming up, and we’re both writers…well, you get the idea. Listen in.  

Dear Old(er),

Yesterday afternoon, I spritzed on a bit of Sonata, and then I drove downtown to the lawyer’s office and signed my last will and testament.

I can tell you, seeing those words next to my own name at the top of the page was pretty strange – about as stark a reminder as I’ve had that, yes, the day will come when I won’t be here.

It’s funny how I can get so caught up in the minutiae of  my everyday life – the emails that need answers, the dishes in the sink, the bills on the desk, my annoyance at someone I can’t change or at something beyond my control – that I lose sight of the big things.

Such as the fact that although time and space are infinite, I am not.  No matter how I spend it, my own time will run out. There aren’t too many absolute truths in life, but this is one: nothing lasts, not even me.

Which is why I got up this morning and helped myself to another generous spray of Sonata, the nicest perfume I’ve ever owned (handcrafted at a tiny perfumery in Maine using all natural ingredients) and the only one I’ve ever loved.

The perfume was a Christmas gift from my dad.  Five years ago.  As you can see from the photo, the bottle is still full.  Yep. In five years, I’ve allowed myself to use my favorite perfume exactly twice.  Both occasions were formal weddings, so I felt they justified a bit of extravagance:  dressy necklace, expensive perfume. [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…]

Time in a bottle

photospent most of yesterday morning in the kitchen with my son Jack, windows open to the September air.  In ten days he will move to Atlanta to begin his new life there as a student.  But for now, the two of us find ourselves home alone together.  (Henry left last week to return to his alma mater, St. Olaf, where he’s helping out with the fall musical; Steve has been away for a few days on business. And so, it’s just two of us here, a rare mother-son combination that hasn’t happened for years and may not recur any time soon.)

All summer, I have mourned the end of summer.  Back in June, my family laughed at me for regretting the passing of time before the time I’d been anticipating had even arrived.  (Yes, I know, it’s crazy.) The days were still getting longer, they pointed out, and already I was imagining how I would feel when they began to grow shorter.  The lake water was perfect for swimming, and I was wondering how many more swims we would have. A piercing awareness of the preciousness, the transience, of everything is, I suppose, both the blessing and the burden of my temperament. It is also the price my family has to pay for living with me.  I am always reminding them (myself!) to notice, to appreciate, to be aware of all that is and of all we have.

The truth is, I write so much about inhabiting the moment largely to help myself remember that it’s where I want to be: simply present.  My tendency, always, is to live with a lump in my throat.  I experience the pain of endings even as I cherish the tenderness of beginnings.  I allow every joy to be shot through with a thread of sadness.  And I see in all that lives, all that has passed;  in all that is, all that one day will no longer be.

And so  I sit in my garden amidst the wildly blooming nasturtiums and feel the fleetingness of their splendor.  I adore our thirteen-year-old dog all the more for knowing her days are numbered.  (When she placed her head on the bed this morning at 6 am and pleaded for a walk, I swung right into action – because, of course, I can so easily imagine the future, when there will be no need to be out taking a hike at dawn.)  I fill our basement freezer with strawberries and blueberries and raspberries picked at the height of the season because I am always conscious of the season’s inexorable turning.

Hanging out with my soon to be 21-year-old son yesterday, I reminded myself to simply enjoy the moment, without layering on the fact that in a few weeks he’ll be in his own new kitchen a few thousand miles away and we’ll be texting instead of talking. [continue…]

Peonies

peonies embody the impermanence of lifeThe peonies at our house bloomed this week, bursting onto the scene with the fanfare of a chorus line. A hundred or more voluptuous beauties, as fragile as they are flamboyant, the impermanence of life embodied in all shades of cream and palest pink and scarlet. Each fleeting blossom is worthy of its own lipstick shade or rare perfume label.  For a day or two they hold their heavy heads up high and I snap photo after photo — trying, in vain of course, to somehow capture their brief moment of perfection. [continue…]

Thanksgiving

Tomorrow night, for the first time in months, both our boys will be home, everyone sleeping in their own beds under one roof.

And on Thursday afternoon we will gather round the table at my parents’ house for Thanksgiving dinner with the whole extended family. For well over forty years, with barely a miss, I’ve spent Thanksgiving in that very same kitchen, have eaten my dad’s grilled turkey and homemade ice cream, my mom’s pumpkin pie and peas and mashed potatoes. The cast of characters around the table has changed over time, of course. Various cousins and aunts and uncles and significant others and spouses have made entrances and exits. Dear loved ones have passed on and dear little ones have been born and grown up. And, along the way, each one of us has created our own enduring memories: brisk walks in the woods; skating on the pond (long, long ago, when there was ice in November); a fiance’s first appearance at the table; a grandfather’s final one; a grandmother’s last apple pie; a baby who is suddenly grown-up enough to sit with the adults; a sullen teenager miraculously transformed into a mature and engaging young man; an aunt and uncle determined to make a trip all the way from Florida so as not to miss dinner.

What’s been constant however, through all those decades, through all those comings and goings and births and deaths, is the house that somehow contains us all, the stories that get retold year after year as the plates are passed, and the presence in that house of my parents who, even as they’re rounding the corner toward eighty, still manage to make a Thanksgiving feast with all the trimmings look effortless.

Each year, when my mother gets out her old gravy-stained notebook and begins her Thanksgiving countdown (pretty much the same to-do list, whether there are going to be 8 of us at the table or 38, as there occasionally were in the old days), she pulls out the crayoned drawing my cousin Paul made thirty-five years ago, when he was seven, the one that says: “I love going to the Thanksgiving house.” My mom cherishes that faded picture; she always sticks it up on the refrigerator, where she can see it as she cooks. And then, three days before we all show up for dinner, she gets busy, shopping for groceries, making stock, setting the table, brining the bird.

My parents are the keepers of the sugar and creamer set shaped like turkeys (which always sort of grossed out my Uncle Chet, who didn’t like to see his cream pouring out of a ceramic gobbler). They have the ice cream maker, the pie servers, the turkey platter, the covered dishes, the baster and twine, the big cutting board and carving set, plenty of dishes and silverware to go around. The tried-and-true recipes, annotated for crowds. The notes my mom has kept, religiously, about who came to dinner and what was said and who was missed this year.

Even after all this time, my mother and father are happy to put the meal on the table for the rest of us – grown children, spouses, grandchildren, and assorted invited guests. All we have to do is show up and appreciate the gifts they gladly offer — not only the food but, even more important, a spacious day of togetherness. And so it happens that once again this week, my family will come together in the house that has always been home base for all of us. At the same time I can’t help but think: It will not always be so.

At 54 years of age, I have yet to cook a turkey myself. Somehow, thanks to my mom’s dedicated service in the Thanksgiving house decade after decade, it’s a rite of passage I’ve managed to avoid. But the day will arrive when the baster will need to be passed. I think I’m going to take myself out of the running. Henry is going over to his grandmother’s house tomorrow afternoon to give her a hand with the potatoes and the squash. He knows the drill, and I have a feeling he would be honored to inherit my mom’s Thanksgiving notebook when the time comes.

For now, though, I don’t want to contemplate the future, but to fully immerse myself in the present. Two grown sons both at home tomorrow night. A couple of too-short days of togetherness. Time set aside to slow down and take stock of all that is good. For gratitude, as we all know, is not a given but rather a way of being to be cultivated. It doesn’t come packaged like the Stouffer’s stuffing mix nor is it ensured by the name of the holiday. No, real “thanksgiving” requires us to pause long enough to feel the earth beneath our feet, to gaze up into the spaciousness of the sky above, and to stop and take a good, long, loving look at the precious faces sitting across from us at the dinner table.

Life can turn on a dime. Not one of us knows, ever, what fate has in store, or what challenges await just around the bend. But I do know this: nothing lasts. Life is an interplay of light and shadow, blessings and losses, moments to be endured and moments I would give anything to live again. I will never get them back, of course, can never re-do the moments I missed or the ones I still regret, any more than I can recapture the moments I desperately wanted to hold onto forever. I can only remind myself to stay awake, to pay attention, and to say my prayer of thanks for the only thing that really matters: this life, here, now.

I’d love to know: What are you grateful for today, here, now?

Friends: My new book Magical Journey will be in the stores in early January — just weeks away. In the meantime, I’ll post all the news, including where I’ll be and when, on my new Author page on Facebook. I would love it if you’d “LIKE” me there: http://www.facebook.com/kkenisonbooks

And of course pre-orders are ALWAYS appreciated. Order now, and have a book on your doorstep on January 8.