I used to love Alanis Morisette back in the days of my adolescent angst. She would scream and wail about scratching her nails down someone else’s back in the hope that her ex would feel it. She could see right through you, but all she really wanted was some patience and a way to calm the angry voice. One of my favorite songs on Jagged Little Pill was Ironic. And over 20 years later, it continues to be the song that rings in my head when I find myself in a situation such as this one. This one where I’m sitting in a cemetery trying to figure out what my blog post is supposed to be about, and when I finally locate the prompt, it simply says, “Aging.”
Isn’t it ironic, don’t you think? A little too ironic. Yeah, I really do think.
(Oh, and in case you’re a word nerd, I do know that this is actually just a coincidence and not truly ironic. But I could make it somewhat ironic if I told you that writing gives me life and I’m writing about aging in a cemetery. That’s a little ironic. Don’t you think? )
See, I was supposed to be at a monastery this morning. Not that being at a monastery makes any more sense than sitting in a cemetery. But I had a writer’s group meeting at the Community of Divine Love monastic library. Which after searching for for about 40 minutes and being redirected by some lovely ladies who were holding mops (which I was a little worried might be dripping into the Holy Water by the back door), I never found. However, I did find a bench where birds were chirping and stray cats were fighting and large raindrops were hitting the canopy of oak. This bench was adjacent to a small cemetery with impressively large granite markers that faced me. Square on. I almost joined the cats.
I can’t say I think much about aging. I mostly like the feeling of middle-aged contentment that comes with having a house, a husband, a couple kids and two dwarf rats. (Seriously, who can be fully content without a couple rats in the house?) I don’t have tests to study for. I don’t have papers to write. I don’t have boys to impress or jobs to interview for. It’s totally kinda nice to be 40 something and settled down.
And as I write that last line I shift over a bit to my left hip because my right one is aching from the hardness of this wooden bench. And I can’t really lift my left arm, because as much as I say I don’t need to impress the boys, I was actually trying to impress about 5 of them yesterday by climbing a rock in Joshua Tree. Granted the boys were only 10 years old, and granted I think my belayer was actually heaving me up the rock face. But still my lats and back feel like I just swam about 16 miles of breaststroke and then got run over by a herd of preschool tricyclists.
I am also a bit concerned that the sun screen didn’t quite do its job these last two days, and I might get a few more age spots that the dermatologist will stare at with this weird ultraviolet light and say, “Oh, yes, I see a few more coming up from the deep regions of your dermis.” You can’t see them yet, but those age spots are a comin’. Thanks chipper little dermatologist.
So maybe I am a little scared of aging. Maybe it does suck a bit. Maybe I brush with my big paint brush of contentment over unscraped peelings of worry and rawness.
I pause a minute, stare out at the grave yard and a gigantic headstone with “Wallis” written in large capital letters, and I think of the advice I gave a little girl just two nights ago. A precious lanky girl who was so scared to be away from home, in the middle of a desert. In a tent. With no running water and fairly tasteless camp food. She was working so hard all day. Pushing herself to try new things, attempt wild and reckless scrambling, blind and uncertain geocaching, washing her hands with a foot pump and a bucket. I had her back all day long, and when she couldn’t complete a task, we talked about how far she had gone, that each step was a success. That the journey was not about the destination.
But when the sun set and the time came for bed, tears sprang up from a deep well of fear. She missed her parents. She wasn’t going to be able to sleep (she hadn’t slept the night before either). She kept saying, “I’m so scared. I’m so scared,” sobs heaving from her tiny shoulders.
And I thought about what most of us adults try to do in that sort of situation. Give reasons why they needn’t feel that way. Attempt a logic override.
“Okay, here’s a list of 7 good reasons why you shouldn’t be scared. There are no coyotes. There are no armed extremists or even presidential candidates around. There is no one here to hurt you. The weather is good. I filled up your water bottle. You have a warm sleeping bag. You are safe.”
We try to fight feelings with facts.
Which is the most lopsided war you can wage. Facts will never, ever, in a million billion years beat feelings. Especially in a 10-year-old.
So as she’s sobbing there in my arms, shaking with fear. I said, “Oh, yes. You’re scared. That makes perfect sense.” Which shocked her into pulling back from me a little bit and looking into my eyes with this confused look like I was some sort of alien rather than chaperone.
“Why would you not be scared?” I continued, “You’ve never done this before. You’re not a fan of the dark. You don’t sleep away from home. And you’re lying on the ground in a tent. Scared seems to make perfect sense to me as the feeling that would say hello right now. Or really, say more than just hello, actually jump up and down while waving a large red flag with dramatic flair.”
“The good news,” I went on, “is that I can promise you the sun will come up tomorrow, and you will be there to see it. You might be scared all night long, you might cry, you might miss, you might shake. And then the sun will come up and you will see it. In the meantime, I will sit in this chair outside of your tent and be with you while you’re scared.”
So, I sat in a chair, wrapped myself in a blanket and stared at the stars. She read a book for a bit and then after about an hour, she fell asleep.
Yes, the night was long. Yes, I was awakened to tears. And yes, we both did see the sun the next day.
I’m looking back up at the cemetery now, and while I still feel quite content with my life, I want to allow space for the scared. Because aging hurts. Because the thought of getting old and dying is not pleasant. Because images of not being able to pick up my grandkids, or remember their names, or even get myself up off the toilet are miserable.
But I have a faith. A faith that says this life is not the last. That the sun will come up again, and I will be there to see it.
In the meantime, I want to pull up a chair by my tent, stare up at the stars and simply be with me. I will be with the part of myself that is content, and I will be with the part of myself that is scared. I will be with the part of me that is pissed off that I can’t run so well any more, and I will be with the part of me that needs more sleep. I will be with the part that squints and blinks because I can’t read the ingredients on a granola bar, and I will be with the part that has more patience, more acceptance and more grace than my 20-something version.
Aging is what it is. The sun will continue to come up. Days will continue to roll into night. Weeks will morph into years. Seasons will graduate into decades. I can try to pretend it doesn’t matter. I can become overwrought by its implications. Or I can open my arms in sweet surrender and accept. Both the beauty and the terror. The shaking and the stillness. The joy and the desolation.
Because the sun will come up tomorrow. I’ll have a few more wrinkles, a few less neurons and many more memories (the ability to recall said memories being a questionable point). I think my best bet is to accept each new stage–not with Pollyanna delight or with Freudian suppression–but with wonder and awe.
Taking in each tomorrow I get.
Trusting that even when the sun rises on my last day, things are only getting started.
****I’m in a blog roll with some truly lovely human beings, and fabulous writers. Read Staci’s thoughts on Aging Well here! ****