Like a Stone

poolWhen my youngest brother was a toddler, he managed to fall into a swimming pool, diapers and all, and sink straight to the bottom where he sat (he claims today) eyes open wide, gazing around while he waited for our oldest brother to jump in and pull him out. (Which he did.)

Possibly, knowing Paul, while he was waiting he continued calmly pondering on with whatever deep philosophical problem he’d been preoccupied with when he tumbled in.

Leaving aside for now the question of why the grown-ups–our parents and the friend who owned the pool–didn’t notice, it’s the image of Paul at the bottom of the pool I want to talk about.

Because that’s me and always has been. Sitting at the bottom of the pool, in over my head, at times waiting not-so-patiently to be pulled out because I don’t have the life skills to rescue myself.

(The grownups–yes, those two–were too preoccupied with their own insanities to have taught those.)

Yet time after time, I did figure out a way to get myself afloat again. No matter which deep pool clueless-me got tossed into. And I was usually fairly clueless, indeed.  I learned I was leaving Tennessee at fifteen to go north to Exeter, for instance, when I came home from swimming (seems to be a theme here) and found an admissions rep in our living room. I sat on the piano bench, still in my wet swimsuit, and answered his questions without a clue what it was I was getting into. It’s a boarding school, I told my friends, like where girls go to learn to ride and dance. Which is what I’d gleaned from reading various British girls’ books.

Not.

But I figured out how to survive there, even to thrive.

A scenario repeated again and again.

lake

So why so hard this time around to figure out how to navigate the deep waters of empty nest (to wildly mix metaphors) and ended (homeschooling) career?

Maybe because we’re less resilient with age? Maybe something to do with the peculiar situation of living in such isolation in our remote mountain cove? Or maybe I just haven’t been trying hard enough?

It doesn’t actually matter why. The point is I’ve got to figure out how better to push off the bottom.

Because big brothers aren’t usually around to pull us out.

 

 

 

 

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National Celebrate the Wrinkles Week

Guido_Reni_-_Portrait_of_an_Old_Woman_-_WGA19292“You don’t look old enough to have a son who’s almost 30,” the radiation tech told me yesterday when I went in for a repeat mammogram.

I would have hugged her, except I was pinned to a machine. They were definitely the best words I’d heard all week.

(OK, the “all clear” from the doctor afterwards was pretty nice, too.)

My question is, why does it matter so much? We–I–pay lip service to the politically-correct and mentally-healthy stance that looks don’t matter, that the aging/aged face and body is as beautiful as the youthful.

But do we mean it? Do we mean it when we’re looking in our own mirror?

“Aging well” should refer to how physically active and independent a person is as they approach whatever number we now define as “elderly.”old-man-1208210_960_720

But don’t we usually mean the person looks young for their age? Is wearing well? Is maybe a tad less wrinkled and saggy than expected?

Given that many of us in this well-nourished country may well live into our nineties, don’t we need to think hard about what we’re going to look like as we get there? And appreciate that? Because who wants to spend the remaining however-many decades comparing the face in the mirror to the one we had at 18? Or worse, to the faces of the twenty-somethings we see on television or in front of us at the grocery store?

I think I’m declaring this National Celebrate the Wrinkles week. old woman.jpeg

Fall of Pope Francis?

I had to smile last week when I saw the brief video clip of Pope Francis in Mexico yelling at whoever pulled at his arm and sent him toppling onto a young man in a wheelchair.

francis falls

No, I’m not celebrating the infliction of pain.

But isn’t it just so “us?” To be so eager to touch the celeb that we completely forget about the message of peace and mercy the man is preaching?

So greedy to get one of the free rosaries he’s handing out that we forget what they’re often used for, to pray for peace, to pray for others?

More, More, More, Said the Baby is the title of a children’s book, but so often, wouldn’t you say it’s the mantra of our lives? more more more

I have to wonder if one of the reasons the current election is so heated is because we’re so greedy for more, more, more. So ready to knock anyone threatening our goodies out of our way, and the common good (does anyone think about the common good anymore?) be hanged.

Nearly said “damned,’ but this did start out as a post about the Pope. Though, as that fall shows us, he can lose control of his temper. Like the rest of us. Sure he got mad. If I were almost 80 and somebody knocked me over, I’d be pretty ticked, too. It’s to his credit that all he shouted was, “Don’t be selfish! Don’t be selfish!”

Which is another point. The Pope is like the rest of us. He’s not God, he’s not Jesus, he’s not a saint, and he’s not supposed to be worshipped. Listened to, if we will, because of what he represents, not because he’s a superstar.

But isn’t it just like us, to be so excited by the presence of power that we overlook its message.  Ignore the fact that grabbing onto the Pope’s coattails, so to speak, isn’t going to get us anywhere. We have to actually do the work. Practice the mercy he’s advocating, for instance. Which loosely translates as looking out for others.

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(Felix de Weldon (US-american): Monument to Richard Kirkland, 1965, Fredericksburg. This sculpture depicts the well known incident in Fredericksburg where a Confederate soldier, Sergent Richard R. Kirkland, risked enemy fire to bring water to the injured Union soldiers in front of Mayre’s Heights.)

Except–well, it’s a lot more fun to get a selfie with a celebrity.

And a free rosary.

Made to Measure

Wooden_ruler_used_for_measuring_cloth_in_a_Bangalore_tailor_shop

Some people are good with rulers. I’m not one of them. My best relationship with a ruler occurred decades ago when we lived in England for a year. Every new entry in every essay book we kept for every subject had to have a perfect line drawn separating it from the entry above, a little the way you use those long black thingies in a check-out line to separate your groceries from those of the person ahead of you. I was good at drawing those lines, once I learned how not to leave long smears of ink from the fountain pens we were required to use.

So the task of creating an arrangement of family photos on our living room wall continues to daunt. Aka frustrate. (Aka madden.)

pics on floor

Because I have to measure. (Not to mention use a level.) I know that in this, the continuation of my second freshman year, I’m supposedly reveling in learning new skills. But precision work like that makes me want to throw things.

You might ask, why, then, am I so interested in learning to quilt? A craft that requires precision at every infinitesimal step? Answer: I’m still in the delusional, what-pretty-fabric stage.

It hasn’t helped my photo project that some of the frames I’m using come from my grandparents’ house and are some sixty fragile years old. Nothing worse than finally getting to the hanging-picture-on-accurately-placed nail moment and having the frame fall apart. (Glass breaks when it hits a wood floor.)

My point (I do have one) is that I’m just not a precision person. The art of eye liner, for instance, continues to elude. One of my uncles (now deceased) a physics teacher at Exeter was probably a precision person. One, at least, of my sons has inherited the gene. And while it’s true we can learn new skills, and especially as we age probably should to stimulate our brains, we can’t become what we’re not. Which I’m always wanting to do. Become the person who’s the life of the party instead of the empress of all introverts. Become the person whose phone vibrates every few minutes because so many friends are texting in (see above). Become, for the moment, anyway, the person to whom marketing oneself comes so naturally that it won’t take longer to write the query letter to prospective literary agents than it did to write the 60,000 word novel.

But–I’m stuck with me. Like it or not. And maybe that’s one of the most basic skills I need to be learning: how to live with what I’ve got.

 

Lent, Lengthening, Lightening

Lent looms.

Actually, if you’re reading this anytime after its moment of writing, it may already have started. Better polish off those chocolates. (I’m working on it.)chocolate

OK. You already know I’m talking about the forty days before Easter that Catholics and others observe as a season of fasting, penitence, prayer and almsgiving to prepare for Easter. (The purple season.)Liturgical_year.svg

What I keep forgetting, is that despite all dire predictions of having to give up this or that and the darker hangings in the church, it’s really a joyful time. The word itself means “spring”, from the anglo-saxon word, “lencten,” from a word meaning “lengthening.” Which the days are doing, have you noticed? I mean, I know it’s snowing outside and we’re shivering in the teens and twenties again, but we’ve had our whiffs of spring, and the real thing is only weeks away. Really.

daffs

My other thought about Lent I’m stealing from our deacon, who stole it from the late scripture scholar Fr. John McKenzie. You know how Lent is associated with the forty days Jesus spends fasting and praying in the desert. You know how many significant events happened to the Israelites there (think Moses and his forty years of wandering). Fr. McKenzie pointed out that one thing about the desert–or really, any wilderness–is that if you don’t focus, you die. Take your mind off where you’re stepping, where you’re headed and how you’re going to get there, and you–get lost, starve to death, freeze to death, you name it. Focus, or die.

(Not to be confused, this day of New Hampshire’s primary, with their state motto.)

NH

All Lent really is, when you come down to it, is a time when we’re invited to keep our focus on what matters. Invited to strip ourselves of everything else, all the things that aren’t essential (you don’t want to be toting a lot of luggage in the desert): Others’ opinions of us. The chase after more money and more fun. These lovely comfortable habits, whatever they may be, that keep us from paying attention to God, that confuse us into believing that because we’re so safe and comfortable, we don’t need anyone else.

Actually, back to New Hampshire. “Live free or die” is all very well on a political level. On a spiritual level, it’s fatal.

Lent helps us realize this. For forty days we’re invited to leave behind safe and secure–where we think we’re free and independent– and step into a wilderness where it’s all-too-obvious that we’re dependent beings. (Ever been lost in the woods at night? Ever notice where your thoughts go when you are?)

We’re invited to recall that no matter how many creature comforts we possess and crave, they’re not, in the end, what keep us safe.

We’re invited, in this season of light-returning, to lighten ourselves of what blocks us from seeing that.

ash wednesday

Happy Lent!

 

St. Thomas Who?

I know I just posted yesterday, but I can’t help it: I’m back. Because today, January 28th, is the memorial or feast day of St. Thomas Aquinas, and I had to say something about him.

 

St-thomas-aquinas

Please note: I’m not a philosopher or great reader of philosophy, and everything I say about this colossal man and mind is from a layperson’s point of view. If you really want to understand him, one entryway would be to watch one of Bishop Robert Barron‘s Youtube videos, beginning, maybe, with his Reflections on Thomas Aquinas.

I was first drawn to Thomas from a young adult biography that a local library was throwing out (the way I get a lot of my books). I wondered, after reading it, how could they toss out such a story? Fiction couldn’t create more drama: when Thomas wants to join the Dominicans, his brothers kidnap him from school and imprison him for an entire year. When finally allowed to study, he is so large, slow, and quiet, his classmates and professors call him–literally–a dumb ox. How can all us underdogs not feel for this figure? Then, in classic Ugly Duckling narrative pattern, when he does start to speak, he is so brilliant and so prolific that the Catholic Church came quickly to consider him its greatest theologian and philosopher.

Gentile_da_Fabriano_052What continues to attract me to St. Thomas is his role in my own faith life. If someone so learned spent so much of his life composing brilliant arguments for the existence of God, who am I to second guess? Of course I continue to have questions, doubts, irritations, but fundamentally, I love his point that every single thing on this earth is contingent, that is, couldn’t exist without being caused, at some point, no matter how far back, no matter HOW far back, by something else. And, that being the case, there has to be some thing which, no matter how far back, kicked off the whole process. Is itself not contingent upon anything. But simply is. Or, as God said to Moses when asked his name, “I Am Who I Am,”, “I Am Who Am.” Unlike us, God simply is. Is the essence of ‘isness.’

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Do I understand that? In a feeble way, a balloon-of-argument-brushing-against-my-earthbound-mind-before floating-on-up kind of way.

What I appreciate from this is that for once (and for all, if I can hang onto  Thomas’s kind of faith), I could hit the pause button on my interminable and exhausting mental circling, “what am I? what’s my purpose? what am I doing?” Because if there’s really only one thing that exists on its own, that provides, that IS, its own meaning, I can take a break from frantically trying to figure out, seek, impose, meaning on my own life. If Thomas’s God exists, and I dare you to try to argue (with Thomas) otherwise, we, each one of us, even me, have meaning already.

That takes a lot of pressure off my day.

P.S. You do know, don’t you, that Catholics don’t pray TO saints, ie confuse them with the divine. They ask saints to pray FOR them.

Peeling

apple

 

How do you eat apples? Are you a peeler? Or, like me, do you eat every shred, skin and all, and feel cheated if some zealous hostess has removed it? (In a pinch, I’ve been known to eat carrots straight out of the bag, with a little hasty rinse. Confessions of a carrot addict: topic for another post.)

It takes effort to peel away skin, yes? Remember that gruesome description in Jan Karon’s first Father Tim novel about the woman in the burn unit whose scarring skin had to be sliced off, infinitesimal layer at a time, in a procedure known to make the staunchest nurse blanch?mitford book

That’s how hard I think it can be to correct depression on your own. Nearly impossible, that is, because that dark, “nothing-works-out, I’m-no-good, there’s-no-point” sensation can take over the veritable soul. Become one’s very being, and how hard it is to step outside that?

There are apparently apps that help you replace negative thoughts with positive ones. Hello? If it were that easy, don’t you think I’d be the Joan Rivers of the cove by now?

I guess that’s why they call depression a mental illness, with emphasis on the illness: you can’t talk yourself out of having a fever or a broken foot, either. Though I’ve tried the latter, walking around for a few days before a doc called back to say they’d misread the x-rays and to get off of it pronto.

But I don’t like that term. It still conjures up images of barred windows and wild-eyed patients. Of Bedlam. And if I, over-educated 21st century creature with plenty of experience of “soul sickness” still hear those echoes, is it any wonder there’s a stigma attached in society in general?

Time to end the shame. Time to help peel away the layers of shaming, discrimination and fear associated with having any sort of mental illness. So that we aren’t doubling the pain of those who are already suffering.

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