Things come from things

One of the first things I remember my husband, Will, saying to me when we met is, things come from things. It took me a while to understand his meaning but it was worth the wait.

As we get older it’s natural that we become less open to changes in our lives, more at ease with our routines and habits. At this stage of life we’ve tried many new things and chosen the ones we like best. I will always choose vanilla ice cream first because after tasting dozens of flavors over the years, I still like it the most.

But maybe we aren’t looking at our opportunities deeply enough. Maybe there is another layer of possibility hidden from view, a path to something greater not obvious at first glance.

My favorite example of this led to my marriage. I was helping my sister in her fledgling art gallery business and agreed to teach a children’s drawing class. Will answered an ad she placed for a children’s art teacher. We collaborated from time to time and a casual friendship developed. We were both married to other people at the time. Fast forward several months. Both now separated from our spouses, we ran into each other again and the rest is history. If we hadn’t each agreed to teach a children’s art class, we wouldn’t have found such a good friend in one another and formed the basis of our strong 15 year marriage. Things come from things.

During Will’s treatments for cancer, there were some very dark days. We were preparing ourselves for the worst and I found an outlet for my fear and grief through writing essays detailing my pain. I’ve always enjoyed writing, but it had been many years since I’d penned a word. When my friend, a newspaper editor, offered a class in non-fiction writing, I jumped at the chance to develop my skills. In addition to some much needed activity out of the house, I gained confidence in my ability and gathered the courage to begin this blog and to pursue other writing opportunities. I also made new friends. The challenge of coping with Will’s illness led me to writing again. Things come from things.

One of the friends I made in the class had a similar experience. Tasked with caring for an ill relative, she found it difficult to find resources to help her family. This inspired her to write a book about her experience and it has been a success, setting her on a new path as an award-winning author. I’m sure it never occurred to her as she dealt with the frustrating world of caregiving that this would be the result. Things come from things.

Last year I was feeling blue on Mother’s Day. It was the first one since my mother died and my only child was preparing to move away. To cheer me, Will suggested that we go for a drive and we wound up at a beautiful riverside park an hour or so away. As always, I had my smartphone with me and I took a number of photos during our outing. This led to a discussion of my love of photography and my lifelong desire to buy a good camera with which to pursue it. Over the next several months, I joined a couple of photography Facebook groups and I studied digital cameras, talked with friends about their camera preferences, and ultimately found a very nice setup in my price range on ebay. Many hours of happy (and occasionally frustrating) shooting later, I’m preparing my application to a juried photography exhibition. Things come from things.

So, my message is this: don’t reject the opportunity to do something different, or allow yourself to despair over life’s misfortunes. Sometimes the obvious is masking a great gift, perhaps a new love or a new vocation or a new friend. Embrace what life brings and stay open to the possibilities.

Things come from things.

Heirlooms: Blessing, Burden, or Bondage?

If you want to start a conversation quickly among a group of 60-year-old women, ask them how they feel about family heirlooms. I guarantee there won’t be anyone in the group without an opinion.

You can’t pick up a newspaper or magazine it seems without finding mention of Marie Kondo’s little tidying up book or the latest craze of Swedish death cleaning-the practice of disposing of your possessions before you die, to save your heirs the trouble. Minimalism is enjoying a resurgence in popularity and Ikea is bigger and better than ever. Everyone wants to show you what to do with all your extra stuff.

But I’ve not seen mention of the specific emotional turmoil felt by so many of us over family heirlooms. As a somewhat gently raised southern girl, I’m here to tell you that those wafer-thin teacups, the twenty-pound lead crystal vases and the brass candlesticks shaped like pineapples carry more emotional baggage than any inanimate object has a right to.

One of my earliest memories was seeing my grandmother go through her china cabinet and carefully place a strip of adhesive tape on the bottom of each item with the name of a granddaughter, daughter-in-law or niece on it. She was bound for a nursing home and these were her treasures, the sum total of her family wealth and she was very definite about to whom each item should go. As I grew up many of these objects resided in that same china cabinet in our home, my mother’s sacred place.

Mother added her own articles through the years, told stories about the various pieces of china and crystal, and generally let it be known that these things were priceless and precious and woe be to the one who damaged any of them.

In short, she gave the objects a value far beyond what any antique dealer might offer and created within her children a sense of family history and the responsibility of stewardship of that legacy.

Unfortunately, she also created a lifelong sense of obligation, one that has not always been easy to uphold.

I began my adult life, living away from my parents, at the age of eighteen. I accumulated the household items and furnishings necessary to life as I could afford them. I once moved to a tiny furnished apartment, from the even tinier one I had been calling home, with two trips across town in my old Ford Pinto. It was accomplished in an afternoon, including packing and unpacking. In the more than forty years since, I have continued to add possessions, with many being items I dearly love. When my mother sold her home to downsize to a senior living efficiency apartment, the full onslaught of heirlooms hit hard and now I have begun to feel that I no longer own them, but that they somehow own me.

I don’t know anyone in my age group who doesn’t wrestle in one way or another with the emotional entanglement of previous generations’ belongings. We are the children of people who experienced the Great Depression with its many scarcities and deprivations. To have held onto a grandmother’s prized soup tureen through those dark times represented an accomplishment. Often there were memories of a mother’s loving hands tenderly caring for the delicate bone china brought from the old country, or stories about the silver flatware that was once used to serve a visiting dignatary, or a battered toy that had entertained three generations of pint-sized ancestors. The objects, as well as the stories about them, become a valuable part of the accumulated family wealth.

But when added to a household already bulging with its own accumulation, emotional conflict is bound to arise. What do you do with it all?

In the days when families were large, it was a simple matter to divide things as fairly as possible and each child receive a sampling of family treasures. But for those of us without a lengthy list of heirs and an entire Swedish death cleaning to get through, it takes on a new light.

My daughter flatly stated that if she wound up with her grandmother’s sacred set of Fostoria berry bowls, she would likely feed her children in them until they had all been broken. It is clear that she holds no sentiment over the family crystal.

A dear friend who is considerably younger than me, simply boxed up all her heirlooms and took them to Goodwill, saying it was one of her finest acts of claiming freedom. Another friend lost her home to fire several years ago and was left with nothing but the clothes she was wearing. She mostly feels relieved of the burden of the heirlooms, but laments the loss of special ornaments each Christmas.

Another loved one recently sold her home just after retiring. I helped her pack. There were easily fifty or sixty boxes of heirloom china, objects d’art, silver serving vessels, and beautiful crystal that she must now find places for in her new home. A large shelf in her garage already holds many boxes of things labelled with her granddaughters’ names, to be given when the girls are established and ready for them. She vacillates between feeling deeply connected to her forebears and in bondage to their posessions. She has let go of many beautiful pieces, consigning them to an anticipated garage sale, with both relief and a large measure of guilt.

So what’s to become of it all? Our children live in a throwaway world of cheap, easily available and beautiful things. They enjoy the freedom of ordering just the lampshade or throw rug to complement their trendy decor, knowing that they can change it all easily when they tire of it.

In our mobile society, the connection to generations past is fractured, all but destroyed. There is no wonder to be experienced over a beautiful wooden bread bowl used for decades by their great-great-great-grandmother, or the crocheted bedspread made by their great-great-grandmother with love in every stitch. They have no memories of sitting at a table elegantly set with the treasured finery, and so they lack sentimentality about its disposition. So we, those of us in the last third of our life, must come to difficult and painful conclusions about what is to be done with it all.

I have made the decision that I’ll not stay in bondage to a collection of items, simply because someone who contributed 1/16 of my DNA once had it upon a shelf in their home. And I am struggling to break with the tradition of treasuring an item simply because my mother did. I plan to find new homes for these items among my nieces or perhaps the daughters of friends. It is time to allow someone else to love them, and put them to use rather than to hoard them in a cabinet and dust them once a year. As I anticipate simplifying and streamlining my life and preparing for a move to smaller quarters, it is a necessity.

But I’m keeping the bread bowl and the crocheted bedspread, and perhaps the crystal lemonade set as well. I can find a place for them, wherever I go.

Connected

A universal fear as we age is that of becoming isolated and lonely. Retirement removes the daily interaction with the outside world we are accustomed to. Often, our children have moved far away and widowhood is a factor for many of us. Sometimes, it seems that the world is moving on and leaving us behind, with technology that is baffling to us being the driving force.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can choose to embrace the changes and learn as we go. Allowing ourselves to enjoy this new world can bring some wonderful benefits, along with keeping us connected to others.

I was initially intimidated by smartphones but I got my first one when I was still in business and needed access to my email account while I was out and about. Soon however, I discovered how many needs it would serve. Not only did it help me stay connected to my friends through social media such as Facebook and Instagram, there were dozens of benefits in my daily life that simplified and streamlined my world, allowing me to travel lighter through my days and my interactions with others.

I may forget my wallet, my keys or my glasses, but I never forget my smartphone. Constant companion and source of virtually all information and most communication in my world, it is either in my hand or pocket most of the time.

I can hear a few minds slamming shut already and I have been presented with all the excuses and reasons for not owning one by my flip-phone wielding friends before, but hear me out, please.

One’s relationship with a smartphone is highly personal. Unique to its owner, a phone can be used for a handful (pun intended) or a wide array of tasks. For me, it has almost completely eliminated my use of everything from my computer to my tote bag.

Ironically, the thing I use mine the least for is as a telephone. I keep up with most friends through social media and text messaging these days. Contrary to what many say, I don’t find this diminishes my closeness to others but rather enhances our intimacy and frequency of contact. My daughter and I communicate only through text messages when we aren’t together and we have done so for years. It is the closest we’ve ever been, each of us able to be frank and open. With a full-time job, a husband and three kids, she doesn’t have time to chat on the phone. Instead, we have an ongoing conversation, complete with pictures, and it is tailored to each of our schedules. If she doesn’t respond immediately to my texts, I know she will when she can.

I have reconnected with people I lost touch with years ago and I stay in regular touch with some that otherwise might slip away. I have nearly daily contact with several cousins that I’ve not been close with since childhood.And I’ve made many new friends that began as Facebook “friends.”

I do my reading on my phone. Beginning with newspapers in the morning over coffee, I keep up with the news of the day, read my favorite store ads and clip coupons, read the obituaries (this has gotten more important here lately for some reason), and if there is breaking news stories, I don’t have to wait till tomorrow to be informed, they’ll send it to me throughout the day. The subscription prices are dirt cheap and I don’t have stacks of newspapers to haul to recycling each week.

I also read my personal library on my phone. My Kindle account is linked to my phone, so I always have several dozen novels, non-fiction and reference books in my pocket. It took a bit of getting used to, not having a book in my hand, but now I love it and I’m not always looking for shelf space for more books.

Smartphones are great for travelling. A map is at my fingertips, so if I get lost its easy to find myself. I have voice navigation to take me straight to my destination. I’m alerted to road construction ahead, or traffic crashes that might best be detoured around. If I suddenly need a burger, all the options, including the menus, are a click away. Same with hotels, car rentals, and area attractions.

My phone has a terrific camera so I never miss a shot. But when I’m serious about my photography, every photo I take on my digital camera is automatically downloaded to my smartphone, ready to share.

We are told constantly at this age to keep our brains active. I keep mine busy with several puzzle games, different card games, and crosswords. I even have bowling and billiards I can play!

The weather affects us all and with my weather app I’m able to keep close tabs on the skies. It has a radar map and I can predict almost to the minute when rain is going to begin or end wherever I am. I don’t get caught without a sweater when I need one either.

Having the Internet at my disposal at any time is simply delightful. We love to watch birds and sometimes when we are out and about we’ll spot one we aren’t familiar with. In moments, we are listening to recordings of its call, learning it’s nesting habits, and seeing what color eggs it produces. Trees and flowers are easily identified, the history of a beautiful old church is revealed, or any other bit of information we might want. I did months of research about my husband’s cancer and treatments on my phone. All in my pocket.

I don’t keep a calendar or datebook any longer, it’s in my phone, and I get a reminder ahead of an appointment. My stopwatch and timer are there too, along with my address book, calculator and shopping list.

My phone keeps track of the steps I take each day, measures my heart rate and oxygen levels, tracks my weight and fills in all the nutritional data on my daily food diary. You’d think I’d be thin as a rail by now!

When I want to relax, my favorite tunes are on my phone, ready for me to slip in my ear buds and listen. I have an app that is a television remote, so we never worry over misplacing the real one. Come to think of it, I haven’t seen the remote in months.

It is popular to malign young people these days for time spent on their phone, but please reconsider before you do. You don’t know what they might be doing when they stare at the little electronic phenomenon in their hand. You may assume they are scrolling their Facebook feed but it’s just as easy to picture them reading a book or studying for their finals. They might even be writing a blog post on their phone, as I am doing now.

I’ve been asked what I would do if my phone were broken or lost. Wouldn’t my whole world crash down around me? Well, no. All this information, these hundreds of precious photos, addresses, recipes and books are not actually on my phone, they are in The Cloud, a magical storage facility that keeps it all safe and accessible. A replacement phone will be up and running before you know it, with hardly a bump in the road.

I’m by no means an expert or even passably adept at dealing with the latest technology, but I made a conscious choice to not allow it to get too far ahead of me. Like it or not, devices such as smartphones are the only way to keep pace with mainstream society, and I don’t want to be left behind. Do you?

Old Girlfriends

Old girlfriends are the best. As opposed to young girlfriends. As opposed to new girlfriends.

When I was a teenager and a young adult, I had a wide circle of friends as most young people do. We went to the beach together, went to dance clubs together, and hung out doing nothing special for hours at a time, usually in groups. We listened to music, talked about hair and boys and clothes and sex. Though our emotions at that age were intense and very near the surface, most of these friendships dissolved as we grew up and moved away to pursue our adult lives.

Now, as an old broad, I have the best friendships of my life. Our shared activities are certainly less than with my young friendships, but the bonds between us are a gift only age can deliver.

I have read that girlhood friendships are often role-playing lessons in intimacy, practicing for adult romantic relationships. Girls tend to have exclusionary “best friends” and are deeply wounded when they feel this bond has been betrayed. They tell their innermost secrets to their best friend, sharing a part of themselves no one else is privy to. When best friends break up, it’s an early lesson in heartbreak.

Old girlfriends aren’t jealous. If she has many friends I am happy for her, glad that her life is filled with people who love her. Glad there is always someone to share her joys and sorrows.

During my young adulthood and middle age, friends took a backseat to marriage, motherhood, and career. Seldom did a friend have priority; they were relegated to my spare time, which was rare.

A rich and deeply valued aspect of this stage of life is a return to friendship as a priority. The relationships I have with a handful of women near my age are different from any I’ve known before.

Old girlfriends cheer each other on. We’ve come to understand that success for one does not diminish the other, so we are free to extend genuine support and encouragement. Envy and jealousy are conspicuously absent in these friendships. We’ve outlived the need to compete and compare ourselves to one another, accepting that some friends are thinner, some are richer, and some are luckier in love. Life has taught us that for someone, WE are the thinner one, the richer one, or the luckier one.

Old girlfriends know how to truly share intimacy. We’ve all had our hearts broken by lovers, our children, or just the vagaries of fate, so we know how to walk gently around each other’s tender bits. We’ve helped each other stand again after our falls, leaned on one another when the rain poured down too heavy and cold. We’ve laughed together until we peed on ourselves about things we would never tell another soul.

As we go through this grand transition to the final third of life, we know what a dark journey it can be. Five years ago I counted one widow among my friends, now there are several. Five years ago, serious illness was an abstract thought, now it is a topic of daily discussion. We all have an awareness that we could be the next one to fall down this deep well. So we extend our hand to others in the well, lifting them back into the light and warmth. If necessary, we climb down in the well two at a time to rescue a sister who is too weak to help pull herself up. There but for the grace is on all our lips.

Old girlfriends accept us, take us as they find us. When they visit and the sofa is piled with unfolded laundry, they fold enough to make themselves a place to sit. If they must, they’ll wash a mug to share a cup of tea. Uncombed hair and chin whiskers don’t offend, melt downs and ugly crying are taken in stride. Because we know it doesn’t matter. It. Doesn’t. Matter.

There is nothing so fun as getting gussied up to go out with old girlfriends. Unlike in our youth, we aren’t comparing ourselves to one another, we are complimenting! We offer our favorite scarf to make our friend’s outfit complete. We loan our good jewelry to adorn her beauty. We overlook the scuffs on shoes that we know are her most comfortable. We tell her how beautiful she is.

My old girlfriends include some I’ve known since childhood. How different we are now from then, how alike we are again. Because the outer selves that had marriages and divorces and children and careers have fallen away, and once again we’ve chosen each other because our souls demanded it.

We have the capacity to make new old girlfriends too. We tend to recognize each other as kindred spirits when we are lucky enough to meet. That ease and comfort are there without need of time. It’s in her eyes, this sharing of knowledge about one another and the wisdom to recognize it. There’s no need to rush a friendship that may develop, it will seek it’s level like water.

We don’t squander old girlfriends. They are treasures to be hoarded and regularly polished, like good silver. The patina of the years adds value to what is already priceless.

And yet we don’t have to tend old girlfriends like the tender annuals in our garden. Old girlfriends are the heirloom roses that spring forth again and again, blooming through snow or scorching sun, releasing the heady fragrance of love and acceptance to surround us. They are dependable and reliable and when we are busy with our own concerns, they bloom on, not requiring an audience to their show.

I shudder to think how bleak my world would be without my old girlfriends. And if I’ve forgotten to tell them so, I hope they’ll read this and know I am writing to each of them. They know who they are.

The Art of Reinventing Ourselves

Change is coming. Be it subtle or strong, it is the one certainty we can count on. As I’ve reached this not-yet-old but past-midlife point, change seems to be more obvious and profound than ever before.

Inevitably, as our lives evolve, our identity follows along. We are no longer “a young mother” or a “middle-aged housewife” “or a “career-oriented businesswoman.” We’ve become a grandmother or a retiree or a senior-citizen. We wear different hats now. And all too often, I hear women say that they don’t quite know how to adjust to their changed status.

For me, the answer is reinvention. I’ve always believed that we create our own reality and no matter what our circumstances may be, we have a measure of control over how we approach and think of it all. We can choose the identity that we desire and take the steps necessary to make it fit.

Some might argue that this isn’t possible or even desirable and I would tell them they’re wrong. Each transition is a new opportunity! Sometimes, it can be as simple as a change in personal style-different hairstyle and wardrobe choices-that can set us on a path for growth. But more often a wholesale change in how we think of ourselves is the catalyst.

Twelve years ago, when we first left our snug little artists’ cabin in the North Florida woods and moved to Georgia farm country, I knew I wanted to grow a large garden and sell our excess produce. But it soon became apparent that I would find it difficult, if not impossible, to maintain dedication to my art while managing my rapidly expanding vegetable business, so I knew I had to make a choice. I chose to reinvent myself as a farmer.

I let go of the guilt from neglecting my art and began calling myself a farmer. Naturally, through the marketing of our produce, the sourcing of supplies and materials, and interaction with fellow growers, I soon WAS a farmer in every way. I had reinvented myself, embracing the change and letting it fuel my personal growth. Inwardly, the sources of my satisfaction in life became the beauty or success of a crop, the feeling of accomplishment when a task was completed, the joy of providing nourishment to my customers. Outwardly? My hands became rough and thickened with muscles, my face sported a year-round tan, and my paint-spattered shorts and t-shirts were replaced with serviceable boots, jeans and broad-brimmed hats.

While my reinvention to farmer was based on personal choice, that hasn’t always been the case. I’m no longer a farmer. When Will became ill, we had to stop farming. In the months since, I’ve had my own health problems also. So now, if I’m not a farmer, who am I? This was not a welcome nor a chosen transition, and yet I am growing from it, my resilience is making me stronger. I have more time available now and have indulged my lifelong interest in photography. I have plans to begin showing my work and offering prints for sale. Through writing of my pain and fear during the dark days of Will’s treatments, I have found a calling to write more, with this blog being a first step.

I have several friends who are widows and many others who are single through divorce. Perhaps no greater transition happens to us than the loss of a partner. Not only are we suddenly alone, but all our other circumstances change as well. From a change in financial stability to an altered social status, everything is different.

While there is grief and adjustment aplenty, there is also the opportunity for reinvention. A brand new life may not have been what you wanted, but you can choose to craft and mold it into a life in which there is growth, introspection, new capabilities, and ultimately a reinvented version of yourself. And while that process is anything but easy, it may lead to the most meaningful part of your life.

I have a friend who divorced after raising her three children. In midlife she dusted off her unused college degree, went to work as an information analyst, and loves her work more than she ever dreamed possible. Another friend who was widowed at the age of fifty-one reached out to friends and acquaintances and soon was leading a busy social life, surrounded by people who found her skills as a hostess and her quirky humor an irresistible draw. The divorced mother of another friend found herself in dire circumstances, with a very limited income and many health problems. She was forced to take up residency in a tiny apartment in a senior living facility. She soon was surrounded by friends and discovered a love of painting and drawing that she enjoyed right up to her death. She blossomed in circumstances that many would struggle to accept.

We frequently hear the term “aging gracefully,” and there can be no more graceful way than to welcome the many opportunities inherent in any transition. Even if it takes a while to discover the hidden gem, it is there and searching it out can lead to what might be the best reinvention of all, that of becoming your truest, strongest, and best self ever.