Notes on Being 70

I recently read about the Piraha, a small tribe of hunter gatherers who live on a remote tributary of the Amazon in northwestern Brazil. Their language is one of the simplest known, consisting of 3 vowels and 8 consonant sounds. Their counting system is just as uncomplicated:  one, two, many.  It is further said they speak and live only in the present tense, this present time.  Sounds refreshing, doesn’t it?  It made me think of a few of my first grade math students.  They must have been cut from the same rainforest water lily pads.  When I asked them to count to 100, a very important benchmark on their very important permanent record, a clever few would grin and look up with their sweet, bright eyes and say, “One, two, skip a few, 99, 100!”  We all got a big charge out of that.  But then I made them count anyway.  I was on the payroll, after all….

Alas, I find I live in a world filled with numbers.  An infinite number of them, I am told. And I just had a big number change.   On June 1st my life odometer rolled over to 70.  I love the poetry of saying “I am many years old” but that just doesn’t seem to cut it.  Any 6-year-old knows there are an awful lot of numbers between 1 and 70 and it takes a long time to say them.  Victor Hugo wrote, “40 is the old age of youth. 50 is the youth of old age.” Looks like I’m certifiably old. Yep — I’m and old lady now and definitely heading for the barn. It has taken me an awful long time to reach this number. It feels and seems like such a serious and solemn number I thought it would be right and proper to mark it with a written testimony of sorts.  A “what I’ve learned” kind of list.

So here goes:

1. This world is more wonderful and more terrible than anyone could ever know, imagine, or understand.  Love will always win, though.  In the meantime, try to nap when you can.

2. As a species we are hard wired to fight back, get even, have the last word, and feel better about ourselves at all costs.  Whatever situation you find yourself in, please try to think of something better to do.

3. Sadly, at 70 one’s décolletage resembles foccacia bread sprinked with roasted garlic and too many poppy seeds.  It’s not your fault. It’s just what happens when you live this long and have spent too much time working in the sun. But no matter WHAT the salesgirl says about that lowcut cocktail dress you just tried on,  keep shopping.

Slather away!

4. Coconut oil is your very best friend.  Eat it.  Cook with it.  Rub it in your hair.  Cover your body with it after a hot bath. You will look like a Japanese sumo wrestler but sleep like a baby.  Your husband will remark it’s like sleeping with an Almond Joy.  There are worse things.

5. It’s said one of the strange things about humans is that we know we are going to die, but we don’t believe it! So true. You will not live forever — at least, not in your present form.  So notice and savor each moment and each relationship. Your loved ones and your very best friend won’t live forever either, and as Nora Ephron so succinctly pointed out, these people are irreplaceable. When they leave you, you will never get over it. But with time, you will get used to it.

Steve made me a Valentine in the snow each year — sub zero weather, his last Valentine’s Day.

6. There is “having sex” and there is “making love.”  Choose love.  And sometimes you can make love with a simple look, a loving touch, folding the laundry, or refilling your darling’s coffee cup without even being asked.

7. When you’re 70 your toes get wonky and crooked from holding onto the earth for so long.  Get a pedicure and show them off to the world.  Thank them, too.  They have served you well!

8. The worst 4 letter word in the world is FEAR.  Frisk your thoughts and you’ll always find the horrid ones that keep you up at night or make you feel just awful about yourself always have FEAR at their nasty nougat center. Don’t chew on that stuff. Spit it out.   

9. There is ALWAYS something to celebrate. Wearing a party hat can really add to the celebration — even a “celebration of life.”

10. Warm oatmeal topped with heavy cream, real maple syrup, and fresh blueberries is love in a bowl.  Serve often.  While eating making yummy noises is entirely appropriate.

11. Listen to children.  Listen hard.  Love them unconditionally.

12. It’s okay to cry at weddings, funerals, the opera, at church, upon reading an especially moving piece of writing, when you eat a particularly wonderful meal, when a loved one leaves, and again when he or she returns.  Tears come when you run out of words.  With tears you are speaking from your heart and soul — the ultimate eloquence.

13. My mother always told me, “It hurts to be beautiful.” And she was right! Those tweezers, perms, overnight curlers, pointy-toed high heels, cinched waists, girdles, and garter belts were a misery to endure! Life has taught me, however, it hurts more to be beautiful inside. It’s an endless work of the heart. But it will give you true beauty.

14. Everyone would like to get a long, loving letter.  Write one. 

15. At this age I find I have time to sit still and have a conversation with a flower.  Give it a try.

16. You know, someone else can cook the Thanksgiving turkey and that will be just fine.

17. My body was never perfect and I spent far too many years being ashamed of it.  Mea culpa!  How faithful it has been.  It has taken me on so many wonderful adventures.  It has given me so much pleasure. My wrinkles, scars, bulges, and spider veins tell such beautiful life stories.  I am grateful.

18. Babies really are complete and utter miracles.

19. If you want to know what real love looks like, get a dog. 

20. Spiders, snakes, and possums are just trying to make a living.  Be kind.  Catch and release, if necessary.

21. Difficult, lazy, self centered people are a gift.  There are also everywhere.  But rejoice!  They give us a chance to learn and practice patience, perseverance, and forgiveness.  Where would we be without them?  They make US better.

22. We come from love and we are going back to love.  The world is just illusion with a very loud and disturbing soundtrack.  Amid the tumult, listen hard for your own real voice and the silent loving voice of God. You are her special favorite, you know.

23. Jesus told us to love our neighbor as ourselves.  One writer pointed out most of us are doing just that — most of us pretty much hate ourselves.  Knock that shit off.

24. Love love love!  You’ll never go wrong.  Start with yourself.

25. Time will INDEED tell.

26. God/Spirit/Love always answers your prayer.  It may be YES, NO, or CALL WAITING. Therefore, pray often and all ways.  It may not change the outcome or the situation, but it will change you.  And THAT will change the world.

27. Some people have a bucket list.  My husband Steve jokes he has a Fuck It list.  I don’t have any list at all.  I just want to finish well, whatever that looks like.  I have a feeling it looks like love.

Happy birthday my dears! See you at the barn!

Who Cares?

Hold my hand

  One evening 35 years ago, when I was a baby Christian, I was on my way to prayer group, supper dishes just done, bustling around my kitchen looking for Bible, coat, and shoes when the phone rang.  I grabbed it distractedly, wondering where my car keys were and glancing up at the clock.  It was Alvaro, the husband of my friend Marie.  Marie and I had met at our daughters’ 4-H club and we’d become good friends.  A beautiful, creative, and wonderful woman, she’d been waging a 3-year war with breast cancer, but she was losing.  She had taken to her bed and needed someone with her round the clock. Alvaro and their teenage daughter had risen to the task, but it was difficult for them.  I’d told Alvaro, a very private and reserved KU professor, to call on me if he ever needed a break.  Marie was close to the end.  Alvaro explained he just had to get out of the house for the evening — could I come over and sit with Marie?  “Oh, Alvaro,” I said.  “I am so sorry!  It’s prayer group night and I’m just on my way out the door!” We quickly hung up. 

Within 2 seconds I thought, “What did I just say?”  and immediately called him back.  “Alvaro, forgive me, I can’t believe I said that!  I’ll be right over.”

I still smile when I think about what an idiot I was and how kind God was to let me see it.  Marie and I spent a little more time together, and she knew I was there.  Her husband and daughter had a bit of a break.  How tender of God to arrange it.  Above all, how brilliant God was to introduce me to caregiving. 

“Care” and “giving.”  Now there are 2 words I love!  I’ve spent so much of my adult life caring and giving in one way or another — teaching, parenting, foster parenting, grandparenting, slogging gallons of homemade soup up one country road and down another, letting out dogs and feeding cats and horses, volunteering for Hospice, taking my mom in when her dementia made it impossible for her to live alone, coming alongside homeless families through Family Promise, and wrapping and delivering (or leaving unwrapped — as instructed) food and Christmas gifts for people who need help on the holidays. It has been the framework of my life. “How can I help?” comes naturally to me. It’s what I do. It just seems to make sense.

But I like to joke that “caregiving” is a lousy career choice — there’s no future in it!  And this is quite true.  The children (original, grand, or foster) grow up and move away.  The old and terminally ill surely die.  And it’s so relentless. Christmas always comes again in 364 days, and there will be another needy child who wants a video game or a pink bedspread.  When you “caregive” full time, the shift never ends and you seldom go off duty, unless you’ve asked or hired a friend to take your place.  There is no pay and no pension plan….no glamorous trade shows in Vegas… and you will never get a tantalizing brochure inviting you to a caregiver’s conference on St. Kitts.  There are rewards, but nothing tangible you can post on Facebook — even IF you had the time.  BUT — caregiving is the most REAL thing I have ever done. I have never regretted a moment of it.

Why do I care to give?  I can’t say.  I CAN say that in a world that grows more divided, cold, and lonely it seems to me it is very important work — the only work that makes sense.  We are all we have.  We are the ones we have been waiting for.  It’s time to get on with our loving.  It is time to care. 

Life will give you many opportunities to be a caregiver.  Recognize them, and step up when they come, for come they will. The needs may be small or large.  It might be a ride to the airport or helping someone move. Maybe your spouse or partner will have an accident, or get a dreaded diagnosis.  Perhaps a relative will need a place to live. A sick friend might need rides to appointments, or a meal once a week.  Or a child, one you haven’t met yet, will need you somehow, and maybe even need a home. Yes — it’s inconvenient. You will feel that your life has been interrupted — may I say, what you THOUGHT was your life.  But as hard or inconvenient as it may seem (and actually BE) at times, when you are able to look back, you will be so incredibly glad you cared and gave. That small light will not go out, that light that you gave life to, that light that you became for just a moment.  I smile as I write this.

Several years ago husband Steve and I were driving home from a family wedding in Minneapolis.  We were 8 hours into the 12 hour ride on a hot August day, somewhere in the cornfields of Iowa.  The interstate had numbed our minds and ears, and the excitement of seeing so much family and experiencing so much celebration had drained us of conversation.  As we pulled off the road and into a gas station, I noticed a woman standing by the edge of the parking lot holding a sign.  She had her back to us.  She was facing the oncoming cars exiting the lot.  It alarmed me.  Time was, hitchhikers were a common sight, but not so much these days — particularly a lone woman.  In full “travel-mode stupor” we got to the business at hand (gas, restroom, obligatory glance at the seductive snack orgy inside), jumped in the car, and started back towards the road. We were tired.  It was our last push to home.  We were focused.

The woman was still there.  We could see her now. She was young.  She had the posture and presence of a Madonna.  She had long dark blonde hair that blew across her face in the hot wind.  She wore a long skirt and a shawl of some kind over her head and shoulders.  Her face was serene and beautiful. She was looking down.  A gas can, spout pulled out, was on the ground at her feet.  Her arms gracefully held a sign over her very pregnant belly:  SEEKING HUMAN KINDNESS.  In the nanosecond it took us to pass her by, she looked up and made eye contact with Steve.  I thought to ask him to stop, see what she needed, help her.  But he was tired, hot, and ready to get home.  And I was the same, truth be told.  I didn’t ask him. We didn’t stop.  But she traveled with us anyway all the way to Kansas.  It took us two days to dare to talk about her, and speak of our shame for not stopping to help her.

Who was she?   I’ve seen signs reading “Anything helps” and “Need gas money” and even (once in San Francisco) “Please give to the United Negro Pizza Fund” — I loved that one.  But this was so different.  Otherworldly.  Was she real?  Was she FOR REAL?  Did anyone else see her?  Did someone help her?  I will never know.  And I will never forget her.

Friends, it seems to me that we are ALL that woman.  Some of us have signs, and some of us don’t, but we are all, every one of us, seeking human kindness. We say “modern life” is very busy, and it’s true, but busy with what?  It’s awfully easy to get lost in ourselves and our agendas. We all want to “get there” – wherever we think that is. It has never been convenient to care for one another. And aren’t there social services for such things?

Rumi, a 12 century sufi mystic, wrote “Be a lamp, or a lifeboat, or a ladder. Help someone’s soul heal.  Walk out of your house each day like a shepherd.” What a lovely image.  What a lovely calling.  What a lovely purpose. Like that lady said to the waiter in When Harry Met Sally: “I’ll have what he’s having!” To me, giving care to one another is the only thing that makes sense. It’s why we are here.

Who cares?  A good question.  I’ll give you (and me) time to think about that.  Take care! And thanks for caring to listen.