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!

A Fine Recess Stew

I used to roll my eyes and speak disparagingly of “the intrinsic rewards” of  teaching, but God knew even then I was never in it for the money, and as I look back I realize it too.  It was ALWAYS about the children. What follows is a fine recipe for life taken from the blood, sweat, and tear-stained cookbook I compiled during my 20 year career as a line cook in the public schools.  This recipe still yields many smiles.

Start with a fine sunny afternoon in May of 1999 and spread 100 or so 10 year old children randomly over a 200 x 300 foot playground.  Warm slowly with exercise, sunshine, add a dash of afternoon fatigue, and dust gently with prepubescent hormones.  Select a sweet blue-eyed blonde with freckles scattered across her nose and cheeks, a girl named Ali who unknowingly has been capturing the confused attention of Garrett, an athletic “all boy” classmate.  I never did find out what the dust up between them was but when it reached the boiling point, Garrett yelled at her, “Well, you’re a big lesbian!”  Sweet Ali wasn’t sure how to handle this attention and dissolved into salty tears, still on her pink face when the kids tumbled back into our classroom when the bell rang.

“Mrs. Lewis!  Mrs. Lewis!” Ali and her handmaidens cried.  “Garrett called Ali a lesbian!” and Ali’s red face and trembling lip bore witness to the outrage.  I was pretty sure neither Ali or Garrett had any idea what a lesbian was, and if they DID, how this fact was discerned during a hot game of tag, so I decided to try to bring this down to a simmer.  That didn’t matter anyway.  They did.

“Ali, would you like to get a drink?” I asked, and she nodded and headed off for the hall and the sanctuary of the girls’ washroom.  I turned to Garrett.  He was guilty as charged and he knew it.  He looked down.

Inspiration struck.  “Garrett, school’s out in 15 minutes and we’ve got papers to hand out and homework to add to our planners.  Let me think about what just happened,  and I’ll get back to you tomorrow morning,” I said.  The class settled in, and we got to the task at hand.  The bell rang, the chairs went up, and out they flew.  I guess you could say we let it steep overnight.

The next morning everything was fresh — the faces, the t-shirts, the hair gel and braids, the very day itself.  We worked quietly and well all morning.  As the kids lined up for first recess I asked Garrett to stay in with me to discuss the incident.  He was obedient and contrite.

We sat at the round book table, and I pointed to a laminated poster on the wall — “USD 497 Policy on Harassment” — a recent district-mandated addition to every classroom in town.

 “Garrett,”  I said, ” do you know what ‘harassment’ is?”

 Garrett shook his head no.

 “Then let’s look it up.”

He grabbed a classroom dictionary off the shelf and I, ever the seeker of the elusive “teachable moment,” let him struggle a bit with the alphabet and initial consonant sounds.

He labored and brought forth. “Here it is,”  he said quietly.

“Read it to me,” I asked.  Might as well practice his reading aloud skills as well.

“Harass: to pester, bother, disturb or worry.  To make repeated small attacks on another or an enemy,” he read.

“What do you think that means?”  Ah!  Cognition and summarizing!

“To bother somebody, I guess,” he mumbled.

“Right you are — and you know, we have a brand new district policy against that.  I am supposed to report this.  You could be in trouble there.”

He was silent.  So was I.  Critical thinking was taking place.

 “What do you think you can do about this?”  I asked helpfully.  Ah.  Problem solving skills!

He thought hard.  “Maybe write a letter to her to apologize?”  he offered.  I haven’t kept track of him, but he may now be a lawyer!

“Sounds good to me, Garrett.  Why don’t you work on that while I get our math lesson ready.  Let me see it when you’re done.”  Bingo!  Writing skills to boot!  We both got to work.

Our time at the table took away most of my 15 minutes of mid-morning prep time, but it also burned up Garrett’s recess, not a small thing as he was an avid kickball man.  I read his note as the bell rang, and when Ali appeared at the classroom door he folded it over and handed it to her as discreetly as he could.  She looked at it, nodded, and we all settled in and turned our attention to the mystery of fractions.  The rest of the morning was as smooth and sweet as buttercream frosting.  Justice — and the district mandate — had been served.

But sometimes things are just a bit better on the second day.  So it was with our recess stew.

Next morning before the kids came in I got a call over the intercom to take a phone call from a parent on line 2.  I made my way to the workroom.  It was Garrett’s mother.  My heart sank, and I drew a deep breath.  I readied myself for the frying pan.  Parents have an awful lot of feelings.

“Mrs. Lewis, I just wanted to talk to you about that incident at school — how Garrett missed recess yesterday.”

 I heard the burner click on.

 “Yes?” I offered.

 “Garrett was really miserable when he came home from school that day.  He went to his room and hardly ate any supper.  When we asked him what was wrong he told us he’d gotten in trouble on the playground and that you’d talk to him about it the next day.”

“Yes, he had a little run in with another student.”  I got a whiff of olive oil hitting the pan.

“Yes,” the mom offered.  “He likes Ali an awful lot.  He felt terrible about it.”

“Oh, I’m sorry about that,” I said, and I meant it, too, because I loved Garrett as much as I loved Ali.

“But let me finish,” she said.  “Garrett was so low the night before his Dad and I asked him about it at dinner last night.  ‘How’d it go with Mrs. Lewis today?’ my husband asked. ‘Oh!’ says Garrett, ‘Not bad at all.  Mrs. Lewis just made me stay in at recess and look up harass!’  Oh my God, Mrs. Lewis — we nearly DIED trying not to laugh out loud!  Just thought you’d enjoy it too.  Have a great day.  Thanks for everything, Mrs. Lewis!”

Schools are like pressure cookers most of the time.  So many kids, emotions, abilities and expectations, mixed together, chopped up by time schedules, and weighted down by district outcomes and state regulations.  We line cooks show up everyday and do the best we can with the produce we are given.  Our yields always vary: some rise.  Some fall.  Some are delicious, some are acceptable, and some give you heartburn.  Not one ever made me bitter, and more than one made me cry.  But this one was just so sweet.

I still savor it.