The afternoon I told her I was pregnant with my son, she told me several of her birth stories in rapid succession. This is one of the most precious memories I have of her. I felt loved and validated as she was telling me these stories but later I was also surprised and felt blessed by her intuitive mothering skills. Women need to hear birth stories when they are pregnant. Not the horror stories or the negative “oh, just wait, it’s the worst thing you’ll ever go through…” kind of stories but honest birth stories filled with all of the sweetness, glory, empowerment, truth and yes, difficulties, that birth is filled with. My mother gave me a great gift that day she told me her birth stories.
My mother referred to herself as “old” all the time. Not in the way that people jokingly tell their kids they are “old” while they roll their eyes and realize that even 15 seems “old” to their kids. She seemed to genuinely feel and believe herself to be “old.” For a long time I attributed this to the fact that she was overweight and inactive – and, I still believe that this played a huge factor in her feeling run down a lot of the time – but I’ve also started to understand that maybe being “old” to her was a kind of positive, hard-earned distinction. My mother’s generation had a great deal of respect for elders (she just barely missed the hippy/ free-love period and though she could’ve joined it late, she was too busy having babies with her high school sweetheart during that time – she actually often joked that she didn’t even remember the 60s). I think she believed that being “old” finally gave her a certain wisdom or solidness that no one could take away from her. She had been through a lot. Seen a lot. Survived a lot. Being “old” was a kind of strength.
I thought about this the other day when one of those anti-aging songs that are so popular these days came on the radio. A Keisha song I think, (but I’m not spelling her name right because she spells it with a dollar sign) – “let’s make the most of this night like we’re gonna die young.” I actually love this song. It’s fun. But, I have to always giggle at the irony of someone my age (40) singing along to it. Oh, I don’t feel old yet by a LONG SHOT! But, I am very aware that 40 is not at all 20. 40 isn’t even close to being 30. And you know what, thank the good lord or universe or goddesses or whatever you want to thank because I wouldn’t trade the person I’ve become for my 20 year old or 30 year old self for anything!
Hear me out. I promise this isn’t sour grapes. Honestly, I do wish I could stay up all night like I used to. I wish I could “party” like I used to – though I’ve actually become less of a “partier” so that wish is fleeting and often something I roll my eyes at directly after it comes to me. I wish I could eat fried foods like I used to. I wish I was less grounded sometimes – like I was back then – when I could be so absolutely narcissistic that I could just quit any job at the drop of a hat or spend my whole paycheck on sweaters and CDs. I sometimes wish I didn’t have to be “the” grown up. But, much more often, like I think my mom did sometimes, I feel honored to be “the” grown up (of course, anyone of my siblings that reads this is probably laughing or rolling their eyes thinking of me being “the” grown up in any situation since I’m by far the “baby” of the family and only very recently have I been expected to be any sort of grown up at all). Most often, more often than not, I am happy to be “older” now.
As I was listening to this Keisha song, it hit me. Age seems like a kind of death to the young because they can’t imagine what’s going to happen when they get older. They can’t see who they are going to be. When I was young, all I saw were all of the adults frustrated and sad and disappointed in their lives. They all worked ALL the time but they didn’t feel fulfilled by, or mostly even like, their jobs. They didn’t seem to be getting what they wanted. There was never enough money. Never enough time. Never enough of anything. On top of not being able to imagine what my adulthood would look like, I couldn’t imagine it being anything happy considering what I saw around me. I actually remember thinking that I wanted to be much more like one of my aunts (either my Aunt Di or my Aunt Jo), than my mother, when I was grown up. They seemed happy. They had fewer children. They had hobbies. My Aunt Jo played tennis (all the time, it seemed to me) and was generally really fit. My Aunt Di was a skilled crafter, which seemed as close to being an “artist” as anyone in my family was.
What a huge relief and a huge gift it would have been to hear some adult say that growing older means growing more confident and more secure (financially and emotionally). How different my childhood and my youth might have been if I knew that when I got older I would be happier than I have ever been before. That my happiness and my ability to be in control of my own happiness would only increase with every year. How interesting it would have been to know that I would do a lot of hard work and a lot of thinking and more hard work and that all of this would lead to me actually realizing many of my dreams. Not only would I realize many of the dreams I had as a young person, I would realize many dreams I didn’t even know I had. I would find love more than a couple times. Eventually I would find the kind of profound love a young person can’t even begin to understand. Not only would I have two stunningly original children but those children would teach me things about myself and this world that I never knew possible. I would achieve every single goal I set for myself with regards to my education, my career and my personal life. And all of this would come to me not by magic – but by my own doing. And sometimes, yes, realizing my dreams would mean walking through difficult, challenging fires. Sometimes I would’ve even started the fires myself. But I would emerge on the other side of that fire beautifully scorched and glowing from the inside out.
I think, on her best days and as her highest self, this is the “old” my mother wanted me to see in her. On my best days and as my highest self, I also want the young people in my life (my own children, my nieces and nephews and my students) to see that growing up and growing older isn’t anything to fear or avoid or even hope to miss entirely by “dying young.” Growing up and growing older can be extraordinary. This is particularly true if one learns, in the process, to take care of one’s body and mind and spirit, to be well.
I believe, even in his illness, that my brother Mitch knew how to “be well.” I believe my Mother could have lived a happier life if she embraced her instincts and was fully aware of all the things she did to provide herself with wellness. I believe many people suffer as they age because they do not know how to take care of their bodies and minds and spirits. For these people, growing older is not empowering or interesting or even fun. It’s a hardship. This is what I saw when I was young. And, gratefully, this is what I have been able to avoid. Because my mother taught me to cook. Because my father taught me to swim. Because my mother fed me from the gardens they planted and tended themselves. Because she taught me to love music and dancing and laughter. Because he taught me how to set goals and work hard to achieve them. They had no idea what these lessons would do for me. They would have no way of knowing that my application of their lessons would lead to a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, a master’s of fine arts degree, fulfilling work, triathlons, never giving up on my ability to be a better parent, the ability to abandon a truckload of bad habits that I have hurt myself with over the years, my inability to stop writing – no matter how pointless it often seems. They didn’t know their lessons would lead me to wellness. But they did. At 40, I finally know that. And I wouldn’t go back to not knowing for anything.
Keisha, with a $, you don’t want to miss the best part, girl. Make the most of the night and keep living – just to see how much better it’s going to get. Church.
Vaya Con Dios,
Cook, Eat, Laugh, Dance, Work WITH LOVE.