If I had a couch as old as my face, it would be a collector’s item sought after for that patina of age that DIYers try to reproduce, the look of authenticity that marketers are always trying to fake for their clients. But it can’t be old old, because to be old is uncool. These days, women of a certain age and beyond have to possess that aura of “You can’t imagine the crazy shit I’ve seen and done and I’m still sexy” that advertisers look for when they book Lauren Hutton. Let’s face it–we’re not all Lauren Huttons. In fact, very few of us rolled the dice and won her genetic jackpot, but there are more and more books out there aimed at helping older women look not so old. No matter what they say, though, I’m not all that interested in reupholstering. The truth is that I’m too lazy. And there’s only so much that filler, face lifts and Botox can do before you end up looking like The Joker in Batman or Jack Nicholson in The Shining (those crazy eyebrows!). I think it’s great that Diane Keaton is the older spokesmodel for L’Oreal, but let’s get L’oREAL — do we really think there’s no airbrushing going on? Do I actually believe cosmetics are going to make me look prom-ready? Do I expect that plastic surgery will make me look like anything other than an older woman who has had plastic surgery? No, but that doesn’t mean I don’t get sucked into the dream of a Fountain of Youth. I don’t love being invisible in terms of my accomplishments, talents or looks, and is anyone really prepared for that? Making peace with it is an ongoing process, but my face tells a story that I need to own, one that I’m only just now beginning to read between the lines.
Today I painted my breakfast before I ate it. I’ve been on a morning avocado-on-toast kick for awhile now. Not only is it delicious and nutritious, but it’s also a feast for my eyes. I love the moment of slicing the avocado in half, separating it and marveling at the color, texture and symmetry, at one half hollowed out and the other cradling the smooth brown seed. It seems so easy in theory — elliptical shape, gold, yellow and black/green colors. But it’s maddeningly hard to capture on paper if you’re just an unschooled amateur artist like I am. After I lay down my watercolors on paper and mix as best I can, I add lemon juice and olive oil to the actual flesh and spread it on wheat toast. But how do I translate that creaminess and citrus bite to paper? I can never get the color or shape quite right, but I’m drawn over and over to the contemplation of it. I can’t stop trying to convey it. It’s a visual form of meditation to get lost in its simplicity of form, to come up with a different interpretation each time. It makes me think of other ordinary objects that form a litany of silent praise to my daily life: crumpled tubes of oil paints (alizarin red, pthalo blue, van dyke brown); wooden chopsticks; smooth porcelain door knobs; bright blue coils of a water hose; an oversized faux tortoise comb; the shapely shoulders of a pink rose wine bottle. All these homely objects that make a home, all the small things my eyes need to bless.
I often lament that my life is mostly boring with intermittent flashes of excitement. How do I write about that when we’re living in a Pinterest/Instagram culture in which people are busy curating their own lives, and then broadcasting them on Facebook? According to what I see on those sites, 99% of the lives out there are much more interesting and attractive than mine will ever be. Instagram transforms ordinary meals into memorable moments and ordinary photos into masterpieces, while Pinterest shows us the shiny surfaces of life: the artful mood boards; the vacation in an authentic teepee with catered meals; the books arranged by cover colors; the rustic farmhouse in Italy; the beautiful little apartment in Paris; the picturesque backyard chickens; the carefully casual white tee and torn jeans; the requisite Wellies; the light-strung outdoor dinner parties which I will never give nor be invited to attend. There are no shadow selves on Pinterest boards. I understand that this is all about inspiration and connectivity, but it usually leaves me worried that I should be having a much richer life than I do. This week my big adventure was a Thursday discount shopping trip to Costco with a side trip to Big Lots with a friend. As we came out of the Big Lots store into the typically grim strip mall they all seem to inhabit, I looked up and found myself staring at a glowing indigo sky hung with a silver sickle moon. The kind of magical night sky that seems so rare, a storybook sky that Peter Pan might fly out of to land in your window. It was one of those singular moments in time that would have been ruined by trying to photograph it and document it and share it with friends and followers. So even though I spend a lot of my life feeling less-than for not being more creative, more adventurous, more something, I think I will remember that sky forever and the way it felt more vivid than a hundred vicarious glimpses into richer online lives ever could.
There are a lot of articles about 50 being the new 40, 60 being the new 50, and 70 being the new 60. Although when 60 became something to aim for eludes me. Older people are doing yoga, starting businesses after they retire, getting their resumes and bodies in shape, traveling to Croatia and Bali and Easter Island. I’m doing my part to keep up appearances (I’m working the Sephora red lipstick that seems to have been made out of auto body paint and crushed cochineal bugs even for trips to Whole Foods), but it occurred to me while I was in slow-flow yoga that there are things I’ve let go of without really noticing. For instance, I no longer do shoulder stands. One day I had a vision of hairline fractures in my spine and that was my last plow or shoulder stand. Is that cowardice? Maybe, but I let go of losing face in front of my teacher or myself if I took a child’s pose instead. I’d rather work on balancing in Tree or Warrior One, poses that are likely to be of more use to a klutz like me than a shoulder stand or a head stand. I’ve also let go of the idea that I will travel everywhere before I die. Chances are I won’t see the island of Hydra or Kyoto in cherry blossom season or the Northern Lights in Norway. Partly because of money and partly because I don’t have the will to fill up a bucket list and march through it like Sherman through Georgia. I’ve have no desire to “do” a country as if I were picking it up in a bar and taking it back to my hotel for a one-night stand of rough sex and sightseeing. I’ve also given up my beloved high heels after breaking my ankle in Paris, falling on my ass on a Chicago street and tripping head-on into a glass door in NYC. I miss my highest heels like hell. In flats, I look short and matronly, while in heels I felt elongated and elegant; but I’ve had to admit that while I was just as vulnerable and clumsy at 40, it takes me longer to heal now. I hope my soul is ageless even when my feet are slipping into Birkenstocks (make mine silver), splurging on Ancient Greek-brand sandals or metaphorically kicking ass in biker boots. On bad days, this seems like a list of loss because we are not allowed to admit to weakness when we get older in case we appear to be irrelevant. In case we will no longer be taken seriously. In case people think our brains are as soft as our biceps. But at other times, I just feel grateful that I don’t have to get up every day and gird myself to be a soldier in the war on aging along with Jane Fonda and Suzanne Somers. Here’s my body that likes to sleep late, have a sugar in its latte and walk briskly rather than run. Here are the wrinkles that are badges of the battles I’ve waged and won or the ones I’ve lost but survived. Go me!
Once again I’ve been making a serious attempt at regular meditation. I hesitate to talk about it because I’m embarrassed at how often I’ve failed at it, but I’ve started looking forward to my daily session. One thing I’ve noticed from the beginning is that I often get the feeling of flying through space having a bird’s eye view of the land below me and the sense that I’m searching for home. Not a physical place, but just an intense yearning and seeking. I usually take this to mean that I’m letting my mind wander and I need to drag my focus back, but it coincides with finding a chapter in a book about home and homesickness that I read recently. The rest of the book was okay, but that chapter was in the right place at the right time for me. Among other things, the author writes, “We are created with an inner drive and necessity that sends all of us looking for our True Self, whether we know it or not. This journey is a spiral and never a straight line.” That line gave me a shock when I read it because the mantra I repeat to myself sometimes in meditation is Sat Nam, which some interpret as “true self.” Another reason for my instant identification with the quote is the spiral tattoo on my wrist. Before I even saw the design on the wall of a tattoo parlor in Hawaii, I was fixated on having ink on my wrist. And when I saw it, I immediately knew it was the right one but no idea why. I didn’t find until years later that it was the Maori symbol for “unfolding,” but when I did, I was once again sure of the rightness of my choice. Ever since I was thrust out of my early childhood paradise by the breakup of my family, I’ve never felt at home anywhere, no matter how long I lived in one place. I’ve always envied people who have happily lived in one place all their lives or who had a place to return to that felt like a homecoming or who moved to a place that instantly felt like home. I always thought that would happen over the years, and when it didn’t, I blamed it on something missing in me. Maybe I’m outgrowing that dream, or maybe I’m finally realizing that there have been signs all along, like my tattoo, that have been pointing me in a different direction. Instead of feeling as if I’m lacking a home base or a home town, I might need to allow my yearning to take me both inward and outward like the spiral in order to have a homecoming in the truest sense of the word.
I went to Barnes & Noble today to look for magic. For years, I would make a monthly visit to buy the new magazines to feed my imagination. I chose from a wide range of genres: home decorating, psychology, fashion, graphic design, art, current affairs and so on. Inevitably I found images or writing that would spark excitement and enthusiasm, and I might even come up with a new idea that suggested itself from something I read. But today, I came up dry. There were titles like NEW YOU, BEAUTIFUL YOU, and NEW BEAUTY all devoted to looking good and feeling good — but mostly looking good. (Making me think, “I look like crap.”) There was plenty of home design porn — 3 local magazines alone on that topic, not to mention all the national ones. (Making me think, “My house looks like crap.”) There were women’s magazines filled with stuff to buy and people to envy rather emulate. (Making me think, “My clothes look like crap.”) But I couldn’t find one magazine that I just had to have. I ended up buying a couple of art publications (Elephant is my new favorite find), New York magazine and something else that I can’t even remember. It’s not that there are too few magazines out there; there are hundreds. But they’re all so mundane or predictable that I wonder how they stay in business. Obviously, I’m not the target market for what’s being published these days, but I’m starved for something I just can’t find on the internet, web and Kindle junkie that I am. I visit plenty of online sites that introduce me to things I’d never have found otherwise, but it doesn’t make print obsolete for me. That magic thing that happens when you turn pages, find startling essays and design, tear out something to save, dog-ear a page to remember. I think it’s similar to how I’d feel if I could only see art online instead of in person. If I had simply viewed the Ai Wei Wei exhibit on a website, for instance, would it have electrified me and moved me to tears the way it did when I wandered through it for several hours? Something is missing and I mourn it.
It’s coming…Valentine’s Day on Facebook. Cue up the scary music. The site will be filled with photos of romantic dinners, flowers delivered to the office, tributes to partners and a succession of old wedding albums. By it’s very nature, FB is already like middle school, with quizzes to see which character from Game of Thrones you are, being tagged in photos and having your friend count up front and visible. How many people can you get to sign your yearbook? Usually that’s easy to overlook, but on Valentine’s Day? Not so much. If you’re not part of a couple, it’s simultaneously boring and humiliating to get love bombed by other people’s relationships. I can’t help but ask, “what’s wrong with me that I’m alone?” Some days, I’m sure it’s because I’m as flawed as the woodblock Valentine cards I tried to make for friends and family. My carving is crooked and jagged, my message came out backwards and my inking technique is seriously bad. I was too embarrassed to mail them because they showed me in such an unflattering light. The more I looked at it, though, the more I liked it. It’s passionately red and it’s funny as hell. It’s willing to take on something new and fail at it. It’s sincere and unselfconscious, and it’s also screwed-up and sorry and foolish. It’s a mess! It’s the me and you that never shows up on Facebook, the morning-breath side of love, the middle-schooler who’s always a beginner at love. Maybe I’ll mail them out next year just the way they are, but in the meantime, I’ll just stay off Facebook on Valentine’s Day.
During a recent visit to an old friend , we lamented how we routinely come up with long-term projects and optimistically ambitious action plans and then quickly lose interest. But banging ideas off the walls is always energizing and inspiring for us even if we forget half of them by the time her husband uncorks the 5 o’clock wine. Her house has always served as an incubator for me — in fact, much of Skirt! took shape in the early days around her dining room table years ago. As a break from making lists of books to read, essays to write and grandiose schemes to launch, we made one of our traditional visits to Utrecht art supply store in D.C., where I could happily spend an entire afternoon and day’s pay. Even though my suitcase was overpacked, I scored a big bag of art materials and came home determined to spend more time making and less time being paralyzed by how untalented I am. Because even when things don’t turn out the way I expect, I’ve usually lost myself in the process of it. It takes me back to the days of white library paste, construction paper and finger paints. One of the biggest guilt trips I take is that even though I take classes twice a month, I don’t seem to paint on my own in between. Maybe it’s the prep work oil painting requires and trying to shove all my supplies off my kitchen table to begin. Maybe it’s just plain old fear, but I had to find some way to short-circuit the dithering and postponing I do. When I returned home from my visit, I bought a vase of tulips that I fully intended to paint, but every time I thought about setting up the palette I just gave up. I felt I would surely fail and would have wasted expensive paint and flowers. I needed an expert in the form of my teacher to make my experience real. But the tulips weren’t going to last forever, and finally I just grabbed a pad I use for grocery lists off the kitchen counter, quickly made a pencil sketch and then filled it in with watercolor crayons and india ink. Done! Yes, I accidentally spilled water on the paper and smeared paint so I had to cut the sketch out. Then I realized a damp little watercolor was perfect to hang on the twine clothes line where I clip postcards and sketches. Done and done! The thing that elated me was that I had tricked myself into making a little artifact before my ideal of perfection froze my hand. Maybe some day I’ll start an oil painting on my kitchen table and labor on it until I get it right. But until then, no pressure, no big plans, no big deal. I’m simply going to fool myself into fooling around.
When life is going my way, it’s easy for me to write about taking chances, being bold, daring to leap. But it’s writing that sometimes seems all sugar and no salt because when my life goes off the rails, I struggle desperately to walk the talk, to face up to fear, to not go fetal in my bed in the afternoon. My knee-jerk response to adversity is to fold like a cheap umbrella in a windstorm when what I really want is to be as sturdy as this tree, as transcendent as the moon. Yes, I’m resilient and always bounce back, but I wish I didn’t have that initial reaction of panic, cowardice and surrender when trouble stops at my door. I was thinking about this last night when I stumbled across a line from “The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” by Wendell Berry: “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.” The words lit up in my mind like mercury scrawled across the night sky. Because the facts are (contrary to what Pinterest and Instagram would have us believe) that dark days, poverty, illness, betrayal, loneliness, blood, snot, loss, pain and death are all mixed up in this life along with the big pink moons, laughing kids, leaping dogs, cake icing, wish bones, watermelon flesh, candlelight, snow angels, country lanes and new shoes. And the biggest fact of all is that we will every one pass out of this world, this green and gorgeous home some day. We will leave behind all we love and all we’ve accomplished and all we’ve accumulated. But maybe it’s possible, in the meantime, to be joyful even though we’ve considered all those facts. To use the candlelight to find our way through the dark. To savor the cake while the wind howls outside. To worship each moon as if it were our first.
I just read an article on the National Wildlife Federation website says that kids now spend an average of only 30 minutes a day in unstructured outdoor play and up to 7 hours in front of an electronic screen of some sort. It was a shocking statistic that I immediately realized applied to me as well. If I go outdoors, it’s to power walk, not to stroll or wander, and most of my day is spent in front of a computer or behind a Kindle. When I was a kid, especially before I became an obsessive voracious reader, I spent most of the summer outside playing or just hanging around. Adults really did not want us underfoot any more than we wanted to be there. On my grandparents’ farm, there was always something to do outside. I spent hours sitting on the fence with a stick and twine pretending I was fishing or watching the occasional car go by and never being bored. Now my mind is habituated to the constant stimulation of the internet, and the prospect of just sitting on the front steps or taking a stroll through my neighborhood makes me itch with impatience. Last weekend, I went for a beach walk with a friend on the island that’s just minutes over a bridge from my house. So easy to access and yet I rarely do. So beautiful once I’m there, and yet I’m always “too busy.” Having the ocean and sky fill up my eyes was like a massage for my soul, a Sunday sermon for my senses. When I first moved to SC and lived on that island, my daughter and I shared a house with a friend and her son. As an introvert, it was hard for me to settle into being around so many people who were always there plus drop-in visitors, but looking back I remember lots of late afternoons on the screened-in porch drinking wine and eating cheese and crackers and just talking, not doing. Or weekends on the beach soaking up the now-forbidden sun. As crazy as it seems to me now, I didn’t have email to check obsessively or phone games to play or urgent text messages to send. There was a lot of time to simply waste, or to waste in a simple way. I’m a victim of the thinking that we must always be accomplishing something, justifying our existence, not letting a minute of our precious time on earth go by without making it memorable or making a mark. As if our resumes must be constantly updated and bucket lists notated in order to reassure us that we matter. I hope I will always want to create or make something or leave room for a passion to be explored, but I hope I can also remember that instead of my constant to-doing I need to take time just to rest in the arms of the world.