I’m a sucker for pieces on the internet that seem to offer a brisk how-to guide to happiness, enlightenment and better makeup techniques.
“7 Steps to Becoming More Authentic”
“5 Fast Fixes for Flabby Arms!”
“9 Facts About Kale That Will Blow Your Mind!”
“10 Sure-Fire Tricks to Looking Younger!”
“3 Miracle Creams You Can’t Live Without!”
I often imagine the conversations between the people hired to write these lists:
Jane: Did you know there are 7 Infallible Ways to Break Facebook Addiction?
Sue: No, but my sister gave me 3 Steps to Taking Better Selfies and they really work.
Jane: Wow, that’s awesome. By the way, did you realize that sandwich you’re eating has 8 Deadly Ingredients the FDA Never Told Us About?
I am blown away but not by kale. I’m blown away that anyone anywhere has so many answers to life’s mysteries. The older I get, the more I realize that I don’t know anything for sure. I am beset daily by confusion, ambiguity and lingering grief that I’ll never learn to apply eye shadow in this lifetime. I could never declare as Oprah does every month, “What I Know for Sure!” Or send an essay off to a public radio contest themed “This I Believe.” Everything changes and life doesn’t wait for you to learn the new rules. Things fall apart and then they get cobbled back together in a totally different way. People rarely behave rationally. I grew up in a kind of emotional chaos, so part of me is always longing for certainty, rules that will guarantee I don’t fall off the edge of the world. But I’m trying to make peace with the fact that I know nothing for sure, that my beliefs are subject to change, and that advice usually falls on deaf ears, including mine. But I still harbor a secret hope that one day I’ll conquer eye shadow.
“Dare to be naive.”
Are you willing to appear a little bit foolish, a little bit wide-eyed about the world, instead of ironic, sophisticated and cynical? I’m trying to remember that I never learn anything from irony or by maintaining a cool stand-offish attitude. It’s only when I let myself be as enthusiastic as a clumsy puppy or to unfold like a blossom to whatever weather life brings that I grow. The older I get, the harder it is to recapture the childhood feeling of newness or possibility or hope; it’s even difficult for me to remember being that vulnerable. Because that’s what happens when you’re naive — you become vulnerable and wide open again. But I believe you also learn to notice things that you usually ignore because you’re too busy, too constricted, too engrossed by to-dos. This month, I’m taking an online sketching class called “Seeing,” and I hope it will help me exchange my narrow tunnel vision for a broader panoramic view. What do you do to stay naive?
A lazy Sunday afternoon, drinking beer and ordering platter after platter of oysters Rockefeller, raw oysters and char-grilled oysters. We sit at the bar watching people come and go, drifting in and out of one conversation to the next. Talk and time meander, and the sunlight slants through the high windows so slowly and softly that it seems to have traveled here from a long distance. Maybe from a place long ago where Sinatra is always playing in the background, there’s a pay phone in the corner and no one has your number.
Next week, old friends will come to SC for their annual visit with me. Diane, her husband Bill and I have been laughing, drinking wine and cooking together since the ’70s. My hair is no longer red, but Diane’s is still wild and unruly. When I first knew them, I was a person who danced in fountains and they hadn’t yet started their family. Much has changed but now our friendship. When I stay with them in DC, it’s been winter or fall lately. There’s a fire going, neighborhood friends for dinner, a museum maybe, buying fresh pasta at the Eastern Market, taking a brutally cold walk in the city, wine at 5. When they come to SC, it’s mostly summer or fall, and we adjust for the season. Diane and I going to Starbucks to write together, golf for Bill, planning the next meal, sitting on the beach all afternoon, exchanging book lists, doing the NYT crossword puzzle and solving weighty existential problems. Our agenda might contain important items like:
-What is my purpose in life?
-Should I go gray?
-What’s for dinner?
Next week, Diane, Bill and I will go down to the ocean again, same beach each time, and heal in the sun. We’ll wonder what it means to be our age. We’ll suffer over family tragedies and celebrate small victories. We’ll once again partake of that holy communion of wine, feasting and friendship. Lovers long gone, faithful companions, friends in common, family lore, flaws forgiven, vacations shared, snapshots from the past and breaking bread will be the unwritten, taken-for-granted record of our lives together over the years. And then we’ll pack up our chairs and head home in the waning light. Wine at 5. Illuminated moments of ordinary extraordinariness.
Let me say the unsayable…we’re all going to die. I know I’m not supposed to think that, much less say it out loud, and I spend a lot of time denying it to myself. At other times, I indulge in magical thinking. If only, I think, I’d Botoxed early, exercised more, eaten local, played brain games, meditated, run a marathon, not have stood in a field watching crop dusters fly over spreading their poison, made fewer late night Baskin and Robbins runs, lifted more weights, been more hip, gone spinning every week, eschewed Day-glo orange Cheetos, believed in Jesus, learned to do a head stand, not used aluminum pans, loved more appropriately, been less selfish, restricted my calories — if only I’d tried harder, maybe I would live forever. But as Wallace Stevens wrote in Sunday Morning (the last four lines of which seem sublime to me), “Death is the mother of beauty” and he didn’t mean enlarged lips or lipo-ed hips. My own mortality makes me recite to myself the ordinary, right-here/right-now personal list of beauty in my life: the fitted sheets folded perfectly in my closet, the Oh-My-God gardenias in my yard, sleeping late on a weekday, reading The Four Quartets once a year, drinking gin and tonics on summer Sunday afternoons, waking in the night to thunder and lightning, cornbread baked in a cast-iron skillet, just-squeezed orange juice, neon signs, prayer flags, sunshine slanting across a wood floor, a magical free-of-charge full moon every single month. All the things of the earth. And when my time comes, I wish my body could be placed outdoors on a raised platform like a Great Plains Indian, offered up to the clouds, the birds, the winter snow, the autumn gold, the spring sun, the seasonal stanzas. A body turned into a poem. Selah.
Last night I lay awake berating myself until deep into the night. I’d been on Facebook late and started noticing all the tributes and photos to mothers that were blooming and multiplying. My own brother put up a picture of our mother and garnered many nice comments from people who had known her. So what is wrong with me, I wondered. Why did I have such a complicated relationship with her and why am I left with memories that don’t comfort me but instead make me feel alternately guilty and lonely? Everyone loved my mother, especially her nieces and nephews, grandchildren and the kids she taught throughout the years. As they should have. She was an incredible woman –strong, smart and in many ways stifled by the limits of her own life. She achieved so much, she survived so much and she bailed me out more often than she should have. So why do I mainly remember a sad cold home? I couldn’t think my way through my funk because all those pictures of loving mothers and daughters on FB scrolled through the back of my mind in a slide show of reproach, leaving me on the end of the familial spectrum called “an ungrateful child is sharper than a serpent’s tooth.” No big epiphany here or resolution or closure (if that even exists), but when I read this article in the NYT this morning about the angst social media can cause, I realized that sometimes FB is not always the right place for me to be. Too often, it leads me to make too many comparisons between my life and others with no room for the shades of gray I need to explore and accept. Maybe once I do that, my good memories will grow and start to look more like this:
I’m convinced that we all need an avocation — a pursuit that has little or nothing to do with how we earn a living. Even when I was at my most broke and working jobs I hated, I had a passion or two simmering in the back of my brain. Writing bad poetry, keeping a weepy journal that had occasional flashes of insight, developing obsessions about the French Revolution or F. Scott Fitzgerald. Right now my avocation is learning to paint. The thing I love about it and also fight against is that it has no purpose whatsoever. As someone so focused on outcomes in my publishing job, doing an about-face and immersing myself in process without a goal in sight is a mental struggle. But I’m learning to play the long game. Several years ago, I planted a couple of iris bulbs in a terra cotta pot and eagerly awaited some blooming. Every year, stalks would shoot up with nary a blossom. Year after year after year. Eventually I gave up and forgot about it. This spring I went outside to find four iris blooms on one of the plants. Evidently while I was fretting, some invisible underground work was going on. That’s why I’m trying to overcome the need to force some measurable results from painting. What’s the point of it? I have no idea, but I’m trying to be patient and see what blooms. It might be something entirely unrelated to painting, a ricochet effect that causes some other part of my life to burst into flower. Or it might be just the pleasure that comes from the smell of oil paints drying in my kitchen, the luxury of fat tubes filled with silky, intense color, the ripeness of that moment when you cut open an avocado and place its lush beauty on the palette of an empty white plate. Something, nothing, everything.
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.