One of my favorite maple trees is a couple of blocks down the street. I enjoy watching it slowly turn from green to orange and red. Trees don’t change all at once, but rather gradually move from one season to the next. I have the privilege of living in New England and watching them daily transform then shed their leaves.
I am grateful that age comes on me in the same way. It would be dreadful to have the Dorian Grey experience going from youth to advanced old age in an instant. Instead it comes on little by little, giving me a chance to adapt to the changes. More often than not, my conversations with friends also include mentions of new physical changes. At church a couple of weeks ago I compared my crooked little finger with a parishioner’s crooked wrist, both signs of arthritis. We compare status of our “age appropriate” cataracts and wonder which one of us will have the eye surgery next. The group of us who work with the same trainer at the gym constantly have our exercises “modified” to adjust to our bodies’ quirks.
Millions of Americans are coming into old age since we were born right after the War in the baby boom. After we give up trying to plead that “70 is the new 50” (it isn’t) may we accept the gifts and the losses that come with aging. A.R. Ammons puts it beautifully in his poem on age “In View of the Fact:”
until we die we will remember every
single thing, recall every word, love every
loss: then we will, as we must, leave it to
others to love, love that can grow brighter
and deeper till the very end, gaining strength
and getting more precious all the way. . . .
I was finally able to post my 50th anniversary report to Harvard. I thank especially Des who steered me in a productive direction. I had certainly made too big a deal out of it. Perhaps because, as I mentioned in a previous post, the questions included “what do you consider the most important accomplishment of the past fifty years?” When all was said and done, I realized that I don’t look at my life in terms of accomplishments. Instead, I wrote of my marriage, my teaching years, my family and my faith. It has been a rich fifty years, but very little of it had any relationship to my formal education.
My classmates included Al Gore, former U.S. Vice President and other notables. For many years I felt somehow inadequate when I answered the questionnaires every ten years about what I had been doing. I wasn’t racking up prizes and professorships and honors as were many of my former classmates. But at 71, those things really fade in importance for me. I look instead at the people in my life and am grateful that I put my time into relationships, not outside achievements.
(For the curious, the red arm band on the sleeve of my gown was a protest symbol. Harvard had used the Cambridge police force to deal with campus Viet Nam war protestors. At graduation we wore these arm bands to show our solidarity with our fellow students who had been assaulted.)
It’s almost October, the month when we get our first killing frost. But just before all the other annuals bite the dust, our asters come out in full force. Here they are just starting to open. They started as a tiny plant purchased by mail from an offer from some magazine insert. I didn’t have much hope for the scrawny plant when it arrived, but put it into an empty spot nonetheless.
That bedraggled little plant has actually thrived and has grown from a three inch specimen into a plant which now spreads across three feet of the corner. It emerges slowly, allowing the zinnias to outshine it, the hollyhocks to emerge among its sprouts and the cherry tree overhead to blossom and fruit. Just as every other plant winds down for the winter, the aster announces its presence.
I read once that late learners usually catch up if they are given enough encouragement. Boys especially seem to learn to read later than girls, but in a supportive atmosphere they can flourish. The race isn’t always to the swift. Neither is the aster, though late to the party, any less of a welcomed guest.
Since early spring, my husband and I have been fascinated by the growth of this little beech tree which has been growing up from under our deck. The only light for this spot is from above. The enclosed deck itself is about 18″ off the ground and pitch dark underneath save what filters down. We have left the plant alone and just enjoyed watching its tenacity. Its parent beech tree, at least 75 years old, had to come down last year since it was in danger of dropping one enormous limb onto either our or our neighbors’ garage. But we knew it hadn’t left willingly, and here is its offspring sneaking its way between the floorboards.
I was totally delighted yesterday when I noticed that its leaves had begun to change to the lovely rust of the beech in autumn. Clearly this little shrub was following along with its natural growth cycle, confident that it would be able to leaf out again in the spring. I could make an obvious metaphor out of the tree, but suffice it to say I admire its persistence in the face of odds. I enjoy its optimism about next spring. I thank it for reminding me that solid saplings will spring back up and replace the sad bare stumps, all that’s left of earlier trees.
Our tomatoes didn’t do well this summer, probably due to a combination of too much rain and too little sun. Or maybe it was just an off year. At any rate, I needed a couple for a salad and we went to the local farmers’ market for them and any other produce that looked promising. The farm stand owner recommended the variety pictured above, one we had never heard of, seen or tasted. The tomato had all sorts of folds, and slices looked unusual to say the least. Nonetheless, the taste was excellent.
I reflected on the perfectly proportioned,perfectly smooth skinned, perfectly bland tomatoes on sale in our supermarket year around. As a culture we seem to prefer standardized tomatoes year round rather than quirky short lived ones available only in their natural season. So we have sacrificed taste for availability.
Quirky in general seems to be an undervalued trait at the moment in the United States. Kids who used to be seen as odd are now diagnosed and treated. Big nosed kids(I among them) now plead for plastic surgery so they can have “normal” noses. Small busted girls want implants while large busted ones seek reductions. Apparently there is a perfect size there too.
But looking at and then tasting this wonderful tomato I am reminded of what we lose any time we decide that vegetables, fruit and people need to all conform to a very narrow standard. Here’s to variety in all things.
This stained glass window graces the front of my church and forms the backdrop for the celebration of the Mass each Sunday. My husband is head usher at one of the services, so we arrive early and I sit waiting for others to arrive. I have a lot of time to gaze at the window.
While everything I do and write is informed by my Christian faith, I rarely am explicit about it. But for this post, I want to answer the question “why do you remain a Catholic with all the sex abuse and cover up that has gone on?” I stay because sex abuse and denial of it exists in every home, school, neighborhood, work place and faith community. It is a grievous truth that many still refuse to believe victims. Those in power, no matter the setting, continue to exploit that power and harm those weaker, whether children or subordinates. As I write, vitriol is being hurled at a woman who as a teenager endured a sexual attack from a boy who now wants to deny it. I don’t know a single woman who hasn’t had such an experience, either in school or at work. Most of us never spoke of it because we knew it would open us to attack and blame.
I am sickened by predators, whether family members, priests or bosses. But I would have to go live alone on a desert island if I left every place they exist. Instead, I will remain an active member of my faith. I will listen to victims wherever they are. I will believe their stories and join in the task of holding the perpetrators responsible for their actions.
I heard a great quote this week “first the enlightenment and then the laundry.” I think many of us love moments of insight, clarity, discovery, breakthrough and real connection. We want to stay in that place. We are like the disciples who watched Jesus be transfigured on the mountain. It was a glorious sight and they wanted to pitch their tents and stay there. For the non religious or those of different religions, I imagine you can come up with your own idea of a perfect moment that you wish would last forever.
However, most of life is ordinary, not transcendent. The idea for the book turns out to be much easier than writing it. The initial fog of falling head over heels in love is followed by the hard work of building a relationship built on more than hormones. A graduation party wouldn’t be possible without the preceding four years of hard work. An exquisite meal cooked by others is the exception not the rule. Mostly we have our regular home cooked dinners, perfectly fine but not extraordinary.
But as I wrote earlier reflecting on the ideas in “Radical Gratitude,” most of our life is lived with both feet on the ground. We can remember to be grateful for life, for love, for friends, for the natural world, for books, for music, and for art. Most of our life can be quietly celebrated because of its ordinariness. We count on tradition, routine, and the predictable to keep us grounded. And at the end of any day we can say “thanks.”