I went to church this morning—on my couch. A dutiful daughter, I spent the first half of my life in religious prostration, and then I left. But detachment from dogma meant disconnect from community and I wandered, people-less into my middle-age. In recent years, I sometimes sat, shyly, noncommittally, on the back row of a new church I discovered, an un-church. The Unitarian Universalists.
The UU church, nurturing spirit and service, brings a solace of words and music and familiar faces to my living room via Zoom on this second Sunday of social distancing. Congregants come like moths to the chalice flame. Greetings scroll up from the chat box as joiners bask in the warmth of shared hearts and minds, if not bodies.
It’s late December, only days to Christmas. The kids are out of school and it’s dark already at 4:30 pm. All the lights burn in the kitchen where my husband is busy making sugar cookies with our girls. Flour dusts the counters and floors. A delicious aroma fills the house. I’ve got work emails to tackle, but I’m doing it reclined on the couch while listening to Christmas music. iTunes shuffles our collection of eclectic albums, creating the playlist that plays pleasantly in the background. Until the opening phrase of Happy Xmas catches my ear.
“And so this is Christmas, and what have you done? Another year over and a new one just begun.”
The unmistakable timbre of John Lennon’s voice causes me to pause. I close my eyes to listen. Such a familiar, comforting melody.
My birthday is tomorrow and I’m turning 60. (I know, right?!) As a gift to myself, I’ve decided to stop coloring my hair. The whole process is messy and time consuming, and lately, it seems the results last all of five minutes. Still, I’ve waffled on pulling the plug because each time I darken my silvery roots, I see my younger self in the mirror. Miraculously, the march of time is skirted yet again and that’s hard to let go of. But it’s beginning to feel, and let’s be honest–look–less authentic. Like I’m clinging to the past.
I make no judgments either way. My mother never went gray before she died. Nor did my mother-in-law. I know plenty of octogenarians who still color with no plans to stop. For me, though, embracing my natural hair is symbolic of self-acceptance that dates back to my teenage years in the 70s, trying to tame my stubborn curls into Marcia Brady’s smooth tresses. Letting go of this fight to cover my gray means letting go of who I once was without knowing for sure who I’m becoming.
There’s a rising sense of anticipation to explore this new version of myself. Who do I want to be? It’s exciting to consider that, with conscious intent, I can be whomever I decide to be. If I can get over the number, that is. Sixty. Six-zero. Six decades? It sounds old, or at least it did until I was the one seeing less road ahead of me than behind.
The march of time is skirted yet again
They say “age is just a social construct“ and “you’re only as old as you feel.” I’ve long held to the theory as a fitness professional that exercise is the fountain of youth and staying active is key to longevity. And I am fit and healthy and strong—for any age. At the same time, I feel the years in my bones. I see the passage of time on my face. Could it be that aging is both a state of mind and a reality of the body?
There are, too, the cultural influences. As enlightened as I think I am, I’m not immune to the undeniable correlation between a woman’s physical beauty and her worth. And there’s no doubt that what our specific culture defines as beautiful skews young. Very young. Blame post-modern marketing campaigns for searing images of “perfection” into our brains–all in the name of capitalistic profits–but these impressions are deep-seated and often unconscious. Since girlhood, the messages we women receive about our appearance shape how we view our own aging process.
Aging is a reality of the body
I want to see past external trappings and shallow judgments, but you won’t find me tossing out my expensive moisturizing serum that hydrates and regenerates tired skin. It’s not that I expected to stay young forever, but something shifted in my self-perception when I realized I wasn’t turning heads anymore, when I overheard myself referred to as an “older” woman.
Besides, there’s only so much we can do to stave off this process. Entropy, the second law of thermodynamics states that everything is in a state of decline and decay. That’s the irrevocable reality—my body is aging as will every other body on the planet. This flesh and bone phenomenon that grew up to grow four babies, then deftly moved through long days of raising them, that body is tired. But how could it not be after nearly 40 years of mothering?
Yet, it’s astonishing to be witness to my own deterioration. The knee-jerk tendency is to resist the forward thrust of life, even to denial. Part of me wants to “rage against the dying of the light,” as Dylan Thomas wrote. But there is a tradeoff, one in which I believe the gains are actually greater than the losses and which convinces me I wouldn’t want to go back if I could: Maturity. Wisdom. All the years of lived experience with their suffering and brilliance, their unimagined joys and devastating disappointments garners an understanding not obtained otherwise.
Aging is a state of mind
I’m grateful to have learned I am much more than this body, which may be attractive some of the time, but frankly, more often is anything but. I’ve learned I’m also more than what I do, more than my achievements, my productivity, my skills and performances and track records. I’ve learned to look within for my worth rather than rushing around outside myself from one source to the next asking, “Am I good? Please tell me I’m good enough.” I’m definitely more than someone who seeks to please, molding herself into whatever others want and need her to be.
You are enough
It took time to arrive at this conclusion—decades, in fact. At 40, I stopped caring as much what other people thought. At 50, I cared even less. And now, at 60, rather than not caring at all, the focus is on caring most about what I think. Jane Fonda calls this the third act in life, 60 and older, a significant developmental stage, as different from mid-life as adolescence is from childhood. This final act, in which we are freed from social constraints and cultural conformity, is for the ascension of the human spirit.
Lately, I find myself gathering up all my memories, the places, the people, the adventures and challenges that have filled my many, many days and taking a good look. It seems to me now that was only part of it. The profound experience of this life cannot be alchemized until seen clearly, until some sort of meaning is made of it. That seems to be my work of late, reflecting and distilling my past into the simplest and purest understanding.
This is not a light undertaking; surging emotions can overtake me in mere moments. I cry nearly every day whether with grief or gratitude or heart break or exquisite joy. But I’m brought again and again to forgiveness: For those I love, for the world at large, and most of all for myself. It’s then I feel more wise and gentle and kind than ever. Embodying love. I am becoming who I was always meant to be.
Go and live it
If I could go back in time and talk to the 20-year-old me or the 30-year-old, I would say, “Oh, honey. You are enough. Just you, without all your doing. Just be you. When you find the joy, everything–and everyone–else will fall into place. Don’t take it all so seriously.”
Casting forward, I channel my 70-year-old self or even the 80-year-old and wonder at what she might come back to say to me now. “Darlin,’ you think you’re old, but you aren’t. You have been through plenty, yes, but there’s so muchmore to come, you can’t even imagine. Stop dyeing and stop dying. And go out there and live it.”
It’s birthday time again. Each year, the full trip around the sun seems to get shorter. The passage of time is marked by my wrinkles, as distinct as tree rings. The same me, but . . . older. My children, however, turn into completely different creatures. I am still stunned by the evolution of infant to adult, the development of a tiny, helpless bundle of humanity into a fully functioning, if not fully matured, individual of “grown-up” status.
Spreading my four offspring out over 18 years was not what I envisioned. In sequence, their ages roll like numbers on a tote board from even to odd and 2022 sees my kiddos turn 37, 35, 23, and 19. I may not have planned this configuration, but each was a deliberate choice. Still, the truth might be that before we’d actually decided on a fourth child, while on birth control, said child decided for us. Initially making an appearance as a blighted ovum, imagine our surprise when the miscarriage our doctor told us to prepare for turned out to be a fully viable pregnancy.
I held some strong convictions when I was young. I just knew what I knew was true because, well, “when you know, you know,” right? But I didn’t know what I didn’t know. For most of us, we often miss the realization that we actually don’t know. Until we’re knocked loose from those dearly held certainties, that is, and not always gently.
Around age 28, life provided me plenty of jolts to rumble the foundation I’d built, one I was sure was rock solid. I’d left the Mormon church. And my marriage. The shockwaves were severe enough to send many of my beliefs toppling ass over teakettle and smashing to bits on the ground.
When I was growing up we moved a lot, big moves crisscrossing the country. Perpetually the new kid, I never stayed long enough to feel like I fit in. Then, I married a man whose childhood was the opposite of mine, who grew up in a small north Missouri town of Mayberry charm. It seemed like the ideal for many reasons and though I could not give it to my oldest two children, Columbia is the only place my youngest two remember.
A dream come true for me, raising the kids in the same town, the same schools, the same neighborhood, the same house, felt like a second chance for me, too. Like coming home.
But now it’s time to go. Change is hard, even when it’s the right thing. Objectively, I marvel at our human tendency to reverberate with surprise or even shock when life takes a turn. Why, exactly, are we so astonished? After all, the only constant in life is change. But subjectively, I am taken aback at every shift and feel it deeply, personally. Even when it’s my own choice.
Binge watching TV, a pastime for which I previously had little time, and a guilty pleasure I’m loathe to acknowledge, has opened a portal for me during the pandemic, a passageway to another world. Once Upon a Time has been my alternate realm (except for the period I resided within the universe of Schitt’s Creek—almost completely comprised of two adjoining motel rooms–where I voraciously gobbled up all six seasons, the final episode leaving me a sobbing mess in disbelief that it ever was allowed to end).
Contemplative by nature, the isolation of this COVID year has forced constant and not always welcome introspection. Magnetically drawn to the tales of Storybooke, the fictional town inhabited by intersecting celebrities of the make-believe power set (and not just characters from the Brothers Grimm, mind you, but also those of C.S. Lewis, L. Frank Baum, and the numerous Disney creators of Mulan, Jasmine, and Anna and Elsa), I’ve been intrigued by my own intrigue. I have always loved stories, but why such attraction to these fairy tales and their creative twists? Magic, true love, mystical powers, light in the dark, good versus evil, the epic tales contain the stuff of classic yarns. A harmless escape into fantasy, I decided it was. A much needed exit from the chaos of this reality into the multiverse of the Enchanted Forest. A rising hero, a vanquished villain, a happy ending, the clear cinematic themes provided structure. Closure. There’s something satisfying in watching the formulaic saga repeat itself: Innocents, the undeserving victims of circumstance are trapped under a curse cast by a malevolent force seeking to retain brutal control by exerting their powers. Dire straits intensify until certain doom awaits and all hope is lost. Or is it? Because in that precise moment the miracles occur, triumph at the last moment by an unforeseeable savior. A potion, a spell, a token. True love’s kiss. No matter how dark, light always prevails. Love wins the day.
There’s something satisfying in the formulaic saga.
I thought perhaps I’ve been charmed by the childish simplicity. Real life isn’t so black and white. Upon a closer look, however, I saw that neither is life in that pretend place. When peeling back the layers of vile atrocity, no matter how black the heart, no scoundrel began their sojourn as such. Pain, abandonment, betrayal–these drive the bad guy’s blood lust for revenge and destruction. Moral devastation amplifies their rage aimed at those who have what is desired but remains out of reach. And even the good guys sometimes succumb to hopelessness or jealousy. They, too, can lose their way, pouring gasoline on the fire in their fight for justice, learning that the end cannot justify the means. I think even children can tease out the truths embedded in these stories. Especially children.
Maybe my deep dive into the fairytale world isn’t just escapism. Maybe it’s a way for me to process what I’m seeing around me: the age-old struggle of humankind for equity, collectively caught in a violent tug-of-war, “others,” perceived as enemies, dominated and killed. The battle for the soul of humanity is still happening today. For all the advances of technology, in the Information Age, we’re not much different than in the Dark Ages, when kings hoarded wealth and peasants starved. When the elite few sustained their power by climbing on the backs of the working masses.
Even children can tease out the truths in these stories.
I feel in my bones, though, the longing to evolve, to purge ourselves of ugliness and petty, selfish greed, to emerge outside the rigidity of our own thinking into a collaborative, peaceful co-existence. But how do we get from here to there? I suppose the answer lies within each heart and mind. In every choice. As we co-create the world around us, moment by moment, this synergy of choice operates on free will. And like the characters in Storybrooke, we all possess both lightness and darkness. At any given intersection, the possibility exists to take a different fork in the road.
Even then, happy endings aren’t static. They don’t last forever–that was never the point. As perfect as they might feel, our happily-ever-afters burn bright only for a season. Life is transient. For better or worse. In sickness and in health. The afterlife notwithstanding, the physical limitations of our kingdom on earth offer the inevitable exchange of heartache for the gift of having loved in real time. For every summer, there is a winter. The leaves turn. The snow falls and signals the chapter’s end. And life waits patiently, dormantly, until it renews itself in spring and a new chapter begins.
Our happily-ever-afters burn bright only for a season.
My Auntie Gwen reached the apex of her winter last week and arrived at the end of her story. She was ready, she told me, at peace. “I’m so looking forward to seeing my mom,” she said. ”And Jesus.”
Aunt Gwen is the third of four siblings now gone. My mother, Pat, died five years ago, and their older brother, J.W., back in 1948 when he was only 10. My Grammy and Grampy, Katie and John, died in 1998 and 1990 respectively. Only Auntie Dee remains earthbound. For now. The family history is written in letters and journals and essays. It’s preserved in my DNA. It lives in my memories, passed down from generation to generation in oral traditions like the one that begins, “Once upon a time, not so long ago and not so far away, there lived a Little Old Man and a Little Old Woman and their Little Dog Turpy in a Little Old House by the field where the hemp stalks grew.” I clutch at a past that’s slipping away to die with those who lived it. Perhaps this is why I am compelled to take up the pen and tell their stories.
Katherine Gwen Lyman was born in Bozeman, Montana on May 14, 1946 and grew up in Wallowa, Oregon. After earning a Bachelor’s degree in Social Welfare and a Master’s in Special Education and School Counseling, she spent her career as a beloved teacher of students with disabilities. An avid vegetarian and lover of birds and wildlife and flowers, she was never without a feline companion. Auntie Gwen was my first musical influence, pulling me into her lap to sing as she played the piano. I watched her fingers trill on her delicate flute, amazed and enthralled at the beauty of her embouchure.
This is why I am compelled to tell their stories.
She was a free spirit, a true bohemian, with long, sleek hair and John Lennon glasses, favoring embroidered tunics and leather sandals. With no make up, no fingernail polish, and no shaved underarms, she seemed exotic to my church girl sensibilities, just wild enough. Once Mom drove us south from Phoenix to Tucson to vist her adobe cottage in the middle of the desert. When she didn’t answer we went around to the back to peer in a curtain-less window. And there she was, sitting in Sukhasana (cross-legged) on her meditation cushion, eyes closed, face serene. Completely nude.
We visited her when she lived in Eugene and Seattle and San Francisco, though not in Hilo, Hawaii where she married a gentle bearded man named Guha. They both wore long, native leis, a symbol of their love, over white muslin. His easy-going ways tempered her high energy, and they lived their bliss for a time before parting ways. Later, she lopped off her hair in an asymmetrical cut that became her signature style, short enough to showcase the long beaded earrings she’d made herself. There would only be one more love, though they never wed. Joel, another beautiful man, this one with olive skin and dark curls brushed with silver, was mellow and generous. Another uncle to cherish. But again, only for a time.
Auntie Gwen lived alone after that, but she was rarely lonely, filling her time with friends and family and travel with her widowed mother. She adored her nieces and nephews and loved watching us grow up. She endured her share of physical challenges, an aneurysm that left her without the sense of smell, breast cancer, knee surgery, chronic back pain. But these ailments never dampened her joie de vivre. She was a true optimist with an effervescent smile that lifted right up into her twinkling eyes as if to say, “Isn’t it great, this life we’re living?”
She told me my mother always accused her of being a “Pollyanna,” the caricature imbued with excessive cheerfulness and based on the heroine in a book of the same name, authored by Eleanor Porter in 1913. Pollyanna was brought to life on the big screen in 1960, with Hayley Mills playing the irrepressibly sunny orphan. A nearly life-sized doll with a dimpled grin and blond curls, wearing a gingham dress and MaryJanes was launched on the retail market to coincide with the Disney film. Either my mom or Gwen owned one because we found it, sitting upright in a corner, green eyes staring, when cleaning out my Grammy’s house after she died. My bet is on Auntie Gwen.
“Isn’t it great, this life we’re living?”
In her own defense she’d said, “What’s wrong with that? I like seeing the up side of things.” I admit, I myself am slightly suspicious of those with unyielding positivity. But of all her eccentric idiosyncrasies, because of (or maybe even in spite of) an inherently strong personality—a trademark feature of all the women in my family, I find Auntie Gwen’s rejection of gloom admirable. Something I will always seek to emulate. After all, it was her steady stream of buoyancy that kept her afloat her whole life.
She died comfortably and peacefully in her home on Friday, January 8, 2021, surrounded by love, my brother holding one hand and her dear friend, the other. My sisters and I held her in our hearts from miles and miles away. Our goodbye, like too much of this past year, was remote. On Zoom. Auntie Gwen promised if we would hang bells, she would ring them. With quivering chins and welling eyes, we promised to hang them and watch for the sound of her eternal optimism, an omen of her tangible presence and a spark of magic in our ordinary days. And a reminder that “not so long ago and not so far away” a new story has begun.
*Reading given at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbia, online, August 9, 2020
“Always have enough courage to trust love one more time and always one more time.”
In what do I place my trust? This profound, existential question is, for an inherently trusting person, difficult to quantify. Before the pandemic, I trusted my alarm to go off, my car to start, and my phone to keep me on task. I trusted there would be money in the bank, food in the fridge, and job security for my partner and myself. From the sturdiness of my home and the safety of my Midwestern burg, I trusted the sun to rise and set on another ordinary day.
There are moments when the veil seems almost to lift, and we understand what the earth is meant to mean to us — the trees in their docility, the hills in their patience, the flowers and the vines in their wild, sweet vitality. Then the Word is within us, and the Book is put away.
Mary Oliver, The Veil
They called her Barbie, an apt moniker for her given name. A real-live Barbie doll, she was tall, gorgeous, voluptuous, blonde. But she also carried herself with the elegance of a Barbara. Moviestar glamour. Dressed to the nines and turning heads. She made you feel important when she bestowed her attention on you. She was all yours. Her eyes held an almost mischievous twinkle, while her gorgeous, wide-mouthed smile lifted on one side only. Her laugh was sensuous, subtle.
Dad emailed on Monday.
“Good morning, kids. Our dear Barbie passed through the veil last night about 9:15 pm Seattle time. She never woke up again since she went to sleep Thursday evening. It was a very blessed and peaceful passing. No more pain and trauma to her little body.”
Ring the bells that still can ring Forget your perfect offering There is a crack in everything That’s how the light gets in
“Be careful what you wish for,” my mother used to say.
“You just might get it.” A wise woman, whose words I often disregarded when she was alive, her advice has been on my mind a lot lately.
Time, as we experience it on this plane–as we have all agreed, is linear. A steadily-paced constant. Yet I know I’m not alone in the perception of its acceleration. In recent years I’ve felt more and more like a hamster on its wheel, running frenetically in a perpetual, never-ending race. My days consisted of rushing to commitments, appointments, and activities packed into an impossibly tight schedule and coordinating the inherent overlapping and conflicting logistics of the same. Fueled by a bottomless to-do list, my go-mode was switched to “over-drive” nearly 24/7.
Until March 15th, that is. Before that fateful date, I ran myself ragged trying to keep up, all the while complaining about being too busy.
You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile the world goes on. Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain are moving across the landscapes, over the prairies and the deep trees, and the mountains and the rivers. Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again. Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting over and over announcing your place in the family of things.
Mary Oliver, Wild Geese
I read once that Canadian geese are monogamous, that most couples stay together all their lives. Considering the brutality of life in this wild world, I find that to be an inspiring example of devotion, applicable to the human condition, particularly in our postmodern reality.
My husband and I have, on day 13 of the COVID-19 quarantine, brought our two goslings out to the country for a change of scenery. This is our fourth spring out at the farm. Well, that’s what we call it. Although we raise no livestock nor harvest any crops, we christened our 22 acres in the rolling countryside of Steedman, Missouri “the farm.”
Lisa Pullen Kent is a writer, yoga teacher, musician, and passionate lover of people. She writes on parenting, marriage and the sacredness of the ordinary in everyday life. Lisa splits her time between Columbia, Missouri, where she lives with her adult daughter who has Down syndrome and Steedman, Missouri, where she lives with her husband on their farm in the country.