Learning Again

I find it both exhilarating and scary to be a student at my age. I don’t mean just learning from travel and nice little lectures offered at the local college. I mean going for it full-force. Cranking out a product for someone else to evaluate when it’s not required for a degree or a job promotion. When there’s no “have to” involved. To risk criticism and even failure simply because you want to learn to do something you’ve never done before, or you want to get better at something you’ve done forever. 

Two years ago, I started taking on-line writing classes at an exploratory level and discovered I really enjoyed the genre known as creative non-fiction, which applies techniques of fictional story-telling to actual events and can encompass everything from full-length memoirs to personal essays. I’ve worked with a local writing coach and attended my first writers’ conference where I sucked up seminars like the proverbial sponge and had an opportunity to meet a favorite author in person. (I also found writers to be a much less cranky group than the typical crowd at music educator conferences.)  

Currently I’m taking an on-line class with students who are far better writers than I am. The instructor is very supportive and although I have yet to submit my work for peer review because I’m too intimidated, I know this class is taking my skills to another level. As I read the work of experienced writers, the more critical I become of my own work and the more I strive to improve. I am so grateful that there is still time and still room in my head for this to happen at age 60.

The other place where I find myself pushing the learning envelope is with choral singing. Unlike writing, I have been a choral singer and professional music educator for my entire adult life. So, we’re talking about stuff firmly established in my wheelhouse. 

A little over a year ago, my husband and I made the difficult choice to leave our current choral group and audition for what might be considered the premier vocal ensemble in our region, if not the state. It was a gamble for people like us on the far side of 50.

We were accepted and welcomed into the orbit of a conductor who would pick up our voices like old rugs, take them outside and give them a good shake. Who would transform our been-there-done-that piece-three-times-wake-me-when-it’s-over mentality to “My God, this song is gorgeous. Where has this music been all my life?”

To say this conductor has revitalized and re-energized our passion for choral singing is an understatement. I find myself hearing her voice in my head, every time I sing, especially when I’m with my church choir and have to sing soprano. We have rediscovered what it means to practice and what it feels like to once again be inspired by a teacher. We are surrounded by singers who are younger and better than us. We must bring our A game to every rehearsal and performance.

Susquehanna Chorale 2017

I guess that’s my point. Where in the aging instruction book does it say, stop giving your best? Where does it say, just keeping on keeping on is good enough? While our bodies are still functional, why should we drop down to our B or C game? Yes, it’s scary to step out into uncharted territory. I cringe every time I hit the submit button on a piece I’ve written, knowing that it will probably get rejected but that means I must write it better the next time. I worry that I’m going to forget part of the memorized piece in the concert especially when there’s syncopated clapping involved, (Rhythm was never my strong suit.) but that means I must practice it yet again. I find I have to push back hard against the forces of complacency that say, “Stay safe. Stay comfortable. Just keep doing what you know you can do. Why work so hard when you don’t have to?”

Because the process feels good. It means I’m not stagnant, that there’s movement beneath the surface, even if that movement is mostly flailing. And sometimes there are rewards. The reward of singing with a group in which our voices are worked like dough in the master baker’s hands—mixed and kneaded and given time to rise and rest until the most delicate and sumptuous creation comes out of the oven. The reward of a writing mentor reading one of my pieces and saying, “This makes me just want to slam my head on the table and say, why I couldn’t I have written that?” The reward of a letter written in a shaky hand sent to my church after a piece I wrote was published on a denominational website, asking for more of my essays. Umm—I’m a beginner. I don’t really have a collection yet. But I’m working on it.

 

 

Reunion

Nine of us have come together for a reunion weekend in a little town on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, an enclave of upscale homes nestled along the tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay. We were freshmen in the same hall of a dorm at a small college in south central Pennsylvania in the fall of 1975.  Something about that first year away from home bonded us, despite different majors and the fact that a few of us transferred to other schools. After graduation, we scattered to our respective lives, gathering at Christmas until the babies and the jobs and the buffeting of life made even that too hard to do.

Nancy is our cat-herder, the one who fans the flames of friendship, who will not relinquish her hold on this crowd of aging freshmen. Who mows down our excuses of why we can’t get together, sending relentless emails until we all just give up and say, “Ok, ok, Nance, we’ll come.” She prods our slightly resistant and oh-so-busy souls into spending a weekend with people we haven’t seen in years. Part of her motivation is “We’re turning 60 and we need to this. Now!”

We’re all a bit shopworn these days. Illness, tragedy, and painful relationships have etched lines on our faces and carved scars on our body, both physical and emotional. Only one of us still has living parents. Several of us love someone who is struggling with addiction. One of us has dedicated her life to caring for a special needs child, whose disabilities resulted from the colossal ineptitude of a drunken obstetrician. Another recently shouldered the burden of both her parents’ final days and tells sad and beautiful stories of that journey. In the past year, one of us fought a grueling breast cancer battle and won. We celebrate her return to health.

After a Friday afternoon arrival filled with awkward hugs and “We can’t believe we’re finally doing this,” and “Look at this incredible house,” we discover we cannot stop talking. I didn’t realize until after the weekend was over, that no one ever turned on a TV and we barely looked at our phones. Our time is spent fully engaged with each other. Years of bottled up stories and feelings pour forth and maybe it’s easier because we rarely see each other and there is no one to judge. We feel safe with people who shared our first days away from the security of our parents. It’s as though we all went home for a forty-year weekend and can’t wait to tell everyone what happened while we were there.

A group of us spends Saturday in the harbor village, picturesque and crowded on a gloriously warm autumn day. We shop and then eat lunch in a crowded bar. The waitress snaps a picture of us huddled together in our corner booth. We take a boat ride on the river followed by mid-afternoon ice cream cones and a wine-tasting. We talk about where we’ve traveled and where we still hope to go. Cathy wants to go to Scotland and so does Marge and maybe they will go together next summer. There is a surreal quality to the day, like we’ve just been whisked into some kind of time warp, grown-up versions of those wide-eyed freshmen, together once more.

Rather than going out to restaurants, Nancy plans lovely candlelit dinners on the screened-in porch. Our faces are bathed in flattering light, crystal tears from both laughter and sadness sparkling on our cheeks. Someone places her phone in a bucket to amplify the music from Pandora’s 70’s station. We drink wine and eat crab cakes and broiled salmon. The second night one of us suggests we say grace, so we clasp each other’s hands and thank God for the food and renewed health and the opportunity to be together after all these years.

We leaf through old picture albums, marveling at our young faces in the yellowing photos. Our long straight hair with feathered bangs. Boyfriends with 70’s moustaches sporting pastel tuxedos with giant lapels.

“Remember that guy? Who was dating him? Isn’t he the one who dumped buckets of water in our room that night? No, that was someone else. He’s the one who threw Pam’s stereo out the window when they broke up. Remember when I got written up the first week for letting guys in the girls’ bathroom? Ruthanne, why were you always in your underwear? Oh my God, look at those dresses. I wonder whatever happened to that girl who had the sideburns? Was she the one who kept the rat in the cage? It wasn’t a rat, it was a hamster. His name was Thurber. Remember he’d go rolling down the hall in his little plastic ball?”

I can still smell the popcorn and hear Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” blasting out of our rooms.

We all hug each other for real when we leave on Sunday, the awkwardness gone. We’ve dived beneath the surface of brief emails and chirpy Christmas letters. We’ve been at the bedsides. Watched a beloved family member struggle with whatever substance has them in its evil grip. Sat across the desk from a doctor or attorney delivering bad news. Seen the sinister shadows on the x-rays, sat in the reclining chair while the life-saving drugs drip into our veins. Reassured a parent, lost in the haze of dementia, as they ramble on about something that happened years ago.

We are powerful sisters. We are women who will listen patiently to each other’s stories. Forever. Who laugh and cry together about the past and stride bravely into the future, ready to take on whatever it brings. Who, despite the years and miles of distance that separate us, will always be there to place a gentle hand on an elbow when one of us is groping blindly in the darkness. Like a college freshman in her first weeks away from home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Too Old for Target

Sometimes I think I’m too old to shop here, that I should be turned away at the door because I’m so far past decorating a dorm room or first apartment. I imagine signs like those at amusement park rides except these say, “No admittance after age 50 unless accompanied by a grandchild.” I feel eons away from the young hipster moms in their skinny jeans and expensive boots, filling carts with Kind bars and organic coconut water. I relate more to the Hush Puppy Basset Hound than I do to that slightly sinister white dog with the red circles around his eye. I question if I or anyone else really needs a package of 16 precious gluten-free, fair-trade-produced quinoa wafers.

Admittedly, Target lures me with its siren song of coupons for items I recently purchased. “We know who you are and we know what you buy, so come back to us.” And I do go back and buy household detritus– cotton balls and cat food, paper plates and laundry detergent, a huge bag of fragrant oranges. I shop here because I get bored with the grocery store and that it’s somehow politically correct, (even Michelle Obama escaped to Target one day) and that I’m failing at something if my medicine chest doesn’t contain “Up and Up” band-aids. The store is cleaner and brighter and feels less oppressive than its famous competitor a few miles away. At the check-out, a surly young man scans my items, silently thrusts a gift card toward me, a reward magically earned for one of my purchases. Nearby a child’s late afternoon whiney-ness dissolves into a full-blown tantrum while his mother stares at her phone.

My generation cut our retail teeth shopping at 5 and 10’s smelling like plastic and popcorn and slightly fetid water from the fish and turtle tank at the back of the store. Instead of sipping a latte from the Starbuck’s kiosk, we popped a balloon dangling over the lunch counter to see if we had won a free cherry coke to go with our grilled cheese, oozing orange Velveeta onto a thick green plate.

Our stores had sloping hardwood floors with no caution signs to warn shoppers and their attorneys of a potential fall risk. Aisles were jammed with packs of pink foam hair curlers, transistor radios and Big Ben alarm clocks, coloring books (for children only) and the latest 45 records. Clerks wearing smocks with their name stitched over the breast pocket rang up each item on curve-bellied cash registers, the total appearing in wide-eyed black and white numerals at the top of the machine. Hands touched as we paid with cash.

When we needed more than basics, we shopped at locally owned department stores in nearby downtowns. There were no carts and centralized check-outs. Uniformed attendants piloted grate-covered elevators. Sales persons, mostly middle-aged women, presided over each individual department and helped us find our dad’s shirt size or the correct accessories for a First Communion dress.

We bought our share of crap in those days, too. My family’s first crèche set came from Woolworth’s where it was on display amongst the shiny aluminum Christmas trees and flammable tinsel. The cardboard stable finally fell apart and one or two lambs are amputees but I still set the figures out every year. Mary and Joseph have faded price tags on the bottom that say 29 cents.

Maybe because we had fewer choices, what we bought seemed more special. Few of us had the money that many of us do now so what we bought, even the incidentals, meant something. Our keeping up with the Jones’ was just that—did we have the same color tv as the neighbors? Not did we have the tv recommended by our Facebook friends. We were not sent into paroxysms of indecision by endless inventory– too many choices all vetted by our phones with the most up to the minute reviews and information. Brick and mortar stores have become giant dressing rooms, feel and touch and try on for size and then order it from the computer in our pocket. Thanks, but no thanks.

I think as the days of my life become ever more fleeting, I am less interested in surrounding myself with things that are fleeting, the latest and greatest widget that morphs into rummage sale fodder in a few short years. Things that are “so-o-o cute” as my close friend’s daughter, a young mom, gushes. The brightly colored throw pillows and futon covers and metallic wall hangings belong to the freshly minted adult, innocent and optimistic, reveling in their immortality. I leave the woven storage baskets and chemical-free sippy cups to the thirty-somethings, rapt with the blush of first home ownership and beginning parenthood.

The late comedian George Carlin said, “A house is just a place to hold your shit while you’re out buying more shit,” and I’m still there. My husband and I have not yet reached that prelude to nursing home-hood, downsizing, but it lurks in the not too distant future. So, I want the good stuff— comforters with the print on both sides, corkscrews that last more than a year and tops with sleeves to cover my post-menopausal arms. I want to shop where clerks make eye contact and talk to me, proud of what they sell. I want stuff that will not all be sent to Goodwill when the executors come to clean out the house.

Several years ago, my friend’s daughter bought me Christmas tree ornaments from Target. One is an eggplant-shaped globe and the others are large teal and olive colored glass balls. I dutifully hang them on my tree each year because I love this young woman and they were purchased with the first dollars she earned as an independent adult. But I would never decorate my tree in colors of purple and teal and olive. They are meant for a tree adorned with cute little feathers and swathed in filmy fabric instead of one covered with 50-year-old ornaments and possibly even a few strands of flammable tinsel. They don’t even belong in the same room as my three-legged lambs.

As I stare down the barrel of 60, a part of me envies those just starting out, excited by all that Target and life has to offer. I don’t begrudge them the American dream of decorating the nursery and equipping the kitchen and buying cupcake wrappers for classroom birthday treats. I say good luck and God bless you because in the end none of it matters but in the meantime, go enjoy it for all it’s worth. But a greater part of me savors being freed from chasing all that is trendy and chic in the giant red emporium. I find it soothing to be slightly removed from the frenzy of acquisition, exhilarated by choosing things to accompany me on this part of the journey regardless of their perceived coolness. I love the confidence and joyful arrogance, the utter been-there-done-that-ness which comes with age.