A Tale of Two Shoppers

Yesterday, for the first time in months, I was in a retail clothing store and that was only because I had to return items purchased online. The store was following all the protocols—limiting capacity, masks required, hand sanitizer everywhere. I noticed a woman loaded down with clothes approach the dressing rooms. One of the sales associates gently reminded her that she needed to wait to be assigned a dressing room. They were keeping every other cubicle vacant and wiping down surfaces after each customer. The woman replied, with a condescending sneer on her face, “Yes, I know. I don’t agree with it, but I know.”

I wanted to haul off and smack her. I thought to myself, “How dare you?” Here we are privileged enough to be out shopping on a Friday afternoon in a store that’s doing everything possible to keep us safe, and you cop an attitude because you have to wait five minutes for a sanitized dressing room. I admit, these days I find it increasingly difficult to keep my anger on a short leash. This never-ending parade of daily atrocities is just pushing me to my limit. When I got up to the counter, I muttered something about having to deal with rude customers, and the woman at the register looked up and said, “Every. Single. Day.”

But there was another customer in the store yesterday afternoon. She was a petite elderly lady, with beautiful white hair and wearing neatly pressed capris and a stylish sailor top. While I waited for a dressing room, she was engaging the associate managing that area in a lengthy conversation about the recent death of her husband, The associate listened with patience and compassion. I suspect this was the first time this woman purchased clothes her husband would never see her wear. The clerk gave me an apologetic look over the woman’s head, and I indicated I was in no hurry. Later the employee at the register explained to the woman how she could pay her bill online or bring a payment into the store. Apparently, her husband had always paid the bills, and she was worried about doing that by herself.

I crave these moments of kindness and decency. So many are trying so hard to do what’s right under circumstances that none of us have ever had to deal with before. There are going to be mistakes and there are going to be challenges and frustrations and can’t we just suck it up a little? Can’t we take a breath and pause before we lash out with a snarky comment or post a rant on social media?

I have never felt such anxiety, and anger about a future I cannot control except through my vote, which I hope and pray will be fairly counted. But sometimes what worries me most is how this me-first mentality manifests itself. It has become a badge of honor with some, including those who hold positions of leadership at all levels. Would we have survived World War II and 9/11 with this kind of behavior and reaction to decisions, that for right or wrong, are being made to protect us?  Have we lost all sense of what it means to sacrifice for the good of all, even pushing back against something as minor as wearing a mask or waiting a few minutes for a dressing room?

I’m grateful for the employees in that store and the thousands of others putting themselves out there and taking risks, so that we can live in some semblance of normalcy. And I’m grateful for the opportunity to hear that elderly shopper tell her story, reminding me of what really matters.

Pool Days

Welcome to the adult pool. A few of us long-time lap swimmers have become the self-appointed standing committee, the arbiters of pool ethics and acceptable behavior. We want to make sure everyone is familiar with the rules and offer a few insights on the best way to enjoy the pool.

First of all, you need to be old to swim here. The sign says, “over 18” and most of us are way past that. We’re happy to no longer be sitting vigil at the big family pool, making sure a child’s head is above the water or dragging screaming toddlers out to use the bathroom. But admission to the rarefied atmosphere of the adult pool comes with its own set of responsibilities.

The chairs stored on the wooden racks belong to members, and we do not look kindly on weekend guests who help themselves to one of our chairs, thinking they’re provided by the pool management. And while we’re speaking of chairs, the pool is like church where woe be to the person who unknowingly sits in the wrong pew. Lap swimmers are very territorial about their space at the one end of the pool. Cocktail party swimmers, those who come to the pool to socialize, (Don’t get me wrong, we love you, too.) usually gather along the sides or in the patio area at the far end. You need to decide if you’re a Swimmer or a Socializer and set up your chair accordingly. Umbrellas are in high demand and it is highly frowned upon to move an umbrella, or, as apparently happened recently, take one home with you.

Now, a word about the lanes. Several years ago, a sign-up system had to be instituted  due to (seriously) fights and arguments breaking out about people hogging the lap lanes. (Yes, this is an adult pool.) Some individuals would paddle for hours in a lane or there would be a secret relay system where as soon as one person finished, they would allow one of their friends to slide into the lane regardless of how long others were waiting. It was ugly.

We now have four lanes, two of which may be reserved for a half-hour of swimming alone and two which are “open” but you may have to share with another swimmer. For the most part, the violence has subsided. However, it is not appropriate to give a swimmer the stink-eye because you’re waiting for a lane and you refuse to share the open lanes or insist on always using the lane beside the wall. And if you’re wearing a visor and sunglasses and trying not to get your perfectly-coiffed hair wet—umm, sorry, but you don’t belong in a lap lane. Lap lanes are for swimming back and forth, not standing at one end to chat or practice water aerobics.

A few years ago, a sort of lagoon area was built at one entrance to the pool, with inflatable palm trees and Adirondack chairs in ankle-deep water. Recently a lap swimmer made the mistake of sitting in one of these chairs while waiting for a lane to open and was immediately told that chair was “reserved.” No one appeared to be making a beeline for that chair for at least the next hour, but regardless, lesson learned. The Adirondack chair folks also do not appreciate other swimmers using that entrance to access the pool and interrupting their conversations.

Insider tip—one of the best times to come to the adult pool is when it first opens in the morning (although the chlorine is strong) or in the late afternoon and early evening. You don’t have to walk a mile across the steaming parking lot, the French-fryers have been dialed down so you’re not breathing in greasy air as you swim and it’s not as hot and crowded. And you may see something in the off-hours that makes up for all the craziness.

Last week, one of my fellow lap-swimmers (affectionately known as “the mayor,” always willing to fish out the errant frog or mouse who strays into the pool) brought his elderly mother out for an evening swim. I hadn’t seen her in years and I remember her as a strong swimmer, cutting through the water in her striped seer-sucker bathing suit. She is now frail and bent over and clung fiercely to my friend’s arm as she shuffled along the pool deck. I thought perhaps they would just sit at the edge while she dangled her feet in the water to cool off.

But, no. He and another one of the lap swimmers got a giant innertube and gently, gently walked his mother down the steps into the water, (the Adirondack chairs were mercifully vacant)  and eased her withered body onto the float. Up and down the lanes they went. His mother laid her head against the plastic ring and closed her eyes while her son and the other swimmer pulled her through the water. For a half hour. Her feet, which barely moved on dry land, were kicking the whole time. Muscle memory, I suppose. But it was beautiful to watch and although this woman seldom speaks anymore, you could tell being in the water brought her comfort. For a brief time, she was back in her seersucker suit, swimming laps.

Welcome to the adult pool.

 

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.