Category Archives: Authenticity

Aging With Grace

It’s strange to be aging, isn’t it? It doesn’t matter if you’re in your 20s or 60s, getting older is a remarkable experience. As I move through my 50s, I see more and more of my life when I look over my shoulder and I no longer have the feeling of limitless horizons in front of me. Whatever is ahead, it’s not limitless.

I have a friend who looks at a tape measure and finds the number of inches that corresponds to his age. He takes in the distance between the end of the tape and his place at 70 something. Then he puts his finger at another 10 years, another 15 years. The visual on this exercise is startling. What happened to all those years of our life, and when did we move so close to our last day?

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

For at least a decade now I’ve been watching my elders and trying to figure out how to age gracefully. Every now and then I meet a remarkable elder. They have a twinkle in their eye, they laugh a lot, they’re curious and interested and they’re wonderfully authentic. I want to grow up to be just like that.

I’m convinced that the great keys to aging gracefully are staying in intimate connection with ourselves every single day, no matter how old we are, and embracing change like a lover. Without consent and resilience, aging becomes a bitter battle to the end.

So many of us, as we age, live increasingly in the past. It’s understandable. We’ve been, done and seen a lot. The problem is as the years roll over us we don’t update our software. We hang on to what we were, what our bodies could do, how it all was during a time we remember as the best time (or at least a better time than now). We continue to define ourselves by outdated habits and routines. I’m not sure if this is a function of nostalgia or weariness or just plain laziness, but somewhere along the way we cross some invisible finish line, stop paying attention to embracing how things are right now and start waiting to die.

As our software gets more and more out of date, incompatibilities arise between how we show up in the world and our stories and memories. We lose credibility and effectiveness.

It seems to me the day we stop being curious about what we might learn, do or be next is the day our lives really end. People who age gracefully still have plans. They still dream. Their thinking remains flexible, even if their bodies don’t. They find some magical balance between letting go and moving forward. Change becomes a beloved friend rather than a feared enemy.

It’s not hard to see this in small external ways. We hang on to clothing, for example, that no longer fits, or was fashionable for a fleeting moment fifteen years ago. We hang on to books or movies or music we once loved and couldn’t do without, but now have outgrown. I don’t suggest there’s anything wrong with such nostalgia, but I do think all that stuff can pile up around us and block a clear view of what is now, or what might be ahead. Too often, the externals mirror our internal habits.

I notice that many people my age still describe themselves by a job or position they no longer have. Some folks seem almost apologetic about being retired, as though they’ve lost personhood in the world, have become nobody. Others tell you all about some beloved skill or activity, how they practiced it, the ways it enhanced their life, their mastery, but never mention that was all long ago and right now, today, that activity is no longer part of their lives. Their lives have changed, but they haven’t updated their sense of identity. They’re stuck in their past and missing their present. They dangle in the empty gap between who they were and the stranger they are now.

I think some people feel angry about aging. We want our bodies to look, feel and perform the way they used to. We refuse to adjust to our present physical realities because they don’t match what we used to be able to do. We’re ashamed of our changing bodies rather than comfortable in them. We fear the changes the years bring and try to hide them or resist them.

Photo by Capturing the human heart. on Unsplash

Then there are people, amazing people, who know the trick of beginning over and over again throughout their lives. They spend their professional years as a lawyer and then retire and become an artist. A woman marries, works, raises a family and then, divorced and in her 60s, begins traveling all over the world. People in their 50s and 60s go back to school and acquire a new skill or a degree. They live in the day they’re in, in right now, and they’re focused on the present and future rather than the past. They accommodate their physical needs, feel at home in their skin and are constantly updating their identity, intentions, connections and contributions.

Defining ourselves by our pasts is a sad business. I know aging can feel limiting, but I think the real limiting factor in aging is refusing to participate in it!

I think the real limiting factor in aging is refusing to participate in it.

Defining ourselves by what we can’t do, don’t do or once did (but no longer) is a terrible way to live at any age, but in old age it becomes a pernicious habit indeed. After all, anyone may have physical limitations at any age. Those limitations needn’t define us unless we invite them to.

Considering what is possible, what we can do, what we’d like to do and what we’ve always wanted to do — now, there’s a set of questions for living a full, rich life, today and tomorrow. An elder who draws wisdom from years of experience and has a well-exercised sense of humor, curiosity and the ability to learn is indomitable, irrepressible and irresistible.

Life brings many things, including devastating loss, injury and illness. Every day that we live we’re aging, and every day is a new gift we might choose to receive, or we might turn away and look only at the old gifts, the old days, all that came before when we were younger, better looking, stronger, more hopeful, more innocent.

I know what’s behind me. Some of it was grand and some very painful indeed, but it’s all over, good and bad. Many of the clothes I wore, the thoughts and beliefs I held firmly onto, the routines and rituals in my life that held meaning, are like so many dropped leaves, fluttering in the wind of my passing. I have no idea how much time I have left or what’s in front of me, but there’s so much I still want to do! Still, I cling to the past in some ways. I tell myself such-and-such (a lovely, longed-for thing) will never happen again. I say I can’t do XYZ instead of I’ve never done it before and will you teach me how? I feel frustrated and old when I wrestle with a 40-lb bag of bird seed and my back hurts for three days. I can be just as lazy, sulky, resistant and weary as anyone else.

Yet I’m convinced enormous grace lies in aging, if we can find it. I believe aging is full of invisible gifts, insight and strength. I want that grace. I don’t want to miss the last part of my life because I’m refusing to be present with it. I want to take the time to close all my programs and apps and let my psyche and body update and reboot regularly.

Aging with grace is a work in progress. Some days are more graceful than others.

My daily crime.

Photo by ivan Torres on Unsplash

All content on this site ©2018
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

Selchie

Selchie: A mystical creature who takes the form of a seal in the sea and a human on land.

I have a picture book from my childhood called Greyling, by Jane Yolen. It’s one of my favorite stories, by one of my favorite authors, and I’ve told it as an oral storyteller for many years. When I began doing storytelling, I sought out all the selchie stories I could find and incorporated them into my programs.

I rarely tell a selchie story without fighting back tears.

I’ve lately revisited this wonderful material for my second book, and it occurred to me to explore why these stories touch me so painfully and deeply.

Selchie stories appear in the Hebrides, Iceland, Orkney, Scotland, Ireland and the Faroe and Shetland Islands. Like all lasting oral traditions, they contain blueprints for navigating loneliness, exile, love, loss, competition, compassion, trust and power. A good story has many facets.

A common thread in selchie stories is that a seal comes to land, takes off its skin, and becomes human, usually a beautiful young woman. Subsequently, the skin is stolen by a man and the woman entrapped. In many of the tales, she marries  the man who has her skin (always a fisherman) and bears his children. Sometimes her husband promises that after a certain number of years he’ll allow her access to her skin again, but he doesn’t follow through for fear of losing her. Inevitably, the skin is found, often by a child, and returned to the selchie, who must then face a choice between her life with her family and her life in the sea.

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

It is this choice that makes me weep. I know the agonized longing for what we are made of but can’t ever quite find.

As I observe the world and people around me, I think many of us feel in some way exiled from who we were born to be, from a place, from a tribal connection, from some integral expression of self. I believe this exile creates such an unbearable hunger we grasp at anything within our reach in order to appease it, becoming addicts, developing eating disorders and body dysmorphism, and struggling with anxiety and depression. We live in a culture of distraction and entertainment. We’re busy, noisy, exhausted, and inundated with information, stimulation, propaganda, manipulation and demands.

Photo by Anna Dziubinska on Unsplash

We want what we are made of, but how do we find what that is? Why is it taken away or withheld from us? Why are we so often forced to choose between one thing we’re made of and another? This all lies at the heart of selchie stories, for the selchie is a creature torn between two worlds and two tribes, and we instinctively recognize this conflict.

Choice is so often grief. If a selchie re-dons her skin and goes back to the sea, she cannot return, for she already knows the terrible cost of losing her skin, and though she may love her children and even have grown to love the fisherman she’s with, she cannot trust him. In returning to the sea, she is joyous, but now the grief of leaving her children and the life she made on the land replaces her longing for the sea.

I was with a man who avoided choice. He said he didn’t like to choose one thing in case something better came along. My experience of this was that he didn’t want to commit. It meant we couldn’t plan a date, a weekly ritual or even a walk. If we did, he frequently cancelled at the last minute. It was painful for me, and it frayed our connection considerably as I vacillated between hurt and anger. Eventually, I gave up and made my own plans. I told him that his maybe-I-will and maybe-I-won’t approach didn’t avoid a choice but was a choice. He refused to take responsibility for that, and he was bitter about the choices I made subsequent to his.

I’ve also been with partners who believe we can have it all. One man walked away from any situation in which he couldn’t have his cake and eat it too. It was a point of pride with him. He didn’t see why he shouldn’t have it all, and, as far as he was concerned, the world (and I) owed him that. Looking back, I see this as just another evasion of the heartbreak and consequences of having to make choices.

I think very few of us have the luxury of having it all. We come together and move apart, searching, seeking, fleeing and climbing ladders that we hope end in success. Many of us feel rootless in terms of place and tribe. We don’t really feel we belong anywhere on a map, and we have no rightful place in a human circle. We do the best we can, a choice at a time, and over the years those choices and their consequences teach us who we are and turn us into adults.

What we’re made of is not necessarily what we’re born into. What we’re made of is not necessarily the place we live in, the people surrounding us, the job we have, the clothes we wear, the car we drive or the color we dye our hair. What we’re made of is not always who we want to be, who we insist we are or who we’re expected to be. Discovering what we’re made of is an excavation of our dreams, our souls and our joyous bodies. Many of us spend our whole lives finding one piece of ourselves at a time, stumbling, groping, picking up and discarding, searching blindly in the dark with nothing but our feelings to guide us.

On one particular day of no special consequence, my small toddling self, clothed in a yellow bathing suit with white trim, was lifted into a pool of water as big as the sea. From that day to this I’ve loved the water, and during occasional long, dry spells without access to swimming I dream of water and wake myself weeping with the anguish of my longing.

I’m a creature of water. It’s part of what I’m made of.

Photo by Nathan Anderson on Unsplash

For some years I lived in a city and laid awake at night watching headlights move across the ceiling and walls, straining to hear a precious moment of silence in between the sound of cars and sirens and too many restless people moving through the pale night. I dreamed of high, snow-covered mountains under starry skies and the peace of trees in unbroken darkness. Every day I died a little more, but I knew in my heart one day, one day I would leave the city and live in the shadow of the mountains I dreamed of. A thousand nights later I freed myself from the tentacles of that city, but I also left behind my marriage and the father of my children, my belief in happy-ever-after, the most lucrative job I ever had and the good wife and mother I wanted so much and tried so hard to be.

Photo by Ryan Hutton on Unsplash

At last, I slept in the shadow of snow-covered peaks in a small mountain town without pavement and street lamps and sirens. When I laid awake at night, I heard the cry of the vixen, the rushing wind, the owls calling to one another, the sound of the bear eating apples from the tree outside my window, or the raccoons cavorting in the tops of the pear trees like furry pirates.

I did not have it all. I had another piece of what I’m made of. I chose it, and I paid for it. I’m still paying for it, twenty years and thousands of miles later, and whatever the cost, it’s worth it. I cannot live in the city.

By the time my life is over, will I know everything I’m made of? Will I have lived with enough courage to choose what I’m made of, come what may? Will living true to what I’m made of sustain me? Will I ever find my own sealskin wedged between rocks, or locked away in a chest, or hidden in the thatch?

The selchie lives in a small cottage on the shingle beside the sea. She lives with a fisherman whose face is carved with a lifetime of loneliness that she has relieved. She and her children gather seaweed and driftwood, mend nets and dry fish and watch for the fisherman’s return, lighting a lamp and setting it in the window to welcome him home in the evenings. She lies with her man at night and listens to him sleep, and the waves come in, and the wind sighs through the beach grass, and she thinks of her sea kin and wonders how it is with them and if she’ll ever see them again.

Photo by Kace Rodriguez on Unsplash

The selchie takes the folded sealskin from her child and holds it to her breast, weeping, smelling its fading perfume of fish and sea, rubbing its softness against her cheek. She tells her children she loves them, but she must leave, and they clutch at her hands and her skirts, crying, not understanding what is happening. She tells them they will see her again, but in a different form. She cannot stop to explain, lest the fisherman return and her chance for freedom is lost. She stumbles out of the house, casting aside her clothing as she goes, until she stands naked in the surf and steps into the skin. The children follow, stricken and wailing, pleading with her not to leave, but her need for what she is made of is even greater than her love for them, and the surf takes her gladly in its embrace and carries her out. She looks back one more time, her great, dark eyes full of tears, before she dives into the arms of what she is made of and disappears.

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

All content on this site ©2018
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

Beneath the Skin

Photo by Dakota Corbin on Unsplash

In the mornings now, I strap on my snowshoes and go down to the river. This is the first time I’ve ever snowshoed, and when I began a few weeks ago I anticipated moving silently and gracefully (as opposed to floundering like a pregnant hippopotamus) through the landscape, seeing the animals that make the tracks rather than just the tracks themselves.

It was a lovely vision.

The reality is that cycles of snow, sun, rain and subzero weather do not create a fluffy blanket on the ground, but a crusty, layered mix of wind-hardened drifts, thick, lumpy ice and bitter frozen ground. Walking on it, I feel exactly like Sasquatch, lurching and loud. CRUNCH, crunch, crunch, and then CRUNCH and wallow, wallow, wallow and giggle, swear, giggle. If one fails to lift the tip of a snowshoe up far enough, it catches under the top crust and down one goes on hands and knees, thrashing in several inches of cold, grainy powder to regain a standing position and some kind of solidity underfoot. The only wildlife I see is a squirrel or a pileated woodpecker observing me from a high perch, alternately laughing scornfully and scolding.

So much for romance.

My partner and I walk gingerly out to the mailbox or car on the glassy ice in the driveway, taking tiny, tentative steps and testing each before going on. Somewhere, under all that ice, is a sleeping world of earth, grass, clover and the inhabitants of the soil. I wonder, do they know this very minute more snow is falling on the layer of ice above them? Do they hear our footsteps slipping and sliding, or the click of the crampons we use on our boots or on the bottom of the snowshoes? Do the delicate weights of the juncos eating sunflower seeds off the ground or the footprints of the squirrels as they race from tree to tree, foraging and playing, reach the world beneath the winter skin of ice?

When I arrived at the pool to swim yesterday, an exuberant group of adolescent boys was in the water, shooting balls through a hoop. In a nearby lap lane, I settled down into my usual steady Zen freestyle, letting my mind drift from this week’s blog to the day’s writing and all points in between. The sun was shining in a row of windows alongside the pool, so I swam through alternating bars of shade and light.

Above the skin of water, the boys shouted, yelled, laughed and talked, jumping and splashing, filling the air with the echoing noise characteristic of indoor pools, along with the slap and slosh of agitated water and the sound of balls bouncing off the rim of the hoop or the tiled floor around the pool.

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

Under the water, I entered a different world, a silent world of rippled turquoise light and blue water. As I swam through intermittent sunlight, my shadow reached its arm toward my fleshy arm as I stroked, the two sets of fingers trying to touch. The agitated water rocked me so that I had to turn my head farther when I breathed in order to avoid a mouthful of chlorinated pool, but the noise from the world above sounded far-off and muted, nothing but a background for my own thoughts. I didn’t notice when the boys exited the pool and I was alone with the ripples of light and the steady stretch, pull, breathe and kick of my body.

Under the snow lying over the meadows and fields on this land is a world of field mice, shrews and other small creatures. They run through tunnels of last season’s decaying growth, foraging, sleeping, mating, fighting and living their lives. What do they think as I pass over them, a giant in snowshoes on sharp teeth? Do they crouch and cower in terror, or do they feel secure under the thick skin of snow? They surely must mark my passage, but their presence escapes me entirely. Does my weight cave in their tunnels and storerooms? When I fall through the crust am I laying waste to whole communities hidden beneath the snow? Do my footprints provide hunters from worlds above easier access to prey living in the layers below?

In the old tales, heros and fools, youngest sons and tricksters descend. They fall into dreams and oceans, enter wells and caves, go through trapdoors in the floor, climb down beanstalks and step down stairs. They crawl down chimneys or disappear in the red maw of a wolf or the cavernous insides of a whale. They brave cellars and tunnels and dungeons. They find worlds of magic, of mystery, of intuition and wisdom and hidden treasure.

In a lifetime, we travel from the darkness of the womb into the light and back into darkness again. Our experience is layer upon layer of minutes, hours and years. Beneath our skin, hidden in the folds of our exquisite and mysterious brains, are all the things we’ve seen and heard and felt, all the events that have shaped us. Beneath the membrane of our cells is our genetic code, the building blocks from which we are made.

Beneath, and beneath, and beneath.

Photo by Laterjay Photography on Unsplash

The worlds beneath support the worlds above. If the soil does not contain the right mix of microbes, minerals and nutrients, trees will not grow. If the rodents leave our fields for quieter places where Sasquatch is not roaming over their heads, the fox cannot survive here. Without both healthy trees and rodents, the owls hidden in plain sight in the tops of the winter trees will starve.

Yesterday I wrote a scene in which I wanted hedgehogs. I paused my writing and turned to the Internet to research. For two hours, I read about hedgehogs, looked at images, listened to audio recordings of their sounds. Now the section is written, the hedgehogs only a small part of the whole, and the vast majority of facts and observations I collected will never appear in the book. No matter. That research, my delight in these small creatures and their private lives, will enliven and enrich the story, even if invisible to the reader.

Photo by Tadeusz Lakota on Unsplash

What lies beneath my skin and yours? What’s concealed beneath the skin of ice, of water, of rock, of soil, of forest and meadow and swamp? What can we learn from those who know how to travel from one layer, one world, to another? How far might we descend, or, for that matter, ascend?

Peering beneath the skin. My daily crime.

All content on this site ©2018
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted