the joke, or life as a circus


Today I found a gray eyelash. Ah…whah?

God (and very few others) knows I have gray hair pretty much everywhere hair grows (even spots where it shouldn’t). But my eyelashes? They were the last bastion of youthful hair in my body, and their reign as such was over before I even knew they were a bastion.

I found this offending lower lash (it gets worse) while looking into my magnifying mirror which (and even worse) I now need to avoid looking like something out of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. Or is that just Baby Jane? Uh, did I mention my memory is going, too?

Oi. When did all this happen?  When did I get so old, so middle-aged, so like…my mother?  No offense, Mom, but you know how it is. While you’re growing up, your parents are the previous model, living dinosaurs who talk about dead people, listen to tragically old music and wear laughable clothes from another era.  Even in their early thirties, I believed my parents were seriously O-L-D.

I used to calculate what year it would be when I turned 30. I would roll “1997” around in my pre-adolescent brain and wonder at how far away it was, as well as the impossibly aged sound of “30” as if I were trying to conjure up a visual image of what one-billion looks like.  Unfathomable when you are 10.

I don’t want to fall into some cliché-ed rant about how unfair growing old is, how youth is wasted on the young, how our bodies betray us, how short life is, how existentially meaningless it all is, etc., etc.

But I have to say, it sometimes does feel like someone is playing a practical joke on us humans.  At least on me.

In my 20s, I had it all – a high metabolism; relatively good looks; a fit, impervious-to-injury- body; a sharp(er) mind (and memory, if I remember correctly); FREEDOM; and a sense that the world was full of possibility.

Did I know I had it all? Does an ostrich know it has wings? I only saw what I didn’t have, the imperfections and flaws in my body and mind. I lacked any direction or motivation that could have put all that lovely, young sap into something amazing.  I was too busy luxuriating in narcissistic, existential angst (my favorite writer was Milan Kundera – hence the title of this piece stolen from his book, The Joke) and bewilderment.  To top it off, I was hyper-focused on men, allowing dating and relationships to occupy whatever creative cerebrum space I had.  Needless to say, I was miserable.

In my 30s, I had even more…and somehow less.  Husband, babies, house, business – it was a lot and served to occupy every ounce of me.  I had no space to think, let alone make some big statement in the world or pursue creative, fulfilling or fun avocations.

So now we get to my 40s and the reason I’m writing this.  I finally have space to breathe and think; and the patience, calmness and lack of self-doubt to cultivate it.  In the last four years, I have developed a mien for artistic photography (even sold some shots!), tried my hand at being a partner in an art gallery, taken up (okay, developed an obsession for) tennis, traveled more than ever, launched this blog and an app for teens and their parents late last year (www.teensphere.com).

But the universal joke is on me, you see. Just as I have the confidence and maturity to start really living, my physical being is withering away with mounting speed. More than gray or stray hairs, or even wrinkles, it is the body-pains and aches, the injuries, the weird health issues, the failing eyes — all of which seem like a practical joke, banana peels thrown my way by Bozo the Universal Clown.

But I promised not to go all negative, “poor old me” on you, so I’m reframing my thinking around this irony-of-aging thing into something a little more positive.

Here’s what I’m thinking: rather than a joke, it must be a universal balancing act. Not the clown show at the circus, but the high-wire act. Forgive the big top metaphor, but I’d like to go with it for a minute.

Imagine this.You’re going along the high-wire, a leotard and tutu covering your fit, fabulous body, but your brain – well let’s just say you aren’t very mature even though your synapses are firing on all six cylinders – is not making the best decisions. Your powerful, youthful body can handle it, though. It either catches you when you take a wrong step, or it isn’t hurt too badly when you fall into the net below.

Do I sound like a dorky self-help book yet? I’m sure you know where this is headed: Your body ages, and gets hurt more easily, you aren’t as strong physically, but your mind and experience keep you from making as many mistakes as you go along that high wire.  You might not even need the little umbrella-thingy, which is really a crutch anyway, to keep your balance.

My premise is simple: we trade youth and its wonderful beauty and resiliency fraught with emotional pain and bewilderment, for wisdom fraught with physical pain and degeneration.

Somewhere along that high-wire, we cross a line. We are more wise than unwise.  The balance tips. The pendulum swings. But we have to pay the piper – there’s no such thing as a free lunch – you can’t have both youth and wisdom at the same time unless you’re the Dalai Lama, and, as we know, there can be only one Dalai Lama at any given point in history.

So you pay with emotional and/or physical pain. But getting hurt — physically or emotionally — then taking the time to heal, is part of the path of greater and greater wisdom.

When I hurt my shoulder in tennis a couple years ago (it still tweaks out once in a while), I railed against the gods, my tennis pro and my surgeon when he told me I was out for at least four months.  The injustice of it! I find a sport I actually like doing, one that I am improving in every day and it is snatched away in one stupid attempt at a topspin forehand.  Bloody banana peel, I would have thought … if I had thought of the whole joke concept yet.

But looking at it now, I realize that being forced to sit out meant I had to the energy and mental space to start this blog. Tennis had frankly started to eat up most of my free time and head space, and my creative self wasn’t being fed. Ka-Pow.

Lighting bolt.

Light bulb.

Duh.

The universe and I were out of balance, and I had to pay the price. But it gave me the gift of this blog, which has been a mind-blowing, cathartic and, believe it or not, healing powerhouse in my life. It is probably one of the more transformational things I have ever done and far better than any therapy I’ve ever experienced.

If hurting my shoulder was the price of catharsis, well, I guess it was worth it.

My final, final thought on the subject?  Wisdom comes to you over time, with every step you take, dangerous or careful. But beware — it takes a body part or your sense of peace before you reach the platform.

So who cares if I have tendonitis in both knees and I limp up and down stairs. Who even notices I have gray eyelashes under my mascara?  I am much, much more than the outside shell, the “plastique” as the French call it.

And, heck, at this rate of injury and aging as the trade-off for wisdom, I’m bound reach a state of nirvana really soon.

Or have I taken this line of thinking just a tad too far…?

Nah. It’s way better than Bozo and banana peels, so I’m going with it. Plus I’m wise now, so roll with me, okay?!

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things I’ve learned from my mother-in-law


“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12)

My mother-in-law and I are about as far apart in age, experience and culture as two women from this diverse nation can be.

Only 10 years younger than my youngest grandmother, she grew up in the thirties on a dirt farm in rural Minnesota, the oldest of eight children of Polish immigrants. The surrounding community was also mostly Polish Catholics, first generation Americans trying to hardscrabble a living off such unforgiving land in such a harsh time that I imagine some might have wished they’d never left the old country.

Education past eight grade was rare in that community, as it was in much of the rural United States in those days. Who needed more if you were just going to take over the farm or be a farmer’s wife? She was a shy girl, retiring even, but she was determined to get her high school diploma. She worked for a year to save enough to pay for the bus to get to school so she could do it.

She joined the army during WWII, a decision so far out of her normal comfort zone she still shakes her head, amazed by the audacity of her younger self. In basic training she met “girls” from all over the country, maintaining friendship with one until that friend passed away about 10 years ago.

She met and married a man from her home town she’d known from childhood. In 1954, they moved to a first-ring suburb of Minneapolis and bought the small, two-bedroom house she still lives in today. She raised nine children and is now surrounded by them, 18 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. My husband is the youngest of her progeny.

Up until a few years ago, my mother-in-law went to Mass every morning – she’s now down to once a week – and she still makes quilt after quilt for the poor with her fellow “Mission Belles,” embroiders baptismal bibs for the church, and bakes goodies for fundraisers and funerals.

This was her life when I met her and, until recently, I’m ashamed to admit that I subconsciously felt a little superior to her. I saw her world as “small,” lacking in education and sophistication, an old-fashioned woman with pre-feminist views and Depression-era ethics.

And while it’s been a few years, we had our issues. Actually, I had my issues. If you’ve read my entry about moving to Minnesota 12 years ago, my pregnant-, new-mother-touchiness had a lot to do with my lack of patience with her indirect, yet somehow abrupt way of asking for something. Often something that to me seemed insanely trivial.

“Oh, hi Molly. Is P. there?” she’d ask over the phone.

“Hi there,” I’d respond. “Uh, no, he’s not. He’s at work until 6-ish.” (Seriously? It’s noon on a weekday, I’d be thinking, already be gritting my teeth) “Anything I can help with?”

“Oh no,” she’d say. “I was just thinking that a light bulb in the dining room is about to go out and I don’t know how I’m going to reach it to change it.”

And I’d be simmering by now, cursing what I perceived of as extraordinary passive aggression (ach, the horrible impatience of me!). “Well, do you want me to see if Paul can come over to change it soon?”

“Oh, no rush!” she’d exclaim, because I had breached the first rule of the Minnesota indirect exchange: you do not rush into the actual goal of the call too soon. You draw it out, just for the pleasure of it. And besides, the light bulb was not her real aim at all. Duh.

“I have an idea,” I’d say, because the light bulb had finally gone off in my dim, East Coast brain. “Why don’t we bring dinner over on Friday night, visit for a while, and then Paul can change it?”

“Oh, great!” she’d say. “But you don’t have to do that – I’ll make dinner and you just come over with the girls.”

Now, why didn’t she just say that in the first place?

Thinking she was in serious decline recently (she has since recovered) made me reassess, well, everything about her, to really focus on why I love her so much (because I do). She is in actuality one of the most naturally wise, kind people I know, and reveals this through her actions – the way she lives her life — not just her words.

I could probably write a best-selling self-help book based on her innate, mid-western wisdom, but I thought I’d share, gratis, a few things she’s taught me. She’d want me to do it for free anyway:

  1. Forgive and forget. My mother-in-law never seems to hold onto anger or remember a grudge. Though she feels sad when her friends are less attentive to her than they could be, she gladly and happily accepts invites when they happen – without bitterness or irony.
  2. Patience really is a virtue. If the conversation above doesn’t illustrate well enough my severe deficiencies in the patience department, perhaps the fact that I created the phrase “Patience hurts you” when I was three, does. But my mother-in-law comes from a time when time was better spent on idle chit-chat with a real human being than hurried interactions via email, when drawn out niceties were not considered superficial, but necessities and a pleasurable way of being. Besides, you can’t be impatient when you’re making a quilt or bread from scratch.
  3. Do sweat the small stuff. Contrary to popular self-help literature, she knows that the small stuff, like making sure each grandchild got their Christmas chocolate Kiss from her, is the stuff that matters.
  4. Love unconditionally. This one is tough, but doable. My mother-in-law is one of those rare devout Christians who actually and naturally lives by the teachings of Christ. She actually cares about people she doesn’t know, about their welfare, and does something about it. And if she loves you, she always will, no matter what. Her friend from basic training days was a racist, bitter and uncharitable woman, but my mother-in-law appreciated her for her audacity, sense of humor and the history they’d shared. She loved her anyway.
  5. Treat others as you would like to be treated. Another tough one for most of us, but I’ve never heard her say a harsh word to, or about, anyone. If she can’t say something nice, in other words, she doesn’t say it.
  6. Do good things for others. Again, something self-help books decry…”Be selfish” seems to be the mantra of the modern age. But my mother-in-law gives and gives. Not until it hurts, though– until it feels right and good.  She actually derives a great deal of pleasure from selfless acts — regular donations of money, sewing a bedspread for a college-bound grand-child, the aforementioned church-related works, etc. — something one happiness expert calls “selfish altruism.
  7. Remember birthdays. A card, a phone call, a home-baked cake. Mark those moments. She made me a cake to celebrate the fact that I’d quit smoking for a month when my husband and I were merely dating – I was extremely touched.
  8. Cry when you need to cry. Tears well up freely in my empathetic mother-in-law’s eyes at the plight or unhappiness of those she loves, a sad bit of news or a minor catastrophe like spilled milk. But her willingness to live it and move through it is one of the healthiest things I’ve ever witnessed.
  9. All are welcome anytime, so pull up a chair and visit for a while. My mother-in-law isn’t hung up on the house being absolutely perfect before people are invited over. She comes from an era when dropping by unannounced for a “visit” was common practice, and if the house wasn’t perfect, so be it. People who care enough to drop by don’t care about dishes in the sink and a visit from a friend is a golden moment.
  10. Happiness is family and friends, not greater material wealth. The wife of an airline mechanic and mother of nine, my mother-in-law never aspired to wealth, a bigger house, more than one car. If she had, she would have been miserable. Instead, she focused all her energies on that big family, her friends, her church, and has achieved an inner calmness many of us would envy.
  11. Recycle and save everything you can (waste not, want not). When I first visited her tiny house in the early ’90s, I couldn’t believe how crammed full of junk it seemed to be — cans, leftover fabric, plastic Cool Whip containers, bits of string, old clothing, broken sewing machines. This was before recycling was common practice, and I have since learned that she had a purpose or use — or at least an intended purpose or use — for every bit and scrap. I’m not advocating we all become hoarders, but she and her Depression-era counterparts may well have something to teach us about not only saving money, but the planet as well.