Mortality

January 27, 2011:

My cousin died today.

And so it begins. I’d already found myself wondering who among the twenty-two of us would be first. Figured it would be one us older ones. Hoped it wouldn’t be me.

Instead, it was one of the younger set—ten years my junior. Cancer’s what got him: unpredictable, ugly, indiscriminate disease. You never know about life’s twists and turns, how it will all end.  

Cousins 

 

March 20, 2016:

It’s happened again. This time on my mother’s side of the family. This time it was one of us older ones. Not oldest me but the next in line.

Life feels more precarious than it did yesterday. We’re all, we cousins, entering the danger zone, that time in life when a generation ago death was the norm at the age we are today. Now, we think we’re still too young. Clearly we’re not.

They say it’s when your last parent dies that you feel most vulnerable, when mortality becomes vividly real. But I’m not so sure. Cousins—we’re the same generation. We were toddlers together. We grew up together. We see ourselves in each other’s faces.

When it’s one of us, a different kind of light goes out.

Gender Bender (for Danielle)

What if humans . . .
were synchronous hermaphrodites
like earthworms
who, when two mate,
both become impregnated?

Now, that’s equality!

Or the banana slug,
able to mate with itself alone?
Uniparental reproduction
is what it’s called.

As much fun as with a partner?
More?
Simpler, for sure—
certain of being in the mood.

What if humans . . .
were parthenogenic
like the rock lizard?
Some turkeys do it, too—
going it alone
reproducing without fertilization,
making maleness irrelevant
for species survival,
making maleness obsolete?

If men were extraneous,
would we still
keep them around
just for the fun of it?

What if humans . . .
were like the blanket octopus,
she a hundred times his size
and he, wanting to mate,
breaks off his penis
and gives it to her
for keeps?

The ultimate romantic gesture?

What if humans . . .
were like seahorses
where the male
is the one
who gives birth?

Would we have any reproductive laws?

What if humans . . .
were like anemonefish
practicing dominance hierarchy?
Where the largest female rules
and upon her death
the favored male
gendermorphs to take her place,

where all develop
first as male; then mature
to female.

How would social conventions change?

What if humans . . .
were bidirectional
like hawkfish
able to change gender
at will
and back again
and again?

What would we learn
when we’ve lived both sides?
Where would we hang
our biases?

What if?

(First published in Branches Literary Journal in a slightly different form, 2017)

Hindsight

Hindsight

wrinkly skin thin as tissue paper
her shrunken skeleton icicle brittle
betraying
all her eighty-one years

yet between her thinning surface
and rickety bones
with all her hopes and imaginings
she is still eighteen

her blood flows just as warm
nerve fibers crackle
with the same electricity
as all those years ago

her brain just as alive
her soul just as eager
for adventure,
for love

in the mirror even her age reverses
whether on a slip of paper
or by visions reflected
from her cataract peepers

though now the dreams from long ago—
some realized, some not—
are the stuff of nostalgia
and sometimes bittersweet

for now she knows
some of those dreams
have lost their chance
to become real

and some
might better have been
unrealized
after all

what we wanted at eighteen
isn’t always what we’ll wish we’d had
when the years have vanished
before our rheumy eyes.

 

A Thing of Beauty Is a Joy Forever

For Valentine’s Day

John Keats wrote it as the opening line in his poem, Endymion. If you’re like me, you read Keats, along with his fellow second-generation British poets, Shelley and Byron, in your senior high school English class. How I loved them.

At sixteen, I was primed for their romanticism—the imagery, the sensuousness, the idealism, the pensiveness. I remember spending rainy days under one of our massive pecan trees (in the midst of thunderstorms, no less) mulling over their poetry. Their young deaths (Byron at thirty-six, Shelley at twenty-nine, and Keats at the tragically youthful age of twenty-five) added an extra touch of melancholy to my teen moods.

Endymion’s opening lines go like this:

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

This verse conjures up something uniquely mine, but I’ll bet it invokes something uniquely yours, too. What follows came to me one day when, as usual, I was first to wake. As I lay in the quiet of early morning, I took a long look at the Gnome‘s face, oblivious and peaceful in sleep.

* * *

At twenty, the only “wrinkles” on his face were the crinkly corners of his always smiling eyes. At twenty, he had a full head of dark blond hair. At twenty, his body was taut and tanned.

The skin is looser now, and the golden hair that covered the top of his head is gone, replaced by a full beard of gray on his face. The wrinkles have spread both upward and downward.

I try to see him dispassionately, as a stranger might. But I cannot. When I contemplate his sleeping form, I only see the whole of him across all the years of knowing him. What I see is the kindness, the love, the mischievous curve of his lips.

The crinkles are still there, too, framing the ever-present dancing smile that lives in his eyes.

And suddenly he is twenty again, but with the added dimensions of experience, of a  shared life together, of wisdom. A thing of beauty. A joy forever.

 

Some of Her Dreams

SOME OF HER DREAMS   

 

At eight
her sibs dubbed her the pet—
she got
most everything she wanted.

At sixteen
she was valedictorian
voted
most likely to succeed.

At twenty-one
a wife;
at twenty-three a mother,
succeeding at what she wanted most.

At thirty-two
she learned to drive
in a ’47 black Mercury.
It never came easy.

At forty-six
she wiggled under
Jamaica’s limbo stick
to wild native applause.

At fifty
with children gone
she retired as
first-to-rise breakfast chef.

At sixty
she floated
with the clouds
in a beautiful balloon.

At seventy-three
she rafted the Colorado,
her guide shouting all the way,
“We’re all gonna die!”

At eighty-one
after sixty happy marriage years
and a passel of children, grands, and greats,
she found herself a widowwoman.

At ninety
she’d fractured a hip
lost her license
and downsized

to a single room.
That’s when she said,
“Some of my dreams
will never come true.”

Carole Coates

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (No machine-readable source available)

 

The List, Part III: The Bra and I

The List, Part III: The Bra and I

(If you’re just tuning in, you’ll want to catch up on Parts I and II of The List. You can find them here and here.)

Actually, I had written a hundred and one items on my hundred-things-I-want-to-do-when-I-retire list. One, though, was something I simply didn’t feel comfortable broadcasting to professional colleagues. Yet, if my list had been in priority order, this one item would have been at the very top. The number one thing I wanted to do when I retired was to take off my bra.

It was the number one thing I did, too. For awhile. Then I remembered something Maya Angelou once said about her aging experience: “My breasts are in a race to see which one gets to my bellybutton first.” I’d seen that effect first hand at Asheville’s Go Topless Day, and I really didn’t want to speed things up for myself.

Funny thing about bras. Back in the sixth grade, we girls could barely wait to get our first bras, whether we needed them or not. (We didn’t.) We huddled together during recess whispering about them—who had one, who needed one, how embarrassing it would be wearing one to school for the first time. My two best friends and I coordinated our bra-buying plans so we’d arrive at school wearing our first bra on the same day. We reasoned no one of us would feel quite so conspicuous that way. Proud and conspiratorial, maybe, but inconspicuous.

Pretty sure my first bra was this very style! (But smaller—much, much smaller) 

 

At a church youth retreat a few years later, my friend George said to a bunch of us girls that he couldn’t comprehend how we could bear to be so confined. He thought wearing a bra would feel incredibly constricting, like being in a straitjacket. We were a tad scandalized by his brazen discussion of such an intimate subject, but we tried not to show it. We assured him it wasn’t like that at all, that bras were perfectly comfortable. Frankly, we couldn’t imagine life without a bra.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been excited about a bra. The more I’ve needed one, the less comfortable I’ve been wearing one. George had it right, after all. Constricting is exactly the right word.

In the end, my bra and I came to a compromise. That is to say, I compromised. Pretty soon I started wearing my bra again. Still do. These days, I free my breasts from their bra prison a little earlier in the evenings, though, hoping my body doesn’t notice I’m cheating.

Bras—there’s the Double Support, the Sexy Plunge, the Elegant Lift, the Magic Lift, the Convertible, the Vacationer, the Glamorise, the Wonderwire. Seamed, seamless, lined, unlined, foam lined. Sheer, padded, molded. Strapless, t-strap, gel strap. Wirefree or underwire. Front closure, back closure, pullover. Leisure, sports, nursing, active lifestyle. Extra lift, minimizer, slimming, back smoothing. Push-up, shelf, bandeau, bustier, demi-cup, long line. Cotton, nylon, silk, microfiber, jersey knit, lace, satin.

The most common theme in bra advertising is comfort: original comfort, smooth comfort, pure comfort, moving comfort, 18-hour comfort, super cool comfort, comfort flex, comfort revolution, passion for comfort. HA!

I have a passion for comfort. It’s why I wanted to dispense with my bra in the first place. But gravity is a law. And I’m a law abider, so I’m sticking with my bra.

(Photo images in this post are public domain photos via Creative Commons.)

The List (in Three Parts)

THE LIST (in three parts)   

When I announced my decision to retire from a thirty-five+ year career in public service a few years ago, I got lots of questions about my future plans. Curiosity about how I would spend my retirement was so boundless that I decided to make a list for my inquirers: One Hundred Things I Want to Do When I Retire. For the most part my plans were simple: ditch the makeup and hairspray, make baskets, wear pj’s all day, donate about ninety percent of my clothing to Goodwill, take the back roads. So many things. I dashed off my list in a flash.

Part I: “What Will You Do?”

The question I was asked most often almost always came with its own answer attached: “What will you do in retirement—travel?” Most everyone, it seemed, assumed I’d become a full-time tourist. Apparently, that’s what people expect of retirees. Indeed, it’s what lots of Silvers do. I know folks who, in between their many domestic treks, make two, three, or more overseas trips each year.

But travel, outside of more frequent visits to our children and their families, was not on my agenda. My interests were much closer to home. Rather, they were at home.

Simplicity. In a world that was claiming too much of me, simple was all I wanted. I looked forward to not having an alarm clock blare me awake before daylight, to going barefoot all day, to reading in the hammock. I wanted to take things a bit more slowly and to live more simply. All these things were on my list, too.

When a long-distance friend asked the inevitable question and I answered that I wanted to get back to the simple life we’d begun here so many years ago, I could hear her almost choking on her coffee as she spluttered, “I’ve heard about that life of yours, and it’s anything but simple!” She was right, of course. Hand building our house while we lived without running water, toilet facilities, kitchen appliances, or heat had been anything but simple, at least in the sense of being easy or even uncomplicated. But it was straightforward; it was a return to the basics. That’s what I meant.

Building our house all by ourselves

I wanted to learn some of the old ways, to learn or relearn some fundamental life skills, to feel real. I wanted to live more intentionally, to lead a more conscious life, to be under the influence of nature, to tread lightly. I wanted to live more sustainably and move more towards self-reliance. I wanted to know, for instance, that if I lost power for  six months, I’d be able to cope. I wanted to eat real food, food I grow and prepare myself rather than something that comes in a box.

A day’s garden haul

I wanted to live in the present. I wanted to unclench my jaws.

Simple? Maybe not. Basic? Real? Most definitely. Have I succeeded? Well, like most things, finding my way to a new lifestyle is a process. I think I’m well on my way and I feel more content every day.

Maybe it really is about traveling. Getting back to basics is a journey, after all.

(Stay tuned for Part II of The List next week.)