Tag Archives: Aging

Beginnings

It’s the time of year to think about beginnings.  And endings.

We on this globe—at least those who live some distance from the unchanging belt around the middle—live in a world of constant beginnings and endings.  The snow blesses then gives way to flowers.  The leaves unfurl then tumble into dust.  The sun rises then withdraws its bounty.

Credit: Koan | morguefile.com

The essence of our Earth is change, a world constantly remaking itself in earthquake and volcano, in fire and flood, in life evolved and life eradicated.  Even the seeming constant stars die, and planets are born in their fiery deaths.  In the midst of this birthing and dying of everything we know, you and I enter, breathe for a brief patch, and are gone.

And while we are breathing we keep starting over.  And over.  And over.

There was a time when I thought my life was meant to be a straight line toward some distinct and thoroughly desirable goal.  What goal I didn’t know, but I was certain I would arrive there.  Otherwise, what was the point?

Today I look back across nearly eight decades and find a different truth.    My life has been—still is—crammed with discovery, with dreams, with joy more sweet than anything I’d ever been told I deserved.  It has also been littered with missteps, mischance, misperceptions, misunderstandings, mischoices.  Perhaps that dichotomy shapes every life, but certainly it shapes of mine.

To my own credit I can say that I have learned along the way.  Not everything.  Perhaps not even enough.  But the learning goes on, even in age.

Now, already deep into a century I found unimaginable when I was a child, I stand at the threshold of another New Year starting over once more.  Not just nodding to an artificially declared holiday but truly starting over.  So much in my life is new, is being done over, tried again.

New work.  Work I have never dared attempt before.  Hard work, even harrowing sometimes, but good, so good.  Will it find a place in the world out there?  I have no way of knowing, but it calls and I tiptoe after.

New understanding.  So much I thought I knew seems unimportant from the vantage point of age.  So much I understood has been proven wrong.  Or if it isn’t wrong, it has moved on to become something I can no longer fathom.  What to do in the face of my ignorance?  The only answer seems to be declare my incompetence and open myself to discovery.

New peace.  Not the kind of peace from which the chaos of the world doesn’t matter, but a struggling peace, one that seeks openness before the intractable, quiet in the midst of noise, caring against a world of indifference.

And love.  A new love.  Sweetest of all, this new love.

What have I learned as I start over once more after so many other startings?  One thing that I can name.

I eschew regret.

My mistakes have formed me as deeply—perhaps even more deeply—than my gifts.  And here I come carrying it all, mistakes and gifts together, into another day.  Another precious day.

What can I possibly do but rejoice?

Credit: alexfrance | morguefile.com

To Love Life

Credit: jclk8888 | Morguefile.com

Credit: jclk8888 | Morguefile.com

The thing is
to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it,
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it…
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you again.

                                            —               Ellen Bass

When We Hear the Q Word . . . Quiet

quiet, aging, children's writing

Credit: diannehope | morguefile.com

My blog last week, On Being an Aging Children’s Writer, generated many responses both on my website and beyond it.  Some of those responses were about the trials—and more often the fears—surrounding aging.  Some of us are convinced we’re being written off by young editors who choose to be surrounded only by the same.  But eventually the conversation moved on to center around a single word, quiet. 

 

I had said in my blog that my agent, Rubin Pfeffer, often warns me, gently, that a manuscript might be “too quiet.”  Many of you wrote to say you are being told the same.  A discussion of what quiet means and a defense of quiet books followed.

 

I have my own thoughts about “quiet” and “too quiet,” but I decided to go to the source—at least my own personal source—of the word, Rubin.  And he gave me the gracious gift of responding fully and deeply to my request for amplification.

 

Here are Rubin’s words:

 

 

“Quiet” is relative. And “Quiet” needs to be taken in a myriad of ways and meanings. It’s about context. And largely the context is marketability.

 

Marketability from an agent’s point of view.

Marketability from an editor’s point of view.

Marketability from an imprint’s point of view.

Marketability from a publisher’s point of view.

Marketability from a sales person’s point of view.

Marketability from a bookseller’s point of view.

 

All of these contexts and more.

 

Let’s get a couple of points made and out of the way first—

 

Quiet books are fine, great even.  Quiet books are read and adored.  Quiet books sell, have always sold, and will continue to be sold.

 

Second point—you, MDB, are not perceived as “Quiet ” or as an “Aging Writer” by booksellers, publishers, or anyone else on the publishing food chain.  Those words don’t define you or categorize you.  You are relevant. You are admired. And you are attractive to all. You sell, you deliver, you receive starred reviews, and you inspire.

 

And sometimes you write “quiet” manuscripts. Sometimes they sell and will become prominent, wonderful books. Sometimes these manuscripts don’t sell.  I’d take your odds any day.

 

That out of the way, let’s quickly separate quiet manuscripts from quiet books.  I think that’s what we’re really talking about.  Does the manuscript have the requisite forces to make it through the numerous gates of acquisition so that it may enter the pearly gates of a publishing house and have all the attendants of editorial, marketing, sales, design, and production to transform it from manuscript to book?

 

That question is where we begin to really hear the term “Quiet.” And “Quiet” is code for any number and degree of meanings.

 

Here are just a few “Quiets” that might be painless to hear:  “lovely, but not quite what we’re looking for,” “ lovely, but doesn’t fit our current editorial objectives,” “unfortunately, not what we’re able to get into the big accounts and box stores,” “We are aiming our publishing in a more commercial direction.”

 

Here are a few versions of “Quiet” that might be painful to hear: ”lacks freshness,” “old fashioned,” “Not for today’s readers,” “ a bit dull,” “subject matter is tired,” “won’t hold readers’ attention,” “too institutional,” “will get lost.”

 

Here are a few that might be actionable to address:  “pacing is slow,”

“lacks action,” “lacks surprise,”  “needs stronger voice,” “language and dialect not current,”  “needs stronger characters,” “needs to be more reflective of today’s world.”

 

Editors, like agents, have many submissions to deal with.  “Quiet” may be THE handle that is least offensive to say –and yet covers a swath of meanings from legitimately quiet in its writing to just plain “Quiet” in terms of sales opportunities.

 

Quiet should not be taken as code for aging or irrelevant. Quiet generally means that the manuscript may not be marketable enough for any number of reasons. Likewise, Quiet will be seen as a powerful component of a powerfully written book.  (And MDB, you know this as you have a few wonderful examples of quiet, powerful manuscripts that have been signed up and are in the pearly gates of publishing houses.)

 

It takes one editor to see what a dozen other editors may not see in a quiet manuscript and to bring out all the noise and promise it offers, guided by the editor, the art director, illustrator, and marketers.

 

Thank you, Rubin, for the gift of your very professional insight.  I suspect the next step is for each one of us writers to figure out what “quiet” means when it’s offered up to us.

 

On Being an Old Lady

sparrowI love being an old lady. I love the gifts age brings every single day.

This is what rising to an old-lady day looks like: I am first up, and I motion our two little dogs into action. They tumble down the stairs ahead of me, eager for a brief encounter with the back yard, then breakfast. And while they are rejoicing in their own routine, I slip into mine: emptying the dishwasher, straightening the house, making coffee and carrying it to my partner, showering.

I smooth my quilt across my bed, my hand lingering over its russets and burnished golds and forest greens. I acquired the quilt when I returned to Vermont for my dear friend Norma Fox Mazer’s memorial service. I had recently retired from teaching at Vermont College of Fine Arts, a privilege Norma and I had shared, and I chose the quilt to honor my years of teaching at VCFA and, of course, Norma herself. Each morning I unfold it remembering both. I remember with sadness that they are no longer part of my days and with the deepest gratitude that they are still part of me.

Then I take the dogs for a brisk if often interrupted walk.

Back home, I make breakfast, usually a veggie omelet, fruit with a sprinkle of granola, a tall mug of green tea. I gather my book of Daily Wisdom, 365 Buddhist Inspirations and another of Mary Oliver’s poems and my breakfast, and step out to sit on the patio in front of our house. (That is still true as I’m writing, but that part of the routine will, no doubt, have altered by the time you are reading. November in Minnesota is rarely a time for enjoying breakfast on the patio.)

And then I sit and eat slowly and watch the play of the breeze in the tall ornamental grasses at the edge of the patio and the play of life beyond. I live in the city, but our yard is deep and we have made it into a haven for small life. (“A paradise for rodents” an organic farmer friend said with some amusement.)

A chipmunk skitters beneath my chair, finding me as safe a fixture as the patio furniture. A black squirrel pauses, three feet away, and regards me with a quiet solemnity that almost belies the jerk and jitter with which she will resume her morning. A rabbit has managed to squeeze beneath a fence meant to protect a struggling bush and is enjoying a quiet breakfast. Chickadees, nuthatches, warblers, robins, blue jays, crows and more gather to the feast my partner spreads for them. Occasionally a red-tailed hawk appears at the very top of the ash tree, and everyone else vanishes.

As I watch all this, my day’s work gathers in my mind. As I watched this morning, this piece gathered.

I open my daily reading. Sometimes the day’s offering is so wise that I can only read it, set it aside and let my bemusement pass for wisdom: “A man named Lita Shiyu asked Yangshan, ‘May I hear the principle of attaining mind?’ Yangshan said, ‘If you want to attain mind, then there’s no mind that can be attained. It is this unattainable mind that is known as truth.’” (from Zen’s Chinese Heritage)

Sometimes I am deeply taught: “Be gentle with yourself. Be kind to yourself. You may not be perfect, but you are all you’ve got to work with. The process of becoming who you will be begins with the total acceptance of who you are.” (Bhante Henepola Gunaranta, Mindfulness in Plain English)

Then I turn to Mary Oliver. Perhaps one day I will graduate to another poet, but she teaches me so deeply—about writing, about this life I am living—that I feel no inclination to move beyond the home she makes for my spirit each day.

Mary Oliver says, “Watch, now, how I start the day / in happiness, in kindness.” (Why I Wake Early, new poems by Mary Oliver)

I do watch. And I am touched by joy.

For those reading this who can think only of the scramble and clutter of your own mornings—children to be fed and groomed and herded off to school; a job, even a beloved job, demanding deadlines; too many tasks lined up and waiting—I hold up my morning as a promise of good to come.

Our society does little to honor age, but you and I can honor it. We can honor, and when we arrive at that good place, we can enjoy.

I Stood before the Mirror


I stood before the mirror this morning
studying my chin’s newest collapse.
Two more grooves
inside the old familiars,
parentheses doubled for emphasis.
A sunburst of creases radiate from my lower lip,
as though drawn into being by an invisible purse string.

I tug my cheeks smooth.
Ah, yes . . . that’s the way I looked yesterday.
Or perhaps it was the day before.
Does it matter?
These new grooves are only a surprise
because inside my face,
inside me,
they don’t exist.

Standing here, though, before the truth-telling mirror,
I am reminded of another time,
another mirror,
another face—
also mine.
Many miles away my son lay dying.
We all knew except,
perhaps,
he.
Control of his body slipping away,
comprehension, too.
Visions we could not share galloping through his brain.
We watched him, son, husband, father leaving,
all of us watching.
We had been so certain he had come to stay.
And during those watching days,
during those months that stretched into years,
I rose each morning,
stood before the mirror
and saw that in the blessed dark
my face had
fallen
again.

It didn’t matter particularly,
that fallen face.
More a curiosity than a concern.
Watching your son die,
even from a great distance,
teaches you to care little about such things.
When you go out into the world there is so much you cannot say.
Your face is only doing its best to speak for you.

But still I stood then,
toothbrush in hand,
studying the grieving mother who studied me,
the collapse of flesh almost a comfort.
A substitute for the tears,
so nearly vanquished by
the
long
grieving.

Now,
when even grief lives far away,
as though all this happened in another lifetime,
to another mother,
I find strange comfort in this meticulously outlined chin.
The comfort
that comes with knowing
that death
will rescue us all.


This will probably be the opening piece for the memoir I’ve been talking about, a memoir that will now be primarily in prose. The title for the whole is one I’m returning to: When Even Grief Lives Far Away.