Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: What Goes Here, Woman?

Okay, this direct question could be put to anyone, bold, commanding. But for me the question has several interpretations that slink around my brain lately. The inquiry is a twist on the common one: “Who goes there?” Except that I know who goes there–it is I, just Cynthia. The woman in question. One who has reached her 69th year, still sentient and fully conscious (on the mostly good days, anyway, as long as I don’t bring alcohol into it), and who likes supple black boots, fabulous scarves, books bent over into deep of night and spontaneous dancing with a little song now and then. A writer. A lover of family and loyal to friends. An introspective person who sees the world like a changing canvass of rich art. A woman who loves to talk with strangers anywhere I happen to be. Someone who has had several terrible things happen; nonetheless, they can and do happen to anyone, and I am sad for their sorrows. And I walk 2-3 miles daily if at all possible.

This much I cannot dispute.

But the rest–what is going on now with me as a result of what came before; what is more likely to occur based on present moments; and what is an intelligent response, though wait, why bother?–the rest is under review.

Not that it never has been before. How often I–in fact, our collective of humanity–revisit the status of personhood, often and perhaps that is embarrassing to confess. Are we who we think, do we prefer to be more, or less, or another altogether, and what the heck does all of it have to do with the routine and demands of daily living? There is always work at hand, little enough time to consider things. Yet how acutely we do engage in the study of ourselves. We are a species of the ruminative sort. We must prod and question to sort things out.

My state of mind is mixed. It’s akin to being close to a good fire, wrapped up in a soft and tensile blanket of contentment–while being aware of a feisty and potentially miserable porcupine outside the campfire. It may shoot its quills with or without provocation, with little preparation to deal with its displeasure. It might be a person with conflicting attitudes, a random car swerving too close, the relentless news with its fists up, my body’s jagged messages. Even how the wind already blows so cold the heating bill will be a tough thing. One more quill to eye, here and there. One must stay aware even in coziness. It is a matter of learning how to navigate life yet it feels harder this year. Would that we were prepared from the onset of our initial yowl. But we grope and gauge, try to figure it out.

Today I would quite rather write of all things good and true. I just came in from a glorious walk in surrounding woods. The sun is beaming, all the hues and tones of autumn transfix, the breeze is almost frosty, refreshing. I enjoyed the hour out as I do every day, rain or shine. So one part of me is steeped in such peace that a passerby might suspect I move from an ultimate calm. The other part is, though, laboriously picking apart knotty threads and connecting elegant strings of others so all may cohere. It is the same most days. And I don’t quite get why, though logic informs me there are several reasons.

Recently I hiked down to Bridal Veil Falls in the Columbia Gorge. I do this every fall. It commemorates my survival of a likely heart attack, not sure, I did not get to the hospital in time to know definitively. I write of it enough that old followers of this blog know it too well. Half-carried out by my husband, then we sped…home. I thought it was congested lungs even though I was brought to my knees, flattened by deep, intense squeezing in the chest area, the weight like an elephant–yes, it is that–on top of ribs and the feeling I was going, going, gone. I’d quit smoking the same year, had often run out of breath when hiking. So I went home nauseous, breathless, so exhausted I suspected I could not get off the bed again. Heart never entered our minds then–who has a heart attack at 51? I was strong and fit, especially since not smoking. I looked in my earlier forties, not fifties then–who worried?

The next morning I awakened with one phrase buzzing in my brain: It is my heart. I got on the phone and found my own cardiologist and got in a day later. Why do it that way? Usually a doctor refers a patient to specialists. But my primary doctor had thought nothing was wrong with me a year prior when I’d complained of very rapid heartbeats and feeling breathless on and off. “Anxiety and menopause,” he said and patted my hand. Would I like drugs to help calm me? No. I held back angry tears all the way out of the building, then lay my head on the steering wheel and wept. What was wrong with my generally healthy and strong body?

A year later: two stents over 18 months (first one failed), rehab stints and I started to make progress that was noticeable and trustworthy. Ever since, I’ve felt more well than not and last December another look in my arteries showed lovely pathways with no clogs or narrowing. It was about then I heard I’d already outlived my expected ten years so keep doing all I do. I respect and love my cardiologist, the same one who told me often in the early days of recovery when i got scared that we’re all going to die so stop worrying and just live. To that point, I reminded him heart disease killed my parents and two siblings already. He leaned forward, his handsome face smiling, that last visit and said, “Well, I say your heart is even stronger than before.” He did not say I was not going to die of heart disease. But it is a great thing to be this much better until…whatever.

I ran into a fond acquaintance who had a serious heart event recently with emergency surgery. We both were walking along the river. Feeling grateful, I spotted her and gave her a big hug. She had been in the hospital again with chest pain but was later released, deemed okay. I get how that goes. She is an admirable person, a VP of a commercial real estate company, a talented writer (met her in writing groups), a loving mother. After we parted, I thought: she is about the age I was. How did this change her? You learn that life can be torn from you in an instant, that it is a flimsy thing we carry our small lives in–even though it again surges with power, and heals.

So here I am, also still living as the days and nights come and go. But is that enough? Is the success of staying alive and grateful enough? What does it all tell me about the quality of my choices and actions? And what in those elicits appreciation from others? Or am I partly invisible, as we all can be invisible, even when we need to be seen? Is the hard work worth what I am now? Isn’t there much more I can and ought to contribute?

The hike down to the beauteous Bridal Veil Falls was easy. Hard to think it hurt so much 18 years ago. But this time it was going back up that was hard. I managed the incline of steep trails fine. Marc and I had a discussion that turned difficult; it was perhaps foolish at first glance. He hates taking photos. I like to commemorate the yearly hike with one: victory! Yet I am often displeased with his results–blurry, off-kilter, too far off. One reason I like him to get me in a photo is that I always take pictures of family plus snap away at the tons of other scenes that intrigue me. I have few shots of myself taken when I was a kid (my family took few)-or even older, when our children came along, as I was taking their pictures for photo albums, of course.

Truth was, I felt a bit hurt after that last hike. Why did he not see how important it was for me to well document that I am still here and could manage the trail well once more? He got the importance of the hike; he did not get the importance of a picture being clear and nicely aligned. I said, “I want my children and grandchildren to be able to see it and know that, yes, our mom/grandma so loved hiking amid nature’s wonders and she did the trail one more year, a triumphant hike.”

We fell silent and I was sorry I felt so sad about it, and he so irked.

I think I get tired from all the laboring and even reaching goals, including small ones. I usually have a handle on what matters most when the chips are down and when all seems well. But how much can a life mean and how can we give it, share it, transform it endlessly? A I get older and closer to that still-nebulous but undeniable finish line, the reassessment is in earnest some moments. It is not the same sort of review as when I was 30, 40, 50, when there seemed decades left. In fact, it is this year of age 69 that has impacted me so differently.

It has been a time of surprises, shocks and reorientation. Of setting new courses and not having a clue where this may take my husband and myself by the next year. Of letting go of places (moving from a comfortable home to a very different place) and people (grieving others’ passing or grave illnesses), of greeting the glorious twins and wondering if what I have to offer my daughter and her family is enough. How to draw the line, too, when I am worn out. Of worry about money, how much to give and how much to keep. Of coping with emotional blows from any who shut me out of their lives–this has happened so rarely in my life, it c mes as a shock, the events flummoxing me. And I’ve dealt with my discomforts behind the scenes as mush as I can, as a responsible person, a wife and mother from my culture was taught to do when I grew up. I have discovered more flexibility and strength than expected–that has been an insight gleaned. caring for yourself doesn’t necessarily come more easily when older; you just see more quickly what is needed and get to it.

Where I was confident before, there has been some tentativeness. I do not want to pressure anyone. I don’t want to assert opinions not wanted. But, too, I’ve found that physical and psychic pain still may cut perilously deep …and the power of healing can occur even when not looking. It’s like limping along and suddenly you find sturdier legs, so you walk as if well, with shoulders up and head up. The soul is buoyed again.

So maybe I am getting a better handle on the changes and learning to ride the bumps. Resilience is our friend. Inspiration comes in funny places. You know how you think you have had just about enough for awhile and then you see a hummingbird visit the feeder, and it pauses mid-air before you? How you forgot the shopping list, wander about like an idiot until the important items come forward and it feels like a win? Then you go to the cash register and the cashier looks right at you, tells you how much she enjoys the fall color and sunshine, do you?– and she likes your jacket and really, have a good day because today is what we’ve got, right? It is the commonest things. It is the wisp of light that plunges into shadows, how one finds one’s way.

Every portion of my faith in God and living is based on the real likelihood of something good and rejuvenating that will counterbalance the difficult and damaging. Just when it doesn’t seem likely, it arrives– or I can create it. We are meant to always do creative work, inside and out, at home and at work, in our dreaming and thinking. Mending, altering, finding new parts for old fittings, unique solutions to knotty problems. No one lives without this gift. And how wise a thing that we are given a brain and will to use it–if we just do use it.

Most of the time I do know “what goes here.” I do not sleepwalk; I am in slumber or I am awake. I get up and open the blinds, take in the trees and sky. I make a mug of steaming chai and meditate. What is happening is simple: moving through another year, addressing its needs. I choose to surmount tough times and appreciate the value of each fulfilling moment, and the most ordinary ones. It is choosing kindness over being right or having the last word. It’s letting hurts heal and welcoming people who can care better. It’s finding ways through or around blockades. And holding close the blessings in person, in prayer, in actions. I can’t know what tomorrow will bring–health or illness, wealth or poverty, disaster or protection, triumph or defeat. It is still, at this age, a step-by-step dance, alone or with one another.

I do have a solid sense of who I am. There are a very few regrets lingering. Mysteries unsolved. Moments ahead that will ask much. Failures still occur despite best efforts. So then, what goes here, woman-person? What if I am getting older (even the leaves grow old and flare bright before the end, are wonderful as they drift and twirl back to earth) and it’s not the best or the worst of times, but a satchel full of curious odds and ends belonging to me? It is what I make of it; I will poke about and see what comes together. Maybe I need to pause, review again and again. I’ve survived, have had great times, grown the past ten months, and once more have counted God as my one irrevocable constant. And I expect more to come. As far as I know. I am open to highs and even lows, the many in-betweens.

That is my view of things today. It may always be the main stuff I know. (And I write what I know, so stay tuned if you like…)

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