Have you ever had a dream of finding an undiscovered room in a familiar house? I have, several times. I like those dreams. A large piece of furniture moves aside, or I walk into a room I know well and find a new door in it.
Last weekend, my partner and I went to our small local theater and I saw Book Club while he went happily off to Deadpool. (Honestly, I’m so tired of comics, superheroes, space adventures, special effects and unending battles and chases. Whew. It felt good to say that.)
The movie was a relief. I didn’t have to spend most of it with my eyes shut trying to filter out the entirely overstimulating and, at the same time, boring hyperactivity, and it wasn’t excellent. It didn’t require anything from me except to sit back and relax.
No spoilers and this is not a movie review, but Jane Fonda tries way too hard. Instead of marveling at her artificial youthfulness, I felt rather sorry for her. There was also a lot of unnecessary drinking. It didn’t add anything to the story. Some of the humor was more of a wince than a chuckle, but there were some truly funny moments. The writing was a little inconsistent. It’s a movie about connection and being an aging woman.
Overall, I could relate to these four women and I found the movie oddly touching in an unexpected way. I’ve been thinking about it ever since, in fact, trying to understand why it made me feel so bittersweet.
It has to do with giving up. Well, not really. Not giving up, exactly, but settling. No, that’s not quite right, either.
It has to do with gradually forgetting to entertain possibility.
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We inhabit our lives like a house. It’s a finite space, and we’re intimately familiar with the floorplan, the closets, the windows and the doors. Our house is defined by ourselves and the way we live, and it’s also defined by the external world and people around us. Outside our house is a world where all kinds of potential physical and emotional harm crouches, waiting for us to take a risk and leave our shelter. Outside our house is a wilderness of Unknown.
When we’re young the house of our life is new and exciting. We experiment using the space in different ways. We begin to figure out what we like and don’t like, what works well in our lives and what doesn’t, who we can live with and who we can’t live with. We gradually accumulate furniture in the forms of memories, scar tissue, hand-me-downs, beliefs, and new stuff we find all by ourselves.
The years go by and we learn a lot (hopefully) about the way the world works and who we are. We notice an ever-enlarging population of people younger than we are.
Then, one day, we’re in our fifties. Then our sixties. Then our parents are old. Not older. Old. How did that happen? Then our kids are as old as we were when we had them. It’s entirely disconcerting. We begin to think of ourselves as middle-aged and secretly feel older than that a lot of the time. Then, if you’re a woman, comes menopause, which, just as the onset of menstruation changed everything in the beginning of our lives, remodels our house.
For one thing, we need to tear out the heating system and replace it with cooling and fans.
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By this point in my own life, I’ve made a lot of choices and taken notes on how they worked out. I’ve made decisions about what I will and won’t do, and about what I am and am not interested in. I’ve decided what dreams to discard and interests to drop, because I’m out of time, energy or both. I’ve decided I know exactly who I am, what I’m capable of and what I need and want. I have an entirely private (because it’s shameful) list of things I’ve given up on.
Book Club speaks to the ways in which we begin to limit possibility as we age. In my case, it has nothing to do with age, though. I’ve been slamming doors behind me my whole life. When I was 18, I turned my back on high school. When I was 20, I left residential college, never to return. When I was 21 and got married, I gave up on dating or looking for love. When I was 27 and had my first child, I stopped dreaming of freedom and adventure.
And so on.
Of course deciding we’re never going to do something ever again practically guarantees the Gods will throw it back to us sooner or later, giggling. Now when I hear myself say, “Never again…” I can smile.
An even darker aspect of refusing possibility has to do with the dreams and desires we’ve never fulfilled. I’ve always struggled with financial scarcity. I tell myself nearly every day I’ll never be financially successful, and it doesn’t matter, because I have a good life, I have what I need, I’d rather have my self-respect and integrity than be rich (note the belief one can’t have both), and it’s not a big deal. I say all those things to myself because I don’t see any possibility of financial security. If I haven’t found it following all the rules and working so hard, then maybe I don’t deserve it, or it’s just not something I can earn or have. I don’t want to live the rest of my life hoping for something that never happens.
The story I tell myself is I’d love to find a great job where I could contribute my talents, do meaningful work, be part of a team and get adequately paid. I’m always watching and listening for that job. But I know I’m too old, the things I love to do will never pay well, the kind of thing I’m looking for wouldn’t be here in rural Maine, and I’ll struggle to maintain adequate housing and feed myself forever.
If there’s no possibility, I can work on accepting what is and try to be peaceful.
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Book Club was redemptive. It reminded me possibility still exists for me. I’ve done things in the last five years I never imagined doing in my wildest dreams. Why do I think it’s all over now? Why do I make so many iron-clad assumptions about the size and shape of my house? Why am I deliberately trying to ditch my dreams? Why do I think of myself as a food item on the pantry shelf with an expired sell-by date?
Am I too old and jaded to invite miracles? Am I too worn out to move a piece of furniture (a bookcase, what else?) and discover a door behind it I never saw before? I know I’ve yet to discover my highest potential.
Maybe I’m just not very brave. I don’t want to fail anymore. I don’t want to be disappointed or feel I’m a disappointment, ever again. I don’t want to be let down, or hurt, or stood up or rejected. I don’t want to look like a fool. (I don’t mind being a fool, but I don’t want to look like one.) I don’t want to be scared.
I don’t want to play power games with people.
Perhaps this is the crust of old age, this gradual accumulation of weariness, scar tissue, limiting beliefs, and physical changes that keeps us sitting in our familiar, safe house, where the edges and boundaries are well-defined and unchanging and we control the dangers of possibility.
Some people successfully shut out life, or shut themselves away from it. I’m never (there I go again) going to be able to pull that off, though. I’m too curious and too interested. An overheard remark, a movie, a conversation, a book or even a song lyric invariably comes along and kicks me back into motion when I’m threatening to lock myself permanently in the predictability and safety of my house. Then I begin to write, and the walls waver and shimmer, new doors and windows appear, a corner of the roof peels away to show me the sky, and I remember I’m still alive, still kicking, still wanting and needing and still, in spite of my best efforts, dreaming of possibilities.
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except where otherwise noted
Recently I went back to the little mountain town in the Southern Colorado Rockies I called home for twenty years, and wrapped up the sale of my house. It was an important trip for me, one which I’ve been anticipating ever since I arrived in Maine two and a half years ago. My partner and I drove out and drove back. I didn’t try to blog or write on the road, but I made a lot of notes and I discovered a persistent theme.
Reclamation, according to a quickie internet search, means “the process of claiming something back or of reasserting a right” or “the cultivation of waste land or land formerly under water.” It strikes me there’s an interesting and subtle possibility of conflict in those two definitions. What exactly is waste land, and who has the power to define it? Also, what does cultivation mean? Big Ag? Monocropping? Pesticides and Roundup? Or cultivation by plants, animals and wind?
In any event, I’ve been carrying the word reclamation for some years now like a talisman. It’s a cord linking events and choices of the last years of my life together.
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I remember exactly when it started. I was sitting in a chair in the salon where a friend cut my hair for years. In the mirror, I could see my hair falling over my shoulders and down my back, thick and wavy and beginning to be streaked with grey. I was desolate because of a broken relationship, and I saw a woman who was unwanted in that mirror. I didn’t want to be her anymore. I wanted to be someone else. My friend asked me what I wanted to do and I told her to cut it all off. “Reclamation,” I said. I couldn’t say more because I didn’t want to break into sobs, but she knew exactly what I meant, and she tied a smock around my neck and started cutting.
My ex-boyfriend had loved my hair. I loved it, too. It made me feel sexy and beautiful and feminine. Cutting it was the first step I took on the road leading me to this attic space in central Maine, where I sit this summer morning (with short hair) writing with the windows open and the sound of crickets, frogs and birds flowing in.
I held onto that word, reclamation. It became a boat to sail away in, and then a lifeboat, and then a raft and then a spar of wood in a fathomless sea of floating debris that kept me alive until current and waves took me back to shore.
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The little town I lived in had no claim to fame or big dollar tourism except for a golf course. When I moved there the course was renowned for being one of the most beautiful in the country, and visitors came from all over during the summer to play there, filling the inns and RV parks. Then drought struck that part of Colorado, the golf course was sold to an absentee owner who immediately got crosswise with the town, and gradually, due to a mixture of water problems, politics and general assholery on the part of the owner, the golf course went downhill, people lost jobs, the greens became unkempt and the tourists stopped coming. Then, just about the time I left town, the golf course closed.
I don’t play golf and my living fortunately didn’t depend on the tourist trade, but every morning, just before dawn, I walked on the golf course.
I didn’t do it for exercise or as a discipline. It was my lifeline. It was the one place where I never failed. I was guaranteed solitude and peace. Nobody knew where I was. I knew the course so well I could disappear into it, be absorbed. I had several routes, one for ordinary days, one for days of grief, one for days of rage and the longest one for days of despair. I used some of the cart paths, but mostly I followed the contours and edges of the greens and walked along the river, which was generally only a trickle, if not entirely dry. I often heard owls going to roost as meadowlarks began their morning chorus. I saw bears, foxes, skunks, deer and geese.
In the days of relative plenty, maintenance men worked as early as I was walking, but I was a familiar local figure and we ignored each other. I avoided them and they only saw me at a distance. There was an elaborate sprinkler system, of course, that worked all night every night and made the whole place fresh and green and cool, a stark contrast to my daily reality of hauling or pumping grey water out to my garden because of drought and watering restrictions. I lived a five-minute walk away.
During our recent trip we only spent one night in that little town, but I woke early, slid into my clothes and walked to the golf course. I knew it had been closed altogether for some time. This year the drought momentarily broke in the valley with record amounts of snow and rain, and the river that so often dried up flooded, both on the course and through the town. As I slipped through the gates and passed the “no trespassing” signs in the dark of early dawn, I could hear the river, an amazing, miraculous sound. The scent and chill kiss in the air of running water was very different from the mechanical chik, chik, chik of an automatic sprinkler.
The cart path was rutted, muddy and overgrown. Large tree limbs had fallen and nobody cleared them away. The river actually broke out of its banks and spread across a former green. I’d seen pictures in the local paper, but I still couldn’t believe my eyes. The town sent in machinery to make barriers out of heaped-up debris and mud. Whole trees had toppled, their root balls pathetically exposed to the sky.
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Once, I could have walked several paths on the golf course blindfolded. I often was there in the dark. Now my footing was uncertain. The grass grew up to my waist and I kept tripping over hidden windfall branches. Weeds filled the sand traps. The greens were, of course, gone. The groomed contours that once marked my route had vanished, forcing me to slow down and move more cautiously. I strained my eyes to discover familiar slopes and hollows in the dim light.
As I moved deeper into the old course, I thought of all the hundreds of mornings I’ve spent there, praying, weeping, raging, pressing myself against nature in every mood and season. I took my joy there, my hope, my dreams, and my gratitude practice. The golf course was a place of creative inspiration, a place of guidance and comfort, a place in which to staunch wounds enough to carry on another day. I was real there. I didn’t try to hide from myself.
That highly-groomed, herbicide-gagged, shaved, enslaved, money-making piece of land (a waste land) is going wild again. It was captured, bought, and pimped by a businessman in order to create a profit. Now, Mother Nature reclaims her own. The land begins to remember itself. As I walked and the light increased, showing me myriad signs of healing, I felt akin to the land. What is happening there is happening to me. I had a pimp, too — myself. I sold myself for what I thought I was worth in order to get what I needed. Now the land and I reclaim ourselves from a bleak and limited culture that relies on chemicals, profit and power-over rather than natural cycles and cooperation.
Reclamation is not a controlled, civilized process. It’s wild, sometimes catastrophic. The river made a scar where it broke its banks and uprooted trees, but it carved out a new bed for itself. The old bed will fill in. New growth will cover all that exposed earth. The downed limbs and trees will rot and feed the soil and mycelium while native plants and grasses return. Is this what we mean by waste land? Forest fire, flood and storm are acts of nature that reshape the land and environment. Life dies and renews, one act leading to the other. We often experience reclamation as terrifying and tragic. Human beings, for the most part, don’t welcome change unless we control it.
Yet we do change. The world changes. The weather changes. Those around us change. We can neither stop nor control it in any significant way, and I’m entirely grateful for that. The golf course and I are messy. Our hair is disheveled. Our trim, neat lines are blurred. The high unmown grass through which I waded brushed against the hair on my bare legs. The water feeding the land and the water of feeling that feeds me have carved a new, wider path. Bridges and trees sag and unravel, not trash but compost for the next thing. Paths and fences fall into disrepair. Grass and saplings mingle freely, each reaching toward the other at the edges.
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Snakes, rabbits and insects live again in the shelter of the grasses. Does can leave their fawns safely concealed while they browse, and their presence will bring the mountain lions down from the foothills. Owls will find abundant mice, voles and other rodents in what was a carpet of sterile green velvet. The beaver and raccoons will no longer be trapped or shot, lest they disturb the regulated beauty of the water features or annoy the tourists. Over all this complex, creative system, the meadowlark still sings, that king of the high fields and plains, and his song still brings tears to my eyes and an ache to my throat.
That land will always be home to the woman I was. I was glad to return for a brief hour and realize my beloved place has moved on, just as I have. The land and I were both over-civilized into waste land, but now we’re reclaiming ourselves. The golf course and I reassert our right to be what we are. We surrender to change, to mess, and to the transformative edge of chaos.
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except where otherwise noted