Maya Angelou

Fault Lines

Last week, a writer friend 'fessed to our online group that this birthday, her 45th, had her feeling blue. She lamented landing smack in middle age in a culture that turns up its nose at gray hair, wrinkles, and sagging flesh. She felt old and unwanted, washed up.  

Hey now. Hang on just a cotton-pickin' minute. I'M turning 45 in less than a month. It hadn't occurred to me to feel washed up and unwanted. I poised my fingers over the keyboard, ready to tap out a cheery response about how liberating the 40s are, how it's up to us to reclaim our bodies and redefine what's beautiful and sexy and blah blah blah. But I held off. She wasn't in the mood for chipper. She needed a hug, some chocolate cake, a hot bath and a good cry. Forty-five is sort of the tipping point, isn't it? Most of the big, fun, memorable stuff has happened. Your youth and beauty began to dim around the first season of Mad Men. Now the Big Slide begins. Forty-five is (at least) halfway to dead.

 

I dunno. I might have to get all chipper on your ass with a WOO HOO! I'm 45 and fabulous! Not that this decade started out bright and shiny. In the months leading up to my 40th birthday, it seemed my body was staging a coup against me. Surgery for a softball-sized tumor on an ovary (benign, TG), followed weeks later by my first pregnancy, followed months later by our first child loss. Additional surgeries in subsequent years, anemia, another pregnancy, another loss, depression, anxiety, and the most vexing to my vanity—the dual indignities of gray hair and acne—along with the most troubling to my heart—the pooch of a belly that has held children my arms never will.

 

But I kept my head down and kept going. Kept running up hills and folding into Downward Dog. I ate kale, I wore sunscreen. I'm cresting the hill and seeing 50 on the horizon. And I feel fine. Twenty-five years ago, you couldn't have paid me to run half a mile. This morning, nine easy. Yes, okay, the right knee got a little gimpy on the downhills, not sure what's up with that, but I felt joy. Pure, ageless, joy. It occurred to me as I read my friend's words that I must have landed, at some point in these past five years—after a lifetime rueing my lumpy features and freckles, wishing I could find some way to part with my mother's wide hips and her broad backside and add the height denied me by the family gene pool—on the make peace side of the physical me.

 

I live in the county with the state's oldest median population and our city average is even older: approaching 60. I swim at the YMCA a couple of times a week and my lap lane partners smoke me. Men and women in their 60s, 70s, 80s, eating my lunch with their smooth strokes. The women's aging bodies, on full display in the locker room with all their lumps and stretched out tattoos, their surgical scars, their scalps showing pink through their cotton-white hair, fill me with awe. They are so beautiful. They are so alive. They giggle and sing, they talk about their house renovations, grandkids, and trips to Vienna. When I grow up, I want to be just like them.

 

There's a hollow place in me where all the terror of getting old and dying goes. The fear that cancer-m.s.-alzheimer's-stroke-insert-irrational-health-scare-here lurks just a step into my future, or that I will end up homeless and alone, or that existentially, my life has little value—those Wide Awake at 3 a.m. Worries—(although, since I started ingesting a teaspoon of hops/valerian tincture before bed, my peri-menopausal night sweats are gone and I sleep soundly most nights, insomnia is rare. Seriously, women, this stuff is amazing) plague me.

 

But in the bright light of day, I feel beautiful and strong. Perversely, there's a bit of pushback from the sisterhood—a sense that it's one thing for a middle-aged woman to make peace with her flaws, but another entirely for her to be proud of her skin and the flesh underneath, or that somehow it's an easier road for some (a woman informed me last year that my shape came from the fact I hadn't given birth). It's a reminder that this nebulous "society" we vitiate for not accepting us the way we are is, in fact, the very us we see in the mirror. 2014-07-31 12.14.38

 

Another friend celebrated a birthday this week, too—she's just north of 50—and she articulated more of what's in my heart as I approach this half-life age: a melancholy, not about a changing, aging body, but about those missed or messed up opportunities, the might-have-beens, the what-ifs, the if-onlys.

 

It is the making peace with the regrets that, along with eliminating processed foods, eschewing sugar, and pounding out the trail runs, I am counting on to ease me into the next half of this life with grace and dignity. It's a daily struggle.

 

Letting go is the hardest workout of all.

 

 

 

 

“If you must look back, do so forgivingly. If you must look forward, do so prayerfully. However, the wisest thing you can do is be present in the present…gratefully.” -Maya Angelou

 

“The most solid advice for a writer is this, I think: Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell. And when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.” William Saroyan

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review: The Help, Kathryn Stockett

The HelpThe Help by Kathryn Stockett My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I sat down one evening to skim through the first few pages of The Help to determine if I would proceed with a full read. I was immediately hooked and a couple of sessions later I closed the back cover. I didn't have to work hard- this is a compulsively readable novel. That this is such an easy read troubles me. Its subject matter is as heavy as Mississippi in August, but the tone is often as breezy as girls' night out in Venice Beach.

For all the accolades and attention Kathryn Stockett has received for telling the hidden-in-plain-sight truth of Jim Crow South in the 1960's, I felt cheated by her story-telling. Aibileen and Minny, black women who have spent their lives in service to white families, are portrayed with unsentimental clarity. These women are the real stories, the voices I most wanted to hear. Yet it was as if Stockett didn't trust her ability to carry a full novel in these characters. Instead, she relies on Skeeter - a young white woman who is having a "Eureka" moment of conscience and self-awakening - as the central protagonist. Skeeter is not a compelling narrator and every moment with her was a moment stolen from the characters whose lives should have been the central focus, the eponymous "Help".

In addition, the character of Celia is wasted in a mush of contradictions and implausible behavior. It makes zero sense that a tough-as-nails girl from the hollers couldn't boil water for coffee. Her presence in the plot is inexplicable, as she neither evolves as a character nor moves the story along. Oddly enough, I adored her. I just wish she would have been allowed to grow and participate in the story, instead of remaining its unfunny punchline.

The narrative comes alive in the delicate dance of shame, anger, control and love experienced by so many of the characters, white and black. The real story is rock-solid Aibileen in the Leefolt home as the family cook, maid and child care provider; it is rebel Minny submitting to her abusive husband, determined to keep her family together; it is society-grasping Elizabeth Leefolt, as she feels the desperate tug between convention and her conscience, which struggles to rise from the swamp of racial segregation; it is the deep love between Aibileen and little Mae Mobley Leefolt, contrasted brilliantly with the cold affect Mae Mobley receives from her emotionally stunted mother. These relationships are so compelling, you know that Stockett is writing from her heart, and they are what make this a beautiful read.

The awakening of the women who constitute "The Help" as they tell their stories is also remarkable. But again, the milquetoast and ironically ambitious Skeeter, with her hapless attempts at romance, gets in the way. There is a moment when her motives at gathering and publishing these stories are questioned by an embittered maid, Gretchen, but Stockett drops this in and quickly retreats. It's as if she isn't certain herself who should profit from the telling of these stories, the white woman who can walk away from controversy to a shiny new life in New York City, or the black women who risk everything- their jobs, their homes, their lives- to share the truth.

There is potential for a much more profound and revelatory story from this gifted and passionate writer. It made me long for the heartbreaking honesty and poetry of Maya Angelou's I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and the novel that changed forever how whites told the story of Jim Crow, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. These novels have withstood the test of history; I don't see The Help holding the same ground.