The Strong Sisters

I wrote this piece two years ago today, just after my Aunt Dell died. This weekend, I edited it slightly to post here because the Strong girls live on in me, in each wild fern I notice, adventure I plan, day of honest work I contribute.

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There were 3 Strong sisters: Hazel, Delta and Lois – and in addition to living up to their name, they were many things: independent, loving, resourceful, giving, intrepid, curious. Each lived longer and more actively than many of us either choose to or have opportunity to. And while they always demurred when I asked them what the secret was, I was around each long enough to know it was in the way they embraced life and change. Few women in the 1930’s went to college — paying for it with their own work, I might add — and did so boldly, without apology, without fear. But they did.
They also made many of their own clothes, grew their own vegetables, taught hundreds of school children, raised families, started businesses, and traveled the globe. So many people growing up in poor, rural communities today, nevermind in the 1920s and 1930s, are not able to think of the world and all its opportunities as their own. I’m not sure how these daughters of a small-time and largely itinerant farmer in rural East Texas tapped that so long ago — I know they had solid, hard working god-fearing parents who taught them the importance of bettering themselves and giving back. But I think there must have been a little magic of uniquely good genes involved too (did I mention that two of them didn’t see their jet black hair go grey until their 80’s, and the other sported killer gams her whole life?). It was the hope to tap those magic genes that inspired me to name my daughter Charlotte Strong.
But they were different, too. Hazel, the oldest and my grandmother, the businesswoman, the civic leader, frugal, hard working, insisting on Latin names for plants, constantly teaching – from adult literacy to immigrants, to Bible verses to school children, to teaching me how to sew a quilt, how to find the forest fern that curls up when you touch it, how to take care of myself on my own. Her lips were usually narrowed in a tight and thin straight line — as much due to her natural expression as to the row of straight pins she was forever holding there while she custom-hemmed Wranglers at Cooper’s Cowboy Store.  She also fiercely believed that adventure and fun were worth anything – so long as it was educational.  She took me on long college hunting trips around the country and made sure I found a way to study abroad and travel in my early 20’s, changing the course of my life for the better. Sweet Dell, the middle sister, so doting and kind, devoted to her family, to educating mentally handicapped children for generations, to the well being and regular nurturing of her friends and loved ones through frequent note cards with Audubon prints on the front, her spidery handwriting inquiring inside. Dell, herself an entrepreneur in antiques, gentle but strong, positive and bubbly and chatty, eager to refill your iced tea and remember to ask after those terrible allergies you had last season. Lois, the youngest, the basketball coach who told me when she was 82 that what she’d really wanted to be all along was a geologist. Lois with her wry humor, voracious appetite for LSU football (“If the Tigers don’t complete this play, I’m going to need a nerve pill!”), her frank and straightforward manner, her love of travel and curiosity for new people, places, adventure.  Lois who never seemed like an old lady – who once, towards the end, when I was worried about her driving and hemmed and hawed, “oh, just hop in with me. I love to drive!” narrowed her eyes and said, “How about we say what we mean, dear.”

 

This morning my Aunt Dell passed away. She was the last of the three Strong sisters, and while it was a mercy for her to find peace at 97, her absence leaves a hole. We were already close, but when my grandmother died, she took me in as her own. I’d make the drive to Mansfield and zip up in one of her housecoats to have coffee with her or we’d paint our toenails or eat taco soup or tea cakes, and she would give me photos and old letters, knowing I didn’t have many family things. We’d laugh mainly – over old stories she’d relate or ones about my kids’ latest antics she’d prod me to tell. Always, she loved to laugh. I’m remembering her telling me, nearing her mid-80’s, that she was giving up her line-dancing troupe (they danced at nursing homes to cheer up “the old folks”). She laughed and said, “Hazel told me, ‘watch out, when you hit 85, you just start to feel a little bit old.’”

And always, she told me she loved me. On Sunday, I got to hold her hand and tell her goodbye. I sang her a lullaby from her mother, my great grandmother, that had come to me all the way down through my mother.  Over in Killarney, many years ago, my mother sang a song to me, with accent sweet and low. Just a plain and simple ditty, in her sweet old fashioned way, and I’d give the world if she could sing that song for me today.  I stroked her hand with her familiar fine and elegant oval fingernails, the same as my grandmother’s, my eyes filling as I sang these words my mother sang me, her mother sang her. I was telling her it was okay to go at that same time I sang a song about longing for your mother, at the same time as I strained against the inevitability of losing this beloved aunt, a precious link to my own mother, a thread so heartbreakingly tensile and fragile, all at once.

What else can we do in those moments?

Families have their own mythologies and ideologies, just like nations and cultures. In my family, the Strong sisters, in reality and in notion, formed the backbone to our family story. They are so much of how we envision ourselves, or at least aspire to be, collectively and individually. When we cousins see each other, we talk about their example, the way they lived for so long, each of them so fiercely independent, so inventively smart and creatively resourceful, so focused in their love. We retell their childhood and early adulthood stories, which have now become larger than life. And I can only speak for myself in saying that I have imprinted on me their code: Work hard, Keep learning, Respect the earth, Be of service, Dedicate yourself to friends and family.

Aunt Dell was 97. It didn’t feel shocking and untimely like so many deaths do, like my Mom’s did 24 years ago. But her passing, like the passing of Hazel and Lois, is still a great loss to me, and I think to this world. The strength of the Strong girls wasn’t in flashy jobs or published works or even notoriety that existed beyond these little north Louisiana towns. But each of them bravely found her own enrichment, stood up to bullies, raised her children to be kind, found a way to help people who needed help, and – critically, I believe – stayed open and curious to an unfolding life of their own making, full and rich, and above all — strong.

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Seeing through the glass darkly: When carpe diem means acknowledging it sucks

I’m going to come right out and say it: There is a national cult of self-improvement and a tyrannical myth of work/life balance working together like a couple of snake-oil salesmen to convince us that harmony is the mountaintop – the glittering, Pinterest-montaged goal. But frankly, I think complexity and contradiction get a bad rap. There can be an order there, among seeming disharmony — something much more nourishing than the soundbite, the silver lining or even the catalytic new thing.

Maybe I’m grumpy because last week, I had the unusual experience of being laid out half-flat by a migraine for six days straight. “Half-flat” because it was a dull migraine, not acute, but pressing thick and heavy from behind the wall of skull at my forehead, bruising hair follicles, ruching up the muscles in my neck like a mid-life mother of three’s my tankini. But not so bad I couldn’t work, couldn’t function. So I shuffled along, doing the essential at about one-fourth the pace, drinking gallons of water and dutifully turning in 9pm each night.  It was like stumbling around in a small, dark room, this migraine, feeling for furniture, trying in vain to find the switch on the wall.

Once, half way through, a medicine worked and I caught a four–hour reprieve. I emerged like one of the locked-in characters from Awakenings, leaping up from my bent crone position to quickly run a gazillion errands, practice yoga, finish work projects, return phone calls. After several hours the drug wore off, and just like Robin Williams’ patients, I slipped back into my semi-vegetative state and retreated bitterly to bed. So frustrated by my lack of energy, of ability, that I would have cried had it not hurt so bad. Thankfully, this was just a headache, just a week.

My main takeaway from this, lit somewhat dimly during, but shining especially afterwards was sheer euphoric gratitude for how good I feel nearly all of the time and what a particular hell chronic pain, chronic illness must be.  With my brain moving like a slug across sandpaper, it slowly dawned on me that the deeper issue here – what I was truly grateful for – was a recognition, like a slap across the face, of what I ­could do and think and say when I felt like myself. In short, the experience made me freshly and acutely aware of my own Aliveness.

I should add that when I was able, I was reading When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, a clear-eyed and poignant memoir by a literature-loving brilliant young neurosurgeon, who devoted his intellectual career to understanding where life’s meaning and the brain’s working intersect.  But where that intersection finally revealed itself to him was not through his work, but through his own terminal diagnosis of lung and brain cancer at 36.  Light summer reading.

Kalanithi wrote, “I began to realize that coming face to face with my mortality, in a sense, had changed nothing and everything… my understanding that I was going to die someday, became an understanding that I was going to die — some day.”

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Paul Kalanithi, 1977-2015

What changed was Paul Kalanithi’s attention. What we put our attention into noticing in (and about) the world, is who we are in the world. But true attention is not passive – it is curious, searching, learning, understanding. Waking up to our lives certainly requires attention – an attention that must be actively fed and directed, because it, too, is complex and contradictory, sometimes fractious, other times bored and tedious.  Mary Oliver said of her learning curve to describe nature in her poems, “Attention without feeling … is only a report.”

Exploring this is helping me forgive myself for how hard I find it to carpe diem, to wake up to the present, precious moment as a working mother of small children.

Let me back up a bit.

When I think of defining attention in this intentional and dynamic way, I think of Maria Popova’s discussion of the relationship between critical thinking and hope. Popova, founder and curator of the national treasure that is Brain Pickings, said in an interview with On Being that hope and critical thinking must be bridged.  Each, on their own, leads to resignation and emptiness — critical thinking, without a fixed star to guide and inspire, and hope through its lack of a motivation to apply ourselves and make things better. Critical thinking alone becomes embittered, and hope alone is naïve.  But together, we are able to face the complexity and rush of aliveness in a more sustaining way.

Very often kindly older folks pass me in the grocery store when my toddler is smeared in something sticky and gleefully chanting, “Butt! Butt! Butt!” and my twins are whining for Red Dye No. 4 This and Bisphenol A That, and these wistful onlookers wink and say, “Cherish every moment. They grow up so fast” — and it absofuckinglutely makes my eye twitch.  I know they mean well, of course.  But the act of trying to savor that moment in the grocery when I don’t want to make eye contact with anyone is crazy-making. And yet I feel compelled to try and… of course inevitably fail.  The failure is painful because there is layered stress in imagining a Future Me, lonely and chronically cold, perhaps eating cat food (if present day savings are any indication), remembering those grocery store meltdowns and longing for them again.   So with this lonely old future fictional future self in mind, I grit my teeth in the checkout and try to DOUBLE DOWN ON APPRECIATING THE PRESENT.  But, of course, this doesn’t work.   Why not?

Because it’s hope without critical thinking; it’s trying to erase contradiction and entropy and messiness in a singleminded and mythical pursuit of harmony.  It’s buying the snake oil!

Popova writes of Alfred Kazin, the great Jewish-American writer and literary critic, on embracing contradiction and how the sacredness of human attention shapes our reality.  She quotes Kazin from his Journals, “A thinker (like [Ralph Waldo Emerson]) misleads us as soon as he promotes harmony as the exclusive goal, and especially misleads us when he preaches harmony as a method. Man’s life is full of contradiction and he must be; we see through a glass darkly — we want more than we can have; we see more than we can understand. But a contradiction that is faced leads to true knowledge… Contradictions are on the surface, the symbols of deeper and more fertile forces that can unleash the most marvelous energy when they are embraced. Never try to achieve ‘order,’ sacrifice symmetry — seek to relate all these antagonistic forces, not to let the elimination of one to the other.”

Kazin was writing in the 1940’s and 50’s, but how much MORE true is this today?  So often we seek to improve ourselves without ennobling ourselves, squirming away from any worldview that requires a full color palette – rather than the dualistic black and white.  But the world itself is technicolor and maddeningly, heartbreakingly complex.

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“Isn’t it wonderful the way the world holds both the deeply serious, and the unexpectedly mirthful?” – Mary Oliver

Finding myself now in this middle generation, I watch the generation ahead transition from experiencing mortality as largely quick, surprising tragedies to slow, inevitable disease, the drawn out battles, hospice.  At the same moment my children are coming into consciousness with the world, starting to play with independence and all its inherent risks- and their own sense of invincibility.  Is this midlife? It’s true, I do have a ruched tankini (It clearly signifies the dual messages – “I’m still young!” AND – “Fare the well, bare midriff!”). How can I hold both in my hands?  How can I fully clock the “Here it is. Here it awaits. Learn from it” that Paul Kalanithi points to – while being in the world and light and playful?  I think the essential duality of critical thought and hope – and the bridge they forge across the central valley of adulting – must be the path.

And the vehicle is complexity and contradiction. Why else do some of our most vivid and bright memories involve crisis? I go back in my mind so often to taking my twin four-year-olds to Vermont, to a friend’s remote mountain cabin during a difficult period in my life. I would bang sticks and shout as I went out to the woodpile every night to scare away the brown recluse spiders and made sure to sing loudly picking raspberries in case bears were near. At night, I put the kids in bed and read or journaled by the fire for hours. I was alone in that sensory-heightened way you are when taking care of small children without another grown up around, in one of the great dark intersections of my life, and every moment of it shines in my memory, bright and distinct. Indeed, that Vermont cabin has become my happy place, what I fondly remember again and again.

Bringing critical thought and hope to the table of contradiction awakens Aliveness. But I forget this nearly all of the time. Nearly all of the time, I am under the dull, stress-y migraine cloud, the sleepwalking selfhood in my habitual patterns and tired little vaudeville routine. Yet – beneath it, even more consistently, is this tension, this longing for transformative awakening.

Thank God life is constantly handing me plenty of messy, contentious little opportunities to enter more deeply into my own existence, to embrace it more wholly, to look in the eyes of that stranger in the grocery store and say, “Yes, this moment – this dumpster fire of a family outing – sucks. And I am in it, I am seizing it, I am wrestling to embrace it, and you are right, I am sure I will miss it too.”