56 opportunities to say a thing, more than less, perhaps enough Born, yes, in Cleveland. A negro of negroes. Documented. Raised right, in the church Lutheran and steadfast We lived down the street and had the extra key to St Philip's. Wordy child, moody and temperamental Youngest, some said spoiled; an entertainer. Black neighborhood other You talk like a white girl. Independent School of East Cleveland a mouthful Belonging and not belonging, in and out School life in a nutshell Brady, Eric, Tia carpool Dads who called each other Mister After school at Mrs Atwater's until mom came I remember those days. Middle school, Lutheran school Desks, bells, grades, rows, blackboards Obedient and built for it 3 wishes: cheerleading, saddle shoes, to be liked Meatloaf sang: 2 out of 3 ain't bad. Billy Joel sang: Vienna waits for you Steely Dan sang: Sure, he's a jolly roger Until he answers for his crime I didn't know what that was about Still I sang. High school, preppy prep school Button downs, corduroys, turtlenecks Fit the fit, fitting in, to fit Everybody's friend, bravely naive, blessedly compliant Never a fuss. So nice. Good girl goes to college East coast Ivy league Solo arrival by Greyhound with a heavy chest; a literal cedar chest with my stuff Best friend roommate from the coast of Maine My biggest takeaway from the Hill was Cath, the lack to my luster What college was for Everything else is Vienna Everything else is German and English Everything else is language and misunderstanding Everything else is men, kids and change Everything else is stories of the story of why I'm still here Everything else is choosing and making the most Everything else is living without so much knowing What's missing is all the in betweens What's missing is all the details no one needs What's missing is where you fit in exactly What's missing is when the scales tipped What's missing is the time I chose to be me What's missing is all the times I chose to be someone else. What's missing is all the squishy parts What's missing is the end.
No one told me that aging amounts to a steadily escalating confrontation between us and our vanity.
When I was in 8th grade and Tammy Fish was in 7th she said, “Sherri, you are so vain!” My feelings were hurt, not so much because of the insult but due to my ignorance. I didn’t actually know what vain meant. I was ashamed that Tammy had shown, once again, that she was smarter, more bookish and more mature than I. We two Black girls in a small Lutheran middle school and she had one up on me. Again. I did go home and look up vain that evening. “How could she know that word?” I asked myself.
Growing up, people used to tell me how much I looked like my daddy. As a girl I hated hearing that. I did not want to hear that I looked like a man. More specifically, folks often pointed to my thick eyebrows and long eyelashes. And when I say folks, I really mean heavily perfumed and powdered church ladies whose eyebrows were painted on. That said, it was long before I could appreciate my father’s legacy in my own face.
I really only knew my mother from middle age on. She had me at 42 and by the time I was paying any real attention to her example of womanhood, she was already in her 50s. She wore girdles and control-top panty hose. She went easy on the make up and I don’t remember that she had any skin problems to speak of. She mostly wore her hair short and practically dared anyone to say something about it. “People have asked me for a lot of things, but hair was never one of them,” she claimed. I do remember her stepping on a scale somewhere, in a store maybe, and being outdone that she was over 145lbs. I didn’t really know what that meant besides the fact that 145 was too much.
My dad was also middle aged when I came along, 4 years farther in than my mother. He didn’t talk much, it seemed to me, but later I understood that he chose his moments. He could be animated at family gatherings, Christmas, New Year’s and Easter, after a few drinks. He could tell a story and get folks to laugh but he used center stage sparingly. It felt like I almost had to catch him in the act to believe it. I guess he was handsome in a way. He was slender and muscular, wore glasses and was clean shaven. He was my dad, so I thought he was alright looking, nothing special. Only once I was an adult with my own child could I appreciate that back in the day, he had been quite a hunk.
My eyebrows are thinning. And why wouldn’t they be? I’m mid 50s for crying out loud. It’s a gradual process. I wanted to say ‘slow’ process but that’s not entirely accurate. The process has begun and I don’t see a way to stall it. (Nor have I looked into it.) Those beautiful eyebrows I had as a child and never touched as an adult are changing; slowly fading, one hair at a time. Today I bought my first eyebrow pencil. I’m not ready to say goodbye just like that.
The messages I got from home about body size and taking care of oneself were clear. Don’t get “big” and cosmetics are mostly not worth the trouble. It’s astounding how deeply anchored these are in me. In old age both of my parents were shrunken. But my father, even at his weakest, had nicely defined forearms. Decades of carpentry work still visible in isolated parts of his physique. My mother grew thin, both her body and her memory. Her skin sagged but the complexion stayed surprisingly even and clear. Make-up was always optional for her. When I observed her in old age it was apparent to me that she had never really needed it. Who among us should be so lucky?
I believe that I own a nice lipstick. I cannot, however, tell you where it is located.
When I was a teen and curious about make-up, my mother confided in me, “If you want to look like your sister when you’re her age, then don’t start with all that stuff now.” My sister, Carol, is 19 years my senior and a poster child for “Black don’t crack.” She has always had a full round face that defies recognizing her actual age. I like to imagine myself following in her footsteps.
Most of my wardrobe consists of sportswear. Sweat pants, t-shirts, tights, hoodies. I have dresses, too, but rarely wear them. My career as a physical educator affords me good reason to stay outfitted in stretchy, comfortable clothing. For the most part I have stayed roughly the same size since undergrad. I have savored all the years that I was able to shop for myself and my sons in the same section of H & M. Slowly, sadly, that door is beginning to close. My middle aged hips and softening tummy are no match for teen boy cargo pants. The realization is as baffling as it is sobering. I am not the same as I once was.
I so often thought: “I don’t care about how I look.” But that of course was a lie. It usually is. The older I get, the more I understand about deception and trickery. The things we do to deceive ourselves, in order to better deceive others. We are not who we once were; instead we become so much more of who we are. And that’s a lot, a load, to manage. We grow tired of holding up the series of masks that keep us from disappearing. Our vanity turns out to be remarkably more enduring than we ever knew.
I don’t expect old age to be kind. I hope it will be gentle. My parents lived to be 83 (dad) and 90 (mom). Heredity suggests that I will have some time. For now while I’m middling, I’m grasping for clarity. There are ways that I want to be; ways that I want to show up; ways that I hope to be seen. Today’s clarity is a new eyebrow pencil and a confession: I am vain. Tammy was right.
Photos: ©Alexandra Thompson 2019
Audio Version can be heard here.
Middle age keeps surprising me.
I keep running into things I think I know only to realize that I was
under a false
but lasting impression.
These surprises are not always pleasant
some carry a force upon arrival
that’ll knock you down
especially if you haven’t been paying close attention.
I thought I knew love,
thought I knew racism,
thought I knew how to show the former
and counter the latter.
Middle age presents the tests
but doesn’t ask if you studied;
doesn’t question your readiness.
Middle age says
work this out.
And there you are
grasping at straws
watching the clock
scouring your memory.
And there you are
stuck and stuck and stuck
to be so utterly clueless.
But middle age saw you coming,
sees your indignity
at being caught
Now, she says,
the education can begin.
Middle age has been on my mind A LOT lately. I identify as middle aged and regardless of how many folks kindly remark on how young I may appear, I know exactly how old I am and how many years this particular body has been in operation. On the one hand, I have some decades of life experience to draw on – full of family, work, and accomplishments, on the other hand, I face a great unknown of what will come next. After 60? 70? Even after 80? I’ve learned a great deal up until now, how much more will I learn before my days are at an end?
I’ve been reading bell hooks’ trilogy on love: All About Love: New Visions (2001), Salvation: Black People and Love (2001), and Communion: The Female Search For Love (2002). It’s a course of study I didn’t know I needed until I was deeply immersed in the material. Bell hooks is a patient truth teller as she guides us through museums full of mental models we apply to make sense of love; how we crave, practice, misunderstand and shun it. She speaks from a specifically American frame which helps me to connect it to my own upbringing in the Midwest and understand the ways I’ve applied those beliefs in adulthood in Europe.
At the same time I am making my way through Ibram X. Kendi’s How To Be An Antiracist (2019). Similar to hooks, Dr. Kendi leads us step by step into a steadily more complex and nuanced definition of what an antiracist is, but more importantly he shows us what a true antiracist human does on the micro and macro levels of life in progress. What’s interesting is that both authors share episodes of their own lives – of their youthful fears, adult struggles and bracing insights along the way. Their lessons are personal AND intimately connected and embedded in the social structures they illuminate. We learn about personal actions and decisions and then witness how these can be seen in light of what we know about the impacts of race, gender and class.
I take note: None of us is operating in a vacuum as we lead our private little lives. On the contrary, our private spheres become sites of social interactions deeply impacted by the dominant culture’s overarching messages in favor of racist, sexist and classist ideas. Resisting all of these influences requires more of us than we often realize.
In an early chapter on dueling consciousness, Dr. Kendi introduces duels in Black and White, in the past and present, between assimilationist and segregationist thinking. In a remarkably poetic passage he describes the duel within the Black body:
The Black body in turn experiences the same duel. The Black body is instructed to become an American body. The American body is the White body. The Black body strives to assimilate into the American body. The American body rejects the Black body. The Black body separates from the American body. The Black body is instructed to assimilate into the American body – and history and consciousness duel anew. (How To Be An Antiracist, p.33)
Every time I reread this passage, I see it play out – sometimes in my own childhood, or on a recent news report – this back and forth without ever fully arriving: I know this duel. In my own ways, I live it. Then it hits, the other duels happening within.
Reading about love in heterosexual relationships, I am struck by the recurring duels that appear in hooks’ considerations: between feminism and patriarchy; power and love. She laments that feminists of the ’80s and ’90s while able to demonstrate significant gains in jobs, money and power, failed to share the discovery “that patriarchy, like any colonizing system, does not create a context for women and men to love one another… that domination and love do not go together, that if one is present, the other is not.” (Communion, p. 71-72)
I don’t remember ever having thought about relationships with that kind of clarity. I am familiar with the draw to compete; the unspoken patterns of one-upmanship that couples can fall into. To claim we want to love and be loved, but at the same time show with our actions that we also want to win. These are features of the dominant culture coming home to roost. Even when we believe ourselves to be beyond such influences. It’s the cultural air we breathe.
Given that lesson, the path to love that hooks sketches for us in Communion demands new lenses, above all for seeing ourselves. And she suggests that midlife lends itself particularly well for this endeavor. The timing of this reading could hardly be better.
I’ve had 4 lines written on a notepad next to my computer for about a month which means that I keep seeing them, rereading them, imbuing them with further meaning.
It doesn’t matter if I say
how much it hurts
the answer is always a question:
what did you expect?
Again a duel, playing itself out: answer and question. Midlife seems to be asking: What did I expect? Now I see that it is homework of a whole new variety. Work that may, in time, bring me home to myself.
“Now, she says,
the education can begin.”
hooks, bell, All About Love – New Visions, William Morrow, 2001.
– Salvation: Black People and Love, Harper Perennial, 2001.
– Communion: The Female Search for Love, Perennial, 2002.
Kendi, Ibram X., How To Be An Anti-Racist, One World, 2019.
I was happy to disclose the positive result after the fact. Now it’s the day after and I’m wondering.
I’m still OK although running this distance untrained was punishing for my joints, especially my knees.
I would actively discourage my friends of a similar age from doing any such thing.
Nevertheless, I signed up (without telling anyone) because I think I know my body. We have a long history together, have even run this course several times in the last 25 years. And while I know I’m not in “running shape”, I know that I have remarkable fitness reservoirs – considerable leg and upper body strength, well tuned joint and muscle flexibility, plus a baseline cardiovascular fitness level that is highly adaptable. I also went into this race with years of experience. I knew how to pace myself for a safe return, how to build in recovery during the race and also let go of any other expectations beyond completing the course in good health.
That’s important. At almost 54, with two knee operations behind me and a job which requires substantial physical investment, I could not run “as if there were no tomorrow.” On the contrary, I ran precisely with tomorrow and the next day and the day after that in mind. I took it slow from the outset. I paid attention to my limbs letting me know if something was amiss. I let myself speedwalk with a smile in some spots, or jog backwards downhill to relieve pressure on my knees. All of these techniques worked.
The final 4 kilometers are a steady downhill in familiar territory. I was able to run the last bit with surprising energy. As I got closer to the finish I was reminded of the hundreds of training runs I had done on this same stretch over the years. I let those layers of muscle memory carry me through the finish line.
issued a few murmurs of regret this morning, especially my knees.
My knees and I went for a neighborhood walk up through the vineyards and back down past the posh houses and apartment buildings. The left knee wore a brace and both were forgiving since I wasn’t making extraordinary demands like yesterday.
I may keep the brace for a couple of days just as a comfort measure. I owe my knee that much courtesy.
The rest of me appears to be fine. I never struggled to catch my breath yesterday. Slow and steady didn’t win the race but it did return me to my car safely.
grows contextually explicit.
My husband runs long distances more regularly. I don’t envy his training rhythm as much as I might. I had my time in the competitive limelight of middle and long distance running. I won’t be back. Knowing this is a help and relief. It leaves me open to surprise myself at will.
My ambition now consists of outrunning the menaces one comes to expect in middle age: the prospect of disease in one form or another. Not even the healthiest lifestyles are immune to disruption by illness. I think of this often when I choose to spend time writing on my laptop rather than hitting the trails for a hike, bike or other outdoor exertion. It’s not that it has to be either or. My point lies in acknowledging the scope and efficacy of my efforts wherever I apply them. Like my peers, I have no guarantees or significantly better prospects of a longer than average life.
I do have a body that mostly still cooperates with whatever I am asking it to do. That constitutes a blessing in every sense of the word. My ambition becomes one of seeking agreement with my body and its blessings. Satisfying needs, curiosity, and even spontaneous wants – my body, mind and heart are in constant negotiation with each other. Middle age seems a season built for keeping such negotiations as positive and mutually beneficial as possible.
That may be what I wanted to achieve by participating in an event for which I had not specifically prepared and yet could hardly have arrived better prepared to enjoy the experience the way that I did.
Choosing alone as a feature not a bug. I didn’t ask anyone to join me. I did not recognize any other runners as in the past. I spent most of the time pleasantly on my own while moving along. I appreciated the space to be alone in a dispersed mass.
My inner dialogue during the run was much gentler, forgiving and encouraging than in my competitive days. What a glorious discovery to make!
Given the time without other commitments (son & husband away for the weekend), it was a pleasure to challenge and surprise myself almost secretly. (I only shared the outcome with my husband hours later.) Maybe it’s a guarded selfishness, a way of preserving dignity in the event that the outcome is not so rosy. I’m not sure but I will say that I derived an odd satisfaction at revealing an unexpected morsel of news about my accomplishment.
I’m moving a bit slowly today and need sufficient warm-up to walk smoothly. That said, I am curious to see where my curiosity may strike next.
It rained and I did not melt.
2019 arrived and I didn’t much care. On New Year’s Eve my stomach hurt. I cut out at 11:30pm with no regrets.
We’re on the tail end of a family vacation which has gone remarkably smoothly. Everybody has gotten to do most of the things they wanted to do: speedskate, ski, run, play video and/or board games, sleep in, stay up late, read a lot, watch TV, go for a walk, eat out, eat in, eat chips, drink beer, drink wine, not drink at all, leave a mess, clean it up, snack, snack, snack, and write.
Released from a lot of my regular duties, I experience a bunch of emotions that I’m not all the way prepared for. I find some leftover guilt in my pockets, a curtain of despair in the wind that stalls me on the lake, a crusty strip of resentment I almost trip over while strolling on a wooded path. I take comfort in reading about other people’s sorrows. I’m able to read with a bit more empathy than usual perhaps.
My capacity for easy conversation strikes me as limited. I can say some things that seem to fit and then I hit a wall. I listen and nod but let others carry on from there. At some point I may check out, gently excuse myself to another corner of the room. It’s the holidays so it feels like even that’s okay.
Internally, however, my word machine keeps blowing at full speed. My head swells with waves of words. Sentences on the page before me spawn another set of thoughts that require their own peculiar expression. To an outsider it looks like I’m maybe spaced out or deep in thought. I don’t know. I’ve never asked anyone. It occurs to me that once I’m gone, I will have left a trail of words behind me.
I check into my social media saloon and it feels like a ‘Cheers’ re-run – that place “where everybody knows your name.” Which is of course not true at all, but there are plenty of people I find and can huddle up with. This, too, is a surprising comfort. I stumble into some conversations and get caught up in the richness of the exchange. I feel part of community. I have some things to say and discover much I want to listen to – I do not hit a conversational wall. Word squalls form in my head and the relief is great when I can release some of them into a little blue box of 280 characters or less.
I’m learning to make peace with exercising early and staying inside for a greater part of the day. I am no longer the endurance addict that I once was. I’m still getting over that fact. Part of maintaining a vacation tradition involves noticing changes over time: the steadiness I feel on my skates after a decade of tentative practice, the way my outdoor equipment fits, the way my eyes never tire of the lake + mountain view when I cross the bridge. Yes, and it’s no secret that I am getting older.
Adult development can be a bit of conundrum. We gain experience as we age and may learn from our successes and mistakes but that’s not a given. Wisdom is not free or guaranteed. In middle age I may be enjoying the height of my financial resources and benefit from all sorts of amassed social capital. Yes, and I struggle with keeping myself upright and on task.
Writing assignments I have placed on my docket both intrigue and daunt me. I have reservations about what and how much I can actually achieve. I keep writing nevertheless. Spending time in this somewhat vulnerable and questioning space, feels oddly helpful, neither pressure raising nor reducing. There is fresh air in abundance. Yes, and I am breathing.
2019 one breath at a time.
image © edifiedlistener
I recently decided to enter some races on the track. A good friend encouraged me to try coming back to sprinting and I did. He’s 55+ and I’m 52. For our respective ages, we’re in pretty good shape. I hadn’t run a track race in about 15 years.
So yes, I reactivated my track club membership and signed up to run the 100m and 200m sprints in the Vienna Masters championships. Here are some of my observations from the experience:
- When we say age is nothing but a number it’s true and it is also true that numbers can have meaning.
- Running at 50 for me is very different from how I ran at the end of my competitive middle and long distance career at 36. My body doesn’t want to go too hard or too long. Recovery gets priority.
— Sherri Spelic (@edifiedlistener) July 18, 2017
- As an older athlete, enhancing performance = staving off and postponing decline. I won’t get faster, per se, so the trick is to avoid getting much slower.
- I prepared for these races by aiming to do ‘just enough’ and not more.
- Instead of running all the time I opted for inline skating or walking while adding some technique drills along the way.
- It is a reality that I wake up stiff and my first steps out of bed are tentative and cautious. This is true whether I work out quite a lot or very little.
- Arm flexibility and strength will likely be a greater factor in racing success than leg speed over the long haul.
- My goal going into this was to race without getting injured and I almost made it.
I felt pretty cool coming around the bend of my maters 200 race approaching the lead. Ping at 170m, finish in 2nd, glad to be able to walk.🙄
— Sherri Spelic (@edifiedlistener) July 23, 2017
Sometimes the biggest successes are when we simply follow through and do what we said we would do.
— Sherri Spelic (@edifiedlistener) July 22, 2017
I don’t have any previous experience with this aging game; I’m just feeling my way. So far, so good. One of the highlights of participating this weekend was seeing folks (mostly men) much older, 70 – 80, running, jumping and throwing, too. You see what’s possible and what the sport, the camaraderie can give a person.
Meanwhile, my spunky super athletic 9 year old proved to be a vocal and somewhat critical spectator. That said, I don’t doubt that it made him proud to see his mom step up onto the top spot and receive a medal. According to him my start in the 200 wasn’t so great but then I was really fast in the curve but at the very end I looked like Voldemort, so yeah. Modeling takes many forms. Impression made.
On the first day I was nervous – like ‘had to go potty numerous times’ nervous. It was a strange throwback – to feel that physical expression of performance anxiety, before a ridiculous 100m race! And in the blocks I messed around with different settings which prompted the starter to give me a few tips. (Mind you, I have been teaching block starts to athletes for over 20 years.) And then it was, “Auf die Plaetze, Fertig, *boom*. Behold, I started just fine.
Gearing up for the 200 on Sunday I took a second to think of one of my most coachable athletes who has stellar starts. I was channeling “KL cool” stepping into the blocks and that gave me a little smile. It also reminded me how wonderful and fulfilling it can be to know something so well – this process, the commands, my response, the tension, the release – even after all these years it is still a mystery and an intimacy. That was a gift.
To sum up I want to borrow some words I read in the New York Times recently:
“…that was super-duper…that was very much more than normal…and do you know what else was nice? – It was limited. You know, it was two hours…It didn’t go a whole day. … You don’t want to leave but you have to … the whole thing, it was an incredible thing.”
It was all “an incredible thing” and probably worth attempting again. I learned that I enjoy the tension of competing. I can be “in it to win it” but winning is broadly defined: finishing, staying healthy, following through.
If this is what I’m saying at 50+, I can only wonder what my next decades may bring.
If I’m lucky, more of this. (Humblebrag, I made my very first GIF!)
image: (c) Me, my, mine. Thanks.