A Great and Terrible Beauty



I’ve been reading a collection of gems by Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Mary Schmich titled even the terrible things seem beautiful to me now. The title is a reference to Schmich’s mother, who towards the end of her life commented to her daughter, “You have to be old to appreciate the beauty of your life. Even the terrible things seem beautiful to me now.”

I have been thinking a lot lately about old age and mortality. Last week I mourned the loss of a friend who was born the same year I was. Just the other evening, I visited my 87-year-old mother, whose heart and mind are strong, but whose body has become frail and uncooperative. Even my own aging body has started to betray me in small ways. I’ve developed osteoporosis and chronic back pain. A stubbed toe has become a minor handicap. I watch TV with closed captioning because my hearing is not what it used to be.

We are all headed down this path toward our eventual earthly demise. We can’t imagine that the world will continue to turn when we are no longer alive in it. But of course it will. In another essay, Schmich again quotes her mother: “I keep wondering what I’m going to do with the time I have left.”

Ah, that is the question, isn’t it? Schmich posits that the answer to that question keeps changing over the course of our lives. I remember having some grandiose goals when I was in my 20s. I would ride a bike through Europe and learn to sail and write the Great American Novel. Only one of those dreams is still alive. I guess I had better get to it while I am still alive.

Yes, there have been terrible times in my life. I have experienced loss and fear and sleepless nights, physical and emotional pain, dread, anxiety. It can be a healing thing to reflect that all the terrible things have a certain beauty when seen in the context of a long life.

Thank you, Mary Schmich, for helping me meditate on the great and mysterious journey we call life.

Keep the Old



Throughout our lives, we meet new people and forge new friendships – from childhood besties to our college posse to the circle of parents surrounding our own children. Someone once told me that our friendships naturally change as our lives change. But with any luck, there are those friends with whom we forge a bond that lasts a lifetime.

Last weekend, my husband and I got together with a group of his old pals from college. We converged at a lake in Michigan, the state in which these bosom buddies had met a few decades before. Of course, the group included spouses, some from the same college and others met later along life’s path.

From the moment the first arrivals gathered over pizza and beer, we enjoyed an easy rapport, a sense of picking right up where we had left off that I have experienced with some of my dearest friends. There is something comforting about hanging out with people who knew you when. No pretense is possible when you and your friends go way back to your more youthful and foolish days. Some of the fun, in fact, is in reminiscing about those crazy times and those “near death” experiences or humiliations you suffered in your callow youth.

The weather was hot and the sun plentiful in Michigan. We had lots of good food and drink, plenty of laughter, and the gift of time – time to catch up on each other’s lives, time to bask in each other’s presence. Since our salad days, we have married, divorced, become parents and grandparents, experienced health problems and the deaths of those we dearly love. All of that has become part and parcel of who we are, etched on our faces and in our hearts. Keeping in touch through the vicissitudes of life has only strengthened those bonds.

When my kids were little, they loved a video titled Wee Sing in the Big Rock Candy Mountains. In it, the characters sing a song reflecting the need to hold onto our earliest friendships. The lyrics go: “Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver and the other gold.”

As we head into our golden years, let’s cherish those golden friendships and keep them close to our hearts.


Do You Do Birthdays?



Yesterday was my birthday.

When my husband and I started dating, he told me he didn’t “do” birthdays. He was uninterested in receiving any cards or gifts, having a cake, or in any way celebrating the day of his birth. I just didn’t get it.

I love birthdays. On my birthday, I am the queen, the center of attention. Feed me bonbons while I lounge on a chaise and read a good book. For my 40th birthday, my husband threw me a surprise party. I was totally in my glory and enjoyed every minute. If I threw a surprise party for my other half, he would divorce me.

Apparently people have different feelings about marking the date that indicates they are another year older.

I think the reason I am so into birthdays stems from my childhood. I grew up in a family with 11 children, so there was only so much attention to go around. On my birthday, however, I got to choose the dinner menu, blow out the candles on my cake, and open a gift that was not a hand-me-down. The attention was on me, and I reveled in it.

The other reason I love birthdays is that I can be unabashedly selfish. On most other days of the year, I don’t feel right about putting my own desires above the needs and wants of others. But on my birthday, I allow myself to do what I want. I let the laundry pile up and the kids fend for themselves. I eat deep dish pizza for dinner (something my family abhors) and have a glass of wine. (Well, okay, I have a glass of wine on many nights that aren’t my birthday.)

As I’ve gotten older, I have extended the celebration to encompass a few days to a week of “Mary’s birthday.” It’s fabulous.

Like most people, when I was a kid, I couldn’t wait to get older. Now I am wishing I could slow down the hands of the clock. Yesterday I met a friend in the bakery where – you guessed it – I was buying birthday treats, and she told me she was picking up a cake for her husband, who turned 50 that day. I was delighted with the coincidence of our mutual birthdays but envious that he was “only 50.”

Sure, birthdays can make us painfully aware of our mortality. That’s all the more reason to do them up big. Buy all the candles in the party store, and line them up on a massive whipped cream cake. Share a toast with friends and family and celebrate that wonderful day when you were born.

As a wise man once said, having another birthday sure beats the alternative!