getting real

Here’s an essay more than a year in the making.

This version of it could be titled: “Why I stopped wearing makeup during the Coronavirus.”

It’s not what you think.  It’s not laziness.  It’s not part of the slick new move where you dress only from the waist up for Zoom meetings and keep your pajama bottoms on for the entire day.

No.  If anything, ten hours of Zoom meetings a day might lead to a greater emphasis on “putting on one’s face,” since that’s what we’re all looking at, now.

No. It’s not laziness.  It’s not “I don’t care anymore.”

It’s age.

Yup.  Age.

Eighteen months ago, I turned 60. (According to COVID-19 standards, I am now “elderly.”)

I didn’t mind turning 30 (I was busy having babies.)

I didn’t mind turning 40 (I was busy raising those babies.)

I didn’t even mind turning the legendary 50 (I was shin-deep in a new career.)

But 60.  Oomph.

Now, a lot of this has to do with a 61-and-a-half year-old difficult relationship with my body.  Someday I’ll write about that in greater detail. It’s plenty complicated and mining that deep emotional hole would keep any psychoanalyst in the green for years. But for now, suffice it to say that in this complicated relationship, I have worked myself over for years.  I’ve run marathons.  I’ve had to balance my soul-nurturing practice of cooking and creating in the kitchen and the concomitant eating that comes from a day at the stove, with my need to fit into my jeans.  And, I’ve been gentle on myself, keeping a wardrobe full of jeans in about 3 different sizes.

But turning 60 was about more than the size of my waistband.

Turning 60 meant a turn towards one’s own mortality and the end of one’s days.

I’ve outlived my father’s lifespan by more than 30 years.  The women on my mother’s side of the family made it into their 9th decade, and so I’ve less to worry about there.

I eat kale. Lots of kale.  I drink water. Lots of water. I quit smoking 30 years ago. I quit drinking 4 months ago.  I run. I’m doing what I can.  I’m at peace, even, with my mortality.  In the past couple of years, I’ve found a softening of the terror that I used to feel when I would even consider death.  Now, I grieve the idea of death because I love my life so much.  I just don’t want it to end.  I’m not sure what is on the other side.  My faith tells me that I’ll meet Jesus and that I’ll step into a form of being that will be filled with love and light and a timelessness that won’t drag on, but that will be right. Just right. Perfect, in fact.  And that is wonderful.

But there’s still the idea of this body that we live in- this “earthly tent” as St. Paul calls it.  And, lately- for the last 18 months of so- that’s been a challenge.

My Christian faith tells me that vanity is not cool:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. Philippians 2:3-4 

Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD, she shall be praised. Proverbs 31:30

And weighing in from the literary corner, there’s this:

There are no grades of vanity, there are only grades of ability in concealing it. Mark Twain

Vanity is often the unseen spur. William Makepeace Thackeray

But, dammit, I don’t like the turkey neck that rests under my chin- which has its own share of wrinkles.  I don’t favor the batwings on my upper arms or the thinning hair on the top of my head, or the sagginess of just about everything.  I’ve got lip lines and whiskers and all the add-ons of a post-menopausal creature.

I don’t mind my laugh lines.  

I don’t mind the translucency of my skin.  I remember, as a child, stroking my grandmother’s bony, translucent hand and being in wonder at it.

But the other is hard.  Because- why?  I’m not quite sure.

And so, a few months ago, when a strange virus from a foreign land came to spread its deathly pall over us in our corner of the world, and last month when we were all sent home to sequester and keep to ourselves, I quit “putting on my face.”

Now, if you know me, a tomboy at heart,  you know that I never sported a full face of makeup.  But a little eyeliner, mascara, maybe some blush made me feel… presentable.  I haven’t brushed my hair for 20 years. Keeping one’s hair a 1/2 an inch long is a real timesaver.  But I have spent some time each morning doing something to my face before walking out the door.

And now- at least for now- I’m done.

I feel a lot more authentic.  

I feel as though the pandemic that we are living through is asking us to do things in new ways, to put our priorities in line, and to be as real as we can be.  

And so, I am chatting with my siblings every day, now, online. They are a touchstone.

I am clinging fast to the videos of my two grandsons who totter around and eat tiny bits of ham and macaroni and whose worlds open up a sliver more, each day, with their expanding abilities.  Sitting. Crawling. Walking. Singing. A few words.

Compared to that, what is a stroke of mascara on an already thinning set of eyelashes?

It’s time to get real.

61 and-a-half.   I know what matters.  

And I’m feeling freer than ever.

why I am going hiking again today

Yesterday, in the sequestration program adopted across the US, I stayed at home. I said my prayers, I wrote in my daybook, I made the bed, I hosted a “drop in” zoom conference for clergy. I read a chapter from Fleming Rutledge’s collection of sermons for Holy Week, The Undoing of Death.

I ate a protein bar for breakfast.

I played with the cat. (My cat. Glenn’s cat won’t come near me. Maybe she is self-isolating, feline-style.)

And then, I decided to go for a hike. (Glenn is away on a trip.)

I love to hike. Glenn and I hike frequently when our schedule -and his knee- allow it.

There’s a section of the Appalachian Trail that we hike at times when we just have an hour or two and don’t want to think too hard. This section of the trail begins five miles away in the village of Boiling Springs. There’s an easy place to park the car and a short walk to the trailhead. The trail is mostly flat and goes through woods and along a cornfield. An easy walk to the next road crossing is just 2 miles, and as an out-and-back, it is an ideal short hike.

And so I filled up a water bottle, threw on my boots and made my way.

A nice guy leaving the post office shouted “Have a nice hike!” as I locked my car and shrugged on my pack. I don’t know why that touched me. It was a normal greeting, but made more friendly, maybe, in this time of sequestering. He knew what I was up to: wanting to sequester, but sick of being alone at home.

I started out on the trail and no more than 1/4 mile in, that feeling came over me.

Now, if you are a woman, my guess is that you know the feeling. The feeling of uneasiness, of wariness, that puts one’s head on a swivel.

Women don’t travel alone in the woods. Even in the tame suburbs of bucolic Boiling Springs.

I didn’t use ear buds because I wanted to hear everything around me. Including any sudden intruders.

I looked behind me every couple of minutes. Head on a swivel.

When I was a senior in college, one of my best friends went to Denver, Colorado for an internship during our winter break. Just a couple of weeks into her stay, Helene was abducted off of a commuter bus, taken to a secluded area, raped, stabbed and murdered. The killer made off. My friends and I sang at her funeral in a large, cold, cavernous Roman Catholic Church somewhere in Massachusetts. I never got to see her body. There was no closure. I clung for years to the small candlestick that she had given to me as a Christmas gift just a couple of weeks before she died, and a small collage that she had made for me as a testament to our friendship.

When I am alone, I think about her violent end.

I look behind me when I hike.

I look behind the shower curtain before I go to bed when I am home alone.

I keep the doors locked.

I wonder if this fear will ever leave me.

About 2 months ago, by some miracle of DNA testing and ancestry.com, Helene’s killer was found. 40 years later, in a Florida bar, a beer glass with his spit on it led ambitious and persistent detectives to track him down and arrest him. He confessed. He will be sentenced next month.

I don’t feel better. I hope the killer does not receive the death penalty because I don’t believe in taking a life for the life of another. Theologian John McQuarrie wrote: “Where there is life, there is hope.” I believe that.

And when this man is either dead or behind bars for life, I still don’t think that I’ll be able to hike without looking behind me or retire without sweeping the shower curtain open to check for stealthy intruders. That makes me sad, and that makes me angry that my life has been altered this way.

My mother was widowed in her thirties with three young children. Her life’s narrative was one of survival. She was widowed again, in her sixties. She lived alone for the rest of her years, most of them in a rambling house at the end of a dirt road on one of those bits of land that juts out into the ocean on Casco Bay. I wonder if she was afraid, ever? She wrote poetry, sketched in pastel and pencil, read the classics, did the New York Times crossword puzzle in ink, and listened to Robert J. Lutsema on NPR through her old brown Sony radio. I listen on the same radio, today, in my kitchen.

She was one of the strongest and bravest people I have ever known.

And so, I keep hiking. Sometimes alone. I keep on doing things that are hard, and that scare me, because I will not be paralyzed by fear.

I take on hard projects. I step up when asked to do things that I don’t know how to do. I oversee a diocese that has put its trust in me to do my very best.

I say my prayers, and I lace up my boots.

Today I will go hiking again. It is cold and rainy and it would be easier to take a gentle walk around my neighborhood with a pocket full of dog biscuits and a podcast playing through my ear buds. But I will go to the trail and keep my head on a swivel, because I will not be bound by fear.

Stay safe. Say your prayers. And all shall be well.