Saturday, September 30, 2017

50 for 50, day 24: Grey hairs, wrinkles, and the effects of gravity

This is the 24th of 50 posts celebrating my 50th birthday. You can see the rest here.

On the morning of my 40th birthday I sat up in bed, looked down at my own body and announced, "Well, I can't tie my breasts into a knot so I assume 40 will be okay." It was a joke. Mostly. I hope and expect I will be able to wake up on my 50th birthday and make the same pronouncement, but boy has my body changed.

I look at myself in the mirror and I see a woman with greying hair, with lines around her eyes, with a body that shows her age.

I noticed my first grey hair when I was in my early 20s. At that time I thought it was kind of cool, that it gave me some sort of élan. I didn't think much more about it until my early 30s. It wasn't that my hair was going grey, it was that it was going. I'd been through a pretty stressful breakup and was losing hair by the handful. I was terrified, wondering if I was going to have to shave my head or go wig shopping. I went to a dermatologist who (honestly but without much comfort) told me that I had thinning hair and there wasn't much I could do about it. He added that about 30% of women will experience hair loss in their lifetimes. I was a little on the young side for it, but it was just something I'd have to learn to live with.

The sharp terror was now eclipsed by a deep sense of distress and shame. Eventually those feelings faded some and I decided I would have to learn to live with it. I have spent many hours and many dollars looking for solutions. I'm fortunate, some of my hair came back, but it will never again be as thick as it was when I was young.

I still feel shame and embarrassment about it sometimes. Hair has such meaning in our culture (though that is another conversation) I feel a tremendous amount of discomfort writing this blog post and talking about it at all, but I am reminding myself that, if 30% of women are effected by this, some of you reading might be slightly relieved to know you aren't alone. You're not. I'm not. The only thing I ask is that next time we see each other, you try not to stare at my scalp.

I'm also not alone in my rapidly greying hair. About five years ago (when Kevin and I decided to move to Kansas City) my hair began to change at an accelerated rate. Now it's close to 50-50 grey and brown. I kind of like it. Alright, I definitely like it and have no interest in dying it. I have earned each and every of those grey hairs. Truthfully, I like most things about my hair (the color, the texture and curliness) though I wish there were more of it. When I was younger I always yearned for something other than what I had. Now I am generally content with what it is.

I look at myself in the mirror and I see a woman with wild, expressive greying hair, with lines around her eyes, with a body that shows her age.

When I smile I have lots of smile lines. I don't regret a single one though I sometimes poke at my less supple skin and am surprised by it. My wrinkles tell me that I haven't lived in a bell jar, that I have been willing to express my feelings, that I haven't hidden from myself or the world. I don't mind the wrinkles at all. The age spots on  my arms startle me, but I remind myself of my mother's arms and how I alway loved her skin. It helps me love my own more. I can and do take care of my skin, but I cannot pretend it is not the skin of a woman closing in on 50. I'm okay with that.

I look at myself in the mirror and I see a woman with wild, expressive greying hair, with laugh lines around her eyes, with a body that shows her age.

Sure, my body has changed. I've never been a slender person, but my body is one that has loved and been loved, and worked, and supported the world on its shoulders. It's not perfect but it's mine. Yes, things sag more. I certainly hurt more than I used to. I have hairs growing in odd places (admit it, you do too). But it is a healthy body that loves and is loved. It gives and receives pleasure and comfort, expresses who I am without words, and takes up just enough space in the world. Sure, I would like it if I were shaped differently, if I were stronger, fitter, hell I'd like to be taller. But I am who I am. I can certainly control some of this (I exercise more now than I used to) but I do not feel a strong need to try to look like a young woman again. I am not young. Why not be who I am? Gravity will do its work and I will do mine.

I look at myself in the mirror and I see a woman with wild, expressive greying hair, with laugh lines around her eyes, with a body that shows her age and is still here. My body and appearance reflect what I have learned, how I have lived, and are an honest document of time, love, and loss. Even with age related changed, even with aches and pains, even with the knowledge that I will never look the way I wish I did, I am constantly reminded that I am still here. So many are not. And for that I am grateful and cherish my marks of age.

So it is. This is what 50 looks like. Wearing her age like a charm.
(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, September 29, 2017

50 for 50, day 23: Joy

This is the 23rd of 50 posts celebrating my 50th birthday. You can read the rest here.

When I was younger I took joy for granted. I would find myself awash in happiness and knew it would come again. I have now lived long enough to know that joy will always return, but it might be fleeting, it might be rare. I try to notice it and thank it whenever it appears.

I know that the standard definition of joy is a kind of brilliant happiness. I love that feeling, but my personal definition of joy is a little more specific. Yes, it's that brilliant happiness but there is also a deepness to the feeling that most defines joy in my personal lexicon. It's as if all of my molecules were vibrating in time with one another and I become a crystal goblet that, at least in that moment, is so wholly attuned to the universe that I ring with the song of the stars. It is a state of deep connectedness with myself, with the moment, with the space between every cell. That's how I experience joy. It's an internal state that can be triggered by external things.

Most recently I have found joy in nature. I am on vacation near the ocean right now, and I find if I spend awhile watching the sunlight shimmering water I feel that resonance. I have glimpses of it when the chipmunks at home decide I am safe enough that they will sit in my hand for their peanut feast. I've felt it when with lovers or when I feel deeply connected with a friend. Some music has brought me to that state.

It's a feeling that doesn't last, but it's lingering tones are sometimes enough to sustain me until the next moment of joy.

What is joy to you? When do you experience it? I'd love to know.
(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Thursday, September 28, 2017

50 for 50 day 22: Looking foolish, trying again

This is the 22nd of 50 posts, celebrating my 50th birthday. You can see the rest here.

When I was younger (and in this case younger sometimes means yesterday) I had a great fear of looking foolish or incompetent. I would burn with shame whenever I stumbled, stuttered, or asked what seemed to be a dumb question. God forbid someone witnessed me doing any of these things, I would internally replay the incident over and over until it had the weight and volume of a mountain and I was crushed beneath it.

This was a great handicap, because learning new things sometimes requires looking foolish or incompetent, because you are not yet competent at the new thing and the only way to get there is by trying. It's a handicap because everyone does something foolish or incompetent from time to time and it's a great solipsism to think no one else ever does. Even Michael Jordan had to start somewhere and once he's outside his area of expertise, I bet he's as prone to mistakes as most of us. When we focus only on our mistakes we might not notice our progress. This isn't to say I don't sometimes feel that shame, but I try to remind myself that I can fail again and fail better, but only if I don't let my own shame consume me.

To fight my tendency to obsess over my own foolishness, I try to do something new and risky regularly, reminding myself that, at worst, I don't do it well. I feel foolish. I am not yet competent. For example, I was visiting a friend recently. She and her husband were cooking dinner. When I offered to help they told me I could entertain them. Now, as a storyteller I could easily and competently tell them a story. I would have remained in my comfort zone and they would have enjoyed it. Instead I started singing at the top of my lungs, and dancing around the kitchen. I am not a competent singer or dancer. It was awful. But it was also very funny. In my younger days I wouldn't have been willing or able to sacrifice my dignity for a moment of playful foolishness with friends.

Besides, I will never become a better singer if I never sing. I will never become a better dancer if I never dance. I would not be the storyteller I am today if I hadn't stood up that very first time.

My great teacher, Brother Blue, built a life out of looking foolish. I think he did this in part so others would be willing to look foolish as they found their way into their own voices. If Blue was in the room you knew you would never be the only fool. As I approach 50 I find I am more and more willing to look foolish for myself, and for others. What is the harm in being a bit silly if it helps others, if it helped me find a new path?

The Fool tarot card is about a lot of things, foremost among them, new beginnings. It is about moving forward despite the risks. We all have to start somewhere. As I age and grow, I hope I keep trying new things, trying again when I am not competent, and being a fool for the world.
(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

50 for 50, days 20 & 21: A poem I love

This is the 20th and 21st of 50 posts celebrating my 50th birthday. You can see the rest here.

It isn't that I didn't think of you yesterday. It's that I am on vacation and gave myself a good and proper day off. It was wonderful. I've already written about rest and forgiveness, so skipping yesterday was a good example of both.

Today I want to share with you a poem I love. There are many poems that move me, this is just one of a collection that have helped me through many journeys. I first came across the work of Rupert Brooke in a collection of World War I poetry; so much powerful and innovative work was written by men who eventually died in that conflict. It reminds me (again) of why tyrants kill the poets and storytellers first.

This is far more than a catalog of the things the writer loves. It is a celebration of the things that make life worth fighting for. When you remember that this poem was written while Brooke was a soldier in a brutal conflict, it takes on even more meaning. I (and many others) have written other works in the style of this poem, some that I may share in this blog series, but this stands alone for me as a love song to the world.

So tell me, what do you love?

The Great Lover
Rupert Brooke, 1887-1915
I HAVE been so great a lover: filled my days
So proudly with the splendour of Love's praise,
The pain, the calm, and the astonishment,
Desire illimitable, and still content,
And all dear names men use, to cheat despair,         5
For the perplexed and viewless streams that bear
Our hearts at random down the dark of life.
Now, ere the unthinking silence on that strife
Steals down, I would cheat drowsy Death so far,
My night shall be remembered for a star  10
That outshone all the suns of all men's days.
Shall I not crown them with immortal praise
Whom I have loved, who have given me, dared with me
High secrets, and in darkness knelt to see
The inenarrable godhead of delight?  15
Love is a flame;—we have beaconed the world's night.
A city:—and we have built it, these and I.
An emperor:—we have taught the world to die.
So, for their sakes I loved, ere I go hence,
And the high cause of Love's magnificence,  20
And to keep loyalties young, I'll write those names
Golden for ever, eagles, crying flames,
And set them as a banner, that men may know,
To dare the generations, burn, and blow
Out on the wind of Time, shining and streaming....  25
These I have loved:
      White plates and cups, clean-gleaming,
Ringed with blue lines; and feathery, faery dust;
Wet roofs, beneath the lamp-light; the strong crust
Of friendly bread; and many-tasting food;  30
Rainbows; and the blue bitter smoke of wood;
And radiant raindrops couching in cool flowers;
And flowers themselves, that sway through sunny hours,
Dreaming of moths that drink them under the moon;
Then, the cool kindliness of sheets, that soon  35
Smooth away trouble; and the rough male kiss
Of blankets; grainy wood; live hair that is
Shining and free; blue-massing clouds; the keen
Unpassioned beauty of a great machine;
The benison of hot water; furs to touch;  40
The good smell of old clothes; and other such—
The comfortable smell of friendly fingers,
Hair's fragrance, and the musty reek that lingers
About dead leaves and last year's ferns....
                                    Dear names,
And thousand others throng to me! Royal flames;  45
Sweet water's dimpling laugh from tap or spring;
Holes in the ground; and voices that do sing:
Voices in laughter, too; and body's pain,
Soon turned to peace; and the deep-panting train;
Firm sands; the little dulling edge of foam  50
That browns and dwindles as the wave goes home;
And washen stones, gay for an hour; the cold
Graveness of iron; moist black earthen mould;
Sleep; and high places; footprints in the dew;
And oaks; and brown horse-chestnuts, glossy-new;  55
And new-peeled sticks; and shining pools on grass;—
All these have been my loves. And these shall pass.
Whatever passes not, in the great hour,
Nor all my passion, all my prayers, have power
To hold them with me through the gate of Death.  60
They'll play deserter, turn with the traitor breath,
Break the high bond we made, and sell Love's trust
And sacramented covenant to the dust.
—Oh, never a doubt but, somewhere, I shall wake,
And give what's left of love again, and make  65
New friends, now strangers....
                  But the best I've known,
Stays here, and changes, breaks, grows old, is blown
About the winds of the world, and fades from brains
Of living men, and dies.
                  Nothing remains.
O dear my loves, O faithless, once again  70
This one last gift I give: that after men
Shall know, and later lovers, far-removed
Praise you, "All these were lovely"; say, "He loved."

(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Monday, September 25, 2017

50 for 50 day 19: Forgiveness

This is the 19th of 50 posts celebrating my 50th birthday. You can see the rest here.

There are a lot of things one can say about Facebook. You can celebrate the way it helps you keep in touch or bemoan the way it causes rifts. Both are true. I have mixed feelings about Facebook, for all that it has been a lifeline at times, but I've become cautiously fond of the memory feature, the way it shares events you posted on this date some time ago.

Today it reminded me of a blog entry I posted two years ago today, about atonement and forgiveness. I wrote, "What I have found as an antidote to guilt is forgiveness. It's not a clear path and it's something I have to find my way toward over and over again, but forgiveness helps." I was right. And at this point in my life I would expand upon it. Since we are in the midst of the Days of Awe it seems like an appropriate topic.

What I have found as an antidote to guilt, anger, resentment, frustration, and so on, is forgiveness. So often the person I need to forgive is myself. If I can give myself permission to make mistakes, to screw things up, to be mortified and then to try again in a new way, I am much more likely to grow and learn than if I let myself be consumed in the shame.

As I age I am finding it easier to forgive those who have hurt me. (In all honesty, it's much easier for forgive people for hurting than for hurting those I love, but that is not really the point of this essay, it's just a digression.) I may never want to see them again, but I can forgive them. That doesn't mean accepting endless abuse; part of forgiveness is being active about your own safety. It does mean that I no longer have to carry the burden of the resentment. I become lighter by forgiving them.

I fail at this all the time (and forgive myself for it) so I just keep trying. Some things or people are harder to forgive than others. So it is.

This is what 50 looks like. Walking with a forgiving heart.

(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Sunday, September 24, 2017

50 for 50, day 18: Quiet

This is the 18th of 50 posts celebrating my 50th birthday. You can see the rest here.

I'm not going to tell you where I am. You need only know that it's quiet. All I can hear is the lapping of water, the occasional rebuke from a red squirrel, the whisper of the trees, and the click of the keyboard. It is wonderful.

When I was a child I loved quiet. My family and I went on extended camping trips and I remember the quiet of the nights, the only sounds the murmer of might creatures, and the pop and hiss of the fire. This love has followed me into adulthood but what I understand now is that there are many different kinds of quiet.

There is the quiet of a much needed break, the kind of quiet I am experiencing now. It is restorative and often, not silent at all.

There is the quiet of anticipation, the hush before the next thing begins. The quiet of disappointment and heartache, so thick it feels like it might smother you. The quiet of loss, of the beloved voice gone; no matter how loud the world that corner will never again be heard.

So many kinds of quiet and so few are silent.

Right now, in this moment, this quiet is what I need.

This is what 50 looks like. Quiet and listening.
(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Saturday, September 23, 2017

50 for 50, day 17: Touch

This is the 17th of 50 posts celebrating my 50th birthday. You can see the rest here.

I wrote recently about my aching back. It still hurts. I'm doing all the right things and it is gradually getting better, but these things take time and it's making me cranky. Some loving friends were tired of both seeing me in pain and listening to whine, so we went and got massages, which reminded me of just how much I love and need touch.

Touch is such a vital part of what it is to be human. I'm not talking about sexual touch (though that is part of it) but touch in general. A hug. A friendly hand on your shoulder. Any reminder that it is okay to let another human being within reach.

After Kevin died I found myself experiencing what is called in the widowed community "skin hunger," that need for skin to skin contact. I didn't want to look for casual sex, so I instead booked myself regular massages. I was lucky to find some really good massage therapists, skilled in both the physical art of massage and able to hold the space for the emotional work that can happen when you are being touched.

I would often cry through those early massages. The therapists would hold their hands on my back or stroke my hair. Later they would work through the knots on my back from the stress of holding myself together. Eventually I was whole enough that the massage was about caring for my body as much as my spirit, but throughout it all what helped the most was being touched.

I love being touched. As I get older I cherish touch more and more. I remember the last time I touched my father before he died and the feel of Kevin's palm on my cheek. I love the feel of my new love's skin. I delight in holding hands with my friends. Sure, I don't really like being touched unexpectedly by strangers, but that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the kind of touch that builds bonds, that helps with the release of oxytocin, that reminds me that my animal nature understands the language of touch more than anything else.

Touch matters. I hope, as I age, that I continue to cherish touch, that I continue to delight in touching and being touched.

This is what 50 looks like. Willing to be vulnerable enough to touch.
(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, September 22, 2017

50 for 50 day 16: Midpoint

This is the 16th of 50 posts celebrating my 50th birthday. You can see the rest here.

No, I'm not confused, I don't think this is the midpoint in the 50 for 50 series. I'm instead referring to today's autumnal equinox, that pause between a world in light and a world in darkness. In our busy world full of artificial light it can be hard to notice, but it was here. I promise. Watch, the nights will soon feel very long. The yearning morning light won't find it's way to the full brightness of noon, and will instead tumble to the long fingers of evening shadow. I've written about this before in the context of storytelling. If you're interested you can go here.

I am bouncing back and forth between thinking of 50 as the midpoint of my life (because of the nicety of how our numerical system work, the half of one hundred feels like the middle) and the knowledge that I am actually in my later years. I have more behind me than in front, yet I don't really feel as if I've passed my own personal equinox.

I started this series by talking about how I don't feel like a grown up. I really don't. I feel middle-aged in my body but not in my spirit. How can I really be past the middle? I don't know.

I do know that the months immediately following the autumnal equinox are my favorites. I love autumn. The aromas, the colors, the feel in the air, all of it is when I feel most alive and most productive, so I am hoping that my own post-equinox time will have a parallel to it. One way or another, I will find out.

This is what 50 looks like. Achey, a little tired, but excited to see what comes.
(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Thursday, September 21, 2017

50 for 50 day 15: Stranger in a strange land

This is the 15th of 50 posts celebrating my 50th birthday. You can see the rest here.

I am writing this as I sit on a train heading from New York City to Boston. I woke yesterday in my own Minnesota home, flew 1500 miles and now am journeying another 200 or so. It is nothing short of miraculous. I am awed that this journey, once so very long, dangerous and fraught, is now commonplace enough that I am the only one staring out the window at the world passing my.

Right now the train is passing old industrial buildings with tall, precarious smokestacks; graffiti; homes that might be places of refuge or fear, just like any home. 

There are as many platitudes about travel as there are travelers so I won't bore you with them. Instead I will tell you that one of my favorite feelings is that of being a stranger in a strange land. It might be when I'm in an unfamiliar neighborhood, it might be when I'm been someplace far from home. The degree of feeling can vary tremendously, of course, but every single time it happens I am reminded of my smallness and my individual nature.

Right now the train is passing a pond and park. The green is that faded autumn green and the bridge leading into the park over the pond (or river) has low elegant arches and a draw in the middle for any passing watercraft. The gulls shimmer white against the water.

When I have found myself facing great trauma, I tend to travel. I go someplace far from home where I can remind myself of this: I am a tiny speck in the universe, effectively immeasurable, but no less unique and vital. It's been a great comfort, being reminded of my own minuteness and paradoxical necessity. After Kevin's death I went to Alaska so I could feel small and be reminded that his death meant he was now a part of everything, so big and broad and lovely.

Right now the train is passing through an urban forrest. Heavy vines cling to the telephone lines running alongside the tracks. The flickering light between the trees reveals rusted shopping carts and a shack that might be home or long abandoned.

We need those reminders, those steps beyond what's comfortable, to remember that we are neither the center of the universe nor unnecessary. When we are strangers in a strange land we have the opportunity to see the world as it is: Pulsing. Vibrating. Ever present, even when we want to hide. Enormous and chaotic and mysterious. Reachable but never something we can encompass. Yet still something that has room for each us and might even celebrate us on occasion.

Right now the train is passing a broad expanse of train tracks, lines that never touch converging in the distance, the illusion more powerful than my understanding of how it may really be. There are parking lots to the side, full of cars that, in this quick glimpse, all seem pristine. The stone walls of the train tunnel would smell like cool time and the momentary scent of metal hot from friction. 

This is what 50 looks like. A stranger in a strange land, observing, welcoming, here.
(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

50 for 50 day 14: Dear me

This is the 14th of 50 posts celebrating my 50th birthday. You can see the rest here.

Dear ten year old Laura,

I know, people as old as I am now seem so distant and beyond reach. I bet you doubt you will ever get this old. I am here to tell you that you will and that your life will be an adventure. Some days will be glorious. Others will be heart breaking. And most will be fairly ordinary, but they will all be yours.

You will make choices that shape your life into its very own course, just the way everyone does. Some of those choices will be harder than others. You will make mistakes. Throughout it all, though, you will remain your own self.

That's what I want to tell you: You are your own self and no one can take that away from you. Trust your instincts and your heart. Don't be afraid to say no, don't be afraid to take risks.

I hope you are proud of who you grew up to be. I know, this isn't what you expected. We haven't won a Pulitzer, or gone to the moon, or married and had kids. Who I am now is not who I thought I would be when I was you, but who I am now isn't bad at all. A little worn maybe, but not bad.

I hope if I were to meet you through some odd bend of time, that I would take the time to listen to you. I hope I would encourage you. I hope I would take my shoes off and go wading in the
creek with you.

Thank you, ten year old Laura, for being so brave and curious and wise. I love you.

Yours in every way,
Almost fifty year old Laura

This is what 50 looks like. Loving myself through the years.
(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

50 for 50 day 13: The world through my eyes

This is the 13th of 50 posts celebrating my 50th birthday. You can see the rest here.

Yesterday I told you that I lost a bunch of photos I had wanted to share with you. Here are some others. They will never be as luminous as the ones we can now never see, because what we have never shimmers like what we have lost, but they are still worth seeing.

The world through my eyes. Some of the things I've noticed in the last few months. All images (c) Laura Packer, licensed through Creative Commons.

Before the storm
Persistent (taken on the shores of Lake Superior)
Everyone comes to the fair (MN State Fair)
Backyard neighbor
I'm sure one more will fit
(With thanks to my hand model, Charley)
Cooper's Hawk in the backyard
The moon is always full
This is what 50 looks like. Still watching the world.
(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Monday, September 18, 2017

50 for 50, day 12: Mistakes

I had the best post planned for today. I've done a few posts in the past where I share photos I've taken so you can see the world through my eyes. I like those because they break up the walls of text I tend towards and they help me see my own photography in a new light.

That was what I was going to do.

I spent yesterday at the arboretum and it was one of those crystal clear autumn days. I took pictures of butterflies, of shadows on petals, of textures, all kinds of things. In the last few months I went to the Minnesota State Fair, saw some neat birds, had some other adventures, and all of it was captured in my camera. I was excited about sharing them with you.

I got home and transferred everything to my photo storage drive and started sorting through them, picking out the best ones. I put the memory card back in my camera and erased it, so I'd have plenty of room for the next round of photos.

You know what I was going to do.
And you know what I did.

I failed to transfer the images from yesterday, maybe 300 pictures, and I didn't notice. I erased the card. They are gone. I still have some of the others, but those fleeting colors and shadows? Lost. It rained last night. Even were I to go back to the arboretum, those blooms are likely gone.

I. Am. SO. Annoyed. It was a stupid mistake and made me stomp around like a three year old. I didn't sleep well because of it and have been gnawing on it ever since.

All things considered, I've made worse mistakes, but this rankles. They all do, don't they. Mistakes. And we all make them. Some are minor and easy to forget, others are catastrophic. On the grand scale of things, this isn't that big a deal though it is disappointing.

As I've grown older I've started trying to welcome mistakes or at least acknowledge them as part of the work of living. I make mistakes all the time, most less irksome than this one. I try to think of mistakes as evidence that I'm still trying new things, still learning. This one, of course, is evidence of carelessness because I thought I knew what I was doing and I've learned from it, but they aren't all like that. I'm not trying to say it feels good, making a mistake, nor am I suggesting that some aren't truly horrific but... we all do it. We may as well learn to live with it.

If we stop making mistakes we have ceased acting. Mistakes are inevitable. All we can do is try to learn from them, not beat ourselves up too much, apologize as necessary, and keep moving on so we can make more mistakes.

I'm trying to do all of that. I still wish I had those photos to share with you though.

This is what 50 looks like. Still screwing up. Still trying again. Fail again, fail better.

(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Sunday, September 17, 2017

50 for 50, day 11: A film I love

There are a few films, books, and other kinds of art that changed me the first time I saw them. You have those too, I'm sure. I revisit some from time to time, and I thought I might share a few of them with you, as I move through this blog series.

I was a freshman in college. That alone should tell you something about my state of mind; I was primed for transformation. It was a transformational time in many ways (among other things, that was when I met Brother Blue) and there were many people who helped. Ned was one of them. He was also a freshman and we met (I think) in an Anthropology 101 class. Or maybe the dining hall. Or somewhere else, it doesn't really matter. Anyway, Ned was one of those friends that you find in college, the ones with whom you stay up into the wee hours, talking philosophy and music and solving world problems with the assurance of a person just stepping into adulthood. If the world was run by people in their late teens to early twenties we might be in much better shape than we are now, because at that age I had much more certainty than I do now. I don't know.

Anyway, Ned and I were talking about something and this movie came up. He told me it was amazing and strange and Australian and I needed to see it, so we trundled down to the local video store, rented a VCR and the tape. Remember those?

I watched Bliss with rapt fascination and indeed, I did need to see it. It's become one of those movies I revisit every few years. I've shared it with a variety of people and the reaction is predictable: They either love it and are fascinated, finding themselves in it, or they are bored. I've learned to not be judgey about it, but really, how can the story of living in hell be boring? I went on to read the book, written by Peter Carey and well worth the time. I picked it up during my first solo overseas trip and I have crisp, clear memories of reading it in a tiny cafe while it poured outside, drinking strong tea, and being aware that I was in the same kind of transformational moment that the protagonist finds himself in.

It's not a terribly original storyline. Honestly, how many stories of transformation are, but that doesn't really matter. What matters is that we need those kinds of stories because they help us remember that we are not alone in our quest (conscious or not) for a more fully lived life.

American Beauty is basically a Bliss remake; both tell the story of someone living a life they don't know is killing them. They have a revelatory experience and are different from there on out, which turns out to be terribly disruptive. Transformation is like that. It may not be particularly original but it speaks to me. Bliss is more effective for me than the American version, maybe because it's more magical, maybe because the protagonist is just a little less skeevy, maybe because I saw it at the right time. It doesn't real matter. What does matter is that it works for me.

The preview, like most, doesn't do the film justice, but here it is anyway. If you want to watch the movie in whole, you can find it in three parts on youtube. The first is here.

I'd love to know what movies hit you in exactly the right way at exactly the right time and why. Maybe I'll watch a few of them.

This is what 50 looks like. Continuing to be transformed.

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Saturday, September 16, 2017

50 for 50, day 10: Rest

This is the tenth of 50 posts celebrating my 50th birthday. You can see the rest here.

Today's post will be brief. Of the many things I am learning as I age, the need for rest is one of the most important. It used to be that I could short myself of rest for extended periods of time and think I was still okay. Not so now. Not so then, either, but I was better at fooling myself.

Today I am resting. I read a book this morning (Gods Behaving Badly, if you're interested. It was a fun, quick read), had several cups of tea and a leisurely breakfast. I'm about to go run errands. All of these constitute a kind of rest I used to undervalue. Rest isn't just sleeping. It can be an active state.

I hope you have a wonderful day, with a good balance of activity and rest.

This is what 50 looks like. Smart enough to know when to shut up and rest.
(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, September 15, 2017

50 for 50, day nine: Love is the easiest thing in the world

This is the ninth of 50 posts celebrating my 50th birthday. You can see the rest here.

I was talking with a friend recently and ended the conversation by telling her, "I love you." She hesitated for a minute, then replied that she loved me, too. We hung up. It was a mildly awkward moment but one that I soon forgot, until I got an email from her, telling me how my declaration made her feel. A little bit uncomfortable, was this some kind of come on? Then warm and comforted. Loved. And of course she loved me, too. She wondered why friends didn't say that kind of thing to each other more often.

I do. I tell my friends, family, and even many acquaintances that I love them. I wasn't always like this, it was a conscious choice and one I don't regret at all.

I grew up in a family where saying "I love you" was weighted and infrequent. (Mom, I'm sorry that this paragraph will be hard to read. I love you.) It was sometimes a weapon, with implications of I love you, how can you do this to me. Sometimes it was an expression of power. Occasionally it was offered as a bit of comfort and, every once in a while, as a declaration of affection, but that was rare. It was never said without the expectation of being returned and gratefully so. It was often said in a ponderous tone. It was never simple.

As I grew older and developed other relationships, I went through a phase in my teens where I needed to tell people I loved them, but it wasn't easy. It felt terribly vulnerable and was always uncomfortable. Sometimes it was badly misunderstood, which led to even more discomfort. My first few romantic relationships drove my understanding of love, so I had some trouble differentiating between "loving someone" and "being in love" with them. Now I understand those as very different things.

It was once I was involved with Kevin that I began to understand love as something essential and easy. He regularly told his kids that he loved them and heard it in return. By seeing the way he loved I began to be better at loving, both in a romantic context and beyond it. I began to tell my parents that I loved them. For quite some time I remember their surprise and then the worried response. Was this somehow transactional? Was something wrong? Did I have terrible news? As they got used to my casual declaration of love, they began to relax. Soon it was a more regular part of our dialogue, ending easy conversations with "I love you."

I found myself starting to do the same with my friends. Do I not love them? Should it not be an acknowledged and comfortable part of our relationship? And it grew from there.

I don't want to suggest that I am one of those people who tells everyone that I love them, thus cheapening the idea of love. I'm not. Instead I have become one of those people who has discovered just how easy it is to love. I start from the assumption of offering respect and love, then see what happens from there. Love is the only thing I know of that grows the more you give it away. The more I love and the more broadly, the easier it is to do. I can love my friend, my partner, my parents, my neighbor, my colleague and more, with still more love inside of me. It's not a sappy, flower-scented, blind-to-flaws kind of things. It is a love that encompasses and celebrates our very human-ness. Our flawed nature. Our ability to try again and try a little better next time.

It is the easiest thing in the world.

Sure, love requires some vulnerability, but I can choose how I respond to that. I can close myself up and dole out love like a miser, or I can offer more knowing that I am more likely to receive it when I give it away.

I'm not saying that you need to do this. I'm telling you that I have found, as I near 50, that I would rather love than not. Sure, there are some whom I would be hard pressed to love. But if I allow myself to feel compassion I can, at least, start down that path. And I'd rather not hate or fear anyone if I can avoid it.

Here are some things I have learned as I practice loving the world:

  • Love does not beget, obligate, or require love in return. It is not transactional.
  • Love without attachment helps me be more compassionate, patient, and set better boundaries.
  • Love is the responsibility of the lover. I own my own feelings and responses. Just because I love someone that doesn't mean we have a relationship or anything beyond my willingness to celebrate their being.
  • There are big differences between love and in love.
  • I am much more likely to expect and receive kindness, compassion, and help if I assume that starting from love is the answer. I get what I receive most of the time.
  • I can love the chipmunks in my back yard knowing all they care about is the peanuts I provide. Why can't I offer that same kind of gift to the world? Sure, it may backfire (and certainly has), but I'd rather start with the open hand and the snack.
  • Happily ever after is a great deal of work and is an extension of love. I love my neighbor but don't expect anything back from him. I love my friend and want a lengthy friendship (a kind of happily ever after) so we work at it. I love my lover and want happily ever after there, too, so we must love each other with great forgiveness and resilience. 

How does love work for you? When did you last say "I love you" and what was it like? I'd love to know.

Oh. I love you.
Thanks for reading this.

This is what 50 looks like. Loving the world fiercely.
(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Thursday, September 14, 2017

50 for 50 day 8: Barking against the dark

This is the eighth of 50 posts celebrating my 50th birthday. You can see the rest here.

I don't remember the first time I stood up for someone else. It might have been when I was eleven or twelve and in summer camp, though I expect it was earlier. Two of the girls in my bunk were refugees from Vietnam and had been sent to the camp by a charitable organization. They were teased by some of the other campers for looking different, for not speaking English, for whatever the reason of the day might have been. The girls had arrived at camp excited and happy; now they flinched and were silent. Their joy had been stolen.

I spoke up. I yelled at the mean kids and eventually publicly confronted the camp manager so he couldn't pretend it wasn't happening. The bullies backed off, the girls began to smile again, and I had two loyal companions who tried to teach me Vietnamese while the rest of my bunk ignored me. I didn't think of it as a big deal, it was just the right thing to do. I still don't think of it as a big deal, it was just the right thing to do, though now I can see that this may not have been usual behavior for an eleven year old.

I have always believed in barking against the dark. When we are silent in the face of evil we become complicit. (Your definition of evil and mine may differ, and that's part of why I support freedom of speech, but that's another post.) I don't practice this perfectly, consistently, or particularly effectively most of the time, but I try.

Have you ever been in a situation where you've seen something upsetting and thought someone should do something about that! I am someone. You are, too. We have voices and can choose how to use them. It may sometimes put us at risk but, personally, there are times when I'd rather be at risk and know I did something than have to live with the knowledge that I shrank back. Much of the time all barking requires is a willingness to not close your eyes and pretend you don't see. It requires not being that camp manager.

I bark in all kinds of ways. Some are direct and confrontational; others are the subtle acknowledgements that yes, there are terrible things, and yes, there are things worth fighting for. Sometimes a bark is momentary break from the friction. It might be a moment of compassion, choosing to listen instead of argue, donating to a cause I believe in, or as simple as pointing out that something makes me uncomfortable. And sometimes I am too tired to bark, so I give myself permission to rest today and bark more tomorrow. I fail all the time. Then I try again when I can.

As I approach 50 I find myself more willing to bark and more willing to not bark, because I know there will be new opportunities tomorrow. I certainly cannot save the world alone, but the world will never move towards justice if we all choose to be silent instead.

How do you bark against the dark? How do you give yourself permission to rest? When did you first speak up? I'd love to know.

(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

50 for 50 day 7: Self Care

This is the 7th of 50 posts leading up to my 50th birthday. You can see them all here.

Someone told me recently that I am a model for good self care. I was stunned. I feel as though I often fail at self care, that you need only look at me to know. Her comment led me to think about how important it is to take care of ourselves and, equally, how part of self care is forgiving ourselves for doing the best we can.

As I approach 50 I hope that I have learned that I must care for myself before I can effectively care for others. This lesson doesn't always hold true - sometimes my own care must come second - but in general I know I will be better able to write, tell, create, love, live if I take care of myself. I've also learned that sometimes self-care means not trying to engage in self care. After Kevin died I watched hundreds of hours of River Monsters. That may not have looked like self care from the outside, but it was the best I could do.

Self care is more than pedicures and baths. It's knowing when to say "no" and knowing when to ask again. It's knowing how I respond to difficult situations and taking steps for recovery afterwards. It's asking for accepting help, even when I don't want to. Sometimes it's Godzilla movies. And sometimes it's just taking a deep breath before moving onto the next thing.

There is a lot of jargon and privilege-speak around self care. All we can do is the best we can.

I'd love to know how you care for yourself and what pitfalls you know to watch out for. Maybe we can help each other be a little more tenderly cared for.

(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

50 for 50 day six: oh, my aching back

Oh, the arrogance of youth! I remember when I was younger not really getting what it was like for people with aches and pains. Sure, my knees hurt sometimes and I got migraines, but nothing like what grown ups had to contend with. I tried to be sympathetic, but I didn't really get it.

Now I do.

My back hurts today (I'm writing this at an improvised standing desk). I still get migraines though not as often. I have arthritis in my feet, occasional stomach issues and did I mention the asthma? I'm sure there are more complaints I could mention, but really, who wants to read a shopping list of aches and pains? I'm annoyed and bored writing this, it must be worse for you.

All of this leads me to two thoughts that I hope are more interesting and certainly more useful than my whining.
  1. Your pain is real and so is mine. What is painful to one person may not be painful to another, so I can't tell you that your aching back doesn't really hurt, just as you can't tell me that my back isn't as bad as yours. My younger self would sometimes question the validity of another's experience. I'm sure I still do this. I wish I didn't. All I can do is try to remember that yes, my back does hurt even if I look fine. Yours might, too. This can, of course, be extended to other experiences. Subjective experience is valid.
  2. I am grateful for the body I have. There are a lot of things I can (and maybe will) say about my body and my relationship with it as I blog to 50, but for the purposes of this post what I want to remember is that my body is doing the best it can. It will respond appropriately to how I treat it. If I do things to encourage healing, it will try to heal. If I ignore it by (for example) forgetting to stretch when undertaking a three-day drive across country, it will let me know that it needs attention. 
As I age, as most of us age, we will encounter more aches and pains. We won't heal as readily and will eventually have to contend with the breakdowns that accompany a longer a life. That's perhaps what I'm really grateful for. I have lived long enough now that I need to care for my body differently. I am old enough that I can no longer take good health for granted. This realization is a huge gift as I walk towards 50. Achey and with care, but still walking. Being here that long is a gift.

This is what 50 looks like. A bit sore but still upright. And 50 smells like Icy Hot patches apparently.

(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Monday, September 11, 2017

50 for 50, Day five: History

Today is September 11th. It is (among other things) the birthdays of several people I love and others with cultural weight including O Henry, DH Lawrence and Harry Connick Jr.; the anniversary of Krushchev's death; and the date upon which "The Star Spangled Banner" was first sung at a baseball game. It is also the anniversary of the September 11th attacks in the United States. This date has become a kind of secular holy day. The president will say something about it that will be broadcast on tv. If you knew people who died in those attacks, you'll think of them. If you were in any way affected by it, at some point today you will pause and remember. I cannot help but remember where I was when I heard. You'll probably think about that, too.

That's the thing about living long enough. You have personal memories linked to larger events. You have personal context.

I remember when I was little, asking my mother where she was when JFK was killed, how she found out. I asked about King's assassination, the moon landing, the bombing at Hiroshima, on and on. Every time I learned about a new 20th century historical event I would ask her where she was, what it was like and how she felt. I think I was hungry for both a sense of history as something in living memory, and some understanding of the personal impact.

I was a year old when humans first walked on the moon. I don't remember it. I have vague memories of the Vietnam war, Nixon and Watergate, and the Iran Contra scandal. The first moment that I know I can tell you where I was, what it was like and how I felt was when Elvis died. I was ten years old and in summer camp. The flag was at half-mast and we were told, "Mr. Elvis Presley died last night." I remember this date not because Elvis mattered to me but because I didn't know who Elvis was. I remember being mocked and feeling the shame of not being in the know. Later, when John Lennon was killed, I reacted personally and immediately (my mother told me as I was eating breakfast before going to school. I remember the cereal spoon pausing on its way to my mouth). Lennon meant something to me. I had learned to care at least a little about pop culture and this time it hurt. These memories are visceral, personal, and offer some context for my life and the larger moment.

The next broad cultural moment I remember is when the Challenger exploded. I was in the vegetarian dining hall during my freshman year in college. Someone had a transistor radio that we huddled around. I ran back to my dorm because I knew my friend, who was studying to be a rocket engineer, would be devastated. I spent the afternoon sitting with him, missing all our classes and not caring. We watched the coverage on a crummy black and white television. I had to hold the antenna for reception.

It didn't stop there, of course. Other memories, other where were you moments have layered themselves into me. Some were big and global (the start of the first Gulf War, for example) while others are smaller but no less important (my first email account and my first computer). Some have had a greater influence than others but they all are part of my personal history and context as well as the more general ones. Each moment has turned into a kind of litmus test, a shorthand I can use with others to place each of us into time and memory.

All of this helps me know who I am, where I have been, and gives me the tiniest bit of a path to follow when the next big moment happens. If nothing else, I know that the next big moment will happen.

I am old enough now to be part of history and to tell the where was I when stories. I think this is one of the gifts of getting older; personal meaning and context to broader histories. When we tell these stories we make the global personal, and we are able to say I am here. I am part of the world. You are, too.

So where was I on September 11, 2001? At work. In the kitchen, chatting with Clara. As I watched the news play out I remember thinking everything is going to change now. Nothing will ever be the same. I remember knowing at some point I would have to choose how I would react to people, events and the world. So it is, over and over again through history. Where were you. What was it like. How did it feel. We live through these moments and can choose to learn about ourselves and the world, or choose to forget.

This is what 50 looks like. Old enough to remember.

 (c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Sunday, September 10, 2017

50 for 50, day four: Be the fox

I have posted this poem at least three times. It's worth posting again, especially at this age, in this era.
This is what 50 looks like: Unashamed to go in the wrong direction. With thanks to Elsa who introduced me to this poem.

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.
Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” from The Country of Marriage
Copyright © 1973 by Wendell Berry
(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Saturday, September 9, 2017

50 for 50, day three: This is water

This is the third of 50 blog posts leading up to my 50th birthday.

I've written about this before, but that doesn't mean it isn't still meaningful and worth thinking about. (I suspect I'm going to say this a lot as I blog my way to 50. So be it. Maybe that means I've learned a few things that are worth sharing.)

When I was a kid I thought it was kind of cool to think of myself as a control freak. I'm not sure why I thought that was a good label to own, but I certainly embraced it. I tried to control the world around me, the reactions of the people near me, the forces that pressed in upon me and I failed. Trying to do so is, at best, self-defeating and more likely self-destructive.

I learned at a young age that there is very little I can control. In fact, the only thing I really can effect is how I respond to the world, to people, to the circumstances in which I find myself. As a result of this understanding of my own power and powerlessness, I have tried to live my life as an act of being present. I fail all the time, but I keep trying.

I'm not talking about the things I have control over, like paying my bills or washing the dishes or deciding if I want to have a glass of water or a cup of tea. I'm talking about the external forces that press in on us all the time. I can't change those. I can choose which I attend to, but I cannot stop the world around me, whether it's politics or the climate or standing in a long line. I've learned a few things.

  • I've learned that there is a far more that I cannot control than what I can.
  • I've learned that the only thing I can truly control is my response to the moment. David Foster Wallace talks about just this in his wonderful speech, This Is Water, linked below.
  • I've learned that I need to learn this again. Over and over and over again. Almost every day.
  • I've learned that when I give myself permission to just be present in the moment, whatever it may be, the moment is often more bearable than I expected. If it remains unbearable I at least know it will change. 
  • I've learned that change is pretty much the only constant.
  • I've learned that sometimes presence can change lives. By accepting that I may not be able to control the broad outlines of the world, I can instead have significant impact on the small details. By listening, by choosing to be kind, by accepting that every moment is a part of my life with no less import than any other, I am, in fact, not powerless at all.

This is what 50 looks like. Choosing to breathe when breath is impossible. Choosing to listen because that may make all the difference or at least enough. Choosing again and again and again.

(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Friday, September 8, 2017

50 for 50, day two: Some thoughts on 30-60

This is the second of 50 blog posts counting down to my 50th birthday. You can find the start here.

When I turned 30 (oh, those many years ago) my mother told me that a woman is at her most beautiful and powerful from ages 30 to 50. Early in my 30s I extended that to 60, since people age differently now and dammit, I didn't want only 20 years of my prime. Additionally I know many powerful, beautiful, amazing women who are well over 60, so maybe I should extend it to 70.

As I near 50, I have to say both my mother and I were on the right track about age, power and beauty, but neither of us was thorough in our assessment. We didn't go far enough. It's about more than beauty and power. It's assurance, determination, and self-confidence. It's about turning into my own version of Wonder Woman regardless of my age.

My 20s were largely about figuring out who I was. That decade was full of more angst and drama than I'm comfortable admitting though from conversations with other women, I'm not alone.

In my 30s I began to get a real sense of who I am and where I want to be going, while my 40s have seen me pursue my dreams with a fierce dedication. I couldn't have done this in my 20s. I wasn't strong enough nor was I focused enough. I cared too much about what other people thought. Now? of course I still care. Sometimes. But my own assessments (with input by those I trust and respect most) of my worth and ability matter more.

My 40s have also honed me in some pretty substantial ways. I know I am strong. I know I am resilient. I know I have internal and external worth. I own myself in ways I never thought I could. Confidence, self-assurance and self-knowledge make me feel a heck of a lot more attractive than I ever thought I was in my 20s or 30s. While it's true that I still don't really feel grown up, I do feel more capable, able and determined than I expected when I was younger.

So yes, a woman is beautiful and powerful from 30-60, but we are more than beauty and power, and I hesitate to say when anyone might peak. We are growing into ourselves, or at least I am; it is an ongoing process. I am becoming, more and more. And who knows what might happen at 70? Or 80? I may find that is when life really begins to feel coherent.

This is what 50 looks like. Standing with her hands on her hips, facing the world.

(P.S. None of this is to exclude men, but I can't speak clearly to male growth and discovery. I'd be curious to know when anyone reading this, male/female/other, feels as though they really came into themselves. I am still becoming, how about you?)

(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Thursday, September 7, 2017

50 for 50, day one: Introduction

I realize this is in no way an original statement, but I really don't feel my age. When I was a child I imagined that by now I would be married with several children of my own. I would have a house, a career in some easily understood field working in some kind of organization making plenty of money because all grown ups seemed rich. I'd probably have a dog and imagined myself as slim but old looking because when I was a kid anyone over 25 was old looking. I thought people at the age I am now had impenetrable cocktail parties where they talked about boring grown up things. I thought people at the age I am now had given up junky horror movies and only watched Bergman films. As a child, the age I am now seemed impossibly old, impossibly grown up. I thought people at the age I am now had it all figured out.

Boy, was I wrong. I am widowed with stepchildren, amazing grown people who don't really need me on a regular basis. I have never owned a home and, while I definitely have a career, it's not a typical one and I am by no means rich. I don't currently have a pet and I am neither slim nor particularly old looking. I don't really enjoy cocktail parties (though I sometimes like a good cocktail) and I value both junky horror movies and Bergman.

More than anything, most days I consider myself lucky to find my way out of bed, let alone figure anything else out. It seems to me that being an adult means being better at faking it and having more confidence in your ability to recover from the wrong guesses. It's not that you know so much more but that you know you can navigate it better.

So what is the advanced age I can't believe I'm approaching? I'm almost 50. In fact, I turn 50 in 50 days, so to celebrate and reflect I thought I would post something every day leading up to my 50th birthday. It might be a piece of writing or something I love and would like to share, I don't really know. I make no promises of anything lucid, enlightening or even interesting, but I hope you'll come along with me for at least part of this journey.

This is what 50 looks like. Surprised to find myself here.

(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License
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