Saturday, March 31, 2012

Scenes of Devastation

Thursday morning: I’m walking past the Marriott Center, trying to fit in 35 minutes of exercise, on the morning of the first day of the rest of my life. You know those days when you decide that something has to change, and that you will be as committed to exercise, and fresh food, and wholewheat bread (if bread is necessary), as you have been to Cheetos Puffs, slightly stale so they’re chewy, and working late into the night, with 2 liters of Diet Mountain Dew for company.

I’m walking by the place where I used to take Julia and Christian when they were preschoolers to swim everyday of a summer, as Nanci Griffiths says. Deseret Towers Pool, built for student recreation in the sixties, but available to community residents for $2 a swim. It was about my experiences around that pool that I wrote an essay about a woman’s body. I waxed lyrical about how we shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves, that the lessons we learn from having a woman’s body have nothing to do with size, or with lift or the ability to defy gravity. That we, the ones who have actually been pregnant, and labored, and breastfed (or at least given it a shot), should be the ones strutting in our skirted one-pieces.

That was fifteen years ago. Back when, if I looked up at the Bell Tower south of the hill, I could actually see the hands of the clock on the top in HD. Not the Degas-like vision I’m seeing now. Back when I could get pregnant, and labor, and give breastfeeding a try. Back when it was actually a pool, not just the parking lot of the new dorm towers.

I’ve changed my mind.

I live on a battlefield

Having a woman’s body is great—when you’re in your early thirties and if you put in the effort, you could actually lose thirty pounds, and run a marathon, or skate the frozen canals of Holland from north to south in an afternoon. But what about when you’ve just turned 46, and realize that your warranty’s about to expire. I have less time to live than I’ve lived; I’m closer to fifty than to forty; I’ve slipped from my mid-forties to late-forties; and my little sister is going to turn 36, and Margo, the oldest, is going to turn 56 and be able to order the chopped steak off the senior citizen’s menu at Sizzler.

Sweet memories of a bygone situation are scattered all around

Alexandra ( she who will turn 36 in October) texted me on my birthday, “Happy Birthday. I can’t believe you’re 46.” I replied, “I’m a bit afraid myself.” Bewildered might be a better word for it. My brain’s never felt better. Getting to where I feel like I might know some of the answers. But my body, well . . . . There was a moment there, between about 42 and 45 and nine months, where it could be said about me that “she’s fantastic.” But now, as the family joke/warning goes, “I’m heading for ‘handsome’.” As in, “My, she’s a handsome woman.” Normally said about a lady, a little past her prime and a little larger than her best, who, with the help of a girdle and stockings held up by a suspender belt, sails forth in the world in her Margaret Thatcher haircut, leading with her bosom and bestowing gracious, no-teeth showing half-smiles on its constituents.

As I stumble through the rubble, I’m dazed and seeing double,

I’m truly mystified

I’m thinking as I walk about all of this, about the challenge of being embodied. Fancy way to say, “I’m thinking I’m getting old. And I hate it.” I’ve only walked about a mile, and I am intensely aware of my hips, which seem to be throbbing in time to the rolling rhythm of Amy MacDonald’s “Barrowland Ballroom.” I’m also resisting the temptation to put my right hand on my stomach to take actual measurement of how much bigger it is than it was in August. But I can’t resist. Every block or so, I sneak in a stomach grab to check that, yes, it is still convex. I’m living testament to the unavoidable truth that menopause makes the metabolism slow down, the memory fail, and the sheets end up soaking wet at night.

All around there is desolation, and scenes of devastation . . .

I wake up drenched at last once a week. If not drenched, on the verge of a full-on sweat that is triggered if Kevin so much as puts a hand on me. I sleep with only the sheet, as Kevin shivers on the other side of the bed. On the nights when I don’t sweat, I still don’t sleep. I have to get up to empty my bladder. It’s not holding as much as it used to for as long as it used to. Which I can’t say for my teeth.

And everything that can has gone wrong

I carry a paring knife in my purse so that I can cut apples and prevent most of the apple ending up wedged between my gums and the crown on my lower right. Makes going through security at the airport interesting if I forget to take it out. I carry dental floss in my pockets, my purse, the center compartment of my car, because with my receding gums, I get a two for one every time I eat, hiding a snack for later with the meat that gets stuck in my teeth.

It’s going to take spine to carry on

And my eyes. I don’t know whether it’s the screen failing on our bedroom flatscreen or my eyes. All the players on Manchester United are fuzzy around their edges on a Sunday morning. I can’t stand face to face with Kevin anymore; he’s out of focus. Have to push him away to arm’s length so I can see him clearly. I won’t have to wait too long until I can’t see at all. The fold on my upper eyelid is threatening to lose its tenuous grip on gravity and cover my eyeballs completely.

My new home is a shellhole

What else? I color my hair every two weeks, because the re-growth is so outrageous, I’m skunk-like within the month. I suppose I could just go white. But, even in my very limited primer on personal beauty tips, I do believe there is a cardinal rule about not going grey when you can still get pregnant. So, I have about two years to go. Then, Heloise white might be an option, if not for the other cardinal beauty logarithm: one can be a) grey and skinny; b) brown and fat, but c) not grey and fat, until you can also order the chopped steak at Sizzler at 4.30 of a Monday afternoon.

If I look at the skin of my neck in the rearview mirror of my car, it looks like old dinnerware—covered in crazing, like a spider’s web. The skin on the back of my hands has been fired by the same kiln. (Madonna wears gloves.)

There is no consolation

A few weeks ago, Amy, the mother of one of Adam’s teammates calls me to remind me to open up the church for practice that will start in ten minutes. I tell her, “I’ll run down there in just a minute.” Forty-five minutes later, I see Kimberly, the mother of another teammate walking by my office window. I can’t for the life of me figure out why she is there. Maybe something to do with volunteering with the storytelling festival? Then the apparition of a promise to open the gym raises itself up in the cottage cheese my memory has become. I spring out of my chair in search of the key, slipping in a stomach grab on the way out the door.


I’m thinking all these things, and onto the ipod comes Nanci Griffith, “Battlefield.” I listen to the lyrics with that morning’s ruminations in mind. . . . Yes, I was the middle-aged lady laughing out loud as she strode (favoring her right hip slightly) through campus on Thursday morning. Listen to this song.

I would wish on all my lady travelers just what Nancy had as she sang about living on a battlefield: a chorus of very peppy male Fates, strumming their steel guitars, rollicking behind us as we slide into the second half of our bodies. They sound like they would be good company along the inevitable descent.

Nanci Griffith, "Battlefield."

Friday, March 9, 2012

Let Us Turn Our Thoughts Today

The Mystery of Faith:

Dying you destroyed our death; rising you restored our life

--Mass Card, St. Louis Cathedral, Feb. 22, 2012.

Walked to the French Quarter this morning, all the way from down at the Convention Center, up through streets called Royal and Dauphin, Chatres and Bourbon, passed convents with orange trees in fruit, and railings festooned with purple plastic beads. Mardi Gras finished last night. I’m not here for that, but I saw the aftermath. A city waking up with a massive hangover. I’ve never been hungover, but there were mornings decades ago when I woke up after going to bed two hours before, having spent the night dancing hard in my older sister’s high heels. Morning-after feet, aching on the balls, mascara smudged under my eyes, furry teeth, and grainy eyeballs. Coming to with a delicious ache all over, remembering the night before, and how glad I was to dance “Hotel California” with Theo. That’s the feeling I saw this morning in New Orleans.

It’s my first time in this city, just past eight o’clock on a mild grey morning, and I’m walking as long and as hard as I can before I go back to my hotel room to finish a brief that has to be filed today. I know that if I draft first, I’ll feel trapped by work. This way, I can roll the morning into the side of my cheek and suck on it, like a Christmas sour ball, when I’m stuck trying to find a nice way to tell the court that opposing counsel doesn’t know jack.

I feel like I’m on sensory overload. I’m walking through narrow streets, lined by houses that have stood there for over two hundred years. They’re painted happy colors, like orange and maroon (on the same house), butter yellow and purple, an entire block of lavender. Pots of flowers and hanging ferns drape themselves over third floor balconies. I’m seeing the original shot-gun house, and Creole cottage I’ve only read about. Every so often, through a slowly closing door and down a narrow walkway, I see glimpses of bricked courtyards in the center of the square, with more ferns and corner fountains. I can smell new paint, spilled beer, horse poop, bacon, varnish, a passing lady’s body lotion—she’s fresh out of the shower.

There are streamers on the street signs; necklaces in the upper branches of thirty-foot trees. Bottles and cups are propped in whatever convenient place their drinker could find: The top of the blue Apartments for Rent box; lined up like bowling pins on the steps of the church; tucked almost apologetically into a mailbox and the nook of a window sill. White -aproned workers sweep, then spray down the sidewalks outside their restaurants and pubs. They turn the hose politely aside with a smile as I walk by. Another takes off the rolls of protective orange netting placed around the fledgling euonymus hedge planted against the yoghurt shop in the middle of St. Charles, the parade route. He nods good morning. A city truck beeps slowly by, its arrival presaged by the wafting smell of the soapsuds it sprays across the entire width of the street. The streets are so narrow it takes the truck eight reverses to turn the corner. Every now and then, I get a smell of urine. It’s familiar and strangely comforting; smells like the streets of my childhood and reminds me of walking through the subway under the railway on my way to school.

Walking toward me on Canal Street is a couple of black Southern royalty. I can’t think of any other way to describe them. It’s nine in the morning and she has on a silk skirt and long-sleeved blouse, stockings and heeled leather shoes, a jacket of tailored design with brooch, strands of pearls, and a hat with either netting or a feather. Her purse hangs from the crook of her elbow. She might even have gloves on. Everything matches. Her companion’s suit is pinstriped, beautifully draped, the jacket buttoned up; his shoes polished and pointy; his hat perched on his head. They’re tall, slender, and probably in their eighties. I feel the need to curtsey as I walk by, tug at my forelock and apologize for the middle portion of their lives.

An unremarkable couple on the grass in Jackson Square is doing their very own version of Cirque du Soleil, as she does the splits with her ankles propped on his feet, which he holds in the air with his obviously strong, obviously hairy legs while he lies on his obviously broad back. I grin in delight, along with the three gentlemen who are walking by on the other side. I slip into St. Louis Cathedral on the banks of the Mississippi to see whether I can feel God amidst the paintings of King Charles, and the flags of various nations and dioceses. Then off to find the convent, and any other secrets the city can offer up.

Front doors sport Mardi Gras ribbons like Utah doors grow wreaths. Storefronts are narrow, the width of two long, hanging shutters; their lintels are crooked and doorsteps worn; their window frames textured they’ve been painted so many times. I see a grapefruit tree, bearing pale yellow orbs, wedged into the back of an alley. There’s a great Dane strutting his stuff in the dog park. I peer through a wrought iron gate, complete with fleur de lis, and see an oval pool tucked into a courtyard the size of a double garage. It’s a real pool, for a city that is three hundred years old—leaves scattered on the bottom, blue water, brick pavers that have settled slightly unevenly around the white granite surround. The corner deli sells $3.89 take-out breakfasts of an egg, a rasher and a hash brown. The fifties-something hair stylist in Malta Stylists, dapper in his black barber shirt, is combing his eyebrows as I peer into his shop. “Primping” flashes through my brain.

I’m covered in a layer of humidity as I walk—not quite sweat, but not dry; the credit cards and driver’s license in my bra are dewy. Nicholas Cave is singing “the weeping song” as I walk up and down streets that have seen so much, probably nothing surprises them anymore. A wall I walk by is peeling. The layers of paint show that at certain times it’s been mustard, forties aqua, maroon, fiestaware green, white, yellow. The air is thick. The word “fecund” comes to mind. Some of the street corners have gutters where there’s an accumulation of dirt, and debris inches deep, and so compacted, it’s spongy. I think you could grow vegetables in it.

I feel at home here. Like I can breathe, even though I know if I actually stayed here in this humidity and mould, my asthma would flare up and I’d be back on the inhaler in no time. I’m trying to figure out the difference between here and Utah.

The word “earnest” comes to mind. We’re earnest in Utah; well, in my part of it anyway. We’re just earnest. The story of my particular Utah place is one of good intentions, building a dream, making a vision come true. The buildings are young; and if they get too decrepit, they get torn down, and replaced by strip malls and “up scale mixed-use living/retail” developments—in a charming combination of stucco, manufactured stone, with a few Craftsman period details, and the requisite wooden “lodge” columns, paying homage to our mountain environment. There’s so much space there in Utah and so few people, literally, that any mistake you make is public, or feels that way. The Utah air is thin and crisp. I can’t taste it or feel it against me. Definitely, no faint smell of urine.

Everywhere I walk in my Utah neighborhoods, I see evidence of striving: straight lawns, perky flowers, multiple children, minivans, mission countdowns and welcome back signs, flags on every lawn for Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Veterans Day. Even everyday actions and reactions are somehow reconfigured and re-construed as holding up my end of a pioneer’s bargain. It’s inspirational . . . and downright exhausting.

I suppose what I’m saying is that this morning in New Orleans I yearned to live life with just a little more subtlety, less scrutiny, more laissez-faire. I’d like to mark my way through in a small detail, rather than a grand undertaking. Sometimes, a bronze doorknocker in the shape of a lion’s paw is enough; I don’t have to go out and hunt the lion. I’d like to live in a house that’s seen two hundred children raised in it; twenty-seven marriages wrought, wrecked and recovered; more than a few miscarriages—of children and businesses; death; divorce; daily life that’s sorted itself out, died and revived, made its way through, and continues still. (Not so sure about the bathrooms of those houses, but you get the general idea).

I’d like to live in a place where I’m reminded daily by a river flowing resolutely by, half-a-mile wide, filled with rain from as far as Montana and Pennsylvania, dragging silt and remnants of last season’s vegetable garden, that I am just one small part in a very large, long, colorful parade. And if I stumble, chances are that while I’m down on my knees, I’ll find that somebody’s left me a half-filled glass of mint julep and a string of beads to console myself with. Downright neighborly, old-style.

Title: Shed a Little Light, by James Taylor.