April 2018

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Looking Back

July has been, for me, a month of looking back.

In literature, the most famous cases of looking back are metaphors, cautionary tales of people who looked back out of nostalgia or mistrust and therefore were punished. In the Bible, Lot's wife looked back at Sodom and Gomorrah as she fled her home. Lot's wife (sometimes she has a name, but mostly she's just "Lot's wife") calicified into a pillar of salt for her crime.

In Greek mythology, Orpheus went to Hades to retrieve Eurydice, with the admonition that neither should look back until they were in the living world. Orpheus looked back and--poof--Eurydice got zapped back to the Underworld. Much has been made of his suffering, though it seems to me that she suffered most.

In early July, Ann and I visited friends in Western North Carolina. Some of these friends I haven't seen in 25 years, and I loved meeting them again, in this different stage of our lives, and knowing again how much I like and admire them. Meeting them again, I looked back at the children that we were and at the adult that, at the time, I thought I would be.

My church friend Heather used to have long brown hair; now her hair is a beautiful (and short) bright white. Heather always let me know that she admired me (especially for my thick auburn hair and my cooler than cool self--though I'm pretty sure that she was the only one who thought so.) She also admired my family in our1970s  surburban ranch-style home (especially my mother's white shag carpet--yep, it's still there.)

When we were children, Heather was so busy admiring me that I'm not sure she noticed me admiring her. She was smart and clear-headed: no malarky, it seemed to me, about trying to fit in. Heather's still smart. She's a lawyer and a writer (I most admire fiction writers--how do they dream up worlds and people like that? Check out her first novel, Under the Mercy Trees.)

Ann and I visited Heather and her family in her suburban home--no white shag carpet as far as I could tell but polished hardwood floors. Her red-headed husband made pizzas in a pizza oven he built himself and served beer made from hops he planted himself. Her red-headed daughter kept an impressively messy room. (She would have fit in at our house when my siblings and I were growing up.)

Heather is living the life that I imagined I might live (except being an author--I couldn't imagine such a fine thing for myself.) She seems happy. I am happy for her, and I was glad to watch myself and to see that I felt no envy.

I look back at early visions of the person I thought I would be, and I feel compassionate about my younger self and how little I knew. Heather seems to be living a good life for her, but it's not for me.

Ann and I also visited high school friends May and Paul and younger students Kirin and Mark. May and Paul are middle-class hippies. They teach second grade and live on what my sister calls "the commune" with May's younger sister Kirin and her husband Mark, both of whom also attended our Broughton High School and our Pullen Memorial Baptist church.

Kirin's a gynecologist who works primarily with Latina women in the area, and Mark was a prison minister in the U.S. and Cuba, but now he's looking into buying cattle for the commune's meadows. (I started to call him "Farmer Mark", but I don't think he liked that.)

May and Paul have two daughters, and Kirin and Mark have one (named "Joy", appropriately as far as I could tell.)

A lawyer, two teachers, a doctor for Latinas and a minister for prisoners: these are my peeps. In each of them I see a path I might have taken.

 As I met them as adults, I look backed to the turns in my journey where I went in different directions than I had thought I would.

In addition to their careers, they're all parents, another path I thought I'd take.

At the beach later in the month, I saw my siblings and their families and saw again people living lives much like a life I envisioned for myself but have not lived.

I love my nieces and nephews, and for a long time I was sad that I would not have or adopt children of my own: not because I'm a lesbian (plenty of lesbians have kids these days) but because I long-suspected that I was living with some undiagnosed health issue, and I was afraid that I would not be able to care for children. (I was right: at 43 I was diagnosed with a brain tumor that had probably been born with me).

Of  course, my mom is a mother, too, and she says she wanted moterhood for her life, though it seems to me that though my siblings and I can be charming, we must have often been a pain. Still are.

It's odd: though I am happy to know my friends and family, and though I do love kids, I do not envy the parents I know or regret the roads my life has taken.

Margaret Mann talked about this kind of grace at a recentLesbians Over 40 meeting. Margaret is in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down, because of something that burst in her spine. She's had a double mastectomy. She was reading from her book, A Dramatically Different Life, and talking about her philosophy, a way of living her life informed by her Buddhist theology.

 "I am an old, biracial lesbian in a wheelchair who refuses to suffer wishing things were different," Margaret said. "The whole point of my book is that you get to choose whether or not to suffer....You will suffer to the same degree that you wish things were different."

That's wise, I think. The wisdom was in her words and in the lightness and humor of her spirit. I think she's right, but I'm not refusing to suffer. I'm just refusing to die in my living, and I'm not suffering, either.

I think Margaret's wise, and though I'd love to be wise, I think I'm just lucky. And perhaps a little wise to see it.

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