Still Life with Artichokes and Anaïs Nin

By Daliel Leite [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

You’re writing a memoir about Anaïs Nin?” she asked. Really?”

Well, it’s more just an anecdote,” I said. Something you might jot down in a diary.”

Hold it,” she said. Hold it. A diary? You’re too late. Anaïs Nin staked out that turf decades ago. You might even be accused of reverse plagiarism.”

It’s about Anaïs Nin,” I objected. Not by her. And besides, it’s absolutely true.”

Everything Anaïs Nin ever wrote was about Anaïs Nin. So if she’s in it, then it’s hers. She has seniority. But look,” she said, perhaps you’d better just tell me the whole story, Anaïs Nin and all…”

* * *

The story doesn’t begin with Anaïs Nin. It begins with Freya.

I meet Freya one evening at a literary-ish party near the university in Albuquerque. The year is 1975.

A small woman with a shawl over her shoulders stands by a kitchen counter laden with organic chips and vegetable plates. She dips artichoke leaves in low-fat mayonnaise. When she turns, I see a sharp elfin face, pale freckled skin, frizz of dark auburn hair, bright eyes.

“Hi,” she says. She holds up an artichoke leaf. “Did you know that artichokes are thistles, the bad boys of the daisy family?”

“Well, breadfruit is a kind of mulberry,” I point out.

“Sez you,” she says. “I’m Freya.”

I can’t resist showing off. “The Nordic goddess?” I ask.

“No,” she says seriously. “I’m Italian. See? You don’t know everything.”

“Well, I know that Freya is the Norse goddess of love and wisdom.”

“Yes. That Freya is. And she’s in charge of war too. So don’t confuse her with your soggy, fickle Aphrodite.”

“I wouldn’t dare.”

“Freya was born of earth and fire. She’s also called Frigg. Which is not where we get the expression, frigg it. She’s married to Odin, so you know she’s tough and good in a fight. She wears a magic golden necklace called the Brisingamen. More?”

“That’s plenty. I’m convinced.” I hold out my hand. “I’m Richard.”

We shake hands and take our fair-trade wine out to a bench on the back porch. We sit and talk like old friends.

She tells me that she is from Chicago and is housesitting the house of a cousin in Albuquerque. That she is on leave from her job as a junior fiction editor at a certain magazine, because she has grown weary of the stress of big job and big city and Midwestern winters. That she is already much improved after a couple of weeks of the high desert.

I tell her I live in a little retro-adobe house I built, near a village in the mountains north of the city. That it’s a village, and not a town, because it has no commercial heart, only a post office in the postmistress’s living room. That I myself have been trying to write, but my life has gotten stranger than my stories. 

“Does getting strange have to do with a woman?” she asks.

“Yes,” I admit. “Her name is Marcie. We were living together, but she decided my life didn’t fit me anymore—like outgrowing clothes when you’re a kid. Except in my case, I shrank. Anyway, she made me leave—but then she left. So I went back.”

I tell Freya these private things, but I don’t know why. There is something birdlike in her attention. She listens with her head tilted slightly to one side, her pale hand lightly on my arm.

“Why do you call your house retro?” she asks.

“Well, it has a dirt floor, and a woodstove for heat. There’s electricity for lights, but no plumbing.”

“None?”

“Just a cold-water faucet. And there’s an outhouse. So I’m always on the lookout for places to take a hot shower. That’s really why I came to this party, but I didn’t get here early enough.”

We leave the party at the same time, hug in the driveway. We arrange that I will call her the next day.

And I do call her, from a neighbor’s phone, because I don’t have one.

She invites me over to the house she is housesitting. For a hot shower.

The house is big and grand. The shower is wide and deep and luxurious, like a little room you walk into, lined with smooth pink granite. When I am almost finished, and just standing stupefied under the hot water, Freya walks in—all pale freckled skin, wet lips. Her tousle of hair becomes drenched and heavy. We kiss and press together, and we do not slip on the wet stone. Then we dry each other off and make love in a wide cool bed.

Time subsequently passes, filled with Freya. We trade histories, as lovers do. We talk and walk and eat and drink tea and hold each other. Now, many years later, I cannot remember if we make love many times, or just a few. I cannot even remember how long we are together—if it is days or months or years. No, not years, because it is spring when we meet, but it is never winter.

I do remember a particular important afternoon.

We are in my house. Freya sits on my bed, leans against the rough whitewashed mud wall. She is so bright against the wall I can barely look at her. I imagine her rising and walking away, leaving her silhouette etched forever on the wall.

She pats her bare foot on the floor. The floor is smooth and uneven and cool, the green of stormy sea. “What in the world is this made of?” she asks. “It isn’t dirt.”

“It’s mud,” I explain, “adobe mud, troweled on thick, then oiled and sealed with gym floor sealer. In the old days it would’ve been sealed with ox blood. The room would stink like a slaughter house for a while, but the floor would end up a beautiful dustless brick red.”

We go for a walk, along a disappearing dirt road, across dry hills strewn with skeletal rocks, limestone outcrops haunted by the ghosts of fish. Light the color of old pearls whispers around us. We steer between shaggy junipers, breathing their breath, dust and sugar.

We come to a dry arroyo, a fossil river, the red sandstone sides etched with water carvings like miniature cities. We scramble down into it, then head what would be upstream if the arroyo wasn’t dry. We come to a tall cliff, twenty-feet high, cutting across the arroyo, a waterfall during flash floods. At its base is a deep grotto, and in the shadow lies a still, opaque pool, the color of the sandstone above. Against the back wall a sheen of water slides, drips into the pool—a seep spring, the wound in the aquifer, which bleeds the pool into being.

We splash in the cool red water, then lie naked on a blanket in the warm sand at the edge of the pool. Somehow I am inside her, just as we are inside the arroyo.

But then suddenly—what seems suddenly—there comes a time when the sky daily fills with heavy gray clouds, and it rains every afternoon—short, hard rains accompanied by long thunders and a perfume of wet pine. This is the monsoon of late summer, and Freya is already gone by then, vanished into the haze beyond the Mississippi, back into her mysterious stressful life in sprawling Chicago.

But we write to each other now and then.

So one day there is a letter from Freya, handwritten in dark blue ink on light blue paper. I know it is autumn, because the wind has shifted to the north, and there is a new sharpness in the air.

Dearest Richard,
     I hope this finds you well and relishing the strangeness of your life. I want to tell you about an adventure I had.
     I went to a reading by Anaïs Nin. She is making a tour of the US, reading from her diaries and speaking of her life of art and love and passion. This will probably be her last such tour, because she is not well. At the reading she seemed thin and drawn, but that made the bright flame of her even brighter.
     As I believe you know, I am an ardent lover of her writing, and to see her, and hear her voice, was so amazing and poignant. I found myself wishing I could give her an artichoke. Why an artichoke I don’t know, but I saw myself handing it to her, a fat prickly green artichoke, and she would take it and look at me and she would understand.
     But a big crowd gathered around her when the reading was over, people wanting her autograph or to tell her how much they love her. I didn’t have an artichoke, so I went home.
     I miss you and your sunny mountain.
     Love, Freya

Shortly after getting this letter, I come across a poster at the university, announcing a reading by Anaïs Nin.

On the way to the reading, I buy two big artichokes. Then I sit among many excited people, who all love Anaïs Nin. I have a brown paper bag at my feet.

As she reads and talks, Anaïs Nin lets her bright eyes fall here and there. Once, I feel her eyes touch me like the lightest caress. She speaks in perfect English with a delicate French accent, a sweet smear of honey on pumpernickel bread. She does appear drawn, as Freya thought. The angles of her elfin face are sharp. Her dark auburn hair is piled on top of her head and held with a comb. There are streaks of gray in it, strands of cloud across a flaming sunset. She wears a necklace with a golden sun pendant.

When the reading is over, a small crowd gathers around her. I wait patiently at the edge of the crowd. Anaïs Nin sees me and my brown paper bag. When the crowd is gone, holding close their signed books, she turns to me.

“Yes?” she says.

I hand her the bag. She opens it and looks inside. Laughs a silvery laugh. “Why is this?” she asks, smiling.

I give her Freya’s letter. Anaïs Nin reads the letter and tears fill her eyes. “This is so very sweet and kind,” she says. She holds the bag of artichokes in one arm, like a baby.

“Freya is sweet and kind,” I say. “But good in a fight.”

Anaïs Nin holds out Freya’s letter. “May I keep this?” she asks.

“Of course. It’s really to you.”

She stands on tiptoe and kisses me once on each cheek. Then she is gone. A few days later I receive a hand-written letter from Anaïs Nin.

Dear Richard,
     I want so much to thank you for the beautiful artichokes, and to thank your friend Freya as well. This was a gift of the heart, and that is the best kind.
     Love always, Anaïs Nin

I put the letter from Anaïs Nin into an envelope and send it to Freya. Not very long after, Angela Anaïs Juana Antolina Rosa Edelmira Nin y Culmell dies, at her home in LA. Her ashes are scattered over wide blue Santa Monica Bay.

* * *

When I finished, she was silent for a moment. I wonder,” she said finally, if Freya would tell it the same way.”

Who knows? I lost track of Freya decades ago. I don’t even know if she’s still alive.”

You know,” she remarked, that letter from Anaïs Nin could be worth something.”

Well, I don’t have it. I sent it to Freya. And I don’t have Freya’s letter either. I gave it to Anaïs Nin.”

Tell me,” she asked thoughtfully, did you ever see Freya and Anaïs Nin together, at the same time?”

##

Photo at the top of the page is taken by Daliel Leite [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)] and is from Wikimedia Commons. Caption: George Leite and Anaïs Nin at Daliel’s in 1946. 

Dishes with Doran

Cleaning the kitchen after our mother cooked was a two-hour ordeal, especially on holidays. Every plate, bowl, cup, spoon, and crystal glass was smudged with lipstick or speckled with bits of dried food. There were pots still sitting on the glass stovetop where they’d cooked and held the courses of our meal. Pumpkin soup crusted over the edge where it dripped from the ladle; slivers of greasy, browned onions stuck to the heavy metal roasting pan. Even the cooktop itself required substantial muscle, just when the cleanup appeared to be done. It was the late seventies, and that newfangled appliance was a novelty my mother couldn’t resist in our kitchen, like the trash compactor that promised to smash kitchen garbage down to a six-inch cube but remained stuck in the smashed position instead, or the side-by-side refrigerator that wasn’t wide enough to hold much of anything on either side. That sparkling new kitchen held a promise of modern efficiency but masked problems which required old-fashioned ingenuity to overcome. It was an apt setting for the struggles I began to tackle in my yearning to leave youth behind.

My sister Doran and I were usually the ones relegated to cleanup. Although I dreaded entering the kitchen to attack this job, something happened once we were there which transformed our work into a kind of pleasure. The sink full of warm, soapy water; the radio on the counter providing needed energy through dance-worthy songs by Marvin Gaye or Earth, Wind & Fire; the view out the window of farmed fields, rows of trees, a setting sun; the relief of having the neighboring dining room empty of guests, our show of perfect hostesses now over.

Conversations came easily then, and I enjoyed the time I had with my big sister. I was a young preteen and had a lot of questions about what was ahead of me. Once, she tried to describe what cramps felt like, the kind that accompanied what was referred to as “a woman’s curse.” She looked out our rural window a long time before deciding how to explain it without scaring me. “It feels like a heavy metal clamp is attached to your private parts, pulling down with all its weight.”

She could tell by my reaction that her explanation had had the wrong effect. “Come on…you’re kidding, right? A metal clamp?! Every month for the rest of my life?” I knew from my mother’s complaints that this so-called curse would stop in my fifties, but from my young perspective, that may as well be the rest of my life.

There were other times when standing at this sink brought about my earliest awareness of the lewd and inappropriate thoughts that men could have toward young girls. Around the age of fourteen, more than one older male guest to our home either made comments about my developing body or looked at me in a way I could only describe as hungry. I didn’t entirely understand it, but I sensed it was real, powerful, and wrong. Human intuition develops early in life. It was a hint of the difficult roads I’d have to navigate along my journey to adulthood, one of the few occasions at that age where I was grateful to remain just a girl in her family home, safely drying dishes with her big sister.

Our mother didn’t take to housework easily and never instructed us in any housekeeping method. She would complain when the house got dirty and yell for us to clean it, but I had to guess at what action to take and where to begin. Rag in one hand, can of Pledge in the other, I’d go room to room, wiping dirt off baseboards, right up to the edge of the wall-to-wall carpeting. There could be coats and shoes and glasses strewn about, but I’d start with the finishing work. It’s an approach I still fight today: heading for the detail work while stepping over more obvious messes along the way. This tendency has shown up in my relationships too. Doran leaned into a more natural relationship with housekeeping, a succession of sensible order. Once I thought we were finally done and I could consider a late-night snack before heading off to bed, she was lifting kitchen stools, turning them upside down on the island so she could mop the linoleum beneath.

The house itself felt off-kilter to me. How my mother chose textures, colors, and finishes was puzzling. She had gone from struggling as a young girl in the city to making ends meet as a new mother in the country with our father. She was thrilled to experience financial comfort with her second husband as they built a new house and selected every interior and exterior design elements themselves. The outcome was not good. Like the housekeeping, there was no overall plan for how everything would come together, just the joy of picking out her favorite sofa (burgundy velvet), wall covering (prefinished black wallboard), and carpeting (green and gold swirls)—one piece at a time. The finishing touch was a life-size metal knight in shining armor that stood intimidatingly next to the coat closet in the foyer. There were some grand touches, including an Olympic-sized pool, a second kitchen, full bar, band stage, and dance floor in the basement. Mom was ready for a party now that she’d leapt out of financial scarcity. But the overall effect of this house was that it never really felt like home. It wasn’t like other people’s houses, and it didn’t feel like ours. On the outside, it was a large, sparkling, white-brick rancher with a semicircle driveway, rose garden, and impressive fountain flowing under a bridge into a big swimming pool. On the inside, it felt discordant, mismatched, a setting for something other than family life. Mom reminded us how lucky we were to live in what she called “The Big House,” to have financial security, to have her for a mother, but I couldn’t see how luck was involved. This was her game, her bit of happiness. We were just along for the ride.

What I do remember feeling grateful for, even then, was my sisters. I had three older sisters, and from them, I felt certain I had access to everything wise I would ever need to know. Because they were older, I thought they should have more important things to do than coddle their little sister, and I couldn’t understand why they bothered. I wondered if I would have done the same in their shoes and decided I probably wouldn’t. I’d be busy spending time with boyfriends, studying fashion magazines, chatting with girlfriends. The fact that my sisters sometimes chose to teach or even include me in their more adult lives was baffling to me. Of course, the dishes that mom regularly dirtied were a guarantee that Doran and I would come to know each other as the people we were during that brief phase of our lives. If not for the pile of crusty plates waiting on the counter, Doran would probably have been in her room, studying her magazines, talking on the phone, painting her toenails, and I would have been in my room, reading a book or listening to the radio or practicing my flute. It’s not that we wouldn’t want to know each other, only that we wouldn’t have to, and forming a relationship with someone, even a family member, doesn’t have the same ease and simplicity as our own company. Those dishes helped nurture a genuine bond between us through the shared task we were performing. It gave us the gift of a friendship, a cozy, safe place from which to get to know each other, something the seven years between us might have easily blocked.

My sisters felt pity for me in not having much of a life. Before moving into that house, we’d lived in a bungalow in town near people and shops that provided reasons to walk the neighborhood. My older sisters had a span of two to three years between them—a friendly advantage at that time of life—whereas my nearest was five years older. This big house, with its guard at the door, was built in the countryside where people kept to themselves and there was no reason to walk anywhere. By the time we’d moved there, I was twelve and my sisters were finished with high school. The eldest had married and moved away, so we were down to three. They were beginning to consider their options for building adult lives, and I was in this drafty place without a proper neighborhood, nearby friends, or any companionship outside of school. I might not have seen my own circumstances as so pitiful if not for the view reflected in my sisters’ eyes. But because of this pity, this guilt that seemed to exist for the natural course of their developing lives, my sisters sometimes included me in the more grown-up aspects of their days.

Doran was dating a man who wore a suit everywhere he went. It was the seventies, and leisure suits were popular then. The components were simply pants and a jacket, but it was made from a lightweight polyester that couldn’t wrinkle and was worn without a tie to emphasize its casualness. Basically, it was a cheap plastic suit, but the look took hold for a while, and it was considered hip and modern. Like most fads, it now seems ridiculous, but we hadn’t yet arrived at that point. So this man, Boyfriend X, was taking Doran golfing, and they invited me to go. I couldn’t imagine why they wanted me there, a childish intruder to their grown-up foray, but since I now understand that I was the young, pitiful sister with no life—and it’s true, I had nothing else to do—I was happy to go along, following on the course, riding in the cart, watching X play golf in his suit.

Even before we’d moved into the big house, I was sometimes invited on trips to the store. Once Doran took me to a drugstore for a bit of handbasket shopping, and I watched in awe as a young man approached her and said something like, “You are absolutely gorgeous. I just had to tell you.” I looked up and saw how right he was. Even I could see it. I wanted to hug him on her behalf, but he didn’t see me down there near her waist height. I fully expected her to throw her arms around him with gratitude for noticing her beauty, but instead, she returned his compliment with a cool rebuff I found confusing. I didn’t understand that this unwelcome intrusion was his way of trying to claim something that didn’t belong to him. Maybe these were the reasons I wanted to go along, even on perfunctory trips—to get a glimpse into real exchanges in adult lives, to learn proper reactions.

Sometimes my inclusion was more utilitarian. Doran had a green Volkswagen Beetle with a stick shift. She drove me a half mile up the street in our old neighborhood so I could run into the Hardee’s restaurant, put her coins into a cigarette machine that was kept just inside the door, and pull the lever for her brand. She was wearing enormous rollers in her hair, a whole head full of them, and didn’t want to be seen in public, so she took me along to do the dirty work. But once we got there, I refused. It wasn’t on any moral ground; I just wasn’t sure I’d know how to insert the coins or be strong enough to pull the lever. I was afraid of my own public humiliation, and since she was the smoker and I wouldn’t budge, she accepted her predicament. She gathered her dignity, carried her big-rollered head into Hardee’s, and bought the cigarettes herself.

My mother and stepfather used to throw huge parties in our club-like basement. People got dressed up and came when invited because, as Mom explained, who would turn down an invitation to a free night of booze, food, and live music? This was my mother’s city roots shaking up the countryside. She even had a disco ball installed to encourage dancing. Sometimes, when the house was quiet, I’d go down to the basement, turn on the disco ball, and lie on the floor to watch the lights spin, waiting for imaginary dancers to follow the twinkling dots on the walls. I was waiting, too, for the next right move to nudge me forward into some future life I couldn’t yet see.

For the parties, Mom cooked a lot. It was a skill she took pride in, and here was her chance to shine. She was also a good baker, and there was always a dessert table filled with her homemade pies and cakes. These desserts weren’t reserved for special occasions, though. A counter in the kitchen nearly always held plates filled with homemade pound cake, pecan pie, fudge brownies, or pastries. Usually, a slice or two was missing, crumbs left around the opening where a butter knife still rested in place, anticipating another craving as she passed through the kitchen. These crumbs were a sign no one yet recognized of her emerging depression and the sugary addiction she’d developed to counter it. In later years, I’d come to understand why a missing slice of pie caused me to feel a pang of sadness. Another person’s depression is something you can feel, oddly, just by being in its presence. My early teen years were filled with emotions that had a logic of their own, an understanding of things I couldn’t really comprehend, a preparation for the analyses that would be required ahead.

One day I came home from school late. Everyone was gone but my stepfather—a man with whom I had little conversation—and as I stood near the sink, he watched me like he knew where I’d been that day. Maybe it was guilt causing me to make assumptions about his thoughts, but I’d never seen him pay that kind of attention to me so openly. Could he possibly know about the secret arrangements I’d made in the previous days? My ride to school was going to drop me off at the phone booth in front of a business right next to our high school. There, I would wait for the man I’d met through a sister to pick me up and drive me back to the city to spend the day in his apartment. I’d decided it was time for me to “become a woman,” and he was more than happy to oblige. I’d grown tired of always being the little one, peeking around corners into their lives. I was being left behind, and I thought this was the move I needed to ensure my entry and respect into the world of adults. To my surprise, the arrangements I’d made worked, at least as to the mechanics of the plan. I wasn’t driving yet and didn’t feel confident about giving proper directions—doubted my ride to school would agree to the mysterious plan then wait later at the specified time to return me home—but everything went as designed, even the becoming-a-woman part. Except, of course, that sex didn’t make me into a woman. I still felt confused, frightened, uncertain, and even more like I was looking at life instead of living it. I also felt worried about any damage I may have caused myself or others from my sneaky plan. If this act didn’t make me a woman, did it change me at all? I couldn’t be sure, except that my stepfather seemed to recognize something, seemed to know that I had gone all wrong on his watch. Maybe I had used the Old Spice bar in the shower before leaving my lover’s apartment and was creating a soapy evidence trail without realizing it. Neither of us spoke about it, and he left me there in the kitchen alone, no dishes or sisters for comforting distraction.

One evening not long after, while Doran and I were washing dishes, she told me about a new job she was taking, working as a flight attendant (“stewardess” was dated language, she explained) with a major airline. She’d be leaving for Chicago soon, as that was her airline’s hub, and she’d have to live there until an opportunity to transfer back to the D.C. area became available. In other words, she was leaving me. My dip into womanhood hadn’t leveled the ground between us at all. She was now leaping for adulthood, as she rightfully should, and no man or boyfriend or secret rendezvous was going to keep me from standing alone at that sink. She kindly explained to me what she expected this new life to be like, promising to bring me along for a visit once she got settled—and she did, making Chicago my very first airplane flight. Here she was, kindly including me, offering comfort into this next transition for us both. It was an inclusion I wasn’t sure I deserved, thinking I could foolishly jump into the glamorous world of my older sisters with that one meaningless act, a secret that had since become shameful to me. But the time came, and she left. My sister, my teacher, my dishwashing partner. Her room was empty and I—the one still home—felt homesick. 

In about the same year that Doran left to begin her new career, my only remaining sister also moved out of the house, leaving me the last girl standing. Life changed quickly thereafter, with my stepfather moving into one of my sisters’ old bedrooms until cancer finally killed him. My mother’s depression kicked into full speed after that, and while the cakes still stood on the counter, there weren’t many pots and pans to scrub anymore. The disco ball, however, got put to full use at least twice more when two sisters came back to celebrate their weddings under its festive sparkle.

Being the youngest held a new dilemma I hadn’t foreseen when it was my time to move out and into adulthood: I was now going to be the last to go, leaving a sad, lonely, depressed mother alone with her desserts in this big, empty house. It felt wrong and unfair and confusing. My excitement at finally getting my turn (“Your day will come too,” she used to say) was tinged with the first taste of the complexities of real adulthood. But life handed us a surprise gift when my eldest sister returned home with a new baby about to be born. We practically passed each other moving in and out of the house in front of the knight in armor, no longer so imposing but still there watching. My mother had activity in the house again, and was thrilled to not only become a grandmother for the first time but participate in this new baby’s daily life. Depression was put on hold temporarily, my sister found a haven for this big change in her life, and I was free to step into my first tiny apartment, where I would begin the lifelong practice of applying what I’d learned to the challenges of adulthood.

##

In photo at top of page, Doran is on the left, and Trevy is on the right. 

Ritual of Renewal

“Dear Girlfriends, it’s time for our annual new year’s celebration. Once again, please bring something written, by you or others, to share with the group. It will be so wonderful to hear the various voices and subjects you select.”

The email invitation calls us together to mark two occasions that occur when the calendar flips to the first day of January: a birthday for the world and for our friend, now 75. Each year, we come together a week or two after the big ball drops and the fireworks flash. At our age, we’ve mastered the art of delayed gratification. And so much more.

Each of us is the “birthday girl’s” friend or family member. Some have known each other a lifetime and see each other often. Others see each other just this once, or rarely outside of this yearly gathering. No matter. Each of us belongs there because we cherish the company, share the values, and savor the spirit of our hostess. We enjoy a place in her life and she in ours. We’re a collection of unique individuals who happen to be in the close circle of one special woman with a warm heart, eclectic interests, an inquiring mind, and an exuberant enjoyment of life. A woman entwined with her family, engaged in her community, dedicated to civic leadership.

An outsider looking in may see a random assortment of old ladies. We are not. We’re a special blend of women, like the makings of aged bourbon—maturing separately, mellowed and nutty with a hint of spice, and finishing expansively. Before we arrived at this stage of life, between periods of calm and contentment, we weathered dry spells, turbulence, and sudden storms. Some of us are native to this land, this region; others grew and ripened in distant terrain, in distinctly different climates.

Each of us has lived several lives. Some married; some didn’t. Some outlived or outgrew one or more mates; some bore children, raised other’s children, welcomed grandchildren. All understand that there is no one path. All have known joy and heartache in the relationships that defined our lives. We look back on decision points knowing that life is a mix of choice and chance, and what we thought were decisions arrived at freely were made while under the influence—of parents, spouses, propriety, or passing predilections.

Looking around in the understated elegance of our friend’s home, it’s clear that our company is accustomed to material comfort, although many among us came through and remember leaner times. Today, we dress tastefully, each as it suits us. Unlike our mothers and theirs, we wear pants—even jeans—and enhance our outfits with artful ceramic, gold, or silver jewelry selected more to please ourselves than to impress others. Some add flair to ordinary wear: jeans tucked into wine-red, flat-heeled boots topped with a plaid shirt. One, eyes framed by bold designer glasses, adds a stunning handcrafted pendant to a bulky bright green sweater. Our hair? Tinted or grey but blow and go, suiting the spontaneity and freedom of our fluid, light-to-heavily scheduled lives.

We’re new, revised editions of who we used to be, growing and changing as we go. Credits and credentials from past pursuits—initials after our names, plaques on our walls—say little about us today. Now, we’re free and eager to learn, not some canned curriculum but whatever we want, wherever we go, and whoa—we’re humble. There is so much to learn about this life! 

After breaking bread over homemade tomato soup, tasty cheese and crackers, luscious berries, and more in the open living-dining room—ten at the long rectangular dining table, several more in the bay-windowed front room—we turned our attention to our hostess, standing at the corner of the L-shaped space. “Let’s share our readings now,” she said. “I’ll go first.”

“I wrote this a long time ago. It’s called, ‘My Mother’s Hands.’”

“Oh I remember it,” I said, “I’ve thought about it often.”

“You read it at your 70th,” someone said and others echoed.  

It struck me then how remarkable it was—that in our fast-moving and mobile society, despite changes in my life and around me, I’d been present in this same company at that 70th birthday celebration and every year since. For me, that day five years ago was the first time I’d been included. For others, it was a long-loved ritual. Now, I saw so many of the same faces turned toward our friend again. Were they reflecting, as I was, that friendship, like life, becomes richer, more nuanced, and much more rewarding over time? Were they noticing the absence of some faces? And were they appreciating, as I was, being present once again?

What else had changed? Our hostess’s grandson, a newborn sensation last year, toddled through our midst in constant motion, reminding us of our own children and grandchildren at that age—a joyful time of empowerment and discovery much like this late stage of life in which we find ourselves. Our hostess’s daughter-in-law, the toddler’s mother, read an affirmation she’d composed for the occasion. In simple, sincere prose, she captured our friend’s special qualities, honored their relationship, and revealed her own depth of character. And more had changed. This year, a new thread ran through our reflections. “I am better off healed than I ever was unbroken.” The reader noted how that thought, attributed to author Beth Moore, resonated for her personally and for our country. A covey of concurring comments fluttered up. Yes, we could relate. Although tormented by political turmoil, we took heart from and recommitted to the resistance, determined to shape a culture that would finally, fully liberate our daughters and granddaughters.

The readings we shared revealed the threads that weave us into a friendship quilt. As one after another world-wise woman rose to speak, whose voices did we hear? Our own, as well as inspirational messages from mindfulness guru Jon Kabat-Zin, from Leading from Within: Poetry That Sustains the Courage to Lead, selected by leaders striving to do good and effective work in the world; and from poet Mary Oliver, a personal favorite, offering these instructions for living a life: “Pay Attention. Be Astonished. Tell About It.”

I just did.

##