“It felt like going on a journey without fully realising how long it would be, how far away it would lead me, or where I would finally end up.” ~Henri Nouwen
Mid-life Reflections Part I
Sometimes lately I find myself pausing during the normal course of the day, and reflecting upon the odd twists and turns of life that have landed me in the middle of a desert wilderness, still building a farm after over 25 years of rural and urban gardening and farming, in Ohio and mostly in southern California. Here I am, this morning, with a cup of coffee and my drylands orchard, my herbs, and my constant battle against the harsh high desert elements and hungry critters on this piece of land. My farm land and home is deeply underwater financially but reasonably productive in herbal medicinals, some fruit , and later in the season, a few vegetables. We have eggs in abundance, with plans for more in the near future. I am now a single mother with eight children and, so far, five grandchildren. It seems as if the day before yesterday I was a college student talking with friends over coffee, making plans for the next holiday, then I was living a vagabond life among musicians, and wasn’t it only yesterday that I’d left so much of my younger self behind to become a wife and mother? Today I glance in the mirror and realize that my hair is shot through with gray, my children are mostly grown, and I regularly am amazed at how quickly my grandchildren are growing! It’s true that the days grow shorter and fly faster with each passing year.
Dreams of my youth, briefly tasted, still precious, come to mind more frequently now. They have taken on a certain patina with age and linger at the edge of my vision inviting and ready to be unfolded by an older me, unfettered from the ambitions and various confusions of youth. I think about moving northward, or even somewhere exotic, or maybe scuba diving off Catalina Island one more time, or just lazing in the sun at the beach, walking along the coastline, watching for herons. I wonder if I might move somewhere wetter, with more shades of green, eventually. I find myself daydreaming about opening a bookshop or one that sells vintage stringed instruments…or both. I want to pick up the stringed instruments I laid down so long ago. Last month I brought out my old mountain dulcimer, cleaned it, and began to experiment with tuning it, only to find out that one of the tuning pegs needs work beyond my basic skills. Pictures that I want to capture in shimmering watercolor or stark pen and ink flit across my mind’s eye. I try to visualize my older self as expanding the learning center at Rainshadow Farm into more research in drylands growing and writing more, not only about farming but about the vagaries of life as a woman moving toward the far fringes of adulthood.
Daydreams of youth and mid-life aside, there are powerful realities which were barely dreamt of in my youth that have overtaken my life and shaped who I am, some hopefully for the better. One of those realities is that I’ve become the mother of a very large family. The reality of being a single mother after decades of living with my children’s’ father and watching him slowly pull away until he could bear it no more and he simply left one night, into the dark, into the west. All of these things have altered me in ways that I could never have effected on my own. Things have changed inside of me — things having to do with love and trust, forgiving and being forgiven, fear experienced and fear overcome, pain and love, my own understanding of responsibility, my own weakness and the miracle of strength that can be lent to me in love from others. I’ve learned that I am both stronger and weaker than I thought, I’ve learned things about faith and unanticipated grace along with providence from unexpected places, and I’ve learned something about really opening my heart to the universe, the world around me, and other people. However I’ve grown over the years, so very much of the growth I owe to my own family and friends.
Watching children reach adulthood and becoming a grandmother have both underscored a mid-life feeling of freedom. There really are seasons, beginnings and endings, in a woman’s life, after all. While I’m still living out the reality of being the “caretaker” of a large family (it’s hard for mothers to stop mothering), I’m also envisioning what the coming days may hold. This is the breathing room I was assured would come with a family that’s growing older and while it comes with more constraints in a homeschooling family, or a very large family, or a family with special challenges, still — it’s given me the opportunity finally to begin to determine what my dreams are for the rest of my life, even as I continue to help my kids move along the road to theirs… Finally, I am beginning to see a clearing in the forest, a little light through the trees, and it’s become real to me that while being a mother has been the richest thing in my life, that there may be some space and a bit of time still to dust off an abandoned dream or two.
How do we rediscover our dreams? We practice doing things that make our hearts sing. We do it now and not put it off. We negotiate time to write, even one poem or story; we buy a new set of watercolors or pencils and find a way to paint or draw just one piece. We sit down at the piano and actually play or we find a way to take those coveted guitar lessons. We let our family know that we’re going to take a class at the community college, or a karate or yoga lesson, or join a women’s writing group — and we find creative ways to fit it in. We don’t need to try to tackle every dream at once, and we don’t have to clear all of them off of the backburner simultaneously. One thing that fills us with joy to start with is adequate. Even a small amount of time apart is restorative when we’re hard-pressed and overwhelmed. Remember, any creativity feeds more creativity. I’ve learned over the past several years that if I “practice my dreams” faithfully in increments of available time, I’m a happier person and the dreams not only stay alive, but they foster even more courage and desire to be a creative woman. This is the way that I made it through the last two years of a PhD program after the diagnosis that my heart had been serious damaged by a mild virus thus changing my life forever. This is how I made it through a divorce I didn’t want , but probably ought to have realized was inevitable, thus changing my life forever.
I’ve lived long enough to know that change can be good and radical change can be radically good. I know that being shaken loose from my contentment promises to teach me much. And one way or another we can get through the hard parts. I’m very thankful for my children and grandchildren and friends. I’m thankful for the land itself and all that live upon this land, creatures that were here before we came and that will be here when we leave. They all help me find my balance.
The vision that began the early-motherhood leg of my journey has changed; it has altered in some small but very significant ways — but what it is to become next is still hidden within Tomorrow.
To all of my friends: I love you and I thank you for walking with me on this part of my sojourn. I thank you for holding onto my hand during the really weird and difficult parts of the path. Some of you have literally lifted me up and helped me put my feet onto the path of life and light, of health and honesty, again. Some of you have brought a light into the darkness that otherwise might have overwhelmed us. My family and I owe you so much. I love you. May all blessings come to you.