In Celebration of Women of a Certain Age

She wears sorrow well, a Chanel jacket of translucent threads and occasional sunbeam, each loss a scarf, bracelet, or glove.

Do not even enter her life unless you are the stuff of finest silk, metal, or perfume.

She will transform you when you are gone.                                               

We are three women, 70 and older, living alone, our houses next to each other. We have been married five times, divorced four times, widowed twice, and lost two partners to dementia. We are called les trois graces. We radiate class.

Beyond my street, I have many more women friends of a certain age. My five closest friends, now living alone, have had six marriages, three long-time partners, four divorces, and been widowed three times. Each woman is more engaging and beautiful than the other.

Only one of us has serious health issues, two have had love affairs with men half our age, one is having a movie made of her life, another does scuba dives and two of us ice skate, one is active with on-line dating while another is an international fashion icon, two of us are working to inspire global movements to create a better world, and one of us is prodigiously creating miniature collages juxtaposing spiritual light and earthly violence. One is in Cuba with her Belgium lover. We have gravitas and style that women under 50 have not yet considered possible for themselves.

We know how to deal with men who are pompous, wear classic suits from two decades ago, cook signature dishes from each of the many lives we’ve led, travel anywhere in the world and order the best food on the menu, flirt without taking our clothes off, manage money, and create homes that are breathtaking. Breathtaking.

Plus, we get to say things like “I saw on Facebook that the second husband of the woman currently with my third husband just had an operation.” It takes decades of life to be able to say something like that. It’s almost worth it just for that.

It’s not about what we have done – led organizations, published innumerable books, been in the foreign service in Asian posts, run art galleries, headed boards, set up global networks, and been mothers, wives, and organizers. No, it’s about who we are now. It’s about what our pasts have become.

We are burnished, elaborated, embossed, glowing, subtle, nuanced, tricky, Baccarat crystal, crepe de chine, and mysterious. We are mysterious even to ourselves.

We became who we are not only through decades of experience, and continuing losses, and low points that were as low as the highs were high, but by what we chose to leave behind and what we chose to bring with us to now – by what we discarded and what we embraced.

We created the beings we are. We selected this memory and discarded that one. We interpreted experiences in ways where we rung whatever juice was in them out of them so we could drink of it and say “Yes, this is good” or “Yes, you taste bitter, but I accept you.”

We learned how to leave things and people when that was called for and to make the path of the future wider, not narrower. We learned that people will leave us, abandon us, betray us and still we make the path of the future wider, not narrower.

We learned to answer the call to joy. We learned to swim through the dark deep waters and observe wild creatures of grief, first in rawness and then, slowly slowly, dressed politely enough to be brought to the surface, presentable at the dining table as our friend.

We learned that when you have a minority fraction of your life left that nothing is so important as to make it sweet and to savor it. We have learned to make things of beauty out of loss. We have made things of beauty out of our selves.


Beggar with a Point to Make

Last night, walking home in the cold, I was stopped by a man I had seen moments before under a pink blanket on the corner of 66th and Broadway, around the corner from Lincoln Center. The man ran after me, “I saw you hesitate just for a second. Can I make a point with you?”

My first reaction was anger: “What? Homeless people run after you now?”

My second reaction, a split second later, was: “A point? He has a point to make with me? He’s an intellectual?”

My third reaction, even as I shook my head “no,” was guilt.

Then I walked into the grocery store.

“It’s too hard to get money out of my purse with gloves on. Do I even have any small bills? If I give him something, it reinforces begging. If we give every street person something, it reinforces begging. What was his point? What would Jesus do? Should I buy him food?”

I bought my groceries – maple syrup for yogurt, sushi, vegetable dumplings, and orange marmalade.

He was not waiting when I left the store. I crossed the street to my apartment.

Last night he slept on the street. I slept in a king-size Ralph Lauren bed. He slept under a pink blanket. I slept under a down comforter.

Whatever the point he wished to make, the point I received is that I am one more person with a warm home who does not know what to do about people who have no homes at all. I am not guilty because I have a home. I am guilty because I walked away. I was afraid. I like things smooth, I don’t like awkwardness. I would have felt caught. I didn’t want him latching onto me. I . . .  I . . .  Why is it all about me? That right there is the problem.


Art! Slam us to the ground!

Having lunch with a friend who has been targeted for assassination is one way to up your appreciation of art. De Kooning after an omelet tapa with tomatoes and olives. Diebenkorn after grilled cauliflower. Matisse after a cappuccino.

When the furniture glue coated on the wires under his car didn’t explode because it was the coldest week in the Middle East in years, the assassins settled for Molotov cocktails and exploded his car after he returned home.

Kenneth Noland after talk about moderation in actions and politics. Robert Motherwell after consideration of Aristotle and the Golden Mean. Helen Frankenthaler after talk of “psychos” – his word – from France, Belgium, and Germany joining ISIS because it gives them license to kill.

The Phillips Collection, an exquisite private gallery, was halfway along my walk from the restaurant to my home. If not now, when?

Mondrian after sorrow for the distortion of Islam. Sam Francis after re-commitment to hope because the other options would be fatal. Adolph Gottlieb following recognition of how fear strips most people of courage.

I stood in front of the paintings with the most aggressive colors – not a day for meditative studies – and challenged them to “Hit me with your best shot. Fill me.”

Many years ago I meant a young man at the Phillips. He was set to have an exhibit there before everything went topsy-turvy when the director was found to be selling paintings from the museum to fund his personal life. The young man and I became lovers. I took LSD with him once. We became bear cubs and romped and rolled. I didn’t realize he considered LSD a basic food group. It fueled his amazing mind and art. He painted white on white and it got whiter and whiter over the years, though he and I were together only a few months. He invented a written language for me. The pieces he wrote were exhibited – an iconography of love on yellow paper.

He said, “If art doesn’t come off the wall, hit you behind the knees, and knock you to the ground, it’s not good enough.” I believed him then and I believe him now, though I believed then and believe now that there are subtle ways to be knocked over. Sometimes a feather will do. Maybe he believed that to. His paintings got very white.

But today was not a day for gentleness. I asked the strongest, most colorful, most daring art to hit me. Come off the wall. Slam me to the ground. Fill me. Show me – prove it! – that humans are greater, are larger, are better animals than we seem. We are not just people who kill, people who try to kill my friend because he educates people in the truth so they will stop killing each other, people who kill innocent Muslim students, people who bomb Syrians, extremists who capture and rape young women. That there needn’t be more bombs, more killing, more blood, more freezing cold, more lack of shelter in the freezing cold, more stupidity, more justification, more ignorant savagery. That it need not be! We are better than this. We have artists, we have voices, we have kindness in us.

Slam us, art! Save us from ourselves! Keep red on the canvas and off our clothing and bodies. Give us meaning and perspective and hope that, despite the horrors we commit, we can find our way to compassion and care for each other. Knock us to the floor so we can rise in hope.

Helen Frankenthaler

Helen Frankenthaler

Sam Francis

Sam Francis

Adolph Gottlieb

Adolph Gottlieb

Wassily Kandinsky

Wassily Kandinsky

Richard Diebenkorn

Richard Diebenkorn

Willem de Kooning

Willem de Kooning

Henri Matisse

Henri Matisse

A Valentine: Conquering the Fear of Saying “I love you”

It was Easter Sunday, 1960 in Iowa, I was 17, and nearly two feet of snow covered our quarter-mile lane. My father drove me on the tractor from the house to the cleared road where Jerry – not his real name – met me and took me the eight miles to town to meet his parents.

The noon meal included lamb, which I had never had before, and a head of cauliflower with melted cheese cascading down it. His father, who was French Canadian, prepared the meal. They owned the hardware store, several farms, and had land in the most beautiful lake country in Minnesota. They were the elite.

The night before Jerry and I had gone to my senior prom. He bought me a corsage of roses on his way home from college. We had dated since the end of the summer before. He sent me letters several times a week in neat small handwriting.

I had been in love with him – totally and secretly – since I was 12 years old. To have let anyone know that I, a country girl, was besotted by the most sought after boy in school – a townie, captain of the basketball team, student body president – would have been humiliating, unbearable.

But a miracle happened. On our first date we went to the movie “A Summer Place” starring Sandra Dee and Troy Donuhue. “Within that summer place your arms reach out to me. . . . I’m safe and warm in your arms, in your arms, in your arms.” 

On the night of the prom, after the dance, before the snow storm, we held and kissed. He told me that he loved me and wished we were married. He would take me to meet his parents the next day.

That next day, after the meal of lamb and cauliflower, he drove me to the end of my lane where I put on boots to walk to the house. We kissed and I told him I loved him. It was the first time I said “I love you” to anyone, even my parents.

I did not hear from him again for four years.

To not hear from someone in those days meant that it took weeks to know that you were not going to receive any more letters. Winter went to summer as I walked the lane to the mailbox to nothing. It was never talked about, never mentioned by anyone. Ever.

This and its infinite variables is how the words “I love you” become difficult to say. Is there anyone who hasn’t felt caution about expressing love, saying those words?

We don’t want to expose ourselves. We don’t want to mislead others. We are afraid if we say “I love you,” it will be heard as something else, as undue or awkward involvement. Obligations, intentions, obsessions.

The words “I love you” may have more baggage attached to them than any other words in the world, at least in the Western world. “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you” come off easy in comparison. To be sorry and to forgive may be difficult to say and do, but they are one-click operations compared with plumbing the depths and complexities of love.

We know what being sorry is about and we know what forgiveness is about, but the word “love” has to support an array of meaning, nuance, subtlety, and innuendo. What kind of love? Romantic? Parental? Spousal? Sexual? For country or culture? For love of art, artists, idols, the home team?

It is peculiar that we don’t have distinct and separate words for different feelings of attraction and attachment. But I’ve come to believe there is a reason for this. It has to do with how language reflects truths that we seldom bring into conscious focus. Our language reveals that there is only one word for love because love is an encompassing whole. It is a totality and all of its variants fit inside the immense dynamic whole of love.

The ocean is one big thing. It might be a choppy ocean, a dark ocean, a calm ocean, but it is still one ocean made of water. We don’t have different words for “ocean.” (Okay, “sea” sort of, but not really.)

The sky is one big thing. It might be a stormy sky, a clear sky, a sky with clouds, but it is still one sky made of air. We don’t have different words for “sky.”

Love might be experienced with different qualities and forms, but it is still love. And – this is important – it possesses the qualities of a magnet. We are constantly pulled towards love. We want to live within love. We want love to permeate us. We recognize love as healing, sustaining, transcending, inspiring, and as our natural place to be, as home. As there is only one “home” so we only have one word for love.

The infinite variations of love occur through the feeling and actions of people who are lovers, parents, children, seekers, humanitarians, peace-workers, worshippers, and more. It is we humans who shape love into its different forms and apply it in our daily relationships. It is humans who “color” love, tweak it, make it real, make it our own, and become whole inside in the process. We heal, we transcend, we inspire, we come home.

[Note: Obsession, addiction, envy, jealousy, possession, and greed are not variants on love. Period. They do not heal, sustain, or transcend. They are not “home.”]

To round out the story of the Iowa boy who disappeared. He reappeared in 1964 when he was stationed at Quantico Marine base in Virginia and I was a cocktail waitress on Capitol Hill. He asked to see me and I acquiesced, but I was not above trying to humiliate him. It did not go well for him, and ended after several weeks.

I found him through Linked In a few years ago. I had a 5-decades old question I needed to have answered, “Why did you disappear after I told you I loved you?” He remembered nothing of it.

He then asked me, “If I had stayed with you that one night in DC instead of leaving would everything have been different? I’ve always regretted that.” I didn’t know what he was talking about. Just goes to show you, we are in the same movies, but we experience different plot lines.

He now lives in San Diego and is on the far right-wing fringe of politics. That’s really a different plot line than mine.

I owe him one thing. The imprint of first love, how total and consuming it can be even when secret, even when rejected.

And I owe him as the first catalyst for the muscle I have built over time to tell the people I love that I love them. It didn’t come easy, but the fact that it came hard means it is an examined, deliberate, and cherished choice. It is joy, clarity, play, gratitude, and strength. It is also freedom because to love someone is to go beyond the limitations of words.