Matriarch Remake

When transitions happen and identities change, one of our great challenges is to find a new sense of meaning and purpose in our lives.

–Mary Pipher Women Rowing North

Like so many us, the smaller worlds we occupied over the last year brought into sharper focus what is important for our happiness and well-being.  And living with the diagnosis of breast cancer, on top of the threat of COVID, changed my lifeview .  Before these changes, I thought I had good health and lots of time.  But now, I feel differently. Over the last year of physical distancing, we chose a closed circle of interactions. We greatly missed seeing our extended family and friends, and children closely, which became another loss. And the added load of medical appointments, treatment and recovery allowed both a focus and my only contact outside our cloistered existence.

I decided it was time to retire.

Those first weeks of retirement I felt I still had to account for my time, although I am told that I should sit and look out the window, to waste time instead of fill it– to practice being in the moment.  I have clocked more trowel and weeding time in the garden, met the newest brood of wood ducks on the pond, ate ice cream and bathed my grandsons. At the same time I feel the taps of “must dos” opening at full force, drowning me with ideas for new projects, chores that need doing, stuff that needs sorting and culling.

It feels overwhelming.

There is a strong pull toward productivity that is hard to shake.  The old adage about time is true, no one is entitled to more of it, we all get the same 24 hours a day. I struggle to enjoy the “now” instead of the plan for tomorrow.

I signed up for virtual classes…one for volunteers at Interfaith Outreach to learn how we can work across difference within a more diverse community by being aware of our biases and blind spots. I have been at a loss sometimes, not confident in the language I use to communicate with a job seeker who has a very different life experience, within a culture I don’t understand. I want to help in a respectful way–to update a resume or express a skillset on LinkedIn that could lead to a new job or a better one.

The second class was to write an advance healthcare directive. I remember filling in the forms with hesitancy as a healthy 50-year old wondering what health crisis might await.  A serious car crash? A debilitating disease? And why wouldn’t I want the full force of medical intervention? Now I know more clearly what I want. Not what might be ahead. I can’t predict the future, but I want to share my wishes with loved ones.

The third, a writing workshop from Sacred Ground Center for Spirituality. We wrote and shared an important story about our life. The process of sharing invited reflection, truth telling and listening to arrive at a more generative story. I found the experience inspiring, reminding me that I need to share my stories as a way to heal and grow. Writing helps me solve problems, make sense of things, challenges me to find words to convey emotional truth. I have struggled to write over the last year, outside of my CaringBridge site.  I couldn’t find the words in the midst of so many other stories of uncertainty and suffering. 

Change comes when we end, and begin. I am ready to grow into this next stage. Retirement.

This last year has awakened me to my mortality, and I see that I have taken too much for granted…believing that the same set of routines, that have flowed throughout my life would continue. That my job was to preserve it. My sense now is that what cancer has gifted me is not the resilience to fight it, but the grace to integrate it into my precious life. I want to be made better by living–with all the pain, uncertainty, joys and pleasures. And be grateful for all the blessings that come.

*I have found these books to be helpful with this dialectic. Patricia Hampl’s The Art of the Wasted Day and The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margareta Magnusson. I have found Mary Pipher’s Women Rowing North an essential guide and textbook to authentic aging.

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