Some days ago, five of us women in our seventies had come together for a farewell-for-now dinner. It was an early dinner for one simple reason; we are older and don’t want to drive in the dark. Some of us were headed out west for the summer, others overseas, with the rest remaining close to home. It was the last chance for a while to spend time releasing happy hormones (serotonin) with girlfriends. These are joyous moments women experience together that come from a sense of being among one’s own. It’s a universal feeling of sisterhood. No matter our shape, color, or creed, time and laughter together is a sistership celebration—moments of lift (title of Melinda Gates’ new book) for one another.
On this occasion, Ruth told us of visiting a friend in memory care. She’d found her seated in a wheelchair in the hall, face bruised and one leg scratched. We listened to indigestible details of sitting in a hallway all day, easier for staff to keep an eye on. Sitting there with your helplessness, waiting for nothing. Tomorrow a repeat. So would next week, month, and year. As if reading my mind, Eileen leaned over to me, “I don’t want to live that long.” I suspect she spoke for all of us. Eager to return to happier thoughts, I joked, “I would rather talk about sex.”
We rarely talk about what frightens us, but we all have dark places we don’t want to visit. The thought that harm would come to our children shakes us to the core and keeps us awake at night. It’s what made Sophie’s Choice, having to decide which of her two children will live and which will die is gut-wrenching. Aging and death are dark places we’d rather not visit.
Consequently, without realizing it, we can spend our whole lives attempting to escape the monsters of our minds. We put up walls to distract and hide. But deep within, where truth resides, we know that all the bricks in the world cannot keep life unchanged. Sooner or later, the walls crumble, and we find ourselves in a place that scares us.
Asia, a gardner in our community, handed me two large bundles of kale, curly and smooth. “The smooth is sweeter,” she told me, “and the curly kale is bitter, so you need to remove the hard stem and massage the leaves before eating.” Avoidance and defensiveness harden us while softness makes us kinder and more open to what frightens us. Isn’t this what Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King tried to teach us about facing our fears? It’s how they found the courage to walk into dark places again and again?
When we accept the uncertainty of life, the shakiness and unpredictable encounters of an ordinary day, we lift our soul and face the unknown. We never know what will happen to us next, a Norwegian Caribbean cruise or a wheelchair in memory care. But too often, borrowing from Pema Chodron, we relate like timid birds who don’t dare to leave the nest. We sit in a nest that’s getting pretty smelly. A nest that hasn’t served its function for a very long time or ever. No one is coming to feed us. No one is protecting us and keeping us warm. Even so, we keep hoping mother bird will arrive. When my two-year-old granddaughter Astrid’s parents leave her with a babysitter, she repeats to herself, “Grown-ups come back. Grown-ups come back.” Her childcare workers taught the children this chant to help them cope with mom or dad leaving, disappearing from sight. But for Ruth’s friend, there is no escape. For us, while we can, it would be wise to become familiar with our fear, look it right in the eye— see, hear, smell, and taste it. It takes courage, but the flip side is a long slide of tepid existence.
Ruth’s story touched my vulnerability, which happens to reside in my gut. It’s where feelings get stuck. They sit there, dark, heavy, where taking a deep breath is a huge effort. I ask myself, Edith, will you go inside the scary place or do you choose to live and die in fear? (Not sure why I speak to myself in the third person.)
Sitting in a nursing home room where the air is stale, and nobody loves me is one of my scary places. It’s why I tell how my daughter Gréta has said if the time comes when I need help, she and husband, Quay, will build a small house next to their ranch in the foothills of Colorado. It feels good to share what awaits me. It’s a lovely story, but there are holes in this boat. Aside from the fact that they don’t own a ranch in the foothills of Colorado yet, I’m using this as a crutch to support the wall protecting me from facing that I have no idea what life will bring. I don’t tell the story of my son Jens’ offer. “Mom, if you end up alone, you come and live with me. It will be wonderful. Every day I go to work, and when I come home, the house will be clean.” The reader can see why Gréta’s story is more to my liking.
My friend Patty’s scary place is confronting her husband. Throughout the years, he’s found ways to control her life, how far and long she can reach without him. She plays down his shortcomings and builds up his favorable traits. He decides what they watch on television. Compromises are few. If we go out to lunch, his constant texts interrupt our time together. When I suggest she turn the phone off, that’s a place too scary for her to go.
She is not alone. Women are the compromisers who often adopt the husband’s hard views rather than confront them. We spend years pretending things are okay. Some of us play make-believe, never entering our scary place. But not all of us. Some of us learn the game, then rewrite the rules. Some may say conniving; I say surviving. We walk into the dark place and stay. We feel the unease, the pulse-raising and heart thumping, but we stay. We ask ourselves, Who is this me who feels so upset or hurt? Then, who is this puppeteer with me on a string? Why do his compliments and blame hook me like a fish or a mouse in a trap? How is it that these moments and circumstances have the power to propel me like a pickle-ball back and forth, from hope to fear, happiness to misery?
Breaking up with a boyfriend trying to convince me I was making a mistake, I’d mentally rehearse ahead of time to withstand pleadings and empty promises. “No, Mr. Soon-to-be-X, ending our relationship is not a mistake. It won’t leave me happy or sad. Our time together is over. In my universe, you no longer even ripple.” These are scary moments, but easy choices, going along with someone else’s program, dulls joy and drains our energy. On the other hand, hard choices, entering a scary place, in time gives us confidence and unexpected elation and exhilaration.
Echoing Pema Chödran on dealing with dark anxiety situations, “When we awaken from sleep [fear], we know that the enemies in our dreams are an illusion. That realization cuts through panic and fear.” The more we practice not attaching to others’ anger, the simpler it becomes. It’s easy to understand when a child fears the dark; it’s a tragedy when women (or men) are afraid of the light. Willingly, stepping into a dark place claiming our seat is how we unlock and release the suffering. Coming out of the dark place and into the light is a noteworthy entry in our life’s journal.