Footpath, Keene, NH

The weekend before last, I got together with my friend A (not her real initial) for an afternoon of bookchat, woods-walking, and beer-and-burrito frivolity. A and I have been friends for several years now; like all of my close current friends, our meeting was all-but-accidental, an in-person friendship that flowered from an unlikely exchange of emails between perfect strangers. “How do you know I’m not an axe-murderer,” I quipped before our first face-to-face meet-up several summers ago. “Well, how do you know I’m not an axe-murderer, too,” A smartly replied. And with a wit that sharp, I knew I was safe from bodily harm, an intuition that was corroborated when I met A that first time only to discover she eerily resembles one of my three sisters.

It’s been several years now that A and I have gotten together every month or so to talk books, swap life’s little war stories, and otherwise check-in over beer and burritos or other fare. Although I usually like to walk alone, A makes for a wonderful walking companion. The past few times we’ve gotten together, we’ve caught up on one another’s lives while taking a good long stroll: first at MacDowell Lake in Peterborough, NH and most recently at Estabrook Woods in Concord, MA. A has a strong stride and hearty endurance; she is one of those rare folks who really can walk, talk, and think at the same time. And A understands the importance of conversational pacing, the way to balance talking with listening, listening with asking, and acceptance with advice: a delicate balance.

Pasture turnstile, Concord, MA

While we were walking at Estabrook Woods the weekend before last, A and I came to a sun-drenched pasture ringed with split rails and barbed wire. Concord, MA is horse country, so good fences do indeed make good neighbors. Wanting to explore a nearby field where woodcocks are rumored to court and nest, A and I came to an old-fashioned pasture turnstile, a contraption that allows a solitary walker to pass onto a footpath without letting the livestock loose. “Shall we go ahead and look for the woodcock meadow?” A asked. “We’ll have to watch out for ticks.” As I compared A’s sneaker-clad feet with my own bare feet in sandals, I eyed the profusion of poison ivy and raspberry prickles that wended greenly up the turnstile: ticks would be the least of our worries. “Sure!” I said in a typical moment of obstacles-be-damned impulsiveness. “Let’s do it!”

That path, it turned out, didn’t go to the woodcock meadow; instead, it went straight through overgrown pastures and weedy woods to another larger horse pasture, this one barred with a wooden gate and a sign proclaiming “Keep Out.” We turned around to go back through the turnstile, back through the woods, and back to the car and those beer and burritos, the sun already starting to droop toward the western horizon. Rumors of woodcocks in other sun-drenched meadows would await another day.

Footpath, Keene, NH

Contemplating that rural turnstile along with the various fence-fringed paths right here in Keene, it occurs to me how many turnstile-like transitions we each face in this journey called life. A, like most of my close friends, is somewhat older than me; as we’d sat earlier that day talking books with one of A’s college associates, it dawned on me how truly green I am at the tender age of 35. “I’m turning 41 next week,” A admitted, “and I’m thinking 41 is going to be much better than 40.” A’s college friend agreed: “Yes, 41 was good…but it gets even better.” I sat silently sipping my lemonade while A and her friend savored their iced teas: having weathered their 30s, their first marriages, and the sturm und drang entailed in each, A and her friend wore a comfortable wisdom, the battle scars and medals of a fight well-endured. Having lived their 20s and 30s for their husbands and kids, their 40s and beyond are now their time: with her daughters having reached the threshold of maturity and quasi-independence, A’s reached a turnstile where she’s successfully juggling parenthood, work, and an active social life. Is it any surprise, then, that A’s now embarking on the very journey I just finished, the poison-ivied and raspberry-prickled path toward a PhD? No, it’s no surprise; indeed, it’s entirely fitting. Having worked in both the private sector and academia for years, A knows what she wants and what she’s getting into. She’ll weather this coming path as she’s weathered all the others: there ain’t nothing she’ll encounter that a little beer and burritos won’t fix.

Footpath, Keene, NH

This past Sunday Chris and I had a small gathering here at our apartment to celebrate (belatedly) my completion of the doctorate. Although she would have loved to have come, A had her hands full with those daughters of hers: at 13 they still need Mom in her role as private chauffeur. I was happy, though, that two of my other close friends, C and D, took the time to come to my party even though they unfortunately missed the chance to meet one another: D arrived at the party late after C had left early.

Both C and D, like A, are what I like to refer to as Phoenix Friends: in the several years that I’ve known all three of them, they each have re-invented themselves, rising up from fires that would have destroyed many a weaker soul. Whereas A just turned 41, both C and D are “women of a certain age,” discovering firsthand that a woman’s fifties can indeed be nifty. “I”m the oldest one here!” C proudly proclaimed at one point during the party; at 57, she’s engaged to be married to a man 15 years her junior. “He’s like this unopened flower,” C gushed about her fiance, “it’s so wonderful to see him as he grows into his full potential, with me as his watering can!” As the rest of us smiled and chuckled at this delightful switch on the stereotypical May-December romance, C joked about her fiance’s response to this age differential. “When we first started dating, he called himself my boy-toy. ‘What, am I Madonna?’ I asked?” Ah, my friend, you’re not Madonna…you’re the real deal. When I first met C a handful of years ago, she’d survived a debilitating car crash only to be unceremoniously dumped by a husband who didn’t want to care for her. In the years I’ve known her, C’s overcome the physical, neurological, and psychological challenges of both those disasters to reinvent a life that’s full of joy: now she’s a bike-riding, mountain-climbing, Sanskrit-teaching yoga instructor whose body glows with tattoos, a nose-jewel, and more confidence than you can imagine. She’s been through the ‘stile, you see. Ain’t no ticks or prickles that can deter a woman on a mission.

Footpath, Keene, NH

And then there’s D: the “beautiful lady” as my four-year-old niece termed her. When I met D some three years ago, both she and I were stuck on our dissertations: mine in American literature, hers in public policy. It didn’t matter that our studies were in entirely different fields; what mattered was that at the time we lived not more than 20 minutes away from one another. As ABDs who were slogging on dissertations in geographic isolation from our parent institutions, we relished the ability to get together over lunch to commiserate over chapter drafts and advisor woes. Over the course of many a plate of Japanese food, D and I picked our way through the poison-ivy of academe: when she finished her eight year slog toward the doctorate, D packed her bags, left her floundering marriage, and moved to a city, Philadelphia, where she knew no one but the folks who had chosen her for a post-doc fellowship. D’s in Hartford now: she moved there to be near her college-aged daughter. Although she doesn’t yet have a job and doesn’t know exactly where her path leads from here, D is obviously and radiantly happy, striding into my party looking electric in a ruffled black tank top, black yoga pants, and purple-sequined slippers. “You look fabulous!” I gushed as D gave me the requisite PhD-congratulatory hug. “You look fabulous too, Doctor!”

I remember when D made the decision to leave her husband, family, and the home she’d lived in for decades in order to move to an unknown future. “I need a bed,” she’d announced. “I have no furniture, but first I want a bed!” She had little money: her divorce settlement hadn’t yet been finalized and her post-doc stipend would be modest. “I don’t care what else is in my apartment; I want a nice bed!” At such a fragile, fear-inspiring moment, D asked me–me!–to go along as she picked out that bed: in wondrous D fashion she went to the most upscale furniture store in Concord, NH and chose without apology a beautiful handcrafted bedframe and mattress. “The saleman probably thinks we’re lesbians,” I fretted as D asked me lie down on one of the mattresses she was considering. “Why the hell should we care what he thinks?” D replied with an insistent look. She’s right, of course. The others would have told her she was crazy to start a PhD program well into her forties; they would have told her she was crazy to start a third career now in her fifties. And maybe D is crazy; I’m sure there are times when D herself wonders what she’s gotten herself into. But at this point, if you call her crazy, you’ll have to call her Doctor Crazy, and I bet she’ll ask you to kiss her purple-sequined toe if you have anything bad to say about it.

The wonderful thing about D, of course, is the same thing that’s wonderful about both A and C: none of them have ever listened when the naysayers have said “you can’t” or “you shouldn’t.” Although they’ve seriously considered the advice of those who know and love them–the warnings of those who truly have their best interests in mind–none of these Phoenix Friends of mine have ever let a little itch-inducing ivy or any sort of prick get in the way of what they want. They’ve all been through the ‘stile, you see: even if this path ends with a wooden gate and a keep out sign, they know their way around these or any other woods. The journey of life is never straight or smooth, but these fabulous females have learned their way over or around just about every obstacle.