Birthday treat

Last weekend I turned 50, a milestone I somehow never thought I’d reach. Turning 50 isn’t a remarkable task–given enough time, anyone could do it–but somehow I never imagined it happening to me.

Burdicks

When I was younger, being 50 is something I never (literally) pictured. As a child, I could readily envision myself in high school, college, and young adulthood. I could picture myself in my 20s and 30s, when I imagined I’d have long, disheveled hair and legs that would stride tirelessly through woods and streams, stomping fearlessly through mud and briars. But I never imagined myself as middle-aged, settled, and settling. Back then, I never imagined I’d transform into a gray-haired, thick-middled woman in a pink coat and gray beret, the kind of unremarkable older woman you might pass on the street without really seeing. I could if I really tried imagine myself as a white-haired and wiry old lady, but not as gray and middling.

Reflective self portrait

Thirty years ago when I was an undergraduate, I took a group singing class for non-music majors that I’ve since insisted was the most useful class I took in college. In that class, I had to stand in front of my peers and sing unaccompanied, including at least one opera song in Italian. This class is where I first learned about the passaggio. All singers–especially sopranos like me, my teacher said–have a low voice and a high voice, but the trickiest voice is the passaggio, the voice in the middle where the low tones in your chest meet the high falsetto in your head.

Reflective self portrait

My voice teacher was a rail-thin sliver of a man, but he physically transformed when he sang, standing up taller and emitting a big, booming voice that seemed to come from the center of the earth. After alternating between his thin, unremarkable speaking voice and his rich, deep singing voice, my teacher explained that mastering the passaggio was the secret to becoming a good singer. If you weathered the passaggio, he explained, you could link your high voice to your low voice to create one seamlessly connected voice that swelled effortlessly from low to high without any squeaks, croaks, or cracks.

Reflective self portrait

When you shift from low voice to high, he explained, your throat–your whole body–does all sorts of weird things. Your voice sounds squeaky and shrill. You think this voice sounds bad because it is unusual to your ear: it’s not the speaking voice you’ve grown accustomed to. Even though you’re singing from your own body–where else, exactly, could you sing–the passaggio is a place you might not ever explore.

“Put your hand on my shoulder,” my teacher would say as he sat at the piano and switched from his soft speaking voice to his infinitely rich baritone. He wanted all of us–a half dozen non-musicians in a one-credit pass/fail elective–to feel the physical change. “Your whole body is an instrument,” he’d insist, and yes, you could feel something shift in his shoulder as he went from slack-spined and insipid to upright and energized: Clark Kent transformed into Superman.

Burdicks

I am, at age 50, weathering a different sort of passaggio. Being 50 is physically weird. Your body becomes alien, with new aches and pains, less flexibility, and diminished energy. Fatigue becomes a kind of friend–a phenomenon you know right down to your bones–and so do disappointment and resignation. If you are a woman, your alien body will surge with heat, sweat, and restless, abundant energy as you lie abed, pondering life, the universe, and the eternally vexing question of whether you locked the back door.

Although I was (and am) an unremarkable singer, my college voice teacher did walk me through the passaggio once. Usually, he let us choose our preferred register for whatever song we decided to sing in front of the class: the whole reason I opted for this elective, after all, was to force myself to sing in front of strangers, figuring the experience of taming my nerves would be good practice for teaching. (I was right.) But occasionally, my teacher would choose a key on the piano and ask us to sing it, turning us the other way so we couldn’t see how low or high that note was.

My writing runs on chocolate

And so one day when he thought I was ready, my teacher did with me what I’d seen him do with other students: he asked me to do a warm-up exercise down low in my register, and then he gradually moved that exercise up, up, up the scale. After a half dozen steps, I started to waver, my voice feeling thin and squeaky. “If it doesn’t hurt, don’t stop,” he encouraged. “It sounds beautiful to the rest of us: keep going.” And when I reached the place where my voice finally cracked, he turned me around to the piano and showed me, there on the far right side of the keys, the impossibly high note I had reached. “If you don’t believe that’s the note you just sang,” he said, “just look at your classmates,” and indeed, they were all staring at me, amazed.

Although I never became a classical singer, what I learned from that one credit, pass/fail class was the courage it takes to stand in your own shoes, open your mouth, and trust with all your heart whatever sound comes out. At the still-strange age of 50, I’ve come to believe that in the middle of any passage, you won’t necessarily imagine what comes next; you just have to trust your body to work through its weirdness on the way to a pure, clear note.

Eeyore

Yesterday after months of secret angst, I turned fifty. Now that I’ve passed that venerable milestone, I realize what I had been dreading wasn’t being fifty by turning fifty. Among women of a certain age, there is a widespread expectation (spoken or implied) that you should Do Something Grand for milestone birthdays, and my usual low-key celebratory style felt completely inadequate, at least in my imagined build up to The Event.

You are enough

But now that the auspicious occasion is officially over, I can say I celebrated as I (if nobody else) saw fit. In the morning, I went to the Zen Center, left after one meditation session, then walked to Harvard Square, where I explored the old burying ground–there is nothing like visiting graves of the centuries-ago deceased to put your life in perspective–before stopping at Burdick’s, where I treated myself to half a slice of raspberry-chocolate cake and a small dark hot chocolate. And under the combined influence of meditation, a brisk walk, and high octane chocolate, I did something I love to do but hadn’t done in ages: I sat in a cafe and wrote, starting with nothing to say and eventually finding words to describe why turning fifty has been unsettling. I wrote my way, in other words, into my own sort of clarity.

Street salamander

This is how I’ve navigated the first fifty years of my life, so why wouldn’t it be an apt way to celebrate the commencement of the next? After that first decadent treat, the rest of the day unspooled like any other Sunday: J and I walked to lunch at our favorite Thai restaurant, where our waiter surprised us with ice cream, and then we played with the dogs in the yard in the afternoon, as we normally do.

It was a quiet and contemplative day–no grand trips or parties or eye-popping spectacles to advertise on social media–but it was a day with all the things I love: walking and meditating and time with J and the dogs. And it was a day, too, with not one but three deserts: Burdicks cake and hot chocolate in the morning, Thai ice cream at lunch, and a slice of chocolate peanut butter cake in the evening. It was a day, in other words, with an abundance of delights.

Pooh and Eeyore

At some point, I’ll blog the journal entry I wrote yesterday at Burdicks, but for now all that’s necessary is to note I had a quietly delightful day and couldn’t have wished for anything better. If the way you spend your birthday is the way you’ll spend the coming year, please sign me up for fifty more.

Got glasses?

Today J and I went to the eye doctor for a routine checkup and new glasses. Although I’m able to read with my old glasses, the doctor decided it was time for me to get either reading glasses or progressive lenses: apparently I’ve been straining to read, and print did indeed look much crisper and clearer when he put an extra set of lenses in front of my eyes.

Umbrellas

Since I tend to multitask when I read, I opted for progressive lenses rather than reading glasses: I’d prefer to use one set of glasses rather than two, and progressives will allow me to read while watching TV or alternate between looking down at my laptop and up at students in the back row of my classes.

May flowers

Moving from regular to progressive lenses is yet another reminder that my body is doing what comes naturally, which is grow older. When J, who is two years older than me, got progressive lenses a few years ago, he predicted I’d follow suit. I remember the acclimation period he’d gone through when his new glasses arrived and he walked around for a week or two tilting his head up and down, trying to find the exact angle where close, medium-range, and distant objects were clear. I know, in other words, what I’m getting into.

Psychedelic dinnerware

I’ve worn glasses since I was a child, so I have little vanity when it comes to eyewear: I grew up, after all, hearing the saying “Men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses.” Now that I’m firmly entrenched in middle age, I’ve grown accustomed to being invisible: I can’t remember the last time a man of any age made anything remotely resembling a pass, and I can’t say I miss it. Reading is one of my favorite pastimes, so I don’t mind wearing whatever kind of glasses it takes to make it easier.

The photos illustrating today’s post are at least ten years old. I took the top photo in June, 2008, and I shot the other images through a kaleidoscopic lens in the ICA giftshop in May, 2007.

Reggie closeup

It’s after dark and drizzly, and Reggie has come in from his final bathroom break of the night: a quick pee in the front yard a few hours after our last walk. This is how it is when you live with an old dog: you measure your days and nights by the size of his bladder. When Reggie was younger, he would pace and whine when he needed to go out; nowadays, the moment he totters to his feet, awkward on arthritic legs, I hustle him toward the door. Sometimes Reggie makes it all the way outside before relieving himself; sometimes not. This is how it is when you live with an old dog.

Let sleeping dogs lie

When you live with an old dog, you gradually accept things that would have troubled you before, your patience blossoming like an unfolding flower. Another accident? No problem: you keep paper towels and a mop handy. Another bathroom break mere hours after the last one? No problem: you tell yourself it’s healthy to take a break now, not later. Another stint of patiently coaxing a dog who has never liked stairs to make his tentative way downstairs, one shaky step at a time? No problem: you learn how to meditate on each step, lavishly praising each one as if it were your dog’s first. When you live with an old dog, you gradually become accustomed to living your life moment-by-moment, the limitations of your pet’s declining body revealing the breadth and depth of your patience and priorities.

Sleepy dog

When you live with an old dog, you learn how to loosen your grip on to-do lists and time lines. Do I care about the papers left unread and the emails still unanswered? Yes, I do…but I care more about taking Reggie out when he needs it, cleaning up his accidents, and making sure he’s watered, fed, and comfortable. Do I have time to coax a dog down stairs three to four times a day when I have papers to read, classes to prep, and other work to be done? Technically, no…but practically, yes. Practically, yes, because your priorities shift when you live with an old dog, and you learn how to make time you technically don’t have. Mindful of the length of even the healthiest dog’s life, you learn to take the long view in all you do. “After he’s gone,” you silently ask yourself, “will I care whether I finished those papers, answered those emails, or checked off those other to-dos?” When you live with an old dog, you remind yourself time and again that sentient beings are always more important than tasks. After Reggie’s gone, I won’t care whether I accomplished everything on my to-do list, but I will care that I was fully present for his final days, however many they might be.

Reggie enjoys a car ride!

When you live with an old dog, you sometimes find yourself getting teary-eyed on an otherwise serene dog-walk because you know these days are precious: one day, you know, you’ll miss the trouble of cleaning up accidents and the glacial pace of coaxing an elderly animal down stairs, one step at a time. “How old is your dog,” strangers will sometimes ask me on our puttering neighborhood dog-walks. “Fourteen,” I’ll answer, to varying responses. Some folks marvel at how good Reggie looks for his age: slow-moving and methodical, but without noticeable graying. Other folks–the ones who have lived with old dogs of their own, I suspect–nod with a resigned expression. Fourteen, both they and I know, is ancient: a handful of friends have lost their dogs this past year, and all of those dogs were thirteen. When you live with a fourteen-year-old dog, you have no delusions: you know nothing is guaranteed, just this walk, this step. It’s the most valuable lesson any old dog–any sentient being–can offer.

Ashuelot River from footbridge

The Ashuelot, like any river, has two sides, and last Wednesday, Reggie and I took a quiet walk on the wild side.

Tattered and turning

I typed that opening line because I liked the music of it in my head, then I did a quick blog-search to review the other times Reggie and I have walked along the Ashuelot River. Sure enough, I’ve used this opening line before, more than six years ago:

The Ashuelot River, like any river, has two sides. You can access the east side of the Ashuelot River by parking in the lot for Blockbuster Video on West Street, where you’ll find the river tumbling over a dam right behind the long-out-of-business Taco Bell. There is a landscaped park on this side of the river which culminates in a smooth gravelled fitness path. This path enters the woods and skirts the river all the way to Route 9 on the edge of town, where it crosses the river on a walkway and then snakes under the road toward Wheelock Park, where it ends.

Dried Queen Anne's lace

They say (and I’ve blogged) that you can’t step into the same river twice, and indeed the wild side of the Ashuelot Reggie and I revisited last Wednesday is not the same river we walked six years ago. Blockbuster Video has gone out of business (although locals still refer to its parking lot on West Street by that name), and the long-forgotten Taco Bell is now (and has been for years) a successful Starbucks. More importantly, both Reggie and I are six years older than we were the first time I blogged the Ashuelot River’s wild side, and although I don’t feel substantially worse for the wear of six years, Reggie’s changed. Last Wednesday Reggie and I walked on the wild side of the Ashuelot–the side that doesn’t have smooth, improved paths, where fewer dog-walkers, cyclists, and joggers go–because the paths there quickly peter out into underbrush, and as slowly as Reggie walks these days, I’ve learned to measure our walks by depth rather than length.

Buckthorn

When Reggie was younger and more energetic, we’d walk from the so-called Blockbuster parking lot on West Street to the underpass of Route 9 and back without a second thought: that was a moderate, easy stroll for us. These days, Reggie walks far more slowly, and he spends far more time stopping to rest and sniff: it’s impossible, I’m learning, to hurry an old dog. Reggie and still take our morning (and sometimes evening) walks around the neighborhood, but now that Reggie’s more than thirteen years old, we take those morning walks much more deliberately. We aren’t in a hurry to cover ground; instead, we’re intent on appreciating the ground we cover.

A few weeks ago, for example, Reggie and I went to Goose Pond, where the two of us have walked (and Reggie has waded) many times in the past. I knew it was unlikely we’d make it all the way around the pond, a walk that took us a few leisurely hours in the good old days when both of us were younger, but I figured we’d have a good time walking to the pond and back, if not further, and I was right. This time at Goose Pond, Reggie and I took our good, sweet time walking from the parking lot to Reggie’s favorite wading spot, where he muddied his paws and sniffed while I did a quick scribble-sketch in my journal: walking with a pencil and sketchbook, I’ve learned, is something that goes quite naturally with walking an old dog. When we both were done, Reggie quite naturally turned back the way we came, toward the car, as if to say “That’s enough for today, Mom,” and indeed it was. We squeezed an entire pond’s worth of looking, sniffing, and appreciating into a slow, half-hour walk there and back, and nothing more was necessary.

Sumac leaves

This summer, my upstairs neighbor in Keene had to put her thirteen-year-old German shepherd to sleep; this past week, one of my teaching colleagues said goodbye to her similarly aged Basenji. Each of these and other losses remind me that any time spent with an elderly dog is golden. For the time being, Reggie’s spirit is strong even if his energy is diminished; for the time being, we’re not yet ready for talk of the rainbow bridge. Still, I’m not naive enough to think that time won’t come, eventually; as J mentioned when the film version of the book Marley and Me came out, “I don’t need to see that movie, because I know how it ends.” When you know where the winding path you trod leads, you can make a conscious choice to enjoy every step as a time to cherish and reflect.

This is my belated contribution to last week’s Photo Friday theme, Reflect. I’ve been remiss when it comes to posting recent pictures of Reggie, so let me make up for that by linking to a lovely set of photos J took with Reggie in our backyard this past spring: proof that the Old Dog is still pretty damn handsome, and very experienced when it comes to lounging.