“Dear Girlfriends, it’s time for our annual new year’s celebration. Once again, please bring something written, by you or others, to share with the group. It will be so wonderful to hear the various voices and subjects you select.”
The email invitation calls us together to mark two occasions that occur when the calendar flips to the first day of January: a birthday for the world and for our friend, now 75. Each year, we come together a week or two after the big ball drops and the fireworks flash. At our age, we’ve mastered the art of delayed gratification. And so much more.
Each of us is the “birthday girl’s” friend or family member. Some have known each other a lifetime and see each other often. Others see each other just this once, or rarely outside of this yearly gathering. No matter. Each of us belongs there because we cherish the company, share the values, and savor the spirit of our hostess. We enjoy a place in her life and she in ours. We’re a collection of unique individuals who happen to be in the close circle of one special woman with a warm heart, eclectic interests, an inquiring mind, and an exuberant enjoyment of life. A woman entwined with her family, engaged in her community, dedicated to civic leadership.
An outsider looking in may see a random assortment of old ladies. We are not. We’re a special blend of women, like the makings of aged bourbon—maturing separately, mellowed and nutty with a hint of spice, and finishing expansively. Before we arrived at this stage of life, between periods of calm and contentment, we weathered dry spells, turbulence, and sudden storms. Some of us are native to this land, this region; others grew and ripened in distant terrain, in distinctly different climates.
Each of us has lived several lives. Some married; some didn’t. Some outlived or outgrew one or more mates; some bore children, raised other’s children, welcomed grandchildren. All understand that there is no one path. All have known joy and heartache in the relationships that defined our lives. We look back on decision points knowing that life is a mix of choice and chance, and what we thought were decisions arrived at freely were made while under the influence—of parents, spouses, propriety, or passing predilections.
Looking around in the understated elegance of our friend’s home, it’s clear that our company is accustomed to material comfort, although many among us came through and remember leaner times. Today, we dress tastefully, each as it suits us. Unlike our mothers and theirs, we wear pants—even jeans—and enhance our outfits with artful ceramic, gold, or silver jewelry selected more to please ourselves than to impress others. Some add flair to ordinary wear: jeans tucked into wine-red, flat-heeled boots topped with a plaid shirt. One, eyes framed by bold designer glasses, adds a stunning handcrafted pendant to a bulky bright green sweater. Our hair? Tinted or grey but blow and go, suiting the spontaneity and freedom of our fluid, light-to-heavily scheduled lives.
We’re new, revised editions of who we used to be, growing and changing as we go. Credits and credentials from past pursuits—initials after our names, plaques on our walls—say little about us today. Now, we’re free and eager to learn, not some canned curriculum but whatever we want, wherever we go, and whoa—we’re humble. There is so much to learn about this life!
After breaking bread over homemade tomato soup, tasty cheese and crackers, luscious berries, and more in the open living-dining room—ten at the long rectangular dining table, several more in the bay-windowed front room—we turned our attention to our hostess, standing at the corner of the L-shaped space. “Let’s share our readings now,” she said. “I’ll go first.”
“I wrote this a long time ago. It’s called, ‘My Mother’s Hands.’”
“Oh I remember it,” I said, “I’ve thought about it often.”
“You read it at your 70th,” someone said and others echoed.
It struck me then how remarkable it was—that in our fast-moving and mobile society, despite changes in my life and around me, I’d been present in this same company at that 70th birthday celebration and every year since. For me, that day five years ago was the first time I’d been included. For others, it was a long-loved ritual. Now, I saw so many of the same faces turned toward our friend again. Were they reflecting, as I was, that friendship, like life, becomes richer, more nuanced, and much more rewarding over time? Were they noticing the absence of some faces? And were they appreciating, as I was, being present once again?
What else had changed? Our hostess’s grandson, a newborn sensation last year, toddled through our midst in constant motion, reminding us of our own children and grandchildren at that age—a joyful time of empowerment and discovery much like this late stage of life in which we find ourselves. Our hostess’s daughter-in-law, the toddler’s mother, read an affirmation she’d composed for the occasion. In simple, sincere prose, she captured our friend’s special qualities, honored their relationship, and revealed her own depth of character. And more had changed. This year, a new thread ran through our reflections. “I am better off healed than I ever was unbroken.” The reader noted how that thought, attributed to author Beth Moore, resonated for her personally and for our country. A covey of concurring comments fluttered up. Yes, we could relate. Although tormented by political turmoil, we took heart from and recommitted to the resistance, determined to shape a culture that would finally, fully liberate our daughters and granddaughters.
The readings we shared revealed the threads that weave us into a friendship quilt. As one after another world-wise woman rose to speak, whose voices did we hear? Our own, as well as inspirational messages from mindfulness guru Jon Kabat-Zin, from Leading from Within: Poetry That Sustains the Courage to Lead, selected by leaders striving to do good and effective work in the world; and from poet Mary Oliver, a personal favorite, offering these instructions for living a life: “Pay Attention. Be Astonished. Tell About It.”
I just did.