Tag Archives: aging

Surrendering the Lead: An Observation from the Way of Saint James

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I could not accept retirement with grace.

Perhaps it was because retirement was not something I’d sought. Quite the opposite. After eighteen years as a lawyer, I’d been teaching high school English for six, loved it better than pistachio ice cream, hoped to continue for fifteen more years.

Perhaps it was because I’d spent a lifetime seeking education. I’d earned three graduate degrees—in law, teaching, and writing—to be the best I could in my careers.

Perhaps it was because my résumé had always worked magic. Spiffy schools, top grades, and strong endorsements had yielded a series of jobs, each one better than the one before, all landed easily.

Perhaps it was because I’d always been a workaholic. Late nights, weekends, holidays, I’d be there at the grindstone. Yep, you could always count on me.

Yet there I was jobless at age fifty, brought down by four high school juniors. They’d turned in identical essays for a final paper not assigned as group work; even their typos were the same. When I reported the incident to the dean, he ordered me to overlook the cheating. I surmised the parents were donors and resigned instead.

That was seven years ago, and I haven’t found steady work since.

It’s not that I haven’t looked. I applied for countless jobs: eighth grade language arts teacher, high school debate coach, twelfth grade creative writing teacher, college instructor of expository writing, law school professor of legal research and writing, volunteer writing tutor, assistant to a nun who ran a nonprofit and sought someone experienced in teaching, writing, and law.

I wrote the cover letters from the heart, tailored every application. Still, most went unacknowledged, despite my follow-ups. The rest elicited rejections addressed to “Applicant.” They secured not a single interview.

The only work I found was teaching college writing as an adjunct—and, believe me, I was grateful. But this was intermittent, temp work, doled out on a moment’s notice, carried on in isolation, lasting just ten weeks per stint, without a chance of advancement, cancelable at the college’s will.

What had happened to me? I’d once been treated like a crystal goblet, now like a paper cup.

The situation resulted in depression—ceaseless lamentation and self-recrimination: Why doesn’t anybody want me? Was my past success a fluke? How can I be so worthless that hard work can’t bring me up to snuff? I should have ignored that cheating. I was such an idiot. If something happens to my marriage, how will I earn enough to live?

My reaction to joblessness, I learned, was not uncommon. Psychologists have long associated unemployment with depression, poor self-esteem, and anxiety. And a recent Gallop-Healthways survey found that under- and unemployed Americans are more than twice as likely to report they’re being treated for depression than those with full-time jobs.

Treatment, though, wasn’t what I wanted. What I wanted was a job. Why was that impossible?

A friend surmised the problem was my age. She knew the nun I had applied to and asked her which applicant she’d hired. The response: a recent college graduate, a twenty-three-old. A young woman my former students’ age.

That age was my undoing seemed ridiculous. I might live thirty more years. I’m also a whiz on my iPad, and in yoga I can stand on my head.

What’s more, I know young adults. Believe me, I love them dearly. But they skip classes over broken fingernails. They can’t write a sentence worth beans. They’re known to be shameless job-hoppers, switching posts every three years. Why would employers them when they can have someone resilient, experienced, and steadfast—in other words, me?

Still, my friend’s hypothesis had merit. The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported that in 2013 almost thirty percent of cases claimed age discrimination. And according to a recent Boston Globe piece, almost half of all Americans who are jobless for more than a year are age forty-five or older and unlikely to ever be hired. A sixtyish former executive who’d spent five years pounding the pavement described the challenge he’d experienced: interviewers were twenty years his junior and not eager to “hire their dad.”

I was doomed, no doubt about it, so I resolved to walk The Way of Saint James.

The Way of Saint James—El Camino de Santiago—is a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, where, according to tradition, the apostle James the Greater is buried. Ever since the Middle Ages, pilgrims have journeyed to his tomb on a variety of routes. The most travelled is 500 miles long and starts five miles from the Spanish border in the Pyrenean foothills of France, but some pilgrims walk from farther points—Paris, Rome, Munich—others from spots nearer Santiago—Burgos, León, Samos. Last September, I joined them with my husband, trekking 200 miles in twelve stages.

Walking The Way is like having group therapy. All along the trail, pilgrims encounter each other, hike together for a distance, converse about their lives.

The first thing pilgrims always asked me was why I was making the journey. When I confessed that I was unemployed, they listened, shook their heads and nodded, then told me reasons of their own: One said her boyfriend had betrayed her. Another disclosed his wife had died. Another revealed she had cancer. Several, like me, said they couldn’t find jobs. Many of us were hoping the Camino would ease us through a transition or help us recover from a loss. Every day we were happy to discover empathetic souls who liked to walk and talk.

On the seventh day of our Camino, my husband and I rose before dawn and departed O’Cebreiro, a Celtic, mountaintop village with cobbled streets and numerous pallozas—round, stone houses with thatched roofs. We walked beneath the moon and stars, soon joining a group of eighteen young adults we’d met a few days before.

Guided by a few pilgrim headlamps, we headed down a wooded track. It wound around the hill before descending to the hamlet of Liñares and ascending again. The sun began to rise, revealing an ethereal horizon of green hilltops floating over morning mist. This is where Megan caught us and my husband speeded up a so the two of us women could talk.

Megan is a blue-eyed Millennial, a genial girl-next-door with a graceful stride. She told me nothing makes her happier than teaching and working with kids. Just a few months before the Camino, she’d completed a MEd in educational psychology. Through the summer she’d worked as a camp coordinator. She’d enjoyed it very much, but the job was seasonal and ended. On the Camino she was pondering her future, worried that she’d found no other job and scared that she never would.

When Megan and I reached Alto de San Roque, she stopped at a monolithic statue perched on the edge of a bluff—a trekking medieval pilgrim carrying a walking stick. There some of her friends were taking photos, gulping water, and gorging on croissants.

I continued on the path to Padornelo, which passes a pretty, stone chapel and climbs steeply for a stretch before plunging towards Ramil, where pilgrims, sheep, cattle, and chickens share a corredoira—a narrow lane walled with granite. By late morning, light rain began to fall. As I was pulling on my poncho, Rochelle and Erin joined me. We walked and they talked about their lives.

Rochelle is an athletic twenty-something with long blond hair and a bright, wide smile. She professed a passion for the Catholic Church and hoped to dedicate herself to serving it. With a BA in political science and comparative religion, she’d found a job at a diocesan chancery and had been there for two years. She told me only God knows what’s in store for her, but in the meantime she was happy where she was. She was walking The Way because she felt she had something to prove to herself and she couldn’t rest until she did.

Erin’s a gregarious Gen Y-er with chic, dark hair and cerulean eyes. She’d earned a BA in linguistics, planned to work in bilingual education, but realized teaching didn’t suit her well. She wound up in working in high school youth ministry. That job had disillusioned her, so she quit and embarked on the Camino, hoping to become re-inspired. Her goal was to pinpoint a career that would help others and gratify her.

As we talked, the three of us meandered a trail above a wooded valley. After a while, the drizzle tapered off and the clouds lifted a bit. The path began to ascend and soon I felt the need to slow my stride. The two girls offered to stay in sync with me, but I encouraged them to keep their pace, so they nodded and hiked on.

Within moments they were ahead of me, joining their marching, ponchoed friends. Orange-berried rowan trees swaying at the roadside, the queue of young adults briskly climbed the hill, their ranks stretching out before me as far as I could see: Blake, Megan, Lisa, Monica, Milo, Katey, Bryson, Julie, Alex, Liz, Vincent, Helen, Erin, Ruth, Rochelle. As I watched them soldier on, a wave of peace swept through me. I realized we were just where we should be, with them leading the way and me bringing up the rear.

I’d been wrong about their generation. Far from being unaccomplished and inconstant, they were strong, smart, caring, skilled, determined, with lots of love in their hearts and lots of dreams in their heads. They deserved to reach those dreams, but being young they had only just begun and had not yet had the chance to succeed.

On the other hand, I had had my chance. During my fifty-something years, I’d accomplished many, many dreams. I had a family, home, and friends, and yes, I’d had a long career. Between the young adults and me it was only fair that employers would choose them. Perhaps it was time to surrender, accept my turn to lead was over, and bless the next generation as it passed.

Please understand what I’m saying: I’m not condoning ageism; older workers need and want to work and have so much of value to give. And, believe me, if I could find a steady teaching job, I would leap at the chance.

At this juncture, I’m simply acknowledging the deal that God has made with every one of us. As we age, we lose things one by one—health, work, possessions, loved-ones, independence, life. We don’t know the timing or the sequence. For me the job went first, and really, I should be thankful; compared to other things I might have lost—and will lose in the future—the job was insignificant.

Once, Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on a special colt as the people lined the streets with boughs and hailed him as their king. Within days, though, they arrested him and sentenced him to death.

Jesus begged God to change his fate; he loved his work and life and didn’t want to lose them. But God ignored his supplication, so Jesus readily steeled himself and did his Father’s will. He surrendered, accepted his time to leave had come, and blessed his disciples as they began to lead the way.

 

Originally published in Good Letters.

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Sleeping Beauty

ImageThe following is an excerpt from Pieces of Someday: One Woman’s Search for Meaning in Lawyering Family, Italy, Church, and a Tiny Jewish High School

The classroom door blew open as I packed my briefcase to go home. A cold gust of air rushed in, blowing the papers from my desk, chasing red and gold leaves across the threshold so they swirled and settled at my feet.

Kalindah whirled in with the weather. With black-sweatshirted arms, she gave me my daily hug—nubby, slightly dank and fusty—then plopped on the top of a desk, pulling legs akimbo beneath her skirt. “Ms. Vallone, life’s so unfair. All my friends have boyfriends but me.”

Braces, Janis Joplin hair, Kalindah was a freshman when I first began teaching high school English. Another teacher had warned me about her: “Make sure you watch out for that one—she’s a time bomb waiting to explode, bipolar without her medication. You’ll see, one day she’ll draw a knife.”

During my first few weeks, Kalindah sat huddled at the back of the classroom, silent, impassive, gray-eyed. Was she sedated? Not till I scheduled a quiz did I see any sign of life. After class she came up to my desk: “I stink at tests.” Then she walked out.

Sure enough, her score was 47. When I lay the quiz on her desk, she glanced at the grade, hands stuffed in sweatshirt pouch. “Told you.” I studied the dandruff in her part. “Take it home and do it over. You can use your book and raise your grade.”

Metal smile trapping sandwich morsels. “Really? That’s awesome!”

Tests weren’t Kalindah’s only problem. For weeks I pumped and prodded: “I’m still waiting for your narrative. Are you planning to turn one in?”

Her response: a shoulder shrug. But one day she came to class early, dropped some rumpled sheets on my desk. “Ms. Vallone, I know it’s really late, but I wrote the story.”

In the story, the penguin Galápaga wants to cross a river, but she’s an orphan, so no one’s shown her how. She tries to use her wings as eagles do, but finds them too stubby for flying. She tries to hop across on river rocks, but her legs are too clumsy for leaping.

Galápaga uses a fallen tree trunk as bridge between the two banks. But the trunk is very narrow, mossy, and high above the water. Though penguins have good gripping toenails, midway across she slips.

Plummeting from her perch, Galápaga is desperate. She impromptu somersault tucks, plunges in the frigid water. Sinking to the bottom, she begins to pray: O God / Fear and trembling come upon me / Oh, that I had wings like a dove! /I would fly away and be at rest.

Then a strange thing happens. Panic-beating her wings, Galápaga rises through the water, discovering she can swim. So she breaststrokes across the river, climbs out, and waddles toward the woods.

I laughed reading Kalindah’s story, wrote A at the top, Great job! In Italian calinda means lark. So I hope you understand you can fly even though penguins can’t! Next day when she read my comments, Kalindah smiled and leaped at me, gave me the very first hug.

But what could I say about boys to a girl only sixteen? I gathered the papers from the floor, slipped them into my briefcase, sat on a desk facing Kalindah. “I know it stinks not to have a boyfriend, but someday you’ll have one, really. Remember when you thought you couldn’t write?”

“Yeah, but I’m not pretty. I wish I could be someone else!”

When I was an adolescent, I wished to be my cousin Angela, three years older than me. Angela, the Italian word for angel. Angela, who as a child wore the prettiest pinafores, dark hair thickly braided with ribbons. Angela, favored as beautiful, while I was anything but. Aunt Lina said my eyes were beady. Gramma told me I needed a perm. My father hinted I was chubby.

In high school, it was Debbie Schein I envied, a twin for Zeffirelli’s Juliet—chestnut hair tumbling to her waist, blue eyes, and dancer’s legs. If I were Debbie, every evening Michael Goldfarb would scale the lamppost on the corner. He’d peek inside my window as I braided my hair for bed, maybe even whisper to himself: But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks? / It is the east, and Jan is the sun.

But as long as Debbie was alive, Mike would never look at me. Nor would Gary, nor Mitchell, nor Jeff.

It’s not that I came from bad stock. My mother had curly hair, twinkling eyes, a heart-shaped face. And oh what a figure in the photo, bathing-suited at age eighteen, a Sophia Loren on a rock, sunning at Kaaterskill Falls. So it was for my Aunt Marie and my cousins Marianne and Celeste. Of all the females in my family, only I lacked the magic genes.

I remember when I was sixteen. Angela sat me on the pink counter of our grandmother’s tiny bathroom, my back towards the mirror, legs dangling. She pushed my hair behind my ears, perused my face with her kohled golden eyes. Bubbling in her Brooklyn brogue, she broke into a glossy smile, “I’ve got it!”

She unzipped her floral makeup bag with a flick of her bracelet-trimmed wrist. Out came a bottle of foundation muddying up my face. Out came a tin of eye-shadow blizzarding blue my lids. Out came a mascara spiral coating my lashes black. Out came a sparkling swivel-stick staining my lips cherry red.

When she was finished, Angela stepped back. She lifted my face with a finger, turned it right and left, called, “Gramma, come see!”

Pots clanging in the kitchen, pitter-patters up the hall. Gramma squeezed into the bathroom, squinted at my face. She nodded, “Much bedda.”

My heart bloomed a rose.

Then Angela stirred her fingers in her makeup bag, pulled out a rhinestone-trimmed mirror. “Okay—now you can see.”

She held the mirror before me. But Juliet wasn’t reflected there.

Instead, I saw a clown.

In my twenties, it was Holly Brown I longed to be. We two were medical lab techs then working at UNC. Every morning she’d sashay to her bench, flicking her Farrah Fawcett mane: “Good mornin’ y’all.”

As jasmine-gardenia perfume gusted from Holly’s curly halo, the male techs would look up from their microscopes, dropping jaws to gawk. In my corner, I’d reach for the radio, turn up the volume of Bruce Springsteen: Show a little faith there’s magic in the night / You ain’t a beauty but hey you’re alright.

But I wasn’t all right. So I spent a few days’ salary to reinvent myself as Holly. As I sat before a salon mirror, Jean Paul pumped the swivel chair, raising the object of his art. He shampooed my hair in awapuhi—wafting ginger scent—parted it into sections, paper-wrapped each around a rod. He squeezed on glycerol monothioglycolate, plastic- capped my head. He helmeted me with a dryer and toggled on the heat.

My scalp prickled and crawled. My ears sizzled like bacon. But the dryer drone fired my fantasies as I flipped through an issue of Vogue: Maybe the lab crew will realize I’m a dove and Holly’s a crow.

Jean Paul rinsed my head to stop the process. He cut and blew dry my hair. Then he swiveled my chair towards the mirror—voilà: Christ, I have a fro.

I’m embarrassed to admit that in my thirties, my desire was to look like Princess Di—the ultra-toned body, bright smile.  The lash-brushing bangs and royal rose-petal skin. So I went to aerobics, tried Pearl Drops, scrubbed my face, cut my hair Diana-style.

But somehow I contracted the chickenpox, pox upon pox upon pox. They healed leaving scars on my chin, causing me to turn from every mirror. The marks seemed to shout from my jaw, “See how repulsive she is!”

What would Princess Di do about such horrid imperfections?

I made an appointment with Dr. Fleisch, a well-known dermatologist. He suggested dermabrasion. If I elected the surgery, he’d give me medication to relax. Then he’d cleanse my face with antiseptic, apply a spray to insta-freeze my skin. That done, he’d use a rotary tool to sand off several epidermal layers.

Post-op, the site would be raw, requiring pain relievers. My face would take three months to heal, need sun-shields for six to eight. Luckily, side effects were few—infections, fever blisters, scars, thickened skin, splotchy pigmentation.

I squirmed as Dr. Fleisch disclosed the details, asked if many patients chose the surgery.

“It’s a commoner procedure.”

So I knew that Di would never do it; I’d have to research something else.

Why should physical beauty be the object of lifelong yearning? Trigger decades of envy and grief? Prompt cosmetics, surgery, false hope? And why, even into my forties, did I still pine to be a dove among the crows?

How I fussed on a trip to Palermo, Sicily, before visiting my step-grandmother. The last time I’d seen Mimma, I was barely into my twenties. Now she was eighty-six and I a wife, the mother of two teens. Still, I slathered my wrinkles with creams, bleached my teeth, tinted my hair. I wore capris to mask my thighs, long sleeves to hide my arms.

And what did Mimma do when we showed her a Polaroid we’d taken after she’d scaled two flights like a jilly-goat to fetch her brother for lunch? After she served us a four-course meal she’d cooked and served herself? After she toured us around the apartment she still dusted, swept, and mopped? She shook her head at the photo and covered her image with her hand. “O Dio, I old.”

A short walk from Mimma’s apartment is the Convento dei Cappuccini. In 1599 the monks noticed something strange: their catacombs released mysterious vapors that mummified the dead. When the monks announced the discovery, they set off a public frenzy. People clamored to be buried there to preserve their beauty after death.

In the catacombs’ long dank corridors rest eight thousand corpses. Each is suspended by the neck like a lamb hanging at the butcher’s, each wearing Sunday’s best clothes. A monk hovers in a cassock, penance rope around his neck. A woman wafts hoop-skirted, wielding a parasol. A soldier sentries in uniform and a wide three-cornered hat.

There’s a special section for children. The last catacombed corpse was a girl who died of croup in 1920. Frocked flouncily in pink, ringlets gathered in a bow, she rests in a transparent casket.

The monks call the girl Sleeping Beauty, but there’s little beauty in the crypt. Sleeping Beauty’s skin is doll-waxy, her hair faded, dull, limp. And the flesh of the corpses around her is either mummified or gone. Many faces grimace, some mouthing Edvard Munch screams, the husks of their decaying bodies coated with decades of dust.

But I couldn’t tell Kalindah about the catacombs.

Or that Debbie went skating with her boyfriend on a lake near her college dorm and drowned falling through the ice.

Or that Angela discovered stage three cancer and lost her breasts and hair.

Or that my mother developed a neuroma that twisted and paralyzed her face.

Or that Prince Charles divorced Diana, who died in a car crash shortly after.

Or that when I thought about the women whose beauty I envied all my life, I closed my eyes and thanked God for my wrinkles.

Instead, I pulled a snapshot from my wallet—my family in the Sicilian sun. “Kalindah, you’re fine just as you are. Look, let me show you something. These are the people I love most in the world: My husband—we’ve been married twenty-three years. My daughter—she’s your age. My son, who’s two years younger. And Kalindah, when I was sixteen, I didn’t know a single one of them.”

Kalindah took the photo from my hands, studied it a moment, looked up. “Your daughter’s really pretty. She looks a lot like you.”

 

 

Peripheral Vision

3443136727_e5ae4b0e93_zNot long ago, I had surgery. I suppose that in the vastness of creation, the precipitating problem wasn’t much; with age I’d lost peripheral vision due to drooping eyelids. For several years I’d lived in shadow, sight obscured by canopies of flesh.

My ophthalmologist prescribed blepharoplasty coupled with an endoscopic brow lift. If I chose to have the surgery, he’d put me under general anesthesia, incise along my eyelids’ natural creases and in several places in my scalp. He’d remove excess skin, muscle, and fat and close the gashes with myriad stitches. The procedure would take about two hours, healing, four to five weeks, after which—he hoped—my field of vision would appreciably improve.

When I woke up in recovery, my body tensed with terror, my eyes and head pulsed with pain. I could scarcely press open my eyelids—was anybody there? I felt my husband’s hand in mine, heard a nurse calling my name, but saw only an under-ocean swirl—searing light, floating glow-spots, miasmatic silhouettes. Had my surgeon blinded me?

The first few days at home, I lay supine on the couch—inert—ointment in my closed and crusted eyes, pads on my livid lids, bandages round my throbbing head, heavy icepacks on my face. And for some reason I still don’t understand—anesthesia, pain medication?—I lost control of my thoughts, which tumbled into pondering my past, spiraled into panic for the future, pummeled me so relentlessly that my physical black and blueness paled before the bruising of my heart.

For the previous several years, I’d been teaching writing as an adjunct professor at a college. There, I’d given my all to my students: I’d worked fifty hours per week, developed multiple curriculums, written numerous student recommendation letters, counseled students outside of class, led a Bible study cadre, been a reader for senior projects.

Still, I’d been fired by mass email every June, rehired last minute each quarter, paid less than baristas earned at Starbucks, offered no office, meeting invitations, health insurance, or other benefits. And just before my surgery the college had informed me that a brand new PhD would take over my favorite writing class.

So I brooded: How could the college discard me? Had I done something wrong? Was I a terrible teacher? Was the problem my age? I was twice as old as my replacement, who wouldn’t need blepharoplasty till I was in my grave.

Curled up on the couch, I wept through my ointments and dressings, tears coursing into my ears. In my blinded and mummified state, I couldn’t shake my melancholic thoughts. So desperate was I to divert them, I flouted my surgeon’s orders; I picked up a book from the coffee table though he’d forbidden me to read for at least a week.

Straining to open my eyes wide enough to see, I turned to a meditation by the poet Scott Cairns, who wrote of hiking through Utah’s Arches National Park. Having gone only a little way along the trail, he was awed by the endless blue sky, enormous canyon spaces and tremendous arches and towers of incredibly red rock. He stopped to look down. A flash of vivid color caught his eye, held it, and he was startled to see a brilliant, deep magenta cactus flower on a prickly plant whose scarred, paddle-shaped appendages seemed more dead than alive. He wrote:

And then, having noticed that one flower…my eye was thereby led to another just beyond the first, and then just beyond the second, another…brilliant flowers dotted the landscape as far as the eye could see. They had been there all along, but until I had seen the first I’d been oblivious to their presence, blind to their broadcast beauty.

I lay the book aside, realized my eyes no longer ached that much and neither did my heart. For the first time in several days, I got up from the couch and began to look around. Out the window, in the park, was a boy flinging a Frisbee, his dog springing like a pogo to catch it in its teeth. On the front porch up against the door was a fragrant crate of oranges with a get-well note from a friend. And in my computer inbox were some emails that had come in during the week:

From a student who’d just finished my writing course:

I have loved taking the writing class with you this quarter. I loved seeing your smile every Tuesday and Thursday : ). I feel like I have grown a lot as a writer because of your class.

From a student I’d taught in high school:

I just completed my first script and turned it in! What a rush! Thank you for inspiring me all the way to graduate school!

From the head of the English department at the college where I teach:

I just wanted to let you know that, if you’d like to teach writing next quarter, there’s an afternoon slot that’s opened up. And I want to let you know right now that I will have 1-2 writing sections per quarter next year available, if you’d be interested in signing up for teaching then too.

A leaping dog, sweet oranges, encouraging emails. This trio of brilliant cactus blossoms had been within my field of peripheral vision, but I’d let my umbrage at life’s prickles completely blind me to them. Now my eyes were open. And I knew that if I kept on looking, I’d find still more flowers on the trail.