The fragrance of yesterday’s flowers

This spring and all the rain has made our community extremely green. In the cool mornings working from home, I have made breathing in the scent from my herbs and flowers I have planted a part of my ritual of mindful meditation. While we have all read or heard about how smell can evoke memories that have been associated with particular scents, I find that my mornings often transport me to places unexplored. Unexplored, yet ready for me to uncover the promise of tomorrow. Somehow, the growing life that fills my garden not only takes me back but holds me in a space that is quiet and new and purposeful. I have found a connection between the past, present, and the future in these gifts from my garden.

My maternal family has always loved roses. I’ve learned that our body chemistry and our ability to smell differs from person to person. However, despite the color or fragrance, the scent of roses evokes my past in a way that is more powerful than I could have imagined. I am reminded of the football-sized roses of all colors that lined my grandmother’s drive in the country where dirt roads were commonplace. I think back to my childhood where we knew we were close to my Grammy and Granddad because we saw the drive and even smelled the richness of the blooms as the tires from our car crunched over the gravel and dirt circular path. My mother continued this appreciation as her driveway in the city was also lined with roses, carrying on the sensory tradition of the anticipation of being home. While my roses do not yet grow in abundance, the fragrance of my Mr. Lincolns takes me back to a past that was simple and filled with home.

This spring, in particular, has been wonderfully fresh and I have planted mint and rosemary (ah! that rosemary!) and catered to my few growing flowers. Working the soil in the morning sun, I converse with myself about the need to wear a hat. At times, I must spend time recovering from my worshipful seat on the ground. I will occasionally stop and listen to the birds. Sometimes, I will smell the earth and my trusty canine companions and the evidence of a day at play. These moments, these scents, spur my imagination of the world to come. Retirement is too far away, but the peaceful repose of my midlife gives me hope for growth. Just like my herbs. Just like my roses. While my garden keeps me grounded in the moment, the fragrance of yesterday’s flowers allows me the gratitude of what was and excitement of what is to come.

Who will tell my story?

Just recently was the anniversary of my mother’s death. It’s been six years since she passed away in my home town. We had lived apart, almost 2,000 miles apart, and while technology made it seem closer, it was not close enough. She had become unable to travel and I was still in full-time parent mode. However, as she had more time to visit with me in her retirement years, I was able get to know more about her time as a mother of girls and even a little as a young girl herself. Between the stories of aches and pains of senior life and drama she lived with distant family and her residential facility friends, she occasionally shared a recollection of a time I knew little or nothing about – her youth.

After her death, my sister and I took time to study the few remaining pieces of her life she’d left behind with us. Since moving to an assisted living facility and having to sell her home, it was clear that she had to let go of the identity she had once created for herself as wife, teacher, mother, homeowner, and grandmother. In this new setting and for the years that followed, my mother evolved – or maybe devolved – into the life she led until her death. Now, in a few boxes, what remained of her was given to us to discover.

What we found in these boxes was a woman we barely knew. Instead of the conservative woman who shied away from risk, we found an adventurer. Someone who was a leader, a success within any community she engaged. Someone who, as a young girl from a tiny farming community, fished and camped in the Redwoods. As a teacher fresh out of college, she went to the Far East to travel and teach to young children with military families. We discovered lapel pins and class photos and evidence of her travels to exotic places. We felt sad that the woman we had come to know in death was not the woman we knew in life.

Those of you who follow this journey of mine into midlife have heard my stories of decluttering my life and focusing on the present. Instead of what had become a routine of schedules and sacrifice, I am focusing more on enjoying my life as it unfolds and living an authentic life built not only on the past but the present. As I read between the lines of my mother’s belongings, I was saddened to conclude that we, as a family, had been unsuccessful in helping her tell her story. Instead of celebrating who she was with us, she had put it in the past and lived a life she felt she should – a life of obligation. Where was this carefree girl fishing in the river? Exploring her world? Leading the charge of those around her? Why were we left with a feeling that we didn’t genuinely know the wonderful person she was? How different would our lives have been had this woman had been more a part of our lives?

My father, who had become estranged from our family after the divorce, led a very troubled and lonely life. In death a couple years later, he left no one behind to share his story. My decluttering of my parents belongings and other collected items allowed me to reminisce through the artifacts of my personal history. This gave me pause to think about my life and how I want to be remembered when I am no longer here to tell MY story. Some will ask, why does it matter? You will be gone and it will no longer affect you. After much reflection, I have concluded it matters to me because I want to be remembered. I want my story to be woven into the fabric of my “people” and their collective hearts. Being remembered gives your love and the life you lead purpose.

Nowadays, with social media, people who really don’t know you well may only know what you share via your streams of posts and tweets. The duality of crafting your public story versus living your private one has become the reality of today’s generation. I wholeheartedly believe that we owe it to ourselves to tell our own story. I derive my strength and inspiration from the string of events that are mine and mine alone. All the good and the bad moments have made me who I am and I want my people to know every bit of it. What about you? What of your life gives you purpose? How will others tell your story?

What lies at my altar…

In a time where it is easy to lose one’s faith in humanity and the simple gratitude for life, I am reminded of the many ways we celebrate our faith, our belief in goodness, and the power of this universe to shelter the evolution of our love for one another. Some find purpose in making time to help others. Others find fulfillment in prayer or solitude. Nowadays, I find myself restless and unable to focus what gives my life meaning. I look for things to clean and people to hold, to support, and to talk to. At times I worry that the periods of quiet in my life foretell of my becoming irrelevant and unnecessary.

As an empty nester, I feel like a parent in absentia. As a spouse, I’ve become an explorer into my self discovery. As an American, I’ve become an activist in the battle between privilege and achievement. My life these days seems full of planning and checklists. What do they say? Life is what happens when you’re making plans. However, even among the checklists and the schedules, I strive to live my life in mindfulness. Even in midlife, I still find myself caught between the lessons of the past and the planning for the future. It is for this reason I build my personal altar. It is here that I can maintain the focus on my life, the important things, and my daily midlife journey.

I am not a church goer. I do not pray at an altar or kneel in reverence at temple. I have, however, found great peace in creating a personal altar of sacred things. My things. My mementos. Periodically adding items of value and meaning to me and lessons in gratitude they represent in my life. A button from my father’s jacket to remind me of how a negative memory of someone close to you can change over time and become the good thing you need it to be. A sand dollar collected from the beach in the city I love that reminds me that I can simply close my eyes to remember the wet sand and cool breeze of my youth. A sandalwood scented candle placed in front of me is ready to light with the intent of breathing in my joy and breathing out my gratitude.

This altar tethers me to the choices I make in my life and how I want to matter. I don’t like feeling lost. I don’t like feeling angry at a cruel world and at he ignorance of others. At times, it is difficult to remain hopeful when there is so much ugliness and misfortune. However, in spite of it all, I find myself swinging between the times of awe and thankfulness for the moments of wonder and beauty I encounter in my life and the sorrow at the inevitability of the destruction of our planet and all its creatures.

At this altar, I have my candle to light my path when it has grown dark. I have my dragonfly to remind me that natural beauty is appreciating the individual, not always comparing one to the brilliantly colored butterfly. I have mementos of my family that keep me focused on my love for them and how I can strive to always be a teacher, or a friend. All these things, and more, allow me to not become overwhelmed in the abundance of things. I live in the acknowledgement that while I am not responsible for the lives and actions of others, I can be humble and grateful for what I have. I can strive to make a difference in my midlife that will be just as good as making a difference as just a parent or wife.

How is your journey and what do you do to make your life matter? What lies at your altar?

Love in the time of sentiment

It was after I had struggled a while with the thought of going through my accumulation of sentimental items that I encountered a novel idea brought to me by a new friend. While the things I had saved and stored over my lifetime would not allow me to share the happiness I lived, it would enable me to tell the stories of the love from my life. Sharing the story that was prompted by my treasured item would go much further in depicting the love and warmth it brought me than handing down a naked item with no sense of value or purpose in the hands of another. The story, the sharing of a bit of my soul with the important people in my life, would allow me to pass forward the lovely fragrance of my grandparents’ patio orange tree or the tastiness of my mother’s quiche in ways a picture or knickknack could not.

As the oldest sibling of a small family of divorce, my early memories of my childhood contained some emotional nuggets that over time, became polished in the recollection of my sister and me. As we grew into adulthood, the bad times fell away and our favorite experiences took on a new fondness as we tried to share them with our children and other special people in our lives. Once our parents died, the realization that no one else would understand these special memories scared me. I wanted my children to appreciate people they had never met, homes they’d never seen, and wonder they hadn’t experienced. Unrealistic as I was, I became overwhelmed with the guilt that an entire family’s story would go untold, and determined it was up to me to ensure that my parents, my grandparents, and their ancestors before them were not forgotten.

I saw my salvaged, sentimental things as a way to pass this on to my children. Little did I understand that a doll in the hands of a little girl is just a doll. No history. No sentiment. No curiosity. Just a doll. I could not accomplish the feat of having my family story not forgotten unless I told it myself. Unless I found a way to share the love and memories myself in ways my family could appreciate. It may seem silly to those who grew up with their extended family surrounding them. However, for those of us who had no large family gatherings, no family traditions to speak of, or may have survived the break up of family through divorce, we want to hold on to things that give our experience meaning. We keep the little things that accompany us through life because they are ours and serve as witness to our story because there may be no other who can do this.

So now, I am going through my long held knickknacks asking myself, “What story do I need this to tell? How do I use this item to reinforce the fabric of my family quilt?” This will be challenging for me. It will require thought and care, but I am certain that my love in the time of sentiment will make its way into our hearts. Our holidays, our gatherings, and our time together will never be the same.