The Blackberry Tea Club: Women in Their Glory Yearsby Barbara Herrick
Mid-life crisis is not a crisis-it is a passage into joy. This was the essential truth discovered by the four women of a certain age, founding members of the Blackberry Tea Club, which began as late-night conversations while sipping blackberry tea with a little kick added. Those conversations about children, men, jobs, weight, clothes, food, travel, gossip,
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Mid-life crisis is not a crisis-it is a passage into joy. This was the essential truth discovered by the four women of a certain age, founding members of the Blackberry Tea Club, which began as late-night conversations while sipping blackberry tea with a little kick added. Those conversations about children, men, jobs, weight, clothes, food, travel, gossip, politics, medicine, healing, spirituality, adventure, and books grew slowly, beautifully into the Blackberry Tea Club and the discovery of the Glory Years.
The Blackberry Tea Club weaves together essays, stories, and poetry, celebrating mid-life in all its silliness, sorrow, and glory. Bottom line: middle age is much more than menopause. These are the Glory Years for women, years that bring about the expansion and reorganizing of the mind, heart, and spirit, and the birthing of a larger self of immense compassion, intellect, will, spirit, love, and capability.
Divided into five parts, each one explores different themes:
* Seeing mid-life crisis as an adamant search for joy
* Discovering opportunities for women to appreciate their bodies
* Exploring multiple facets of love
* Letting go of the bad stuff to relish "what light there is"
The Blackberry Tea Club offers stories of adventure, food, spirit, and the community of women in their Glory Years.
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The Blackberry Tea Club
Women in Their Glory Years
By Barbara Herrick
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2004 Barbara Herrick
All rights reserved.
Coming to Our Senses
The River is a torrent, constrained by the great brown hills that surround us and the black megaliths that jut against a sky so blue my heart hurts. The Blackberry Tea Club, four women in our Glory Years, is on an outing, a two-day float trip through world-class rapids on the south fork of the Payette River in central Idaho. The water, still snow fed in August, is so cold it takes the breath, while the air temperature sits at ninety-four degrees on the flats above the canyons. It's hotter here on the surface of the water, where the rock walls cradle the heat.
What's a body to do with extremes like that?
Burly water, mountain cold, crashes over my head and shoulders, streams down my back, sends our raft careening. "Dig!" Sam yells. "Starboard! Pull! Hard!" We lean far over the side of the raft, our legs straddling the tubes, bodies balanced in midair. Our paddling straightens the raft just in time to shoot over a wave the size of the monsters in my last dream and then slips us into a hole that would spin the raft for a God-induced eternity, given its keeper nature. The water clobbers us, thrashes the breath from our lungs. Cold water in the crotch is a whoop in the making. I stare into a trough of glassy, green water. Paddling white water is paddling froth; green water is hard and real as cement. To propel the raft you have to paddle deep enough to touch the green — otherwise you have no purchase on power.
And you need to do it with the deep, spiritual connection between people that allows for concerted action in the absence of words. A metaphor, I'm thinking. I laugh and shout from the base of my lizard brain: Pay attention! Stay with the moment! Stay here! Mind-traveling in the middle of Wang doodle Rapids is deadly.
We dig deep — Sam shouting what to do and when to do it — spiral the green around our paddles, pull free from the keeper hole, and slip through the turbulence into a relatively peaceful stretch of water.
My hair is plastered to the sides of my head. My fifty-year-old body has taken a drenching. There is no way to hide these wide flamboyant breasts under my wet T-shirt. I am free of makeup and the ignoble trappings of my tiny life. This river washes me clean of prissiness and pretension.
Three other boats are with us, but clearly we have the liveliest crew. We all lead responsible, respectable lives: Sherry is all heart, too open sometimes for the challenges she faces as director of an intensive care unit in a large medical center. She has an amazing mind — with photographic recall, she remembers everything she's read. Gail is the leader, a strategist, the woman with long strides and an unerring sense of direction. She finds refuge in her garden — the fact that she views the whole Earth as her garden gives her a remarkable equanimity. Marty is a healer, by trade a coronary care nurse and a professor of holistic nursing, but she's onto something deeper and more vital. There's no holding her back. She's searching out the mysteries of a body deeply attached to a soul and reporting back. I am Miss Priss, the poet, and there is no accounting for my mysteries. But out here, we lose our "herlady-ma'amship-divaship-highpriestess-poetess" selves. We giggle and scream and ride the wild waters.
We've been friends for ten years, last count, starting with conversations late at night at a bar where we sipped Blackberry Tea — a lovely ferment of amaretto, Grand Marnier, and blackberry tea. We talk children, men, jobs, weight, clothes, food, travel, gossip, politics, medicine, healing, spirituality, adventure, books — the works.
We've taken to these conversations and now these extremes with the exuberance of twelve year olds. After each set of rapids we smack the water hard with our paddles, then crack them overhead and hoot with adrenaline joy. A stranger hearing us would be hard-pressed to guess that two of us are in our forties, and the other two have reached our fifties: grand old broads riding high.
Sam is our river guide, a stunning man in his late twenties: a longish mane of golden hair, the lean body of an Olympian, a kind heart and a lively mind. He is utterly at home with four women in their Glory Years. His mama has done a sterling job with him and we advise him to tell her so. When we ask him if he'll tell her about us, he laughs and says, "Ohhh, yeahhh!" Melvin is our sixteen-year-old safety kayaker whose stories around the campfire all begin with "There I was...." For six weeks the previous winter, he kayaked in Chile. Melvin took a hundred dollars with him, lavished ninety-two of it on ice cream and eight on a necklace made by an Indian woman. The rate of exchange being what it is, Melvin ate a lot of ice cream.
* * *
Old father Freud thought that the benchmark of maturity was the ability to delay gratification and pleasure: to refrain from eating ninety-two dollars worth of ice cream; to sway only slightly with the music when it wafts through us; to resist riding the wild waters or taking trails that lead us out of plain sight; to wait to paint rainbows on our faces or in our minds.
But Glory Years women may well have a different opinion; all that delaying has had its due. What drives us now is the sensibility that we are aging, and if we're to enjoy our remaining time, something drastic has to change — beginning with our minds. Maybe old talents we've ignored finally have their way with us; a cause beckons to us, or travel takes us down foreign roads. Perhaps something jars us loose from the ruts we've dug into our minds; we might be newly sober — or newly sane. Maybe we've suffered a profound loss or a real defeat. Or the things (often with a high gunk factor) we've stuffed into back corridors of our hearts and our heads refuse to stay put any longer and come forward with embarrassing force. Certainly we are starved for joy. Absolutely we are surprised by love.
Sometime during our Glory Years, our soul leaps from the moorings of what has been. Often people, the teensiest bit arrogant, especially if they haven't gone through it, call this a midlife crisis. It is not a crisis. It is a passage into the authentic: intense, concrete, and predictable as green, glassy water on its way through a narrow, black canyon. It is a spiritual passage. It is an emotional imperative.
We follow the haunting songs of this new siren. She beckons us and we swim in deep waters. Instead of death on the rocks, we find a life in the music. Our adamant need for pleasure is a coming to our senses, a coming to life of our eyes, ears, tongue, fingers, and skin. We are called by something as serious as joy.
We want Emily Dickinson's encounter with the long grasses and buttercups around her home: "To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else."
Old jokes, funny instances, rampant silliness, and adrenaline-adventures break us free from the cycle of grayness. But we won't stop there. We're hard on the lookout for something more. We want an unconstrained enchantment. The good news is this: joy arises from the most central, personal tasks of our lives. We need not destroy our families or hike barefoot around the world, carrying no more than an odd obsession or two. We need not go any further than the outside edge of our own skin or the most tentative edges of our hearts.
We yearn for a bliss that is an intimacy with meaning. We want the sensibility that our lives are ripe with significance, that our every days are deeper metaphors, that we are fraught with portent. It is joyous to mean something to the world around us, to engage the most profound part of ourselves in the act of living.
We're Stalking Joy, as the poet Margaret Benbow wrote. It's now or never.
* * *
Just around noon, we eddy up in a stretch of river, calm as a quilt, and unload our gear. We need to portage around a massive double falls. The sound of dangerous water is nearby. We stretch out on wobbly legs, unsteady from gripping the side of the tubes for three or so hours. Oh boy, do I have to pee, and I take full advantage of the wading. Others boaters head up what is euphemistically called a trail. Most of the trek is uphill, but fortunately the ascent is low and slow. The trouble is this: there is no dirt, only a field of rocks that tilt and adjust themselves under our weight — slag from gold mining spills over the whole side of a seven-story mountain. Gold brought people to these wary, weary hills, and their tailings are a geological history.
When Buffy Sainte-Marie wrote, "You have to sniff out joy, keep your nose to the joy-trail," this might be what she had in mind. I go carefully, thoughtfully, picking out each step, worrying that I am too slow. But slow is better than a twisted or broken ankle. Further, my slowness is an excuse for the people trailing behind to pick every step thoughtfully, too.
"Take your time," Sam shouts.
The last part of the portage is straight up, up and into a castle of white rocks the size of a city block three stories high. Scrambling toehold to toehold, I hoist my opulent girth up and over, until I stand finally on the top of the cliff and look down into the grand and the raucous, an immense cascade of water. Big Falls. There are two falls, one on top of the other, each as big as a bus. We have to shout to be heard, even from our vantage point. The waters are heavy, slick, crashing into white froth, then slipping over the second larger falls, whipped into a frenzied cream at the bottom. Such power takes my breath.
Sherry shouts a story that the guides have yet to hear: a few years ago friends of hers missed the eddy-up spot, and there was no returning. They went over Big Falls in a raft. They were dumped out into a hurricane of water; flooded with incomprehension and terror — and lived.
Dangerous places in the natural world have a sense of the sacred about them. There are forces on this planet I have no say about, no way with, no power over. The only appropriate response is silence, a shutting down of the mind and the mouth, the granting of an immense respect. Feelings of grandeur flood my synapses. Feeling more than a little giddy, I anchor this memory, this feeling in my breast. No one hurries us. They know how this place arrests the few adventurers lucky enough to stand here.
This part of the river feels male to me. Other flows in Idaho have the feel of the feminine about them, like the St. Joe in northern Idaho, slow and undulating, deep and ripe; the Clearwater, clear and pristine as a maiden. But this river, at this place — a massive rumble brooking no silliness, patriarchal in the respect it commands — is male: all intention, all power, all authority.
Ten or twelve river guides escort our rafts over the falls with long ropes that could reach across half a football field. The young men and women manage it all from the top of the cliffs. The empty boats are released from their moorings upstream, then drift into the current as the ropes pull them into the center of the river. The boats slip over the falls, fill with white water, tip over, careen through the turbulence, then do it again. The rafts are guided around the castle rocks carefully — the enterprise engineered as finely as a space shuttle tune-up. Finally the boats are pulled into the lagoon at the bottom of the falls. It is an exquisite performance.
We are trusting our lives to young men and women in their twenties. It feels just fine. They are beyond fit, wearing competence like they wear their bright orange life vests, stark against the natural browns of the hills and the immediate blue of the sky. Sometimes we lose track of the contrasts that make life vibrant; here they are unmistakable.
We step down gingerly from our white castle and head for the boats. After turning around for one last look, I gasp as Melvin launches his boat from the top of the white cliffs, paddling thin air, flying like the eagle he is, then arcing toward the river, sprawling the water with a thump. Only after he lands do I realize I've been laughing and crying, praying without a prayer, singing without a song, catching my breath and sputtering with delight.
* * *
A few years ago, I chose my own portage point, the time and the place where I eddied up, took everything I owned on my own back, walked on wobbly legs over fields of rocks that tipped and slanted, and headed straight up, looking for castles in the air. It all began as a change of mind, a shift of spirit.
I'd been managing a learning and conference center in a hospital, the one Marty, Gail, and Sherry are attached to. As hospitals go, it is certainly a good one, perhaps even a great hospital, but the physicians, nurses, and therapists who worked there were in a spiritual disrepair. Pain was etched into faces lined with exhaustion and depletion from too many hours, very ill people, constraints of time, resources, and paperwork — the villain of modern medicine. We were all living in the more, better, faster paradigm, not particularly indigenous to hospitals, and it was taking a huge toll on health and mood. Everyone seemed caught up in a cultural angst; the two to fourteen minutes they were allowed with each patient was eating at their sensibility of right and wrong, their imperative to take care of seriously ill people with some measure of thoughtfulness, kindness, patience, and mastery.
"That's life," we'd say, but we were a little wrong. It was only life in one place, in one instant. Life is bigger, more dangerous, alluring, and startling than we knew. We only had a glimpse of life, a sliver of life, such as it was.
One Sunday morning I'd gone to church, a New Thought church I'd escaped to while my own church sorted out what it wanted to be. This service was held in a Jewish synagogue, one of the loveliest of places, a simple 1885 Spanish revival structure. The stained glass windows drenched the inside of the synagogue with a miraculous golden light, reminiscent of the most delicate Chardonnay. The wooden benches, the altar, the cream-colored walls held a sensibility of spirit, the dignity of ancient worship. That morning local singers were playing revved-up, full-throttle, what-I-don't-always-think-of-as gospel music songs: "It's a Wonderful World," "On the Sunny Side of the Street," "Oh Happy Day," and "Amazing Grace."
There I was: a wandering Catholic, an itinerant Protestant, in a Jewish synagogue at a New Age church service, singing and dancing to gospel.
My mind was changed in a heartbeat. It was a wonderful world. This was a another point of view: that life need not be grim. Life was possibility and endless hope — a mind-boggling challenge to be sure; fraught with danger and portent — just like the scientists, magicians, and sages promised.
I was hungry for ice cream afterward. Black walnut ice cream. Not ninety-two dollars worth, but enough. Gratitude makes enough out of anything. As I sat in the winter sun relishing every creamy bite, I was flooded with appreciation and then comprehension: A new life was about to begin.
Within six months, I left the hospital and began to write.
* * *
The morning sun light bends over the lip of the canyon and crawls down the walls in angles and lines. I'm clutching a cup of Earl Grey, watching the steam spiral and curl in the chill morning air. I'm bundled in a blanket, leaning against a yellow pine which smells like butterscotch where the sun has warmed its bark. My journal is in my lap as I try to catch yesterday's memories before they slip away. No one else is up, so I have the river, the edgy light, the soft moan of the ponderosas, the good humor of the chipmunks to myself.
Last night Mike, one of the river guides, was ill. His nausea was severe; he was throwing up every five or six minutes. Maybe it was food poisoning. His back and neck muscles produced spasms so tight he couldn't stand up. He was stretched out on hard ground and Marty, whose training in holistic nursing includes a heavy dose of massage therapy, pulled and kneaded the muscles in his upper back and neck until the spasms and the nausea subsided. He was pale afterwards, but moving.
I wondered about the pressure gifted young men place upon themselves. What does school do to him? Work? Are there other women as kind and as capable as Marty who can pull him out of it when it gets too bad? He might need love that does not demand much from him, love that comes as a gift.
Around the campfire last night, Miss Priss wanted to read a verse of her own. "It's a poem about bugs and sex," I said to the gathered campers. When I went to retrieve the poem, the guys shot out of camp like startled magpies. "Gotta wash up," they shouted. "Gotta get supper started." Their eighth-grade poetry lessons must have been dreadful. Either that or a fiftyish, plumpish woman reading a poem about sex might have unhinged them entirely.
Here's the poem, funnier then because we were drenched in mosquitoes and ants, no-see-ums and crickets, night wishes and succulent men.
Excerpted from The Blackberry Tea Club by Barbara Herrick. Copyright © 2004 Barbara Herrick. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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author of Blessed Resistance: Poems, Twenty Years in Bed with the Same Man, Catch Our Breath, and Sofia: Poems
Meet the Author
Barbara Herrick is a freelance writer, whose other work includes the narrative non-fiction book The Blackberry Tea Club, from which the text for this four-color gift book is excerpted, plus two books on Boise, Idaho, and numerous stories and poems. She's a founding member of The Blackberry Tea Club, women who get together intermittently for adventures, talk, and more. She lives in Boise, ID.
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This book is awesome! It is a wonderful celebration of the inner journey women are invited to as they pass into the middle years. Barabra is descriptive and deep in her imagery and oh so funny! Her insight and experiences hit the mark right on! I am geting a copy for all of my friends for their 50th birthday. I LOVED this book!
I know. I know. Blackberry Tea Club is not available yet, but I saw a prepublication copy and all I can say is: Every woman who exoects to go through her 40's, 50's, and 60's,is there--or has been--can expect a treat. Herrick turns the fear of aging into an adventure! Before you've finished reading this book, there's a good chance you'll be looking forward to your own 'glory years.'