The Truth is at my Front Door is a memoir/how to, for aging beautifully. Told through the experience of the author, the reader is guided through the themes and challenges fundamental to aging well. This book is not about how to prevent aging, circumvent or resist aging. It is about the quality of beauty within every woman and our shared experience of living in a culture that values a perpetually unlined face and flat belly.
Fourteen stories and their wisdom lessons deliver insight on growing old with grace, sensuality and personal authority. The author tells us it is not necessary to have peerless skin, full eyebrows, someone in your bed at night, big breasts, and a big paycheck. What is necessary are big thoughts about beauty and the determination to do the rewarding work of filling the soul.
This is a guide toward embracing impermanence. Themes of loss, change and meaning are the spiritual glue making this an important read.
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The Truth is at My Front Door
Spiritual Direction On Aging Beautifully
By Ilene M. Cummings
Balboa PressCopyright © 2016 Ilene M. Cummings
All rights reserved.
THE YOUNG MAN ON THE BUS
Look ahead. You are not expected to complete the task. Neither are you permitted to lay it down. — Talmud
When I turned fifty-four I left everything that was humming along with ease to accept a job three thousand miles away about which I knew very little.
I received an offer to be the executive director of a newly established institute in San Francisco. The institute's goal was to help people discern the negative behavioral patterns of their parents and understand which, if any, of those patterns continues to influence their lives today. It was a beautiful program, and I jumped at the chance to start a new life. I was idealistic and unrealistically optimistic about making such a big move. My five children had all left home, and I was newly divorced after twenty-seven years of marriage. I didn't move because I was unhappy or because things weren't working in my life. On the contrary, things were working quite well. I rather loved being single and had no trouble finding handsome young men who were happy to romance an older woman, and my successful counseling practice showed every sign of growing. I moved because the evolutionary headwinds of California offered the opportunity to find out what else I had inside.
But things didn't go as planned. Although I started out with enthusiasm and optimism, these feelings quickly faded. The institute and its founder were not what I expected, but in all fairness, I had not yet learned that change of this magnitude required a period of adjustment and big-time letting go. Within a few months the glow of California turned to the heartache of regret. I had ruptured my sense of place, killing any idea that I was in charge of my fifty-four-year-old life.
The temptation to move back to New Jersey was enormous. I had been too cavalier about letting go of the things I had worked very hard to accomplish. A major triumph had been the purchase of a gorgeous three-story townhouse that I filled with white carpets, red velvet sofas, enormous green plants, white silk drapes, copper basins filled with ivy, and a cherry wood, four-poster, queen-size bed draped with eighteen yards of nylon toile lying atop its frame that sat nestled in a sunny loft bedroom. That house was more than a house. It was the place where I stopped ironing the dishtowels and began living like a movie star. My townhouse represented the dawn of self-hood, romance on a level I had never known, and freedom of choice I did not know existed.
I was leaving behind beloved East Coast friends that loved and supported me over a lifetime. It had taken many years to develop these relationships that I was now deliberately forsaking. This action still takes my breath away.
Long walks on the white, sandy beaches of South Jersey became memories punctuated with such longing that I had to stop myself from thinking about them. Afternoon trips into Manhattan with sojourns up Fifth Avenue wearing four-inch heels, treating myself to lunch at the Plaza Hotel, and loving the affirming whistles from the hard hats all haunted me. But I was restless. A distinctly rich period of my life had ended. The next step in the journey appeared, and though I could not be certain where it would lead, I asked the clarifying question, "What is important?"
To compound things, the executive position in San Francisco was not a good fit for my skills and gifts, and I resigned after fifteen very difficult, tearful months. By this time, the feeling of loss and regret filled my life. I loved San Francisco from the day I stepped off the plane, but its magnificent skyline never trumped the inquisition overtaking my thoughts: Had I made a big mistake? The shadow of grief followed me everywhere I went in my new city home, and there was nothing I could do but hope that given time, I could embrace my new life. I was in the throes of a complex set of emotions brought on by the loss of familiar, everyday activities, beloved friends, and patterns of behavior that lay behind in New Jersey. Had I understood that grief expressed is grief transformed, I would have fared better. It would be a long time before I understood that embracing one's grief is a powerful tool for the evolution of the personality.
But no, I could not admit that I was miserable; instead, I put on a happy face. After all, I was voted the girl with the greatest smile in my high school graduating class of 456 students. I knew how to look good so others would not be alarmed that I might have made a poor choice. And of course, I didn't want to make anyone uncomfortable.
I was somebody in New Jersey. In gorgeous, creative San Francisco I was starting from scratch. Several years would pass before I could admit, even to myself, that I was regretful of having made the move. I could not have foreseen the many marvelous people and deeply intense, creative, life-enhancing and fulfilling professional work that lay waiting for me to claim in California.
I even wondered if I had dislocated my life as a distraction from finally taking a good, hard look at myself. As a single woman relieved of thirty-three all-consuming years of hands-on mothering, I was most likely suffering from more than just a case of the empty nest syndrome. I was at the dawn of a new life cycle. It was brave to choose change at this level, and it was also very, very scary. I was closing one door and opening another without the slightest idea what I would find. I felt both joy and fear as new beginnings made their way through the corridors of my new life.
I felt like a trapeze artist deliberately letting go of the solid platform beneath my feet to fly through the air, suspended in time, with a trust that a new, solid platform would appear before me. Each time I reviewed why I moved, the answer was the same: I moved to California because something called me there. I simply had to go and would have regretted it all my life if I hadn't.
And then it happened. I was traveling to work on a very crowded 31 Balboa bus going to downtown San Francisco. All humanity was on the bus. Old, young, black, white, people with turbans, people tattooed with dragons and three inch Mohawks, people with purple hair, and people wearing black, three piece business suits. It was pure San Francisco, wildly diverse and wonderful! I loved the beauty of it all and was reminded of why I moved in the first place.
Then a clear voice was heard above the crowd. A young man wearing a crisp, white shirt and seated in the third row on the right side of the bus said to me, "Ma'am, would you like my seat?" Flustered, I quickly turned my head away.
Suddenly, losing my friends, my house, my network, and my changing role as mother paled in contrast with a feeling that I had lost something of even greater import. I had lost my youth.
It was many years before I told anyone about my encounter with the polite young man. He was after all that sensitive creature called a chivalrous male. His remark was really a gracious acknowledgement of me as a woman who had left behind a girlish persona and was exhibiting the social status of an older woman. But I heard and felt his comment as a personal assault of some kind. I heard and felt old.
His greeting rang in my head for years: "Ma'am."
The Wisdom Lesson
It is not enough to simply accept our age. Aging beautifully requires that we tell the truth about our age.
Every woman has a young-man-on-the-bus story. It is the first time you admit you are visibly aging and others can see it too. The antidote to experiencing an unhealthy reaction to this realization is to create a new reality. It is the red-nightgown reality.
In Infinity in Your Hands, Sandor McNab reminds us that nothing so determines who we will become so much as those things we chose to ignore. The point is, by ignoring we are aging, we create the very thing we are trying to hide. We show our fear in the set of our mouths, our posture, in our jealousy of the young, and in our reluctance to accept ourselves just the way we are.
By believing that our innate, essential life force is youth dependent, we arrive at the conclusion that we are not acceptable as we are.
My knee-jerk reaction to the polite young man made me realize I had lost something of immeasurable value. One word from the polite young man had the effect of stopping me dead in my tracks. I had not yet developed the graciousness to accept the fact that I was a woman who had begun to age, and it showed. I did not feel old, but I did not look like a young woman anymore. I looked like a middle-aged woman who looked good. I had not accepted the first law of aging beautifully: tell the truth. Therefore I failed to carry the bearing that shouts grace and self-acceptance. I was susceptible to outside forces reminding me that I was no longer young and my heart sank at the prospect.
There is a remedy for this situation.
Buy yourself the most luscious red nightgown you can find. Go to consignment shops, vintage boutiques, and thrift shops. Raid the attic, go through your best friend's closet, get out your J. Peterman catalog, and let everyone know you are a woman on a mission for a red nightgown. Take your time. This purchase is a manifesto. It does not matter if someone sees you in your red nightgown because someone else is not the point. The point is you are a beautiful babe. And beautiful babes can show up at any stage of life in a red nightgown. You have lived long enough, worked hard enough, and tried hard enough. Have your life, own your body, breathe deeply, and treat yourself to a cardinal moment. This has nothing to do with cellulite, soft bellies, age spots, wiggly arms, thin lips, or sagging breasts. You are on the earth to protect your beauty, raise the level of the beauty conversation, and learn how to take care of yourself.CHAPTER 2
THE LULLABY OF A WISDOM TEACHER
Come. Come. Whoever you are. Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving. Come. This is not a caravan of despair. It doesn't matter if you have broken your vows a thousand times. Come. — Rumi
We are beautifully served when we have a wisdom teacher in our lives. She is the woman who is wise enough to know that it is wonderful to be young but knows with certainty that a woman makes a pack with the devil when she is dependent on staying young.
Dorothea was a teacher for me. Six feet tall and thick hipped, all eighty-four years of her were grand. Dorothea could never be called fashionable in her flowered crepe dresses and interesting felt hats. But she was definitely grand. Hers was a stately beauty coming from the core of who she was.
At the time, I was badly in need of a mentor and was blessed with finding Dorothea. I was moving from twenty-three years as a stay-home mother of five with a queen-of-the-kitchen identity to overnight accepting a job leading a newly created women's program at my local community college. I was in over my head from the start. I had no idea what it took to be a college administrator and failed to understand the titanic power of the women's movement sweeping the country. I knew about award-winning apple pies, raising babies, and I was a force to be reckoned with around a sewing machine. Oh, I knew what it was to work around the clock. Passion and physical stamina was never a problem. The problem was the enormous learning curve I had to master while the whole college community looked on. By the time I met Dorothea, I was a walking identity crisis.
I lacked any understanding that transformation on the level I had put into motion behaves like a wildly stressed, caged animal — frightened, confused, and unable to cope with the multilevel changes overwhelming its system. Having even a modicum of understanding about taking care of myself and having a support system would have made all the difference in my collapsing world. Nonetheless, a voice inside my brain kept screaming, "The time is now. Girl, hop aboard. The green light of a new dawn is leaving the station. No one knows where this is leading. But go you must!"
Increasingly, I had the feeling I did not know who I was. My husband and children did not know who I was, either. I was evolving from an unchallenged forty-four-year-old woman. I lacked all understanding of how big this shift in identity was. The flames of purgation were moving ahead, doing their job, burning away years of certainty and stability. The earth had moved under my feet, and there was no going back.
Everything was radically different, down to the clothes I wore and the food I ate. It was threatening and terrifying, and as I fell apart I wished I had not tampered with a life that had been humming ahead without threat. My children were young enough to still think I was cool, and as long as I did not disturb his life, my husband allowed me to do what I wanted. I fantasized all kinds of outrageous scenarios that would stop the momentum of my changing life, such as messing things up so badly in my new job that I would be fired and even trying to convince my New Jersey state trooper husband that we should move to New Hampshire on a fairytale concoction of living closer to nature. I wanted to go back to things as they were and looked for any excuse to pull into my shell where certainty could protect me. But the gears of change were in motion, and my destiny was taking shape before my eyes. The whole thing almost took me down. I kept putting one foot in front of another even as I seriously contemplated suicide.
Then I met Dorothea. The moment we met, I knew I needed her. What was most intimidating was that she wanted to know me! She saw something in me that I was yet to recognize in myself. The wisdom makers see beyond ordinary sight. They identify the starved soul, spot rudderless women, and gently step in to provide an anchor. I remember Dorothea saying, "You are a sensitive child; you must not let things hurt that sensitivity." That statement sounded like the beautiful lullaby I needed.
During the high art years of mothering, children took priority over everything. It never occurred to me there was life outside my pretty kitchen, church, the PTA, and the A&P. On a lark, I interviewed for a job to be the founding coordinator of a newly funded, noncredit woman's program at a community college twelve minutes from home. I had not even read Betty Friedan's classic, The Feminine Mystic. How ironic that I was tasked to lead a program that spoke to my own emerging self. It was 1975, and the air was electric with possibilities for women. Political signposts like Title IX and the ERA were making headlines, and though I failed to grasp the importance of these things, I was on my way to a life that had been touched by the fates. My kitchen with its checkered red and white curtains never had total pull on me again. Yes, there was something distinctly sad about it. But I was discovering a part of me that I never in my wildest dreams knew existed. It was clear, even to me, that this transition was about more than going into the job market. It was a spiritual call to rise to a new level of myself and take ownership of my whole self. There was to be no slow going, getting ready, testing the waters, or figuring it out. Time would have to make room for my sloppy transition that had come out of nowhere. My general feelings of stupidity about how things worked as a college administer almost killed me. But I kept going. Something essential wanted out.
As soon as the women's program was announced, women came to the campus in droves searching for that powerful place within. They came to be heard and to find a way to expand their lives without wreaking their lives in the process. Every woman was a new story being written right before my eyes. They were putting flesh on their dreams, and it was heaven to watch it happen. Initially, I ran the program on passion, intuition, hard work, and with the backing of two spectacular bosses, both who believed in me. They were mentors in every sense of the term. I owe them my career. The program succeeded beautifully. I had the advantage of not knowing how things were done. What I did know was what women wanted, and that was good enough for me! In time, I was singing them lullabies.
Excerpted from The Truth is at My Front Door by Ilene M. Cummings. Copyright © 2016 Ilene M. Cummings. Excerpted by permission of Balboa Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsThe Truth is at My Front Door, ix,
Going Into the Room Empty, xi,
The Cardinal Rule, xv,
A prayer for guidance, xvii,
Part I. Tell the Truth, 1,
The Young Man on the Bus, 3,
The Lullaby of a Wisdom Teacher, 8,
Follow the Thread, 13,
Silence and Solitude, 17,
Part II. Let Go, 21,
Forgiveness Helped Me to Let Go, 34,
The Older Woman and Her Young Man, 41,
Life Was Easier When They Were Small, 47,
The Powder-Blue Bathing Suit: Fear of Being Fabulous, 52,
Part III. Bring Meaning into Your Life, 61,
The Pink Chrysler, 63,
This Is Where I Came to Heal, 72,
"For Your Age ...", 76,
Burying Yourself Alive Is a Distinct Option, 80,
The Spiritual Task of Meeting Yourself Fully, 84,