Embracing the crone within

Life is not about doing, or even being almost middle-aged. It's about having holy moments.

By Anne Lamott

Published November 11, 1996 10:46AM (EST)

i had this beautiful feminist friend named Nora, who once said, "I've
been thinking about killing myself, but I want to lose five pounds first."
I was remembering this recently, because I started liking this guy. He
liked me back but was just getting out of a relationship with a young
woman. Young young -- he showed me her picture one day, and she was tall,
coltish, alive, thin, raven-haired. Right around this time when I was
first starting to think about this guy in the Biblical sense, I was at my
most incredibly unyoung. I was tired, jet-lagged, stressed to the nu-nus,
loggy after three weeks of fatty petroleum-product food. Sort of like a
dreadlocked cross between Richard Jewell and Rose Kennedy. Of course, I
told myself, there is beauty in being older, being a mother, there is the
beauty of letting go of a lot over the years, there is beauty in the wise
steady gaze. But I kept thinking of this young woman and how beautiful she
was and how un -- what is the word -- dilapidated. Later that same day, I went
to a mirror and looked for a long time and tried to see the timeless glory
of crow's feet, the resplendence of having survived, the beauty of tired
green eyes.

What I saw instead is a woman who is 42 on the outside, who
grew up playing all day in the sun. And that shows up in my skin. But who
knew? Then I had just a few thousand too many social drinks; and then I
became a single mother. And the long and short of it is that I look like a
fabulous women who is on sale at the consignment store.

I am trying to accept that I am no longer in extremely late youth, as
I like to tell myself. That actually I'm m-m-m-m-m-middle-aged. And even
though I am a feminist and even though I am religious, I secretly believe
in some mean little rat part of my brain, that despite those beliefs, I AM
my skin, my hair, and worst of all, those little triangles of fat that
pouch at that top of the thighs that we call Brooklyns around here. In
other words, that I am my packaging. Even though both paths teach me that
I am the person inside, the spirit, the heart, all that I have survived,
all that I have given over the years, after I started liking this guy, a
funny thing happened: I looked in the mirror, and sighed, and forgot all
about that, and thought to myself, I will cut my eyes out.

But in the same mirror I saw a framed prayer on the wall, from when
Sam was four, and we were at a friend's house for dinner late one summer
day after we had been lost for hours. And at the dinner table, my boy Sam
who was hot and sweaty and hungry somehow managed to get his head caught in
the slats of his chair; no one noticed for a moment, and until, in this
tiny Tweety-Bird voice, Sam was heard saying, "I need help with me."

I thought it might be the best prayer I ever heard. I said it out
loud the day I decided to cut my eyes out: I need help with me.

Ten minutes later some friends called and invited me to a movie about
gypsies, a documentary called "Latcho Drom," which means "Safe Passage." I
really had no interest in seeing it. What I really wanted to do right then
was to go watch "First Wives Club" and see all these extemely rich
actresses who had had face lifts and breast implants and dermabrasion and
collagen and who have personal trainers. What I really wanted to do was to
go see a little revenge, because I was scared already about liking this
guy. But okay, gypsies, I said to my friends.

I sat there in the dark waiting for the gypsy
movie to begin, staring
at the blank screen as if it were a graven image, thinking bitter thoughts.
From time to time I tugged on the skin of my upper eyelid, which I can
now pull out about two inches, like one of those old roll-up shades. I ate
a four-ounce Kit Kat bar in an attempt to console myself, and my butt
instantly began to feel like a bean bag chair.

And then the movie began.

They are all born old, the gypsies. The men are so dashingly homely,
as if cars have ridden over their faces. The young girls are beautiful
beyond words; and the oldest women dance. But the middle-aged mothers
looked just like me and my friends, tired, baggy, in some need of repair.
Their faces are so exhausted with what it has taken to raise children on
the tightrope walk of gypsy life; because when you're on the high wire, you
have to use every bit of grace and skill and awareness and loyalty, just to
get to the other side. That's the gift, to have to use that kind of
attention, that focus; and it shows up around your eyes.

The film also showed that for the gypsies, as with all nomads, if
you don't keep walking, you die, so you figure out how to keep walking.
That effort to keep moving shows on the mothers' faces, the exhaustion of
exposure, of making sure both that the old people keep moving, and that the
babies are carried safely. The mothers, women in the last gasps of
carnality, are the sandwich women, like us, taking care of their own
mothers, taking care of the young.

But oh, the old women dancing: the old women who shine with the
incredible stirring of spirit that kept them lit over the years, even
though the winds are howling all around them. It's so different from when
old women dance at our parties, and people nudge each other with their
elbows because its sort of cute and horrifying at the same time, like
having the dead or hidden insist on stepping out onto the dance floor, Isak
Dinesen attempting the Macarena. But the crowd of gypsies, outside in
winter, huddled together at train stations, squatters and outlaws, cold,
exposed, stand around while the music begins to play, and the old women
seem to cackle, Oh what the hell, and they start dancing. They've stopped
chasing anything down, and you feel the rush of life force that this frees
up inside them. Their gnarled witchy fingers are on the carotid artery of
the culture, the link between the living and the dead, and in their faces
and their bodies and their movement, you see the beauty of having come

The younger gypsies think the old ones are beautiful -- watching this
movie, you absolutely know that to be true. They think they're beautiful,
like Isabella Rosselini, or Liv Tyler. These old women sing in their
scratchy crone voices of bottomless sadness, and yet they dance. They
stuff so much into themselves, food stolen and shared, passion, care, to
keep the system alive, to keep the whole thing burning like pot-bellied
stoves. And they do, they burn.

It's so sexy and intimate and stark that you almost have to look away.

Watching them most attentively of course, are children, the girl children.

There's a beautiful girl in the movie, beautiful like Anne Frank, who
looks about 12, 12 but from another century, like all the gypsies
look, taking the stuff of our nightmares and dreams, and living right on
the edge of that, of all that we protect ourselves from. She's at the back
of a very plain tavern, with her much younger brother, and the two of them
are watching the men drink. There seems to be only drink and music, no
food -- I suppose because the room is neat, with a roughhewn cleanness, and
food is messy. Or else they are too poor for the food. So the men play
and sing and drink, and at first the girl watches. The tavern is some place
where no one else wants to be, where all these people who've snuck through
the system can sit and drink and dance. There are only men inside, though,
and this girl and her much younger brother. It's one family, though, that
gypsy family, of people who have been told for centuries, "You're messy,
you're dirty, dangerous, and you're not part of our family." So of course
the sense of extended family is so fierce, and the girl is watching the men
of her family dance in the front of the tavern. The young brother is very
solemn, tentative, like he is worried that they're going to be discovered
and asked to leave, but the girl watches, knowing, dark and dirty, smiling,
shy. There is such a purity in her face as she watches the men; and then
she begins dancing. She's practicing. A sense of grace and mastery comes
out of her, like a strong shiny shoot, because she's paying such attention
and she knows the shoot is going to flower. And she is going to dance,
dance hungry, dance full, dance each cold astonishing moment, now, when she
is young, and again, when she is old.

But if the fortune of the girl is the newness, is being the bud, and the
fortune of the crone is in the freedom, the lack of clinging, where does
that leave a youngish middle-aged American woman like me? Maybe it leaves
me needing to consider the extraordinary wealth of knowing that the girl of
my past is still in me, and a marvelous dreadlocked crone is in the future;
that I hold both of these females inside.

You know what I realized coming out of that movie that day? That I
want what the crones have. Time for all those long deep breaths, time to
watch more closely, time to learn to enjoy what I've always been afraid
of -- the sag and the invisibility, the ease of understanding that life is
not about doing. That that was all a lie. Because the crones know this,
and it gives them all kinds of time, time to get much much much less done,
time for all these holy moments.

So I've been thinking about this guy I sort of like, and how,
realistically, I am probably not going to lose five pounds before I see
him next, or have the little canopy above my eyes snipped off. And how,
spiritually speaking, I think what I am going to do instead is to begin
practicing cronehood as soon as possible: to breathe, watch, smile,
crookedly, dance.

Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is the New York Times bestselling author of "Help, Thanks, Wow"; "Small Victories"; "Stitches"; "Some Assembly Required"; "Grace (Eventually)"; "Plan B"; "Traveling Mercies"; "Bird by Bird"; "Operating Instructions" and "Hallelujah Anyway," out April 4. She is also the author of several novels, including "Imperfect Birds" and "Rosie." A past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an inductee to the California Hall of Fame, she lives in Northern California.

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