Pluck! Pluck! (aka: Swimming Against the Current)

While shopping at the mall, I came across a gorgeous bracelet, strung with polished stones in varying hues of grays, blue-grays, and green-grays.

“That is so you,” my daughter said. “You have to buy it.”

Ten minutes later, the bracelet was paid for and dangling from my wrist. It really was a perfect piece of jewelry for me, because more than half of my wardrobe is gray. Gray sweaters. Gray dresses. Gray flats and tights and t-shirts. I even own a gray overcoat and a gray faux-leather jacket. Such a smooth, sophisticated color. Neutral enough to be a blank palette, but far cooler than beige, and softer than black. Ambiguous. A mystery.

My love of all things gray doesn’t end there. I find comfort in gray, cloudy skies. Our living room furniture is mostly gray. My car is gray. In fact, I even identify as a heteromantic graysexual, or gray-asexual.

Which is what makes this little problem so ironic.

Sometime during the past several years, a tiny sprig of gray appeared among my off-black locks of hair. When I first discovered it, my heart sank. Oh my god. Here it is. The first official sign that summer has come to an end.

But then, I plucked it out, and all was right with the world again.

A year later, the sprig had multiplied. I had two — count them — two strands of gray hair. Pluck and pluck.

Now, at the age of 43, I have counted as many as six tiny sprigs of gray among my curls. Possibly more, hidden in the back. This has officially become an invasion. A takeover. I can still pluck the little suckers, but they come back with friends. And they’re so unruly! Not at all as well-behaved as my other soft, springy curls. The little gray punks like to poke out from my head in unpredictable directions, making their appearance super obvious.

It’s silly and vain of me to care so much, I know.

I’m middle-aged. The appearance of crepey skin and gray hair is perfectly normal. Although I’ve often been told that I look quite young for my age, I couldn’t expect that to last forever. The other silly thing is that gray hair on other people doesn’t bother me in the least. Never do I look at another person’s salt and pepper tresses and feel the temptation to start plucking. So why does the appearance of gray in my own hair freak me out so much?

Maybe because it is a reminder of my own mortality. Youth is not eternal. Life does not last forever. Like a tree, we blossom, then bear fruit, and then the leaves, like our hair, begins to change color. And we all know what that means.

Winter is coming.

Unlike a tree, we don’t lose our leaves and vibrancy only to have them return again, green and new, in the spring. For us, once the lively browns and blacks and reds and yellows that graced our heads throughout our lifetimes have faded, that’s it. They’re gone. Nature’s not going to give us brand-new hair.

Something about knowing that something good is only going to be in my life for a limited time makes me want to savor it. Capture it. Hold onto it for as long as possible. Change is inevitable, of course. Nothing lasts forever (except maybe the diamonds in my old wedding ring, which still sits around, useless, in a box somewhere). But if that means I have to always go with the flow, to accept it as it comes, to age gracefully, then I have one thing to say.

Screw that.

I think that Dylan Thomas said it best:

“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

I will not accept that beauty is chained to youthful age. I refuse to lie back and float along with the current that will eventually dump us each into the sea. I will not go gentle into that good night. Instead, I plan to keep struggling, keep swimming hard against the current until my body is too old and too sick and too tired to take another stroke.

Last week, my cousin died of breast cancer. She and I were around the same age. Both single moms, though her children are mostly younger than mine. Since our teen years, she was the cousin I went to get my “hair did.” Thanks to her skill and deft fingers, I went through hair phases of long, braided extensions and sleek, straight, flat-ironed styles. When I wanted to try a new color, I sat in her salon chair, and we gabbed about family members, raising children, and TV shows as she worked her magic, transforming my ordinary black hair into a honey-streaked marvel. She snipped and shampooed and braided and styled so many women, and made so many of us feel beautiful.

Cancer robbed my cousin of her own hair, her beauty, her youth, her life. Far too soon. If not for cancer, I’m sure that she would have continued to help women in our struggle to look and feel our loveliest, no matter our age. Gray hair? Why settle for bland, unruly gray hair? Why not dye it auburn, raven, or gold? Why not curl it or straighten it or try something new? Why not try new makeups that decrease our wrinkles or bring out the shade of our eyes, or wear clothes that make us feel sexy, or cute, or strong, or alive? Why should we settle for frumpy, dumpy, and bland, just because we’ve arrived in middle age?

I love the color gray. But I do not love the gray hairs reminding me of the end we must each face. So I reject the idea that fighting them is vain or silly. Instead, I choose to make myself look as young and alive on the outside as I feel on the inside. If my cousin were still here, I would ask her to highlight my hair to hide the gray intruders. Hair dye — such a fun and simple way of raging against the dying of the light. I wonder how I’d look as a blonde?

Pearls (a Short Story)

PEARLS

string-of-pearls

“You burned the toast again.” Stuart made clicking noises with his tongue.

Ruby shot him a scornful look. “I didn’t burn the toast,” she said, setting his plate on the table. “That cheap toaster you bought burned the toast.” She poured more coffee into his favorite mug – the red one with the picture of the hula girl he’d brought home from their trip to Hawaii eight years ago. Now it had a small chip on the rim, a minor defect, like a blemished tooth. Her fingers itched to throw it away, but she knew Stuart would notice its absence.

With a heavy sigh, she sat across from him and fished the soggy teabag out of her cup. “Anything interesting in the news today?”

Stuart folded his newspaper and set it aside. “The usual overblown political circus and a workplace shooting somewhere in Colorado.” He scooped his eggs onto the unburnt center of his toast and bit into it. “The community section mentioned something about that women’s circle again. The Purple People, or something.” He chuckled.

Ruby frowned. “You know perfectly well that they call themselves the Pearls.” The Purple Pearls were like a cult, always trying to recruit people to come down to the community center for Tuesday craft days and Thursday reading groups, and who knew what else. But Ruby had no intention of knotting a purple bandanna around her neck and going on outings with those women, who were always cooing and chirping like a flock of city pigeons.

“Yeah, well turns out that those Pearl girls are planning to take a big trip. Guess where to?”

“Where?”

“Fiji. Isn’t that something?” he added, when Ruby folded her arms and glared at him. “You and me have been talking for years about flying down to Fiji.”

“That’s different.”

“Different how? It’s the same Fiji. Pristine beaches. Crystal clear water, coconut trees. Paradise!”

“But I’d rather go with you.”

“I’ll be here when you get back. You can bring me a new mug.” He held up the chipped red one. “You don’t want to miss your chance. Think about sinking your toes into that white sand. Think of that warm tropical breeze.”

“But I’m not one of them. Those Pearls.”

“You could be. You already know a couple of those women. And that one with the sparkly earrings—”

“Pam.”

Stuart nods. “Yeah, Pam. She isn’t going to stop trying until you give in and join them.”

“I don’t have time for them.” Ruby stood and began briskly scraping their plates into the trash. “I’ve got to finish crocheting that blanket for Sadie’s baby.”

“You could crochet with the Pearls,” said Stuart, “while talking about your Fiji plans. Come on, sweetheart,” he coaxed, softer, when Ruby didn’t respond. “What’s that I keep saying? Come on, now.”

Ruby gripped the edge of the counter and stared down into the abyss of the sink drain. “Don’t fear death,” she started.

“Speak up!”

“Don’t fear death, fear the unlived life.” It was a quote from Tuck Everlasting, a book they’d taken turns reading aloud years ago, Ruby curled into Stuart’s lap on the soft brown sofa after they’d put the kids to bed. Fear the unlived life. Those words had wormed their way into Stuart’s very being. Suddenly fearful that he hadn’t been living life hard enough, well enough, bravely enough, he’d adopted a new favorite word. Yes. Ride a bicycle across three states? Yes. Read fifty books in a year? Yes. Give up his Saturdays to mentor young men at the job training center? Yes, yes, yes. No wonder they hadn’t had time to travel to Fiji together.

And what about Ruby? Was she living an unlived life? She thought of all the years of raising kids with Stuart. Driving Sadie and Laura to school, to tap classes, to birthday parties. Years filled with Christmases and summer barbecues and family trips to the mountains. Years of bandaging scraped knees and cleaning up after pets and sewing costumes for the annual spring play. When the girls were older, Ruby had taken a part-time job as an office clerk, which later turned into a full-time job, which lasted all the way to retirement. She and Stuart had retired on the same day. They’d planned it that way. And after retirement, Stuart had gone right on saying yes to everything and everyone. Everyone but her. Until recently, she’d had to wait her turn for moments with Stuart. She hated to admit it, hated the selfishness of it, but she was glad that now, he was here all the time. Here just for her.

“Doesn’t Pam live pretty close to where you’re going today?” asked Stuart.

Ruby gripped the counter even tighter and swayed on her feet. She’d almost forgotten she had to go. Almost. “Yeah.”

“Then here’s your chance. Ring her doorbell. Say hello. Tell her your bags are already packed for Fiji.”

“My bags aren’t packed.” She turned around to look at him, mouth twisted.

“You could get them packed in two minutes. What would you need for Fiji, anyway? Besides a swimsuit.”

“I don’t have a swimsuit that fits.” Not anymore, now that she’d lost so much weight. “Guess I could get one, though.”

“Now you’re talking.” Stuart’s grin made his eyes light up, made the whole kitchen light up. Ruby almost felt like grinning, too. “What time is Sadie supposed to pick you up?”

Before Ruby could even glance at the big wooden clock, the front doorbell rang. And rang. And rang, three long chimes and a series of short chimes. Sadie must have let the boys ring the bell, she figured, hurrying to the living room. Sure enough, when she threw open the front door, both her grandsons stood there, wearing grins that looked so much like Stuart’s, her heart squeezed tight for a moment, like someone was wringing out all the blood.

Sadie’s face fell when she saw Ruby. “Mom! You’re not even ready to go yet!”

Ruby glanced down at her stained lavender house robe, then placed a hand on her thinning cloud of white hair. “Guess I’ll just go like this,” she mumbled.

“You can’t go like that!” Sadie sounded dismayed. “It’s…it’s disrespectful!”

Ruby scowled, then headed off to pull on some real clothes to appease her daughter. “I’ll see you later,” she told Stuart as she breezed through the kitchen again.

Stuart winked, then waved his arms like a hula dancer. Ridiculous. She pursed her lips. Did they even have hula dancers in Fiji?

Sadie said nothing about Ruby’s too-baggy attire this time. In fact, her words were syrupy sweet as she drove them across town, talking about the boys’ activities and Halloween costume plans in that kitten-gentle voice people used with small children. It dug under Ruby’s skin like a tick, but she just clenched her teeth and stared out the window, picturing pristine beaches and coconut trees. She really could do it. She could fly to Fiji with the girls, maybe sip some kind of tangy, coconutty rum drink under a strip of the bluest sky. She could bring home a mug for Stuart, and maybe a new toaster so his toast wouldn’t get burned. This time, she did laugh aloud.

“Mother, are you even listening to me?” asked Sadie, her voice tinged with irritation.

“Yes,” said Ruby.

Then they were there, pulling into the parking lot. Damn the parking lot, thought Ruby as they trudged across the asphalt. Damn the tall iron bars they passed through. Damn the perfect grass, as green and manicured as a golf course. She wanted to turn and run back to the car, drive it back home, where Stuart was waiting.

“Are you ready?” asked Sadie. She was carrying a bouquet of flowers, just like a bride. Splashy, yellow flowers. Purple flowers. Tiny sprigs of white flowers. She placed them in Ruby’s empty hands. Ruby imagined herself walking barefoot across a beach, long veil flowing behind her, and Stuart in a suit with the pant legs rolled up, standing ankle-deep in the crystal blue waters.

“Hello Ruby.” Pam was here, too. Not on the beach, but here in the green grass, that damned purple bandanna knotted around her neck. Two other women stood beside her. More Pearls. “I asked Sadie if we could join you today, and she said yes.”

Yes yes yes.

Ruby’s head began throbbing. She took tiny steps forward, Sadie supporting one elbow, Pam holding the other. Fiji, she told herself in a stern voice. Think of Fiji.

“These anniversaries can be hard,” Pam was saying. “We Pearls like to support each other. All of these ladies know just what you’re going through.”

Ruby didn’t answer. She was frozen on the spot, staring down at the slab of stone jutting up from the grass.  Her blood had gone cold, like the coffee in Stuart’s chipped red mug.

“One year ago today.” Pam said this like one might say it’s raining outside, or there’s a sale at Penney’s, or we’re out of milk. “I always did like that quote.” She tilted her head to one side, squinting at the stone slab. “Don’t fear death, fear the unlived life. Wonder who said that?”

“Babbitt.” Ruby cleared her throat, tried again. “Natalie Babbitt. It’s from a book. Tuck Everlasting.”

“Well now.” Pam’s dark eyes burned into Ruby’s. “I hope that you’ll come to our next meeting and tell the Pearls some more about this book. We’re planning a big trip together, you know. To Fiji.”

“Yes.” Ruby nodded. There. She’d said it. Yes.

“So you’ll be there?”

“Yes.” Ruby laid the flowers at the foot of the grave, then turned to go. In her fingers, she clutched a single flower she’d separated from the rest. It was purple, like the Pearls. She was never going to join them, she knew. Never going to wear their stupid bandanna or attend their meetings. They might eat up all her time, then she wouldn’t have any left to spend with Stuart.

Tonight, she decided, she would cook pork chops, his favorite dinner. And she would place the flower next to his plate.

“That’s the color of my new bathing suit,” she’d tell him.

“So you’re going to go to Fiji after all?”

“That’s right,” she’d say. “You and me. So pack your bags. We’ve waited long enough.”

 

 

It’s All in the Blood (aka: Reverse the Aging Process)

vampires drinking blood of youthSo it turns out that vampires may have something with the whole “drink blood, live forever” thing. No, seriously. It’s kind of old news now, but around a year ago, scientists at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute made one of the freakiest discoveries ever – that the blood of the young may very well hold the key to reversing the aging process.

Wait! Stop! Step away from the babies. It’s not enough to drink the blood of children. Besides, that’s just…gross. The only way you can truly benefit from the youth-granting benefits of the GDF11 protein is through blood transfusions. I know. Needles. *Shudders.*

It is inevitable that each one of us (if we’re lucky) will one day suffer the symptoms of the fatal disease we call Old Age. It’s like a devastating worldwide plague for which there is no cure. Some people, through fault of unlucky genes or poor lifestyle choices, fall victim to it sooner than average; while others somehow defy gravity for much longer.fountain of youth Family Guy silly

Me? I plan to stay young till the very end. No, not from stealing my children’s blood. I’m not that desperate…yet. However, as luck has it, I come from a long line of people who don’t seem to age quickly and live to be close to 100. That, plus I love candy. Maybe that’s awful for my teeth, but there’s something about snacking on jellybeans and sugar sticks that makes me feel young and carefree.

But hey, even if you don’t care for candy and come from a lineage that’s…different, there are a few things you can do to hold back the inevitable sands of time which threaten to smother us all:

  1. Fall in love with vegetables. Candy may be dandy, but vegetables are the true elixir of life. The vitamins and antioxidants and phytochemicals not only work to protect the body from cancer and other illnesses, but they help you to look and feel your best, which are two of the biggest ways to stay young.
  2. Move your body. Put down the cell phones. Turn off the screens. There are so many ways to exercise, that unless you suffer from some sort of chronic condition other than aging, you have no excuses for not exercising regularly. Walk fast, run, skate, play a sport, take the stairs on purpose, park in the back of the behemoth Walmart parking lot. Just move it.  exercise_stay_healthy
  3. Use your brain. Sadly, too few people do this. It is so much more convenient to just parrot everyone else’s words and watch reality television shows. But – oh! The amazing things we can do if we just put our minds to it. Play chess, play Scrabble (against me, if you dare), read some challenging literature, take a class, learn a new language. Studies show that regularly exercising our brains really can work to protect us against some of the diseases of aging, such as dementia or Alzheimer’s. Think about it.
  4. Stop smoking, drink less. Haven’t you heard this advice a million times already? If not, well, memory loss is one of the first signs of Alzheimer’s.
  5. Say yes to Omega-3 and no to saturated fats.
  6. I am a huge proponent of sleep. At least 7-8 hours per night for grownups, and more for kids. Not just sleep, but good sleep. Try shifting your routine to wind down an hour before getting shut-eye. Read a book, meditate, listen to calming music, enjoy a glass of wine, have sex if that’s your thing. Do whatever helps you to have a peaceful, restorative sleep.
  7. Be connected. Having close relationships with friends or family is correlated not only with longer life, but happier life, too.

 

Hmm…I still fall pretty short on that last one. Maybe that means I won’t live as long as my ancestors. On the other hand, I do have three children…

forever young infinity