by Jeanne Mackey
(Jeanne Mackey's essay "Field Notes from an Elder-in-Training" was published in our September through December 2015 issue. Read the online version here.)
One of my practices as an elder-in-training is choosing how I focus my attention. As the saying goes, "What we give attention to, we give life to." Since I tend toward a "glass-half-empty" view of life, I like to remind myself now and then of what gives me pleasure. So here they are — a few of my favorite things, in no particular order:
● Harvesting herbs. I gather lavender, catnip, lemon balm, bee balm, peppermint, thyme, oregano, and mugwort from various corners of our yard, put them in brown paper bags, and hang them in the closet to dry. No, I don’t always remember to bring them out and use them. But sometimes I do. I took a class in medicinal and magical herbs many years ago, and came home with plantings of comfrey, mugwort, and lemon balm. These are all semi-invasive plants, as it turns out — but they're good to have around. Mugwort is said to be a dream-enhancing plant. Once a year, my sweetie and I pull all the dried mugwort out of the closet, stuff it into the clay chiminea on the patio, and set it afire when the sun goes down. As the smoke pours out of the little chimney, we imagine the whole neighborhood being blessed by magic, everyone dreaming strong dreams that night.
● Listening to Brooke Gladstone on NPR’s "On the Media." Surely all is well in the world when a smart, witty woman with a smooth, resonant voice is doing the talking, slicing and dicing the latest media frenzies.
● Talking about my life while my beloved listens and reflects. My life partner is an attentive and insightful listener. Ah, that sweet invitation on the occasions when we both find ourselves awake in the middle of the night, and she says the words I’m longing to hear: “You can talk if you want to.” I launch into a monologue about my hopes and fears, troublesome relationships, future projects, existential musings. When I pause for her response — well, sometimes that’s when I notice how rhythmic her breathing has become. What she calls the “lilting quality” of my voice has sent her back to dreamland. But if she‘s still awake and starts to comment, I listen for that subtle shift in her tone when a channel seems to open to some higher wisdom. “It would be good if you could let go of that grudge." “The situation with your co-worker is going to ease up soon — you’ll find an opening.” Her suggestions and predictions are amazingly reliable.
● Farmers' markets. I love the Ann Arbor Farmers' Market. How often does doing the right thing feel so good on so many levels? The colorful array of vegetables and fruits, greeting friends and co-workers, the satisfaction of supporting the farmers — followed by the pleasures of preparing and eating fresh, vibrant, locally-grown food. I'm grateful to my neighbors who organize the Cobblestone Farm Market on Tuesdays, right on my way home from work.
● Cartoons. I subscribe to The Funny Times, a monthly newspaper out of Cleveland. It's chock-full of cartoons and essays by clever, quirky, left-leaning folk. It’s the only publication I read from cover to cover and that reliably makes me laugh out loud. Thank you, Mom and Dad, for introducing me to the world of cartoons! Dad had a whole shelf in his den of dog-eared cartoon books from the forties and fifties by James Thurber, Peter Arno, Charles Addams, and Whitney Darrow, Jr. Some of them were even a little racy, involving showgirls and millionaire playboys. Later on, it was the squiggly drawings of Edward Koren and B. Kliban’s cats that drew me in. Our next-door-neighbor subscribed to The New Yorker. A high-brow history professor, he probably ignored the cartoons, but he always passed on the back issues to Mom. She and I would pick out our favorite laughs. When I went away to college, Mom would slip a few New Yorker cartoons into her letters, some of them sly commentaries on my behavior or her relationship with Dad. At my recent birthday party, I printed out some of my all-time faves and hung them on a clothesline for my guests to enjoy.
● Singing in harmony. I learned to harmonize in my teens by singing along with The Beatles. At first, it was a way to feel close to the lads from Liverpool, to immerse myself in their essence. The harmonizing became its own pleasure when I realized I could make up parts to almost any melody. Some of the peak moments of my life have been in concert halls, whether on stage or in the audience, singing out my deepest values, surrounded by kindred spirits and gorgeous harmonies.
So, that's my current hit parade of simple pleasures. What's on your list?
Jeanne Mackey teaches emotional, creative, and relationship skills through workshops, ritual, and music. For information about upcoming talks and performances, visit umich.edu/~mackeyj.