My mother tells the story that as a baby, I cried so loudly from prickly heat that my next-door neighbor complained.
As a toddler, I was a bundle of nerves who screamed at the sight of a caterpillar – “patter-potato” my mother wrote in my baby book. I can still see myself standing at the edge of our driveway, screaming as the line of fur inched its way toward my bare feet. If I had understood it would become a butterfly, I might have leaned down to touch it.
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Even with these anxieties, as a child I felt filled with wonder. I studied the delicate lace of a snowflake on my sleeve, the graceful curves of the nautilus shell, how the cool mornings of fall set fire to the leaves of my favorite maple, coating it in crimson. Looking up at the Milky Way on a cicada-filled summer night, I couldn’t help but believe that there was something bright and promising beyond the edge of our backyard for this little girl prone to dreaming.
But what? I asked this question often in the quiet of the church pew and alone in my room at night, knowing even as a child that God had created the snowflake, the nautilus shell, the caterpillar with great care (a keen understanding of geometry). If God took such care with snowflakes and sugar maples, had God taken similar care with me?
I hoped so. It’s one of my lifelong beliefs that we are all created for something remarkable. We may not cure cancer or win a Pulitzer or develop technology that changes the world. But teaching a child the definition of integrity and helping him explore his understanding of the world might lead him to change minds. Or placing the nautilus next to a picture taken from space of Hurricane Fran might lead a child to explore the science and math of her world in a way that might save lives.
We are created to own our gifts and to use them for good. But too often, I’ve not held myself up to that truth.
I’ll be 60 this week, and as the day approaches, I’m out of sorts. When I think of 60, Maude comes to mind, or Ethel Mertz or Gladys Kravitz. Screeching, complaining old bags. (Though in truth, the actors were in their 40s in their heydays.) But it’s what I feel like.
Instead of listing what’s right about my life, I home in on ways I’ve fallen short of owning my gifts and sharing them for good. It feels easier to keep the familiar patterns I inhabit each day than to stretch myself beyond my own low expectations.
My doctor speaks in puns.
“What are you writing?” I heard him say at my annual checkup a couple of weeks ago.
I start to say that I’ve been trying for weeks to write a column about turning 60 and I so want to write something wise … when he repeats, “But what are you righting?”
Righting? As in making right? Oh dear. Somehow I keep the tears at bay, but I haven’t been righting anything lately. I’ve been floundering in my warts – and the warts of those around me – having abandoned the wonder that long ago ruled my days.
The tendency to lament looms large at 60. My feet ache and my limbs stiffen when I walk. The pounds creep on, my husband will soon be eligible for Medicare, and I have trouble working the Jumble each day. I have notebooks full of manuscripts that lay unfinished, yet I creep along without direction, unable to imagine ways to redefine myself as I age. Add to that the maelstrom of a world that appears to have lost its way, and my vision is so clouded I can’t see the Milky Way anymore.
My daughter-in-law gave me a calendar for Christmas with a Bible verse for every month. On Aug. 2, I flipped the card and found this: Psalm 126: “For He has done great things for me.” I’m not a big quoter of scripture, but the words snap me to my senses. God has done great things for me, but in my angst about aging, I’ve forgotten to look for it.
Growing takes time, I know. A lifetime, really. When I think back on these 60 years, I see the many times I’ve reimagined myself: from crybaby toddler to empathetic adult, from single girl to wife to mother, from student to writer to teacher, so I’m hopeful for another change.
One day soon I’ll be the dreamer again, and in the pew today I’ll ask new questions, remembering the “patter potato” of my childhood, and how one day she opened her wings as an exquisite butterfly, and she was remarkable.
Susan Byrum Rountree can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.