Anyone peering through the restaurant window last Friday around 2 pm would have observed 4 women throwing their heads back in laughter. Moments later they may have noticed these 4 women listening intently and wondered what could be so riveting. They could have asked themselves what the occasion was, as the women raised their flutes of Persecco.
This was a spontaneous birthday celebration – planned just one-week prior, which came together as though it were an annual ritual. But it was not.
These women had known each from the very start of their lives. They were born on a street in the largest shoe-manufacturing town in the country—Brockton, Mass. Each of the parents had their own family shoe business that their grandparents who had come from Russia by way of Ellis Island to Brockton had founded.
Two of them were cousins and one was a second cousin, the 4th unrelated. They were the same age and all younger siblings. They played together for the first 10 years of their lives in one another’s backyards’ and considered each other best friends. But, these 4 women had not been together as a group on their own for 40 years.
“How many stages of life would you say you’ve had?” Diane asked.
Diane is an artist, and teaches painting and spiritual exploration from her loft in NYC and leads artistic retreats in Umbria. She was always extremely philosophical, imaginative and exotic. We smiled knowing that her question cut through the decades. This was a Diane-type question –requiring us to go way beyond – requiring us to go very deep – to lay open our lives in an instant. Diane’s mother was an artist who used fabrics and paint in ways we’d never seen – nylon stockings and magical threads hanging on a backdrop of abstract paint. Diane was comfortable in that world – we were wide-eyed and curious awaiting our instructions of how to interpret the games she had invented.
Debby was the first to answer and quickly said, “Seven stages, I can break my life into seven stages”.
“What! How did you do that so fast – I barely understand the rules – how did you break the stages down?” I asked. I needed her to elaborate but Debby had understood the assignment immediately.
Ellen, the birthday girl giggled and said, “Felice, don’t worry, I don’t get it either. I mean what are the criteria for the end of one stage and the start of another?” Ellen was a writer and worked in publishing. She had always loved to sketch and write about the little creatures in the woods — fantasy characters inspired from one of her favorite books “Wind in the Willows.”
As I looked into Ellen’s twinkly blue eyes I felt the decades melt away. I felt great comfort in this present moment knowing that we were comrades in life despite the passage of time — finding comfort in kindness and compassion.
Ellen and my childhood homes were so close we actually had a string cup pully between our windows. Our homes were full of chaos and confusion. We both had parents who were yellers and volatile. We had learned to operate under the radar in homes full of tension. We had mastered the art of imaginary escape as a way to duck out of tense situations. Across from me now sat Ellen, ever empathetic and collaborative and safe. We both wanted to answer Diane’s challenge but we knew there were layers embedded in the question. Diane, forever the artist, explorative deep and probing was drawing us into her orb.
Debby had answered immediately because she was a practical and methodical thinker — a star athlete, strong and smart — a great competitor. Deb was a master of late night monopoly and she could throw a baseball with pinpoint precision. She stepped up to challenges and embraced her role as the strong surefooted daughter in her family. She eventually became the glue as time went on.
Debby did not see that this question required a lot of dissection on her part– Debby gave her answer with confidence as though it was the correct answer. “Seven stages – I’ve had seven stages in my life.”
In an instant – this question had served to differentiate and reveal our true essence. What was most fun to observe was that each one of us fell into our predicable childhood roles.
Diane, coached Ellen and I through the process of breaking down the stages. We worked our way backwards through our lives and we both ended up with 7 stages as well. We were pleased with our discovery.
Diane then pushed us a bit further. “Well then, we are all entering our 8th stage of our life’s journey. Which stage do you like best?”
Our answer was unanimous – “This stage.”
We were clear that this stage, the stage of being older, wiser, having weathered the challenges and celebrated life’s gifts had prepared us for this special time. This is the time that brings us the greatest joy.
Over the next 2 hours we shared our stories about romance, kids, our homes and our next steps. The stories were fun to listen to but they were details layered on like icing on a cake. We were the cake. No matter what had happened over these decades –we were still us.
We were entering this 8th stage together –at that table. We had each learned to let go of what no longer served us – no longer gave us joy. We were experienced at loving and feeling loved. We were older and wiser.
In this 8th stage, we had overcome much of the uncertainty that is part of growing up. We knew we had more control over how we wished to live over lives.
We have figured out how to find comfort and be secure with our day to day.
We understood that the issues that arise and create challenges – we could manage and overcome.
We knew that when things become difficult that too would pass.
And most importantly we were relishing our time together at this moment.