The Wonder Years

Surviving Earthquakes, Volcanoes, Bears, and Birthdays (& "Wonder Years" Giveaways!)

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Oh my, It was a busy week, complete with yes, all of this in one form or another. Every one of these can kill you (yes, birthday’s included!) First, the earthquake. It was 9:30 am. I was sitting on my bed writing. Somewhere between sentences——a jolt! Then a rattle and shake. In the first half second my body is all nerves and senses. Washing machine or earthquake? The second second—-Earthquake!! How long? I count . . . “three, four . . .” and then it’s over.

It was a 5.7. The epicenter was very close to Kodiak but it was felt all the way to Eagle River, 300 miles away.

Kodiak (and Alaska in general) knows all about earthquakes, since we sit on the Ring of Fire. We had a 7.9 last February in the Gulf of Alaska, prompting everyone in low-lying areas in Kodiak to evacuate to higher ground—at 1:30 am. Earthquakes are just a part of life here. In 1964 downtown Kodiak was wiped out by a Tsunami, generated by the second largest earthquake ever recorded—-a 9.2.

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(UPDATE: 3 days later: Another earthquake, 7.0 then 5.3 near Anchorage. Tsunami alert—-sirens going all over town to evacuate. We evacuated to the high school—-wandered the high school and admired everyone’s dogs . .. then home 45 minutes later. But tons of damage in Anchorage.)

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Volcano! This last week, while we were thawing our turkeys, one of Alaska’s eight active volcano’s erupted. Mount Veniaminof is down the Aleutian Chain. It spewed ash 15,000 feet into the air, sending a plume of ash 250 miles—-not a big eruption, but enough to say “Hey, don’t forget about me.” Alaskans roll their eyes when volcanoes erupt—-that means not only harmful ash fall, but grounded planes. Most of us have been stuck for multiple days because of eruptions.

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BEARS!!

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We lock our doors at night for 2-legged and 4-legged thieves. I talked to a police officer this week who said last year he went out on just a handful of calls the whole year for nuisance bears. This year they respond to multiple reports every night. The bears are refusing to hibernate it seems, especially when there’s a fresh supply of garbage offered right out on the street for them every week. (WHY and whose fault is this? I talked about this here ).

The bears are everywhere around town—-near schools, stores, in people’s garages and hen houses. An elementary school went on lockdown when a wounded bear was on the loose nearby. No one walks in the dark anymore. It seems nearly everyone has had an encounter. Rubber bullets no longer work.

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And birthdays!! We had two this week, the day after Thanksgiving. My youngest son was born on my 45th birthday. This year Micah turned 16 and I turned 61. (Every 11 years we have an inverse birthday!) And THANK YOU to all who sent me good wishes and non-caloric photos of yummy cakes, which I was happy not to eat!

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I am happy to be 61. I’m excited and grateful to be 61. I am still a child. My life is just beginning, whether I live for 5 or 35 more years. I have SO much still to learn!

The death I fear is not by earthquake, volcano or bear attack. The death I fear is by birthday. I don’t mean catching fire from the blaze of 90 candles aflame on the cake. I mean the slow sad sink into despond, into isolation, Into cynicism and bitterness for all the world did not deliver to my door. THIS is death: when I separate myself from the love of God and the love of others. When I forget who my Creator is and all He has done in my life. When no one is my neighbor but me.

This death can pounce with razor claws at any moment. It can rattle our beds, shake down our walls, erupt in an explosion of choking ash. Or it can creep silently, one candle at a time until the house burns down.

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Oh Lord, save me!

Let us remember, as long as the Lord gives breath and heart, that

The JOY of the Lord is our strength. The MISERY of our reclusive heart is our death.

My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” (Ps. 73:26)

(Tonight, as I write these words, the skies echo their truths.)

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GIVEAWAYS!

Maybe some of you need this book, The Wonder Years: 40 Women Over 40 on Aging, Faith, Beauty and Strength? It tells the truth about aging AND cheers and guides all of us onward into a richer fuller life, no matter how aflame our cake!

If you’d like a copy, tell me why—-and leave your email address in the comments below. I’ll draw 3 names on next Tuesday! Happy birthday? Love to you all!

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Of Bodies and Birds (When God Takes Away Our Health)

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Dear All, I am bringing you something special today. A stunning piece written by my spiritual daughter, Michelle Novak, who once sat in my Literature class in Kodiak 25 years ago. She was an angry, leather-clad rebel, but she was no match for the Lord. Who found her. Who changed her utterly. 

This stunning piece comes from The Wonder Years: 40 Women Over 40 on Aging, Faith, Beauty and Strength. There are famous incredible women in The Wonder Years. Michelle is unknown. This is her first ever publication. But her essay is brilliant and beautiful, and often makes me cry.  I have to share it with you. And I hope you will share it with others. 

 

 

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I knelt in the swamp, mesmerized by the creature on the shrub. His strange contortions enthralled me: he was emerging from his exuvia---breaking out of his outer shell, undergoing the change from water-based nymph to fully-adult dragonfly.

I watched for more than hour. It looked excruciating, bone cracking, the outer layer splitting along what we might call the spine. Finally he emerged ---at first a faint greenish color not so different from the spent grey insect he was.  When I bent the twig down for a better look he wobbled onto my hand. There, to my delight, he finished coloring to a deeper emerald, drying and straightening his wings. When he was finally erect, the process nearly finished, he rubbed his head on my palm to loosen his antennae, whirred his brand new wings for a few seconds, and flew away. I decided to keep the twig where the cracked and empty shell was still attached.

I understood entirely how this felt: it mirrored my own bone-cracking transformation to wholeness.

I had always been athletic and energetic. I had even been a lifeboat crewman in the Coast Guard, as well as a shipboard navigator who climbed onto buoys in bays and the ocean, using my sextant to fix their position. Even as I approached 50, I still led a vigorous life and was untroubled at the thought of aging.

Until one day. Without warning, my neck swelled up, became hot to the touch, and my head fell over. My neck could not support my head. Afraid to move, I slept that way in a chair only to wake up the next morning with my head rammed hard onto the opposite shoulder, along with a spine-cracking sensation and pain I couldn't begin to describe.

My head never went back. As I waited months to see a specialist, I thought of obtaining illegal and heavy drugs, or suicide. Mostly, I crawled on the floor, letting my head drop onto it over and over, sobbing and groaning, hoping I would die.

I was eventually diagnosed with systemic dystonia, a complex neuro-muscular disorder for which there is no cure, and very little in the way of successful treatment. The dystonia affects almost every muscle in my body, with constant tormenting spasms in my neck muscles and surprise spasms everywhere else, twisting my spine, wringing it from top to bottom. It rapidly progressed, bringing with it a deep fatigue and a violent tremor in my hands and neck. I had no idea how much I’d be able to do, but I knew my active life was over.

 

A woman before and after the onset of dystonia

A woman before and after the onset of dystonia

 

What was possible for me in this new life, this new-old body? If this was how I was going to age, I at least wanted peace of mind in the midst of it. That meant I needed something to study. I’ve always been active both in body and in mind. I love studying languages and have gained proficiency in several living and dead languages, which I use to translate ancient texts, particularly the Old and New Testaments.  I knew if I was going to survive this dystonia, I needed a new mental challenge, but I could only study for short periods. I also desperately needed something to keep me moving. Even the little movement I could tolerate was crucial to keeping as healthy as I could.

One winter morning, as I rummaged through my books, I happened upon my mom's old bird guide. The cover was gone, and it had seen much use. I smiled as I fingered through it, remembering how she loved to tell me the names of all the birds in her yard, the tanagers, the purple martins, and especially the hummingbirds. She had several feeders set up exclusively for them, and would sit and enjoy their antics for hours. The memory of how bright and happy she became when she talked about the hummingbirds remained.

Then I remembered something else: by then, she too had developed a spastic rigidity in all her limbs and lost most of her ability to move about safely. But she was so rejuvenated when watching or talking about the birds.

I made a decision. I got a couple of feeders and put out some seeds. Soon, the birds came---first the usuals, chickadees and titmice. And then woodpeckers, which fascinated me. By spring I had an aviary only an obsessive-compulsive, twisted central nervous system could dream up! The yard was full of new birdsong and vigorous life.

Most of my outdoor time now was spent slowly working through each feeder, moving, filling and cleaning it. I experimented. I started talking to the birds, and they began to come closer, forgiving the twisted body and maybe even the twisted mind of one who talks to birds.

 

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I learned to listen to the incredible arias of bird language, as they discuss, announce and proclaim their intentions for their every movement and activity. 

Many nights I study about them. And since my disease requires me to sit for hours at a time every day, I've learned to observe them in their own space through a disciplined, almost athletic stillness, a great accomplishment for someone whose muscles are still yanking, twitching and spasming.

Now, every day a world of creatures alight in my flawed garden to be tended by a wracked body. I know what I look like. I move like someone twenty years older. But the creatures come. They stay. I'm charmed and I feel deep affection for what I never noticed when I could see straight ahead.

When my head was permanently wrenched to the right by the unyielding spasming of many neck muscles, my eyes were re-cast. What was peripheral vision, has become my central vision. Only a twisted body can know it and navigate the world by it.

The direction of my life has been realigned as well. I move sideways. I move slowly, with what might be seen as excruciating deliberation to those who only see straight ahead. But the best part is, I see small. I see slow. What I used to blow by in fast hikes, I now stop to examine, write about, photograph and consider. That's how I met my dragonfly.

And my chickadee. At the end of May, as I was filling a chickadee feeder, talking as I worked, as was my custom, a chickadee landed on a branch just a few inches from me. He looked at me, his head as cocked to the side as the dystonia had tilted mine. I slowly raised my hand, asking in a soft voice, “Would you like a seed?”

 

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In a moment he flitted into my palm. I liked the soft pinch of his feet and he seemed to like sinking into the flesh of my hand. We looked at one another with the same long quizzical gaze. A few seconds later, he lit from my hand to the tree. We were companions now. I knew he would stand in my palm again. He came because I held my hand out to the birds from January to almost June. In my old life, I would never have had the patience to wait and be still.

As it is with everyone whose soul is hidden in Christ, my brokenness has been redeemed, and I am whole. I'm twisted but whole. I know who I am: I am a helpless creature who must wait on the Lord for every good thing.

And he has cared for me in my new state and allowed me to care for others. I have a pair of robins nesting in my yard that come when I call them. I named them as Adam must have when things were new, and slow, and he had fresh eyes which allowed him to truly see every wonderful creature with which God presented him, creatures who came to him as these come to me.

They wait for the food I give them. They drink and bathe in the water I pour out for them. They frolic and nest in the trees and grass I tend for them. I've finally learned why the birds made my mother so joyous, even in her pain and immobility.

And in these creatures I see a new world coming

when my body is made as whole as my soul. In that day,

I will crawl out of my broken exuvia, stand erect

                 to feed my chickadees with strong, steady hands.

 

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Michelle Novak lives in Delevan New York with her two huge dogs, Sundew and Acacia. (Here, on a good day, she is able to sit for this photo.) When able, she roams the hills, swamps, fields ands forests of western NY State, often bringing back specimens to examine under a microscope. While captivated by birds and swamp-mucking, she is also a lifelong self-taught linguist who is able to translate four languages, including Greek and Hebrew. Most of all, Michelle loves God. 

(Please feel free to leave a comment for Michelle below!)

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Are We Aging, Sagging or "Saging"? And The Wonder Years Giveaways!

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I send this from Slovakia, still on my pilgrimage, but this is a very special week. Finally! The official launch week for The Wonder Years: 40 Women Over 40 on Aging, Faith, Beauty and Strength (with Luci Shaw, Elisa Morgan, Kay Warren, Lauren Winner, Jeanne Murray Walker, Joni Tada, Madeleine L'Engle, Elizabeth Elliot, Margot Starbuck, Jen Pollock Michel, and many more) 

 

https://www.amazon.com/Wonder-Years-Women-Beauty-Strength/dp/0825445221

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https://www.amazon.com/Wonder-Years-Women-Beauty-Strength/dp/0825445221

 

We need this book!  (I NEED this book, which is why I spent the last 5 years compiling and editing it! And maybe your mother needs this book for Mother's Day?) Come and have a taste!  Book giveaways at the end. 

 

INTRODUCTION

 

 

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I am looking into the mirror. Not the mirror, mirror on the wall, which kindly tells me whatever I want by a quick dim and flick of the light switch, but the far scarier one: the mirror in my hand that magnifies my face by a factor of ten. Under this painful scrutiny, I skip over my pores and crow’s feet and go right for the brows. I count a record number of greys. With jaw set I pluck them ruthlessly, realizing I’ll soon be brow-less at this rate. Thankfully, the mirror is minute enough to keep me from cataloging all the other marks of age upon my body. Today, it’s just the brows.

Tomorrow it might be something else, especially if I have given in to my secret online obsession of celebrity slideshows. Particularly the “Where are they now?” slides, documenting actors’ unforgiveable lapses into middle and old age. How dare our movie icons age like that? The disgust is palpable. Those galleries are usually linked to celebrities trying to escape that ignominy who end up instead in the next slideshow: “The Worst Plastic Surgeries Ever.”

 

 

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Who wants to age, really? We fight it in so many ways, some of which are downright silly. Recently I saw an enticing online headline that had gone viral: “The Hairstyle That Will Get a 38-Year-Old Carded.”

I clicked on it, of course. There she was: a woman obviously in her late thirties, peering goofily from behind long, blunt bangs once popular among tweens and teens. At least they weren’t pigtails! But this obsession is hardly new. Remember Twiggy, the seventeen-year-old super model-waif from the sixties, who suddenly made mature women everywhere long to look eleven years old?

 

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Are we so youth-obsessed that we long to be children again? Perhaps. Who wouldn’t love another chance at childhood, to do it right and thorough with the proper joy next time? But maybe all this is more than the universal human hunt for the fountain of youth and innocence. Maybe it’s something more modest, more possible. Maybe we older women just want to be seen again.

 

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In 2013, Salon.com ran a provocative article by Tira Harpaz with the headline, “Women Over Fifty Are Invisible.” The essay made significant waves—among women over fifty but was, predictably, ignored by others. The author’s thesis was simply this: “If you want to make a person invisible, just put her in the shoes of an over-fifty woman and abracadabra, watch her disappear.” Harpaz, herself in her late fifties, described aging and its accompanying invisibility as a kind of fading away into irrelevance, including “a loss of attractiveness and sex appeal, the end of fertility, a glimpse of a slow, lingering decline.”

I thought about women ahead of me, women I admire two and three decades older than I: Doris with her glowing red hair and killer figure. Luci with two new books coming out this year; Vera who still teaches dance classes; Kay, still speaking around the world. I thought of Iris Apfel draped in turquoise or orange with layers of massive ethnic jewelry lighting her tiny figure. When she attended Paris Fashion Week, she was treated like a combination of “a rock star and Queen Elizabeth.”  She is drop-dead gorgeous. And she is ninety-four. And not least among them, Merle with her servant’s heart and generosity to all.

All of these women are well past eighty. I am agog not at their age; there are plenty of nonagenarians and even centenarians knocking around. But a ninety-four-year-old setting new fashion trends? A ninety-ish woman who is still making new friends? An eighty-eight-year-old still creating stunning poetry? An eighty-three-year-old opening fresh biblical truths to hungry audiences? Beauty and age have too long been enemies and antitheses. But times are changing. And so are we. Dozens of models over sixty grace fashion runways and magazine covers, flaunting their wrinkles, wearing their grey hair long and flowing as they pose elegantly among women young enough to be their granddaughters. Even in this dizzying technological age, which prizes the nimblest brains and the quickest adapters, we women over forty are proving again and again that innovation and imagination can flower all the way into our nineties.

 

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Even more than this, as I look around my faith community, I see older women serving. I see them beginning new ministries after their retirement, finding new ways to alleviate suffering and lighten others’ loads. Here are the real radicals, women who reject the prevailing notion of our culture that age delivers a license for freedom and self-indulgence. How many times have I heard celebrities and acquaintances alike, on the eve of their fiftieth or sixtieth birthday, proclaim to the world, “Watch out. It’s my time now. I’m gonna say and do whatever I want.” And in the next breath, when asked for their newfound wisdom, they invariably say something like, “I’ve finally come to love myself just as I am. Now I don’t have to please anyone but myself.” Is that really all there is? Did we survive childhood, adolescence, and our twenties and thirties to arrive on the doorstep we left as children? Surely not.

 

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I’m not saying aging is a breeze. Vanities and losses remain, I confess. This book is something of a coming out for me. I’ve vacillated over the last few decades over making my age public. Sometimes I deliberately hide my age or even lie. A few months ago, I changed my birthdate on Facebook to a full decade younger, thinking, Why not? Why should I reveal that I’m almost a senior citizen? I speak to university audiences often and would rather not be perceived as their mother, or worse, their grandmother. But it didn’t stand long before I was spasmed by guilt and tried to change it back, only to find the date uneditable. (It seems you can only change your age twice before the FB police come after you.)

So again, this book is a kind of coming out for me. Like many others, sometimes I am mistaken for someone ten or even fifteen years younger, given good lighting and the just-right dress. But other times it cuts the other way, which feels like the ultimate defeat. But why?

Why do we feel as though we’re racing against time? And as if time were not an inequitable enough racing partner, some of us, mostly subconsciously, lace up our shoes next to Photoshopped magazine cover models who regularly go under the needle and the laser, who work out four hours a day with their personal trainer, nibbling salads devised by their personal chefs. For a few, their own postmenopausal youthfulness has become their single raison d'etre.

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It’s a rigged, impossible race. Mostly, we know it. Our best claim, then, is to look or feel younger than our actual age. Here, finally, we’re crowned a winner in the lifestyle sweepstakes, which is not so much about cheating death—we’re not concerned with that—yet. But to cheat Time itself, and even more, to cheat Nature, who, by the time we’re over forty, we know for sure is not our Mother.

 

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How then do we respond to the passing years that make their inevitable marks upon our faces, our bodies, and our abilities?

A thousand different ways. Look around. Look and listen to these forty women, most of whom are just like you and me, women who are growing, beginning new ventures, casting off old shadows, whose own passages through life and time have yielded great fruit, even when aging saps health, energy, and abilities. Yes, even then. Welcome to the party!

But we’re serious, too. Aging is not for the thin-boned or the faint of heart. As we climb year by year, whether it’s a mountain or a ladder, we need to stop for a long moment and consider the view. We need to ask questions. Maybe we should even check our ladder. As a number of writers have told us, we could spend our entire lives climbing the ladder of achievement and success only to discover, once we mount those upper rungs, that we’ve leaned the ladder upon the wrong wall. It takes courage to stop and take stock of who we are, where we’ve been, and where we’re going. It takes strength to keep our hearts open. It takes fearlessness to keep questing after the good, the beautiful, the true. We’ll do exactly that in these pages, knowing that no matter our age, it’s never too late to keep becoming the women God wants us to be.

 

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These are indeed The Wonder Years. In writing and compiling this book, I have been astonished and inspired by my fellow writers. I know you will be as well, but we have another audience in mind too. We’re taking up the mantle the apostle Paul gave us in Titus 2:3–5, for “older women” to “teach what is good” to “younger women.” All of us in these middle and later years have gained a storehouse of memories and experiences that surprise us in their depth and breadth. We find ourselves, unexpectedly at times, experts in a whole host of areas: we’re mothers and grandmothers, wives, mothers-in-law, and stepmothers. We’re professionals. We’re farmers and fisherwomen. We’re pastors, writers, teachers, ministry leaders. As we have learned, stumbled, and grown, we must pass on all that is good and true to those coming behind us. Many of us had no such encouraging voices as we lurched through our own earlier years. We send these notes on to you, our younger sisters, with joy and love. We commit ourselves to easing your passage as well!

How shall we do this, then? Our lives seldom divide into neat packages, but the three sections of this book make enormous sense to all of us in our “years of wonder.” Along with the passage of time comes courage, a wise sort of adventuring that knows how fleet the passage of time and how ripe the moment for new experiences, so we begin with “Firsts.” The wisdom that launches us into new ventures also relieves us of burdens and obligations we no longer need to carry. The next section is “Lasts,” where fourteen women cast off the weight of regret, fear, judgments, and perfectionism. Finally, though we’re constantly changing and growing through the embrace of the new and the loss of the old, we arrive as well at our “Always” convictions. We discover again the core of who we are and who we vow to remain, no matter our health, our abilities, or our age.

Welcome to the Wonder Years! Get ready for break-out joy, indulgent abundance, heart-stopping wisdom, and never-let-go faith!

 

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(Some of the contributors at the book party in Grand Rapids last week.)

 

I’m giving away 5 copies of The Wonder Years this week! Here’s how to enter (and don’t forget Mother’s Day is near!):

 

1.   Share this post on your social media outlets. (Thank you, friends!)

2.   Leave a comment here telling me this---AND, share why you too need this book. (thank you again!)

 

3.   Include your email address so I can contact you if you win.

 

That’s it. A huge hug to you all. I’m so grateful to you all---more than you know! (YOU are the reason I write.)