May 18, 2010
We’ve had a remarkably cold spring, remarkable in the sense that we’re all remarking on it. Yesterday morning was the first sunshine we’d seen in a while and we weren’t sure what to make of all that dazzle. Wearing only a t-shirt, I weeded the raised herb bed under a wide blue sky with Mt Meeker to the west sheathed in more snow than I’ve ever seen in May. Today, though, is cool and cloudy again and I’m missing the sunshine already. I’ll have to wear a sweater to transplant lavender and I’m not feeling as eager to rush outside as I did in yesterday’s warmth. Weather-wise, I can’t quite seem to get where I want to be.
In thinking about my life at 50, I’m trying to find a word that starts with “ambi,” meaning “both,” because I often feel like I’m experiencing conflicting situations or emotions at the same time. “Ambivalent” isn’t the right word because that implies that I don’t have strong feelings one way or another, which certainly isn’t true. Quite the opposite in fact. Same for “ambiguous”; although sometimes things do seem a bit unclear, I feel more of a “both/and” than “either/or.” “Ambidextrous” is the closest since my life suddenly seems to require using both hands to juggle all I’m trying to keep in the air at once, but that word seems too breezy or too skillful for the way I’m feeling now.
Maybe I need to coin a new word: ambipathy. Just as “antipathy” means feelings against something and “sympathy” means feelings with something, “ambipathy” can mean feeling both good and bad about something at the same time—and that’s how I often feel about my life. The things that bring me great joy can also bring excruciating pain.
But poet Joy Harjo says it better than I ever could in her poem “She Had Some Horses.” Here Harjo writes of horses possessed by an unnamed “she”:
She had horses who were bodies of sand.
She had horses who were maps drawn of blood.
Some of Harjo’s horses are beautiful and wise; others are devastated and dangerous. But the poem turns on the convergence of these horses in the last three lines:
She had some horses she loved.
She had some horses she hated.
These were the same horses.
Sometimes when I wake—especially the mornings just before sunrise when it’s too early to get up but too late to go back to sleep—I don’t know whether to welcome or dread the day before me. After years of following the same path, I’m branching out, developing new opportunities, stretching my skills in seemingly satisfying ways. Yet that work is hard, even exhausting, and I often wonder whether it’s worth it.
Working with others at 50 is difficult too. I seem determined to push back more now than I ever did when I disagree or find myself confronted with rude or hurtful behavior born of others’ self-absorption or distraction. I’m just plain angry at the carelessness around me, from the negligent clerks who can’t get off their cellphones to count back my change to the greed fueling BP and Haliburton’s oil spill in the Gulf. I get frustrated by those closest to me too and I can be hard on them—and on myself.
But then the sun shines and the sky arches over my head as I transplant tiny herbs into finally warming soil and dig out grass, dandelions, and bindweed. On a ten-acre farm, there’s something satisfying about spring cleaning a 4 x 10 bed, knowing that with an honest first effort, the weeds won’t completely take over and the plants will make a good show.
Maybe ambipathy is what 50 is all about: life is very, very good, even amongst what’s very, very bad. We don’t get to choose one over the other but rather live in moments of inherent contradiction between love and hate, joy and suffering, because these
are the same