Compromise and balance

Age 50: It's a great time to look back, and forward

Family Matters

November 09, 2003|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

Together we make 100 years. One hundred years of fortitude, I said. One hundred years of fun, my friend Cynthia Jabs said. We were on a plane to New Mexico. Awhile back, we promised that in 2003, the year we each turned 50, we would celebrate with a getaway.

We met at a party in Baltimore about 18 years ago and became fast friends. Life is crazy, so weeks often passed without contact. Still, we seemed to keep track of one another telepathically and through occasional phone calls, lunches and social gatherings. Away together, though, we would have a chance to share years of stored thoughts.

We decided upon visiting the Southwest, to soak in hot springs, explore Indian ruins, stop in old Spanish churches, and at night, see through the thin mountain atmosphere clear to the next galaxy.

The trip was guided by an unspoken premise. Neither of us is particularly good at compromise, but has compromised often enough on family trips where fast food and cheesy entertainment trumped regional specialties and long hikes. We knew each other well enough not to fret about clashing notions of dinner and fun. Better yet, we were both game for hot chilies and uphill treks. On this trip, we wouldn't have to compromise.

In the way of all things meant to be, it was an extraordinary escape, even more so because 10 years ago, we had taken a very different trip that Cynthia, in her gently persuasive way, made happen as much for my sake as hers.

It was the year we turned 40 and were both on the threshold of change. Cynthia had started acupuncture school, a radical switch from her writing career. I was scheduled for two major knee surgeries and feeling shaky. We both had young children and an impending sense that we were about to (and had to) enter a new stage of life. At the moment, though, there was no way of knowing where such alterations would lead us.

We spent the weekend taking the waters at a West Virginia hot springs. I entered them wobbly and alone. But as I floated in the warm water, staring at the spa's beautiful old wooden ceiling with its mandala-like construction, fear washed away and a kind of quiet euphoria took its place. I had more control over this crisis than I realized. I left understanding a little better that my challenge was not so different as those of my peers: to recognize and honor my strengths instead of letting the usual demons prevail. And to appreciate that getting lost is an inevitable part of finding your way.

Ten years later, Cynthia is a healer with a devoted clientele. I'm still a writer, but much more comfortable in my skin. Cynthia's three kids and my two are growing up, and she and I often envision how they will cope with bumps in the road as they become adults. Again, it was time to take to the waters and to contemplate where we had come from and where we were going in the years ahead.

Of course, we had to get lost first to figure that out.

On the warm October day we arrived, a little delirious since we had awakened at 4 a.m. in Baltimore. We left a Santa Fe museum, promptly got turned around and ended up at the nearby campus of St. Johns College, where students read the great books in a monastic setting much different than the school's Annapolis counterpart. A faculty member provided directions. Aware that her coordinates were sketchy, she told us to keep asking. People always get lost, she told us. That was sound advice for everything in life, not just for getting out of town, we agreed.

Several minutes later, we again asked for directions; this time from a construction worker. We then left Santa Fe and soon noticed there was a motorist behind us in hot pursuit. He honked and gestured wildly at us for a few miles. A psychopath angry that we had cut him off? No. He had heard the directions and realized they were wrong. You have to make this turn, too, he told us. Later that day, a Los Alamos man saw us poring over a map at a light, and told us to stop so he could set us straight, as well.

Ordinarily, it's not wise to pull over at a stranger's behest. But losing our way in this wide, open space was not scary; it was positively reassuring. The Southwest seems such a prime place for learning to be lost, what with views to each horizon and people who go to such lengths to offer directions.

With haunting, Indian-influenced flute music by R. Carlos Nakai on the CD player, we cruised through the desert and the mountains, feeling the land's magnetic pull for everyone from ancient peoples to Spanish missionaries to New Age acolytes. We talked, fell silent and talked some more. When it came time to decide on a restaurant or a place to stay, we didn't fear that one person's opinion would offend the other.

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