Bend-in-the-River: A Sequel to '49 And I Ain't Budging'

by Susan C. Litton, Ph.D.

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The original 'bend in the river' The original 'bend in the river' "Little Pidgeon River, Gatlinburg, TN
The original 'bend in the river'
It's now two days before the official beginning of the year that follows age 49 and I'm safely ensconced in a log cabin in the Smoky Mountains. I decided that if I can't hide from the year that follows 49, I may as well find some way to celebrate it. I come to the mountains often, usually seeking a cabin on a ridge with a spectacular view or perhaps one close to town, making it easy to come and go for supplies. This time, it felt important to stay in a secluded cabin on a river, but I didn't know why. On the drive up, it began to be clearer to me. As I drove, I felt a profound sense of both joy and peace. I've known these two emotions before, but somehow, this time they felt deeper, softer, rounder. The image that came to mind was that there was a river running through me — a river that was still and calm at the bottom. A river I could count on to get me through whatever life had in store for me, no matter how turbulent the waters might become on the surface.

I thought of river rocks — the smooth, round kind that you see in the Smokies. I've had a passion for them for years — again, without knowing why. But now it occurs to me that my aging process has been like those river rocks. My psyche no longer has quite so many of the rough, jagged edges that newer mountain ranges have — there are fewer obtrusions to tear at my soul as it journeys through life. There are still a few, and perhaps I'll encounter others around some yet untraveled bend in the river, but there's definitely a difference.

In our youth, when the rocks are still rough and craggy and when they loom enormous in comparison to our own size, they seem terrifying and/or intimidating. At that age, our best defense against them is avoidance, so most of us learn a variety of maneuvers designed to help us avoid the rocks or pretend they're not there. As we reach adolescence and early adulthood, our fear gets replaced by bravura and we attempt to conquer the rocks — sometimes timidly, other times throwing ourselves into it with abandon. But it seems to me that as we age, we begin to take a whole new approach. We begin to see that rocks are to be neither feared nor conquered — rather, they're things to interact with and learn from. Teachers disguised as rocks. They may still seem scary or exciting — at times they may still elicit an initial response of wanting to hide or to conquer. But there's also a mellowing in our response. A willingness on our part to yield a bit and listen to what the rocks may be trying to tell us. An inner plasticity, not possible in our youth, which allows us to see the rocks as something to embrace as opposed to something to fear or to conquer.

My Birthday, for Better and for Worse

But that's only part of the story. That's the nice part — the part that makes turning 50 seem appealing. There's another not-so-nice side of what this particular birthday has meant to me and that has to do with an acknowledgment of the losses. An acknowledgment of things I can no longer do, nor will I be able to do again. An acknowledgment of physical appearances that are forever changed, and continuing to change in a direction I'm less than thrilled about. An acknowledgment of people and places I may never see again.

But perhaps the most painful is an acknowledgment of things I've said or done that cannot be undone. A harsh word here, a partial truth there — things that came out of my own woundedness as a human being which caused me to behave in ways I've later regretted. Youth has a certain sense of denial about those kinds of things, I think. Whatever internal and/or external battles we're in at the time seem to possess such epic proportions that we lose sight of the fact that the words and behaviors which stem from those battles leave permanent marks on our own lives as well as those of others. Marks which cannot be undone. Apologized for, perhaps. Learned from, hopefully. But not undone. A few years ago, my shame about this realization would have been so great that I wouldn't have been able to look these shadowy specters square in the face. I'm still not sure I can, but I now have at least enough clearance down a sidelong glance that I can feel genuine regret.