When my mother turned 50, I sent her a card that declared joyfully “Congratulations, you are now officially a crone!” like she’d been reaching for that moment her entire life. She was horrified. She felt as if I’d labeled each one of her wrinkles with a proper name; but I, on the other hand, believed the word crone to be the most flattering thing to call a woman. As a child, I couldn’t wait to escape ingénue-hood for when oh when could I be that crone, an old woman who oozed grace and insight from having lived a life, a real gritty passionate life. I once dramatically confessed to my friend Maria, “I can’t wait to be old,” to which she responded in 7-year-old solidarity, “I can’t wait to wear lipstick.” She didn’t understand that “old” for me meant wise.
In pursuit of wisdom, I grew up trying to define it. I assumed that it looked serious–a solemn face furrowed in Deep Meaningful Smart Thought and often staring into the grassy distance. When I spotted people like this, I gazed upon them like a dutiful servant, terribly impressed by what they might know about the world, but never particularly soothed.
As I step into my 30’s (and therefore become supposedly wiser, though I’d trust a toddler’s insight over anyone’s my age), wisdom is begging for a new wardrobe. Be-gg-ing for it.
What I’ve noticed is that the people I respect the most do one thing consistently… Giggle. This does not mean they lack Deep Meaningful Smart Thought. They just don’t look so burdened by it, or so damn serious. They are airy. They are light. They do that bending like a reed in the wind thing.
Desmond Tutu has toiled to transform brutal circumstances into reconciliation. But watch him; he laughs a lot. I once knew a Hindu monk who just laughed and laughed at all of my so-vital-to-me questions. An older friend dying of cancer continues to be about the jolliest, most smiley man you’ll ever meet. Often trauma lives behind the laughter. Like, for example, my neighbor. He and his wife trudged through the snow for dinner last night. I called them beforehand to make sure they liked the purple-red root vegetable that so many people despise. He laughed into the phone, “That’s a long story, but I’ll tell you over some beets.” As we forked roasted beets into our mouths, he told of growing up in the Netherlands during World War II. He, his parents and four siblings survived on beets and tulip bulbs alone–as did the Jewish family they were hiding in the basement. He was laughing as he recounted this memory, but his laughter contained both a profound acknowledgment of that awful reality and an undercurrent of godly bliss. I don’t know how he did it.
None of this comes naturally to me. I sigh sadly over tragedy. And I like to dig up the dirt, examine it under a microscope and then ponder over it for days. My family teases me about being so serious and my friend Katinka recently chuckled as she read my horoscope out loud to me: “Some people might think you are an intense person. Well, this month…”
But my brothers do thrive on making me pee in my pants from laughing. So these days I’m trying (and it’s hard!) to spend more time in that place, that geography on my face. The hard-working crowd saving-the-world-with-a-frown doesn’t catch my eye anymore, nor do the forever-analyzing intellectuals. I’m impressed instead by the belly-laughers–those whose wisdom is finding a collective humor and buoyancy in the muck, those who sparkle with awe, those who allow that childlike simplicity to take them right over.