October 6, 2013 § 2 Comments
I was looking at my hands the other day and noticed how arthritis has affected the shape and direction of my fingers. Long-term inflammation has freed them from the configuration of conventional finger appearance and allowed each one to wander off in its own direction thereby achieving an individuality and uniqueness not possible in ordinary circumstances.
For example, a v-shaped chasm has developed between my middle finger and ring finger of my right hand. These two fingers can no longer lie parallel to each other but must maintain a 60 degree tangent. In fact, when I hold up my hand the outline is eerily reminiscent of the Vulcan greeting, “Live long and prosper.”
While this digital anomaly may suggest an exclusive membership in an arcane society, it is inconvenient when receiving change from the grocery clerk. Coins fall like rain through that gap. Likewise, when I cup my hands to wash my face, the water immediately drains back into the bowl. When I type the ring finger now rests on the semi-colon rather than the L.
My left hand has two eccentric members at present. My index finger has a wave-like profile with the middle portion flying high and handsome and the end joint concave. The thumb has taken a turn to the right from the main joint making it ready for hitchhiking at a moment’s notice.
When I look at my palms see a maze of crisscrossing lines that I am reluctant to read. Is that my life line that splits in two so precipitously? What does the line of destiny reveal? I turn them over and see the scattering of brown age spots and high blue veins. I see skin that is now thin and fragile looking.
I see the hands of my mother and of my grandmother and of all the other women who had the privilege of aging. When I look at my hands I no longer see knobby fingers and bones and wonder what happened to the girl/woman I used to be. I see hands that have made beautiful by life, hands that have been sculpted by experience.
These are the hands that have wiped the noses of children and brushed away another’s tears. They have held lovers in the dark of night and clasped friends in times of celebration. They have been turned into fists of anger and hung loose in sorrow. They have scrubbed floors and painted pictures and planted gardens. They cover my face and hide me from the world.
These hands have taken and have received, have comforted and sought comfort, have worked and lain idle. They have been folded in prayer and opened in love. They have learned to hold on and to let go. They have served me well all my life and have been made beautiful by that service.
February 8, 2013 § 3 Comments
I have a dear cousin named Hazel. We are separated by enough years that we are almost in different generations and when I was growing up she was my model of beauty and sophistication. Looking back she kind of reminded me of the Audrey Hepburn of the 1950’s with her short dark pixie haircut and brown eyes. Her favorite perfume was White Shoulders and when I would visit she would let me dab some behind my ears.
When I grew up we became friends as well as relatives and although I moved to California in my 30’s and she remained in Pennsylvania – in fact, except for a couple of trips to New Jersey to the casinos I don’t recall her ever leaving the valley – we have always kept in touch.
I remember about ten years ago when I had flown back home to clear out my mother’s house so it could be sold, Hazel and I were at the small local airport waiting for my younger son to arrive. It was about 11 at night and bad weather had delayed his plane. Now this is a really small airport and at that time of night there was nobody around – not even in the coffee shop or ticket counters.
It was right out of the twilight zone and before long Hazel and I were laughing like lunatics. About 45 minutes later, a mysterious voice came over an intercom saying the plane had landed. Suddenly, magically, people started to appear all around us – at the ticket counter, at the luggage wheel, on the concourse – everywhere but the parking lot.
After Jason loaded his luggage in the trunk, we discovered that there was no one attending the parking check out. The swing arm gate was down and locked and the lights were going out in the terminal. After taking a vote, we decided to drive around the attendant’s booth and gate, through the flower bed, over the curb and on to the exit drive. It was a memorable evening and one that she and I both enjoy reminiscing.
I haven’t been back to Pennsylvania since my mom died but Hazel and I talk a few times a year. In fact, I talked to her last week and told her about my 50th high school reunion coming up this summer. We discussed the possibility of my journeying back but I don’t know that I am able to travel alone any more. During our long conversation, Hazel brought up the proposed trip several times, each time as if she had forgotten we had talked about it.
Yesterday there was a message on my answering machine from her. She said she didn’t know if she had been dreaming it or not and was trying to remember if I had told her I was coming home this summer. If I was I could stay with her. She had to run an errand but would call me back later that afternoon. She never called. I guess she forgot.
It is very poignant to recognize that someone you love is slowly slipping away – in mind if not in body. I am so grateful for the many memories she and I have created, memories that soon I may have to treasure alone.
January 25, 2013 § 4 Comments
I realized a few months ago I no longer feel sexy or even have the need to look attractive. I have no compulsion to dress fashionably or even have the pieces match. As a result my entire wardrobe can easily fit into two suitcases.
I haven’t worn high heels in five years and the one tube of lipstick I still possess has lint on it. There is no mirror on the ceiling or even in the bedroom for that matter. Most importantly, I no longer feel that terrible longing to be completed by a man. What a relief!
I married and divorced in my twenties and never remarried. There was always something out of sync. If it was the right guy, it was the wrong time; if it was the right time, it was the wrong guy.
As a result there were all those years of always going alone to family or business functions. All those years of meeting men and wondering “Is he the ONE?” All those years of feeling the need to be pretty, to be sexy, to be attractive – and feeling that I didn’t quite measure up.
Happily, those days are over now and I finally feel whole. What common sense and years of self-work could not achieve, age has accomplished effortlessly.
Once I saw a picture of old Sicilian women wearing black dresses sitting quietly on wooden chairs outside their doors and I pitied them for their limited lives. Now I understand. Those black dresses were their way showing the world they were no longer competing. The only role they were still playing was old crone.
I think I can do that. I don’t have any dresses but I do have a lot of black sweat pants and t- shirts. Plus, I have a chair on the patio from which I can observe passers by and make snide remarks in my head while I say the rosary.
Not to mention I now look the part. I have wrinkles in the strangest places and most of those periodically have wild hairs. I wear ugly nun shoes and take a nap every day. I have become a victim of gravity and what doesn’t droop, sways
There is a season for everything and this is the time of letting go. I am alone but rarely lonely. I want less and have more. I am both male and female and yet neither. Life is good and time a gift.
November 28, 2012 § 6 Comments
When I woke up this morning my shoulder was stiff and aching and one knee didn’t want to work properly. It ain’t easy getting old. As you age the body’s demands seem never-ending. There’s always an ache or pain somewhere, a stiff muscle that doesn’t want to stretch, a swollen joint that doesn’t want to bend, a body that seems heavier this morning than it did last night.
At the same time the body is becoming less obedient, the heart requires more compassion. We have to get used to letting go – of expectations, of opinions, of control. Closed fists must bloom because one by one our fingers will be prized from the things we own, from the people and pets we love, the abilities we value and from the freedoms we cherish.
This letting go of the outward gives us the freedom to roam the interior. We are at leisure to examine our lives, to toss out unkind judgments, forgive others, and finally to release the need for perfection from our own shoulders. We have the freedom to take up hobbies, travel, eat junk food and wear clothes that don’t match.
Some say we’re not as sharp as once we were. While we may not remember if we turned off the stove, we can easily recall our first kiss, remember the faces of our children running through the violets, or recall the blue flowered wallpaper of the family home.
Admittedly, our hearing may not be what once it was but the words we spoke in anger or in love so many years ago still echo in our hearts; we continue to hear the songs we sang in celebration and in solitude.
Then one day we experience the shock of attaining the childhood wish of near invisibility. Like the old Sicilian women wrapped in black shawls sitting on wooden chairs in front of ancient houses, we no longer have to meet exhausting standards in sexual attractiveness. We are no longer expected to climb career ladders, to possess status symbols or wield power. We are no longer seen as significant players in the game.
As our focus becomes less acute, our field of vision widens. When we take off our glasses we see that beauty shines forth everywhere, in beetles and birds and weeds along the road, in old buildings and old dogs and soup simmering on the stove. Even in its horrors, we see that life is resplendent in its creative power that is never-ending and truly benign.
And while our soul is quietly pulling out and examining suitcases in preparation for the journey ahead, we wonder what we will be allowed to take – and what must be left.
“To forgive is merely to remember only the loving thoughts you gave in the past, and those that were given you.
All the rest must be forgotten.” The Course in Miracles
November 7, 2012 § Leave a Comment
On Sunday evening I received an email from Word Press saying that my Insha’Allah post would be on Freshly Pressed. I wasn’t even sure what that meant but when I looked it up I was surprised and grateful. More than 1,000 visitors came to the blog over the next two days and hundreds of them ‘liked’ the post or left messages of sympathy for the family I had written about. I know these kind thoughts were felt by my friends and I thank all of you for your compassion.
I visited the site of each person who ‘liked’ the post and spent hours reading about their many diverse and interesting journeys. There were men and women from India, Malaysia, Africa, England, Norway, Canada, Pakistan and more; they were young teenagers to old grandfathers. Some decided to follow the blog.
To all of the newcomers, I hope you enjoy future postings. They won’t all be serious or sad and they won’t be regularly scheduled. I write to examine the twists and turns of my mind, to capture a moment, to tell a story but most of all I write because I must. I hope that my ponderings find a resonance with you.
Today I have a poem for you that was inspired by our beautiful autumn weather which yesterday reminded me of the kindness of an old grandmother. The next post will be a funny one that will finally explain why women cry when they are angry.
THE GOLDEN LIGHT OF AN AUTUMN DAY
Steady, solid, centered,
This November day glows
Like a fat bellied Buddha
While green, yellow and orange trees
Are etched against the smile
Of the Mona L isa sky.
In the golden afternoon
The old dog on the porch
Trembles and dreams
Of chasing rabbits in the woods
And drinking from rocky streams
That run clear and sweet.
Her cheeks rouged with red berries,
Her lips plump as melons,
November rests as pumpkins ripen
On frost-tinged vines encircling scarecrow legs
That stand alone in brown fields
Under a chill silver moon.
Wearing the dignity of a old grandmother
Who hugs children and feeds her cat
From a clean green bowl,
November walks slowly and leans heavily,
Her cane tapping out the measure of each day
While Basho’s crow sounds a cry of joy
Wrung from the great bell of age.
Reverberations tremble through the air
To create the seed that will sleep
Until the womb of time opens
At solstice when the fire
That dances in the furnace of the sun
Ignites the fire in my soul.
June 14, 2012 § 3 Comments
It was a hot afternoon and the first day I had been able to sit upright on the couch without a lot of back pain. Gina, my neighbor, had dropped off a few groceries she had kindly gotten for me. Her round face was slightly puffy from the humidity and the blue glass tiara she was wearing in her waist-length blond wig was slightly off center. Long dangling earrings and a necklace and bracelet combination with large multi-color butterflies completed her ensemble. With her substantial bosom and high heels she looks like a 65-year old Barbie doll.
As she bustled around my kitchen putting away the few purchases she again began her litany. How the only thing that really gave her pleasure in life, other than her parrot, was her plants. All she wanted was a little cottage with some room for a garden. Was that too much to ask?
Since circumstances had forced her move to the apartment complex last fall, all of her beautiful succulents were stacked in pots on her patio or boarded out among friends scattered across the city. The apartment manager had already warned her several times to remove the dozens of pots from her entry way as they were a hazard to the fire department.
Ginahas been on tranquilizers since she was in her twenties. She has a social worker who goes with her to various appointments as her level of anxiety is so high it is sometimes difficult for her to drive. She is a kind-hearted person and I have never heard her gossip or talk about the other residents. She is street-smart, rather than educated, and is proud of her 40+-year career as a waitress. But she can no longer work and the money that came so easily before is now hard to come by.
I’ve talked to Gina many times over the last few months and each conversation eventually centers on the same theme – if only I had a little cottage with a yard, I could be happy. It is the same conversation we all have with ourselves. If only … I had a partner, a better job, was better looking, had more money, had a house, better health, a stronger body, had a child, had a car, had some recognition, had a spiritual breakthrough. We each finish the sentence in our own way but we all say it.
We take the unhappiness or dissatisfaction with our lives and give it a specific focus. If only this one desire could be fulfilled, we could be happy. But that fulfillment is always held like a carrot on a stick, somewhere in the future, at some golden time when our hearts will finally be at ease, when the gnawing hunger will finally be satisfied, when our minds will finally be quiet.
For Gina, that hunger is to have a garden again. It is unlikely that desire will be fulfilled for cottages with gardens are now out of reach for someone on social security living in a city. She has been told about the need to accept things as they are, to make allowances, to make compromises, to surrender to the facts of life. But she is not willing to go gently.
Like a child who cannot understand why she is being denied the treat, she cries and worries and prays and begs the faceless energy called Life for a reprieve, to be the loving mother and father who are now gone.
In the same way she cannot put aside the long blond wig or the childish tiaras or the Daisy Mae blouses, Gina is unwilling to be carried along effortlessly in life’s current. Instead of a peaceful acceptance of the way it is, she is fighting for the way things ought to be, and it is a losing battle for her and for all of us.
Meanwhile, I change the subject and ask her what she will make for dinner tonight and what clever thing Zorba her parrot has said today. We tentatively plan to go to the farmer’s market when I can get around again and she relates how the things she was given at the food bank were mostly spoiled. When she leaves I give a hug to her small, sturdy body and some of the long blond hairs rub against my cheek like little plastic wires.
April 3, 2012 § 2 Comments
A month or two ago I mentioned in passing the sweet little Russian couple who live upstairs from me. We continue to wave to each other – me from my chair on the patio, they from their many trips up and down the stairs.
Last weekend the Mr., whose name was once told to me but I’ve since forgotten – I am tempted to say Vladislav but know I am just making it up – was dropped off at 7 in the evening by another short, graying man wearing a flannel shirt and driving a jeep.
After a quick discussion at the back of the vehicle in a language I did not understand, the Mr. unloaded a fishing pole, a no-nonsense steel rimmed fishing net, sturdy tackle box and backpack. As he mounted the stairs I made pole casting motions with my arms and smiled and he replied with a laugh and said, “Fish, yes. Fishing, I go.”
Yesterday, upon returning from running first-of-the-month errands, I came home to find a red fire truck parked in front of the apartment. This is always a bad sign, particularly at a senior apartment complex, for it means ambulances and paramedics. Since the truck was blocking my parking space, I pulled over to the side of the drive and waited.
About ten minutes later, three men carried a gurney down the outside stairs, packed it in the truck and left. I was relieved to see the gurney was empty, meaning the situation was not critical but I didn’t know if it was the Mr. or the Mrs. who had required attention.
Yesterday afternoon as I was enjoying the spring sun, the Mrs. came down the stairs and when she saw me she said hello. This was unusual in itself for she is the more silent of the two and rarely makes an effort to communicate other than a smile or nod.
This time, however, her face was tense and worn, and her hands were trembling. Through a combination of sign language, broken English and telepathy I discovered that the Mr. was suffering from kidney stones and was at home resting. “Old. Not good,” she said with a shrug that carried a depth of silent meaning. “Yes,” I agreed to her what-can-you-do message.
Today I heard the Mrs. coming down the stairs again and as soon as she came into view, she said, “Hello.” I put aside the book I was reading and asked “How is your husband?” pointing upstairs. “No good,” she replied, shaking her kerchiefed head and hanging on to the stair railing, her brown eyes blinking.
“Pain,” I inquired. She nodded yes and pointed to her back and stomach, explaining how the kidney stone was torturing him. “I’m so sorry,” I said, wanting her to know through these inadequate words that I understood. She shook her head in resignation. “It’s hard,” I added, and thought not only for him who is suffering but for her who is witnessing.
I wanted to hug her to lend her some strength but the iron railings separated us so I blew her a kiss. “God bless you,” she said in her broken English and blew one back. There were tears in both our eyes as we acknowledged that Life sometimes shows its power rather than its mercy.
When she left I was reminded that just last Sunday I had hugged another of the ladies in residence here. That time it was Gina, the one I had formerly thought of as Jayne Mansfield because of her waist-length blonde wig and large bosom. It was the first time Gina and I had talked and she shared some of her history – her forty-plus years as a waitress, her love of plants, her sadness that she no longer had a garden to tend.
But it was the story of Lenora, her parrot of more than twenty years that had prompted the tears. “I never had no children and didn’t want none. Lenora was my little companion and now I’m all alone.” As she dabbed a kleenex on her eyes, she said, “Please don’t be mad I cried,” and I wondered who had made her ashamed of tears.
There are so many stories waiting to be told and the richest ones have a thread of sadness running through to give it depth and definition. Those are the stories that teach us about life and resilience and the beauty of the heart.
March 20, 2012 § 2 Comments
When I moved to Sacramento last fall I wanted to become involved in the community so when a friend asked me to volunteer some time at a local Alzheimer’s Center I agreed. Once a week I would visit and start a discussion with the ladies on a topic such as “What do you remember about a pet you had as a child?” or “Tell me about your first boyfriend,” or “What did you house look like?”The topics were always about things of their childhood as I thought those memories might be more accessible than what happened two years ago. As they talked I wrote down their ‘stories’ and the following week would give them a typewritten version to keep and share with their families.
It was a very poignant experience. One lady could remember the dog she had as a child but not her husband. Another had little recall of young friends but remembered her childhood home. At the same time their minds were slowly crumbling away, I would sometimes see a deep kindness. If someone would start fretting because they couldn’t recall something, one of the ladies might give her a hug and say, “Don’t worry. I can’t remember some things either.”
In my own life, I now have to acknowledge that I sometimes have difficulty recalling a name or event or even the ‘right word.’ When I read some of the essays I wrote ten years ago I think I was much wittier then, could make more outrageous connections, walk a thinner tightrope. But at the same time my mind has become rustier, the hinges of my heart are better oiled.
Anyway, in looking through some past poetry I came upon this one that reminded me (pun intended) of these sweet ladies I met last fall.
Memories Slip Away
Memories slip away unnoticed from my mind
Like honey sliding off a silver spoon:
Five hundred and three forgotten
With a black sock in an old suitcase;
Along with a letter and brown creased photograph;
One hundred and twenty-seven left behind
In an unfinished book;
Sixteen wedged at the back of a dusty drawer
Beside a postcard of Niagara Falls.
If only I could remember one day, one moment,
I would know if I had learned to love,
I would remember if his kiss was sweet,
The color of the child’s eyes,
The shape of the mother’s face.
If only I could remember now,
I might remember who I am.
I might remember what it was I came to learn.
How can I escape this Wheel
When I have been so careless
And misplaced the memories of my life.
How can I be forgiven
If I do not remember my sins –
By commission and omission –
Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.
So how now shall I remember
Without a touch, a taste, a smell to anchor me.
It only I could remember,
If only I,
Picture: “Niobe by the River” ink on rice paper, Marie Taylor
February 20, 2012 § Leave a Comment
We all hear about the mid-life crisis that hits in the 40’s when marriages break up and men buy red Corvettes and women get face lifts. The question usually is “What do I want to experience while I can still enjoy it?” The mid-life crisis is the making up for lost time, the grass is greener, the last fling, a grasping after what youth and energy missed the first time around.
There is another crisis that follows the 40’s. It can happen in the 60’s or perhaps in the 70’s. It is when we have to come to terms not with what we want to do but what is still possible to do. The later life crisis faces challenges and obstacles such as lack of health, lack of money, lack of companionship, lack of energy, lack of purpose. It is by far the more difficult of the two crises and is unavoidable.
When we’re young, if we think about getting older at all, we plan to have a nice little house, loving partner, comfortable amount of money, good health, time for hobbies or just doing nothing, opportunities to travel, helping our loved ones or doing community service, an interesting job that supports our value system, good friends, some local recognition, an outlet for our creativity. I could go on but you get my drift.
So if we are good little boys and girls we invest in IRAs, pension funds and other financial hedges against future needs. And if we are even better little boys and girls, we watch what we eat, exercise regularly and floss every day. But no matter what we plan, life gets in the way. It has a way of changing our priorities as we age. For aging is all about letting go. Letting go of jobs, money, children, health, friends, driver’s licenses, mobility, homes, pets, memories, partners.
I have been ‘coaching’ a woman I will call Virginia who is in her early 60’s. I act as a sounding board, a clarifier, a focuser in her confusion for she is having a later life crisis. For the last two years she has been fighting with the bank to keep her house out of foreclosure. She is finalizing her third divorce. She holds an MA degree but is now working at a low-paying, part time job. A family member is in long-term care. She is on a variety of medications for depression, sleep deprivation, anxiety, etc.
I am providing an anchor of sorts in the midst of her storm. I help her focus on ‘next steps’ as she is overwhelmed by the changes she is going through. When I ask her what she wants to do with the rest of her life she comes back to me with a long list of 15 or 20 goals that sounds like the ones she probably had when she was young. Some things on her list may still be possible of attainment but considering her age and circumstances are not likely.
I suggest that she focus on regaining her mental and emotional health and to simplify the circumstances of her life. She must decide if financial reward or job satisfaction is more important. If keeping a house with high maintenance is preferable to a small apartment with few responsibilities. If time for friends and hobbies is more important than recognition and fame.
There is no right or wrong answer but she does have a choice. And the longer she postpones choosing, preferring instead to believe she can have it all if she just wants it hard enough, the more stressful her life will be. She is in denial of her aging, and like many of us, is acting like the young child who has a tantrum in the toy store. I want it all and I want it now!
Right now she does not see that simplifying her life will bring her the peace she so desperately wants and needs. Instead of seeing what she does not have, she could be appreciating what she still possesses. Instead of regretting what was lost and will not be again, she could be grateful for the past and enjoying the beauty of the present.
It is not easy to get old and we are never quite prepared for what we will individually experience. Perhaps it will be poor health or loneliness or poverty or pain – or maybe none of the above. There is no guidebook to aging only the shared memories and experiences of those who went before us. Although fear of aging and its limitations may be quite real, equally true are the peace, joy, beauty and trust in Life that aging can offer.
Prayer of the Navaho
Beauty is before me,
And beauty is behind me.
Above and below me hovers the beautiful.
I am surrounded by it.
I am immersed in it.
In my youth I am aware of it,
And in old age I shall walk quietly
The beautiful trail.