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.
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.
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.
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
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.
One day I saw life as a roller coaster ride at the amusement park. It was frightening, exhilarating, breathtaking, and just as I was learning how to lean into the banks and descents, it would be over all too soon.Although some may consider it morbid or depressing, I now think about death often. At 67 I think it is an appropriate subject; if a journey is inevitable isn’t it wise to prepare? Isn’t it more realistic to talk about the elephant in the room rather than ignore it? Doesn’t it give a significance and poignancy to life?
Not a day goes by without the Friend visiting my mind. I call it Friend perhaps to put a kindly face on the image of the grim reaper whose visage dominates our culture’s view of death, and thus avert some of the fear attending her arrival – for I agree with the beliefs of Hinduism that it is Kali, the Great Mother, who is the giver and the taker of life.
This body is becoming increasingly burdensome and heavy. Each year it requires more care and attention and I am often bored or exasperated by its demands. Various parts are rusting out or breaking down altogether. I expect that one day I will welcome the comfort of a longer sleep.
I look back over my life and try to weigh the disappointments and pain against the times of contentment and joy. In which direction does the scale tip? Am I remembering the truth of my life, or just the truth of my memory? While I realize I could have done better on this or that occasion, if given the chance now to relive it, a reluctant lassitude slides over me. Regret takes energy I would rather use elsewhere.
There are still things I would like to do but accept the fact that the limitations of health, money or time now make them unlikely. While each day may flow by in measured steps, the weeks and months have grown wings and blur with acceleration. This morning I acknowledge with amusement that my appearance is no longer important. I am now dressing in the manner of a child; my madras pants and blue t-shirt and orange sweater are a collision of colors and patterns. I am reminded of the grade school pictures of my sons with their striped t-shirts and plaid pants and kitchen bowl haircuts when the goal was to get outside to play as quickly as possible.
Meanwhile I wonder what will happen at the very end, when the body is so tired, when the heart is unsprung, when the breath is breathless? I sometimes fear a great blackness, a sterile emptiness, a bone deep solitude that may be infinite. What if I wake up and find that I am God and God is all there is – and that is not enough? Is the painful solitude I feel at times in my heart the reflection of a singular God who has no equal, no beginning or end, and is thus condemned to being alone for all eternity?
My intuition tells me that this is a fractal universe, and God the fractal equation of a creativity that goes on and on in infinite varieties and multitudes. In a book I see pictures of fractals, mathematical permutations that create themselves over and over again in an infinite scalability. I sense that I am riding out this life on one of those paisley-like flowers on an arm of an arm of an arm, exploding outward with this galaxy, in a great tsunami of one of Brahma’s outward breaths – to be later swept up in his deep inhalation into a backward infinity. In and out, in and out, forever, each breath stretching over eons and eons, black hole to white hole to black again, one consciousness seeking entertainment in the material.
Each day I ponder for a moment or two what the last earth moment will be. Like doing pushups to strengthen the body, I do pushups of my soul so that it will not panic at the last moment and leave this world gasping for one more breath and thus lose what little dignity might be remaining. What is it to die with dignity other than to die without resisting the inevitable? Like a soldier going into battle who knows he will not return, I yearn to have the courage to walk into the sunset of life without looking back, without holding on. Is it too much, perhaps, to ask to die without fear? Is that the province only of saints and messiahs? What confidence is needed, what certainty must be embraced to enjoy this grace?
My hope is that the stories told by those having Near Death Experiences are true. I want to see again my loved ones. I wanted to be greeted by those who have gone ahead and are waiting for my arrival. I want to hold the little cats and dogs who gave me so much comfort, the aunts and uncles who watched over me, the mother and father and son whom I loved. I can’t bear to think that after feeling so often alone in this life that I will also be alone in the next.
In our middle age we all say that we want the mercy of a quick death but we do not often get to select the time or manner of our passing. It has been chosen for us and waits like a new winter coat in the closet for the weather to change. I no longer zealously monitor my diet and take dozens of vitamin pills to forestall heart disease, for a quick ending is to be preferred to the wheelchairs and nursing homes attendant on rheumatoid arthritis.
So as I get older I believe the great virtue is to endure without judgment and thereby open the heart to the possibility of joy; to have the courage of acceptance, like the old dog who does not complain of his joints when winter comes, or the cat whose teeth are gone and can now only drink milk.
I still feel the pull for connection and want to touch the earth and those who live here. I hunger for the mind to mind and heart to heart resonance of kindred spirits who may be separated in time and space. That is why I continue to write; the reason for the art. I believe aging is the time when we must turn our eyes to other horizons and open our hearts to welcome new directions. We must see in our sunset an opportunity like the blaze of Autumn to offer a final instant of glory in the world.
“If only I had a little cottage with a yard,” she said with a childlike whine in her voice. “That’s all I want. Then I’d be happy.”
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.