#113 The Art of Concealment

The Art of Concealment.

I stepped outside my door to soak down the parched front yard plants, bone dry from a long stretch of July-August heat with almost no rain, now even into September. My movement flushed a hawk from it’s perch in the tree closest to the porch door. I have caught a glimpses of this hawk before, stealth in the small trees, lying in wait, hunting.  It’s initial presence was likely drawn by the small birds who gathered at the feeder before I took it down for the summer. The common sparrows and finches are still here but are now dining on the natural bounty of the seeds and plants of late summer. The hawk remembers this location as a ready source of food and I am grateful I’ve been spared witness to his or her success.

The hawk flew a short distance to another tree, close but yet still remaining difficult to spot among the dense leaves. I stepped farther out on the porch hoping for an identifying view but the only clear view I had was the tail-feather bars as it flew away–a young Cooper’s Hawk most likely. A short while later a fledgling catbird was on the porch trying to conceal itself among the garden tools leaning in the corner of the porch where, mostly unused, they’ve stood gathering rust all summer. I suspect this family of catbirds was the hawk’s intended food and I was happy the young one made it though. Concealment by both, the camouflaged hawk in the tree branches and the tiny young catbird  trying to save itself by hiding, demonstrate nature’s way of survival for both predator or prey with an outcome that can go either way.

This seems to have been a summer of concealment, maybe even a year of it,  both in our personal lives and in the outer world, as we humans struggle with how to remake life under new rules that affect everything. The political world, always harsh but now with newly sharpened edges on much more dangerous tools, seems awash in concealment. The  extremes of behaviors are  being stretched beyond our society’s capacity to stay whole. It’s hard to hold the lives in our community in safety and security as the rules and guidelines of pandemic caution are so varied and interpreted in understanding and in practice. My sense of what is safe may not be closely related to yours and the ultimate  proof is staying healthy or getting sick, a dicey proposition in every case. Leaders obfuscate with underlying motives. Precarious economics scare everyone. Outcomes are not clear for anyone on any level.

Is anyone playing it up front and honest any more? Still not willing to enter the fray of retail stores, I limit online ordering to basic supplies. I’ve been ripped off three times this summer. The latest was a package which arrived holding only one of the two identical items I ordered, bubble wrap filling the space where the other would have been. I notified the company and sent photos of the packaging (as requested by them) as it was received, only to be denied my claim because the shipping weight of the FedEx package stated the weight was for two items. What’s clear to me is “someone” removed the second item in the packing room or on route, then resealed the carton and I’m left paying double while feeling like I’ve been declared a liar by a fly-by-night company. At a time we need compassion more than ever the affront digs deeply.

This is a time of struggle. Personal past traumas bubble up as opportunities to examine the truths we tell ourselves. Whether or not we stay silent or attempt to work through what we carry, concealment happens within our own psyches. We dance to the music in our head and are driven by motives we don’t often recognize. Is it concealment if we have been unable to face something within ourselves? If we cannot or will not take hard looks at our motivations and actions, if we hold back information from ourselves or others, aren’t we lying by omission? How do we uncover our own truths much less the truths of others?

Here I am amongst my inward leaf cover, sitting on my internal branch, trying to fix things before I can move along. It is damn hard and miserable work. My sense is I am not alone  but are we hiding our struggles from one another and ourselves, making it even harder when it was already difficult enough?

#111 Stuff

Stuff.

So many moves since leaving the Vermont house I loved in 1985, the only one I ever owned, even if it was a shared mortgaged with a former husband.

It took four years of absence and one massively disruptive, difficult week to sift, sort, sell, and store what had been accumulated in that space where I thought I would live until old age then I’d get to die there. I thought I’d always be a part of a community I loved despite the difficult snowy winters on the borderline.

The string of places and the stuff which moved in, then out, of my life is now lost to me. I knew the move to this house by the ocean was not my last but somehow I had faith that the move that would come after that would be my last and it would be a peaceful transition. How little we know of our own futures.

Going through stuff as an old person is quite a different process than the younger me experienced. You may be familiar with the declutter movement and its primary guru Marie Kondo. One of the tenants of the declutter movement has been the “rule” if you haven’t used something in the last year it is in line for shedding. I no longer believe that is applicable. Old age is altering my perspectives on this.

It’s true that much of what I once felt was required as necessities for daily living got pared down. It turns out that after retirement (or is this a pandemic thing?), work clothes give way to comfy, stretchy stuff. There are bins of work clothes in the storage space in the house which need to be passed on. But lots of what is in the (too many) boxes that came with me, which hasn’t been unpacked in four years, has precious connections to times, places, and people that are gone from my life. This time the memory attachments to that stuff feel like gossamer threads which bind me to things more precious than ever precisely because they—the places and the people—are gone. There are letters in handwriting I’d forgotten which remain as proof that connections were as real as their writers who have passed from this world. Other objects still in the boxes that came with that last move, the singing bowl from Jeannie, the boxes of slides which are all that remain of the life the film camera recorded, and the papers I wrote in grad school, one with an A+ at the top of the page. I found two degrees and a commendation in a folder in a plastic box. Do you put those particular pieces of paper through a shredder? The move from the Vermont farmhouse required a large outdoor bonfire but here there’s no place to do that. (And I still don’t recommend burning your grown child’s left-behind toys. That one left scar tissue.)

I am thinking of people in spaces now moved to minimal assisted-living accommodations and wondering where their memory stuff went. When those ties are broken, when you can’t open an old box and feel yourself travel through the objects to the memory of connections, then who are you? Does anyone think of that or is the practicality of warehousing old folk in more the most cost effective space possible all that matters?

I didn’t expect to be so attached to what I sorted and brought with me on the last move. Long ago I shed the idea of owning “nice things” because I moved a lot and stuff always gets broken in a move. I don’t own valuable, re-sellable objects, but as I sort through the boxes I didn’t expect that what feels broken this time is me. No one but me wants this stuff, cares about this stuff, not as valuable objects but oh-so-precious because of those gossamer threads that make meaning out of what once was, only to me and only for as long as I can follow those threads.

#107 Memory Lane

Memory Lane.

A fairly large box of jumbled family photos has been sitting on the floor of my room for weeks now, my good intentions of organizing them languishing in this time when days puddle into one another in an “there’s always tomorrow” mode.

I’m waiting to see how painful it might be looking back through these images. Most all of the family, fairly small to begin with, have gone and I, ever the outlier, moved physically far away adding to the distance that was already present because all of my cousins were either much older or much younger than I, an only child, which added to the sense of separation.

Families are curious things. Sometimes there are great similarities or great differences from one to another. Dig back far enough and secrets might lurk in images which carry little accompanying information. If we have been connected by close geographical proximity or by frequent family get-togethers the stories of who did what might have revealed secrets but most likely there were pieces that were never discussed, at least openly. What can you tell by just looking at the photos surviving from those times?

The Baby Boomer generation spans the vast space after the World Wars and the present. If you live near the place of your birth and your family houses have stayed occupied by relatives, the chances are you aren’t feeling this chasm as much as those of us who pulled up roots and went elsewhere and stayed elsewhere. Recently it dawned on me that a part of the great divide we might be in at this moment might have a lot to do with roots and rootedness or lack thereof. I am old so when I am looking at old photos they are really old, 50-80 years ago easily. I somehow managed to absorb rural, small town ways of being in the world from that time, meaning a sense of what was right and fair, of what it meant to be “a good person”, or a “good citizen”, the value system I perceived as the motivation that was present during the two World War eras. Yes, there were great faults in that mindset of belonging including conformity and racism, the obvious first pops ups in my mind. I ask myself if what feels like a simpler time, from photographs or dimming memory, was really that. Did coming through the Second World War pull people together in a true sense of standing together in the face of outside threat? That last war America fought with collective energy began to unravel as smaller wars, divisive wars, wars-after-wars-after wars followed.  We Baby Boomers carried this energy, seeking relief from the conformity of the 50’s into wherever all that subsequent seeking led us. But not all followed this path.

What do we find when we look into the faces of the brownish black and white images in the boxes in the attic? Do we see our roots or our separations? Does any of it carry into this present?

 

#101 Deep Quiet

Deep Quiet.

What can be said for falling
into the farthest back folds of your closet
the place where silence reigns?

How is it possible to live day after day
saying only “Good Morning” with as much warmth and kindness as you can muster, then later “Thanks for bringing in the package”, eight words in an entire day while a stream of words run a constant presence in your brain but never leaves your mouth?

In this time of social distancing, of staying inside to remain safe and healthy
for over three months, is finding the daily isolation a bit too comforting? Is relishing the lack of face to face interchange, relinquishing the sound of words to the silent controlled realm of the keyboard, using words only when you have a handy “delete” function if you say too much or are a tad too honest, keeping everything upbeat and never discussing the darkness that lurks from all the edges, where you really want to be?

I walked a little at the re-opened park a mile or two away, where families returning to the normalcy of pizza boxes and blankets were sharing weeknight take out dinners or picnics, laughing together. The park, always a place of solace, made now ever so precious after the barriers and “Closed” signs came down. The families sat close together in household groupings while I moved around them, distanced, feeling the impact of my aloneness and isolation in contrast. During all these days of staying apart their being together for all this time was obvious. How had I become that lonely old woman walking unseen among the laughing clusters with an aching heart and gallons of unshed tears?

Is it a natural pairing, this aging and sliding away into our own company, shielding oneself from constant interaction, finding preference for solitude? If so, once again I am the outlier for I crave the warm presence of others, the interchange of observations of experience and difference, so while I’ve made use of the quiet, it does not fill me with joy.
Should it?

# 95 New Thoughts on the Future of Aging

New Thoughts on the Future of Aging.

If you stop to sit and think about Retirement, if you dive right down deep into ponder, purging your mind of numbers and stereotypes, it might strike you that Retirement is a rather strange concept. The idea of a hard work lifetime coming to an abrupt end at a magic number (you choose but the government has considerable sway) is beyond odd. In my last paid working years I pushed long past realistic capacity, becoming increasingly exhausted in my non-paid-work hours, when I wasn’t actually sleeping. I went from work to home chores, to sleep, and back up the following day, repeating endlessly. All-chore weekends were the norm. When opportunity knocked I was retired in a month, moved two states up and over and starting anew. It was akin to throwing the baby out with the bath water.

In this time of crisis the pause button has been pushed. It’s time for a rethink. Being older now means virus vulnerability. Our ranks are thinning disproportionately. If local, national, or global resources become thin our presence takes on furthered meanings—ice floe or a still contributing member of society?

During and after a pandemic what do we have to offer? For the past two years I’ve been working on Eldering and Building Community, giving me new purpose. In lifelong learning classes dynamic, talented, intelligent men and women were in states of new beginnings at a time I had thought this part of our lives was all about endings. Instead, we had landed on “generative” but where were the opportunities to apply what we had to offer? Our graying heads were talking among ourselves and it was illuminating and, perhaps, just a tad stagnant, although a lot of fun.

The ground has shifted. For the lean times ahead, in what ways can we be most useful? Already apparent are divisive signs where the aged are seen as takers not givers, users of resources rather than resources ourselves. If our backs are not strong enough for heavy pulling what then do we have to offer?

Don’t count on a moral high ground but don’t discount historical perspective. Divisions based on age and body soundness are not what will work for us now so we’d best be stepping up and using what we’ve learned in newly expansive ways. There is work to be done and many ways to do it. Think in the “Crisis=Opportunity” mode. Ditch the never-really-worked-anyway Retirement model. Transitioning, morphing, adapting have always been sound. Staying malleable, finding purpose, take what you know forward and on to new ground. Continue learning. Everyone has something to contribute. Consider yourself repurposed. 

# 92 Fear

Fear.

I caught my foot on a looped wire attached to the garage. It entangled my right foot so that my attempt at rebalancing failed. I went down. Hard. On tarmac. My yelling was as much a release as anything else. I was scared. Later, I realized that a fear of falling had been present in me for sometime. We all have one, a fear we are carrying that lies just below our waking consciousness and, like the shadow on the wall, this fear may be a magnification of something much smaller, which confronted, through experience or circumstance turns out to be quite different than we thought. Exposing the fear enlightens us, allows us to get to what we need to know.

Fear is a palatable part of daily existence in the time of this global pandemic. I am thinking about the zillions of ways it must be a working present in each of our lives. It might just be Step One in our healing—our awakening—process. 

After finally being righted (needing help to do this) shortly after the fall I felt the words “good will come of this” in my head. Years and years ago I recognized that falling is a healthy thing to do; it’s an indicator of our flexibility as landing from a fall shakes out what we need to loosen. Children fall frequently, popping back up like newly set bowling pins but as we get older our various rigidities begin to worm their way into our thoughts and into our bodies. I thought way back then I realized the secret was to continue to fall which would remind me to stay as flexible as possible,  but as serious aging moved in I stiffened with arthritis and fear became a part of me without my recognition. 

Our deepest fears are OUR deepest fears for good reasons. Mine are not yours and vice versa. In circumstances where we tap into the experience we get the gift of knowing, opening ourselves in needed ways. If this is so for our individual lives what then does it mean for our global humanity as we face the unknowns of a virus? What is the process of collective fear working its way out into awareness on this global level? 

Is it not a privilege to be present and part of what is being released? We are in a time of opportunity for learning, a time for being flexible rather than rigid, each one of us throughout the world, all of us at the same time.

# 77 Honoring the Women of OLLI

Honoring the Women of OLLI.

If we have spoken face-to-face or by phone  or via email in the last couple of years you have heard me gush about OLLI. There are a number of such lifelong learning programs throughout the country: Senior College, Elderhostel, and the Osher Institute of Lifelong Learning are three such programs. I found my way to the program in Portland where the offerings are broad and the people are fabulous, where OLLI has its own LEED gold star building, and the program was founded and funded by a native Maine philanthropist. There are OLLI programs throughout the country and they get raves everywhere.

No doubt my course choices (Consciousness, Aging, and Women’s Issues mostly) have led me to coming to know more women students than men and Oh! what women! (both students and instructors). Having the privilege of returning to school over age 50 brings out some of our best qualities; egos left outside the door; our ticking clocks  keeping us mindful and focused; the collective intelligence and vital inquisitiveness of the participants are all baseline.

Where there is joy there is also sorrow. I attended the service for one of the women I met in a fabulous class entitled Women & Aging that was offered a year ago. It is logical that given our age range (classes are free for those over 90) loss should be expected. Only it wasn’t. The depth of wisdom and intelligence of this particular woman made it a privilege to have known her in that context even though the class contact was defined and brief. I could write that about dozens of women with whom I’ve shared these classes and this woman would still stand out.

“Lifelong learning” is bedrock. Why did we ever think anything other? What is brilliant is taking this truth and giving it space and place and opportunity. This can be done in a formal setting like Senior College and it can be done in libraries and living rooms, in church basements, most anywhere there are numbers of retired people of active minds and deep conscience, people who have life experiences to share and longings to continue exploring.

The women (and men) I’ve met in these classes in these last two years have altered the path of my later life. I’ve been in school in one form or another since I was five and none of what came earlier was as richly rewarding as the expansiveness possible at this age and through these classes. To these wonderful women-and men-of OLLI, I give thanks.

And to Sally: Godspeed.

# 76 The Obvious

The Obvious.

Another ”Duh” moment has arrived. I was trying to figure out why I have kept one particular library book so long overdue. “I like this author”, I rationalized only then realizing in the past I have purchased her books while “forgetting” to read them or, like this time,  I’ve pushed past a library renewal due date while leaving the book abandoned and untouched on my bookshelf. “But she’s so clear, so succinct in shedding light on important issues of the day…” continued the swirl in my head, until it dawned on me that it does not feel good reading about hard world realities no matter how gifted the writer.

I then thought of my current tendency to binge watch series TV. I rationalize, thinking this is a temporarily distraction which allows my thoughts to escape into ease. I avoid dire. I cannot abide violent themes or films with protagonists with no redeeming character. I crave ”uplifting” and ”heartwarming”. I relish “overcoming” and gleefully immerse myself in stories where difficulties lessen as progress is made.

Lightbulb moment:  I watch or read things that allow me to feel good. ”Why is that?” I ask myself and the immediate, and obvious, comeback is that my aging body already hurts enough. Reading or watching stories containing pain and suffering pile emotional discomforts on to physical discomforts already present in sufficient amounts. Diverting attention toward things that feel good helps. Enormously.

Maybe a dash or two of “reality” reading or watching is enough, in the same way adding chili pepper flakes or jalapeños to food is sometimes worth a bit of gastric distress. Just not too much and not too often.

# 73 The Kindness of Strangers

The Kindness of Strangers.

It is simply amazing how much a day can be changed by a kind gesture, a smile, or someone helping out because they noticed. I now use a cane while out doing errands. It’s both worrisome and mortifying to be dependent on something that doubles as an “I’m old and need help” symbol. But it’s better than falling down. 

I had stopped at a local, large supermarket around 5:30 p.m., Grocery Store Rush Hour. The checkout lines were thick with pre-big-dinner holiday carts; the store’s ambience focused and purposeful. The groceries of a woman ahead of me in the checkout line were filling multiple bags. She turned to me and said “Could I put those (my few groceries) on the belt for you?” and then, much more easily able to reach my items than I, she did so.

A few minutes before I’d been looking up at a blank space where a particularly hard to find tea might have been on back of the very top shelf. At a loss as to  how to even check if it was up there so very far over my head, I looked up as a pro-basketball tall man was coming down the isle. “Could you”, I began pointing upward to the empty space as he handed over the box, his wife chuckling knowingly. 

As I plopped my groceries into the car, I was about to look for a return location for the empty cart when a passing shopper reached for it saying “Can I take that for you?”

In the space of fifteen minutes during the crush of a very busy time, three strangers gave assistance. I glowed on the drive home, a kindness recipient feeling very good about the world.

#59 Who Are We?

Who Are We?

The goal as I loosely perceived it was to spend the time I had left finding a way to incorporate my various versions of self in this lifetime. Your perception may hold that there is only one lifetime, your lifetime, whoosh start to finish, lived until no more, then you are gone. That’s it.  Mine says we live many lifetimes within each lifetime as well as many lifetimes over eons in non-linear time. From here, neither of us shall be able to prove it either way.

Aging is the time we get to settle, examine, choose, decide. I do believe in a very real way we are making this stuff up so we get to use this time, the parts of it when we aren’t distracted by hurting body parts that is, to work on this “project”, the one we call our life. Has yours turned out as you thought it would? Mine certainly has not.

Education, profession, geographies—these are just some of our external elements and these various elements provide a sort of a background or canvas where we play out our internal drivers–“personalities” or “traits” or whatever description works best. What did we come here to learn and who helped us along the way? The complexities seem dizzying yet if we can drill down into the essence, perhaps it’s not as complicated as we once thought. The privilege of aging gives us the chance to figure at least some of this out. Sometimes we have to go in minutely close and sometimes we have to go to the top of the mountain. Perspective is what we are after in every part we examine. Relationships are the color palette with which we play these things out and the ranges overflow — joy to sorrow, failure to success, satisfaction to longing.

Instead of judgement consider the spectrum. Consider the grace.