Posts Tagged: Aging

Peekaboo Checkmate

I’ve always found the peekaboo stage of development fascinating in babies. Right around a year, they’re so easy to entertain with no props but a blanket or scarf. Developmental theorists have a lot to say about what they’re learning, things like fear of abandonment by adults or “object permanence.”  First lesson: People go away and then come back. I’m safe. Second: Things (and people) exist even when I can’t see them.  I’m guessing it was hysterically funny when my mother played it with me as an infant, but I can’t say that I remember it.

But who knew it’s a lesson that deepens over time? My mother is coming and going now, mostly going. Sometimes when I get in her visual frame and wave she doesn’t see me…or anything outside of her, apparently. Then I move a few feet and come back and there’s instant recognition.

I’m no longer disarmed by this. Our roles have shifted in this “Now you see me, now you don’t” relationship. The other day I greeted her without a reaction. Then I walked around her back and waved again as I sat down by her other side. She grabbed my hand and said “Did I ever tell you what a beautiful child you were?” I was stunned. This is the first sentence she had put together in three months. (And although I’m not sure she had ever told me, I’ve never needed or even thought about that subject.)

I have so many questions about this late life peekaboo. On the top of the list is: who is it who sees me, who remembers to say things, when her brain is obviously so scrambled from her stroke that she strains mightily to just utter a word?

My mind has finally given up trying to make sense of it because at one level it makes perfect sense. There’s a way she and I connect that is beyond words. It has always been like that.

AND there’s something very familiar about the way our minds work. When I pay close attention to all the places my mind comes and goes (Oh! The places it goes), I see my non-stroked mind is much the same. It cycles in and out of thoughts, creating a trance of its own making. Past. Future. Fears. Things to solve. It’s an ongoing practice to call it back to the current moment.

It’s so sweet to have this in common with my mother. We have minds that are simply not trustworthy. Without relying on our minds for connection, the game is over. What’s left is deep, soulful, and simple. For want of a better word, I’ll call it love. Straight up.

Stitching a Quilt that Holds

My mother has one-and-a-half feet in another world now.  I’m meeting her on the other half-foot, when she’s here, and joining her in the dreaming world when I can. In between times I’m moving through the layers of her life, thing by thing. I see a photo of my grandmother in a familiar dress, holding me as a baby. Did I remember that far back? Just as I’m about to take credit for an astounding memory, I realize I’ve seen it recently. In a quilt made by that very same grandmother in the 1950’s, now residing in my closet awaiting guests.

This is how it’s been. These last few months I’ve traveled sixty years back and forth in random order, time shifting. Time sifting, as I pick up each piece of her past.  And what has emerged is a pattern far more subtle than the one that I’ve been holding together in my mind all these years.

I can practically name the day, or at least the evening in 1970 when the “click” went off in my head and I began to see the oppression behind the traditional role of women. I giggled almost hysterically when I realized I had become a “Women’s Libber,” a somewhat derogatory label assigned to early feminists by the culture at large. Ever since that epiphany, I’ve held a specific belief about women raised in the rural Midwest in the early half of the last century.

I’ve run their stories through my filter about their oppression, including the ways they wasted their time on unappreciated “womanly” domestic arts.  After all, my credentials as a judge of them are impeccable. My mother was the president of FHA, Future Homemakers of America. “All I ever wanted,” she told me many times, “was to be a wife and mother.” For years it has been abundantly clear to me that the size of this role was way too tight, and way too under-appreciated for my own future liberated self.

The proof of her conditioning by the culture early on was all around me as I stood knee-deep in her apartment. Starting with the bib with her detailed embroidery for the birth of her only sibling, a brother. She had been nine years old.  Then an “autograph book” she assembled when she was twelve, filled with other girls’ cards and jingles about getting a husband. Then there are the yearbook and scrapbooks from high school singing the praises of her beauty and kindness (with tips for keeping that man). All of these keepsakes were especially repugnant when I was a young feminist, tainted as they were by male privilege and patriarchy.

After all, everything led to the pinnacle: her carefully planned wedding at 18, and a not-so-planned baby (me) when she wasn’t yet 19.  But I had much more proof of her oppression, based on my life as a little girl and helpmate. There was her ordinary grueling life, in the rural Missouri 1950’s. The life where she raised us and canned tomatoes all day in 120 (F) degree heat. The life where she washed the laundry (on Mondays, as the tea embroidered tea towel said), in a wringer washer and then hung it in the cold attic to dry while three of us under five years old vied for attention.

Then there were her duties as the wife of the school principal, not even 25 years old yet. A few years later, there’s the announcement in the tiny town newspaper about her return to college, with a quick reassurance that she would only be taking classes when her kids were in school. That degree never got finished because making another baby was just too hard to resist. This has always been the punch-line in my story of her demise.

But, as I’ve looked again these past weeks, there’s something else. I see the ways she (and many of the women of her generation) stitched together the social fabric through a myriad of little gifts of time and attention. My mother, and many others before her, planned and pulled off weekly Sunday fried chicken dinners on the farm for a large extended family. This in itself looked easier from a child’s view than it turned out to be in my reality as a young mother, when even a potluck was over my head.

And then there were the less routine but deeply significant duties. She delivered pies and casseroles when tragedy struck, which it did often.

A friend’s son, a teen who fell from the water tower, trying to mark it for the class of ‘54. 

A father who fell from his tractor right in the way of the combine.

A carload of liquored up kids, six dead, from a head-on crash.

My dad, their coach, left to tell the parents.

What may have come from basic social duty transformed her life into something larger. She, and many women like her, held the network of community together as they actively comforted, appreciated, and showed up for all of life, day to day, in big and little ways. They stitched together lives of meaning, piece by piece, like the patchwork quilts they left behind.

Last week I uncovered bundles and bundles of letters she wrote to lifelong friends in longhand, just because. The thoughtful gift, the thank you notes and cards. Many were left behind, written in her shaky hand, still waiting to be sent, as well as boxes (and boxes) that will never see that signature. I couldn’t even give them away to family members because, apparently, sending cards or letters through snail mail is a dying art.

But something of that history remains in my world. Although most of my correspondence is digital, I still keep a ragtag file of cards for such occasions. Sometimes I even write them, stamp them, address them. And I relish each one I receive nowadays, from friends and neighbors, placing it on my altar and lighting a candle to complete the circle.

There is such subtle tenderness and grace in a life of weaving and re-weaving the connections that bind us together. Now, more than ever, in an anxious and uncertain world, I’m embracing this part of my heritage. It supports me in remembering what’s important.

Life. To the fabric we weave from its beginning to its end. To the cards and letters and gifts of ourselves that spread and hold the love. To the holiness of this calling.

The Sweet G-Spot of Gratitude

In the time before Thanksgiving I was drawn to take a deep inner dive into “grateful seeing,” declaring a practice of slowing down for the micro-miracles of daily life. There’s been ample nutrition for the soul in this deepening practice, as I peeked beneath the clichés about gratitude to find my own deeper experience.

Honestly, Universe (or God, or whatever you call it), it’s been really fun. And in my humble opinion I didn’t really need more of a challenge.

However, as it turns out, my opinion about these things seems to be just that. My. Opinion. Reality never fails to show me my real job, whether I approve or not.  Reality brought a stroke to my brother first about six weeks ago and then my mother just before Christmas. All of us (and another brother) have A-Fib, which makes strokes more likely. Since I was scheduled in Texas for proactive surgery for the problem, I was unable to cancel and fly to manage the crisis.

So we all puttered arrhythmically along, in and out of surgeries and hospitals and emergency rooms.  My brother with the recent stroke somehow kept up with my mother’s crisis and his stroke rehab, while I texted and called and did everything I could to not wring my hands into ribbons of worry. The multitude of Care Givers and angels all along the way earned a place in my gratitude pantheon. And yet the reality and the stress of it all has been there all along, lurking in the background. I just returned back to my home for a few days of rest and rebooting before I climb on another plane and head “back East” to my mother’s nursing facility.

So I just today returned to my grateful seeing project for 2017. It’s one thing to make a commitment to living into a “year of gratitude,” imagining quiet moments in nature with birdflight and windsounds. But it’s quite another to welcome all of it, the “full catastrophe,” as Zorba called it, and find the Gratitude Spot somewhere below the apparent disasters.

The small savings account I’ve built up through the practice of micro-moments of gratitude have carried me a long way. But then has come the big challenge of knowing that those you love are struggling without you. That your mother, already confused, has lost her ability to speak. That hospice has been advised.

During the last two months I’ve also been more deeply committed to questioning a myriad of upsetting thoughts and beliefs about everything, including the future of the world. This radical discipline, one that I have been practicing for about ten years, has delivered me again and again to humility and peace. While I’ve learned to question my mind’s assumptions, I’ve also been preparing me to be with my mother, to help make decisions about her future. Without the discipline of pausing and questioning my mind, I’m not much help to anyone.

But with a little pause comes the realization that I really have no idea what will happen next. The relief and acceptance that follows this recognition brings me the deepest acceptance. And from this calm and open mind comes guidance. Again and again. The next thing. For this I am eternally gratefully.

This is the Sweet G-Spot of Gratitude.

From the Sweet Spot

When I was a preteen, I loved visiting all four of my grandparents the rural town of Sweet Springs, MO.  An active farming community, there was room enough to test my wings and my understanding of how a simpler world worked. My favorite place was a teenage hang-out called the Sweet Shop, a genuine fifties-style jitterbug place, still alive in the early sixties. Yesterday I drove through the town, and all the edifices are crumbling around the ghosts of my past, but the memories are still alive. During these “wonder” years I had enough time to create memories and enough brain space to give them permanent residency.

I also celebrated my fiftieth high school reunion last weekend at my real home town of Columbia. A large group of 200 or more showed up. We had a few memories in common, but mostly, we were all the same age, even though a neutral observer who was forced to guess might assume a twenty year range. Words from Ann Patchett’s book Commonwealth cycled through my mind: He was as old as the rest of them, but age arrived at different rates of speed, in different ways.

My friend Vicki shared her Sweet Spot theory, wise and worth sharing here. “There are three basic components of life: time, money, and health. When you’re young, you have lots of time and health but no money. During adulthood, as you create your life, there’s money (assuming you find a good job/career) and you’re healthy, but you have no time. Then, if you’ve planned ahead and have good fortune, there are some years where you have time, money and health. This is the sweet spot. (These are the years of early “retirement.”)

I’m fortunate enough to be able to see the truth in her words. And I want to be aware enough to remember the elusive sweetness of this moment in time, in my life. Most of my disturbing thoughts and memories have been put to rest. I’ve discovered, as Patchett says, “There’s a pleasure in a long life, the way some things work themselves out.”

And what is left can only be described as sweet.

Image by Chinese World Hotel, Beijing, used under CC-BY-SA-3.0

My Mother, Myself, and the Shoe Worship Lineage

Today I’m packing for a pilgrimage back to the Midwest. First, I’ll be connecting with lifelong friends at a big number high school reunion. There’s always news at these events, but mostly it’s a simple celebration that we’ve made it through life’s obstacle fields and we’re still here.

As I put my turquoise shoes into the suitcase, my 87-year-old mother is already with me. She’s the biggest reason for the trip. Living far away from her as her memory fades, I’m reminded of a line of a poem by Lyn Lifshin: She was like a kite whose string I’d lost hold of, getting smaller and smaller.

I’ve been feeling a bit untethered myself lately, living halfway across the country from her.  So this trip I want to remember every minute the gift it is to spend any time together. We have so few opportunities left. This brings me to the subject of shoes. They’re the one thing that’s guaranteed to tether us to the present moment, to strengthen that string. Last spring, my mother fell in love with the very shoes I just packed. I mean serious love. These love affairs run deep in our blood, a part of our ancestral lineage.

Or it could be that it’s a little vein of rebellion within our sturdy German peasant ancestry.  My German-speaking great grandmother wore black lace-up oxford heels, a style that looks far more chic on models in magazines now than they did worn with her cotton stockings. Her mother was “Grossie” and as a child I thought this was a mean comment about how she looked in the photos, in dowdy flower prints and crocheted collars and lace-up boots. I later found out the name was commonly used in the German farming community as a form of respect.

My grandmother, her daughter, bought shoes of every color and style to show off her slender legs and ankles. We all called her Imelda, especially when we were packing up her pumps and heels in every style and color. Vanity was something she never surrendered during her ninety-plus years.

My mother should wear Mary Janes or tennis shoes that she can count on as she pushes her walker. But she’s not satisfied with these when I visit. Lately she’s insisted on getting exact copies, in style and color, of whatever shoe I’m wearing. Tan sandals with ankle straps, red slip-on wedges. Without the support at her arches, they fall…or she does, which might mean the dreaded breaking of a hip and all that entails at her stage of the game.

I’m torn between practicality and pampering as I think of savoring the time we have together.  So maybe during this visit I’ll wear straps and laces, red, purple, or pale, pale yellow. And maybe we’ll take a long, slow jaunt to her favorite shoe store and look for some turquoise.

The Rhythm of the Heart, as One

Our Hearts Beat As One says the T-shirt I pulled on this morning with pride. The logo and words come from a CD by my daughter. I’ve worn it before as I’ve sung the words along with her at various musical and spiritual events. But today was different. It was really true! During the last couple of years, as much as I wanted it, relaxed into it, imagined or envisioned it, my heart has not been beating as one. Not at all.

At first I barely noticed, what with all the things to do and people to see. Sometimes I could feel it going kinda fast, and sometimes it felt like there were little fishes flopping around inside, but I was totally shocked a couple of years ago when a hospital admission screening turned up A-Fib. I asked the technician to give me some time to meditate and calm myself, thinking this was the shift I needed, the one I knew how to do. But the results were still the same. Twice.

This year I’ve been investigating this tricky heartbeat and putting together the pieces, looking backward.  I’d been feeling generally sluggish for more than five years. Then I started running out of breath when hiking (at first) or, say, climbing a flight of stairs (later). I had chalked it up to the need for new knees and the getting of them, which had meant that I’d lost (and not yet found) most of my conditioning. I set reasonable goals and began to get back in shape.

But still my heart was not finding its own rhythm. In a nutshell, lots of the little confused triggers throughout the heart were overworking, trying desperately to do their part in keeping things going. It turns out there are lots of undesirable long-term outcomes, over time, when this isn’t corrected.

My electrocardiologist stopped and restarted my heart (twice). The second time, there was a steady beat for a few days. It got lost, and my doctor said the next step would be an ablation, a procedure which uses electrical energy/heat to wipe out the troublemaking triggers. He also suggested I go to an internationally celebrated doctor and researcher in another state because these little buggers have been around a long time, which makes them harder to eradicate.

I know a good metaphor when I see one. I started noticing all the triggers in my life, the “gotta do this NOW!” trigger, a habitual reaction to the urgent “needs”  around me. Then there’s They need my help. Or I must have that….. (fill in the blank. Junk food, coffee, whatever…) so that I can keep going. Or This problem in my face must be solved right now. By me.

I’ve been looking closely at how each one of these impulses takes me away from my own flow, away from the regular pulse of living my own life in an integrated way.  So I flew to Texas a couple of weeks ago for a cardiac ablation, where the rock star surgeon who was recommended by my local doctor has a clinic. That story is for later, and I’m still full of gratitude for all I learned and how well I was treated.

Today I’m sitting on the other side of the adventure, and my heart (and body) are slowing me down to the speed of healing. Which seems to require me to move slowly, eat almost nothing (for now), in a word: to stop.

Last weekend I spent in silence as I joined a retreat led by one of my wisdom teachers, Byron Katie.  Sitting in some very deep questions for long periods of time requires incredible patience, deep listening, lots of curiosity. It requires staying, digesting, trusting that reality, without being forced or pushed, will find its way to Unity. It also requires not knowing how healing will happen. In other words, a new surrender to reality, letting it have its way with this body while my opinions get out of the way.

This is how I spent my birthday week. And it is this practice that will continue to lead the way during the next year. A year of unification and steadiness in the face of an unknown future. And here is my birthday wish: May all of our hearts beat as one, and may we not forget this shared heartbeat as we move forward into an ever-more uncertain world. And may we place our faith in this, the vast intelligence that soothes our grief and guides us forward.

Commencing with Summer

Summer abounds with opportunities to notice our place on the Great Wheel of Life. And it all begins with June. Graduation. Weddings. Reunions. We gather to acknowledge movement from one part of life to another. For just a few minutes we come together like a tribe to remember, to catch up with ourselves. Read More>>

An Impatient Patient Surrenders

It’s a month now since I found myself climbing on the surgery gurney for a knee installation on my left leg. My right leg, ever the competitive First Child, was there first, six months ago. With the help of family, friends, and a whole infield of life coaches, I convinced myself it made sense to complete the job on the other side. The logic was watertight: I’d profit from my first experience and skate through it the second time.

The Last Blast of Summer (or of Anything)

It’s October. Last week I built fires in the woodstove to take the nip out of the early mornings. And then the last few days, here it is. Indian Summer. Temperatures in the eighties, hawks soaring above in the balmy breeze. The sun offers its light on a slant, making it feel even more stunning and precious.

And how very precious it is, this Last Blast of Summer. Called by different names in as many cultures, humans have long celebrated this brief but intense return of the warmth of the growing season.

Rushaholic Recovery: An Unbecoming Tale

It’s been years now since I officially retired from my first career as a teacher. During most of these 25 years all the roles of life converged: Teacher (over 150 teens a day), Mother, Daughter and Sister in a family continually in crisis. Toward the end I also wore the hats of Author and Speaker, with a new book out (and that “baby” to raise).
I know. Cray cray. You can look it up in your urban dictionary. It’s a word for that means taking crazy to a whole new level. Times two.