Untitled, by Diana Maus, http://mosaicmoods.wordpress.com/

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Living Forward


Philosophy is perfectly right in saying
that life must be understood backwards.
But then one forgets the other clause--
that it must be lived forward.  --Soren Kierkegaard

Sadly, as we grow older and less able, there is a little voice within that whines and says, "Ooh, but things were so much better when I was 20."   It becomes such an ingrained mindset with some oldsters that they find it hard to even try to find something to live 'forward' for--something that will motivate the energy that is still there, waiting to be tapped. 

Yes, it is a different kind of energy, but it is there, nonetheless.  In his book, The Art of Aging, Sherwin Nuland, a physician, acknowledges that we all age at different rates, but he points to newer evidence that the aging person can influence that aging.  One source is the observation that the frequency of Alzheimer's is less in people who have pursued an active intellectual life. 

Another source of evidence is the discovery of a class of protein substances that have the ability to protect neurons against injury and death, and can stimulate the production of new neurons from adult stem cells in the brain.  The stimulation and production of this protein is influenced by the amount of activity going on in nearby neural circuits. " Those who continue to challenge themselves are likely to be those who maintain the capacity to do so."

It is true that the aging mind is not the same at 70 as it was at 20.  Nuland quotes Sir Francis Bacon:  "Young men are fitter to invent than to judge, fitter for execution than for counsel, and fitter for new projects that for settled business."  We are not as intellectually or physically quick as we were, our reaction times are lessoned and, in differing degrees, we can suffer from memory problems. 

The important thing about all this is that we can do something about it.  We will not stay well forever, but, in many instances, our attitude toward our present life can keep us healthy and happy for more years than we probably deserve!  Intellectual stimulation, cardiovascular exercise and a healthy diet are the tools that keep us interacting with our environment. 

Yes, our mindset plays a huge part in the happiness of our elderly years:  depression, and a tendency to look backward instead of forward can cause us to miss the joy of the daily parade.  Man and nature, nature and man.  What, I ask you,  can be any more fun than to keep as actively involved in the human parade as possible.  Let us 'live forward'!!!

Monday, May 30, 2011

A Bag of Gold

In her book, Kitchen Table Wisdom, Dr. Rachel Remen tells a Hindu story of how the god, Shiva, drops a bag of gold in front of a miserably poor man.  The poor man steps over the bag of gold thinking it is a rock.”I might have ruined my sandals,” he says, and continued on his way.

Remen, who counsels cancer patients, continues:

It seems that Life drops many bags of gold in our path.  Rarely do they look like what they are.  I asked my patient if Life has ever dropped him a bag of gold that he has recognized and used to enrich his life.  He smiles at me, “Cancer,” he says simply.  “I thought you’d guess.”

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Leap the Abyss

            James Broughton, poet and film producer, writes that "You are closer to glory leaping an abyss than upholstering a rut."  This is certainly more heartening than Woody Allen's recent quote that he is "fighting off morbid resignation" at age 70.  Oh, how dreadful!
            Dealing with age and the idea of mortality requires a personally well-constructed mindset. Both Broughton and Allen are controversial personalities who have, at times, shocked society with their rather out-of-the-mold persona.  Yet, there they are, Broughton now dead, and Allen at a rather advanced age, each dealing with the inevitable in different ways, with personal mindsets, which proves that what works for one doesn't always work for another.
             Those with a solid religious background seem to deal better with the idea of death than those who believe that the grave is the final answer.  But this is a gross generalization that I don't want to have to defend.  Percentages are known to lie.  Lying somewhere between each of these two extremes are those of us who are admittedly unsure about what lies beyond.  We shrug and say, "Surprise me."  Some concern themselves with doing something productive while on this earth and others drink.  Take your choice, but as Broughton said, dancing through life is better than life in a dismal worrisome rut. 

Sensation of the Mystical

 ("found poetry")

The most beautiful and profound emotion we can experience
is the sensation of the mystical.
It is the sower of all true science.
He to whom this emotion is a stranger,
who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe,
is as good as dead.
To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists,
manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty,
which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive forms -
this knowledge, this feeling,
is at the center of true religion.

~ Albert Einstein ~

(The Merging of Spirit and Science, cited in
All Things Give God Glory, ed. by S. Rena)

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

L’age de Creer

Rene LaForestier, a French geriatrician, looked at the lives of older people in a Parisian hospital/home for the aged and vowed to change it.  His answer was simple: create a space in which older people could be creative.   He prepared a room with items that would foster creativity: paints, brushes, paper, pens, music and invited the elderly patients to enter.  Enter they did, and the result of that experiment was the basis of his book,  L’age de Creer, The Age of Creativity.

Perhaps, to make it clear to everyone, he should have called it, The Creativity of Age, for this is a time when other responsibilities and distractions are put aside and what is left is a vacuum that can be filled with nothing--or sadness--or creativity and life. It may well be the continuation of life’s past efforts, or it may be a totally new direction for us to tackle.  Or, sadly, as my dear friend says, "I'm ready to go."  She has stopped living.

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne argued that we should be involved in those things that bring pleasure…and let death catch up with us as it may.  “I want to be doing things, prolonging life’s duties as much as I can: I want Death to find me planting my cabbages, neither worrying about it, nor the unfinished gardening.”One’s creativity is not limited to the arts.  Designing a computer program, planting one’s garden, experimenting with Greek recipes, doing scientific experiements, or playing in the park with children:  all of these stimulate the mind and are productive human endeavors.  

“ This everyday creativity or mindfulness is actually good for one's health and well-being," explains Ellen J. Langer, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and author of Mindfulness.  Her research with the elderly has shown that when encouraged to be creative or mindful, the elderly actually live longer and happier lives. "When we don't keep our minds active, the mind and body gradually turn themselves off," says Dr. Langer.

 As someone once said, when we stop creating, we stop living. Too many of us, when we realize that we are now part of the elderly generation, succumbs to a stereotype:  The Loss of Our Abilities.  It is too easy to say, “I can’t do this, and I can’t do that—like I used to!  Poor me!”  Those around us, usually trying to sympathize with their elderly relatives, try to “make life easier for them.”  But this does not mean that one has to assume that the elderly are not still capable of  human productivity.

Creativity—the ability to know and feel and write and do those things which one didn’t have the time for earlier in life. Creativity—the ability to see over the horizon of a long accepted norm to view the many avenues still available to us; avenues that may lead us to broad expansions of possibilities of what life holds for us.  Consider that the boundaries of practicality are no longer necessary.  If this is true, what dreams there be; what ideas may come, what memories can we reconsider and, perhaps, change our outlook on our purpose of life.   This is a time to consider why we are here.
 Gene D. Cohen, MD, PhD is the director and professor of health-care sciences and professor of psychiatry at the Center on Aging, Health & Humanities, George Washington University, Washington, DC and the author of The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life (Harper Collins).  About his twenty-five year study on creativity and aging in more than 200 senior citizens, Dr. Cohen says,

“Expressing ourselves creatively can actually improve health, both mentally and physically.”  Dr. Cohen also makes some other key points regarding the importance of creativity to wellness: Creativity reinforces connections between brain cells, strengthens morale, relieves sleep and mood disorders, increases vocabulatry, gives us a positive outlook and sense of well-being, and even makes it easier to face adversity.

 Being able to include choice and creativity in one’s life optimizes health and longevity. Love and work:  we can still have both.  Love the day; work as the day allows.  L’Age de Creer.

**The Watercolor in this post was done by an Alzheimer's patient in the program "Memories in the Making", sponsored by the Alzheimer's Association, which takes art into nursing homes and assisted living facilities,  allowing  patients a creative outlet.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


Remembrance. When we remember, we are saying that those who went before us mattered; that they are in our minds and hearts, and the past and the present are wound together in ways that are too difficult to articulate. Yesterday I went to my grandson’s Facebook page and looked at some of the pics he had collected. I took a second look, for there in a half-view of my grandson I saw my father. There was no mistaking that mouth and chin line. I guess my point is that we cannot ignore the past without limiting ourselves to only a half-picture of ourselves. Every moment of memory is an investment in a value that will enhance the future and help us know ourselves a little better, even if the memory is unpleasant.

Let’s not forget to remember family and acquaintances that may have gone too soon. I will never forget one 8th grader I had in class. J developed a serious disease in 8th grade and missed a good part of that year. The treatment they administered gave him a few more years, but in 12th grade, I saw him sitting in the hall on the floor. “J., are you OK,” I asked. “Yea, everything’s fine, Mz P,” he answered. But he was far from OK, and he soon left school never to return. After the funeral, we all had to pretend to return to normal, and normal for some of those Seniors was Economics class. We were involved in developing a product, selling it, and investing what money we made into something of value. As a group, the decision was made to make enough money to buy D’s tombstone. 

I contacted his parents who were OK with the idea, and the stone still stands to remind us of J. We remember him everytime we see it, and the kids in that class learned  how to invest in something of value--a treasured memory we take forward with us into our futures.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

An Introduction to Act Three


In the corner of my mind that is reserved for precious childhood memories is the image of a book that hid unbelievable magic.  As one opened its pages  a small village magically appeared, like Brigadoon, or Alice emerging from the rabbit hole.  All of this from the two dimensional pages into a three dimensional world.  The extra-ordinary from the ordinary.  My life has been like that; opening up subtleties that never seemed possible, while at the same time, I physically age and became the yellowing pages within that book, as its beauty comes close to closing forever.  To be able to look behind the paper houses and unreal folds of an emerging world, and to be able to look at the nuance in that incredible book of Life; this is the examined life.

It seemed an easy thing to do.  At 78, writing about getting old should be a no-brainer.  I know lots of older friends and my thought was, “I can get them talking about getting old and perhaps record the conversation.  From there, writing about aging should be a snap.”
But it doesn’t happen very easily.  After a bit I opened my eyes and realize that people don’t talk much about aging.  Evidence is that we think about it a lot, but, like politics and religion, it’s not a topic of common conversation.  We may joke about the aches in our left buttock, but we don’t talk about the aches in our soul.  We may make vague comments like, “This getting old is no fun,” but we seldom go into any deep discussion about why. 

Take a scene:  A knitting group at a local Retirement home:  Topics of discussion: 
“Arthritis in my index finger.”
“Do you want to do hats for charity?” 
“ No, I want to knit for me or my grandchild that is on the way.”
“Where’s Milly?  She’s still eating—you know Milly!”
“I’ll never buy any of this yarn again.  Why?  Because it’s made in China and you know what they’re doing to us.”
“Yes, The Chinese will rule us pretty soon.”

Chitter and chatter, but no one speaks the unspoken truth: “I’m old.  I don’t know how much future I have.   I don’t know how I got so old.”    Or, as my Alzheimer’s mother said, when told she was 84, “Where did I go?”

Where did I go, indeed.  It isn’t where life went that I think of so much, but I would be blind if I didn’t realize that my future is narrowing down as though written in disappearing ink.  I do my exercises, but I sometimes wonder what for, or when for.  Are we just kidding ourselves when we think we can maintain mental and physical health by sheer will and a positive attitude?

Probably not.  So, I took a look back at the conversation in the knitting group:  We concern ourselves with the present and what it holds.  We try not to think about what we can’t do any more, or what we wish we had done in those years when we were comely and agile.  We have today, and really, that’s all we're sure of, but, how do we use this present hour well? 

Some of us worship our God who promises a future, and some of us hope that our religious friends are right, but we wonder.  Each yearly physical causes us to quake in our aging boots for weeks before the event.  “What will they find wrong?” we worry.  When will the boom drop.  I remember the boom that killed my father.  He had an aching jaw and began living on Tylenol.  Then he went to the doctor.  Xrays and a biopsy later, and he had his ticket to the grave.  Squamous Cell Carcinoma  in the jaw.  It took a year and a half for the boxing match between he and the disease ended, but end it did.  As they say, “He didn’t have a chance.”  By the time we reach our 70s, we all have these memories.

And so, what we have is today.  But what is today like for the elderly?  Is it as good as it can be?  As good as we deserve?  How does one live each day as wisely and joyfully as possible?  Good questions, every one, because, for the elderly, the question, “What do we do with today?” is of utmost importance.  Let us investigate the American Elderly.  What are they doing with their time?   What are they doing with the day they have?  What should they be doing with their limited time?  What keeps all of us from really totally enjoying these last moments before the disappearing ink eats up our future?  What to think, where to live, who to be with, are all questions we need to consider--as well as the most profound question of all:

Why was I here?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Spring Snow

Totally amazing!
Unbelievingly awesome!
the April buds winking at me
with childlike eyes,
wrinkling their noses
under the slight skiff
of Spring Snow.

A moment of disbelief.
Each pale green bud
 precisely covered
 with cotton white.
Hundreds and hundreds;
touched by some hidden hand
wielding a brush filled with
snowy flake,

Viewed by one
whose breath is caught
in a moment of disbelief.
Take a deep breath
and wrinkle your nose.
O the joy of life.

– Sue

Such moments have saved me from myself. I jerk my soul back from its inherent narcissism and sense the larger picture.  A moment of the Great Teacher.

Friday, May 13, 2011

A 20th Century Poet

Poetry of the late 20th century is different than that which went before.  T.S. Eliot spoke to a confused and self-examining generation, but the poetry that came from the 1960s and forward is often iconoclastic, humorous, humorless, cynical, and yet full of a sense of  determined, disillusioned honesty. 
As a part of this tradition, David Budbill fled the city in 1969 (after the events of 1968)  to live  in northern Vermont, where he writes poetry, music, novels, plays etc.   He is a strong anti-war activist and is greatly influenced by Zen philosophy. His poetry appeals to me because it is simple and direct.  His newest book of poems, Happy Days, coming out in September of this year, is about his thoughts as he enters his 70s, and he admits that the pieces in it are both happy and sad.   In a different but equally strident voice, his daughter Nadine Wolf Budbill continues the poetic tradition in her own, more rapped voice.

I like his advice to poets:  “If you don’t hear the voices speaking to you from inside or from the other side or someplace, don’t write, just listen more carefully.”

Dilemma by David Budbill
I want to be
so I can be
about being

What good is my
when I am
in this

Tomorrow by David Budbill

we are
bones and ash,
the roots of weeds
poking through
our skulls.

simple clothes,
empty mind,
full stomach,
alive, aware,
right here,
right now.

Drunk on music,
who needs wine?

Come on,
let’s go dancing
while we’ve still
got feet.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Voice of the Turtle

Song of Solomon 2:12-13

For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on the earth;
The time of the singing of birds is come;
And the voice of the turtle is heard in our land;
The fig tree putteth forth her green figs,
And the vines with the tender grape give a good smell.
Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.

The voice of the turtle deepens as the years parade onward, and the passion, the first excitement of new emotions changes to a richer, more comfortable, more nostalgic oneness. If things happen as they should, one lover can finish the other's sentence, and any silence between them is comfortable and expected.

My husband and I are nearing our last few years together, and I am sure that when the inevitable parting comes, the other will be wont to say, “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away with me.” The voice of the turtle is the voice of those who have been lucky enough to have held love in their heart for even a moment, or, perhaps, for a full lifetime.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Letter To My Grandsons

We are all of mixed blood, and produce mixed results. At a low time in my life, when I had taken an exit not from my profession but from my marriage, and left your mother and her siblings more in harm's way than felt right, my mother in the midst of her disapproval and sadness produced a saying so comforting I pass it on to you. She sighed and said, "Well, Grampy used to say, `We carry our own hides to market.' " The saying is blunt but has the comfort of putting responsibility where it can be borne, on a frame made to fit. The comfort of my hearing it said lay of course in its partial release from tribal obligations—our debt of honor to our ancestors and our debt of shelter to our descendants. These debts are real, but realer still is a certain obligation to our own selves, the obligation to live. We are social creatures but, unlike ants and bees, not just that; there is something intrinsically and individually vital which must be defended against the claims even of virtue. Quench not the spirit. Do not hide your light beneath a bushel basket. Do not bury your talent in the ground of this world. In this grandfatherly letter about my paternal grandfather, whom I never knew, let me end by offering you, as part of your heritage, this saying ascribed to my other grandfather, John Hoyer, whom I knew well, who watched me grow from infancy and who lived in good health until he was over ninety. You carry your own hide to market.
Love, Grandpa

["A Letter to My Grandsons", from SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS, Memoirs by John Updike, Knopf, 1989.

To Be of Use

. . . I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
Who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
Who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
Who do what was to be done, again and again.

                                    --Marge Piercy, excerpt from Circles On the Water, Knopf, 1982.
            “Step in time, step in time,” marks the passage of our sweat when I bother to go to my local Curves for exercise.  However, how much step-in-time do we owe to the consideration of worthwhile goals?   It seems important to me to plan on spending my time on earth in the best possible way.  That is why we have to consider the day and the job.  How vital is the work we're willing to undertake?  I am using the time this month to consider what goals are worth setting, what work is worth doing and what time is well-spent. 
As I was puffing on the machines and chatting with my friend, Betsy, about her difficulty in getting precinct workers for her political party, I thought of this experience my friend Christina S. shared with me:
            Last week I attended a meeting of the League of Women Voters by invitation.  My good friend and colleague, a fantastic attorney who specializes in domestic abuse cases, attended with me.  Part of my new job entails helping women in rural areas gain access to many types of services and voting accessibility is within the range of needs.
            Upon entering the reserved Garden room of a local banquet hall, I became instantly aware that I had underdressed for such an occasion.  Everyone was spiffed up and decked out in full regatta attire, with matching hats and personas.  (In fact, I had to check to make sure that I wasn’t crashing a meeting of the League of Republican Women’s High Tea).
            The president of the chapter of Women Voters, after we had introduced ourselves, greeted us warmly and quickly launched into her spiel.  Since my friend and I were new, she felt she needed to give us some background about who they were and what they were about.  She began by pointing out who they "were not." 
            “We are not women who, as in the old days, picketed and paraded about with signs, or who chained themselves to the voting booths,” she intoned seriously with a small condescending smile.  “We prefer to work discreetly, more tastefully.”  The other twenty or so Stepford wives, er I mean, members of the League nodded in agreement.
            My friend and I looked at each other, knew we were thinking the exact same thing and gave each other a small nod.  My friend stood up with a polite smile and asked seriously, “Could you tell us where the meeting of the women who chain themselves to the voting booths is being held, because that’s the one we want to go to.”  Dead silence.  I could see the word “ANARCHISTS!” screaming from their eyes.  We showed ourselves the way out.”

Some of the time I have been ‘thinking about’ getting ready to live has been spent in learning that it is OK to chain oneself to a voting booth. It’s OK to rattle a few cages and upset a few apple carts, if that will accomplish your purpose .   I was raised in the '50s and heaven knows those were days when we still wore white gloves and had tea parties.  It was a time of discretion and a search for refinement.  It was a time when we lower class folks were trying to prove that we were the great Middle Class that followed World War II by displaying good manners, good taste and by not rocking the boat.  It was a naive waiting period between World War II and the Civil Rights Movement.
 However, while we were waiting for the 50's to end, we were suddenly dumped into the 60's and saw what power there was in sitting at counters where we were not wanted, and taking seats on buses which, previously, we had been too polite to demand.  Nothing has been the same since, and we have begun to question whether one can do meaningful work in a discreet and tasteful manner.  I do believe it is getting harder and harder.