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

Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Elusive Thing Called Happiness, Chapter I

The worst is behind me
—I tell myself—I'm already old.
The worst is yet to come,
I'm still alive.
But if you must know,
I was happy.
Sometimes a whole day, sometimes a whole hour.
sometimes only a few minutes.
That's enough.
-Jaroslav Seifert

She came up to me, put her hand gently on my wrist and said, "I just love this yarn.  It makes me so happy and is such beautiful colors."  It was just a touch, but it was enough to make me smile. M is a friend of mine in our knitting group at the local retirement village.  I judge her to be in her late 80s or early 90's.  Her hearing is not good, her hair is thin and gray, she falls easily and sleeps poorly,  but she is the most beautiful, and one of the happiest persons I know. 

Knowing M makes the poem by Jaroslav Seifert hard for me to enjoy.  "The worst is behind me," and the worst is yet to come"; my first response was to bristle, feeling that I was going to read a 'poor little me' poem.  Not so; for, in my eyes, Seifert redeems himself a trifle by saying, "But I was happy."  The 'was' is what is unnerving, and frightening.  When one reaches old age, do we silently throw away our dancing slippers and fold ourselves into our laprobe?  Was happy?   What I see with Millie is a woman who has lost a beloved husband, has become unable to care for herself and her home and who gets an occasional visit from her son at this place which is now her home away from home.

She WAS happy?  What has she got to be happy about now?  Not much, we could say.  But, unlike those who chase happiness in life, only to realize that happiness is a side bar item, M knows that, and she is wise enough to know that joy is in the day, in the wind, in the outlook.  Life's joy is not found all alone on a shelf in a box. Chase it if you will--you will not find it in any singularly impressive place.  Nor do we have to utter that dreadful word WAS:  happiness can be in every day's most common events. 

M rewards us with her words of happiness:  "I'm so enjoying that wonderful, three volume biography of Teddy Roosevelt," she tells us.  "Yes, I fell and skidded all the way down the hall on my face and shoulder.  But I was OK--I knew I hadn't broken any bones!", I want to make a little shrug to wear at night when I read in bed, and I want it to be an elegant color and very simple in style, because that's me.  I'm not very fancy, " " I'm so delighted!  My friend is taking me to the mall and I just know I'll find all sorts of nice things that I would like to buy."  "Oh, don't fret about the young.  Give them a chance."  "Yes, I'm on the library committee here.  Isn't that nice?"  When we see M enter the room, we automatically smile--we know that we will be better for having that hour with her wisdom and calming spirit.  Happiness is not a WAS for M. 

Moderation. Small helpings. Sample a little bit of everything. These are the secrets of happiness and good health -- Julia Childs

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Fire in Our Hearts

 There may be a great fire in our hearts, yet no one ever comes to warm himself at it, and the passers-by see only a wisp of smoke.
                                                                                                -Van Gogh

One of the most destructive boundaries that can face us is that which faced Van Gogh.  Toward the end of his short life, his mental condition interfered so drastically in his life’s force that he was unable to paint.  The fire in his heart simply died because he could find no outlet for it.  The above picture was painted by Van Gogh in 1890, shortly before he ended his life.  It was titled, “At Eternity’s Gate.”

 When something, age perhaps, interferes with that which gives life meaning, the need to find an outlet for our personal fire becomes paramount..  Michael de Montaigne said,  “Be vigorously involved in all that brings us pleasure in life…and let death catch up with us as it may,”  but without that involvement, life can simply lose its flavor, and we can lose our enthusiasm--our reason to exist.  The word ‘enthusiasm’ comes from the Greek, ‘en theos’ or ‘in God.’ Without en theos--the spirit of life, the joy is lost.

As we age, we go through developmental changes caused by physical or emotional blocks, or our own misconception of how we should act and what we are able to do with this older body.  We may give up golf because we can no longer play as well as we did, we may give up reading because the print is too small–there are so many changes that can cause us to mentally and physically close down. 

Whatever the boundary, we have to find a way to light a fire.  We have to find the joy, that ‘en theos’ that makes us want to get up in the morning.   What if that fire no longer draws our friends to our house, because they see no smoke in the chimney?  Ah, how sad it is to quit life because of not feeling as confident of our worth.  One of the secrets that we may not  have learned earlier in our lives, is to work for ourselves, do those things which we like and which are fun for us.  Too much of our lives are spent trying to please others.  I’m sure there are other olders, like me, who have focused on doing and creating for personal pleasure.  I never wrote, or had time to write when I was younger.  The feistiness of age has helped me say to myself,  “Do it!  Let others think what they will.”  Writing is a very selfish thing for me – and it is something I never thought of doing when I was younger.
  “… use the talent you possess:  the woods would be very silent if no birds sang except those that sang best.” –Henry Van Dyke, (1852-1933). 


Monday, June 20, 2011

Why Writers Should Read Emily

            Emily Dickinson could say more in a few words than most writers can in a  chapter. There are writers whose prose is lyrical and ripe with meaning, but few can equal Emily in the short, perfect description. Her legacy is a must-read for any one professing to be called 'writer'. I found this recently on  Writer's Almanac and had to share it. It is a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a literary critic, written in April 1862. 
             She wrote, "You ask of my companions. Hills, sir, and the sundown, and a dog large as myself, that my father bought me. They are better than beings because they know, but do not tell; and the noise in the pool at noon excels my piano. I have a brother and sister; my mother does not care for thought, and father, too busy with his briefs to notice what we do. He buys me many books, but begs me not to read them, because he fears they joggle the mind. They are religious, except me."
            A lifestyle summed up in less than a wordy paragraph. Her writing is a fine sauce that has simmered all day and is now reduced to its essence: no frills, no pretense.  Oh to be able to express oneself so tidily.

Saturday, June 18, 2011


 “Mending Wall” is a poem by Robert Frost in which his neighbor tells him that “good fences make good neighbors.”  Frost and I both question that, but there is something to be said for knowing one’s boundaries.  It keeps us from stepping on sensitive toes and helps us focus on priorities.  On the other hand, particularly as one ages, there are times when fence-jumping, or stile-stepping are called for, and even ‘fence-sitting’ can be recommended.   
Stile:  A Structure which provides one a passage through or over a fence or boundary.

  Of all the obstacles that life puts in out path, age is a major challenge,  there is no doubt about that.  Growing old presents us with many fences to hurdle, and even considering the difficulties involved, I take the stand that the secret of healthy aging is to discern which fences have stiles and which do not.

 It is very true that I cannot do what I did 20 years ago.  I cannot compete is long-distance races, all day marathons, late-night parties or the cleaning binges I used to do when I had neglected my housework for more pleasant duties for far too long.  I forget people’s names and there is a creakiness there that surely wasn’t there at 21!

 I remember when, at about 65, I first discovered the pain of getting up from a kneeling position in my garden.  “Oh, oh!”, my body said,  “Time to slow down, old girl.”  The question is, how much slowness should I accept, and how can I continue to make my garden presentable?  Or can I?

Some oldies can deal with graduating infirmities, and others cannot.  The man who has golfed 2-3 days a week and is physically unable to do this any longer, can sell his clubs and retreat to a sedentary, unsatisfying life, or he can also go to the gym and keep what muscles he has left from atrophying.  It’s a choice. 

The lady who no longer exudes beauty and sex can try desperately to get her lips as sensual as ever, botox the wrinkles, and tuck the jowls, but she is not fooling herself or anyone else.  The boundary of age has presented itself, and there are healthy ways to meet it, and there are some that are not so healthy.  It is a choice.

The geriatric pros will tell us that being able to ‘accept’ one’s limitations is a determinant of what they call ‘successful aging.”  (Whatever that is.)  However, one can ‘accept’ it by sitting in a chair and feeling sorry that ‘the good days are all gone’, or one can try to use today to its best advantage. 

I don’t like the term ‘adapting’.  I prefer the thought that as we age, we can find ways to go with the flow…while I can’t spend an entire day digging and hoeing and planting in my garden, I need not have a rivalry with my youth—I can still plant beautiful things in the pots and containers on my patio.  When I can’t keep up with the latest fads—I’ll let my children explain them to me.  I do not have to pretend to be something I am not.  I can be what I am:  old lady with a point of view that allows her to sometimes go over the fence of age even if she has to use a stile!

However, I can be as feisty as I want, but, unless there are others to help us over the stiles of aging, we are in a fine pickle.  My friends in our knitting group at the retirement center were discussing the wonderful people that worked there and helped them so much.  “Bob is just great when he takes us out to lunch on Mondays,” said one.  “He always knows just how much help each one of us needs to getting around, and yet he gives us just the right boost without making us feel self-conscious about our lameness.” 

That said so much: to fit in, to be a part of things, to do those things which gives life its verve, and yet to know that there are those who know how to help maintain a place for the aging within life’s framework.  Human society has not yet come to the place where it can accept a “Logan’s Run” type of world in which, at the sight of an implanted red light, the over-thirty must suddenly disappear for they are no longer wanted or needed. 

The more I research this subject of “what to do about growing old”, I discover that, as in most of life, it isn’t something one can do successfully on one’s own, but it must begin there; it must begin with the individual finding ways to overcome the boundaries and infirmities of age, emotionally and physically.   It is different for each of us, and yet there are common frustrations and successes that we can pattern from.   Later we can look at what society needs to offer its aging population; a population, which each of us will possibly join at some time or other.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Some Thoughts on Experience

Life Is Just a Chance to Grow a Soul
            -A. Powell Davies


I stepped from plank to plank,
A slow and cautious way
The stars above my head I felt
Around my feet the sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch—
That gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.
            -Emily Dickinson

            I can come up with ideas, and my daughter, Leslie, can put feet on them.  Driving back from our yearly knit-kick trip to the Estes Wool Festival we became involved in discussing the human mind.  I like the word, ‘mind’ better than brain because it seems more inclusive of all that is stirring about within us at any confused moment.

            I mentioned that I had read that the human mind is different in the young and the old.  The younger mind is more alert, more inventive—quicker.  The older brain, in many instances, is able to make judgments and qualify ideas and events.  Leslie agreed that that may, indeed, be true.  She mentioned that, as a freelance editor at a local college, she is seeing that she can add more to the job than she could have when she was younger.She sees alternatives, prevents mixed ideas from going forth into print, and generally can suggest to her supervisor, “Here’s this idea, and this idea and this.  You can choose what seems best to you.” 

            There is little doubt that, as we age, we have more trouble remembering what we did yesterday, and our reflexes slow down.  These are facts and must be accepted as a part of the privilege of living a fairly long life.  Age gives us that precarious Gait that is called ‘experience.’  This is a valuable tool that age and experience have given Leslie.

            Perhaps, as a part of this experience, we are also engaged in another activity—the growing of a soul.  There are those who do not believe in human souls, but in case you do, here is Henry Thoreau’s idea of what that soul might look like once it has had a few years to ripen:
            In “The Bean-Field” in Walden, Thoreau describes what it would be like to meet a man in which the qualities he prizes have ‘taken root and grown in him’: 
      Here comes such a subtle and ineffable quality, for instance, as truth or justice,…Our ambassadors should be introduced to send home such seeds as these, and Congress help to distribute them over all the land.  We should never stand upon ceremony with sincerity.  We should never cheat and insult and banish one another by our meanness, if there were present the kernel of worth and friendliness.  We should not meet thus in haste.
 He then quotes a line from Francis Quarles (1592-1644)

            “And as he spake, his wings would now and then Spread as he meant to fly, then close again,”  so that we should suspect that we might be conversing with an angel. "

             This is a night for ponderations—times when I wonder why we are here.  Is it possible that ‘experience’ provides us with the time and the qualities necessary to give, not only our first fruits, but our last fruits to something which we might all call the spirit?  (And please, feel free to define that as you wish.)

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Dance

Had to save this before I lost it.  So simple, so true. 

by Humberto Ak'Abal
translated by Ilan Stavans

All of us dance
on a cent's edge.

The poor—because they are poor—
lose their step,
and fall

and everyone else
falls on top.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Reading is a Gift That Keeps on Giving

            I had a wise friend who railed at the advent of the computer.  She was a professor at a Colorado university, and with all her might and intellectual prowess she fought the effect that the computer would have on academics in America. Investigate her point of view:  She was critical of the limitations that technology would place on learning.  Every time I use a spell-checker or the thesaurus on my word-processing program, I think of her criticism. 
The words we use now are more or less contained in a digest version of Roget's Thesaurus, and Spell-checker, and these helpers will, every now and then, report that a word we wish to use "is not in the dictionary."   Well, yes it is, but the abridged version of the dictionary or thesaurus just doesn't know that word. This is not your error, it is a limit placed on your language usage. The diligent writer may take the time to look further for the more perfect word or phrase, but our students and our busiest citizens probably don't take the time.  It doesn't seem that important.. 
The computer isn't entirely to blame. Newer versions of many dictionaries have eliminated certain “archaic” word choices.  At all avenues we are encouraged to restrict our language to its comfortable, modern choices.  Please understand, I love the computer, but  it symbolizes a trend leading us into the mindset of those who prefer digests, abridgements and summaries.  The computer has fascinated us with its games, its groupie groups, its uncensored sites and its great ability to entertain, and it is inevitable that it will eat into the time that the average person spends reading a book, a Kindle, a Nook or searching for more hidden academic treasures.  Such searches require time and access to more unlimited sources of information.
  I’m a fussy old lady and I worry; how can we truly appreciate the following quotation from Thoreau if we don’t know that fane means temple or shrine:

 If we have thus desecrated ourselves--as who has not?--the remedy will be by wariness and devotion to deconsecrate ourselves, and make once more a fane of the mind. We should treat our minds, that is, ourselves, as innocent and ingenuous children, whose guardians we are, and be careful what objects and what subjects we thrust on their attention. Read not the Times. Read the Eternities."                                                                                                                 -                   -Thoreau, “Life Without Principle”                                            
 At another place, in Walden,he encouraged his reader to "stand on tip-toe to read."
             I remember getting my first library card and going to the library when I was seven or eight.   All those books!  I was at sea.  Logically, however, I decided to start at the beginning of the row, and came upon Alcott, Louisa May.  I began to read Little Women, then Little Men, Joe's Boy's and so on.    I loved the Marches and I began to see myself in Jo March.  I even fixed up part of our attic with a cozy chair, table and lamp. Wisely, I succeeded in doing two important things for a child:  Getting a spot to be by myself and learning to choose what I read. 
            In the summer, I went from the attic to the top limb of a cherry tree in our back yard.  I would fill a wooden apple box with books and take them up into the tree.  With my loot I would hide out from a mother who would have preferred to have help with the dishes.  I have always preferred books to housework.  Hooray!
            I am a firm believer in at least four years of a liberal education, although only half of my family agrees with me.  At Lawrence College in Appleton, Wisconsin I found the building blocks of my Self.   I met Thoreau, Plato, Aristotle, John Stuart Mills, Shakespeare, Locke, Hume, Descartes, Sartre, Kierkegaard, Martin Buber, Professor Brown in the Biology department, Professor Brooks in the Art Department and so many others. This is also where I learned humility; I discovered that I had only had a sip of the intoxicating task of discovering what knowledge is and what it could do for me.
            Much later, I fell in love with the poetic – with Dickinson, Frost, Sandburg, Rumi, Hafiz and some of the contemporary poets who are so insightful; the task of enlightenment never ends.  The joy of learning is just as deep today, now that I am elderly, as it was that first day when I stood on tip-toe, reached up and took Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy into my heart.   I wish I could bottle the love of reading and learning.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Better Late

        Better late
        Fall love
        And blackberries
        Lie just beyond the thorns;
        Ripe and sweet, however late the

-                                                              --Jim Olson
When we turn over the soil of our lives often enough, we begin to see it for what it is. We can feel the uneven texture of life, smell the moistness of years of tears, feel the quickening of  good times, and see the rocks and clods that constitute the minutes and hours of the limited time we have left.  
It took me years and years of painful plowing to hit upon just a few realities; simple truths, that I should have seen earlier, but didn’t.  I’m a slow learn when it comes to gut issues, and  I feel a valid affinity to Sisyphus, who kept rolling the rock up the hill, only to have it come crashing down again and again.  
We all face times that try us, and the truth is that unless one has the benefit of unleashed insight,  subtleties can be lost or ignored as life progresses, leaving us with the feeling that all we've done is get up early, go to work, come home, feed the children and go to bed.  Humdrumness, boredom, lethargy and a narrow mind all contribute a blanket of melancholia.  Before we know it, years have passed, and too often we answer the inquiry, “How are you?” with, “Oh, okay I guess.”  It is the “I guess” that is the monster.   
Better late.  Better late to learn the joy of a marriage of 50 years.  Better late the lump in the throat at the sight of grandsons sleeping in my parents' four poster bed.  Precious and poignant are the memories of friends and acquaintances; they come unbidden into our view -- a turn of phrase, a small insight, a hand of friendship.  I turn to speak to my mother and she is not there, or is she?   Is she in some way resurrected by my needful thought?  Just beyond the thorns, life blooms large.  Better late to feel the earthiness and joy of life and love.  Better late, than never.
***  I chanced upon this poem by Jim Olson who is not a professional poet.  He is simply a thoughtful human whose mind goes deeply into that well of inspiration.  Thank you Jim for my favorite poem.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Kate and Luisa

I am reminded of Kate, my father’s mother; fifteen when she was ‘hired out’.  Married at 16 in order to escape the ‘hire out’.  Beaten and abused, I remember her so well; bronzed skin from years behind the plow, short, thin, graying hair that knew no beauty salon, and hands that did not know how to rest in her lap.  She was always in motion, cotton, flower-printed dress hanging limply on her gaunt frame.

In later years when she came to visit, I encouraged my 3 year old son to kiss Grandma.  He held back and whispered to me, “But Mommy, she’s all cracked.”  Yes, her weather-beaten face would appear that to a child.  He didn’t know what she had known in her hard-scrabble, Indiana life.
The following excerpt from the poem "Ludlow" by David Mason, Colorado Poet Laureate in 2010, brought back sad family memories:
"Luisa," Too Tall stopped to touch her hair.
"Lass, this man's your new employer. Chin up.
Let's look at you." She saw the man's good shoes
when he stepped down, the trousers, buttoned vest.
"George Reed," said Mr. Reed. Don't be afraid."
He swung his hat off, a man of thirty years
with blue eyes and a blond mustache, his hair
parted almost down the middle. "That's it,
good girl." His mustache bristled when he smiled.
"She's not much older'n mine. You say she can read?"
"She's had it hard," said Too Tall.
                               "There's plenty
around here had it hard," said Mr. Reed.
"But we could use the help if she can work.
You can work, can't you, young lady? Luisa,
right? Luisa, you can work, can't you?"
Luisa nodded. "That a girl. Good girl."
They loaded up her apple crates of clothing,
Bible, the wooden santo her mother brought
from a village far away, the carver's name
made shiny by the rub of hands: abuelo.
"No tiene uno ni madre," said
a voice behind her. "Good lass. Good lassie."
"Work hard and don't forget us," said Mrs,
"Good-bye," said the house, the hens, the risen dust."