Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Musings on New Year's Weekend at the Beach

Any lingering thoughts I had about leaving home before Christmas were blown away by the gale force winds that brought snow to my mountain home. Christmas Day on Tybee was 60 degrees and sunny, but the next couple of days were windy and chilly with temperatures in the 40’s. A friend from Celo joined me for Christmas and is flying home tomorrow, uncertain if she’ll be able to get up the driveway to her house.

This weekend my son Kevin is flying in from Indiana for New Year’s Weekend. The town will celebrate with fireworks from the fishing pier at midnight and a Polar Plunge on New Year’s Day. The weather forecast calls for temperatures in the 70’s, which may make jumping into the 48 degrees of the Atlantic Ocean a little less heroic.

I’ve never been able to figure out why we celebrate the start of a New Year. It never changes anything. You wake up to the same problems and the same joys and then you mess up the first few checks you write by forgetting to change the year. You have to listen to a rehash on NPR or the network news shows of all the major news events of the past twelve months. This year ends a decade so there will be endless discussions of what kind of ten years we just lived through. If you can be a Scrooge about New Year’s then I say “Bah Humbug.”

Yesterday my friend and I took a Trolley Tour of Old Savannah. There are fifteen stops and the ticket allows you to get on and off all day. At stop #5 the driver listed the historic buildings nearby including St. John’s Episcopal Church. We decided to go have a look. The wind was cold and it felt good to step inside the warm building where we immediately saw a descreet sign announcing a service in progress in the chapel. We slipped into the small room with facing benches, two on each side. It was decorated for Christmas, and a Eucharist (Communion service) was in progress Most of the seats were filled with worshipers who were somber and very nicely dressed. I briefly wondered why there was a service on a Monday morning.

Instead of attending a church service on Christmas Eve or the Sunday after, the two of us had devised some ceremonies of our own. But the habits of a lifetime left me ready for this moment of corporate worship. We went forward with the others and knelt at the communion rail and I felt blessed by the serendipitous occasion. When we returned to the pew I noticed a service leaflet. I opened it to check for closing prayers and saw that we were participating in a Requiem preceding the commendation of ashes. It was for a man who had died in 2008. I wondered if he had given his body to a medical school and they had just now gotten the ashes back. The Eucharist ended and the priest quietly announced that he would remove his vestments and when he returned, the cortege would leave for the commendation. I motioned to my friend that we should go and we left quickly before anyone else. As we opened the door to leave the church I saw the cars lined up and heard a man barking into a cell phone. “Where is Jack? He is supposed to be here! Get him here now.”

Once back on the bus, I mused about the trappings of death that mainly comfort the living. Bill had never said what sort of service and commendation he wanted, and I asked him as he lay dying. He said hoarsely, “Keep it simple.” And we did. I once told my daughter I would like a boy choir to sing at my funeral, but I’d settle for a penny whistle.

It just occurred to me that all that hoopla at midnight on December thirty-first is perhaps more about the commendation of the ashes of the year just past than a celebration of something that might be better. All those recaps of the events of the year are the obituaries. Farewell 2010, it was a difficult year and we’re glad it’s over. Ashes to ashes and old years to dusty history.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christmas Greetings, Small Stuff, Sunshine and Dogs

I just got back from the dog park here on Tybee Island, where Nigel gets exercise and I pick up the local news and politics. This is a beach town, no doubt about that, but in the winter it feels a lot more like a small Southern community. I haven’t been here for Christmas and New Year’s before and I’m intrigued with all the activities going on. Decorations on the houses are modest, mostly fresh greens, red ribbons and white lights. I haven’t seen any giant inflated Santas or snowmen and not a single plastic reindeer on a roof. On Saturday a “Caroling Trolley” full of Tybee singers went to the two nursing homes and sang outside the houses of shut-ins. There was a parade earlier in the month and this week there was a party for the children.

At least a dozen dogs gathered to play at the park today, about half of them large and the others about Nigel’s size. At first they all tried to mix it up and there was a lot of snarling and snapping. Several owners stepped into the melee to make sure no dog got hurt. Then suddenly the little dogs were running about together and the large dogs were in another part of the park where some balls were being thrown.

I had picked up my mail at the post office on the way to the park, and it was quiet enough for me to sit and read the Christmas greetings. In one there was yet another sentence of deep concern about the problems our country faces in the immediate future, a theme of the notes on the cards this year. Too bad the political parties can’t sort themselves out as easily as the dogs did.

My plan for today was to write a nostalgic memoir-type piece about Christmas, now that Hanukkah and the Solstice have passed. But as often happens another line of thinking has emerged from the mail. My brother and his wife are living with and often transcending her struggles with Alzheimer’s. Anne is not going gently into that particularly night, but is fighting to hold on to whatever she can of her personhood. David writes, “A dear friend of mine used to say, ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff’. Alzheimer’s caregiving demands that one constantly ‘sweat the small stuff’ or risk going a bit crazy. Above all, the small stuff of life demands patience and a certain capacity to live with situations that repeat themselves endlessly. Living with small stuff can be a great teacher. It pushes and squeezes one to pay attention, often to things one prefers to ignore.”

On the flip side, I once asked my mother, who was in her nineties, if she still had moments of joy. “Oh yes,” she replied, “but the joy comes from smaller and smaller things like a very hot cup of coffee or a perfectly poached egg.”

An artist about my age wrote in his Christmas card, “As we get older we seem to become increasingly sensitive to the cold.” He wished for me a good deal of sun on my face and in my heart here on Tybee. I too am affected by the cold; one of my small joys is snuggling into bed under my down blanket. No doubt about it, your world begins to contract with age. Just about anybody who lives long enough has some short-term memory loss and finds that it is literally the small stuff that uses up time as we have to look for something. Most of my friends are post retirement and counting. We may sweat a bit as we search for glasses, keys, a wallet, a flashlight, a check that came in the mail and was put in a good safe place somewhere. But when it comes to largeness of spirit, to depth of understanding the big stuff, or to the wideness of recognizing small joys as worthy, you find all that in abundance among the old folks. We do sweat the small stuff more than we used to, but we are also pausing to turn our faces to the warmth of the sun with a full appreciation of the moment. We laugh when we find the check and remember the logic of its particular safe place. We keep up with the news of the day and can recognize patterns from the past, bringing a perspective that makes it bearable.

I’m not very big on consumption and piles of gifts, but I like Christmas. I like it that we write a note to longtime loved ones and share sorrows, blessings and wisdom. I like it that we pause and make time to sing carols and fix good food. I like it that we put up little lights in a season of early darkness. I like it that we are reminded there is still a vision that people can live together in peace and with good will, just like the little dogs did.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Winter Respite: Same Life, Milder Weather, Sea Breezes and the Breakfast Club.

Here I am on the Georgia coast on a little island near Savannah where I’ve rented a house for three winter months. The day after I left, 4 inches of snow turned Celo white, and this morning the temperature was 9 degrees at home. I am glad to be here for many reasons in addition to the weather, not the least of which is my deep affinity for the sea.

On the way, I stopped in Charlotte where my daughter Melissa and her husband Ron were the hosts for a combination book party and farewell event. (They are in the process of moving to New Jersey.) Melissa and I both read from Decrescendo in a comfortable ambience given more depth by the presence of a half dozen people who had already read the book. It was an attentive and responsive audience and after the reading I had many good conversations. Those with books brought them for me to sign and there were others who purchased one at the party and went home with a signed book tucked in a jacket pocket or a handbag.

This time in Georgia is not a vacation for me, it is simply living my life in a warmer place: one that is better suited to the handful of aging issues I deal with. As the surviving spouse, I don’t have a built-in caregiver and try as much as I can to take good care of myself. Things that I cannot do are handled cheerfully by my children and sometimes by friends. At home, winter brings obstacles to my essential and very welcome daily walks. Often remnants of snow or ice hang on for a long time after a storm, and cold winds or low temperatures make it unwise for me to venture out. Here I walk on streets lined with live oaks that are draped with Spanish moss. I am at sea level and everything is flat with no grades or curves. Typically the afternoons warm up to 60 plus degrees even if the nights are cold. During the last four weeks of my stay I can expect days in the 70’s.

For social life I go to the dog park and chat with other dog owners while the canine assemblage sniff each other and run around in circles, sometimes with Nigel in the lead. Over the years I have made a few acquaintances so I can count on an enthusiastic welcome. This year friends from Celo are spending two months here, and both our households will entertain refugees from cold weather. That will mean lots of mornings at The Breakfast Club, a restaurant that makes breakfast the biggest and best meal of the day. There is the added bonus of food theater as the short order cooks work in plain sight.

I’ll miss my family and friends and the celebrations of Christmas, New Year’s Eve, Epiphany, and Valentine’s Day. I’ll be sad to miss the Dreams Die Hard Diner, which is only open once a year on New Year’s Day and is something of a homecoming for Celo folk. I won’t take part in events scheduled for the Cabin Fever University, another Celo winter tradition. Two interesting book group discussions and many Mondays of knitting at Nancy’s with a bunch of delightful women will go on without me.

Instead I will continue following leads to provide exposure for Decrescendo, and maybe I’ll find some book contests to enter. I will try to arrange some readings for the spring and search the Internet for caregiver organizations that might be interested in promoting the book. The Kindle version will soon be ready and the extended distribution is in place so that any bookstore can now order copies and I’ll need to get those messages disseminated through some emails. Of course, I’ll continue with weekly posts sharing whatever is on my mind about my book, its contents, the craft of writing or my life. I also brought my knitting and a book bag full of good reads.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Sometimes Words Fail

My friend had to put her dog down last week. He was a chow with a large head, enormous paws, and honey-colored hair that made him look like a lion. He didn’t like to be touched and had an impressive growl if you got too close, but even so he was a gentle giant with a sweet disposition. I loved him almost as much as his owner did. For most of his life he was an outdoor dog, but in the last year or so he has wanted more comfort and liked to come in at night. As the end neared he stayed inside most of the time. One day he couldn’t get up off the floor. Other symptoms made it clear that his life was ebbing. The following afternoon two strapping young people came from the vet’s office to load him in an SUV. I went to the house to sit with my friend before, during and after the dog’s departure from home and his last ride.

When he was gone, my friend lit a candle and I suggested we sing some hymns, which we did. Then she said, “Could we sing, Let It Be?” So our two old voices blended together with great conviction as we sang, “Speaking words of wisdom, let it be” and the tears trickled down our faces.

I assume that let it be are the words of wisdom, but I started thinking about how often in common parlance we use the phrase “words of (something)” instead of saying those words. In Decrescendo, near the end, I refer to words of comfort and words of love. There are many other examples: words of praise, words of regret, words of hope, words of encouragement, words of sympathy.

I am excited by words well chosen and exactly conveying the author’s meaning. I just finished reading Olive Kittredge and what I appreciated most about the book was the exact rightness of the author’s use of language. I have a dictionary stand with a good light in my small house, and it is well used. My family and I often debate the meaning of this or that word to know if it has been used correctly. That’s the way it was when I was a child and the way it has been for my grandchildren as well. Ours is a family of writers and wordsmiths and yet I am sometimes ready to say “words fail me” or “I have no words to say what I feel.”

That’s how it was yesterday when an early morning call from Kansas brought the sad news that my nephew had died at the relatively young age of 45. Words of sympathy were in order, but I had none that could ease the pain of a mother and father who have lost their son. I said simply, “I love you.” Today I have been distracted by sadness.

Rest in peace, Eric.