Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The First Step to Embracing Change is Letting Go

The highlight of the TV season this winter for me will be the return of Downton Abbey on PBS. To prepare the way, UNC-TV has been re-running the first season episodes. When I returned home on Sunday from a jolly Christmas celebration in Asheville with many members of my family, I was happy to snuggle into my comfortable recliner and spend an hour and a half back in the early nineteen hundred’s with the upstairs and downstairs folk who people the mansion. In one scene two of the senior staff are having a conversation about the housekeeper’s decision not to accept a proposal of marriage from a man she had turned down once before when she was young. Now he is a widower and has proposed again, but she has decided to decline.

“I’ve changed,” she says. “I’m not that farm girl any more.”
The butler responds, “What would be the point of living if we don’t let life change us.”

I’ve had an episodic Christmas season so far this year as I made plans reflexively based on an earlier me, and then had to keep changing them as nearly every day unforeseen circumstances derailed the hoped for pre-Christmas preparation. I had planned to make several gifts, do some cooking and baking of traditional holiday food, decorate the house; in short, I was going to replicate at least some of the old family traditions. Last week, I had a liberating moment when I just let go of it all. I spent a little time asking myself what would actually be possible and what was necessary for my own contentment. I decided that “nothing” was the answer to both questions. The half-done presents will be finished for other occasions in the future, and the presence of my children and their spouses, my grandchildren (some with spouses) and my great-grandchildren was all I needed to be content.

By letting go of the preparation for traditions of Christmases Past, I made time and space for several holiday gatherings before Christmas and a more leisurely preparation for the family members staying here in my guesthouse. I also had time to help and support several friends facing unexpected problems and to get my annual Christmas letter in the mail. On Saturday morning, I listened at leisure to the Lessons and Carols from King’s College in Cambridge, England; that service has been my Yuletide church since my husband Bill died.

My holiday celebrations this year included Hanukkah, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day and some of us will be together for New Year’s Day. Because I let go, it has been easy for me to be part of these gatherings without any quivering sense of responsibility for the outcomes.  I was a listener and an observer, and whenever it was easy, I was a participant.

My grandson Miles and his wife Polly drove me home on Christmas evening from the overnight stay in Asheville where we gathered on Saturday afternoon and moved back and forth between two houses. We picked up my dog Nigel from his visit with a household that includes three other poodles and drove through soft darkness to my carport, well lit with my LED ropes. I savored a bowl of hot oxtail soup, the gift of a neighbor, delivered the day before. I was wrapped in the aura of comfort and contentment and contemplated the joys of the past 30 hours.

In my mind’s eye, I saw the faces, remembered funny comments, heard again the sounds of the baby and the small children and relished the easy interaction among generations. With the passage of time my children and their chosen spouses had become parents and aunts and uncles. My grandchildren are cousins to each other and four of them have chosen spouses. So many traits run through the mix reminding me of Bill and seeing some reflections of myself. But I also see the less familiar interests, personality quirks and particular graces brought to this rich mix through marriage.

I can recognize so clearly now how life has changed me. There was a time I could not have let go of my plans, but would have worked late into many nights and been exhausted on Christmas Day and quite possibly down with a cold by New Year’s. The last ten years have brought the most change as grief, illness and my slow, but determined recovery have deepened my spiritual journey and re-ordered my priorities. It’s comfortable for me to be the watcher, storing up the pictures and impressions and small joys to ponder in my heart during the winter. It is a great relief to have others creating the magic of Christmas and to have Polly sing the prayer of gratitude for light while she is lighting the candles on the Menorah. Bill and I shared many dreams and he lived long enough to fulfill most of them. Now I am grateful that I have lived long enough to see the generations flourish as they now dream their dreams, make choices, and let themselves be changed by life.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Hanukkah, Solstice, Christmas: Let Your Light Shine

Glenside Methodist church is ablaze with candles, the only source of light. The soft chatter of the congregation during the prelude subsides as the children’s choir files in silently. They stand in two neat rows near the altar, which is decorated with bright red poinsettias and fragrant boughs of pine. The organist sounds a single note to give the pitch and their high voices sing “How far is it to Bethlehem?” The answer comes antiphonally in the deeper tones of the adult choir waiting in the vestibule, “Not very far.” The questions and answers of the carol start the narrative that will be revealed in hymns, anthems and readings.

This was the annual Candlemas in the church of my childhood. The service was held on the Sunday afternoon before Christmas, beginning as darkness fell. It was the essence of Christmas to me as I grew from the children’s choir to sing with the youth and eventually the adults. Annually it marked the start of our family celebration. In those childhood days I knew nothing about Solstice or Hanukkah, or the customs involving bonfires, torches and candlelight prevalent in northern hemisphere countries throughout history. During my freshman year in a Catholic college, I took a course in the history of Europe. For the first time, I learned about the process of folding the traditional observances of other religions and cultures into the celebration of Christian Holy Days during the early spread of the Holy Roman Empire.

Just a few years before my husband Bill died, we spent a week in colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, to be there for the Festival of Lights that began a month-long revelry in celebration of the season. We had gotten a promotional offer from our timeshare company to spend an off-season week in Williamsburg —for a mere $200—in a brand new facility, located at the edge of the restoration area. When we left our luxurious apartment, complete with an indoor hot tub and a fireplace, we walked back into the 18th Century in ten minutes. As night drew nigh on the day of the Festival it was very dark. We had been given a booklet with the history of such festivals along with a program for the opening night and a description of the often-bawdy revelries that would be available in various venues during our stay.

But nothing could prepare us for the excitement and wonder as candles were lit in every window of every building by costumed staff, while musicians strolled through the streets playing bagpipes. We had gone early and found seats on a bench close to the prepared bonfire which had firecrackers mixed in with the logs and kindling. The flames lit up the night, and a band began to play colonial era Christmas music. For centuries humankind had been lighting up the night of the Solstice with fires and torches to woo the sun back to the northern sky in time for the spring planting. In that moment in Williamsburg I believed I could feel what they must have felt as the flames leapt up toward the sky on those long, cold, winter nights.

In suburban America the darkness of winter is muted by the extravagant well-lit panoramas on rooftops and front yards, while the cities are lit from dusk to dawn with commercial displays and security lights. I live in a dark place with no streetlights and little or no ambient glow. On a clear night I can see the Milky Way. My Christmas lights had gradually faded as tiny bulbs failed, so this year I commissioned my grandson Miles to get me new white lights. The ones he brought are LED ropes. My daughter-in-law Tammy wrapped them around the upright supports of the carport roof and along my flower boxes. They’re on a timer and give me my own little festival of lights every evening.

Tonight is the first night of Hanukkah, another Festival of Lights, which Robin, Tammy and I will be celebrating with Miles and his wife Polly. Tomorrow is Solstice, which I plan to celebrate with Nigel on a night walk around my front yard in response to a beautiful card from a friend that asked me to join him  “in singing up our Mother Sun at Solstice, for how she moves, spiraling through everything.” During our Christmas season, I will be in the presence of 19 members of my family. I will hold my newest great-grandson and watch the others play. I will listen to the adults as they talk and laugh and share their opinions. They will be my bonfires to light up any dark corners in my life.

So let us light our candles and our LED ropes and sing to the sun to celebrate the moment of turning. Let us lift every voice and sing our hymns and carols and songs. Let us play the music that gives us joy. In the spirit of the season, let us deepen our faith with whatever liturgy or practice helps us do that. Let us stand for peace and justice and love, and let us give thanks for what is good in each of our lives.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Nigel and the Down Days

“Donna Jean, I think you should get a dog after I’m gone,” Bill said during the long summer of his dying. He went on to tell me he had read that people live longer if they have a pet. They walk more, are less lonely, feel more secure, and have something to take care of. At that point in my life there was not much appeal in the thought of something else to take care of. In his last days, he brought it up again and said,” Please promise me you’ll get a dog after I die.”

“Anything I promise you now will be like a sacred vow. So I don’t want to promise that, but I will promise you that I’ll give it serious consideration.”

And so, in the  depths of my illness following the death of my husband of fifty years, as I abided in a state of sadness, I started thinking about a dog. I already knew it had to be small and because of my mild allergy to dog dander, it had to be one of the several breeds that do not shed. Although I didn’t feel like I fit the miniature poodle stereotype, I had come to appreciate them during many visits with my friend Dana and her poodles. As a breed, they are smart, easy to train, playful and devoted. In the winter of 2005, I wrote in my journal that I was ready for a dog and I hoped the universe would beam me down a miniature poodle.

Dana put me in touch with the breeder where she had gotten one of her dogs, and some five months later I got an email from “Poodle Heaven” announcing five puppies were available. By the time I was able to talk with the breeder, there was only one dog left. I knew the universe had spoken, and he was my dog. “I’ll take him,” I said with no reservations. As instructed I went to the post office the next day and sent a money order. When I saw Nigel a week later, it was love at first sight for us both.

Taking on a puppy while I was still sick was daunting, but I followed the method laid out by the Monks of New Skete. I also welcomed the proffered help of my friend Mary, who is a dog agility trainer when she’s not busy being a university professor. I was quite sure that as an older dog owner, I needed a well-trained companion. I got so much more. Not only is he smart, he also has that doggy intuition that tells him when I am unhappy or not feeling well. He stays close and becomes very calm. He has the bark of a bigger dog, and warns me if anyone is moving around outside. I like taking care of him, and in return he takes care of me.

 As Bill predicted I do get out and walk no matter what the weather (unless it’s below freezing) because Nigel needs the exercise too. We have a daily playtime inside which adds to my flexibility. I throw his favorite toys and he fetches them. In nice weather if we play outside, he’ll often break into his exuberant flying run, making big circles around me, drawing me into his boundless joy.

It would be a disservice to you, my readers, if I created an impression that I have old age all figured out. I don’t live a Pollyanna life, incessantly playing the glad game and feeling good about everything. Down days, or parts of days, come along fairly often. I can easily feel overwhelmed, and struggle with my two personal burdens: feeling that I need to be doing my part as a neighbor and citizen, and a sense of obligation to show up for local events, church services or parties. Even though I no longer have the desire to be active outside my home, I struggle with the feeling that I am shirking some kind of a duty.

Although I realized several years ago that the way to live expansively with contracting resources is to do less, the choices that entails are often difficult. I spent much of my life as an activist and although I am temperamentally well suited to a home-centered life, my knee-jerk reaction is to say yes even when my heart is saying no. My mother’s rule was that when you were feeling down you should do something for someone who is in worse shape than you are. That’s no longer much help for me, because it simply piles on more obligation. So how do I handle the down days? Meditation helps a great deal. Sometimes talking it over with my son Robin or one of my close friends will give me a better outlook. Listening to music, working a crossword puzzle, baking cookies, knitting or sewing are all things that can help restore my good spirits. Naming my blessings is another way to shift my focus from sadness to gratitude.

But the truth is usually it is Nigel who breaks the down cycle. Without him around, I might not go out for a walk on such a day, especially if low spirits are accompanied by low energy, which is often the case. If it is time for a walk, Nigel lets me know. When I am at the computer, he comes and bumps my hand off the keys. If I am morosely staring out the window, he’ll go to a spot on the carpet where he sits with his eyes glued to the door—I have dubbed it the waiting spot. I invariably feel better after a walk.  But if the doldrums are deep and abide with me still, I’ll return to my recliner, nurse my sadness and build a misery heap out of whatever’s bothering me. Then Nigel will hop up into my lap with most of his body upright against my chest. He’ll turn his face up to mine and fix my gaze with his dark brown eyes and I can imagine he’s thinking, “Don’t be sad, Donna Jean.”

In those moments I turn my thoughts to Bill and silently thank him for urging me to share my single life with a dog.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Meditation: Concern about My Immune System Led the Way

During my years of grief and illness, I was plagued by anxiety. Every small concern made me anxious. Even when my cognitive process could readily dismiss the fear scenario, the feelings persisted. The marvelous doctor of infectious diseases who cared for me during my battle with MAI told me that the mycobacterium that causes the disease is found everywhere in soil and water, but usually falls victim to our immune systems. She went on to say that when she finds the disease in some one with my demographic, she typically also discovers a compromised lung and a depressed immune system. In my case, the lung compromise was from an earlier bout of aspiration pneumonia, and the doctor believed my immune system was depressed from years of broken sleep (as I cared for my husband Bill), followed by the stress of grief.

In my worst period of sickness and drug side effects, the phone rang one morning and the cheery voice of my friend Lynn babbled on excitedly about the Jon-Kabat Zinn Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, which she had just completed.  She concluded her words of praise by saying, “It’s also supposed to improve your immune system.” That got my attention and I accepted her offer to visit me and explain more about MBSR and to share a meditation time with me.

Back in the turbulent sixties when young people were trying everything, I was particularly disturbed by the various cults that made the news. Transcendental Meditation and Hare Krishna, among others, seemed to be based on mind control and were very scary to me. In my fragile state as I waited for Lynn to arrive, those memories fueled my anxiety about Jon Kabat-Zinn and his stress reduction program.

I was raised in a religion-centric home by a mother who examined everything through a spiritual microscope. I was greatly enriched by the exposure she gave me to that dimension of life, but I also arrived at adulthood with many unsettled questions about faith and doctrine. Spending my freshman year in a Catholic college, where I was assigned a room on the top floor of the convent, exacerbated the confusion I felt. As a sophomore I transferred to a Methodist College, where I felt more at home. There I took some philosophy courses, majored in psychology and reveled in late night dorm discussions of belief and altruism. Heady times, those college years!

In Quaker Meetings I had learned how to use the silence to still my mind and become centered in the worship. During my many years of association with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), I was able to sort out the issues left from my childhood and come to a place of comfort in regard to faith and practice. In my forties I started to go to yoga classes, which often began with a short period of silent meditation. For me it was like an extension of the Quaker silence.

But thirty years later, in the dark days of solitude, sickness and uncertainty about my future, I was truly afraid to commit to any spooky kind of cult-oriented activity and worried that the Kabat-Zinn program might compromise my faith. So I ordered his book, Full-Catastrophe Living. One thing I have learned about myself is that my fears or anxieties are most active in the absence of factual information. If I take the time to learn more about something I fear, the negative feelings usually dissipate. I also ordered The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hahn, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist, who now lives and works in France. I met him once when he visited the AFSC office, where I was working and had been deeply impressed by his presence. Reading those two books allayed my concerns and allowed me to see that there would be no conflict between daily meditation and my own faith.

Lynn visited me several times, sharing her own experiences, and as a result I signed up for the eight-week MBSR class that was offered in Asheville. The discipline of meditation at the heart of the program is based on using your own breath as your focus. The program also uses yoga, relaxation, and group discussions on topics related to dealing with stress, illness and adversity. It gave me the tools I needed to make a full recovery and beyond. An added bonus is that my spiritual understandings have broadened and deepened as my curiosity led me to read or listen to CD’s about many other traditions of meditation, including centering prayer. I have come to a fuller acceptance of the importance of living life mindfully in the present moment. I have also read about the scientific examination of blood pressure, breathing, heart rate and brain activity, which shows the cumulative effect on the body from a daily meditation.

Each day as I settle into my own meditation, I begin by naming those people in my life who are especially important to me as well as friends who are sick or in distress. In Quaker parlance, I hold them in the light and then I turn my focus to my breathing. I have a particular chair that helps me sit with a straight back, and there is enough room for my dog Nigel to snuggle in beside me. He neither moves nor twitches until he the timer chimes after thirty minutes.

When I ponder who I am now and who I was in those days of anguish and anxiety, I almost can’t believe the change. I do still worry about things; I do get knocked off my center; I am in need of a quiet life uncluttered both in my house and in my mind. However, now I have a way to get centered again and deal with life’s vicissitudes.

As for my immune system, my healthcare providers tell me that it is now fairly robust. I haven’t been sick since I recovered from MAI—that is, no colds, flu, respiratory or stomach infections. Although I have to deal with low energy, creaky joints and other aspects of aging, most of the time I have a sense of well-being, especially just after Nigel and I finish our morning meditation.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Doubting My Limits: Exercise, Nutrition and Midday Naps

In the early winter of 2008 my exceedingly slow, but steady journey back to health after a two-year battle with MAI stalled. (Those initials stand for micobacterium avium intercellulare, which is an atypical form of TB.) Just a few weeks before I was to leave for two months on Tybee Island, my moderate heart, lung and knee problems all took a turn for the worse. I was soon in a swirl of specialists, new medicines, side effects and a general sense of malaise and sadness. I was struggling with unexpected bouts of vertigo and weakness, often feeling faint. I had no stamina and no sense of vitality. I couldn’t get through the day without a two-hour nap and a very early bedtime. I missed the first ten days of my winter respite, but with family help I went ahead and made the trip. The several weeks I spent there alone were daunting.

The work on my book Decrescendo seemed to take up any energy left over from preparing meals, resting and taking a daily walk. I knew that I could not go on trying to live what for me was a normal life in that condition, even though all the things medically wrong with me were under control. If I could not regain my strength, I would have to revise my expectations. Some months earlier knowing how discouraged I was, my son Robin had passed on an issue of The New Yorker with a fascinating article on aging by Atul Gawande. He touted the importance of the perspective of geriatricians for older patients. I am devoted to my primary care doctor, but I thought perhaps it might be worthwhile to have a consultation with someone who specialized in geriatrics and get a global look at my lack of well-being. It turned out that my doctor agreed, feeling it might be helpful to her as she managed my care. She recommended a physician that I knew well and made the referral.

It was a different kind of examination starting with a very long intake interview covering everything that was a current concern, together with a substantial history and a discussion of my diet. This was followed by comprehensive muscle strength tests and observation of my walking, turning and balance. She ordered some additional tests, and told me she wanted to see the test results and give my situation some thought. She would see me again in a month. Then she gave me some dietary suggestions and expressed concern about the weakness in my right arm and hand. As she handed me printed instructions for a series of exercises, she smiled and said, “If you don’t increase the strength in your legs, you are going to wind up in one of those scooter chairs.”

The cardiologist, pulmonologist and my primary care physician had all been emphatic that walking was the most important exercise I could do. Despite the ongoing problems with my knee, I was walking at least a mile a day. In addition I was doing a set of exercises for flexibility that I had gotten from one of Celo’s yoga teachers. To these I added strength training. In order to make it part of my daily routine, I decided to do all the indoor exercises at 6:00 PM when the PBS News Hour comes on. That was the time that I always played fetch with my dog Nigel. I thought I’d change the play time, but he was not amenable. As soon as I stretched out on a mat on the floor he brought his little rubber tire for me to throw. So I decided Nigel would provide my warm-up, so every day at six, I begin with ten or fifteen minutes of throwing toys or playing tug.

I expected that the more I did, the more energy I would have, but that was not the case. Instead I began to feel that I was hostage to the daily routines of walking, exercise, naps and preparing nourishing meals. This necessary self-care encompassed both the bane and the joy of my existence. I loved the walks and the time with Nigel, found the therapeutic movement of my body very pleasant and was happy to have a better diet, but I felt exhausted all the time. I dreaded to see the hands of the clock moving toward 6:00 each afternoon. I had to give myself a pep talk to get started.

When I build a virtual misery heap out of dark emotions and perceived problems, I often dump it all on my daughter Melissa during her weekly call. One Sunday I was pouring out all my doubts about managing my recovery program, finishing my book, getting enough rest and whether I was even capable of getting any stronger. When I stopped for a breath, she told me she understood why I was discouraged and then said, “But if you need to doubt something then doubt your limits.”  She went on to say that it’s easy to question your abilities and potential and accept your limits, but that it should be the other way around. I immediately recognized that after an eight-year period of perpetual stress: caring for Bill, mourning his death, followed by my own illness and aging, I did indeed doubt my ability to restore my endurance and sparkle. I definitely needed an attitude adjustment.

A year later in 2009, I was thrilled when the doctor redid the strength testing and declared that I had improved noticeably. Since then I have continued my physical therapy program even as there have been new manifestations of aging. My knee replacement surgery last June was a temporary setback but a net gain. I am now walking a mile and a half a day with no pain. It also added additional exercises to the daily routine. In that first consultation when I looked at myself as a geriatric patient, I told the consulting doctor that if it was not likely that I would ever get better than I was then, I would have to make some major changes in my life. Now three years later, as I reviewed my journal entries from that time I was astounded to realize how much better I feel now.

I continue to doubt my limits and to believe that I can at the very least maintain the new vitality I feel—at least for part of the day—and perhaps increase it. As I have a little more stamina, I can cook more interesting meals and that in turn makes me feel stronger. As I turn eighty I know that I am actually healthier than I was at 70, even though I can’t climb on that virtual treadmill and keep going all day. In spite of scarred lungs, uneven heart rhythms and an uncertain digestion, I haven’t had a sick day for several years and generally feel well, as long as I take a midday nap. On the upside, I am reading, writing and spending time in contemplation more hours a day than I have done in years. Long before Bill died, Margot, my acupuncturist, urged me to start imagining the life I might have after his death. It was painful, but I did try. Little by little I am finally claiming that life.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Amazon River Fantasy: Keeping the Dream, Changing the Venue

Adventure, Exploration, Discovery: these words have been part of my self-image since I was old enough to have my own library card. I constantly chose books, both fiction and non-fiction, that took me on adventures—especially to rugged places. I still read them. I just finished Ann Patchett’s new page-turner State of  Wonder, set in the Amazon basin and full of native tribes and jungle life. It reminded me that for some thirty years of my life I nurtured the intention, or perhaps the fantasy, of a trip down the Amazon in a small launch.

The closest I ever got was when in 1975 my daughter Melissa and I took a trip overland from Guatemala through Belize to the Yucatan peninsula ending in Merida. We had a very tight budget. It was her senior year at Salem Academy, and she had a January Plan which allowed for an independent study. She chose to focus on the Mayan civilization as revealed through its major ruins. We flew into the Peten from Guatemala City planning to spend the first night in Flores, a small tropical town located in the middle of Lago Peten Itza. A rickety bus from the airport left us at the dock where we found an old man with a small weatherworn lancha. I negotiated a price and he ferried us to our pension, an inauspicious building, the siding moisture-aged to a rough gray, with a window shutter hanging loose on one hinge.

It was constantly hot and buggy during our trip. We climbed around many ruins and had good exposure to jungles, and rain forests, The wildlife at Tikal included agoutis, monkeys, parrots and toucans. We stayed at a series of minimalist pensiones, ate lots of rice and beans, and longed for a hot shower. Melissa was thrilled when we learned that there was a Lebanese community in Merida and we would be able to get yogurt, falafel and other Mideast food. When we learned that a bus trip through the undeveloped parts of Belize would take us twenty-four hours, we spent $12 each to fly to the Mexican border on a tiny plane that could take four passengers. We didn’t know there was actually no airport at our destination, no control tower or radio, and no taxis, or that we would be deposited with our luggage on a landing strip. Fortunately another passenger was met by a car and driver and he offered us a ride across the border. The next day we we toured Tulum, and emboldened by the experience at the air strip, we hitchhiked to the next town several hours to the north, rather than wait six hours in the sun for the bus. Chichen Itza, Uxmal and smaller sites near Merida were daunting but magnificent. It was a splendid adventure for us both.

I was 38 with three children still at home when I entered the workforce. I remember saying to my husband Bill, “I climb on to life’s treadmill at 6:30 AM and walk or run all day until I climb off at 10:00 PM and go to bed.” The truth is that I liked the fact that I could keep going all day and seemed to have boundless energy, as long as I got a good night’s sleep.

In 1998 I finished my last job, and I haven’t worked for remuneration since. But with volunteer work and caregiving for Bill. I still spent many hours on that activity treadmill, feeling good about how much I could still accomplish in a day. However, the last three and a half years of Bill’s life marked the beginning of my own Decrescendo. My obligations and desires steadily exceeded my physical resources. After he died in 2003, a lung infection that had been silently at work in my body for a number of years was made manifest. I was sick and mostly housebound for two years. Although since 2006 I have made slow, but steady progress in health and strength, I have bumped up against both the effects of the illness and the natural aging process that can affect eyesight,, joints, digestion, balance and other functions, each one bringing its own challenge. I have realized that to feel well, I have to manage well so that I can meet the physical challenges and have some energy left over for fun.

Bill and I visited many parts of the world mostly "traveling fourth class" (to quote him). I never made it to the Amazon, but I’ve had enough rugged experiences that my longing for that kind of adventure has been appeased. Along the way I learned that it is far easier to adjust your expectations of others than to change your expectations of yourself. Accomplishing that has been a large part of my journey since I began my life as a single woman living alone.

My goal now is to live expansively with contracting physical resources, to cultivate—as my friend Janey stated it—a spacious mind. This will be the adventure of my later years. I’m going to float down the river of my experience to explore where I have been and discover what is still possible.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Old Age: Is There an App for That?

When I get up in the morning, I have a series of routines. I turn up the heat if it’s cold, turn on NPR, visit the bathroom, drink a glass of water, put a coat or bathrobe on over my nightgown and take my dog Nigel for a walk. Sometimes I trudge my way through it, especially if it’s cold; sometimes I’m not really present on the walk because my mind is somewhere else. Perhaps it’s as mundane as reviewing what I have to do that day and other times I’m reveling in memories. Today was different. As I turned on to Grindstaff Road I felt that I was enveloped by the morning. The light was made gentle by a slight overcast as the surprisingly warm air caressed my face. There was a quiet breeze, but otherwise no sound except for the occasional scrabble of a small animal in the dry brown leaves. Not at all a typical November day, and my heart said, “Be present in this moment, we’ll not have many more like it until spring.”

A half a mile later I turned back into my driveway, feeling nurtured by the walk. Once in the house, I clicked back into routine: fixing Nigel’s breakfast, making the bed, putting the kettle on for tea, and setting out the bowl for the leftover gluten-free cereal that was in a pan ready to reheat once the tea was brewing. Then I went out on the deck to open the Nigel’s door, knowing he would soon want to go out again. As I stepped once more into that delicious air, I was suddenly flooded with happiness. It felt like an emotional fizzy drink with bubbles overflowing on the sides of the glass. I bent over to pull up the pet door, then straightened and filled my lungs with both fresh air and bubbles of joy. I came in and hunted up the words of Matthieu Ricard, a biologist and Tibetan monk whom I had referenced in my blog post on November 1. When asked to speak about happiness, he responded that it was an inner sense of flourishing, fulfillment and appreciation, not dependent on external circumstances. That was exactly what had it felt like on the deck. Then I noticed that under my Ricard notes I had written. “Does aging set you up for self-absorption?” Now some weeks later I wondered what that had to do with happiness.

I first set up this blog to help promote my book Decrescendo: A Memoir of Love and Caregiving. After several months of writing posts that were directly tied to the book in some way, I suddenly found I had nothing more to say. Bill’s nephew had died much too young and I needed to write about that. The post on December 7, 2010 was entitled Sometimes Words Fail. Since then I have been writing about my life: what I am thinking about, memories of childhood, and things that amuse or challenge me. I have come to think of it as a blog about my own Decrescendo years.

As I approach my eightieth birthday I find myself thinking about my life as an old person living happily with Nigel for company within a community of friends and family. It could end tomorrow or go on for twenty more years. I have lived a life directed toward others. I have been a caregiver not just to my husband Bill, but also to my parents, sometimes my siblings, my own children and beyond family to people in need in whatever community I was living. It was a natural outgrowth of my own temperament, my faith and the way I was raised. “If you are not part of the answer,” my mother often said, “then you are part of the problem.”

A little voice in my soul answers that statement so ingrained in my psyche, “This is your time now. You are the caregiver of yourself.” I have said to my children that I make my choices now based on my commitment to keep my self as healthy and strong as possible and to use my financial resources judicially so they will last as long as I do. That doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten about my neighbor, whom I am charged to love as I love myself. Rather it reflects a narrowing of the scope, not of the intention.

So that brings me back to my question about self-absorption. That is one among many questions I think about as I have set for myself the task of re-imagining my life in the context of aging, of diminishments,  and of fading from loud to soft while I try to keep the music playing.

For the next little while, I plan to risk the charge of self-absorption and share on this blog my thoughts, explorations and perhaps conclusions about getting old and living well by making different choices, while, I hope, not taking myself too seriously. I figure most of my readers will be old one day and everyone has older people in their lives, so it’s probably topical.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Going Against my Grain: A Paste Paper Party

My first effort might make some nice gift tags.

Paste paper is made by the application of colored paste (flour, glycerin and acrylic paint) to moist paper, followed by the creation of designs in the paste while it’s still wet. Once it dries out, the paper is ironed to smooth out wrinkles and make it ready for use.

There were ten of us, ranging in age from 42 to 80. We had worn old clothes as directed and were gathered in Penland School’s outreach classroom, a space usually filled with the chatter of fourth graders learning to make books and paste paper for covers and inside decoration. We were there to celebrate several benchmark birthdays in the group by learning a new skill and having fun together.

Our hostess Susan, now retired from a career as an administrator and fundraiser for nonprofits, supports a large and diverse list of local organizations mostly as a volunteer and sometimes as a paid consultant. She also turns up with her checkbook at fundraising events. At the local Montessori School Benefit Auction, she had purchased this Paste Paper Party. Three artists had offered  this four-hour event to the highest bidder. They were going to demonstrate the process and then assist us as we made paper to use in any way we choose. They also provided wine, tea, sparkling water, hors d’oeuvres, sweets and music to power our bodies and inspire our creativity.

The little back-story here is that Susan, Joyce (another one of the ten guests) and I have been working, playing and sometimes commiserating together for about 35 years; all three of us worked for various nonprofit organizations. Our birthdays are within a three-week span and we usually celebrate together if possible. This January I will be 80 and they will be marking younger birthdays divisible by five.

Susan started off this unusual party by announcing that all of our birthdays were significant and revealed everyone’s age before we toasted each other. She also toasted the 35th anniversary of the Toe River Arts Council. (Susan had been the director during its first 14 years.) As I looked around the room I saw artists who donate their work to benefit auctions and also serve on the boards of community organizations and turn up for their workdays. Other friends in the room volunteer for Habitat, Hospice, the hospital, schools, and animal shelters,. We could well have included a toast to nonprofits in general.

The ten of us paid close attention as two of the artists demonstrated this very messy technique that produces such beautiful results. Spread out on another table was colored paper of many hues and intensities. Our instructions were to choose our paper, moisten it, lay it on the table, smooth it with a sponge, add plops of colored paint and spread it with a brush or our hands. Then we could make designs with marking devices or our fingers. The presenters would carry finished work to another room to dry. We were urged to have fun, be creative, and make as much paste paper as possible. One of them told us to be like kids making mud pies.

This was the moment I dreaded because I had no design ideas. In addition, I have a congenital aversion to doing messy things, especially with my hands. I had been struggling a bit with the whole concept in the days leading up to the party. I am not artistic or creative in visual arts. I am a writer and have communicated ideas and information, and made pictures with words all my life. I also knit and sew, using patterns. I never made mud pies as a child. In fact, my mother was always after us to clean up. If a doorknob felt sticky she treated it like a calamity and checked my hands to see if I was the culprit.

When, as an adult, I took the left brain/right brain test, I was about 60/40 with the right side getting short shrift. On the other hand as I age I have tried to challenge the rigid parts of my psyche by being open to new ideas and experiences. I also exercise my body and brain in order to remain flexible and agile as long as possible. Going against my grain often has productive results. I get too weighed down by world events and know that it is a good thing to lighten up! I thought perhaps there was something primal in messing around in colored paste that I’ve been missing all these years. Hence, I went to the party with an open mind in spite of my doubts about producing anything usable.

As it turned out, I didn’t do anything messy and managed to keep my hands clean by quickly dipping them in the buckets of fresh hot water delivered to the tables at regular intervals. While others were making amazing abstract paintings by manipulating gooey messes with their hands and other devices, I stuck with the rollers that made strips of design. Then I used a small brush and contrasting colors to decorate them. It required so much concentration that it felt like a meditation. I was excited by the array of paper colors and paint choices: intense primary colors plus black, white and gray. I produced four paste papers that I will give them to my daughter-in-law Tammy. She has the soul of an artist and makes gorgeous pictures out of a platter of crudités or the baskets of produce she carries in from the garden. She’ll know what to do with them.

I was happy to be there with the other women— a few good friends and others I know well but seldom see. At the end I was amazed at what the others produced and satisfied with my own results. Yesterday I finished knitting a scarf with an attractive diagonal pattern. As I worked I enjoyed the feel of the soft wool moving through my hands and at the same time I relived the expansive feeling of being with those fine women who brought beauty out of a mess. But then, isn’t that what women have always done?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

When Best-Laid Weekend Plans Went Astray

For months I’ve been looking forward to a visit from my niece Adrienne this past weekend, scheduled to coincide with the Andrew Glasgow Writers Residency at Penland School. This year’s resident is Barry Lopez, who happens to be a close friend of Adrienne and her husband Joel. The main event planned for the weekend was a Sunday brunch at my house for the writer and his wife Debra Gwartney, who is also an author. My son Robin, grandson Miles and their spouses Tammy and Polly were coming as well. But Adrienne’s trip was aborted when a strong October winter storm made the driving unsafe; she turned back after a scary hour on the road. Earlier in the week, I had gone to Penland to hear Barry speak about his work, both his approach to writing and his commitment to the physical landscape and human culture. I was fully engaged and often moved by what he had to say, and the word integrity filled my mind.  It's no surprise that I was excited at the prospect of conversation with him over the weekend. But it was not to be.

There was another event on my calendar last Saturday, a memorial service at Celo Friends Meeting for Tom Clark, a friend and neighbor in my mountain community who died recently. I learned of the sudden storm-driven change of plans just before I left home for the gathering. I carried my disappointment into the silence of the Meeting House and spent a few minutes being grateful that Adrienne was safe at home by her own fireside with a free weekend ahead of her. I reminded myself that there always seems to be a gift when circumstances shift. Then as Tom’s friends and relatives started to speak, I turned my attention to the present moment.

From many points of view there emerged a consistent picture of a man who was known for a deep commitment to service, simplicity, peace and social justice. His profound commitment to the environment was expressed through his practice of “reduce, reuse, recycle”, and that gave rise to amusing memories. People laughed and smiled as extreme, but endearing examples of reusing or recycling were shared. But there were also moving stories of the way he directly served his friends and communities throughout his life, often just turning up when he heard that someone was in need. Whether he was translating for Spanish-speaking Latino defendants in court, or witnessing and working for the end to wars, his words and actions conformed to his stated beliefs. This is the essence of integrity, and many of his friends used that word as they spoke about him.

I came home to my sparkling clean, uncluttered house with a refrigerator full of plentiful ingredients for the proposed brunch and other meals. It turned out that Barry and Debra both had things they needed to do and felt that since Adrienne was not coming, they should stay put on Sunday. The gift for them in the disappointing cancellation of festivities was time to catch up before another intense week of the residency. Robin decided we should shift the brunch venue to his house and enjoy the planned meal with Tammy, Miles, Polly and a friend of theirs. The gift for me was the leisurely meal, for which I had no responsibility, and the visit with three generations. The conversation ranged from silly and witty bantering to serious and value-laden discussions in which the word integrity continued to come into my mind. You might say all of the intended participants had reused or recycled the weekend.

Sunday morning I had gotten up before dawn to take my dog Nigel for a short cold walk by flashlight and came back to the warm house just in time to hear the radio show On Being. The guest was Matthieu Ricard, a biologist and Tibetan monk, who has been working with the Dalai Lama on the exploration of what the scientific study of the neuroplasticity of the brain is revealing about the tangible effects of meditation. Krista Tippett, the show’s host, asked the monk to talk about happiness. He responded that it was an inner sense of flourishing, fulfillment and appreciation, not dependent on external circumstances. The conversation was dense and the monk had a heavy accent, so later I downloaded the podcast and listened again. He made several references to spending twenty minutes a day cultivating compassion and altruism and how that would affect your brain, allowing you to better serve others. It was a coda to Barry’s presentation at Penland and the celebration of Tom’s life on Saturday, and perhaps a prelude to further contemplation since I now have many pages of notes in my journal to consider.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Aesop, a Chipmunk and Thinking about Winter

"Why not come and sing with me, instead of toiling and moiling in that way?" said the Grasshopper to the Ant in Aesop’s Fable.
"I am helping to lay up food for the winter," said the Ant, "and recommend you to do the same."

About a month ago, the pink impatiens—that had bloomed profusely in a three-foot high flower box outside my front door—began to topple over. Curious, I picked one up and saw that all the roots had been cleanly bitten off. I was more amused than bothered because this time every year I clean out the less robust blooms and replace them with ornamental kale and cabbages surrounded by pansies. I was quite sure the culprit was a chipmunk, and a few days later in the warmth of a late afternoon I came out of the door just in time to see a little furry tail disappear over the side of the box. “There has to be a tunnel here somewhere”, I thought as I poked around, but I didn’t find it.

I cashed in my Bloomin’ Bucks coupons at Reems Creek Nursery buying purple kale. variegated green and cream cabbages, and pansies sporting purple and white faces. On the next sunny morning, I pulled up the rest of the nibbled-on impatiens and planted my hearty selections. With almost every trowel-full of dark loamy soil, I found an acorn or two. My furry flowerbox squatter had been laying up food for winter, no doubt sustained in his work by snacking on little roots.

“What do I lay up for the winter?” I wondered. “Do I have anything in common with Aesop’s ant or my neighbor, the chipmunk?”

I am one of those who love the change of seasons. During the years I lived in Guatemala with only the rainy season and eternal springtime the rest of the year, I really missed the seasonal cycles when each change brings its challenges and its joys. But as I have aged and accumulated some physical problems, I have found the winters daunting. So the first preparation I make is the regular monthly transfer of funds from my social security and pensions to a money market account to lay up treasure for my annual winter respite on Tybee Island (budgeted in the health maintenance column). Although daytime highs on the Georgia coast can be in the 40’s in January, I can get out every day and walk where there are no up and down grades to stress my knees and heart, and, at sea level, no altitude to worry my lungs. February may still have cold nights. but the days are pleasant.

Here at home late fall and early winter can bring very cold temperatures and some snow storms to our valley, and I often come home from Tybee to the late winter ice storms, so I don’t bypass winter weather entirely. I can’t go out to walk until the temperatures are above freezing, and that leaves me with many more hours indoors. So I lay up books to read that I can’t seem to get to when the weather favors outdoor activity, and projects to keep my hands busy if I listen to an audio book on my iPod. This year, I laid up the biography of Gertrude Bell, by Georgina Howell, which I’ve had in my pile for three years. I started it during my recuperation from knee surgery and got far enough to know it is on my must-read list for winter, either at home or on Tybee. If I get through learning about the woman who has been called the female Lawrence of Arabia, then I’ll turn my attention to Antonia Fraser’s Royal Charles: Charles II and the Restoration. In case I want something a little lighter, I have laid up a mystery by Alan Bradley that features an 11-year old detective, named Flavia de Luce.

As for projects, I have a sweater that got difficult about two years ago, before my cataract surgeries. It has a pattern of navy blue, and forest green and I simply couldn’t see it well enough to rip back to the mistake I discovered, and fix it. Two lens implants later, I have a new lease on knitting, but instead of finishing the old project, I have been having fun making a sweater with mitered squares. I have laid up the green and blue sweater for this winter with a promise to myself that it will be the only project I work on until it is finished! I also have a half-completed dress in the project pile.

As for the necessities of life, once the Weather Channel begins to warn of impending snow storms and possible power outages, I will refresh my stash of gallon jugs of water, fill my pantry shelves with canned goods, and the freezer with entrees and bread. I am up-to-date with flashlights, batteries, candles, matches and oil for the lamp. Fortunately my floor furnace is not electric-dependent. I have a stability ball, a yoga mat, Feldenkrais and yoga CD’s, hand weights and other exercise paraphernalia to keep me busy when it is too cold to walk.

I have also laid up the happy anticipation I always feel about winter. I have this latent attraction to a hermit-sort of life which seems to wake up when the winds blow cold, the road threatens me with patches of black ice, and the weight of the down coat and winter accessories slows my step. The earth turns and we arrive at a season that encourages contemplation, rumination, journaling, meditating, and daydreaming without guilt and with few interruptions. It is a time for me to make pots of nourishing soups and eat a big bowl every day for lunch while a CD of ancient music by the Tallis scholars gets me in the mood to think about my life and other interesting subjects.

I left most of the acorns undisturbed for the chipmunk. After all, he worked hard to do his duty, to be prepared for winter and in the process reminded me to do the same.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Constitution, Competing Visions, and the People in Zuccotti Park

Currently, my mail is mostly requests for contributions to political, justice or wildlife organizations. They tempt me to open them with promises of mailing labels, greeting cards, or notepads inside, and one of them sends a nickel periodically. One day a blue envelope caught my eye with the words, “Enclosed is the Constitution”. A discreet return address on the back revealed the ACLU as the sender. It was a serendipitous moment because, the night before, two candidates for high office had urged debate watchers to read the Constitution. So I did, possibly for the first time since my eighth grade civics class. I was moved by the Preamble. “We the people of the United States, In Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

I know that capitalizing nouns was the convention of the day in 1787, but the capitals do highlight the values—Justice, Tranquility, Welfare, Blessings of Liberty—that formed our nation and our continuing efforts toward a more perfect Union. (I noted that defence was not capitalized. It is a noun, but it's not a quality, rather it is an action.)

The first amendment of the Bill of Rights (adopted in 1791) includes “the right of the people peaceably to assemble. And to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” We have been hearing many references to that in recent weeks and it was on my mind as I read the Constitution.

There is within me the feeling that I want to make some expression of solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street protestors in New York’s Zuccotti Park. Were I younger, I might be thinking of camping out with them for a few days. It has struck me that this particular action was slow to become part of the national conversation as comedians and talking heads focused on the bongo drums, sanitation, food and first aid, and not much on the motivations. On the talk shows, they seemed to be stuttering around in their effort to explain or analyze what was happening, and I heard a number of commentators and politicians make dismissive remarks. That began to change after similar (mostly) peaceful assemblies began gathering in our cities in the several states and around the globe.

As a veteran of the behind-the-scenes work of various civil rights, Anti-Vietnam War and other peace movements, I kept hoping to find the position papers that doubtless had been prepared in advance by the communication committee. But I have come to understand that this is not your mother’s kind of organizing. The nonviolent protests of the 50’s 60’s and 70’s, which sometimes included planned civil disobedience, involved long, careful preparation with training sessions for participants.  The strategy also included the intention to fill the jails. We did our organizing work with mimeographs and eventually copiers, mailings and phone banks.

The philosophy and the technology are very different for this current example of peaceful assembly for the redress of grievances. In this case they are naming the grievances, but are not offering a list of demands for redress. Neither are they intentionally committing civil disobedience or trying to fill the jails. Their organizing tools are social media, emails, talking, and texting, using cell phones, iPads and laptops.

Today there are 37,700 youtube videos as part of the wireless conversations about Occupy Wall Street. In one of these a former representative named Alan Grayson (D, FL) was part of a talk show panel with Bill Maher. He made supportive comments about the people in the park, including the statement that Wall Street had wrecked the economy and no one has been held accountable. P. J. O’Rourke, conservative satirist, immediately dubbed Grayson the spokesperson for the movement and suggested dismissively that he grab a bongo, forget about bathrooms, and head to the park. Whereupon the former representative responded that if O’Rourke was talking about the 24 million people without jobs, the 50 million without health care, the 47 million without enough to eat, and the 15 million whose mortgages were under water, then yes, he would be their spokesperson. For this impassioned outburst, he received a standing ovation from the HBO studio audience. 

In another video from a PBS interview, French Resistance Fighter Stephane Hessel (age 94) was talking about his book, Time for Outrage (Indignez-vous!).  He said that we should show our outrage when we see that the values spelled out in the UN Charter are threatened. (To which I would add the values embodied in our own Constitution.) I believe that the statistics shared by Alan Grayson do not reflect a successful current national commitment to justice, tranquility, and the promotion of welfare. However, I have trouble with the concept of outrage. It is hard to listen and try to find solutions if, at the same time, you are filled with such an intense kind of anger.

Although the people in Zuccotti Park and elsewhere around the country are demonstrating and advocating participatory democracy, they have still not set forth a position paper. One reporter, who spent time in the park interviewing participants, said on CNN,  “Their presence is their message and they are resisting party identification.” Clearly it is a populist movement, an adjective it has in common with the Tea Party. I respected the impulse of the Tea Party participants to gather (mostly) peacefully and to present their vision. I don’t agree with what they set forth, but I was grateful that because of their determination, the snowballing national debt became a part of the legislative conversation. I also believe the presence of Tea Party members in Congress helped to clarify that we are a nation divided by two opposing theories of how to chart the economic future of our Union. The only way to find common ground is through civil discourse in which each side listens to the other. Just as outrage can be a roadblock, so too is the determination to say no.

Meanwhile I am convinced that in any way I can, I need to bear witness to what I believe has been, and hope will again be, our national commitment as set forth in the Preamble to the Constitution. Will you join me?

My thanks to my friend Ellen Denker who has been helping me to understand what it’s all about by sending me links to Op-Ed pieces and youtube videos. She also found the quote attributed to Margaret Mead, although it turns out that attribution is in doubt and it is sometimes credited to different wise people.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Zen of Craft and Other Reasons to Knit

I learned to knit in Girl Scouts when I was ten. The affinity was immediate and has never dimmed. I was compulsive about my projects and took them to the movies on Saturday afternoons. My mother  warned me never to knit in public, because then no one would want to marry me. Her words didn’t slow me down. As it turned out my husband Bill was exceedingly proud of the sweaters I made him.

For the past twenty years I have been part of a group that knits together once a week.  Usually we meet at the home of the founder Nancy, unless she is away or another knitter has built a new house or remodeled an old one. The hostess will have tea, coffee and snacks, but this gathering is definitely not about refreshments; it is about knitting. There is just one rule: no gossip. Occasionally, when only a few people turn up, there is general conversation and often laughter. Subjects might include gardening, family news, bears, the nearby national forest, road construction and health care. But much of the chatter is about knitting.

Yesterday the room was full. Knitting bags ranging from nondescript to fancy sat on the floor and out came shawls, scarves, sweaters, baby blankets, and hats with colors from beige through the entire rainbow to gray angora. As I looked up from my knitting I saw heads tilted forward over the work of hands: short, medium and long haircuts, well brushed and simple. There was no group discussion, just twos and threes speaking together quietly. Often an experienced knitter would help someone fix a mistake. Lots of advice going on!

I’m working on a scarf, using yarn left over from a sweater. I knit for many reasons but it starts with the beauty and texture of wool, which I prefer over cotton or synthetics. Technology has infiltrated the yarn shops with blends, painted wool or silk, and colors that would have amazed Joseph’s coat maker. I stop occasionally and spread out my work just to feel it and study the neat rows of stitches and the cascade of color when I am using a blended yarn, as I am now.

Out of curiosity, I decided to ask the other knitters why they liked to knit. The first answer startled me. “I don’t like to knit,” said a friend sitting next to me on Nancy’s newly reupholstered white couch. “I mostly finish or fix other people’s projects or make things to order and it is the money that motivates me.” I’ve seen some of her work and it is beautiful. Briefly I thought about asking her to finish a problematic project of mine. As she turned to talk with another woman who did want to hire her, I got up to make myself a cup of tea while I considered that unexpected reply.

Nancy was bustling about so I asked her why she liked to knit. “Because it is so relaxing,” she said. Then she paused for moment before starting to describe the quality of the experience with whatever she was knitting.

I interjected, “Well, I think it’s meditative.”

She immediately agreed and said she wanted to lend me a book called, The Knitting Sutra and headed to her bookcase.  Nancy does the most perfect knitting I have ever seen. She makes gifts for her family and many of her friends in addition to sweaters for her own use. She also makes imaginative hats and scarves to be sold to support Habitat, as do many others in the group.

I quizzed every one there and found a diversity of answers. Two of the women had much the same reason: knitting is something for their hands to do in the evening while they chat with their spouses and eventually they’ll have a finished product. Along the same lines, another knitter said she has to attend lots of meetings, and knitting helps her focus. She can concentrate better on the discussions if she has something to do. Two women said the best part of knitting was buying the yarn—the excitement of the choices available, and the flow of ideas for projects as they studied colors and textures. “I like making things and I like fiber,” one added. “I do lots of things, not just knitting.”  I knew that because just a few weeks ago she taught most of the knitters to make bead bracelets, and I have seen lovely things she’s made from fabric.

Although most of the women said they found knitting to be relaxing, one said that it made her tense. She always needs someone to show her what to do because she has difficulty using the patterns. The shawl she was working on was gorgeous and her work looked perfect to me. At Nancy’s house, there is always someone ready to help and everyone is encouraging. I walked over to ask my question of one of my neighbors seated in a large, handsome chair that is high enough to make it easy for her to get up after sitting for a couple of hours. She looked up with a broad smile as she talked about liking the things she makes, and choosing colors she loves. She’s ready to try any new knitting idea that comes along.

I have other interests in common with the last person I asked and she answered me with candor.  Her pleasure comes from being with the group each week, and wanting to be a part of that community experience. She didn’t want to come with no project and say, “I don’t really knit much. I just want to be here with the group.”  She already knew how to knit, but her main motivation is to have something to work on so she can be comfortable as part of the gathering. I think all the knitters appreciate the time together, and once there, we are sometimes inspired to try something new or more complicated, knowing someone will help us out.

I brought The Knitting Sutra home and began to read it, picking chapters that got to the meat of what the author had to say. After noting that the purpose of meditation is to quiet the mind, she concludes that “in the quiet, repetitive, hypnotic rthythms of creating craft,” we allow our inner being to emerge. In conclusion she compares “the very rhythms of the knitting needles” to drums beats or chants. I can relate to that.

The Knitting Sutra by Susan Gordon Lydon, Harper/San Francisco, 1997 (available on Amazon)

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

One-Year Anniversary and The Evolution of My Blog

One year ago today I launched the Decrescendo Memoir Blog and have now written 52 essays and average about 60 visitors a week. The conventional wisdom—found in books about self-publishing and heard from people experienced in Internet marketing—is that authors should have websites. That seemed too complicated for me, and my son Robin convinced me that I could accomplish the same goals with Blogspot.com. He set it up, designed it, and taught me what I needed to know to use it.

For the first two months, I wrote about writing, self-publishing, marketing, editing and launching my book. Then came a moment when a death in my family moved me to write an essay on the times when words fail. Gradually, I moved away from weekly posts that dealt with Decrescendo in some form and began to write about my life today, living alone for the first time ever. (Typical of my generation, I lived at home until I went to live in a dormitory at college, then back home briefly until I was married six months after graduation.) From time to time during the year, I explored a topic related to aging or to health, but mainly I shared with you what I was experiencing or thinking about, and sometimes that thought process has lead me to a story or two.

The number of people reading my posts steadily increased over the year, and the comments were encouraging, whether they came through the blog, Facebook, Email or running into people at the grocery store. Taken together I felt validated in allowing the blog to evolve. I do mention the book when it is appropriate and, as promised in my little description, I tell more stories about my childhood, marriage, travels and my life today.

I am often asked how I get the ideas, how long it takes, and what the process is. Since I declared that this anniversary is worth celebrating, I am answering those questions plus a few not asked. Since Bill’s death, my own two-year illness, and the long recovery period, I have been guided by the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program developed by Jon Cabot-Zinn in connection with Dean Ornish. Lucky for me, it was offered at the Women’s Center at Mission Hospital in Asheville and consisted of eight weekly two-hour classes plus one full day. The experience led me to a deeper exploration about mindfulness or awareness (as it is often called).

 I had first given thought to mindfulness when I was thirty-five and read a Pendle Hill pamphlet by Douglas Steere, which was called On Being Present where You Are. It captured my imagination and I often referred to it in conversations. However the wisdom faded somewhat from my awareness as my life was taken over by going to graduate school, raising children, moving to North Carolina, seeing those children off to college, entering the work force, then becoming the major wage-earner, and later a caregiver. In our world of constant connectivity and multi-tasking, true mindfulness is a difficult discipline, even when you are no longer in the workforce. But the events of my post-retirement life have forced me to understand the centrality of being present where you are as you age.

My ideas for my Tuesday post come largely from my effort to practice mindfulness, coupled with my fascination with synchronicity and connections between people or ideas. Usually by Sunday I have a a theme in mind which allows me to weave together disparate ideas or anecdotes. If that theme suggests a picture, I enlist Robin’s help. When I start writing, I do a non-stop draft just getting it all down. Typically I work on the computer, but if It isn’t coming together well, I might write by hand until it does. Then I let the draft sit and marinate for  a day or sometimes just a few hours. When I’m ready, I begin to edit, rewrite, fact-check, spell-check and read it aloud. Once it feels finished, it takes me about half an hour to do the posting. This will involve importing the text, the picture if there is one, and appropriate links. I then reread it in the formatted version where I often find a stray word or a typo. If I miss any errors, I’ll most likely hear about from one of my children and I’ll go back in and fix it.

The surprise for me has been how much I enjoy writing this weekly post for my friends out there, both those I know and those I perhaps will never meet. It is a creative outlet, which is so important at any age. Robin commented to me that it brings structure to my life, given that I committed myself to a weekly schedule. It also gives purpose to my daydreaming and an antidote to feeling alone, an inevitable aspect of losing your life partner.

A few people have asked if there could be an email reminder in addition to the banner on Facebook. Blogspot recently added an email feature that sends the full post to your computer. You can sign up for it here on the blog. So now you can meet me anytime after 6:00 PM Tuesday at my computer place or yours. If you want to be in touch, you can leave a comment at the bottom of the post, send an email, a like message from Facebook, or look for me at the grocery store. But even if we are not interactive, we’ll still be connected, and I’ll know that you know what I’m thinking about.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Alicia, Sue and the Comfort of Old Friends

Alicia deep into color at Penland.
Before I left home to begin married life, my mother gave me lots of last minute advice, including this: “Hold on to your friends. There will come a day when you’ll be grateful for the people who knew you when…

By the time I met Alicia in 1986, I was wearing only sensible shoes with white anklets for the warm weather, and black, brown or navy knee socks for the rest of the year. I’d always dressed carefully, choosing matching or harmonizing sweaters and jewelry but the color palette of my wardrobe was conservative. She changed all that, and had a profound influence on my life in other ways.

I was writing and producing catalogs on contract for Penland School of Crafts. Desktop Publishing had just been introduced and Penland’s director Verne Stanford was eager to give it a try. He knew Alicia’s work and wanted her to design the publications and produce them in-house. A graphic designer and an artist, she had been working in magazine publishing in New York. We formed a bond almost from the first handshake, and even though she is in the age bracket of my children, we have been close friends ever since.

After a few trips to North Carolina, she moved to Penland, eventually becoming a resident artist. We worked together for seven years, several of them after she moved to Petaluma, CA. Twice I did as much as I could on the summer catalog and then flew out there a for a week so we could put it all together. During one of our California marathons, she declared we needed a break and took me to a spa in wine country where she introduced me to a mud bath. Whether we were working, going shopping or cooking a meal, everything we did was fun. To do my part of the work, I was forced to keep pace with rapidly evolving computer technology. Alicia virtually inhaled all the innovations, but for me it was a struggle. She boosted my confidence, kept me laughing and eventually I learned each new thing. In her work she is a perfectionist, and over the years as I learned to do more copy formatting, I also absorbed her attention to detail. In spite of her exuberant personality, she is a private person, and when she suffers, it has the same kind of intensity as her joy. A few times she revealed something painful to me, and I felt like she had given me a gift. I was also grateful to be there along with my husband Bill to share her happiness when she married her Billy.

Alicia is a colorist whose work with textiles and rugs reflects her exuberant zest for color. I came to believe that she got up every morning and designed herself. She always has a perky haircut to which she may have applied some color theory, and her clothes are a burst of vibrant textural hues that seem to increase the energy level in the room. Without really commenting on my dowdiness, she made pronouncements or suggestions that made me, for example, start thinking about socks as a fashion statement. Now I have a large drawer full of different colored knee socks, some with bold designs, and both white and pastel anklets for summer. I expanded the color range of my sensible shoes and bought a purple raincoat. As I loosened up about wardrobe, worked intensely with this graphic perfectionist and enjoyed endless conversations about everything, I not only expanded my skills, I also lightened up.

Last week Alicia was part of an artist’s retreat at Penland and I was able to spend four hours with her one afternoon. We had not seen each other for ten years although we kept in touch by email and phone. During that decade, Bill died and more recently Alicia’s mother and soon after that, her brother. I wrote and published my book. She started a business designing and overseeing the production of carpets. But as we sat at a brightly painted table in Penland’s coffee house, we didn’t feel the need to catch up. Alicia is the personification of what it means to be present in the moment. I asked about Billy, her sisters and some mutual friends. Then we just talked as we always have about the things that are currently occupying or captivating either of us.

Off and on all summer I have been in touch with my college friend Sue. We both married DePauw alums soon after we graduated and she was my Matron of Honor. She has lived in Iowa ever since, while Bill and I moved many times before establishing our permanent home in Celo. Sue and I exchanged Christmas letters, had a few phone conversations and saw each other a half dozen times over the past 58 years. Strangely, there have been many parallels in our lives, including her husband Ward’s medical history, which altered the second half of their marriage, as Bill’s illness changed ours. Luckily Ward is still going strong.

She called me last June, just before my knee surgery, to say that her book club was going to read Decrescendo in September; she hoped I could come out and be there for the meeting. As the time drew near, I worried that a trip involving two stops and three different commuter planes would be difficult. Sue pointed out that when you’re almost 80, perhaps it’s not a good idea to take chances. So instead, she emailed me questions and I sent her answers and we had a great time in the process. After the meeting, Sue called me and we had a long chat with Ward chiming in now and then. Just before we hung up, she commented that old friends are just great. I heartily agree.

Photo by Wes Stitt