Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Ruminating on Earthquake, Wind, Fire and Mass Demonstrations

From an email I sent my brother in Wisconsin:
It is 80 degrees today. There is a breeze but it is sunny and on my walk I saw young girls in bikinis. My friend Joyce came over and we sat out on the porch and talked, drank tea and knit.
From his reply:
As to 80 degrees, that's outrageous. We are on the tail end of a blizzard that has dumped over a foot of snow on Menomonie with temps in the 20's and not getting any warmer for the next several days. Have you been watching the political news from Wisconsin? The unions are manning the barricades in a last ditch effort to stem the tide of power and money bent on destroying them. I think they will win in the end but it is really grim. All that is stopping the Governor are 14 Democratic senators who have left the state to hide out and prevent a quorum in the Senate so the Republicans can pass the union busting budget bill. Given all that, I'm glad you had sun, warmth, bikini clad girls and a friend to sit on your porch with. Life here is grim by contrast.

I was intrigued by the juxtaposition of the winter storm and the budget/union struggles in Wisconsin. Earlier this year, I commented to my son Robin that I had felt all through the past year that our Earth is angry at what humans have done to their planetary home and it is showing up in earthquake, wind and fire, and now these endless winter storms. Of course, I know that such things have been happening throughout the history of our world and that advances in communication technology have made us more aware of these catastrophes. I know too that the results of overpopulation make the death tolls and damage to property much greater.

But beginning with Tunisia and rolling on through Egypt and all the other Mideast countries, the political turmoil has seemed like the human equivalent of earthquake, wind and fire. The teachers in Wisconsin are a manifestation of that same anger here in our own country. The global warming of our Earth is for me a mirror image of the pile-up of financial excesses, changing demographics and sectarian extremism of many sorts.

In 1969, I read The Human Zoo by Desmond Morris as did most of my friends and it was often in our conversations. Morris predicted the kinds of things that are happening now as cities became more and more crowded and fewer humans were living in what he called “a natural environment.” I’ve been thinking about his book as I have watched the current thousands acting out of inner rage as they join mass demonstrations.

I just finished reading People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks, a gift from one of my many visitors here on Tybee Island. It is fascinating historical fiction in which a book conserver tries to follow the history of a 500-year-old Hebrew Haggadah by the tiny things she found in the book: a butterfly wing, a cat hair, a wine stain and some salt crystals. There are four stories that all touch on religious persecution— mainly of Jews—in the Holocaust, the Inquisition, slavery and other rages of the past. No religion or country has been immune to these evils. Fortunately our history —and this book—is just as full of stories of compassion and goodness.

So where I am going with all this doom? I started this blogspot as an adjunct to the themes I explored in my memoir with a particular emphasis on relationship and caregiving. But as the weeks have gone by I have found myself examining life on the other side of that relationship: my years of life as an older single woman. As I examine my life I am also fascinated by disparate things that make connections in my mind and my experience. Ideally I’d like to start a conversation with others who read these posts and probably see similar things I have missed.

So here is the connection this week, however tenuous it may seem. I was raised with the oft-repeated quotation, “If you are not part of the answer, you are part of the problem.” It has been both a motivator and a weight around my shoulders, but on balance it has been a good thing for me to try to be part of the answers. However, at this stage of life there is little I can do about anything. Instead I have tried to cultivate compassion and contemplation as something the elders of society can do to affect the spiritual climate we all live in. This is sort of a parallel to doing everything we can to reduce our personal carbon footprints.

I find that most of my peer friends are feeling that same pull and perhaps that is simply part of the passage at the end of life. And so it happened that another one of my visitors, closer to my age, also gifted me with a book called Anam Cara by John O’Donohue. I have just started it, but clearly it connects to Decrescendo as he explores friendship, affection and relationship in the light of Celtic Wisdom. I found this sentence in one of the early pages, “Most fundamentalism, greed, violence, and oppression can be traced to the separation of idea and affection.” I put my bookmark there and stopped to come to the computer and write this post. I’ll have to think about that sentence some more.

Perhaps contemplation is truly the work of the elders. But it is also mighty nice to sit on the porch and knit with a friend, or to enjoy seeing the young girls in their bikinis, laughing as they walk down the street.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Seeing the World Through Amber-Colored Glasses


The flashing blue light in the rear view mirror and the little blip of siren sound had snapped my mind to attention as it announced that a policeman wanted to speak to me. Although I was sure I had not broken any laws,  I was not entirely surprised because I was aware I had been driving somewhat erratically. It was Saturday morning about a month ago. My guests had rented bikes and were exploring Tybee. I figured I had enough time to do a few errands on Wilmington Island and still get back for my regular nap at noon.

After weeks of overcast skies, I welcomed the bright sunny day with a cloudless blue sky. I fished my dark glasses out of the glove box and put them on, but I had to keep removing them when I passed through areas of deep shade where live oaks festooned with Spanish moss line the highway. I realized that I was momentarily blinded each time the car passed from shadow to the strong glare of sunlight. It took both hands to fit the dark glasses over my regular lenses and traffic often made me wary of doing that. Instead I slowed down until I could see clearly and then sped up.

Last summer I had two cataract surgeries with lens implants. A world that had been brown around the edges for years suddenly appeared in Glorious Technicolor. The middle and far distance were so clear that my mind was receiving much more sensory information than I had been used to. I also realized that I seemed to be more sensitive to glare and that my eyes were slow to accommodate to sudden changes from dark to light. I asked a few of my friends who had lens implants what their experience was and found sun glare was a common problem. But nothing I experienced driving around in the mountains of western North Carolina compared with the problem I faced in coastal Georgia.

After a long wait, the officer appeared at the window. It didn’t help make a good first impression when I hit the wrong button and rolled down the back window. Once there was no glass between us, he said in sonorous tones, “Are you all right?” I replied that I was fine but had been having trouble with the abrupt changes from deep shade to bright sun. “Well, you have been driving erratically,” he said.

“If by erratic you mean that I was speeding up and slowing down, that is true. When I hit the glare, I slowed down to the point where I felt safe.”

He went onto say that there had been several reports of “this car being driven erratically” and that he had been behind me for a mile. He insisted on following me home to make sure I got there all right. Once we arrived at my house he told me to go lie down and rest and not to get back in the car for the remainder of the day. I felt quite threatened and worried if perhaps he might send a report to North Carolina. I was also puzzled because he didn’t give me a ticket or a warning and did not indicate that I had broken any laws.

I thanked him for his courtesy and concern and assured him I would take steps to solve the problem. Deep down inside me I was able to find a wee spot of gratitude that this problem had been brought to my attention at a moment when nothing bad had happened. Perhaps the hardest thing that older adults who live alone have to face is giving up driving, which is equal to giving up your independence. But at the same time, I have always maintained that I would stop driving when it was no longer safe for me or the other people on the road if I were behind the wheel. I’ve had too many scary rides with older family members or friends who should not have been driving.

Friends and family consoled me and talked me through my extreme emotional reaction to the incident. I learned that the glare truly is worse in this setting because the light bounces off the ocean and there is a broader expanse of blue sky. I also kept thinking that if it is correct that 50% of older adults have had or will have cataract surgeries, then there is bound to be a solution. Even so I was consumed by anxiety, scenarios of what my life would be like at home if I couldn’t drive, or the frisson of fear when I saw police cars—and it suddenly seemed as though they were everywhere. I managed to avoid driving through the MLK holiday weekend. Then on Tuesday I called my eye doctor in Asheville and spoke to his nurse. I described the problem and said that given how many people have the surgery, I hoped that someone else had already figured it out.

The next day the nurse called back with a terse message, “Dr. Smith wants you to wear amber glasses when you drive.” Could it be possible that the solution was that simple? My son Robin, who seems to know a little bit about almost everything, told me that pilots wear amber glasses as do race drivers. He said they do distort colors a little but they make things more clear.

Robin and his wife Tammy were coming for a visit so I asked them to bring my pre-cataract computer glasses, so  I could reuse the frames. The optometrist explored all the options with me and I made a decision about which would suit me best. A week later I picked up my amber glasses and got a new lease on life. There is a very slight tinge of yellow to the world as I look through my new lenses, but the surprise is the sharp straight lines of the buildings and curbs and painted lines on the street. For more than ten years I have been dealing with the ever-increasing distortions caused by macular puckers in both my eyes. I can’t say that all the distortion is gone, but it is so much better. The problem with the glare has vanished and they are not too dark for the deep shade.

I wasted so much time on the anxiety I felt and the overwhelming realization that the end of driving will come sooner or later. The symbol of authority in a uniform leaning over me felt like a personal threat especially when he told me not to get back in my car that day. I did not really believe there would be an easy solution; rather I focused on all the ways my life would be constrained. I also knew that I did not want to drive under the conditions that led to my encounter with the law. I’ll continue to ponder those things in the years ahead because I know the day of decision will come.

In the meantime, I am happy to say: Move over rose-colored glasses; it is seeing the world through amber that has given me a reprieve and restored my confidence.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

From My Inbox: More Thoughts on A Good Life


1. The email started out “You have the wrong Carol Slaughter”. I was instantly intrigued. Carol out in California had hit the Reply All button on a long email list from St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Burnsville, NC. I am on that list and receive the weekly announcements. For the past few weeks we have also been getting updates, usually including a prayer request, about a church member who had a risky surgery.

Carol’s message was twofold; she wanted to make sure that the woman needing prayer support was not some long lost relative of hers, whom she might recognize by her maiden name. She was also concerned about “the right Carol Slaughter” who might not be getting the church news.

Steeped in the contemplation of What Is a Good Life? as I have been all week, I thought to myself “She is not the wrong Carol Slaughter.” She could have just hit delete and forgotten about a woman struggling in a hospital bed, and another woman bearing her name who was not getting the announcements she might need and want. Another church email had indicated the secretary would not be working her regular schedule this week so I decided to write to California Carol. She was very relieved when I told her the difference between the two otherwise identical Carol email addresses was that only one had a period between the first and last names. In her reply she thanked me for getting in touch and indicated she had been worried about the sick person.

2. Two emails suggested that I watch the interview with Joyce Carol Oates, which had aired on the PBS News Hour. She has written a memoir about being a widow. One friend suggested I might find a kindred spirit, which I did when I later watched the clip. I don’t know if I’ll read the book, but she certainly captured what she calls Absurdity and Joan Didion called Magical Thinking. My first year without Bill felt like the embodiment of Murphy’s Law.

3. This week in my Inbox I also received the link to the full essay by Ronald Dworkin that I mentioned last week on this page. I printed it, and it took two readings of the seven pages before I began to grasp the fine points. I concluded that my brother had already lifted up the meat of it in highlighting a sentence I had not included in my post last week. “The final value of our lives is adverbial, not adjectival—a matter of how we actually lived, not of a label applied to the final result. It is the value of the performance, not anything that is left when the performance is subtracted.” (NY review of Books, “What Is a Good Life?” by Ronald Dworkin, February 10, 2011)

4. Other emails came from folks who had rejoiced that Wes had found a job and two of them included comments very specifically about the Dworkin concept of a good life. I was chastened and challenged by these sentences: “…I want to respond to your thought of our life ‘products’ being mostly ephemeral except for our children. I think I understand your meaning, but want to add my thought that I have tried to avoid thinking of my children as my ‘products.’ I guess I'm thinking of a product as something the maker has complete control over, and responsibility for the outcome.”  She goes on to share some of her philosophy of childrearing which closes parallels my own. I think I’d like to write about the subject after I have ruminated for a few weeks. I do know that using the word products about children objectifies them and perhaps implies ownership, neither of which I intended.

5. Finally, my daughter shared a message she had received from a friend who is at something of a crossroads and was thanking Melissa for her support, her vision and her compassion. There was compassion in my Inbox all week as friends shared with me their ideas and concerns, as a stranger cared about other strangers, as we paused together and thought about our own view of what makes a good life. It is a conversation that I hope continues. I’ll be looking for your email in my Inbox.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Happy Ending in the Age of High Unemployment


Last night the phone rang; it was my granddaughter. “What’s up?” I said after I recognized her voice.
“Wes got the job,” she said.

My grandson-in-law Wes has followed a meandering path in his education as his ideas about his future changed and developed. It was always his intention to earn a college degree and along the way he finished a two-year program and received an AA degree. He has had a number of short term or part time jobs over the years and has built a reputation as a congenial employee, who works very hard and gets along with everyone.

Wes married my granddaughter a little over three years ago; she had a job, but he was still searching. There were some cracks showing in our economy but the slide down the slippery slope was still nearly a year away. Soon after their wedding he found a job at a Blockbuster close to their new home and also matriculated in an on-line program from East Carolina University to finish his BA degree. He has worked very hard at both and will graduate in May. At Blockbuster he was affable as always, worked very hard and responsibly, and treated the customers as though they were friends. He and my granddaughter began to build a life, buying a house and making friends in the neighborhood, and adding a second dog to keep the other one company. This summer their home will shelter their first baby.

Meanwhile the movie rental chain has been inching toward bankruptcy as the delivery systems for DVD’s have changed. The store where he was working closed, but the staff was moved to another location because they were considered valuable to the company. About a month ago, the word came down that the second store was also closing, but this time there is nowhere for Wes to go. Unemployment is now much higher than in 2007 and the applicants for all advertised jobs include many with several years experience in addition to a college degree. Meeting their fixed obligations requires that they both have jobs. My granddaughter described how all of the family felt when she said, “I didn’t panic, but I was very worried.”

On the day Wes heard the bad news, he remembered hearing a customer say to one of his colleagues some months earlier that there might be some openings at her firm. He sent the woman an email telling her about the store closing and about the baby. She responded that she wanted to work with him based on what she knew of his skills and his work ethic. She was as good as her word, setting up a phone interview immediately, and then she kept the process moving. But it was Wes himself and his reputation that won the day. This job is more in line with his long-term goals and does offer the possibility for advancement.

I was very happy when I went to bed last night and slept peacefully. This morning I had an email from my brother David with the subject line. “What is a Good Life?” He had read an essay with that title by Ronald Dworkin. (from Justice for the Hedgehogs) Dworkin wrote about his belief that the final value of our lives “is a matter of how we actually lived.” He distinguishes between the "product" of one's life and the "performance" of living that life, arguing that the performance is more important than the product. Stating that living well can give meaning to a life, he asks the question, “Why can't a life also be an achievement complete in itself, in the art in living it displays?"

I don’t think Wes has much of a product to leave behind as he works his last day at Blockbuster, but I do believe that his performance, the way he did his job and treated people with respect and good humor, paved the way for a happy ending.

As for Dworkin, I learned long ago that in living as in business, most products (with the exception of our children) are ephemeral. But I believe that it is not just how we live our lives that matters, but also how we treat each other.