Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Affirmation and Friendship

As Nigel and I set out for our walk last Saturday, I heard the sound of bouncing balls and a man’s voice giving instruction before I was close enough to see two little boys in front of a portable basketball hoop. It was the turn of the littlest one. (I guessed he was about four.) He complied as his father said, “ Ok Bobbie, dribble, dribble, dribble, dribble, shoot!” The trajectory of the ball was straight up toward the basket, but it fell short by about a foot. “Good job!” said Dad enthusiastically as he squatted, tousled the blond head and quietly made some suggestions.

If we are lucky, and I was, we were raised with parents or older siblings who gave us affirmation as we grew up. I was not so lucky with my peer group in middle school as the opinion of kids my own age became more important. I was teased and shunned far more than encouraged or accepted. I was a loner and a good student and that is no way to be popular in adolescence. I always had a few friends, but not best friends, and I didn’t get invited to many parties. That changed in college where I was a part of a casual affinity group of undergraduates who were not in a sorority or fraternity. We had sophomoric discussion at taffy pulls, cookouts and parties, usually meeting at the home of a recent graduate who had an administrative job at the college or one of the seniors living off-campus. We also laughed and had good times together. I certainly was no longer shunned or teased and in fact, for the first time in my life, I had a sense that there were people outside my family who appreciated me just as I was. What is more, they laughed at my puns and irreverent remarks. My husband Bill was part of the group and we gradually became best friends long before we fell in love.

And then Cupid shot his arrow and I married my Valentine, with a college friend as my matron of honor, and lived more or less happily for an ever after that lasted fifty years. Mutual affirmation was built into our relationship and it really did not waver. Life was no fairy tale, however, and we had real problems and some issues between us. When we were young each of us generally believed that we were on the right side if our opinions differed, and compromises came slowly. No matter the occasional tense moments, we remained best friends, which is the case for many marriages: how often have you heard widows say, “I lost my best friend.”?

My daughter Melissa once said to me, “You know, Mom; Dad is your best fan.” It was true; he took an interest in almost everything I did (except he never understood why people read novels). He praised my knitting and sewing projects, he enthusiastically complemented my cooking, he would laugh uproariously at my wit and, when I climbed on a verbal soapbox and let off steam about the state of the world, he would often say, “I love your mind.” Nobody had liked my mind at Glenside-Weldon Junior High. I believe that his love and friendship healed all the hurts of childhood and adolescence. In short Bill affirmed who I was, just as I was, and I reciprocated with a full heart.

Then he died.

The period of grief, illness and loneliness was the most difficult part of my life, at least so far. One day, I had an epiphany. I realized that Bill had not just loved me, he had entertained me with his music and the many shows he directed and he had affirmed my personhood.  Those amazing gifts were gone from my life. Everybody knows old people who live alone need to be touched and I got lots of hugs, but not many people said, “You’re doing a good job of being a widow.”

In the late seventies when we moved to the mountains, I got to know Joyce through proximity since we both live in Celo, and Susan because she was the daughter-in-law of close friends of my mother. But our friendship grew because of the work, which each of us did. All three of us administered the same chamber music series at different times, and there was a lot of overlap in our skill sets even though we each had different strengths. For a while we worked together in the hope of creating a flourishing business; but Susan moved away and Joyce and I each took on more responsible jobs leaving less time for free-lance work. (Susan has retired and is now back home in the mountains.)  The friendships we formed 30 years ago have endured and deepened as we have aged.

When I started coming to Tybee, Susan and Joyce joined me each year for a long weekend to celebrate our three winter birthdays. This year we had lunch at the Pink House in Savannah and later dropped by the Tea House where the waitress snapped our picture. We talked about the affirmation that comes in marriage, at work, as volunteers and in friendships and how as you age and do less of those things, you still need to be affirmed. This is not just a matter of praise or gratitude, it is the smiles of welcome, the sharing of food, the invitation to take a walk, and all the small ways in which others show us we are worthy of their attention.

Some years into his illness, Bill began to urge me to go out and do things with friends, to cultivate friendships. ”You’ll need female friends after I die,” he said. I never actually tried to cultivate friends but I opened my heart to them and as I neared retirement, I began to experience the amazing bond that can grow among women, and the joy of having close friends.

When I rejoined the world after I was finally recovered in 2006, I did begin to cultivate friends, mainly by inviting people I wanted to know better to come for tea. It was not specifically to find affirmation, it was more to understand—and live as well as I could—the life of an older single woman. I had no desire to replace Bill; I wanted a new life experience.  I am having it now and it is good.

There will be a Part Two on this particular subject, which I want to explore and share at further length. I think that our need for the kind of encouragement a dad gives a little boy who tries hard, but misses the basket is even greater at an age when we do a lot more dribbling and not very much shooting.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

An Old Trunk, a Kitchen Table, and All My Stuff

This past week I have been captivated as I've been reading The Map of Love by Egyptian author Ahdaf Soueif. The conceit of this amazing book is an old trunk containing the archives of an English woman living in Egypt in the early 1900’s. In the trunk are letters, a tapestry, a few objects and journals, some that are large and open and one that is small, locked and concealed. Two distant cousins have been brought together in Cairo in the late 1990’s. Isabel, the American owner of her grandmother’s trunk, seeks help from Amal, the Egyptian, in decoding and understanding the contents of this repository of life and love.

The book has touched me in a number of ways, but I want to focus on the accumulation of precious things that typically we begin to deal with or worry about as we age. There is a passage in the book in which Isabel has asked Amal to show her the Cairo of the people, not the tourist destinations. The day begins as they sit in a small goldsmith’s shop to watch him mend and polish a pair of earrings that had been in a box on Amal’s dressing table for many years.

When I came to this small detail I stopped reading for a moment and thought about several things in the top drawer of my dresser that have also been awaiting my attention for years. Chief among them is my wedding ring. I had to remove it for a surgery four years into widowhood. My knuckle had enlarged just enough to make this a difficult chore, and I intended to have the ring enlarged a bit as soon as I recovered. But there it lies in a jewelry case, next to a document that needs some legal attention, and several objects needing repair.

As I sat there contemplating the things revealed in the old trunk of Isabel’s grandmother, my mind revisited a moment with my mother in 1984.  We were having lunch at her small kitchen table by an open window that let in a light breeze. Two years earlier when she was 85, she had been rushed to the ER at Abington Hospital where her physician and the emergency medical team labored for an hour to save her life. I took a sip  of tea and then asked her, “How are you spending your days now, Mother?” To answer my question she told me a story.

“When I was on the table in the emergency room I was sure I was dying. I came in and out of consciousness, and I remember the worried look on my doctor’s face. I couldn’t speak, but I wanted to say, ‘Why are you trying to save an old lady when they are killing people on the streets of Beirut?'" She continued her story by recalling another conscious moment when she thought of the boxes and the old black suitcase full of stuff she had intended to sort and label. She remembered thinking, “The girls will have to clean out the attic.” After she was more or less recovered and living independently with support from my sister Dorothy, she kept asking the Lord (with whom she was in constant communication) why she had survived, what work was left for her to do. It came to her that she was meant to clean the attic herself and not leave it for the girls (Dorothy and me). So that was how she was spending her days.

When she died in 1991, there were very few books left on the shelves, and only a few items of clothing in the closet. In the cellar there was a large trunk with her lifetime of journals, other papers in labeled boxes and letters in their original envelopes held together with large dried-out rubber bands. In the attic we found a box for each of her four children containing the letters we had written plus things she had saved from our childhood. My box included my pigtails, which were cut off intact the summer I was five. In the old black suitcase were letters from my father and grandfather written to her over the years, some account books, and a red Wannamaker’s diary. We found that some of the photographs weren’t labeled, but most of the family pictures had a note in her handwriting on the back. She typed her own will, which was signed and witnessed. It didn’t have the imprimatur of an attorney, but was clear and in good order.

After Mother’s funeral, my brother David rented a U-Haul and loaded up some bequests of furniture and all of my mother’s archives to take to his home in Wisconsin. Four years later my brother Don died suddenly (also leaving his affairs in good order). We missed him when Dorothy and I traveled to David’s home where the three of us spent several days reading old letters, Mother’s journals, and some account books. Dorothy went through the unlabeled photos and identified some of the people in them. It was a mellow, funny and poignant time as we relived both the dark and the light of our family history. We made many decisions but left scores of letters unread and over the next few years as David had time to read the rest, he distributed other items to us.

During my years of working for the American Friends Service Committee, I was occasionally asked to represent AFSC at several different regional Yearly Meetings of the Society of Friends. At one of these I joined a study group on end of life issues. We spent about an hour of the time discussing the importance of leaving financial and legal affairs and personal possessions in good order to simplify things for our children or heirs. The emphasis was on the spiritual benefit of clearing out the clutter in our lives, sharing the things we no longer needed with people who could use them, and preparing for our own eventual death in the process. I thought immediately of my mother and the gift she had given all of her children by leaving everything tidy and clear. In the process she had creatively recycled her clothing and books.

My Mother’s example, underscored by the spiritual tenor of the discussion at the Friends Yearly Meeting, has stayed with me. However it is all too easy to do as Amal did in The Map of Love and leave the gold earrings on the dressing table for years. Reading this book about all that flowed from the examination of the contents of that old trunk has strengthened my resolve to return to this task. Instead of thinking of it as onerous, I’ll try to think of it as honorable, even spiritual and a journey into my past.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Health Maintenance and the Tybee Island Connection

I grew up going to the Jersey shore and quickly introduced my Indiana-born husband Bill to the pleasures of being by the sea. Spending time at the beach, however, has always been in the travel or luxury column of the budget and was eliminated in lean years. About four years ago after the economy tanked I was struggling with a decision about whether I could afford to keep going to Tybee Island. I explained the dilemma to my son Robin who promptly weighed in.

“Mom, just move it out of the luxury column and put it in the health maintenance column.” he said.

Half of my annual income comes from social security and three small pensions; the other half comes from the minimum required distribution of my IRA. I have enough to live on, especially since I am frugal by nature, and continue my lifelong discipline of making a budget and living within it. So I found peace by the simple act of rearranging the amounts in the cost centers of my life.

When I began to be active again after my long illness in 2004-2005, I realized that I was no longer tolerating the winter weather easily. When temperatures dropped below 40, I found it harder to breathe and often noticed either an ache or a constraint in my lungs as I walked. If I didn’t keep up a regular walking program then I began to feel less well and less happy. Winter weather often involves traffic hazards and would increase my dependence on family and friends for shopping and other essential errands. Since all my peer group friends are limited by winter weather as well, my isolation tended to be greater. I didn’t get sick, but I was less healthy and often low in spirit. The general contraction in my life became a vector toward depression.

When Bill found the winters difficult, we chose to spend the coldest months in Florida, but that is not a good choice for me now that I am alone. It requires a night on the road in a pet friendly motel each way and once you are there, the traffic is fierce.  By contrast, it’s a comfortable day’s drive from Celo to Tybee, and there is hardly any traffic on the Island in winter. It doesn’t feel like a resort; it’s more like a small town that just happens to be on the beach. Sometimes there are chilly days but it is seldom ever too cold for me to go out and walk.

Leaving Celo and coming to this very different environment for two or more months in the winter is good for my mental and spiritual health as well. Back in the seventies when we were contemplating a move to Celo, Bill commented to one of the residents we had gotten to know that he was looking forward to getting out of the Winston-Salem rat race.

“Well, you should know that Celo has a rat race too.” she said.  “It’s just different stuff.”

As we got busier and busier in our new mountain home, we often referenced that remark. When I come to Tybee I am lifted out of my daily routines and there is a break from all the patterns of my life. Doubtless there is a Tybee rat race as well, but I never connect to it. Being here is for me like being on some kind of a retreat. I usually have a few visitors—members of my family or friends from Celo—but also I have “endless acres of afternoon” (to quote Stephen Vincent Benet) to invest as I choose. I have more time to read, more time to meditate, more time to write and think, and more time to daydream. The weather permits me to do many of these things on my porch or outside. Everything is simplified because I am judicious about how much stuff I bring: a few books, a few audiobooks on my iPod, a few handwork projects, my Bose radio and my dog Nigel. Paradoxically, I increase both the contraction and the expansion of my living when I come to Tybee.

 Yesterday, I set out for my afternoon walk somewhat later than usual and was vaguely aware that the quality of the light was changing. My attention, however, was on my thoughts because I knew that it was time to write my next post for this blog and was wondering how I could better explain what I mean by living expansively. One way to accomplish it, I thought, is to eschew multi-tasking and bring the focus of mindfulness to the experience of the moment. Ruefully, I wondered if thinking about the question I posed for myself meant that I wasn’t being mindful in my walk. So I shifted my attention to the changing light, as the sun appeared to travel steadily toward the horizon, painting a high bank of clouds the color of bright straw as the earth turned.

Nigel and I walked to the edge of the beach on the sunset side of the island. As he meticulously checked trash cans and sign posts for new smells I gazed at the nascent evening sun show, which was evolving moment by moment. I didn’t want to wait another fifteen minutes for the sun to set, so we started back. The trees were now in shadow as I walked north on 2nd Avenue toward my cottage. Suddenly I was stopped by the sight of a large deciduous tree with smooth leafless branches jutting out above the hollies and evergreens. The lower horizontal branches and trunk were a silvery gray, but the upper branches that curved gently toward the sky were pure gold, caught in a shaft of nature’s stage light angling up from the setting sun. I paused to be mindful and wished for the presence of my lighting designer son Kevin. He can archive such a moment in his mind’s eye and recreate it later as the curtains open on a stage set—maybe Boo Radley’s tree in To Kill a Mockingbird?

I was affirmed in my conclusion that it is more expansive to be mindful of the moment than to analyze it. The secret is to clear away the clutter in my mind and create mental spaciousness, the endless acres of afternoon that old age brings. The investment I am making in my health is paying dividends.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Generational Languages: Is Being Cool Important When You're 80?

 Here’s a last look over my shoulder at Christmas that also segues back to my series on aging.

At my friend Sarah’s Boxing Day party, I was chatting with Peggy (another friend) who had asked about my family Christmas celebration. First I described the setting for the gift opening. We were in Asheville in a house that my daughter Melissa had rented to help accommodate the influx of relatives for a week. It was sparsely, but bravely, decorated by my granddaughter-in-law Torey with festoons of paper chains and a small artificial tree, that kept falling over. The assembled family (Two of my children and three grandchildren, all with spouses plus three great-grandchildren) ranged in age from the five-month-old baby Karek to me, soon to be 80.

I leaned in a little closer and told Peggy that as they opened the gifts and commented about them, most of the time I didn’t understand what anyone was talking about. Three of the men were discussing making homebrew with considerable animation and enthusiasm just about the time my grandson Nathaniel opened a box and pulled out a large glass vessel with hoses attached. I assumed it was brewing equipment especially when I noticed it was fueling the beer discussion.

Many of the presents received by the adults were connected to things not in my ken like sports teams, technology or some aspect of pop culture. Just about all the things the pre-schoolers got were related to a movie, a video game, a TV program or some technology that I didn’t understand. I gave my granddaughter Roslyn a stuffed elf without even knowing that it was a character from a popular Christmas movie. She ripped off the paper and joyfully shouted, “It’s the dentist.”

I said, somewhat bewildered, “No. It’s an elf.”  Fortunately Roslyn’s Uncle Wes immediately explained about the movie and the elf who wanted to be a dentist.

Even though I was engaged as I listened to the chatter, trying to make sense of it, occasionally asking for clarification, I realized how out of touch I am with their world. I could have considered that Chrismas morning a wake up call telling me to get busy and bone up on the interests of my flock. Instead I focused on how many things I did understand as I talked one on one with my gathered family.

Peggy laughed with recognition as I told my tale and then said that her son had commented about her minimal computer literacy by comparing her to an immigrant grandma from the old country who spoke her childhood language fluently, but did not know much English. He went on to say he was like the first generation American who grew up without computer technology, but achieved fluency as an adult. His children, however, grew up bilingual, speaking both English and the language of computers, but perhaps were not so competent in Grandma’s old country language.

Four years ago I set up a Facebook page, mainly to keep in touch with my two college- age granddaughters, who were less often in touch by email as they started using that medium plus texting for their communications. In the beginning it made me feel like a cool grandma, and I was very interested in the whole phenomenon. I opened my mind to new experiences and imagined I would dive into these new media and gain insights into the younger generations. I had complained to one granddaughter that I couldn’t understand any of the posts her sister was putting up. She explained that all those mysterious messages were lines from popular songs. No insights there. It didn’t take many weeks to decide that for me Facebook was a giant time-waster. A few months went by during which I checked my page once or twice a week and then one morning, it looked different when I opened it. I couldn’t figure out how to do things that had been easy the week before. That same experience happened three or four more times when just as I had figured out a new look, it was replaced with a newer new look. I began to reconsider how important it was for me to be cool. I didn’t take the page down, since my grandchildren do use it to communicate with me as do any number of my contemporaries. It has also been helpful to announce new posts to this blog, but it is no longer a part of my life except in the most ancillary way.

The same can be said about homebrew or video games or sports teams or popular culture of any sort. I freely ask questions of my children and grandchildren whenever I’m curious about something I don’t understand. I occasionally learn arcane pop culture facts from working crossword puzzles, which often send me googling to find out more about some unusual clue. Sometimes one of my grandchildren or their spouses will call my attention to a song, a book, a new food, a YouTube video, or a movie they think I would enjoy, and I follow up on their suggestions. But I haven’t tried to educate myself about things that don’t contribute to my daily life just to be cool. It is a choice based on energy demands. My daily ration of energy is smaller than it used to be, and my interests have expanded. For openers, I have a perpetual stack of books waiting for me to read plus audiobooks on my iPod to listen to as I work in the kitchen.

Here is the question I continue to ponder. Is it important for me to be conversant with the milieus of my progeny and how much should I expect them to be interested in mine? The subjects of daily life: giving birth and raising children, fixing interesting and healthy food, appreciating the moon and stars at night and the warm sun and soft breezes of the day, the cultural experiences we share, and the anecdotes that make their way to my email inbox may well be enough of a nexus. And, of course, there is always politics!

I am settled in for two months on Tybee Island and just came in from an early evening walk with Nigel. My neighbor across the street was arriving home on foot and she called out, “You’re back. Is this your third or fourth year?” We chatted a bit and then she invited me to go with her to the library book club next month. She explained they only read classics.
“What’s the book for next month?” I asked after saying I’d go.
“Lady Chatterly’s Lover” she answered with a big smile.
Now that is cool.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Post Holiday Sickness: Let's Be Entrepreneurial

When I was growing up, my mother worked hard in the days before Christmas, always having to make do with very little money. She baked cookies, mincemeat pie, and gingerbread, and made magic in the kitchen for the Christmas dinner. Since for us the celebration was centered in the church, she made sure we went to the choir or pageant practices, that we dressed warmly to go caroling when we were old enough, and that we were there for the services. Most years she also got sick either on Christmas Night or a day or two later.

Christmas in the Bill and Donna Jean Dreyer household was different, mainly because it was a very busy performance time for Bill, who often had gigs as a tenor soloist, a pianist for private and public parties, an actor or director of a Christmas play or pageant and an organist for church services. He even did a few turns as Santa Claus. He was often the parent who got sick. I didn’t repeat my mother’s pattern nor did I have the same emotional baggage about holidays that she carried. Certainly, I worked hard and stayed up late since some of the preparations were on Santa’s behalf and had to be done in secret. We feasted at Thanksgiving and had much simpler meals during the Yuletide. Even so, I do remember a few post-Christmas colds and the stunning year that Bill and I traveled to spend the holiday with our son Kevin, his wife Indi and the two oldest granddaughters. Some kind of flu had already begun to invade the household, and Indi greatly simplified the festive meal. Within two days we were all sick and I was among those who had to see the doctor.

I’m sure almost everyone who goes all out for the holidays—singing in the Messiah, going caroling, decorating, shopping, baking, cooking, visiting or entertaining family and friends, going to a midnight church service, opening gifts in the morning—has a story to tell of once spending a day or two in bed the next week.

This year was easy for me. All I had to do was show up, while younger generations carried the load. Hence I was totally unprepared when I woke up Thursday morning with my eyes stuck shut, an aching ear, a thumping head and an urgent need for the box of Puffs tissues (with aloe of course).  My departure for Tybee was scheduled less than a week later, so I took quick action and soon learned that a very a tiny bacteria called mycoplasm was probably the culprit. I had many of the classic symptoms and soon began a course of antibiotics, acupuncture, Chinese herbs and chicken soup.

Too sick to read or do anything useful, I pondered the fact that colds, flu, stomach upsets and even pneumonia are all a part of the Christmas aftermath and yet they don’t seem to show up in holiday literature, children’s books, movies, sitcoms or Christmas music. This year I noticed there was plenty of radio and TV coverage about hangovers on New Year’s Day—complete with a gruesome array of remedies, none of which included acupuncture or herbs—but not a word about the harried moms and dads, and vulnerable little kids and great grandmas who breathed in one too many tiny germs.

So I’m suggesting a new line of Post-Christmas recovery cards or some sympathetic gestures for the worn-out creators of the feasts and celebrations. I’m asking the songwriters to expand from Jingle Bells and carols to include some soothing get-well messages or some narrative of sympathy. To inspire the entrepreneurs among my readers, I’ve tried my hand at reworking a few old favorites.

Rudolph the red-nose reindeer had a very stuffy nose,
After the sleigh was empty, he was feeling indisposed.
One of the other reindeer sneezed a lot, and was to blame;
Least that is what poor Rudolph ever after liked to claim.

That had been the Christmas Eve that Santa came to say:
“Rudolph, ‘cause your nose is bright, you could guide my sleigh tonight.”

Rudolph had worked his heart out, and was tired as can be.
Rudolph the red-nose reindeer ended up in misery.

Deck the bed with a nice warm cover, Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la
Tell the children not to hover, Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la
Don you now your fav’rite nightgown, Fa-la-la, la-la-la, la-la-la.
Oh what heaven 'tis to lie down, Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la.

Silent night, peaceful night
All is calm. Dim the light.
Round the bed it’s no longer wild;
All the kids with their toys are beguiled,
Moms are sleeping in peace; now is their time for release.

Here’s how my story will end on Thursday.

Dashing to the car,
We’ll soon be on our way.
 O’er the roads we’ll go
Happy it’s the day.
Only one day late.
We’ll set out for the sea.
Packing was an awful chore,
But I got it by me!

Jingle Bells, quiet now
I feel quite OK.
Soon we’ll be in Tybee land.
My bug is now at bay. (repeat chorus)

Now it’s your turn; get to work! Happy New Year.