Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Nostalgia: One of the Joys of Aging

Nostalgia: a wistful desire to return in thought or in fact to a former time or place in one's life; a sentimental yearning for the happiness or fulfillment of that place or time. It’s a moment when you smile and say to yourself, “How lucky I was to have had that experience.”

While my morning tea was brewing on Sunday I tuned in to On Being (the program of religion, meaning, ethics and ideas that used to be called Speaking of Faith). I wanted to find out who Krista Tippett’s guest was before I decided whether to walk first or eat first. The program had started and I immediately recognized the unusual voice and accent of Bishop Desmond Tutu. The walk could wait.

My mind immediately transported me to a small meeting room in the national headquarters of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) where I had the immense pleasure of meeting the legendary South African bishop. He had come to Philadelphia to deliver an address, and this was a courtesy meeting with the senior administrative staff. He was charismatic and jolly in addition to being forthright and spiritual.

After my dishes were cleared away and the program ended, I bundled up against what I knew would be a chilly wind and headed out for my morning walk, thinking deeply and wistfully about my years with AFSC. As an administrator, I wasn’t on the frontlines of the struggles for civil and women’s rights and the efforts to end the Vietnam War and apartheid in South Africa. However, my work supported the people who were. It was my privilege to meet—and sometimes work on committees with—heroes of various struggles for justice or leading thinkers in the peace movements. I wasn’t more than a block from my Tybee front door when I was awash in nostalgia for those years of intense activism. They were times of emotional pain, struggle against unbelievable odds, awareness of possible danger, and sometimes the sadness of loss. But they were also times of fellowship, hope, clear objectives, and moments of success that ultimately led to change. I have no wish to relive them, but I must confess that as I walked back toward my winter home some twenty minutes later, I felt a yearning for that kind of fulfillment.

Whenever I am surprised by nostalgia, I think of sitting in an unusual garden in Panajachel in 1982.  Bill and I were visiting our German friend Doña Edith who had immigrated to Guatemala with her parents when she was 19 shortly after the First World War. She soon married another German immigrant and together they did very well in large-scale farming. He died soon after they retired to Lake Atitlan, and she had worked very hard to create a garden based on her childhood memories of Germany. “I believe,” she told us, “that when you get old everyone wants to go back home–back to your roots. I knew I couldn’t do that, so I created my roots here.”

At that time I could not imagine ever wanting to go back to Glenside where I grew up. I was still making regular visits there to see my Mother, and I felt no particular emotional tie to that place. Bill’s family farm had been sold to a quarry, and he emphatically did not want to go home. However, near the end of his life he developed a strong desire to return to his hometown for one last trip, which we did. Coming to Tybee has always had elements of nostalgia for me because the times my family spent at the Jersey shore are among my happiest childhood memories. But this year I had an epiphany one warm Sunday afternoon as I walked all round my little community on the south end of Tybee. Children were playing ball in the street while teenagers whizzed by on scooters and bikes. The air was redolent with the appetizing smell of mesquite and hamburgers cooking on grills. Everyone had carried chairs into the yards and neighbors out walking stopped by to chat. Without warning, I was flooded with sensory memories of neighborhoods in Glenside. The sounds, smells, and sights of childhood were awakened by the ordinary weekend activities of a neighborhood about a thousand miles to the south. I heard Doña Edith saying in my ear, “Look, you found your roots here.”

I believe that nostalgia is an important aspect of aging. We grow up knowing we will die some day, a reality underscored by every loss we suffer as the years go by. But when you cross the threshold of 80, you know without a doubt that your own death could come at any time. I’ve only known a few people in my life who were truly morbid about that knowledge. For me, it’s what makes each day precious and has fueled my desire to live in the present moment as much as I can. In addition to the AFSC years, I lived many lives after childhood as a college student, theater wife, mother, volunteer, caregiver, and the unexpected bonus of the decade I spent working at Penland School of Crafts. I also had an intermittent life in Guatemala, spread out over twenty years. All of these lives bring the potential for both the poignancy and the pleasure of remembrance.

It seems to me the concept of nostalgia, even the word itself, is often viewed as lightweight, sentimental, indulgent or immature. When it’s considered as a part of aging, however, nostalgia brings moments of grace, which are nurturing, healing, and happy. If, instead of past joys, I’m visited by memories of deep sadness, regret for something I said or did, or moments of suffering, I try to let it go. Sometimes I say to myself, “I already suffered that pain; I don’t have to suffer it again.” But I welcome the times I am reminded of what I cherished in my life, what gave me joy, what taught me about living, what brought me the satisfaction of work well done, plus all the amazing people who crossed my path. It doesn’t mean I‘m living in the past, it means I’ve brought the richness of my life experience into my present, often while I’m writing.

I don’t dwell on my death and, in fact, expect to live a very long time as I explore yet another role, that of a single woman trying to live expansively. Part of that is letting my thoughts and feelings travel back to my many lives while in the present I sit in a comfortable chair, stare out the window and daydream.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Potpourri: The Schleppers and the Pursuit of Happiness

I woke up this morning ready to create a post for this blog. My intention was to write about the Schleppers, a group of a dozen or so of my neighbors who have been meeting eight or nine times a year for a decade. The original group of 14 had all received an invitation from Karin, the convener, to get together and discuss what kind of support might be necessary to help those individuals and couples in Celo who want to grow old in their own homes. Some day soon I’d like to tell the story of our evolution from analytical, fact-based discussions to making a covenant with each other to be an affinity group as we aged and faced seemingly insurmountable problems. But I won't write it today: that story just doesn’t want to be told yet. Before I drop the subject, however, I do want to say that the verb schlep means to haul or carry something heavy; the noun schlep means a tedious and awkward journey; and a schlepper is a person who does the carrying or makes the journey. I can’t think of a better name for a group helping each other with the joys, sorrows and imponderables of aging. We’ve been through a lot together including several deaths (one of them my own husband Bill). A few have chosen to move to a retirement home or to be near family, and we have added new faces. As a group we have run the gamut of the exigencies and vicissitudes of old age in both our experience and our discussions. We find pleasure in being together and care deeply about one other. Now this might all sound dreary, but this morning as I was trying to capture the Schleppers and to chronicle the group’s founding and our journey together, my mind kept going to the phrase the “Pursuit of Happiness.”

So I decided to explore this particular well-traveled road some other day, and wander instead down a new avenue of thought. I made that decision while I was strolling along a sidewalk by the sea. As I gazed out at the gray ocean fronted by the white foam of rapidly rolling waves—a sight that always engenders in me a sense of well-being—I recognized that I was very happy.

Pondering the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution has been one of my academic exercises this winter. As a student of history I know that the founders included men of learning who would have studied the ancient philosophers and sacred texts including the Bible, but also those of other religions. There was a spectrum of political, philosophical and religious belief in the group who declared that it is self-evident that everyone is created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Happiness by definition is a mental state of well-being characterized by positive or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to immense joy. That emotional range certainly leaves room for infinite reasons for being happy. In some of the recent debates and stump speeches there have been comments implying it was the right to pursue the amassing of vast wealth. It could also be interpreted as a rationale for universal health care, a good education or enough to eat. I wonder why those learned patriots didn’t use the language of the day to say we had the right to aspire to greatness, or even just to fulfill our potential.

My mother, who was often sad, regularly told us her children, that we should be happy, and sometimes added, “If you aren't happy, nothing else matters; and if you are happy, nothing else matters.” I was never sure that we could decide to be happy; it seemed to me as I was growing up, and later when I was dealing with adult problems that joy was something that came upon me unaware. It was not something I could readily produce. Maybe that is why this self-evident right is called the “pursuit of Happiness” and not Happiness itself. I can put myself into situations that I know usually produce happiness, but I can’t be certain that it will do so, especially if I'm sad or troubled. In other words, I can cultivate happiness but I can't guarantee it.

For years I have sent my children off on their travels with the words, “Have fun!” Since I am older and have come to the understanding that health is a major factor in the pursuit of my happiness, I now tend to bid farewell to my middle-aged children with the loving reminder, “Take care of yourself.” I am grateful that my children seem happy and often tell me they are happy. They certainly haven’t amassed great wealth, but they have fulfilled their potential,  had a good education and enough to eat!.

 As a person who self-identified as a community organizer and who worked for social change, I remain acutely aware that although all persons have an unalienable right to pursue Happiness, they do not all have an equal possibility of achieving it. Another term that I’ve heard used a lot this year is moral compass. I’ve dropped that into the hopper of my little gray cells for further consideration, but not before I did a google search. That brought forth this description of the four major points on that compass: Integrity, Responsibility, Compassion, Forgiveness. I mention this because if we are all created equal and we all have the right to pursue happiness, then we all have the obligation to support that pursuit for everyone. That’s what our moral compass prompts us to do.

Last week I attended the discussion of Lady Chatterley’s Lover at the Tybee library (See post on January 10). There were about 20 men and women mostly of retirement age seated in a large circle drinking tea or coffee. The lively discussion (which quickly dismissed all the racy parts as tame compared to what’s out there today) focused on the social issues that D. H. Lawrence explored in this book, including women's rights, classism, and the exploitation of the colliers (miners). We talked about how things were in the 20's when it was first published and in the 60's when it was finally available in the US.  Many comments underscored the themes brought forward by the Occupy movement today, although it wasn't specifically mentioned. I was delighted to feel the energy in the room and listen to the range of reactions from my peers who brought so much life experience to the conversation.

I’ll get back to the Schleppers on this blog in a few weeks. In the meantime, I’ll be pursuing happiness on Tybee Island.On March 7, I will head home to Celo where my sense of well-being flourishes with a lot help from my family and friends.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Aging with Style: Dressing From the Feet Up

When Bill and I were in our mid-twenties we became friends with Marshall and Bertha Cole who were in their fifties. It was a loving and nurturing friendship, which endured until they had both died some forty years later. We were struggling to make a living and a life in New Hope, Pennsylvania, and Bill sometimes referred to them as our patrons. They were indeed wealthy and to the extent that America acknowledges an upper class, they were in it. They did not support us with money, but rather they took us under their capacious wings and made us feel like family. Bertha was a mentor to me, and Marshall was a friend and fan to Bill, and they introduced us to people who aided his fledgling career. From 1956 to 1961, years when life was still straitjacketed by conventions, we were with them frequently. They both taught us by example what was considered proper and when to ignore that.

Bertha believed in having very fine clothing, well made of good fabric that would last, and indeed, she wore her clothes forever. Her tweedy walking skirts seemed made for the moors and her “museum stompers” as she called them, were made for sturdy comfort. She was not fashionable but she was always well dressed. As for Marshall, he had the appropriate wardrobe that a country gentleman might need for the full range of occasions, but if you dropped by unannounced, you were apt to find him in baggy well-mended shorts and a floppy shirt hanging comfortably over a loosened belt. Slim and fit when we first knew him, his girth increased some as he aged and he gave Bill two Harris Tweed jackets that had become too snug. They were still in great shape when I passed them on to excited new owners after he died.

I could write a small book on everything I learned from Bertha Cole and the depth of exposure she provided to literature, music, art, food, customs, and a different way of life. But for the moment I’m concentrating on what she taught me about elder fashion. She planted in my mind the seed of an eventual understanding that it makes sense to dress from the feet up, and that comfort trumps fashion. As a stay-at-home mom I continued wearing the saddle shoes of my college years although they morphed into solid brown or black in the winter and white in the summer. But high heels were de rigueur for parties, concerts, plays, church or any other dressed-up events. By the time I entered the workplace there were brands like Naturalizer that had a lower, sturdier heel and still looked dressy enough; they were nevertheless hard on the feet. As I entered my fifties, the nascent hammer toes I had inherited from my mother were beginning to show, and I made a style switch to an orthopedic shoe for most of the time, and low-heeled pumps under the desk at work to slip on when required.

As I moved from middle age to the social security age, I realized that all the women I knew wore pants most of the time. I also observed that they were all wearing sensible shoes like SAS, Easy Spirit, New Balance or many others. The haute couture dresses. skirts, suits and blouses that dictate the off-the-rack styles of the year are all designed for fashionable shoes and sandals with some degree of heels. Sensible shoes don’t set the stage for fashion, but they disappear with pants. Wearing pants does not preclude being stylish. I have a friend who adds elegant scarves to her outfits and many others who use jackets, vests and unusual tunics to very good effect.

 Before I go further, I should add the caveat here that I live in a rural, mountain community which has it’s own kind of chic, often influenced by what turns up in the rummage at the Co-op and in thrift shops in Burnsville or Asheville. But in exploring elder fashion as an aspect of aging and living expansively, I recognize Celo chic as one option, but not the one I’ve chosen.

I have always disliked tights and loved knee socks, which go very well with my SAS shoes. I am always on the lookout for interesting socks and have a drawer full. As for pants, I simply don’t like to wear them. I dislike all that material between my legs, the effort to put them on and fussing with them during the day. They accentuate the less than perfect bodies of the aging and are not as flattering as dresses and jumpers at least for my figure. Dresses are infinitely cooler in hot weather. I tried pants for a while, but they never made me happy. I realized that I had to develop my own chic and cultivate the confidence to go against the trend. Unexpectedly I had a little help from my doctor as we were developing a dietary and lifestyle program to help with my GIRD problem. She said to me, “It’s important for you not to have anything tight or constricting around your waist or across your abdomen—like belts, or elastic waistbands or tights.” It was an accidental affirmation of what I was heading towards in my own personal style. I got rid of the pants I had tried to get used to, the belts, anything with constricting elastic bands and most of my skirts. I had a dozen or more beautiful blouses and two jumpers from Talbots So I decided that my uniform was going to be jumpers most of the year and sundresses for the hot days. I made several and I found others on line. I have a couple of dressy ones and some attractive skirts with easy waists that also work with sensible shoes.

The other thing I learned from Bertha, in addition to comfort as the arbiter of fashion in both clothes and shoes, was that if you are going against the norm, the comfort part has to extend to how you feel about yourself. You have to feel good about that person who looks back at you from the full-length mirror whether she is wearing pants with a handsome top or a jumper with a pretty blouse. As I notice my friends especially the ones 70 and above, I appreciate that each of them has developed a personal style that suits them and speaks of self-acceptance and dignity. It is a lovely part of aging to let go of “What will people think?” and ask instead, “How do I feel when I put this on?”

Bertha had a wonderful Tyrolean tweed hat with a jaunty feather that she wore with her comfortable buckskin shoes and walking skirt. She wore that outfit the whole time I knew her. It was never in fashion and it was always in fashion, because it was Bertha’s fashion. She empowered me to find mine, but I’m still looking for the perfect hat!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Affirmation and Aging: Digging Deeper

Saturday was race day on Tybee Island; the 10k runners started at 7:00 AM, the half marathon at 8:30 AM and both groups ran past my house. Many neighbors took their coffee and comfortable chairs outside and cheered the participants on. At the corner of our block a support team had medical supplies, a sound system playing upbeat music, and several volunteers who cheered and clapped as the runners came by. This is the fourth race I’ve watched, and I have noticed every year that as the stragglers start to come, the cheering is louder, more enthusiastic and, if you will, more affirming.

During the past week as I have been thinking about affirmation, I’ve concentrated on nonverbal forms of this particular kind of nurture. Therefore as I cheered for the runners, I thought how meditative running is or can be, and therefore probably affirming both to the soul and the psyche of the runner even if no one is there to notice and call out “well done!”

In my last essay I wrote about the affirming nature of friendship. When I finished I felt a desire to dig a little deeper and think about affirmation for the spirit. I started, as I always do, with a dictionary. Among the meanings of affirm are uphold, support, confirm, endorse. Spirit is defined as the nonphysical part of a person, the seat of emotions and character; in short, the soul. A second definition is: such a part regarded as a person's true self.

I believe that there is an intangible dimension to friendship, which by definition includes warmth, amity and goodwill. I have experienced with some friends (and I assume you have as well) a level of connection that doesn’t depend on being in the same room together. For example, I will be thinking rather intensely about someone and then go to my computer and find an email from that friend, or she or he will call later in the day and say something that speaks directly to my need, calms an anxiety or expands my thinking.

I had such a call this week from my friend Janey. I told her a bit about this contemplation, and she immediately told me about the concept of spiritual friends in Buddhism. They are friends who a have a shared understanding of how to become more expansive and compassionate and our dedication to that process. She followed this up with an email saying that spiritual friends help each other to remember what is true, what matters, and to remember about impermanence. “We help each other to be honest with ourselves,” she wrote.

As we move through the various stages or passages of our lives, affirmation of our personhood comes in many nonverbal ways: watching our children grow and develop, bringing in fresh vegetables that we have grown, or even surveying the serenity of a room we have just cleaned. In the workplace, we have our salary, bonuses, employee of the month awards, smiles as we pass one another in the hall, words of appreciation, and our own satisfaction with a project or task that we know we did well. We also have the casual friendship of those who invite us to go out to lunch, take a walk during a break, or bring us a cup of coffee mid-afternoon. In early retirement we may continue to have those small affirmations in the context of volunteering in our communities. We may also nurture our own spirit with creative endeavors we had put off during our work life, such as music, painting, writing or working with our hands as knitters, potters, glassblowers, woodworkers or weavers.

Then comes the shift to old age. My mother once said to me when she was in her mid-eighties, “It takes all my energy and all my financial resources just to maintain myself alive. What is the point?” When that is your circumstance, you don’t get out into the world where you may feel affirmed or supported by small encounters. That is exactly what I experienced somewhat prematurely during the two and a half years following my husband’s death and my own illness. But it was also during that period that my friend Lynn convinced me to enroll in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, the program that introduced me to meditation.

I confess that I find this matter of affirmation a touchy subject, because it is so much more than compliments and even encouraging words. It is rather the antithesis of emptiness; it is cultivating that sense that no matter how much your life has contracted, your spirit (your true self) can still expand. In my examination of what I have learned about aging, as it has been forced upon me by the passage of time and the complications that age has brought, I have realized that the exploration of the essence of personhood has been central for me. When many of the things that have defined me were gone or no longer possible to do, these questions— and others like them—filled my journal: “What is the meaning of my life? Who am I now that my children are raised, my work-life is over, my husband is dead, and I am too sick to garden or do the other things I thought would be my old age occupations?”

When we lived in Guatemala from 1964-67, there was no good aged cheese available in the stores. I kept trying to use local cheese in favorite family recipes, and no one was happy with the results. I finally came to the conclusion that it was better to do without than to be unhappy with a poor substitute, especially when there were so many wonderful local foods. It was a useful concept throughout the rest of my life. As I came to accept that I wasn't going to regain the level of energy I had grown used to during the more active part of my life, I remembered the Guatemalan cheese. I knew I did not want a poor substitute for the life I had led or the retirement I had imagined, especially when there were so many good local options.  I wanted a happy life within the context of my new limitations, and I wanted it right there in Celo (with a winter respite in Tybee) as long as I could manage.

Now here is the good part. Once I came to that realization, let go of my expectations, and opened my heart to what is possible in this moment, I found a more comfortable rhythm. I also found —and continue to find—so many things that uphold, and affirm my choices and my spirit. It has not, however, made life any easier. If I don’t exercise faithfully, drink enough water, get enough nourishment and sleep, meditate, and have fun, I’ll notice the difference very soon. The key understanding for me is that tending my spirit is the number one priority because that’s what makes it possible to keep up all the other necessary daily routines. That and a good cup of tea in the morning.