Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Paying Attention to Moments of Grace

Once you've had a knee replacement, you're required to pre-medicate with a large dose of antibiotics one hour before a dental procedure. Unfortunately, this routine is not yet automatic for me. Last Thursday afternoon I arrived at the dentist's office right on time for my six-month cleaning. Krystal, the hygienist, ushered me to the exam room about five minutes later, and asked how I was, followed by "Did you pre-medicate?" The broad smile on my face quickly vanished as I admitted that I had totally forgotten. She touched my arm gently and said, "Let's go see when we can reschedule." I began apologizing about wasting her time; she assured me she'd find something to do.

While I'd been in the waiting room, I'd noticed a woman dressed in bright pink shorts with a matching top that nicely set off her stylish brown hair. She had seemed anxious and had kept her eyes focused on Debbie, the receptionist. Another patient had arrived and spoken to the lady in pink, and I'd heard her respond that she was hoping they'd work her in.

After I made a new appointment for my cleaning, Debbie offered to call and remind me about the medication next time.  I accepted gratefully, and we spent a few minutes chatting. Behind me I heard Krystal's voice saying, "Yes, I can take care of it."

As I started to leave, another staff person was telling the woman that they could accommodate her. She glanced at me curiously, and I explained why I had to cancel. "My goof is your gift," I said lightly.

She beamed and then answered with intensity, "Oh yes, I believe that." Then she told me she was a cancer survivor and had recently had a follow-up MRI and PET scan. The results revealed something in her jaw that could be cancer, and her doctor had asked her to get a dental X-ray and exam. "I can deal with the cancer," she said, "I've done that before. But I couldn't deal with not knowing. I couldn't just go back to work. So I prayed and came here."

I paused at the front door of the office and said, "It was a moment of grace for both of us, because I was bothered about wasting people's time, and now I feel better." Krystal called her to come for the X-ray and I waved and said, "Good luck."

Next stop was the library, which is housed in a renovated historic building, and it was a struggle to open the heavy front door. I returned one book and renewed another, then sighed as I faced the door again. Just as I raised both hands to push my way out, a boy, about seven years old, came running across the lobby; he put his hands below mine and pushed open the door, then stood aside and held it as I exited. I thanked him and he smiled and ran off down the steps.

The word "grace" is a favorite of mine. It has many shades of meaning such as elegance, refinement, polite behavior, blessing, and the unmerited favor of God. At one of the meetings of my writing group, Barbara, a very busy member, read several pages from what she called a Grace Diary. It was full of amazing little stories that captured moments when someone helped her or something happened that removed a problem. She started every beautifully written vignette with the words "Grace is when..." Barbara told us that she reads the diary when her spirits are low, and it cheers her up to remember the kindness of people. I thought briefly about starting my own diary, but I knew it would feel like another responsibility, and I don't need any more of those. Instead I decided I would just start paying more attention to such moments in my own life.

The cap on my car's gas tank has one of those double-click closures and it's hard for me to open, given the reduced strength of my arthritic right hand. Generally my family keeps the tank filled. However,  recently I got in the car  to do a short errand and saw that I needed gas. I was lending my car to a friend for the weekend, and no one was home to help. On my way to do the dreaded chore, I silently prayed that I would find the strength to get the cap off and then back on again at the end. As I pulled into the station a middle-aged man in work clothes and boots was hanging up the hose after fueling his car. He waited while I parked next to the tank and opened my door. Then he stepped up and said, "Would you like me to pump your gas?" I accepted with enthusiasm and thought of Barbara's diary.

Unexpected moments of grace didn't just start happening to me when my hair turned gray. If I'd been keeping grace diaries, I would have a shelf full of volumes. I was married in 1953 and had three babies in four years. During five of the preschool years, we lived in the country, a short distance from town. In those days there was no 911 or any local ambulance service. There also was no free kindergarten, so the only preschool opportunities were playgroups that mothers organized now and then. My husband Bill used our car to commute. I was a worrier and used to wonder what on earth I'd do if one of my toddlers had an accident I couldn't fix with a brightly colored band-aid.

One day my three-year-old son Robin had a close encounter with a back yard fence and somehow his eyelid was ripped open. I grabbed a towel to apply some pressure as Robin sobbed—I tried to think of anyone who lived close by and might be available to help. Just then I heard a car pull into our driveway. It was a casual friend who lived a few miles away. She immediately offered to take us to the doctor. Four-year-old Kevin hopped in the back seat and my friend loaded baby Melissa into her portable carrier and put her next to Kevin. (There also were no child car seats back then.) I sat in the front cradling Robin in my arms. As we headed toward town, my friend told me that as she had neared my house she had a sudden urge to stop by and say hello.

It was clearly an emergency and the doctor took Robin in immediately, gave him a tetanus shot, applied a topical anesthetic, and prepped him. As he got ready to stitch the eyelid, he looked me and said, "I hope I get this right. I only have one eye kit." He opened the sterile package and lifted the small curved needle with surgical thread already in place and began to mend the rip. Robin was very still, and the doctor slowly completed his work.

When I had time to exhale, I marveled that after all my fretting and worrying, in two moments of grace, a friend responded to an urge and provided transportation, and our small town doctor had one eye kit and got it right. My life has been full of such interactions in many parts of the world, sometimes with no common language to ease the way. In turn, I've tried during my life to respond to urges as my friend did, and I taught my children to pay attention to their hunches, because (to quote my mother), "Maybe an angel is whispering in your ear."

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Exultation of the Moment

A memoir by Andre Agassi is hardly my usual fare, but my son Robin shared his copy of the audiobook with me. Listening to recorded books helps me pass the time in the morning and evening when I sit in a comfortable chair while my new therapy jacket vibrates my chest. I can’t watch TV because it jiggles my eyes. When I work on a crossword puzzle, the words I write are illegible. If I try to read the book bounces around. Audiobooks are definitely the way to go. I download them to my iPod and plug it into a dock with speakers; then I lean back, close my eyes and let someone else read to me while the vest helps clear my lungs.

In the energetic opening chapter of the memoir, Agassi makes it clear that he hates tennis. When I was in the workforce I always loved what I did, especially any part of any job that involved writing. All of my children and grandchildren are pursuing work they love. They don’t all have their dream jobs, but they are building up their résumés and enjoying life in the meantime. It’s hard for me to wrap my mind around someone playing tennis for a living and hating it.

After the first two chapters, I asked Robin if Agassi ever talks about an emotional upside to tennis. Robin assured me that when Agassi won a tournament, he had moments of what I call exultation. I choose that word deliberately because it’s the one that occurred to me the other morning when my dog Nigel and I were out on our silent road in the first light of the morning. There is a section of our route with a long view across a meadow to a ridge of the Black Mountain chain that looms up in the distance. Most mornings the meadow appears to drop off between large deciduous trees on either side, as though it were a valley. But that morning only the ridge was in view; the field and beyond were filled with mist. Along the side of the road, several black-green fir trees pierced through the blanket of gray, pointing to the slate-colored sky. In my head I heard the warm tenor voice of my husband Bill, singing, *The mists of May are in the gloaming, and all the clouds are holding still… I stood there exulting in my world and, at the same time, wondering what gloaming actually meant. For that matter, what did exult mean exactly? I finished my walk at a fast pace, eager to get home to the dictionary.

Well, well, well… Gloaming is an old English word that means the twilight that comes at dawn and right before sunset. Mists of course are often seen just after dawn. As for exult, it is an intransitive verb (usually used with in) and means to show or feel elation or jubilation, especially as the result of a success. It comes from the Latin exultare meaning to leap. (Just the right word for Andre Agassi I reckon.) I have a passion for words, the building blocks of writing, and my dictionary stand is smack in the middle of my one-room living space.

When we went out for the evening half-mile it was a different world. The mists were gone, and that particularly pure light that often comes in the late afternoon drew my attention to the many shades of green around me. There seemed to be three main groups: blue-green, yellow-green, and black-green. Grasses, roadside weeds, poison ivy, ferns, rhododendrons, laurels, white pines, firs, hemlocks, oaks, maples, beeches, poplars, locusts, dogwoods: each one was a slightly different color of green. This time I hurried home so I could send an email to my friend Alicia who is a huemeister. She is just as passionate about color as I am about language. Her response was: “As for the greens - did I tell you a fact that I learned while at Penland?  The human eye can detect approximately 10 million colors - 8 million of which are green. How's that for astounding?!?!?!?”

I began my lifelong love affair with writing at about the same age that Agassi started to hate tennis, as his father forced him to hit thousands of balls a week, served up by a ball-throwing machine. Putting words together that communicate exactly what is in my mind gives me a thrill, At this stage of my life I’m able to spend all the time with words that I choose to: reading, writing, doing crosswords, and checking the dictionary for exact meanings—right now I’m expanding my tennis vocabulary.

I also spend a lot of my time walking, another thing for which I have a passion. I derive pleasure both from exercising my body and appreciating what I see as I move along. About a year ago I decided I was going to try to do mental sketches made with words of the things that I exult in as I walk. It keeps me present in the moment, gives my brain some exercise, and sharpens my powers of observation. In practice I have found it very difficult because pure description has never been easy for me. One of the assignments I had in a college creative writing course was to describe an eggbeater. It was one of the hardest bits of writing I’ve ever done.

Sunday I tuned in to Krista Tippetts on NPR, as I often do. Her guest was a young poet named Sarah Kay who talked about words with the same excitement and reverence I feel. Commenting on the beauty of language she said that although you could use the first word that comes to you, if you think further you may find another that is much more specific. “I love words that mean exactly what I need them to say,” she concluded.

When asked why she did not use Twitter, Sarah Kay explained that we can be creative with language but we can also be careless with it: speed doesn’t allow for care. With youthful energy and a poetic style, she exults in the mindful use of language.

I’ll finish the Agassi book because it is stretching my mind, nourishing my empathy, and challenging my complacency. It’s a book about parents who are overly ambitious for their children, it’s about blinding ambition, and it’s about abusing your body in the drive to excel, to win, and to be number one. Not everyone can do what they love, not everyone can learn to love what they have to do, and I find myself hoping that the man who hated his way to number one can spend his post-tennis years doing things that he loves.

 It's humbling to consider how fortunate I’ve been. My parents certainly wanted us children to fulfill our potential, to strive and to achieve; but they also encouraged us to find our own way. I was able to study what I wanted to learn and when I went to work, I earned a salary doing things I loved. For me it has never been about winning or losing; it’s been about the exultation you feel for the game.

* a line in “The Heather on the Hill” from the musical Brigadoon, lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Lydia: Got Her Degree; Will Travel!

Lydia with a Butler Bulldog
Last Saturday, my granddaughter Lydia graduated from Butler University, where the basketball team had famously made it to the Final Four twice during her time there. Diploma in hand, she is free to pursue her own career plans or make them happen by her own effort. In a way, she’s been doing that all her life. Some people seem to grow up easily, moving gracefully from one developmental phase to the next. Lydia’s journey to adulthood was more like driving a bumper car; you plunge in, hands firmly on the steering wheel, and then something whips you around and you bump into another car, laughing and screaming at the same time. But even with the bumps and detours, Lydia has always seemed to be at the wheel, steering, bumping and zigzagging to achieve her own dreams, good dreams that were worth the chase.

When she was born on June 4, 1989, I was just two hours away from her South Bend home, taking care of Nathaniel and Maya, the two children of my daughter Melissa and her husband Bob. Their mother was at their father’s side as he awaited a bone marrow transplant in Minneapolis. When the good news came from South Bend, I packed up my grandchildren and took them south to greet their baby cousin. I was happy for the new life, especially welcome as it gradually became clear that Bob would not live long enough to have the procedure. Lydia Grace Dreyer was indeed a blessing to the entire extended family.

When she was about four, I was enchanted during one of my visits as she told me one story after another, dramatizing then with her voice and gestures. Some were about Mr. and Mrs. Alligator, who had a little store and sold things to the other swamp animals. I imagined she might have had a storybook from the library that sparked her narrations, but she was clearly making it up as she went along. No surprise to me that she majored in theater at a university that has an excellent program in both theater education and performance.

 Hers is a family of performers: her mother Indi Dieckgrafe is a dancer, choreographer and Professor of Dance at St. Mary’s College. My son Kevin, her father, is a lighting designer and director and on the faculty at Notre Dame. All three of their daughters have been on stage as dancers, singers and actresses most of their lives. But it is also a family committed to helping others, often using their theatrical talents in their volunteer work. Both Lydia and her older sister Natalie have focused on using theater techniques with children and young people, sometimes from at-risk populations. Through their church youth group and other community organizations they, together with their youngest sister Wilhe, have often been involved in helping others less fortunate, following the example set by their parents.

Several weeks ago, the phone rang and my heart quickened with love as I heard Lydia’s excited breathy voice say, “I called to tell you about my senior project.”  She gave me an animated description of her process of adapting several fairy tales as a theater piece for young audiences, and then producing and directing it. As she described the reception her work had received, I was struck by the undertones of strength and satisfaction in her voice. That successful production, using actors from the Butler theater department, had garnered praise from the faculty.

It was followed by A grades on two guides for future theater majors that Lydia wrote as independent study projects. Motivated by her own concerns about life after graduation, she did the research and created a handbook with complete information on ten children’s theaters. It will be helpful for other students seeking employment or intern opportunities in the future.

The second guide is for students who are interested in developing or working with after-school theater programs. Her opening paragraph starts with a question.
“So you want to teach an after-school theater class? Congratulations! You are about to embark on the journey of a lifetime that I promise you will be filled with confusion and even a little frustration. But I can assure you it will be a great deal of fun. More important than the confusion and frustration and the fun is the impact that you will make on your students' lives through the art of theater. Don’t be afraid. Instead, be wildly excited about it!”

After a week at home, Lydia will be off to Ecuador to visit her boyfriend who is there as a Peace Corps volunteer. She’ll get home just in time to come to North Carolina where my whole family is gathering for the official celebration of my 80th birthday (my actual birthday falls on an inconvenient, usually cold January day). Lydia has already started a job search, using her own guide. This is not the most propitious time for new graduates to enter the job market. But this doting grandmother is willing to go out on limb and say that if she doesn’t find a job Lydia will create one, and I’m certain that she'll  indeed be wildly excited.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Pro-Active Aging 4: Priorities, Contentment and a Tree

Weather permitting, my days begin and end with a walk. During my winters on Tybee, I have a standard route that goes past this tree, captured digitally by my son Robin. I find it compelling in the late afternoon with a shadow that mirrors its quasi-symmetrical structure. The roots are planted firmly in the soil just a block south of my Tybee rental cottage. Last winter it suddenly became important to the meditative aspect of my life when I happened to catch sight of it at sunset as the slanting rays turned this silver tree to gold. It was so impressive that I included it in a blog post on January 17th.

Although I had noticed it in previous winters, after the magic of the gilded branches, I began to pause nearby every day to let the strength of this tree spirit nourish me. Silently I sent back a message of gratitude. I was aware of how deeply moved I was by the presence of this grandeur in my life, and I wondered what lesson the tree could teach me. One day I stopped a half a block away where I had an unobstructed view of the entire tree, and understood that it was a symbol of the equilibrium and strength I seek in my life: the stability of roots going deep in my community, and my trunk showing its age, but usually strong enough to support the necessary activities of each day. The architecture of the branches represents the desired balance with a central core going upward as it engages the contemplative, cerebral, and emotional facets of daily living, but with a horizontal flow outwards to my practical and social needs.

For a retired single person living alone the blessing and burden of each day is one and the same: you are the one who sets the daily agenda. There is no supervisor, spouse, or child depending on you, making demands on you, or sharing your load. Either consciously or without thought, you set the priorities for your life and make scores of daily decisions about the apportioning of your physical and financial resources. Your contentment and peace of mind depend on how well you do it. Even if unwanted telephone solicitations, mishaps, or bad weather change the options for the day, it’s still up to you to maintain the balance,

I find, and perhaps you do to, that my choices revolve around two categories: need-to and want-to (or like-to). Fortunately many things fall into both categories: I need to exercise; I want to walk. I need to nourish myself; I like to cook. I need to stay in touch with my family; I enjoy writing emails. It has been my experience that the older people who are the most contented are the ones that know what their priorities are and why. If you don’t know what yours are, you can probably figure it out by taking a good look at the choices you make.

When my husband Bill and I returned from three amazing years in Guatemala working for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), we had no clarity about the next step in our lives. Bill had several offers of employment and a few additional leads, but nothing seemed quite right. He was a musician and a theater director, but had felt drawn to spend some time working for school desegregation in North Carolina and then directing the volunteer service program in Central America. Now he needed to decide on his priorities for the next few years. During this time of transition we had exit interviews at the AFSC headquarters, located in Philadelphia not far from my parents. Bill decided to discuss his future with Barbara Graves, who had been our supervisor for the work we did in Guatemala. During a lengthy field visit there, she and Bill had gone through a rough patch. As they hashed it out, they developed a deep mutual respect. “She knows me as well as anyone I’ve ever worked with,” he told me.

After they shared a long lunch and a searching conversation, she said to him, “The most important thing you need to know about yourself is what supports your identity. Whatever job you take and wherever you locate, make very sure that the new situation will provide what you need.”  That advice became the core of all the subsequent employment decisions and moves we made in our life together.

It was from Bill’s recounting of that discussion that I started think about my own choices. I asked myself a corollary question, “What do I organize my life around?” At that point the answer was clearly Bill and our children. It's been evolving ever since . I think we all have something so important to us, that we make time for it.  Perhaps it is work, church, family, or volunteer commitments. But it can equally be trout fishing, golf, watching soccer games, or working in clay.

Understanding our personal priorities may depend on knowing what supports our identity or being aware of the things that we are determined to make time for. My top priority is doing whatever I need to do so that I can be as strong and feel as well as possible. It’s both a need-to and a want-to, and includes everything I do to promote health. This probably uses up two-thirds of my available energy every day. With the other flexible third of my time, I would lump my list together and say that my priorities are creativity and fun. These things definitely support my identity and equilibrium, but except for writing, they are in the want-to category. However, by making a priority of health, I can usually muster up enough energy to read, knit, putter in my garden or work a crossword puzzle.

The Tybee tree is leafed out now along with all the Celo trees, and it is harder to see the architecture of their trunks and branches. Perhaps next winter you’ll see a tree that speaks to you. If that happens, send me a picture.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Pro-Active Aging 3: Once a Girl Scout Always a Girl Scout

During the Second World War there were occasional air raid drills in my elementary school.  We would all be herded into the basement where we sat on the cold concrete floor. The boys, pleased to be out of the classroom, poked each other and laughed; many of the girls, including me, were scared and paid attention to the teacher’s reminders of what to do in a real air raid. There were also numerous night blackout and air raid drills throughout the state of Pennsylvania from 1941-1944. As recommended, we prepared our dining room as the blackout space. The windows were hung with heavy gold brocade portieres, and the room could be made light-free by closing all the solid wooden doors. My father was an air raid warden and took it all very seriously. But my mother made light of the drills and chose to follow Eleanor Roosevelt’s suggestion that families could gather under their dining room tables and drink tea.

We lived sixty miles inland from the Jersey shore, and it was generally known that some German u-boats had been sighted along the East Coast. The full extent of the penetration was not shared with the public until after the war. When the siren in the firehouse went up to its highest pitch and stayed there, my father would pull the blackout curtains closed, grab his official kit and hat and go to his post to start his rounds. Meanwhile Mother quickly prepared the tea. Since I never knew if it was a drill or a pending attack, that sound struck terror to my heart, and to this day a sustained siren causes a frisson of fear. I can rationalize my way out it, but I always have that feeling.

On March 3, a warm Saturday afternoon at the end of my stay on Tybee Island, I was in my rented beach cottage waiting for a realtor to bring several prospective buyers to look at the house, which is for sale. In anticipation, I had straightened up the main living area, which includes kitchen, dining, living room and office functions in one central open area. Suddenly a piercing shaft of sound shot up toward the sky and lingered at the top filling the air with the essence of warning. A hundred thoughts went through my brain in seconds, starting with the visceral presence of fear rooted in childhood memories. Immediately I switched on the TV, which I knew was tuned to the Weather Channel. As it warmed up, I sat down, took a deep breath, and then watched as a red weather alert crawled across the bottom of the screen followed by the words Tornado Warning in effect for Tybee Island. The quavering sound outside seemed ever more ominous. Then suddenly the siren shredded to quiet, and I heard a loudspeaker announcement repeating the warning and telling everyone to take appropriate cover. I became aware of cars rushing by, and then the siren resumed. Glancing at the radar picture of the approaching storm filled me with foreboding. In mere seconds, I mentally surveyed the house, all the while remembering crouching under the comfort of our family’s dining table. Climbing in a bathtub was out of the question. I was there alone and I can’t get out of a tub without help. So I gathered up two pillows and shoved them under the large heavy table. I took a moment to send an email to Robin saying we had a tornado warning, and I wanted someone to know. Then I turned off the electronic devices and disconnected the plug bar.

I removed candlesticks, salt and pepper shakers and a vase of flowers from the table and a few other potential flying objects from a kitchen counter, putting them all behind the closed doors of a cupboard. I pulled the dining chairs away from the table and pushed them against the wall. Then I dragged a small overstuffed chair beside the table and called Nigel to get on my lap. I decided I wouldn’t get under the table until I saw a change in the light outside or heard the sounds of a storm. Unexpectedly, I was filled with a sense of peace, hearing in my head, the sound of my mother—who loved quotes—intoning from Ephesians 3:16, “Having done all, stand.” (Or, in this case, sit). I thought about the horrendous pictures from the tornados last year and knew that if a twister passed over Becca’s Cottage it was possible that Nigel and I wouldn’t survive. One by one I thought of those I hold dear, then I focused on my breath and waited. Perhaps three minutes went by, and then, like the air going out of a balloon, the shaft of sound crumpled to the ground and there was a brief pause before the loud speaker boomed, “The tornado warning has been cancelled.” Then all was silent. Five minutes later I was still sitting there thinking, when someone banged on the door.

I went to let them in, and the realtor entered apologizing profusely for being late, “We couldn’t get here on time because the police ordered all the cars off the road so nothing would be in the way of emergency vehicles.”

Perhaps the best preparations I had made for a tornado warning in an unlikely spot were the experiences of my childhood and the late-in-life practice of meditating. There are, however, many ways that following the Girl Scout motto Be Prepared (drummed into my brain during weekly troop meetings) can reduce the stress of meeting challenges, as we are less able to move quickly into a response mode. I keep candles with matches next to them in strategic places around my house. Several gallons of water are stored on shelves above my dryer, and if there are warnings of a storm that might cause a power outage, I also fill the tub. I routinely keep food staples and first aid supplies up to date.

Now that I have a number of medical issues to manage, I also prepare for the downside of low energy or fatigue by having a stash of soup, frozen entrees, and nourishing snacks in the house. In a sense I prepare to be tired when I arrange a place to take a nap in the middle of an Asheville day. For a change in the weather, I’ll dress in layers, put an umbrella in the car and, if it’s warm when I leave home, add a jacket just in case. Water, cough drops, a power bar, Kleenex, a cane and my amber colored glasses are all loaded in the car whenever I leave home. Not forgetting the needs of the mind, I also make sure I have a book or a crossword puzzle in case I decide to stay in the car while someone else does an errand.

Here’s my rule: if something that causes me stress happens once, I take note. If it happens twice, I make a plan for preparations that will reduce the stress. With any luck I’ll implement the plan before it happens again. Your rule for lowering stress by planning ahead will be different than mine and tailored to your own concerns. But, personally I believe Juliette Lowe was on to something. It’s never too late to be a good girl scout!

In case you are curious, I learned after the Tybee storm passed by, that satellite pictures had shown two parallel straight-line winds with what appeared to be the beginning of a rotation. They were aimed directly at the Island. When the tornado warning was canceled, another warning was issued for a dangerous storm. The winds were fierce and the rain was heavy when it arrived some twenty minutes later. In the calm rain-washed beauty of late afternoon, Nigel and I walked to the beach along streets littered with tree branches, but no sign of property damage. Weekend visitors were packing their cars and would go home with a good story to tell. And so did we.