Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Re-centering After the Election Ruckus

“All in all, when push comes to shove, the American voters were not all scared or lacking in common sense. And the Obama voters consist overwhelmingly of non-white persons. Three cheers for diversity. I guess we can thank our parents for raising us to become ‘old white guys’ who know how to love everybody regardless of skin or ethnicity. Love, David” (From my brother’s post-election e-mail.)

David and I have ongoing, heartfelt political discussions by e-mail and on the phone. We’re very much in agreement about our beliefs and loyalties, but he is more active about trying to influence the public discourse. He writes opinion pieces and letters to the editor for Dunn County News in Menomonie, WI. He reads thoughtful political analysis constantly and has made a deep study of Reinhold Niebuhr and his spiritually-based political thinking. David has also published commentary and given talks on Niebuhr. His comment about thanking our parents set me thinking about my personal political heritage.

Mother and Daddy were patriotic in the same way they were Methodists and community volunteers. The duties of citizenship and church attendance seemed to be part of the same package. You loved God and you loved your country and served both to the best of your ability. I know they were interested in the Socialist party for a time in the late thirties and well remember square dances with potlucks and much discussion of the cooperative movement. My mother voted in several elections for Norman Thomas, the Socialist candidate for president. They both revered Eleanor Roosevelt, but I picked up the feeling that they disapproved of her husband. During WWII, Mother was active with two Pacifist organizations, but also assisted with the rationing program and rolled bandages for the war effort. My father was an Air Raid warden. As I grew up I loved celebrating all the patriotic holidays and was aware that both my parents viewed voting as a solemn obligation. They were registered as Republicans, and when I was in high school, I asked my father about that. He told me that the only way to have a voice in local politics was to be part of the majority party and vote in the primary elections. I know from dinner table conversation that in national elections they always voted for the candidate they liked, regardless of party.

David is right that we were definitely brought up to love everybody without regard to skin color and ethnicity, or for that matter, sexual orientation. However, it was clear to me that Mother shifted to the right politically after my father died in 1972; at the same time Bill and I were moving steadily further left as a result of our work with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). We were exposed to major economic and civil rights issues as we directed eight-week youth work projects in southern Appalachia and on a Cheyenne reservation in Montana before spending two years in High Point, NC working in school desegregation. Then we observed firsthand the mixed impact of the United States in Central America during the three years we lived in Guatemala. But we also learned to appreciate the development work of AID, Peace Corps, and scores of NGOs (non-governmental organizations) like AFSC. During our time there, a revolution was brewing that eventually erupted into a civil war. We returned home committed to working for social change both at home and abroad.

The election of Barack Obama in 2008 felt like a dream come true. I think history may well affirm that among his important accomplishments was simply getting elected and then re-elected. I believe that changed the aspirational narrative for African-American parents as they talk to their children. As president, he has already accomplished some brave goals, and I hope that his second term will be even more productive. I’m thrilled and relieved by his 2012 win; at the same time I am fully aware that nearly half of the electorate is disappointed and probably fearful for the future. That troubles me.

This blog has evolved from a vehicle to promote my book about caregiving into a memoir-based examination of life in my ninth decade. I have placed the emphasis on exploring the daily experience of aging, tapping the wisdom borne of life experience and combining it with common sense problem solving. In the beginning, I decided not to write about partisan politics because old age brings the same set of problems to all, regardless of party affiliation. Now that the worst election cycle in my memory has ended, I decided to share some post-election thoughts about how this experience has affected me. For openers the most common complaint I felt (and heard from my peers) was weariness from the onslaught of the news, advertising, robot calls, and ugly junk mail. Conservative commentator David Brooks summed it up on the PBS News Hour when he dubbed this the worst election cycle ever and commented that on both sides “the level of tolerated dishonesty” was higher than any time in his memory. That aspect of the campaigns took its toll on my sense of well-being.

The Republican primary was disillusioning and scary to me. Based on my personal positions on immigration, income equality, civil rights for all people, healthcare, and the imperative for deficit reduction, I was afraid that if Governor Romney were to win we wouldn’t really know what we were getting. Although he was somewhat more forthcoming, Paul Ryan doesn’t represent the things I believe about the role of government. Once the negativity started full scale, I was saddened that the Obama campaign felt they had to join the fray. As the rhetoric grew more negative, particularly in swing states like North Carolina, my occasional conversations with David became more important. At that same time I deliberately reduced my exposure to news and the hateful advertising.

In the face of high unemployment with many Americans going to bed hungry, the expenditure of billions to win an election felt obscene. Underneath the cash flow, there are doubtless expectations of a quid pro quo, which may hamper common sense legislation. Governor Romney’s comments about the 47 percent were deeply offensive to me. His cynical opinions specifically and the pervasive racism in general made me feel the body politic was losing ground on issues where we had once seen progress.

The sum total of living through the just-completed election has been emotional and sometimes spiritual turmoil as I felt the erosion of integrity evident in the polarization of our country. Most of my friends are in the same political spectrum as I am, but I know and care about any number of people who are equally anxious about our country now that the Democrats have won. During the campaigns, election-oriented conversations within my age group seldom touched on substance but rather focused on the stress, anxiety, and disappointment caused by the process.

Now the election turbulence has been replaced by the aftermath of Sandy, the armed conflict in the Middle East, the looming fiscal cliff, and the nasty debate that has erupted from the tragedy of Benghazi. The consideration of that tragic event in Libya is further muddled by the sad story of General Patraeus et al. The onslaught of bad news and fearful outcomes cast a pall over the nation. This has a profound effect on my generation, precisely because (to quote the Mother Superior in Cradle Song by G. M. Sierra) “All we can do is watch and pray.”

Years ago, when I had three pre-school children and was complaining to my sister (mother of six) about my nonfunctional washing machine, she responded, “It has been my experience that when my life is in the greatest turmoil, inevitably the car or a major appliance breaks down.” In the fog of my personal pre-election angst, a determined repairman was trying to figure out why the washing machine wouldn’t spin, and a parade of people from the gas company were in and out trying to fix my oven. As the Florida votes were still being counted after Obama had been declared the winner, the mystery of the spin cycle was diagnosed and repaired, and my brand new Amana stove was installed.  With these three good outcomes, some peace of mind has been restored, and hope will no doubt soon follow. Meanwhile the Republicans who may still be frightened about the next four years remain in my thoughts as I watch and pray.

Next Post: 12/04/12

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Settling for Good Enough

“This is as good as it gets,” Judd said to me as we were saying good-bye. It was more than thirty years ago, and I was visiting one of the volunteers who had been with us in Guatemala. (From 1964–67 Bill and I directed a Peace Corps-type program of the American Friends Service Committee [AFSC] in Guatemala.) Judd’s assignment was in a poor section of Guatemala City; we saw him often during his two-year stay. We remained in touch after he returned home to California.

During the eighties when I was again working for AFSC, I spent many months as an interim administrator in Pasadena near Judd’s home, and we were able to get together several times. On this occasion we had just finished an excellent lunch in his spacious home where his grand piano dominated a well-decorated living area. In the twenty-some years since he returned from Central America, Judd had developed a bilingual arts curriculum for gifted and talented students in one of the Los Angeles public high schools. He had also raised substantial public and private funds for the program. In some ways it was a continuation of the work he had done in the Guatemalan barrio. Usually ebullient and funny, during that visit he was subdued and complained of feeling tired. Even so, we had a good conversation; he told me many amazing stories about his work and the transformation he often saw in his inner-city students. Obviously his enthusiasm was not dimmed by whatever was ailing him.

One of the views from Delphi, Greece
Phrases like “this is as good as it gets” or “it doesn’t get any better than this” were ones I often heard from my husband Bill, who might be talking about anything from an excellent cup of tea in the Ceylon Pavilion at Expo 67 to a magnificent view from Delphi, Greece. From Bill those exclamations were obviously intended to be the highest praise. By contrast, Judd’s tone of voice and cadence were ominous, and the words sounded like a prophecy. I gave him a goodbye hug, wished him well, and said that I’d see him next time I was in southern California. A few weeks later, when I was back home in North Carolina, Bill answered the phone one evening and it was Judd, calling to let us know he had been diagnosed with AIDS. Three months after that, his father called to tell us he had died. We grieved for our friend; it was especially painful because his time on earth had been cut short by the scourge of that disease. At the same time we celebrated his life that had indeed been good for many years. He found artistic fulfillment in his piano and organ keyboard achievements and satisfaction from his work with remarkably talented Latino young people. Judd had loving parents, scores of friends, a beautiful home, and a white Corvette convertible to tool down the L.A. freeways.

Since 2005 I have been striving to regain the stamina and enthusiasm of the person I was in 1996 when Bill and I stood together at Delphi admiring the view in each direction. In the past nine years I have fought my way back to health following a long illness, then again after three different knee surgeries, and more recently two respiratory infections. For most of my life I had high energy and an unquestioned expectation that I could do whatever I set my mind to. However, for a decade now I’ve had to settle for daily swings between a modest amount of activity, followed by fatigue and the need to sleep.

Last week I had appointments with two of the caring, optimistic specialists who help me stay as well as I can. The physiatrist, a recent addition to the roster, has been directing the treatment of my right leg. She seemed personally delighted with my progress and happy that I am now walking with no pain. When I asked her to explain why the episode occurred, she showed me a picture from my recent MRI, pointing out the substantial degradation of the knee joint. The physical therapist I saw for four weeks had told me that if I was not faithful with daily therapy exercises for the rest of my life, I would lose ground. I asked the doctor about that pronouncement. She concurred and went on to say that during your eighties you can still rebuild, recover, and even make progress, but in your nineties it is hard to avoid losing ground even with exercise: Valuable and necessary truth-telling.

The next day it was the turn of the cardiologist who monitors my heart arrhythmia, which is caused by chronic atrial fibrillation. He started off by quizzing me rather intently about my level of activity. Was I still walking every day? How much? What about exercises in the house: How much and how often? After stressing how important it is for me keep moving, he listened to my heart very carefully. Then he told me with enthusiasm how pleased he was with what he heard. “You still have arrhythmia but the rate is good and the sound is good.” He kept using the word stable as he talked about my heart, but in response to my question about energy and exhaustion, he responded that it was not surprising given the damage to my lungs and the medication I take for the atrial fibrillation. Then he underscored that those prescriptions are essential. As we chatted a little more, it became clear to me he thought that holding my own was just great: Also helpful truth-telling.

My daughter Melissa, who calls me every weekend, was eager to hear the reports of my two appointments, and when I finished, she said, “Well Mom, maybe for you this is as good as it gets.” I laughed and told her that I had been thinking the same thing.

Now here’s my truth-telling: Thanks to the Upton Tea Company, which imports tea from every part of the world, I can make an excellent cup of tea in my own little kitchen. Actually, I often say to myself, “It doesn’t get any better than this.” From time to time someone takes me for a ride on the Blue Ridge Parkway (nine miles from my home) where the views from the overlooks rival the ones at Delphi. I sometimes think—perhaps a little wistfully—that I’d like to go see a show on Broadway or fly out to California to visit my good friend Claire, but I know such excursions are better in the abstract than in the real. Aided by my CPAP machine and the vibrating vest, supported by my loved ones, entertained by my dog Nigel, I thrive at home.

I’ve decided it’s time to quit striving to regain the energy I once took for granted, and concentrate on holding my own. I’m ready to rejoice in the knowledge that if this is as good as it’s going to get, it’s most certainly good enough.

Coincidentally, I was struck by this Rilke poem, read by the translator Joanna Macy during On Being last Sunday.

I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.

I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I've been circling for thousands of years
and I still don't know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?

Book of Hours, I 2

Next Post: 11/20/2012