Monday, December 30, 2013


I established the Decrescendo blog site in October 2010, putting up a post weekly. In August 2012, I knew I couldn’t continue with at that pace and dropped back to two a month. I had already decided to make another change in my self-imposed deadlines when I heard Alice Munro being interviewed after she won the Nobel Prize. Now in her eighties, she said she had retired from writing, explaining that writing takes energy and she doesn’t have much energy anymore. Somehow that summed it up for me.

Based on my own reaction to blogs I have visited where new posts are erratic plus the information I patterns I saw in the traffic statistics for Decrescendo, I’m convinced that my dependable schedule has helped build my readership. This past year it has been difficult for me to write on a schedule (for reasons unrelated to the creative process).

Another frustration for me is the undependability and constant tweaking of Facebook, which I use to alert friends to new posts. While I appreciate that the Internet has given me this easy platform to share the memories that shaped my life and my observations about aging, I am not relaxed in that universe, and I want to reduce my direct involvement with it. I find my comfort level in the mail programs.

In all aspects of my life at 82, I have noticed that I don’t do well with pressure, deadlines, or hurrying. I get flustered! I considered following Alice Munro and retiring from writing. However, I’m not ready to do that. I’ve always thought I would go on writing until I was no longer able or had nothing to say.

So here’s the plan. Robin has set me up on Mailchimp and I’ll be sending my essays directly to welcoming inboxes by email. I will leave the blog intact so that interested people can have access to the archive of essays. (There is steady traffic to earlier posts coming through Google and other search engines.) Meanwhile I will send out a Decrescendo email essay about twice a month. I won’t have a specific schedule and will be able to take a little more time for rereading and final fact checking. When a post is ready, I’ll send it, and if your name is on the list you’ll get it in your Inbox. I expect to send the first one from Tybee Island in mid-January.

If you are interested in continuing to read what I have written, then please use the link below to add your email address. I won’t be sharing the list or doing anything with it other than sending my posts by Mailchimp. I’ll make a few changes to the blog site, but will leave the archives in place. I’ll also post the new essays that I’ll be sending by e-mail by so they’ll be available to drop-ins or folks who don’t use email, but the timing will be random and there won’t be Facebook reminders. If you are currently on the Decrescendo email list, your address has already been added to the Mailchimp list.

To subscribe to this ongoing distribution, click here. 

My thanks to all of my readers—the regulars, the drop-ins, and the seekers sent my way by Google et al. Please join me as I try to find a better routine and an easier schedule.

Donna Jean Dreyer, December 30, 2013

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Hinges of Human Experience

When I look in the mirror each morning I see an old face. Sometimes I study it looking for traces of the younger face that met my gaze for so many years. I look at the coarse, unruly gray hair; the deep wrinkles; and then at my eyes, which fortunately are still the same. In a time when nearly everything we do is documented, my emails often bring me pictures that friends and relatives have taken of me, sometimes with Nigel. They always do justice to the dog, but I am seldom satisfied with how I look. Somehow they don’t capture the old lady I see in my mirror. But this picture with Karik looks just the way I see myself, and it makes me happy.

I was twenty-one when Bill and I got married. Now—sixty years later—I have gotten a bonus from our early start in the form of five great-grandchildren. The grandmothers of these children are filing that role with generosity, love, and good humor. That allows me to have minimal responsibility and the maximal pleasure of watching them grow and give hints of the kind of people they will be.

I’ve spent some time this fall with a book called “Here If You Need Me” by Kate Braestrup, who is a chaplain to game wardens in Maine. She is often called upon to go into wilderness areas with search and rescue missions that don’t always have happy endings. She relates a conversation she had with one of the wardens after they had found the body of a person they were hoping to rescue. Part of Braestrup’s job is being with the families of the deceased at such times. The warden commented that they work “at the hinges of human experience when lives alter unexpectedly.”  I was struck by the use of the word hinge and went straight to my dictionary. The third definition is “a central point or principle on which everything depends.”

I faced such an experience when Bill died; at the time Robin said to me, “The whole structure of your life has turned upside-down.” Then my time on that hinge was lengthened by my own illness, which was diagnosed about three months later. Among my close friends and family there is often someone going through an upheaval. One of my friends, whose husband died earlier this year, may eventually be facing a move as well.  For my brother, the central point on which his life hinges is his ability to care for his wife at home and keep her safe as she heroically struggles with Alzheimer’s. I imagine that the experience of many of the long-term unemployed is that everything depends on their ability to piece together a living.  Life can also alter unexpectedly with happy experiences like the birth of a baby or a new job that brings greater res ponsibility. No matter what causes these hinge moments, lives are changed by them.

Once again I feel that I’m at a hinge of my own human experience. It is certainly not as profound or challenging as the death of a loved one, but nevertheless it has been the focus of my thinking. It has to do with a convergence of the very issues of aging that I have been exploring in my essays on this blog. Giving up nearly all my driving has been the underscore to recognition of my physical and emotional vulnerability. My current examination of myself includes noticing the excessive caution that flowed from my fall a year ago. It causes me to feel timid when I go for a walk and is further compounded by the vision problems that were at the heart of my decision about driving. Finally, I have to constantly plan my time with my limited stamina in mind. Last week Brene Brown, the guest on Krista Tippit’s program On Being, talked about the courage to be vulnerable, which she described as “whole-hearted living.” My challenge is to find within the circumstances of aging the quality of being that Brown described.

It has been my experience that simple words often break up a logjam of emotions and thoughts that are going nowhere. In this case it was an offhand comment from a friend of long-standing. He and his wife call me about once a year for a long visit by phone. After we shared family news, I asked him when he was going to retire. He told me that he had no current plans to stop working and gave me his reasons. I responded that I hoped I would live long enough to see him retire. “Well,” he said, “you just need to make it your goal.”

That casual remark sent the logs rolling swiftly down my rivers of thought as I started to imagine what it would feel like to make living a long time a goal. How would it change things?  Then I reminded myself that I actually have a different goal, and that is to live an expansive life for however long it lasts. I already know that the secret to aging well is balance. Not just the physical act of staying upright, but also in in the use of time and energy. Getting mired down in feeling old doesn’t help a bit, and maintaining the right balance of rest and activity can help you remain vital.

The first definition of hinge is the mechanism that opens and closes a door or a gate.  Keeping that analogy, I want this hinge in my life to bring me the opportunity to open wide my gate to let in the joy of the kind of whole-hearted living  I see in my two-year-old great-grandson Karik as he engages with every other person in the room.

Change is coming to Decrescendo

I plan to keep on writing about my life and the issues of aging along with the occasional memoir pieces. However, sometime in the New Year I will be doing it in a different way. It’s part of maintaining the balance I’m seeking. My next post will be on December 31 (which is a fifth Tuesday). I will share my plans, my reasons for making this change, and how you can continue to join me, if you would like to do that.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Thinking About Dreams and the Family Archives

We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep. (Shakespeare’s The Tempest)

I’ve been thinking a lot about dreams lately. I knew from experiences with my mother-in-law that dreams can be problematic as you get older. Changes in the brain make it more difficult to separate dreams and reality as you waken. Nevertheless it was startling the first few times it happened to me. Armed with a little understanding I concluded that the best remedy when I wake up dragging the ethos of a dream is to turn on the light and focus on the familiar surroundings. Some schools of thought give weight to emotions that influence dreams.  Meanwhile, scientists are investigating the kind of work that brain cells accomplish while we sleep and what impact that might have on dreams. I have a mental image of little file clerk brain cells sorting through piles of new bits of memory and putting them in the right file bins so that my daytime brain cells can retrieve whatever I need. Sometimes they drop a bit of memory and it leaks into my REM sleep.

Although I seldom ever have nightmares, I do dread visitations in the night by dreams that are disturbing, usually involving some kind of responsibility that I’m not up to. Still after all these years without him, I occasionally dream that I have to fulfill some obligation that Bill incurred. In one such dream I was expected to play the organ for a wedding Bill had agreed to do before his death made it impossible. I wakened as my dream avatar was saying “But I don’t know how to play an organ.”

My brain likes to make connections. Therefore, it puzzles me why the English language uses the word dream to describe three different experiences: nighttime REM-sleep images and sensations that we call dreams; contemplative daydreams; and aspirational dreams, which are desires or goals that seem improbable. It’s also used as an adjective meaning perfect. (Think dream team.) What qualities connect these very different experiences? Perhaps they are all more ephemeral than daily life or maybe it has to do with the way brains work.

 I make an attempt to control my night dreams by paying careful attention to what I eat, read, watch, or contemplate before bedtime, allowing my evening to provide a peaceful path to sleep. In contrast, I encourage myself to daydream and always have. It is a time when I gaze out the window, or at the sea, or at a beautiful view. Then I let go of directed thinking and just let my mind wander. As a mother, I tried not to interrupt the daydreams of my children because I think of it as an informal or casual kind of meditating.

There is a lot of variation in the origin or character of aspirational dreams.  As Robert Browning wrote, “Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?” Indeed, the moment that a goal is deemed beyond our grasp, it becomes a dream. Bill had long aspired to direct Carousel, his favorite musical. He kept trying to make it happen without success. Unexpectedly much later in life, the man hired to direct that particular musical at a theater in Greenville, SC got sick and withdrew. The producer contacted Bill and asked him to step in and direct Carousel. That was most certainly a dream come true, and the production was a well-heralded success with very fine reviews.

We also use the words “dream come true” about a moment in time, a gift or even purchasing a desired object on sale. Probably these are not things dreamed of in advance. Rather we want to express our pleasure in a serendipity. I celebrated my sixty-fourth birthday in London and had a magic moment during the intermission of a performance of “Swan Lake.” Bill and I went out to the roof terrace at the Royal Festival Hall, which overlooks the Thames. A full moon had painted the river with gold and illuminated the buildings on the opposite side of the river. Bill took me in his arms for a birthday kiss, and I declared the evening a dream come true. The truth is I didn’t know there was a roof terrace or a view of the Thames and had never painted that lovely picture in my imagination; but I wanted to acknowledge the sense of fulfillment that emanated from a memorable moment.

About three years ago I decided to sort through all the boxes of photographs, letters my mother had saved, the archives of Bill’s professional life and mine, and all sorts of souvenirs, diplomas, certificates, and clippings of weddings and obituaries. There were also boxes containing keepsakes from earlier generations that had come to us after the death of each of our mothers.

I managed to sort all the photographs in time for my eightieth birthday celebration when I was able to distribute some of them to my children.  During that same time period I had packed up and labeled everything from Bill’s life in the theater. But many other artifacts remained in the attic.

This fall Tammy assembled in my lower room all such remaining boxes from the attic. I was determined to finish the task. As the present custodian of these precious moments or the search for them, I decided to weed out dusty things that have suffered badly from the degradation of time, silver fish, mold, or mice, and protect the rest in plastic storage boxes. It may happen that among my grandchildren and great-grandchildren there will be someone who wants to know the family history and this material may be the start of a search.

Dealing with these final boxes came on the heels of a month of sorting and distributing the contents of three large storage boxes of clothing, costumes, and bedding. There were handmade quilts and shawls from several great-grandmothers. Tammy took the boxes of old financial materials and drafts of my book to the shredder during the week that the Credit Union offered this service.

As I plowed through the once precious items—including the ones that were shredded or distributed to other family members—it occurred to me that these items, some of them dating back to the nineteenth century, are the memorabilia of dreams: those that came true and those only hoped for. For that is what we save.