Saturday, October 4, 2014

Taking Care

Dear Readers,

This is my final post on the Decrescendo blog. Thank you for following my blog, liking it on Facebook, leaving comments, and sending e-mails. Some of you made suggestions for topics that I used.

I would also like to acknowledge the excellent help I received from Polly Lorien who was my copy editor for two years: proofreading, checking the facts, and marking passages that lacked clarity. If you ever need a good copy editor, you can contact her at My thanks also to Robin Dreyer for his photographs, his encouragement, and technical help.

Many readers have urged me to go on writing. I have no planned projects but if the muse taps me on my shoulder I‘ll pay attention and send the result to those on the Decrescendo e-mail list. If you are not on that list you can add your name through the link at the top of the right-hand column.

As I bid you farewell I want to urge you to go take a walk and intentionally notice everything beautiful along the way. I’ll be out there too with Nigel.

Donna Jean Dreyer

The Cook siblings: Dorothy, David, and Donna Jean

“Beginnings and endings are sensitive times and deserve to be treated with care,” said Barbara Graves. It was 1967, and Bill and I had just returned after three years in Guatemala where we directed a volunteer program for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). Barbara had been our field supervisor based in AFSC headquarters in Philadelphia where we were now starting our exit interview. It was the official ending of one of the most fascinating, rewarding, and difficult times of our life together. We did not yet know what we would be beginning.

That three-hour discussion of our experiences—what we had learned, how we had changed, what we were losing—remained with us both and assured that for the rest of our life together we would pay careful attention to beginnings and endings. Barbara spoke with the authority of a lifetime of difficult volunteer assignments in both war and peace as she advised us to take some time before we made a decision about which of several job opportunities Bill would accept. Then she offered one final piece of advice, which Bill followed then and many times later: “Make sure that whatever you do and wherever you go you will find support for your identity—the person you truly are.”

That conversation has been haunting me as I have approached the end of my blog writing and concurrently am living through a process of radical acceptance as we mourn the sudden death of my grandson Miles.  At the same time I rejoice at the unexpected but safe premature birth of my sixth great-grandchild. Tiny Cecilia is the child of my granddaughter Maya and her husband Wes. She is now at home and slowly gaining weight.

My life experiences say to me that taking care of these endings and a beginning requires time, allowing the sorrow to run its course, and maintaining a spacious readiness for what may in time follow these changes. Finishing a creative activity and mourning the death of one so dear to me are both endings deserving the care Barbara spoke of, however the difference in impact is huge. Cecilia’s beginning is in the care of her parents but knowing she is with us is a comfort.
Over the years I have been part of The Schleppers (a group of older folks who want to help each other age in place here in Celo). We have from time to time had a variety of discussions about death. In one series we approached the topic with the thought that becoming comfortable with the inevitability of our own death is part of the spiritual work of later life.  This summer has thrust me into a contemplation of both the often-gradual ending of lives in my generation as well as the harsh reality of the abrupt death of a young man in his prime.

In early summer my brother, David (age eighty-five), and I learned that our sister, Dorothy (age ninety-two), has a terminal diagnosis and is in the care of her daughter supported by hospice. Her journey to the end of life is moving slowly, but we live with the knowledge that it will come soon, perhaps this fall. In the same timeframe, David decided that he needed more support in the care of his courageous wife, now in her seventh year with Alzheimer’s. His new beginning starts on October 7 when they will move to an assisted living apartment in a facility close to one of his daughters. He is ending his time in Menomonie, Wisconsin where he has had a full and satisfying life for thirty-nine years. This move represents an acceptance of inevitability. 

I too feel a change as I am questioning how I want to use or spend the time that remains in my life. Perhaps that is a part of getting comfortable with my own death. Right now, however, I need to do the deep work of coming to terms with the absence of Miles whose life was so suddenly snuffed out. As for my future, however short or long it may be, I don’t know at this point, nor can I even imagine, what it might bring. This week it brought a letter from a friend of my own generation who wrote, “Perhaps you have been chosen by destiny to write about the depth of loss that will help others to carry on and to affirm in some way the great gift of life.” Perhaps I am headed toward a new beginning, which I will certainly treat with great care.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Mourning Miles

“It is the worst possible news. He didn’t make it. He is dead.” With those words I learned that my grandson Miles had died on August 19 in the emergency room of the nearest hospital, and an entire community was bereaved.

His life lasted for thirty-three years, which he had lived with enthusiasm, creativity, invention, humor, and a deep concern for the planet. He left a legacy of love to his wife Polly, their daughter Ginger, his mother, father, brother, and grandmother plus a large extended family. An autopsy has confirmed that his heart stopped as a result of myocarditis. No one was to blame, and nothing could have saved him.

A week later he was buried in a simple coffin made from poplar and cherry. On the spacious grounds surrounding a small woodshop, about a hundred people gathered to watch and wait while a dozen friends of Miles measured, sawed, sanded, and then assembled the box. Meanwhile others visited and shared a potluck supper, which I am told was delicious -- a fitting tribute to Miles, who was an accomplished chef. The next day Robin took me to see their finished work and we found another craftsperson adding inlays of walnut and glass beads. Miles had a simple burial in in the wooded cemetery in the Celo Community where he lived. Other friends had cleared the site and dug the grave. After the box was lowered by a group of Miles’s closest friends, his brother Julian, and Robin, many hands helped to fill it again as we all joined in singing old familiar songs.

In the time between his death and the memorial service two weeks later, I thought often about the circles of friends who were mourning. Miles’s circles included the glass artists, the volleyball and brunch gangs, co-workers, the Celo Community, the members of the local food co-op, and the Celo kids he grew up with, just to name a few. Polly and each of the four generations of Dreyers have their own set of circles. Polly and Miles also had a circle of music friends, both from Polly's performances and the open mic nights they hosted together. Even eighteen-month old Ginger is one of a circle of Celo babies who are growing up together.

My friends began to arrive at my house ten minutes after I first heard the news, and about a dozen of Robin and Tammy’s friends gathered on my deck the first evening and told stories about Miles. We learned that people were walking together each evening from the Celo Health Center to the soccer field just to take time to absorb what had happened. One evening I asked some of my friends to join me on the walk and there were eighteen of us. A group of craftspeople spent an evening together reminiscing, and the business where Miles worked closed at noon one day so his co-workers could sit together and share their thoughts. Polly's parents and her best friend Liz arrived quickly to give much needed support. Others in her family came for the burial. Aunts, uncles, cousins, and dear friends from out-of-town who came for the memorial service were housed with Celo families and fed at a dinner and brunch with food provided by other neighbors.

At the memorial, some four hundred people sat under a tent on the soccer field or stood on the periphery as we learned more about the last fulfilling year of the life of Miles Dreyer. We joined together in a period of silence and shared observations, stories, poems, songs, and simple expressions of love or appreciation for his life.

Everyone is gone now, and here in Celo people (including me) have taken up their normal lives again. I am lonely with a loneliness that the presence of other people cannot assuage. When my husband Bill died I felt alone but not lonely. The dreams we had dreamed had all been fulfilled and the love between us had no strain or shadow. He had been ready to let go. But Miles was fully present in the now, dreaming dreams and testing them against what he was learning about climate change and the gap between political rhetoric and the daily lives of most people. He and Polly had dreams for what they would build together in this valley, how they would grow together, raise their child, and hopefully have another.

The words at the memorial reminded me of the child Miles who just wanted to be good, and the man who wanted to make things better. The adolescent Miles did not want to learn as our society teaches through classrooms and lecture halls. He wanted to touch life directly by sharing the world others inhabit through talking and listening. He wanted to see for himself what worked in different lands. From master craftspeople at Penland and other venues he learned to make beautiful, useful, and whimsical things in glass. As a young adult he crafted his own higher education and spent time visiting and working in other countries—Down Under and in Central America—to learn how others take care of the environment, and to think about governance and philosophies about sharing our resources and caring for each other. He also had a good time, saw great sights, made new friends, learned new skills, and fell in love with Polly (also a glass artist).

Miles worked as an assistant in a glass business in Hawaii for four years and Polly joined him there for the last two, hired by same studio. In 2008, as the recession deepened, Miles and Polly returned to Yancey County to make their home in Celo. They found or created various jobs, rented a house, applied for membership in Celo Community, and got married.

For some thirty years I had lived next door to my son and daughter-in-law and watched their sons grow up. Now I had the unimaginable joy of having Miles and his family close enough to drop by, celebrate holidays, and share Sunday brunches. As election politics and monetary policies dominated the airways, Miles and I often had conversations about what was inherent in our governance and banking system that had caused this recession. Miles cared deeply about the effect that the recession and our dysfunctional government was having on the lives of most Americans.

We also talked about the effects of big money interests on the environment, the use of resources, protecting wildlife -- in short, the whole gamut of political and monetary concerns. He was often skeptical and felt that public statements rarely revealed the whole truth. His constant questioning led me to read many books I might never have picked up otherwise. Of course, he wasn’t just talking to me and he wasn’t just talking politics. Miles remained aware of the goodness of people, the importance of sustaining a community, and the value of fun. He recognized what was real and important in this life and even hoped to make it better. Now I am left with a Miles-sized hole in my life.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Eyes Have It

My five-year-old great-granddaughter Roslyn came to visit me along with her parents and her older brother. She is bright, bubbly, and undaunted, and never seems to stop talking—offering her opinions about everything. “Great-grandma, you’re old,” she said, “and you’re going to die soon.”

I replied, “Yes, I am old, and many people die when they are my age. However, I don’t think I’ll be dying any time soon.” I do happen to pay attention to the ages whenever a death is announced on the news or while reading obituaries in the weekly paper. Eighty-two is actually a popular age for dying, but so is ninety-three. Even so, I’m guessing I’ll be around for a while. Currently, I am managing six different chronic conditions, none is life-threatening. In annual visits, my personal physician, my cardiologist, and my pulmonologist all sum up their findings with words like healthy, strong, stable, and doing great.

Managing my health sometimes feels like a part-time job. It involves two machines: a CPAP when I sleep and an electric vibrating vest to help keep my lungs clear. It also includes walking at least a mile every day, various stretches, physical therapy exercises, meditation, and Feldenkrais lessons at home using CD’s. I don’t have many prescriptions, but I do take a handful of supplements daily, and my diet is low fat, high fiber and excludes foods that aggravate GIRD.

I don’t count my eyesight as one of my chronic conditions, but it is something that requires management plus gadgets, , new habits, attention to light sources, and a larger computer screen. Caring for my eyes is a top priority. In this endeavor I have the guidance of three eye doctors: the ophthalmologist I’ve had for years, plus one who specializes in retinas, and another whose specialty is neuromuscular eye conditions.

Rather than giving a medical report, I’m going to describe what it is like to see the world through my eyes. As a baseline I can happily report that ever since I had lens implants following cataract surgeries, I see everything in glorious Technicolor; I just don’t see it all accurately. Often people, dogs, or cars are doubled when I’m out walking, and double vision also occurs with mailboxes and road signs. The yellow lines marking the lanes appear to soar up toward the sky when they go around a curve, and cars safely parked on the shoulder appear to be in the middle of the road. Fortunately trees and flowers and stars in the sky seem to stay put. I can feel the constant moving of my left eye as it tries to synchronize with the other eye. Depth perception is also impaired.

As for close vision, I can no longer read anything moving across the TV screen. I can only read “Local on the 8s”on the Weather Channel if I walk up close to the TV and squint. If there are multiple images on the screen (in boxes inserted over other images, for example), I can’t see any of them. I miss many clues in Masterpiece Mysteries because the characters spend a lot of time in the semi-dark, perhaps with a flashlight. I do much better in the bright light of Downton Abbey. The glare from glossy paper in magazines causes everything on the page to be blurred. Usually I can see the pictures but really strain to read any text. Books that have limited line spacing and less than twelve-point type appear to me as a slurry gray mess with everything slumped together. Sometimes I can read a little to find a needed bit of information, but it takes a great effort and causes eyestrain.

In June between writing projects and research I was doing more computer work than usual. Gradually the scattered episodes of painful eyestrain became constant in spite of the prescribed eye drops. Most of the time I was seeing things through what looked like a gauze scrim. I had discussed this with my primary eye doctor at an earlier visit, and he had quizzed me on my computer usage. Along with eye drops and hot compresses, he suggested, that I look away from the screen and blink my eyes every twenty minutes explaining that most people stop blinking when looking at a computer monitor. He also recommended that I reduce my computer usage to an hour a day. I dismissed this suggestion as impossible because at the time I was using the computer for three or four hours each day.

When I could no long read books at all, I decided to try several things. I bought a Kindle Paperwhite, which enables me to enlarge the type and increase the space between lines. The lighting is gentle and I immediately fell in love with a gadget I previously never expected to buy. For some time I have been listening to audio books occasionally and have now made that a regular part of my day. Finally I asked for a prescription for reading glasses with the prism I have in both my bifocals and my computer glasses. (This addition mitigates some of my symptoms.) With these glasses I can now read some books, depending mainly on the margins and spacing.

I did not, however, limit my computer use, and the frequent spells of painful eyestrain continued. While I was writing my book some years ago, I worked about four hours a day—usually in one sitting with a ten-minute tea break in the middle. Often my best work happened in the fourth hour. My essays take an initial session of about three hours for composition, rewrites, and error corrections, then usually a second one-hour session a day later for fine-tuning. It was hard to imagine working any other way.

Nevertheless, I knew I had to try. After just a week of limited usage, (writing only one hour a day on the computer) the eyestrain was under control. That was two months ago. Since then I increased my preparation with handwritten notes and outlines as I continued with the shorter computer sessions. With this process I don’t develop sufficient momentum and have been less satisfied with the end result of some of my writing projects.

For the past year I have been considering how long I wanted to continue with my Decrescendo essays and other writing projects. Mainly I thought of the stamina it takes to write and measured that against all the other things I wanted to do with my daily ration of energy. Once I proved to myself that limiting computer time is an easy remedy, my eyes tipped the vote. I put up my first post on October 4, 2010, and for the sake of symmetry, I plan to post my last one on the same day this year. In the meantime, I have a few more things I want to write about.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Physics and Metaphysics of Lost Things

Some twenty years ago when we still had a subscription to the Asheville paper, Robin was checking the gossip in the Sunday Parade when he suddenly called out, “Mom. They’ve done a study which shows that adults spend thirty-five percent of their time looking for things.” After I stopped wondering how on earth they conducted such a study, I realized it was a sad and disturbing bit of information. It started me on the road to having a place for everything and trying to put everything in its designated place. That effort has had lasting value and I continue to fine-tune it, but it has not totally eliminated searches for lost or misplaced items.

Krista Tippett, the host of the NPR program On Being, seems to be fascinated by scientists, especially physicists. I have found these occasional interviews to be stimulating and challenging. In particular, my thoughts keep returning to the charming and funny physicist who claimed, “You can explain everything with physics.” While listening to that particular show, I was also searching for something I had lost and wondered what laws of physics might apply. Given that I had carefully avoided all encounters with physics during my education, I decided to find out more about it. Wikipedia told me that it is “the study of matter and its motion through space and time.” I then consulted my one-volume Encyclopedia Britannica. There I found this definition: “Physics is the science that deals with the structure of matter and the interactions between the fundamental constituents of the observable universe.” After some further explication I found this choice sentence, “ The goal of physics is to formulate comprehensive principles that bring together and explain all discernable phenomena.”

Well now, my observable universe consists of the 920 square feet of my house, plus some covered storage space outside, and the interior of my car. The surrounding gardens and woods are subject to the laws of nature and are not where I look when I’ve misplaced something. My missing items are bits of matter that I have moved through space and time and then absent-mindedly put somewhere, therefore creating the phenomena of lost stuff. So I decided that I could in fact identify and formulate the physics of lost domestic matter. My laws have not been subjected to algebraic formulae, double-blind studies, or even widespread anecdotal information gathering. They are based on personal observation and conversation with my peers. Here are the Dreyer laws concerning the creation and resurrection of lost domestic matter.

1. A Place for Everything only works if you put things away in that right place. Mindfulness (or being present in the moment) is essential to maintaining the Right Place option. Conversely, inattention and distraction increase the frequency of lost objects.

2. The intention to put something away correctly is no guarantee if the phone rings. The same is true for a knock on the front door, the buzz from the kitchen timer, a dog looking hopeful as he drops a toy on your foot, or a sudden urge to use the bathroom.

3. Clean, flat surfaces attract stuff. Missing bits of lost domestic matter are prone to winding up in random piles of stuff. Searches that begin by clearing and sorting these piles can have positive results.

4. Physical searches for vanished items are more successful if started after a mental search for the last clear memory of the item and an effort to reconstruct the path taken plus the locational implications of possible interruptions.

5. The metaphysical law of lost things is what I call the St. Anthony Theorem. A large statue of that saint occupies a corner of my house. He is known as the patron saint of lost things. When all else fails, petitioning St. Anthony for his help is usually successful, especially if his handsome, bald pate is rubbed after the request.

My personal theory about St Anthony’s success is that it works because I let go. The tension drops away, the stress is reduced, the mind gets more clear, and within minutes or hours or days, the brain produces a memory that leads to the desired outcome or serendipity intervenes and I happen upon the missing item. In either case the lost is found and put to use and then safely stored in its right place. Appropriate thanks are always given to St. Anthony.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Wonder of Trees

About thirty years ago, my husband Bill planted a sugar maple in a prominent spot on our property. I see the branches from my bed and the whole tree when I sit on my deck. It grew rapidly and was of a good height some ten years later when it was grazed by lightening. One branch died and the bark had a scorched streak running to the ground. We waited for a year to see if the tree would recover, but it became clear that our maple needed attention. Bill was determined to save it and began asking around trying to locate someone to help us. One of our friends gave us the phone number of a man he knew, saying, “Don knows a lot about maples.” Bill called him, and Don agreed to look at the damage with the hope that he could help the tree. He removed the one dead branch, cleaned what we referred to as “the wound,” and did some further pruning and shaping. Don wanted to top the tree, as is often done with maples, but we liked a natural look and asked him to do the minimum needed for the health of the tree.

The wound did heal and the tree flourished, but the stimulation of the pruning caused an unusually large number of interior branches. For the past year I had observed this tree in our more frequent storms and high winds, and I had some concern about its viability. It was just a hunch because I really don’t know much about caring for trees. Celo is now blessed by a young certified arborist who grew up here, left to gain education and experience, and returned to establish a tree service he calls High Lonesome Timber. Isak is calm, meditative, and knowledgeable, and I knew I could trust him with my beloved tree. I called him in early April before it leafed out. After learning its history and studying it carefully, he declared that it would benefit from some judicious pruning of interior branches. He told me sugar maples are strong and there was no danger of the tree falling over in a storm. He also agreed to take a careful look at the two other maples nearby. A week later as he was preparing to start pruning, I told him how much fun I had climbing trees as a child, and he told me he had as well. Then I left him to commune with my sugar maple and find just the right cuts to make.

The year I turned six we were living in a house directly across the street from a woods made up mostly of deciduous trees. I was small and the trees looked tall enough to touch heaven. My brother (three years older) climbed as high as he could and then yelled for our mother to come and look. She was nervous but I was wishing I could be up there too. My father helped me climb a young maple that had one branch strong enough for me to straddle and another to hold on to. A few years later we moved to a house with a large backyard full of old growth oaks and maples and other good climbing trees. One had a broad limb joining the trunk that created a fork comfortable enough for me to sit and read a book with my legs stretched out.

My parents taught me by word and example to love trees. I fell out of the first tree I climbed alone and landed on a piece of broken glass hidden in the leaf litter; I was taken to the hospital with a deep wound. Nevertheless once I recovered I was encouraged to get back out there and climb again. I also remember sitting on the front porch glider with my father and watching the trees bend and dance in the wind of rainstorms. We lived in five different rented houses when I was growing up, and all of the yards had lots of trees. After my favorite house was sold, we lived briefly in a friend’s garage. My older siblings were married and raising children, and my brother David was in college. For weeks my parents and I had been searching for a house to rent. One Sunday afternoon, Mother insisted that the three of us should sit together holding hands and talking about what we each most wanted in a new house. Then she prayed for all those things. First on Mother’s list was "lots of trees." By a strange set of circumstances, my father rented a house sight unseen soon after that prayer. We had all walked by it over the years, but we hadn’t been inside or even noticed it. When we went for our first look after the lease was already signed, my father stood in the yard looking up at the stand of amazing old trees that shaded every bit of the property. He looked at me and said, “Mother must have had a very good day when she prayed for trees.”

Now I walk the same stretch of Grindstaff Road twice every day. Almost the entire route is lined on both sides with an amazing variety of trees and shrubs. When I walk I try to be fully present and actively engaged in noticing everything I can. Once after a walk I e-mailed my friend Alicia (a professional color expert) describing the many shades of green I had observed. Her return e-mail told me that of the ten million colors the eye is capable of seeing, eight million are green. Most of us probably learned in a science class all about chlorophyll, photosynthesis, and the carbon/oxygen cycle. But isn’t it wonderfully amazing that nature has developed millions of different plants in myriad shades of green that clean the air and add the oxygen that fuels us enough to climb a tree or take a walk?

When Isak gave me his bill for the care of my maples, he had written across the bottom, “Thank you very much for the work. I hope your great-grandchildren enjoy climbing these maples.” Amen, say I.

Monday, May 19, 2014

A Stinging Interruption

I was sitting at the computer engrossed in writing when I felt a slight movement on the back of my thigh. I dropped my hand to brush away what I thought was a little spider. Just as my fingers touched my leg I felt a sharp needle-like puncture followed immediately by the searing pain of a hornet sting. I jumped up and headed to the bathroom to start First Aid. I have a problematic reaction to insect bites that starts with considerable swelling and winds up with an itchy rash that lasts for weeks. I have a prescription cream to use on that, but I can often mitigate the damage with immediate intervention.

I quickly covered the site of the sting with After Bite, which is primarily ammonia. The puncture was bleeding so that got my attention next. Eventually I covered the rapidly swelling area with Anthistan, an excellent salve that Melissa brings me from London. As my thigh began to throb, I decided to take a half dose of Benadryl and went to the freezer seeking the immediate pain relief of a cold pack.

Needless to say I lost my momentum and abandoned the computer for the rest of the day and what became a week. I had started my writing session by fine-tuning some paragraphs on trees for a future post in my series on Wonder. Then I turned to my current chosen subject of the difficulties and unexpected interruptions life presents to me and potentially to anyone trying to use their time both productively and happily. The hornet provided the perfect example. After the First Aid and before the soporific effects of the Benadryl sent me to bed, I did return briefly to the scene of the attack. First I checked the kneehole area of my desk with a flashlight. Finding no flying insects, I quickly sat at the computer, named the abandoned file, and saved what little I had already written for an essay highlighting the practice of mindfulness. So perhaps I was still being present to the moment. Now a week later, the worst has passed although my thigh is decorated with a bright red rash that so far I have managed not to scratch. I am ready to face my fear of a second attack and get back to work.

My approach to writing is to do a lot of thinking first, and then as a subject emerges I go to the computer and write in a stream-of-consciousness style without any regard to length. Sometimes the first draft is twice as long as the finished essay. Since this creative effort was so rudely interrupted and shoved in a different direction, I decided to include that first paragraph just as I wrote it:

After a lifetime of organizing my days in terms of obligation, duty, productivity, responsibility, service, caretaking, and measuring up to the expectations of my mother, teachers, friends, husband, children, employers, communities, I have arrived at a time of life when I waken each morning to the realization that this day is mine to live and I will be the one to make the choices and navigate the unexpected challenges. That is one truth that I live with. I also live with a counteracting truth that it takes most of my energy to be alive and healthy. I make many of my choices because I understand what it takes to feel healthy and I want to feel that way. I make other choices because I want to be happy, and being happy comes along most readily when I feel well and when I have used some of my time to attend to my spirit and to turn my attention to practicing compassion.

Ironically, I had just typed that last word when the stinger plunged into my thigh.

Among the many choices of wasting time, losing time, managing time, passing time, or using time wisely, I opt for the latter. However that can easily create a tension with my commitment to living in and being present to the moments of my life, which is the essence of mindfulness. Maybe some other day I will return to what I have discovered about using time well, but I’m letting this unexpected delay dictate a different direction.

My ten years of living alone have presented me with an unending series of interruptions or challenges that derailed carefully thought-out plans and moved me steadily toward an acceptance of living in the moment. Although the years have brought some losses, the net result has been expansiveness in my experience of living. I have identified these helpful verities that guide my daily choices:

  • The basic priorities for my good health are adequate sleep, nutrition, and exercise.
Corollary: I learned from my friend Kitty Couch how important it is to cook for yourself and to be creative, even adventuresome, about it.

  • Meditation, contemplation, and prayer are all essential for the health of my spirit.
Corollary: I think of it as the rest, nourishment, and exercise for my soul.

  • A clean, uncluttered environment promotes a peaceful mind.
Corollary: If I can’t keep up with the housework, I can provide a job for someone who needs it.

  • Embracing the unexpected reduces stress, as does recognizing when a prior commitment has to take precedence.
Corollary: It’s good to have some boundaries as long as you are kind to all; as the late Sherwin Nuland said, “Everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”

  • I need to pay attention when Nigel knocks my hand off the keyboard and tells me with his piercing eyes that it is time for a walk.
Corollary: His sense of time is better than mine, and he always lives in the moment.

Nigel just came to get me for a walk; I checked the clock and he was right. That interruption was way better than a hornet sting!

Monday, April 14, 2014

Finishing Strong

February 1, 2014, was race day on Tybee Island. This annual event is made up of five races of varying lengths plus a one-mile Family Run in the afternoon. Together the races add up to a marathon, and scheduling makes that an option.

During the morning of race day there was a storm and, even with rain gear, everyone got soaked. Fortunately the sun came out just as the front-runners were nearing the finish line. I snapped the red leash on Nigel’s matching collar and set out to walk beside the folks still on the course. At the corner where we joined them there were several volunteers ready with any needed assistance. They were also the cheerleaders who called out: “Just a half mile to go! Keep it up! You’re doing great!” We walked on the side of the road part way and then cut over toward the finish line near the beach. At the last turn a lone cheerleader was yelling, “One more block to the beer!” Then we walked halfway down and there was a final volunteer shouting “Finish strong! Finish strong!"

Nigel and I sat down on a nearby bench and I began to clap for these weary, wet, winded latecomers. Just then a family came up the hill from the finish line. The father looked exhausted and was not walking, but shuffling. His attire suggested he was not part of the regular racing community. He was saying to his two young children, “There is no way I can do the family run with you.” The children were whining as their mother arrived, arms full of wet clothes and a cooler. As she passed me she said to no one in particular, “I’m no help. I can’t keep up with them.”

The voice rang out again, “Finish strong!” and suddenly my mind was filled with a question, “What does finishing strong mean if your race is the end of your life?” For the past two months I’ve been living with the question and asking it of others. I am convinced that practicing mindfulness generates spiritual strength, and that “Keep moving!” is an empowering motto for my inner cheerleader. When I’m out walking, I often think, “If I keep doing this. I’ll be able to keep doing it.”

I queried members of my family, and my son Kevin replied that a strong finish would be making your own choices and being at peace with the path your life has taken. Then he added that the folks who arrive at the finish line hours after the rest of the field are the REAL strong finishers. They arrive with no momentum from other runners, no goal of a time to beat, and often with no cheerleaders. They finish with the strength of their own will. My daughter Melissa added to the discussion, “I think staying true to yourself is where the grace is to be found.”

For nearly seven years as a caregiver, my brother David has been sharing his wife Anne’s journey into the fog of Alzheimer’s. He wrote, “I am only able to think that I want to see Anne through as far as I can take her and if she doesn’t ‘finish’ with me, that I will be able to move her where a ‘strong finish’ is available from younger racers.” David celebrated his last birthday playing tennis and added the thought that continuing to play tennis into his nineties would be a good strong finish for him.

Only one person I discussed this with brought up the subject of major incapacitation. She said, “How can you finish strong if you have dementia or major disabilities from a stroke?” In response I told her how much I’ve learned from my sister-in-law. Anne will finish her life strong even if she loses all connection because she has remained present to the gathering night, which began so many years ago. She has laughed at it, written about it, cried over it, and shared whatever thoughts and emotions she could piece together. She has been willing to accept David’s comforting words and find relief for a few minutes. She has written that she is “broken” and needs to be “mended.” I see in her a spark that is whole and believe she is finishing strong.

I found a consensus among all ages that there is strength in making your own decisions and staying true to your sense of self. After thinking about the question for several days, one friend said that it would be an equally strong finish if an individual facing a possibly terminal illness had the courage to opt for every kind of treatment available to extend life, or the courage to choose instead to do nothing. My mother opted for no treatment and made a choice to stop eating to hasten the end. Her spirit, humor, gratitude, and faith remained intact and she recognized the experience of dying as a holy event.

Last month I attended the jubilant celebration of the life of Laurey Clark Masterton, a creative, active Asheville citizen, who finished strong on February 18, 2014. Although I only spent time with her near the end of her remarkable life, I know she finished it as she lived it: sharing with others her wisdom, love, food, joy, personal fulfillment, and spiritual awareness. She had a passion for feeding people through her restaurant and catering business and through her work teaching kids about food and gardening. A committed cyclist, she participated in one cross-country bike ride and many other long rides, mostly fundraiser for causes she believed in (AIDS, cancer research, etc.). Laurey kept on riding her bike as she fought cancer with a series of rugged treatments. In the last year after learning the cancer was considered chronic, she decided to go to Spain to make the walking pilgrimage known as “El Camino de Santiago.” While on active oral chemotherapy treatment, she completed her journey in five weeks. In her last lap of life, she lived up to her motto and did not postpone joy.

In his reply to my e-mail asking for his thoughts on this subject, one friend wrote, “If useful questions are being raised and honest dialog ensues, then maybe that constitutes a strong finish at this age.” Querying my friends has been an expansive experience and I am grateful to all who have joined in what I hope will be an ongoing conversation.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Wondering About Wonder

There are many tea drinkers in my family, and our three children left home knowing how to boil water and make a fine pot of tea. When we leave the mountains for the sea, we are delighted that water boils faster and is hotter, increasing the tea’s flavor. In January, Melissa and I were sipping those delicious hot cups of tea on Tybee Island. She was talking about the joy of electric kettles, when suddenly her face lit up and she started telling me about her friend’s glass electric teakettle; it enabled her to watch the process from the side. Her face aglow with wonder, she continued, “Do you have any idea how beautiful boiling water is?” I confessed I had only seen it top down. Melissa described the process, beginning with little bubbles floating up slowly to the top, then increasing in size and quantity, and finally breaking on the surface as the full boil began with all the water swirling in the bubbling dance. I was touched by her description, and it warmed my maternal heart. This daughter of mine works in a corporate position that takes her around the globe. Her work requires a mastery of all manner of technology as well as supervisory responsibility for a team of associates; yet here she was—wonderstruck by the utility and beauty of boiling water.

That small moment started another bubbling journey in my mind as I began to put together memories and ideas about the subject of wonder that have continued to simmer now for two months. My investigation started without a particular goal, but rather a desire to consider the importance of wonder in our lives and to follow my curiosity.

The Sunday after the significant cup of tea with Melissa, my new journey unexpectedly continued at All Saints’ Episcopal Church on Tybee. The congregation is energetic and welcoming, and the vicar Helen White is imaginative, humorous, and fervent. I don’t attend often, but I always come away with something to think about. It was Presentation Sunday, celebrating the story of Mary and Joseph bringing the child Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem. This was done according to the ancient Jewish practice of presenting the first-born son in the Temple, which was customary under the Law of Moses. Helen chose for her sermon the jubilation expressed by Simeon—the righteous, devout old man who was guided to the Temple by the Holy Spirit to see the baby. Once Simeon takes Jesus in his arms, he utters the prayer “Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation.” (Full text: Luke 2:22-40.)

After acknowledging the nexus of Jewish and Christian observances represented in Simeon’s story, Helen shared parts of an op-ed piece by David Brooks called “Alone, Yet Not Alone” (New York Times, January 27, 2014). The vicar ended her sermon by playing an Audrey Assad song, which she had discovered by reading the article. Through her retelling of the Presentation story and the music, Helen was extolling wonder as revealed by Simeon.

As soon as I got home, I went straight to my computer, found the Brooks article, and printed it out. What an unusual commentary to appear on the New York Times comment pages. It is something of a pastiche of thoughts and discoveries starting with a statement that there is in America a vein of hostility against orthodox religious believers (Jewish, Christian, and others). After laying out the argument for his thesis, he adds this sentence, “And yet there is a silent majority who experience a faith that is attractively marked by combinations of fervor and doubt, clarity and confusion, empathy and moral demand.” I was excited when Brooks used a quote from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book God in Search of Man: “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement … get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted.” It took me right back to the boiling water.

We speak with wonder about the universe when we have a chance to see the night sky out in the country with neither moonlight nor the glow from a city to interfere with the display of stars and planets. We speak with awe at the birth of a baby and laugh with joy when the finches shed their winter garments and dazzle us with golden feathers. In matters of faith, when our life experience takes us beyond facts, we call the wonder “mystery.” I checked several dictionaries but none offered a precise explanation. But wonder is not precise: it is an emotion, a way of seeing and appreciating the world that we can cultivate through our awareness and our openness to amazement.

I’m now back in North Carolina, and I’ve been asking friends who enjoy thinking about such things to share their ideas on wonder. You can join this investigation either by sending me a reply (if you are on the email list) or by leaving a comment on the Decrescendo blog. I plan to write occasionally—when I have something to say—about wonder in nature, daily life, math and science, art, or spirituality. For starters, I am persuaded that appreciating the wonder of the natural world is essential to understanding the imperative for action against climate change. Rachel Carson wrote in The Sense of Wonder that if she had any influence with the good fairy who blesses babies she would ask her to give them “a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.”

To be continued… but right now it’s time to boil the water for afternoon tea.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Eyes on the Horizon

“Try to look at the horizon most of the time you are walking and just glance down now and then.” Astra, my Feldenkrais teacher, gave me that advice at my last lesson before I came to Tybee. I knew she meant the literal definition of horizon (skyline). But I immediately thought about the figurative one (outlook or perspective). Both definitions were absent in my current state. Her words became the starting place in my effort to rebuild the confidence I lost when I hit the ground and broke my shoulder a year ago. Ever since then I had walked with my eyes down to see what hazards awaited my footsteps.

In December during a routine appointment with my doctor (Liz), I shared with her the aspects of my trauma that were not limited to the injuries. I told her that I was unable to let go to let go of the feeling that I was no longer safe. It was manifest in a constant awareness of all the risks and dangers of being an older woman living alone. Most hazards in my daily life were things I had already thought about and in some cases developed habits that might protect me. Now new rituals I maintained to feel safe had slowed me down or affected my decisions. Liz listened to my summation of concerns and then said that I was dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Although I knew my small trauma was not in the same category as the terrors of war, I agreed with her and added that the accident with the car and my decision to curtail my driving had exacerbated it. I had recognized early on that there was a quality of stress attached to my small trauma that was unlike anything I could remember.

Right after I fell, I thought I would never come back to Tybee alone. When I told friends I doubted I’d go back the usual answer was, “You have to get back on the horse.” Knowing there was some merit in that maxim and wanting to avoid the coldest part of winter, I made the decision to return. In order to feel safe, I invited various family members and friends to join me on Tybee. My apprehensions and fixation on potential dangers did not seem normal to me, and I expected to be able to work through it on my own once I was back in this charming little town.

There were two blocks of time during my six weeks on Tybee when I would be alone, and as I anticipated what I dubbed the dark days, I started to think of all the fearless women I have known who lived alone as widows for long periods of time: my mother (nineteen years), my mother-in-law (eighteen), my grandmother  (twenty-two), and numerous older friends. The women I spend the most time with in in Celo include a half dozen widows living alone. Since the life expectancy of women continues to exceed males in our county—and most of the world—I knew I had millions of counterparts out there. I felt the tendrils of the trauma loosen a little as I recognized how silly my vigilance had become. Hazards and risks are legion as we grow older and letting them rule your life stifles your joy.

I began to write about how my female forebears managed old age, starting with my mother. I remembered taking a walk with her when she was ninety. She was not well, but whenever she felt up to it, she walked around the block. I took her arm as she started out with a good stride and a quicker pace than I expected. Sensing my surprise she said, “I try to walk as fast as I can because it gives me energy and makes me feel younger.” As I revisited all my memories of my pantheon of strong women, I was struck by their resilience, courage, and expectation that life would go on as usual. Every one I examined in my mind had a strong spiritual side. I began to look forward to the days alone and felt ready to let go of my fear of falling again. When the time came, those dark days were full of sunshine and free of apprehension.

If there’s no one around to hear me, I like to sing when I walk. One of those mornings I burst out singing what I could remember of the ending of a song about confidence from Sound of Music. The character of Maria was on her way to be a governess to six motherless children, and she was trying to buck herself up by listing all the great things she was going to do for them and then she sang this verse about confidence:

I have confidence in sunshine

I have confidence in rain

I have confidence that spring will come again

Besides which you see I have confidence in me.*

It occurred to me that all my life I had depended on my feet to adjust to changing surfaces, my balance to keep me upright, and my legs to compensate for any hitches. Couldn’t I restore that confidence in the functioning of my own body? Two weeks ago I slowly began to increase the length of time that I looked to the horizon before glancing down. It’s good to do that when you are on an island. There is often something very beautiful or peaceful on that skyline and it’s easier to locate than it is in the mountains. One morning it was layers or bands of sunrise colors and another it is was a line of choppy sea with bits of white foam.

I’ve increased my walking, done my exercises, made my arms slightly stronger with the weights and the TheraBand. All of that is good, but what matters most is that welcome moment I meant it, when I sang out “I have confidence in me.”

*Music and Lyrics by Richard Rogers

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Southern Storm and Northern Memories

Just after my third birthday

Glenside, Pennsylvania 1941
School is closed, and the snow is just perfect for sledding. The Abington Township plows start with the most-used roads. For at least a day the Roberts Avenue hill in is closed to traffic and the local kids show up with sleds. I am nine years old and dancing about with joy as I eagerly wiggle into my snowsuit, scarf, hat, mittens, and galoshes. Almost waddling as I try to keep up with my brother David to the top of the hill, I drag my sled behind me. The downhill run is steep at the top with some gentle curves and it levels out slowly at the bottom allowing for a safe ending. I’ve been sledding since I was three and know how to steer and stop. It’s hard work trudging back to the top but the fast ride down is worth it for several trips until the melting snow makes my mittens damp, the tips of my fingers get cold, and I’m aware that there is snow in my galoshes. I start to think of our warm apartment, dry socks, and Mother’s hot cocoa. David and I head home, flopping down on the sled whenever there is even a short downhill opportunity.

Some twenty-five years later Bill and I moved to Glenside to for three years so I could help care for my father. We bought a house on Roberts Avenue around the corner from my parents. The children went to the same school I had attended. They loved the winters especially because we had just returned to Pennsylvania after two years in North Carolina and three in Guatemala. The heavy snowfalls of their early childhood were almost forgotten. The township was no longer closing part of the avenue to traffic for a day, but Kevin and Robin remember the fast, steep hill. The assembled kids would post someone to watch for cars so the others could sled. Melissa stayed closer to home humming Bill Cosby's "na-na-na-na-na-na-naaaaah" from his Go-kart sketch as she rode her sled.  When ice storms turned Roberts Avenue into a temporary rink the three of them went ice skating with their father. I was happy to follow in my mother’s footsteps and stay inside to bake cookies and make the cocoa.

Tybee Island, Georgia 2014
As the Weather Channel and local TV news gave lengthy instructions to citizens of Savannah and surrounding towns like Tybee about preparations for Winter Storm Leon and possible power outages, I decided to prepare by taking Nigel for a long walk. I imagined we’d be stuck inside for a few days. It was already blustery and chilly but the sidewalks were full of other dog walkers, and every one was calling out, “Are you ready for the storm?” Mine was the only down coat among others dressed in layers and several people—guessing I was a snowbird—stopped to say there had not been any snow in Georgia since 1989. Perhaps they were disappointed that here on the island we only got the wintry mix. My niece Adrienne had been with me for five days and helped me lay in food supplies and candles. We filled pitchers and basins with water and charged the cell phones. Before we went to bed she had a call that her Wednesday morning flight home to DC was cancelled. Finally she was given a seat on a flight later in the day. The taxi driver arrived to pick her up in a monstrous SUV. The combination of the frigid temperatures, wintry mix and freezing rain for twenty hours caused many bridges to freeze and the taxi had to turn back from one of them and try another route.

Nigel doesn’t like any rain—especially freezing rain—but during the worst of it when I forced him to go out, he flew around the perimeter of the fenced yard and marked all the usual spots. Then he raced to the door to be let back in to the warmth of gas logs. Reports from Celo were far more severe, and I received several emails and calls congratulating me for having headed south. The problems with snow in Atlanta and other southern cities dominated the news and stirred my winter memories so I got out my notebook and began to write.

After nearly three weeks of family company, I was alone for five days. Until the remnants of the storm passed by (about two days) I chose to stay inside, grateful to be safe with no power outage. Clearly I feel more vulnerable and have been thinking about advice of Brene Brown who studies that subject. She urges us to have the courage to work with our vulnerability, and believes that the struggle will make us strong.  Older people are often sarcastic when they use the phrase “golden years.” I’ve done it myself. But there is gold to be mined not only in the struggles, but also in friendship, caring, and our wonderful brains, which—if we are lucky—store a lifetime of memories. While the storm covered my rented deck with pellets of ice I was a little girl on a sled flying down Roberts Avenue and thinking about cocoa.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Taking the Tybee Cure

Tybee Sunset  (photo by Robin Dreyer)        

With Tammy at the wheel we drove from Celo to Savannah through the monster storm that blanketed the south with rain and fog on January eleventh, my eighty-second birthday. As we crossed through the tree-lined streets of this charming Old South city, the rain abated and we saw a band of orange in the west with the sun made fuzzy by the straggling clouds. When we turned on to the Tybee road, the rain stopped and the clouds began to dissipate. As we moved further south toward our final destination, the sun broke through in the west and a rainbow appeared in the east with one leg on the left side of the road and the other on the right, giving us the illusion of driving under this bow of color. I was more than ready to accept it as a good omen. I’ve been hoping that my six-week stay on Tybee will be a turning point toward greater vitality. The year that just ended has been unrelentingly difficult for me and the toll my fall took on my wellbeing was only the beginning. Although my injured shoulder has steadily improved, I still have problems that started with the injuries I sustained: adhesions, localized pain, limited range of motion.

I had a conversation with my cardiologist about a year ago, after he had pronounced my heart stable and added “That’s great.” Since I didn’t really feel great, I quizzed him specifically about my capacity to improve—that is to have more energy. He responded that healthy people in their eighties can generally expect to hold their ground and even achieve the kind of improvement I desire. He went on to say that in your nineties it is hard to maintain your status quo, and most people lose ground to the aging process. Well then, I still have time!

One of my writing friends recently posed the question, “What does it mean to have a vacation when you’re retired?” My answer to that is that every December I am ready for a break from the routines and obligations of my Celo life. As it comes close to time for my winter respite on Tybee, I am usually excessively busy. Bill used to call the period from Thanksgiving to my birthday the “Celebration Season” It included Thanksgiving, our wedding anniversary, sometimes Hanukkah, Advent, Christmas, New Year’s, our son Kevin’s birthday, Epiphany and my birthday—all in six weeks. This year I had more company and more drop-in visitors than usual, and as always, I was simultaneously working on my to-do list for closing up my house and packing the clothes, books, projects, utensils, and technology for the temporary move.

Once we arrive at whatever house I have rented, we have the reverse process of unpacking and setting up the space to meet my needs. Even though my children do the bulk of the work, there are always many decisions to make and my personal unpacking to do. A year ago I was in a state of exhaustion from that process when I snapped the leash on Nigel’s collar and set out for a walk the day after Kevin and his wife Indi left. A heavy rain that morning made puddles out of potholes and small streams had formed along the curbs. I misjudged the width of one of those streams, caught my shoe on the curb, and went down for the count, which turned out to be 365 days! Physical therapy and some alternative approaches to recovery continued throughout the year. I made the most progress working with Astra, my Feldenkrais practitioner, so I brought along the exercise table she loaned me. It enables me to follow lessons on CD’s without the added difficulty of getting down on the floor and back up when I’m finished.

Concurrently with the rehabilitation effort, I was dealing with the emotional and physical stress of a series of age-related issues (vision, an arthritic knee, chronic coughing, and the investigation of a growth that turned out to be benign). I also had an accident with the car and decided to stop virtually all driving.

As the months went by I was conscious of feeling old and became aware that I was also acting old. My focus was on staying safe. Instead of noticing the beauty of the world and the antics of the dog when I was walking, I was constantly scanning the road for hazards. I felt timid, cautious and self-absorbed. One day in late December I was carefully making my dinner in the kitchen, preoccupied with safety and not even noticing the wonderful scent of onions and garlic gently cooking in olive oil. Suddenly I had a moment of full awareness of all the tension in my body, my bent-over posture, and the absence of my usual delight in cooking.  I said out loud, “Just because you had a fall, you don’t need to act old.”  I spent the rest of that day in a conscious mindfulness of how I moved, what I was thinking, and how much my veneer of oldness was actually voluntary. 

This year I have come to Tybee not just to have a break from the winter weather and my routines, but also to “take the cure” that is based on the milder weather, walking on flat, sea-level terrain, drinking in the beauty of the ocean, sand, sky, and the lush low country vegetation. As always I will also find nourishment in the silence of meditation. To this I have added the Feldenkrais work and exercise with hand weights and a theraband.  I expounded on my plan to my children when we first arrived. Tammy (always practical and often wise) told me she thought it was a good idea to rebuild my strength, spirit, stamina, and courage, but I shouldn’t set my expectations so high that I would be disappointed.

The question I ask myself is how I can find the balance between accepting old age as an immutable factor and not shortchanging my potential to rebuild. Because I have commited myself to finding the answer, I was thrilled to embrace the blessing from the welcoming Tybee rainbow. I need all the help I can get.