“Everything I Need”

Have I mentioned I have the most amazing mom? Really, I do. This woman, 95 today, has never ceased being my mentor and teacher. And I’ll bet she doesn’t even realize it. She’s no longer trying to mold me; that work is done. Yet, her daily, living example does influence me.

I recently came across a March 19, 2018, New York Times article by Jane E. Brody: “Finding Meaning and Happiness in Old Age.” She references several experts in the field of geriatrics with observations such as these:

  • Even when physical decline and losses restrict one’s options, there remains the capacity to appreciate and approach each day with a sense of purpose. It’s all about how you frame what you have.

  • Positive aging is “a state of mind that is positive, optimistic, courageous, and able to adapt and cope in flexible ways with life’s changes.”

  • older people, knowing they face a limited time in front of them, focus their energies on things that give them pleasure in the moment,” not on a future that may never be.

That sounds a lot like Mom, now classified as among ‘the oldest of the old.’

Five years ago, my mother lived in a six-room house filled with antiques and family heirlooms. She and my dad had already downsized once or twice. Today, widowed after sixty years of marriage, she lives in one room in an assisted living facility. She no longer drives. She shares her small room with all her possessions—a chest, a rocking chair, a couple of bedside tables and lamps, a small bookcase overflowing with books and word puzzles, a television set, and a few pictures and pieces of needlework adorning the walls. Aside from her clothing and a bed furnished by the facility, that’s about it. Talk about downsizing!

Having suffered a broken hip, a fractured pelvis, severe osteoarthritis, and several fractured vertebrae that shortened her height by at least five inches, she moves slowly, painfully, and infrequently—with an aluminum walker as her constant companion.

Some people would look at her circumstances and be overcome with sadness. Not Mom. Sometimes when we’re on the phone, she’ll randomly say something like, “Not many ninety-four-year-olds are as lucky as I am,” citing her long and happy marriage, her children, the mountain view from her room, the resident cats that come for daily visits.

On my most recent visit, I asked if there was anything I could pick up for her. She took a cursory glance around, looked me straight in the eyes with a tranquil smile, and said, “You know, I have everything I need.”

I’d say she’s mastered the art of finding meaning and happiness in old age. Now, if only I can be as good a pupil as she is a teacher.    

Mom through the years

 

One Life

What if someone were to curate a museum exhibit of your life? What objects would you want included? What would they say about who you are and what matters to you? How would the accompanying plaque interpret the exhibit?

Here are some vignettes I picture as part of my “One Life” exhibit:

A seed picture, a macramé wall hanging, and a handwoven basket depicting a childhood of craft-learning at my grandmother’s feet which morphed into my would-be-hippie-street-fair-vendor period and morphed again into a more nuanced appreciation of handiwork and an unending need to work with my hands;

A shelf filled with books by the likes of Annie Dillard, Mark Twain, Mary Oliver, Robert Fulghum and more, some of which prompted me to read more while others influenced who I became and still others led me to become a writer myself;

A table holding a pencil, eraser, and notebook symbolizing my love of writing, an urge  that visited me randomly and infrequently until recently, when it became a near obsession;

A collection of LPs and CDs: classical—Mozart, Chopin, Mussorgsky, Beethoven (there was a time when I fantasized about becoming a concert pianist. That time was sandwiched between my Debbie Reynolds period and delusions of being a race car driver); folk—philosophical storysingers the likes of the Kingston Trio, Christine Lavin, John McCutcheon, and Carrie Newcomer who prick our consciences and prod us to action with thought-provoking messages, sometimes with some quirky humor thrown in; the Gaelic melodies of Enya and kin which, through their sheer ethereal beauty, transport my mind to the shores of my heritage;

A hammer, a saw, and a scattering of nails on a 2 x 4 piece of lumber portraying our once-in-a-lifetime homebuilding adventure;

A grouping of family heirlooms—perhaps a chair, a plate, a crocheted doily: items that tell the story of my attachment to family and family history;

A tent, a canoe, and a campfire all in the midst of a small square of outdoor space, testaments to my love of camping, water, and nature;

A collection of photo albums—more proof of my strong sense of family as well as my love of photography, nature, and wildlife;

A corner filled with bumper stickers, protest posters, sit-in images, and a couple of rabble-rousing speeches representing my passion for human rights, all sorts, and my years as an activist and leader in social change movements;

A few fruit- and vegetable-filled canning jars next to some colorful seed packets resting atop a small mound of well-composted garden soil—evidence of my gardening and food preservation heritage and interest.

All of this would, of course, be displayed against a backdrop of the Blue Ridge mountains while the sounds of bird songs and a waterfall are piped into the exhibit space.

Looked at as a whole, such an exhibit speaks to me of eclecticism (or perhaps the inability to settle on any one thing). I like to think it also speaks of an enthusiasm for life, a certain joie de vivre. But I see what isn’t there, too—in some cases, things I wish I’d had a chance to experience or was passionate about, but in truth am not; in others, things that once mattered and have been cast aside. I see the absence of objects that are critically important to other people but don’t matter a whit to me.

(Conspicuously absent is anything about my family—other than the references to the photo album and family heirloom exhibits. Make no mistake: they are, every single one of them, central to my life. But with this kind of exercise, it’s all too tempting to focus on other people and to turn the whole thing into a cliché, so I resist the urge.)

Chances are, there are also things that have simply skipped my mind in the moment. If I were to write this piece next week or next year, an entirely different collection of objects might appear.

I wonder what my exhibit would say to the casual observer? What about yours?

On Living Well

One of the important writers in my life is Robert Fulghum. In case you don’t recognize the name, the easiest way to identify him, though it’s far too limiting, is to say he’s the author of Everything I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. I never fail to be moved by his thinking and his insights. So, today, I’m cheating a little bit.  Instead of posting my own thoughts, I want to pass along something he wrote on his website not long ago because it speaks to me, because it’s important and I want to share it. (He even gave me permission. See?)

* * *

Please Note: This journal contains a wide variety of stuff — complete stories, bits and pieces, commentary, and who-knows-what else. As is always the case these days, the material is protected by copyright. On the other hand, I publish it here to be shared. Feel free to pass it on. Just give me credit. Fair enough?

Pack Creek Ranch, San Juan County, Utah.
The second week of September, 2018
Cooler weather, mix of sun and clouds, with occasional rain showers . . .

BED MAKING

A man I know well makes up his bed every morning.
He wakes up around 6:00, rises, puts on his robe, and – weather permitting – carries his duvet and two pillows outside to hang in the sunny morning air.
Then he turns on some music, makes coffee, takes a shower, and dresses.
The last act of this daily ritual is taking his sun-infused duvet and pillows
back inside to arrange on his bed, ready for his return at night.

Why these morning habits?
Why does he bother making up his bed every day?
Even he wonders sometimes.
Who cares?

After all, he is a single man, living alone – with no next-door neighbors.
His house is twenty five miles away from the nearest town.
He seldom has visitors – and he rarely entertains house guests.
Therefore, nobody is likely to have access to his private environment or witness his early morning rituals.
Nobody is going to know whether he makes his bed or not.
And yet . . . despite his solitary privacy – reliably – day after day, week after week, year in and year out – he makes up his bed.

Well . . . almost always . . .
But there was one exceptional week – three years ago.
When he fell into a deep black hole of existential despair.
And he just let go of the reins of his life.
He thinks of it now as The Week of Living Like a Loser.

The dirty dishes piled up in the kitchen sink for days.
The garbage cans were filled to overflowing.
In the refrigerator, moldy hair began growing on the leftovers.
The laundry accumulated in unwashed heaps.
The bathroom became a grotty mess.
And his bed was left unmade – a stale snarl of gnarly sheets and blankets.

And nobody – nobody – ever witnessed this fall from grace.

“Who cares – who gives a damn about how I live in my cave?” he thought.

And then . . . one morning . . . he finally crawled up out of his dung heap,
and looked around in dismay – a man living a homeless existence in his own home.
He dressed and drove away – fled to spend a day hiking along the river.
And stayed in town in a motel overnight.
The next day he came home to his house and himself – to put them back in order.

Who cared? Well . . . he did.
He could not live like a loser for long.
His daily morning ritual resumed, and has remained in place until this very day.

You might say the man has OCD – Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
Perhaps. But that’s a speculative negative view.
Besides, if you witnessed the higgledy-piggledy unpredictable way he goes about
most days and weeks you could hardly say he is set in his ways.
One useful morning habit is not the sign of pervasive neurosis.
You might say the man simply learned something about his need for self-respect — in his environment and in his own skin.

The man I know recently saw a video of a commencement address by the Admiral who leads the U.S. Navy SEALS – the toughest, most highly-trained combat unit in any armed forces in the world.
The Admiral said that the first thing required of SEALS is simply to make their beds to a high standard every morning.
He said it was a matter of self-discipline, self-respect, and personal pride in paying reliable attention to a small, ordinary task.
Moreover, he explained, making your bed in the morning meant that no matter how arduous, dirty, or awful a day of training might be – a SEAL would have a personal place to come back to at the end of the day that was rightly welcoming.
The day would at least begin well and end well.

The man I’m writing about hasn’t applied to be a SEAL, but if he did, he could at least meet the first basic requirement – making his bed just right every day.
He, too, understands the pleasure of coming to the end of the day to a bed prepared as if he was an honored guest in his own home.
Part of that pleasure is lying down on sheets and pillows rinsed in the morning sunshine. And then closing his eyes in the deep quiet dark sleep of contentment.

I’ve been writing about a man I know quite well.
The man, of course, is me.
We are on very intimate terms.
I meet him in the bathroom mirror every morning and at the end of every day.
There he is – again and again.

Sometimes I think and write about him in the third person in order to consider his life objectively, and help him stay in touch with his better self.
Because he gets lazy and sloppy at times – in his house and in his mind.
He needs to be reminded that the truth of his character lies in what he thinks and does alone – in solitude, when nobody else is watching.
He needs to be reminded to be a special guest in his house and in his life –
even though that’s not always easy or simple or required.

But if he makes his bed every morning, the day will at least begin and end well.
And he can drift off to sleep knowing he has at least the most basic requirement for becoming a Navy SEAL.

Plato wrote that Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living.
Yet the man I know often goes about his life without examining it –
he doesn’t have time to be relentlessly, thoughtfully, reflective all the time.
He’s too busy just living through the tasks and opportunities of a given day.
If it is true that the unexamined life is not worth living, it is also true that the life not lived well is not worth examining.

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If you want more of Fulghum, click here.

 

Here’s to New Chapters

I’ve been thinking about momentous occasions lately. The end of summer brings a lot of them. One grandchild began 3K just about the time another officially became a college freshman.

Just a few boxes filled with essential items for college life

I shared some thoughts about the start of college about this time last year. You can read those here and here. It suddenly got a lot more personal this year as one of those college freshmen is my eldest grandchild. Her life is about to change in ways she nor her parents can imagine.

. . . and in a flash, the younger sister becomes an only child, so to speak.

Naturally, my mind hearkens back to my own graduation summer and college freshman fall. Letters passed between three soon-to-be roommates. Who were we? What clothes should we pack? How should we decorate our dorm room? I was nothing but ecstatic and expectant. For years, I’d spent most of my summers away at one 4-H camp or another, so the notion of homesickness never occurred to me. I was only looking forward. My mood didn’t alter all summer.

Then came the big day, our family of five and all my luggage crammed in my parents’ car for the four-hour trip to the college of my choice. I sat on the right-hand side of the back seat in the soft pink shirtwaist dress trimmed with deeper pink hand-embroidered stitching on the collar edge and both sides of the collar-to-hem button placket. All hand-made by Mother. It was one of my favorites, a dress to help me put my best foot forward as I entered my new life.

It was only when directional signs to my school appeared, just a couple of miles from our destination, that I started to freak. Totally unexpected, my tummy brimmed with butterflies. While I was still mostly excited about what the future held for me, a tiny but powerful part was ready to turn around and head back home. Had I been on my own, I might have done just that.

I’m so glad turning around wasn’t an option. Even as the heady anticipation of that summer evolved into all-night exam cramming sessions, even as the grades I was used to in high school eluded me, even as idealism turned to reality and sometimes cynicism, even as I endured the agony of heartbreak, I had found my place. Not once did I consider giving up.

At most, I traveled home for school holidays and summer breaks. On occasion, I even stayed at school during shorter breaks. I appreciated the solitude of a dorm and campus empty of the hustle-bustle of daily student life. I could read for pleasure, reflect, organize, take solitary strolls through my favorite spots, daydream. There wasn’t much time for those things the rest of the school year.

I discovered new passions during my college years. I set out on a career path, though it morphed and morphed again in my post-college years. I learned what mattered to me. I discovered independence. Ideas jelled into philosophies. I found love. I lost love. I found it again. I survived. I learned that I could.

It’s not that I think college years are the best years of one’s life, a sentiment I’ve heard so many times. How depressing to hit twenty-one and think all the best times are behind you. No, I see those college years as a unique time, a time to grow, a time to explore, a time to discover what you’re made of. If all goes reasonably well, it’s a time to look back on with fond nostalgia, not as the best time of life but as one that holds sweet memories and provided important building blocks for the life to come.

As we said I goodbyes, I wished I could find the wisdom and the words to give my granddaughter the most brilliant piece of advice, the pithiest sentiment. In the end, all I could do was give her a hug and say, “I love you.”

I wish my granddaughter and all her fellow college freshmen the very best college has to offer, hopefully with only a few disappointments, though those are important to growth, too. Sometimes it’s our mistakes that define us; hard as they are, we need a few along the way. It’s what we do with them that matters.

Here’s to you, Starshine!

 

 

The Holy in the Here and Now

The Holy in the Here and Now

Someone recently mentioned to me that dogs are more in tune with the earth than we humans. Think about it: they sense moods; they know when a storm is coming. In a car with the window down, they sniff out every scent—apparently with great joy. They know when their beloved human is due to arrive or even when someone unexpected is about to come up the drive.

Chalk it up to heightened sensory skills if you want. But the bottom line is dogs aren’t distracted by the sometimes inane things we allow to get in the way of capturing the moment. They don’t share our incessant ability to fret over the past and agonize about the future. They’re all about the present.

It’s a lucky person who can see what is holy in the here and now:

a child’s laughter,
the wind,
daffodils and cardinals,
redbuds and moss,
the wingbeat of bats,

the architecture of a tree,
a baby’s toes,
sister duets,
cloud shadows drifting across mountains,
the poetry of a shovel’s utility,

dew drops on a spider web,
the songs of spring peepers after an evening shower,
little red wagons,
a seed’s unfurling tiny leaves as they break through the soil,
baseball and kite-flying,

a cow’s bellow or the dignity of a donkey,
food from the field,
a friend’s voice,
leaf mold and mushrooms on the forest floor,
a letter in the mail,

embers of an evening campfire,
grapes fresh off the vine,
the kindness of a stranger,
hope,
a poem,

Spanish moss dripping from oak branches,
a pat on the back,
a smile across the room,
a snowflake caught on the tongue,
a mockingbird’s repertoire or a magpie’s iridescence.

The holy: it’s where we choose to look and how we choose to see.

 

 

So Beautiful It Changed My Life

What an amazing concept—something so beautiful it could change a life. Most of us, if we’ve lived long enough, have had at least a couple of life-changing experiences. But by nothing more than beauty? That was the writing challenge I was presented recently: a time when something was so beautiful it changed your life. It took me aback for a moment. But only for a moment. As I scoured my memory, it came to me.

Driving from Kentucky to the mountains of North Carolina in 1979, after the Gnome and I had made the mental decision to move but before we had actually taken action to make it happen (in other words, it would be easy enough to back out), I looked at the mountains on the horizon with new eyes. It was as if they were cloaked in blue-green velvet.

Their apparent softness overwhelmed me. Though I didn’t have words to articulate it, I sensed something magnificent. Those ancient rocks, some of the oldest in the world, had been worn down by eons of rain and wind; in the process, they had been reshaped from the haughty cragginess of youth into the gentle wisdom of age. Their strength lay in their graceful endurance. I didn’t want to back out.

We spent a week searching for a spot to call home Discouraged by all the not-right-for-us places we’d been shown, we were about to head back to Louisville with unfulfilled dreams. At the last minute, our realtor recalled a secluded piece of land tucked away on a mountainside, and our decision was made. In early April, things were still pretty barren; still, we were confident we’d found what we were looking for. We signed some papers and went back to Louisville to prepare for the big move.

When we returned to our mountain with all our worldly goods not quite three months later, my heart stopped as we drove into a meadow bursting with daisies. (How did the universe know to greet me with this outsize bouquet of my favorite flower?) 

It stopped again the first time I looked over a cloud-filled valley, mountaintops peeking out like islands in a sea of snowy foam.

I knew I’d never leave.

pict0068

(To read more about our adventure of moving and building a home with our bare hands while living in the wild, begin here.)

The Ones Who Show Up

The Ones Who Show Up

As a society we’re often drawn to bigness. Philanthropy is equated to charitable giving in the millions. Grand gestures get attention. But what would we do without the small gestures? All that magnanimity we hail from people who can easily afford it would be meaningless without the little deeds of daily kindness, sacrifice, and responsibility from just plain folks. I refer to:

* the neighbor who brings groceries to the shut-in

* the gardener who grows a little extra to donate to homeless shelters

* the young woman who weekly organizes her mother-in-law’s medications

* the busy teacher who takes a few sacred moments to send a note of encouragement to a former student

* the friend who brings cookies and laughter to her terminally ill neighbor

* the co-worker who offers a much-needed compliment to a beleaguered colleague

* the harried nurse who still finds time to bring a bookmark to a patient who reads

* the child who writes chatty letters to her lonely grandparents

* the boys who shovel the snow-covered walk of someone recuperating from surgery

*the passerby who comes to the rescue of a drowning chipmunk

* the writer who sends nostalgic essays to aging relatives

* the man who cares for an acquaintance’s pets when she’s injured and hospitalized

* the many who give to a stranger’s health-related social media campaign, even when their own resources are scant

* the shopper who hands a dollar to the one in front whose bill was a bit bigger than his pocketbook

* the one who smiles at a stranger

* the young one, tired from a long day of grueling manual labor, who nevertheless offers his seat to the older one

* the teens who bring homemade goody boxes to residents of the nearby nursing home

* the foreign visitor who chases you down to return a dropped scarf in the parking lot

* the kid who carries an injured classmate’s books

* the retailer who takes precious time off from work to visit a stranger in prison

* the club members who de-litter a section of highway

* the customer who holds the door for a daughter and her wheelchair-bound father

* the stranger who catches a runaway shopping cart

* and the building custodians and sanitation workers, the electric line workers and snowplow drivers, the bedpan emptiers and street sweepers who do the dirty work at all hours of the day and night to make getting through each day easier for the rest of us.

Oh, that we would glorify these, the ones who show up, the ones who make a profound difference by changing not the world but what is three feet around them.