Posts Tagged ‘relationships’

I Still Go for Walks

August 26, 2020

My walks these days are mostly down and back up the steep hill in the long driveway from our house to the mailbox by the road. I started with just a single trip, to collect the mail and take a break from the computer and phone of my work day. Now that I am untethered from those bindings, I make the trip an increasing number of times per day, usually 3-4 in the cool of morning followed by single or double hill climbs a couple more times until evening. I have been using the morning walks to prioritize the activities pending in my day, both cleaning out the house of its years of accumulated stuff, and organizing a new laptop with files saved from 8 or more years ago when I set aside my writing career to resume being an overworked but productive peon in the health care system.

In the course of the file retrieval, I came upon a piece I wrote probably ten years ago, that resonates with me now. I have welcomed input from friends both about what to do next in my life, and what changes to expect in how I will feel and how my physical self will respond to the lessening of the stress under which I have lived for so many years. My essay reconnected me with another important source of input still salient despite the fact that the person described passed on more than 45 years ago.

Enjoy the encounter with me.

A Walk with My Grampa

“I Went For a Walk in the Forest” was the book title and first phrase I learned to read, precociously at age three, sitting on my Grampa’s lap as he read the story over and over to me. The book was paper bound, about 6 inches high and 10 inches long, with a black and white cover sketch of the forest surrounded by a pumpkin-orange border. If you opened the book out flat, so that the back and front covers made one whole picture, all the animals met on that forest walk could be seen hidden among the trees. In the delightful manner of children’s fantasy, the animals collected in that forest ignored the habitat restrictions which would normally prevent them meeting, except perhaps in a zoo.

From the safety of Grampa’s lap I learned about lions and horses, a giraffe, an elephant, deer and antelope, and a monkey. When the reading walk was done we rested. He smoked, and I trapped the smoke rings he blew into a wide mouth bottle, where they magically retained shape until the genie who also lived in the bottle stirred them into a fog to give himself shelter.

I went for a walk at the zoo, with my Grampa, most Sundays from when I was seven until I was twelve. He would come down on the train from Baltimore to spend the day with us, and would take me for ‘our’ time. Not always to the zoo, sometimes to the park or just for a walk around the neighborhood. He would ask me about my week in school, what I had learned and what I was reading, and he would tell me about the poem he was working on, or the article he was writing (in Hebrew, or Yiddish) for The Forward (which he pronounced as though a “v” began the second syllable). It was important to him to pick just the right Hebrew word from among several choices for his poems, to convey mood and spirit, as well as meaning.

I went for a walk on the beach – alone now, a world away from my Grampa, he still in Baltimore and I on the sand at Nha Trang, picking up tiny pink and black and pearl-colored shells which elderly Vietnamese refugees from the north collected to string into elaborate necklaces. I wore a small gold pendant my Grampa gave me, with the Tree of Life etched into it. A link, he said, that would stretch from Vietnam back to Maryland, to keep us sharing our walks. Those were harder years, without his immediate presence and gentle wisdom to balance the emotional stresses of my early teens.

I missed him still, when I went for a walk in the Bois de Boulogne during my high school years. I wrote to him, sitting on a sarcophagus in Pierre La Chaise cemetery, one of the few places in bustling Paris that I could find solitude and quiet. Those were very hard years, for both of us. He was no longer working in his dental practice and had fewer places to publish his essays and poems. He was no longer as able to care for himself, and not very aware of time, so his replies to me were intermittent, and rarely responsive to the questions I asked.

I went for a walk in the Crum Woods on Swarthmore’s campus, during my college years, and felt his presence through the guitar in my room, a fine instrument I’d found in a pawn shop, which he gave me the seventy-five dollars to purchase. I’d asked my parents for the money, but my mother had responded in her usual fashion. “Why don’t you prove your interest in playing guitar by learning on a borrowed one before you ask me to spend my money on something you may not pursue?” Fifty years later, that guitar stays easily in tune and it’s tone is admired by everyone who plays it.

I went for walks by the Chicago shore of Lake Michigan, and along the Charles River in Boston, after helping my mother to settle Grampa in Miami, where the better weather and the presence of a few close friends made it easier for him to manage. We talked on the phone since his eyes had failed to the point that he could not write, nor easily read. With a metal-bound, rectangular, hand-held magnifying glass left from his collection of dental tools, he would slowly read the daily Yiddish press, sharing his opinions with me on the events which he didn’t trust TV news to present fairly. He worried, after the Six Days War, that while its outcome improved Israel’s security at the time, there would come from it a negative turn in world opinion toward the Jewish state. He would, I know, be distraught over the actions and decisions taken recently – the wall, and the West Bank settlements which have become symbols of oppression rather than statements of freedom.

I went for one last walk with my Grampa, along the path beside the railroad tracks in Lamy, here in New Mexico, after he could no longer live on his own. My mother and I moved him into a nursing home outside Santa Fe, where I visited with him several times a month, and brought him to my little converted boxcar house for an outing, the one weekend he was strong enough to come. I told him the story of looking out the train window, age twelve and on my way to Vietnam, seeing Lamy as a strange, wild and western place – missing him desperately and never imagining that we two would walk together there. He answered that it was good to walk with me, though he didn’t really grasp where we were, and complained to me that there were people in his nursing home whom he could hear speaking Yiddish from a distance but who, when he came close and spoke to them, would not answer. I tried to explain that they were speaking Spanish, not Yiddish. He was by then seriously deafened, hearing just enough scraps of language to know when it wasn’t English being spoken. Like most speakers of more than one tongue, with advanced age Grampa’s communication abilities lasted longest in his first language, or in his case his first two, Yiddish for everyday and his beloved Hebrew for poetry and praise.

My grampa died within days of his official 91st birthday. Official, rather than real, because he had to transfer a birth date from the Jewish (lunar) calendar used in what he called the “dot on the map village outside the dot on a map town” where he was born in Russia, to the western calendar he encountered when he entered the US as a twenty year old man in 1907. Knowing Shvat to be a spring month, he arbitrarily called it March. He equally firmly rejected the proposed Americanizing of his name to Hill, insisting that “no, my name is Domnitz, Aaron Domnitz.”

I go for walks now, often a brisk measured mile by Storrie Lake, or a leisurely stroll along Bridge Street, and realize I am just a bit above the age my Grampa was as my parents prepared to take us (his only close family) across the world to Vietnam. After 14 or more years of weekly trips from Baltimore to DC (he began them when my mother became pregnant with me), how great a change – and loss – that must have been for him!

I wonder – but obviously have no one to ask – why my parents didn’t bring him with us? Perhaps it was discussed and he refused? More likely, I’m afraid, my mother determined that she “didn’t want the responsibility” as that was her standard reply with which to block everything from my having friends for a sleep over, to helping host visiting dignitaries whom it was my father’s job to entertain. Blessedly it was also her response when Grampa needed nursing home care, so that I got to have him close to me for those precious last 18 months of his life. We went for so many lovely walks, in our talks, during my on-my-way-home-from-work visits with him!

Because life in his natal village had gone virtually unchanged for centuries before he left it, his awareness bridged nearly 300 years. Thus, we talk-walked streets of the 1700s in Russia as readily as those of Santa Fe in 1975. He shared the concern of many, that our technological skills so far exceed our ethical advances. “Will we now bring war to the moon?” was his question after that one giant step for mankind.

Grampa’s dental cabinet, filled with a fragile, gaily decorated porcelain tea service from Vietnam, sits in my Sapello home. I use his magnifying glass when I need stronger eyes. The guitar provides music from many cultures, when I entertain students from the United World College. I pick my written words with care, respecting the importance he gave to nuances of meaning.

My Grampa started me reading about a walk through a forest to meet different animals. He continues to guide me on my walk through life, meeting its varied challenges. Some of that guidance arises from one of the last things Grampa said to me, shortly before he died. I’d asked if he had his life to live over, what he might have done differently. His answer was that he had only two regrets. The first was that he thought perhaps my mother might have been a happier person if he had remarried (he raised her on his own), but he’d never found the right woman. The second was that he wished he’d learned to play the mandolin. No wonder he supported my learning the guitar!

However long my own life walk turns out to be, I hope that when it ends, I will have as few regrets as my Grampa did. With his gifts surrounding me, and his ethics a part of me, I have every reason to succeed.

World Enough and Time

May 25, 2020

The wear and tear of time, plus assorted horse and motor vehicle accidents and a couple slip and falls have collectively resulted in a task of aging. More of my time than I wish had been needed over the past 18 months has been spent sorting out the causes of a variety of body pains, the triggers that set them off, and what treatments can reduce the pain to livable without creating new and different health problems. Along the way I verified the now-scientifically-proven hypothesis that ups and downs of the barometer are felt in the joints in advance of the visible weather changes they herald. I succeeded in identifying a sluggish gallbladder that the tests my doctor ordered merely confirmed. I’ve adopted some preventive herbals treatments and now have a few that have proven effective when different types of pain become too strong to ignore.

So I’m about as settled into effective symptom management as I expect is possible. And trying at the same time to settle into accepting that I can only respond to, not control, the variables, so will always have to be flexible in facing what each day presents.

All of which activity I now find may have had a different ultimate purpose than the obvious one of helping me become more comfortable in my daily activities. The detecting involved is now being called upon for quite another challenge. I want to sort out what underlies the so far inexplicable fluctuation in egg production from my small flock of hens.

Some of the variables – weather in particular – are probably the same as those that affect my pain levels. Cold and damp are not helpful. High wind is also probably as disturbing to the ladies as it is to my joints. But other potential factors are unique to the flock and as yet unidentified by me. I’m considering their amount of food (type also) and access to water in the small bowl they prefer (the bigger one that assures they do not go without is consistently shunned). I try to note whether our protective dog has been barking more – or less – at the variety of four legged visitors who pass nearby. Is she engaged with running off stray dogs who can be considered a threat by the hens , or merely alerting that the neighbor’s cows are in an adjacent pasture? Might there be a snake or a passing skunk disturbing them? Are some of them, like me, just feeling the aches and fatigue of age? I know there is one that must be recovering from the exquisite pain of laying the largest double yolk egg I have ever seen!

Two of the hens have gone broody, despite not having a rooster around to impregnate them. They will, I trust, resume laying when they fail in their attempts to hatch sterile eggs. Will they be challenged into more consistent production by the presence of 5 new flock members, including a young rooster? Or will they instead divert their energy to the establishment of a new pecking order with the youngsters put in their bottom-of-the-pole place?

Without access to comprehensible feedback, such as my own body gave me, I question whether I will ever have answers that enable me to reliably collect eggs from everyone each day. No matter – puzzling my way through the variables is a good distraction from equally unanswerable questions about what lies ahead for us all as we move on into the changing world we are glimpsing. As often as I have heard, and have quoted to myself, that the only certainty is change, my mind continues to try to find answers – certainty – in complex situations which defy resolution. Undoubtedly that is why I relax at night with crossword puzzles and Free Cell. Solvable challenges, with set answers.

That same mind that likes order and seeks connections recently made me aware of a list of seemingly unconnected situations. Green ice in the Antarctic, shrinking of the polar caps, bark beetle devastation of forests in the southern Rockies, insect destruction of olive groves in France and Italy, more frequent and more fierce storms of all types all around the globe, non-seasonal temperature extremes setting ever new records, spread of hostile insects like the killer bees into environments where they have not previously been known, and of course now the worldwide spread of virulent new virus-based illnesses. A quick and easy answer is “climate change” if the question is “what is the cause of all these negatives?” 

But when the question is “what is the solution?” no such single simple answer presents itself. 

Nor is there a single simple answer to my questions about how I will adapt to a recently changed pattern in my personal life, a change that is still evolving, with key decisions yet to be made. In past years my life circumstances enforced the learning of patience – waiting for the time to be right for significant alteration in employment, companionship and other facets of daily life. Now I seem to be facing the opposite lesson. Or maybe just a different facet of patience – learning to step back and observe fast moving changes without feeling I have to act or “figure it all out.”

Just as I am unlikely to sort out all the influences on my chickens’ egg laying propensities, and I know I don’t have many answers to the multitude of manifestations of change in the environment; just as I know my scope of action in our tormented civil (uncivil) society is limited to what I can do in my immediate surroundings; so too I need to remind myself daily that my mind is not in charge of finding answers to my personal challenges. Those require detachment, patience, observation and tolerance of uncertainty.

The way forward for me personally, and for the larger society as well, will show itself in due time.

Who knows, maybe I’ll also be gifted with an insight that turns my poultry yard into the most prolific egg production unit in the region. Wouldn’t that be fun!

Telephone-itis

April 14, 2020

I am discovering a curious disadvantage to what generally would be considered an advantaged upbringing. Or maybe the disadvantage is only the result of still working at an old enough age to have grown without phones? When I was small, in D.C. before we went overseas, there was a phone in the house – a 4 party line that my parents instructed me was never to be used except for a true crisis, like the house was on fire (and I the child was alone) so lady bug, lady bug, fly away home. I don’t remember which sort of ring meant the call was for my parents, only that our phone number was a Woodley followed by 5 numbers. I have no recollection of ever doing anything with the phone but answering it when my mother called out to me to do so because she was too far away to get to it in time. I was taught to say “hello, please wait until my mother comes” and then to be still.

By the time I was twelve, we went overseas to Vietnam, and again there was no phone for general use, only a connection to my father’s office at the Embassy, so he could be reached urgently if necessary. My parents did occasionally receive or issue an invitation by phone, but I was again constrained not to consider the instrument as available to me. Moving on to Paris when I turned 15, the rules changed only slightly.  The phone in our apartment could be used to arrange to meet a friend, or to pass along a message from my mother to my father at work, but calls were charged by the minute so brevity was essential. 

College meant dorm life, one pay phone at the end of the hall shared by 35 girls. Again brevity was mandated. So it wasn’t until after graduation and marriage that I actually had access to a phone, in my home, for every day communication. Needless to say, by that point, “hanging on the phone talking endlessly with friends” was absolutely NOT my pattern. Throughout my life and to this day I think of the phone as a basic tool for brief, essential communication, period.

I carry a cell phone, I have learned to text and in fact prefer texting to talking much of the time. Not sure why – something to do with having come to think of myself as a writer?

Anyway, that is the background against which the changes to my already-work-from-home-job have brought me up against a hard truth. No longer able to visit my clients for their many mandated assessments, having instead to complete two hour evaluations by phone, has turned what was the most enjoyable aspect of my work into the most onerous of tasks. Further, it has pushed me so far away from any other phone conversation that I find I am avoiding talking with friends whom I normally do connect with on the phone. 

Sad.

And troubling, in that I am left feeling like a failure as a friend, in these stressful and isolating times. I know some of the people with whom I was accustomed to having a reasonably long phone chat every couple of weeks need that interaction now more than before. I want to be a caring friend, not one who disappears when times get hard. Yet after a long work day spent largely on the phone, I so crave silence and freedom from the disembodied voice, that I don’t even listen to video clips embedded in the news. If I can’t read it, the information will not reach me.

Needless to say I don’t bother with podcasts. I have on a few occasions of long solo car trips listened to a talking book to keep me attentive. Otherwise I do not use that form of entertainment. At the end of my work days now, I mostly crave and seek silence, which I can fortunately have at home. Reading a novel, playing solitaire, cooking, going for a walk across our property, these are my activities.

They do not require talking, most especially not talking on a phone.

If you, reading this, are one of the people who is missing calls from me, please accept my apology for my incapacity. Know that you are in my thoughts. Email me, or text me, and I will reply. And know also, that once I can do my work as face to face visits with my clients, reducing my use of the work phone back to its pre-Covid level, I will once more enjoy chatting with you.

Reflections on Change

January 13, 2020

No excuses being offered for my long absence from posting. And no assurances being offered that this post will be followed by regular new ones going forward. 

My current challenge is to adapt to changed daily routines, and the recognition that I have up to now mostly lived my life being “of service to” others, fitting my own interests into the bits of time left over. A not unfamiliar condition of women everywhere. 

Now I have blocks of time ‘just for me’ that were not available before – or that I did not create for myself before. 

Now I am confronted with the somewhat challenging question of how and with what to fill them?

Fortuitously a piano became available just as this shift in family routines initiated. I last played one when I was 12. I subsequently played recorder extensively, and learned guitar basics, but have not actively engaged as a performer of music now for many years. The piano was moved in over the holidays, and just recently. I have discovered that I can correctly finger scales one hand at a time, but coordinating the two, with proper fingering, is a skill to be relearned. I can still pick out melodies by ear, and can read notes thought not complex chords. So lots to learn/relearn as I decide what type of music I want to become able to play.

My stack of books to be read grows steadily higher even though I read daily, whenever I have a pause, including while standing in check out lines. Long ago, in a workshop on addiction for people not themselves addicts, the leader asked us to identify something that, were it absent from our lives, would make us anxious, upset, afraid, churlish, or otherwise “not your usual productive self.” My answer was immediate – not having a pile of books waiting for me to turn to after finishing the one I was reading. I should plaster over the entry to my home the sign I saw yesterday on a carrier bag in my local gift/book store, “It’s not hoarding when it’s books.” So far, the overflowing shelves seem to contribute to, rather than detract from, the sense of welcome and comfort in my home. At least, visitors tend to respond with positive comments when they come in for the first time. 

But maybe that’s despite the books and because of the plants? Really rather a lot of them that have managed to survive the fluctuations of wood heat (did you know that flowering cactus and poinsettias don’t flower readily when temperatures go up and down) and our super dry weather. I’m planning a comprehensive re-potting and re-positioning of them, giving them the attention they deserve for the pleasure the give so any. Especially the ivy in the bathroom which will be 40 years old come February. I call it my riot plant, not for how riotously it grows, but because it was a baby single shoot in my office at the NM Penitentiary on February 2 1980, day of the infamous prison riot. But that event marks a very different turn to my life, one I may revisit at some point in writing, but not today.

I have also identified numerous corners of the house where things are stacked that need to be sorted through, and either reorganized and condensed, or tossed. Always one of those tasks I procrastinate about, but one I know have time to complete, bit by bit. Ah, but do I have the motivation? Hmmmmm.

Make no mistake, I still have family commitments and partnered time, but differently shaped and structured. Yet another phase/change in the progress of shared life. Yet another opportunity to learn and grow and introspect if I choose to do so. Biggest lesson so early into this shift is how insidiously past negative experience can influence and color perception of the present very different one. This morning I am deeply grateful to have seen this error quickly, talked it over and banished it from the future. It cost me a weekend of stress-triggered symptoms, but not the many weeks that might have occurred in the past. Progress.

This morning the wind is howling and so is my dog, who remains safely on the porch, under her warm light, letting the world know she is on guard though not exposed. Rather how I intend to address this week, alert and prepared but sheltered in the comfort of knowing all is well within.

Baraka bashad, may the Blessings be.

Cultural Divide

August 2, 2019

I recently attended a wedding celebration that was notable not just for the radiance of both bride and groom (he is known for his smiles and was positively overflowing with joy) but also for its uniting of an Hispanic and a Cameroonian, who have known each other for six years already and have (hopefully) ironed out the cultural kinks in their relationship. I was seated with my husband at a table mostly of Cameroonian guests, one of whom brought his Hispanic girlfriend. While my husband talked in pidgin with his country-mates, I did my best to both follow their conversation and chat in English with the only other non-pidgin speaking guest at the table. She, unlike me, understands nothing of pidgin. We made the sort of small talk two strangers can be expected to begin with – where do you live, what is the current focus of your daily life, how do you know the wedding couple, etc.

Then she (I will refer to her as E) asked me how long my husband and I have been married and after I answered “five years” followed up with the question “what is the most difficult part of being in a cross cultural marriage?”

A good question. After a bit of thought, I gave her an answer but I’ not sure now it was the right answer. I told her it is especially easy to miss take how something is said and misinterpret intention when the nonverbal cues between the two cultures differ significantly. Communication between people is a miracle of overcoming different mindsets, background experiences and values. Add in different nonverbal cultures and it is amazing that people manage not to be constantly at war. The wedding dinner experience at our table was a perfect example. I knew that, seated with country-mates, my husband would mostly engage with them and expect me to fend for myself in conversation. I don’t think E expected to be left so much on her own and out of the loop. She may have felt neglected by her boyfriend, whereas I have learned not to interpret my husband’s engagement with his fellows as lack of concern for me. Rather it is a sign of his respect for me, his belief that I am quite able to make my own way in a group of Africans.

I told E that different cross-culture relationships require extra effort to bridge the unspoken communication subtleties, but that knowing this one can succeed, by always stopping to ask “is this what you intended?” before letting an emotional reaction take over. Not always easy to do, and not really any different than what one is advised to do in any relationship. 

As I’ve thought over E’s questions subsequently, I find I have a slightly different answer. The challenges still lie in the nonverbal arena but have less to do with direct communication and more to do with the intangibles of what “feels comfortable” to each partner. The most salient aspect of difference in my home has to do with what I would call noise level, but my husband most probably would just describe as ambient volume (noise having a negative connotation).

A good number of years ago, I offered housing to two new graduates of the United World College located near me, when they were stranded and unable to get home in a timely manner. The girls were friends, one from Senegal and the other from Nigeria. I worked full time while they spent the days in the house. I became accustomed to arriving home from work and, as I pulled into the garage, hearing what had been loud music suddenly shut off. The girls knew that at the end of a hectic work day I craved the country quiet of my home. They explained that the same silence that comforted me frightened them. All their lives they had lived in what I might call boisterous cultures, what I would inevitably experience as much too much noise. 

One need not go outside the U.S. to know this sort of cultural distinction though here we are more inclined to view it as simply a difference of personal preference. Some families are expressive, others restrained, even within the same sub-cultural group. But there is also, within a culture, an underlying, unspoken assumption regarding what is a proper and appropriate level of … I can’t think of a good alternative word for noise, though I would like one that is more value neutral. Oh, I can use sound.

As I have reflected on E’s question, I’ve recalled complaints from some of my prisoner students, when I taught classes in the New Mexico penitentiary, that the black inmates were “always too loud.” I’ve also recalled visiting with my college roommate and her family at their summer home in northern Minnesota. They are Finnish and spoke so quietly that their conversation blended easily into the soft background sounds of fish jumping in the nearby lake. In that environment my normal speaking voice was loud, even to my ears, and I consciously toned it down.

Now, I have begun to wonder to what extent the larger political upheaval we are experiencing in the U.S. is rooted in not just a difference in values, and a fear-based antagonism for what is different, but in a subtle, fundamental and unnamed discomfort with, intolerance for, cultural differences in sound. And not just sound, but other equally subconscious non-verbal behaviors, like social spacing, or the meaning of time.

Our African friends issue two types of invitations – for a party at 8 PM, or for a party at 8 “white man’s time.” The former means arrive whenever it suits you, the latter means get there at most a half hour after the start. There is no expectation that any invitation means to actually get there at the stated start time. What a contrast to my German father’s indoctrination to always allow for the unexpected which might prevent me from being present exactly “on time.” That training is so ingrained that I am usually early, and wait in my car until it is appropriate to show up where I am expected.

Might the tensions expressing themselves in our present national political debates be seen as complex reactions to two fundamentally different concepts of how to deal with underlying cultural differences? One one side is the approach embodied in my response to E, to become aware of these nonverbal differences and be prepared to make allowances for them, to accommodate differences, reach across the barriers they may pose, communicate, learn and share, and thereby both show respect and grow closer. On the other is reaction, mistrust, rejection, withdrawal into separateness and an eventual unbridgeable divide.

My choice of words makes it obvious which approach I practice, and recommend in relationships, and also which I believe we as a nation should be embracing.

How Old Am I?

May 5, 2019

Age is a funny thing. Yes, there is the chronological fact of the number of years a body has existed since its birth – but even that is not counted the same way in all cultures. For some a child is one at birth, for others (most?) one is only achieved after a year of existence. My reflections have little to do with chronological age, except as a baseline against which perceived age, experienced age, sensed age might be compared.

I remember a friend many years ago, a woman at that time in her early seventies, saying she got a shock each time she looked in the mirror and saw the old woman there looking back at her. She felt herself to be still young and energetic, looking forward to new experiences, as though she were still in her thirties – “or maybe early forties, certainly before my hair turned grey.”

In my own seventies now, I relate to her comments, not so much the mirror experience, but the definite discrepancy between the count of years lived and the way I feel from the inside looking out, at least most days. Yes there are some – yesterday was one – when a combination of fatigue, barometric instability, old injuries and some new pains cause me to feel my years. Fortunately so far they remain relatively rare. Or I can keep them relatively rare by getting enough sleep, eating right, using my herbal and topical pain treatments and not letting the time demands of my work overly dictate how I pass my days.

That last is the hard one. I still am not good at taking rest/activity breaks during the long and busy work days, though I know I am actually more productive if I do get out and walk a bit, or step away from the computer and the phone and give a few minutes of mindful attention to me. When the urgent deadlines pile up, work runs from 7:30 AM to 8:30 PM. That I can meet that schedule informs me that I am still young enough, with enough energy, to seem only in my fifties, if that. Stepping away from the work, when I do get an actual entire weekend off, I still feel young when I have energy to do fun things, like participate last weekend in Word Tai Chi Day, attend a Gay Pride event, the first ever in my community, and then an amazing concert by a visiting string quartet.

Yesterday, however, with all of my body aching with fatigue and hurtful reminders of every accident and injury experienced in my life, I felt every one of my years. Again, I am grateful those days are few and relatively far between.

The greatest discrepancies I perceive between “real” age and how I see myself are undoubtedly connected to my current life, married to a much younger man who is at quite a different stage of career and focus than my age mates, most of whom are busy with volunteer activities and the desirable pursuits common to engaged and energetic retirees. I do have in common with then an engagement with the raising of young children – in their case mostly grandchildren and some great grands, while in mine it is my husband’s youngsters, now mine by shared responsibility. Never having borne children myself, I still am getting adjusted to being Mama Niki to a seven year old!

From early childhood I have carried within me an awareness that, barring some accident, I would have a very long life. That expectation prepared me for working into later life, as I never had the kind of income to enable much in the way of retirement savings. When I read statistics about national saving rates, I feel rather proud of what I was able to put together, although when I look at articles dictating the amounts usually needed as retirement savings, I fall far short. In the former frame of mind, seeing what I have achieved and that I am still working and adding to that fund, I feel young. Comparing myself to the latter standard, I could lapse into a fearful awareness of being too old to get to the posited standard.

Fortunately, I don’t have to do so. I have begun to relax into the appreciation that financing my later years is no longer my sole responsibility. Indeed, I am very close to the point of being able to choose to work or to retire, an option I had not previously considered.

Enter an article I read this morning, about one aspect of a study being conducted in Cilento, Italy, and published in International Psychogeriatrics. The community has a very high proportion of very long-lived older citizens. Genetics and diet and lifestyle are all being reviewed, along with an analysis of psychological qualities which the article summarized into a list of values shared by all the residents aged over 80 who were being studied. Regardless of the state of their physical health, certain psychological traits were predominant among them.

Resilience was on the list, interpreted as a belief that one can withstand and overcome what living throws at one. Also optimism, and social engagement, and attachment to the land (the community is rural). What the researchers did not expect was the value that came up as number one – the expectation and intention to work throughout one’s entire life. This long lived populace (one in ten have reached 100 or more) have no concept of retirement. Types of work shift with physical changes of aging; fact of working does not.

It would seem that if I want to be present for the marriage of my young sons, and the birth of their children, I need to ignore the chronological years and instead keep a strong hold on my sense of youth and energy, as well as a continued engagement with my own career. My own experiences working with Hospice coincide with the research findings from Cilento. Over and over I have seen that the single most important component in determining length of life, especially near its end, is attitude.

There is a culture, I do not recall which one, where age is counted backwards. At birth a child is given the expected life span, and each year lived is one subtracted from that total. I don’t recall how the culture handles those who live more than the expected number of years. By the standards of that culture, I would place myself at about 35 years of age. Younger than my husband, appropriate to having young and early teen children, and definitely looking ahead to remaining years of employment and new challenges.

Resilience, optimism, engagement with the land (I have run away from city living for my entire life) – those are in place. I probably need to build in a bit more social interaction, although my work has me very engaged with people on a daily basis. So much so that, so far, I prefer quiet and solitary pursuits for relaxation. If my work changes from the current health care to what I project as a future of full time writing, I am alerted now to also add new social activities to my schedule. That will give me everything in place to join the residents of Cilento in an active older old age.

 

Old, New, Newer and Older

September 2, 2018

I think I have the beginning of an understanding of the stereotype of older people, particularly older workers, as rigid and inflexible. Not saying the stereotype is valid, but that I am seeing in myself some qualities of resistance to change that could, if taken to an extreme, become a rigidity not conducive to continued employment.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is only one expression of a mindset that I recognize can be attributed to older people, older workers, including myself. “Been there, done that, don’t need to do it again to know it doesn’t work well” is another. As is the certitude that having explored a variety of ways to complete a task over years of  trial and error, and settled on the best alternative for myself, I am unlikely to welcome the suggestion that I shift to a different option.

This preference for patterned behavior shows in the sequence with which I complete member assessments for my work, and the place I like to keep the salt shaker by the stove in my kitchen. Not that I can’t do the work in a different order, or find the salt when I need it after my husband has left it where he last used it, but I know I am more efficient and sure of the outcome if many small bits of my daily life follow the consistent, established routine.

I don’t think that’s a preference unique to older people. Though I’ve lived amid accumulations of things in relatively small spaces most of my adult life, I’ve nonetheless kept an order to the piles and know exactly where to lay my hands on whatever I need.  And I periodically go through the stacks and discard or give away. Rather it seems to me that one of the benefits of growing older is having had the time and experience to understand the value in routine, consistency, and a personal sense of order and rightness to how things should be done.

Which isn’t to say that I refuse to change. My life has been mostly about change these past 6-7 years. New work, new marriage, new friendships, new style of cooking, new patterns everywhere I look.  And now a whole new database system being introduced at work that I have embraced to the point of volunteering for the work group implementing the transition and will be serving as one of the “go to” mentors for my coworkers when they have questions about how to function after “go live” in October.

I do see, however, that I am inclined to notice what the new system will not do as well as the old, or to identify likely points of friction for myself in adapting to the new process requirements . This attitude is in contrast to (mostly all much younger than I) management’s persistent, cheer-leading enthusiasm for how the new system will solve all the problems we have had with the old one. I do see advantages to the change – but I also see disadvantages, as well as the load of work for each of us getting our caseload records switched over.

One apparent benefit to the new system is the way it tracks mandatory contacts and schedules for the worker, so that deadlines are much less likely to be missed. For many of my coworkers this structure seems beneficial. Never having had a problem with keeping track of and organizing my workload, to me it felt like objectionable micromanagement until I understood the system well enough to know how to address the “to do” list in a way that gives me back my sense of being the one to control my workload.

The older-person me first perceived the objection. A younger-person me (as I usually experience myself) understood that I needed to learn enough about the new system (cooking style, living arrangements, income sources) to adapt its methods to my needs and also to adapt myself to its structure. Which is what reducing the stress of change is all about. Adaptation.

If living long has taught us anything at all, it must be that life is inevitably about change and adaptation. Failure to change and adapt is, essentially, death. Maybe not instantaneous, but certain.  Most interviews with people who have exceeded normal lifespan expectations include mention of continuing to engage with life interests and learning, continuing to seek new stimulation even if the level or extent of options is reduced by physical frailty.

The most productive workplaces, then – indeed the most productive communities, groups, social organizations – would seem to be those that have recognized the importance of balancing the energy and enthusiasm usually associated with younger people against the wisdom of experience offered by older participants. In simpler societies, even in our U.S. culture not so very long ago, that value was recognized and respected.

Is it just my jaundiced old lady view, or am I accurately seeing yet another exacerbation of polarization in U.S. society, and a deepening divide between young and old, each group believing for example the scare headlines about cost of, loss of, social programs and a resultant mistaken belief that here again we are faced with “us” against “them.”  

My still young mental self, the part of me that embraces change and declares itself ready to adapt as necessary, is seeking to find commonalities between generations, and encourage the valuable cross-pollination of ideas that benefit us all, just as it has been ready to learn the new work database system, simultaneously appreciating its benefits and questioning how we will manage its shortcomings.  My older self can be heard repeating the voice of the 70 something protester against the effort to impose a Muslim ban (and the broader reintroduction of blatant discrimination that many of us fought against in the 60’s and 70’s), “Didn’t think I’d have to be here protesting this yet again.”

Another adage, about those who do not learn from history being condemned to repeat it, comes to mind. Unfortunately, on a societal level, the unpleasant repetition also imposes its negative effects on those who have learned the lessons and done their best to prevent the country from falling back into old ways. Living long enough to see this cycle around and back again becomes both a blessing and a curse, an opportunity to teach but only if there is someone ready to listen and learn.

It has never been different. I am reminded, almost too frequently these days, of the translation of a tablet excavated from the ruins of a Greek village, in which a father lamented the laziness and reluctance to work of his teenage son.  The writer who shared that tidbit of information concluded, as I will here, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

I therefore do my best to detach, discern where balance can be found, place  my attention on those things that matter in the long run, and cultivate an attitude of patient acceptance, doing what I can where I see myself able to be effective, and letting the rest slide by.  

“I am here. I am alive. I am trying.That is enough.”

Changing Direction

April 7, 2018

With a frequency perhaps greater than experienced by some of my peers, I come to a point in whatever I am doing professionally that is not burnout, but close to boredom. When the challenge of mastering a line of work wears off, I find myself looking around for what to do next or differently. Over the years, that point has come in conjunction with other changes in my life circumstances, enabling me to shift from education research to paralegal, program manager in state government to college psychology teacher, home health manager to trainer to care coordinator with an MCO. Along the way i’ve had a private practice as a licensed mental health counselor, become a CPR instructor, written (but not published) three books, published 4 years of weekly columns in local newspapers and sold my jewelry designs at craft fairs. I’ve also plastered houses, laid flagstone floors, raised various animals for food, and at one point was making 40 loaves of bread a week by hand, for sale to an established list of customers.

The position I’ve held longest was as regional manager of a home health agency. I was simultaneously a case manager for one of the Medicaid programs the agency served. It still amazes me that I kept at it for more than 12 years, the second time around (I built the branch for 5 years, left for three, then accepted the urgent request to rejoin the agency.) That second twelve year period was a lesson in endurance, and set me a challenge of finding new ways to engage in order to keep my interest intact. It also exhausted my willingness to be “in charge” of anyone else’s performance.

My present employment meets virtually all my recognized requirements, enabling me to continue with full time work at an age where most of my peers have retired. I work from home, I am engaged one on one with clients, I am not subject to onerous supervision so long as I complete my work by the required deadlines, and I can set my own schedule within the broad guidelines of being “at work” the common Monday to Friday week. I’ve been able to participate in pilot studies of new technology and had my recommendations welcomed, for the new database support system being developed. I’ve been satisfied with the work for more than 4 years, and expect to continue with it for several more  – but I also recognize I’ve come to another of those “it’s getting to be same old same old” points.

I have read the many studies that stress the importance of pursuing a passion into one’s older years to support the retention of health and to encourage enjoyment of later life. From my early childhood, I have carried within me an awareness that I am fated to be long lived.  My relatively recent assumption of new family responsibilities gives added importance to being productive and engaged through those years.

Most of my choices of employment so far have been limited by my decision to respect requirements imposed by others in my life. When I would, for example, have sought work outside the U.S., I did not feel free to pick up and go. There are similar constraints now on my choices, though not anyone telling me I cannot do whatever it is I decide I want to pursue.

Instead, my challenge is to identify what might catch and keep my interest for a long enough period to see me through my remaining years. Several friends from whom I’ve solicited input have posed questions to help me.

a. “Is there something you’ve always wanted to do but the time wasn’t right?”

b. “What does your spiritual path tell you about how to move onward?”

c. “What floats your boat?”

I’ve also been gifted with observations from those who know me well.

d. “You come alive in the classroom, or any teaching setting.”

e. “For you I sense that the answer lies in one on one relationships.”

f. “You are uniquely skilled at channeling your spiritual awareness in ways that benefit others.”

My spiritual Teacher instructs that, to implement a new direction, I should not get too specific. Better to create a framework and then be patient and let the Master fill in the details. That is essentially how I landed in my present employment, after 18 months of searching and applying for whatever became available. So I am now seeking to identify the elements of the new framework. I already know they include at least the following:

  1. Something I can prepare for while still employed in my present job
  2. Something that in one way or another involves teaching
  3. Something that gives me the opportunity to travel, though not necessarily requiring that I live for an extended time elsewhere – I really do like living in northern New Mexico!
  4. Something that stretches my mind, requires me to learn a new skill, or significantly deepen my understanding of a topic I’ve studied
  5. Something that lies within my current physical capacities and can be continued if/as these slowly diminish with age

More than a hobby, but not such a new career as to require years of study to make the switch.

I’m mostly pleased that the question “what have you always wanted to do but not been able to?” doesn’t seem to have an answer. Pleased because I recognize that I have in fact done most of the things I really wanted to, slightly dismayed because I am not helped now with any nudges towards my next steps.

Whatever emerges as my eventual new passion, the process of seeking it has already brought benefits. Where I had been thinking that most of my choices have been constrained and limited by others, I now recognize that at the important points I have pushed through obstacles and gone for what I wanted. Just a few examples include: finding a way to continue horseback riding while living in the heart of Paris, making my way to New Mexico despite strong parental opposition, committing to relationships that have enabled my growth despite societal pressure to avoid them, and not letting lack of formal training in an area keep me from taking on work in that discipline.

Asked in a survey of alumni from my college what was the greatest benefit of my Swarthmore education, I answered immediately that it taught me how to learn anything I wished to. It taught me to think. It gave me the opportunity to experience accomplishment and to know that I have a good mind I can use to master any subject I wish to learn.

That mind will have its role implementing the details of whatever new direction my life takes. Mind will have to wait, however, until my heart, spirit, Soul perceives the direction the Master will prepare for me. And the ego-I must wait patiently for the frame outlined above to have its details filled in by a Soul much wiser than the most highly trained mind.

In the meantime, today was a sunny spring day and perfect for a trip to Santa Fe to do errands and to take a walk up Canyon Road. To everything its appointed time.

Baraka Bashad, may the Blessings Be.

Talk to Me

March 21, 2018

I’ve long thought, and counselors generally agree, that good communication between partners is one of the most essential elements of a solid and lasting relationship. Love may be the motivation to engage, but silent loving will not sustain a marriage. My recent uncomfortable experience of an extended period of limited, fractured or non-existent communication proved to me just how accurately I had previously perceived the importance of open, honest, considered, thoughtful sharing.

Might the documented health benefits of pet ownership in older people living alone be connected to the fact that most such individuals talk to their pets? And many are certain the pets answer them with meaningful albeit non-verbal communication.

I’ve come away from the past six weeks wiser about my own inner dynamics: my deepest fears, my ability to face those fears, the places where my ego “sticks” and doesn’t want to let go, let God, forgive and forget. Over the course of my life I’ve mostly been flexible in my interactions with people, accommodating to idiosyncratic behavior. Many of my clients have said they never expected to feel so comfortable with someone demonstrably different than they, but that I have made them forget those differences. Some few behaviors, I have now earned, I am not easily able to disregard or forgive.

And I learned a lot about the limits of using reasoning to override, direct, or temper emotions. In so doing, I think I have come away with an improved perception of my seriously emotionally disturbed mother. Her fears were so profound and pervasive, and flipped into anger so readily, that there was no opportunity for reason to affect her feelings and behavior. Undiagnosed, untreated, she navigated her way through a flood of emotions for which she had no words, so she erupted into brutal anger “over nothing.”

My father’s response was to withdraw – duck and cover – until her eruption subsided. Which left me to bear the brunt of her anger, whether some action of mine was the trigger, or I was just the handy scapegoat for anger she couldn’t otherwise express at her employer, at my father, at the repairman who arrived two hours later than expected, at the pot that burned supper, at the neighbor’s barking dog… You can see the picture without my drawing it out further.

Inability to communicate. Interruptions to communication. Fear of communication. It doesn’t matter what creates the barrier – if that barrier is real, it is highly destructive of relationship.

I am, therefore immensely grateful that willingness to share and to listen and to explain and to understand are now proven core qualities in my marriage. The misunderstanding that arose inevitably from the circumstances of our separation took less than 24 hours of being back together to resolve. The resolution brought new understanding, altered perspectives, new goals and what feels, on my side, like a more realistic appraisal of where I still have some work to do involving trust in myself and in my right to be happy, without having to prove or earn or guard or control the circumstances of that produce my happiness.

I am grateful for the lessons learned – with just a tiny voice whispering that it would have been nice if those lessons could have been taught a tad less harshly. I must conclude that my ego is most stubbornly determined to remain in charge and needed to be “hit upside the head with a 2×4” as the saying goes. Okay, my attention has been brought around to where it needs to be, I am listening to what my partner has learned and communicating my own learning. We are both re-balancing ourselves within our spiritual center, placing ego away to the side where it belongs.

It does feel good to be moving forward in harmony once more!

Stress-Hardening

March 10, 2018

I recently attended a two-day training on Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) which covered the processes for defusing and for debriefing groups of people who have been involved in or exposed to a traumatic event (school shooting, natural disaster, first responders to an accident). The majority of trainees were chaplains working for my employer, a large MCO with multiple hospital facilities and clinics around the state. Others of us were nurses employed in those hospitals, just a few like me “oddballs” from other employment roles. I had taken the two years ago, so this was a re-certification/refresher but it turned out to be a quite new experience nonetheless.

Not because the material has changed – it hasn’t. I am in a much different mental/emotional space than two years ago, partially because of the unexpected and somewhat stressful recent change in my personal circumstances. The instructor warned us at the start of the class that some of the exercises might bring up aspects of our past life experience. I did not anticipate that the training would take me back so far into my past – to 1980 and the New Mexico prison riot that occurred on February 2nd of that year.

For that trauma, I had no such thing as incident debriefing, no opportunity for defusing of the strong emotions generated by the events; whatever working through I accomplished was done on my own. The aspect of that experience which became salient during the training was my response of a strengthened commitment to speaking out on behalf of what I believe it is important to emphasize in our communal life. In my own case I think I settled on causes that show respect for all persons and implementation of fairness and justice in interpersonal and group interactions. I recognize, however, that a similar experience could push another individual to settle just as firmly into a commitment to a path of vengeance.

From the perspective of trauma-hardened reaction, might one better understand the deep divides within our society today? Is it possible that too many of us have experienced (possibly unrecognized) traumas, not had the benefit of any sort of defusing or debriefing, and moved on into strongly held positions regarding values and actions as a means of “getting past” the traumatic events?

Putting things behind us without examining them and understanding their effects is a common reaction, but evidence proves it is not a particularly healthy one. The unexamined or un-dealt-with issues have a way of recurring. Classic example being the person who gets through the death of a parent seemingly without problems and then falls apart a year later when a pet dies.

A number of my friends have chosen, of late, to try to understand people who hold opposing views on the social issues creating so much conflict in our society these days. They are attempting to reach across the divides, to find common ground, to offer understanding, to create a cognitive (thought) framework for how divergent belief systems can be reconciled. While I applaud the motivation behind the effort, I have reservations about their likelihood of success. Not success at grasping a divergent view, but serious question as to whether any reconciliation can be achieved.

Reconciliation requires not just a cognitive but also an emotional shift, and one strong lesson from the critical incident stress management training was that the cognitive and emotional realms are two very different levels of response to trauma. In counseling, one technique often used to help troubled individuals is a cognitive re-framing, which can lead to a shift in emotional response. If I have experienced non-communication as disrespect, but learn that the lack of communication was the result of a technical failure (Internet shut off by a controlling government), the expectation is that I will then be able to free myself from the hurt and anger associated with feeling disrespected.

That kind of framework shift does seem to work in a broad-brush way. Indeed, I just read an article today about the importance of words as framing perspective. An example was asking if you would rather be in a relationship that ends, or that breaks up? Another question pertained to how many people would gamble with $50 if they would lose $30, versus would gamble the money if they knew they could keep $20. Although the end result, a minimum of $20 in hand, was the same, far more people would gamble to “avoid losing $30” than would gamble when they knew they could keep $20.

What the CISM training brought out by contrast is that when dealing with traumatic events, there is frequently a very deep divide between cognitive and emotional domains. While the defusing and debriefing techniques do initiate a cognitive re-framing of the experiences, it is a given that processing reactions to trauma will take time, and may include a variety of feelings and behaviors that are totally unfamiliar to the individual experiencing them.

When the traumatized individual has the benefit of a debriefing or subsequent mental health counseling, the outcome can be both reassurance that the unfamiliar reactions are not abnormal, and a healthy resolution of the anger, fear and other harsh emotions the trauma has brought up. Too often though, we experience trauma without any, or adequate, support. Is it any wonder, then, that we end up locked into tightly held beliefs or behavior patterns that do not allow us to understand, let alone accept, others different from ourselves?

The timing of the CISM training has served me well, to expose within me the residue of an unresolved divide between cognitive understanding and emotional response to multiple earlier traumas that have cumulatively established me in a pattern of somewhat set beliefs. My spiritual path would label these sanskaras, lifelong patterns of thought, values, beliefs that are rarely if ever recognized or examined – the stuff of which self-concepts are made. To reach the goal of self and God-self realization one must recognize and detach oneself from the illusion that the Self is the same as that mental self-concept. Not an easy process. Who and what am I, if I am not the collection of values and beliefs that have directed my behavior throughout my life?

I don’t at this point have any answer to that question; I do know that the answer is not something of which I can have any idea. Ideas are mental elements, and the Self is not knowable through mentation.

Which refers me back to my recognition during the CISM training that the divide between cognition and emotion can be huge, sometimes unbridgeable, and a metaphor for the divide between a mental concept of self and our true Soul self. Just as we benefit from a facilitator to help us bring the two parts of our response to trauma into perspective and balance, we need a qualified teacher to help us clarify what we are  – and are not – as spiritual beings. Without the facilitator we risk getting trapped into rigid belief and behavior patterns that move us past, but do not resolve, trauma. Without a spiritual teacher we risk getting stuck on the karmic wheel of life , repeating the same lessons over and over because we do not learn from them.

Once again, I remind myself that my spiritual Master instructs his students that “recognition is enough”. We do not have to ‘fix’ what we see is wrong, indeed we cannot do so. We do need to see an issue clearly, recognize it as another of the mental illusions we wish to shed, and then detach, leaving the work of removal to be done on us, for us, through us but not by us.

Now why does something so easy so often seem so hard?


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