Tuesday, March 21, 2023

The kaleidoscope of change

It’s a cliché to say that change is the one constant in life. Of course it is. We all know that. And we know that it’s our attitude to change that makes the difference. That’s common conventional wisdom.

But it’s easier said than done.

I sometimes think that the changes brought about by aging are the toughest to adapt to. Some days I don’t have a good attitude at all about those changes. I wonder who I am now.

This reminds me of a passage in Alice in Wonderland. I’m currently reading this book aloud with my friend Harriet who lives down in the Health Center. Harriet is 104 years-old and has been through more life changes than most of us. The time she’s in now is especially difficult. But she loves Alice and laughs in all the right places.

The passage describes some strange changes and their resultant identity crisis. Alice was a little girl, not an old woman and her dilemma had to do with magically changing sizes as she swallowed potions and ate cookies. She wrestles with change like most of us and wonders who she is now. In this scene she has just come in contact with a caterpillar.

The Caterpillar and Alice looked at each other for some time in silence; at last the Caterpillar took the hookah out of its mouth, and addressed her in a languid, sleepy voice.

“Who are you? said the Caterpillar.

This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, “I—I hardly know, sir, just at present—at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”

“What do you mean by that” said the Caterpillar sternly. “Explain yourself!”

“I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, sir,” said Alice, “because I’m not myself, you see.”

“I don’t see,” said the Caterpillar.

“I’m afraid I can’t put it more clearly,” Alice replied very politely, “for I can’t understand it myself to begin with; and being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing.”

Being so many different sizes in a lifetime is confusing. Sizes, shapes, roles, tasks, relationships, responsibilities, circumstances—it’s a kaleidoscope and its constant spinning makes me so dizzy somedays that I can’t stand up straight. (Is that why so many of us use walkers and wheelchairs?) Which of all these selves and sizes is the real me? Is there such a creature? Is it even important to know?

The tiredness aside, most days I feel almost young and vital on the inside, much the same person I’ve always been. But then I look in the mirror.

I was startled this morning
to see a strange old woman
staring at me from the bathroom mirror.
Who is she? How did she get here?
Should I pull the emergency cord
by the toilet? Am I safe?
Such white hair!
Those lines around the eyes!
Those spots! Poor thing.
Even as I pitied her,
something about the pathetic look
she gave me made me laugh.
She laughed back.
In that very instant, I recognized
her, accepted her, and loved her.
Just as she is.

I realize that all the changes of my life come together to help make me who I am today. The changes are real and I’m at a different phase of life with its own challenges, but I’m still me. I’ll keep changing, but my core self, the essence of the person created by God, stays. It’s like the woman in Lisa Genova’s novel, Still Alice, who suffers the drastic changes of Alzheimer’s, but her family recognizes that she’s still the person they’ve always known and loved. She’s still Alice. And I’m still Nancy. And you are still your own unique self.

Joan Chittister in her book The Gift of Years writes that “We don’t change as we get older—we just get to be more of what we’ve always been.”

I love that passage in the book of Revelation that says that the person who remains victorious in all the challenges of life will receive from God “a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it” (Rev. 2:17). I’ve wondered if that personal name is God finally telling us the essence of our identity.

The search for identity, extending through the later years, is ongoing, perhaps until God tells us who we are. In the meantime, there’s a better way. We are to love our neighbor as ourself. Maybe these retirement years give us the leisure to appreciatively explore and affirm the essence of our neighbor—whether spouse, adult child, grandchild, or friend. Although we will never know the secret word written on their stone, we might come closer to genuinely knowing another person. What a good way to spend our time.

That’s a challenge for any age. 

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

On being ripe

 Really old people are sometimes referred to as ripe, as in “She lived to a ripe old age.” What exactly does that mean? When does ripe old age begin and when does it end?

Ripe seems more like a fruit word than a people word, but with language being the wonderful wiggly thing it is, words can go all sorts of places. People and fruit have things in common.

What is it about old age that makes it ripe? Is it an apple just about to fall, not yet wormy? Is it a whole vineyard full of choice grapes, ready for the presses? It is an avocado, getting soft, needing to be picked, pealed, and sliced away from its huge seed? Made into guacamole? Is it a lemon, tart and acidic? Or sweet like a plum? Why do we call old age ripe?

Is there an implication that after ripe comes…..dead?

The Collins English Dictionary tells us that “ripe implies completed growth beyond which the process of decay begins.” That’s OK in reference to fruit. Not so much for people. Taking that definition literally would mean that people become ripe in their mid-twenties, after which it’s all downhill, physically speaking. (“At the ripe young age of 25, he climbed Mt. Kilamanjaro.”)

But of course that’s not how we use the term. Ripe, as in “ripe old age,” refers, obviously, to old people. Webster’s informs us that a ripe person is one “having mature knowledge, understanding, or judgment” (would that were true!) or, more simply, a person “of advanced years.” The Cambridge Dictionary gives a positive description of “ripe old age”: “the condition of being very old; used especially to talk about someone who has had a long healthy life.” Christine Ammer in The Dictionary of Clichés says that the “expression itself is of a ripe old age—it dates from the second half of the fourteenth century—and is generally used in a positive, admiring sense.”

Well, then. I wouldn’t mind heading toward ripeness if it meant having finally achieved maturity of understanding after a long healthy life. Who wouldn’t want that? But if that’s what it means, then not every worthy old person could be considered ripe. Think of the one with dementia, an unfair disease of the mind that seems to attack the virtuous as well as scoundrels, and all degrees of character in between. What happens to “maturity of understanding”? Many wise older people die of diseases like cancer or heart trouble. These probably wouldn’t be considered ripe, lacking the health factor. Could a healthy old scoundrel be considered to have lived to a “ripe old age.”

Or are all these questions just silly?

Hal said to me last night, “I don’t want to get so ripe that I begin to stink.”

Me neither.

I’m playing with this term partly because I love language and am always curious about the origins and meanings of idioms and figures of speech. But I’m also pondering it because so many terms referring to older people border on stereotype. And I’m allergic to stereotypes, especially if I’m in the category being referred to.

In my search for information about the phrase, “ripe old age,” I came across a list of related words and phrases that refer to old people. It’s from a collection called SMART Vocabulary, produced by the Cambridge University Press. Here’s a sample from the list:

aged, buffer, centenarian, codger, crock, crone, dotard, elder, gaffer, geriatric, infirm, old boy, old girl, old man, old woman, old folks’ home, old-timer, oldie, ripe, second childhood, senile, senior citizen, supercentenarian, the gray dollar, the gray market, twilight years, wrinkly

Sound attractive? What images entered your mind as you read each word? Did you see yourself? Your parents or grandparents? I’m tempted to write a poem about Hal and me entitled, “The Codger and the Crone.” Gaffer’s a nice word; Sam Gamgee used it with affection to refer to his father. But I’ve never heard it used around here.

Actually, I love figures of speech and am always on the look out for new ones. I feel a certain affection toward “a ripe old age” and wouldn’t mind that referring to me someday, as long as I don’t stink. It’s that tendency toward stereotyping I resist. Stereotypes tend to erase personality. The categories and images make it hard to see people in all their uniqueness, no matter their age. I’m not a “senior citizen;” I’m a citizen. I’m not an old person; I’m a person. And I hope I’m never a crone.

Now that that’s off my back (another interesting image), I need a snack. I think I’ll go eat an apple.

Let’s hope it’s ripe.

Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Coming unglued

It was a simple exercise in a poetry writing seminar. The idea intrigued me. The facilitator had told us to choose a common cultural idiom, a figure of speech everyone knows and uses. The exercise was to take that idiom literally and write a poem.

I chose the phrase “coming unglued.” I was hearing that a lot, occasionally applying it to myself when a too busy schedule was making me grumpy and disorganized. Similar to not “having it all together,” or not “having your ducks in a row.”  

As I engaged my imagination, the image of body parts slowly coming unattached from the trunk made me grin. I know, it’s gruesome, but I tend to find weird things funny (except when they’re not). I began writing as the pictures formed, basically just playing with words. Nothing serious in mind. But, as sometimes happens in creative endeavors, the poem itself took over and led me where I didn’t want to go. Hansel and Gretel walked into the story and the whole thing ended up with us entering a darkening forest. Not knowing where we were going or what would happen next.

Sometimes, when a person asks me what one of my poems means, I have to confess that I don’t know. It was that way with this poem, until I figured it out. Apparently my unconscious self wanted to bring something up to the surface where I could deal with it. Poems can act like dreams, telling us stuff we need to know.

But first, here’s the poem. (You’ll notice I don’t even use the phrase “coming unglued.” No need.)

Coming of Age

It's all right, he assured me
as his ear slid
down the side
of his face.
His right index finger dropped
He had always
known this would happen
His hairline had begun
to recede
years before.
We walked out of
the room
I stumbled on
his left
He hobbled ahead,
scattering appendages
About twilight
we entered the forest.

At the time I wrote this poem Hal and I were in our early 50s, still young and somewhat vital (as I know from my current vantage point). But we were noticing subtle bodily changes, things like lower energy level, less visual acuity, aches in places that had never ached before, and, of course, those wrinkles and grey hairs. Hal especially faced some serious issues involving operations.

I always knew I’d grow old someday, but it wasn’t of great concern. I couldn’t actually picture myself with white hair, using a walker, or living in an “old folks’ home.” And I didn’t pay too much attention to the tales my aunts and uncles told about doctor visits and body parts wearing out. Boring.

But while I wasn’t consciously worried, something else was going on deep inside where monsters and dragons dwell. The poem told me that I was afraid of growing old and especially of what might happen to my body and mind. My mother had died in her 50s and my father at age 63, both from debilitating illnesses. I was approaching that age. Would I be like them? It was unknown territory.

It was good to get the fear out into the open and look it in the face. Hal and I could then talk about it, pray, and make plans for when we’d actually enter the forest.

I’m over 20 years from the writing of that poem and I’m actually living in a retirement community (which I would never refer to as an “old folks’ home”). It’s turned out to be a lovely old growth forest where the sun slants through the trees, although there are days when path ahead still looks dark.

But I must confess that the image of body parts coming unglued is no joke. This forest is full of decay; ironically, that’s part of what makes it healthy. We try to laugh about it, and most days we do.

There’s a joke about how that when older people get together to talk, it always turns into a musical event—an organ recital!

I hope I’m not about to give an organ recital here, but in order to illustrate the idea of slowly coming unglued, I will say that my main concern is something called vestibular migraines, but that my marvelous doctor is helping me control the symptoms. Other than that, I have a bit of osteoarthritis in my hands and neuropathy in my feet. (There’s some other stuff that I won’t mention. Be thankful.) All in all, not too bad.

Hal is another story. (Hal is always another story, but that’s what makes him so interesting.) He’s looking at three possible operations this year—lower back, prostrate, and left hand. Plus he continually fights diverticulosis, assorted skin rashes, and leg cramps. And both of us find ourselves saying WHAT? more than any other word in our vocabulary. Wonder why? I guess we’ll have to look into that.

On the other hand, we have good hearts, lungs, kidneys, brains and other organs that are growing older but still doing their good work. Since cataract removal surgery, we see the distant hills as well as the words in our books. We have much to be thankful for.

Now that I’ve written that, I am determined not to give you another organ recital. Ever. Please hold me to it.

We need to face the rebellion of body parts as a reality of aging. We have no guarantee that we will not get cancer, break a hip, or suffer dementia. I read the description in Psalm 92 of the upright person who “will still bear fruit in old age, who still stay fresh and green” like a cherry tree or a cedar. A beautiful image—and one I hold on to. But I will still grow older and one day I will die. What does this fruit in old age look like? What does it mean to stay fresh and green, even as some of my limbs break off and fruit drops to the ground? As I become unglued?

I don’t know exactly. I just know that, on most days, I’m no longer afraid.

Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Curiouser and Curiouser


One of the secrets of graceful aging, so we’re told, is being what is known as a Life-Long-Learner—maintaining a curious spirit and actively seeking to learn more about ourselves and our world. Curiosity may kill cats (a dubious proposition in itself) but it seems to add spice to the aging process. “Curiouser and curiouser” as Alice in Wonderland puts in, as she follows the White Rabbit, looking in amazement at the wonders around her.

Sometimes growing old feels like going down a rabbit hole, wondering where we’ll end up (or down). But paying attention to the experience helps keep us young in spirit for a longer time.

This retirement home offers many opportunities for learning experiences. A Community Life Director, plus a residents education committee make sure there’s always something going on. This last month we had weekly Bible studies, an ongoing (six weeks) college level class on the geology of the Northwest, art classes (card making and book binding), regular musical recitals, various book club meetings, a weekly movie, a lecture on hummingbirds, and an informational presentation by a member of the city council. The fact that a university is right across the street also helps; retirement community residents get special auditors rates. And, of course, we have a library full of copies of The Great Courses. Hal and I have taken the 24-lecture course on particle physics, and now I’m going through How To Play the Guitar.

In other words, there’s no excuse for mental stagnation. There’s no end of new stuff to learn.

Even so, I’m often brought short by my ignorance. There are things that I should know by this time in life but that I’ve never even wondered about. For example, what my name means. Oh, I know the meanings of my first and middle names; Nancy means grace and Jane also means grace. I’ve called myself God’s double-whammy grace child. Hal’s first name means warrior and his (our) last name, Thomas, means twin. Put that all together and it seems like we are alike, going into battle but depending on grace to sort it all out. OK—now I’m being silly.

But not too long ago he asked my what my maiden name, Forsythe, meant. And I didn’t know. In fact, I’d never even wondered about it or tried to investigate it. Of all things, that’s something I should have figured out long ago. So I wrote a poem, of course.

Thinking about My Name

This morning Hal asked the meaning
of my maiden-name, Forsythe,
and I realized that, not only did I not know,
but that I had never even thought about it.
Me, the lover of words and their meanings,
I had never wondered about my name,
a name that might have hinted of my destiny.
I guess there are many things
I’ve never thought about,
important things, things deep and surface,
thoughts that could impact my life
if only I would think them.
I’m tempted to shame at my thoughtlessness
but I choose excitement instead.
I anticipate all the many thoughts out there,
teasing me, inviting me, awaiting my curiosity.
I will think them all.
I will investigate and ponder.

In fact, this very day
I will google my name.

Find out who I am.

(Note: I found out that Forsythe comes from Gaelic roots and means “man of peace.” Being an equal opportunity believer, I can convert that to “person of peace” or even “woman of peace.” Great name.)

Here are some things I want to learn this year:
--the names of the trees on the Hess Creek trail and in Champoeg Park
--some new recipes
--more life stories of the people around me
--a new poet
--new (to me) hiking/walking trails in this county (experientially know)

I hope to be like Alice in Wonderland, growing curiouser and curiouser as I follow the White Rabbit of new knowledge and experiences. I will chase new thoughts. A world of wonders awaits.

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

The ultimate exercise for the elderly

 I faced my usual dilemma this morning. To go or not to go. The Strong for Life exercise program is geared to people my age, but it’s vigorous enough to raise a sweat and create an occasional muscle ache.

I didn’t sleep well last night, one part of me says. Yes, but regularity in your exercise is very important, says another inner voice. Oh shut up! I already know that; besides I’m retired and shouldn’t have to do that kind of stuff, replies the first voice, and on it goes. Well, this morning I can proudly report that my more vigorous and intelligent self won. I went to the class. It doesn’t always turn out that way.

Strong for Life is only one of the fitness opportunities this retirement community offers. Resident fitness, it seems, is one of the values of those who run this community. We have core exercise classes (the most strenuous, for the younger old people among us), tai-chi, yoga, Sit and Be Fit, line dancing, swimming, and trail-walking excursions. I’m sure I left out something. Plus we have a well equipped exercise room with a variety of machines for strength or cardio workouts.

So, we have no excuse for not being as fit as we can be for our age. (Correction: I can usually come up with an excuse.)

Part of the value of Strong for Life is the fellowship of kindred sufferers. We pretty much occupy the same space in the room each time and have become a kind of family. Both men and women, a few couples, we’re in different stages of the aging process. Some park their walkers by their chairs. We can doing the standing up exercises not touching the chair, hanging on to the chair, or sitting in the chair, all of this while following the smiling young woman on the big screen. This morning at the end of the 45-minute session, we applauded, not so much in appreciation, but because we were glad it was over.

It’s well documented that, in order to thrive, we older people need regular exercise, lots of water, good nutrition, a full night’s sleep, and at least one serving of dark chocolate a day. Not to mention that early morning cup of coffee.

Recently I discovered on the Internet the perfect exercise for people over 65. It seems challenging, but it’s totally doable, with time and patience. I encourage you to read it over then begin immediately, and see what happens. Here it is:


1. Begin by standing on a comfortable surface, where you have plenty of room at each side.

2. With a 5-lb potato bag in each hand, extend your arms straight out from your sides and hold them there for as long as you can. Try to reach a full minute, and then relax

3. Each day you’ll find that you can hold this position for just a little longer.

4. After a couple of weeks, move up to 10-lb potato bags.

5. Then try 50-lb potato bags, and then eventually try to get to where you can lift a 100-lb potato bag in each hand and hold your arms straight out for more than a full minute. (I’m at this level.)

6. After you feel confident at that level, put a potato in each bag.

                     (Michele Jackson, usOWLS.com, 2016, used with permission)

You can do it! Let’s get fit!

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Will you be my (elderly) valentine?

 It’s Valentines Day in the retirement community, and love is in the air!

It’s also on our doors. The Community Life department has instituted what appears to be an annual Valentines Day contest. Several weeks ago, we all received a red piece of paper with a large heart on it. Our instructions were to decorate it in any way we wanted and to put in on our door. This is a contest, we were told, with prizes (or not—I don’t remember that part). Some good American competition to spur us along!

Actually, only some residents get excited about this artistic challenge. A good number think it’s silly and ignore the whole thing. The neighborhood I belong to is one of the enthusiastic floors, meaning about a third of the rooms have valentine art up on their doors. I am ambivalent; I think it’s sort of silly, but I’ve done it anyway. Entered the contest. After I, I don’t want to be a wet blanket. Not in this cold weather.

I’ve enjoyed walking through the different neighborhoods and seeing the artwork. A common theme is wedding photos, black and white, of course, as most of us couples got married a very long time ago. Many widows and a few widowers also decorate wedding photos in honor of the one they lost. A lot of the artwork is spiritual with pictures of Jesus or verses of Scripture. And some of the door-art is downright funny, in full disrespect of the deep purposes of Valentines Day. These are my favorites.

Here is a sampling, taken from last year and this year:


I drew a somewhat misshapen heart (not being a fan of symmetrical) and put a quirky love poem (not being a fan of Hallmark) in the middle.

A Sort Of Love Poem

When I say
thus and such
and you respond with
such and that
I almost begin to realize
that you didn’t at all understand
my this and there
thinking it instead to be
and then I correcting spout
how as what
but you come back with
why and wherefore
and I meaning to point out
because furthermore and

Oh, forget it!
Come kiss me.

I’ll probably not win the prize.

In a more serious tone, one of my favorite poems on love between a couple who have been married a long time is by Wendell Berry. It gives tribute to the value of a seasoned love where friendship has grown and the couple continue to enjoy their life together. There are couples like that in this community and I’m thankful for them.

The Wild Rose

Sometimes hidden from me
in daily custom and in trust,
so that I live by you unaware
as by the beating of my heart,

suddenly you flare in my sight,
a wild rose blooming at the edge
of thicket, grace and light
where yesterday was only shade,

and once more I am blessed, choosing
again what I chose before.

When it’s all said and done, I have to admit that there's lots of love in this old growth forest.

Tuesday, February 7, 2023

So many choices, so little time

 The time/choices cliché came back to me last week as our retirement community held its annual activity fair. It used to be called the “committee fair,” but the term committee has almost become a bad word to those of us who retired hoping to leave behind the world of committees, duties, and deadlines. So now we have “activity groups.”

And they’re a good thing, these activity groups. The life of the whole community here is motivated, organized, and run by us residents. And since we have lots of great ideas, the groups proliferate. No need to be bored or to feel useless. And each groups offers not only good stuff to do and ways to serve, but relationships and new friends to be made—the real heart of the community.

We used the auditorium for the fair, with each activity group displayed at the tables spread around the perimeter. Colors, conversations, and lots of excitement circulated, giving the event almost the feel of a circus.

So much to choose from. Groups representative were ready to hear questions, offer explanations, and recruit new members. Altogether, we have between 30 and 40 groups. Here’s a sample:

The Lobby Décor group undertakes the task of making the large lobby of the campus’s central building a welcoming, beautiful place. They work with another activity group, Art on the Walls, to incorporate art work by local artists. It’s often better than an art museum.

The aforementioned Art on the Walls group also makes sure all the halls and meeting places are adorned with “real art,” rather than the stuff in the waiting rooms of doctors’ offices. The pictures are periodically changed, making walking down the halls a pleasant occasion.

Several groups focus on our response of gratitude to the staff who serve us in the retirement community. One such group raises money to help different workers further their education, and another finds other ways to express appreciation, including gift cards at Christmas.

I love the Library Activity Group, because I love our community library, open 24/7. (It’s “serve yourself” in the middle of the night.) The Studio Arts Group sponsors different kinds of art classes, plus time, materials, and space for people to work on their own projects. The Fitness Group helps organize the different exercise classes, and sponsors events like trail walks, and trips to bowling alleys and archery ranges. The Collections Display Team gives residents a chance to display their collections and makes the walk to the dining room an education in itself. The different Garden groups represent our two campuses and help run the community gardens. We also have an Education group, a Health and Safety group, a group that encourages recycling and environmental care, a Market Place group, a Spiritual Care group, and at this point I’m know I’m leaving some important groups out, so please forgive me if it’s your group and you happen to be reading this. (I didn’t mention my group, by the way.)

If all this leaves you panting, you have good reason. It leaves me with my own dilemma.

It’s the perennial problem of letting myself become over-committed. When we first moved here, I decided not to sign up for any committee for at least a year, and then only what I felt drawn to by my own interests and experience. I managed to do that for a couple of years.

I actually thought that when I retired, I would never need to face the challenge of being over-committed again. Ho. Ho. Talk about naivety. You see, it’s not just membership in officially registered Activity Groups; it’s that plus all the informal commitments to conversation groups, book clubs, and writers groups, the stuff that makes life so interesting. I can’t think of anything I want to drop out of.

But, enough is enough. I find that when I’m involved in a lot of stuff, even Good Stuff, life gets noisy and I begin to long for silence. I can forget my priorities and vocational calling. But that’s another subject.

I’m grateful for this community and all these good options.

It’s just that right now I need to figure out how to gently let go of some things.

And how to choose what to hang on to.

Please tell me how you do it.