Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Three conversations in the exercise room

Old people can be really funny. Soon after moving into the retirement community, one of my new neighbors told me he is making a special effort to get to events on time because he isn’t ready yet to be known as “the late Robert Yohr.” Bob was approaching 90 and since that conversation has become “late.” I miss him, but he still makes me chuckle.


I’ve taken on the role of resident spy. Sometimes I just listen in on conversations. Sometimes I participate. I try to listen more than I talk, so as not to miss anything. I’m collecting conversations, spontaneous jokes, and ancient humor. The understory of this old growth forest is thick with humor. It helps the small beasts (like me) thrive.

Before the pandemic shut us down, I was part of an informal early-morning exercise group. By informal I mean that we were all early-risers and spent time in the basement exercise room during the same morning hours. There were about six of us and we bonded over sweat and humor. The following three unrelated conversations took place on the same morning. I wrote them down and added a conclusion. While not exactly hilarious, these conversations still make me smile. 

Three Conversations in the Exercise Room

1.     City Chicken

“We had city chicken for our Christmas dinner. It’s a family favorite. Can any of you tell me what it is?”

“Does it have to do with where you eat it?”

“Nope.”

“Is it spiced with obscure herbs and served with tofu or something weird like that?”

“Nope. It’s skewered pieces of pork loin, oven baked in a cast iron skillet. It comes from the Ohio Valley.”

“Why that name?”

“Don’t know. It’s always been called city chicken. That’s just the way it is.”

 

2.     The Old Folks Do a Post-Christmas Spring Cleaning

“We cleaned our oven yesterday. It’s a Whirlpool and the manual says ‘self-cleaning.’ In quotation marks.”

“Was it? Self-cleaning?”

“Well. At the end of the day Carol told me she’d give up our trip to Hawaii if we would buy a new stove.”

“Are you gonna do it?”

“I’m thinking about it. Makes sense. My knees don’t like it when I’m down on the floor scrapping the oven with a knife.”

“I washed out our cupboards yesterday. Any mice we have will be mighty disappointed.”

“We’ve never done that in all our years of marriage!”

“I’m gonna clean the refrigerator today.”

“That’s funny. So am I.”

“Let’s have a potluck tonight. Bring together all our green left-overs.”

“Sounds fun. Grim, but fun.”

 

3.     In the Dead of Winter

“Why do they call this time ‘the dead of winter’? No one ever mentions ‘the dead of spring’ in April.”

“Or ‘the dead of summer’ in July.”

“Maybe we’re all just ‘dead to rights,’ whatever that means.”

“What does it mean?”

“I’ve never heard that phrase.”

“I have, but I don’t know what it means either.”

“Here. I’ll look it up on my i-Phone. . . . ‘Dead to rights’—It comes from the underworld of the mid-19th century—the mob—and means ‘caught in the act.’”

 

4.     A Conclusion of the Matter

“What was he doing and how did he get caught?”

“He was foolishly stealing a Whirlpool oven. He was caught by the city chickens. In the dead of winter.”

 

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

The delights of decay


The Hidden Life of Trees
, Peter Wohlleben’s marvelous book, provided part of the inspiration for the metaphor of aging as an old growth forest. Last Christmas Hal and I bought ourselves a gift of the coffee-table version of the book, complete with dozens of beautiful photographs. The text is an abridged version of the original.

The third chapter of the coffee-table book is entitled “The Delights of Decay” and describes how trees age. The chapter begins by pointing out similarities between old trees and old humans. Take bark and skin, for example. Both trees and humans shed. As they age, the cracks, folds, and wrinkles in a tree’s bark change, “steadily deepening as the years progress.” The analogy is obvious.

Another sign of aging in a tree occurs in its crown. It just doesn’t grow new shoots like it used to. In conifers, “the ramrod-straight trunks end in topmost shoots or leaders that are gradually reduced to nothing.” In many aging men, the “topmost shoots” also become scarce.

Let me quote the next comparison: “Every tree gradually stops growing taller. Its roots and vascular system cannot pump water and nutrients any higher because this exertion would be too much for the tree. Instead, the tree just gets wider.” No comment.

Wohlleben goes on to show how trees age gracefully, providing housing for all kinds of beasts, as well as the foundations for new life in baby trees. Part of the delight of an old growth forest is the integration of all the stages in the lives of the trees, including their decay.

Speaking of the delights of decay, at this point the metaphor breaks down. The inevitable disintegration of body parts and functions in aging humans is not delightful. Maybe some people come to a point of peaceful resignation, but they encounter discouragement and agony along the way. (And some never become resigned.)

Take the sense of hearing, a common problem of elder-decay. In fact, this has become a stereotype of aging and a source of jokes. The conversation of older couples is depicted as being punctuated by “What?” “Could you repeat that?” “Wad-ja-say?” and on and on. Very funny.

Until it happens to you. 

This is happening to Hal and it’s been a source of agony as so much of a conversation slips past him. He’s not good at pretending to laugh at a joke when he missed hearing the last part. So he ends up looking grumpy, when that’s not the case at all. We now need to find a table in the quieter section of the dining hall if we’re feeling sociable (which we frequently are). He’s a musician, which makes it worse. In rehearsals, he has to ask the horn player next to him what the conductor just said. It would help if the skin of his ears wasn’t so irritated by the plastic in his hearing aids.

And it’s not something that happens just to the person. It affects the couple. Or the friendship. If I were a more perfect person, consistently patient and kind, life would be easier for both of us. But some days I just get irritated at having to hear “What?” so often. Or at realizing he’s smiling in agreement even when he hasn’t heard me, just because it’s easier that way. I guess this is my True Confession. I guess I need to see this as another opportunity to grow in grace and patience. Maybe someday I’ll be that perfect wife.

And then there’s the observation that I, myself, am starting to repeat, “Could you say that again?” What could that possibly mean?

I’m laughing as I write this. But it’s not really that funny, and I wish it were not happening. But it is.

St. Paul tells us to be encouraged, that decay is not the last word: “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).

Might we also decide to fix our ears on what is unheard rather than on what is heard (and what we can’t hear anyway)?

We may not be trees, but there is still delight in this old forest. Delight that lasts a long time.

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

The dark path in the forest

 The three words were picture, captain, and garden. I was instructed to remember these words as the nurse would ask me to repeat them again in a few minutes. So I formed a mental image of a framed picture where a sea-captain was walking in a garden. I know my limitations. If I can’t picture it, I forget it.

She then gave me the clock-test, a blank sheet of paper with instructions to draw the face of a clock and mark 10 minutes after 11. I had no problem drawing the clock with evenly spaced numbers. But it took me a few seconds to get the hands to the right time. The little hand on eleven. Right. But 10 after? Using my logic I counted ten digits after the 11, which actually set the clock for 11:05. I handed in the paper. She quietly walked out the room.

In a few minutes The Nurse came in and asked me the three words. I had to first bring up the image, see the captain smelling the roses; then I gave the Right Answer. The Nurse smiled. Then she frowned. She told me I had messed up the clock test and she showed me my drawing. I instantly recognized what I had gotten wrong and proceeded to explain my logic, flawed as it was. I suppose I was a bit defensive. But The Nurse was definitely defensive and cut me off by stating, “No! You failed the test! This is a strong indication of cognitive impairment.”

Well. That shut me up. For a few seconds. Then I protested. How could such a flimsy silly little test lead to such a serious diagnosis? She wasn’t even a doctor! Fortunately, I had the sense not to spout my academic degrees, professional accomplishments, and other such nonsense. But I did protest and she came back insisting I go to a specialist for further testing. All on the basis of the clock test.

That was my annual wellness exam, just a few days ago. I left the clinic less well than when I went in.

I’ve been stewing about it ever since. Hal assures me, “No, Nancy. You are not cognitively impaired.” But off and on, those nasty words, cognitive impairment,­ run through my brain, turning somersaults around my common sense, ricocheting off the walls of reason.

In short, I’m mad. And when I get mad, it’s not pretty. I’m mad at The Nurse. I resent the presumption and the stereotyping. I hate the memory of the pity in her eyes as this demented old lady left her office. I hate it when medical professionals see bodies and cases, not people.

Reflecting on the incident in a calmer frame of mind, three things are coming clear. The first is my need to forgive The Nurse. That doesn’t mean excusing her behavior. Less presumption and defensiveness, more sensitivity and a bit of common sense are good qualities in nurses and doctors. But she’s only human. Like me. So I’m saying the words of forgiveness and trusting that eventually the emotions will follow.

The second thing I’m realizing is that of course I’m cognitively impaired. I’ve been cognitively impaired all my life, and it has little to do with growing older. Some people call the condition dyslexia. And while I have only a mild case, it’s always made it difficult for me to do certain things. The alphabet, for instance. I can’t for the life of me get the letters in the right order unless I sing the silly little ABC song I learned as a child. I have to do that when filing documents, which can be embarrassing if other people are around.

I have trouble telling right from left. When asked to turn to the right, I have to literally focus on my writing hand and make the translation from write to right. (Fortunately, I’m right-handed.) The other thing I have trouble with is telling time. I have little exercises that compensate and get me to appointments on time. The before and after parts always confuse me (e.g., “10 after 11”). The Nurse didn’t know that. Would it have made a difference? Possibly not.

The other thing I’m realizing is that all this anger is really a cover-up for fear. The real emotion.

Cognitive impairment, memory loss, Alzheimer’s, dementia—all of this is the dark path in the forest of growing older. Will it happen to me? Will it happen to Hal? Will it be gradual? Will I know it’s happening? How old will I be? What will I be like? Will I be a burden, or worse, an embarrassment to my family? Is the clock test really a sign on the trail?

Or maybe it won’t happen to me. After all, it’s not inevitable.

I can’t picture myself as demented, but I have to ask, “Why not me?” It has happened to many of my friends and loved ones. Intelligent people. Strong people who made significant contributions. People who had adopted admirable life-styles, ate nutritious food, exercised their brains as well as their bodies, and enjoyed reasonable good health. “Why them?” is a question without an answer. As is, “Why not me?”

I had the blessing of not seen my parents go through any kind of cognitive impairment. That would have been an agony to witness. But the blessing is mixed. They missed this experience because they both died young. On the other hand, both Hal and I suffered alongside his parents as they lived into their 90s and had a very difficult last few years. We trust they are whole now, enjoying all their God-given capacities.

But we’re still here, facing an uncertain future. So, we juggle fear and faith. Even as we trust God, we face the nagging possibilities that loom in front of us on the path.

I’m not certain how to handle all this. I will affirm the Scriptures that talk about the righteous living long and fruitful lives. I will remind myself to make the most of the present time, to love my family well, to read good books, to pray, to attend to the needs of others as I am able. And to have fun. Fun is good and laughter heals the body as well as the mind.

As someone has said, “Wherever you are, be there.” I try to do that.

Plus, it really helps to hear Hal say, “Nancy! You are not cognitively impaired!”




Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Grandma ponders particle physics

We’re told that Life-Long Learning (LLL) leads to Vital Long Life (VLL). Having a VLL sounds good to me and people here at the retirement community encourage it. One way is through the large library collection of “The Great Courses.” We can choose from numerous DVDs where experts teach us stuff like “The Military History of Ancient Rome,” “Cycles of American Political Thought,” or “Gnosticism.” While I’m not interested in all of those topics, I occasionally find gems.

Well, gems and duds. One recent dud was a lecture series on the history of the English language. I love that topic, but this course was unimaginatively presented. An ancient and somber professor, complete with formal suit and bowtie, droned on an on in monotone. He could make any topic boring. I dropped the course after two lectures.

The gem of the year turned out to be a course on the secrets of particle physics. Hal has always had a scientific turn of mind, and I love mysteries. It was a perfect match, so we watched the whole series together. The professor was a young, enthusiastic physicist from the University of Colorado who actually had a sense of humor. That helped.

I enjoyed the course, but at the end of it I must confess that the interactions of time, space, and matter remained mysterious. I did gain an understanding of the questions scientists are asking and how they’re going about the search for answers. And I obtained a new vocabulary. I love the words from the world of particle physics.

As I flipped through my notes after the course, a number of poems spilled out. Of course. They’re all short, corresponding to my unscientific mind. The phrases in italics are direct quotes.

Read and learn! Or laugh, which is almost the same thing.


 

Some Short Poems on Particle Physics

Take the neutrino,
a weak force that is completely bizarre.
It has no mass, no charge,
but it spins and cruises through matter
without so much as a by-your-leave.
It is, says the professor,
the most esoteric, wispy, ghost-like particle there is.
Coming directly from the center of the sun,
it invades downward through the roof
and upward through the floor
of Friendsview Manor, where I happen to live,
to bombard my body at the rate
of 100 billion neutrinos per square centimeter per second.

No wonder I feel so tired.

* * * *

And then there’s the Higgs-boson particle
and the Higgs-field that permeates space.
It’s apparently massive and is responsible for symmetry breaking.
I guess it’s good to know who--or what--to blame.
But, as our professor assures us, symmetry breaking is good.
The world is boring when things are perfectly symmetrical.

* * * *

I’ve learned
that there is a strong force and a weak force,
that the strong force produces total strangeness,
while the weak force has a history of being weird.
I believe both statements but remain uncertain
about the difference between “strange” and “weird.”

* * * *

You can create something out of nothing, claims the professor,
speaking of particle production in an accelerator,
but only for a really short time.

* * * *

Three basic definitions:
The sun is a smeared-out fuzz ball of hydrogen gas….
Quarks are little point-like objects that buzz around….
Gluon is the force that makes things stick together.
Good to know.

* * * *

Quarks, the professor assures us,
are as real as Pluto.
I’m sure he means the planet,
but the floppy-eared Disney hound pops into my brain.
It doesn’t matter; both are real,
so I guess quarks are, too.

* * * *

To step into the future, we now have a big TOE—
a “Theory Of Everything.”
That’s not as arrogant as it sounds,
but rather a hope of one day discovering at the simplest level
what ties all life together.
He sums up the class by telling us the Big Idea behind it all—
that the world is orderly.
I suspected as much.

Having completed the physics course, I am now enjoying VLL (“Vital Long Life”). And I’m in the middle of another Great Course, this one entitled “How To Play the Guitar.” While I don’t anticipate going on any future performance tours, this Great Course is certainly Great Fun.

 


Tuesday, May 31, 2022

The busy syndrome

Once a week we go over to our son’s house to have dinner with him, our daughter-in-law, and whichever of the grandkids can make time to join us. The conversation bounces and sparks as people report on their activities since our last gathering. Our son and daughter-in-law are at the height of their careers with new challenges to talk about every week. They’re making their contributions on the university campus and in the wider sphere of third-world discipleship and development.

The grandkids are in an exciting time, too, full of university studies, overseas trips, new careers, challenging relationships, even new marriages. So much energy spins my brain. All this is right and good. Each generation around the table is living appropriately for their phase of life.

But there always comes a time in our conversation when one of the grandkids asks, “What have you been up to this week, Grandma? How have you been keeping busy?” The question always makes me uneasy and I find myself scrounging for an answer. What have I been doing? What accomplishments can I drop into the conversation? Somehow, I manage to respond, but my answers seem skimpy in comparison.

It happens so often, and not just with family members, you’d think I’d have come up with a few memorized responses by this time. But I don’t want to do that. It doesn’t seem quite honest. So, when faced with a dilemma, I take the logical first step. I write a poem. Here it is:

 

How Have You Been Keeping Busy?

is my least favorite question.
To tell the truth
not long ago I decided
to no longer keep busy.
So I opened the pasture gate
and let her go. Hesitant at first—
after all the old field was familiar
and still had some patches of grass—
she stepped out
and began exploring,
in search of a greener home.
So busy’s gone now
and I’m left behind.
But frankly
I like it this way.

I hope that answers your question.



When I retired at age 69, Hal and I were in the second year of a huge research and writing project which took us five more years to complete.* So I was able to postpone the restlessness of wondering how to spend my time now that I wasn’t employed. I still had work I enjoyed, field trips to take, a contribution to make, and reports to write to the sponsors of the project. The change from employment to retirement wasn’t that great.

It didn’t last. When the book was completed, a new reality manifested itself. For the first time in years, I had no huge goal to work toward. Yet my psyche was geared to work, even as my body was slowing down.

It’s not that I had nothing to do. I took on two voluntary editing jobs, continued writing, helped out at church, even took some lessons in art and music. (I am not gifted in either area.) Life here in the retirement community offers a multitude of activities and opportunities for relationships.

But it’s not the same. And I have to admit that I still struggle to relax and settle into this gentler phase of life. To focus on being rather than doing. Easier said than done.

Let’s face it. Being busy is a cultural value here in the US. People gain status from their educational level, professional achievements, contributions, and wealth. That all requires keeping busy. Busyness is written into our cultural DNA. That’s not necessarily bad. Like the preacher in Ecclesiastes says, “There is a time for every season under the sun.” That includes a time to be busy and a time to rest.

I guess I’m still adjusting to being in the season of rest. Which is not the same as doing nothing. I like how the psalmist describes old age: “The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon…. They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green….” (Psalm 92:12-14)

I’m trying to recenter my focus from accomplishment to fruitfulness. I want to discover what fruitfulness means in this season of life, and in what ways God is guiding me to be a fresh and green old lady. I hope I don’t end up scaring anyone.

When I learn how to do all that, I’ll let you know.

 

*The end result of our long project is entitled, A Long Walk, A Gradual Ascent: The Story of the Bolivian Friends Church in its Context of Conflict. If you want something to help you keep busy, it’s available on Amazon.


Tuesday, May 24, 2022

100 years old...and counting

One interesting aspect of a long-term continuing care community is that people live longer than the national average. A large number of residents here are in their 90s, making those of us in our 70s seem almost adolescent.

And there are a number of centenarians. These interest me. The 100-year-olds around here are all relatively sound of mind (notwithstanding short-term memory challenges) and positive in attitude. Those who don’t have these characteristics die younger.

The year I moved here, Margaret died at 107 years. Three of her offspring were also residents of the community, in their 70s and 80s.

This is what an awesome
100 year old looks like
Last year our neighborhood (the 5th floor) celebrated Darel’s 100th birthday. Still in the pandemic, we were masked and separated by the required number of feet. But we did celebrate the life of this feisty but soft-hearted man. He’s telling us now that he plans to finally give up driving this year on his 101th birthday. Some of us are relieved and glad he came to this point of his own will.

Harriet, 103, has become one of my best friends. We spend time with each other weekly, talking and remembering. She tells me stories from her upbringing in the Philippines. I tell her my stories. She is outgoing, interested in other people. When I arrive at her room, we begin our conversations with her questions about what I’ve been doing and the activities of my kids and grandkids. She actually remembers their names, although sometimes she mixes up the details.

100th birthday party

Harriet is still excited about learning new things and has a special interest in history. She recently finished listening to a biography of Thomas Jefferson, and is now in the middle of tales of the Oregon Trail. She loves to have me read to her. Last year we read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, among others. She always asks me to read my latest poems. She affirms me, telling me I’m “an amazing writer.”

Still, it’s hard being 103 years-old. Harriet walks slowly and painfully, with the aid of a walker. She spends most of her time in her reclining chair. She’s lost most of her sight, and that’s the loss she most laments. She’s tired of being tired all the time.

Yet she’s still very much alive. She tells me we’re soul-mates. I believe she’s right.

Ruth is another case. A life-long Quaker and activist in social justice projects, she finds it difficult to lead a more sedentary live. She still carries those same passions. She turned 100 in 2020, the first year of the pandemic. She wanted to celebrate with her friends, and although we were all under shut-down, the community administration made it possible.

Ruth and seven friends gathered around a large table in an outdoor pagoda. Others of us stood around on the hill outside the pagoda. We shouted and waved our congratulations. It was an unusual party. I wrote this poem in honor of the occasion.

Pandemic Party

Ruth’s been saying lately, “If I make it to 100….”
Well, she made it,
and yesterday we celebrated.
We partied in the health center pagoda
but under pandemic rules.
Only eight people were seated
around the table,
the sacred six feet apart.
The rest of us distanced ourselves
on the knoll above the courtyard.
We waved to Ruth, shouted
our names, then mingled among ourselves,
trying to keep distance
and also trying—perpetual problem—
to keep our face masks
from slipping down to our chins
as we chatted. I ate a cupcake.
After weeks of healthy eating,
I morphed down the sticky, lemon-flavored
sweetness and licked my fingers,
my mask hanging from one ear.
We all look pretty silly these days.

Thank you, Ruth, for holding on.
Thank you for letting us celebrate with you.
Thank you for your feisty, gutsy
grab on life, your pencil-sharp mind,
your weird political humor.
With people like you turning 100,
this pandemic doesn’t stand a chance.

I ask myself if I want to live to be 100 years-old. And I answer, “yes.” “Yes, but….”  I have a lists of ifs. Yes, if….

--if I am sound of mind, able to think, converse with others, read a book (or have it read to me)
--if I am still able to appreciate beauty
--if I am not in perpetual pain
--if I am a source of joy to family and friends (i.e., not a burden)
--if I am still growing in grace and in intimacy with Jesus (2 Peter 3:18)

If (that word again) I pray my list to God, is that being presumptuous? Perhaps.

Maybe it all comes back to realizing that our times are in God’s hands and that God does all things well. I’m glad I don’t know all the details of the future. I can rest that when God decides my time has come, it will be the right time.

Today I will enjoy the company of my centenarian friends.


Tuesday, May 17, 2022

The holiday we ignore

I love birthdays. I remember my childlike eagerness as the day approached. The family focused on me, served me cake, gave me presents, and, in essence, told me they were glad I was born.

As I grew up and older, it was the birthdays of the kids and now the grandkids that give such pleasure. A time when we all become childlike again. A holiday that comes round with yearly regularity. A holy day.


There’s another day that comes around once a year. The same day, the same month, year in year out. A day we ignore because we don’t know when it is. The day of our death. Strange thought. Every year since we were born, that day comes around, and to us it’s just another ordinary time. God knows but we don’t. That thought gives me the shivers.

When loved ones die, we celebrate the passing with memorial services or celebrations-of-the-life-of (you name her), choosing this instead of calling it a funeral. This is good and can, in faith, be a celebration. We look at photos of our dear one (baby pictures, funny little girl, wedding, and so on) and smile. We chuckle at the funny stories, remember achievements, express astonishment at all the grand and great grandchildren that issued from this life. We celebrate a life and say our goodbyes. It becomes a holy day.

Of course, the act of celebration doesn’t erase the need to grieve our losses. After all, our friend or cousin or spouse is no longer physically present to listen to our sorrows, enjoy that cup of coffee with us, or touch us. But I’m told that even grief can become a holy time, especially when combined with faith and hope.

But I will not be physically present at my own deathday celebration. I don’t even know when it will be. Is that fair?

Silly question. Fair or not, I don’t really want to be there. It might offend my modesty. Then again, it might not. I’ll never know.

I’m not a party-girl. I don’t do well at planning parties either. But it seems that it’s necessary to plan for my deathday party, mainly to spare my kids that task. So Hal and I are in the process of choosing our burial plot, memorial plaque, or spot where the ashes will be scattered. We haven’t yet decided which of those options best suits us. We’ll probably choose cremation. But that still demands a choice between an expensive urn, a handmade wooden box, or a paper bag. Some funeral parlors offer that last option at roughly $18.00 a bag, special paper and all.

We’ve decided that any plaque will have both of us on it, with just our names and the pertinent dates, when those become known. Anything additional costs too much. Our conservative financial tendencies extend into death, it seems.

I’m glad God keeps that day secret. I don’t want to know.

Some of my favorite spiritual guides include Brother Lawrence and Thomas Kelly, both of whom encourage me to live in the present moment, to treat every day as a holiday. A holy day. I’m drawn to that vision, although I struggle to consistently live it out. But as I grow in grace and this becomes my experience, I’ll be able to inadvertently celebrate my deathday once a year, without even knowing it.

Today, I am very much alive.