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.

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