Saturday, 27 April 2019

The Old but Not Dead Club

When our dad was in his 80s, he once said to me, “I had no idea that old age would involve so many infirmities.” He’d had a heart attack, several TIAs, and his eyesight was slowly diminishing because of macular degeneration. He had left his family behind when we immigrated, and so he had not experienced the day-to-day life and challenges of his own parents as they aged. Now he was realizing that the things he loved to do might not be possible anymore, no matter how strong his will, or how healthy his lifestyle.
Dad as a young man...

and here he is at age 80, before the disabilities struck in earnest. . He loved swimming!

As I’m aging myself, this seam of thinking is a rich vein to mine. “You’re only as old as you feel,” they say. “Mind over matter,” they tell us. “Stay active to keep the grey matter functioning,” advise the experts. Keep doing your exercises every day, and you won’t lose your mobility. It sounds so good and hopeful. We all hope we can remain independent, walk upright with our faculties intact, enjoy life to the utmost, until one night we fall asleep forever in our own comfy bed and awake in heaven – a sweet and seamless transition.

I’m thinking about this today because I’ve been reading a delightful book, "On the Bright Side – the New Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 85 years old.” Several years ago, I’d read his first secret diary which he wrote at age 83 1/4. Hendrik lives alone in an assisted living centre in downtown Amsterdam. He decides to write a diary entry every day to keep the grey matter active. He doesn’t want to go stir crazy, so he instigates the Old But Not Dead Club to plan activities and outings for himself and his merry band of friends – visits to various restaurants, classes in chocolate making, etc. Every day he takes a walk as far as his legs will carry him, then sits on a bench and rests before heading home again. Often he and his friend Geert take long scooter rides through the countryside. But all is not perfect. There are infirmities.

Hendrik faces his infirmities head on. Once upon a time, he reflects, I would have died rather than wear an adult diaper. But now that I need one, the line of the unthinkable has shifted. It is what it is. His daily walks get shorter and shorter. A member of the club sinks into dementia. His dear sweetheart Eefje suffers a stroke and dies; his best friend receives a diagnosis of colon cancer, far advanced. Some of the residents of the home are very difficult to get along with, and so is the bossy director. But the care and relationships he shares with his friends is what makes his life so precious. 

I’m not so sure that all the advice that “they” give us is so spot on. Disabilities begin appearing as we age. For most of us, that is not a matter of “if” – it’s a matter of when. No matter how hard we exercise, how healthy we eat, how many Sudokus and Scrabble games we do for the grey matter, or yoga or tai chi classes we attend, sooner or later, the wheels begin to squeak, then rust and seize up. I’m needing my hearing aids more and more, and I would be blind without my glasses. The “old hockey injury” (I fell and damaged my knee while playing hockey with my 6 year-old son many years ago) has become arthritic. The carpal tunnel condition in my wrists, though improved, limits the use of my hands. I don’t like all these reminders of my human frailty, but life is precious.

And I’m thinking about this today also because we’ve just had a house-full over the Easter weekend. Oma and Opa are not quite as spry as they once were, and it is not as easy to keep up with everything that happens around us when 16 folks ranging in age from 9 months to 73 fill up the house. The den and studio become bedrooms, and the hallways are storage space for shoes and jackets. Extra tables are set up here and there. The dishwasher runs 4 times a day, a ten pound bag of potatoes and a 5 kilo ham disappear, and plans are afoot for ... well, with my hearing being what it is, I’m not quite sure what’s happening, but I’m along for the ride. Or maybe not...maybe we’ll take a quick nap while you’re out, kids. Have fun!

In Hendrik’s diary, he observes that when Opa and Oma take their children and grandchildren to a restaurant to celebrate someone’s birthday or an anniversary, they tend to sit there looking a bit lost, waiting for one of the children or grandkids to make an attempt to draw them into the conversation – a conversation they have trouble following because of the ambient noise. And patrons of the restaurant where the Old But Not Dead Club gather may observe some of the same.  But then I think, appearances can be deceiving. It may look like the old fogies are not getting with the program, but the program is not what it’s all about. What it’s all about is an essential, invisible ingredient that makes the whole hullabaloo so significant for Hendrik and for the RS and me, and that ingredient is love.

In Hendrik’s case, the love appears in the many ways he and his friends support and care for each other, sharing laughter, drinks, adventures, depressions and joys. In our case, over the weekend, the love appears in little things: a grandchild’s face lights up when he realizes there are meatballs and mashed potatoes for supper – his favourite! “Oh, Oma, thanks!” Uncles and aunts pass the baby around, and he gurgles with joy.

The grandparents hide Easter eggs up and down the alley, and after the goodies have been gathered, there’s a grand sharing exercise to make sure everyone has an equal part of the spoils. The actor in our midst reads a child’s storybook aloud and all the children gather round to listen and laugh. Photos of gatherings in years past are shared and memories of other good times are savoured. One of the grandchildren declares that we will have a birthday party for all those who had a birthday since the last get-together (hers included, of course!), so we bake and decorate cupcakes, light the candles, sing and make wishes.

The heart stores the images of love in action, to be taken out later for further enjoyment and pondering.

Hearing and eyesight may fade, knees may need replacement, the digestive system ain’t what it used to be, but one thing, the greatest, abides: love.

Saturday, 6 April 2019

The Postman of Creation

The RS and I have turned over a new least, we’re trying. We have resumed our walking practice, which over the last few years has grown increasingly sporadic. We have a trip planned to Newfoundland this summer, and we do not want to look like those lazy tourists who only stop by the side of the road to take photos, but never get off the beaten path. It’s time to pull up our socks and strengthen those leg muscles. That’s the plan.

Now we try to get out there 5 days a week, sometimes alone, and sometimes together. If we can just get out there, it’s not hard to keep walking. It’s that first step out the door that’s difficult...

...especially when it's raining.
So Monday morning, out I went. It was a glorious day, and I had a brisk walk in mind. But first, a little detour down to the woods to see if the trilliums were blooming. They were. They stopped me in my tracks. Sometimes, stopping is as good an exercise as a brisk walk.

Do you have a magic place you visit where time stands still, at least for a little while? Where you feel as though there is nothing between you and the universe and the Creator of it all? Your heart slows, your senses are heightened, and the world is new all over again. This was my spot, and this where my detour became the main thing. “Brisk walk” was no longer part of today's plan. This, my soul told me, is a time to sit or stand still, or drift along slowly, feeling suffused with wonder. This is a time to absorb, to observe with new eyes, to be open to what messages may be waiting for you in amongst the trees, mosses, birdsong, and trilliums pushing up out of the ground. This was where I was right now, and I stopped.

The thing is, I’ve been working on an art piece featuring a pileated woodpecker, a resident of this woods, and it just hasn’t come together.

The harder I tried to impose my vision on this art piece, the tougher it became. I’d read all the literature about the bird, I’d studied dozens of photos, but I’d forgotten to stop trying so hard and instead start listening. As a visual artist, I resonate deeply with this quote I read recently by Kenneth Clark, an art historian: “Creation is a response; it is not something you have to make. You only deliver colors and shapes that the great postman of creation entrusts you to carry.” But those are just words until you put them into practice.

We’ve visited this woods hundreds, probably thousands of times. Often, as we visit it, we chat with each other, or explore nooks and crannies with the grandchildren, or use it as a path to the next thing as we take a brisk walk. But today, because I was open, I saw things I’d never seen before. Perhaps it takes a time like this, when everything comes together, including my willingness to listen and see and wonder.

I wonder how many other times I missed seeing the deep holes and torn strips of bark that showed signs of animal excavations in trees and stumps.

I wonder why I didn’t notice the old dead tree, still standing, riddled with a filigree of holes through which the sky shone.

Why had I not noticed before the many trees that had been “topped” by parks department arborists because they posed a danger to walkers; these topless trees were now 30-40 foot tall tree stumps that still contributed to the life of the forest.

Now, I was seeing this woods through a woodpecker’s eyes, a wonderful habitat and home that featured dozens of dining rooms

and a grand choice of bedrooms.

 Into this woods every spring would come a new generation of woodpeckers, needing a nest and food. In the grand plan of things, the woodpecker was tearing apart the old trees bit by bit, and as they disintegrated, they became nurseries for insects which in turn became food for other animals, and eventually warm nurturing places for new trees to begin the next cycle. The tiny saplings would grow up to be homes for more animals, insects and birds.

And I was privileged, for that short half hour, to be witness to the grand connections of all things living, myself included. It was a message to me: “Look! Listen! Know that you are a tiny piece in this great big beautiful puzzle, connected to a greater whole.” You are guardian, protector, benefactor and recipient of all that these wild and natural places have to offer.

“We all have within us,” writes Philip Simmons, “this...ability to break the bonds of ordinary awareness and sense that though our lives are fleeting and transitory, we are part of something larger, eternal and unchanging.” Unfortunately, because we’re busy with so many important things, we miss the opportunity to break those bonds of ordinary awareness.

And so I wonder: what other messages has the great postman of creation tried to deliver to me, and I, with eyes and ears closed, just wasn’t at home to receive them?

Philip Simmons, Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life (Bantam Books: 2000, 2003), 152.