Insights of an Elder:Part 2

Poet Mary Oliver died recently. That has made so many of us sad. But also grateful that she passed this way so that we could know life in a different and captivating way. Her life has been so rich with wonder and grace. Her glorious gift expressed it all with that singular voice that has become recognizable across a broad swath of humanity.

 

Along with others, I am mourning the loss of this voice for the future. I only discovered her hauntingly beautiful poetic language in my early 70’s, so I came to the party late and I wanted her words to flow on forever. Thankfully, that which she leaves behind is so vast that we will never run out of inspiration and delight; we’ll savor her poetry with even greater gratitude for its eternal presence now.

 

I was reminded the other day of one of her pithy ones (pithy has never been a natural gift for me…). I need the constant reminder.

“Instructions for living a life.

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it.”

 

Tell about it. Even when Mary Oliver seems to have said it all, we’re still longing to find words to write large upon the blank slates of our lives. Words to tell about the astonishment that can breathe across every urgent moment of our lives if we but pay attention. Word pictures to paint the color and shape of a life with its fits and starts, its pain and recovery, its darkness and its stunning light, its shortcomings and its glories.

 

So this week, I remember a promise of elderhood: that our wisdom is rich because we have been astonished for so long – when we have been paying attention. Our wisdom is rich and well worth the telling of it! Full of the urgency to tell about it.

 

We elders have the insight of years spent well and not so well. We have lived long enough now that we can separate more of the wheat from the chaff, the false from the true, the obvious from the mysterious. And we can tell about it because what we have learned is still so alive in us. Our insight is grace and poetry. If we want to be faithful to any and every person who struggles with life, our wisdom-telling can breathe new life into all our spirits.

 

I’m choosing these days to keep working at that by writing about what I’ve learned so far. It’s hardly the end, but I hope that it keeps the light of discovery burning where it needs to burn. And opens some doors marked, “Aha!” So on to Part 2 of “Elder Insights.” Just as a reminder of the three insights from two weeks ago:

Life isn’t fair.

Treasure the little things.

Boredom is the thief of imagination.

 

4. Balance really is a major key to a meaningful and well-lived life. We know that, but…

For some reason, we still can keep needing to be reminded about balancing life: the balance of work and play, exercise and rest, physical and spiritual dimensions, taking care of self and taking care of others, to name a few. You get the picture.

 

But now, in elderhood, balance broadens significantly. The ones we already know are still important. But now the balance that also matters is between living well at the same time that we know viscerally that we are going to die. The balance is between knowing when to hold on and when to let go because time grows shorter. It’s about embracing patience and frustration with equal calm. It’s a balance between free-floating fear and knowing that we will come through any present difficulty because we have come through so many already.

 

Not to mention our physical balance! “Keep moving” takes on a new significance. Now it means the difference between independence and dependence, which becomes its own kind of balance then, doesn’t it?! Refusing to be intimate friends with my recliner has become a hilarious but nonetheless deadly serious life goal…

 

5. Mystery isn’t just found in novels. Save room for mystery.

We don’t have to know everything! That goes against all my life training, from childhood to elderhood. We are created with an insatiable curiosity about life. Many of us never lose it. There is still so much yet for us to know, and thank goodness we still have deep wells of rampant curiosity all around us.

 

BUT – unanswered mystery also keeps us more deeply alive to life!

 

Richard Rohr, a Catholic priest, spiritual writer and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, stays open to mystery even as he stays open to life in all its wonders. “This life journey,” he says, “has led me to love mystery and not feel the need to change it or make it unmysterious. This has put me at odds with many other believers I know who seem to need explanations for everything.”

 

So the paradox: we demand to know that which we can never know. It can take a long time to let go and just let it be.

 

There will never be a fully satisfactory answer for why there is suffering. There will never be a relationship where we fully know another, no matter how deeply we may love them. There will never be a complete understanding of what God is like – or even whether God is. There is always mystery. Hold it reverently; let it be. It keeps us duly humble, even as it intrigues us.

 

6. Envy and jealousy can destroy those who carry their burden.

Learn to do battle with them at every turn. Wonderfully, they can become easier to let go of as we get older if we have grown into enough gratitude for the life that we have.

 

They fade away when we discover that our envy and jealousy have been rooted in what we wanted rather than in what we needed.

 

Love who you have become. Be grateful for what you do have. Find your deeper self, apart from the outer trappings of your life. You are the continuing mystery that you are meant to keep discovering in these wiser years.

 

No one can do it for you. It’s all part of the elder journey that saves us when we’re paying attention and still learning how to be astonished!

 

And I’m very okay with that.

 

“Elder Insights: Part 3” next week…

 

 

 

 

 

Chrissy is almost 70

Cousins at Madeline

I’m delighted to announce that I’ve lived into my 70’s for almost eight years now. #78 arrives in May.

 

I somewhere began the irritating but irresistible habit of thinking about my next birthday when the year turns (as in “this is the year I turn…”). Frankly, some years have looked more (or less) hopeful than others. Having recently opened the door to 2019, I’ve been a bit unnerved that looking at 78 seems more monumental than anticipating 77 did.

 

I admit it freely. I’m imperfect.

 

Okay, let’s be honest: being almost 78 comes with the corollary, “78 is closer than ever to 80!” And I’m not any too sure that being closer to 80 is something I’m comfortable with yet. Thankfully, I have 2-1/2 years to get acclimated to it. I’m ever so slightly annoyed that I seem to have to adjust – again. I thought I had this ageism thing licked! Now, I’m counting on adjusting.  I have before, so there’s hope, wouldn’t you think?

 

You know how it is. Just when we think we have “it” all figured out, life throws us a curve and reminds us that there is more yet that we haven’t quite conquered. Like ageism. And fear of the unknown. And an overactive imagination that can too easily glom on to the worst before it discovers the best again.

 

When I was looking at becoming 70, I was viscerally upset about it. It took writing a long poem to begin to get the dismay out of my system. I was not truly happy about being in my 70’s until I was nearly 75, although that was complicated by grieving the loss of my beloved. Long trip. But I got there. This time, I think that I could “get there” sooner. I do have experience in my resilience kit this time: lots of experience in “being old.”

 

I can readily affirm that the researchers are quite right: the 70’s are, for lots of us, a happy decade. From this exalted vantage point, I can truly say that this decade has been different from those of my 50’s and 60’s that have long since passed. And happier. Really.

 

Oh, sure, I have a few crooked fingers (which make it even harder to open bottles). My hair is thinning alarmingly (did you know that a Scandinavian elder’s scalp is pink-ish?). More brown-ish spots appear here and there (and I’ve found just the thing when I feel like covering them up…). And I hold my breath every time I wait for my blood work results. But I am incredibly lucky, and I know it.

 

So if I’ve been so happy, what got me going on this subject anyway? I’ll tell you frankly…ageism has reared its ugly head just enough to get my attention. My beautiful “baby sister” is turning 70! This week! When did this happen? How did so many years pass and suddenly, we’re here?!! Chrissy will be 70 in a few days. And I find myself amazed at that. (She’s the one in the middle in the picture.)

 

This feels like a huge shift! Of course, Chris would have to tell you whether it feels huge to her, but it feels like a big shift for her Big Sister. I’ve long since had to give up thinking of her as my “baby sister,” Chrissy. (I think that may have taken root somewhere between her becoming a mother and a grandmother…) But I had never thought of her as an “elder.”

 

I only “allowed” little sister, Chrissy, to become grown up sister, Chris, by fits and starts. Happily, we became equals along the way. And now we’re on a new kind of footing. Now we’re kin in this new decade that symbolizes that late arc of life that changes most noticeably: our 70’s. In my own mind, this was when my elder years began. Now Chris is there, too. I am going to have to adjust.

 

This, after all, is the decade of radical letting go. This is the decade of new kinds of discovery. This is the decade of making peace with life as it is and not as we thought it would be. This is the decade when even death becomes less odious, and life can become even better than we thought it could be. This is the decade when we can find a new resilience because we’ve “been there, done that” so often that we are no longer as easily unnerved. Why would I not want that for her, knowing how rich these years have been for me? So Chris and I will share it for a bit now, while I move toward another decade. I think I’m talking myself into being okay with that. 

 

Chris is the youngest of six women in our family. We cousins spend time in retreat with each other every fall, and we wash ourselves in the beauty of our family and our history together. Eileen, who was closest to me in age, died several years ago. The rest of us have been monumentally lucky in our aging. The eldest already moved into her 80’s, and the rest of us are familiar with what the 70’s have brought us.

 

There is a certain ease and profound comfort in being so closely attuned to these years together.

 

To be kin – literally and figuratively – in this decade is to recognize our common humanity as elders. To remember with awe our ability to overcome the treacherous paths that have shown up is to embrace together the scariest and the most hopeful moments that life brings. To join hands with someone who is also navigating this elder life, sometimes fragile and sometimes brave beyond belief, is to know the power of shared spirit. To know how deep it goes. Why would I not want that for Chris?

 

So perhaps this won’t take so much adjustment after all. Just the fascination and comfort of settling in with all our kindred folk in elderhood and relishing the ride together! I am so lucky to have so many around to join me!

 

NOW – here’s the really, really good news! According to research, the 70’s are only the second happiest decade for most of us!

 

The 80’s are the happiest! Yo!!

 

Okay, I think I’ve calmed down. Bring on #78. Just not before May 17th…by then, I’ll surely be very okay with that! Ya, sher, yew betcha (that’s Norwegian for Yessssss!)

 

Happy Birthday, Chrissy!! Oops…Chris! Christina Karen.

Insights of an Elder: Part 1

 

Some days I get extra nostalgic as I make my way toward my 78th birthday coming up in May. Most of my nostalgia becomes sweeter in elderhood, but today’s showed up at 5:30 this morning (!). I’d gotten only about 5 hours of sleep, but my White Hair Grace Muse (recently named Flicka) was wide awake and eager to get my attention. Sleep would have to wait. Again. (More about that name later…)

 

I reluctantly paid attention, maybe because I was not wide awake enough to launch a protest about the ungodly hour. And there it was: my word for the week. Flicka hasn’t failed me yet, so I listened. Without hesitation, the word appeared:

INSIGHT

(a deep understanding of a person or thing)

Okay, then. Insight it is. My old age insight, to be sure. I’m just a bit nervous about that.

 

Anyone remember Pete Seeger’s 1960’s song, taken from the opening words of Eccelsiastes 3 in the Bible?

“To everything…there is a season…and a time for every matter under heaven. A time to be born, a time to die. A time to plant, a time to reap what is planted. A time to weep, a time to laugh. A time to mourn, a time to dance. A time to love, a time to hate. A time for war and a time for peace. Turn, turn, turn…”

I bet some of you can sing the whole thing. And every word is still true.

 

I am deep into the season now of elderhood. I have nearly 78 years of life experience, and an interminably curious mind. And the season of elderhood that starts around age 70 has been particularly rich in – you’ve got it – insight.

 

This is the time, after all,  to reap the years that have been sown. To lay claim to wisdom and insight and offer them so that maybe – just maybe – others can lay claim to them even sooner than we did. This is the time, for us, too, though – to name for ourselves what we have learned. To speak what we have firmly grasped at last because our minds are calmer now and long years have honed our reality to a fine sheen.

 

What have we learned that maybe we didn’t realize before? Or we’ve known but forgotten? So much, it turns out. Once I opened the door to insight, the flood began. There were way too many insights to talk about in one blog, so I begin to share some of them with you in this one and hope that they’ll find their way to your insights as well. So here goes…

 

1. Life isn’t fair.

I didn’t just start with any old insight. Some just need to be brought out into the light more urgently than others. And this one is probably the hardest one of all to hear.

 

Was it fair that my best girlfriend growing up was born with naturally curly hair and knock-’em-dead brown eyes and became Homecoming Queen while I was graced with dishwater blonde hair and got my first glasses in first grade? Okay, that may seem shallow, but for this plain Jane, it was often devastating.

 

Was it fair that I grew up in a beautiful, loving home and some of my friends had to deal with abuse or poverty, or face the death of a twin brother in junior high from cancer?

 

Fill in your own list. It can go on…and on…and on…and on. Well beyond our own personal worlds, of course. So much isn’t fair. Dang!

 

Life should be fair. That’s only fair, isn’t it? We figure that out when we are just wee children, right?

 

So if we finally have to give in and admit that life is not always fair, what the heck do we do with that besides rail against the unfairness of it all?

 

It may take a very long time, but we can make peace with this painful reality. But here’s the thing: until then, we go about finding our own ways to create “fair” wherever and whenever we can.

 

2. Treasure the little things. There’s more room for little things in your heart.

Your baby’s first smile. The first “dada” or “mama” that is uttered. The happy dance that your pup leaps when you come home. The love note with crooked letters that you found from your first grader. The humble crocus that first comes up in your yard to announce spring. The hand squeeze that a friend gives you when you’re low. The smile from your spouse who sits across the supper table every night. The first fish you caught; the first date that you had; the first pile of leaves you jumped into in the fall. The smell of clean laundry; the special green of spring’s leaves just beginning to bloom; the feel of the hot sun on your cool skin.

 

You  name them. The little things. The ones from the past, but also the things right before your eyes right now – today. The big things are exciting. But the little things run deep and are captured with a delicious hint of a soul full of wonder.

 

3. Boredom is the thief of imagination. Don’t get bored!!

I love this from Wendell Berry: “It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”

 

I know that when I am bored (which hardly ever happens any more…I don’t have time to be bored!), I am wasting valuable time, and I don’t have time to waste any more! I have so much yet to do, to learn, to explore. To write.

 

Give me the impeded stream! Throw something in front of me that I can’t resist! Show me something that calls out my creativity – my curiosity – my fascination – my wonder. I will rest when I need to. In the meantime, baffle my mind! I am not done with this world yet. Not by a long shot. I’m very intent on embracing these elder years! I’m traveling the impeded stream. I want to sing!

 

As my dear friend, Bill Apablasa (of Oxygen Buzz fame) loves to say, “Yahoo!”

 

More insights next week…we’re just getting started.

 

And about Flicka? It’s Norwegian for “young girl,” which I am not. But its ancient meaning also included, “light-hearted woman.” Which I am. So that’s what my Muse named herself. She is definitely not boring!

 

 

 

 

Coming Home: When Grace Appears

THREE LINES: MELINDA

I should have stayed with my little sister, only three. But I crossed the street anyway,

leaving her to fend for herself, waiting on the other side. The car just missed her. The

next one threw my best friend, Melinda, into the air. Forever. – September 14, 2016

 

I have written an eight-part short story about this day. Needing the discipline of telling the same story in fewer words, I wrote a ten-line piece. I liked it.

 

Needing even more discipline, I decided to try just three lines. It tells the story.

 

I was six years old, living in a new city, and there was only one girl in my neighborhood to play with. And play we did. In three months, we became fast friends in the sweet ways that little girls do. Life was good, and I was feeling at home in my new place on the earth because of Melinda.

 

That precious friendship came to a precipitous and terrible end one evening when I was a close-up witness to the screeching of brakes and the vivid sight of a life size rag doll being thrown up into the air, over the back of the green sedan, and onto the pavement behind it. That “rag doll” was Melinda. I didn’t understand. She was my friend and she was hurt. I was pulled away from the scene, but I would never forget it.

 

She died on the way to the hospital. My life was changed forever, though I didn’t know it yet.

 

I learned in those grisly days and weeks after, that life is not fair, or predictable, or always happy or salvageable. I did not know until 70 years later how deeply that planted itself in my soul. How it changed the direction that my life would take. And I was only six.

 

I was 76 when the familiar story came creeping into my memory one morning. This time, it was different. I was awash in sobs that would not stop. Something new appeared this time: I realized for the first time that what unfolded that September evening was my fault.

 

I was responsible for my sister almost being killed; I was responsible for Melinda’s death. I was supposed to be in charge of our safely crossing the street, and I blew it. Seventy years after that fateful day, remorse showed up. It was finally time to let it in.

 

Why now? Why did it take so long to open the door wide for this life-altering moment? Why was I ready, on this otherwise inauspicious day, to greet this new guest without fear or caution?

 

I believe that the work of elderhood is unique. The work is to look back – not to live there, but to remember. It is the poignant and often painful work of coming to terms with who we were, so that we can see who we are yet to be. It is the work of opening closed doors.

 

Part of the vast work of elderhood is the hard but necessary task of inviting regret and remorse into the present so that we can give birth to the deep forgiveness that is just waiting for us to embrace it.

 

On that day in 2016, I was finally ready to do the grieving that that little six-year-old had not known how to do. At 76, I could handle it. Even as I sat with the deep, deep sadness of it all and let it wash over me for a while, I could endure it. I could hold that little girl and her unknown guilt gently because she needed craggy old me to tell her that she was forgiven.

 

And grace showed up.

You know, that wild, unpredictable, profoundly deep, strong, laughing,

endless and unfettered, unconditional thing that is true love.

The presence of that peace that passes all understanding.

It met my sorry heart and took the grief from me at long last.

 

We know grace when it arrives, whatever we may call it.

 

Even in the midst of this sad journey, even with the grief that it surfaced, this craggy old woman found herself, in the midst of it, grateful for the life that is now. A life that I can relish as it’s been unfolding bit by bit with every memory that I’ve reached for. And every grace that has come along to carry them.

 

The more I remember, the more love shows up, even if I have to grieve for a bit.

 

The more I hold each memory bravely, the more understanding that arrives.

 

The more I see the whole broad scope of my whole life, the more amazed I am.

 

There will be more regret and remorse that show up, I suppose. But each one builds on the other, and I grow stronger with each one that brings grace again.

 

Most people know at least the first verse of the old hymn…the one about amazing grace. You don’t need to have grown up singing it nor to be a Christian to remember even some of the words.

 

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound

That saved a wretch like me;

I once was lost, but now am found,

Was blind, but now I see.

 

Grace brings us home to ourselves. It finds us when we’re lost and brings us back. We know it in our whole body, mind and spirit when it’s arrived. We can feel it. We feel found. We feel whole again.

 

So many, many people have been the presence of grace in my life. They have been the guides that brought me to this place I call home once again. And I’m very okay with that.

The Turning Point

 

December 31, 2018

It’s New Year’s Eve Day as I write this, and I’m nervously aware that I’m starting my first draft for my latest White Hair Grace page later than usual. Will there be enough time for editing? I have a dogged commitment to getting my blogs out on Wednesday. So here goes…

 

It’s the New Year…I state the obvious. We know the themes: making resolutions; out with the old, in with the new; putting the past behind us and starting again; looking forward instead of looking back. It’s good to have that kind of re-start. Taking a deep breath and releasing that wonderful sigh that resets our inner spirit is life-giving. And it feels great, too – even if feeling great for a bit is its only reward at first.

 

So I took that deep breath this morning to settle down the rising angst about starting to write this late. And the Creative Muse of White Hair Grace benevolently showed up and led the way to something new. (That is her reason for existence, after all…)

 

I just love it when that happens!!! Actually, nothing much happens until it does, so there’s that. So here’s what showed up…

 

New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day form a visual, visceral turning point. Old to new. Past to future. Dark to light. Disappointment to hope. Lost to found. Failures to possibilities. And the turning point is always, always spiritual.

 

Here’s why I say that.

 

In the late 1980’s (oh, my gosh, that sounds so far away…!!), I was the chaplain in a therapy group on an inpatient chemical dependency unit at a large hospital in Minneapolis. One of my jobs was to lead a “spirituality” group once a week. The participants changed from week to week, so I began each new hour by asking each new group what the words, “spirit” or “spiritual” meant to them. Some of the answers were predictable. But one was not. And it showed up every single week.

 

The one response that showed up every week was, “connection.” Spirituality was the force that connected everything and everyone. Even myself to myself. Especially myself to myself, because that is where life begins. Every person in this group knew deeply the hunger of the spirit for connection, and every one was here because somehow the hunger had gone horribly awry.

 

Drugs and alcohol; relationship addictions; estranged family and friendships; eating disorders; suicide attempts; self-abuse; despair: all were clung to like a lifeline because any connection was better than nothing. Our work was to try to help them find a different way – a way back to what connection is meant to be. It could be heart-breaking work that eventually filled their spirits with goodness and light and hope, but it was work that made it possible to return to the still scary but now hopeful world.

 

We are created to be in connection. We are made flesh and spirit. Being made whole happens when we feed our hunger for this precious connection so that we find what we need most: love and acceptance; purpose and meaning; belief in something/someone beyond ourselves; belonging, and a secure belief in our own worthiness.

 

Even as we appear, bawling and stretching and red and messy into this world, we are already primed for connection. That’s why a newborn is so often put on Mommy’s chest right after birth: to begin that most crucial connection…mother and child. We can feel it just seeing it. They can feel it forever.

 

How many of us find at least some of this to be an outsized challenge? I know. It is. But who ever said life was easy? Or just a bowl of cherries? (Well, yah, Lew Brown did say that in 1931, but…). How often have we sabotaged life-giving connections because we were too afraid of connecting? Too afraid of having our flaws seen? Too concerned with whether we’d be accepted or rejected? Too insecure to show even our best side, lest it be found wanting? Ach! Remember those teenage years? I’m told that even the “popular” kids felt things like this, though I still have just a smidgen of suspicion about that…

 

We elders can still find it hard to nurture that spiritual part of ourselves. We still are spirit, though, even when the outside is wrinkled and droopy and the inside has irritatingly inconvenient hiccups and system failures. We haven’t lost our hunger. But we live in a whole culture that tells us in a hundred different ways that we are disposable, ugly, worth less, and in the way. Here’s the turning point: Don’t. Believe. It. Any. Of. It.

 

There are elders who are challenging their own ageism and the ageism of the culture. That’s why I’m here, angsting over having enough time to write. I know that when we stay connected, without apology or excuse, we are attending to the spiritual. Which is how we stay connected to ourselves and to others. That. Is. Life.

 

The Spirit will always be there – the one we were born with. It will always be calling us to love. The first love will be the gift to ourselves. Every other love will be an extension of that. Loving ourselves is not selfish. Loving ourselves is self-giving. Because when we love ourselves more and more completely, we have to reach out and give it away. That becomes our best hunger. To give it away.

 

My introverted self still struggles just a mite with loving myself (okay, it’s a lifetime struggle, but I’m getting better…), but I know this to be true. Special people have taken hold and walked the road with me so that I could come to love myself better. And I’m very okay with that.

 

Love is the turning point and Love is, after all, the point of “it” all. Happy New Year to your delicious and alive Spirit!