Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Rules for an Old Woman Thriving



A good friend called recently to share news of the wonderful celebration her family surprised her with for her 90th birthday.  A well deserved celebration for a life well lived.  For a woman who continues to live enthusiastically. One of my role models.

Our conversation got me questioning how I am living today, whether I live with the same zest I so respect in my friend.   And it sent me back to a remarkable book I have read twice now.  Rules for Old Men Waiting, by Peter Pouncey, is the fictional story of an old historian and recent widower, who realizing that he is dying, compiles 10 rules by which to live his final days with as much dignity and intention as he can. 

Pouncey's old man, MacIver, is living alone in a cabin that has fallen into disarray and disrepair, as he himself has, while in the midst of overwhelming grief.  So his rules, are, of necessity, very basic.  "Keep personally clean.  Make the bed every morning, and clean house twice a week.  Dress warmly and light fire when necessary, burning least important things first.  Eat regularly.  Play music and read.  Work every morning.  Nap in the afternoon if needed."  Eventually he refines his Rules for Winter Watch/Rules for the Inside Game and settles on writing a novel as his last piece of "work."  And the result, a moving novel within a moving novel.

I am not ill, not dying.  But I am now 76, in the midst of the Age of Distinction as Michael Gurian describes this stage of life in The Wonder of Aging. ( I much prefer his term to "the old old" that many gerontologists now employ for my age group.)  I want to live the rest of my life with as much dignity and intention as I can for as long as I can.  If I make it to 90, I would like to be a role model for someone else behind me in the stream.  I want to thrive, not merely survive, with "passion and compassion and humor and style and generosity and kindness."

Therefore, my "rules", for now, a work in progress:

  • Learn something every day - how to use the computer more effectively, something about aging, something about another country, current events (within mental health boundaries) - something.
  • Simplify our home or life style in some way - reduce, reorganize, recycle, restrain.
  • Prepare one vegetarian meal each day - alright, it's one step in the right direction.
  • Read good literature every day.
  • Spend at least 30 minutes outdoors each day.
  • Do something special and enjoyable with John every day and make contact with one friend  - thank heaven for e-mail.
  • Move - as in walk.
  • Find a way to laugh - laugh out loud.
  • Spend at least 30 minutes a day on an activity that requires creative expression - writing, drawing, decorating. 
  • My work - to engage in an activity that contributes to someone other than myself - right now, that's this blog (hopefully this contributes to some folks), coaching, and some day, my own book.
Now, I realize in reviewing this list that there are some things here that I already do with great regularity.  I realize that there will be always be days I don't do all of these things, can't do all these things.  There will be naps and movies and lunch with friends and catchup telephone calls.  There will be doctors' visits and emergencies.  There will be other options, others opportunities.  In six months or a year, I may add something, delete something, or expand something.  But for now, this feels appropriate, and doable and satisfying, a structure for thriving.









  

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Nevertheless, He Persists


John is my husband of 34 years, my best friend, my partner, my love, and my hero.  My hero, because over the years, I have watched him endure three bouts of skin cancer, five hernia operations, the gradual loss of hearing, and a stem cell transplant for non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma.  Each time with perseverance, courage and a belief that he could handle whatever was thrown at him.  And he did.  And so, we did.

Last September he was diagnosed with Therapy Related MDS, ironically brought on by the transplant he received 15 years ago, the result of a mutating chromosome impacting his ability to produce red blood cells. One of his first questions was whether there was a gene for orneriness, for though we have been told his condition is currently incurable and the prognosis for survival is approximately two years, he is determined to prove the experts wrong.  After all, the original lymphoma prognosis was three years and he made it for fifteen!

His determination and his persistence are remarkable, and perhaps the most critical reason he has survived so many physical challenges with a modicum of grace.  I watch him as he gets chemo shots for five consecutive days each month, wait with him to hear if he might need another transfusion (we've lost count of how many now) and marvel that he can get yet another round of Neupogin shots for declining white blood cell counts with calm acceptance. The most he has ever complained is to say he is feeling like a human pin cushion. The most impatient he becomes is when he has to wait more than 15 minutes for an appointment.  I can almost predict the moment I'll hear, "C'mon doc, I'm ready," 

I have always ascribed his survival to resiliency or to pure stubbornness, to that hypothetical gene for orneriness.  Today we had an exchange that made me reconsider.  We were driving back from an appointment with the eye doctor, because on top of everything else, John was diagnosed with macular degeneration earlier last year.  The diagnosis today confirmed our observations that his eyesight is worsening, perhaps the result of the chemo, and our decision to curtail his driving, though difficult, is appropriate. I told him how much I respect him, how much I admire his inner strength.  How much he inspires me to remain optimistic, to stay strong, to fight the good fight.  How much he is my hero.

His response was to repeat a quote I had never heard before.  "Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent." ~ Ray Kroc,  the founder of MacDonald's. Persistence, determination, not stubbornness, not orneriness.  I asked when he first came across the quote; he said many years ago.  He had to look omnipotent up in a dictionary, but the quote has been one of the most important in his life, and consequently in ours.  I asked if it has become a silent mantra.  He paused and said no, he just has tried to live his life with those values at his core.  And in my experience, he has.

There are many people who, over the years, have commented on my strength.  I know I would not be as strong as I agree I am were he not as strong as he is.  As persistent and determined as he is.  He is my best friend, my partner, my love, my hero.

Thank you, Ray Kroc.







Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Sounds of Silence




Silence has not always been comfortable or comforting for me.  Silence - not merely not talking or being alone, but true silence, no music, no TV.  No computer, no digital reader, no background noise, no distraction.  Just me, my thoughts, my surroundings.  Quiet, stillness. Quiet enough to hear my breathing, to feel what I'm really feeling, to hear the inner dialogue that I would rather ignore.  Silence for a great part of my life was disquieting.

I have a long history with trying to cultivate a friendship with silence. I cannot count the times I tried to meditate and gave up, unable to still what Buddhists aptly call my "monkey mind" for even a nanosecond, unable to resist rebuking myself for my inability. It was challenging 40 years ago when I first tried, virtually impossible, even without the many distractions available today.  I was newly divorced , living alone for the first time, overwhelmed by conflicting emotions and an uncertain future.  So I turned to journaling.  To slow down the chatter, to capture it on paper so I could see what I could not bear to hear.  

Over the decades now, I've written on loose leaf paper, in college composition books, in Italian leather journals with gilded leaf edges.  I've written snuggled into the corner of a couch or a favorite comfy chair.  On airplanes, in hotels, late at night when I couldn't sleep, in the middle of the day when I found myself obsessing with an idea for a project or a problem that needed resolution.  Initially I had to have background noise, other people nearby, the TV, eventually soothing music.  

But I wrote almost every day.  I wrote when I didn't have anything special to say.  I wrote when I thought I had something profound to say (on rereading some of it, I only thought so.) I wrote when I had cancer and I wrote volumes when John had cancer.

Along the way, journaling evolved from habit to routine to cherished ritual and without realizing it, I learned to slow down the chatter, turn down the volume.  I became comfortable with discomfort.  I turned off the TV,  turned off the music.  I remained quiet after I stopped reading or writing.  I discovered solace in the sound of a distant mourning dove.  Came to hear the breeze in the trees outside our home before I could feel them.  Began to listen for the spaces between sounds.

Maybe I assign too much credit for this to journaling.  Maybe this comes naturally with age, with weathering personal loss, with being unwilling or unable to endure the assault of modern technology, the incessant noise.  Maybe I would be welcoming silence without all those composition books and gilded journals.  Or maybe it's that the distractions have become something to distract myself from?  But I look at the folks with their earbuds, and phones and tablets and wonder if/when they will make friends with silence. 

Sometimes, in the total silence of the night, when John reaches out to take my hand, or I reach out to reassure myself that he is still there,  the sudden thought that I might face this silence alone can take my breath away.  But now, more often that not, I reassure myself that I can.
















Saturday, May 27, 2017

Dancing in the Rain


You'd think I'd have learned this lesson sooner in life.  Heaven knows, I/we have had plenty of opportunities, but it took a wise and gentle doctor to bring it home recently.  

John's hematologist must have some psych courses in his background because he has an uncanny ability to deliver information in a direct, yet compassionate manner at  the most opportune moment. It is one reason we so trust and respect him.  From the day he delivered the diagnosis and prognosis of John's disease, he has never failed to be forthright and considerate, consistently striking that tenuous balance between reality and optimism, a balance too few physicians have yet learned.

He also is a natural mediator, sensing when to speak directly to either of us or both of us as the case seems to warrant.  So, whenever John wants to do something that I fear may be detrimental to his well-being, or I want him to do something that he does not feel ready to do, we turn to Dr. W. and ask him to arbitrate.  

One of those occasions occurred a month ago, when John wanted to go to a nearby casino to celebrate his 75th birthday.  As infection is a threat to John's survival, I have been adamantly opposed to any large group gathering for either of us, and especially so to the casinos.  And John has been remarkably agreeable, a great patient.  This time, however, he persisted.  It was, after all, his 75th birthday, or as he puts it, the 50th anniversary of his 25th birthday.  Fortunately, we had a doctor's appointment within a few days of his birthday, and we agreed that if Dr. W. gave the ok, I would concede to John's wishes.  If not, he would comply.  

The day arrived.  We went through all the preliminaries, weight, blood pressure, temperature, blood test results, the list of typical questions and answers.  And then John posed his request.  Dr. W. paused, looked at John, looked at me, paused again and then - first to both of us, "I don't want to cause any marital discord here."  Then, at me - "We're not keeping John alive at the expense of his quality of life."  Then, at John - "So, I think you should go, but do it wisely.  Take intelligent precautions.  Have a good time and happy birthday."

We did go to the casino.  We went early and he wore gloves while he played.  A few days later, my sister and brother-in-law surprised him for his birthday with a visit from NY.   We had a small party with his Starbucks buddies and a get together with friends. He received several cards and calls and e-mails.  All in all, he had a great birth week.

I've returned to that conversation several times in the interim.  I realize that I've been hoping this storm might pass.  If we are vigilant, if there are medical breakthroughs, if I can protect him.  But the reality is it might not.  So, I'm not throwing away the umbrella or rain gear, but I'm trying to splash in the puddles.  To consider every day some ways to celebrate that we can still go out in the rain together.


Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Escape Is Not a Dirty Word

"None of us can face what's happening head-on all of the time."
~ Sheldon Kopp
What Took You So Long?

Reading Sheldon Kopp's If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him in the 70's was life-changing.  I came upon the book on a bookstore table while on a mission to get past the anger and self-recrimination following a painful divorce, convinced that someone smarter than me, wiser, could provide a road map out of the angst and confusion that was overwhelming me.  I think I had read a half dozen self-help books by the time I came upon Kopp (easy to do in the 70's) and still hadn't found that map.  And there he was, telling me I had to create my own map, that there was no guru, no Buddha out there to show me the way. Or as he stated pretty succinctly in an 'eschatological list' at the end of his book - "it is so very hard to be an on-your-own-,take-care-of-yourself-cause there-is-no-one-else-to-do-it -for-you adult." I had to chart my own course.

Initially, I threw the book across the room.  Then, picked it up and read it again.  And over the years, have revisited parts of it several times.  Whereas he never intended to be another Buddha, his exhortation to take charge, to take responsibility for my life has never left me. 

So, it was intriguing, to say the least, to discover while recently culling my library, that I own another of his books, one that I hadn't revisited for many years.  What Took You So Long ? An Assortment of Life's Everyday Ironies is a slim volume of photographs illustrating simple, insightful statements written by Kopp in the late 70's.  Whereas The Buddha contains language and references that definitely are dated, this little book could have been written yesterday.  

Consider - "You wait for everything to be all right, knowing all the while that the next problem is in the mail" or "Not everything worth doing is worth doing well" or " Unable to get our own way, often we settle for trying to prevent other people from getting their way" or "If we allow pain more of our attention than it requires, we miss some opportunities for joy."

Any of these - and several other - statements continues to ring true for me, perhaps even louder at this stage of my life, but the statement about escape is a welcome reminder, a suggestion that it may even be necessary to take a break, to escape for awhile, without feeling guilty.  Because "often things are as bad as they seem" and yes, "no one can face what's happening head-on all of the time."  So, I'm taking a recess from Facebook for awhile, from all the petitions and surveys, from all the outrage and angst, the venom and the vitriol, from all the requests for contributions.  I'm reading a new mystery series, potting some succulents, redecorating the guest bathroom, working on a jigsaw puzzle, starting a new still life.  It'll all be there when I check in again.  All the worry, all the outrage, all the divisiveness, all the drama. all the challenges.  For now, I choose to escape - for awhile.

And once again, wherever you are, Sheldon Kopp, thank you.




Monday, May 8, 2017

Soul Searching

"I didn't do enough."
~ Oskar Schindler, "Schindler's List"


The more I do to voice my displeasure and dismay with this political regime, the more I realize that I didn't do enough to help prevent it in the first place. 

I had thought I'd done enough.  I voted, as I have every presidential election since I cast my first vote for JFK.  I consider voting a privilege as well as a responsibility.  I am, relatively speaking, informed.   I've read the Constitution, not only in high school, but as recently as two years ago.  I continue to read a variety of material across a wide spectrum of political belief.  I've never been reluctant to talk about politics nor unwilling to listen to others' points of view.  

But I left the heavy lifting to others, even when I sensed, as early as a year ago, that he could win.  Even though, I believed he would do exactly what he is trying to do.  Even though I called him narcissistic and unwell from the get go.  I know I could excuse my sitting on the sidelines with "what can one person do" or "my vote won't count anyway as I live in a red state" or "John needs me more."  I could fall back on believing what the media was predicting (I didn't).  I could blame everyone else, and heaven knows, there's plenty of folks to blame.

I don't excuse myself.  However, I also do not mean to chastise myself, but rather to let this awareness fuel taking action.  I am beyond feeling guilty, but am committed to look for ways to encourage others to take action and to support those who do.  I've been calling my (theoretical) representatives, almost daily. I've e-mailed and continue to engage with staff as long as they stay open to alternative points of view. I've signed so many petitions that I suspect I've signed some more than once.  I've spent hours on FB, probably too many, but strive to interject a call to action wherever I can.  I take time to acknowledge the efforts of others who are marching, deciding to run for public office, moderating groups (what a job!), offering new ideas, standing up in their own party, etc.  

And, yet, I continue to ask myself, "What else can I do? Tonight, I'll read the next chapter in Don't Think of an Elephant by George Lakoff and keep recommending it. Tomorrow, I'll send another check to ACLU - they have the lawyers, they have the grit.  Next week, show up to the nearby coffee shop to help write postcards of appreciation as well as postcards of protest.  I'll post this.  What else? What works?  What could work?

If, as you read this, especially to those of you in France who are learning from our mistakes, you have other ideas for effective resistance and change, I would be delighted and ever so grateful to receive them.  I will pass them on wherever I can.  I will do whatever I can. 






















Monday, May 1, 2017

I Don't Get It

"Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education."  
~ Franklin D. Roosevelt


and

"The aim of education is the knowledge, not of facts, but of values. "  William S. Burroughs

"Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family."   Kofi Annan

"A quality education grants us the ability to fight the war on ignorance and poverty."   
Charles B. Rangel

"It is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers."    James Thurber

"The goal of education is the advancement of knowledge and the dissemination of truth. "  John F. Kennedy

"There are many problems, but I think there is a solution to all these problems; it's just one, and it's education."  Malala Yousafzai

"Education's purpose is to replace an empty mind with an open one."    Malcolm Forbes

"Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence."   Robert Frost

"The illiterate of the future will not be the person who cannot read. It will be the person who does not know how to learn."    Alvin Toffler

"I believe education is the great equalizer."   Dave Heineman

"Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe." H. G. Wells


When did education become suspect?  How has it come to follow that being educated automatically means you must think you are elite or better than anybody else?  When did being educated become a threat, or something to be belittled, demeaned or dismissed? How could the President of the United States boast that he loves the poorly educated?

The more I see that his lack of character and his immaturity, his blatant hypocrisy and outright pathological lying are condoned or tolerated by his followers - or that his weekly golfing excursions, executive orders, and proposals clearly benefit himself and the wealthy and yet, they still think he cares about the average American, well, I can understand his boast. Why wouldn't he love the poorly educated?!

I am a second generation American whose paternal grandmother did not learn English and whose father did not graduate from high school; yet  I was the first female in my family to go to college. I not only became an elementary school principal but also went on to create and manage a boutique consulting firm for 25 years. I know the power of education. Not only a formal education, for I have met many learned individuals who didn't go to college and much of my education has occurred since graduating.  But a good formal education can also inspire -where it has been absent - curiosity, creativity, thoughtfulness, tolerance, a questioning mind, critical thinking skills and perhaps above all, the desire to keep learning. 

In only two generations, our family rose from among the working poor to solidly middle class.  My brother became a dentist and then a master wood worker, my sister a choral director and now a clinical social worker.  Each of us has learned from teachers, scientists, books, the arts, friends, strangers, each other.  Learning formally and informally.  Learning to love and appreciate learning.

It is because of our educations that we have realized the American dream of having it better than our parents did. It is with the help of our educations that each of us made career changes mid-stream, that we have weathered the vicissitudes of life. It is with the help of our educations that John and I are managing his health care today.  

That this President loves the poorly educated rather than encourage them to become educated, that he has a Secretary of Education whose intention is to gut public education, that he boasts that he doesn't read, that his vocabulary is that of an average 4th grader, that he tweets reactively and irresponsibly in the middle of the night- is an embarrassment at best, a disgrace at worst.  That he does not believe in climate change and demeans the scientific and intelligence communities, that he supports defunding the arts and educational opportunities for the disadvantaged bodes harm for our economic and cultural future. 

Yes, I am concerned, upset, even fearful.  But  I will continue to write, to call my representatives, to express my concerns and share my observations.  I will continue to read, to learn, to challenge my assumptions and challenge the assumptions of others who are willing to learn with me..  But when I am overwhelmed by the magnitude of this disaster, I will rant awhile.






And last, but definitely not least...

"Education is our only political safety. Outside of this ark all is deluge."
~ Horace Mann