An inheritance is what you leave with people.
A legacy is what you leave in them.
Our communities erupt in anger and fear
BUT WE RISE UP
We lose our homes
AND WE RISE UP
Our children are terrorized at school.
AND STILL WE RISE
We are lost in addiction
BUT WE RISE UP
We find strength in faith, in hope, in each other, in the beauty of nature, in the goodness of life. We rise because there is a God that loves us in spite of our foolish missteps and selfishness.
Easter is for me the physical manifestation of hope. It is when the scarcity and withering of winter is transformed into the abundance and new life of spring. It is the symbol of the faith that sustains me when life pushes in and tempts me to lose heart, to wonder if it’s all just a cruel cosmic joke. It is the reminder that I am not alone and that together, no matter what, we always rise.
…is getting old.
We Americans are youth worshippers. We are repulsed by old age and all of its trappings.
Recently, I realized with a start, that, incredulous as it seems, I am approaching my 80th birthday! I had expected to grow old mindfully, gracefully, not to be “struck old.” In her nineties, my mother used to say she “felt 18 inside.” It seemed ridiculous, even
embarrassing then, but to my chagrin, now it’s my turn to feel younger than my years. Friends say I have “aged well” (putting me in mind of a Camembert round) but the benchmarks are there. People rush ahead to open doors for me, offer to walk me across the street, pick up things I drop and, (worst of all) call me “cute.” There’s no escaping it. I look…. I am….well..old.
Which is not all bad. I am grateful to my ancestors for the sturdy genes that allowed me to reach this stage in life, still healthy and somewhat sound of mind. I am blessed in so many ways. I have wonderful friends and neighbors. My husband and I enjoy a very comfortable life in a beautiful community. My family actually likes me.
But getting old is not easy. Aging is a process of letting go, of loss. We outlive friends and family, we lose mobility, it takes concentration to perform tasks that were automatic a few short years ago. Our health, once taken for granted, becomes unpredictable. We spend more time in clinics and more money on medications. We have less energy; we need more rest. It takes regular exercise just to maintain the status quo. We avoid ladders and stairs, give up night driving. We struggle to maintain our independence.
But even with all its obstacles, aging has really never been easier. Our livestyles would have been inconceivable to our grandparents, even our parents. There is a rapidly growing industry devoted to social activities and services for seniors. There are cruises, exercise programs, trips to exotic locations, clubs, sports, educational courses and programs, retirement communities. Treatment for conditions that incapacitated our grandparents are now almost routine; cataracts, joint replacements, heart surgery. Cancer is no longer a death sentence. There is a steady stream of new information on aging in books, and TV.
We should take full advantage of all of these resources. We need to keep active, to take care of our mental and physical health, engage with our communities. But we must also feed our souls. We need to be mindful of who we are and the person we are becoming.
I think the Irish poet Dylan Thomas says it best:
Do not go gentle into that good night
Old age should burn and rave at close of day
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Although at first glance this may sound like a call to arms for a frenzied assault on mortality, I think that is an oversimplification. I believe the poet was challenging us to face our mortality and to live out our best lives courageously and with grace. The journey to the end of life doesn’t have to be; shouldn’t be, a morbid and dreary slog of loneliness loss and pain.
But it’s not easy. The people I know who have aged well have confronted their mortality head on and early on. They planned for it just as one plans for any stage of life, education, career, marriage and children. They expected medical expenses to increase at a time they would be living on fixed incomes. * They were not surprised when sudden life-changing events required a transition to new, more restricted lifestyles. They were aware of the need strong inner resources and for each other. They learned the art of interdependence. Preparing for old age is hard work.
Fortunately there are models for aging well. One in particular stands out for me. She seems to navigate this challenging passage effortlessly. In her 90s, she is alone, but not lonely, busy but not burdened, engaged but not entangled. She takes her appearance as seriously as she did in her 40s. OK, she’s a little vain, but she is still beautiful. You are unlikely to find her on the sofa watching TV; more likely she will be entertaining her great grandchildren, gardening, or volunteering in the local sewing guild. She drives herself to church, does her own shopping and is not much interested in discussing her ailments. Unfailingly cheerful and slow to criticize, she is the first to reach out, expecting, and more often than not, receiving, nothing in return. Although she has outlived two husbands and most of her friends, she is surrounded by people who love her. Her faith is strong and she doesn’t believe in entitlements.
It’s a high bar, but I’m going to give it a shot. After all, old age is simply a season of life for those who live long enough. I am fortunate to be among them.
*According to a 2016 GOBanking Rates survey, 35 percent of all adults in the U.S. had only a few hundred dollars in their savings accounts and 34 percent had zero savings.
Decadent chocolates, diamond bracelets, elaborate valentines cards. Young lovers gazing into each other’s eyes, dreaming of the perfect love.
A beautiful reminder that in a troubled world, that somehow, somewhere, there is always love.
But these images offer only a shallow glimpse of love. Oddly, we equate love with young love, with “being in love,” while overlooking the most beautiful love of all, that of old love. This is not the exhilarating flush of new love. It is the flame that flickers in the furious storm, yet leaps to warm the trembling heart.
Old love has seen glory and brokenness, trust and betrayal. It has known exhilaration and endured tedium. It has yielded to the warm
embrace and recoiled at the jagged word. Through it all, it was always love that soothed the chafing of the marital yoke.
The beauty of old love is not that of the unfurling rosebud. Like the facets of a diamond, this love is patiently sculpted and refined over years. It is nurtured by the light of understanding but withers in the darkness of anger. It flourishes on the rock of trust and crumbles on the shaky sands of deceit.
And old love is not merely finishing the race side by side. Such is only a sad counterfeit born of pride, cowardice or simple inertia. It is a lifetime of shared experiences, comfortable perhaps, but bereft of joy. The heart well knows the difference.
Old love is longing for the other and yet straining against the marital tether. It is knowing everything yet nothing about the other. It is melding into the other yet retaining oneself. It is freely sharing, families, children, sickness, possessions; all of it, all of life. It is unrelenting challenge; it is warm fulfillment. It is at once exhilarating and terrifying,
So to all young lovers this Valentine’s Day: Join us if you will. But know this: Old love must be earned. It will test your strength and challenge your resolve. It will require your best and forgive your worst. It will plumb your depths and expand your soul. And the rewards are beyond imagination for those who stay the course.
This blog is dedicated to my “old love” of 40 years. Happy Valentines Day, Sweetheart.
Although she may not have recognized it, I don’t know a single woman that has not experienced sexual harassment at some time in her life,
Growing up, I had no idea what sexual harassment was. It seems impossible now, but in high school, Wolf Whistles and boys “looking you up and down” were a kind of sexual validation. Sexual ideation was the norm. Beauty contests were hotly competed, Marilyn Monroe was idolized; young girls aspired to be Playboy Bunnies. Social acceptance required sexual validation, and thus male approval. Spinsterhood was a specter to frightening to consider. Popular magazines gave tips for girls to attract boys and young women to get husbands.
Merriam Webster defines sexual harassment as “uninvited and unwelcome verbal or physical behavior of a sexual nature especially by a person in authority toward a subordinate…” obviously descriptive of behaviors taken for granted in the 1950s. So why were we not outraged?
In order to understand why otherwise intelligent women would allow, if not invite, this kind of behavior, it has to be viewed through the lens of the time. The ability to “get and keep a man satisfied” was a life skill. Home Economics, a required course for girls taught the fine arts of cooking, sewing, cleaning and ironing. (Yes, ironing.)
Charm Schools and Finishing schools completed the work with instruction on how to walk, sit, and converse with boys.
If it all sounds like a manipulative trap, it was. For both partners. “Head and Master” law in Louisiana until 1979 gave a husband authority over all household decisions and jointly owned property without his wife’s knowledge or consent. In practical terms, this meant that any purchase, even groceries, could be subject to approval by one’s husband. And jointly owned property could be disposed of without the wife’s knowledge or consent!
This archaic system was undergirded by a fiercely fundamentalist covenant in the marriage vows that husbands would love, honor and protect their beloved, sainted wives; and wives love, honor and obey their benevolent, upstanding husbands. Women, poorly educated for the most part, exhausted and housebound because of birthing and raising children, needed respect and protection, and obeying someone who adores you and has your best interests at heart doesn’t sound so bad. Such a system might have worked for Sleeping Beauty and her prince. But most mere mortals didn’t handle it well. Men took advantage, women retaliated.
So, over time, in self-defense, women and especially southern women, refined their “feminine wiles” into a high art form in an attempt to gain control over their lives. We’re talking about sex. (Except that no one talked about sex.)
Navigation of these treacherous waters required superior skill, handed down from mother to daughter in hushed whispers. The tension between withholding sex at the risk of “losing” the man had to be carefully balanced against the risk of pregnancy upon awarding the sex prize. Birth control methods ranged from the risky to the laughable. And if a woman became pregnant, it was her responsibility, not that of her partner. In the best case scenario in which she and her man were planning to marry anyway, they simply moved up the date and produced a “premature baby,”
Her other choices, however, were dismal. She could disappear discretely to a “Home for Unwed Mothers” and emerge alone months later having adopted the child, she could choose to raise the child on her own, (social suicide for both) she could risk an illegal abortion in a dingy back street clinic (God Forbid) or, often with parental input, convince the young man to “do the right thing”, a sure sentence for a lifetime of misery.
Marriage only led to a different kind of dependence on men. Husbands needed to be “managed,” My grandmother was fond of saying ” I have no respect for any woman that can’t handle one little ole man.” It was a badge of honor with her. Implicit, but never spoken, was the understanding that one rationed favors, especially sexual favors. And it worked enough of the time to keep her demons at bay. Still, crude, sexist and offensive behaviors from her husband and sons were simply dismissed as “how men are.” Not worth making a fuss.
She was a master at it. However, even she was no match for my grandfather in the end. Despite her bargaining and pleading, he moved her in middle age from their comfortable home in town to a remote farm with no electricity or running water. She had no recourse but to go. Her soft hands became worn with the harsh farm work, her smooth face lined, her lace collars replaced with farm aprons. She died early, I suspect, from the harsh conditions and the pain of isolation.
Happily, we have moved a long way forward since those days. Birth control afforded women unprecedented freedom. Now able to plan the size of their families, women entered the workforce and began to enter previously all male professions. But there was a long road ahead. Men still controlled the workplace and therefore its rules. Too many of us tolerated sexual harassment and abuse and sadly some even participated, believing our physical attributes more valuable than our intellect.
This tawdry history, in my opinion, helps to explain why it took us so long to realize that in the 21st century, we were still hearing the furtive whispers of our mothers, anxiously passing on their knowledge in an effort to protect us. We didn’t notice that when we were called a “hottie, ” or were the subject of a wolf call, we were being objectified. (The underlying assumption being that we welcomed this kind of attention, or at least didn’t mind.) That it was OK to separate our personhood from our bodies. It was just “what men did.” Nothing we couldn’t handle. We didn’t see that ignoring the “hottie” comment was for some men, an invitation to drape an arm over our shoulders. “He didn’t mean anything by it.” And overlooking the arm on the shoulder could, to such a man, lead to a hand on the skirt. And so on. You get the drift.
At long last and at great cost, women are being defended against sexual harassment. Many have shared horrific stories at great cost to them and their families. New offenders come to light almost daily. And inevitably, some of us have become hyper vigilant, picking apart every comment for a trace of harassment, leaving honorable men who have never offended confused and unsure of their footing. It’s going to take time to find the balance.
But it’s not complicated, really. As is the case for most of our problems – if not all of them – it comes down to simple respect for one another. We call that the Golden Rule.
When I reflect on the year past, it is easy to become anxious about the future. 2017 wasn’t easy. Disasters hit in rapid succession, their combined effect making each more daunting than the one before. Floods, fires, earthquakes. Simmering racial tensions heated and boiled over into the streets. We were shocked to learn that our country, even our families were sharply divided by our social and political beliefs. Social media became a national forum for proclaiming unsubstantiated “facts” and venting unfiltered frustrations. Scientists were discounted and their hard work dismissed by government spokespersons on the basis of undocumented claims based on personal belief as best, or worse, vested interests. One after another trusted leader tumbled from power as as entrenched patterns of sexual harassment in the workplace came to light. All of this served up to us as “Breaking News” 24/7 in HD Surround Sound, by newscasters scrambling frantically for the latest sensational tidbit.
Sadly, rather than becoming unified against our common problems, for the most part, we seemed to have been pulled apart. I am exhausted by all of it.
2017 was indeed a challenging year. However, it was not the only challenging year we have faced as a nation. We have weathered far greater storms and we will come through this one. There has always been darkness. Darkness in the world, darkness in me, in each one of us. But there is also light. And to stay in that light and avoid slipping into disillusionment, I am going to need spiritual nourishment, Lots of it.
So here are some of my New Year’s resolutions to feed my spirit.
Spend more time with kids.
If we are watching, children will teach us how to enjoy the beauty of ordinary things; the intricate design of a daisy petal, the magic of dew fall on blue bonnets, how to dream.
Dreaming comes naturally to children. They have no battle scars yet, anything is still possible. Inevitably, as the years go by, dreams are lost along the way. It is easy to become cynical, to lose hope. But without it our spirits wither and die. Dreams are spiritual food. They are the crucibles in which hope is formed. It is the dream that is important, not the outcome. Children know that.
Make time for art.
We Americans tend to think of art as a luxury, an activity only to be indulged when there is surplus money and time. Art programs are the first to be cut from our educational and personal budgets. But we are deluding ourselves. Art has dramatic healing power.
A painting is more than an image on a canvas. It is an invitation to escape our world to another of our choosing, to be calmed, inspired, challenged; to emerge recharged and refreshed.
Keep friends close
I am blessed to have good friends. We are there for each other; for comfort, encouragement, support, or just a good laugh. We “get” each other. Each new conversation begins where the last one left off, even after years have intervened. And yet it’s so easy to postpone that call or visit “until I’m not so busy;” to tell myself I’m keeping in touch on Facebook or by text. But I know better. I’m cheating myself. My friends are not mine forever. They are on loan. Each moment with one of them is a gift to be treasured.
Hang out with animals. No explanation needed.
HAPPY NEW YEAR!