March 10, 2014
“To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal,
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it,
and, when the time comes, to let it go,
to let it go.”
– Mary Oliver
My Dad died last week. His was a peaceful death. One day, you could tell things just were not quite right. Dad was more confused and unbalanced on his feet, but he was still as hospitable as ever, offering his visitors in the nursing home a beer (he kept a stash at the nursing station so that he could offer his drop-in guests a beer, a ritual of hospitality he maintained all his life). Two days later he died peacefully in his sleep.
Dad had just celebrated his 95th birthday, so his was a long, full life. He experienced the joys and sorrows of a life well lived. He suffered the losses of his parents, ten of his siblings, and countless friends. But he found comfort in and was sustained by his family — nine children, 18 grandchildren, and 11 great-grandchildren — his faith, and his farm and community. Here are some words from his eulogy that reminded us of what such a long life entails:
“Dad would have been 8 years old in 1927 when Charles Lindbergh made the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic. Could that 8-year old have even imagined that someday his children and grandchildren would have passport stamps from Israel, Peru and Ecuador, Thailand, Botswana and Morocco, and dozens of other countries?
Dad left school after 8th grade because, back then, there was no system in place to bus farm kids to the high school in town. So at age 14, he finished school and stepped into the working world. Think about Dad as that young adult. Could he have imagined that he would send nine children to the University of Minnesota, and have several children and grandchildren with advanced degrees?
Dad would have been in his mid-teens when the New Deal’s Rural Electrification Program brought electricity to Minnesota farms. Could he have imagined then that 80 years later we would be checking e-mail and taking photos with Smart phones smaller than a deck of cards?”
Dad was a loving parent and an exemplary role model. When I was growing up, he worked a day job and then farmed full time on evenings and Saturdays. (Sunday was always a day of rest.) So we are grateful that he had three decades of “retirement” with more time to fish, hunt, bowl, and play cards. He played on the community’s over-35 baseball team well into his 60s! Even when the tillable fields were eventually rented, Dad always cut and baled the meadow hay. He planted a small patch of corn for the wild deer. He mowed our expansive lawn and kept it tidily groomed. He bought huge bags of birdseed at Fleet Farm and suet from a local butcher so that he could feed the birds every day. He was a good steward of the land.
And now his work is done.
The family came together to mourn his death and say goodbye. All nine children gathered from Israel, Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin and Minnesota. His son, who is on the parish cemetery board, helped prepare the burial site. His granddaughters did the readings for the funeral mass. His grandsons were pallbearers. The church choir, of which Dad was a member well into his 90s, sang at the mass. The town’s miliary honor guard added color and touching solemnity to the ceremony and honored Dad’s army service in WWII. Countless people contributed salads and side dishes for the luncheon after the funeral — lots of Minnesota hot dishes.
We are all so grateful that we had Dad with us for so long. He will always be with us in our hearts.
Let Evening Come
by Jane Kenyon
Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.
Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles
and her yarn. Let evening come.
Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.
Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.
To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung
let evening come.
Let it come, as it will, and don’t
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.
March 8, 2014
March is Women’s History Month and March 8th is International Women’s Day. I recently discovered a women-centered online project called “the Reconstructionists,” the creation of illustrator Lisa Congdon and writer Maria Popova. Each Monday during 2013 they posted an illustration of a respected woman and a hand-written quote, along with some biographical background. The entire year’s worth of art is now available for viewing in one sitting. You can link to it here. I guarantee that you will find the work remarkable and inspiring.
I know there are plenty of real women whose lives and accomplishments are worthy of honoring and celebrating. But I also want to mention some literary heroines whose wit and wisdom are shared in Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction’s Most Beloved Heroines by Samantha Hahn. Hahn combines hand-lettering, watercolor portraits, and quotations from the mouths of several of literature’s female protagonists. If you were to assemble a similar collection, which heroines and quotes would you include?
Here are a few from the book:
“Isn’t it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet?” – Anne Shirley, from Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
“After all, tomorrow is another day.” — Scarlett O’Hara, from Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
“What a morning — fresh as if issued to children on a beach.” — Clarissa Dalloway, from Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
“I’ll let someone else carry off the social honors . . . I’ll stick to mystery.” — Nancy Drew, from The Secret in the Old Attic by Carolyn Keene
March 5, 2014
I think we’ve all observed old people’s habits, some irritating, and we’ve resolved to comport ourselves with more dignity when we become the elder generation. For example, I’ve always been mildly annoyed when every conversation started with a declaration of age, as if that was their singular accomplishment in life: “I’m 83 years old . . .”
Now that I am entering “young” old age, it’s time to remember my earlier resolutions about aging gracefully. I was tickled to come across this similar list that Jonathan Swift wrote in 1699 (when he was 32, over a decade before he wrote Gulliver’s Travels) of resolutions for his future, titled “When I Come To Be Old.” It reads:
“When I come to be old. 1699.
Not to marry a young Woman.
Not to keep young Company unless they reely desire it.
Not to be peevish or morose, or suspicious.
Not to scorn present Ways, or Wits, or Fashions, or Men, or War, &c.
Not to be fond of Children, or let them come near me hardly.
Not to tell the same story over and over to the same People.
Not to be covetous.
Not to neglect decency, or cleenlyness, for fear of falling into Nastyness.
Not to be over severe with young People, but give Allowances for their youthfull follyes and weaknesses.
Not to be influenced by, or give ear to knavish tatling servants, or others.
Not to be too free of advise, nor trouble any but those that desire it.
To desire some good Friends to inform me wch of these Resolutions I break, or neglect, and wherein; and reform accordingly.
Not to talk much, nor of my self.
Not to boast of my former beauty, or strength, or favor with Ladyes, &c.
Not to hearken to Flatteryes, nor conceive I can be beloved by a young woman, et eos qui hereditatem captant, odisse ac vitare.
Not to be positive or opiniative.
Not to sett up for observing all these Rules; for fear I should observe none.”
March 3, 2014
“Death is always on the way, but the fact that you don’t know when it will arrive seems to take away from the finiteness of life. It’s that terrible precision that we hate so much. But because we don’t know, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it seems limitless.”
– Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky
How many more times will I see snowdrops in bloom? Trying to paint them adds some depth to my enjoyment and appreciation. But there is a poignancy knowing that there is a limit to the Springs I will experience in my remaining lifetime.
March 2, 2014
“The longer I live the more my mind dwells upon the beauty and wonder of the world. I hardly know which feeling leads, wonderment or admiration.”
– John Burroughs, from The Writings of John Burroughs, vol. 15, The Summit of the Years (written when Burroughs was age 70+)
“There is no other joy in life like mental and bodily activity, like keeping up a live interest in the world of thought and things. Old age is practically held at bay so lone as one can keep the currents of his life moving. The vital currents, like mountain streams, tend to rejuvenate themselves as they flow.”
– John Burroughs, from The Writings of John Burroughs, vol. 15, The Summit of the Years
March 1, 2014
” . . . wrinkles are the credentials of humanity.”
– George Bernard Shaw
This is the year that I turn 60 and I’m thankful to have made it this far. After experiencing cancer for the first time 27 years ago, I’ve never taken the years for granted. I look at life as a finite gift, and I try to make something special of each day. Looking ahead, I want to be even more economical with my remaining minutes and put my best energies into the things that matter most to me.
In the late 1990s, Cathleen Rountree wrote a series of books about the decades of women’s lives. Each book is comprised of interviews with about twenty interesting and creative women, some famous, who share the lessons of their age. I was curious to see what tips I might find from women who were in their 60s at the time of their interviews. Here are some quotes from On Turning 60: Embracing the Age of Fulfillment:
“Challenges keep life going. If you don’t have a challenge, I think you die.”
– Elayne Jones, tympanist
“Aging is a distillation process — you begin to be more economic with your energy. . . . You realize that many things are a waste of your time, and you think, Why should I put my energy into those activities anymore?”
– Luly Santangelo, dancer
“Have younger friends . . . because when you get closer to the finish line, it’s very helpful to have people you have an emotional relationship with who are not dying or dead.”
– Mary Travers (of Peter, Paul & Mary), singer and activist
“In my late fifties I realized that I had less energy, less time to do things, and that everything took longer . . . I used to be able, as most women are, to do four or five things at once. Do the juggling act. Now, if I can keep one plate in the air, that’s good.”
– Ursula le Guin, writer
“My yearning now is to be free of all physical encumbrances.”
– Marion Woodman, Jungian analyst
I couldn’t resist peeking ahead to my next decade, the 70s, to see whether the wisdom and advice changed with advancing years. Here are a few quotes from On Turning 70: Honoring the Voices of Wisdom:
“Basically it takes me longer to do things, especially when I don’t want to do them.”
– Marge Franz
“My experience is that there is much more consumption of culture than production of culture. I’m talking about going to the theater, going to musical events, going to classes, learning the computer. I don’t know if it’s typical of this stage of life, but I’m not consumed with consuming. I get more pleasure out of the simple act of creating.”
– June Singer, analyst and writer
“I don’t think anybody makes it to a hundred in any comfort.”
– Inge Morath, photographer
” . . . I think as you get older, time is more valuable than money or success. . . .Something very important that I want to tell women is that it’s never too late, but don’t wait until it’s too late, because you won’t have the energy. You should do a little bit at a time, but when you have a little time. It’s important to learn how to use your small bits of time, your five minutes, your ten minutes, your fifteen minutes. All those begin to count up . . . It’s not the long amounts of time you have that are important. Don’t wait until your children are grown, until your husband is retired; I think that’s a big mistake. You should learn how to use your snatches of time when they are given to you.”
– Ruth Asawa, sculptor
“I don’t have very much time to sit back and be old, because there’s still so much undone.”
– Enola Maxwell, activist
I’ve always thought that I have very wise readers based on the astute comments you make. Do you have any pearls of wisdom for me on the occasion of me starting my seventh decade?
February 25, 2014
“Small things, small doings, train our powers of observation . . . Not all of nature’s book is writ large; the fine print is quite as interesting, and it is this that trains the eye.”
– John Burroughs, from The Writings of John Burroughs, “In Field and Wood”
The first of our year’s flowers are those short ones that hug the ground — the snowdrops, dwarf irises, crocuses. The small things. The small doings of nature. How we welcome them after the long winter.