The Daisy as Crone

August 5, 2013

“But an August daisy is a sorry affair; it is little more than an empty, or partly empty seed-vessel.”
— John Burroughs, from “August Days,”  The Writings of John Burroughs, XI, Far and Near

Daisies in August

Daisies in August

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“In the Northern States the daisy is in her girlhood and maidenhood in June, she becomes very matronly in July, — fat, faded, prosaic, — and by or before August she is practically defunct.  I recall no flower whose career is more typical of the life . . .  How positively girlish . . .  is the daisy during the first few days of its blooming, while its snow-white rays yet stand straight up and shield its tender centre somewhat as a hood shields a girl’s face!  Presently it becomes a perfect disk and bares its face to the sun; this is the stage of its young womanhood.  Then its yellow centre — its body — begins to swell and become gross, the rays slowly turn brown, and finally wither up and drop. It is a flower no longer . . .”
— John Burroughs, from “August Days,”  The Writings of John Burroughs, XI, Far and Near

Well, isn’t this a dire look at growing old!!  Gross and withered.  Oh well.  I hope to retain just a bit of humor about the natural process of ageing.  I like this description by Margaret Drabble in The Pattern in the Carpet:  A Personal History with Jigsaws:  “A waistless stoutness lay in wait for all of us.”

Old Age and Insights

July 25, 2013

On the occasion of my aunt's and uncle's 60th wedding anniversary

On the occasion of my aunt’s and uncle’s 60th wedding anniversary

As you know from my earlier posts about visiting my 94-year-old father on his Minnesota farm, my mind has been preoccupied with aging.  This post shares some writings that have been on my radar.

“The Joy of Old Age. (No Kidding)”
First, one of my friends and readers sent me an article by Oliver Sacks from the New York Times which he wrote on the occasion of his 80th birthday.  Sacks says, “I do not think of old age as an ever grimmer time that one must somehow endure and make the best of, but as a time of leisure and freedom, freed from the factitious urgencies of earlier days, free to explore whatever I wish, and to bind the thoughts and feelings of a lifetime together.”  Like most of us, he wishes to “die in harness,” loving and working fruitfully through the end, but he acknowledges that “the specter of dementia or stroke looms.”  I found it interesting that Sacks, this most accomplished man, spoke of some regrets, too:  “I am sorry I have wasted (and still waste) so much time; I am sorry to be as agonizingly shy at 80 as I was at 20; I am sorry that I speak no languages but my mother tongue and that I have not traveled or experienced other cultures as widely as I should have done.”  I have provided a link to the complete article, which I believe is well worth reading.

“Retiring Later May Stave Off Dementia”
Then I saw an article in the Seattle Times that cited a French study whose findings indicated that working longer/retiring later could delay the onset/progression of dementia.  My mother had Alzheimer’s and my father is now experiencing short-term memory loss, so I believe there is a rather high chance that eventually my mind will begin to go down the path of dementia.  You would think that I would find this article heartening, but I don’t!  I think this sends the message that those of us unfortunate to have dementia did not work hard enough, exercise our minds enough, eat right, or whatever, and brought this terrible disease upon ourselves.  And I just don’t believe that.  My attitude is more, there but for the grace of God, go I.

The Force of Character
Rather than thinking about old age as a medical condition, I respond better to a more sacramental approach — looking at the ageing and declining body as a source of insights and continuing soul expression and growth.  One of the best books I’ve read that talks about the “forming of character that is actually taking place in these ‘symptoms’ of aging” is James Hillman’s The Force of CharacterI first mentioned this book in this blog post.  Hillman says:

  • “When the body begins to sag, it is abandoning sham and hypocrisy.  The body leads the way down, deepening your character.”
  • About those mid-night excursions to the bathroom:  “Suppose, however, that the getting up from sleep awakens you not only in the night, but to the night. . . . Awakening to the night opens a dark eye into the invisible world.  It opens an acute ear to the cautions, insights, and promptings that seem to visit only at night, disturbing sleep in order to be heard.”
  • “Forgetting, that marvel of the old mind, may actually be the truest form of forgiveness, and a blessing.”
  • “So what is left after you have left is character, the layered image that has been shaping your potentials and your limits from the beginning.”
  • “Character is refined in the laboratory of aging.”

Norwegian by Night
Finally, I will end with a great summer read, Derek B. Miller’s debut novel, Norwegian by NightWhat I love most about this thriller is its 82-year-old protagonist, Sheldon Horowitz, a recent widower who moves to Norway to be near his grand-daughter.  He’s a curmudgeon and has a philosophical outlook on life, although his nearest family sees him as a doddering old man.  They refuse to believe he was a sharp shooter in WWII and still retains his sharp mind.  His dormant skills come into play when he crosses paths with a domestic violence incident and murder in his apartment building.  I think that anyone who likes those dark Scandinavian thrillers will like this book, too.

The old farmhouse where I grew up

The old farmhouse where I grew up

“I live here in the realm of predictability.  Each day goes by, a mirror of the one before, a rough draft of the one to come.  The passing hours bring variations in the sky’s coloration, the comings and goings of the birds, and a thousand almost imperceptible things.”
— Sylvain Tesson, The Consolations of the Forest:  Alone in a Cabin on the Siberian Taiga, translated from the French by Linda Coverdale

My father is rooted to the land where he has lived for over 90 years.  The Minnesota farm was his childhood home, and he has observed the seasons passing predictably year after year.  And now in old age, the call of travel and adventure no longer appeals.  From my perspective, life on the farm seems slow and unchanging, each day a “rough draft of the one to come.”

Still, there is a lot of richness in being so rooted.  As Natalie Goldberg says in The True Secret of Writing:  Connecting Life with Language, “Much can be done by doing little — with regard.”

Sylvain Tesson, quoted in the opening to this post, deliberately experimented with finding his inner life by removing himself to a remote, rustic cabin in Siberia.  He found that “Staying put brought me what I could no longer find on any journey.”  Writer Jim Harrison, writes about these same feelings in Brown Dog:  “Come to think of it, the main good thing out here snowbound in this cabin is that nothing is happening . . . I’ve got this personal feeling things are not supposed to be happening to people all of the time.  At least I’m not designed for it.”

If we live to extreme old age, our bodies will inevitably wear out, slowing us down and making us stay put.  I got a taste of this during the two weeks I stayed with my Dad.  The challenge for all of us, regardless of age, is to stay observant to the things that come across our range of view, and to find the beauty in these still images.

Here is a window to my Dad’s world:

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“On the very backs of our hands, just under the skin, lie veins looking ever so much like little road maps, and as we age, those charts grow more pronounced as if to jog a memory of the journey we unceasingly undertake in our decision to continue to live.”
— William Least Heat Moon, Here, There, Elsewhere:  Stories from the Road

My Dad's 94-year-old hands

My Dad’s 94-year-old hands

Self-portrait of 59-year-old hand

Self-portrait of 59-year-old hand

Eyes may be the windows of the soul, but hands can be equally expressive and evocative.  I think that babies’ hands look like tiny sea stars.  But old hands reflect the character and experience of the passing years.

 

 

 

 

” . . . everything is always already being lost.”
— Bradley L. Garrett, discussing Walter Benjamin on the nature of ruins, from Explore Everything: Place Hacking in the City

Looking through the living room window at my 94-year-old Dad mowing the lawn

Looking through the living room window at my 94-year-old Dad mowing the lawn

I’ve just returned from two weeks of keeping company with my 94-year-old Dad on the family farm.  I’ve written about my father before, most notably a tribute in honor of his 90th year.  On this recent visit, I was reminded daily of the small, accumulating losses that accompany anyone into extreme old age.  Since my last visit in February 2012, I noticed that my Dad no longer checks his email every day, works on crossword puzzles, goes to mid-week mass, or plans and cooks even simple dinners, much less barbecued chicken.  His short-term memory is going, and it is doubtful that he will be able to continue to live alone in the old farmhouse, even with the considerable day-to-day support that a few of my siblings provide.

And this is going to be a challenge for our family, because Dad will not go willingly to another home no matter how much better a change would be for him — keeping him in physical safety, with good home-cooked meals provided, and lots of other support.  He wants to die at home on the farm.  The loss of his home, a reassuring space, would be heart-breakingly sudden, not like the other losses he has born, some so gradual that he might not even be aware of them.

We cannot stall the passing hours.  There is no promise of preservation.  I see in the slow, inexorable deterioration of the farm house, sheds, and barn — those that will be torn down when my brother builds his family’s retirement home on the land — the reflection of my Dad’s inevitable decline.  In spite of the pain, there is beauty in this collapse of our everyday existence.

Farm house window

Farm house window

East side door

East side door

Linoleum floor with sun and shadow

Linoleum floor with sun and shadow

East side window

East side window

Roof of Uncle Pete's garage

Roof of Uncle Pete’s garage

Interior, garage

Interior, garage

Barn doors and windows

Barn doors and windows

My view upon waking

My view upon waking

Old farmhouse in the morning light

Old farmhouse in the morning light

One Art
by Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.