Withered leaves

Withered leaves

“Though leaves are many, the root is one;
Through all the lying days of my youth
I swayed my leaves and flowers in the sun,
Now may I wither into the truth.” — William Butler Yeats

This poem was the doorway into a lovely article about living old age that I read yesterday morning online at “On Being.”  I hope you take a moment to read it, too.

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.”

“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

The wonderment of Spring crocuses

The wonderment of Spring crocuses

Watercolor sketch of Spring crocuses

Watercolor sketch of Spring crocuses

 

 

 

Do You Hear What I Hear?

December 12, 2013

“Said the little lamb to the shepherd boy,
do you hear what I hear
Ringing through the sky, shepherd boy,
do you hear what I hear
A song, a song, high above the trees
With a voice as big as the sea
With a voice as big as the sea”
— Lyrics by Noel Regney, music by Gloria Shayne Baker, 1962

Madame de Meuron with hearing trumpet

Madame de Meuron with hearing trumpet

I bet you read the title of this post and thought it would be about Christmas.  But it’s really about hearing, and the answer to the question in the title is likely to be “No.”  Because I have been losing hearing for at least the past 30 years, if not longer, and now I am profoundly deaf in the higher frequencies.  I can’t remember when I last heard bird song, those irresistible cheeps and twitters.  So it is unlikely that you hear what I hear.

I have been living in a muted world.  And it’s very peaceful.  I’ve grown to quite like it.  Perhaps I’ve become a lot more visually aware because of my deteriorating hearing.  Who knows.  I do know that I’ve developed strategies for coping — avoiding noisy places with lots of background noises, trying to converse face to face so that I can read lips and expressions, using the subtitling feature when I watch DVD movies, preferring texting and emailing to phone conversations, etc.  My family and close friends know to speak up and not talk to me from behind a wall or around a corner.

I was told long ago that with my type of hearing loss, hearing aids would not be too effective.  Hearing aids had been used primarily to amplify sound.  Since I cannot hear bird cheeps nor smoke alarms, amplifying a bird cheep to the obnoxious level of a smoke alarm would not help me.

But in the past five years technology has advanced so that some hearing aids can now compress high frequencies into lower bands and put those sounds back into a range where I can still hear.  So, as a concession to my old age (next year I turn 60) and my failing body parts, I’ve taken the plunge and invested in two hearing aids.

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Normally I am hesitant to speak about personal medical issues in this blog.  But embarking on this hearing adventure has been for me, a step into new territory, and I realized that I had never spoken to or read about anyone else adjusting to these mechanical aids.  So perhaps this will be of interest to someone.  It seems that no one wears hearing aids proudly.  Just like I never felt like an amputee until I wore a breast prosthesis, I never really saw myself as handicapped until I started wearing  hearing aids this week.  Suddenly my hearing impairment was made visible.

But I really don’t care about that.  I do care about staying engaged with people, and if I can do something to improve my understanding in conversations, then this trouble and expense will be worth it.  (And it IS a huge expense.  And did you know that Medicaid does not cover the cost of hearing aids?  I have good insurance, but it covered just 35 percent of the $5700 cost.)

So I’ll be curious to see whether I think the benefits will outweigh the costs.  So far, the adjustment has been interesting.  The irritations seem so much more apparent than the improvement in my hearing, which I’m having a harder time judging.  Here are some of the things I’ve noticed so far:

1.  Hearing more background sounds more clearly is not necessarily a benefit.  I now hear the sharp click of my spoon stirring a pot, or the crackling cellophane-like sounds of rustling in my bag.  Or the screech of chairs wheels scudding across the floor.  The world is a much too noisy place!  I finally turned the volume down to 2 from 3 just because I couldn’t stand being inundated with all this useless sound.  Is this how normal people hear all the time?

2.  I have to get used to the sound of my own voice and re-learn how to gauge how loudly to talk.  The microphones on my hearing aids pick up the sound of my voice and transmit it back into my ears.  So it sounds like I’m talking with my ears plugged.

3.  The compression software makes the “s” sound like “sh.”  Merry Chrishmash.  Relationshipsh.  Sheesh!  Where before I was one hearing-impaired person in a normal world, now I’m a hearing person in a world inhabited by people with a speech impediments.  (I may get used to this, or perhaps the hearing aids can be adjusted to fix this.  So far, it’s especially noticeable when I listen to the radio.)

4.  I have to get used to having something in my ears all the time.  They are beginning to feel a little tender.

5.  This is one more thing to take care of, clean, try not to lose, etc.

As I said, I’m having a hard time gauging just how much more I am hearing in conversation.  I guess I’ll have to wait for feedback from family and friends to see if they notice an improvement.  I do know that I am still not able to hear electronic beeps, like the security gates buzzing at the library.  So perhaps I’ll never hear birds tweet. 

I wish hearing aids could perfect my hearing, or make the world sound more beautiful!  But they are still imperfect instruments.

Overall I’m determined to hang in there and weather the adjustment period.  I expect this will all be no big deal in another month or two.  This is my Christmas gift to myself.  I can’t do anything about my progessive hearing loss, but I’m thankful that I have the means to give hearing aids a try.

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.

What Remains

July 8, 2013

“It’s all life until death.”
— Grace Paley

My 94-year-old Dad and the old farm house where he lives

My 94-year-old Dad and the old farm house where he lives

Our family has been blessed with Dad’s long life.  If one of the central questions of our humanity is how to live our lives, trying to figure this out can become a bewildering predicament if we live to a very old age.  While staying with my 94-year-old Dad, I was reminded that one’s value and worth should not depend on what you do, but rather should be inherent in simply being.  Because at 94, life has slowed considerably, and a good day is not filled with lots of activities or accomplishments, but with moments of doing nothing.

A full life is inevitably filled with losses, grief and suffering.  But this post will focus on what remains, what my father is still able to do and enjoy.

Every morning of my stay, Dad cooked breakfast for both of us — usually bacon, eggs, and toast, with tomato juice or half a grapefruit, and once, pancakes.

Dad making breakfast

Dad making breakfast

A cup of instant coffee with every meal

A cup of instant coffee with every meal

And after every meal, Dad helped wipe the dishes.

Dad at the kitchen sink

Dad at the kitchen sink

Putting the clean dishes into the cupboard

Putting the clean dishes into the cupboard

On Mondays, laundry day, and Dad still used the old Maytag wringer machine to wash his clothes and then he hung them on a line to dry outside.

Hanging his laundry

Hanging his laundry

Mowing the vast lawn, a summer job, took several hours (with rest breaks).

Dad mowing the lawn

Dad mowing the lawn

Through the window

Through the window

Dad is now the oldest person in his parish.  He always said grace before and after meals.

"Bless us O Lord . . ."

“Bless us O Lord . . .”

Dad still read the local weekly paper and bought the Minneapolis paper on Sundays.

Reading the paper

Reading the paper

Reading the paper in Dad's favorite chair

Reading the paper in Dad’s favorite chair

Dad continues to play cards — cribbage and solo.  He gets together with two of his sisters, his brother-in-law, and son for a weekly card game.  They take turns hosting the games and then go out to eat after hours of playing cards.

Playing cribbage

Playing cribbage

The days were full of dozing and naps.

Dad at rest

Dad at rest

And all of these things made for good days.  For that we are grateful.

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” . . . 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.