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Life, Death, And Dancing In Between

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Carol Bossard

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Mid-July and outside I hear the buzz of lawn mowers, the subdued sound of birds and occasionally, the rooster next door.   I haven’t done a whole lot of dancing up and down the lawn recently, but there have been lovely twilights for porch-sitting or around a campfire.  This has been a dreadful year for mosquitoes, but the “fragrance” of punk sticks keeps them at bay where we are sitting.  That aroma reminds me of 4-H camp in the Bristol Hills of NYS, where I went as a camper and later as a counselor.  I don’t recall that it was buggy there; punk sticks were probably why.  The pungent smell brings back campfires, starry skies and the quiet breathlessness as we listened to yet another tale before going to cabins for the night.

A lot of years have passed between then and now.  I am probably older than the “elderly” gentleman who made a “magic” campfire and used to tell us stories around it. But age is easy to forget!  The truth is that how we think and behave doesn’t have to age unless we choose to allow it!  Our skin may thin and parch.  Our joints may creak and our balance may waver.  But those are outer problems; laughter, appreciation of the world around us, love – they all survive, ageless.   Most of us do not feel old; we just feel like us.  A 90+ friend commented once that she really felt about 18 years old.  Incredible thought to someone who is currently 18.   What younger people do not realize is that we elders have now lived through a lot of life-stages.  If we’ve been wise and alert, we can remember well what it is like to be 16 or 30 or 50 and sometimes feel we are those ages still.  But those who are younger have no clue yet what it is to be 60, 70 or 80.  And younger doesn’t listen a whole lot to older.  Younger sometimes has trouble imagining that we do have a clue.

“’You are old, Father William’, the young man said, ‘and your hair has become very white.  And yet you incessantly stand on your head --- do you think at your age it is right?’ ‘In my youth’ Father William replied to his son, ‘I feared it would injure my brain.  But now that I’m perfectly sure I have none, why I do it again and again.  You are old’ said the youth, ‘as I mentioned before, and have grown most uncommonly fat; Yet you turned a back somersault in at the door --- Pray what is the reason for that?’  “In my youth,’ said the sage as he shook his gray locks, ‘I kept all my limbs very supple by the use of this ointment --- one shilling the box --- allow me to sell you a couple….’”*  Read the rest of “Father William” and you’ll not only be laughing but will understand the large gap in generational understanding.

Aging is a curious thing.  People seem to experience it at different rates, in different weights and measures and with way different attitudes.  There are those individuals who become stodgy and “old” at thirty (one of my classmates), and those whose joie de vivre is evident at ninety (my mother).   I have one friend who occasionally helps out at her daughter’s dairy farm --- even to fixing fence--- which is no easy task.  And another friend in my general age group is running marathons.  Others may be using canes to help movement, but are still active in their areas of interest.  A very few have retreated from life, unable to cope with changes.  These differences in attitudes may be due to genetics or what we’ve expected of our lives all along ----- mostly the latter.  It is a choice because neither physical disability nor aging necessarily have to disable the mind and spirit.

A few weeks ago, I had to admit that whether or not my mind was inclined to believe in my age, my body definitely had some issues with it.  I unwisely tried wandering through the house at night without turning on enough lights and tripped over a chair leg.  This had nothing to do with age; it was carelessness.  But the results had plenty to do with how my aging body deals with trauma.  That chair spun me around so that I fell backward against a corner of a dresser, cut my head and bled profusely.  Three days in the hospital and a blood transfusion later, I was home putting arnica on the bruises --- of which there were many.    My physical shell was loudly declaring to me that I could imagine all the positive things I wanted to about aging, but I’d better start being wiser about a body that has less balance, that bruises and bleeds easily and is disinclined to just “get up and get moving!”  Reality vs. fantasy!  Thinking “young” is good but it doesn’t do to ignore our mortality.  Anyone who is inclined to be a bit careless or to stretch their capabilities (and you all know who you are!!) might keep this in mind.

One of the things impossible to avoid contemplating ---- as one ages ---- is the end of life as we know it.  I may have come perilously close as I lay bleeding that night, which realization definitely made an impact on my behavior hence-forth.  I do not wish to sound either maudlin or gloomy, but to avoid speaking of a life experience that comes to all seems a bit foolish, rather like the proverbial ostrich with its head in the sand. One’s offspring seldom wish to contemplate life without you, annoying though you might be to them, so they tend to cut off discussion quickly, although they may be very verbal about your way of living.   And grandchildren are even more skittish.  Actually, death can come to anyone at any age, due to illness or accident.  My first experience with a friend’s death came when I was fifteen years old.  Someone I knew, who was my age, was killed in a train/car accident.  I remember being absolutely stunned that this could happen.  Usually, though, we expect to live a certain number of years before worrying about death.  Despite its difficulties, life here on earth is good and should be enjoyed.  Life after earthly life is a curiosity.

Kerm and I have tried to be responsible about living and also about arrangements for what comes thereafter.  We reserved spaces in a “green” cemetery to replace our original thoughts of cremation after we discovered that the cremation process puts all sorts of nasty pollutants into the air.  We liked better the idea of being buried where black-eyed Susans and Queen Anne’s lace dance in the breezes and where all is natural and non-chemical (our brief Hippie-past is kicking in).  We’ve made our wills (for the third time) and tried to make sure all loose ends are tied up.  But in addition, we’ve thought about what some people call a spiritual will.  Everyone wants to be remembered.  But how?  How do we want our families to mark our passing?  We surely want them to feel hope for our place in eternity rather than the despair of total loss.  I don’t believe that anything is wasted in the universe and that goes for all of the wonders and talents that humans have.  I think all of it must go on and grow better in some other form that includes all-encompassing love.  And my personal theory is---- we are designed so that when we’ve dealt with enough years of too much world chaos and maybe even too much personal chaos, looking at another kind of life becomes a welcome thought.

This is a well-known poem about death, but I like it despite its frequent use:  Do not stand at my grave and weep --- I am not there ---- I do not sleep.  I am a thousand winds that blow, I am the softly falling snow, I am the gentle showers of rain, I am the fields of ripening grain.  I am in the morning hush, I am in the graceful rush of beautiful birds, in circling flight.  I am the starshine of the night.  I am in the flowers that bloom.  I am in a quiet room.  I am in the birds that sing.  I am in each lovely thing.  Do not stand at my grave bereft.  I am not there; I have not left!”  Mary Elizabeth Frye**

Meanwhile it is summer.  We are alive and grateful for that life, and none of us should be wasting our days by not enjoying them.  When I added “dancing” to the title of this reflection, I meant it both metaphorically and in reality.  Dancing is something that Kerm and I have enjoyed for most of our dating and married years together.  Unfortunately, my feet and my breathing don’t currently accommodate the dipping, diving and whirling.  But those who can, should!!   Dancing can be a state of mind; a lilting of the spirit as well as moving of the feet.  If we move in rhythm with life that is a sort of dance.   I think we are intended to live fully, savoring each day and in joy and trust that “all will be well and all will be well and all manner of things will be well.”***

Carol may be reached at: carol42wilde@htva.net.

 

*”Father William” ---- Poem by Lewis Carroll, the pen name of a British writer of children’s fiction, most notably, Alice In Wonderland.  1832-1898.  This particular poem has been set to music, and after writing this, I can’t get the tune out of my head!!

**Mary Elizabeth Frye ---an American home-maker and florist.  She is known for her poem, written for a friend’s mother, “Do Not Stand At My Grave and Weep”.  1905-2004.

***Julian of Norwich ----Sometimes called Dame Julian.  She was an English anchoress who wrote the best-known surviving book of the Middle Ages.  1305- 1416.  This portion of what she wrote is a reassuring avowal that when all is finished, all will be well.

Some fiction that gives interesting perspectives on life hereafter:

  1. They Both Die At The End by Adam Silvera --- This is something my granddaughters have read (I haven’t), and they said it was very interesting and very good, but probably shouldn’t be read by anyone younger than teenage.
  2. By Fannie Flagg ----Can’t Wait To Get To Heaven and The Whole Town’s Talking
  3. The Last Battle” (fifth book of the Narnia series) by C.S. Lewis
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