Here in the northeast, we are well into Fall. Good weather lasted long this year, so we really can’t complain when the season starts being seasonable. Our cover crops never made it onto the gardens, but the potatoes are in storage and many of the weeds are pulled. Kerm has replaced the broken rails in the garden fence and repaired the dog pen where the bear broke through in July. One ursine youngster returned last week on his fall trek, but managed to get around the yard without breaking anything.
Kerm just celebrated one of the ---- um ---- significant birthdays. And it isn’t one to which we all look forward with delight like our 18th or 21st. One year more doesn’t really matter, but we humans give undue weight to numbers, and this particular number makes us feel old! In truth, only our brains register this; our bodies don’t really change from being fifty-nine to sixty or seventy-nine to eighty, but our minds tend to shudder away from the thought of a new decade. Upon turning 50 ---- my charming co-workers decorated my office with black crepe paper and doleful sayings. Now, nearly 30 years later, I laugh at how little we all knew about aging. I do know that we should stop thinking so much about numbers and simply trust that we will be around and active as long as there is something we enjoy doing on this earth.
I was part of a conversation with friends, not too long ago, about getting older. We all agreed that there is a surprising well of anger inside each of us, when we try to do simple tasks and either can’t or in some way mess them up. I am furious with myself when silverware just falls out of my hand, or when I see tasks that need doing, but have no energy to do them. I speak to myself in a sharp way that I’d seldom use with anyone else. I think this anger springs from fear; fear that we are losing control and being less capable than we’ve always been. We each have a rather rigid, “color-in-the-lines” picture of who we think we are, and we don’t like changes in that image. A recent eye examination flashed “losing control” in neon lights in my mind. I’ve had macular degeneration for a few years now, and it has gradually progressed. This summer, the gradual became accelerated and my recent exam showed all sorts of unwelcome bumps along the retina floor. Suddenly something I’d thought of as being a problem in future years became quite immediate. Not be able to read??!! I was angry, bleary-eyed and depressed for the rest of that day. By morning, my equilibrium was somewhat restored and, of course, I could see more clearly when the pupil-dilating eye-drops they used for the exam were gone. But the foreboding sense of loss still peeks out into my days now and then.
The question is how to stem the anger and find acceptance --- maybe even meaning ---- in this dubious process of aging when we admittedly aren’t in total control of our bodies. Nor can we control the attitudes or behavior of people around us, which is often a problem. In a sense, we are similar to the teenagers I wrote about in the last essay. We are maybe in a spiritual growth period, and need to have patience with and civility toward ourselves, realize we aren’t in the driver’s seat for the world and trust that life will smooth out ---- eventually.
The first question to eliminate from conversation is “WHY ME???” Why not me? is more appropriate. Life is full of little and large bumps along the way, and if mine are only in the retina, perhaps I should be remembering that there are many trials I’ve not had to endure, for which I am grateful. I have friends who have dealt with serious disease, with losing a child, with losing a home, with bitterness in families, with trauma that won’t go away. I am often awed at how people have risen above their wounds to live good and happy lives. The least I can do is to handle my discouraging days with a modicum of courage and good sense. Perhaps I’ll take up painting very large flowers in vivid colors in lieu of growing them or reading about them. My mother, who was legally blind, went right on gardening. She could smell some of the plants (herbs) and knew enough of the shapes of the leaves to distinguish one perennial from another.
The big things in life are challenging, but I think that the little nit-picking ones trigger the daily anger; the new credit card already misplaced, the inability to find the rolling pin that should be right there, the blank space in the mind where someone’s name ought to be. It is probably good that we make jokes about memory fog, brain farts or “senior moments”. Laughter is especially healing when it is about ourselves ----- as long as it is understanding and not scornful laughter. What isn’t OK is letting disabilities embitter us or make us shun fellowship with others. Anger at ourselves or others, is an acid that can burn away our good sense and turn good days into bad times.
I visualize my brain as a rather messy filing system ----- as my actual filing always has been. The files get crowded, shoved in back of another folder, and really need cleaning out now and then. Unfortunately, I’ve never developed a really workable way to clean and sort --- not in the 4-drawer metal behemoth, nor in my mind. But working at it keeps my mental machinery moving and allows me to be maybe a tad more patient with my foibles. “Do not grow old, no matter how long you live. Never cease to stand like curious children before the great mystery into which we were born.” Albert Einstein*. Perhaps this advice is the best advice. Staying true to who we are and remaining in wonder at the world will keep life good in spite of bodily annoyances and a shaky memory.
“Veterans’ Day” --- or, as it was originally named, “Armistice Day” ---- is next week. It was first designated when the armistice (cease-fire) was signed ending WWI. As wars kept on happening, it was renamed Veterans’ Day. Veterans selling poppies used to be a fund-raiser and a reminder. We still need to be reminded in some creative way, since we humans have a bad habit of only seriously considering that which impacts our own lives. We may give lip-service to other concerns, but unless something threatens us or makes us unhappy in some way, we do not put a lot of energy into changing it. I think we often rationalize taking military service for granted: “Well, being in the service is good for kids; gives them discipline. Gives them time to think about what they want to do.” Times of combat --- and even training exercises ---- also give kids the possibility of dying. If soldiers are fortunate enough to go home after participating in wars, it also may give them severe injuries and deep-seated memories that continue to haunt them; this is called being traumatized. And we, who have never experienced the raw emotions of a war zone, tend to shrug our shoulders and count pennies when speaking of providing sufficient resources for soldiers as they return. Veterans have every reason to be hurt and angry, as many are. Perhaps Stephen Spender’s** evocative lines should be engraved where we can all see and remember:
“Born of the sun
They traveled a short while
Toward the sun
Leaving the vivid air
Signed with their honour.”
And the words from the famous WWI poem, In Flander’s Field, from whence the idea of poppy sales began, by John McCrae***:
“In Flander’s Fields the poppies grow…..We are the dead. Short days ago we lived, felt the dawn, saw the sunset’s glow, Loved and were loved. And now we lie in Flander’s Fields.”
When we bring up the honor of defending one’s country it would be well if some of that applied to us. Those of us at home need to honorably treat people who have served as our protectors. Their injuries, both physical and mental, should weigh on us until we have done all we can to provide understanding, mending and healing.
It seems odd to me, that we can’t find another way to solve international issues than to send young men and women into battle. What a waste of talent. There is a pertinent cartoon strip: Calvin and Hobbes**** are facing each other with toy guns. They blast away, each falling “dead”. Lying there, Calvin says: “Well that’s pretty useless, isn’t it?”
Jimmy Carter***** also put it very well: “War may sometimes be a necessary evil. But no matter how necessary, it is always an evil, never a good. We will never learn how to live together in peace by killing each other’s children.” At the very least we should be taking good and grateful care of those “children” when they come home.
November is a month of remembrance and change, beginning with All Saints’ Day, then Veteran’s Day and ending with our day of gratitude, Thanksgiving. It is the transition month between autumn and winter. Perhaps it is the transitions that incite deep thinking. We may be happily scuffing in a pile of crispy leaves, but we are always aware of the icy roads ahead. Rachel Field****** expresses this well.
Something told the wild geese it was time to go. Though the fields lay golden, something whispered “Snow!” Leaves were green and stirring, berries luster-glossed, but beneath warm feathers something cautioned, “Frost!” All the sagging orchards steamed with amber spice, but each wild beast stiffened at remembered ice. Something told the wild geese, it was time to fly----- Summer sun was on their wings, Winter in their cry.
Changes happen --- seasons --- decades ----- life! Choose attitudes wisely when facing them.
Carol may be reached at: email@example.com.
*Albert Einstein ---German-born theoretical physicist who created the theory of relativity. He also made contributions to quantum mechanics. 1879-1955.
**Stephen Spender ---English poet, essayist, novelist who wrote about injustice and societal ills. 1909-1995.
***John McCrae ---Leutenant-Colonel was a Canadian poet, physician, artist and soldier. 1872-1918. Was killed in France during the war.
****Calvin & Hobbes----Cartoon series delighting many, by Bill Watterson
***** Jimmy Carter ---Born in 1924 and served as the 39th President of the United States.
******Rachel Field ----American poet and novelist, and especially children’s stories. 1894-1942.