We happened to be in Toronto on our wedding anniversary so we celebrated with our Toronto family by going to Niagara Falls, which was our honeymoon destination 44 years ago. The Falls tumbled and roared and sent up great clouds of mist, just as they had then, so we stood and looked a while, then strolled the walkway alongside and went for lunch and passed by “attractions” of the Ripley’s Believe it or Not variety where the kids enjoyed the outside teasers. Then we went to the butterfly conservatory, which was everyone’s highlight.
And of course we told our Niagara Falls honeymoon story, one of those bits of lore couples gather and repeat over the years while forgetting nearly everything else. Namely this: when we arrived to the Falls, he looked and said, “Is this it?” That hurt. It bugged me, actually. I’d so looked forward to showing off this Canadian wonder to my Paraguayan-born-and-raised young husband! Now this little blot, this disappointment, on an otherwise wonderful honeymoon.
Well, we got it clarified, just as we’ve clarified many matters large and small over the course of 44 years. I’d heard unimpressed, he’d meant is there more? and some years later when I saw his Falls — the Iguazu Falls of South America, where water spills at every turn of a long walk, the clarification was even fuller than before.
On that honeymoon road trip, we also listened to his Charley Pride and Kenny Rogers tapes. A lot! I’d grown up with two kinds of music — church and classical — so this was a stretch. But it was fun; it fit the occasion. So in gratitude for 44 years with the man I love, here’s a link to some country, nostalgia meter set as high as it goes. Remember when?
I was recently inspired to try sketching again, as I had tried for a while many years ago, not because I’m any good at art — honestly, I have no idea what I’m doing — but because it forces me to really look at things. So I took a couple of pencils and a sketch pad along on our visit to son and daughter-in-law and granddaughters in Toronto last week. One day while the girls worked at their art table on the porch I perched in front of a tiny oak tree, newly planted, and I looked and looked some more and drew what I saw. As you can (barely) see, I was tentative with my lines, light with my pencil, aiming for literal. It was fun though and I more or less got what I was after. (The actual tree isn’t very substantial yet either!)
While I worked, the 7-year-old came alongside and did her own sketch of the tree, which she presented to me. It’s a generous, cheerful tree. She was loose with her pencils, unhesitating, and quickly captured the shape of leaves and branches. She made the trunk ruddy, the leaves an optimistic green.
Then the 4-year-old, who must have wondered why I took so long, erasing and straining over my tree, presented me with her version. There was concern in her voice. “Here Grandma,” she said. “Maybe this will help you.” Not just one tree but five, and pink flowers too, and the blue sky and a happy face (hers?) and humps of earth. Wonderful, its inclusiveness, its feeling.
I’m touched by the age-related integrity of each picture but I’m studying theirs. (Maybe that will help.) I want to see with their generosity, their emotion. Maybe I’m old enough to stop being so literal again.
Two women of note died this past week, singer Aretha Franklin at 76 and artist Mary Pratt at 83, both a tremendous inspiration, but I’m thinking of Pratt in particular today and the paintings highlighted in stories about her. Those jellies, oh those jellies, how they glow from within! Perfect jellies, clear and luminous, reflected also on the table. Many commentators noted how Pratt’s work honoured matters of domestic life. She made us look at the glint of foil, the cream and golden tones of egg shells in a carton, fish on a plate. (Google “Mary Pratt Artwork” Images for many examples of her work.) In turn, I wish to honour her for paying such magnificent attention.
One reason is that many of us, like Pratt, tried to balance domestic and “other” work, and if we remember, that wasn’t an easy task, was it? Who, in fact, ever achieves balance? But Pratt brought — or kept — often competing worlds together, when the temptation for her generation and mine was to wrench them apart or feel our domestic concerns disparaged by others. In Pratt’s work there’s no apology for jelly or a casserole dish in the microwave or the remnants of a meal. She acknowledges both their beauty and the labour they represent.
The other reason I wish to honour her is that aging has a way of setting us back into smaller, and domestic, settings. This isn’t to say we no longer get out or view grand vistas or participate in the storied drama of life. But those my age or older will know what I mean. And I also mean I want to really notice what’s around me now and how light still plays with broken eggs, foil, and jelly.
Jelly Shelf, Mary Pratt, 1999
I think I can safely say I will never walk the Camino de Santiago. Too, too crowded, for one thing; like a bandwagon by now. Too, too long and physically complicated at my stage, for another.
So why did I just read two books* about Camino pilgrimage? Well, some women I know are considering the trek and one had a book that I later spotted in the thrift store, with the other book beside it, each like new and only a dollar, and you know how it is, you read a few pages and it’s interesting and you keep going and before you know it you’re caught up in the author’s quest, and two books later you feel you’ve twice walked the whole long thing yourself, minus blisters. It’s almost as good as been there, done that.
So, no, I won’t cross Spain in real time on real feet, but I am compelled by the notion of pilgrimage. One of the earliest books I recall as read to me by my mother was a child’s version of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. The stages of little Pilgrim’s journey through the Slough of Despond to the Wicket Gate to the Cross and places along the way such as the Palace Beautiful, Doubting Castle, Vanity Fair, the Delectable Mountains and so on, to reach the Celestial City at last, are still burned in my mind. Whether allegory like that or a physical practice, pilgrimage describes a truth about any pursuit — it’s a journey with a start and a finish and a road between. Since I’ve been doing memoir-type writing lately, I find pilgrimage a useful way to think about life.
* Jane Christmas’ What the Psychic Told the Pilgrim and Hape Kerkeling’s I’m Off Then.
The cover of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer startles: Grim Reaper in cowl and robe, track shoes and wrist weights, face set in the grinning grimace of skulls and fitness obsessives, going at it on a treadmill.
Ehrenreich was startled too, some years ago, by a report that “the immune system actually abets the growth and spread of tumors, which is like saying that the fire department is indeed staffed by arsonists.” The body carries conflict within it, and try as we might to manage and alter this, we can’t ultimately control the outcome or forestall death. I couldn’t follow all the technicalities of Ehrenreich’s argument, nor do I share all her views about life and death, but the question she raises is spot on: how much of our lives should be given to living longer when we have “other, often more consequential things to do.” She takes on the medical complex, anti-aging nostrums, and fitness and wellness industries which tempt us with essentially futile illusions of control. (Ehrenreich’s not called “a veteran muckraker” for nothing.)
I admire the nearly 77-year-old Ehrenreich’s recent revolt against screenings, exams, smears etc. urged upon her for “prevention” and her feisty resistance to faddish longevity diets and self-denial practiced by her demographic, where “health is indistinguishable from virtue.” She eats well, she says, exercises because it feels good when she does, and will seek medical help for an urgent problem but is no longer interested in looking for problems undetectable to her. “I gradually came to realize that I was old enough to die,” she writes, old enough “not to incur any more suffering, annoyance, or boredom in the pursuit of a longer life.”
Before we moved to Tsawwassen, B.C., I visualized myself researching and reading and exploring the place, going deep and wide in putting down new roots. After all, I’d done it before, both in Paraguay where we lived a couple of years in the 1980s and over the decades in Winnipeg. I wrote novels set in both places, so that was part of it, but the writing meshed with my own desire to know and belong.
We’ve been here two years now and we love it, but I confess I haven’t done much about the roots. I’ve been living like a cut flower in a beautiful vase.
Is my inaction a factor of aging? A sense there’s too much material in “new” for the available energy? Do I even need more roots? I recall reading of a pastor’s disappointment that people weren’t enthusiastic about an exciting new discipleship program on offer; he saw it as resistance to growth. I didn’t know the situation but my first thought was, I bet he has a lot of olders in his church. For olders, enthusiasm often resides in what they already possess, rather than in quest for the new.
Nevertheless (there’s always a nevertheless), I can’t let myself off too quickly. Pondering my resistance, picking at reasons for it, I find my curiosity waking to the history of where I live, especially in awareness of being on traditional territory of the Tsawwassen and Musqueam First Nations. I went on a bit of a local tour the other day and learned there’s evidence here of human life going back some 9000 years. Wow! That’s overwhelming; it’s humbling. Paradoxically, it makes me feel I belong here too, for all flesh is like grass…its glory like the flower…the grass withers…the flower falls.
How’s your aging going this week?
Mine slips along, almost unnoticed at the moment, and I’m rather glad about that. An ordinary day, this day, bit of a breeze. Company for supper last night. When it got dark, we searched the sky for Mars, close and visible now, and earlier I’d scolded myself out the door for a walk to the Bay, because I need to keep walking and it’s always better when I do. Today I’m going into Vancouver with Daughter, chasing a shopping list and hoping to slide in a professional foot massage. (My feet ache with excitement at the very thought.) My Saskatchewan sisters visited last week. It was such a treat to be together. One of them a recent widow though and I wished I could lift her sadness. Impossible, of course, for he’s gone and all I can do is carry a tiny corner of that. And Monday — was it Monday? — we tuned into the now infamous Helsinki press conference and we didn’t quit watching until it was over. Which more than used up a day’s supply of indignation. Husband’s radiation treatments are done, hallelujah, and best of all they’ve helped: pain alleviated, some return of equilibrium. Further results to be known in September. Time in better proportion now. The first months after diagnosis pressed us into the present; we couldn’t make plans beyond the moment. Living in the moment is touted as good, as in mindfulness, but realistically some measure of future beyond “we’ll see” makes for a happier time. And I’m writing these days. A life writing project. For myself, I say, when talking back to the familiar Inner Resistance (“who’ll care about that?”). Besides, I say, writing is the way I think. And remember.
The U.S. Supreme Court is in the news these days, what with the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to replace Justice Kennedy, but I’ve been thinking about another justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I saw — and highly recommend — the inspiring documentary RBG. Now 85, Ginsburg has been an advocate of women’s rights. When she attended Harvard Law School, she was one of only nine women in a class of hundreds, and even those nine seats, the dean opined, should have gone to men. The movie highlights cases Ginsburg argued before the Supreme Court in the 1970s, before she was served there herself, in which she had to instruct the all-male Court of the time that discrimination against women did — yes — exist. “I saw myself as a kindergarten teacher in those days,” she says with droll wit.
She was fortunate to have a close, supportive marriage with the late Marty Ginsburg, who apparently wasn’t threatened by her brain. She works extremely hard, stays energized through exercise, loves the opera (“the sound of the human voice like an electric current going through me”). But what lingers for me is Ginsburg’s beautiful presence as an older. I saw no apology in her for aging.
...no apology in her for aging…
Also inspiring: two nurses, 65 and 71, active in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, and a caravan of grandmothers heading to the Mexico border. Plus, Longreads has started a series on age and aging. The first essay, “Gone Gray” by Jessica Berger Gross agonizes over to dye or not to dye. Who cares? is my opinion on the matter, please do whatever works best for you. But if you care, Gross offers one of the most amusing and persuasive considerations yet: “Trump’s ridiculous orange dye job made me see the deceptive element in hair color.”
Downsizing. The catchword for aging, right? Our physical reality, our challenge, our freedom.
But Mary Catherine Bateson, in Composing a Further Life: The Age of Active Wisdom, offers an intriguing image of upsizing for this stage. (Thanks to MaryAnn Halteman Conrad for alerting me to Bateson’s work.) Imagine, she says, that you have the resources to add a room, or enlarge one, in your house. What room will you choose? And how will it affect how you live in the house?
Adding a room, Bateson says, is what longevity is like.
In Canada, average life expectancy increased 24.6 years between 1921 (57.1) and 2011 (81.7). That’s a big room added to the human house in 90 years, which has significantly altered the shape and flow of how we live.
I snagged on the gift-of-an-extra-room idea as a fun way to think about my current priorities or desires. Which room? How will it look? How affect the rest? I see a friend with a photography room. Another has added a room to re-settle refugees. (I speak metaphorically.) I’ll gladly keep my kitchen small at this point but since I’m doing some memoir-type writing I visualize an archives/library room where I can watch memory filmstrips, spread papers and documents, organize, spot patterns and narrative. Archives need a cool, darkish environment, but my imaginary room will definitely have to have a garden door to the outside world and lives of younger people. I’ll need to keep present realities in my eye and not get clouded by ancient dust.
AND YOU? WHAT’S YOUR EXTRA OR DREAM ROOM LIKE?
The six-year-old granddaughter asked what a heart attack was which got us talking about the function of the heart to pump blood to every part of the body. To illustrate, I showed her the veins on my hand. They’re raised and bluish and easy to see. Then we looked at her hand where there are vein-lines too, but narrow and deep under smooth skin, barely visible.
“Mine aren’t __” she began, and I could tell she was searching for a word that meant hers were better without saying so exactly. “Sticking out as much,” I supplied.
Attraction has a hierarchy when it comes to hands: young beats old. The girl’s hands are so perfectly contained and formed, so perfectly new, so clearly superior. They aroused wistfulness in me.
I remembered something, though, a couple of lines from George Orwell’s 1984 that I once copied into my notebook of quotes. Just before arrest, Winston has a moment of insight about the old washerwoman he sees in the yard below. Never before had it occurred to him that her work-rough turnip-like body could be beautiful:
“But it was so, and…why not? [Her] body…bore the same relation to the body of a girl as the rose-hip to the rose. Why should the fruit be held inferior to the flower?”