Death cleaning

I forget why I ordered The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning from the library. Why did I need Margareta Magnusson’s advice on de-cluttering when we already did our drastic clean-up, moving cross-country and into an apartment? But I suppose it’s like perusing reviews of books you’ve already read or plays and concerts you’ve already attended: was it the same for you as me? And there it was, arrived to the Holds shelf, and since it’s short, interesting, and funny, I read it immediately, in about an hour.

download (2)Magnusson, now “between eighty and one hundred,” moved often and cleaned up her parents’ place as well as the family home after her husband’s death. Her ideas resonate with current de-cluttering messages from tidy-gurus like Marie Kondo, but this isn’t about folding T-shirts as much as sparing the kids. (“Let me help make your loved ones’ memories of you nice — instead of awful.”) Well, yes, why not spare the kids? I don’t know if it’s certain personalities or my generation in particular, but we definitely don’t want to be a bother or a burden!

And it’s about getting started, since we’re older and slower and it all takes time. (Her place took a year.) So, clothing first, photos and letters and personal papers last, lest one get stuck in reminiscence and never clean up anything else. And drop expectations that that thing you really treasure will be wanted by children or grandchildren. Just find someone else for it.

“Aging is certainly not for weaklings,” Magnusson writes, but she makes it sound cheerful and a pleasure and she has some great ideas, so I’m glad I read her book, even if I can’t remember why I thought I should.

Inner dialogue on the skytrain

The skytrain into Vancouver wasn’t crowded Saturday, but there were no empty seats. I stood and held a handrail. Across from me were four occupied seats marked for disabled and senior riders. Two people sitting there qualified, two others were young women completely lost in their phones. One looked glum, one smiled at what she watched, but neither looked up. Not once.

Me (thinking): I want to tap the knee of the happily oblivious one, point to the sign, point to myself.

Me (countering): Are you having any trouble standing? Are you frail or unsteady or tired at the moment?

Me: No. But the principle of the thing, and well, sitting beats standing.

Me: Over and over again, people — including young people — offer me seats, hold doors, usher me ahead. So it’s not like this is a continuing pattern I need to crusade against today.

Me: True. Young people here are astonishingly nice. So why is this bothering me?

Me: Feels like my right…

The senior got off, so I sat down between Happy and Glum. I kept my eyes open at stops for another older person, still itching to tap a knee. No such person appeared for the benefit of this possible instruction. Happy and Glum got off. Next stop, I exited too. I felt energetic enough to run up the escalator. I was strangely pleased I hadn’t made a fuss. If I’d been shaky or whatever, a tap or”excuse me” would be appropriate, but really, do I want to barrel my way through the rest of life flashing my rights? No.

But why, I thought ruefully, had I indulged this long internal argument? I might be aging, but sometimes I’m still entirely too ungrown-up inside.

Much changes, much remains the same

I was walking along the sidewalk today when I passed an older woman pushing a walker. On the seat of the walker lay a bouquet of fresh flowers. This made me think of paintings and photos I’ve seen of girls on bicycles, carrying flowers in the baskets, images that to me represent the epitome of youthfulness. So much changes, I thought, yet much remains the same. In this case, flowers! For some reason, this made me very happy.

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Girl on Bike by Oana Befort

It’s two weeks since I posted here, and I’m that much older, and I’ve been busier than usual, but what I feel at the moment is gratitude. My husband’s cancer isn’t better but it’s not exactly worse either; it seems a manageable plateau for now and he’s back volunteering at Habitat for Humanity once a week, which he’d missed. And we had snow, our first of the winter, which was beautiful and our grandchildren were ecstatic and we didn’t have to drive in it or shovel, so what wasn’t to like? Plus there’s the good news from a publisher I hinted at the other day. I’m thrilled that Turnstone Press, who did such a wonderful job of my previous book (short story collection, What You Get At Home), will publish my current novel manuscript this fall. I’ll share more details as time goes on. Sometimes (usually evenings) I wonder if I’ll have the energy for what this involves, but as thy days, so thy strength, and besides, both bicycles and walkers carry flowers.

About letters

Lately I’ve been thinking about letters, because we’ve been reading them. Husband H. worked his way through a small pile his mother saved, returned to us after her death: letters he’d written as a young man newly immigrated to Canada from Paraguay and letters from the both of us after we married. He’d look up now and then to share bits of what we’d written, especially the antics and achievements of our kids (which we assumed a grandmother would want to hear). I was absorbed in Margaret Laurence & Jack McClelland Letters, some 27 years of correspondence between the well-known Canadian author and her publisher, eavesdropping on their relationship as it were, watching formal beginnings turn into affectionate — and frank — friendship. (Margaret Laurence is one of my literary heroes.)9781772123357

By-gone letters pull us intimately into the moment of their writing and thus seem truer than memories. From a particular someone to a particular someone else, they’re deeply revealing of relationships. They’re wonderful, really, if you have still some to read.

IMG_7207Which brings me to a bit of rue. Some months ago, in one of my periodic attempts to reduce accumulation, I came across a large envelope of 1970s letters from my parents. Here their warm and chatty voices, the vitality of their early fifties (which had seemed ancient to me then.) Mom’s handwriting sprawled out the broad strokes of happenings. Dad typed when he wrote and said a great deal more. I re-read them with pleasure, made a few notes, plucked out samples, and shredded the rest. Then, Oh dear. Should I have just done that? I felt I’d obliterated my parents in some way, silenced this connection.

Well, I found another packet of letters, and now I see I still have dozens of their letters from the 1980s and 90s. So they’re not quite silenced yet. The dilemma of papers remains, however.

By letters I’m talking of course about the kind that used to come and go by post, and I suppose now would be the time in this post to act really elderly and bewail the fact that few, including me, still write such letters. But I won’t, because I’m actually not that bothered by it, and besides, we’re still communicating nowadays, in many other ways, and if my children and grandchildren don’t have inked-on-paper artifacts to access the past, they’ll figure out what they need and find it, retrieving from the Cloud I suppose, which they understand and I don’t. Plus they won’t have to worry over to shred or not to shred.

Smarties

Today at our “North of 60” gathering we played the Smarties game. Everyone picked one Smartie out of a bowl. A list of questions that corresponded to the colours was then posted on the wall. Questions like: What was your first job? How did you meet your spouse? What are the most difficult and most rewarding things about aging? How have you seen God at work this past year? What are your favourite things to do in winter? 

img_7205We were 27 women so there were lots of answers, lots of stories. Sadness appeared in some of them but we laughed a lot too. It was fun. And everyone seemed eager to participate. Why not? Past 60, there’s hardly a shortage of stories and sadness and laughter. And if others are willing to listen, well that’s a bonus.

 

A report about my birthday

“Chronicles” assumes a report about birthdays. I celebrated mine last week. The weather here was a balmy 9 degrees so we had a pleasant walk along the Boundary Bay dyke (eagle spotting is one of my husband’s favourite activities) and greetings popped into my email box and phone and Facebook feed all day and there were phone calls with a son, daughter, sisters, my mother, a friend, and just the day before I’d received some good news from a publisher (which I’ll say more about later), so I was buoyant and grateful and contented and feeling very much loved. (Love has an agelessness about it that’s especially welcome on birthdays.) Later we enjoyed a delicious roast beef dinner and cake with our Tsawwassen children and grands at their house, followed by a lively game of Apples to Apples. A couple days later H. and I went out for a belated birthday dinner of our own and I had a dish of chicken livers which in addition to the conversation was simply perfect. The card drawn for me by a granddaughter demonstrates that 69 candles requires a rather large and multi-levelled cake, but I quite like the number, actually, with its multiple triads/trinities. And that was the birthday, happy and tucked in for another year.scan

Not on the tip of your tongue

I intended to write today about words I’ve been losing (though eventually finding), like “omelet” and “dominoes”. The author of “5 tips to tame word-finding difficulties” says losing words happens to everyone, though increases with age. Does it ever!

Then I came upon Billy Collins’ poem “Forgetfulness”, which describes the phenomenon so perfectly! Here, from the Poetry Foundation, where you can also listen to it, “Forgetfulness.”

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,

and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,
something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue
or even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall

well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

Intergenerational skating

 

We spent Christmas week in Toronto with second Son and his family, and Daughter joined us a few days too. We had a wonderful time.

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I made these paperclip-and-felt skates at Pioneer Girls more than 55 years ago; they hang on the Christmas tree every year.

One afternoon, the agenda included skating. How many years had it been since last I skated? Twenty? I practically grew up on skates but this gradually faded from my adult life, perhaps because my husband comes from Paraguay and had not learned to skate.

The rented skates weren’t perfectly straight and I was wobbly at first but slowly I gained my skating legs, and there we were, representatives of three generations rounding an outdoor Toronto rink, snow falling lightly, the air perfectly crisp but not too cold. Every circle I took enlarged the happiness in me, this lovely activity in the lovely winter air like a breeze tugging me back to hours skating on a rink just like this one in a small Alberta town, round and round and round, perfecting my strokes and crossovers and stops and everything else.

“Hey, look, Mom can skate backwards!” Son called, as if he could hardly believe it. Then I watched him circle and power about and honestly, I was amazed at his prowess. And I found myself repeatedly praising the eight-year-old because of how much she’s advanced in her skating skills.

And so it goes, I thought, when families get together: we’re mutually astonished. That the old can still manage this or that, that adult children who just yesterday were learning (and needed help, right?) are so incredibly competent, that the little ones are bounding up behind us. It’s as if we really can’t believe any of it.

 

Minimalism and who CBC didn’t mention

It was pouring yesterday as I drove into Vancouver to visit our daughter. Traffic was thick and very slow so I had time to listen to an entire segment of CBC’s “The Current”: a panel on minimalism.

One guest, who rid himself of stuff to travel, said it allowed focus on what matters most. Another’s experience is the title of her book, The Year of Less: How I Stopped Shopping, Gave Away My Belongings, and Discovered Life Is Worth More Than Anything You Can Buy in a Store. A critic declared the pressure of the trendy minimalist lifestyle “oppressive,” even “arrogant.” Between the frantic beat of the windshield wipers I nodded to it all.

What the segment totally missed, however, was an entire swath of people going minimalist by necessity. Sure, many olders stay in their homes for decades and never reduce. But one fine day they or their children have to face the facts of their stuff. Bags and bags of it arrive at thrift stores.

Since we downsized into an apartment from a house and moved across country to boot, we tackled minimizing earlier than many peers. It was exhilarating. Not until objects are gone do you realize their psychic weight. It was also painful. We memorialized some objects in photos. I listed books sold or donated, as if a list could substitute for words on a shelf. I commiserated with my husband in the middle of a lifetime of tools and materials in his workshop, nearly paralyzed it seemed by their impending loss.

The resulting minimalism is neither oppressive nor arrogant, though we felt too virtuous perhaps at sparing our children the work. It is about what matters, but also what’s still possible. It’s freeing but complicated. Instead of trendy, it’s a sobering exit strategy.

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Stuff left behind

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Stuff brought along (to display)

P.S. I’m taking a break from this blog for Christmas. Back in January! Wishing all a blessed holiday and happy new year.

The arc of mortality

I spent the opening hours of this day watching the memorial for 41st U.S. president George H.W. Bush. I saw a nation celebrate a former leader but also aging children (of my generation) seeing off an elderly parent.

This is a common experience for those of us whose parents live long: we share their passage through decline to death even as we glimpse or enter our own “later years.” We begin to look back and it tangles with some new and perhaps urgent need to “come to terms with” these parents — who they were, who they’re becoming. (Or un-becoming.)

download (4)Just last night I finished one such story, wonderfully told by Elizabeth Hay in her award-winning All Things Consoled. I heard Hay at the Vancouver Writers’ Festival this fall and knew her book, whose “arc,” she said, “is mortality,” would resonate. The details, the personalities, are hers specifically and yet, reading it, so much belonged also to me, an oldest daughter who was nearest, thus point person and witness to the parents’ increasing frailty and dementia. Yes, and yes, to the sense of responsibility, longing, ambivalence, sweet moments, humour, and toll of a lengthy leaving that she describes.

The arc of mortality implicates not only parent and child but every relationship in the family. I chatted with Hay after her talk and since she’d mentioned siblings, related that my two sisters, knowing we yearned to live closer to our children after my husband retired but wouldn’t leave Winnipeg while Mom was alive, told me it was their turn now. I said that we relocated Mom to a nursing home in Saskatchewan, the sisters took the role of Nearest-to, we moved to B.C. ScanI was touched, then, at Hay’s inscription in my copy of her book: For Dora, who is lucky in her sisters…. Yes I am.

And I heartily recommend the book!