What should I do with my life?

“What should I do with my life?” Mom, who’s 96 and frail, who has significant cognitive loss, asked this question of my brother Al three times when he recently visited her at her Saskatchewan nursing home.

I had to smile. How often I heard similar questions when we lived near one another in Winnipeg. “What do I do now? I need to plan for my future.” This at 92. I would smile then too and say something about not needing to do anything, you can rest now, you’ve done enough. In other words, I dismissed what she was asking instead of taking it seriously.

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Tina Doerksen, photo by Al Doerksen

I was gently corrected about all this, however, that same year, by Gerhard Friesen, who’d worked for many years as a chaplain to seniors and was thus a good interpreter of them. Older people, he told me, often have unfinished business. Many women, he went on, have felt unfinished in their development or giftedness and when the mind gets weaker, this comes to the fore. It emerges as “what should I do?”

This surely fits my mother’s generation of women, but I submit that perhaps it’s true for all of us as we age. I often ask myself versions of it. I think it’s our sense while alive that we’re never quite finished. Simply being human involves poking about and moving forward from “what should I do with my life?” As Victor Frankl put it, it’s not life that answers to us but we who answer to life.

My brother’s response when Mom asked? “Say something nice to someone each day!” I think that’s as good as it gets. And, if you’re interested in how GF worked at this with Mom, please see the Addendum below. (Because I’m at my self-imposed limit of 300 words per post!)

 

ADDENDUM:

The following is taken from my 2014 journal, set down as closely as I could recall afterwards. The story begins with Mom telling me that she’d talked with Victor Adrian (a Mennonite educator), though I knew she meant Gerhard Friesen, who led a weekly Bible study with some nursing home residents, and when I supplied his name, it was, oh yes, yes. I gathered they’d talked about her “purpose” and something about reading. She pointed at one of her theological books, a kind of overview of the Bible or doctrine by R.A. Torrey, I think it was. Later GF and I had a phone conversation about this and he filled in the gaps. She’d been pressing him with questions similar to the ones she’d been asking me: what to do now, what about her future? When he came to her room in response to her repeated entreaties, she immediately said, “I’d like to know where I am in my studies.” He had to think on his feet, he said, but this was a clue to ask about her education. High school: had she finished? Yes. College? Yes, she’d done some studies at Bible college and also graduated from teacher’s college. An “info chart” about her life on the wall of her room verified this information. He noticed she had books in the room. Or maybe she pointed them out, the culled favourites of those collected earlier. She loved to read. So GF encouraged — no, I would say, he blessed and instructed — her to read in her theological books. Torrey seems completely “old-fashioned” by now, at least to me, but he was an important figure in the education of my parents, and Gerhard knew that so he encouraged her to re-read it and see if it brought back what she learned at college. It would “refresh” her. The advice and interaction seemed to satisfy her.

GF and I talked about Mom having been a minister’s wife, beside but also behind him, as it were. He wondered if maybe she felt her gifts hadn’t been used enough. I can recall that we children sometimes remarked, in reference to some little “talk” Mom had given somewhere, that she was a better preacher than our father.

I’m still moved by the insight GF gave me that day, to affirm my mother’s gifts, to recognize the key “bent” of her being, her deep love of reading (yes, how proud she has always been that she’s a reader!), no matter the limitations of her latter years. I’m moved that he urged her to fill it up, even in her 90s. I hope, if it comes so far, someone does the same for me.

Same as always

It’s Wednesday again and I’ve been thinking about my sense of continuity, as if I’ve remained the same within, regardless of years piling up. Others tell me they experience this too.

While walking one evening last week I suddenly realized I was intensely happy. Full of joy. There was nothing unusual about the evening, no change in my husband’s illness, just my legs carrying me along, and the sky blue and decorated with clouds, and roadside flowers — especially poppies — in abundance. I gathered a thick handful of grasses and blooms, enough for two bouquets. IMG_0102I can’t manufacture moments like this, they come unbidden now and then, have done so as far back as I remember. (Which isn’t to say there aren’t habits one can cultivate for a “regular” joyful life.) They seem to rise from existence itself, from a momentary and holy forgetting of every other fact or circumstance. They seem completely unattached to age. For example, I could say the joy of that evening felt like young to me, but that wouldn’t be accurate enough because as a child I might have labelled a similar awareness older, or possibly profound, which I would have judged as older and better than others believed I was. In other words, in the self where life seems known most deeply, age mixes and plays or simply disappears.

Yesterday, in a tiny plaza in Vancouver I saw hanging umbrellas, and their protective and humorous shape and colours — the whole notion of umbrellas with their capacity to fold and unfold — offered a visual for joy and the continuity I’m trying to articulate. My brother, whose retirement passion is street photography, captured it, neither young nor old nor in between but something like the same as always.

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photo by Al Doerksen

Ageism in publishing

I’ve been thinking about an article posted by a Facebook friend: “The route to literary success: be young, gifted but most of all gorgeous.” The same friend quoted from the Quill and Quire: “Ageism is a dirty little secret in the Canadian publishing world. I know at least a couple of people who generated a great deal of interest from publishers until the acquiring editor asked…how old they were.”

As a writer with a novel manuscript that’s good to go, this gave me pause. One has to work awfully hard on the gifted side of things nowadays, competing in a sea of enormously talented writers, but to have to score on young and gorgeous too? For women writers of my ilk, it’s like trying to sit on a three-legged stool with two of the legs missing.

I don’t know how much ageism — specific or subconscious — actually occurs in publishing. But if it’s there — speaking now as a reader not writer — it profoundly misjudges audiences. There are a lot of us keen older readers, for one thing. I recall that events at Winnipeg’s annual literary festival, THIN AIR, which I attended when I lived there, were filled with women, and many, perhaps the majority, were middle-aged or older.

Further, I and older readers of my acquaintance know there are brilliant, beautiful young writers, some with uncanny depth, and we’ll read them with admiration if they satisfy, but it’s the satisfy factor that matters, some essential integrity in the work apart from everything else. We don’t mind if authors are ordinary-looking, men or women, old or even dead, as long as the words they’ve written shine with at least some extraordinary light.

Our new reality

Conversation early this morning:

He: “Today’s your blog day.”

Me: “I don’t know what to write. I feel like I should mention ‘it’ but I don’t really want to. What does it have to do with aging?”

He: “It’s our new reality.”

Right. So if I’m aiming to be specific and personal here, yes, I guess I probably should. Though it’s not a “new reality” as much as “been there before” (though not for more than 15 years by now) and we’re not at all thrilled to be back, because each occurrence is, in its way, new and unknown and this one rather grimmer than the ones before.image

So what’s this “it” I hate to talk about? Husband H. has been diagnosed with a (new) cancer metastasized to the bones. This is, at the moment, the focus of our lives, the context within which we age and look back on our accumulated pasts and forward to an uncertain future.

One of the songs he likes to listen to as he rests is “Day by Day” (“and with each passing moment, strength I find to meet my trials here…”) That’s our new mantra for the new reality of appointments, scans, biopsy, palliation/treatment meds (about which experts are optimistic), resting, and otherwise carrying on with as much normalcy as possible. Day by day…

P.S. The Ireland trip mentioned here cancelled for now.

On the road

Further to Carolyn G. Heilbrun, mentioned last week, and the notion of being a rememberer. I don’t know if finding things in my journal that I’ve completely forgotten counts as memory, but in this way I “remember” I first read Heilbrun’s book, The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty, in August 2002 on the long drive across the prairies from Winnipeg to Calgary to deliver our daughter, our youngest child, to school at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology. It was the hardest “leaving” of my life. I can’t say why I chose to read that book, I was only 52, but maybe it’s because I find it hard to do things at the last minute! 🙂

Anyway, we were on the # 1 highway, the long straight asphalt line of it, and besides the book, I was considering the scope of our journey, the reason for it, and our daughter said, “Technically, I [will] live on this road.” I considered this. Yes, of course, SAIT was on the #1 through Calgary. “I can see it in the distance,” I teased.

This small exchange gives me pleasure when I encounter it now because I know that when we deposited her there and when we left, two in the car rather than three, and parents and daughter weepy with the farewell, we drove back home along the line where she lived, and it was the line of our future and hers, separate but linked, and I can see that we all “survived” it, as parents and children do. I was looking towards sixty as well, perhaps earlier than necessary, but I’m beyond 60 now, and surviving that too. One does, in all kinds of ways.

Carolyn Heilbrun, unmet friend

I’ve read The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty by Carolyn G. Heilbrun twice. I’ve been thinking it may be time to read it again. Heilbrun (1926 – 2003) was an ardent feminist, scholarly, opinionated and unconventional, and that’s what I find compelling in her work, being more timid and conventional myself. She makes me think, makes me agree or disagree, inspires me. “Women catch courage from the women whose lives and writings they read,” she said, “and call the bearer of that courage friend.”

41qphFrXRWL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_By that definition, Heilbrun is what she called an unmet friend. When we first moved to Tsawwassen, for example, I signed up for a couple of Eldercollege courses, six afternoons on Shakespeare’s Richard III, then another round on Sinclair Lewis’ Babbit, and these were fine, they were good, but I recalled Heilbrun saying that rather than dabbling, a course here, a course there, retired people ought to find a “world,” a “work” that “requires strong effort and the evidence of growing proficiency… [the purpose being] to maintain a carefully directed intensity.” I realized I still had a world of work, I wasn’t done with writing yet. That’s where my intensity longed to be.

Heilbrun also said she didn’t want to be a “rememberer.” Memories “can evolve into the ultimate temptation of one’s last decade…to recall grudges, to dwell on ancient wrongs and miseries and betrayals, to allow these memories…to dominate thought and therefore life.” Better to stay in the present, she said, to make friends of the young and not put them off with relishing the past. Unlike Heilbrun, I want to be a rememberer. But since she’s a friend, I’ll listen at least, I’ll consider the caution in her words, try not to put off the youngers in my life.

The voice

Because I’ll be visiting Ireland with our daughter, I searched out Irish writers whom Eleanor Wachtel of “Writers and Company” may have interviewed. I listened to a delightful conversation with Nuala O’Faolain, which led me on to O’Faolain’s memoir, Are You Somebody: The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman. The book is engrossing, and the memory of her physical voice enhanced my experience of her voice in print.

Halfway through the book I googled Nuala O’Faolain about something and was shocked to discover she died in 2008. I tried to believe it through the rest of the book. How was it possible, hadn’t I just heard her speak? I have no trouble reading the words of dead writers, that wasn’t it, but there’s nothing so alive and living, so uniquely another person, it seems to me, as their literal voice. And so I’d believed her alive as I read, though she wasn’t any more, and I felt sad about that and had to adjust to it.

Something similar happened a few days ago when our granddaughter showed me a special storybook her other grandmother, who recently died, had recorded some years ago. Hearing that wonderful, vital-sounding voice again was, as our son puts it, “surreal,” for in it she’s alive. But actually she’s gone, and immediately grief plunks into the space between those two realities.

Most of us dislike our voices when we hear them recorded. We’re not used to hearing them as others do. Then along comes thinning, drying, and loss of flexibility in the aging voice box. But never mind all that, today I feel gratitude for voice, for the livingness in the voices of others and the aliveness of me in mine.

How much does an angel weigh?

We’re home again, now reflecting backwards on our trip to see family and friends in Paraguay. One woman we met there, soon to celebrate her 65th birthday, said she finds herself “meditative” now. I like the word: of, involving, or absorbed in meditation or considered thought. Travel, reunions, aging — all can open us to this state.

I was caught by the following. When you spend two weeks steadily with people you haven’t seen for many years, you hear a great deal. Good stuff like what children and grandchildren are doing, and progress and satisfactions of various kinds, but tough stuff too, involving illness and death, difficult memories, ongoing challenges, fractured relationships.

The_Wounded_Angel_-_Hugo_Simberg“We don’t want to burden you,” one person said after a complicated tale involving the last on the list. I didn’t know how to say that they were the ones who were burdened, but that now we would carry it nevertheless.

During this time I happened to see, in someone’s Facebook status, Hugo Simberg’s beguiling painting, “The Wounded Angel,” and one night, sleeping poorly, a question flung itself around and around my head: “how much does an angel weigh?” There was no answer, just the question, repeating itself. I also found a feather, tiny and perfect, on the verandah, which I picked up as if dropped especially for me. I encountered “wings” (mine and God’s) in the Psalms.

IMG_6864These items aren’t a narrative. I’m setting them side by side because they remind me how much we’ve heard by the time we’re old and how, day by day, we’ve had to carry. How we have to keep learning to carry.

 

 

Not the knees of my youth

Nearly a week after writing last week’s post, I discovered I hadn’t pressed the “publish” button. I’ll blame aging — now a convenient excuse for almost anything.

It also explains why I’m here again, in short order, trying to stay reasonably close to my every-Wednesday Chronicles intention. But also to say that I’ll skip next week’s because we’ll be away again. In Paraguay!

A couple of posts ago I wrote about missing my siblings. I’m not the only one. Husband H. is the youngest of ten and his remaining five siblings all live in the Chaco, Paraguay. The brother next in age celebrates his 50th wedding anniversary next week and another brother reminded by phone that everyone there is getting older and wondered when we would visit.

So, we decided we would. But we didn’t give ourselves much time to prepare. Since it’ll be hot and there’s a fest to attend, a summer dress was a first quick priority. I recorded in my journal how that day went, cartoon style as inspired by Carrie Snyder (though she can draw). To summarize: current dresses in stores too short, current knees on me too wrinkled.

When I muttered aloud what the mirror kept telling me, a young salesperson replied that all knees are like that. Nope, I thought, these are definitely not the knees of my youth!

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One of those weeks

We’re not long back from a week in Toronto with second son, his wife, and three granddaughters, and everything shifts into different categories when away, including thought, so there’s not much of a theme in this post. If anything, it’s the role of grandparenting, key in such visits: enjoying the children, collecting memories, hopefully blessing them too.

IMG_20180316_104221524Theirs is a busy household — the girls are 7, 4, and nearly 2 — and I was reminded of going through those years myself, how relentless the responsibilities of work/house/family, how exhausting it can be. They seemed endless at the time, but they passed of course, a fact we can now haul out as a cheerful platitude! 🙂

Besides walks, reading, a movie, McDonalds, and many wonderful interactions, H. and I “helped”: things like mending wounded stuffies and ruffly dresses (me) or putting up hooks and mudding a wall patch (H). We quite like getting involved in this way and fortunately it’s received as meant, as love. I remember my mother-in-law, in Paraguay, back in the 80s, quietly mending for me while our youngsters tumulted around her. She was the picture of contentment, with us but useful too. Useful and content combine well at this stage.

And one night I had a dream which I actually remembered come morning, rare for me. I’m shy to recount it, but can say it radiated creativity and abundance and all that day it buoyed me, and it buoys me still.

While we were gone, our Tsawwassen daughter-in-law’s mother died. Though expected, the news felt a heavy thud. She was a wonderful woman, only 62. I loved sharing grandchildren with her. Free from pain, yes, wrote d-i-l, but “I think our hearts will hurt forever.”

One of those weeks, in other words, with a whole lot in it.