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.

IMG_5772

Stuff left behind

IMG_5836

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!

In any given moment

On Sunday after church, a friend mentioned this blog and since he’s the kind of person one admits stuff to, I told him that lately I’ve been hesitant to get too vulnerable here. I wondered if it was something about the medium itself and being known by many of my readers versus a journal essay where I’m essentially anonymous. My friend (who blogs here) listened, then quoted Abraham Maslow:

In any given moment we have two options: to step forward into growth or to step back into safety. 

Alright… since I’ve committed to speak of my aging, I’ll step forward with this. Currently I feel as if I’m wrestling with this business of older. It pushes into every role and unsettles it, most particularly the writer role, but really every aspect of life. It’s like all the good and bad of this stage — freedom, envy, discontentment, limitation, gratitude, belovedness, uncertainty — jostles in me simultaneously.

A few pictures: In an exercise inspired by Ignatian spirituality I found myself identifying as a woman in a crowd near Jesus, placing myself in the front to see, because I was too old to be noticed anyway! I was startled at what I’d thought. One night I dreamt I’d signed up for academic courses but panicked because I hadn’t attended classes and would have FAILURE on my record. In another dream I slipped into a deep icy hole by the path and clung to the icy ledge, which began to crack, though I managed to grab a fence and get out before it broke. In yet another dream I was ordained, of all things, without prior examination and by a circle of women!

All muddled and weird in the moment, but here’s to stepping forward… hopefully into growth.

Aren’t we all?

Back in 2007, following a small tea to celebrate my parents’ 60th wedding anniversary, my daughter overheard the following conversation between my mother and one of her sisters at the door. I jotted it into my journal:

Mom: Well, I hope we can do this again.

Her sister: I don’t think so.

Mom: Why not?

Her sister: They say I’m on my way out.

Mom: Aren’t we all?

My mom and her sisters were close but also blunt with each other (as I noted here) so this just-slightly-testy exchange amused my daughter and me. But quite apart from the personalities involved and the additional factor of cognitive loss starting in for both of them at that time, the exchange is a good reminder for me at face value. My mother is still alive, eleven years later, but three of the sisters at the tea, including the one in the conversation, are not. In the past two weeks two of my husband’s cousins died, both of them good people with long good lives (88, and over 90), and also — more startling to me — a friend from my youth group days, just a year older than I am. And as I page about in the same 2007 journal I see “cute” comments from our six-year-old grandson who is now seventeen and just got his drivers’ license! Time flies, as goes the cliche, and death is true and we’re all living our lives in the terminals of these realities.

 

In the aging place on this Wednesday after the Tuesday of Nov. 6

“It is a place of fierce energy,” Florida Scott-Maxwell wrote about being old (in her 1968 book The Measure of My Days). It was a place she had no idea existed until she arrived. Perhaps “passion would be a better word than energy,” she continued, for she was in her 80s and putting her “vivid life” into action meant she was soon “spent.”

I was reminded of these words on the passion of the aging place when I found myself in a conversation about immigrants and asylum seekers in Canada. There I was, arguing passionately — full throttle really — against the politics of resentment and fear I saw in the battle of the U.S. midterm elections but see in this country as well and heard reflected in the conversation.

Obviously a kind of ferocity still inhabits this place of my aging. Should I regret this? Had I imagined that serenity or tranquility or whatever quiet moderation “wisdom” implies would have no room for passion of this sort? I think I can say that a kind of serenity is slowly being won in the place of my aging, but certain lines of opinion remain passionate. I want these to be the lines for love, justice, big tent theology, big tent politics. I had actually come to believe, over my particular lifetime, that the world was heading (struggle notwithstanding) in a more generous direction. I’ve lost optimism on that. I’m not out of hope, but hope itself seems, today at least, necessarily fierce and bristly.

About hair

There are people like fashion editor Anna Wintour, who incidentally is nearly 69 and thus older than I am, who find a “look” for their hair (at 14 in her case) and stick with it the rest of their lives, along with the twice-daily blow dries scheduled to maintain it. download (3)

There are other people, like myself, who are more like flies, who when in want out and when out want in, who may be genuinely fond of their hair but wish it was long when it’s short and… Some of you may know what I mean.

Which probably has more to do with personality than aging except that… remember perms? Back in the day when the afro affected everyone’s style? Even after that, perms stuck around a while and were perfectly okay. Since I’m trying to grow my hair a little longer and it continuously flopped over my forehead and hung limply (the humidity, people say) I figured it could use some body, and then I spotted a photo of me at late 30ish and… well doesn’t she look nice, her hair sitting so thick and full against her collar, the front saying put, all that body. So I booked a perm.

BBush_in_Pearls_sizedOkay, it’s not super tight but I forgot that at late 30ish I was dark-haired. I forgot how much perms pull the whole mass up. Emerging from the chemical fumes, I thought Barbara Bush (minus the pearls) was looking back at me from the mirror. I’ve never met an older woman with a halo of soft white curls I didn’t like but still — confession time — my own inner ageism reacted. I feel I’ve aged myself too much and it bothers me. I wish it didn’t but it does.

 

Same house several ways

I’m noticing that memoir involves two kinds of investigation. One concerns “facts”: research in various sources for context as well as gathering memories. Two concerns meaning. It probes at memory with a present-day eye to patterns, to who I was then and how I was shaped.

For example, on the left, a photo from my father’s slide collection of the house (near Linden, Alberta) where I lived between four and eight, the only photo I have of it but a solid truth. It was the church parsonage, built into a hill, with a garage beneath, and I know from what I was told and from the evidence of church minutes that it was small and inadequate, especially for a large family (four, and then five, children there with two parents).

Since I’ve been trying to see better via sketching, I copied the house. As I looked closely in order to draw it I was delighted to spot the childhood wagon. And I was intrigued by the milk cans on the porch. The milk cans and signs of construction raised questions for which I have no answers. (I believe the house was eventually blue-grey.)

 

 

ScanBut, closing my eyes, remembering deep inside…. What was this place in my young life? What did it “feel like”? That house never seemed small, even if for lack of bedrooms I slept on the sofa. It felt cozy, happy, secure. It had music: huge reels pouring The Messiah into the air or the choir carolling outside at Christmas. It’s where Mom read us books and I got hooked on story. It set my default for beauty in the natural world: rolling prairie and sky. I see and represent that house (using watercolour paints) in simple lines, in joyful colour.

 

Two articles

Today, since my daughter and I are off to Seattle for two days, in a very-mini-substitute for a holiday we’d planned for Ireland last May*, I’m simply sharing two articles that nourished me this week.

First, “Courage through Small Things” by Carol Howard Merritt which follows perfectly on thoughts I shared last Wednesday about watching the news. In the comments to my post, Susan Meredith Fish asked about “strategies” I was trying to be “watchful” (not just “watch”) in the current news environment. I replied that I may take a meditation break to regain calm, “pray” the news, or make myself read for a long stretch (which is wonderful once I get past the early temptation to interrupt myself and check what’s new). And I love Merritt’s advice to find courage through small things. I read her piece on another heavy news day in the Judge Kavanaugh saga. But I did some small and ordinary things that day: made soup for supper, also made bread, and put in a solid couple of hours of writing.

I also liked a post at ChangingAging.org called “What’s Your ‘And’?” by Jeanette Leardi. She draws on a basic principle of improvisation drama to suggest a simple technique for positively improvising our way through our aging stage. Whatever life throws us, finding an “and” to it will help.

 

*Update note. The May trip was cancelled because of my husband’s cancer diagnosis. I’m glad to say that radiation treatments have done him a lot of good, alleviating pain and currently holding the cancer at bay, though we’re not quite ready to re-schedule the special Ireland adventure.

Watching the news

I’ve always been a news junkie. I credit my upbringing. In our family, the daily news was almost sacrosanct.

Today’s news environment, constantly looping, constantly available on internet feeds and cable networks, feels quite different from a once-a-day newscast and/or newspaper, however. What’s also different is that I’m older, thus more flexible time-wise, so when a president’s speech to the U.N. is carried live, or there’s a public hearing involving a Supreme Court nominee and his accuser, I can watch. And usually, I do.

And then, of course, it’s possible to keep checking the endless subsequent punditry and chatter. (I write at the computer.) Because an answer is continuously available, my mind continuously begs “Has anything else happened?”

Trouble is, the news may rivet, but in a week like this one, it affects me too. Disturbs, that is, not reassures.

The obvious solution, which some people seem to manage, is:  turn off completely, just live your “other” life. I’ve been thinking about that. But I’ve concluded that withdrawal is not where I land. I want to keep up. In fact, being older, I feel it something of a duty. I want to keep up because I’m still alive, and because of my grandchildren (since I have enough span by now to evaluate the word “historic” when tossed about for current affairs).

But how does a person live the calm of “watchful” instead of the anxious compulsion of “watching”? I have some strategies on the go but I have to confess, at this point it’s a big challenge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

44 years

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?