Fruit and flower

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?”

Blue

Monday this week I visited a writer friend on Pender Island. I felt like a kid, I was so excited, first anticipating the day, then living it. (Interesting, how one associates excitement with being young.) She’s from Winnipeg, so we exclaimed a few times about two long-time Manitobans ending up near mountain and sea. We discussed what we’re working on, encouraged one another to persist. The weather was perfect. To top it all off, Monday to Thursday, seniors ride B.C. Ferries free. Friend and free makes for an all-round pretty good day.

But speaking of water. Yes, at this relatively late stage I find myself re-located near water. Vast water, I mean, with a rhythm of its own via tides, constant intimations of ocean far beyond measure or reach, the taste of salt on my finger a reminder of what I’m on the border of. H. and I often sit on a log at Boundary Bay, staring out at it. I feel like a tourist in the presence of such water. Two hours on the ferry each way, and I kept looking up from my book to take it in, the shining blue of sea, the pale blue of sky, the dark blue of land on distant horizons. It’s so beautiful, so blue, I thought, but I can’t find words to describe the blue or what it means. I’m still a stranger to it. And alongside the awe, I’m homesick for the prairies, my earliest and longest geography, where the bulk of my history is set.

I give myself a talking-to: “Check your nostalgia. The sum of aging is change. Stay patient. Stay open to the stories and meaning (for you) of this blue.”

…consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself? (Herman Melville)

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.

AGE_0848

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.

AGE_0883

photo by Al Doerksen