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!

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.

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.

Three views of an oak

ScanI 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!)

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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.Scan

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.

No apology for jelly

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.

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Jelly Shelf, Mary Pratt, 1999

 

 

 

 

On pilgrimage

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.

 

Flower in a vase

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.

  

Today my aging slips along, almost unnoticed

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.