Writing a mission statement

Last Saturday I found a quiet corner at the library and sat down with a pen and pad of paper to work on a personal mission statement.

I last did this 13 or 14 years ago while employed in editorial roles at our national denominational magazine. I taped the three phrases that I eventually distilled as a mission statement along the bottom of my computer. I often fell short of their ideals, of course, but they reminded me what I wanted to do and be in that place.

Although my core values haven’t really changed, my stage of life certainly has. I still write, but part-time, self-directed, and at home. My husband is retired and has health challenges. I have nine grandchildren. I’m 69.

Writing a mission statement is a process. There are helpful tools online — questions to ask about who I admire or might emulate, past successes, priorities and goals, contributions I can make. I recall that when I first did this exercise (probably after reading Steven Covey’s The Seven Habits), even before the one at my job, I was juggling writing projects with attention to the kids and household. Then I looked at women considerably older than me as models. Now I’m looking at women about my age or slightly older for examples of both positive aging and contribution. (For one, this shout-out to someone I know mainly through her blog: Sue Steiner. At 70, she began a blog to mark the year, planning 70, though well beyond that now, and each a gem that ends with questions for reflection.)

My statement isn’t formulated yet, but I did my pages of notes and reflections. A number of words have floated out of them for further rumination.Scan

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.

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

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.