Conscious Aging: “Anam Cara”

“Anam cara” is a new Irish phrase to me; it means, roughly, “soul friend”. The phrase is one I haven’t heard before, but I know the spirit of “soul friend” very well.

My late husband Jerry and I knew R. back in Rochester, at a much earlier and more turbulent time in her life. There’s quite an age difference; I’m 35 years older than she, Jerry would have been 38 years older. Jerry and I were kind to R., not in any earth-shaking sort of way but in the way that most of us are to a younger person going through a rocky time. I’d say we held out a steadying hand, offered a listening ear, gave quiet words of encouragement and support.

R. is a delightful young women, worth any amount of effort anyone might want to extend.

She was here in Seattle for work, and looked me up after all this time. Life goes forward, barely pauses, sometimes seems to gallop ahead. The choice to stop, turn, say “thank you” is deliberate, rare, all the more touching and precious because it often doesn’t happen.

R. and I spent a wonderful evening over wine and dinner. She has blossomed since that hard period in her life. Indeed, listening, I thought of the film I recently saw, “A Star is Born”. R. always was a star, albeit a bit obscured by the dust and debris of her early life. But now she has blossomed. She has a wonderful job, and three excellent offers at hand should she want to make a change. She owns a home. She has people who love her, and whom she loves in return. She is bold, and adventuresome, and competent, and daring. She wants to make a difference in the world.

She paused to stop, look back, and say “thank you” for whatever part Jerry and I played in her getting from then to now. The phrase she used was “anam cara”, soul friend.

I am touched, and blessed, and grateful.

Conscious Aging: Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

I went to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame some years ago, when I was speaking at a conference in Cleveland. I loved it, and spent something like 5 hours there — more than twice the time I usually spend in a museum of any kind. “Rock and roll” to me, means names from the past like Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Richie Valens, The Big Bopper, Elvis, Aretha Franklin, Roy Orbison, the Supremes, the Beach Boys, the Beatles. More recently it means Joan Baez, who was inducted in 2017. I think of Baez as a folk musician not a rock and roll singer, but hey…

How do I know I’m old and completely out of touch with contemporary music? Here are the names of the current inductees, courtesy of the 538 Significant Digits newsletter:

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, that bastion of cultural relevance, announced its 2019 nominees for induction yesterday. They are The Cure, Def Leppard, Devo, Janet Jackson, John Prine, Kraftwerk, LL Cool J, MC5, Radiohead, Rage Against the Machine, Roxy Music, Rufus & Chaka Khan, Stevie Nicks, Todd Rundgren and The Zombies.”

I recognize Janet Jackson’s name because I’m old enough to remember the Jackson Five, and of course Michael — the most famous Jackson. I also am vaguely aware the Janet had some sort of boob-exposing wardrobe malfunction while singing at a Super Bowl. I know LL Cool J from NCIS Los Angeles, but I have no sense of his work as a hip hop artist. I recognize the name Chaka Khan, but can’t tell you a thing about her. The rest of the names on the inductee list are a complete mystery to me.

I know the music of a lot of the old names, but nothing about what got the current group into the Hall of Fame. My obliviousness is a measure of something, to be sure. Radiohead? Rage Against the Machine? Not a clue.

Conscious Aging: “All Ye Who Passed Through Camp Crozier”

Puerto Rico’s Camp David Crozier, now defunct, was a main training site for early Peace Corps volunteers who went to posts in various parts of the world: Peru, Ethiopia, Costa Rica, and of course Panama. Later on, they shifted training to the country to which you were assigned. I’ve written about Camp Crozier, and so my blog turns up if someone does a word search. Not all of you read the Comments section, but I’ve just had an inquiry from a woman who runs a website dedicated to returned PCV’s who write. She was at Camp Crozier a few years before I was, on her way to Africa. She did a Google search, and found me.

Of course I responded, although we haven’t connected yet. Having shared Camp Crozier, albeit not at the same time, creates a bond.

Reaching the age of 73 means I’ve had lots of experiences, and they fall into more or less dominant places in the hierarchy of memory.  The entire Peace Corps experience from beginning to end was two years of service plus three months upfront training. I shared a rustic cabin filled with other young single female volunteers at Camp Crozier. All of us who survived the rigorous selection — or de-selection — headed to Panama. Twenty seven months isn’t a long in time. I’ve been a parent for much longer, a sister since I was born, a wife for 32 years. But the Peace Corps experience is a huge part of my life, especially with the return to Panama and my re-engagement with Minga and her family, Gloria and her family, that began ten years ago.

By simply using the words “Camp Crozier”, the woman who contacted me guaranteed a response.

The Panama experience at the time of my Peace Corps service was embedded in memory simply because it was so hard. The experience of the last ten years, when I returned, is embedded in memory because it has been so richly human.

I’m lucky indeed to be a Camp Crozier alum.

 

Conscious Aging: Who Goes to Church?

When I was growing up, everybody went somewhere. Our parish church, St. Stephen’s, was across the street from a Presbyterian church. The Episcopal church was farther down Kearny Avenue. The Jewish kids went to a synagogue that on my last nostalgic swing through Kearny had become an evangelical hispanic congregation.

Jerry and I decided to raise our kids without a formal religious affiliation, and sort of by default our social circle was made up of other families who were also non-affiliated, often Catholic-Jewish mixed marriages like ours. We sent the kids to private school, in part because the Rochester City Schools were so underperforming and in part because private schools focus on secular traditions that somewhat replaced religious ones in our lives.

The religions in which we were each raised — Catholicism and Judaism — lost both Jerry and me in early adulthood. Religion never even got started with our kids.

The Catholic Church seems suddenly aware that it is losing the young, and not just over the pedophilia scandal. Young people, even in traditionally majority Catholic countries like Italy, find the Catholic Church boring and out of date.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/the-vatican-worries-the-church-is-losing-the-young–and-abuse-is-just-one-factor/2018/10/02/e7076d8c-c0e9-11e8-9f4f-a1b7af255aa5_story.html?utm_term=.c4fd11912cb4

There is a youth synod in Panama the first week that I’ll be there in January; the Pope will lead the experience. I think a lot of Panamanian kids will show up and kids from all over Central America, for nostalgia reasons if nothing more, and because the South American Pope Francis is popular. But on the few occasions that I’ve gone to the parish church in Rio Hato, there aren’t a lot of young people, or men. Churchgoing is mostly a women’s thing. They all baptize their babies in Catholic rituals, at least the ones who are not Evangelical, but I’m not sure where religious observance goes after that.

The world is changing in lots of ways. Global culture will be different, in ways hard to imagine, when churchgoing is most typically a thing of the past.

Conscious Aging: Doing the Atlantic Crossword Puzzle

I have a reasonably good vocabulary, in part thanks to Mrs. Eva Temiersma at Kearny High School who made us do 30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary in order to get an A in English class. That, and I’m a voracious reader and always have been. Even with a good vocabulary, I’ve never been very good at crossword puzzles. I lack the patience to try to figure things out. If I don’t recognize the word immediately, I move on in frustration — zipping through the clues faster and faster then ultimately deciding I’m not good at crossword.

The book I keep mentioning, Life Reimagined, encourages the tackling of new skills, and presses the case that the measure should be getting better, not absolute performance. With that in mind, I decided to tackle the new daily Atlantic Crossword Puzzle, which arrives online. This crossword is much shorter than the vaunted and difficult New York Times crossword, which makes it seem do-able. Like the Times, the Atlantic crossword is easiest on Monday and gets harder by the day. I don’t know if you need to subscribe to gain access but here’s the link. Says “free”, so maybe can access without subscribing.

https://www.theatlantic.com/free-daily-crossword-puzzle/

I’ve had uneven results. One day I got all 12 words correct in a reasonable amount of time — yes, the puzzle is timed and the timer starts when you open up that day’s challenge. The next day I got 1 of 18 — that was a bit discouraging.

But I’m liking the idea that relative improvement, not absolute performance, is a reasonable goal. On the day I got 12 out of 12, I initially didn’t recognize most of the clues. But I got one word, and then another, and then … that’s how successful crossword puzzlers work, and for that day at least, I was one of them.

Conscious Aging: Thinking about Vulnerability

I definitely need a new construct for thinking about the vulnerabilities of aging. Right now it feels as if I’m walking through a heavily wooded forest. Trees are falling with a thud around me, not on me yet, but I know my luck won’t indefinitely hold.

That’s a bad way to anticipate the future. I know it, and so says the book I’m reading by Barbara Bradley Hagerty, Life Re-Imagined. Hagerty has a Christian Science background so she’s very big into how the way we think affects everything, including our health. But she backs up her learned predilection with neutral science.

The trees falling are the number of people dear to me who have died recently, or are coping with really serious, life-threatening illness.

I recall my mother dealing with this when she moved into an independent living facility. She was part of the “croak patrol”, a committee whose members went to check on a resident who hadn’t been seen for a day or two. Margaret was often funny when she didn’t intend to be. I asked her if service on this particular committee wasn’t a bit depressing, as they often found the missing resident dead or nearly so. She looked at me with annoyance. “It’s not depressing if it isn’t me.”

A college friend my age says she thinks of it as simply random bad luck, not connected with age. But surely there is more of “it”, however we conceptualize the vulnerability of people in our age cohort, than there was earlier on?

I read a lot, so I know much of the literature around ” aging with grace” and accepting that life doesn’t go on forever and yadda yadda yadda. I have wonderful exemplars — Minga — of doing just that under very difficult conditions.

But I’m still hearing those thuds as I walk along my life path, and I need a different way to think about them. Your thoughts are welcome.

Sexual Assault: Do You Tell?

Will Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s experience before the Senate Judiciary Committee encourage more women to come forward, or confirm that doing so carries too great a cost? We’ll have to see.

There is an article in the Washington Post about a woman raped by a college classmate who told the classmate’s girlfriend at the time. The girlfriend believed him that the sex was consensual, and ended the friendship. Now, in the aftermath of the Judiciary Committee hearing, the article’s author, Beth Jacob, went on Google and found her rapist — and his wife. He has, it looks like from Google, led a decent adult life. His wife may have no knowledge of his sexual aggression in college. They have children. Jacob thought about contacting him — and his wife — and decided against it. The additional damage to be done seemed to have no point.

ttps://www.washingtonpost.com/news/posteverything/wp/2018/09/28/feature/i-considered-exposing-my-rapist-then-i-thought-about-his-wife/?utm_term=.314e93b0729f

I read the Comments about the piece, which of course vary widely. I think it’s a hard issue.

I was assaulted by an uncle not long after my father died. Not raped, but I woke up to find his hands on my breasts and his tongue in my mouth. I was a pretty naive fourteen year old; I had no idea what the tongue thrusting down my throat even was. I didn’t cry out — I have no idea why. I was frozen, startled. I remember thinking, “This is what it means that my father is dead. [The uncle] would never have done this before.” The family had stayed with us many times.

After he left my bedroom I ran into my mother’s room. To her credit, she made them leave the next day. My uncle protested to her that he had heard me crying and went into comfort me — a flat out lie. My aunt said I must have misunderstood.

The event created distance between our families. By the time I left for college I lost touch entirely with my uncle and his family — two boys with whom I’d played as children but didn’t know as adults at all. Years later, my mother told me that one cousin and his wife were new parents of a little girl. I froze, thinking, “Uncle X can’t be left alone with that child.” I struggled over whether to get in touch with my cousin, to tell him about my experience and urge that he protect his daughter from her grandfather. I would have been, essentially, a stranger out of the blue. I thought my aunt, the child’s grandmother, had more responsibility than I. Whatever she said at the time of my assault, I believed she knew of her husband’s proclivities. In the end I said nothing.

I’ll never be sure I did the right thing.

Conscious Aging: “Not Up to It”

I’ve recently been in touch with a college friend about the Kavanaugh hearings. She and I don’t see each other often or even email, but when we are together we slip right back in to the easy camaraderie of our college years. I admire her tremendously. She’s had huge professional success, and is one of the most can-do people I know. She’s adventuresome, generous in spirit, incredibly smart and observant, eager and a risk taker and filled with a zest for life. Her motto, which comes up under her signature on email, is “Anything worth doing is worth over-doing.” That’s her in a nutshell.

She shared with me that two weeks ago she had a double mastectomy, and that she will have further treatment, as yet unspecified. There is an upcoming event in October that she had planned to attend. Now, she writes, “I realize I’m not going to be up to it.”

I’ve never heard those words from her, and they startled me.

Of course she isn’t going to be up to it — that’s not the issue. A double mastectomy is a huge deal on every level. Recovery takes a long time, more than from this month into the next, especially when further treatment is in the offing.

I think what startled me is that “being up for it” is so fundamental to my experience of this person. Her double mastectomy and the aftermath — older bodies and spirits take longer to heal — remind me yet again that we are all, even my indestructible friend, getting old.

Conscious Aging: The U-Shaped Curve of Happiness

That happiness is a measure of a good life may be a particularly American conceit, but we do use happiness as one indicator of well-being at various stages of life. Two friends and I are meeting monthly to talk about aging, and one of us recommended a book that we all agreed to read. The book, Life ReImagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife, is actually targeted toward a younger demographic than I or my friends. But I’m enjoying the book a lot, and think it applies to people in our 70’s as well.

The book mentions happiness as having a U-shaped curve. We seem to be happier in our 20’s, when everything seems possible and many of us aren’t too burdened with obligations. Happiness takes a hit when we are in our 40’s — under peak job stress, dealing with family issues at both ends of the life spectrum, wondering “is this all there is?” Happiness begins to rise again around 60, and increases as we grow older.

I didn’t know about the U-shaped curve when I was in my 40’s, but would probably have found it affirming of the multiple challenges I was facing during those years. But I’m reflective about happiness supposedly being on the upswing now.

I get the point that this stage of life offers me much more control over my day. I’m retired, and I have enough financial security so that I don’t worry all the time about making ends meet. What I tried to accomplish in terms of career, and family, and skill building is pretty much “in the can”, as they used to say about films in a pre-digital era. It’s not that I don’t learn new skills now — gardening is one, and swapping out a malfunctioning smoke alarm is another — but I no longer agonize over combining new skills to reach a higher career peak. What I’ve done, I’ve done. In addition to that, I’m more discerning about relationships, much less willing to give time to difficult ones that I think I ought to try to save. I’m much freer to do things I enjoy with people who add love and grace to my life, and to skip things and people that don’t.

In all of those ways, I do think my happiness — or at least contentment — is on an upward curve. But I don’t want to make light of the very hard decisions that come to the fore in older age. When is it time to give up single living and move into a retirement community — not too soon, not too late. How do I want to modify my health care directives to take into account situations that I’ve only recently thought about, because of experiences of people I’ve loved and lost. What if I’m in such excruciating pain that I’m robbed of being the person I want to be? What if I slide into dementia and forget how to eat. Do I want to be fed, or not?

Fortunately for me, all of these are future dilemmas, not current. My life at the moment is good, in all respects. I can say that I’m quite happy. It’s a fragile reed at my age, this happiness, capable of changing in a flash, as my friend Ada reminds me. I suppose that’s true at any stage of life, but I’m more acutely aware of it now.

Still reflecting ….