Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Cataract surgery -- Rite of passage or speed bump?

Last week I had cataract surgery, a rite of passage, it seems, for people my age. Some might call it and similar events we older folks experience a speed bump, still others the new normal.

        I recall that when I retired from college teaching in 1990 I received a large brown paper envelope from a large distributing firm enclosing commercial coupons for the following:
          A laxative
            Arthritis pain medicine
            Denture adhesive
            Undergarments for leakage control   
            Bran flakes
            A specially designed chair for people with back problems
            Door chimes to extend the sound of the doorbell
            Magnifier for reading
            Card shuffler
            Side-cutting nail clipper
            Specially designed slippers for people with feet that  change in size during the day
            A hearing aid – and more.

          As I flipped over the glossy four-color ads, I felt myself deflating like a punctured tire. If these products were selected specially for me, who was I? What was in store for me in this new life?

          Now, some 20 years later,  I know.  Cataract surgery is one older-adult hurdle  as are hip/knee replacement, morning stiffness, and many others.  Comedian Dave Barry has written an  account of  his colonoscopy, another rite of passage for everyone over a certain age,  that will cause  your  endorphins to chase each other with playful glee. 

          The news reported that former South African leader Nelson Mandela was recovering  after a short hospital stay as was appropriate for his age –the 90s.In other words, there are core changes related to aging and also illnesses everyone gets.

          Yet what is appropriate for this time of life?  Change often comes so subtly  I am not aware of it until one day I have to say, “Yes, I am old, and that’s okay” and my children murmur to themselves, “Mother is old” – but not to me. 

          In my book Border Crossing: A Spiritual Journey, where I mention the above list,  I compare the way we older people and the young ones resemble each other and our rites of passage. I had written several books on aging for various agencies. Now it was time to chronicle my own story. The book is about my journey from full-time employment to being granted more than 2,000 discretionary hours each year.  It was truly a border crossing.  

          Both young and old  identify closely with the physical body and its changes – the young with developing strength and defining body image , the old with lessening strength and  dealing with increasingly poorly defined  shape and firmness. 

          Both old and young  use drugs, sometimes, sometimes to excess,  the  younger group uses street drugs, energy drinks, and  soda;  the other group  coffee and prescription drugs. I’ve noticed some of my age group take about ten to 15 prescription drugs each day. 

          Teenagers like their sofas overstuffed and roomy enough for all limbs at one time or else they head for the floor. Older adults look for a firm chair because we know a soft couch spells disaster.  They may sit on it for eternity.  And the floor?  Surely you jest.

          Both make travel a way of life – the one to games, band tours, field trips; the other on tour buses, recreational vehicles and airplanes to see the world – for a while.

          Both are thinking of changing housing. The young ones are off to college dormitories or their own apartments. The older ones head to apartments, retirement centers and nursing homes. 

          A sixteen-year-old is aspiring to acquire a driver’s license. An 80-year-old is thinking of turning it in.  Many in my group are ready to get off the road, yet sorrowful, for without a driver’s license goes independence. 

          In my book Prayers of an Omega one prayer is titled “I sure liked to drive my car.” When I read that piece at an older adult retreat a few years ago, I noticed an older man in the front row sobbing silently. Later, his friend told me he had given up his driver’s license the day before.   He identified with my words: I miss the feel of a ring of hard keys in my pocket. I reach for them, just to give them a caress. But they’re not there. I want to go out and start the car. For no reason. Then I remember. The car is gone. I will never back it out of the garage onto the road again. I will never again experience the power of the engine with me at the wheel.... Reach out your hand, my Lord, and place it here in the warm hollow of my hand where I used to hold the keys.

          Letting go of the car keys may be a rite of passage but also a high speed bump. 

          So back to my cataract surgery.  I am recovering thanks to great doctors and modern technology.  I am waiting to get new lenses for my glasses so that I can read again.  There will be more speed bumps, more rites of passage.   Then it is time to read again what I once wrote for others, especially my chapter on turning losses into gains in Life After 50: A Positive Look at Aging in the Faith Community: "Old age need not major in losses if transitions [rites of passage and speed bumps] are seen as movement toward the culmination of a life well lived with God and humanity." It is a goal that keeps me going. 

          And while I’m mentioning my books, a friend e-mailed me this brief review published  recently in a library newsletter:  The Atchison (Kansas) library has a new book “How to Write your Personal or Family History: If you don’t do it who will?” by Katie Funk Wiebe.  A couple of chapters caught my eyes. “Writing your last ‘rites,’” “Writing about the life others don’t see,” and “The best and worst times in your life.”  This is worth reading, especially if you are having trouble getting started . – Cora Chambers, editor

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Life of Pi and I

On occasion, I’ll admit I wish I was back in the college classroom teaching literature, especially when I come upon a novel that has level upon level of meaning.

One such novel is The Life of Pi by Yann Martel, a Saskatchewan writer. My copy states that when it was published  in 2001 there were more than six million copies in print. I can see  high school and college literature classes studying this novel in decades to come. I’d like to be in on the discussion. 

The novel is about a boy, a boat, and a Bengal tiger adrift on the Pacific Ocean for 227 days.  The framework of the book is fairly simple: a middle-aged man by the name of Patel, originally from India, is telling his story to a writer. 

“I have a story that will make you believe in God,” he tells the writer. He calls himself Pi, the symbol for the geometric ratio that goes on and on. 

His father, a zookeeper in India, sold his animals when the political climate in his native country became uncomfortable, and decided to move to Canada.  The family boards a ship with several zoo animals and heads for America, only to  experience shipwreck on the Pacific Ocean.

The only survivors are Pi,  a 450-pound tiger named Richard Parker, an orangutan, a hyena, a zebra, a rat, some flies and cockroaches—an interesting ecosystem.  On the journey the hyena kills the zebra and orangutan, the tiger kills the hyena and the rat, and the flies and cockroaches fly off into self-destruction.

What I like about the book is that it can be read at many levels: 

Adventure/action story full of suspense and danger. Life aboard a small lifeboat with a tiger brings with it anxious moments about who will survive.  It brought to mind novels like Jack London’s Call of the Wild. Pi has an adult tiger in front of him, sharks beneath him, and a storm raging around him. Will he endure?  

To stay at that level means restricting yourself to a diet of skim milk when you could feast on cream, lots of it.  So read it as a survival story similar to Swiss Family Robinson which survived for 38 days or Robinson Crusoe who  also went on an extended journey and survived by using his wits. 

If you want something more, read it as the story of human/animal relationships in the same category as Moby Dick.  Ahab fought the Great White Whale.  Pi Patel fought a fierce Bengal tiger.  Each  novel has a wealth of information about the animal worlds but also about  life’s enigmas.

I see it also as a coming of age story, similar to Huckleberry Finn, or even Catcher in the Rye.  A young man undergoes initiation into the adult world as he comes to new awareness about himself, his environment and life itself. At one point in his scary journey Pi makes a decision to stay alive. He pits his moral strength against the tiger’s brute strength.  He is no longer a boy but a man.

I find some readers think of it as  mystical/fantasy/fiction bordering on science fiction.  Yes, certainly there must be a willing suspension of disbelief to enjoy the fantastic elements of the book.  Author Martel creates a tiny world in a  26-foot lifeboat and peoples it with Pi, the tiger, a hyena, orangutan, zebra and rat, and sends the remnants of this little ecosystem across the Pacific until they reach the coast of Mexico.

The reader has to accept certain premises – shipwreck, a tiger glaring across the boat at you for a good part of a year,  hauling in fish after fish and turtle after turtle to keep you and the tiger alive .  The story becomes more and more  out-of-this world  with each chapter, especially when the reader arrives at the floating island, which at first seems near perfect,  with a Tree of Death  instead of a Tree of Life .  Its inhabitants are thousands, maybe millions, of meerkats, whose essence is meekness as opposed to Richard Parker’s ferociousness.

After reading it again recently I have begun to see it as akin to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress  with numerous archetypal images.  Both Christian and Pi  are pilgrims,  one by land, the other by sea, away from family, order,  and community to isolation, disorder and loneliness and weakness and despair and eventual rescue.

The main question remains:  What was the author trying to say through this compelling read?  Is it about a boy’s search for God?  He is a Hindu, becomes a Christian,  and also a Muslim, and in trying moments runs through his pantheon of gods in desperate prayer.  What  does Richard Parker, the  tiger symbolize?

Pi admits that without Richard Parker in the boat he would never have survived.  Unless we have an enemy to battle, we lose the will to live and become like the meerkats who almost beg to be killed.  In the end Pi is grateful  for having had the huge Bengal tiger Richard Parker on the long journey with him. The tiger kept him alive.

Would the novel have persuaded me to believe in God?  That is debatable. It did reinforce in me the need to always live with hope, regardless how grim the circumstances.   

And Martel does this in one hundred chapters, short and long, just like life,  which has its short and long chapters.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Yes, I once waved a banner for women

I have sometimes said that at this point in life I feel as if I am standing on a mountaintop looking back on my journey. I am in the eighth decade.   I can see the hard climbs, the gentle paths,  the cliffs, and the temporary footholds where I stood and waited for strength to continue.  This look back happens in particular when someone draws to my attention  events that happened long ago.

Recently  it was my son James’s passionate account on his  blog about how the death of his father in 1962 affected him in his growing-up years.  Read about it at  at  “Hasking and Other Reflections on Fatherhood.”  His well-stated comments  about his scrabbling for memories of a father he never knew brought back a flood of memories about how hard it was to be a single parent.  How difficult it was to be a working mother.  How trying  it was to be a woman wanting to be involved in the life of a traditionally oriented church when it came to the  role of women.  How discouraging it was to being an uncoupled  woman in a male-oriented world.

Over the last few  months  I have  read several books related to the women’s movement and those events that featured large in my life at one time:  

When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 by the Present by Gail Collins.

Radiating Like a Stone: Wichita Women and the 1970s Feminist Movement, edited by Myrne Roe.

Draft of a Ph.D. dissertation written by Canadian historian Doug Heidebrecht in which he examines the hermeneutical process by which the Mennonite Brethren church arrived at its position with regard to women.

To this I could add my own book You Never Gave Me a Name:  One Mennonite Woman’s Story in which I describe my own journey through the women’s movement. 

All these readings  are  a second look to another time and another way of looking at life. At times reading was painful, at other times enjoyable.  Few events affected my life as much as the death of  my husband at age 44 in 1962.  I was 38.  I went from being a stay-at-home mother to becoming a “working woman,” as if I hadn’t worked before.   I went from being comfortable as one member of a couple to becoming  head of  a family of four young children.  And from being keenly aware of what was happening inside church life to being relegated to  non-participating  outsider. Yes, it was a different world.   

Each reading  moved me through experiences I thought I had left behind, better stated, grown out of.  

*Collins’ book  is a survey of what happened in the United States.

* Roe’s is a collection of essays by about 75 writers about the women’s movement in the city of Wichita.

*Heidebrecht’s dissertation  is a carefully researched, documented account of  the way the movement worked its way through the Mennonite Brethren church, (and is still working its way)  and finally my own struggle which began when  I was in my early 20s and the church council decided I could not be leader of the youth group because I was a woman  even after the  young people had elected me.

* James, in his blog,  looks at our fractured home  life from his perspective – and his loss of a father.  Would I have become a supporter of the women’s movement if my husband hadn’t died?  Big question.

The women’s movement of the 1960s and 70s  created a huge stir because what had seemed the norm and natural  for women for decades, was purported to be unfair and needed examination – and change.   

Some  people were insisting women are  the weaker sex with less brain power  and too much emotional baggage. Therefore  they had no place in the public sphere.  Women’s  place was  in the home – the kitchen and the bedroom.   They should be guardians of everything good, pure and beautiful,  never the precursors of change,  never acting  independently  of husband or  father if they expected  to be respected.  And own their own property ? Unthinkable. 

If they dared move out of the home, it was into subservient roles.  In offices,  grown women, even elderly women, were referred to as the “girls”  just as  African-American males of any age were once referred to as “boys.”  The girls  were the lackeys who made the coffee and brought the cookies. Standard clothing included  panty hose, girdles,  and high heels. Their only concern was their hair and nails --because that was what society expected of them. Men were paid more than women in the same positions because they had a family to support.  Single women with children weren’t in the equation.

The few that dared become doctors or lawyers  were referred to as a “female doctor,” and “female lawyer,”  just like today a man who becomes a nurse is called a male nurse.  A woman poet was a poetess, an  woman actor an actress.  

But things have changed, especially the way women look at themselves and  the way people look at women.  Daughters grow up expecting a different life than that of women in the 1960s and 70s. They know that women can think and can lead.  The change has not traumatized society as was predicted.  And hopefully it is still taking place. 

Yet the struggle hasn’t ended, especially when I think of   domestic abuse being  on the rise, young girls being enticed into prostitution, very young girls being groomed to act and look like vamps, and high school girls turning down an education for a job in a fast food place to earn money to buy  more shoes and clothes.  We’ve come a long way, but we’ve sure got a long way to go.  Maybe it’s time to start waving another banner.           

Friday, February 3, 2012

I'd rather have a talking frog

I hadn’t seen my friend Rubie for several years so when she sent me an invitation to her 90th birthday party,  I put the date on my calendar.  Daughter Susan and I drove to the huge retirement complex looking for Building F, which didn’t follow Building E.  A new alphabet?  But we found the place.

Rubie looked great.  We visited a bit.  “I told her your story the other day at a function here,” she said.

“My story?”

“The one about the talking frog.”

Any talking-frog story belongs to everyone.  I recalled telling the story at some gathering about the old man walking in the garden when all at once he heard a noise on the  path beside him. It was a frog trying to get his attention.

“Pick me up and kiss me on the lips and I will turn into a beautiful lady,”  it croaked.

The old man picked up the frog and stuffed it into his pocket.   The frog continued to croak.  “Didn’t I say if you kissed me on the lips I would turn into a beautiful young woman?”

The old man kept sauntering through the garden.   “At this time in life I’d rather have a talking frog.” 

I remember that whenever I told this story, it elicited a laugh from my “old” audience.   They understand it.  Younger people don’t.  

People my age recognize that at times  there is a greater need for a good laugh  than for a romp in bed.  Poet Gerhard Manley  Hopkins writes about giving “comfort root-room.”  I think it is important during tough times to also give humor more  root-room.

Humor helps us accept the process of growing older – especially when the losses slowly or speedily outstrip the gains.  Much of life involves pain.  Life isn’t fair. Never has been. 

My daughter Christine, who died at age  46,  lived with me for five of her last eight years. I was caretaker and ombudsperson.  Giving hope room to grow was like trying to grow an oak tree in a flower pot.  “I have death perched on my shoulder,”  she told me.

Sometimes we had an exercise at the end of the day to discuss what during that day had been life-giving and what had been life-draining or life-defeating.  The life-defeating moments were easy to identify.  The life-giving moments a little harder to isolate.

Life-giving: She had kept her food down, someone had phoned,  a letter from a friend showed up in the mail,  the words of a poem or Scripture burst with new meaning.  Sometimes when we could think of nothing that had lifted our spirits and everything seem life-defeating, we would hug each other and cry together. That, too, was life-giving.

Other times I would rent a comedy video to force us to laugh – to get our minds off the challenges before us. For just a little while we could forget what lay ahead.  You can’t be angry or depressed  or even anxious when you are laughing.

I don’t like anything with a laughter sound track. I want to decide if something moves me to full-bellied laughter.  I don’t like what many TV shows think  is funny. It’s not my brand of humor.  What I laugh at now I wouldn’t have  a generation ago. 

 Life needs more talking frogs and fewer scenes of sexual encounters, nudity, foul language, violence – and trivia.  We have a surfeit of sports and political analysis.   Little of that gives hope or comfort root-room to grow.

And so, I tell another story, which only my generation fully understands.  It’s about a 60ish widow who showed up at events with a new “boyfriend.”  He was always poorly dressed, not clean shaven, and his personal-hygiene habits left a lot to be desired.

Her friends were flabbergasted that this gorgeous woman was being seen as an obvious loser.  Was he rich, perhaps an eccentric, especially romantic or brilliant and intellectually gifted?

“No,” she said.

“Why then are you going with this obvious loser?”

“He drives at night.” 

Rubie,  tell that one to your group next time.