Monday, November 18, 2013

Growing old is a messy business

Growing old is a messy business.  Nothing precise or clean-cut about it.   No  instruction sheet: 
        At age 50:  join AARP,
        At  60 have hearing checked
        At age 70:  get trifocals
        At age  80: accept that a lot of  food tastes like wallpaper paste
        At age 85 – well, that’s when things get really mixed up and messy.  The tooth fairy comes too often and the sandman too slowly.   The smell of deep-fat fried foods has you reaching for your antacids. You hope you brought  your medications when you go out to eat.  And in the middle of a conversation, you stop, embarrassed.  You forgot a name you know as well as your own.  But it’s gone – for about ten minutes.  And then it floats back into your consciousness, boasting: “I was there all along!” 

I hear many kinds of thinking about aging.  The biggie is that aging is mostly a medical issue.  You don’t die of old age. You always die of some medical condition like a heart attack, pneumonia, cancer, diabetes – you name it.

Aging is an illness, proponents of this view say.   Aging is something to combat and defeat, including all appearances of it.  A wrinkle is a sign of a major battle lost. A gray hair  means a slide down the ladder and out.  Add more creams and lotions, more exercise, better-chosen food and you’ll be racing with the 30-year-olds. At 100-plus you’ll still be entering marathons.

Oh yeah? I don’t see many  hundred-year-olds dancing and prancing. For one thing, there aren’t many of them around.  For another, I see more older people using canes and walkers than any other age group. If aging is mostly a medical problem why don’t I see young people struggling with the issues that afflict those of  us who are in our 70s and 80s?

The 2010 Census figures show that about 13 percent of the U.S. population is over 65, 27% widowed.  I am always interested in knowing how many are in my widowed shoes.

Here’s a significant projection:  By the year 2050 the plus 65 population will be 20 percent.  In churches, where such people tend to congregate, it will be at least 25 to 30% -- approximately one in three.  That’s not counting those in their fifties and early sixties. That’s a lot of people living messy lives.

A different approach to aging than the rigidly medical one  makes more sense:  Growing old is part of being human.  It is part of God’s timing for our lives.  Old age, the period no one can escape,   is the time to accept  that human life is limited even with the best of medical attention.  Death is part of life.

God, our Creator, who has given us free choice in how to live our lives gives us no choice whether we want to die or keep on living on this earth forever and ever. When life gets messy you have to consciously develop a new series of choices – letting go of knick-knacks, household belongings, cars, money,  even quirky beliefs that have clung to our faith for decades.  All of these things don’t matter. Yet even as you let go, you have to deliberately keep going on. 

Letting go of the body means taking greater care of the soul.

I’ve marked many passages related to aging in the Psalms.  The psalmist writes about bearing fruit in old age and but also that we “finish our lives with a moan.”  Some translations read “with a sigh.”   The sigh is for the messy parts of aging he was experiencing centuries ago.

The psalmist also writes about bearing fruit in old age, about staying fresh and green. He was saying that growing old  has its diminishments but also its choices and glories.

 He also prayed, “Teach us to number our days aright that we may gain a heart a wisdom.” I think he was saying that aging  is a task that must be done consciously, day by day.    

 So, I pray to God each morning, “Give me grace to bear the weaknesses of being human and courage to enjoy  its strengths.”  So I begin my day consciously working  with today’s mess.  

Monday, October 28, 2013

Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves by

This is an outline of my comments when I reviewed this book at LifeVentures in October 2013.

Consider the following two statements: Aristotle:  “From the hour of birth, some men are marked out for subjection, others for rule.”
Jefferson: “All men are created equal.”
For centuries history taught one idea – Aristotle’s view of humanity.  Then along came another thinker and stated quite the opposite.  Or did he?  Did Jefferson mean what he wrote in the Declaration of Independence?  Wiencek makes a compelling case that he intended people to mumble “white” under their breath before “men.”

Jefferson is a significant figure in American history.  He held  many positions with great political  influence: diplomat to France, secretary of state,  vice president, president twice, past-presidency period. He is credited with writing the Declaration of Independence.  He was a man of great influence and intelligence.

This book deals primarily with his relationship to his slaves, not his entire life, although it refers to various periods in his life. It focuses on his paradoxical attitude toward slavery. Early in life he said that slavery was wrong and  supported freeing the slaves.  He is heralded as the great believer in human rights but in the 1780s a change came over him with regard to slavery. Over his lifetime he owned about 600 slaves altogether, including close relatives, some that were mistaken for him because they resembled him so closely.  

Master of the Mountain  focuses on Jefferson’s life at Monticello, his magnificent home,  built on a small hill, or mountain. It well documented and reasoned.

Monticello  was a three-story stately building, full of amazing gadgets, like a dumbwaiter, which made food appear and disappear as if by magic.  An underground passageway led to the kitchen where slaves made elaborate meals for him and his many guests.

Hidden from the view of his guests was Mulberry Row with its slave cabins, housing   usually about 100 slaves.  In 1817 he owned about 140–a lot of people.  Some were loyal to him, some related by blood; some of course, were miserable. Jefferson needed slaves to work cheaply – all they required was some shelter and bare subsistence.

Jefferson inherited slavery.  He did not start the institution of slavery. It was much discussed during his lifetime with varied solutions offered: ship them to Africa, ship them into the interior to begin their own settlements. Some slave owners freed their slaves.

What was the situation with regard to slaves?  “A slave was like money in your pocket,” said one slave. To invest in slaves was to invest in the easiest way to become wealthy. Only land was more valuable. Jefferson’s standard of living at Monticello was dependent upon the institution of slavery. He seemed to say “They should be freed,”  and  also “I can’t let them go.”

Slaves were considered property or chattel, included in the owner’s estate and bequeathed to others.
They could be bought and sold like cattle at auction, mortgaged, or used as collateral on a loan. J. discovered they were the cheapest way to grow his assets – 4% per annum.
They could be rented out or loaned to some other person
They could be given as gifts to a daughter, for example, as a dowry
They could be used to pay off debts, including those incurred in buying them
They could be set free, problematic because of slave runners
They could be used for the slave owner’s sexual pleasure
They could be bred like cattle by having a partner assigned to them– having babies was encouraged, because it was the cheapest way to produce more. “Breeding” women were given special care.
Slaves were kept illiterate because literacy might encourage them to forge their own papers of emancipation
Slave owners controlled the slave’s family life  --marriages ties were broken and family members sold separately  -- at  his death one family was divided among eight buyers.
Children were given  away or sold separately, sometimes when quite young
Slave women were used as nannies and wet nurses for slave owner’s children and as cooks
All children of a slave mother were slaves even if the father was a free man
Most slaves had only one name
They were forced to work hard, usually without pay. Some were paid a low wage by owner.  They began work early in life. Boys and girls started at about age ten. Before that they were child caretakers.
Sometimes trained in trades
House slaves, laborers, artisans and field hands had different status in black community—different food and clothing
Slaves were punished at will, sometimes very cruelly. Jefferson left this to overseers.
Lived in poor conditions usually much worse than house of slave owner

Over time Jefferson developed a paradoxical attitude toward them. He shrank from being identified with emancipation of slaves because it was such a touchy political subject. He seemed to write one thing and practice another.

a.      Jefferson had a strong sense of justice. Slavery is evil. Blacks have natural rights and slavery denies those rights. Yet he bought and sold slaves, especially when he needed money.
       b.     Blacks are inferior, he said. They don’t show signs of intelligence and are incompetent      people.  They need someone to take care of them. Yet he trained many as artisans (smiths, coopers, carpenters, skilled farmers) and gave them significant responsibility and trusted them with big tasks. He even paid some for good work.
c.      He disliked brutal overseers who punished slaves inhumanely, yet, he said, if they were punished it was their fault for not being obedient or working hard enough. 
d.     All men are created equal, have natural rights, but if blacks aren’t fully human they aren’t in this category – “all men” in Declaration of Independence did not mean blacks
e.      Miscegenation was a problem to him.  For a white woman to bear a “yellow” baby meant staining the blood of the master.  But a white man and black woman – no problem.
f.      Jefferson owned his own blood relatives, yet when he needed money he sold family members.  Money meant more to him than family relationships.
g.     Slavery is a detriment to the nation’s development, he said, yet, on the other hand, America as a new nation can’t survive without slavery. There was a movement afoot to exile all slaves, or ship them to parts of America not yet developed. But since they were too lacking in intelligence, this was impossible for them. Also, America didn’t have the resources to do this. And was not ready to do this.  A slaveless farmer couldn’t compete with one who owned many slaves.

Why didn’t he free them?   “They paid the bills.”  Slavery in a normal sense is an evil; but as connected with commerce it has important uses.”

Why haven’t Americans accepted that Jefferson  was a slave owner and sired children by a slave?    They prefer the version that he wrote about defending the equality of all men to the one that he lived out in daily life.

Jefferson “strides across the American stage as a potent, overpowering actor: he built Monticello, he wrote the Declaration of Independence, he engineered the Louisiana Purchase. But when it comes to slavery, suddenly Jefferson is not an active force but the pawn  of historical forces beyond his control; he becomes a victim .... he is trapped by convention, by society, by laws, by  his family, by debt.” Particularly, by debt incurred by his lifestyle. Money was at the root of his problems.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Life's twilight comes

Peter P. Wiebe III poem  read by Peter Rahn, grandson, at the Wiebe reunion 2013 in southern Alberta. It was written a few weeks before his death.

Translation by Katie Funk Wiebe

At life’s twilight
Life’s twilight comes,
life’s journey ends--
the life God gave me,
the life I loved.

Once I knew springtime,
full of bliss and  joy;
it beckoned me forward
to keep reaching, striving.

The womb of experience
birthed songs of delight
for each new  stage
of my life’s calling.

Despite setbacks and pain,
on the steep heights
paths opened broadly--
a giant was  passing!

High on those lofty heights,
life’s goals attained,
praise paeans  broke forth
announcing these triumphs.

Fly high the banners!
I  could hardly restrain
the urge to keep doing,
the need to create.

There, there, on the heights,
near  heaven’s glories
came  the signal to turn.
Hesitantly, reluctantly,
I heard the firm “Step back!”
“Step back?”  No other way.
Step back, step down
from forward reaching.

“Let go.” The word was clear.
No more: “Let there be...!”
Back to dust whence I came;
the grave’s where I belong,
my final resting place,
the end of climbing
higher, yet higher.
The end of soul’s birthings.

Life’s twilight has come,
Life’s toilings ended,
The life God gave me,
The life I loved. – April 17, 1951 a few weeks before his death

Es kommt die Wende
Es kommt die Wende,
Es kommt das Ende
Von deinem Leben,
Das Gott gegeben.

Einst war es Fruehling
Voll wonnger Fuehling,--
Erzeugte Leben
Und Aufaertsstreben.

Im Bildungschleime
Erstanden Keime
Fuer jede Stufe
In dem Berufe.

Trotz vielem Wehe
Zur hohen Hoehe
Sich Wege bahnten
Wie beim Giganten.

Dort in den Wipfeln
Das Lebens Gipfeln,
Von dem Gelingen
Loblieder singen.

Beschwingt die Fluegeln!
Kaum kannst du zuegeln
Den Geist des Schaffens
Und Gier des Raffens.

Dort wand die Hoehe
Die Himmelsnaehe—
Nun musst mit Grauen
Da abwaerts schauen.

Herunter Steigen
Von dem Erzeugen.
Zurueck, du weisst es,
“Zurueck!” so heisst es,

Nicht mehr: “Es werde!”
Zurueck zur Erde!
Im Erdenbette
Ist deine Staette

Wo fast du liegst.
Von hier aus stiegest
Du nicht zu hoehen
Im Geisteswehen –

Dann kam die Wendung
Das schaffens Endung,
Der Schluss vom Leben
Das Gott gegeben.      Peter P. Wiebe, April 17, 1951