Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Teach Us to Number Our Days: A Few Thoughts on Aging



“Teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Psalm 90:12

This advent season I’m thinking about aging. It’s not just because my middle-aged body and mind are both tired these days (I find myself getting really excited about sleep, in ways I never used to!) but because we recently visited our parents.

My husband’s mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s this year, a diagnosis we’re still not entirely sure about, though one thing is clear: her memory and physical strength have both plummeted alarmingly in the past year and a half. Although she is a little stronger now than she was in late summer, before the family had her current care situation in place, it is still very difficult to see her so frail and easily confused.

My own mother, five years older than my mother-in-law but always constitutionally more vigorous, fell two days before Thanksgiving and broke her hip. We spent our time there mostly in hospital, as she was recovering from surgery. She’s spent the weeks since in a rehab facility, learning to walk and carefully handle stairs with her new hip, and Lord willing, she’ll be home in just a couple more days. She’s worked hard, determined to get back on her feet, but she’s battled anxiety, depression, and loneliness too. This has been the longest time my folks, married for 60 years, have been separated from each other for many years. Probably the last time they spent this much time apart was over 50 years ago, when they made a move from Tennessee to Virginia with two little ones in tow, and my father had to move ahead of the rest of the family to find a place for them to live and to start his job. He’s visiting her every day, of course, but they still miss each other a lot.

Observing all three of these people (so dear to me) handle huge challenges has been encouraging, worrying, thought-provoking – and more besides. I am amazed by their courage. I don’t use that word lightly. Just getting into your 70s and 80s with the will to get up each morning, to keep moving in spite of pain and discomfort, to keep a sense of humor in the midst of growing daily frustrations, takes a tremendous amount of courage.

I love these people. They have so much wisdom and experience, and they’ve poured so much of their lives into ours. And right now, they all face so many daily challenges. Physical faculties have begun to fail them. Mom doesn’t hear as well as she used to, Dad’s eyesight is challenging him (night driving has become a real anxiety, reading more of a chore) and my mother-in-law’s vocal strength is failing her, so it’s almost impossible for her to be heard. Both moms struggle with balance issues. My dad has to monitor his pace or his blood-pressure drops significantly (he has congestive heart failure, from which he has recovered wonderfully, but still). They have more aches and pains and their bodies need more rest.

The friends and loved ones of their youth have begun to die, and there are fewer people left who share their memories and can connect with them on deep levels of heart and soul. I’m not sure I’ll ever forget my mom flourishing a newspaper open to the obituary section (while she lay in her hospital bed) and saying with total snark: “Every once in a while we like to check in to make sure we haven’t died yet.” Then my dad, a few minutes later, in a much more sober frame of mind, telling me that “some days when I read the obituaries, everyone listed there is younger than I am.”

I’m sure there are times when they feel overlooked or dismissed because they can’t “keep up the pace.” They’re slower on their feet. New technology passes them by. Popular cultural trends seem more inane and faddish and lightweight to them (I already get that, and I’m only 46). Yet they’re still susceptible to the fear and anxiety pumped regularly through the media, just like everyone else.

I appreciate seeing the ways they handle their growing infirmities and frustrations: sometimes with panache, sometimes with humor, sometimes with anger and defiance. I’ve begun to realize that no two people handle the arduous hills of aging quite the same way. And I’ve begun to see that there are certain things I not only hope and pray I have in place if I ever attain to eight or nine decades of living, but certain things I want to actively work to have in place if and when I get there. Not that I’m banking on these attitudes or attributes necessarily and always making things easier – unexpected challenges will arise, and the likelihood of D & I ever having the level of care our parents are experiencing is slim.

Still, here are a few things I want to begin to put into place for myself now as I think about those years to come. They are good life skills and attitudes to have in the here and now, not just investments for old age.

·        I want to cultivate an attitude of gratitude, the kind of gratitude I see in my dad when he tells me that every day he still enjoys is a gift.
·        I want to keep my mind as active as possible for as long as possible: with reading (including slow, thoughtful reading of material that challenges me), with prayer, music, creativity, and even occasionally tackling new skills. I want to try to be open to the new as well as the old for as long as I can.
·        I want to remember that “activity” does not equal value. A ministry of presence – even if it means, in the end, simply being kind and loving to caregivers (who may or may not always be kind themselves) is still of value. A ministry of prayer matters. There may even be times when I feel I have nothing left to give at all, but I pray that I will still somehow know, deep down inside, that I am always a beloved daughter of God. That starts with me remembering it now, and treating others with the respect and dignity and care with which I hope to be treated one day.
·        I don’t want to be afraid to ask for help or to show I don’t have it all together. I want to stay open to receive. To me, this is huge. My parents have been givers, do-ers, caregivers, their whole lives. It has sometimes been very hard for them to be on the receiving end of care. I think this is a tough one for all of us actually. We all like to be the strong ones who give. But it’s been dawning on me lately that as Christians, our whole (healed, whole, saved!) lives are due to having received grace upon grace we couldn’t have ever earned or scraped up or managed on our own, and that needs to mark our inner disposition in other ways. We need to be open to receive what we can’t possibly do for ourselves, and to see it not as a sign of weakness, but a blessed part of God’s economy and the communion of the saints.
·        I want to view even the really, really hard stuff in life as part of the adventure God has me on, remembering that I am in his hands and in his care.
·        I want to savor simple gifts. And laugh more.  
·        I want to get to and maintain a healthy weight, as well as maintain better exercise routines and healthier eating habits. I’d like to stay as flexible and limber as possible for as long I can!

Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.” Isaiah 46:4


Monday, December 08, 2014

The Blessings of the Yearly Advent Poem

My mysterious disappearance from the blog has not been all that mysterious really. Between an incredible amount of work and our recent Thanksgiving travels, I've not had any time to post here. And I miss it.

I've been thankful to have managed some scribbles in my journal during this time, which have helped to keep me sane. Most of all, I'm thankful for the blessings of Advent.

In years past, I've done a number of posts about Advent. I love to share poems, prayers, snippets of what I'm reading, thoughts about the season. This year I am living at such a flat-out work pace, and our extended families are going through so much stress, Advent had taken on a much more raw and urgent feeling...less about making our way toward the Christmas celebration (though that's still a layer) and more about clinging to the very real hope we have in Jesus. (Which is, of course, a big part of making our way toward the Christmas celebration...but I'm meandering here, and I only have a couple of minutes to write!)

One of the biggest blessings this Advent has been my yearly discipline of writing a poem. This is the twenty-third year I have done so, which means I have been writing an annual Advent poem for half my life. There are years the poem comes easily and years it's a struggle, but this is one of the first years I seriously thought I might just not be able to do it at all. It's not just the work pace right now, but the exhausted inner space. I am spending a lot of my writing working days plowing through work-a-day prose -- poetry has not been a regular part of my diet (reading or writing) for a little while, yet another thing I miss. And yet there's the mysterious blessing of having stored up so much over the years that it's there to draw on when I need it, even in lean seasons.

So when the poem started to do its push and pull inside my heart last week, I wasn't as surprised as I might've been. I found myself smiling at its approach like I would smile at the coming of an old friend -- "really? you decided to come this year too?" The poem never seems to mind how cluttered my house is, how worn out my body, how tired my spirit. So I got up early this morning, tired as I was, to work at a draft.

I am so thankful for the gift of creativity, even or especially when I'm convinced there's none left in the storehouse. Proof once again that it pours into us from the Creator whose well never runs dry.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Emily Dickinson: Autumn

I always think of Emily's autumn poem this time of year. You know the one, which ends:


The maple wears a gayer scarf,
The field a scarlet gown.
Lest I should be old-fashioned,
I'll put a trinket on.

Can't you just picture her in her long white dress, primping before the mirror with a mischievous smile? Not to be outdone by the dazzling colors of the New England autumn landscape, she reaches into her jewelry box for a favorite pin. I always imagine it as ruby red or golden amber. 

Monday, November 10, 2014

We Get To Love One Another

I've been on a long marching road of work, more work, and a little more work recently. I've given up trying to disentangle the thread of the kinds of "work" I do, some of it paid, a lot of it not, some of it fulfilling and satisfying, the kind of work that can almost feel like play, and some of it just one foot in front of the other duty. I've been trying instead to remember some of the many blessings involved in work, such as: I've been given it to do, and as long as I have health and life I get the chance to do it faithfully and lovingly, even the parts of it that can feel like sheer drudgery.

One of the things that blesses my heart no end is that we've been put on this earth not just to breathe and exist, not just to eat and live and love and laugh and worship (though I'm so thankful we get to do all of those things) but so we can love each other. Isn't that amazing? We get to love one another. Some days it's easy, some days it's hard, but it's part of God's call to us, God's gift to us. We get to love one another. Wow.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Daybook: J.I. Packer ("Mercy from first to last")

Just came across this quote I jotted in my journal a couple of months ago, and thought I would take a page out of the daybook to share it here:

"Even when (the Christian) cannot see the why and wherefore of God's dealings, he knows that there is love in and behind them and so he can rejoice always; even when, humanly speaking, things are going wrong, he knows that the true story of his life, when known, will prove to be 'mercy from first to last' -- and he is content."  ~J.I.Packer

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Elephants and Pluto and November....oh my!

It's been a crazy-busy few weeks of regular work and school with some new things coming down the pike in our schedules.

Last week the sweet girl finished up her fall Irish dance class and thoroughly enjoyed trick or treating, dressed up as our town (complete with clock tower hat). This week she's finishing up a paper on Pluto (to her great surprise, after doing all her reading and research, she discovered she agrees with its "demotion" to dwarf planet status).

I've been working on an article proposal for a children's magazine which has had me reading about the fascinating world of elephants, most specifically elephant intelligence. The books have intrigued S. to the point that she thinks elephants may be her next learning craze, the Apollo space mission craze having momentarily died down. Hooray for learning trails!

In writing life news: I'm continuing to do a lot of web content writing, and I'm grateful it's there, but I'm really excited because I've just been offered a contract as a youth curriculum writer with a Sunday School publishing company. I'll be contracted to write lesson plans for teaching various Bible passages to 7-12th graders. It's a neat looking approach to teaching the Scriptures (incorporating interactive and kinesthetic approaches) and I'm happy that the company has brought me on board to do some projects. Right now I am praying for the time and creativity to do the lesson planning justice -- my first two deadlines are in December.

And in teaching life news: I just started working with my Old Testament class (online, for an adult ed. institute I sometimes teach for) and have contracted to teach the Anglican Ethos course I used to teach online at the sem this spring. That last was a happy and unexpected surprise, as the course hasn't been offered in quite a while -- I've only taught it as an independent study for the past several years.

Throw in homeschooling, afterschool arts, church school, missions committee work, and several other things I'm not immediately remembering, and this has turned out to be one of the busiest autumns I can remember in years. It's all good, but sometimes tiring.

We're struggling mightily with an income shortfall this month (we've had months it's been tight, and things have finally caught up with us, most especially my lack of steady work this fall) so while I am praising God for new work opportunities in winter and spring, I know it's going to be a while (January - March) before most of my work outside of web content writing generates anything. We are trying to find ways to continue to pay down our debt without defaulting while still doing things like eating, keeping the lights on and gas in the car, and finding ways to pay for D's meds. All of this would be tremendously anxiety producing if I let myself stop and focus on it, but it's so much easier to keep opening my hands and looking up and saying thank you. Plus there's only so much you can do....when you really can't pay bills, you just can't pay them, and you move on and keep working as best you can. You keep your eyes on Jesus and trust him for what you lack. You also trust that you will meet patience and understanding and kindness even in places where you don't expect it, and that somehow there will be enough for the day. And not just "enough" materially, but "enough" in all the ways that matter.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Time for a Lovely Stop

The sweet girl and I were taking a walk the other day when she came to a sudden halt on the sidewalk. "Mom, stop! Look at that!" she exclaimed.

I looked, and realized that a beautiful autumn tree, a brightly colored maple, is what had brought her to a standstill.  I stopped too, and stood there for a moment just gazing at its beauty.

She sighed. "Sometimes," she said, "you just need to make a lovely stop."

Amen to that!