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In Our Dotage

In Our Dotage

The morality of growing old

Moon&flower

The moon and its flowers

 

 

Moonflower.1

Moonflower in the night

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As I left the front door this morning, I saw the moonflower folding on its vine. A whiff of regret swept over me for the subtle and seductive scent dissolving, the green sepals forcing that purest white leaf inward. I stopped myself and looked hard at the dying flower, that single moonflower lasting but one night: its dying form had its own beauty.

Dying Moonflower

Dying Moonflower

 

I saw I had been missing something by not stopping, not looking hard. I sensed there is a morality in every moment, a moral obligation to be present, not just to the sensuously pleasing but also to the sensuously unpleasant (and what often upon closer look has a peculiar beauty despite the tired tread of age).

Moth in Moonflower

Moth in Moonflower

 

As W.H. Auden (pictured below), an old master himself, wrote, “About suffering they were never wrong, The Old Masters: how well they understood…how everything turns away quite leisurely from the disaster.” No one particularly likes to look at the ravages of age head on with the exception of doctors or scientists who study them.

auden

His map of age

 

 

The poet Wordsworth wrote about aging in a poem about a different flower from the moonflower, about a small celandine that stopped him as he walked through the woods.

 

 

LesserCelandine

The lesser Celandine

“…But lately, one rough day, this Flower I passed

And recognized it, though in altered form,

Now standing as an offering to the blast,

And buffeted at will by rain and storm.

 

I stopped, and said with inly-muttered voice,

It doth not love the shower nor seek the cold;

This neither is its courage nor its choice,

But its necessity in being old.”

The moonflower and the celandine both fold and fray not with courage or choice but by necessity of age, like those of us who live long lives. Yet that aged stance, that “offering to the blast” whether straight, hammertoed or with walker or wheelchair, that stance takes courage.

If we don’t look hard, we will miss it, we will miss them. The word dotage signifies not just dottiness or feeblemindedness but to dote, to give attention. Our older ones deserve to be doted upon.

 


Coral Tree In-home Care provide caregivers, old-fashioned kindness, and neighborly support to older adults who want to live at own home safely, comfortably, and as independently as possible. Since 2010 we’ve helped more than 250 families in Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Newport Coast, and neighboring Southern California communities live safer, happier lives.
Home Equals Hope

Home Equals Hope

Home Equals Hope: Edith Macefield’s Legacy

farm

Sunday, I read an article on the front page of the NYTimes, “House That Wouldn’t Budge (or Float Away) Faces a Last Stand.” What struck me most in the article was this universal desire to live and die in our own homes. The image of Edith’s house dwarfed by slick high rises in Seattle reinforces the old adage: where there’s a will there’s a way. Edith died in her own home pictured to the right.

Edith-Macefields-House-1-537x357The comfort of familiarity is especially important to the aged. As their world narrows due to failing vision, poor hearing, tricky ambulation or mental disability, the familiar grows in importance–the old chair their father used to sit in, the couch on which Edith’s mother died. The memories sit in the very wood of a family headboard or the leg of a dining table. It’s almost as if those memories are staking claim to a place, a real space in someone’s mind.

Grandmother Katie and Aunt May "going out."

Grandmother Katie and Aunt May “going out.”

As I write, my grandmother’s wedding ring on my finger gives me depth. I remember her and am strengthened by that memory, by the love that bound her to my grandfather that is symbolized in her wedding band. I remember seeing it on her finger as I sat on her lap while she read to me, there in her home in her bedroom where she died May 25, 1959. Her ring carries weight, not in karats but in family history. Although I cannot touch my grandmother again, something remains living in this golden circle inscribed in 1904 with their initials and wedding date.

Home is the recurrent cry I hear from the aged.  “Home, as you may or may not know, is the only place where you may go out and in. There are places you can go into, and places you can go out of; but the one place if you do but find it, where you may go out and in both, is home.” Lilith, George MacDonald

 


Coral Tree In-home Care provide caregivers, old-fashioned kindness, and neighborly support to older adults who want to live at own home safely, comfortably, and as independently as possible. Since 2010 we’ve helped more than 250 families in Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Newport Coast, and neighboring Southern California communities live safer, happier lives.
The Song of the Sea Urchin

The Song of the Sea Urchin

February 21, 2015

I seaUrchinwas thinking as I ran on the beach this morning about the ephemerality of life, the beauty. I was thinking how much of a distraction beauty is, a wonderful distraction but a distraction that sometimes moves aside. This displacement of beauty can happen with its loss through age, accident etc. I was thinking how our culture scrambles to keep that ephemeral beauty in the forefront of our perceptions, desires and goals. Beauty is so pleasureable.

But this morning I was struck by how distracting it is and how much is missed in the power of its strong focus and how the engrained habit of that focus makes beauty’s ‘pushover’ harder and harder to happen. It almost takes a Zen moment to shift beauty out of the picture as it were.

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There I was in the sands of the crashing Pacific, brown pelicans floating past, dolphins seaming the waves but the Californian sky was unusually torpid, gray. It was that absence of brightness that stunned me into this plain thought: There’s something better than beauty, something lighter, freer, way beyond me or my perceptions or ephemeral pleasures, something right at my feet like the shell of a sea urchin.

The sea urchin proffered its vacant shell to the sand; the seashell landed on the beach, hollow–both empty. An emptying precedes replenishing. I held the shell to my ear–emptiness resonating. That readiness for replenishing is all around, not just in the shells that might end up on the beach but in the lost looks of lined faces waiting to be taken up, smiled to, engaged; in the shaking hands ready to be held and steadied.

 “…An aged man is but a paltry thing,   A tattered coat upon a stick, unless   Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing    For every tatter in its mortal dress…”.  (“Sailing to Byzantium”, W.B.Yeats)

 When I got home, I read about Oliver Sacks dying, a man still ‘clapping his wings’. His inspiring article from the N.Y. Times is quoted below.

My Own Life

Feb. 19, 2015

A MONTH ago, I felt that I was in good health, even robust health. At 81, I still swim a mile a day. But my luck has run out — a few weeks ago I learned that I have multiple metastases in the liver. Nine years ago it was discovered that I had a rare tumor of the eye, an ocular melanoma. Although the radiation and lasering to remove the tumor ultimately left me blind in that eye, only in very rare cases do such tumors metastasize. I am among the unlucky 2 percent.

I feel grateful that I have been granted nine years of good health and productivity since the original diagnosis, but now I am face to face with dying. The cancer occupies a third of my liver, and though its advance may be slowed, this particular sort of cancer cannot be halted. It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can. In this I am encouraged by the words of one of my favorite philosophers, David Hume, who, upon learning that he was mortally ill at age 65, wrote a short autobiography in a single day in April of 1776. He titled it “My Own Life.”

“I now reckon upon a speedy dissolution,” he wrote. “I have suffered very little pain from my disorder; and what is more strange, have, notwithstanding the great decline of my person, never suffered a moment’s abatement of my spirits. I possess the same ardour as ever in study, and the same gaiety in company.”

I have been lucky enough to live past 80, and the 15 years allotted to me beyond Hume’s three score and five have been equally rich in work and love.

Hume continued, “I am … a man of mild dispositions, of command of temper, of an open, social, and cheerful humour, capable of attachment, but little susceptible of enmity, and of great moderation in all my passions.”In that time, I have published five books and completed an autobiography (rather longer than Hume’s few pages) to be published this spring; I have several other books nearly finished.

Here I depart from Hume. While I have enjoyed loving relationships and friendships and have no real enmities, I cannot say (nor would anyone who knows me say) that I am a man of mild dispositions. On the contrary, I am a man of vehement disposition, with violent enthusiasms, and extreme immoderation in all my passions. And yet, one line from Hume’s essay strikes me as especially true: “It is difficult,” he wrote, “to be more detached from life than I am at present.” Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life.

On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.

This will involve audacity, clarity and plain speaking; trying to straighten my accounts with the world. But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well).

I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at “NewsHour” every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.

This is not indifference but detachment — I still care deeply about the Middle East, about global warming, about growing inequality, but these are no longer my business; they belong to the future. I rejoice when I meet gifted young people — even the one who biopsied and diagnosed my metastases. I feel the future is in good hands.

 


Coral Tree In-home Care provide caregivers, old-fashioned kindness, and neighborly support to older adults who want to live at own home safely, comfortably, and as independently as possible. Since 2010 we’ve helped more than 250 families in Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Newport Coast, and neighboring Southern California communities live safer, happier lives.
Children, Roses and the Aged Reflect Their Care

Children, Roses and the Aged Reflect Their Care

Nearing 90 by William Maxwell

Aonghais the Elder and Aonghais the Toddler.

Aonghais the Elder and Aonghais the Toddler.

Out of the corner of my eye I see my 90th birthday approaching. It is one year and six months away. How long after that will I be the person I am now? I don’t yet need a cane but I have a feeling that my table manners have deteriorated. My posture is what you’d expect of someone addicted to sitting in front of a typewriter, but it was always that way. ”Stand up straight,” my father would say. ”You’re all bent over like an old man.” It didn’t bother me then and it doesn’t now, though I agree that an erect carriage is a pleasure to see, in someone of any age. I have regrets but there are not very many of them and, fortunately, I forget what they are. I forget names too, but it is not yet serious. What I am trying to remember and can’t, quite often my wife will remember. And vice versa. She is in and out during the day but I know she will be home when evening comes, and so I am never lonely. Long ago, a neighbor in the country, looking at our flower garden, said, ”Children and roses reflect their care.”  This is true of the very old as well.

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“Gertrude Jekyll” rose

Because I actively enjoy sleeping, dreams, the unexplainable dialogues that take place in my head as I am drifting off, all that, I tell myself that lying down to an afternoon nap that goes on and on through eternity is not something to be concerned about. What spoils this pleasant fancy is the recollection that when people are dead they don’t read books. This I find unbearable. No Tolstoy, no Chekhov, no Elizabeth Bowen, no Keats, no Rilke. One might as well be — I am not — I think I am not — afraid of dying. When I was 17 I worked on a farm in southern Wisconsin, near Portage. It was no ordinary farm and not much serious farming was done there, but it had the look of a place that had been lived in, and loved, for a good long time. The farm had come down in that family through several generations, to a woman who was so alive that everything and everybody seemed to revolve around her personality. She lived well into her 90’s and then one day told her oldest daughter that she didn’t want to live anymore, that she was tired. This remark reconciled me to my own inevitable extinction. I could believe that enough is enough.

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Kate & Bob

Before I am ready to call it quits I would like to reread every book I have ever deeply enjoyed, beginning with Jane Austen and going through shelf after shelf of the bookcases, until I arrive at the ”Autobiographies” of William Butler Yeats. As it is, I read a great deal of the time. I am harder to please, though. I see flaws in masterpieces. Conrad indulging in rhetoric when he would do better to get on with it. I would read all day long and well into the night if there were no other claims on my time. Appointments with doctors, with the dentist. The monthly bank statement. Income tax returns. And because I don’t want to turn into a monster, people. Afternoon tea with X, dinner with the Y’s. Our social life would be a good deal more active than it is if more than half of those I care about hadn’t passed over to the other side. I did not wholly escape the amnesia that overtakes children around the age of 6 but I carried along with me more of my childhood than, I think, most people do. Once, after dinner, my father hitched up the horse and took my mother and me for a sleigh ride. The winter stars were very bright. The sleigh bells made a lovely sound. I was bundled up to the nose, between my father and mother, where nothing, not even the cold, could get at me. The very perfection of happiness.

'Graham Thomas' rose.

‘Graham Thomas’ rose.

At something like the same age, I went for a ride, again with my father and mother, on a riverboat at Havana, Ill. It was a side-wheeler and the decks were screened, I suppose as protection against the mosquitoes. Across eight decades the name of the steamboat comes back to me — the Eastland — bringing with it the context of disaster. A year later, at the dock in Chicago, too many of the passengers crowded on one side, waving goodbye, and it rolled over and sank. Trapped by the screens everywhere, a great many people lost their lives. The fact that I had been on this very steamboat, that I had escaped from a watery grave, I continued to remember all through my childhood. I have liked remembering almost as much as I have liked living. But now it is different, I have to be careful. I can ruin a night’s sleep by suddenly, in the dark, thinking about some particular time in my life. Before I can stop myself it is as if I had driven a mine shaft down through layers and layers of the past and must explore, relive, remember, reconsider, until daylight delivers me.

Donald's father with Kate and Aonghais.

Donald’s father with Kate and Aonghais.

I have not forgotten the pleasure, when our children were very young, of hoisting them onto my shoulders when their legs gave out. Of reading to them at bedtime. Of studying their beautiful faces. But that was more than 30 years ago. I admire the way that, as adults, they have taken hold of life, and I am glad that they are not materialistic, but there is little or nothing I can do for them at this point, except write a little fable to put in their Christmas stocking. ”Are you writing?” people ask — out of politeness, undoubtedly. And I say, ”Nothing very much.” The truth but not the whole truth — which is that I seem to have lost touch with the place that stories and novels come from. I have no idea why. I still like making sentences. Every now and then, in my waking moments, and especially when I am in the country, I stand and look hard at everything. ”I have regrets but there are not many of them and, fortunately, I forget what they are.”

 


Coral Tree In-home Care provide caregivers, old-fashioned kindness, and neighborly support to older adults who want to live at own home safely, comfortably, and as independently as possible. Since 2010 we’ve helped more than 250 families in Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Newport Coast, and neighboring Southern California communities live safer, happier lives.
Pope to the Bishop of Brambles

Pope to the Bishop of Brambles

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Forest of bluebells.

Lexie and Ian knew each other from childhood  on the outskirts of Glasgow. Ian was an only child, eager for Lexie’s sisterly advice and culinary tips for his wild bounty of berries: raspberries, brambles, blaeberries and sloes collected from the countryside. Ian gathered not just the rose haws for vitamin C (offerings he  made to his school teachers during the food  scarcity of post-wartime Scotland) but the flower of the rose Lexie so loved.

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before they were married in 1960

She took delight in all flowers and  so Ian offered her a rainbow of Scottish wildflowers–from the pink dog-rose, the orange field poppy, yellow bird’s foot to the spiky purple vetch and inevitable thistle. He plucked  the yarrow for her to hide under her pillow to help her find her lover, but the red clover he kept on him so that its scent might lead her back to him in the impenetrable Scottish fog. It did. She found him.

After they married they moved to northern Scotland for Ian’s first teaching job. Lexie used to walk the snowy village in northern Inverness-shire, pushing wee David in his pram to keep them both warm while gathering firewood. It was too cold to sit in their unheated cottage, “baltic” as Lexie used to often say. They wisely planted a vegetable garden which fed them particularly when they were ‘skint’. Ian always knew where to find the wild fruit to make jam and Lexie always joined the WRI (Woman’s Rural Institute) winning many prizes with her concoctions. Lexie was a joiner, a believer in contribution.

brambles

Brambles.

Lexie never questioned second place because it wasn’t the placement that mattered, it was the doing, the getting on with things. She had done well at school but because she was a girl, she was not allowed to go to university. Her father’s narrowmindedness did not stop her. She became a pharmacologist, her knowledge and work ethic becoming the support for her husband Ian so that he might obtain his Master’s degree in English Literature. She believed in him and his work on Henry James. But she also liked to read.

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Lexie, Ros, David and Laura

Eventually, while looking after three children, her husband and father-in-law, Lexie got her university degree in English Literature. She liked Conrad, his power of the written word to make one see. The power of Lexie’s eye to make one see was striking: not in the sense of sheer volume, range of sight but her magnificent focusing. That same reason perhaps that Conrad loved the solid stance of his world at sea, where he could stand amidst and look out to the wild, terrifying, glorious sea and sky, Lexie stood firm in the ship of her self, her engineering self, able and capable of balance amid life’s tumults to measure and make do so well, even with her Lupus joints working against her. She could fix floors, food, furniture, flower gardens and foreign students with their English, to name a few. Lexie,  ever-ready with her well-oiled tools and a G & T thrown in for good measure.

Lexie at Glencoe

With Lexie, there was no swithering. She was an engineer, the word “engine” deriving from the Latin ingenium (c. 1250), meaning “innate quality, especially mental power, hence a clever invention.”[5] That’s what Lexie was like. She could make things work, even us. We all benefitted, not just Ian and her three children and granddaughter spread around the world, but all who knew her.

Once retired to Lyon Cottage in Strathtay, Lexie gave her time to the Scottish Presbyterian Church not to mention gardening, golf and writing clubs. Lexie kept the key to the old church and churchyard at Logierat and was able to fill me in on some of the Macdonald family history in the Tay Valley. She made friends up and down the valley, helping the housebound with transportation and groceries. All this while never complaining of her own struggle with Lupus. What irony that it was an accident, not Lupus that sent her spiraling. When Lexie was dropped off after a meeting, her scarf caught in the car door. Her friend drove off, not realizing that Lexie was being dragged along the icy road. Although those injuries did not stop her, the pain from those injuries which Lexie tolerated so silently and stoically, veiled undetected cancer cells that took her life last December without warning.

In her wake, sea-gleams of heaven.

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W.R.I. picnic, Lexie enjoying the fare


Coral Tree In-home Care provide caregivers, old-fashioned kindness, and neighborly support to older adults who want to live at own home safely, comfortably, and as independently as possible. Since 2010 we’ve helped more than 250 families in Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Newport Coast, and neighboring Southern California communities live safer, happier lives.