A Little Bit of This & That on Aging

We visited Mission Point Peninsula going north from Traverse City (the pinky part of the Michigan mitten) a few weeks ago. One of the stops we made was to walk around the lighthouse that used to guide ships to either the east or west forks of Grand Traverse Bay. As we were getting in the car to leave I noticed these sandals that some child took off but didn’t pick up when s/he got in the car. Someone had hung them on the tree sapling, a flag signaling to the parents who may return to the scene of the crime. A silent giggle worked its way up from my tummy and I took a photo. In post processing I decided to use an aged photo color filter that had a warm tone, reflecting the warm feeling this scene elicited of memories past. No wonder I sometimes have a hard time remembering a word I need to express myself, my brain is filled to overflowing with the memories that are woven together to make my life story.

We cleaned the deck today, scrubbing off an accumulation of dirt and green stuff growing where the sun doesn’t reach, rinsing away dropped bird seed and bird droppings. At first we scrubbed side by side, feeling clumsy and awkward as we almost seemed to be working against each other, no pattern or plan. About the time that I felt tired and thought I would have probably stopped if Jim wasn’t working with me, we seemed to settle into assigned tasks without saying a word. He continued on the rails as I scrubbed the floor. We worked, usually in silence, until it was almost completed – when we could look around and tell each other how good it looked. Our aging bodies had grown tired, pain building in my hips and back, and one of us said s/he was going in to rest for a while and the other followed. I am thankful that fifty-some years of marriage has resulted in a dance that allows us to glide through our life tasks with a functional grace.

I feel late summer in the air, and this week we have a delightful break from what could be the dog-days-heat of late summer. The daytime highs have been in the low seventies with a cool northern breeze and nights in the 50’s. Some of the annuals in the pots on the back deck are getting leggy or died from either too much rain or too much heat. Many of the perennials in the front garden are finishing up their blooming so I need to spend some time each day deadheading to keep things looking tidy so the fall blooming plants can strut their stuff to full effect. The front beds are pretty big and I’ve been wondering how much longer I will be able to tend to them. The beds are now planted mainly with perennials with a few bushes and shrubs for winter interest. I think I may start gradually changing the balance so there are more evergreens and flowering shrubs, with perennials as accents. But not this year because I added several new perennials and have some mail-ordered iris coming sometime this month. My aging strategy tends to be a combination of staying engaged to the extent my body will allow while planning for how I can make life simpler for when I have to give some things up.

One of my new coneflowers. What a delicious color.

Kindness

I wrote this post in 2012 after reading a creative essay in a professional journal written by Dr. Scholten, entitled Kindness. This essay was especially potent because she has experienced being both the doctor who is appreciated by patients and then a patient who feels gratitude towards her doctor. So often we wish that our doctor could be in our shoes, could experience the emotional turmoil we experience, that can only be touched through kindness. Sure we need doctors that are competent and capable but there are times when these qualities don’t go far enough – we need something more. We also need kindness.

Dr. Scholten provides healthcare to refugees in Canada and she begins her story by saying that she had helped an Eritrean couple who were new refugees to Canada and facing an unplanned pregnancy. They came to her office for the last time before continuing with an obstetrician and the husband expresses his deep gratitude to her with a small speech. Obviously she had touched them deeply with her caring and help. She writes, however, that she is “embarrassed that I’m thanked for dispensing something that cost me nothing: no education, no honing of skill, no effort. I’d rather be thanked for diagnostic prowess or a deftly performed procedure.” It is clear in her statement that she underestimates the importance of her kindness and she believes technical skills and intellect are much more important. She writes that she forgets their gratitude as soon as she ushers them out. What happens next in her story, however, gives her a new perspective:

Seated in my doctor’s office, I’m in the chair tucked right next to his desk. This is the first visit that I haven’t sat casually on the exam table with my legs dangling over the side, the first time I haven’t popped in for something routine like a vaccination or contraception or a prenatal visit, where we talk shop and I ask about his daughter, a medical school classmate. This time, I’m here to follow up a disastrous ending to a second-trimester pregnancy. He knocks on the door, steps in, gives me a long, sober look as he slowly closes the door, sits down. He sits in silence. I can’t look at him. Finally I force myself to talk, exhausted, crying, despairing and he listens. He leans over his desk, arms folded on it, looking down. Eventually I look at him, at his solemn white-bearded face, and I note that he is flushed. His eyes are damp. And I realize that he is moved by my distress, and I am completely taken aback.

If we have a chronic illness or a serious diagnosis, we can understand her experience. We have sat before a doctor in all our emotional nakedness, overwhelmed by a mix of sadness, fear, shame – feeling very vulnerable and helpless. At that moment we appreciate “diagnostic prowess or a deftly performed procedure” but it isn’t all we need. At that moment what we also need, what helps us heal, what has a lasting impact on us is “kindness.”

This encounter had an impact on Dr. Scholten because she thinks about it repeatedly over the next few weeks. She continues to feel comforted by the fact that he just sat there giving her all the time she needed, that he was moved by her distress. She goes on to say, “His kindness is more dear to me than anything he’s done for our family over the years, even his delivery of my daughter.”  Dr. Scholten seems to have been humbled by her experience as a patient, recognizing that she has “been wielding something powerful without any respect for it.” This power is the impact that doctors can have on us when they allow themselves to be drawn into our emotional pain for a few minutes.

We are deeply touched when our doctor hears and understands when we are experiencing the fear that comes when our body has failed us and we don’t know how to fix it – or maybe fear that our painful, broken body will never be fixed.

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I found this post as I was reading some of my earliest post when I started my blog ten year ago. This was written when I was experiencing the fear, pain, sorrow and frustration of having fibromyalgia and struggling to regain a somewhat normal life. I was reliant on my doctor for medical help with medications and life-style advice but also for understanding and emotional support. Ten years have passed and I have learned how to manage FM, but Jim and I are now struggling with medical problems due to our aging bodies. I wrote this essay to help me better understand my experiences at the time, and it feels like I wrote it to help me express what I am needing now, ten years later, as I am dealing with aging.

I am also thinking that this isn’t just about the doctor/patient relationship but about all relationships. We need people in our lives who listen and hear us, who care. Neighbors Connie & Steve stopped to chat last night as they were doing their evening walk around the block and we were doing some work in our yard. They asked about Jim’s surgery on Wednesday and we continued to talk about health issues, ending with a laugh about how that is all we talk about when we get together with friends. Yes, we do talk about health issues because health issues are scary, and the older you get the more health issues there are. What we are looking for is kindness. The kindness that happens when people listen, understand, and care. The kindness that comes when people make themselves vulnerable before others by sharing what is making them feel vulnerable. These interactions involve needing emotional help and having others understand and respond in a way that says “I care.” What I beautiful gift we received from Connie and Steve, in our driveway as four old people chatted about life. It was a gift that made our life beautiful.


Scholtens, M. (2011). Kindness. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 467-478.

Copyright © Patricia A. Bailey and I Miss Me, Too/imissmetoo.me 2012.

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Lens-Artist Challenge # 125: Transitions

Japanese Maple leaf between Fall & Winter.

The challenge for this week’s Lens-Artists is really open, asking us to pick a subject to photograph and tell us what meaning it has for us. Tina chose photographs to illustrate her understanding of Wabi-Sabi, “a Japanese concept that recognizes beauty in the imperfections of life and the natural cycle of growth and decay.” Her photos are really beautiful and are an inspiration, but what really resonated with me is thinking about the natural cycle of growth and decay that can be so beautiful, and sometimes unsettling. Observing this cycle as seasons change frequently gets me thinking about how to capture the beauty in dying and death, in decay and decimation. Frequently my photography fails and my images are boring, but usually there are two or three within a file of 100 that excite me with the beauty of the old, of decay, of the degenerative process.

Decaying rhubarb leaves

I have lived my entire life in Michigan where I integrated the nuances of the changing seasons into my very being. When we live with the drastic distinctions of the visual of the dead of winter, birth in spring, lush growth in summer, and degeneration into death of fall, are we also able to recognize the more subtle transitions between early winter, dead of winter, late winter, early spring, late spring, early summer, dog-days of summer, late summer, etc.? Each has a distinctive temperature feel, scent, landscape, air movement and living activities. Sometimes I will state that something “feels like” a season different than the one we are in – but a know this experience is the exception to what is normal at this time of year. I have noticed that in recent years these “feels like” experiences are becoming more common as a result of global warming.

Azalea leaves of Fall, snow of Winter

I really enjoy the transitions of nature in a temperate climate, where our weather is influenced by both the tropics and the poles (North Pole in the case of Michigan in the northern United States.) The transitions of nature and of our human life give us an opportunity to reflect on what has been and look forward to what might be. Usually, for me, looking back involves memories of happy and sad, success and failure, gain and loss. I have found that I feel mentally healthier when I am able to recognize and embrace all that has been – to gently and humbly accept the painful and joyful as what had to be, given who I am, when and where I have been placed. It seems I need to recognize the impact of both my choices and fate over which I have no choice.

Tender new growth facing the freezing temperatures of Winter

Transitions also kindle the need to look forward – the dread of winter months to come or the anticipation of the flowers of summer to bloom. As I am aging I am learning that I need new skills to navigate this transition between my productive mid-life phase and ultimately my death. I have studied aging and death but was unprepared for how to look to a future that won’t be better, physically, than what is right now. How can I integrate into my self-image the fact that my future may not be something to look forward to. Maybe my remaining years are similar to facing the dead of winter. At this point I am cognizant of this reality but I don’t feel demoralized by it. I just know that I need to find a way to navigate this transition just as I have every other I have made. Stay tuned for the rest of the story as I blog my way through.

Very Cold & Snow

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I woke to bone-chilling cold and a bit of snow on the ground. The sun, before being seen, announced its presence by coloring wisps of pale pink clouds. As the sun continued to rise, the light-floating clouds lost their color against the thin blue of the winter cold sky. The clouds seemed anemic after shedding the weight of the snow they had been carrying.

I sat in my favorite reading chair in my small room listening to the silence. I am familiar with the silence of cold and snow, and this silent cold seeped through the windowpanes to my right, not respecting the boundary between outside and in. The silence of inside was punctuated by the clinks and clunks of the heat ducts as they rested between attempts to push back the cold. I know when it is more-than-cold outside because that cold has more power than any form of heat but the sun. And soon the cold joined forces with a wind that howled and growled around the corner of the house and onto the porch to overpower the promise of sun-warmth. Late morning we ventured out into the battle in an attempt to say we wouldn’t stop our life for nature’s display of brutal strength, but we were humbled.

In the dawning-day hours, though, I enjoyed the silence of the tempered cold as I sat in my chair by the east-facing window. I held my warm mug of chi tea between my hands and against my chest so the warmth seeped into my soul. As I sipped, letting the tingle of spices and softness of cream linger on my tongue, I watched the white light of morning sun, softened through slatted blinds, drift across purple wall and artwork, lamp and bookcase – illuminating memories of a life lived with joy and sorrow, laughter and tears, pain and pleasure, brokenness and redeeming love.

Baby, It’s Cold Outside

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I found this photo from a few years ago of a place we sometimes had breakfast on sunny Florida winter mornings. I am fighting the deep grey feeling that comes from our deep grey winter days now that we are in Michigan for the holidays. I’ve been working on culling out photos that aren’t interesting or there are multiples of due to downloading from storage when I bought a new laptop – or maybe I was inept at creating my filing system in Lightroom. I’ve been focusing on Florida photos, hoping the sunshine will brighten my spirits. They do, but not for long. During Michigan winter I have to fight the desire to hibernate.

We are working our way into our Michigan schedule of exercising at the gym on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings. Once or twice a week we motivate ourselves by going out to our favorite place, The Wooden Spoon – or “The Spoon” for breakfast. On our drive there today Jim was saying how much easier it is to go exercise when we are in Florida. I knew what he meant but he continued – “you know, putting on a heavy winter coat over multiple layers and finding gloves and being stiff from the cold.”

We walked into “The Spoon” and our favorite table by the window and across from the kitchen was open. Before sitting down I walked to the next table where a regular group of family and friends sit every morning. We laughed about my jug of maple syrup that we take in for our pecan pancakes, we laughed about the map I drew on their table that extended off the right edge and up Don’s shirt, we laughed about all the layers I had on – until I said that I better sit down before I get myself in trouble. I guess the warmth and joy of relationship and conversation doesn’t care if the sky is grey outside. Maybe all the shared pieces of ourselves and our laughter brightened the room.

Jana and Theresa don’t ask if we want coffee, one of them just brings it when we sit down, pouring two mugs and sitting the carafe between us. They have learned what we like so they bring a bowl of just flavored creamers. Then we experience the pure joy of that first sip of coffee as we hold the warm mugs in our cold hands. We sit in silence as we sip and refill and sip, listening to snippets of conversation from the big round table next to ours. This is where the old guys come and go throughout the morning, greeting each other by name. “Sam got a new trailer…” “…kids coming?” “…left that damn think right next to…” “…look at the size of those horns…” Sometimes one of them will direct a question or comment to someone passing by, most of the time the conversation volleys within the invisible but permeable boundary that encircles them. Our usual order of two eggs over medium, whole wheat toast, and a short stack of pecan pancakes with no syrup comes and we split it up so each of us gets one of each. We talk about how it is the best breakfast we have ever had. Jim fills our cups again and we discuss the errands we need to run after we go to exercise. We fill up on the comfort and good will that is around us, in no hurry to leave. As I look out the window at the grey sky, I think “life is good.”