Thinking About Photography (and Aging)

I watched a video this week and the two photographers, Ian Plant and Colleen Miniuk, talked about how, from their perspective, there are no rules in photography (the example they used was the rule of thirds for composition). They believe that the primary goal of photography is to make an esthetically pleasing image, one that is beautiful and tells a story. As I have been thinking about this, it seems like the only story I can tell with integrity is my story. I may tell you that I am working to capture the essence of the Naples Botanical Garden, but what I think this really means is that I am working to show you how I perceive the Garden, how it impacts me, what I find beautiful as I walk down the many paths every week during our winter stay. How the Garden touches my soul.

Of course some of my photography is simply recording “what is” in the few seconds it takes to push the shutter. I have a lot of those photos in my files that help me compensate for my poor memory. The featured photo for today’s post doesn’t fit into that category, however. I took it several years ago and I remember being pulled into the color and the lighting. It spoke to me of the beauty of nature as it matures. I found this photo again this week and I believe it is even more reflective of what I am trying to get my brain around in the learning journey of being old.

This photo reflects how my story was unfolding then; and how my story continues to mature today. I am reading a book by Parker Palmer, one of my favorite non-fiction writers, entitled On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, & Getting Old. This is a book of essays he wrote to help him gain an understanding of his own aging, and I am experiencing the joy of seeing myself in most of what he has written. The most important reading in my life has been when the writing is helping me know more about the person who I am within the context of life, and when I read with courage I discover the person I am really meant to be. These frequently haven’t been the same, but that is another post.

This post is about realizing that my story is a beautiful story. It is a story of pain and pleasure, anger and forgiveness, falling down and getting back up, missed opportunities and exciting success, great loves and painful losses, arrogance and humility. As I sit with my laptop on my lap and my fingers on the keys, I pause my writing, close my eyes, and think about all that has happened before. I come to the conclusion that I wouldn’t change a thing – nothing. My life isn’t like a book that I can go back and edit, delete some parts that I am embarrassed by or make me cry when I think about them. I can’t rip those pages out and burn them, have the brain cells that hold the memories electrocuted. No, all those experiences are written in my history with permanent ink and they make my story what it is.

My life is a beautiful story. If I truly embrace my life story as beautiful, it seems logical that I will be better able to recognize all of life’s stories as they unfold before me and, if my camera is with me, will be able to capture the beauty of life’s joy and suffering, life and death. Yes, I can express my life story, our life story, with my photographic images and it seems I will be successful with a few that will be beautiful.

I burst into laughter with the realization that these high ideals would best be achieved if I were living in a 25 year old body. But my current favorite motto comes to mind – it is what it is.

I Feel the Seasons Changing

Early last week I stepped out on my front porch before the sun was up over the trees of the hedgerow and I felt late summer. The air was cool and dry on my skin and I heard the silence of the morning that seems to come when summer has spent most of her energy and nature is slowing down. I smiled because I welcome this slowing down but it lasted only that one day – then we went into a stretch of the dog-days of August with high heat and humidity.

I’ve noticed that my garden is also starting to take on the late summer look. My attention has shifted from fighting weeds to dead-heading in the hopes that the plants, mainly daisies, will send out some more buds. There is still a lot of color with black-eyed susans, echinacea, zinnias, a few late-blooming day lilies, a bright pink hibiscus, and a few other flowers of various colors sprinkled in. I like what I’m seeing in my garden but I am also thinking about some changes I want to make for next year.

I came across the photo below taken nine years ago and I smiled because I love the goose neck that is featured center front. I believe that was its last year because I realized that it was spreading way to fast and I dug it all out. Well almost – it is still growing in the daisies. And every time I find a plant I think I might let it settle in my garden because I love it so much, and then I remember how fast it takes over – so I pull it out. It will be back next year.

Garden, Early July, 2013

As I look at this photo I realize that the only plant that is still growing (with my consent) in this area is the daisy. The shrubs have been removed, and the cat mint (purple) was transplanted when the stone walls were rebuilt a few years ago. And the lilies are struggling in other places, they just aren’t happy in my garden soil. During the past 14 years my garden has been evolving; and my life seems to be on the same trajectory. Neither me nor my garden are what we used to be.

I know that the aging process involved losses and a lot of change; I developed courses on aging. A life-span development course I developed and taught helped students learn that every phase of life involves some loses that are replaced by new ways of being in our world. Each phase of life has developmental tasks that need to be accomplished in order to be physically, spiritually, and emotionally healthy. As we transition from phase to phase some familiar and comfortable ways of being are either taken away or we let go of them. These are frequently treasured privileges, what we have thus far built our identities on. As we approach the end of each phase we need to recognize what we need to give up, what we no longer have, what is no longer useful and then to have the courage to step into an unknown future and learn new ways of thinking and behaving. Have you noticed that what happens to one person in a family or friendship community, impacts the other people, frequently with overlapping demands for developmental change? A fun example to think about is how the developmental tasks of adolescents mesh with the developmental tasks of parents.

Jim and I (and most of our friends) are transitioning into old age. We have retired from paid employment with a mixed bag of sorrows and joys. I miss the status it brought me and the joy of meaningful work that was recognized by colleagues. Jim was overjoyed to leave a job that had become difficult for him to do while maintaining his integrity. He took a part-time job that brought him great joy – can’t wait to get to work joy. He had to leave that so we could spend winters in Florida and travel while spending summers in Michigan. Both of us have been robbed of energy through chronic health issues and normal aging. At core we are struggling to know who we are now that we have moved beyond being productive in our culturally salient way of making money. We both like to help people, but are struggling to know how to help others when we have just about enough energy to take care of ourselves. What seems to have surprised me most is that I am struggling to know how my religious faith can be relevant in my old age. I am in the middle of working through this and will share my doubts, my struggles and new insights in another post.

This link will lead you to an earlier post, from 6 years ago, that is a perfect companion to my thoughts today. https://imissmetoo.me/2016/07/13/memory-of-a-childs-summer/

Treasures of my Mind

Oh my, what do I treasure. I spent some time looking around the house and there are lots of items purchased in foreign countries that could be treasures, but on the other hand they are just items. I really enjoy both of our residences; but are they treasures? I have gotten great pleasure from my garden and get lots of compliments on it, but once again it doesn’t feel like a treasure. When it gets to be too much work I will turn it into something else and I won’t grieve because it will be a relief. I love my family and friends and they bring me so much pleasure but when I think of them as a treasure, it almost sounds like they are objects I possess. I also get a lot of joy through using my sewing machine and my cameras, but they seem to be objects that somehow lead to a greater treasure. As you can see, I’ve put a lot of thought into this Lens-Artist Challenge: Treasures.

Then it occurred to me that all of these things were once treasures to me but I seem to be changing as I am aging. I believe my greatest treasure in life is my memory.

Our campers could be listed as treasures; we have had six or seven. This year Jim isn’t putting the tires on our current one because we decided we wouldn’t go on any trips because of the price of gas. Last night during supper we talked about all the beautiful, interesting places we have been with a camper in tow. We talk about experiences with our kids and the other kids that sometimes went along. In memory mode we can also laugh about all the “oh shit” moments that we got into and had to figure out how to get out of. These memories are our shared treasures that make our relationship a treasure.

I have found so much pleasure working in my flower garden this year – maybe because others have done the heavy work and I’ve done the planning and planting. Now that’s a collaboration to treasure. After ten years I seem to be reworking my garden design as it seems to be growing out of it’s previous plan. Did I hear someone say, “Wow, she had a garden plan all worked out.” My plan was not on paper nor based on a wealth of plant knowledge. I followed the trial and error plan – reading lots of books (that suggested I draw a layout) and relying on what I could find in local garden centers.

This year, however, I found a surprise treasure while working in my garden. I found a connection to my grandmother who also loved to garden. This is my Polish grandmother who I know loved me but the relationship was hard to maintain because we had a language barrier. I felt her spirit with me this summer as I gardened, thinking that she would approve of my work and would have loved to get her hands dirty along with me.

The only objects that I really treasure are my books. I learn best through reading so I have books on gardening/landscaping, photography, travel, quilting, faith development, and professional books. All of these books shaped who I am and will continue to guide me into new life experiences. I believe even the fiction I read impacts who I am. I continue to cull my books and of course buy new ones that indicates that I am a work in progress as I approach 80. As my dear colleague, Margret, used to say, “God isn’t finished with me yet.”

I also treasure relationships with family and friends but don’t do well with photographing people and feel uncomfortable posting the photos on public media. Besides that would require another whole post. They do, however, fit into the treasures that make me who I am, along with my nature and social environments. Maybe the big-picture treasure that interconnects all, is that I treasure who I am, who I am becoming, and the life I have been able to live, am currently living, and look forward to in the future – with all it’s ups and down.

A Focus on Beauty: Gentle Color for Aging

The constant news coverage of the bad and the ugly and the corrupt can lead me over the cliff of believing the whole world is evil. My antidote for this is to turn the TV off and focus on what is beautiful and good. The photo above was taken at the botanical garden and we are going this morning to let nature feed our spirit and the café feed our tummy.

This past week-end I had the opportunity to spend some time with one of our neighbors who is 98 years old. Dorothy is my role model for aging. She is sharp, knows what is going on, is fiercely independent (trying to get her to do something she doesn’t want to do always ends in her doing what she wants to do), she is well groomed with a little makeup and attractive clothes, her smile is radiant and her eyes sparkle like the brightest star. And she is still a snow bird, spending a few months here in southern Florida, a few months with her daughter in Maryland, and a few months in her Michigan community at the tip of the lower peninsula. Did I tell you that she is 98 years old. She gave up driving two or three years ago, has severe hearing loss, and walks slowly with a cane. I am so lucky to have her in my circle of friends.

On the topic of aging, when I was in my 60’s I thought I would like to live until 70 or maybe 75. When I reached 70 I upped it to 80. Now I am pushing 80 and think I would like to live until 90. If I can age like Dorothy, I would find it exciting to live to 100. I have come to the conclusion that aging gracefully and with joy requires acknowledging losses, going through the pain and nastiness of grieving, and then working to find ways to get our needs met in ways that nurture us and keeps us engaged. I don’t want to live beyond losing my ability to smile from my heart. Having beautiful things around me make me smile from my heart.

I have so many beautiful people in my life that make my heart sing and bring a smile to my face. My mother and grandmother frequently told me that “beauty is only skin deep.” I knew what they meant but what I understand now requires different words. Real beauty doesn’t have much to do with what is visible – what we carry on the outside. Some of the most beautiful people I know have wrinkles, pot bellies, blotchy skin, sagging everything. My husband, Jim, is so beautiful that I smile every time I look at him.

Our minister did a three-part sermon series on growing old – appropriate as we have a large older population. For the past three Sundays there was lots of laughter and nodding of heads as he shared information from three books that he has found useful (see list below). One concept that resonated with us was that as we age and loose various abilities we have to be open to accepting help from others. I have had fibromyalgia for about 15 years and there were some tense times as Jim tried to help me and I tried to do everything I had previously done. I think I became a little more gracious in accepting his help as the years went on – it was a gradual journey. Last summer he was diagnosed with Myasthenia Gravis that weakens his voluntary muscles and causes double vision. Medication has helped slurring, difficulties with swallowing, and a droopy eye-lid. We have an appointment with his specialist at UofM when we get back to Michigan to get the double vision corrected.

We need each other’s help now. We are finding ways of making our life simpler (read: less cleaning and maintenance), and housework is frequently a tag-team event. Our energy levels are similar so we plan activities carefully so we don’t become too exhausted to enjoy the next day. We are thinking about, and sometimes talking about, what we may have to give up, things that we really treasure and enjoy but may not be able to do any more. We’ll figure it out, and shed a few tears maybe, but our current strategy is to find joy and laughter in each day. And if life seems to sour a little, we take a nap.

Coping with…

A magical sunrise on our second morning in Michigan. What I couldn’t capture was the sparkle of the snow on the branches in the lower right. The rising sun was positioned perfectly to make this mundane deer run through a vacant, overgrown lot so very beautiful.

I have had this photo inserted in this “Edit Post” for several weeks now – believing it was perfect for several “challenges” that have come and gone. It has been a stressful December, until yesterday when I had an emotional meltdown. It wasn’t pretty and maybe I overreacted but I sure feel better today. I took control by cancelling four health-care appointment leaving only three for the rest of the month (there were 10 all together), I decided that we needed to become subs for our card club because I can’t handle the work of hosting once a year (tonight’s the night after two years of dodging), I cancelled the family Christmas Eve party at our house (I told you it wasn’t pretty), and I unplugged the phone land-line because I have been receiving about 12 robo calls a day (triggering murderous thoughts in my brain). Once I had completed this emotional housekeeping I felt less physical pain, stood straighter, no longer felt like I was 97 years old, was capable of smiling again, had energy to complete the tasks of the day, and dropped my caustic cynicism and snark. Life is good again.

Don’t distract a pushing 80 year old driver. Yesterday we stopped at a neighbor’s house down the street and as Jim was backing his truck out of their drive, I was commenting on Connie’s wreaths hanging out her up-stair’s windows. We both heard a soft crunch and he asked if he hit something. I looked in my side mirror and said no, but you are about 4 inches from their mailbox. He started forward and I saw he had pushed over the mailbox next to the standing one. He laid it flat on the ground. He took me home and went back to speak with the owner – telling her we would pay for repairs. He also saw that it was rotted so bad at the ground that it was ready to be replaced without Jim’s nudge. I think when we are in our late 70’s there is more personal meaning to something like this than just the trigger reaction, “Boy that was a stupid thing to do.” There is a meaning that we aren’t ready to talk about – yet.

I tried tatting a long time ago – when I was a teen but it didn’t catch with me. This year when I was hanging the two machine made, delicate lace snowflakes on our Christmas tree, bought in a gift shop up on Lake Superior, I though about tatting again and started the search for the shuttle, thread and book I bought a couple of years ago. At that time I couldn’t make sense of the written directions, in spite of the fact that I learn best by reading and they assured me (in print) that tatting was really quite simple to do (written by someone who had been doing it for 50 years). I decided to try YouTube and, walla, I understood what I was suppose to do to make the two parts of the one knot that is used. Until I tried it. I had forgotten how hard it is to learn a new skill, to create new muscle memory when there is none to begin with. Since I have retired I have continued to learn but it has basically been incremental learning, building on skills and knowledge I already had. After three weeks, two books, lots of throw-aways and restarts, and more stitches removed than I think I originally made, I am on my way to having a snowflake – about 1/3 of the way there. Yes, Virginia, you can teach this old dog new tricks.

We returned to Michigan at a time when covid cases are spiking to the point where we would be the worst country in the world – if we were a country unto itself. We are glad we received the booster in Florida before we returned and are wearing masks in all public buildings, restrict our shopping to times when stores are relatively empty, and use Amazon as much as I can even though I have serious reservations about their business model. We are balancing our risks of going out in public knowing that over 40% of people in Michigan are anti-vax, with our knowledge of how safe we are because we are fully vaccinated and wearing masks. It takes so much of my energy making these calculations but I continue because we know how important social contact is for our well-being. It seems impossible to understand how covid works, especially what causes it to spike with somewhat predictable timing but in unpredictable locations.

My topic for this post is “coping” but the one area that I’m not ready to write about is coping with our changing health status. I have so much to say – and maybe next week I’ll be in a better position to talk about how difficult I’m finding the aging process to be.

In the meantime, I’m wishing you safety and health, and hope you find joy in how you choose to spend the remaining weeks of December as we move towards another year.