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Thursday, August 26, 2010

A thimble-full of sake

Yesterday, I made a quick stop at home after attending with Isobel her high school registration. As these things do, the registration event took twice as long as we anticipated, so I was running on the edge of lateness all morning. I dropped Izzy at her job at the rock climbing gym, then raced home so as to let Happy-dog out to do his business in the yard and to make myself a little lunch to take with me to work, as I had stretching before me several hours of back-to-back meetings and appointments. While home, I also did something uncharacteristic of me at 10:30 a.m. – I indulged in a small thimble-full of sake to calm and slow myself down. Tea wouldn’t do, I needed the immediate serenity that a slug of great sake offers.

High school. Really? That’s where we’ve arrived together in this life, so suddenly?

Isobel was excited and nervous, and in her excitement and nervousness she was impatient with me, edgy, really. She contradicted half of what I said, even if I was correctly answering her question; she laughed when I tripped (which I do often because my vision is so shaky now); she criticized me pre-emptively if I looked at how one of her classmates was dressed, assuming (wrongly) that I was going to say something critical. I understood what was going on with her emotionally, empathized, embraced this as an opportunity for spiritual practice (Oh, hooray! Yet another opportunity!), but I was nervous, too, and rough around the edges. I was on the verge of tears, actually. But I managed to make it home for 15 minutes of safety and solitude, and a slug of sake. I didn’t actually start crying until I was back in the car, driving into the university for work. Then I let myself go all to pieces. Izzy had a delayed reaction—she didn’t fall apart until this morning, when I woke her up for her last day of work for the summer. She was on the verge of tears, dragging, exhausted, complaining of a sore neck, a stuffed nose, she said she didn’t sleep at all. I had her get up, I made her a cup of sweet, milky coffee, but it was clear after 10 minutes that the biggest gift I could give her was permission to get back in bed, and be a sick girl, and maybe even fall back to sleep for awhile.

Transitions are so experientially difficult, so emotionally complicated and interesting and complex, aren’t they? Transitions remind us of our impermanence, our mortality, the time-bound nature of each human life. That’s why humans have created rituals to mark and celebrate transitions, why some cultures have elevated certain life-course transitions into “rites of passage.” That’s also why many of us living in these times in this culture feel unmoored in the middle of our transitions, because we haven’t a ready-made ritual to grab onto, to hold us safe and give us a framework for making meaning when we are muddling through a major transition.

I’m pretty sure the sore neck can be explained by the fact that Isobel rode the “Screaming Eagle” roller coast several times yesterday afternoon. Though she wouldn’t describe it this way, my daughter created a kind of ritual to mark the transition from summer break to back-to-school, from being a middle-schooler, to becoming a more independent high-schooler. After the high school registration, she met up with two friends with whom she rock climbs – a young man who will be a freshman at the same high school she’s attending, and a young woman who is a year ahead of them at another area high school. The three jumped on the city bus, rode it to the Sellwood Park, then tromped down the Oaks Bottom path to Oaks Amusement Park. They spent the afternoon – one of the hottest all summer – riding the rides, drinking cold coke, and roller skating to 70s music. Ah, freedom on a summer afternoon, the sweet, fleeting freedom that comes when you know you’ll be back to school in a week’s time! But not just “back to school,” because high school is a different gig than all that’s come before. Familiar in some ways, but altogether new in others.

Transitions – big and small - are every where, in all our lives, all the time, but sometimes they seem to be foregrounded in our daily lives and the lives of our close people; our experiences of them become a dominant element of our storylines.

So, Isobel is starting high school. A close colleague’s son is ending high school and preparing to apply for college. Another colleague’s son is ending day care and starting nursery school, while a friend’s baby has become – overnight! -- a toddler on the brink of his first steps. And, of course, there are transitions happening at the other end of the journey: a former student struggles with the discovery that her father is rapidly descending into dementia; my dear Gramma Jewell moved into an assisted living facility last weekend; a much-older colleague struggles with the identity work involved with letting go of professional responsibilities and re-establishing priorities as her vital energy down-shifts.

And there are the transitions that in this culture we’ve come to call “midlife transitions.” (I’ll point out that while “midlife transition” has become part of the cultural vernacular, we’ve yet to create shared, common practices for ritualizing the transitions of mid- and later-life. This is a bunny-trail I’ll not go down right now, though perhaps it would make a great topic for discussion!) This summer, I finally admitted that I’m dwelling somewhere in the vicinity of the middle, chronologically speaking, but also in terms of where I’m situated in relationship to my family members. I heard myself say to a colleague, “I guess there’s no denying I’m in my mid-life.” I am muddling in the middle, in the middle of the muddle, and to greater and lesser degrees so too are my generational comrades; but in this case, I shall only speak about the particulars of my own experience, which, right now, have a lot to do with embodiment, or, more precisely, how to live creatively and with vitality in the body I have which is often in quite a lot of very distracting pain.

That’s enough for now, maybe soon I’ll write more, because right now I’m finding my attention arrested by the glorious being that is my 14-year-old, soon-to-be high school Freshman. This isn’t only her transition; after all, it is our transition, as we’ve journeyed here together.

So, it also occurs to me that this experience offers me a great opportunity for engaging in a little intentional aging practice! I’ve decided to leave the musing about the rapidity with which time flies by to my dreaming-mind; the dreams I’ve had the past two nights have been pretty wild, let me tell you! And I’ve also decided to invite my mind back to the present each time it casts itself into the future – say, four years from now, when Isobel is getting ready to go off to college. It doesn’t get me any where good to deny these thoughts about the past and the future, but dwelling in them overly-much distracts me from the exquisiteness of being here, now, with Isobel, as she prepares for the next leg of her life journey. Dwelling here, now, clears some space in my mind so that I can begin to dream about little ways to ritualize this transition, and all the others, big and small and in-between, as well.

Perhaps this little essay is part of my ritual-making for this shared turning-point.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Part Two: Fred's Figs

I had intended to offer Fred’s figs as dessert at a picnic my friend Erica and I planned, so yesterday afternoon I headed into the garden, wandering past the zucchini, corn, and tomatoes, pausing periodically to check on the ripeness of various fruits and veggies, acknowledging the spent raspberries and close-to-finished potatoes to my left, anticipating the sweet perfection of Fred’s Figs. The figs looked sound as I approached the tree, but I discovered upon gently grasping a fig that while I had been away from the garden for a few days Fred’s fig tree has been taken over by starlings and yellow jackets and a couple of hummingbirds. All of the enormous, sexy, ripe figs had been poked with little holes (hummingbirds), eaten from the inside-out (yellow jackets) or almost completely consumed and left like deflated balloons dangling from their stems (starlings). Fig pulp dripped onto my head and blouse, yellow-jackets buzzed in my ears, and I realized that there would be no figs for dessert. I was already running late for the picnic, so I didn’t even have time to change out of my stained blouse, nor fix my bangs, which were stiff and sticky from the pulp.

The only consolation for my disappointment was the knowledge that the last basketful of glorious ripe figs was quite appropriately consumed by a group of World War Two veterans. As Izzy and I were leaving town for the weekend, we offered to Joe the figs that I’d just picked, thinking he could share them with his colleagues at the Portland V.A. Medical Center (ripe figs don’t travel well!). His colleagues loved Fred’s figs, and so did his wizened old vets. I love thinking about how Fred was a World War Two vet – perhaps he even served with some of Joe’s clients! Maybe they were in the same unit that liberated one of the concentration camps? – and that all these years later, after his death, Fred’s figs were being gobbled by his contemporaries.

Today, the day I write part two of “Fred’s Figs,” was the very day this month when I offer a collaborative inquiry session at Mary’s Woods continuing care retirement center. I’ve been offering a monthly session since this past January, and will do so for the rest of this year. The custom is for me to read a short piece of writing, usually something I’ve written or am in the process of writing, and then we spend the remainder of our time surfacing themes, making connections between what was read and our own experiences, reminiscing about the past, and talking about our present lives, too. So, today I read “Fred’s Figs: A Legacy Tale, part one.”

After a short span of silence after I read the little essay, the group participants offered many thoughtful, even surprising insights and stories from their own lives. One gentleman, P., sighed, paused, and then said, “I think you vividly illustrate the web of life, and how it crosses generations. I like the feel of your essay.” His wife, D., remarked: “When people have died, they live on in us – in our memories and the stories we tell. You and your daughter are so lucky that you had Fred in your lives.” Another woman, H., remembered how as a young girl she met her lifelong best friend because of a cherry tree, the kind that grows the bright red little sour cherries best for pies. The cherry tree grew in the yard of her friend’s family’s home, and H. and her best friend started out as enemies – the future friend had caught H. stealing cherries from the tree! Then P. shared another story having to do with a dilapidated row-house in 1960s inner-city Philadelphia. He reminisced about renovating the row-house and living happily with his family for many years in the middle of an ethically and economically diverse neighborhood. The highlight of the story was his mention of the plate of ripe figs offered by a local progressive politician supposedly as a housewarming gift; from there after, P. and his wife referred to figs as “political figs.”

The group went on to talk about gardening, of the gardens we’ve known, the gardens we tended now, as well as the merits of letting plants do what they want, letting the garden exist in some indeterminate zone between absolutely wild and overly designed. And we connected this strong, shared sensibility about our roles as human stewards of micro-agriculture to a more expansive, aspirational commitment to letting other creatures become and be who they want to be, acknowledging the delicate balance to be sussed and cultivated between providing structure on the one hand, and freedom on the other, for those who are under our care, whether children, frail elders, companion animals, neighbors, colleagues, or vulnerable members of the community.

Suddenly, and jarringly, though not surprisingly, one of the collaborative inquiry participants asked me to tell more of Fred: Who he had been over his almost nine decades of life on earth, and how it was that we came to be such true friends. I told what I could in the short time I had to tell it, and they made me promise to continue writing about Fred and to bring what I write to them for their consideration. I promised to do so as my elder friends prepared themselves to leave me and move on to the next event in their hectic schedules as “retirees.”

After I returned home from Mary’s Woods, Fred’s son Peter stopped by to say hello, check in, and offer me some green beans from Fred’s garden. He also brought some figs—smaller, harder, and less sexy than the figs from last week that the WW2 vets gobbled. He has it in mind that we must fight a battle to save the rest of the figs from the humming birds, yellow jackets, and starlings. As well, he says he’s going to make some fig jam this weekend. I told him about my harrowing experience in the fig tree yesterday, in vivid detail, of course, and then we reminisced about our past experiences with yellow jackets – he shared a story from his boyhood about how he and his friend were pursued through our neighborhood by a swarm of hornets; I shared about being stung multiple times on my head while riding a horse in the back-country and how I had to dunk my head in a snow-melt mountain river and sleep off the venom-hangover in a bivouac. We laughed and commiserated, and then turned our conversation back to Fred’s figs. We wondered if there was still a chance for the unripe, hard little figs to ripen, and we acknowledged that had we remembered to put foil strips on the tree branches and enlist the scarecrow in security detail, we’d probably still be enjoying the best of Fred’s figs.

We made some provisional plans for next year’s growing season and turned our attention to re-sowing the lettuce—we could probably get another two months of lettuce from the garden, especially if we have an Indian summer.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Age of Active Wisdom

I'm really thrilled to announce that the great Dr. Mary Catherine Bateson, daughter of anthropologists Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead, will be coming to the Marylhurst campus! Save the date: Tuesday, September 28th, 7 to 9 p.m. in the Flavia Salon. She'll be discussing her latest book, COMPOSING A FURTHER LIFE: The Age of Active Wisdom.

This event is being co-sponsored by the Marylhurst University Department of Human Sciences, the Provost's Office, the Marylhurst Gerontology Association, Life by Design Northwest, and...the Intentional Aging Collective!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Fred's Figs: A Legacy Tale, part one

I prepared myself to scramble up the tall, rickety wooden ladder. It’s been leaning against the ancient, grand fig tree since last summer. Fred left it there at the ready in order to gather the figs before the birds could steal them and the bugs could eat them from the inside-out. Fred, my old friend, the angel of our neighborhood, died this past February. Now, he’s back in the stars, but this is still his fig tree, still his garden – almost a mini urban farm – and Fred will always dwell here. For the past six summers, Fred has offered me figs from his tree; this summer, I will carry on his sweet fig-giving custom. And I will serve as caretaker of Fred’s garden.

I discovered the first ripe fig of this summer last night because I bopped into it as I was heading into the garden to water. The fig was dangling, bulbous and green, a lovely ornament. I was caught very much surprised by the ripe fig, as last I’d checked, on the previous Sunday, the figs were seemingly days away – weeks, even – from ripening; the tree was covered with many small, rock-hard dark green tear drops!).

So, last night when I discovered the ripe fig, or, maybe the ripe fig discovered me, I wondered if perhaps there were more – how could there be only one ripe fig? – I decided to ascend Fred’s ladder high into the lush uppermost branches so as to look down upon and from within the tree and survey it for potentially ripe fruits. Lucky me—I found two more!

I also acquired a wholly new view of Fred’s garden: to the lower left, through the layers of lush leaves and branches, the rows and rows of heirloom tomatoes (after Fred died and we were making early preparations for this year’s garden, Joanne, Fred’s daughter, and I found plant tags in the greenhouse. On the tags Fred had written in black marker “a-i-r l-o-o-m” for use in indicating which seedlings were collected from last season’s crop of round, gorgeously purple Russian heirloom tomatoes.). Glancing diagonally toward the middle of the garden, being careful not to fall off the ladder, I saw the island of raspberry bushes, now finished fruiting; the new potato patch, ready to be excavated with a pitchfork; the ancient apple trees who no longer offer fruit. Rising up on the near horizon at the garden’s edge, the pole beans, vines stretching in all directions—small purple buds – future beans! To the right – opportunistic weeds, asparagus stalks gone-amok, misbehaving roses, and colonizing grape vines.

As I perched in the fig tree, so far above the ground below (where there was garlic planted until we pulled it up for curing last week), I had many memories, visiting from near and far, flash through my mind. I was a major tree climber as a girl, and I closed my eyes momentarily and asked myself this question: What age do I feel right now, tangled in the arms of Fred’s fig tree?

I also had a strong, visceral remembrance of visiting my dear friends Sara and Herb the year before Sara died of the cancer that colonized her body, at the house on the west bank of the Willamette River, just north of the Sellwood Bridge; they’d invited Isobel and I over to help pick ripe figs. Herb, my elder colleague, and his wife Sara, my mentor and co-conspirator, enjoyed only a couple of years at most in that house on the river – they’d just gotten the interior walls tinted the colors Sara saw in her imagination, planted some new plants in the well-established garden, hosted a fantastic Passover Seder for which Isobel and I made homemade kosher chicken soup with two kinds of matzoth balls: the small dense kind that sink, and the large fluffy kind that float!

I’ll never forget that charming, hilarious experience helping them pick figs on a late summer afternoon at their final home as a couple. Herb on a rickety, ancient ladder propped against the old, lush fig tree; Sara watching from an upstairs window (we broke the screen as we tried to open it widely enough for her to lean out and see Herb), alternating between begging him to be careful and bossing him about where the best figs were and the proper technique for picking them (in response to which Herb sweetly sang songs to Sara promising to be careful, reminding her that he was an old man with many years of ladder-climbing experiences to call upon.). Izzy and I stood on the deck below the tree with bushel baskets – I attempted to catch the figs as Herb tossed them down to me, and then I handed the figs to Izzy, who placed them in the baskets for safe-keeping, occasionally eating a fig that was too ripe to carry back to our house on our bicycles.

Now as I eat figs too ripe to carry across the street from Fred’s garden to my house, I think about the legacy Fred continues to give me, though our relationship exists in a different dimension now that he’s no longer living. To be trusted with the caring for Fred’s garden, a garden that has grown perpetually for 85 years, tending the plants, cultivating the land, allows me to continue my relationship with him. To spend Sunday afternoons with his adult children pulling weeds and gathering the harvest allows me to expand my relationship with Fred, to learn new things about him, about his people.

I’ve even adopted some of Fred's habits-of-speech. I hear myself asking a friend, “Could you use some figs?” I take delight in watching my friend break open the green flesh to discover the sweet purple insides of one of Fred’s figs.