aging

Lately I’ve been thinking about age and what we make of it, and now we operate with it, through it, despite it. Specifically, I’ve been noticing how people make assumptions of others based on the number of years behind their belt. According to gerontologist Robert Neil Butler, who coined the term in the 1960’s, ageism is “a combination of three connected elements: prejudicial attitudes towards older people, discriminatory practices against older people, and institutional practices and policies that perpetuate stereotypes about elderly people.” Since then the concept has grown into stereotyping and prejudicial attitudes towards any group based on age.

Several months ago my beloved grandfather passed away, and I want to add “at a ripe old age of 91,” but that would just illustrate my point. After a serious case of the shingles, he declined rapidly and died within two months of the onset of the disease. The medical staff attending him, though very considerate and sympathetic, gently (and then not-so-gently) advocated for us to let him go. He had lived a full life and nobody could have asked for more from a man who spent the first 70 years in Russia, fought and survived a world war, and lived on to have children, grand children and great-grand children of his own. My mother was at odds with this idea of letting her father pass quietly, without a fight. She asserted that surely if he was able, he would have wanted to continue living, if he could speak coherently, he would have told us Yes! Keep trying with me! Don’t give up!

For the doctors caring for him, grandpa’s age played the crucial role. The assumption was that he had lived enough. It was a “ripe old age” that most men are not lucky enough to attain. And since he’d reached it, somehow that meant that he should be OK with not living any longer. This line of reasoning started to look odd if you applied it going backwards in time. So if it’s appropriate not to fight for the life of a 91 year old, what about a 90 year old? An 85 year old? An 80 year old? Why do we, healthy, youngish people get to decide when an elderly person has “lived enough?” But the opposite reaction, that of assuming grandpa wanted to continue living at all cost, was perhaps also misdirected. Mama might have been superimposing her preferences on him. A person in their mid-50’s would want to live, so naturally a person in their early 90’s should feel the same…

Ageism is equally maddening and confusing when applied to children. When I took my 10-year old daughter to a gourd weaving class designated for adults, the well-meaning teacher, herself in her 70’s, chuckled and with an exasperated sort of resignation exclaimed, “Well, this’ll be a hoot!” Lo and behold, two hours into the class my daughter proved to be the most attentive, dexterous and successful gourd weaver in the group. The teacher judged her unfairly, which was all the more surprising because at her age, she should have been familiar with the sting of age discrimination.

Children really have it tough. They are always maturing, and adult caregivers and educators never seem to keep up. Talking down to a child as if they were three when they’re ten is akin to talking down to an elderly person as if, by default, they were senile. Both are completely unacceptable, but it seems that the former happens even more often than the latter, and definitely with no consequences for the offending adult. Not only are children treated with less respect than they deserve, they also have fewer rights. They cannot go out and purchase what they want – they do not have buying power. They’re always forced to ask their parents for any of their needs, and forced to justify it. Also, they cannot get places. While we-the-adults can just hop in the car and go wherever we please, children have to plan well in advance, coordinate their drivers, beg, explain, negotiate.

You would think ageism affects only the very young and the very old. Not true. As a 30 something, I come into contact with it regularly as a result of where I work (mostly with older people) and where I serve (mostly with significantly older people). Even when I am with my husband’s friends (who are also 20-30 years older than I am), I feel like I am a little girl at an adults’ gathering. I can be delightful, I can be a fun addition to the ensemble, a welcomed decoration on what would have been quite a dreary table otherwise, but surely when the adults start talking serious, I cannot have any input. At this point it is no longer clear whether the “elders” are emitting a sense of being older, or I have already internalized a sense of being “younger” and therefore frivolous and irrelevant.

And, of course, there is age discrimination on the job: older professionals struggle with finding a new job because younger ones are less likely to have strokes and heart attacks and be a liability, and also because they can be paid less and are assumed to be more adept at grasping new technologies and being “team players.”

Truth is, you can’t get away from it. We as a society cannot ban ageism because, at its root, it is a way for us to classify people, to make general assumptions without which we cannot operate (unless we are ready to get to know each individual personally, fully, before we make any judgement about him or her). But still, it helps to be aware of the snap judgments you make about people, and to hold them in check. It’s what you’d want others to do for you, isn’t it?

miracles2

Recently I came across news that four translators working with Wycliffe Bible Translations were brutally killed somewhere in the Middle East. Tracing the story back to the Wycliffe website, I read the article and came across the following words:

“Two workers died of gunshot wounds. Two other workers laid on top of the lead translator—saved his life—and died deflecting bludgeoning blows from the radicals’ spent weapons.

We praise the Lord that He protected the computer hard drives containing the translation work for eight language projects.”

These paragraphs brought forth an almost physical sense of indignation and outrage. Not at the murderers (because that goes without saying), but at the poor choice of wording and the deeper, underlying conflict of faith that the words elicited. Namely, the text says that the Lord protected the computer hard drives but, I want to ask, He didn’t protect the people? So, while the two translators were being beaten to death by weapons and the lead translator lay underneath them, God did nothing, but when it came time to destroying the computers, then he stepped in and said, “Hey, that’s enough.”?

The Christian response to this seeming contradiction and many others like it is to ascribe all the good to God, and all the bad to chance, evil, “the way things are,” depravity, the inevitable outcome of God’s gift of free choice, etc. I’ve generally accepted this view in the past, but here, with this unfortunate juxtaposition of chance against the direct intervention of God, it becomes really difficult. If God chose to protect the computer, he could have intervened and prevented the nightmarish death of the four translators, who were clearly doing his will in a dangerous setting. Since he did not protect them, my only conclusion must be that he did not intervene with the computers either. To avoid a capricious, irrational and masochistic god, I have to believe in one that is not directly involved.

Cases like this abound. When at church we pray for the healing of two individuals from a terminal illness and one heals and the other doesn’t, what are we to think? That God looked favorably on one, answering our prayers, and was just absent for the other? Inaction is also a choice, and thinking rationally, we cannot help but ascribe it to God. As a result, here too we are forced to think that it wasn’t God that saved the healed person, but that random chance just dealt him a luckier hand.

When I ask God to provide safety for my children, I am immediately affronted with the truth that there are many children whose safety God doesn’t provide. And what makes my prayers different from those of the mothers whose children die of cancer, are hungry, are lost, are perishing? The more I ponder this, the more I am unable to look at “acts of miracle” enthusiastically because, here too, an involved God ends up bearing the responsibility for all of the miracles he left undone, the millions of people he left unsaved, unhealed, unprotected.

One probable, though difficult, explanation is that God isn’t necessarily concerned with mitigating our suffering. He is concerned with gaining us. He wants us to draw closer to him, by whatever means necessary. Since ultimately our suffering will end, this very temporary discomfort is worth the closeness we will acquire with him as we lean heavily on him, pray to him, experience his love through the care of others…assuming that others are expressing their care and we have a God to reach out to. If we don’t, we just suffer, and then we’re back at square one.

No, sometimes I cannot believe in a God that acts directly, out of heaven, in and on our lives, though I very much want to. Yes, he mourns with those who mourn, yes, he rejoices with those who rejoice. But the only miracles in this world are those done by people, through the acts of their spirits which are moved by the spirit of God. If there is another explanation that makes sense out of my quandary, I do welcome it.

The Wycliffe article goes on to say that the survivors decided to stay after the attacks and continue with the work of translating the Bible. To me, that is the real miracle here, and I don’t know how much of it can be ascribed to God and how much to those courageous translators. Or maybe the two are not so easily distinguishable…

obvodnyi

Early memories of grandpa. Walking through the forest, dusk, sunlight filtering through the pines, setting ablaze the dust particles and gnats, golden hour bliss. We stop at a pull-up bar installed high between two trunks, grandpa hops up, I stand watching and dreaming. Legs at a 90 degree angle, he huffs out with each pull, “20, 21, 22…” Down on the ground again, arms up, shaking lose the wrists, and down to the ground with a satisfied exhale. Grins at me and we continue walking home.

Phone ringing at the grandparents’ place on Obvodnyi Canal, the dimly lit hallway with the linoleum squares and those slippers, sitting leg over leg in sweats, intently squeezing the receiver to his ear and speaking loudly in a lecturer’s booming, authoritative voice to his invisible interlocutor. The radio on during news hour, grandpa relaxed on the couch, listening to the latest. Or watching the news each night at 9pm sharp.

After bath time, me all cuddled up and steamy and pink, grandma toweling me down and calling grandpa for the special assignment of carrying me to bed.

Another memory. Us in our new apartment, talking about maps. “Can you draw the map of Africa from memory?” Of course not…”But I think I can. Let’s see now…” and he begins. Humming an unidentifiable war song under his breath, he traces the lines carefully, his pens, his somewhat wrinkly hands and those bulging veins we loved to press down and see fill up again. He is done and triumphant, his carefully drawn out map of Africa, including all of the land-locked countries, with names of all the capitals, just for kicks. “Geography was always my favorite subject in school.” He says, beaming. I am blinking, astounded. “Let’s talk more about maps,” he proposes.

Grandpa holding me under the belly and letting me float gently on the ebbs and flows of the Gulf of Finland. Explaining about breathing and holding your breath, me mastering underwater swimming first, excited. Him hoisting me up into the gnarly fir by the edge of the beach, sun setting, me climbing higher and higher, him below asking me if I see Finland across the water.

Playing chess on the smooth formal dining table in the Big Room. Him patiently guiding me, “Now are you sure that’s how you want to move? Because if you do this…I will do this. You see?” Now I can see. “And then you have to wonder – what are you going to do next? You have to think several moves ahead, and always think about the other player – why did they go here? What is their secret plan?”

Much later – sitting in their make-shift guest room in the basement of our first apartment in America. Teaching him English, enthused by the opportunity to be the one leading. Him – a great and dedicated student. Many smiles and laughs shared. A thousand and one charades acted out, many poems listened to and recited, war stories shared (his), and piano music played (mine). In the end, the conversations, trying to understand, all grown up and talking about the more important things. Grandpa still my grandpa, but also an individual, a human being with foibles, fears, hopes, aspirations.

Thirty three years of memories will surely not fit onto this page. But if this is a tribute to our friendship, our alliance and mutual respect, then this is not a tribute to something that has ended. Though it breaks my heart to know that thirty three years is all the memory-making I get with my one and only grandfather, I know the relationship will continue. For love is a gift that keeps on giving. And giving into the deep dark of evening.

Gourd_Weave

A few days ago I joined the Texas Gourd Society. I’ve been in love with these creatures for a while, so it’s only right to make it official.

Gourds seem an artisan’s universal canvas. They provide great surfaces for oil and acrylic paint, are ideal for pyrography and wood carving of all caliber, and are all-around pleasant entities. The gentle undulations in their form, the soft, smooth finish, the fibrous innards and sweet, earthy aroma make working with them a soothing, rhythmic exercise as much as a meditative practice. They’re also great for embellishing with weaving, and encrusting them with beads, glass, sea shells, and much more. But what really attracts me to them as an art medium is the fact that they are round.

When you paint on a flat surface, the story you tell has a definite beginning and end. In Western art, I would postulate, it reads from left to right. For instance, the traditional reclining nudes typically have their heads on the left half of the canvas and their feet point towards the right side. That way, as you’re scanning the painting, “reading” it by force of habit from left to right, you first see the head, the key element and then the rest of the body. The edges of the canvas serve as the frame of the composition, a focal lens through which the artist shows us a specific, limited reality.

With gourds, the story depicted has no beginning or end. It goes on and on, or it doesn’t go at all. It is as rhythmic as a musical round or chant, it ebbs and flows and you can grow mesmerized, turning it about its axis, following the patterns with your eyes. Besides offering this unique medium on which to create, the gourd adds flavor and dimensionality to your piece with its shapeliness. A narrow, curvy top doubles as a neck inclined in perplexity. A fat, full-bellied bottom makes a lovely foundation to weave on.

Incidentally, the idea of a perpetual decorative field is not limited to the well-shaped pumpkin. The concept of ornament, prolific in many ancient cultures and reaching into modernity, is the most wide-spread attempt to create a sense of an unending, rhythmic motion on a two-dimensional surface. The patterns and designs repeat with no visible end in sight, often finishing where they started, turning in on themselves, fractalling or transmuting across the borders of wooden carvings, friezes, church walls, dress hems. A more contemporary example of squeezing the perpetual into a flat rectangle of space can be seen in M.C.Escher’s work. Hands continue drawing hands ad infinitum, stairs descend with no visible plan to reach the bottom, birds morph into fish that morph into birds that morph…

But still, the gourd is better suited for this type of work. Plus, you can even use its internal space to embellish the pictorial message on the outside surface. The only problem posed by the unusual shape is how to display it: you can’t hang it on a wall, you can’t put it in a frame. You can’t really even set it down because the artist might have painted or decorated it all the way around on the bottom. But I am certain that those creatives who tackle gourds in the first place, will come up with appropriate ways to display their craft.

Photo credit: Juniper Spring Photography

Photo credit: Juniper Spring Photography

Some things you only understand about your parents when you become one.

For example, my mama. She would often start cooking dinner when returning home from work, while still wearing her work clothes. Memories blissfully embedded in my mind have her facing the stove, barefoot but still in her nice business semi-formal, amber earrings, hairdo and all. I would wonder, in my practical, child-like mind, why not just change out first? What is the rush? Won’t Mama get her clothes dirty? Of course, all of us were very glad when dinner was ready, thankful and oblivious to the fact that it took actual time and effort to make it.

Now, all too often, I catch myself putting the water on for the potatoes, lighting the other burner for the fish (and forgetting about it when starting to peel said potatoes), and yelling for the kids to start setting the table all before I’ve even taken off my shoes. Well, maybe I’ll get one of them off. The having and the raising of the progeny has taught me that things always take longer than planned, and that hungry, grumpy kids and hungry, stressed parents make a volatile combination. I am thinking about us, and about them, and about getting something nutritious into the family before it begins convulsing with after-school activities. These last until 7 or 8pm, and only then do I remember to take my work badge off and hang those earrings.

Or, the work-out plan. Mama started going to the gym only when we were mostly grown. But she was always exercising. Doing a few stretches outside before breakfast. Downward Dogging it in the wee hours of the morning. Lifting weights. Forgetting weights on the counter. Feeding cat. Packing lunch for Papa, lifting a couple more times. Doing a couple more stretches. Why not just take half an hour out of the day and do a solid work-out routine, I wondered. It seemed to make sense – more efficient and more productive.

Ha! Somehow it doesn’t work that way with kids. Maybe it’s a learned behavior I’ve inherited from her (the exercising while doing everything else), maybe it’s the only thing left to do? The insight that I have now is that if I don’t do it this way, I won’t do it at all. I’ll wake up, make breakfasts for all, make lunches, sign permission slips, usher our joyful bunch out, drive them to school or rush to work, at work sink into the work things, and then we already know what post-work looks like. So I find myself dragging my medicine ball to the office with me. Leg-lifting while the children are telling me about this and that. Bending down to pick up trash with a straight back and lingering in that position a few extra seconds for the stretch benefit. Ultimately, all the body parts get a workout, only differently.

The truth of the matter is that, as children, we see our parents as two-dimensional care providers. They are fun, and strict, and warm, and comforting. They are the centers of our world, but we remain egocentric, and as such, we only see them in relation to ourselves. At some point, if we are the thinking types, we realize that parents are actual people, foibles, nose hairs, quirks and all. It seems that the only action following this revelation would be to get to know your parents as people – to ask them personal questions, to probe, to discover. Unfortunately, for us kids, that would mean that we would have to lose the parent, in a way. And unfortunately for the parents, few kids are willing to do this.

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