This day is set apart for all of us old enough to remember when boys wore short pants until they were 12 or 13. Then they got to put on long pants, like men. It was sort of a Bar Mitzvah.
A year ago, after the Doctors of Durability service, a poem flowed out of me. I’m going to read that poem. Then I’m going to describe some research done with the old-old, those over age 80. !
Doctor of Durability. Hey, that’s me!
Thank you all for lunch, the hugs, and beaming smiles.
Like something in a petting zoo, I preen and arch my back and purr.
What I’m getting now is unearned credit
For piling up the years, four score – more.
A child gives out her long stemmed roses, one to each
Knobby, wrinkled, reaching hand. She looks awed.
At lunch we laugh and eat and smile. No yesterdays
And no tomorrows figure in our pleasantries.
But I - remember all those years that I’ve survived.
“Make my bed, light the light; I’ll arrive late tonight (To be sung)
Bye bye blackbird.”
My first song. I was three. And I’m still arriving.
Jimmy Steven’s father threw himself out a window.
We were hushed around my uncles, like someone died.
Professionals out of work, they stared all day at faded carpet.
Mother. Prettier in your coffin than in illness. Like she’s asleep, they said.
Do you remember the 1930’s song, “Happy days are here again”?
Tramps who came to beg, eyes cast down and mumbling, got some buttered bread.
I was eight, passing out Roosevelt buttons and posters.
“The day that will live in infamy.” I was in college.
My room mate’s no good cousin survived the blast.
Boys my age drilled all day, singing a funny, dirty tune.
To the beat of their marching feet, I kept going to philosophy class.
A submarine sighted off the coast, Heart Mountain, barbed wire.
A soldier came to dinner. He was shipping out next day, he said.
He was going to be the point man on patrol, the one who draws down fire.
He had no hope of coming back he said. He didn’t.
So many didn’t get to live a long long life; yet I remember him.
My brother Bob, handsome in his Navy uniform, my cousin a bombardier.
A sailor lynched, some babe in Casablanca – Bobby never talked about the bombs and bullets.
One friend survived the fire bombs in London, another a bomb in Amsterdam.
Johanna lived on tulip bulbs when food was gone
With the Jewish family her family hid all through the years of war.
Some tough broads we’ve gotta be – Joan and Johanna more than me.
VJ Day and church bells rang! Throughout the city church bells rang.
Second thoughts about the Bomb came later.
That August day deep-throated bells resounded deeply solemn joy.
Through CARE we sent what food we could to enemies no more.
The U.N. born – so much hope we had when war had ended, so much hope
And so much fear. Bomb shelters built, in futility, children drilled in schools.
Let’s go far away from nuclear bombs and superpowers, anywhere but FAR away.
So much to remember! If you are under 80 this must mean almost nothing!
Crosses burned, Selma. “I’ve got a hammer to hammer out freedom.”
Viet Nam, the plumbers, Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist – it has its humor, yeah.
Two bumbling FBI guys coming to my door, asking where’s your husband.
Watergate, Nixon, the Saturday night massacre –
But tanks did not go rumbling down Constitution Avenue,
As Sheila Kennedy thought they would, in a military coup.If you’re too young this won’t register. But you will have your own,
Your own teeterings on brinks of national insanity.
When Martin Luther King was shot, we turned away from social action.
Psychedelics held out of hope of happy BE-ins, EASY transformation. Hah!
Yet glimpses of a different me led me to months of meditation.
Face to face with just myself, it wasn’t bliss. More like pain.
Social struggles and insight meditation, that’s all? you ask.
No no no, most certainly not.
This day is for the durable, those “able to withstand decay and wear and tear.”
That’s the dictionary meaning for those of us now honored.
My mind is playing like a fire hose over smoking embers of the past.
Omit the embarrassments of youth, the follies of the middle years
Old age and all its problems. Really, they don’t matter much.
Today I think of that which draws us on, some subterranean tide.
I carry within me those who didn’t undergo a slow decay,
Those who died, out of turn, and way too soon.
Hey you guys, you shouldn’t predecease your elders.
You left an aching hole, that filled with love however.
My daughter Karen, she was first; then Henry; Serena worst of all -
Because we didn’t know the how, or where.
My heart was opened by your freely given unearned love.
“Cogito ergo sum?” Dead wrong, Descartes, touché.
“Amata ergo sum,” having been loved I am.
Green beans, scalloped potatoes, ham. Like every vertebrate we chew,
Ingesting plants and flesh along with soil and sun.
Even in decay we are a miracle of nerves and bones and parts that close and open.
What about that inner world each one of us inhabits?
Remembered loves and beauty – timeless moments – epiphanies.
Approach that inner world with delicacy and care.
More fragile than the body, these inner worlds we hardly know ourselves.
Will you share, my dears, some small part of yours with me?
The research I referred to was a study of the old-old, those over 80, done in Sweden by Lars Tornstam and his associates. Contrary to stereotype, they found a considerable degree of contentment in this population. There was less interest in material things, and less concern about superficial appearances and the opinions of others. More self-acceptance and a mellower acceptance of others. Many had a positive attitude toward contemplative time alone. They felt an awe at the immensity of time – at the mystery of being a part of its stream. Many were profoundly serene in the face of terminal illness. This serenity did not correlate with religious belief. Tornstam called this gerotranscendence.
I don’t mean to sugar coat. Some of the aged, we know, do not fit Tornstam’s picture; and age has its downsides. What Tornstam has shown is that in the last years of life there can be strides in personal and spiritual growth. An Israeli writer, David Grossman, balances the inevitable losses with the potential. I quote:
“…we feel our lives most when they are running out: as we age, as we lose our physical abilities, our health, and, of course, family members and friends….Then we pause for a moment, sink into ourselves and feel: here was something, and now it is gone. It will not return. And it may be that we understand it, truly and deeply, only when it is lost.”
Only then, Grossman writes, do we return to the strongest and most authentic pulse of life within us.
The transition from young-old to old-old can be hard. It can be marked by depression or irascibility. Over a lifetime we construct a more or less satisfactory identity. We defined our selves and our worth by our achievements and social roles. These are fading into history. If we are not to feel depressed we need to identify with something larger than our individual ego selves – we need to identify with the stream of life itself, with its ever unfolding, passing away and coming into being.
I saw this process take place in my father. In his early eighties, still a professor, he became irritable. In debates he was mercilessly sharp. Some stray comments suggested his fear of being a has-been. Then there was a transformation, almost a transfiguration. He made the decision to quit teaching, announcing simply that he had said in words and books everything he wanted to say. He became vitally interested in the work of some younger colleagues. His face lit up when he saw children playing. In other words, he stopped living in his head. I saw the change in myriad ways, but there is one event that encapsulated his transformation for me.
I happened to look out a window while my father was doing a little yard work. I noticed that he was standing stock still, transfixed by something in a rough patch of grass, his face radiant. I couldn’t imagine what had enthralled him. Later I went out to inspect that patch of grass. In the grass I found a wild pink trillium that the mower has missed – Blake’s “heaven in a wildflower.”
Religious traditions counsel us to live in the moment, to be fully present. Many old persons find themselves doing this quite naturally, finding delight in small things they would have overlooked when younger. This is the true senior moment. Czeslaw Milosz, the Nobel price winning poet who lived his last years on Grizzly Peak Blvd., expressed this kind of senior moment in a poet titled “Gift.”
A day so happy. Fog lifted early.
I worked in the garden.
Hummingbirds were stopping over honeysuckle flowers.
There was no thing on earth I wanted to possess.
I knew no man worth my envying.
Whatever evil I have suffered – I forgot.
To think that once I was the same man – did not embarrass me.
In my body I felt no pain.
Straightening up I saw the blue sea and sails.
Copyright 2011, Kendra Smith. All Rights Reserved
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Worship at UUCB
Sundays in December
December Worship Services
December’s Theological Theme: Divine Spark
Sunday Services at 9:00 and 11:00 a.m.
December 1 - A Larger Covenant
Rev. Sarah Moldenhauer-Salazar, Linda Laskowski, and Rev. Sue Magidson
December 8 - Participation: Spark of Life
Revs. Bill and Barbara Hamilton-Holway, Merrin Clough, Director of Family Ministry, Youth and Children’s Choir and Luminescence Choir
Capital Campaign Celebration, Mitten Tree Sunday, Holiday Fair, and New Member Welcome!
December 15 - The Divine Spark in All Creation
Revs. Bill and Barbara Hamilton-Holway, Merrin Clough, Director of Family Ministry,
December 22 - Holiday Pageant for All-Ages: Stepping into the Christmas Story
Director of Family Ministry Merrin Clough, Revs. Barbara and Bill Hamilton-Holway
5:00 p.m. Christmas Eve Candlelight Service
Student Minister Zak Wear, Merrin Clough, Director of Family Ministry; Bryan Baker, Director of Music; Youth and Children’s Choir led by Michele Voillèqué, Youth and Children’s Choir Director
10:00 p.m. Christmas Eve Candlelight Service
Revs. Bill and Barbara Hamilton-Holway and family, Luminescence Choir, soloists, and Bryan Baker, Director of Music
December 29 - 10:00 a.m. The New Year of Every Morning
Student Minister Zak Wear and Kay Fairwell