Since 70

I spent months living in dread of turning 70, because then I would be officially “old”—over the hill, past my prime, debilitated, enfeebled, ad infinitum. Well, four months shy of turning 76, I can honestly say being 70 isn’t bad, not bad at all.

Now, I’ve been lucky. No chronic disease to live with, no financial burdens. Mary Lee is well, and her sons and their wives have no major problems other than the common difficulties in raising a family and holding a job these days. The grandchildren are (usually) a delight.

My 70s, of course, have brought about physical changes that are pretty depressing. It seems as if every shower I find a new mole or lipoma to worry about. The hair in my ears grows faster than the hair on my head. My waist is expanding. I’m longer in the tooth and shorter in the leg. (For years I taught T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and never understood the line, “I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.”) I can recall the lyrics to almost every popular song from 1957-65, but I can’t remember the names of the two women who’ve lived across the street for five years. I spend a half-hour a day hunting for something.

Over the last five years, I’ve become more aware of Newton’s Law of Inertia: an object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion. It takes me twenty minutes of exercise when I get up in the morning for me to be able to move without hurting. Probably because of the exercise, however, my chronic back pain is less than it has been in years. Beginning a new piece of writing is like hiking through mudflats in hip boots, yet the ensuing drafts are more fun than they used to be. I like to walk, but now the first ten minutes or so, my lungs burn and I have trouble getting enough breath. Then, they clear out and I’m good to go, which often means walking too far because I don’t feel like stopping (it’s not like I have a job or anything to get to). Consequently, I’m stiffer and sorer when I get up the next day to do those exercises.

A bigger problem is that I don’t seem to be able to stop talking after I’ve run out of things to say. My father-in-law used to speak of being in his “anecdotage.” I understand. I have all these great stories that I know you’re just dying to hear, stories that will amuse, educate, and inspire you. So why are your eyes glazing over?

My tastes have changed. I eat less meat than I used to and more chocolate. I’ve grown fond of oatmeal, kale, and certain kinds of seaweed, and less interested in lettuce, potatoes—especially fries—and baked beans. Not always, but usually—and I’m still having trouble believing this—I’d rather have salmon than lobster, tuna steak than fried clams.

Two years ago, when we bought a car with satellite radio, I couldn’t wait to find the 50’s and 60’s music channels. That lasted about a month (If, for my sins, I go to Hell, “Itsy Bitsy Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” will play nonstop.) I tried “Elvis Radio” for about four hours, and “The Beatles Channel” for maybe two. I listened to a blue-grass station for a while, and then several country and western ones. Now, I’m almost always listening to a jazz or classical station. It’s not that I’ve necessarily grown more sophisticated—I play a banjo for heaven’s sake—the music just seems fresher and more varied.

Ever since my family bought its first television in 1953, I’ve watched televised sports, but now I can’t watch anything on the tube except for a championship game featuring some New England team. I’ve had it with the incessant number of commercials advertising products I don’t understand at a volume twice as loud as the programing. It was bad enough when sports became huge businesses, but now they’ve become politicized as well. I’m sorry, I watch sports to forget about what’s happening to this country. I’ll sit in the stands at a local college or high school game, if you don’t mind.

Something else I never expected: I’m learning to accept, even value, my increasing powerlessness. I’m not talking now only of my physical condition. Five years ago, I entered a 12-step program. Step One states, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol and that our lives had become unmanageable.” Everyone I’ve ever talked to in the program says that this is the hardest step of all. Admitting powerlessness runs counter to everything I, and I think most Americans grew up learning.

Like most of you, I expect, I was raised to be self-sufficient—“master of my fate… captain of my soul,” to quote one of my high school reading assignments . As an adult, I loved hear Frank Sinatra or Elvis sing,

For what is a man, what has he got?

If not himself, then he has naught

To say the things he truly feels

and not the words of one who kneels.

The record shows I took the blows

and did it my way.

But when I began reading about adult children of alcoholics, I learned how many of us were raised to be masters of not only our own fate but also the fate of the rest of our families. For example, I somehow always knew as a child that I was responsible for making sure that Christmas was a happy time of year, especially for my parents, neither of whom growing up had had happy holidays. I took that sense of responsibility for making others happy with me when I left home and started my own families, so that for seventy years, my Christmases were never as merry as I thought they should be, and it was my fault.

This burden of responsibility became even more oppressive after my daughter died on December 23, 1988. All parents feel guilt when their child dies, but my background as a child of alcoholism magnified it. I’ve written in these blogs several times about feeling my body chemistry change after Thanksgiving and the weight of the next weeks grow heavier and heavier.

Perhaps because of my physical diminishments, however, I’m finding that I have no choice but realize my increasing powerlessness in all facets of life. As my mother said to me when she was about the age I am now, “I used to think life was a case of mind over matter; now I find that what I mind doesn’t matter.” Yet when I’ve been able to admit my powerlessness, I’ve experienced a wonderful sense of freedom. I can say “no” to causes and activities in which I used to feel I ought to participate, but that I had neither the skills nor the real interest in doing. The last few Thanksgivings, hosting twenty people all younger than I, I finally started putting some of them to work.  

And this November I asked myself if my body chemistry was about to change, or was I just opening the same dog-eared horror story of how my daughter died. Laurie loved Christmas. She certainly never wanted me moping about or yelling at motorists on the highway. What would happen, I wondered, if I closed this book and took each day for what it was (or wasn’t).

After the holidays, I’m now trying to view the rest of the year not as something to master, but as something to accept. I’ve got a long way to go. You don’t unlearn something you’ve been doing for 70 years in five years. But when I can let go of this idea that the world depends upon me to keep it turning, I can see that everything I have—my health, my family— everything I am—including being a grieving parent— is gift.

Yes, I shed some tears on December 23rd. I also had a wonderful holiday season. I hope you did, too.

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This is Not Just Any Sandwich

 

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I look at the faded and folded white lined paper, at Laurie’s tiny, circular handwriting: “This sandwich would win the approval of Henri Matisse, and fans of rainbows as well.” Suddenly I hear her in the kitchen, opening the refrigerator, taking out containers, opening the vegetable tray. Rustle of cellophane, clink of glass, thud of food hitting the counter.

“Dad, where’s the vinegar?”

I realize she’s never been in this house. “In the bottom cupboard, behind the second door over from the fridge. Do you want some help?”

“Nope, I’m fine.”

I know she’s wearing an over-sized tee shirt she’s tie-dyed, one like she did for me. I hear her singing to herself, probably something by Suzanne Vega, or Tracy Chapman: “Don’t you know they’re talkin’ about a revolution. It sounds like a whisper.”

“Peace-Nik!” I yell.

“Flower power lives!” she yells back. “Where’s the red onion?”

“Under the cupboard on the counter by the window. In that basket.”

I hear chopping sounds, then the rasp of vegetables against a grater. I jump at the whirring and rattling of our blender, then jump again when Laurie cries, “Yikes!” and the blender stops

I stand. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” She laughs. “The top came off the blender. I’ve just got this dressing all over the counter and all over me. I’ll clean it up.”

I smile and sit back down at my desk. “No problem. But this seems like a lot of work for a sandwich.”

“Da-a-ad! This just isn’t any sandwich. It’s a work of art.”

And for a minute, I see her in the doorway, dressed as I imagined, blue-cheese sauce splattered on her arms and a dab of it on her nose. She looks at me, one eye-brow raised, her forehead furrowed in what I think of as a combination of amusement, satisfaction, and frustration. My daughter, the artist. Whether she’s painting a landscape, playing the piano, embroidering, wood-burning, or cooking, she throws herself into it.

And then I see the bright red bandanna around her head, which she wore during the chemotherapy treatments, and my vision of my daughter fades. I’m staring at her last self-portrait, at her sad eyes gazing wistfully out through a window at the world. In the kitchen, my wife is pouring herself a cup of coffee.

Today is Laurie’s forth-eighth birthday, and my only child has been dead almost thirty years. It’s a bittersweet day, a sandwich of emotions: a layer of sorrow, a layer of rage. Chop up some shame, some guilt, and some regret. Mix in some “if onlys,” and a few “what ifs.” Season that mixture for a while, let the sharpness mellow. Top it with a generous mixture of happy memories, on-going love, and the knowledge that you helped create someone beautiful and loving and courageous beyond measure, someone who touched all who knew her, inspired many, made a difference for the better in this world—all by the age of eighteen.

I’m still not sure how to celebrate her birthday, figure out how to hold both the knowledge that she is gone with the awareness that she’s always with me. Today, I will buy some flowers and take them to her memorial stone in our family cemetery. Laurie’s step-mother and I will walk along the ocean, not on some sandy beach crowded with oiled brown bodies and the smell of grease, but a rocky shore, where waves hiss and crash on weathered stones and the seaweed smells of damp musk, and I can feel the wind in my face, drying my tears as I pray: “Watch over thy Child, O Lord, as her days increase; bless and guide her wherever she may be ….”

When we come home, I will follow the recipe for blue cheese sandwiches that Laurie copied for us from the MOOSEWOOD COOKBOOK a year or so before she died. Ordinarily, I hate to cook, but for this one time all year I will prepare a meal instead of simply opening a can of soup or a package of risotto. I’ll shred and chop and sauté and be the one covered in blue cheese sauce. I’ll skin my knuckles on the grater.

But hey, as Laurie says, this is not just any sandwich.

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(Note: I wrote this essay on my daughter’s birthday, August 9, in 2003. It has since appeared in the magazine Alimentum: The Literature of Food, but I think it’s appropriate to republish the piece this week. I have changed the age Laurie would be in 2018; otherwise, my conflicted responses to her birthday are just as true now as they were fifteen years ago.)

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Food for the Journey

Local market in Selçuk, Turkey

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One of the joys of my various pilgrimages is remembering them: looking at the photographs, rereading journals, comparing notes with other people who’ve made the same journeys. I can always discover something I haven’t seen before. The other night, when Mary Lee and I were reminiscing about our 72-mile walking pilgrimage from Melrose, Scotland to the Island of Lindisfarne off the east coast of England, we found ourselves asking each other what foods we recalled. Remember when we got off the bus in Melrose, how hungry we were, and how good that ham and cheese toastie was? And that salmon in Dryburgh? Nothing was better that the lamb, though, in Jedburgh. Unless it was the scallops in Fenwick. And weren’t the chips always good, no matter where we were?

Which got me thinking that food has always been part of every pilgrimage I’ve ever been on: Brother Bernie’s blueberry pie the first time we went to what turned out to be our favorite retreat center; the falafel and shawarma, figs and dates in Israel; Scottish haigis (I actually like the stuff); ploughman’s lunches in England and once for breakfast, the largest kipper I’ve ever seen; Irish soda bread; New Mexican tamales; just about anything on the menu in San Francisco’s China Town; Turkish mezze platters; Nova Scotia seafood chowder.

Likewise, I often identify the stages of my life’s pilgrimages by the food I remember: the smell of the bread and rolls my mother baked every Saturday morning and the taste of butter melting on hot, yeasty dough; chicken fried steak and creamed sausage over biscuits when I worked for the Forest Service in Idaho; the pizza in Orono, Maine, where I went to college; pancakes soaked in Vermont maple syrup; baked beans and codfish cakes when I lived in Down East Maine; butterflied leg of lamb, new potatoes, and fresh corn on the cob with Mary Lee’s Wellesley Fudge Cake for dessert.

I’m not sure about the future, but based on my observation of the active octogenarians and nonagenarians I know, I expect I’ll eat a lot of oatmeal and ice cream.

Maybe because years of smoking have dulled my taste buds, or because I don’t cook, or because it’s just the way I see the world, food for me is seldom just food. For example, I think of food as romantic love. Yes, there is our traditional Valentine’s night out at a four-star restaurant, but thirty-two years ago, after Mary Lee and I stood on the rocks of Casco Bay with an Episcopal priest who blessed our civil marriage, the three of us went to the local pizza place, which is still where Mary Lee and I go on our anniversary. Even though we no longer live in town, we also try to stop there on the way home after being on a trip. Our love, one might say, is grounded in pizza.

When I had basketball practice in high school, my mother made the rest of the family wait to eat dinner until I got home. I really didn’t care if they waited for me and I think my father was pissed, but since then, I’ve read that one of the marks of successful, well-adjusted young people is that they eat dinner with their families—something that happens less and less in these days of individual TVs, computers, sports practices, and erratic work schedules. Food, then, helps bond the family unit.

Don’t most family celebrations revolve around food? Thanksgiving is the big one for us. Ever since Mary Lee and I were living in a small apartment, with next to no money, beginning our lives all over again at the age of forty, we hosted our families—adults sitting on couches with TV trays, children on the stairs, so that grandparents could sit at our tiny dining room table. (Not that we had a dining room.) We felt it important to make both sides of our families know they were part of our new lives. Now, as the oldest members of our families, we host not only Thanksgiving, but also often Christmas, Easter, and birthdays, as a way to stay connected to the next generations.

How many photographs do you have of family holidays?

Food is friendship. After my weekly Men’s Group meeting at our church, most of us go for coffee at a local bakery, where I have some kind of muffin, scone, or coffee cake, savoring the calories and the conversation. Every month or so, I join the ROMEOs (Retired Old Men Eating Out) from the high school class of 1961 at an area restaurant for lunch. Sometimes, we search out new places for German or Indian or Japanese food; other times we return to old standbys for fish and chips, burgers, and fried clams. But the kind and quality of the food is not the reason we’re often the first customers to arrive, and some of the last to leave.

The ROMEOs (R.I.P. Scott)

When my non-church going friends ask me why I go to church every week and several times a day when I’m on retreat, I say I go to be fed. I don’t know what happens to that wafer and wine on Sunday, but I’ll take it. And do. Not to mention the refreshments at coffee hour, the pot luck suppers, picnics, and other meals our church serves.

During a brief flirtation with Buddhism, I attended six-hour sesshins, which, besides silent meditation, included walking meditation, talking meditation, and eating meditation. At the end of the day, we were served tea and a cookie. That cookie was the best tasting cookie I’ve ever eaten. A year or so later, after I’d decided I was a Christian and had stopped going to these sesshins, I discovered those same cookies in the grocery store. I brought them home and made a cup of tea. At my kitchen table, away the Zen community which had fed me, those same cookies tasted like cardboard.

So, maybe the lesson here—for me at least—is that the meals I remember have less to do with food, and more to do the people who’ve been with me when I’ve eaten that food. In the Bible’s Gospel of John, Jesus alienates the religious authorities and loses many of his followers when he talks about being “the bread of life,” and that “whoever eats this bread will live forever.”  But I think I get it: looking back at my various pilgrimages, I have been fed more by the companionship (the word “companion” literally means “with bread”) than by the bread itself. And if I am to continue to live, not just exist, I need to be nourished by more than oatmeal and ice cream.

On my mother’s 90th birthday, her church threw her party.

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Holiday Hope

A few weeks ago, I made a pilgrimage to Mount Desert Island, where I once lived and worked, to attend a five-day contemplative retreat. During the first session, our facilitator asked us to share a particular concern we’d brought to the retreat with us. When it was my turn, I found myself saying I worried that during what is traditionally a time of hope, I’d lost hope in the future of this country. At almost 75, I said, I wasn’t that distressed about my prospects, but I worried about those of my grandchildren.

I also said that this time of year has always been a hard for me to be hopeful because my daughter died on December 23, 1988, and for the past twenty-nine years, the increasing darkness outside mirrors the increasing darkness inside of me as I recall the two months I spent living at a Ronald McDonald House, walking back and forth to the hospital to sit by Laurie’s side watching her grow weaker every day.

Since that retreat, I’ve been thinking a lot about hope and about Laurie, and as strange as it might sound, I’m finding the more I look back over the years since her death, the more hopeful I am for my grandchildren and for myself.

One of the questions I asked myself after Laurie died, was “How am I going to survive this?” Well, my pilgrimage through grief hasn’t been easy, for me or my family. I still stumble in anger, still get mired down in resentments. But looking back over the twenty-nine years, I can also honestly say that I have discovered grace and joy and a peace that, as the Christian Apostle Paul wrote, “passes understanding.”

I’m not entirely sure where this serenity has come from, but so far, I can think of four possible sources, four reasons to give me hope, four legacies I want to pass on to my grandchildren for their futures:

The Strength of Family. I grew up in a family scarred by alcoholism, abuse, and abandonment. Some of those wounds were passed on to me and my siblings, and I’m still in recovery, still realizing how this background has influenced my behaviors over the years, from my own addictions to my arrogant and judgmental attitudes. But the work I’ve been doing lately in my twelve-step program has also shown me that I’ve reaped the benefits from having two parents who overcame their own hideous childhoods, who loved me, sacrificed for me, and, above all, gave me some of my character traits I’m most proud of, including the strength to overcome the loss of a child.

I want to pass that strength on to my grandchildren.

The Dynamic Detachment of Nature. I’ve spent some of the most “spiritual” moments of my life struggling up mountains, sweating in deserts, snowshoeing in bitter cold, and peering through ocean fog. What makes these landscapes spiritual for me is that they make me feel small and insignificant. The ocean is going to break over the rocks no matter if I’m filled with joy or filled with grief; the sunrise will paint the clouds pink regardless of what happens in Washington. Yes, Nature is filled with death, disease, and violence, but even in death it teems with life. One of my favorite images from hiking Saint Cuthbert’s Way from Scotland to England is of a blown-down tree, its roots exposed. The tree’s branches have grown into four new trees rising from the decaying trunk. That force, that instinct to grow and blossom and bloom, drives, I think, all life.

I need to remind myself that force runs through my grandchildren, giving them the power to flourish, no matter what obstacles they’ll face.

The Healing Power of the Arts. Before Laurie died, about the only writing I’d done was in my journals. I was an academic. My goal was to do more work for the College Board as a consultant. But after Laurie’s mother and I divorced, Laurie, who had also been focused on academic studies, swapped her L.L. Bean skirts and blazers for long sweaters and jeans, dyed a pink stripe in her hair, painted her fingernails black, and took up art, going to summer art programs, and planning to study art in college. After her death, I began going to summer writing programs, took early retirement from public school teaching, and went back to school for an MFA. Writing helped me identify my feelings, and became a way for me to harness my anger and my shame by writing a book and then revising it through God-knows how many rejection slips. More important, writing, like the banjo I wail on, like Laurie’s watercolor that hangs over my desk, reveals to me an essential order to what often seems, especially after a great loss, a chaotic and meaningless universe.

My grandchildren love to listen to stories, love to tell stories. It’s apparently natural for them to build and color and draw pictures. I want to nurture those instincts.

The Chuckle in the Dark. In A Grief Observed, popular theologian C.S. Lewis recorded his anguish over the death of his wife. Never intending his words to be published, he railed against God for the suffering and pain his wife had endured, and for the sorrow that was tearing him apart and demolishing everything he’d previously believed about God. Gradually, however, he experienced an “impression which I can’t describe except by saying that it’s like the sound of a chuckle in the darkness. The sense that some shattering and disarming simplicity is the real answer [to the mystery of suffering and death].” The retreat that I participated in a few weeks ago focused on the works of an anonymous 14th century writer who felt that the only way one could experience God was in what he called a “Cloud of Unknowing.” Since the loss of my child, my experience of God/my Higher Power/ the Eternal/Whatever has been through subtraction rather than by addition. I’ve lost all I ever learned about God, especially the idea that God is some compassionate Superman: all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing. And like C.S. Lewis, like the anonymous 14th century author we discussed, as I’ve lost those images of God, I’ve experienced an unfathomable serenity, one that has lasted this year well into the holidays.

I’m still not optimistic about the future of this country. I’ve read too much history about the rise and fall of empires not to feel that our nation is in decline, if not free-fall. But over the last few weeks I’ve discovered a difference between optimism and hope. Hope—for me anyway—is as much about the past as it is about the future. Hope looks back and grieves the reality of death, disease, decline, and destruction but at the same time, hope gives thanks for a life filled with the grace not only to survive but to thrive.

Which gives me hope my grandchildren will do the same.