THE VELVETEEN GRAMMIE
Margery Williams' classic, The Velveteen Rabbit*, includes an exchange between two nursery toys, the Skin Horse and the Rabbit, who has asked the horse, "What is REAL?" The Rabbit wants to know if it happens all at once, like being wound up, or bit by bit.
"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to those who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your fur has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But those things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."
I can relate to that passage. I turned 90 in May. As the years tick by and my fixtures and fittings become unglued and the "fur" is loved off, a stronger sense of being Real has moved forward. I have heard that timing is everything and the issue of aging is no different. From the mid-1960s to recently, the culture in the USA did not give much value to older people. The times today are a-changing as the generation of revolutionaries who declared "Don't trust anyone over thirty" now find themselves eligible for AARP+ membership. I have found that the voice of wisdom is increasingly sought out by a generation that has no intention of becoming invisible or going softly into that goodnight.
When I was a young whippersnapper of fifty and sixty, I did not think much about what life would be like if I lived to be a ripe old age. If I had, it would have fallen short of the mark, nowhere near what my experience has been, especially as I tripped the "old" ometer into my nineties. A favorite saying of mine for many moons has been "Old age ain't for sissies."
Actually, managing to get to 90 relatively sound of heart, mind and body (or any one or more of those three) indicates some grit. As I inch closer toward triple digits, being old has gotten a lot easier. Somewhere around my late 80s, I began to see the humor and humanity more in things, to take upsets less personally and put them more easily into perspective. Looking back, the toughest years were when my energies were beginning to flag and my body started slowing down. The proprium -- sense of self -- feels threatened as it becomes clear that an individual is far more than just the sum of physical parts. To get to the light, we have to work through the darkness. Moving out of that hanging-on state to one of accepting that the body as a temporary shelter designed to house our eternal soul could be compared to moving out of darkness and confusion toward lightness and the light. Ideally, the concepts of physical being, of time and relationships, are liberated as we get older and older.
My own awareness shifted when I suffered a small stroke late last September. That small stroke speeded up the process. My mind feels strong, my spirit feels strong. As my body continues to head south, it no longer has the energy to kick up a fuss about being temporary or to even try to fake being permanent. My feet drag somewhat and I move a lot more slowly than I did, but most days my spirit soars, making itself felt more and more.
Just as little children look at their parents as really old, not-so-young people can see their own parents as shutting down as we age, going into some sort of benign hibernation. It is true that nature brings us, willingly or not, into more meditative states and slower tempos. Am I bored to tears sitting in the big chair in the living room or in my soothing rocking chair? No, it is surprisingly rewarding. The problem is that young kids - looking through the eyes of a still preening self -- feel sad and think, "How dull her life must be." Too many Ancient and near-Ancient Ones fall for that line. Truth be told, growth keeps right on going, ideally right out of the ceilings of our cramped opinion. This old biddy believes that the Lord intends us to live fully--whatever our physical or mental condition--right up to the moment we traipse across the threshold of our spiritual home.
For whatever reason, growing feeble, infirm and even forgetful is part of the Lord's grand scheme. As I edge closer toward triple digits, it is easier to let go of timebound prejudices and expectations. Many women of my generation anchored our identities on others, those we took care of and nourished. Personally, I balked at sparing time or energy to think and act for myself. Luckily, I had taken some proactive strides toward becoming more aware well before the stroke.
Today, my body constantly clues me in that it is merely temporary. It is breaking down. That is in the order of things, however rotten it is to experience. I take two strong pain pills a day and I have excellent and open doctors. I live in a supportive household with two "youngsters" who love me. My daughter badgered and brow beat me to think for myself rather than constantly trying to mirror back what I thought she or others wanted me to say or do. She was the burr under my saddle for change, but the catalyst was my son-in-law, who is remarkably gifted in the ways of healthy communication. My online "family" brings unexpected and incalculable blessings, fulfilling in this life the promise that "with thought brings presence," all at the click of a mouse.
It is not all "beer and skittles"--there are some rough patches. The changes that come with old age are scary, especially changes in life roles. I have not enjoyed the hands-on role of wife for over 26 years. At ninety, I cannot even manage the role I played as a parent. The resources just are not there. I cannot provide massive emotional or even minor financial support. I cannot wash a floor or do the grocery shopping or even dust my own room. (I can still shell hard boiled eggs and clean mushrooms!)
Changing roles and changing identities can be rough, especially on children, no matter how old they are. Imagine the upset at finding that good old Mom is not what she used to be. That discovery could make even an adult feel like a kid lost at the department store. Whoever is ME is changing so fast it is hard to keep up at times. It feels like more is bubbling up to the surface than ever before -- well, since I fell in love, married and became a mom for the first time. As I write this in July, we are even thinking about putting together my very own web site, which seems ... well, I do not know what it seems, but it does. Talk about "the times today are a-changing" -- I would not have dreamt that I would set foot anywhere near a meeting of people considering the role of women within the General Church, but there I was on July 8, feeling right at home, sitting front and center, and enjoying it immensely.
Of course, there is the fear of dependency. In January 2000, I was diagnosed with acute degenerative arthritis of the right shoulder. Nothing can be done to alleviate the condition. It will get progressively worse and worse. Luckily, aside from the pain, the only effect at the moment is that I cannot get out of bed without a helping hand. Still, instead of being a custodial parent, I am the one needing care. That took me down a peg at first, but dependency has turned out to have unique blessings.
A passage from the book Still Here++ expresses my experience over the past year -- "When there is true surrender and service between people, the roles of helper and helped, and the boundaries between those in power and those who are powerless, begin to dissolve." That has been my experience with my daughter and son-in-law and with, it seems, most of the other people in my life - the old limiting boundaries have begun to dissolve.
Lots of things I loved to do are just memories. Instead of gearing up into depression over what is no longer, I find it simpler to shift perspective.
Picture going to a favorite restaurant and ordering a favorite dish, only to told it is no longer on the menu. There are two choices -- get in a funk over what is no longer availabIe or grab the opportunity to check over the menu for something new. My personal menu of possibilities seems like one of those oversized diner menus. There are many things that my physical condition keep me from doing, but there are a lot of new experiences just waiting to be given a whirl. On the physical level, life stinks. On almost every other level--emotional, mental, spiritual--the world is my oyster and every month has an R!
A friend urged me to write about old age and make all the younger folks envious of us Ancients. Growing old, even some of the sadder aspects of it, is part of the Lord's grand scheme. Let go of timebound prejudices and fears of growing older.
Marianne Williamson says that to get to the light, a person has to work through the darkness. In middle and early old age, life can seem dark and scary as we move out of the familiar into the unknown. Work through it toward the light.
One key lesson learned over the past few years is that even unhappy events can bring unexpected opportunites. Going back to Margery Williams' book, if the Boy had not gotten sick, if the loved but germ-infested Rabbit was not doomed to be burned, if he had not been able to wriggle a bit to get out the sack, if a real tear had not trickled down his shabby velvet nose, the Rabbit would not have come at that time into the fullness of being REAL. You could say my eyes come close to dropping off (cataract surgery is scheduled this fall) and my physical appearance is certainly getting shabbier.
This Velveteen Grammie holds the happy hope of one day being reunited with her O! Best Beloved and--together--seeing the REAL light.
* The Velveteen Rabbit, Margery Williams 1922
+ American Association of Retired Persons (open to people over 50 years old)
++ Still Here, Ram Dass 2000