Today there was a phone conference call, a “town meeting” hosted by AARP throughout the State of Washington. Two Johns Hopkins physician-educators were commenting on ways for seniors to stimulate and retain cognitive ability in our later years. Evidently there were over 8,000 throughout the state who were listening in and asking questions. This is the generation to which I belong, so I was interested, though actually I learned nothing very new. I did notice that most of the questions were from women, their voices croaking with old age. One woman in the queue of callers was brought into the conversation and asked by the host, “Helen, what was your question.” She hesitated, then answered, “Oh, sorry. I’ve forgotten!”
Because I am a poet I’ve been involved all my life in paying attention to the details of what I see, hear, smell, taste, feel, and then clothing those observations in words. Someone has called our eyes, ears, noses, tongues and skin the windows of the soul. Exactly. And if I am cut off from those windows my recognitions of reality are diminished and I am deprived of illumination. Awareness is not simply a brain function. Though the brain is involved in recognition and perception, it is through our senses that we become aware. I’m convinced of the need for mindfulness while I’m driving, but it’s because I have eyes to see the road conditions, road signs, traffic lights and the trajectories of other cars, as well as ears to hear sirens and engine noises and feel the thump, thump, when I have a flat tire. The open road and its wider landscapes also speak to me sensuously.
Naturally I’m aware, given my emphasis on awareness, that my practice of awareness and paying attention is likely to diminish with age; that perhaps I will become more interior, less attentive to exteriors and the detail in the massive painting of the Creation. Yet as I get older, I hope to maintain this hope: that the essential quality of all life around me will speak to me of a God who created us with love and purpose; we are created to create.
But what of ourselves as creatures, part of creation, as much as a means by which creation happens? And what of creation as an ongoing process, rather than being “complete”? How do the changes that come as we age play into a sense of our creatureliness? John Wilson’s review of Long for This World, by biologist Jonathan Weiner, quotes this: “We are always dying, and always reborn. And that is living. Our bodies are not finished products but works in progress, works continually being dismantled and repaired, rebuilt and restored, destroyed and healed at every moment in the act of living.”1 Wilson comments: “...As we age, the balance gradually shifts: more is being dismantled than is being repaired. Why is that inevitable? Can anything be done about it?”2 That’s the unanswered question, and I find this theme underlying much writing today. After all, the struggle with mortality is as old as the human race, though for years it seemed unseemly to mention it except in hushed tones. Did we think our silence would banish it?
So you change the water,
cut the stems at a clean angle,
add a bit of sugar, as if
mixing a drink for yourself
as well as the flowers.
You hope that moisture
will surge again up the green
stalks and flesh out
the lily petals’ crumpled,
The mums last the longest.
Before that, you pluck
out the rosebuds, their pink
heads hanging in shame for
their failure to revive.
The ferns fronds are
resilient, but eventually
they shrivel. And you are left with
the container, made in England
stamped on its ivory base.
In response to this poem, Virginia Owens sent me, by e-mail, the image of a still life painting by the Dutch painter Ambrosius Bosschaert--an artfully arranged bouquet of flowers--lilies, peonies, tulips, narcissi--against a dark background. The key to the meaning of this picture is in the realization that there’s a small fly waiting on the ground beside the vase, and a caterpillar (presumably hungry) climbing up the tulip stem. Both decay and bodily corruption are waiting for their turn.
About the same time that I received the e-mailed painting, my friend Jennie posted on Facebook a photo of a salmon swimming upstream to spawn in a local Bellingham creek. She saw it a while back while hiking and snapped it with her cell phone camera. The salmon was huge and tattered and she said it took four tries before it made it over the rock slide, in the end “throwing itself” through the air to clear its obstacle. I know that salmon die right after spawning. This is their final effort, and it reminded me of the intimate connection between old death and new life. Though this recognition does not erase the importance or necessity of the dying part of the equation, I’m feeling buoyant with the idea that dying is part of birthing and new life is building on and taking the place of the old.
Freedom doesn’t stand alone. It implies release from something or towards something. From pain to relief. From gravity to levity. From depression to exhilaration. From restriction to release. Without limitation and restriction freedom would have little meaning. If freedom were all we had, it would lose its significance. And so, I think of this from Anglican divine Richard Hooker: “The light would never be so acceptable, were it not for that usual intercourse of darkness. . .God will have them that shall walk in light to feel now and then what it is to sit in the shadow of death. A grieved spirit therefore is no argument of a faithless mind.” I’ve remembered this truth again and again as my ups decline into downs, my highs into lows. This reminder only confirms what I know but still need to learn. Light comes not in spite of the darkness, but to balance and penetrate it.
©Luci Shaw, 2011.
1 Long for This World, Jonathan Wiener, Ecco, 2010.
2 John Wilson, Christianity Today, Oct. 2010, p. 61.