Est Bonum Vitae

Signs and Omens

 

jabberwocky

Dear Readers:

I have good news! My son-in-law, Don, who, as you may know from my last blog, was diagnosed with stage 4 brain cancer in August. Recently, we found out that he has a genetic marker that is associated with better treatment outcomes. We learned that his tumor did not originate in his brain tissue, but grew on top of a tumor of a different, more benign type. This gives him a better chance. His December MRI was very good—no cancer and we have renewed hope. He has also been cleared to go back to work in March, but must still have MRIs every eight weeks for….we don’t know how long. Nobody in the cancer business will commit to anything much (as I wrote in the set of blogs called “Cancerland” which set me to blogging in the first place). but we are cautiously optimistic.

I have finished my project for Oxford University press, the bibliography in Adult Development. What a nightmare. It consists of annotated entries for the 100 most important articles in my field.  This is the 2nd edition, so it was a little easier, but keeping track of 100 references while I sent the manuscript back and forth to my co-author, Steve Page (a Fielding grad), but us in revision hell a couple of times. Revision hell arises when you can no longer figure out which version is most recent.

I have also finished a first draft of my book on death and dying. I wish the title could be “The book I wish I had when my Mother died,” but I fear it is both too long and too narrow. But, that’s the idea I want to convey. I haven’t shared it with you because it has taken me a long time to get the voice right. And, it is also connected to an amazing string of circumstances that have driven me along this path, including my cancer and Don’s cancer, and Alice in Wonderland. The recent part of the story began when I wrote a first chapter that had to be thrown out because it was way over-intellectualized. It was a history of attitudes toward death and dying over the course of civilization, beginning in Sumeria. As my editor said, “This is not a good place to begin.” I knew he was right, but I was confounded by the idea of starting all over again.

I had realized dimly (even before I sent the first chapter to him), that it was the wrong approach. It was the way I approach everything—first from the mind. I needed to start far away and creep on the thing. When that approach failed, I felt completely out of gas. In desperation I contacted the Universe. “Hey,” I said. “If I am going to do this book, you have to give me something. I need inspiration.” This is where Alice comes in. Alice in Wonderland was one of my favorite stories as a child. I briefly considered changing my name to Alice, though I never got the nerve to tell my Mother that. What came to mind, finally, was Alice asking the Mad Hatter “Are we dead yet?” Mind you, Alice never really says that in the book, so I was off on a search for what she did say. I sure remembered something about being dead.

So, it turns out that the first thing Google brought up was a set of articles by literary critics who argued that Alice in Wonderland was a story about dying—down the rabbit hole we go. How surprising! Alice came back to me just when I needed her. It also explained my fascination with Alice as a child. I have been thinking about death and dying for a long time indeed. Then, just about the time that I was writing about how people learn to cope with a terminal diagnosis, we learned that Don had brain cancer. I was beginning to wonder why this was happening to me. Six years ago, when my friend’s daughter committed suicide at the age of 12, this journey began when I went to Hospice of Santa Barbara for help in supporting my friend. Two years later, I was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer. Two years later, Don was diagnosed. I couldn’t shake the feeling that, somehow, I was stuck in a weird place.

I began to worry that people around me would die in traumatic ways because I was writing the book. As a developmental psychologist, I know that this kind of thinking is typical of four year olds, but I couldn’t stop feeling that I had somehow been appointed as the Angel of Death. In fact, I was worried that someone I knew would be murdered when I wrote the chapter on the subject. And, believe it or not, a friend of mine called to say that someone had tried to murder him. He had spent 36 hours in a coma, but, thank God, he had survived and was going to be okay.

You may want to steer a wide path around me these days, though I have finished the first draft of the book now and don’t expect more weirdness. I’m polishing it chapter by chapter and taking it with me on my vacation this month. We are going to Indonesia on a diving trip that Larry is planning. After the diving, we travel to Bali where I do know that a favorite tourist activity is participating in a funeral. That sounds like a perfect capstone to the story. I’m hoping the Universe will leave it at that for the time being. We return on the 5th of March and we leave on Monday.

I think I’ve said before that Carl Jung felt life should be lived mythologically and we should take advantage of the strange coincidences that mark our journey through this world. I’ve been taking his advice as best I can, so here I am, trying to make sense of it all, bumbling along, crafting my narrative and calling upon the Universe to make it worthwhile.

 

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Christmas 2017

christmas 2017

 

As you may have noticed, I have not written in some time. Last I wrote was about how happy things were in moment, as I recall. I have been reluctant to write you for some months now since the news is distressing and I didn’t want to write until we had something hopeful to say. As some of you know, my son-in-law, Lily and Emmy’s father, was diagnosed with Stage 4 brain cancer in August and it has been very up and down since then. The low point was just two weeks ago, at the end of the chemo and radiation (it lasted six weeks). The good news is that we are past that dark moment and Don is recovering nicely from the doctors trying to kill every cell in his body and all the drugs that go with it to control the side effects.

I have started letters two or three times, but became quite nervous about the effect it would have on you (my readers), ruining some nice day you were having. I know from my own case as well as from telling people about Don, that it can be very jarring to hear that someone has cancer advanced beyond the first stages. We are praying hard and holding out every hope that the MRI in January will show that the tumor has been defeated. All of your best wishes and kind thoughts have been appreciated so far and I know all of you who are just finding out will join the chorus. Thank you for that.

Meanwhile, we are learning how to find the joy in the moments we have. Don and Lex and the kids are on a lovely trip to Pismo Beach to recuperate after the treatment and the fire.  Good Lord in Heaven. The fire. Can you believe Santa Barbara and Ventura had a terrible fire on top of everything else? I don’t mean to be a whiner, but….come on! Our friends who lived in the hills were all evacuated. At the high point something like 18,000 people were out of their homes. Some of our friends came to stay with us until they found something more permanent (they were out for two weeks). The air quality around our house was so bad, they needed to get over the mountains to regain their sanity.  We were in Seattle most of the first week on a trip we had planned months ago, thank heaven.

When we got back, the ash was still falling and we were all wearing masks (man! I’m glad I’m not a surgeon or a wall board guy). We took Lily and Emmy and went to Cambria to see the million Christmas lights at the Christmas market and get away from the air here. It was absolutely wonderful to breathe your way through tunnels of Christmas lights. Manu took her two kids, Kaiya and Lukas, to Hermosa Beach to stay with friends because the baby’s nose had started bleeding from the pollution. Brett stayed here to work at the restaurant, but he was distressed because Santa Barbara was a ghost town and his normally busy Holiday season was dead as a doornail.  Many businesses were really hurt by the smoke and fear.

On the other hand, we got to witness an amazing display of smart planning, competence in motion, and downright heroism on the part of firefighters from all over the country. You might drive by a truck from Montana Fire or one from Colorado as well as all up and down the coast. Day after day they fought it like it was a dragon. They called it “The Beast,” and as you watched it crawl across the landscape, it retained the shaped of a dragon for quite a long time before they began to contain it. But, contain it they did. Today, we were surrounded by people smiling and breathing easily as they returned to their homes. The town was flooded by relief and last minute shoppers. What a fire it was. They say, by the time it is done, it will be the largest fire in California history.

The skies are blue again. They cancelled the Air Quality Warning. They sent most of the firefighters home for Christmas, though the fire may burn quietly for another week or two. The grocery stores are jammed and here we are ready for Santa. As Emmy informed Larry and me early this week, we have to be sure to take the fire screen down so that Santa won’t have trouble getting in. I certainly don’t want any more trouble! May your holiday be everything you wish for and your New Year twice as nice.

Love,

Judy

 

Mother’s Day, 2017

mothersday2

 

Picture: My sister, Gail with Lukas, Alexis (daughter), Lily (age 9), me, Emmy (age 5) and Manuela (daughter-in-law), and Kaiya (age 2 and a half)at  the beach on Mother’s Day

Carl Jung believed that, as we get more mature, we are able to identify with more and more of humanity, with the planet and, ultimately, with the Universe. We have stronger feelings of being connected to everything. I think I’m finding this to be true. This month, it includes feeling more and more connected to my Mother who died in 2001. It hit me a couple of mornings ago, watching myself put on make-up in the bathroom mirror. I suddenly though of all the times that I stood in the doorway of her bathroom, watching her put her make-up on in the morning and take it off at night. Last weekend, my granddaughters stood around and watched me get made up in the morning.

My Mother would say things like “Never wash your face with soap,” as she rubbed Lady Esther cold cream, swiped from the jar with two fingers, on to her face and began scrubbing it off again with Kleenex. “And put lotion on your whole body every day,” she’d say as she pulled the bottle of Jergen’s Cherry Blossom Body Lotion from under the sink. She went to bed with cream on her face and lotion all over her body every night. She always took a shower at night. So do I. We learned to get into bed clean. A shower in the morning is a nightmare in my book.

That feeling of connectedness is sweet. I felt it again the other night as we watched a program on CNN called “Jesus: Fact and Fantasy.” Each show begins with a recent archeological find and pulls back to the political and economic situation of the time and then zooms in again on the details of living every day.

Apparently, they have recently found a site where they believe Joseph and Mary lived when Jesus was a boy. The narrator casts Joseph as a successful artisan, who had a nice home (several bedrooms) and would have had disposable income (modern terms seem so odd in this context). Mary would have had some jewelry (glass beads, twine, shells). Mary was probably a spinner—an artisan herself, he notes. She probably owned some cosmetics—kohl around her eyes and something to pink up her cheeks. I suddenly felt like Mary could be the woman next door. The narrator speculated that she would have read the Torah to Jesus. He noted it was the responsibility of a Jewish woman to school her children in the Tanakh, the traditional texts of the Jews. Now, this point is disputed and one of my friends has argued that she was, most probably, illiterate. Nonetheless, being in charge of Jesus must have been a challenge, what with him running around arguing with the rabbi and so on.

It came to me that I felt connected to all women, back to Eve with her fig leaf, flowers in her hair or an African woman with rings in her ears and her nose. Cleopatra with kohl around her eyes. Women have been painting their faces (as my mother would have called it) and teaching their children since the beginning of time. It feels like these daily rituals are the ones that trigger that connected feeling. Funny how small actions link us to the largest feelings. Jung argued that we connect with the ancient archetypes of human race—Eve (mother), Cleopatra (warrior), Spider Grandmother (fire carrier for some native people), Empress, Crone, Sage.

In those moments of connectedness, I am filled with a sweet calm that is rare in this bustling house with friends and children and grandchildren. It’s a floaty feeling, a little nostalgic, maybe, certainly a faint longing. You can notice your breath go off into the universe. The Yogis tell us to breathe out compassion. Sounds like a good plan to me.

Here is a poem for Mother’s Day that I wrote maybe 30 years ago:

Second Thoughts

They take the last pickle in the jar,

drain cartons late at night and leave

juice on the window sills where

I can’t see it until it sticks to the glass.

Also, I have no juice in the morning.

They start stealing real small,

pens and pencils, working up to

five and tens, not to mention

twenty-five years from the middle of my

grown-up life including one track

of my mind even when I am supposed

to have a weekend to myself.

I hate them because they don’t know

how much better it is to have me for a mother

than my mother. They can’t imagine life

without Palm Springs or MTV, because

they don’t pull weeds or wash windows,

because I would rather die myself,

because I won’t ever know how it

would have been without them.

 

mothersday2

mothersday2

Equinox

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Sitting in a cafeteria-style diner that sells soup in New York City, having been served Asian Ginger Mushroom Soup with way too much cornstarch, I’m waiting for an 8:40 flight on Virgin Airlines to deliver Larry and Lily to JFK. Larry was seventy last month. Lily is nine. I will be seventy-three in March, and you know what? It is very fine—excellent, in fact.

There is a certain sense of joy and relief at being over seventy. I will, no doubt, find many things to gripe about and sorrows aplenty, just like in the rest of life. But, to my relief, I have turned out all right. It has all turned out, and I am as satisfied as a fat cat in a sunny winter window. Oh sure, things go wrong in my life, but the thing is, they cannot any longer have gone wrong early. ‘Early’ in my life has been over for a while now. No matter what happens from here on out, I’ve done all right, and I no longer have the time to really mess it all up. My kids are interesting adults. My grandchildren are handsome, healthy, and (of course) gifted.

I know that the world is in a state, and it troubles me often. The knowledge drives me to join up, to donate, to get trained, and so on; but I no longer worry about it  so much. The world has been in a state for all of my life. From Hiroshima (when I was not quite eighteen months old), through the Cold War and the War in Vietnam, right on up to the Clinton/Trump election, the world has always been in a state. There is so much to be done. There always has been, but I’m convinced that you can’t stop it from being in a state. Old age brings some certainties.

Meanwhile, I find much to appreciate. For instance: the people of New York, despite their harsh demeanor in restaurants, have been friendly to me at every turn. Maybe it’s my age. And I’ve noticed that these days the highway patrol peeps (especially the young ones) take one look at my license and then gently remind me to drive safely, preferably at under eighty miles an hour. (The frequency of this response is increased by mentioning that one is going to pick up, or coming home from dropping off, one’s grandchildren. And this has happened to Larry, too, so it isn’t only that I’m so insanely good-looking—for my age, of course.)

Having time to do small things—to read labels in the store, to nurture seeds, to go the extra block or two with the dog, to talk for an hour with a four-year-old—is lovely. Not doing things is also a luxury. Being able to take a nap in the middle of the day on a Tuesday is terrific. I used to say things like “What do you think I do all day? Lie around watching television and eating bonbons?” Drop by these days, and you might just catch me with a bonbon or two.

Furthermore, I have few regrets. I could have made other choices, taken different turns at many points; but since it’s all turned out pretty well, The Way It Could Have Been doesn’t haunt me. When I first began to study aging, I was struck by a piece of research that concluded that women over seventy worry less. I’ve been waiting ever since to see if that was true. Seems like it may be—though I am loth to tell you this, in case doing so should trigger a curse that then gives me something to worry about. Like how my mother used to warn me that she’d give me “something to cry about”.

So: I’m not crazy about aging, and I’d just as soon it stopped right now. But old age?

Old age—like old friends, old love, and many kinds of old cheese—is just fine

Dancing Penguins

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photo: Larry Severance

I thought I’d skip over the whole Holiday/Christmas/Hanukkah/ thing and go right for New Year’s Eve.  December can be intimidating.  For example, Muslims hold the traditional commemoration of the birth of Muhammad, complete with home and street decorations on either the 11th to 12th of December (Sunni), or the 16th to 17th of December (Shi’a). Did you know that Buddhists celebrate the Day of Enlightenment, referring to the day the Buddha was enlightened, on December 8th? Hindus celebrate the five-day festival of Lord Ganesha, the Patron of Arts and the Guardian of Culture, during the second week of December.

Of course, the 21st is the shortest day of the year, the Modraniht or Winter Solstice festival of the ancient Saxons. The Romans honored the deity Saturn on the 17th. Modern Humanists call December 23rd HumanLight Day, and Kwanzaa runs from December 26th through January 1st. The current tagline “Happy Holidays” certainly seems to underplay the gravity of these three weeks for the human race. Perhaps we’ve always wondered if the sun would actually return. What if we are abandoned in the dark?

It is so deep in our bones to yearn for light about now.  We have to inundate ourselves with errands and To Do lists just to stay awake. I certainly feel like hibernating when the sun starts to set at four‑thirty— or, in Seattle, even earlier. So, tonight, my dear friends, I have decided that something cheery is in order.  One of the great things about celebration, regardless of what you call it (or even what time of year it is): we get to dance.  It’s the dead of winter, and people all over the world are dancing.  So here is a poem for you about how much I love to dance.  I hope the New Year brings you ten new things you can love as much.

Judy

I can never hold still when
there’s a beat, even if it’s
ballet.  I feel my arms float up,
my calves tighten.  I want to
leap, to whirl, to grab my
tiara.  When it’s foxtrot, my feet
shuffle without my permission.
When it’s tango, my spine
stiffens, my head snaps, but
OH, when it is rock ‘n roll,|
there is no way to shut
down the need to wriggle,
to stomp, to fling myself up
hard against the music.
When I am a hundred and two,
I’ll be on the floor, face all
nonchalant, limbs akimbo,
wheelchair afire with
rhythm.  I’d die for sure
if I couldn’t dance.

RMP

Residential Moving Psychosis

Downsizing.

I’ve done it before, at least twice — once the second time I was divorced, and then again the year I moved to Seattle. But the thing is, I’d only owned each of those places for a year or two before I sold them.

Larry and I have owned the house that is our Seattle home for 27 years. Larry owned it by himself for three years before we married, and hasn’t cleaned the basement once in those 30 years. After the first time I fell down the basement steps, I never ventured down there much. But Larry accumulated 30 years of papers, photos, tools, sporting gear, old office machinery, paint and oil and cleaning fluid, and nice wood he might possibly use one day. You cannot help a person who considers sorting paper clips and rubber bands worth the while.

Moreover, basements are evil incarnate. (Can something inanimate be incarnate?) They’re full of dust and old spider webs. Sorting out 30 years of stuff that covers the whole spectrum from Completely Valueless Object to Prized Souvenir is a nightmare. The basement, attic, or garage where you do the sorting is only the dysphoric landscape where the monster lives. The box you haven’t opened since you stashed it there 30 years ago is the monster itself.

At first, I tried to help him. It was useless. After collecting a few relatively full bottles of Pine Sol and ammonia, I abandoned the project. Larry trudged on. Three days later, he had maybe a dozen boxes. Such a struggle we have with our stuff. People I’ve talked to about it, talk about cleaning out the house after their parents died. All right!

I’m never moving my own stuff again. They’ll have to dig me out of this house with a stick. Now that I’m old enough, I’m planning to leave all of the boxes that now reside in our garage in Santa Barbara for my children to worry about after I’m gone.

I’m beginning to feel that way about a lot of things lately. There isn’t really enough time left for me to fix anything that’s gone wildly wrong (and a few things have, for sure).

There’s a certain relief that the running of things is now off my shoulders. There’s a woman running for President this year, something I never thought I’d see; and I feel personally responsible for part of that, at least inasmuch as I pursued my own ambitions. I’ve put in my time as a feminist, and as an ally of the LGBT movement; I’ve tried to support the people of color I’ve encountered. So. Now I guess it’s up to Gen X and the Millennials. And they are so young! Egads, and so forth — as old people always say.

Layers

layerspainting by Lily Burdick, age 5

June was my last month as a member of the doctoral faculty at Fielding Graduate University. I am officially retired. I still have a few students as an adjunct and few projects to complete, but I feel retired. My friend, Kjell, is retiring too. It’s not the loss of the work that’s hard, he says, it’s the loss of identification. There is professional identification, of course, but there is also the identification with an institution. For many of us, loyalty to an institution and belief in its mission are important parts of life whether you create quality ice cream or change out hearts. You are a member of the faculty, of the bar, of the team.

For me, finding a new institution is an important part of my retirement. I have just finished training as a hospice volunteer and I see that one of the reasons people volunteer is not just to serve others but to serve an institution. I am passionate about the mission of hospice and I feel renewed purpose, enlivened curiosity and the desire to pull together with other people toward a worthy goal. Not being paid for it is, in some ways, the best part. The admiration and appreciation you feel from other people, especially the people who recruited you, is flat-out amazing.

More about hospice later, but, for now I must say that I hadn’t realized how many layers there are to this retirement business. It seems like the first frenzy is about money and health insurance, dental and long-term care. You will probably have those replaced by the time you actually leave a job (at least you should).  You have to have to replace it by the day after you leave because, if you wait, you could lose the chance to buy supplementary insurance.

There’s a layer about friends and routine and getting dressed in the morning. Some days, I miss my work clothes. It’s surprising, however, how easy it is to fill up the day by taking time with your tasks: reading labels, comparing prices, using a clay mask on your face. But I miss those casual work friends to grab for lunch, or to roll my eyes with when the boss is being a jerk.

Then there’s a layer about choosing bigger commitments than working out or watching Survivor with your spouse (sister, friend, grandchild). Volunteering is a commitment, but so is seeing the world.  It requires time and money and a certain kind of passion. There are hours spent booking a trip from Barcelona to Antarctica (Larry’s doing that in November) or trying to learn three words in Chinese. Getting good at anything (golf, tennis, piano, blog writing) requires commitment. Puppies and grandchildren count. There are jillions of choices.

Oh yeah, and then there’s getting old itself. You are old at 72, I don’t care how healthy you are or how good you look. My friends and I have multiple inexplicable symptoms. My teeth hurt; my eye twitches; a shaft of pain makes its way through my occipital lobe. I have various digestive problems. I can’t get up as fast as I used to, and things bag and sag and bulge. All of us see more doctors and (just like we said we never would) we talk about our health.

At the bottom of it all, of course, and in a completely new way, lies the giant hereafter, no longer a distant possibility but a near-term inevitability, which isn’t (as they tell us at Hospice) a bad thing, really.  Just a new thing that can deepen the experience of being alive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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