ELDER POWER: Growing Strong in Broken Places

ELDER POWER:

Growing Strong in Broken Places

by

Jamie Dedes

Authors, like coins, grow dear as they grow old; It is the rust we value, not the gold. – Alexander Pope

Originally published in the now defunct California Woman.

I come to this place of Elder Power through the experience of a chronic, potentially life-threatening illness. Illness is many things. It is a mentor, not chosen, not welcome, but a mentor nonetheless. It is a challenge that often breaks the bonds of affection, the temper of the spine, and the sharpness of the mind. It is a reminder to everyone involved of his or her fragility and mortality. Everyone is touched: family, friends, and colleagues. Everyone is changed and the good or ill of it is largely choice

My family and friends want me to help others by writing from a more clinical perspective, but it seems to me that the clinical lessons are less important than the life lessons. It is the life lessons that give us the strength to keep going, that are the true value to be shared, and that make us elders. To me “elder” implies more than “senior” or “senior citizen,” which I see as demographic terms for people who have reached retirement age. A senior is someone who has merely put in time, while elder is about attitude and state of mind. Elder implies one who has learned a few things along the way.

As a writer, it is the life lessons, not the clinical ones, which inspire and inform my work. I have learned, for example, that all humans are in process and therefore imperfect; and that, no matter what our differences are, the most important things are to remain open to communication and to accept and release our own follies and those of others. I have learned that neither illness nor threat of death preclude joy. I have learned that people who are joyful rarely do harm to themselves or others. I have learned that fear of death has to be directly addressed and then firmly put aside in favor of the business of living. As the saying goes: “It’s not over until it’s over.” Until then, we have responsibilities to others and ourselves. The only real difference between someone who has a life- threatening illness and someone who doesn’t is that the former is no longer in denial.

“If people bring so much courage to this world, “ wrote Hemingway in A Farewell to Arms, “the world has to kill them to break them. The world beaks everyone, and afterward, many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break, it kills. It kills the very good and the very brave and the very gentle impartially. If you are none of these it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”

I am not good, or brave, or particularly gentle. Sometimes I let it all get me down. I descend into fear. I am impatient with process, with taking meds and going for seemingly endless tests and doctors’ appointments. Maybe that’s why I’ve outlived my original expiration date by ten years. My mother used to say, “Only the good die young.” My best quality may be that under my protective shell of intractability, I actually am willing to be broken and reformed. I suppose only time will tell if I have grown “strong at the broken places.”

So, here I stand, after twelve years of battle, at the dawn of a bright new day in a body that is now significantly disabled and quite a bit older. It’s still a good morning and a good body. I recognize I once dealt with a worse handicap than my current disabilities. That handicap is commonly referred to as “youth.” I survived. Maturity on the other hand is a true boon, a gift to savor and enjoy with layers of luxurious nuance I had not anticipated. I do not long for my youth. I love my graying hair. I love my wrinkles and the loose skin on my neck. I love the mild deformity of my feet. These things remind me that I am still here after all. I will not dye my hair, though I have. I will not get chemical injections or cosmetic surgery. I will not use rejuvenating grooming products that have been tested on defenseless animals. I am inspired by civil-rights-era African-Americans who sported Afros, said essentially “this is who we are and what we look like,” and chanted “black is beautiful.” I am graying. I am wrinkled. It’s all lovely and lyrical and makes me smile. It’s about ripeness, not rottenness. It’s honesty: what you see is what you get. Aging is beautiful. With maturity, one finds character refined and perspective broadened, energy expands and compassion flowers. The experience of joy comes more easily.

As survivors, we owe it to those who have gone on, to live in gratitude for this gift of a long life. How ungrateful and what an insult it is to them for us to bemoan our maturity and yearn for our youth as we so often do. What an incredible waste of time and energy such yearning is. Many don’t survive childhood in their impoverished and war-torn areas. Some others don’t survive childhood due to congenital or other diseases. My sister died by her own hand when she was twenty-seven. I have a wonderful, talented, smart friend in her mid-thirties who will pass within three months from this writing. Like you, I have relatives and friends who didn’t make it to fifty, much less sixty or seventy. All things considered, aging is a gift not a curse.

Some of our power comes from our sheer numbers. I read somewhere that we are some six hundred million strong worldwide. In each of our countries, we represent a huge political constituency, a lucrative market, and an enormous fount of energy, experience, and expertise. If that isn’t power in this modern world, what is? What a force for peace we could be. Some of our power comes from consciousness. We are awake now. We have learned how to live in the moment and how to live joyfully, hugely. That alone is a lesson to share. Some of our power comes from more time and focus. Many of us are retired or semi- retired or on disability, or soon will be. Implicit in that is the time to keep abreast of issues in our communities, countries, and our world. We can take the time and make the effort to get accurate information, to analyze carefully, and to share appropriately; that is, in a well considered, non-inflammatory, non-sensational manner. We can act with grit and grace.

Let us show that we are strong in the broken places. Let those of us who have this gift of long life seize on it and ply our elder power. Let’s live with joy, do good, and have fun. Most of all let us be generous with our love. Soon enough, when the time is ripe, our bodies will return to the earth. Our spirits will go wherever spirits go. The river of earthly life will continue to flow. Our children will see us reflected in the eyes of their children. Our grandchildren will strain to hear our voices in rustling leaves and breezes that whisper to them in the night. They will seek us out in moonlight and the warmth of the sun, in the roar of the oceans and the gentle meandering of a lazy brook. They will find us in the good earth and in the good hearts of the lives we’ve touched with concern and compassion.

© 2009  photo and essay, Jamie Dedes All rights reserved

PERSPECTIVES ON CANCER #31: Isolation

Although this book concerns living with chronic illness … which may not be life-threatening but is certainly quality of life-threatening … many of the issues Toni Bernhard discusses are relevent issues for cancer patients. Not the least of these issues is isolation. The book is available online through Barnes and Noble and Amazon or through the publisher HERE. Three thumbs up on this one. A recommended read. Jamie Dedes

HOW TO BE SICK:

A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers

by 

Toni Bernhard

“All human beings need the company and support of others. We create our world together. But community can be a tremendous challenge for someone who must spend a lot of time in bed or must suddenly take to bed in spite of plans to be with others. The Dharma places a very high value on community, which is called sangha. The word originally referred to the disciples of the Buddha. It then evolved to include Buddhist monks and nuns. Today sangha refers to the entire spiritual community that supports a practitioner . . . .

“Before I got sick, I was active in several Buddhist sanghas. I co-hosted a weekly meditation group with Tony [Toni’s husband]. We used a local meeting hall every Monday night. At least once a month, I would lead the sitting and then give a talk. We also hosted a monthly group at our house in which we discussed Dharma readings that Tony and I chose and distributed each month. The readings were the starting point for a spirited and often humorous two hours of reviewing our lives since we last met. This was sangha at its richest for me. Tony still hosts this group at our house.

“When I got sick, I could no longer participate in these activities, even though the meeting hall is three blocks away and the monthly group is a room away . . . . In addition to losing this precious source of spiritual support, I had to adjust to the social isolation that accompanied the illness like night follows day.

“‘It’s hard to distinguish between the effects of my illness and the effects of isolation,’ wrote a member of an online support group for people with an illness similar to mine. I, too, have days when the isolation feels like the illness itself. People who are house-bound are not just isolated from one-on-one personal contacts. We are often isolated from nature and even from the warm feel or a friendly crowd. Our best bet to see the changing seasons is on the drive to and from a doctor’s appointment, but this is often a stress-filled outing. Similarly, our best bet to be in a crowd is in the waiting room at the doctor’s office—not the most comfortable or uplifting of settings. I recently read a blog entry from a woman with chronic fatigue syndrome in which she said she went to get a blood test a week early just to be around people.”

© text and cover art, Toni Bernhard, 2011 all rights reserved. Blogged here with the permission of the author. No reblogging without Toni Bernhard’s permission.

Video uploaded to YouTube by . I’m the author of “How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers” (Wisdom Publications 2010). The theme of the book is that illness and wellness are not mutually exclusive. Our bodies may be sick or otherwise disabled, but our minds can be at peace. For reviews and other information, including where you can order the book, please go to How To Be Sick.

♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

Toni Bernhard fell ill on a trip to Paris in 2001 with what doctors initially diagnosed as an acute viral infection. She has not recovered. In 1982, she’d received a J.D. from the School of Law at the University of California, Davis, and immediately joined the faculty where she stayed until chronic illness forced her to retire. During her twenty-two years on the faculty, she served for six years as Dean of Students.

In 1992, she began to study and practice Buddhism. Before becoming ill, she attended many meditation retreats and led a meditation group in Davis with her husband.

She lives in Davis with her husband, Tony, and their hound dog, Rusty. Toni can be found online at How To Be Sick. [Bio courtesy of Wisdom Publications.]