Springtime and an Older Woman’s Fancy

From my second story apartment each window looks out on a tree in a different stage of re-leaving.  The sycamores across the parking lot are almost fully bushed out and the redwoods, of course, have been green all year.  I don’t know the names of the trees that are planted closer to the building, but two trees of the same variety, one of which I can see from my office, have shiny, small, red-tipped leaves that first appeared a couple of weeks ago.  The tree outside my living room window, on the corner of the building, has feathery leaves that are just beginning to appear.  I can almost feel the life energy bursting through the woody layer on the end of the branches.

I have just passed what to me was a rather significant birthday.  You might think that passing a birthday would make me feel old, but the opposite happened.  Since my birthday is in the spring, I have always associated my special day with the perennial themes of rebirth and regeneration.  The joyful, childlike energy of the birthday celebration arranged by my friends, with balloons, cake, and presents; helped me feel younger.  I still enjoy the feeling of being the center of attention, if only once in a while.  I had my hair and nails done, and dressed up for the occasion in a brightly colored, bejeweled top.  I felt excited and exciting.  All you need is the feeling.

Many of my neighbors plant gardens way beyond the official allotment of five plants. Getting our hands in the earth and fostering growth is as much a part of spring as getting out our flip-flops and sleeveless tops.  Some of the young women I see on my walks are wearing short dresses.  They remind me of poppies with long stems and colorful, billowy skirts.  I pick bright colors to wear, even if I’m not going anywhere.  We are, after all, a part of the planet, made of the same materials as the plants and butterflies.  That push to come out and blossom is in all of us, young and old.

May Day is upon us.  This holiday has been all but forgotten, and I wonder why.  Is it the association with socialism?  Perhaps we’re no longer repressed enough to celebrate a fertility festival without stripping down and going at it?  Most likely, it’s a simple matter of revenue.  You can sell more stuff by emphasizing Mother’s day and even Cinquo de Mayo, than May Day.  Hallmark has become the arbiter of our cultural manners, mores, and celebrations.  Would Bali let that happen?  Could a profit based spiritual calendar be established in Tibet? I doubt it.  But I digress.

Mayday is an ancient feast day dating back to the earth-based religions of Northern Europe.  It is indeed a fertility festival, based on the obvious connection between our own increased randiness at this time of year and the blossoming plants producing fruit and eventually seed.  The decorated Maypole represented – ahem – an erect phallus, and the dancing was intended to celebrate, join with, and bring about the fecundity of the planet so that everyone would have fat, happy, beautiful babies and plenty of food to eat.  The old Soviet May Day parade, by the way, was only incidentally related to what I have just described.  It dates back to a general strike that happened in the United States in the late nineteenth century.  It happened on May Day.  The children of that time no doubt danced around the Maypole without any idea what it represented.

May Day was a pretty big deal when I was a child in Berkeley in the 1950s.  Almost everyone had  calla lilies in their gardens in those days, and we all brought them to school.  We practiced our dances for months.  The lilies were dyed various pastel colors and used to decorate the school, the poles (usually used for tether ball) and a huge float.  There were thousand of them.  Crepe-paper streamers were hung from the poles and we danced in and out around them, each holding a streamer, in a complex pattern that resulted in a weave of colors on the pole.  It was beautiful.

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Helping Each Other

When I arrived at my new apartment complex, I noticed several signs posted on the bulletin board of the clubhouse.  One of them caught my eye.  It read, “Free Help.”  The page was filled with possible kinds of help this person was offering, mainly in the area of tech assistance, but ranging into other areas such as fixing furniture and appliances.  It had a man’s name and phone number at the bottom.  Fresh from the “real” world of financial gain and competition, I found myself wondering what the “catch” might be.  Perhaps he just wanted to meet people, or it could be a clever business scheme.  After the first sample of free assistance, he could present the hourly bill for the next service.  One could imagine other, more malicious motives, but my mind doesn’t normally go there.

A month or so later, I met the gentleman.  I had seen him many times around the complex, helping out at the food bank and engaging in friendly conversation with other residents.  There was no catch.  He just wanted to help.  I found out that this kind of neighborly service happens daily, in many ways.  One woman helps her low-vision neighbor select groceries.  Another helps friends navigate the social service system.  A man introduces himself, saying “I help people lift things.”  As one neighbor put it, “We are all in the same boat.”

Some years ago I went camping with a friend.  He decided to take a walk and I held back an impulse to remind him to take his jacket.  This was the residue of many years as a wife and mother.  I thought, “No, that’s not appropriate.  He’s an adult and he can take care of himself.”  Later, as I sat by myself in the shade of an oak tree, I thought about my impulse to help and the equally unthinking, culturally derived decision not to say anything.  I realized a spouse or partner would have mentioned the jacket.  In family groups, we take care of each other.  They say married folks, at least married men, live longer.  These simple acts of caring must be part of the reason.

As we get older, we need each other more, not less.  And yet many of us end up living alone.  Baby boomers, forever hopeful that there is a better situation out there somewhere, end relationships at any age.  Among other demographic situations originating with our age group, I predict there will be a greater number of single seniors in their sixties and seventies.  Previous generations, who may also have divorced and remarried, tended to stay partnered as they got older.  Baby boomers may not follow that pattern.  A lot of us will grow old single.  We need to develop new habits and institutions to provide ourselves the same life-giving edge enjoyed by our married cohorts.  We need to look out for one another.

Dinner for One

Getting adequate and proper nutrition is a problem for many seniors, for a number of reasons.  Financial difficulties are significant, and in today’s economy no doubt a widening concern.  Some people are not well-informed about nutrition and some don’t know how to cook.  Flagging appetites also have an impact.  If you can’t afford the groceries and you don’t feel like eating, why bother?  Make no mistake, cooking is a bother.  These days, on a limited budget, eating out is not a likely solution, at least not very often. Most often, what is convenient and affordable is a nutrition disaster.  The only restaurants within walking distance of my apartment are Wendy’s and Denny’s.

But, what is important to older people is our health.  Feeling good makes each day a precious, magical gift and feeling lousy physically makes life a complete drag.  I suppose this has always been the case, but it is just more obvious now, the great days being rarer and more precious.  When young, we also waste more time feeling bad psychologically although perfectly healthy physically.  School, jobs, and relationships can have that effect.  At any rate, to optimize the good days it makes sense, among other things, to eat our fruits and vegetables.

At one time I was quite a good cook.  More recently, I’ve enjoyed it less and lost the knack, somewhat.  But never, in all this long, food-filled lifetime have I prepared three meals a day, and for only one person – myself!  I have always cooked for an audience.  I did my best work for a table full of guests, but I whipped up a pretty mean candle-lit dinner for two as well.  If forced to eat alone, I would eat out at a nice lunch spot or, if worse came to worst, heat up a frozen dinner.  Now I set the table, cut up the greens, saute the fish, sit down and enjoy the meal solo.  Then I clean up the dishes and a few hours later I do it again.  Awkward at first, I am starting to get the swing of it.

When I was younger and cooking for a household, the meals I turned out, especially dinner, were square.  They included something from each of the basic food groups.  For example; fish, rice, squash, and salad.  Possibly dessert.  But I’ll be darned if I will cook four or five little portions of each thing for myself every evening.  Some people like to cook larger portions and reheat, but I have never been great with that.  The same meal every night for a week is quite a bore.  I find myself throwing away moldy bits of this and that and munching on a cookie.  Instead, I decided you don’t really need each of the food groups in one meal, it’s fine to have them in one day, thus, a salad for lunch and a turkey sandwich for dinner, or vice-versa.  This way, I need only cook one dish at any one time, and I can put time and attention into making it delicious.

Omelet with Goat Cheese and Chives

1 egg

1/2 c. milk

salt to taste

1/4 – 1/2 c. creamy goat cheese

1/4 cup chives, chopped

Beat the egg, milk, and salt together with a fork.  Set aside.  Heat the pan on high until hot, then lower the heat and pour in the egg mixture.  Sprinkle the chives and dollops of cheese on top of the egg.  When cooked solid on the bottom, fold the omelet in half.  Cook a little longer, then flip and cook the other side for about a minute.  Remove and serve.

Aches and Pains

One of my new friends here is a tall, slender, vivacious woman in her eighties.  She is so bubbly that I am tempted to describe her as a girl in her eighties, but political correctness and some concern that – this would be a long shot – she may be offended, restrain me.  She always seems positive and up for any adventure, in spite of the fact that she was recently in the hospital due to hemorrhaging.  Today, she had difficulty getting up from her chair.  Another woman and I encouraged her to see a doctor.  She insisted that no, she wanted to see if  the problem would away on its own, first.  She said, “if he (the doctor) is young, single, and good-looking, I’ll go.”

I came home from the gathering feeling really tired, worn out.  Who knows why?  Sometimes I feel this way.  Am I getting sick?  What is that pain in my chest, my knees, my shoulder, my stomach?  It has been my habit to call my doctor about anything that might possibly be slightly wrong.  I have been to the ER twice with migraines.  It’s becoming obvious that I can’t go on running to the doctor with every ache and pain.  For one thing, medicare doesn’t cover every single office visit and each esoteric pill like my previous medical insurance.  I’m sure I’ll have much more to say about that soon.  But, more importantly, as I’m learning from my friend;  as we age we face a choice:  Is our life going to be about our aches and pains, or is it going to be about living?

I – with some reservations – subscribe to a philosophy, a central tenet of which is that our thoughts create our experience.  We may not have control over events in our lives (here the philosophy becomes subtle and complex, because ultimately we do have responsibility for what happens to us) but we definitely have control over our response to these events.  One person could total his car and experience anger and resentment, while another person might say, “This is great!  Time for a new car,” or even,”a perfect reminder to stop driving and use more sustainable transportation.”

Thoughts, of course, are carried in words.  When I complain about my aches and pains, not only am I a smashing bore, but according to this philosophy I am potentially creating even more anguish for myself.  I think after a certain age, people understand this.  Social conditioning takes over, and to avoid total isolation, most of us learn to shut up about the upcoming operation, the blurry vision and need for new glasses, the arthritic pain and trouble standing up.  We learn to grin and bear it.  This doesn’t mean that the dialogue inside our heads has stopped, or that we will really be free of disease just from pretending it isn’t there.  That takes a much more thorough approach.  For now, I am learning to shut up.