Thursday, November 06, 2014

Make Friends with a Cane

"Please, do make friends with a cane."
Around the age of 55 my knees began to give me trouble. That did not fly with my profession as librarian and teacher in middle school. Two arthroscopic knee surgeries (roto-rooter jobs cleaning out debris cause by osteoarthritis) bought me a bit more time. In the process I made friends with a cane. By the age of 61 the friendship served me well while recuperating from double knee replacement surgery. I am happy for this friendship, especially when I see disasters waiting to happen all around me.
On November 2 and 3 the New York Times ran two articles on fall risk for the elderly: "Bracing for the Falls of an Aging Nation" and "A Tiny Stumble, a Life Upended" both by Katie Hafner". These are worth reading and sharing with older friends and family. Denial reigns. The statistical risks are frightening; the complications from falls are innumerable. Yet, as the articles report, safety measures like life alert pendants, canes and walkers are resisted, often to disastrous end. When my mother, already in dementia, was 88 I told her she really needed to use a cane. Her response, "Oh no, I don't want to look like an old lady." I told her, "You already are an old lady!" When walking aides are introduced after dementia sets in it is difficult to master the habit of using them. Not habituated to reaching for her walker, my mother rose one night in assisted living to use the bathroom. Just standing beside her bed she lost her balance, fell and gashed her head on the bedside table. She lay on the floor  for hours bleeding profusely. Although no bone was broken and the gash required only 6 stitches she remained in the hospital for 5 days, required time in a nursing home and is now a permanent resident there. There is something to be said for getting used to using a cane or walker while you can still master the process.
This message may seem a bit premature for me and my peers but not so. We may not need one all the time but can certainly use the assistance of a cane when conditions are treacherous - hiking in the woods, long tourist walks in unknown territory, icy conditions.
It pays to have one handy, have it sized correctly and know how to use it properly. At the age of 64 a tall healthy male friend of mine slipped on ice outdoors. He was not found for half an hour. He had dislocated his shoulder, damaged his knee and done terrible nerve damage. Two surgeries later after nine months in a nursing facility, living on narcotic painkillers and completely separated from his normal life of independent travel and teaching all over the world he is finally getting his life back. But his body will never be the same.
So pick out something useful but elegant. Keep it handy. Don't be too afraid or too proud, or like my mother too vain to use it. And know that people are very nice to those using a cane. This is especially true while traveling by air which has become an almost intolerably uncomfortable process. Ultimately it can be your best friend.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

All Souls' Day Reflection

A Gift of Presence
for the Digital Age
Reflection presented at
All Soul's Day Prayer Service Concert
St. Joseph's Church, Kingston, NY

We have so much in common today. We have all come to remember and celebrate those who have gone before us. Although we come in different stages of grief, with different flavors of remembering, our interior questions are probably quite similar. “How can I handle this? Where do I go from here?” The fortunate among us may have had a wise soul or a spiritual guide offering a willing ear. These treasures, like my spiritual director, share our sorrow and tears. They remind us that Jesus who wept at the death of his friend Lazarus is a companion in our sadness and grief. But then my spiritual director, as all good directors should do, asked the big questions. “And what is God saying to you in all of this? What opportunity is God asking you to find in your grief?”
          Bereavement is an experience of the loss of a presence in our lives; a presence that may have been influential, someone involved in our lives, available and responsive. However, it is also possible that we are grieving not only the loss of a person but also regretting the opportunities we missed to enhance our relationship with that person while still alive.
          Since we experience so keenly now the absence of a presence in our lives; since we may regret lost opportunities to be present, to be in meaningful relationship with the one who is gone; could it be that our loving God is inviting us to a new awareness of the quality of our own presence in the lives of others? Can this invitation be translated into a quality of presence that makes us better listeners, more generous with our time, more compassionate in response, and much less the masterful know it all problem-solver?
          Jesus was generous with his presence, so generous that he had time to see, really see people, even to seeing into their hearts. While in the midst of crowds he was attentive and he noticed. He noticed the tax collector Matthew bent over his coins. He noticed Zachaeus who had scrambled up a tree to get a better view. In both he saw a generosity of heart invisible to others. He felt the hand of the sick woman touch his cloak in the press of the crowd; stopped his forward momentum and took the time to praise her faith and provide the cure she sought. And when an unnamed woman approached him during a feast at Bethany he accepted her gestures of devotion even when others objected. He allowed her to anoint his body with fragrant perfume and with his words memorialized forever the depth of her love.
Speaking of feasts – the Gospels indicate that Jesus liked dinning with his friends. He liked to linger at table, hearing their questions and responding to them with homey yet instructive stories. His presence was gift.
          As Christians we are asked to imitate Jesus in all things. In our sense of loss is a seed, the seed for growth in Jesus’ quality of attentiveness to others. It is an invitation to grow into a more radical form of personal availability, of listening, of presence than has been our ordinary habit. This is a contemplative attitude toward relationship. It is a Jesus attitude. It also happens to be a very timely antidote to an explosion of communication without depth or feeling experienced this digital age. We find ourselves participating in a frenzy of communication. I am as guilty as anyone – busily at work as webmaster, Facebook page organizer, blog poster, e-mail user and most recently trying to master the I-Phone.  I would not give them up. These digital tools can be used to spread the Gospel Word, to work more efficiently, to just keep in touch. But texts, e-mail, tweets, blogs and Instagrams cannot provide an arm around the shoulder, a listening ear, a gift of quality time in family or with friends. Digital communication does not allow for reading the expression on a face, the tremor in the voice, or the body language that speaks in silence. This is the very quality of the one on one human presence, face to face, in the now that we miss in grief for our loved one and what we may wishing we had offered in the past.
          Consider the invitation that God may have wrapped up in your loss. Consider the invitation to a more loving quality of attention, awareness, and availability in all of your daily interactions. These may come at the kitchen table, in the line at the supermarket, at the next soccer game, or when all you hear is the sound of the TV and everyone’s head is bent over one device or another. It is a very timely appeal in our current technological age. This is the stuff of which our spiritual lives are made. Our response may be the finest tribute we offer in memory of our loved one, the quality of whose presence made such a difference in our life.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Halloween Remembered

Am reading a very interesting book entitled The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of the American Community by Marc J. Dunkelman, New York: Norton, 2014. This essay speaks of the quality of community that is lacking in many places these days. This Halloween memory is vivid for all who knew the Schultz family in Kingston, NY.
Mr. Shultz

Early every morning, except for the last few months, he walked past my house headed for the bakery and a copy of the New York Times. Rejecting jogging sneakers and shorts, he wore all-purpose leather shoes with khaki work pants and favored the layered look topped by a worn plaid shirt. A rumpled tan fishing hat completed the look of a man prepared for some woodland adventure. His once tall lanky frame now somewhat bent from academic pursuits maintained a steady unaffected stride. He was Mr. Shultz. I never got to know him better than that because he lived a few blocks away. He was just Mr. Shultz whose house my sons and I had visited once a year on each of twenty Halloweens in response to the offer of cider and doughnuts for any trick-or-treater, young or old, who needed a place to catch his breath, hide from ghosts and goblins, or duck barrages of shaving cream.
            Mr. and Mrs. Shultz rearranged the cherry and oak antiques and Chinese porcelains in their living room each All Hallows Eve. After covering half of the room with painters tarps, they placed indestructible wrought iron furniture at the periphery of the protected area and set out long maple benches laden with bowls of doughnuts and cool, refreshing cider. Family and friends gathered to view the costume parade from the intact end of the room while sipping an evening cocktail. Mrs. Shultz ladled out cider. Mr. Shultz extended a warm greeting at the door. The only requirement for visitors was that each sign the guest book where attendance could be verified and compared to statistics kept since 1946. Could that first Halloween open house have been a joyous celebration of long-awaited peace, a welcome to those boys who returned from war along with Mr. Shultz, or a tribute to the memory of past trick-or-treaters who did not come home? I never asked.
            Two days ago, Mrs. Shultz died at the age of seventy-five. A detailed obituary in the daily paper mentioned the Halloween open houses. Its straight forward narrative filled out the character of Mrs. Shultz beyond that of hostess feigning fright at diminutive ghosts and admiring awe for dainty fairies. She had graduated from Vassar, raised four children, founded the Boys’ Club, managed a business, sat on numerous boards, and loved Mr. Shultz for over fifty-three years. It seemed fitting to pay our respects to Mr. Shultz on this occasion out of sync with the annual round but in memory of that Halloween hostess and accomplished woman.
            At Carr’s Funeral home, a daughter greeted us. We explained that we had been Halloween visitors. She replied, “Isn’t it wonderful that the paper included that in the obituary. Of course, my father wrote it.” Turning from another conversation, Mr. Shultz took my hand in immediate recognition and acknowledged my son. “We’ve come in memory of Halloween, “ I said. “Oh, I’m so glad. Wasn’t it great of them to put it in the paper. Did you sign the book?” We nodded. My son said, “I should have written that we came because of Halloween.” “Oh, please do that,” said Mr. Shultz, “we’d love it.” He continued to hold my hand as another daughter approached saying, “I see that Kermit the Frog has arrived.” My son and I marveled at her memory. We chattered in a highly self-conscious struggle to express the heartfelt. Mr. Shultz seemed a little more bent, pale and lost. Our hands had parted as he spoke of not knowing what to do about Halloween. I told him that the obituary was beautiful and that his wife’s achievements had impressed me so. Unexpectedly my eyes filled with tears and my lips quivered a bit as I praised her accomplishments and devotion. Mr. Shultz’s face began to glow, his features becoming more animated. As we said our “good-byes”, he expressed his gratitude for Halloween visitors. I took his hand to shake in parting, a final gesture of sympathy for the loss of his wife. He raised it to his lips and kissed it. With eyes steadfastly focused on mine, he said, “Thank you”, appreciating me for appreciating her.

Hildegard Pleva