The Ticking Clock

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How can it already be September? Wasn’t it only yesterday that we were ringing in the New Year? When did tiny strands of grey appear in my hair. How did my knees come to ache when I walk too far? Wasn’t it only yesterday that I was able to run like a deer and see without the aide of spectacles? When did my long narrow waist become thick? From whence came the wrinkles and folds in my skin. Wasn’t I a young woman looking into the future with boundless dreams only a week or so ago? How does the same time that creeps in its petty pace suddenly race so quickly that I lose track of its passage?

I never thought of growing older. It seemed to be an aspect of life reserved for my elders. Somehow it rarely occurred to me that I might one day be respectfully called “mum” or “mother” as a sign of my advancing age. I look into the mirror and I see my twenty year old self, not the seventy year old woman who has lost two and a half inches of height and whose eyelids droop over her once big brown eyes. My brush accumulates more and more of my thinning hair and I have taken to wearing comfortable shoes rather than stylish pumps. The world and its future is being overtaken by younger women with ideas that sometimes seems as strange to me as mine appear to them. Yet somehow I find myself fighting to maintain my relevance, my purpose on this earth before I am called to one day leave.

My mother embraced her age as have so many women before me. I struggle to stay in the game, to be considered woke. Haven’t there been women my age running for President of the United States? Isn’t Ruth Bader Ginsburg still demonstrating an incredible acuity of mind? Who determines when someone should retire to a state of old age? Why should I simply sit back and watch the rising and setting of the sun without making efforts to squeeze every single second of meaning out of my existence? After all I come from a line of people who live for a very long time. If I make it as much time as two of my aunts I still have at least thirty more years to contribute to society. If I consider my grandfather I can tack on another eight years. People have entire careers in less time than I may still enjoy if I am true to my DNA.

The world is not the place it was. We are often able to keep our minds and our bodies vibrant far longer than once thought possible. Our appearances may change and we may move with less vigor, but our minds are as alive as ever. Coupled with the experiences that we have had we are in many ways the wise men and women of our time. We’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. We’ve endured triumphs and tribulations and learned from each of them. We understand that simple answers are rare, but there are solutions for even the seemingly most hopeless situations. We also understand that there comes a time when we must give the young the freedom that they need to learn how to be stewards of the world when it is time for them assume the leadership roles that we once held.

Hopefully the world that we leave behind will be somehow better for our having been here. I’d like to think that each of us will have a positive impact on some person or problem or advancement. Since there is still so much to be done, we should search for new ways of making a difference now that we are no longer part of the teeming race of workers who report to jobs each day. Ours may now be small almost imperceptible contributions that nonetheless are important. What we accomplish may be as simple as sending an encouraging word to a young person who is struggling to launch. Ours are now the quieter moments that touch individuals more often than creating a buzz in the crowd.

I am indeed older. I see loveliness in the hard work that shows on my hands. Unlike what people may think about someone of my age, I know that I am more open and forgiving than I once was for I have seen my own humanity and weaknesses. I have somehow overcome them with the grace and help of others. It has been in the kindnesses of even people that I did not know that I have been able to survive this long. Now I understand that it is up to me to continue to pay my blessings forward.

I do my best to spend a part of each day outside of myself. I have friends who are far more gifted in such ways than I am and they continually inspire me. I see them spending time at nursing homes and bringing smiles to people who are sick and lonely. I watch them unselfishly donating their talents to causes that make life better. I read their evangelical praises of God and know that they are living breathing angels of example. I am awed by them and do my best to emulate them in tiny ways. They are my peers who are not daunted by the passing of time and the aging of their bodies. They are good people who forget themselves and focus on others.

We live in a world that idolizes the young and the beautiful. That is perhaps as it should be, but those of us who are moving ever closer to the inevitability of closing the circle of life still have so much to offer. We need to spend each day with purpose and resolve. The truly beautiful are those who forget about their images in the mirror and instead devote precious time to benefitting the world just a bit more.

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When One of Us Hurts

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We can’t run and we can’t hide. Problems will find us no matter how hard we try to escape from them. Not only that, we can’t avoid the reality that all of us live in a symbiotic relationship even when we have never met each other. In fact, we intersect with all things on this earth and in our universe. The old adage that we feel a butterfly flap its wings in Africa is not that far fetched. Sooner or later the cumulative effect of our interactions and those of the natural world have an impact on us. To deny this simple truth is to threaten the very health of all humans and the survival of the earth.

We like to believe that when one person is hurting it has nothing to do with us. We may not have caused that individual’s problems, but there is almost always a kind of ripple effect that reaches out in all directions from someone with a shattered heart. In a million little ways each person has an impact not just on the people who know and love them, but on strangers who may not even realize their existence.

As parents we attempt to instill character and family values in our children. We often forget that they won’t always be with us. They will encounter people who may ultimately misguide or misuse them. Nothing hurts us more than seeing a loved one who has been degraded and disappointed by someone that they trusted. We would rather have to deal with something terrible ourselves than have to see family members or dear friends in pain, and yet such situations are very much part of human life. It’s critical that we teach our young how to work their way through the tough times because none of us fully escape them. It is impossible to be totally sheltered from hurt and betrayal.

Flexibility and resilience are two often ignored and underrated characteristics that help us to deal with tragedy. It’s critical that we take time to demonstrate to our young how to keep moving forward even when our path seems to be impossibly blocked. Providing them with a place where they feel free to vent and then communicate their fears is a first step in helping them to find solutions to the difficulties that plague them. Every person should understand the simple idea that there is always a way to resolve the conflicts in their lives. The outcome may be far different from anything they have ever imagined, but nonetheless a way of crawling out of the muck.

We don’t have to be filled with rainbows and unicorns and unrealistic expectations. Going to Disneyland is not always an answer to our prayers. Sometimes we have to endure tough times and work harder than we ever thought possible just to keep from falling into a pit of despair. It is in those times that we find our truest allies and friends and then it is incumbent upon us to always remember them when their moment of uncertainty occurs. We are in this crazy mixed up world together, and brawling over who is right and who is wrong only clouds the issues and delays solutions. Someone has to be the adult in the room.

Years ago my husband was critically ill with a disease that more often than not killed people back then. He was in the hospital for months undergoing chemotherapy in the hopes of a cure. I had two little ones at home that needed my care so I wasn’t always able to be with him. His mother on the other hand was able to sit by his side throughout his treatments. In all honesty I became jealous of her attention to him while I was stuck at home with the children. Even when I showed up at the hospital she took control of the situation and made me feel as though my concerns did not matter. I allowed a smoldering anger to build up inside until I was about to burst. I finally admitted my feelings to my mother who gave me absolutely perfect advice.

She reminded me that my mother-in-law loved her son as much as I loved my two daughters. She asked me to imagine how I would feel if one of my girls was in the hospital fighting to win a battle with a deadly disease. She said that this was not a time to have a contest of who loved my husband best because he was in a very difficult position and should not have to choose between his mother and his wife. Then she said that what was needed most was for someone to emerge as the adult in the room, someone who loved everyone so much that he or she was willing to step back and just go with the flow of things.

Of course she was not so subtly hinting that I needed to be that person. She suggested that I keep the home fires burning in my husband’s absence and let his mother sit by his side. She pointed out that each of us has a role to play in the many chapters of our lives and if we work together everyone will ultimately come out better. It was wise advice that I decided to follow. In the process I began to better understand just how interconnected we all were in the challenges that we face. I realized the love that prompted my mother-in-law’s seemingly overactive concern. Instead of thinking of how I was feeling, I began to empathize with her and with my husband. In that moment of understanding I saw the importance and the power of working as a team.

We delude ourselves if we believe that we can close our borders, lock our doors, hide in our rooms. The world will find us and if we have not embraced it before hand it will overtake us. For our own sakes and those of our children we must be willing to accept differing points of view and find ways to eliminate hurt and pain whenever we encounter it. When one of us hurts, all of us hurt and the best way to counter the suffering is to demonstrate compassion. One day it may be our turn to suffer and hopefully there will be unselfish souls to help us.

Longevity

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The leaders of Naples, Florida have embarked on a program designed to help its citizens live longer, happier healthier lives. To that end they studied five places around the globe where the average life span is above those of other cities and countries. Their research has revealed that there are indeed some things that we can do that appear to help individuals find better ways of living longer. Since embarking on this program the money spent on medical care has gone done and the life span of the populations has dramatically increased in Naples. So what are the simple ideas that seem to be doing wonders there?

Everyone is encouraged to eat healthier by particularly including more plant based menus in diets. Stores feature products and options that are known to produce longevity, and restaurants are vying to offer entrees that use healthy ingredients. The populace is responding positively by choosing healthier foods and exercising more. In fact, many employers are providing time during the work day for physical activity and offering attractive incentives and bonuses for those who participate. People are walking, biking and making exercise part of their daily routines. Schools are even opening early each morning so that children will have time to play outdoors or in gyms before settling down to academic routines.

The studies all demonstrated that having one glass of red wine each day also does wonders for the health and well being of adults. It’s becoming commonplace for the locals to pause for a glass of wine and fellowship each afternoon or evening. Whether it’s the wine or the time spent with others that is making the biggest impact isn’t certain but results are happening.

Those who have some type of religious beliefs or philosophies also appear to live happier and longer lives. Religion seems to lessen stress and provide people with a sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves. Those who have a purpose in life also do better, and so many religious activities encourage service to the community where everyone wins.

City planners are deliberately changing the environment of the city so that the locals almost naturally begin to adopt lifestyles that lead to better mental and physical health. There is an emphasis on being outdoors, gathering together, and eliminating stress when possible. Even the landscaping and building of roads is designed in the hopes of slowing down and enjoying the moment. Pleasant walkways have been added all over town and old roads have been reconfigured. There are cycle lanes that make it possible to get to work and run errands without ever needing a car.

The increased level of participation in the various programs has been almost exponential. As one person gets healthier others are encouraged to see what happens if they also change their ways. Everyone begins to benefit. The city’s longevity age has gone up to 83.1 years while that of the rest of the country is declining. People are enthusiastically embracing the lifestyle movement, even attending discovery classes that provide them with ideas as to how to feel more productive and part of the fabric of  society.

The hope is that the people of Naples will live longer without chronic illnesses or pain and that when it is time to die the end will be quick. In many parts of the world this is already happening, and aside from genetics, the places where this occur share the kinds of lifestyles that Naples is trying to implement for its citizens.

I suppose that I would not mind living to one hundred or beyond like some of my relatives have done. My only concern is that I might become a burden to my family and spend my final years in a reclusive state of pain or dementia. If I were able to enjoy my days as my grandfather did until the last few months of his one hundred eight years I would be eager to hang around for a very long time. Sadly I have too often seen the exact opposite of this where elderly individuals are confined to beds and wheelchairs with little stimulation or purpose day after day for years. They grow weary of waking up to yet another morning of slowly watching the hours tick by. Their children grow old themselves and become less and less able to care for their parents. Often the ancient ones end up all alone and at the mercy of care givers who may or may not be dedicated to making them comfortable and happy. It is one of the big secrets of our society that we tend to avoid because the thought of it is so unpleasant.

My doctor tells me that medicine is making great strides with hundreds of diseases that used to greatly restrict the lives of the elderly. He is confident that even within the next ten years people will be free of illnesses and conditions that now plague us. If that is so then we will need to plan for more and more old people living longer and longer. Hopefully those added years will be good ones.

Who Knows What The Future May Hold?

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I saw this chart on Facebook and laughed until my sides hurt. I’m not quite old enough to have undergone all of the listed changes, but I’m slowly moving in that direction. I worry the most about that new hip joint because of my osteoporosis. For the time being I still listen to acid rock while successfully treating my acid reflux with a little pill, and I often joke that if and when I do end up in a wheelchair I will be moving it to the beat of Satisfaction. In fact, I’m going to see the Rolling Stones in concert at the end of this month.

I have to admit to being amused that the members of that rock group are getting so old. I hand it to them for still having enough energy to go on tour, particularly Mick Jagger considering that he recently had open heart surgery. I have always liked his style and now he’s serving as an inspiration for all of us who are tempted to surrender to our aging bodies. If he can strut about for a few hours, then surely we can do those crunches at the gym and push ourselves to keep moving.

I’m happy to report that a cardiologist recently pronounced that he doesn’t think that I will ever need his services. My heart is strong and showing no signs of slowing down. When it comes to hair, however, I seeing major signs of thinning. I actually had someone recently suggest that I use a hair growth shampoo or consider adding some hair extensions or even investing in a wig. The truth is I had no hair when I was born and it took almost two years before I had enough to resemble a girl. I’ve fought and lost the hair battle for most of my life, so nothing is new in that regard. The good news is that even after five months of growth I have so little gray that most people would not even notice it. In that regard I appear to take after the people on my mother’s side of the family. Those women live long and with very few problems, but they usually end up unable to walk.

Recently I went to the nursing home where my one hundred year old aunt now lives. She looks remarkably healthy and has an astounding sense of humor even though she has a difficult time hearing these days. She laughed and joked the whole time I was there and but for the fact that she is wheelchair bound she doesn’t fit in the others who live around her. So many of the other people appear to be completely out of it, unaware of what is actually happening. I doubt that they would be able to hold a coherent conversation much less remember things the way my aunt can.

I suppose that if I am to live as long as the ladies in my family it won’t be so bad if I am as alert as they are. I’d pass my time reading and writing and watching a bit of television. I’d get some good hearing aides from Costco (Yes, I love going there!) and I’d manage to keep my mind busy. On the other hand, I have to admit that I don’t like the idea of being wheelchair bound but most people get there after a certain age. Having to roll around isn’t nearly as bad as losing memories or dealing with dementia. Besides my doctor tells me that some great therapies are on the horizon that will keep most people upright and moving much longer than people now do. He tells me that I may never end up confined to a wheelchair like everyone in my family has done once they reach a certain age.

I also have some of the genetics of my paternal grandfather who was a kind of superman. He lived to one hundred eight years of age and was clear headed and able to care for himself until his last few months. He was hanging wood panelling in his house and reading biographies of Thomas Jefferson well past one hundred. He only stopped driving because he felt that it was the appropriate thing to do. I have some of his same DNA in my body, so it’s likely that I will hang around for a quite a bit longer.

I’m not necessarily of the mind that long life is better. It all depends on what kind of life it becomes. I saw those poor souls sitting all alone in the living room of the nursing home, staring into the air and even making incomprehensible noises. I don’t know if they are suffering or not, but surely it must be difficult for members of their families to see them that way. I know that both my mother and my mother-in-law prayed that they would never have to be confined to months or years of being trapped inside minds unable to fully express themselves, and I have to admit that it seems quite sad when it happens to someone.

I suppose that none of us know how much or how little time we will have on this earth so the old saw that we need to make the most of each day becomes more and more true with each birthday. In 1979 I was thirty one years old and literally at the peak of my intellect, my appearance and my health. I laughed at the very thought of growing old. Now almost  forty years later I’m still going fairly strong, so I intend to make the very best of every single moment. I’m taking trips, attending rock concerts, enjoying family and friends. Who knows what the future may hold! 

Our Hidden Universe

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Photo by David Cassolato on Pexels.com

As an educator I have always been interested in the human brain and how it works. Sadly because it is so complex and we still have much to learn about it and what information we do have is sadly incomplete. Part of our difficulty in understanding it lies with the fact that we have only been seriously studying the brain for a little over a hundred years. Superstitions giving the brain a kind of spiritual aura actually prevented examinations out of a sense that it is wrong to invade the sacred nature of the mind. We are far behind the kind of knowledge that we have of our hearts and other organs of the body when it comes to the brain. Unlocking the inner workings of that most marvelous aspect of who we are may one day help us to eradicate some of the most life changing and difficult of the diseases that stalk us.

I dream of a day when we will literally be able to mend our brains in the same ways that we repair hearts. Surely the universe of our minds holds secrets to eradicating mental illnesses, learning difficulties, and other diseases that now so confound us. I can’t think of more challenging and ultimately rewarding research than studying how and why our minds work. As an educator I have seen the heartbreak of those who struggle to grasp ideas and concepts. As a caretaker I have watched my mother’s beautiful mind attacked by mental illness. As a friend I observed a delightful man slowly losing his ability to think and remember. I have seen the ravages of Parkinson disease steal away a cousin’s adventurous life, and I watched with horror as a brain tumor killed another a dear sweet loved one. I witnessed in great sadness as a friend succumbed to the ravages of ALS. It seems obvious to me that we need to support the people who are quietly working to find out how the mechanisms in the brain that control the very functions of our bodies work, and why the processes sometimes go awry.

I’ve often heard that we use only a small portion of our brain’s potential. Why is that so? Are the geniuses among us simply those who have unconsciously tapped into the power of their minds in a better way than the rest of us? What differentiates such souls from the crowd? Think of how wonderful it might be to truly understand how to coax more of those abilities out of each and every human. How exciting would it be to eradicate the kind of learning disabilities that educators see all of the time?

Our brains are encased in a bony structure that both protects them and hides their inner workings from us. We have machines that can record blood flow and even demonstrate where thinking is happening, but what we really know about the brain is rudimentary. It is as though we are still working with theories about humors and using leeches and blood letting to fix problems. Our psychotropic drugs work only sometime, and our therapies are often hit and miss at best. We do what we can with our limited knowledge and in the meantime some of the most intense suffering on earth continues in those with diseases of the brain.

I often think of how smallpox ravaged the world for centuries and is now almost unseen in the world. I dream of a time when we might be able to identify all forms of brain disease and cure them with medications or surgeries. I know that there are indeed individuals devoting their lives to discovering such miracles. We don’t often hear about them or even send our monetary support to their efforts, at least not until someone that we know is struck by brain disorders that rob them of the ability to care for themselves.

We spend a fortune on pizzas on the day of the Superbowl. We rush out to see the latest movies hardly thinking about the cost of entertainment. We treat ourselves to a four dollar cup of coffee without much regret. Our expenditures make us feel good, but think of how much better we might feel if they were deliberately aimed at the kind of research that is slowly unlocking more and more secrets of the brain. A slight change in our budgets here and there might allow us to invest in work that is as important as anything we humans do.

I know young people who are earnestly concerned about phenomena like PTSD, depression, dementia, strokes, multiple sclerosis. They want to earn the knowledge and the credentials that will allow them to delve into to inner workings of the brain, but doing so costs money that they sometimes do not have. It is important that we all agree to support the efforts of those who might one day discover how to eradicate some of our most confounding problems. The work may be tedious and may require more time than we wish, but in the end the efforts may lead mankind to solutions for difficulties that have plagued us since the beginning of time. If we can make to the moon or Mars surely we have the power to have better understanding of the hidden universe of our minds. 

We have the foundations for success in place. We just need to be sure that the momentum continues. Individuals and families are waiting for the answers that will change their lives and end incalculable suffering. They keys are inside our brains waiting to be found. This is who we really are as humans. By using the triumphant side of our natures to find the good, we may be able to counteract the conditions that cause us to despair. Then we will truly be able to proclaim, “What a piece of work is man!”