edging towards spry

My first expand-your-vocabulary class took place in church. My family attended every Sunday, and the Christian (specifically Presbyterian) hymns I grew up singing are imprinted on my brain. I was an early reader, so from the age of four, I first read, then memorized the words to countless hymns after repeatedly singing them over 17 years of weekly church attendance. The lyricists of the hymns were poets (of varying talents), and I now recognize that the some of the vocabulary is quite sophisticated. How long would it have been otherwise before I learned words like “foretaste,” “diadem,” “chastened,” “wondrous,” and many more?

Gorgeous phrases, like “Tune my heart to sing thy grace” (Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing), “echoing their joyous strains” (Angels We Have Heard on High), “fast falls the eventide” (Abide with Me), and “The fellowship of kindred minds” (Blest Be the Tie that Binds) fell from my child’s lips effortlessly, and in most cases, I accurately deduced their meaning from context. (One exception is that for many years, I thought that “tribulations” was the opposite of “trials” — why else the phrase “trials and tribulations?” Must we always focus on the negative?)

So why am I writing about this? Well, one of the new “senior” activities I’m engaging in these days is a twice-weekly Silver Sneakers chair yoga class (free to those of us with a Medicare supplement plan). It takes place in the Family Life Center of the Baptist megachurch across the street from our patio home community, so it’s convenient. It feels quite nonsectarian, with the only churchy thing about it the recorded music played during the Tuesday class: back-to-back hymns played on the piano. At least 70% are very familiar to me, and give me something to think about during what might otherwise be boring and tedious. I’ve never been good at emptying my mind to get in touch with my body — perhaps it’s work ethic instilled in me by all the hymns and sermons? But it’s sometimes difficult to keep myself from singing the words I remember so well. Today, in fact, I couldn’t keep myself from (gently) belting out, “This is my STOry, this is my song…” but no one joined me, so I stopped.

The pandemic and our encroaching age have led to major changes in our lives. My retirement in June of 2020 was the first decisive (non-elective, but welcome) turn onto an unmarked path, shifting from an overly busy life into one with many more hours of unscheduled time. I began to unwind, accustoming myself to living a more inward, calmer life. I started this blog as an open journal for myself and anyone else interested in my ramblings. After a year and a half, we took our first vacation, one of the only safe ways to liven up a pandemic. We spent the month of October 2021 at an Airbnb in Flagstaff, AZ. Being there recalled my childhood and youth in Colorado Springs, but a thousand feet closer to the sun. As I wrote in my post of February 9, 2022, a few months later, we ended up buying a house just outside Flagstaff on Highway 180.

I guess the turmoil of adding a second home wasn’t enough upheaval for me. On March 9, I had my second knee replacement, so we didn’t fully move up to Flagstaff until the end of May. Up to that time, we had not seriously considered selling our over-large house in Phoenix, but after a few days in the Flag home, we both decided it was time. So the happy anticipation of months of summer in relative coolness turned into months of chaos, hard work, and high anxiety (with the added bonus of Phoenix heat). We sold the big house, found a patio home, and somehow unburdened ourselves of 75% of the belongings we had at some point thought vital to our well-being. (Turns out they weren’t.)

During the two physically and mentally arduous months of transition, I managed to almost completely un-rehab my knee and otherwise let go of any attempt at “self-care,” as they call it these days. I ate at every opportunity with no holds barred — French fries, desserts, many between-meal snacks that felt essential to sustain my flagging energy. By mid-August, when we were finally able to escape from our “new” Phoenix patio home to return to the mountains, I was spent. I passed many hours in my favorite small recliner, listening to podcasts or audiobooks, playing solitaire on my phone, and looking out at ponderosa pines, birds and our dog Mac running around chasing squirrels. My body felt beyond repair, my spirit exhausted.

I had finished this post, then decided this long narrative section needed a photo to lighten it up. I looked for one of Mac running around our property, and found instead this one of him sitting on a bunch of colorful pillows. It’s like me to have forgotten one of the few bright spots in the summer. Our first guests to our Flagstaff home at the end of May were my college friend Kim, a master quilter, and her partner, Tom. Tom helped Richard with many hands-on projects at which he (Tom) excels. Kim taught me to make a simple 9-block quilt and turn it into a pillow. I was hooked (in a small way). I don’t think I have it in me to make an actual quilt, but the colors! I bought enough fabric to make at least fifty pillows and started to churn them out during one blessed week in Flag just before we returned to Phoenix for the actual move. It was a short interval of peace, offering an opportunity to be productive while sedentary — a perfect combination to both appease the demands of my Protestant work ethic and allow my body to rest. When our Book Club visited, just before we left for the big move, they were each forced to take one of the many pillows that had piled up.

I have always had elderly folks in my life, and I’ve observed how as they age, their lives gradually become more restricted, sometimes due to illness or weakness, sometimes by choice. I was resigned to entering a phase of decline, an inevitable shift into a less active, less useful life. Pain was a backdrop to the few activities I managed. Walking, standing from a seated position, turning over in bed at night, writing with a pen or pencil — even pressing the “unlock” button on my car fob entailed some measure of discomfort (thanks to the first signs of arthritis in my finger joints). The added poundage from unbridled eating didn’t help. I’m sure I was not much fun to be around, though I pulled it together and enjoyed the few guests that came up before mid-October when we returned to the desert.

Another highlight of the summer that had slipped my mind was that three of my siblings plus two spouses were able to come to Flagstaff for a short, long-overdue family reunion in mid-August. We shared so much in three days: Mom’s cinnamon rolls and chicken with noodles, laughter, memories of the past, and the pleasure of being in the mountains together. We managed to include the missing sister in a lively Zoom meeting. I gave each of my siblings, the other folks that visited, and other people I had barely met a colorful pillow, whether they wanted one or not. I still have lots of wonderful fabric left. Put in your order. I’ll get to it eventually.

Back in Phoenix, I continued to feel disgruntled and discouraged. There were still many boxes to unload, their contents a combination of yet more unneeded items and a few we wanted to keep... but where to put them in a house less than half the size of the one we sold? It took a couple of months to establish some semblance of order. I resumed volunteer tutoring at a nearby elementary school, and wondered the first few times I went whether I would be able to continue managing the long walks on the large campus. 

I did not mean to make my description of that time period last as long as the time period itself. Gradually, over the late fall and what we laughingly call winter in Phoenix, the one tiny, remaining vestige of a spark in my body (or soul?) began to brighten. What kindled it was the need for me to move. Mac, no longer having a couple of acres to run around in, had to be walked a couple of times a day, grocery shopping had to be done, my two private students needed my help, and the volunteer tutoring, though physically demanding, was giving me a sense of purpose. Attending the Silver Sneakers classes was an effort to gently get myself back into shape. I didn’t even realize I was gradually getting stronger until a few weeks ago.

I have always thought of resting as self-indulgent, perhaps due to my parents’ belief that taking breaks was selfish at best, sinful at worst. As an example, my pattern in the past when I had a cold was to continue to meet all my usual obligations (likely infecting others, now that I think about it). And no surprise, my colds generally last longer than they should. I like feeling tough and resilient, even when my body and brain beg for time off. I’m beginning to believe, however, that after all the stress and physical strain of this year, those months of shameful indolence could fairly be reframed as time for necessary healing. Hmm… who would have thought?

So, “edging toward spry” is how I feel. My feet are back under me, my pain is not gone, but manageable, and I’m walking with what feels close to (however it looks to others) a youthful stride. I wake up ready to take on a schedule that is much less crammed than it was formerly, but interesting and comfortably challenging. My life is definitely smaller, but I’m nearly 71 and retired, so I guess it’s my turn to ease up.

Like many parents, I was determined not to pass along the parts of my upbringing that have been an encumbrance for me. I was in my late forties when Sam was a freshman in high school. I had not yet realized how the work ethic I had involuntarily adopted as my own had its drawbacks. Of course, having a business, two kids, and many other commitments made that time a necessarily busy one. I look back and wonder how different it would have been, though, if I could have been more light-hearted and given myself permission to let go of a few “have-tos” and had more fun. But I didn’t.

Health class was a freshman requirement that year. Sam thought it was a waste of time and put forth as little effort as possible to get through it. One assignment was to make a journal of sorts, including a family tree, a drawing of our family, photos, etc. The family tree includes samples of Sam’s whimsy, though he got the basic facts straight.

(BTW, Sam and Katie were pals as little kids, but during their teen years, he loved to find ways to slyly communicate her insignificance to him. Thankfully, it was a phase, and they became close friends again over the next few years.)

It’s Sam’s drawing of our family that illustrates the degree to which my parents’ work ethic was still predominant in me. The “STOP NOT WORKING!” message that Sam heard from me was, of course, also echoing in my head. No wonder he found it irritating. So did I. And I’m wondering whether as an adult, he also finds it to be an obstacle to joy. I’ll have to ask him.

from the mouths (or pencils) of kids

Charles, now in fourth grade, is one of the two students I tutor at home. He is an interesting kid. I find most kids interesting, but seeking strategies for working with Charles introduced me to a term I hadn’t heard before: emotionally dysregulation. The phenomenon is not new to me, but I now have a name for it, which I Googled to find ways to be more effective in teaching him.

I started tutoring Charles in the summer after second grade. His parents choose to have him attend a charter school that prides itself on teaching at least a year ahead of public schools. (An example: sixth-graders are required to take chemistry, biology and physics.) Many parents are convinced that it’s a premium education. The problem is that, in my experience, it’s not a good fit for kids who can’t handle their relentless pace of instruction. There are many such kids, and Charles is one of them. He is young for his age, easily daunted, and learns best in small pieces with lots of practice.

At our first session, Charles burst into tears several times, first when he convinced himself that his father was not coming back to pick him up, then when he had random thoughts that scared him or he heard unfamiliar sounds that startled him. We talked about fears — what he’s afraid of and what he’s not afraid of. I wrote a two-column list, one for each category. He came up with many for the first list: the dark, being alone, hearing loud noises, sharks, dogs jumping up on him, etc. He could not think of anything he was not afraid of until I started making suggestions: cookies? cartoons? shoes? school? The first three made him laugh, but when he considered school, he said, “I used to be more afraid of school, but not so much now.” So we started a middle column, offering evidence that it’s possible to overcome some fears.

For the next few sessions, as he learned and practiced math skills, we talked about this list, added to both columns, and moved some fears slightly towards the middle. He told me about a couple of ways he calmed himself when he was scared. For instance, he noted that it helps to leave his door open and put on earphones and listen to music when he goes to bed.

One day out of the blue, as we talked about fear, he brought up his older sister:

C:  My sister isn't afraid of tigers.

me: Yikes! I hope she doesn’t walk into a tiger cage!

C: Oh no, she won’t. She doesn’t enjoy walking.

Charles, still emotionally fragile (and full of unexpected punch lines), is an ongoing project. You may hear more from him later.


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