Living Backwards

A friend recently gave me a book to read called One Thousand White Women, by Jim Fergus.  It chronicles a year in the life of a woman, May Dodd, who heads West and marries a chief of the Cheyenne indian tribe.  I read the back cover describing the story outline.  I read the Author’s Note, the Introduction, and the Prologue.  Then I went to the last chapter and commenced reading the book backwards forward.  For the signs were all there, the smoke signals perfectly clear in a bright blue sky:  this was not the type of story to have a happy ending.  In which case, I wanted to be fully briefed on the details before investing myself too deeply in our heroine’s tale.

This isn’t new behavior for me, nor I doubt is it particularly unique.  I had to do the same thing with Stephen King’s The Shining (who didn’t???).  I was so terrified of a horrible death for the heroine and her son that I simply had to make sure they were still alive at the end before becoming overly attached to their characters.  In the scariest chapters, I had to read paragraph by paragraph from chapter’s end to its start.

On this morning’s dog walk, it struck me that the older I get, the more this backwards-forward behavior has crept into my everyday world, not just my reading habits.

“Oh, what a shame,” you may say.  “You are missing out on all the mystery, the surprise.”

Not at all, I respond.  I am simply and succinctly aware of the end-game (certain, unambiguous death) and am appreciating each breath while on the way, doing my best to avoid sharp corners, blind curves, slippery slopes, and precipitous falls.  That doesn’t change the fact that there are still plenty of blind curves and sharp corners–and perhaps a few scary doors–that are going to snag me here and there.

I suspect most people, as they age, recognize this increased awareness and caution in themselves.  Anyone who has closely witnessed the decline and death of a parent, a grandparent, any loved one–especially those who have experienced this repeatedly–can’t help but internalize the inevitability of their own end.  And can’t help but take precautionary actions and a measure of control.  Adjusting our hearts, our sights, our behavior accordingly.  Kind of like reading those later chapters first.  (They opened the door!  No, silly, don’t open that door!  Wow, what a pretty door….)

There’s a tremendous bright side to all of this.

“Oh, but of course,” you may chide me.  “There goes Miss Pollyanna in her rose colored glasses enjoying the view on the way to her splat even as she flies off the edge of that one precipice she failed to avoid.”

Yes, well.  As I was saying, there is a certain peace that comes with acceptance and with knowledge.  Peace that accompanies us when we are lucky enough to wander off somewhere beyond knowledge, to a place called wisdom.

So, yes, I know before reading her story that May Dodd (SPOILER ALERT!!) does, indeed, die a horrible death.  But it doesn’t change that I can still enjoy her story, appreciate her perspective, learn from her lessons.  I still get surprises and mystery, I just get them in reverse.  It kind of takes the edge off.

As for me, I’m well aware of my end.  Maybe not the specifics, and hopefully not too horrible.  But there will be an end, as surely as there was a beginning.  What great motivation to take the reins, as best I can, and write my own happily-ever-after.  In the before.

So Brave!

I used to be so brave.  Or stupid.  Or young.  Or perhaps all of those things rolled up together, each egging the other on like a group of boisterous teens drag racing at 2:00 a.m. on a school night, oblivious to–or perhaps dismissive of–all potential consequences, near and far.

On our (leisurely) drive to our current campground in Tennessee, I was lucky to get good radio reception for NPR. I love NPR. It makes me so much smarter, at least for awhile, until I forget most of what I’ve heard. Frances Jensen, a neuroscientist-researcher-author-mother, was being interviewed about her book on the developing brain (The Teenage Brain).  She was inspired to delve into the subject when her children were teenagers and she desperately wanted some clue as to why they behaved so incredibly, well, stupid sometimes.  It turns out that until you are in your mid-20’s, the brain is simply not all there. Especially the prefrontal cortex, which is the part capable of taming the wild side.

I sure did recognize myself when she talked about teenagers’ high risk-taking and impetuous decision-making tendencies.  In my wild years, I went camping in this general area of Tennessee.  On one hike I climbed to the top of a beautiful waterfall, seeking the promise of an even more beautiful view from on high.  Before the climb, I passed a sign reading “Danger! Do Not Climb Past This Point!”  It went on to say how many people had died so far that year by not heeding its sage advice.  It gave me pause–hmmm, I wonder who the people were behind those numbers–but only a pause.  Upon reaching the summit, I promptly slipped on the mossy rocks and nearly slid off the edge of the falls, straight through that beautiful horizon.  Brave?  Dumb?  Oblivious?  All of the above.

Nearly forty years later, I find myself at this lovely state park a ways east of that waterfall.  Dawny and I are enjoying our walks through the campground and surrounding area, including a gentle stretch of riverfront.  But, as usual, I avoid paths that go through wooded areas.  Dawny tugs at her leash when we come across tempting openings into the woods–I wonder what her prefrontal cortex looks like–but I generally pull her back towards civilization and try to ignore the way she looks at me over her shoulder with distinct disappointment.  I’m just too afraid of bears and snakes and wild pigs and who knows what else coming at us while we are far from any possible help.

The other day, though, our luck and our pace shifted.  We came across a park ranger who was heading into one of the wooded paths to pick up litter and check on things back there, and he let us accompany him.  We walked along a lively creek and came upon a bunch of wild turkeys.  In another part of the park, we followed a ridge trail that wound along high above the river.  In spots, if you were to slip and fall, you would be smashed on the rocks below.  Then drowned.  Then probably eaten by a bear.  I had to be careful not to look too closely over the edge, as it set my stomach churning and my imagination shooting off into dark, illogical corners.

Finding a spot not too close to the edge with a nice break in the trees, I was treated to a breathtaking picture.  Blue-gray mountains in the distance, framed by pouffy white clouds in a crystal blue sky, forest all around, and the churning river below.  What a treat!

Maybe what I used to think of as brave was no more courageous than what I’m doing now, even though I was able to do so much more then.  Now, I practically have to have an escort to stray very far off the same path that, as a youth, I would charge up without a second thought.  Now, I’m much more aware of my own, personal horizon and its steady approach, regardless of which path I happen to be dithering along.

Well, at least I’m out here, following my dream.  It’s a pretty tame dream, and pretty safe.  But its mine, and I love it.  That might be what bravery is now, at this point of life.  My brain is reverting back to some semblance of that teenage condition as my prefrontal cortex surrenders in exhaustion from everything I’ve put it through over the years. It’s throwing up its little brain hands and squeaking in a grand-motherly voice, “Fine!  Take me where you will!  Just don’t speed, eat your vegetables, wear practical shoes . . . .  And please, do enjoy that view.”

A Village of Angels

Sounds pretty nice, huh?  A village of angels.

Well, that just happens to be what I’ve landed in!

You know the expression, “It takes a village to raise a child.”  Well, that works at the other extreme of our lives’ stories as well.  As we age, it often takes a village to love one another well, to get to really know and appreciate each other, offer support when needed and desired, and share with generous spirits when some of our lives veer off into sometimes cruel detours brought on by poor health or deep, aching loss.

I made it to the CARE Center (Continuing Assistance for Retired Escapees) last week.  CARE is unique.  It is the only place in the country (maybe even the world) that offers assistance to RV’ers who need to stay in one place for a time for medical reasons.  It is actually open to non-RV’ers, as well, but the vast majority of residents have RV backgrounds of one variety or another.

Residents live in their own homes.  Their RVs–which have ramps built next to them for safe access–surround the main facility that houses the dining hall, multi-activities room, and nursing and administrative offices.  CARE also offers a daily care (ADC) program for people needing more concentrated assistance.  For more details, you can visit their website at www.escapeescare.org.

But CARE is much more than you will ever find on a website or in a brochure.  Most of the residents share a common love of travel, of RV’ing and camping–some for vacations or extended travel and many for full-time living.  This common element is a special glue that helps to bond the program’s participants–residents, ADC, staff, and volunteers–together.  Honestly, in my former work I encountered a great many people in a variety of retirement and assisted living communities, and I’ve never seen this kind of cohesiveness.  People here truly care for one another, watch out for each other, and give of themselves to the best of their ability.

The angel in this picture was made by a beautiful, extraordinary lady who attends the ADC program.  Her name is Frances.  She gave it to me as a thank you gift for helping her during the bingo game–I was her lucky sidekick who helped break her losing streak with a two-game win.

But what she gave me was worth more than she knows.  For Frances has some major physical challenges that severely impair her movement, hearing, and ability to communicate–things most of us totally take for granted.  I honestly did not know what Frances’ abilities were when I sat down to help her with her four bingo cards, and I was nervous about doing too much or too little or talking too loud and not being able to understand what she was trying to say.

By the time the 90 minute tournament was over, I had a real sense of the woman next to me.  Her strength, her intelligence, her abilities that went well beyond what you could see from the outside.  We were in sync.  Mostly without words.

The words came later.

Later, in the dining room, I was talking to Crystal, officially the CARE Volunteer Coordinator but in reality the beating heart of the place.  Crystal saw Frances looking at us, trying to get our attention.  She went over to her and I followed.  When I bent down, for the first time I could understand everything Frances said.  “Thank you for helping me.  I want to give you something.”

She struggled to stand.  Dawn, a beautiful caregiver, helped her with her walker.  Frances went over to a table with crafts material on it.  She picked up this delicate, lace angel.  She gave it to me.

A village.

Of angels.

Of love.

Of generosity.

And incredible strength.

I only hope and pray that I can return in some measure the priceless gifts I receive during my time in this very special place.