June 12, 2022 – Niles, MI
Lately, I’ve been noticing people with canes. I understand how useful they can be if you have injured your foot, your leg, for instance. Use a cane while it heals.
But the canes I have been watching are being used by older people. Typically, they are not pretty or decorated. They look worn and they bow sometimes from supporting the weight of their owner. At every other step, there is something to hang onto, to lean on, to use to keep your balance.
I wonder what the first day is like with a cane.
At my bus stop, there is a wonderful woman who waits for buses with me nearly every morning. We’re both older than most of our compatriots on the bus and like many older people, we worry about tomorrow a lot more than we let on. She and I grouse about the bus drivers and we keep tabs on other regular riders.
Something she said to me once has bothered me since it first came up months ago. We were talking about walking home from the office in a power outage. We agreed it would be an effort to cover this distance on foot and she told me suddenly, “You know, I’d hate to have to start using a cane. I want to hold out to the last minute.”
We both walk now unaided and many days, I will go out of my way to find nice walks because walking clears my head. In fact, I know that I could walk the entire route to my office more often if I had the organizational skills necessary to get out of the house a half hour to forty-five minutes earlier. She, on the other hand, might not be as comfortable, even though she clearly does not need a cane. Today.
But how do you know it’s time?
Is there something that cries out to you that today is the day you surrender to old age and start using a cane? Does a doctor tell you to use one? Or is this something that creeps up where you just don’t remember later how it started, how you found yourself in the store, picking out a cane?
I can’t imagine they would be any harder to get used to than my new hiking poles. I took them out for a spin and had the rhythm down pat in just a few steps. If the height is right and the feel of the handle doesn’t irritate your hand, how difficult would it be to use a cane? It’d be pretty simple, right? Step, cane-step; step, cane-step; step, cane-step. And off you go.
But then, there’s no going back, is there?
Now you are officially a senior citizen, an older American, a what, disabled person? With that one stroke, you would go from being able to disabled, and unlike the ones who use canes
when they have sustained an injury, you will know, deep down, there’s no going back to normal. You don’t get to improve or get better. This is the moment you would have to realize you can only get less better. Today, cane; tomorrow, walker? Then, wheelchair? And those beautiful shiny black hiking poles that were so exciting the first time out, will be left in the closet for someone else to use. Someone younger.
I am not ready to give up hiking just yet. I want to walk unaided and I relish every single chance I get to do so. Of course, I worry this walk today or maybe one tomorrow could be the one where I realize I just can’t do it anymore. It’s too hard or I worry too much that I could fall.
But, I hope it’s not this walk. It’s almost sunset now and the breeze is amazing. I feel it on my face and when I step out, it nudges me forward. I stretch up to my full height at each street corner and I step carefully across all those cracks in the sidewalk. I catch a glimpse of kids on the swings, the men playing dominos at the card tables alongside the vegetable market, and the young girls comparing notes on that boy across the street.
I don’t want to miss any of this – this wonderful and exuberant life of the city – and it’s fabulous that nobody even notices me as I walk by.
As I walk by.
God, I love those words.
My notebook no longer contains…
My notebook comes along with me when I leave my house,
you never know when elusive inspiration will be found lurking
around the corner, down the block, over your shoulder.
When it will be better to write than to grieve or to laugh.
But now, my notebook doesn’t carry any of the thoughts I want to write
It holds the receipts, the holy cards, the phone numbers, bills for the car or the hotel.
The tiny note cards from the flowers.
Not one word can I write,
not one thought with any level of clarity
I know there is usual healing in words,
salve in poetry for the open wound
Or in some short narrative, a remembrance;
but it’s just not there.
Instead of being reminded that I am a writer –
by opening to a blank page,
Instead of being reminded that I take words at face value
to spin my stories, to tell my sorrows,
joys, memories –
I see only the shards, the detritus of my loss
and words simply pull farther and farther away.
My notebook no longer contains
Stories of today or plans for tomorrow.
That all stopped on Saturday.
While I know this is as temporary as a life,
It is just as maddening.
If you’d like to read the Late Orphan stories, look at My Books for These Winter Months and These Summer Months.
The Late Orphan Project is reopening for submissions starting November 2, 2016. Essays, journal entries, poetry, theater – all will be considered as long as the theme supports the Project.
The Project – to encourage writers to discuss the death of your parents. The easy story is to write about what happened. My mother’s long history with depression, my father’s heart ailments – easy to write because they tell a story that happened. This happened, that happened, and then they died. What the Project tries to do is not to discuss the details of the death or what led up to the death but rather what happened next?
How did this loss impact you?
When your mother or father dies, the impact is considerably stronger than other deaths in the family and the impact is frequently unpredictable.
How are you changed? What did you learn? When you picked up your life again, how was it different, or better, or worse? How did you chart your life without your parents?
What the Late Orphan Project was able to do in the first volume of stories was to show that the most personal story displays the most universal truths. The reader understands and feels empathy with the writer and the writers can sometimes find closure or healing or a deeper understanding of the events that followed the deaths.
This is not a sad project even though the stories will likely make you cry. Rather it is a celebration of real life through the telling of these very difficult stories.
Submission deadlines – November 2 to December 2, 2016.
Guidelines – All entries should be approximately 1000-1500 words.Shorter pieces will be considered but longer ones may not. One entry per person please. Stories should be accompanied by the following:
1) A 6-line author bio, written in 3rd person.
2) The name of the mother or father in the story, including birth and death dates and geographic location.
3) The word SUBMISSION in the subject line of the email.
4) All submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org
5) Identify please if your story has been published previously with a note that you have secured permission for The Backpack Press to republish if you story is selected.
If you have questions about submissions or the Project in general, please contact us at email@example.com.
I thought I had Kondo-ized my apartment last spring when I wrote about the 40 Bags Challenge and my take on how Marie Kondo’s mantras applied to me. I embraced letting go, I recycled like a crazy person, I made a bazillion trips to the Goodwill Store, the clothing giveaway box in the building’s laundry room, and NY Public Library – all in a deliberate attempt to unclutter my living space. And then, I thought I was done.
But lo, I had only scratched the surface. I really don’t have anything near what I could honestly call clutter, but oh my, do I still have stuff. It is weighing me down when I need to fly. It surrounds me and makes me crave the inertia I feel when I sit on my very comfy couch, watching reruns of Law and Order. I take off my shoes, my feet become one with the rug on the floor, and I look around to find many, many familiar things – even after letting go of around 65 bags of stuff during Lent.
It’s all about the inertia that I am causing. I rest, I am calm, I am safe, I have no burning reason to get up, get dressed, and get out of my living room. I’m cushioned by stuff – still. When I come home, my stuff flows and pools around me like those empty plastic balls the kids jump into when you go to playrooms.
Specifically, I have an embarrassment of dishes. I have four separate sets of dishes, if you don’t count my mother’s china which is stored in Michigan. The set I use every day is made of cheap plastic. Some dishes are souvenirs from McDonald’s, some were on sale after Halloween a few years ago, and three pieces came from one time I thought if I was going to eat my lunch at my desk at work, I should have dishes. Dumbest idea ever – why would I want to wash dishes at work when I could order takeout and eat out of the containers?
The next set is comprised of the remnants of six clear glass plates I bought when we first moved to Washington Heights almost 20 years ago. I have three left – they mean a lot to me. And they are still really popular alternatives to the everyday plastic.
Then, I have the set of six place settings and a serving platter with a New York skyline border from 2001. I bought them right after the attack on the World Trade Center to commemorate the Twin Towers’ place on the skyline. I have mugs that match and the bowls are really heavy, but perfect for big servings of pasta.
And finally, I have lovely china from my kids’ great grandmother. When they sold her house, the china traveled across the street to the new house, where it sat mostly unused until the new house was sold decades later and it all came to me. The china has moved twice since then and I have lost a number of plates and a few teacups – which under normal china conditions would be a deal breaker. But this massive collection was once 14 complete place settings with service plates and extra teacups. I still have 21 teacups, 14 lunch plates, 14 bread and butter plates, but only 9 dinner plates. I’ve used it all twice in nearly 20 years.
So, I can’t tell exactly what makes me want to keep things I never use. I agree that variety is key to living a rich life, but I have so much that I never use and now, it’s got to go. I have sold my home and I am replacing a very spacious two-bedroom apartment with a minuscule, pied a terre studio. If I don’t use it, I don’t take it with me.
Channeling my new-found Kondo organizing skills, I have been taking things into my hands, giving them a little kiss goodbye, thanking them for their service, and then letting them all go. Clothes, linens, coats, papers, magazines – all thanked, all gone. I have cleared out two whole kitchen cupboards already and two shelves in each of two more cupboards. Drawers will be easy because I already have Baggie-ized my office supplies with pens in one Baggie, paper clips in another. and my clothes are now 7 bags fewer than I had a month ago.
I am still downsizing, tossing, giving away, throwing away, and I have learned some key things:
- When Marie Kondo talks about putting everything in one category, like books or clothes, in the middle of the floor and then sorting through it, she is so right. When I did books, I found a Volume One to a book series I nearly gave away because I only had in front of me Volume Two. Once I put all the books together I could see where I had too many of a single author or book and where I could reunite volumes in a series.
- I now know how important that step is when Marie Kondo talks about thanking something for its service. I found I really did need to say goodbye to some things that had time-traveled with me. Like my nightshirt from Interlochen where I was a summer camper in 1972. I had not worn it since 1972, but it always made me smile when I fished it out of the trunk.
- Sort and organize mail in the moment. This is something I think will be most difficult going forward. I tend to keep things now, toss things later. I have to learn how to assess keeping something so I don’t have to deal with it later. The best organizers will tell you that the fewest times you handle something the more efficient is its use.
I went shopping for a new couch today – I’m not ready yet to buy a new couch, but it’s coming up. Now I have a massive sectional sleeper sofa that could fit in the new place but I would have to sacrifice a lot to make it work. The saleswoman was pretty insistent and a little grumpy and confused at my questions. She’s probably working in a job that isn’t satisfying, And she probably has too much furniture, all bought at an employee discount under some obligation to the store.
I am moving on. I know I will be very happy knowing that I am keeping what I use and giving away what I don’t use. I can honestly say I no longer need to see collections of objects in order to be happy and feel safe at home. I can remember the nightshirt, the dishes, the books – I do not need to keep them stored around me.
Marie Kondo says that if something is so desperately important to you that you cannot let it go, then why keep it in a box in a cupboard or closet. Bring it out, enjoy it. I’m ready to do that.
There may be a fine line between love and hate, but at least it is visible and you know when you’ve crossed it, I think. What I am finding is that the line that defines the end of just irritating and the beginning of completely infuriating is often blurred, hidden, invisible altogether. So, I wonder how it is that our boundaries are so ill-defined when the outcome of crossing them can be so dire?
I woke up to the soft sound of the rain this morning, the gentle patter of raindrops on my windowsill. I listened for the nearly still morning sounds and thought about how poetic the word raindrop is and how lovely, … no wait. I have to stop here. It was this totally annoying drip, drip, drip without any pattern and all I could think was, “where is my umbrella and how long will this last?”
What has happened here is not all that poetic. My morning reverie was shot through and through with practical worrying about keeping the rain off me while I run out to catch the bus. I would much rather be the guy who says, “Let me hit the snooze button and just listen to the rain.” But instead, I got up right away to assess the damage. It was only when I checked the weather report and found that the rain was supposed to stop at noon that I was able to relax and think about breakfast.
That’s not right.
Isn’t it the same with a lot of other common sights and sounds? The sound of a child laughing is charming. But the sound of a grownup laughing has an internal clock that starts to tick for me. Chuckle and it’s fine. Keep it up though and I will move to the other end of the bus. The sound of a car alarm doesn’t even cross over into my consciousness when I hear it the first time. But keep it up and I think about calling the police.
There are all kinds of things that we can tune out, turn off, not react to, as long as it doesn’t continue. But then there is that line, the one I don’t see, that when I have gone past it, I know I need to be more aware rather than less. C.S. Lewis wrote in The Screwtape Letters that humans can endure practically anything as long as they know it’s not going to last. Maybe that’s the key. Maybe it’s just my inability to make simple irritations stop that makes their continuing all that irritating. It’s more about a loss of control of the environment. I can’t turn off the car alarm.
There is a woman now who is on trial for stabbing her husband to death. She says, on that day, she was going to kill herself with a very large knife, but when her husband confronted her, she turned it on him in the heat of the moment and he died. How was it she lacked the simple inner strength to walk away? How will the jury ever know for certain that she wouldn’t react this way again? Will she see that line in the future or will she cross it again and not be able to stop herself? Her violent reaction to not being able to control her environment, her life, or the outcome of this one conversation caused his death.
They say that familiar music is the most calming to listen to because for only a few moments, you can, in some small way, predict the future. When you hear a song that you know, that you can sing, you know how it goes and you know how it ends. You know there’s a second verse or a section where the piano does something. It’s that very predictability that calms you. You know the outcome, and, especially if you don’t enjoy the song, at least you know it’s going to stop.
So I am working on this. Put simply, I want to have minor irritations not bother me so much. C.S. Lewis would probably say that’s a good idea.
In an online edition of Marie Claire magazine, Taylor Swift admitted to having five fears. She is afraid of sea urchins, Googling herself, earwigs, cynics, and getting arrested. While not the standard fears of death, heights, flying, or speaking in public, her list prompted me to wonder what am I afraid of? What is on my own fear list?
I grew up in the Midwest and all I remember being afraid of was the reeds and grasses that grew in the bottom of the lake where my grandparents had a cottage. I was sure my legs would get tangled and some mythical force would pull me under the water. We can get past the fact that I was only swimming in about three feet of water and even if I were sucked in, I could stand and my chin would still clear the surface of the lake. Since I don’t swim there anymore, I am no longer afraid of lake weeds.
I used to be afraid of heights to the point where I would insist on taking the elevator when faced with having to use what my grandmother called, The Moving Stairs. I remember a cartoon that my uncle had in a book on his coffee table. It showed people getting sucked into the base of the escalator one by one as they neared the bottom of the stairs. It was supposed to be funny, but that image terrified me and even now, when I hear of escalator accidents, I imagine the looks on the faces of the people in that cartoon and I opt for elevator.
I once had to be escorted out of the Beaubourg in Paris by gendarmes when I panicked on the famous exoskeleton escalator that runs up the outside wall. To me it was like some awful thrill ride I wasn’t really tall enough to ride by myself. So for this one, I guess it wasn’t heights so much as escalators. And I know now, I was just looking for a little extra attention.
A lot of folks are still afraid to fly, even though the number of flying fatalities is at an all-time low these days. Since it was a popular fear years ago, I used to say I needed a stiff drink and headphones to make it from place to place flying, but in reality, I love to fly and I think it’s really fun to take off and land in a plane. I can see where Army helicopters could be a little scary, not about flying but about falling out through those gaping holes where the doors should be. And the way they dip down forward when they take off is more than a little scary looking.
Mice and rats do not scare me, they disgust me. Giant bugs running toward me do not scare me, they startle me. I am no longer afraid of terrorists, even when I see the bulky HazMat safety gear the police have when they work in the subways. Sometimes I am afraid I will miss a plane, but even then I know I can just take the next one. That’s not fear. That’s just inconvenience. Is it possible I am no longer afraid of anything?
The last on the Swift list is the fear of getting arrested. I can honestly say, given what I know now, as an adult living in New York, I too am kind of afraid of getting arrested. I am not sure a jury would find me all that sympathetic. And I think I’d crumple. So, there you go. I’m not really afraid of getting arrested. I’m afraid of crumpling.
So I quizzed my daughter and her friend. They’re out in the kitchen now making cupcakes. My daughter is afraid of pigeons, which is unfortunate, given how many she sees every day. And her friend is afraid of bugs and heights, in that order. These are the kind of fears you’d expect from a couple of urban 20-somethings. They didn’t say anything about terrorists because they were both too young to remember 9/11. They didn’t list crime, bad guys, or the dark. My bet is because they are both smart, capable young women, they too have let go of the fears they acquired when they were growing up in the big city.
Thanks, Taylor! Next to earwigs and sea urchins, my fears are pretty small.
What are you afraid of?
(Published originally on The Broad Side)