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.
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There is a man. He wears a suit, he has a mop of grey curly hair, he’s probably in his early 70s or thereabouts. He is in my neighborhood but doesn’t live here. Like so many men in suits and women with their lunch and their shoes in a shoulder bag, he works in the courthouse across the street from me. I see him coming into work on some days and leaving on others.
His most distinguishing feature is not the hair or the suit. He is blind. And my neighborhood does not see many blind people walking nearby.
The first time I helped him cross the street, he chastised me for coming toward him to assist him walking me back where I started. I told him I was just on my way home and that I considered myself lucky I could get him off my conscience and all it meant was I would be walking across the same street twice. I meant what I said, even though it sounds glib to me now that I write this. I never could have known rest if I hadn’t taken his arm and offered him some help.
The next time, I was again walking toward him but I tried to be less chatty, more helpful.
This morning, I saw him again and I realized that it’s not just that he can’t see that makes me want to help him but that he must be new to being blind. He started to cross the street when the light changed but stopped, unsure if it would be safe and then started so tentatively I found myself putting my arm around his shoulder to guide him to the opposite side of the intersection. I told him it was a sunny day but likely to be pretty humid, all in all. He laughed when I said, “But you’ll probably be in air conditioning all day, right?” He smiled and continued on toward the door into the side entrance of the courthouse.
Sight is a damn gift.
I’ve been thinking about this since I learned a few days ago that my most quoted, most important, most looked up to high school teacher is now also blind. I read French because of her. I speak French because of her. I wanted to be a better person because of her and it breaks my heart to learn this, even though I have not seen her in over 50 years. What cruelty the gods dispense.
There is another man that I see at church from time to time. He comes in with his guide dog and sits near me. I watched him struggle to receive communion because of the way the aisles in this church run. They are not straight but they angle to the left at the front and his dog had trouble maneuvering. By the time I realized what was happening, that part of the service had ended. Another woman and I alerted the priest so he could take communion after Mass. Ever since, she and I have smiled and chatted a bit. We both look after him now. He wears a watch.
If I were to lose this damn gift I would lose so much it hurts even to think about it. I would not be able to read, something I do all day. I would not have the courage of either of these men to step outside my house and try to cross the street, let alone work in an office, which my neighborhood friend must be doing, given his clothes and the hours he keeps. I cannot imagine getting on the subway, hailing a cab – I would need you to help me do even the smallest things, like shop for food and cook dinner. Or go to church. And I think of how often I pay no heed to the fact that I do have this damn gift and so many others.
I want to walk for those who cannot, I want to speak out for those who cannot, I want to stand up and hear and see for anyone who cannot or will not. And even though I realize fully I could also lose this gift, I will probably forget to be grateful again tomorrow – until I see this man on his way to the courthouse. This newly blind man. Who is braver than me.
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There’s a mourning dove near my window in the Bronx. She’s new. I hear her in the morning now, and at twilight sometimes.
I grew up listening to the soft grey birds near my parents’ house in Michigan. Over breakfast. The cooing, the pattern of cooing, that plaintive, slow soft grey cooing. The other birds set off on a frantic chatter, but the doves, they were the calmer voice of reason. A sultry mezzo countering the soprano chorus of ingenues.
There was another dove on the windowsill at work today in Queens. She let me watch her until my shadow forced her away. I’ve never seen one up so close before.
I tell you this and I know you’ll think, oh, listening to that sad sound from the visitors by her window now must remind her of home and lazy Michigan summers.
It’s not that at all. It’s that now I know: home must have been reminded of me.
Thrilled to announce a new poetry collection. Published today in solidarity with the Women’s March on Washington.
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.
All I need in the morning, I think,
I think all that I need in the morning is to know my pants fit.
You can’t complain really if your pants fit.
Then, I guess I‘d like water – cold to make coffee,
Hot to shower.
Can I get a raisin scone too?
That’s not too much, is it?
I like scones.
And you know, if my pants fit, I should be good.
But maybe a croissant a la plancha
Like they make in that place in Barcelona?
I remember that time in the hotel,
The waiter explaining how to say that awkward
Spelling it out slowly to unsuspecting
And you know, if my pants fit, I should be good.
But maybe if the sky had some fluffy clouds?
Is that too much to ask?
And a breeze to sweep my hair off my face a bit?
I don’t need cloud-less, I need cloud more
So I can take some pictures
And share them with my kids
To watch them roll their eyes
And say, “So?”
And you know, if my pants fit, I should be good.
But maybe a seat on the train?
I like to get a seat by the time my train gets to 149.
Otherwise, I have zip chance in Hades
Of getting one at 125.
On the night train home, I just stand by
The fancy people who never go all the way uptown by me.
I bet their pants fit.
I bet they don’t even think about it, being fancy and all.
And you know, if my pants fit, I should be good.
Because I have pants, and I have water
And I can buy my scones on the corner,
Just out the back door.
Clouds and breezes are great
But not really needed,
Not every day at least.
I can even sleep better knowing
In the morning, my pants will fit.
After all, they are my pants
After all, mostly there’s hot water,
After all, if I just run the tap, there’s cold too,
After all, what makes me happiest is just this little thing:
Pants or no pants,
Even when I order croissants
I am no longer an unsuspecting