Friday, September 22, 2017

The lure of a blank page

    When we turn 80 we are setting off into our nineth decade. Perhaps that explains why clever, new ideas are harder to find amongst the mind-clutter that slows my sometimes deluded brain.
    On the other hand, by this stage of the game I am inclined to overlook that absence of witty, original insights. Perhaps something worthwhile will show up--- perhaps not. Why worry about that? Especially when I can return to an earlier post that still says what I want to say. Some may consider that cheating. It so, I plead guilty. Take for instance, this post from last year---edited to reflect my present circumstances.
    I suppose it says something about my own priorities at this stage of life. The wife is talking about a family gathering when she turns eighty next month. I’m looking forward to that. It’s always a good time when we get the whole clan together.
    In the meantime I am quite enjoying the luxury of a very personal ‘good time’---that space in the flow of my days when the latest story has been edited and sent off for a draft copy---the one Roma and I will correct and mark up, making it ready for what I am willing to call complete.
    With that task accomplished I can take time to look at the blank page that awaits me. Truth is, I find that a liberating space. A story-in-progress is bound to limit ones creative options. Whatever we add to the mix must mesh with what has come before. But the blank page in front of me now---a new story waiting to be told---offers the best sort of freedom. It can lead anywhere I choose to take it. Sometimes I find that latitude so comforting that I am reluctant to send it away by beginning a new story.
    Truth be told, I have at least a general idea where the next tale will take me. The route it takes to get there remains to be seen. But however it plays out, you can be sure it will be about life choices, the kind we are still making in our personal October and November. In one way or another it will reflect the course of 'Becoming' in late-life. 
    Hey, we’re October or November people, aren’t we? We know from experience how complicated life can be. Even the most mundane existence is an constant stream of highs and lows. The exact mix of ingredients is a very individual thing, but from the beginning the life we have lived has been an ever-changing blend of choices made (or not made) and actions taken (or not taken). 
    As a storyteller I do my best to describe and illustrate the chain of actions and interactions, thoughts and choices that make up my story. My goal is simple enough. I want the reader to care about what happens to the characters I have set in motion. Yet in the telling I have the luxury of focusing on particular elements of the story---truths or opinions I consider worth exploring in depth. Inevitably, that makes each of those books a very personal expression.
   We know how hard our October years can be. Chances are November will bring additional trials. Each of my Tanner Chronicle stories deals with one or more forms of that sometimes unsettling reality. In the course of eleven books I have touched on a wide array of October challenges. Yet my emphasis is never the dark side of late-life, but instead the affirming role that relationships can play in helping us deal with those hard times.
    I have made the point before. What I call “relational” stories are something very different than the “romance” novels you see on the supermarket shelves. Like you, I know a thing or two about romance. I’ve been there---and I’m glad for that. It was a special time of life, when hormones and inclination combined to make youthful romance perfectly appropriate.
   But that was April. This is October, or perhaps November. A different sort of relationship is just as appropriate. For the last fifteen years Roma and I have visited our congregation’s shut-ins on a regular basis. We have called on dozens of special friends who were facing late-life alone. For some of them that was by choice---and that choice was certainly theirs to make. For others it just turned out that way. In either case, for many of those friends, there was no denying the sense that something (or someone) important was missing.
    Which brings me to a particular October truth I have explored more than once. If growing old brings its own trials, and it does, then growing old together is bound to be an age-appropriate blessing. Facing October and beyond in the company of a caring and supportive life partner is the best way I know to deal with those intimidating circumstances. Of course, in the process each of them will struggle from time to time. That is an October given. But they will be struggling together.
  There are a million ways to tell a story that emphasizes the virtue of 'struggling together.' Allow me to offer one of my own---from Long Way Home.
    Elly Warren is a year removed from a life-changing relational disaster. She has experienced the pain of great loss up close and personal---leaving her determined to never let it happen again. Keeping the possibility of a new relationship at arms length has become a way of life. But now her best friend, Claudia Harris, is on the phone, asking her to consider that choice in a different light.
   “It’s mostly a matter of being lonely,” Elly explained. “Day after day, it’s all the same. There’s nothing to look forward to. I go shopping every couple days. I do lunch at the club with the girls. But that doesn’t help. I honestly don’t know what do. It’s all so complicated.”
   Claudia could tell her friend was struggling. Would she be willing to hear another point of view? 
   “You know,” she replied as she shifted the phone to her other ear. “I'm not at all sure it's that complicated. In fact, I’m guessing it’s really quite simple.”
    “What do you mean?” 
   “It seems to me you have a choice to make. That’s what I mean. Just one choice, nothing more. That doesn’t sound so complicated does it?”
   Elly was not sure how to respond. “What are you talking about? What choice is that?”
  “Do you want to be alone---or not? That’s the question you have to answer---the choice you have to make” 
   Would this work, Claudia asked herself. Would Elly even listen? 
   “You’re seventy years old, aren’t you? And what little family you have is in California. Which means you’re basically on your own. Right?”
   “I suppose so.”
  “I’m sure there are fellows at the club who would be willing to help out. But you won’t let that happen, will you? I know that you think you have all the answers. But what if you’ve been asking the wrong questions?”
  “For heaven sakes, Claudia. What are you talking about?”
   “I’m talking about reality--about the real world. Take a moment to imagine yourself ten years from now. Think about what you might be facing if you were eighty and all alone. How do you suppose you’d cope with what that future looks like? 
   "The thing is, you can decide right now whether you want that to be your future, You can decide if you want to be by yourself or with someone who can be there to help if you need it---someone who makes things better?” 
   Claudia’s soft laugh might have sounded out of place, at least until she added, “We don’t like to think about all that, do we?”
  “You’re right,” Elly replied. Why was her friend going on about things no one wanted to think about---now or later?
   “But that brings us right back to the one question you need to answer. Do you want to spend your future, whatever it turns out to be, by yourself or with someone who can help you---someone you can help?”
   “Claudia. Don’t forget I had a ‘someone’ before.” Elly countered, falling back on her well-tested defenses. “He turned out to be the problem, not the answer. Why would I want to go there again?”
 “You’re getting sidetracked, Elly.” Claudia was pacing now, from one end of the patio to the other.“Just concentrate on that one question. Do you want a future by yourself? Or would you rather share it with someone?”
   “But, I told ....”
   “Elly. Listen to me.” Claudia’s emphatic interruption startled even herself. “Forget about ‘before.’ That’s ancient history. Just answer that one question---by yourself or with someone?”
  “I just can’t believe it’s that simple, just one question.”
   “It is simple. I’m not saying it’s easy, because it’s not. But it is simple. Just ask yourself that one question. If you decide you want to go on alone, like you are now,  then there’s no need to worry about anything else. Because you’ve already decided. You’ve answered the question. 
    "Lots of folks feel that going on alone is the best way for them. And that's perfectly okay. The question now is---is that the best way for you?” 
   “It is much safer this way, you know. There’s less chance of getting hurt again.” Elly’s words carried a remembering edge that lasted until, “The thing is, it’s so lonely. I know there ought to be more.”
  “Perhaps that’s your answer then. Maybe you’ve already made that choice.”
    “But, how can I know for sure?”
  “Elly.” Claudia was past caring if the neighbors heard her. “We’re not talking about a sewing machine or a new car. It doesn’t come with a guarantee. There is no extended warranty. It’s about taking a chance. If that sounds too scary, if it’s not worth the risk, then don’t do it.”
    “But I can’t go on like this. It’s too lonely.”
   “Then you have to step out and take a chance. You have to trust again, even if ‘trusting’ has hurt you before. You have to try.“
   There you have it, my friend, another peek into the daunting world of October Bold, an interpretation of what I consider to be a late-life truth. It is about thriving in our 60s and 70s (and beyond), wringing all we can from late-life. It may involve taking chances, even when it’s scary. It may include trusting, even when you’re not sure you can do that again. And of course, there will be no guarantees---no matter what path we choose. 
    In the end 'thriving' is a matter of being willing to try. That is true on a relational level---whether you decide your way is to go on alone, or you choose to rely on a new relationship. It’s also true for just about any other October challenge you can think of---like telling stories and writing blogs, or some other late-life project that works for you.

  This Amazon Author’s page gives you an idea of where my own October and November have taken me.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Is My Old Age Showing?

 Come on, tell me straight out. There’s no reason to hold back. Am I the only one who feels like the train has left the station, leaving me alone on the platform clutching my tattered suitcase, the one filled with old, outdated ideas. As happens often lately, it feels like I have once again been left behind, scratching my head, trying to make sense of it.
 If you are an old October/November fossil like me you may know the feeling. How many times have you listened to the day’s news or the latest rant by some clueless politician and told yourself that “I’m glad I won’t be around to see how that turns out.”?
 I know, of course, that it’s always been like this---old folks complaining about the youngsters and their new ways. That’s what we do, isn’t it? But it seems to me that today’s rate of change, taking place in a setting of extreme divisiveness and social turmoil, is more toxic than usual. I hope those young folks are adaptable and resilient enough to make lemonade from the lemons they have inherited. 
  In the meantime, did I mention that, “I’m glad I won’t be around to see...........?”
 No wonder I am sometimes (perhaps ‘most of the time’) confused and frustrated. Why wouldn’t I be, when the insanity that masquerades as the ‘new normal’ threatens to overwhelm the world I used to call home. 
 Television, computers, and the internet. Together that technological triumvirate has created the ‘brave new world’ we used to read about, but could scarcely comprehend at the time. They have changed everything, and in the process instilled new attitudes and understandings in the younger generations that will have to deal with the dubious legacy we are leaving them.
 Of course there is a generational divide---as there has surely been since the beginning of time. My eyes see and my ears hear the same things my children and grandchildren see and hear (though not as well as they do). Yet those sights and sounds, when filtered through my intractable November mind, register in ways those younger eyes and ears can scarcely comprehend.
 Take for instance the phenomenon they call Social Media, which I will admit includes elements that I know nothing about. What I do know is that hate and contention, in all their many forms, too often dominate those very unsocial conversations. Whether the subject is liberal vs conservative, blue state vs red, young vs old, white vs black----it seems that civil discourse has become a lost art.
 For old-schoolers like me the strength of democracy is its diversity. If that is so, making America great again by building the walls that divide us even higher---whether about race, religion, income, or political persuasion---is a recipe for failure. Where diversity is threatened, so is democracy.
 Or consider the impact of television, the most influential, cultural-shaping force in our generation’s pre-internet world. On a personal level it has been a fact of life for as long as most of us can remember. For decades the ever-present tube has provided an effective mirror of our society and its culture.
 And what does that mirror reflect today? I can remember a time when we turned on our television to be informed and/or entertained. Is that the reflection we see now? Or perhaps a better question is---what does it mean to be ‘informed’? Do ten-second sound bites of ‘Breaking News,’ sandwiched between sixty-second commercials, qualify? To be sure, today’s television offers us a wide choice of ‘news,’ more than ever before. Whatever our particular predilection, we can find an abundance of programming to support our way of thinking, while bashing the other side.
 Think about that for a moment. Do we listen to the news or read a newspaper in order to create informed opinions about the world’s complex, life-altering problems? Or do we instead select the news source that feeds and fuels our particular leanings, and call that ‘being informed?’
 And if we October/November folks, who grew up in a more-civil, less-divisive time, find ourselves drawn into today’s ‘divide and conquer’ world of ‘news’ and ‘fake news,’ odds are the younger generations---the ones who have never experienced anything other than ‘choose your side and follow the party line,’ will never know any other way. 
 Chances are they have been imprinted for life. If so, will reasoned debate ever be possible among those who rely on a single, biased source of information---be it Fox News, or CNN, or MSNBC. That is the strongest argument I can imagine against the possibility of finding a national ‘common ground’ that will make America great again. 
 It is hard to know what to make of the political babble that frames our national dialogue. On one hand I find comfort in knowing that over time I have learned to separate the sense from the nonsense. Chances are you feel that way too, even when your truth and my truth reflect opposite sides of the debate.
 As one who sometimes resorts to prayer I find it a bit worrying to imagine the wide range of prayers we Americans raise to what we claim is ‘one God.’ Do you ever wonder what He, She, or It makes of our constant stream of conflicting prayers, each of them dueling for Divine attention?
 Fact is, I don’t care which side you take, because I fear that in the end both sides---make that all sides---will be proven wrong. No matter what their promises and plans, none of our wannabe leaders are likely to outrun the demographic, social, and fiscal realities that are reducing our national ability to respond. 
 Truth is, turning the ship of state in a more hopeful direction---be it to the left or right---in the face of today’s global reality and our own national frailty, will require more compromise and good will than our population seems willing to offer. While one leader or another may be able to momentarily overcome our political malaise, I fear that our downward trajectory as a world superpower will continue.
 So tell me, friends---has my tired mind gone off the rails? Is the wife right---that my old age is showing? Or is, in fact, the notion of a national ‘common ground’ further out of reach than ever before? I’m afraid it might be. In that case I’m glad I won’t be around to..........
 What do you think? Am I being too pessimistic? I would like to hear your thoughts.