I Art, Or Am I?

Years of writing about aging–and what  Judith Peres calls the “vicissitudes of aging” — taught me that age as a number, a construct, a device. With a degree in math and a poet’s sensibilities, I have cruised through time, thinking that it did not quite apply to me. Or to anyone, really. We would all somehow carry on along this blue planet, our mortal coil. Despite sorrows and losses, we could hold each other up, and forever was one more convenient imaginary number. I could split that, too….

My body differs and jolts me with its own realities. It contains time, no matter how I count it. These bones are no longer 18, nor these eyes, no matter what BuzzFeed or some Facebook quiz calculates of my vision. 

Watercolor Pencil: Testing my Hand

Ditto for my hearing: my grandmother was right when she urged me to “turn down that caterwauling.” I have said something similar when one-too-many Kendrick Lamar tunes has blasted through some speaker in my house.

Even Bruce Springsteen is my father’s age. And when I refrain from Dancing in the Dark in my orchestra seats at the Walter Kerr theater come November, my Verified Seats will be in the handicapped area, thanks (I guess?) to several autoimmune conditions that flare at strange times and make walking and breathing a challenge.

Bruce, RFK, August 1985

HOWEVER, I am the daughter and granddaughter and descendant of so many strong women (and men, but it is the women I knew best) who gave up homes, families, opportunities…for reasons I cannot presume to know, but assume must have been to better their lives.  Have I done the same? Not often enough, but I pray and hope and think that I have raised strong people.

And I, too, persist, though I no longer think I will last so long as my paternal grandmother, whom my kids knew as Meme, who lived into her nineties. Or some of my mother’s relatives, who managed the same. They had some grit that I have scattered elsewhere in the course of this living. Perhaps I will gather it again.

Whatever or wherever that grit is, I am now beyond half done this life, for that is how the years add up. And the blues may be simply knowing that I have so much yet to learn, and yet not done. I am not ever going to be ready red hats and purple sparkles. More like my hero, Bonnie Raitt, whose website has this to say of her newest album, Dig in Deep:

 … Bonnie Raitt continues to personify what it means to stay creative, adventurous, and daring over the course of a legendary career. “I’m feeling pretty charged, and the band and I are at the top of our game,” she says. “This period of my life is more exciting and vital than I was expecting, and for that I’m really grateful. At this point, I have a lot less to prove and hey, if you’re not going to ‘Dig In Deep’ now, what’s the point?”

Bonnie Raitt Owns the Stage in DC, July 2017

How can I feel half done here, with so much yet to do? For instance, how will I roam around Annapolis on 9/19 for the SketchCrawl when I’ve just learned to draw?  My mother, artist  Mary Lynch, works five days each week in her studio at the Torpedo Factory Art Center. What some people call a Muse she has described as a monkey on her back. She says she has no time to waste. She and Bonnie Raitt are about he same age, too. Like Bonnie, my mother is not playing a game, she’s not dabbling. She digs deep and creates objects that have not ever been made before.

Still Life with Fruit

For my 55th birthday, she gave me a portable easel, which Ian, my 15-year old, set up for me just last night. I have watched it most of the day, and worked at a small watercolor for a friend.

Portable Easel Awaits Artist

How to paint something large, when I have only learned to do small things? There is only today. Only these hands. This moment. Here I go. What will you learn, old friends and new? What’s stopping you? What motivates you? I’d love to know. Share your ideas in the comments. Let’s go. 

My Son Turns 27, and I’m Twice His Age (Again)!

The worst advice I ever received about becoming a parent–a response to my worries at never having cared for a newborn or toddler–was that I would always be one step ahead of my children. When my eldest son, Conor, arrived, he immediately proved this advice to be wrong.

Happy Birthday, Conor! (Your hair looks great!)

His father and I knew nothing about babies,  and we definitely did not believe Dr. Spock, when he wrote to listen to ourselves, that we were the experts: We did not know how to put on the cloth diapers delivered by a service my great-aunt had given us. (The diaper delivery man was perplexed when there were only 7 dirty diapers after Week One, and just a few the following week…for a colicky baby, cloth diapers were perfect burping cloths, floor cleaners, shoe polishers, and more. When hundreds of diapers fell from a closet, my grandmother nearly choked on laughter).

St. Joseph’s Day Baby

Tony and I did not know whether the tape on disposable diapers went in front or back. We were unprepared for the fact that babies do not sleep all night, or that a colicky baby would test our sanity and our patience. Thanks to the family who were present almost daily–my Irish twin, Michele, and her then-fiance, Andy; my mom and grandmothers, the three Marys, and my great aunt Anna–we survived. In fact, my dining room became a lunchtime gathering place, replacing the HoJo on Route 1, where we’d met for lunch forever.

At the time, I had just left a writing job because when the baby arrived early, I was a few weeks shy of maternity leave. (It galls me that this issue is still an issue, and that most working parents do not have paid leave, and cannot afford the unpaid leave of the Family & Medical Leave Act. Thanks to tireless advocates like my friend, Valerie Young, of the Caring Economy Campaign.

Dad, flummoxed by my resignation, said, “Motherhood is the one job you’ll never be able to quit.” He was right: 27 years later, and I am still at it.

Still going….

As a new mother, I jealously guarded time spent with Conor, who was the most beautiful, precious, wonderful creature ever made. His red hair was a great surprise–as was colic, which set in after a week at home.

Grandmom Hourihan, Easter 1990 (no doubt telling me even then that I was just right)

When exhaustion struck me, my Grandmom Hourihan (Gram) would let herself in before breakfast, take the baby from my bed, then sit with him for hours
in a wicker chair. How she loved him! She taught him to talk at 9 months, then looked after him for a few years. His favorite book was What Do People Do All Day, which he was happy to read over and over again. It drove me nuts–but not my Gram.

My Grandmom Lynch (Meme to my children) came on her days off from the nursing home where she worked, bundling him up for long walks through the neighborhood, or holding him and singing, The Tennessee Waltz, while he took a rare nap.

Meme was visiting one day and agreed to watch my batch of kids; Conor was 12 or 13, and I knew he would help out. A few hours later, I came home to find Meme on the couch with an ice pack on her knee, and Conor sitting anxiously beside her. He was wearing a skateboard helmet, and a lacrosse stick was on the floor. I looked at Meme and asked what had happened.

“He asked me to come play ball with him, but I shouldn’t have tried to run,” she said. I pointed out that perhaps her helmet-wearing days were a thing of the past.

The point of these memories is this: Becoming a mother did not mean I’d receive, as if from the stars, instructions for the job. Any notion that I’d stay one-step ahead of him began to unravel the day his young cousins taught him to climb the stairs. He’s a bright person, with a quick mind and sharp wit. By the time he was four, he was lengths ahead of me.

Just for today, I am twice his age, just as I was when he was born. That will not happen again. And at last I know the only advice for anyone is this: Trust your heart. And be kind. For all that I expected to teach him about this life, he was my first teacher in what it means to love unconditionally, opening my heart until I sometimes thought it would break. He taught me all kinds of things I’d never heard of: the Navajo Codetalkers and geography, that I should read David Foster Wallace and–most of all–stop worrying about him and his  siblings.

Conor is in his second year as a volunteer for a literacy program, which matches community volunteers with elementary-school children who are unable to read, or read at grade level. Through his role as a coordinator at one school, he has forged his way to work with meaning and compassion. It is a great way to travel in this world.

Keywords: first-time mother, new parents, parenting, birthday, aging

Chronic Pain: Living What I Did Not Know

On March 13, 2013, a needle stab or two during oral surgery triggered chronic neuropathic pain, which involves my entire mouth and, on its worst days, my lips, nose, and palate. It is called burning mouth syndrome, a misery I would wish on no one.

I’ve spent the years since then trying to cope with life as a person with chronic pain, trying every medication and complementary treatment my doctor and specialists recommended. As Dr. Victor Montori told me–before I myself became a patient–patients have to complete many tasks, and work to regain health. Doctors must consider what else patients have to achieve while conducting the work of being ill.

Nothing ever really helps–or what sometimes helps causes short-term memory loss–and I’ve been forced to adapt to living with a condition that has upended my life. I’ve also developed several autoimmune diseases, which come and go and flare and vanish, a perplexing mix of symptoms and treatments.

Much irony in this, learning to live with multiple chronic conditions as I age. It’s a topic I’ve written about for many years, especially when writing about how to help frail elders and their caregivers. The issues sometimes seemed intractable, and the solutions often appeared to be simple.

I have since learned how tough all of it can be. In December, I agreed to participate in a new patient-centered medical home (PCMH) project. I signed on with relief, for I could no longer manage the dozen or so medications prescribed by seven different providers–none of whom interacted with the others! Even now, when a clinical pharmacist finally completed her review of my medications, with an eye for spotting any that might be discontinued, I have yet to see her recommendations.

It is not that I have not asked–but that her recommendations were apparently faxed to my primary care provider, who then faxed them to my care coordinator, who concluded that I should not see them until my next appointment with the PCP. Meanwhile, agitated specialists have called me to warn that someone has been calling them to suggest changes to my medications!

Whew! Health information technology (HIT)? Not there–the area’s clinicians have chosen HIT vendors whose programs suit the practice’s needs. This means that they might not connect with the records stored by other clinicians, or the hospital, or the diagnostic tests. I am still responsible for trying to convey the complexity of it all to each clinician, and hope that the independent pharmacist who fills some prescriptions (other than those required by my medical insurance to be called in for maintenance supplies) spots potential adverse effects or interactions.

When I voiced these concerns to my care manager, she noted, “Well, you are a highly educated person who is knowledgeable about what should happen. This [program] is still a work in progress, and it will require many tweaks.”

Tweaks? I’m tweaked! What about those whose health literacy is less sophisticated? I’ve found my own sophistication to be no match for the alternatives clinicians suggest to me. Often, I guess–do I like the sound of the medication? Have I seen it on direct-to-consumer ads? Have I tried it before? What do others think of it?

It seems a foolish and expensive way to make such critical healthcare decisions, yet off I go on this road less travelled. Please take some time to follow me for a while, as I chronicle the next few months–and the work I accomplish.

 

Key Words: chronic pain, pain, autoimmune disorders, care coordination, patient-centered, health literacy

How Becoming an Artist at 53 Helped Me to Grieve–and Find Joy

All my life, no matter where I was or what I was doing (including earning an undergraduate degree in mathematics), I thought of myself as a writer, mostly a poet, but one who would venture into other literary arts, from personal essays to short fiction. I played guitar, but did not consider myself to be a musician. And I knitted, but would hardly cLiam to be a fiber artist. In my personal and professional lives, I wrote: happy, sad, busy, engaged, exhausted or exhilarated, from the moment I could first spell my name, I wrote.

But when my 94-year old grandmother died last winter, I had no language but tears. The fact of her very long life, and its profound connection to mine, did not mitigate my grief. When I went to write about it, my usual way to cope with emotions, good and sad, I could not.

Instead, inspired by something I had observed among the visual artists in a creativity group I belong to on Facebook, I thought  I might try to draw. The artists had introduced me to something called Zentangles, so I went to Michael’s craft shop to buy pens and paper. While there I was drawn—of course—to the pens, which included a gorgeous collection of watercolor pens. I bought two packs.
Milestones

I have since published a book, a tribute to the women who made me, entitled  What Are Mothers For? On sale now via Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/dp/0692562370, it is a cheerful gift for any mother, or anyone who has ever mothered you.

Proceeds up to $500 will be donated to Reading Partners Baltimore
Learn more about this effective program and how it changes the lives of children and volunteers. The volunteers participate in schools throughout the city, working one-on-one with children ages 5-to-8 who struggle to read.

This post originally appeared on Architects of Change by Maria Shriver. For the complete story, click here.

What Are Mothers For?: Ready to purchase on Amazon!

If you have ever loved a child, been a beloved child, or remembered happy moments shared with adults you loved, What Are Mothers For? will speak to your heart. With whimsical drawings accompanied by simple text, the book shows and tells the story of my memories of my childhood–some inspired by my grandmothers, my mother, and my sisters. The book follows the life cycle, from when we first come from the stars, to when we have children of our own.

Thanks to the expert design and layout support of Min Enghauser of The Torpedo Factor, the book LOOKS fantastic–and I hope you love reading it as much as I loved writing and drawing it. Here is a short link:

www.amazon.com/dp/0692562370

And an early image: We arrive on a wing and a prayer:

on a wing and a prayer, 1

We have so much to learn and absorb, to do and become.

interior book spread

In the end, we create our own beauty, and the beautiful lives that follow us.

It would make a beautiful gift for the holidays, a new mom, a mom-to-be, a grandmother. Many women are mothers by virtue of birth and adoption, and many more by virtue of the love they give to children.  Please consider a copy, the first in a series about all kinds of people (and  maybe a few animals, too).

tags: mothers, motherhood, parenting, children, love, aging, giftbook, picturebook, Janice Lynch Schuster, What Are Mothers For?, growing up, learning,

Frozen

I no longer remember why I hated
My mother, such strong words
For pass-a-day disputes. She was a girl
Herself, and I, hers. What she knew
Of love and safety, to me, a long list
Of should-nots built on her mistakes.

On the coldest days, in snow,
She would wrap my hands and feet
In baggies under mittens,
Hoping to keep me dry with what she had.
We made do, so long,
Frozen in joy, snowflakes on our tongues.

I could not wear go-go boots
Or make up, and she warned me
About boys. I believed nothing
Of what she said, so learned
It on my own, she held
My broken heart, and stood me up
My own two feet all any woman
Needed, or could trust.

Now we are both old women.
The numbered years slip by,
like ice on plastic-wrapped hands.

It sears you, then melts.
You try to grab things,
Change them or just hold tight…
And they are gone.

 

key words: mother-daughter relationships, love, childhood, memory, regret, aging

Go, Diana, Go!

I had not thought about Diana Nyad for years, until a few weeks ago, when I woke to a morning full of Tweets and Facebook statuses, full of joyful for support for her long-dreamt of swim from Cuba to Florida. At 64, Nyad is on the leading edge of the wave of boomers, about to crash against their own old age on the shores of a health care system ill-prepared to meet them. And at 64, she is a marvel of endurance, fitness, confidence, and dreaming. Those two elements are not in opposition, but in tension.

In any case, her age was not what I thought of as I joined the happy twittering crowd, wishing I were one of the spectators wading into the waters off Key West, cheering and encouraging her with my presence. I have had some remotely similar experiences, the years I walked marathons to raise funds for charity: the random people who lined the streets and shouted their good wishes also pushed me forward with their good will.

The onlookers could not swim for her, but they could be present for her. And the electronic world was far, far from the hand-slapping monotony of endless miles of freestyle  and jellyfish—but that energy, surely surged around her.

When the first newscasts began to broadcast happy headlines: She did it! I thought about how her whole generation has done it, too.  They dreamt what they wanted to become, and they did: they wanted to be lawyers and doctors, surgeons, CEOS, political leaders, and more. They wanted to be wives, mothers, friends, sisters, and the multitude of other people life fashions women to become.

Like Nyad, so many were met along the way with commentaries about the absurdity of their dreams and their ambitions, the unlikely world in which they might come true.  Her generation keeps fanning those dreams: the first woman president might yet emerge from its ranks.

Nyad herself said it best, when she told one interviewer, “You’re never too old to chase your dreams.” Or too crazy, or too young, too feminine, too other. My own failed attempts at childhood athleticism were met too often by the scornful comment: You swing like a girl (or run, hit, jump or field). I was too young to reply with the obvious, “Well, I AM a girl.” Instead, I stopped those ambitions cold, became a fan, and not a participant. A few years ago, I could not resist giving my own athletic daughter a shirt that said, “You think I run like a girl? Catch me if you can.”

In the midst of my Nyad happiness, I remembered a poem that I wrote  years ago, when I might still have been seen as a girl. I was 18, a college freshman, and not keen on some writing assignment or other. I persuaded the professor to let me write a long poem instead, and from it came something called “Sixty-four Caprices for  a Long-Distance Swimmer.”  In subsequent years, the poem meandered its way through many publications and anthologies, including one that was marketed as the only poetry anthology ever reviewed by Sports Illustrated. My own favorite version appears in a text book, at home between Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman.

It has been years since I looked at the poem, but the number ‘64’ struck me, and I googled the poem, hoping to find an electronic version that would spare my arthritic knees a journey upstairs to my book collection.

It appeared! Apparently, a Yale professor has used it in anthropology course. I emailed him, and he replied that he finds the poem a way to illustrate for his students the ways poetry can encapsulate their experience of sports and athleticism. I was thrilled to find the poem—Yale! I thought, as close as I’ll ever get.

Still, I was not eager to read the poem. That 18 year old poet would hardly recognize herself at 51. Where she observed and daydreamed and dared-out-loud, her older self has been too often cowed by the vicissitudes of life. Where nothing could hold her young self down,  too many things cow the old one. That 18-year old, who balked at writing papers, wound up with a degree in mathematics and a career in writing. At the time, many people questioned the reality of the math degree, thinking I was crazy to do something so hard, so burdensome, so real. I never doubted that I could—and once I did, I never looked back.

So I skimmed the poem, and found pieces to commend it. Mostly, I like that the young woman I was admired the older women who swam with me in the college pool. I did not fear them—although I often averted my eyes. More often, I was curious to see where I was likely headed: baby fat, sagging breasts, wrinkles everywhere. Now that I am older, I am grateful that, despite all appearances, my body remains in working order. It gets me where I’m going, and then some:

5. Seventy-year old women stand naked in the locker room.
Some use walkers, others have artificial hips, scarred legs
and missing breasts; still, they love this morning swim
with the distant sun rising.


6. In these women, I witness how I too will age. I avert my
eyes, move to far lanes and other shadows.


7. I swim past men to prove my strength–after years of
”throwing like a girl”; I lap them twice.

63. I’ve been here before and am anxious to leave. I am
young enough to have learned that all things are composed
of change.


64. I shed water’s silk cocoon for the certain embrace of air;
my body emerges from the pool, form from cut crystal.

To honor Diana Nyad, that afternoon, I went back to the gym, which I have avoided in the wake of chronic pain and discomfort. I spit in my googles as I did when I was a teenager on a swim team, because that prevents them fogging. I stuffed into my suit. I walked into that water, and I swam as fast as I ever did.  Somethings the body never forgets, and some dreams stay with us, always. Go, Diana, go! Thanks for taking us along.

ht_diana_nyad_jef_120820_wg

key words: Diana Nyad, extreme sports, athleticism, dreaming

 

 

For Grandmom, 93 today

She slips on the world
Our easy living room waltz
Goes the way of time

When I was a little girl, we’d visit my grandmother at her apartment. She’d put on records and teach us to box step. She could always dance, and I believe that although the years have slowed her considerably, her heart is dancing. I am sending great love and light to her this morning, as she is so far away from me in Fairbanks, Alaska. Grandmom, if I could be there, I would.

Grandmom in Alaska

 

key words:  love, aging, grandparents, grandmom, longing, dancing