Adopt an Elder

To liberals and conservatives alike, I say you cannot love (or, you are no warrior) until you have cared and fought for someone you know and owe – not a vague abstraction, but someone close by. Most of my friends and family have experienced this revelation. I am a Johnny-come-lately in this forced march, but I am willing to advocate for it as if I discovered something awesomely new.

Decline is inevitable. It is the future of us all.

Young people, love and cherish your elders before it is too late. Record and remember their sacrifices, foibles, follies, triumphs, and wisdom.

Time is relative, supposedly, but it is an unrelenting hunter. Do unto others as you would have others down the food chain do unto you. When you come to embrace the majestic, unexpected degradation of life, you will come to understand it; only then will you apply to it the full measure of your diminishing capabilities.

Some differ on the focus of their crusades for life. From my perspective, the life not present and formed can have no place of precedence if the life that is nearby is not completely honored. And the life that has given to others many times over cannot be relegated to obscurity and daily want if life to come is to thrive.

We are and have been a busy, self-regarding generation. Those after are perhaps busier. Business is our nature and our fog. Too often we are busy about nothing – nothing of significance at all. Wisdom is recognizing obligation and noting one’s hair’s-breadth remove from insignificance.

Young nieces and nephews – grand nieces and nephews – young friends and strangers, I marvel at your energy and health, your white teeth and strong voices, and your time left for mistakes and successes. But the train of old age is coming at you much faster than you know; you will only know it when it hits. Be prepared for a new near-life. Be prepared to be a model for your descendants in gracefully negotiating the years that were supposed to come so slowly. And pray like mad that your children and their children, and the great souls of your community, will mercifully adopt an elder.

Our Ebola

There is indeed an insidious disease threatening our country, its people, and its culture. It oozes isolationism, spite, protectionism, racism, sexism, defeatism, dread, and panic. It drains the humanity from its victims, who continue to stagger among us.

I am reminded every day of life as an immigrant in a precarious world. Descended from Scotch-Irish who immigrated to this country a couple of centuries ago, I still sense enduring health vulnerabilities, social incomprehension, separation, and hardship, even in my native land. And I am considered a full-fledged established member in good standing. It is not just that I work around exemplary students, academics, medical personnel, and patients of foreign descent on a daily basis. When I go to restaurants in New York City, I sit at tables surrounded by people who are not speaking English. The same applies when I infrequently visit a restaurant in Nashville; though others speak English, or some mutant form of American dialect, many obviously are visitors from other countries or recent immigrants. This mixing both socially and genetically, this constant negotiation with novel elements, is very good for us; it makes our country better prepared to cooperate and do business with the rest of the world. It deals us a superior hand for future play and worthy survival.

Thinking I had witnessed the lowest of the low in recent years in terms of political chicanery, I see new depths in the employment of a few Ebola cases as an explosive diversion a few weeks before a mid-term election. It is a horrible sight – and I don’t just mean the suffering in West Africa. Perhaps the panic is mainly a flash-in-the-pan circus of frenetic journalism and loose tongues and not penetrating or prevalent – which is the consoling assessment that my seasoned opinion favors.

Our narrow-minded, short-sighted, self-centered, and greedy Ebola is in part the by-product of our heritage, stretching back to Europe and beyond. But we do participate in effectively spreading it around the world. Perhaps ISIS is not genuinely grounded in a religious backlash against Western values and products, but Western exploitations and myopia in the past have certainly fed its fever. No place has been abused and spoiled more than Africa.

Now we should be thinking about how to help West Africans, not about how to wall them off. Panic sickens the soul and issues very poor, self-defeating results.

Despite radical conservatism’s posturing against science, its adherents – consistently inconsistent – run to the medicine cabinet of research whenever confronted with actual personal challenges in modern life. Science can combat the other Ebola, but please, God, strengthen our gift of humanism to help us overcome our mindless and spiritless strain of excessive poisonous excretions. Somebody please wake this patient up and fortify its backbone. Serious no-drama purpose, thinking, and method will best resolve our crises large and small.


Photograph by Jerry Murley

Aging sways in fields of age, weeds obscure the view;
Past times drift in and out, scant trace of patterns new.

Winds tilt fragile stems to ground, memories shift their shape;
Tangles clog, features wilt, attachments gently shake.

Brittle notions float to fore, no grasp is firmly taken;
Weeds within are crowding out, faculties forsaken.

No control to set the flow, no gauge to judge the seeming,
No glue to mend the pieces left, no store to hold the meaning.

Walls that leak, veils that hide, searches never finding;
Age, a fitful tale at most, frail in wrinkled binding.

A breeze, a touch, a taste of tastes, joys faint and faithful failing;
Poetry seeps in words worth less than simple quiet prevailing.

No loss in losing false, nor gain in troubled trying;
Aging young see only waste and fixed guides slowly dying.

Come back, dear one, as once you were, when weeds were not so raging;
We other weeds, we miss you more, since you have left us aging.

* * *

With age, we are surrounded by aging, encountering memory lapses more and more in ourselves and others. From what I have heard of pot smoking in the early-seventies, there is a relationship. Not one of cause and effect, but a similarity of mental sensation – of excursion.

From impressions of those years long past, I imagine that the experience of being stoned was much like short-term memory loss in aging, but with a less pleasant twist. With a weed high, some became intensity focused on the immediate. Context was not important, though revelations under such conditions could prompt the mind to leap beyond current physical boundaries to wholly different insights of a moment’s place in history. Also from what I have heard, those heighten perceptions tended to be forgotten quickly – or were found to be mishmash the next day. There was little inhibition in those days, among fellow tokers, about discussing such experiences. One assumes that few of those sharing the adventure – and the smoke – remembered much afterwards.

Emphatically, in reference to marijuana, I am not speaking of hallucinations, intractable habits, physical impairment, or bad trips. I am discussing thought cruises in the privacy of someone’s home.

Looked at through a commonly shared scenario of that time, I can better draw a parallel. An individual turns on a television set to an old movie – the older, more complex and foreign the movie the better. The viewer catches the movie in the middle – that was perhaps the usual and preferable point of entry. The viewer does not know what is going on in the movie. The intended plot is wholly irrelevant, as the viewer concentrates fully on the novel circumstances, speech, gestures, and relationships of the movie’s characters. Think of it another way, as if you walk onto the set of a movie being filmed out of sequence; you have no knowledge of what has happened or what will follow, but you immerse yourself in the set, the actors, the sound, and the surrounding activity of the production crew during a very brief portion of a larger cinematic production. In the latter example, though you are of sound mind but bewildered by the plot context, is the overall worth of the personal experience significantly diminished?

Now carry those impressions forward and think of elderly relatives, neighbors, and friends. Perhaps that represents life for some of them at times, but with confusion more than heightened awareness – claustrophobia more than mind-expansion – visceral fear more than curious, voluntary exploration. That is where unceasing lapses of short-term memory yield unpleasant psychological consequences aside from practical applications of thinking.

Next time you encounter such a person, aid her on a pleasant journey. Guide and join her in her passage. Add some sweet confection to assist, or light music, or an image-filled story of the familiar past, or a simple, practical observation about the here and now. But nothing is more beneficial than protecting her while en route, removing real-life obstacles and worries, shielding her from fear and danger.

I know such a gentle woman, who quietly but happily lives the moment for more and more of her time. There are worse conditions in life. Hers is made better by family who provide her with steady comfort, joy, compassion, and protection. It would be cruel and destructive to treat her otherwise, with ridicule, deceit, or neglect.

A leisure walk in outdoor air and light, amid our singing nature, clarifies with ready youth and brings her instant pleasure.

A moment is past and future. It is richer and more profound than commonplace theories, philosophies, and religions would have us imagine. A moment stretched is akin to infinity.

At the point of shortest memory, practicality is often our chief aim. Yet in a strange and mind-bound world, plots and complexity matter less than pliable and willing companions able to stroll along part of the way and appreciate the journey too.

Gray Claws

No thing reveals the fate of a nation more than the plight of its old. In America, at the dawn of the 21st century, people who sought expansion of personal horizons and independence are suddenly finding themselves confined and utterly dependent.

Doubling the trouble is the tendency of the utterly feeble to rely on the decrepit twin highwaymen of our political system – to wit, the Republican Party and its bastard sibling, the Tea Party – to cling to privilege and to restore a lost golden age that never was. This is not to say that the Democratic Party lacks its own deficiencies. But at least the Democratic Party contains the diversity of microbes necessary to digest change and excrete failure through the natural family processes of internal bickering, back-stabbing, inheritance hunting, and deathbed watching.

Through all the bitterness over the Affordable Care Act, I was guilty of not being sufficiently livid at the obstructionists who spent untold effort trying to prevent, overturn, repeal, slander, and otherwise block implementation of health reform. That is until I witnessed first-hand the desperation of the old and uninsured who need good information and more rational and fair health insurance coverage. To the dimwits who fought the Affordable Care Act tooth and nail with every underhanded deceit known to man, I say thank you from the bottom of my heart for calling it Obamacare. You have insured that one of the most significant advancements in health services in this country will be forever linked with the president whom you refused to give a chance and the Democratic Party, which sacrificed much to hold the tiller firmly during a gale of lies, whining, privilege-seeking, and self-indulgence. May you not suffer in your old age as you would have others suffer.

The old – and that bracket includes baby boomers – don’t have much to fall back on in terms of the children next in line: many of our children are lost in cyberspace and consumed by their own selfish concerns and presumptions of superiority. And, too, progeny in every developed country are but one Internet or electrical-grid failure away from complete helplessness themselves.

It is assumed by those who wish it so that the old will whimper, rollover, and die. An alternative plan on the political right and left is for the old to claw back in elder rage and irrationality that further dooms the long view and the arduous climb out of the hole we have dug for ourselves.

There is another way, as usual. The old can accept their duty to mentor and pass the baton responsibly to another generation. They might delay retirement but be ready to step aside and let jobs go to the young who need to start their overdue careers. They might vote and speak as if they acquired common sense over their many years of prosperous existence. The young can accept greater responsibility and maintain sensible engagement in politics and the lives of the old.

Never has it been so apparent how maturing Americans have inched themselves, and our society, out on a flimsy limb far away from practical community. It is not the fault of this generation of elderly or the past one. It is not the fault of evolving youth culture, either. That is except where the habits and culture of each generation have fused seamlessly and energetically with the unbridled consumerism of the past century and a half and neglected the future.

The most giving and creative society can indeed simultaneously be the most selfish and shortsighted. Too tired to try, the old fall back on bitching and recliners. Though high time for generational change, few new friends of mankind stand out: no figure, no group, no ideology, no method leaps to mind to make our evolutionary path easier or surer.

One cannot hear the sounds of the environment with embedded ear buds. One cannot see one’s surroundings in the illumination of a hand-held device. One cannot connect when constantly plugged in and tuned out. Neither can the old hear, see, or connect from the cave of their dens, strangers to the Internet, immobile, and steeped in denial until it is too late.

No external solutions exist, only the basic everyday ones. The momentum is with each household and tribe pursuing its daily survival. That is how we have gotten by for centuries. That is how we will rise or fail together – one by one.

Precipitously, our old fall off the playing field. Nothing changes – except that the wisdom of the ages is diminished in a steady dribble. Forgetting is what we do best. It is what we do worst. The brittle gray claws of the old crumble and break. And the spaces left when they decamp are beyond filling.

Get Her Done!

Did anyone seriously think for a minute that I would keep quiet about health reform?

There is a limit to what we all can take. I could continue to obsess about the nice words (or lack thereof). Or I can send my exertion out into the world to sink or swim on its own. For its neglect of studied grace, I hope this quick and humble submission makes up in passion and substance.

If you tire early in your reading or are too weary of this topic, I have a recommendation. The last seven paragraphs differ from the polemics of the first eight.

Read it here.