Term Limits

My elder friend, Margaret, once told me that one’s 70’s were ‘a piece of cake,’ but the 80’s … well, she just rolled her lively eyes and chuckled. She was about to turn 90 and would become widowed soon after this conversation. She had stopped attending Sunday services regularly, though she scolded me, right in the middle of the produce section, for leaving the congregation. I hope she lives a long time.

This month I turned 79 and it wasn’t until I took the training for being a poll watcher that I began to seriously question whether some tasks are beyond my ability to perform with aplomb and confidence. I’ve kind of taken for granted the good longevity genes I inherited from the women in my line: Mom died at 94; her sister, Josie made it to 96; and Granny Daw Thant was well into her 80’s. All were physically active and mentally with it. Mom was swinging a golf club until her knees gave out, and remained a canny bridge, poker and Rummy 500 player until near the end. Aunt Josie, who spent her adult years in the UK, never cared to get a driver’s license. She could run down a bus carrying shopping bags, and worked in her vegetable patch past her 90th birthday. Granny? Legendary for her Thai-style massages, she could hop up on your back to knead the muscles with her feet, never losing her balance — or wicked laugh — until she died, instantly as she always wanted, of a heart attack.

They set a high bar. At 56, I trained as a yoga instructor and launched classes in my stripped-down living room in Hoboken, N.J. I called it 11th and Yoga and filled the space with students three nights a week. My body-mind was my business card. In yoga, I felt as though I’d discovered, if not the fountain of youth, then flexibility and resilience for my later years. I retired from teaching after 20 years, but maintain a regular practice with an app that let’s me choose the kind of class, the music, and the teacher I want to deliver instructions into my ear: Australian Chad, these days. One of my daughters-in-law is devoted to workouts with stretch bands and got me interested in this as well. I put all of this to the test recently, by moving my writing desk up one flight of stairs while my spouse offered sight lines so I didn’t take out the bannisters or scrape the wall.

Post-carding and texting were perfect get out the vote activities during lockdown. But as this particular election looms, I find myself drawn to poll watching because it’s clear we are up against some formidable attempts to interfere with the peaceful process. I have always admired those who serve every election year in various capacities. At my polling place in 2016, I witnessed one very polite worker remind an apparently confused Dr. Ben Carson that having cast his ballot, he needed to vacate the premises immediately. She gently but firmly escorted him out. Doesn’t that sound civil and orderly, the way a democracy is supposed to work?

But I must admit that the hour-long Zoom training to be a poll watcher has given me pause as to whether 1. I can be in the room from 5:30 a.m. to poll closing or even manage a 7+ hour shift during the early voting period which began in my state today, or 2. be mentally sharp enough to challenge my counterpart in the other party if I need to, and text reports of what I observe to the ‘boiler room’ of the Lawyers Bound for Justice. Not to mention that I use hearing aids. As they say, I’m on the fence about this. But it does make me think about the wisdom of knowing when you have reached your personal limits, legends like RBG notwithstanding.

This is going to sound odd coming from the co-author of Too Young to Retire: 101 Ways to Start the Rest of Your Life, an argument for staying in the game long after so-called retirement age. But term limits for all forms of government service are beginning to make sense to me, if only to forestall Murphy’s Law*. Congress is currently full of people who have forgotten why they ran for office in the first place. You don’t need a better argument for term limits than the spectacle of a 48-year-old SCOTUS nominee whose views don’t represent the majority of Americans, possibly gaining a lifetime appointment.

*“If something can go wrong, it will and usually at the worst time.”

Waiting Is

Even if you’re not a Robert Heinlein fan, this pandemic can make you feel like a stranger in a strange land. I’ve used the upside down emoji more times than I can count as it perfectly expresses how I’m feeling: inverted, but with a little smile on my face because, well, I agree with those friends who think that some good has already come from our changed world, and more may be on the horizon. Yes, you’re hearing this from someone who is no stranger to the dark side in these pages. So, as an example of how quickly shift happens these days, let me just mention two things that are in orbit for me right now, both of them new. Mars juli-kosolapova-pZ-XFIrJMtE-unsplash copyPhoto by Juli Kosolapova on Unsplash

I. Last fall, I became a member of a newly-formed book group, most of us women of a certain age with sufficient differences of backgrounds and views to make discussions lively. We started meeting in each others’ homes, with socializing and food always an important component. But now, like so much else in this strange landscape, we’re holding our monthly discussions on Zoom. For some of us getting used to the meeting technology was and is a quick study and we’ve taken to it like the proverbial web-footed to water. So, we mentor our sisters. Video conferencing is also the only way we can gather in the summer when we are geographically dispersed. After a session or two, we all got the hang of muting when not speaking, and some may be experimenting with the feature that helps you look your best in that little lighted box, whether you’re in pajamas or haven’t had a haircut or manicure since January.

There’s a serendipitous glitch in the program caused by distance and terrain, evidently mountainous: a slight lag between one speaker and the next. Musicians find this intolerable and most professional video conferencing involving music or dance, has found ways around it. If you watch CNN,  you have probably grown so accustomed to that slight pause between question and answer, you no longer find it odd. For my money, that extra beat or two of silence promotes better attention, patience and possibly even respect. We’re obliged to simply wait. “I speak, you wait. You speak, I wait,” as my friend, Sylvia, puts it. What’s wrong with that? Absolutely nothing.

II. Here’s an article from Motif, a newsletter based in Providence, RI,  where I am now, that covers news, events, music, shows, film, art. If the pandemic has sharpened your concern about our very sick healthcare system, a recent article, No Doctor? No Problem! offers a different perspective. It resonated with me because:

1. Although I deeply respect the professionals who devote their lives to the healing arts and sciences, the system in which they — and all Americans — are all currently trapped, needs more than tweaks. It needs a revolution. You probably know the stats as well as I do: how much we spend on healthcare vs. our dismal metrics compared to the rest of the developed world. We may also be the most over-prescribed population in the world, and certainly have among the highest rates of drug, including prescription drug, addiction. This is intolerable.

2. Pandemic has postponed all but the most urgent procedures to make room for Covid patients. These ‘routine’ procedures include annual physicals, redundant tests, and some elective surgeries. This hurts the business of medicine immediately, of course, and possibly permanently. But it also raises these questions: are we over-medicalized as a nation? are we paying too much for below par care? are there some circumstances when less is more? The fact that even emergency rooms have started to have fewer non-Covid-related visits suggests this could be true. Elder care and end of life care, are two categories I’m actively concerned about given my age and age cohort. If you are also, get hold of a copy of Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande.  There is a readers’ discussion guide in the back. You could consider warming up by forming an ad hoc reading/discussion group based on the Motif article.

Our groups next book selection is Jane Austen’s posthumously published Persuasion. Though written in English, the language is so of its period, you have to slow down, sometimes circle back. Yet I’m finding much to appreciate about the author’s witty skewering of the landed gentry with their endless amusements and schemes to preserve their wealth and status. Without a class system and convenient wars that built fortunes, Austen’s world could not have existed. No less ours.

Signing off with another back-to-the-future idea:  now that human habitation of Mars has become a thing, I’m thinking Stranger in a Strange Land could reward a second reading.  Maybe dig out your copy of the other cult classic of its moment, Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig while you’re at it. Stranger things have happened. Time expands. Waiting is.

 

Nesting and Resting

Perhaps you are, like me, following the so far voluntary stay home recommendations except for essential re-supplying. I’m hearing from friends about all the projects they are tackling during this hiatus from normal life, and I have a few of my own. But mostly, I’m contented to nest and rest, mend, repair, read, write and watch shows I have missed until now. Which brings me to the opening episode of The Crown.  I might have anticipated being flooded with memories from a brief moment in my own childhood that is of particular relevance today. Here goes.

When I arrived in England in 1948 in time to enter convent boarding school, many of the wartime protocols were still in place along with the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ culture that kept the country going in a dark time. The one law I found most difficult, was food rationing. No doubt this was because I had lately arrived from Burma (now Myanmar) where everyone, regardless of wealth or status, enjoyed a diet rich in tropical fruits and fresh vegetables as well as abundant rice, and where meat and fish were not the center of the plate, a subject I may address at another time.

The plan was that until school began and my mother could find her own living space (my father had remained at his post in Rangoon), we would live with her sister, Josie, and brother-in-law, Ken Birdsey, We had been issued ration books upon arrival that would enable us to get our weekly allotment from the various food stores: the greengrocer, bakery, fish monger, and butcher. Although sugar and eggs were severely limited, milk in glass bottles was still being delivered to the door.  I’ll admit to tremendous nostalgia for dairies and other independent purveyors!

The four of us were crammed into the Birdsey’s flat above a corner newspaper shop on The Square in Marika 1948Dunstable, Bedfordshire. We shared a single bathroom and took our main meal — high tea about 5:30 when they returned from work — in the tiny front parlor that overlooked the square. It was a lively spot and I never tired of looking out the window on all the comings and goings. Despite our limited quarters, my uncle managed to pursue his passion for photography and had a small dark room tucked into their warren of tiny rooms. This is a photograph of me, age 8,  he took and developed, that won Honorable Mention in a district contest and made me a local celebrity for a short while. He also used the photograph for their Christmas card that year, which suggests it was taken during the Christmas break after my first term at St. Francis de Sales in nearby Tring. My memories of the convent were straight out of Oliver Twist —  including the mandated surrender of my own ration book to the nuns — yet I look surprisingly well-nourished in Uncle Ken’s photo. This is likely due to the starchy meals, a lot of porridge and potatoes, with an egg and a very small, very fatty piece of bacon served on Sundays. I had sneaked a look into my ration book before school began, and someone of higher status in this new world of mine was clearly chowing down on my allotment of dairy and fresh fruit.

I didn’t dare rat out the nuns to my mother, even less to my aunt and uncle who were by now thoroughly entrained to accept wartime sacrifices with resilient good humor. In fact, we were all better off in some ways because Uncle Ken’s father and brother owned and ran a butcher shop. I also loved accompanying Aunt Josie on her rounds and observing her dimple up and flirt with the purveyors for extra nice piece of fish or bit more cheese. Until winter came, there was also the family victory garden that provided us with fresh tomatoes, greens, carrots and turnips, all easily turned into fresh eggs and even once, a chicken, via the barter system. I know these ideas seem positively quaint to many, but you can find versions of them alive and well today, see Transition Towns.

When I was home for school holidays, I loved a family high tea, all of us in hand-knit cardigans courtesy Aunt Josie, consisting of baked beans on toast, scones with marmalade (very sparingly spread), and countless cups of strong English tea sweetened with (also rare) condensed milk. I simply cannot imagine my beloved, long-gone elders, responding to a crisis by emptying meat cases and canned food shelves or stuffing their carts with toilet paper. As crowd scenes from The Crown depict, the love and pride the British felt for their country and for their leaders (Churchill and the royal family), ran deep. I believe this helped sustain them through their own existential crisis and it concerns me that we are coming up short in this regard.

We’ve been making extra effort to eat well and with more attention in my household, of late. And today, I had a reminder of how wonderful the plainest of foods can be from none other than Sam Sifton of NYT Cooking. Here’s a recipe with ingredients straight from your hurricane stockpile (fellow Floridians) for Simple Beans on Toast. I think, for the duration, you’ll be able to download all the Times recipes without a subscription. Actually, each day seems to bring new examples of altruism and generosity, for example, from museums and the entertainment industry, to cite two, that could help us keep our spirits up which is at least as important as not letting each other down. Let me know if I misspoke re: NYT Cooking. I’d be glad to copy/paste/post the recipe. Inside this grandmother is still that little girl in a flannel night gown, holding a candle.

Sourdough, Again

You can buy sourdough starter, but the best way to get it is from a friend because it will always come with its own story. I wrote here nearly a year ago about my mother’s adventures with sourdough ‘mother,’ a gift from her Ukrainian-Canadian friend. History repeated itself for me, when I got my own pint of sourdough from a friend who cultured it himself from flour, water, and patience. The existence of sourdough is further proof that we share a world with mutually-beneficial species, and with some effort we can be in right relationship with them. In this case, wild yeast.

The newcomer to my household has proven itself a resilient culture indeed, a friendly upstart that has changed how we make, enjoy, and think about bread, in our family. In short, over the past year, I have been baking a loaf or two EVERY WEEK, except for when we were away for six weeks last summer. With some trepidation, I put a cup of recently fed starter (it ‘eats’ just water and flour) into a recycled Talenti gelato jar, screwed on the lid, popped it into the freezer, and crossed my fingers. Fortunately, there wasn’t a power outage kind of hurricane event in 2019. All I had to do on my return was let it thaw, feed it for a few days, and we were back in business.

There are probably hundreds of recipes for sourdough on the Internet, and based on my sample of only those designated ‘easy’ and ‘beginners,’ every one of them is likely to frustrate the hell out of you if you’re a stickler for consistent results. So, count on a lesson — or three — in patience (a first rising can be 4 hours or 12).

We have another newcomer in neighborhood, a single, good-looking young man who replaced the family with the three noisy dogs we were glad to see go. And it turns out, our new neighbor was born in Ukraine. When you have a common wall and adjacent driveways, a certain amount of intimacy is inevitable if not always welcome. I already had a good feeling about him, though, because one day while we were away, he heard our daughter on the patio, audibly grieving her recently deceased father, and came over to make sure she was all right. This was a breach of protocol in our mind-your-business kind of neighborhood for which I am grateful.

My relationship with sourdough starter has taught me that is has no respect for your schedule, so get used to that. If you’re a control freak, you’ll be sorely tested. Things that influence ‘mother’ and therefore how your bread turns out include, of course, the quality of the water and flour you use to feed the culture; whether you let it warm up and expand enough before starting your recipe; the ambient temperature of your kitchen, the humidity, even your mood (i.e. cool or warm hands) and possibly the kind of music you’re playing in the background. Mine seems to like The Eagles and Van Morrison. I’ve had whole wheat loaves turn out so pretty I photograph them. Others that look like, and have the airy consistency of, an oversize English crumpet. But here’s the thing. Regardless of how a loaf looks, no one in my family has turned down a slice. We have almost forgotten what bread from a commercial source tastes like. We’re becoming connoisseurs of the distinctive tang that gives sourdough its name.

So the other night, we took this promising start a little further and invited O. to dinner. He rang the doorbell one minute after 6:30, wow! Dark, well-barbered hair, neat beard, wearing a tight black tee that showed his muscles, and dark jeans. He put his bottle of wine on the dining table, and shook my hand with a slight nod of his head.

Right away, he noticed our keyboard and ukuleles hanging on the wall and asked if we were musicians. I welcome curiosity and interest like this, so I ‘introduced’ him to the rest of our family via the group of photos under the hanging instruments. Our cat seemed to take to the stranger as well, rubbing against his legs and submitting to some strokes. Meanwhile, wine was being uncorked and poured, the Camembert I had remembered to take out hours ahead, was sagging nicely on the cheese platter next to the basket of crackers. I had made a salad earlier and had only the pasta to toss before serving. The evening was launched.

We chatted easily about our backgrounds, like neighbors who are interested in getting off to a good start do. He asked if we socialized with others in the complex and we mentioned the chili cook-off a few weeks back. The truth is, with the exception of dog-walkers and young families, most people are polite enough, but generally keep to themselves.

Turns out O. was born in Ukraine when it was still part of the Soviet Union and came to the United States at age 14 with his mother. His parents had been long divorced. He speaks English without an accent and is fluent in Russian, Ukraine, and the language of computer science in which he has a degree. He had been here 25 years, with a stint at UF Gainesville before getting a degree at Eckerd. He designs websites and codes, and intends to be his own boss eventually.

Given how much his former country had been in the news, I hesitated to talk politics. But – and I’m not sure how this happened – somehow we got there, and it turned out our views were aligned. Two hours passed quickly and pleasantly. The food was evidently enjoyed. He had a late date but insisted on helping clear up the dishes. My mother would have called O. ‘well-brought up.’  Soon, it was time to say good night. He would like to cook for us, he said. When he does, I’ll bring him a loaf of sourdough and a story.  

Some Things That Happen…

For the First Time/Seem to Be Happening Again.
~ Where Or When, Rodgers and Hart

Skepticism is a service I could offer. Maybe I could put it on a t-shirt in my next life as a t-shirt artist. Seriously, I earned it early and honestly, a divergent path when I was about 12, reading The Diary of a Young Girl. School assignment or not, Anne’s journal and her terrible fate riveted me. How could it be, I remember asking my agnostic, worldly father, that the Pope who my Catholic faith preached was “infallible,” had done nothing to save Anne Frank and the other Jews of Europe? He looked at me, then away with sadness in his eyes: “It’s complicated.” For him, personally, at the time it was indeed. My mother was a devout Catholic and he had promised to let her raise me as one. He went on to say that a lot of good people could not, or would not, see what was happening in Hitler’s Germany until it was too late to save millions of people. Yes, we won that war, but it was, he said, “a very dark time.”

We are in a dark time now, for some of the same reasons: good people choosing to avert their eyes to and shirk responsibility for what is happening to our planetary home. The most egregious example of this is the forthcoming series of ‘debates’ — if it even deserves the term — where Democratic presidential hopefuls barely mention climate breakdown so widely reported in mainstream media. I have no words to describe the failures in this regard of the other party which, according to California Governor, Gavin Newsom, is finished.

I will support and vote for a candidate who runs against this incumbency, but I am deeply skeptical any candidate has enough street cred for the coming climate emergency in real time. I worry that, as Katrina made evident in New Orleans, it will again be people who have the least to begin with, who suffer the most. As climate impacts multiply, it will be those who can’t afford nutritious food, reliable shelter, medical care, let alone property insurance, secure neighborhoods, escape strategies, or the luxury of climigration (if it comes to that) who will take the hit first and hardest.

Blue Marble

This is front of mind because in my last Zoom class in Joanna Macy’s Work That Reconnects, we spent a lot of time talking about the appropriate humility and openness we must bring to our work with marginalized population groups. Think about it: for indigenous peoples, extinction isn’t exactly a new concept. As facilitators, we’ll need to listen deeply, put in the time to build relationships and trust before we can offer anything else. I am hopeful that, as an immigrant and person of mixed-race, I might have a helpful perspective.

There will always be those who say our current predicament is too complicated to understand. Actually, it is very simple: unwittingly perhaps but more willfully now (despite warnings), we have built a global civilization that, as Joanna Macy puts it, has made of the earth our ‘supply house and sewer.’ This is, as one of my grandsons wisely put it, ‘not a partisan problem’ we face. We got here together and if we are able to turn back from the brink, it will take all of us. May it be so.

Prayer for Future Beings

You live inside us, beings of the future.

In the spiral ribbons of our cells, you are here.  In our rage for the burning forests, the poisoned fields, the oil-drowned seals, you are here.  You beat in our hearts through late-night meetings.  You accompany us to clear-cuts and toxic dumps and the halls of the lawmakers.  It is you who drive our dogged labors to save what is left.

O you who will walk this Earth when we are gone, stir us awake.  Behold through our eyes the beauty of this world.  Let us feel your breath in our lungs, your cry in our throat.  Let us see you in the poor, the homeless, the sick.  Haunt us with your hunger, hound us with your claims, that we may honor the life that links us.

You have as yet no faces we can see, no names we can say.  But we need only hold you in our mind, and you teach us patience.  You attune us to measures of time where healing can happen, where soil and souls can mend.  You reveal courage within us we had not suspected, love we had not owned.

O you who come after, help us remember: we are your ancestors.  Fill us with gladness for the work that must be done.

Adaptation (ad·ap·ta·tion)

Photo by Bogomil Mihaylov on Unsplash

Noun / Biology. a change or the process of change by which an organism or species becomes better suited to its environment.

Whether we recognize it or not, adaptation isn’t a choice for living things; it’s an evolutionary mandate. It is how all life forms — humans very much included – have survived and thrived over the millennia. When, for whatever reason, this process is disrupted (dinosaurs meet asteroid), life ends for those that cannot adapt to the changed circumstances. If adaptation is a successful strategy for continuing, extinction brings it to a halt.

We are in the Sixth Extinction now (see abstract of Elizabeth Kolbert’s book by that name), a culmination of decades of business as usual in the face of louder and more alarming warnings from the scientific community about greenhouse gases, resource depletion (oil, soil, water, forests), and biodiversity loss. Lately, the headlines are starting to catch up with the conclusions of peer-reviewed papers while emboldening the denialist camp (One Million Species Face Extinction). We are, the majority of scientists say, on the brink of societal collapse caused by us.

It is cold comfort indeed to learn that collapse is already occurring in our lifetime, just unevenly distributed. Says Vinay Gupta, software engineer, disaster consultant, global resilience guru, aka, The Man Whose Job It Is to Constantly Imagine the Collapse of Humanity In Order to Save It: “Collapse means living in the same conditions as the people who grow your coffee.”

When you bring to mind the existential struggle of the people of the Marshall Islands and Bangladesh or how sea level rise is redrawing the map of Louisiana (Elizabeth Kolbert: Louisiania’s Disappearing Coast) or watch how prolonged rain and flooding in the Midwest is threatening farmers’ livelihood and our food security (PBS News Hour), surviving to pick coffee for pennies sounds almost bearable.  Of course, coffee (along with chocolate, wines and many other climate sensitive foods) is on the endangered list. Sorry.

Starving for some good (well, somewhat better) news? Check out Leonardo DiCaprio’s HBO documentary Fire on Ice. It follows the trajectory of the previous Years of Living Dangerously documentary series by James Cameron (Avatar) in that it offers a raft of technology solutions. I have two reactions to these approaches 1. Apparently, we are capable of entertaining the most extreme ‘techno-fixes,’ while the real driver of biosphere destruction, that is, corporate capitalism and its bunkmate, consumption, get a free pass, and 2. Even if these solutions manage to keep us below the ‘safe’ PPM level of atmospheric CO2, the best time to have implemented them is, as is said of tree planting, 20 years ago. Further, I fear that films like these tend to do just the opposite of what Greta Thunberg and young people are demanding: urgency, even panic, both of which are commensurate with the facts and timelines.

OK, I’ll be 78 this year and Buddhist teachings about impermanence resonate with me. I am less concerned for my personal survival in an age of climate disruption than for those who will live more deeply into its unfolding, including my own beloveds. My adaptation so far is light on practical details, though relocation from South Florida seems sensible, and more about adapting in a spiritual sense and helping others to do the same. I’ve signed up for an online training in facilitation of Joanna Macy’s Work That Reconnects. More on that in a future post.

Going Deeper
New Climate Debate: How to Adapt to the End of the World

What To Do About Predictions of Imminent Food Collapse

Indies and Underdogs

I once lived over a bookstore. I know what you’re thinking, but this was in Manhattan and on the 11th Floor of the building that housed Barnes & Noble, then more famous as an academic book center that would buy back your books and sell you new ones. I doubt it had a cafe then (’88-90), or much motivation or room to permit private work nooks. But it was one of the greatest of indoor common spaces open late in the city to share with students of all ages, representing every race and culture. Melting Pot Manhattan.

B&N College division still operates nearly 800 stores at universities across the country. But the Barnes and Noble branch you may still have in your community if you’re lucky, is getting hammered by Amazon’s online advantage. But then again, who isn’t in the world of retail? True, the ‘big box’ discounter trend is nothing new. Sam Walton launched his first discount store in 1962. But Internet shopping, an answer to our addiction to convenience and speed, is the obvious accelerator. Driven by any darkened strip malls or once-thriving downtowns lately? I have, even in an upscale neighboring town. (Confession: although I’ve quit Prime and vowed only to use Amazon to read the free samples of books, then buy them used elsewhere, I do occasionally falter.)

That said, if you’re as hungry for any bit of good news these days as I am, you might be pleased to learn that independent book stores are making a comeback.  The Book Cellar in Lake Worth just south of me, is the perfect example of what an independent establishment can do for a community, beyond featuring books and hosting authors the old-fashioned way. With its cafe offering coffee, wine and light fare, including many vegan and gluten-free choices, this cozy, friendly corner spot on busy Lake Avenue has become a meeting place for a number of organizations. As long as you reserve in advance and use their food service, there’s no charge for the space. How many little mom-and-pop coffee houses and taverns in Philadelphia served as launch pads for the designers of the American Revolution? You might well ask.

BookCellarI’ve hosted a meeting at The Book Cellar with my spoken word troupe and Emergency Medical Assistance, preparing for last year’s show of monologues on abortion. The Palm Beach County Chapter of Women’s March meets there regularly, and so does the Jazz on J Street group, well-known for its encouragement of young performers. The Book Cellar is open late, so you can stop in after a movie at yet another local indie favorite, the Stonzek Cinema, now the only screen in my area you can find good indie films. These include well-made international films that remind you there’s a much bigger world out there. One of their bravest choices in subject matter for 2018 was First Reformed starring Ethan Hawke, about a pastor confronting not only his own dark night of the soul, but religious extremism, corporate domination, and environmental apocalypse. Maybe it was too dark to make the cut at Oscar time, though early reviewers were predicting ‘Best Picture.’

OK, eye-rolls for my nostalgia for little book stores or for Saunders Hardware in my New Jersey hometown (especially after a frustrating search at Home Depot). Or when I fondly recall the barber who cut my little boy’s hair; or the laundry that always remembered you liked light starch in the dress shirts; or the shoe or jewelry repair places. Does anyone fix anything, any more? We are not better off today with the homogenized culture that has overtaken us like a tsunami, or with social media becoming a license to mislead and inflame. Already, we’ve become less interesting and interested; less engaged with each other, socially and politically, and in real-time; less open-minded, more tribal, risk-averse, fearful. Not to mention grammar-challenged. But the bigger question is, what will happen as we become increasingly afraid to speak up or challenge authority; when the hand that feeds (houses, clothes, and entertains) us, holds a big stick? Or a gun?

Granted, compared to the challenges we as a species will be facing in the next decade(s) on a hotter planet, to push back against Big Box World and switch our allegiance to the small farmer, artisan and craftsperson, family-owned business and so on, is a drop in the ocean. But maybe it could improve our lives and our communities in ways that count but can’t necessarily be accounted for. That’s worth the candle.

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

 

oldyoung
(Photo credit: Ralphiesportal.me)

ABSOLUTELY NOTHING!

Perhaps it brings to mind a cherished elder in your life – grandparent, family member, teacher, mentor – as it does for me. Specifically, the bond I formed with my maternal grandmother, Daw Thant, a Burmese woman born in a small village in Northern Burma, who came to live with us when I was 16 and she about 58 (I know, that barely qualifies as an elder these days!)

Adding a fourth generation to our household wasn’t as much of a stretch as you might think. Burmese live in multigenerational households as a matter of course; besides this, even families of modest means like ours, had live-in servants. Ours included, for instance a driver, a gardener, and a maid. Two were married with small children. We also had a Hindu cook who lived elsewhere but was on call every weekday. This made for a lot of people of different ages, with different needs, all sharing if not the same roof, the same compound and accountable to the heads of household. The difference was, the arrival of my grandmother introduced an elder in residence, someone whose mere presence added a certain gravitas to our sometime chaotic household.

Granny moved into a small porch-like space on our second floor. With windows on three sides, it was the breeziest and coolest room in the house. She had arrived with a small suitcase and one cloth bundle as if this might be a short visit when, in fact, she had come to stay. She unpacked quickly. One shelf held all her neatly folded clothing. Another became a shrine, with tiny clay Buddha figure on a cloth napkin and an offering plate that would hold fruit or sweets — the little ones were fed these treats at the end of the day.

Because I had no memory of my grandmother, I had been anxious about how this reorganization of our family could cramp my new-found autonomy: a driver’s license and very little adult surveillance beyond a weeknight curfew. I needn’t have worried. Granny had no interest in policing me. She proved to be adoring, funny, kind, mellow in temperament (perhaps there was more than tobacco in those fat cheroots she smoked). She was patient with my struggles to communicate with her in what was for me a second language. We became the best of friends. But there was more.

She let me into a secret: the power of meditation. She had a twice-daily sitting practice that she never skipped, even when unwell (a rare occurrence). Decades later, as contemplative practices like yoga and meditation have taken root in my own life, I better understand how the practices of her Buddhist faith could have supported her through a difficult life of multiple partners and precarious finances; long separations from her two, boarding-schooled daughters; shortages of every kind during wartime; the foreign occupation of her country. She became a masseuse, an expert seamstress, and an advisor on home remedies for everything from hiccups, the common cold, headaches and sore muscles, an infected insect bite, to an unwanted pregnancy (the maid’s). Granny was equanimity and resilience personified.

Though our culture accorded my grandmother a certain status, I never heard or saw her pull rank. She was equally comfortable with my parents’ guests as she was chatting over a cup of tea with one of the servants, sometimes taking a meal with them. She became the reliable adult presence at home, the company I most sought after school, even though conversing in multi-tonal Burmese was always a challenge for me.

This photo is the future, according to Marc Freedman, author How to Live Forever: The Enduring Power of Connecting the Generations, and CEO and president of Encore.org, based in San Francisco. What if ‘forever’ signified more than the current craze among the wealthiest to extend their life span decades, via any means possible? What if we embraced a new role for ourselves as we age, as allies and advocates for the young? What might this look like? An example I love: Project Spring-Winter in Singapore that combines a nursing home with a childcare center for children between two months and 6 years. Read this excerpt from the book and hear Freedman’s TED Talk on this subject here. Sign me up.

Encore (also the title of an earlier book by Marc Freedman) is an organization (motto: Second Acts for the Greater Good), a multi-part movement, and a hub of information and innovation for those of us who aspire to age well by using our experience to solve social problems. The Purpose Prize, created more than 10 years ago to recognize outstanding older social entrepreneurs, is another Encore initiative. Now, with Gen2Gen Encore seeks to “mobilize 1 million adults 50+ to stand up for — and with — young people today.” All of this is worth your time. But with Gen2Gen, I’m sensing game-changer.

More ideas to ponder:

Dutch Students Cohabit with Elders

Volunteer to Cuddle

Neonatal Cuddling

Toddlers and Seniors: Institute for Family Studies

Non-Familial Intergenerational Interactions

https://transitiontales.wordpress.com/category/cohousing/

On Being an Elder

When I was growing up in the multicultural circumstances any child of a diplomat or military brat may find familiar, I often encountered the idea that I should show respect to my ‘elders and betters,’ with better meaning of higher social status than my own, e.g. the elders of a tribe, society, or a congregation. I found this hard to swallow given the tipsy hijinks and other questionable behavior I witnessed among the grownups, including those I loved. It has taken a lifetime to help me realize that becoming an elder worthy of respect isn’t a given. Rather, it is something earned, through a patient pursuit of perspective, insight, understanding, and wisdom. “With all thy getting, get understanding.” (Proverbs 4, King James version, and banner for Forbes editorials since the magazine was founded) 

The Carters at Habitat

I aspire to evolve into that kind of elder since, according to the Social Security Administration, my age places me squarely in the elderly cohort. But the irony is that today (with some obvious exceptions), some of the best models for Elder-hood are found outside my peer group, in the Millennials, already shaking up the status quo as freshman members of the new Congress, and the teenaged activists: Greta Thunberg on climate, the Parkland kids on gun reform. I can’t imagine one of them coming up to me after a poetry reading, as one 70-something did, suggesting that what was missing was ‘more uplifting’ material. Apparently my selection of poems on climate had rankled. Good, I thought, though smiling and toasting him with my cup of coffee, it wasn’t mere entertainment

My generation, and the Boomers that followed us, have a lot to answer for to our children and grandchildren about the squandered opportunities to address global warming when smaller, incremental lifestyle adjustments might have arrested, or at least mitigated, the threat. “‘I don’t want to speak too disparagingly of my generation (actually I do, we had a chance to change the world but opted for the Home Shopping Network instead),” wrote Stephen King. We’ve been kicking the can down the road, voting in people who created policy that reflected and protected our shortsighted views, and voting out of office those who would install solar panels on public buildings. We’ve been partying as if tomorrow would never come, as if it were always “50 or 75 years out,” (Andrew Wheeler, new EPA head), and many of us still are.

I hate to take my generation to task (actually, I’m OK with that), but it’s hard to decide which view is more dangerous: that of flat-out climate change Denialists like Wheeler and the president who hired him; those who think individual behavior change is too limited to matter so why bother; or the ‘we-got-this’ group who are banking on a technological fix to cool an overheating planet. But I do know the young, who have a far larger stake in the future than we do, are not wasting their time bickering among themselves, assigning blame, or sitting still. And they know how to communicate quickly and effectively via social media to get things moving. 

For those of us who have retired our marching shoes, there is still plenty we can to to support the children who are cutting school as a way of demanding action on climate, or the arts activists staging public ‘die-in’s’ to protest Big Pharma’s role in the opioid epidemic (to cite current forms of activism widely reported). We can write a generous check. Offer a bed, a shower, a ride, encouragement and/or meal to activists and poll workers. Help get out the vote. Vote for, and stay in touch with, the members of congress who show some spine on climate crisis, gun reform, corporate greed, and other issues that threaten our future as a nation and a species. Many of us have the financial clout to support companies who are committed to reducing their carbon impact and reject those who don’t by shopping elsewhere. We can also shop less, and more mindfully to help contain runaway consumerism. And we can, by our example, instruct those who follow. 

If you have other ideas about how to embrace the role of Elder in these challenging times, consider the comment box your welcome mat.  

From the Ukraine, With Love

My friend, Henry, brought me a crock of sour dough bread starter, aka ‘mother,’ the other day, along with instructions on its care and feeding. He also brought a recipe for a Rustic Loaf, and directed me to a You Tube video that featured Julia Child, looking remarkably lively, and Nancy Silverton, who has seized the French Chef baton as regards sour dough bread making.

I watched the 11-minute video start to finish, then baulked at the recommended technique for forming of the loaf – all that parchment paper and dough flipping — and the constant spraying the oven necessary to produce the characteristic crisp crust. I’m basically someone who will always choose a simpler method if its available, and not just in the kitchen. We’re talking bread here, not Baked Alaska or the great American novel. Bread, no matter how perfect, is quickly eaten and soon forgotten. Or so I said to myself, as I rummaged for another recipe.

SourdoughBut not so fast. The fact is, the arrival of Henry’s starter in my house has revived fond memories of my mother’s way with sour dough and how it all came about. It seems that my mother, a Burma-born immigrant and self-taught cook, became fast friends with a Ukrainian-Canadian[1] (I suspect they were members of the same curling club). The friend shared a sour dough starter she had nurtured for decades, along with instructions on how to keep it going. If the starter hadn’t actually landed in Canada with the friend, then the family recipe certainly had. In other words, it goes back.

Mom stored hers in glass jars and took such good care of it, it lived there happily for decades, through daily feedings, transfers to clean jars, and used often to bake bread, rolls, biscuits and so on. Knowing her enthusiasm and generosity, it was probably shared widely with other friends.

Whenever my parents visited us from their home in Edmonton, Mom would ‘import’ – smuggle, actually – a small quantity of Ukrainian ‘mother’ in an airtight glass jar wrapped in underwear and tucked into her carryon bag. Never mind that my father looked askance at this unlawful practice. In those pre-TSA days, the chance this affable grandmother would be questioned, let alone searched, at the U.S. Canadian border, was nil.

Once we got home, Mom would transfer the starter to a glass bowl and beat in equal parts of unbleached flour and whole milk to ‘feed’ it and let it recover from its long journey. Then, having recovered from her own travels, she would produce the first batch of biscuits. In the next days, she took over the kitchen, turning our breads for the family and eventually, our neighbors, with a breathtaking command of her materials and technique. “And when did you say your Mom was visiting …” (Bob and Sally next door.)

If you let it, sour dough starter can take over your kitchen, if not your life, very much like an exotic pet, which is what Henry calls his. I haven’t given mine a name, yet. The starter goes to sleep in the refrigerator (and suspended animation in freezer, according to Mom) and is quickly revived with a feeding. You need to smell and taste it to make sure it is thriving before proceeding with a recipe.

Like all fermentation processes, sour dough starter depends on the capture of wild yeast that is all around us – a process common to the making of beer, wine, yogurt, sauerkraut, and cheeses. In the Julia Child video, Nancy Silverton demonstrated this yeast-capture technique using a bunch of grapes placed in a bundle of cheesecloth, lightly mashed with a wooden mallet, then placed into a batter of room temperature flour and water. As this mix starts to ferment, you see tiny bubbles forming in the batter. It seems magical, but it’s basic food chemistry. For a newbie to sour dough, this is a bit like witnessing a birth.

A regular practice of making anything at home these days is a declaration of independence from the dominant culture. Beyond that, I’m pleased to be a miniscule contributor to the growing interest in the microbiome, the vast collection of microorganisms that essentially colonize every body, contributing to health and/or disease. We literally, as Walt Whitman put it, ‘contain multitudes.’

It’s a good thought to hold in your mind while you’re kneading a batch of sour dough bread. I froze a cupful of Henry’s starter, in case I managed to kill off the sample (it happens). So far, I’ve made two traditional loaves (one for the freezer), and last night, I made whole wheat sour dough pita to go with the labneh – a yogurt cheese, dressed with olive oil and Zaatar, a Lebanese spice mix. Here’s the pita recipe in case you want to follow me down this delightful rabbit hole.

As I shaped the springy, risen dough into lemon-sized portions, then pressed and rolled them into pita to be cooked in an iron skillet, I could almost sense my mother at my side, beaming.

[1] Canada, it turns out, has the world’s third-largest population beside Ukraine itself and Russia.

Further reading:

I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life Ed Yong

The Art of Eating, M.F.K. Fisher (available at your public library)