Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Who Was President When You Were Twelve?

As 2014 draws to a close, I'm enjoying David McCullough's masterful biography of Truman, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 1993.

Since Truman was president well before I was born, most of what I've learned about him over the years, prior to now, came in conversations with my dad. My father loves to talk history and politics, especially presidential politics, which is likely where I get some of my fascination with the subject.

One of the things I remember my dad telling me most clearly was how strange it felt for him at first to think of Harry S. Truman as president. When Truman became president in April 1945, on the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, my father had no memory of any other president ever. FDR had been elected to an unprecedented and never to be repeated four terms (though he would serve only three months of the fourth term). He was first elected in 1932, the year both of my parents were born. Mom was a newly turned 13 and Dad 12 almost 13 when FDR died and Truman became president. No wonder he had a hard time fathoming that anybody else could have the job! That little anecdote has been  lodged in my memory for years. Interestingly, McCullough spends a lot of time explaining how Truman himself (in his first dazed reaction) had a hard time thinking of himself as president too.

Maybe because my own daughter is now 12, I've found myself thinking through other "12s" in our family history. It's interesting and revealing to think about U.S. presidential history in terms of the youth of different generations. My daughter, of course, is 12 during the second term of Barack Obama, the first African American president. When I was 12, Ronald Regan had just been elected for the first time (he would be president my entire adolescence), though Jimmy Carter was actually in office through the end of the year I turned 12. When my husband was 12, Richard Nixon had just been inaugurated for his second term, a year prior to his resignation of the presidency (a political environment to which my husband still attributes much of his own attitudes toward and ideas about politics). My middle sister turned 12 the year Nixon resigned. My oldest sister turned 12 less than half a year before Lyndon B. Johnson announced he would not run for re-election, and my brother turned 12 the next year, just two months before Nixon was first elected.

My mother-in-law, five years younger than my parents, would have been 12 the year that Harry S. Truman was inaugurated for his first full term (but essentially his second) following his improbable election victory over Thomas Dewey in 1948. My husband's aunt, ten years his junior, was 12 the year that John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

My maternal grandmother turned 12 in 1921, the year that Warren G. Harding was inaugurated (in March, as they did back then). My maternal grandfather turned 12 in 1924, the year that Calvin Coolidge delivered the first radio broadcast from the White House. My paternal grandmother would have turned 12 in 1917, the year Woodrow Wilson was elected for his second term and the U.S. went to war (for the first time) with Germany (a war in which Harry Truman would serve as an artillery captain.) My paternal grandfather turned 12 in 1913, the year Wilson was inaugurated for the first time, succeeding William Howard Taft.

I find this so interesting that I may go back even further and figure out who was president when my great-grandparents were 12!

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Advent Conjugation

A very merry Christmas! I thought I would share my annual advent poem here as one more way of celebrating today. Blessings to all!

Advent Conjugation

He came.
It was a journey
long and far.
  The One
who made the light
and every star
stepped into darkness
that we might see
his shining glory here.
He wrapped himself
  in flesh
that we might behold
the face of God
and hold his gentle
love within our hands.
He made himself
  so small
we could embrace
eternity in swaddling bands.

He comes
  each day.
He understands
our longest journeys.
The baby refugee
whose parents fled,
the man who had
no place to lay his head,
he knows the way
  we wander,
the borders we cross,
and all the places
where we hide
when we’re afraid
  and lost.
The courage he sends
through the strength
of his name gives light .
when we’re down
to the barest of flame.

He will come
  once more.
The long journey
will be made again
and all our stories
brought to their
  rightful end
in the love story
begun before
the world began.
Both joy and fears
enfolded in his grace
and every step
of every weary race
We will be whole.
He promises
to make it so.

And this is the
advent conjugation
that’s true for every
tongue and tribe
 and nation –
that we can trust
  the One
  who came,
  who comes,
  who will come
  once again,
to lead us into
joyous life
that never ends.

            ~EMP, Advent 2014

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Teach Us to Number Our Days: A Few Thoughts on Aging

“Teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Psalm 90:12

This advent season I’m thinking about aging. It’s not just because my middle-aged body and mind are both tired these days (I find myself getting really excited about sleep, in ways I never used to!) but because we recently visited our parents.

My husband’s mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s this year, a diagnosis we’re still not entirely sure about, though one thing is clear: her memory and physical strength have both plummeted alarmingly in the past year and a half. Although she is a little stronger now than she was in late summer, before the family had her current care situation in place, it is still very difficult to see her so frail and easily confused.

My own mother, five years older than my mother-in-law but always constitutionally more vigorous, fell two days before Thanksgiving and broke her hip. We spent our time there mostly in hospital, as she was recovering from surgery. She’s spent the weeks since in a rehab facility, learning to walk and carefully handle stairs with her new hip, and Lord willing, she’ll be home in just a couple more days. She’s worked hard, determined to get back on her feet, but she’s battled anxiety, depression, and loneliness too. This has been the longest time my folks, married for 60 years, have been separated from each other for many years. Probably the last time they spent this much time apart was over 50 years ago, when they made a move from Tennessee to Virginia with two little ones in tow, and my father had to move ahead of the rest of the family to find a place for them to live and to start his job. He’s visiting her every day, of course, but they still miss each other a lot.

Observing all three of these people (so dear to me) handle huge challenges has been encouraging, worrying, thought-provoking – and more besides. I am amazed by their courage. I don’t use that word lightly. Just getting into your 70s and 80s with the will to get up each morning, to keep moving in spite of pain and discomfort, to keep a sense of humor in the midst of growing daily frustrations, takes a tremendous amount of courage.

I love these people. They have so much wisdom and experience, and they’ve poured so much of their lives into ours. And right now, they all face so many daily challenges. Physical faculties have begun to fail them. Mom doesn’t hear as well as she used to, Dad’s eyesight is challenging him (night driving has become a real anxiety, reading more of a chore) and my mother-in-law’s vocal strength is failing her, so it’s almost impossible for her to be heard. Both moms struggle with balance issues. My dad has to monitor his pace or his blood-pressure drops significantly (he has congestive heart failure, from which he has recovered wonderfully, but still). They have more aches and pains and their bodies need more rest.

The friends and loved ones of their youth have begun to die, and there are fewer people left who share their memories and can connect with them on deep levels of heart and soul. I’m not sure I’ll ever forget my mom flourishing a newspaper open to the obituary section (while she lay in her hospital bed) and saying with total snark: “Every once in a while we like to check in to make sure we haven’t died yet.” Then my dad, a few minutes later, in a much more sober frame of mind, telling me that “some days when I read the obituaries, everyone listed there is younger than I am.”

I’m sure there are times when they feel overlooked or dismissed because they can’t “keep up the pace.” They’re slower on their feet. New technology passes them by. Popular cultural trends seem more inane and faddish and lightweight to them (I already get that, and I’m only 46). Yet they’re still susceptible to the fear and anxiety pumped regularly through the media, just like everyone else.

I appreciate seeing the ways they handle their growing infirmities and frustrations: sometimes with panache, sometimes with humor, sometimes with anger and defiance. I’ve begun to realize that no two people handle the arduous hills of aging quite the same way. And I’ve begun to see that there are certain things I not only hope and pray I have in place if I ever attain to eight or nine decades of living, but certain things I want to actively work to have in place if and when I get there. Not that I’m banking on these attitudes or attributes necessarily and always making things easier – unexpected challenges will arise, and the likelihood of D & I ever having the level of care our parents are experiencing is slim.

Still, here are a few things I want to begin to put into place for myself now as I think about those years to come. They are good life skills and attitudes to have in the here and now, not just investments for old age.

·        I want to cultivate an attitude of gratitude, the kind of gratitude I see in my dad when he tells me that every day he still enjoys is a gift.
·        I want to keep my mind as active as possible for as long as possible: with reading (including slow, thoughtful reading of material that challenges me), with prayer, music, creativity, and even occasionally tackling new skills. I want to try to be open to the new as well as the old for as long as I can.
·        I want to remember that “activity” does not equal value. A ministry of presence – even if it means, in the end, simply being kind and loving to caregivers (who may or may not always be kind themselves) is still of value. A ministry of prayer matters. There may even be times when I feel I have nothing left to give at all, but I pray that I will still somehow know, deep down inside, that I am always a beloved daughter of God. That starts with me remembering it now, and treating others with the respect and dignity and care with which I hope to be treated one day.
·        I don’t want to be afraid to ask for help or to show I don’t have it all together. I want to stay open to receive. To me, this is huge. My parents have been givers, do-ers, caregivers, their whole lives. It has sometimes been very hard for them to be on the receiving end of care. I think this is a tough one for all of us actually. We all like to be the strong ones who give. But it’s been dawning on me lately that as Christians, our whole (healed, whole, saved!) lives are due to having received grace upon grace we couldn’t have ever earned or scraped up or managed on our own, and that needs to mark our inner disposition in other ways. We need to be open to receive what we can’t possibly do for ourselves, and to see it not as a sign of weakness, but a blessed part of God’s economy and the communion of the saints.
·        I want to view even the really, really hard stuff in life as part of the adventure God has me on, remembering that I am in his hands and in his care.
·        I want to savor simple gifts. And laugh more.  
·        I want to get to and maintain a healthy weight, as well as maintain better exercise routines and healthier eating habits. I’d like to stay as flexible and limber as possible for as long I can!

Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.” Isaiah 46:4

Monday, December 08, 2014

The Blessings of the Yearly Advent Poem

My mysterious disappearance from the blog has not been all that mysterious really. Between an incredible amount of work and our recent Thanksgiving travels, I've not had any time to post here. And I miss it.

I've been thankful to have managed some scribbles in my journal during this time, which have helped to keep me sane. Most of all, I'm thankful for the blessings of Advent.

In years past, I've done a number of posts about Advent. I love to share poems, prayers, snippets of what I'm reading, thoughts about the season. This year I am living at such a flat-out work pace, and our extended families are going through so much stress, Advent had taken on a much more raw and urgent feeling...less about making our way toward the Christmas celebration (though that's still a layer) and more about clinging to the very real hope we have in Jesus. (Which is, of course, a big part of making our way toward the Christmas celebration...but I'm meandering here, and I only have a couple of minutes to write!)

One of the biggest blessings this Advent has been my yearly discipline of writing a poem. This is the twenty-third year I have done so, which means I have been writing an annual Advent poem for half my life. There are years the poem comes easily and years it's a struggle, but this is one of the first years I seriously thought I might just not be able to do it at all. It's not just the work pace right now, but the exhausted inner space. I am spending a lot of my writing working days plowing through work-a-day prose -- poetry has not been a regular part of my diet (reading or writing) for a little while, yet another thing I miss. And yet there's the mysterious blessing of having stored up so much over the years that it's there to draw on when I need it, even in lean seasons.

So when the poem started to do its push and pull inside my heart last week, I wasn't as surprised as I might've been. I found myself smiling at its approach like I would smile at the coming of an old friend -- "really? you decided to come this year too?" The poem never seems to mind how cluttered my house is, how worn out my body, how tired my spirit. So I got up early this morning, tired as I was, to work at a draft.

I am so thankful for the gift of creativity, even or especially when I'm convinced there's none left in the storehouse. Proof once again that it pours into us from the Creator whose well never runs dry.