Monday, 6 May 2019

Grace, Gravity & Getting Old

Dear Friends,
This is an unusual blog post. It features the text of a 30-minute presentation I made recently at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Picton, Ontario. (Link) It's a reflection on the aging process - both its rich gifts and its challenges. The title comes from the title of Quaker teacher Parker J. Palmer's new book, On The Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity & Getting Old. (Link) The photos all come from our March visit to Canberra. Enjoy!

Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old
A Presentation by Larry Tayler
St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church
Picton, Ontario
May 5, 2019

I want to start my presentation with a framework metaphor written by the Spanish poet Antonio Machado:

Pathfinder – there is no path.
You make the path by walking.
By walking, you make the path.

Caminante, no hay camino.
Se hace camino al andar.
Al andar, se hace camino.

Pathfinder – there is no path.
You make the path by walking.
By walking, you make the path.

I am told that if you walk into a crowded bar in Madrid and loudly proclaim the first line of that poem – “¡Caminante, no hay camino!” – you will be greeted enthusiastically by people in the bar completing the poem, after which you will be given a free glass of wine. And a fine time will be had by all. I’ve never been in Madrid, so I don’t know if that’s a true story, but I do know that the poem’s wisdom illuminates the heart of what I want to say today. For the power of its metaphor is not just the physical act of walking a path – it is fully realized only in the wider context of the spiritual and emotional journeys that we all undertake, whatever physical limitations we may face.

Pathfinder, there is no path.
You make the path by walking.
By walking, you make the path.

So let’s talk about grace, gravity, and getting old – which is another way of saying, let’s talk about the journey of life in the autumn years. And as Machado alludes to, no matter how many people have made that journey before us, and no matter how much insight we can glean from their wisdom, each of us is ultimately experiencing that journey alone, for the first and only time. We make it up as we go along. And we know in advance that we don’t make it out alive. 

My title – “Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old” – comes from the Quaker teacher and philosopher Parker J. Palmer. It is the subtitle of his 2018 book, On The Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity & Getting Old. Parker is best known for his books about spirituality, teaching, and leading a life of integrity. His most popular book, The Courage to Teach, was my introduction to him in the late 1990s. One of my peak experiences was spending a five-day retreat with him in rural Pennsylvania. I still get goosebumps when recalling the humanity, wisdom, and impish delight that Parker brought to our small band of teachers.

Parker turned 80 this past February. To honour this milestone, he wrote the book that inspired today’s presentation. It’s a meditation on living, aging, and trying to make sense of things. I devoured it within days of its publication last summer and wrote about it in my blog. Lynne [The Rev. Lynne Donovan, the dynamic minister at St. Andrew's in Picton] read the post and contacted me in late August to see if I wanted to speak about ‘Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old’ here at St. Andrew’s. I readily agreed, but said that I wanted time to let the book’s themes percolate through my mind before writing about them. So, this presentation was actually written in February in a small cabin in Tasmania’s Huon Valley where Bill and I spent five glorious weeks, Bill quilting and bebopping; me writing and photographing.

When I started writing, I realized that Parker’s book was only the starting point for a wider meditation on my own aging process, my frustrations at the way elders are marginalized in our culture, and my thoughts on how we can shake things up a bit. While most of what I’m saying today was inspired by dear Parker’s book, many of the ideas don’t actually appear in it. If you don’t like the ideas, come see me, not Parker Palmer! And, yes, there will be a call to action at the end.

Let’s take the three elements of the title in reverse order, starting off with ‘Getting Old’.

I’m 72 years-old. As my husband likes to say, I’m the oldest man he’s ever slept with. He’s 68. Now, I’m learning that in this aging game, there are hierarchies. When I hear a 40-year-old complain about getting old, I roll my eyes and wish I had their knees. When I told my 98-year-old Aunt Jeanne about the topic, she roared with laughter and said, “Aging? What do you know about aging? You’re just a baby.” So, whatever I say today will no doubt provoke eye-rolling from both youngers and elders alike! Here goes anyway.

Yes, at 72, I know my body is aging and changing. My right knee does not always co-operate. My lower back complains when I’ve stood for too long. Or sat for too long. My eye sight is not as sharp as it once was. My reaction times have slowed. My muscle strength has diminished. My digestive tract is not always, um, reliable. My memory for names – never great in my younger days – now requires more ‘scaffolding’. Getting in and out of a low-slung car is no longer graceful. Getting in and out of ANY car is no longer graceful. My hair, what remains of it, can’t support the glorious permed curls of my 30s. I wear sensible shoes with sensible orthotics. And each year, I’m discovering hitherto-unknown sections of the drugstore in search of ointments and assistive devices. I am not alone in this process, and I make no claims to uniqueness, but my experience of that process is distinctly and powerfully my own. 

Now, having listed what I call my ‘GAPS’ – General Aches and Pains – I can also happily report that my iPhone tells me I walked 2,374 km last year, averaging almost 10,000 steps day. I have my own teeth, can handle a 15-hour Air Canada flight from Sydney to Vancouver, read voraciously, play a mean game of Scrabble, laugh uproariously at the slightest provocation, enjoy fart jokes with our grandchildren, and generally live life to its fullest, while counting my blessings at each and every turn. I have taken to heart the wise words of my dear late Quaker friend, Muriel Bishop, who, in her mid-80s, encouraged me to always honour my diminishments. She cautioned me to never see my body as the enemy that is somehow letting me down or betraying me. Instead, she lovingly observed her own body, calmly noted its changes, and then got on with whatever adaptations were necessary for staying engaged with the world. Sounds like a pretty good philosophy to me.

Now, let’s move on to ‘Gravity’.

Gravity is one of those words that leads a double life. On the one hand, it is what young Isaac Newton ‘discovered’ when that infamous English apple supposedly fell on his head in the mid-17th century. Gravity pulls stuff down. It’s the natural phenomenon that keeps us glued to the surface of this planet so we don’t go flinging off into outer space. And it surely has an effect on our bodies. Think of all those bellies, bottoms, and bosoms that migrate south with the help of gravity over the years. I’m not being judgemental about my body or anybody else’s body – I’m simply looking in the mirror! And consider how much damage gravity can cause your body when you find yourself tripping, slipping, or falling. Finally, think how quickly gravity asserts itself when, perhaps unwisely, you try climbing up the 1,776 steps of the CN Tower. So, it is quite legitimate to talk about the literal effects of gravity when discussing aging.

But the more interesting side of gravity is its metaphysical aspect – its gravitas, which is the Latin root of gravity. It is the wisdom that comes with age and experience. The insights that give elders longer perspectives on life’s challenges. The cumulative effects of an engaged life that instinctively knows “everything old is new again.”  The sense of being grounded, adaptable, and perceptive. 

This, for me, is the Promethean aspect of gravity. Recall the ancient Greek legend of Prometheus – the Titan whose very name means ‘forethought’ – who created humans from clay, who stole the immortal fire from Zeus, and who then gave that fire to humanity for its use. Prometheus is known for his complexity, his rebellious creativity, and his innovation. He suffered grievously for disobeying Zeus, but he stands as a symbol of the power, potential, and heartbreak of being human. He is a figure of gravity and represents the wisdom of lived experience. 

And so, when I talk about gravity, I’m talking about the individual and collective experiences of elders. I mourn the fact that this collective wisdom is often marginalized and dismissed. Unlike many indigenous cultures where elders are venerated and their wisdom is sought out, we live in a culture where elders are too often seen as a burden, a cost, and an inconvenience. Too often elders are simply put into storage and forgotten. What an unspeakable waste of humanity and potential. 

But, having said that, I believe that elders must also earn the respect of youngers. They can’t just sit back and expect veneration and privilege to come their way. They have to demonstrate that their wisdom isn’t merely a ‘copy and paste’ of the past, but is a living, breathing, adaptable wisdom that is willing to take risks. That way, elders will earn their way into the dynamic conversations of the day without being dismissed as stodgy agents of the past. In other words, elders need to recast the metaphor of gravity from that which weighs us down to that which holds us together. 

Which brings me to grace, the last and most important element of this presentation. 

Grace is an elegant word that can de devilishly hard to define. Interestingly, despite having used the word in the subtitle of his book, Parker doesn’t fully explain what he means by the word. In theology schools, there are entire academic departments dedicated to defining it and fighting turf wars over it. The Roman Catholic understanding of grace is very different from the Protestant understanding – and I won’t take you down that slippery, angel-strewn path. 

Now, I am not a theologian. A theological enthusiast and Biblical dabbler, yes, but a theologian – no. But here’s my definition of grace, the one I’m operating from in this presentation. Grace is the gentle, powerful fusion of kindness, compassion, and love. Let me repeat that: Grace is the gentle, powerful fusion of kindness, compassion, and love. It is all that is lovely in life. For those with the gift of faith in God, grace is reaching out from that of God within themselves to that of God in others. It becomes the ultimate form of mutuality, understanding, and empathy. The genius of grace, however, is that it does not need a belief in the traditional understandings of God to be a powerful force in our shared humanity. Its very decency and integrity stand on their own as guideposts for our journeys. Now, my experience of grace isgrounded in my understanding of God acting within me and through me, but I’m not claiming any exclusivity to the power of grace because of that belief.

So…Grace: Kindness. Compassion. Love.

I want to tell you about some of the thinkers and poets who have helped shape and challenge my understanding of grace, especially as it relates to the aging process.

Let me first talk about what makes us happy because the case I’m making this morning is that when we treat ourselves with grace, we’re able to extend that grace to the way we treat others. And to treat ourselves with grace, I believe we must have a strong sense of ourselves being deserving of that grace. Being deserving of that grace implies a sense of self-acceptance and personal happiness with who we are as people. In other words, when we are happy with who we are – and I don’t mean giddy silly happy here, but deeply, self-respectfully, appreciatively happy – that’s when we can treat others in that same deeply respectful, appreciative way.

The American clinical psychologist Mary Pipher wrote a moving essay in the New York Times on January 13 of this year entitled “The Joy of Being a Woman in Her 70s” (Link; possible pay wall), which I highly commend. In her essay, Pipher talks about gratitude not being a virtue, but a survival skill. As she says, “…our capacity for [gratitude] grows with our suffering. That is why it is the least privileged, not the most, who excel in appreciating the smallest of offerings.” She maintains that our happiness is built by an attitude of gratitude coupled with a deep sense of intention. Attitude is not everything, she says, but it is almost everything.

Pipher once interviewed the great jazz pianist Jane Jarvis, not long before Jarvis’ death in 2010 at the age of 94. She simply asked Jarvis if she were happy. Jarvis quickly replied, “I have everything I need to be happy right between my ears.” Wisdom for the ages, indeed. Pipher follows up with an anecdote about her Aunt Grace, who lived in the Ozarks. Pipher also asked her if she were happy. Aunt Grace’s reply? “I get what I want, but I know what to want.” It seems to me that these three powerful women – Mary Pipher, Jane Jarvis, and Aunt Grace – offer us much wisdom about the path to personal happiness and grace.

Parker Palmer himself writes in his book about the importance of attitude. He says that he wants to collaborate with his body and his mind during the aging process – he has no interest in defying the process, but wants to work with it. One of his suggestions is to do this:

“…every day, exercise your heart by taking in life’s pains and joys. That kind of exercise will make your heart supple, so that when it breaks – which it surely will – it will break not into a fragment grenade but into a greater capacity for love…[I]f you hold a healthy awareness of your own mortality, your eyes will be opened to the glory and grandeur of life.”

Parker sums up the importance of attitude in creating the kind of self-acceptance and happiness that leads to grace when he quotes the late, wondrous American poet Mary Oliver, who simply says: “[I] instruct myself over and over in joy.” 

Let me finish my thoughts on grace by talking about the English poet David Whyte. His thoughts on creating powerful attitudes can teach us so many good and wonderful things about happiness and grace.

Here’s what he said in an interview last December with Krista Tippett in the On Being podcast (Link) – a podcast I highly commend for its weekly infusion of spiritual nourishment:

“The only choice we have as we mature is how we inhabit our vulnerability, how we become larger and more courageous and more compassionate through our intimacy with disappearance. Our choice is to [either] inhabit vulnerability as generous citizens of loss, robustly and fully, or, conversely, as misers and complainers.”

I find Whyte’s concept of inhabiting our vulnerability to be a powerful agent of grace, a recognition that we must start off by dealing with ourselves gracefully. How can we respond to others in grace if we’re not nurturing ourselves with that same grace? 

And then there’s Whyte’s recognition that life comes with loss. As we age, we do indeed become intimate with disappearance. How we respond to the disappearances in our lives, however, becomes crucial to our journeys. Do we respond with complaints and negativity, or do we respond with generosity and courage? So at the same time, Whyte understands the physical and emotional realities of our aging selves, while also challenging us to respond to that process with courage and generosity, both with ourselves and with others. 

But Whyte takes the aging process beyond mere acknowledgement and forbearance to a whole new level. Let me quote him again from the same On Being interview:

 “There’s a form of youthfulness you’re supposed to inhabit when you’re in your 70s, 80s, or 90s, It’s the sense of immanent surprise, immanent revelation…the shape of your own absence.”

He then adds, quoting from his poem “Everything Is Waiting For You”: 

“It’s astonishing how much time human beings spend away from their frontiers. The doors have always been there to frighten you and invite you.”

So he’s encouraging us to reframe aging as a time of learning, discovery, and delight. Of pushing ourselves through new doorways and exploring evolving understandings of our presence on this planet and beyond. My friend Muriel Bishop, the one who gently encouraged me to honour my diminishments, would have had a deep appreciation for what Whyte is saying. I can only imagine the remarkable conversations that David Whyte and Muriel Bishop might have had! Two deep, loving, questing souls.

Now, in all this talk about courage, grace, and transformation, I also need to touch on fears. Whenever I start a major new project, I buy a journal for recording thoughts, ideas and quotations. Here’s the one I bought for “Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old.” And here on the first page is a Post-It note that simply says, “Fears.” It’s the first note that I made. 

I’m told that the phrase “Do not be afraid” appears in the Bible 366 times. Well, easy for the Bible to say!

I never say to anyone, “Don’t be afraid.” If you’re afraid, you’re afraid. It’s like saying to someone, “Don’t be sad,” “Don’t be angry,” or “Don’t be upset.” If I’m feeling afraid, sad, angry, or upset, THAT’S what I’m feeling! No amount of well-intentioned do-goodery from friends, family, or professionals will change the fact of what I’m feeling, especially when it’s coupled with that rarely-helpful advice to “just get over it – move on!” Or, my favourite, “Don’t be so sensitive, Larry.” ARGH!

Fears I have in abundance – from Tasmanian Tiger snakes to climate change. And from developing dementia to what might happen in downtown Toronto if the Maple Leafs ever did win the Stanley Cup again. In virtually any situation, I can come up with a dozen fear-based, wretched scenarios in a nanosecond. And I worry. And I fret. And I stew. My fears may appear baseless to others, but to me, they’re real.

But as with everything else in life, it’s not the feeling, or the situation, or the behaviour that is the issue – crucially, it’s how you choose to deal with it that makes all the difference. It’s that choice – that attitude that Prometheus, and Aunt Jeanne, and Aunt Grace, and Mary Pipher, and Parker Palmer, and Jane Jarvis, and Antonio Machado, and Muriel Bishop, and David Whyte, and Mary Oliver, and Lynne Donovan each illuminates so powerfully. The attitude that looks at a challenging or fearful situation and says, “I will CHOOSE to respond in love, grace, charity, compassion, courage, and dignity. And I will make that choice both in dealing with myself and with others.” 

And do you know what? You make these choices one unique decision at a time. In this very space on January 26th, when many of us gathered to celebrate Christi Belcourt’s marvellous “Wisdom of the Universe” mural on the exterior wall of this church (Link), Lynne Donovan said, “You accomplish things one dot at a time.” That is what I’m asking you to do, to make grace-filled decisions one brave, self-respectful dot at a time. That is the call to action that I talked about at the beginning. I’m calling on you to CHOOSE to respond to yourself and to others with grace, courage, radical hope, and love. 

As the author Anne Hines says in her beautiful 2005 novel The Spiral Garden about a North Toronto minister who has a spectacularly public crisis of faith, “I think, in the end, I would rather have courage than certainty.” 

Let me finish by reading one of my favourite poems by Mary Oliver. It’s called “I WORRIED” and it appears in her 2010 poetry collection, Swan.

I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the river
flow in the right direction, will the earth turn
as it was taught, and if not, how shall
I correct it?

Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,
can I do better?

Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows
can do it and I am, well,

Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,
am I going to get rheumatism,
lockjaw, dementia?

Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And gave it up. And took my old body
and went out into the morning,
and sang.

And so, my friends, I encourage you to find and share the wisdom of your stories. I encourage you to find the sacred in your everyday lives and to rejoice in it. I encourage you to be fierce and courageous and outrageous. I encourage you to create your path by walking it. And I encourage you to join Mary Oliver and go out into this good morning and SING.

Thank you.

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