I’ve always been a city gal, but I married a guy raised on a farm. And fifty-some years later, the farm lives on in him. My married life has meant yearly trips back to his hometown of five hundred people, two hours SW of Minneapolis.
This years’ trip was last week. Imagine riding for hours of quiet serenity past these green fields. A perfectly restful ride.
But, after all these years, the only crop I know for sure is corn. I still have to ask, “Are those soybeans?” Or “Are those beets?”
And I still don’t know.
But I do know one happy husband when I see him connected back to the earth he loves and the earth that lives in his heart.
I pray I’ll be able to make this trip for at least a few more years. And that my farm-turned-city guy will continue, patiently, to try to teach me a thing or two.
“Listen actively with respect,” said the speaker, adding “Be succinct and to the point.”
Last week, I attended this orientation session to the OLLI program at Northwestern University in Chicago. OLLI stands for Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. Across the country, 120 such programs exist, all associated with colleges. Having taught group dynamics and observed many over the years, I appreciated this heads up to monopolizers and spoilers of any group gathering.
At Northwestern, between their Evanston and city campuses, nearly 900 students participate in this “cooperative learning community.” In the study groups, members have the opportunity to progress “from avid listener to active contributor to discussion facilitator to coordinator.”
I’ve never attended a formal peer-led educational program. Of course, all my formal education was teacher-led or coordinated. And the Basic Program at the University of Chicago that I completed a year ago was teacher-led. My only experience with anything led by peers was in Bible studies where I bristled at the “blind leading the blind.” As a former teacher, I always want someone in the room to be much more knowledgeable in the subject area than I. In Bible Studies, for example, give me a theologian versed in the Hebrew and Greek origins of Scripture.
But, after hearing friends rave about OLLI, I’m trying this method of learning by taking a course titled U.S Healthcare: Promise Unfulfilled. The course description asks, “Can our health care system work better, cost less and deliver higher quality?” Proposed and moderated by a pediatrician and a consulting executive (sounds like they’ll know more than I!), enrollees are invited to examine “the politics and policy decisions that got us to our current system…from the first health care plan to Otto Bismarck’s Germany to the Affordable Care Act” and more.
When I found this course among the dozens offered, I signed up. As a nurse and proponent of life-long learning, I can think of no better topic to explore at this time in our history, along with peers interested enough in the same thing to enroll and discuss respectfully as members of a group.
In case you’re wondering, I did have to sign up for second and third choices. My second choice was Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years; my third, Exploration of Brain and Mind. They will have to wait.
If you are retired and have some free time, what are you doing this fall to challenge your brain? Simply, but importantly, caring for yourself as health falters? Caring for family or friends? Going to church, plays, symphonies, operas, lectures? Volunteering? Exercising? Reading? Cooking? Blogging? Help add to this list!
Today I am celebrating 70 years of living. It is my birthday – and I am having trouble getting my mind around being alive for 70 years. Maybe it is because I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count that high. Maybe it is because getting old is so very complex. In any case I have found that I am now attracted to roses in the fullness of their maturity whereas the me of my early years preferred buds with their full potential waiting to unfurl. I am feeling giddy-excited about arriving at what I consider a mature old age. Wow!
JB and I talk about death a lot – we are trying to figure out how to prepare for a life without each other. We know it will be painful and I am hoping he dies first because I can’t fathom leaving him behind to mourn. I worry…
“My knowledge, my feelings don’t count” came to mind recently when our teacher in the class I took this summer at Iowa told us to write a short essay from the prompt: Write about an event where you felt small. She also said to practice writing 750 words. The following is a true story, still alive in my memory, that I miraculously fashioned into exactly 750 words. A fun catharsis and a fun exercise–both good things that happen in a writing class!
He wears a smirk and a white coat. A framed diploma hangs behind him on the wall. He stares across his island-wide, dark wooden desk. “I don’t deal with anything above the waist.”
I sit on the other side of the cloud-threatened island. Then what do you deal with sticks on my palate.
My internist has referred me to this gastroenterologist for squeezing pain under, and around, my ribcage. I’m here for answers. I’ve been chasing answers for five years. The orthopedic surgeon who did my hip pinning says my hip is not the cause. A pain anesthesiologist says the osteophytes, the nasty bone spurs, sprouting on my aging thoracic vertebrae, pressing on nerve endings, are not the cause. A neurologist says multiple sclerosis, with a diagnostic symptom of a squeezing hug sensation, is not the cause. But, he adds, “Do monitor those white patches on your brain MRI. They may turn out to be MS.”
Each of these specialists wears a look of concern.
This gastroenterologist wears a smirk. “I know you don’t think you have it, but more than fifty-percent of my fibromyalgia patients have irritable bowel syndrome, so I’m sure that’s what you have.” I have just told him I do not have hard stools, no stools, or runny stools. Aren’t constipation and diarrhea the symptoms of IBS?
I sit, fingers tensed, white patches morphing into menacing billows in my brain.
Not so long ago, I wore a smile and a white coat. A framed diploma hung on the wall to my left. Windows to the college quad formed my background. My desk was light oak wood, and my nursing student chair sat alongside. We could have touched knees when we talked.
He wears a smirk and a white coat. A framed diploma hangs behind him on the wall. He stares across his island-wide, dark wooden desk. “I’ll give you a prescription.” He scribbles, lunges to hand it over, rises.
I stare at the jagged script. A smooth-muscle relaxant with a strong sedating component. Really?
He looms over me. “Take it three times a day.” He motions me out.
I wear a blank. “Thank you,” I say.
Why do I say Thank you? Is it my habit, like in Raymond Carver’s poem, What the Doctor Said, when his doctor tells him he has lung cancer that “looks bad in fact real bad,” where he concludes, “I may have even thanked him habit being so strong”?
Is my habit to say Thank you so strong because I was brought up in the parsonage to have good manners and never offend?
Why don’t I tell him I don’t appreciate his condescending manner, his haste at dismissing me, his classification of me as a disease and not a person, his emulation of everything I’ve taught as the antithesis of empathic communication in health care? Why don’t I blow my stack, throttle him, or simply walk out?
I know why I don’t respond. And it’s not the parsonage’s fault. It’s my early socialization as a nurse. My instructors telling me that I must give up my seat in the nurses’ station for doctors. I must stand aside at elevators for doctors to get on and off first. I must take whatever the doctor deals; they are the revenue generators for the hospital, they bring in the patients.
My knowledge, my feelings don’t count.
It’s when a surgeon yells at the operating room, after I’ve gloved his right hand with a left glove, rubber fingers flopping in the air, “Damn this student. Didn’t anyone teach her how to put on gloves?”
My knowledge, my feelings don’t count.
It’s when a surgeon yells at me over the phone, when I call as a young head nurse and question his illegal order, “I’m going to come in and clean your clock.” And he does.
It’s when these experiences, deeply situated in my cells, jump forth, fifty years later, and I remember: My knowledge, my feelings don’t count.
It’s when I note now that our diplomas are from the same university, the same year. His MD, my PhD.
It’s when he wears a smirk and a white coat. And looms over me. “Take it three times a day.” And motions me out.
I dash down a long, darkened hallway into an elevator, my cheeks damp from not being able to respond. My cheeks damp from not having the courage to respond.
I hit the street. Never again, I tell myself. Next time, I will respond.
“Do you want to do a camel ride,” my daughter asked on a recent visit to her city’s zoo.
“No,” I said. “I have no need to ride a camel.”
“Oh, come on, isn’t that on your bucket list?”
“Nope. Never has been and never will be,” I said, knowing a safari was never an interest.
A few minutes later, I found myself astride a camel, my five-year-old granddaughter ahead of me announcing to the world, “I have always wanted to do this, but I don’t have a camel at home.”
Well, good, I thought. I’m glad someone wants to ride. And I’m glad my daughter does not have a camel in her backyard.
The ride lasted at most ten minutes. The tower-tall camel smelled of dirty, hairy camel, as did the blanket we sat on. The camel’s uneven stride lurched us forward and back. With my right hand, I gripped the semi-stable iron pole. And, with my left hand, I clutched my granddaughter’s leg and the loose, floppy cord that was supposed to serve as a safety belt, picturing her dangerously slipping between camel and cord to the ground.
As we rounded the corner of a small circle, I finally breathed, thinking we were on our way back to the platform. But no, the leader began to guide the beast around for a second time. My strawberry breakfast flakes bubbled in my throat. This is supposed to be fun?
But my nightmare was not over. Imagine my chagrin, when reaching the end of the ride, after my granddaughter slid easily to her left on the platform and ran happily to her mom, I could not budge myself off the yard-wide mangy beast. With nothing to hang on to on my left side, I could not swing my right leg over the camel’s hump to join my left on the platform that, by the way, was moving inches away as the camel swayed.
I caught the disinterested glance of the camel guide. Am I doomed to sit here forever?
Luckily, I’ve trained my daughter well to care for her children and her elders. She bounded up the steps to the platform and offered me her arm under my left armpit. With the adroitness of a nurse helping a patient transfer from bed to chair, she gave me the support I needed to get my lazy left hip aloft and my stiff right leg over the hump.
Laughing, she said, “See, Mom, now you can cross that off your bucket list.”
When I told a fellow grandma about my embarrassment, she said, “I couldn’t have gotten off either. But think of the memories you made for your granddaughter.”
Of course. Making memories with my long-distance grandchildren is on my bucket list, even if riding a camel isn’t.
Eight years ago this month, I was putting away my crutches after surgery for a broken hip. During the six weeks I hobbled around downtown Chicago, I early on discovered that I needed a purse I didn’t have to carry. Cross bodies have never worked for me. And, being a perpetual student, I’ve always liked backpacks. Luckily, I found the perfect backpack purse, a Baggallini that the salesperson said airline hostesses had designed for maximum convenience.
Not so luckily, I’ve become addicted, if that’s possible, to that purse. Over the years, I’ve purchased at least two or three purses a year, on great sales, and come home excited. I empty the contents of my old one on the couch and start putting them into the new. Every time, I have left over stuff that does not fit, and the new purse goes back. It’s become so routine that my husband will say, “I wonder how long this one will last.” And, usually within an hour, I’m on my way back to the store with the return.
I started to catch on that my Baggallini and I might be inseparable for life. So, I often returned to the store where I bought it, but they never had a black one in stock. I kept thinking I should look for it online, but then also kept thinking I should not be stuck in my ways, and I should keep trying to find another style that would work.
The purse, you see, has every compartment a women needs. A band for lipstick, a band for a pen, many slots for credit cards (I haven’t carried a bulky billfold in years), room for a paperback or e-reader, two zippers inside for change or whatever, and two zippers on the outside, one in front and one in back under the straps. I can wear it like a backpack, or zip up the straps and sling it over a shoulder, or carry it with a small rounded loop at the top. Talk about versatile!
Due to my failure to find a suitable new style, I’ve carried this purse every day for nearly 3000 days, every season from winter’s zeroes to summer’s nineties and from dress occasions to casual. It has never let me down. It stands ready to go with me everywhere. It’s a must for strolling the city, shopping with hands free, or stuffing into a larger backpack if taking a class or traveling.
It has become a very good friend.
But the subtle sheen is starting to shine with wear and the leather straps are starting to fray. So what to do? Walking Michigan Avenue last week, I was passing the store where I bought it and thought, Maybe today will be my lucky day. And it was! There, among dozens of purses, was my lightweight, streamlined, functional friend in my favorite color of black. Without a wink, I bought it, told the salesman to skip the bag, and happily skipped home with the old purse on my back and the new one dangling from my fingers.
I announced my good luck to my husband. He didn’t even say, “I wonder how long this one will last.” He left to get the mail. I emptied the contents of my old purse on the couch and transferred them to the new. When he came back, I, feeling really smug, announced, “For once, there’s a place for everything.”
He shook his head. Disbelief? Relief? “Good for you. I’m glad you found it.”
Last week, one of my sisters came for her annual visit. As we amble through our seventies, these visits become almost sacred. Some day, hopefully not soon, our knees or our hips or our whole bodies may say, “No more travel.” So while she can still hoist a suitcase onto Amtrak, and while I still have the zest to plan “events” for us to do in Chicago, we don our tennis shoes and walk, walk, walk. She doesn’t know what I plan; I only tell her the times we have “events.”
Wednesday: Meet Amtrak at 10:30. Take bus home. Make spinach, pecan, apple, cheddar cheese salad lunch. Attend Art Institute lecture on Magritte at 1. Get coffee in Members’ Lounge. Walk Michigan Ave south to Jackson; see Icelandic artist Steinunn Thorarindottir’s sculptures.
Walk north to Mariano’s (grocery); take gelato break on their outdoor patio overlooking Lakeshore East park. Walk further north to Eataly; buy cheese/tomato focaccia bread. Walk south back home. Pack picnic with focaccia bread. Walk east to Millennium Park’s Pritzker Pavilion at 5:45. Eat picnic. Listen to The Blue Planet in Concert (written and conducted by George Fenton), simultaneously viewing the award-winning film of life in the ocean. Walk home.
(6.5 miles, 15, 272 steps)
Thursday: Walk to hair appointments at 10; get haircuts. Walk to Walgreens; buy yellow roses. Take bus to friend’s house at 12:30. Give her the roses. Eat the yummy lunch she has prepared: fresh beet, goat cheese, caramelized walnut salad; crusty wheat and white rolls; and homemade strawberry shortcake.
Walk home, via the John Hancock building; strain necks to look way up to the The Tilt. Eat dinner my husband has made: steak on the grill, stir-fry kohlrabi, black cherries, strawberries at 5:30. Walk to Goodman Theater at 6:45; see Brigadoon.
(3.7 miles, 5800 steps)
Friday: Eat breakfast at Pittsfield Cafe (omelet, wheat toast, fruit cup, and coffee). Shop: Pay Half, Burlington Coat Factory, TJMaxx. Loiter over Starbucks iced mochas at Macys. Shop Macys. (By shopping, I mean to savor the smooth or pebbly feel of all the fabrics; bask in their summer brilliance of salmon pinks and royal blues; and decide we don’t need anything right now.) Eat lunch at Toni’s Patisserie (spinach quiche, butternut squash soup). Walk home. Take selfie in my hallway mirror.
Take bus to Union Station. Hug. Say good-bye. Say we won’t cry.