Gero-Punk Tribute: Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Earlier today, before I headed into my afternoon of teaching, I heard that one of my favorite writers, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, had died at the age of 87. I immediately texted my dear friend and colleague Erica Wells to let her know, as Garcia Marquez is not only one of her favorite writers, too,  but also plays a central role in her Master’s thesis on old age in literature.  I invited Erica to write a gero-punk tribute to Garcia Marquez by way of reflecting upon the wonderful and fresh scholarly inquiry she conducted over a decade ago. For me, Erica’s thesis is an important moment in my own journey across the life course because at the time I was not only her thesis advisor, but soon-to-be close friend and comrade.  — jenny

In Memory:  Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1927-April 17, 2014)

by guest Gero-Punk

Erica Wells

erica 2

Memories have a life of their own, don’t they? Some disappear into our mind’s deep sea, never to surface again, while others remain on the surface, sparkling in the sunshine, clear as the day they were formed. That is how I recall coming across the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez: a glittering moment in the midst of my foggy, struggling-to-stay-afloat graduate school days.

I was doing research for what was to become my thesis (Old Age in Literature: The Limits and Liberties of Aging) and looking for material that would help me combine my passion for reading with a way to talk about what was quickly becoming an obsession, namely, the question of how we can understand aging or old age when we have no first hand experience of it. We attach so many pre-conceptions, fears and problems to aging, yet our view of it is always from afar. We can’t know it until we live it ourselves. My intention was to demonstrate that one of ways we can understand aging was through novels. Literature and stories are how we know about all kinds of things that we are unlikely or unable to experience (historical events, life in different culture, a forbidden love affair, a murder mystery), so why not use novels to learn about later life? The problem, of course, was finding the right stories.

Here’s where the glitter comes in: a search engine entry in the winter of 2002. The following is taken directly from my printout, (result 49 of 68), so the words in bold and italic must have been my search terms:

Title: Literature and medicine: Garcia Marquez ‘Love in the Time of Cholera.’

Subject(s): LOVE in the Time of Cholera (Book); GARCIA Marquez, Gabriel; BOOKS

Source: Lancet, 10/18/87, Vol. 350 Issue 9085, p1169, 4p, 1bw

Author(s): Jones, Anne Hudson

Abstract: Considers how Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ ‘Love in the Time of Cholera,’ could be most important for young people to read. The book being the best ever written about aging; The theme of the book; The novel exploring aging as a time of discovery. INSETS: The indecency of old age; Old age illuminated by love.

Can you feel my heart racing? Could the language here be any more relevant to my inquiry? Wait, it gets better. Here’s the first line of Jones’ article: “Arguably the greatest novel ever written about ageing, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Love in the Time of Cholera may be a challenging text for those who need to read it most: the young, the would-be rational, and the impatient.” Granted, her intended audience was medical students and health-care professionals, but believe me, I knew she was speaking to me. More important, I knew I had to get started with this book immediately.

I had never read Garcia Marquez before and I was completely unprepared for the emotion and intensity that was about to be unleashed through his writing. Vivid detail, lengthy descriptions of flawed, passionate characters and mysterious, foreign places from another era, an epic love story, a sharp political and social commentary, quite a bit about medicine and yes, cholera, along with indeed some of the most poignant, powerful and lasting images of aging and old age I’d ever come across, and have yet to find again.

Would you mind reading a bit from my thesis now, to peek at how this extraordinary novel fit in to my understanding of aging and old age in 2003? I had spent a year with this book, and 4 others, attempting to find meaning in a life experience far from own reality, having just given birth to my first child at the age of 32. But here’s how it was for me then:

“This novel is the most unique and far-reaching in its depictions of old age, which range from a man who commits suicide to avoid growing old, to a man who refuses to let old age ruin his chance at rekindling the passionate love he first discovered in his twenties. Love in the Time of Cholera takes a dramatic and powerful look at the human life course and examines old age from a variety of angles. Because this novel takes place over the course of fifty-plus years, in reading it we are reminded that our later years are indeed a continuous part of our life experience, even if our physical selves have changed dramatically. As we grow old, we carry with us the history that makes us individuals. Our experiences, memories, fears and dreams combine to create our identity, which keeps the self intact even when the body does not cooperate. The power of the mind to maintain identity and therefore the self is one of the main themes of this story, and the characters embody this notion as they prepare for, enact or avoid their old age. Each character has their own way of coping to accommodate the changes aging brings to their lives, providing a realistic and honest portrayal of later life. Stereotypes are not relevant here, instead we are introduced to human beings who illustrate the amazingly full range of emotions one can only experience over a lifetime…The beauty of this novel is its ability to portray old age in all its forms, and still leave the reader hopeful for the possibilities of later life…If old age does not overwhelm us with its grim potentialities, we can open ourselves up to new possibilities. Instead of giving up, we can become truer versions of ourselves when we allow old age to be something more than an itemization of bodily changes and personal losses. Old age is challenging, but with effort and strength, it is our last opportunity to challenge the boundaries of personal pre-conceptions and social conventions.”

Writing this essay, re-reading my thesis and re-visiting the well-worn and often-flagged pages of the first copy of ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ I purchased, (I had to buy a second copy so I could read without referencing my notes), I am reminded of how exciting it can be to come across something for the first time. Discovery and recognition are the scholar’s rewards in the process of inquiry. My students can relate to the tedious nature of research and the thrill of finding just the right source to satisfy our curiosity, all the while knowing it’s a temporary fix, for we will certainly come up with more questions. We are always pursuing knowledge, understanding and the answers to our burning questions about what it means to be human. For a long time, Garcia Marquez settled those questions for me, in surprising and eloquent ways. Perhaps it is time to re-read this treasured text again, with the perspective of my 43-year-old self to bring to the experience.

It wouldn’t be right to end this essay in my own words, so I will leave you with one of my favorite passages from the book (and there are many):

Speaking of Dr. Juvenal Urbino, one of the novel’s main characters, on his way back home to South America after finishing his medical studies in Paris at the age of 28, Marquez writes (translated from Spanish by Edith Grossman),

“In Paris, strolling arm in arm with a casual sweetheart through a late autumn, it seemed impossible to imagine a purer happiness than those golden afternoons, with the woody odor of chestnuts on the braziers, the languid accordions, the insatiable lovers kissing on the open terraces, and still he had told himself with his hand on his heart that he was not prepared to exchange all that for a single instant of his Caribbean in April. He was still too young to know that the heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good, and that thanks to this artifice we manage to endure the burden of the past. But when he stood at the railing of the ship and saw the white promontory of the colonial district again, the motionless buzzards on the roofs, the washing of the poor hung out to dry on the balconies, only then did he understand to what extent he had been an easy victim to the charitable deceptions of nostalgia.” (p.105-6)

Garcia Marquez, G. (1988). Love in the time of cholera. New York: Penguin.

Marquez

Erica is a 2003 graduate of the Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies program and member of the adjunct faculty at Marylhurst University. Since 2005, she has taught courses in human science inquiry and gerontology. Her day to day life revolves around orchestrating and facilitating the schedules of two curious and confident grade-schoolers, all while vainly attempting to establish a semblance of order to her surroundings. When the whirlwind of the school-week subsides, you can find her in the kitchen, experimenting with a cocktail shaker and savoring the company of friends and family as everyone toasts to togetherness and the simple pleasure of a good meal.

 

 

 

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Gero-Punk Preoccupations: Either way, it’s cool.

There was a single gray hair taped to the bathroom mirror yesterday morning. Maybe it was because it was 5:30 a.m. and I was still waking up, but I felt confused as I considered the tape and the strand of hair. As I brushed my teeth I muddled over a possible explanation. My daughter Isobel sometimes leaves notes attached to the mirror before she goes to bed (which is almost always long after I do) asking me for a favor (can I print something for her in the morning before school?) or telling me something (there was a gigantic spider crawling on her bed last night!). So I looked around for a note, thinking it slipped out from under the piece of tape. No note. I removed the tape and the hair from the mirror, took a closer look at the hair, and then tossed both into the waste basket. It was time to make coffee, feed Happy-dog, and wake-up Izzy.

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I haven’t been sleeping as well as I’d like or as well as I need to.

One reason, which I will merely mention for now, is that my body has begun to experience some mid-life hormonal turbulence.

For another reason, for the past few nights I’ve been woken up around 2:00 a.m. by dreams in which I am visited by who I understand from within the dream to represent a teacher or elder in my life. In each of the dreams there’s been a different character who has asked me a question or given me some sort of idea about reality to ponder. After a particular wise one transmits their special lesson to me I wake myself up from the dream. And then I lie awake in bed for anywhere from a half hour to a couple of hours, working away on the question or the idea. I’m not a Zen Buddhist, but it is as if I have been given a koan to center my contemplation and meditation practice upon, to carry around inside me as I go about my daily life, until which time I come to some understanding about what the dharma riddle might and might not mean.

Another contribution to my restless nights is the intensified state of excitement in which I find myself. Not only is it the first week of spring term at my university and, thus, the first week of the three courses I teach this term, but it is also the week leading up to – more to the point, the last week before – my “gero-punk world tour” which begins on Friday, April 4th at the 72nd Annual Group Psychotherapy and Psychodrama Conference in Oakland, CA., and then moves on to the University of Nevada/Reno for Careers in Aging Week and the Sanford Center on Aging Distinguished Lecture Series. I fly home on the 9th and jump right back into the business of my “normal” life. I’m excited, very, and anxious, more than just a little bit. I don’t think I’m anxious because I’m unprepared (though I almost always wonder if I’m prepared enough for just about everything that happens in my life). For many weeks I’ve been dreaming about, brainstorming alone and with others, and provisionally choreographing the two keynote presentations I’ll be offering. But just days before I take off on this adventure, I’m still working out the details, filling in what happens between the different gestures I intend to make, provisionally staging each presentation. Right now, the two presentations feel very different in quality to me because they are being created with very different audiences in mind, because they have distinct purposes, because I’m playing two very different roles almost back-to-back with little transition time in between. This is an unprecedented experience in my life thus far this time around.

So, I haven’t been sleeping so well. I’m excited. I’m anxious. I’m cold. There are bees buzzing in my chest. I want to take a long nap.

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My mom and I text each other most mornings. Yesterday morning when she asked, “How are you feeling this a.m.?” I responded with: “I am tired and mildly PMSing and nervous about my upcoming presentations but good enough, I think.”

She texted back encouragement in the form of something written on a coffee mug I gave her when I was a teenager. On the mug there’s an image of a mom-caricature, she’s hearty and wearing an apron, wooden spoon in hand like a queenly scepter, chattering on to her unseen daughter. She says, “….now listen to me, I am not just saying this because I am your Mother…you are the smartest, prettiest, nicest girl in the whole world….!”

 

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My mom has repeated this little cheer many times over the years and hearing it now as a grown-up daughter, I giggle and immediately feel more relaxed (though I suspect when I was Isobel’s age I had a different response….).

I might inhabit a mid-life body doing new and strange things, I might be mother to an 18 year old daughter soon to head off to college, I might be embarking upon my own unprecedented and thrilling adventures, but at this moment I feel very much as though I am masquerading as a grown-up. A pep talk from my mommy is exactly what I needed.

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And while we are on the topic of my 18 year old daughter, she did eventually reveal the mystery of the gray hair taped to the bathroom mirror.

Later in the day I received a text from Isobel in which she told me she “HATES!” me.

I suppose I should feel good about the fact that in all of our years together she’s never once told me she hates me. Until today. She hates me not because I forgot to slice the mango I put in her lunch for ease of nibbling, though I did forget. (Yeah, I still pack a lunch for my kid though she’s a senior in high school.) Nor does she hate me — at least she’s not told me that she does– because I am blackmailing her in order to compel her to make good on her promise to clean her room (no more money for clothes or movies or fun with friends unless and until she cleans her room).

She hates me because she discovered her first gray hairs. And apparently it is all my fault.

She’s placing the blame on me though her father has gray hair, too, but he’s in his fifties so she thinks this his  gray hair is normal and uncontroversial. She’s placing the blame on me because I was her age when a few single silver strands began to appear tucked in between my otherwise very dark brown waves. She knows because I told her that I’ve been “going gray” since I was 18 and by the time I was in my early thirties, it was full-on obvious (though no one but me knew because I did such a creative job at concealment). And starting in 2008 she watched me go through what I experienced at the time to be an eternal grueling process of growing out my artificially colored hair to reveal its natural state.

Though she’s supportive of my decision to “go natural” and says she likes my silver hair, she wants nothing to do with any of this when it comes to her own embodied experience. She’s deeply offended by finding gray hairs on her head when she’s barely 18. She says she wants to “stall it for a few decades.” To her, there’s nothing cool about having a few strands of silver hair. Nothing.

I apologized to her, tongue in cheek, for the fact that she inherited some of my genes.

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I wonder what it would be like to live in a time-place-space where we were encouraged to greet changes and transitions with openness and curiosity, rather than with considerable confusion and ambivalence, if not with fear and dread. I imagine that there has been someone somewhere at sometime who, upon seeing their first gray hair (even if they considered its arrival to be premature), felt excited, imagined their gray hair to be a potent harbinger of a new liminal time in their travels through the life course, something to celebrate. Or at least something to just let be.

Just as I have, just as I am still, Isobel will make her way throughout her hopefully long life guided by her own star. She will gather experiences. She will make decisions small and large, including whether or not to conceal her gray hair. She will find the rest of her tribe, her creatures and comrades that will be her chosen family. And even though right now she wishes she hadn’t inherited certain genes from me, in time, she might feel differently.  Or not.

As the wise elder in one of the dharma dreams reminded me: either way, it’s cool.

 

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Gero-Punk Ditty: Grandmother hands, grandmother feet

Holy holy! Whose hand are those typing away on my laptop keyboard? I could swear that the vintage star sapphire ring on the left middle finger and the wedding band on the right middle finger belong to me. Hey! That watch looks identical to the one Isobel and her dad gave me for my birthday a few years ago! What the hell is going on?

As I observe the hands move across the keyboard making words on the screen I see tiny little creases and pleats on the surface of the skin. I see some evidence – little variations in color and texture — that the person to whom these hands belong usually remembered to wear sunscreen but sometimes didn’t. They seem to be pretty agile hands—I’m impressed with the smooth and confident fashion with which they fleetly slide from letter to letter on the keyboard. But I’m even more certain that these hands can’t be my hands because the hands I’m watching write these words look unmistakably like grown-up hands. By which I mean they could even be the hands of one of my older female family members. Except that many of the women in my family have some arthritis or tendonitis in their hands and they certainly can’t type as fast as I can (well, maybe my mom can).

Either something really weird has happened — some partial body-snatching situation — and these hands are able to tap into my mind, accessing and then typing every secret though I’ve been thinking about them, or….YIKES!…these hands are my hands!

When did this happen? And more to the point, how did I miss it? I’m Ms. Gero-Punk, the close observer of my own and others’ travels through the life course, so how did I miss the fact that time has inscribed itself upon the back of my hands? To riff on a question posed by the authors of one of the articles I use in my Embodiment in Later Life course, how do we know we are aging when we can’t see it happening in real-time?

Well, one way we know  we are aging is that suddenly we see our hands-in-motion in a certain light and realize they are no longer new hands. They are mother hands. They are grandmother hands.

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Sometimes it is my feet that take me by surprise, though the surprise they give me has less to do with where I am in my particular travels through the life course and more to do with reminding me about a kind of embodied legacy of which I am a recipient.

I’ll be ambling along with Happy-the-dog and I’ll look down at my feet and feel confused because instead of my feet, I see my grandmother’s feet. My gramma and her daughter, my mother, are both known for their extraordinary walking talents.  There’s a particular way their feet look, clad in their “tennies,” when they are perambulating. Not every time, but sometimes as I’m walking along my feet look exactly like their feet look, like how their feet have looked during the many walks I’ve taken with each of them since the time I was a little girl. I can’t really describe the jarring immediacy of the experience, nor can I tell you how their feet look; it is a feet-in-motion thing, it is simultaneously physical and energetic and spiritual. It is as though generations of women in my family are matrilineally connected in this way, through our feet.

But as I realize once I’m over the shock of seeing my gramma’s feet attached to my legs, the truth is that one of the ways in which we – my gramma, mother, and me — are connected is through the pleasure we get from the simple activity of walking for no other reason than to be out in the world, in our bodies, moving.

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