Gero-punk metalogue: Lightning filled her room

gramma and meI hadn’t seen my beloved Gramma Jewell since 2010. Far too long, perhaps the longest in my entire life I’d ever gone in between visits with her, but for various reasons I still don’t fully understand, in recent years my relationship with my Gramma had been drastically curtailed. But now, because of some unanticipated and odd combination of good fortune, courage, and audacity, I was going to get to see my Gramma! So this past weekend, off I went with my mom on a quick trip to Spokane, Washington, where my Gramma — who turned 92 in May — lives in an assisted living facility.

***

 Saturday

We find my Gramma in her room at the assisted living facility. She is sitting in a wheelchair reading a book.

Jenny: Hi, Gramma, it is me, your granddaughter Jenny!

Gramma: Oh, Jenny! Hello, dear! (We hug and kiss.)

***

Gramma: You are Jenny?

Jenny: Yup!

Gramma: Have you started college yet?

Jenny: My daughter Isobel just started college a couple of weeks ago!

Gramma: Oh. Your daughter Isobel…..I can’t believe how much you look like Isobel! You don’t look old enough to have a child in college….how old is Isobel?

Jenny: Isobel is 18. I am 47. That’s old enough!

***

Gramma: You work at Willamette University?

Jenny: I work at Marylhurst University. Isobel’s dad Jean-David works at Willamette. And a long time ago I was a student at Willamette.

Gramma: And you live in Portland.

Jenny: And I live in Portland.

Gramma: And you are Jenny.

Jenny: Yup!

***

I brought a little jar of raspberries with me to my first visit with my Gramma Jewell. I brought some chocolate, too. I know she loves raspberries and dark chocolate even though she pretends as though she doesn’t. I put three raspberries on the upturned lid of the jar and held them before my Gramma. She carefully picked up each raspberry and one after the other popped them into her mouth. I offered her more raspberries but she declined. (I wondered if she remembered eating raspberries from Fred’s garden when we were last together in 2010.)

Then I broke off three small squares of dark chocolate and gave one to my mom, popped one in my mouth, and offered the third to my Gramma. She carefully took it between her right thumb and index finger, held it in front of her eyes closely to examine it and then placed it on her tongue. I watched her chew it and then suck it as it melted. Her brows were furrowed a bit – was she surprised by the bitterness?

 ***

Gramma: Your brother is Gabe?

Jenny: My brother is Jeremy. Gabe is Rachel’s brother and Martha’s son. Gabe and Rachel are cousins to me and my brother Jeremy.

Gramma: You helped Jeremy a lot growing up. (My brother Jeremy was born deaf and visually impaired.)

Jenny: I tried to make sure Jeremy understood what others were saying and others understood what Jeremy was saying.

Gramma: You and Jeremy were close?

Jenny: Yes! Very close and we had a lot of fun together as kids.

***

Jenny: Gramma, I remember when on my breaks from school I would come to Menlo Park, California to have “R & R” with you and Grandpa.

Gramma: R & R?

Jenny: Rest and relaxation. That’s what you would call it!

Gramma: Oh! We’d find walnuts on our walks and crack them with our heels!

Jenny: You and I would walk all over town and we’d go to the market to get treats for supper.

Gramma: Oh, yes!

Jenny: We’d get roast chicken, special salads from the deli, a bottle of red wine, and little cheese cakes for dessert. Grandpa loved it!

Gramma: Oh, yes!

Jenny: Shall we take a walk outside? It is a lovely day.

***

Not having seen my Gramma for four years, the intensity of the experience overwhelmed me. I became irresistibly compelled to sleep. I curled up on her couch under a blanket. My Gramma was sitting in her wheelchair parallel to the couch. She held my left hand in her right hand as I napped.

***

Sunday

We find my Gramma finishing her breakfast in the assisted living dining room. There’s a bulletin board with announcements and a daily trivia question.

Mom: The trivia question for today is, “How many sides does a pentagon have?”

Jenny: Well, a decagon has ten sides.

Mom: So, how many sides does a pentagon have?

Gramma: Five!

Mom: Really? Wow!

Jenny: Yeah, that’s right, because a pentagram is a five pointed star, so a pentagon would have five sides. Great memory, Gramma!

***

We wheel my Gramma back to her room. She needs help to use the toilet so we call her caregiver.

Assisted Living caregiver: Are you taking her to church at 2:00?

Mom: Do you want to go to church, Mommy?

Gramma: What?

Jenny: Gramma, would you like to go to church this afternoon?

Gramma: No. Do you want to go?

Jenny: No, thanks. I don’t want to go to church.

 ***

Mom: Jennifer is a Buddhist.

Gramma: When did you become a Buddhist?

Jenny: I think I’ve been a Buddhist for a long time but I didn’t really know it until several years ago when a friend formally introduced me and I started attending teachings about Buddhism. Then in 2009 I decided to commit myself to the Buddhist path and I took a special vow; it is called “taking refuge.”

Gramma: What does that mean, to be a Buddhist?

Jenny: It means I am committed to working with my own mind so I can become more compassionate, wise, and present to what is happening moment-to-moment.

Gramma: I read something about Buddhism in a book. (She picks up a book and starts looking through it to find the passage.)

***

Mom: How did you sleep last night, Mommy?

Gramma: I always sleep well…Did you hear the thunder?

Jenny: No! Was there lightning, too?

Gramma: Yes, the lightning filled my room.

***

Gramma: You teach?

Jenny: Yup. I do teach.

Gramma: At…Marylhurst?

Jenny: Yes, I teach at Marylhurst.

Gramma: And you teach Gerontology.

Jenny: Yes, I do teach Gerontology.

Gramma: Do you start school tomorrow?

Jenny: This is the last week of summer term. I have three weeks off after that before the new school year begins.

***

Gramma: Jean-David is Isobel’s father.

Jenny: Yes, that’s right.

Gramma: And he teaches?

Jenny: Yes, he teaches, too.

Gramma: At…Willamette University?

Jenny: Yup, that’s right, at Willamette University.

Gramma: What does he teach?

Jenny: Well…he is a musician. Do you know what instrument he plays?

Gramma: …violin?

Jenny: Nope! Piano!

Gramma: (giggles) Oh, that’s right. And he is Isobel’s father.

***

After my second day visiting with my Gramma, an extended family member (who sees her almost daily) asks me how the visit went. I tell them that the visit was great and that my Gramma and I had many interesting conversations.

They respond, “Really? We never do.”

I think to myself: Of course you never do. That’s because there’s a profound difference between demanding of a person with memory struggles “Don’t you remember!” and inviting them into a conversation.

***

 Monday

Jenny: How did you sleep last night, Gramma?

Gramma: I always sleep well!

Jenny: Did you have any dreams?

Gramma: No.

Jenny: Why don’t you think about whether or not you had any dreams, just to make sure?

Gramma: Did you hear the thunder last night?

Jenny: No, I didn’t! Was there lightning, too?

Gramma: Yes—it filled my room.

Jenny: Cool! Shall we go for a walk outside?

***

Gramma: You live in Portland?

Jenny: Yes, I live in Portland.

Gramma: With Jean-David?

Jenny: Jean-David lives in Portland, too, but we don’t live together. We haven’t lived together since our daughter Isobel was a baby. We aren’t married any more but we are still close friends and Isobel’s family.

Gramma: You went on that big steamship to Europe for your honeymoon.

Jenny: Wow, great memory! We went on the QE2 ship but we didn’t go for our honeymoon, we went the year before I gave birth to Isobel. Jean-David and I sailed from Manhattan, New York, to Southampton, England. Then we went to Ireland and France.

Gramma: How old is Jean-David?

Jenny: Jean-David is 58. I will be 48 in December. Isobel is 18. And my mom, your daughter, is 68.

Gramma: Where does he live?

Jenny: In Portland.

Gramma: With you?

Jenny: No, we haven’t been married or lived together since Isobel was a baby.

***

Gramma: What is that ring you are wearing?

Jenny: Ah! This is a ring you gave me many, many years ago. Do you recognize it?

(I take the ring off and hand it to my Gramma.)

Gramma: (She closely examines the ring.) Yes, I recognize it!

***

It is time to leave my Gramma. We kiss each other on the lips. She strokes my forearms and looks me in the eyes. I smooth her silver hair. I tell her I am so happy to have seen her again. She giggles. I tell her I love her very much and that she will always be my special person. She says she loves me very much, too. As my mom and I leave her room, she calls out, “Give my love to Jean-David!”

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Gero-Punk Anniversary Celebration: We’ve Gone Global!

This Thursday will be the two year anniversary of the Gero-Punk Project! Hooray!

Over the past twelve months I’ve published 50 Gero-Punk essays of various sorts, for a total of 116 essays published since the birth of this project. These essays have been written by me and by several guest essayists, including my best friend, many dear current and former students and colleagues, not to mention new comrades of all life-course stages and ages.  What’s really cool is that several of the guest essayists are new to gerontology, not to mention new to the Gero-Punk ethos of being present to our experiences of age, aging and the times, places and spaces in and through which we travel through the life-course.

And — guess what?!?!?: The Gero-Punk Project now has readers who live in 80 different countries and on all continents on the planet earth except for Antarctica! (If any of you have any friends living in Antarctica, will you turn them on to the Project? Thanks!)

map 2

On this auspicious occasion, please accept my gratitude for supporting the Gerontological anarchy, exploration, and play that we’ve been engaging in together in the Gero-Punk Project! And please accept my invitation to participate in the Gero-Punk Project by submitting an essay about your own experiences traveling through the life-course, wherever you may find yourself in time, place and space (Where do you find yourself? I’ll put a gold star on my map if you let me know. You can reach me at jsasser@marylhurst.edu)

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Perhaps you need to know a bit more about what’s what before you will feel willing to venture further.  That’s understandable.

The Gero-Punk Project provides a venue for sharing stories about our travels through the life-course. Together we create a space for trying out alternative ways of experiencing and writing about age and aging in particular times, spaces and places, and about the complexities of being human beings.

We take seriously the idea that we are time-travelers: simultaneously a particular age, all ages, and no age at all.

We give voice to our flummoxing, fascinating, mundane and profound, odd and perhaps transgressive thoughts, feelings, and experiences related to this grand and strange adventure of being and becoming human in and through and outside of time.

We legitimize confusion, uncertainty, and vulnerability, states of no-sense.

As well, we harness our inner authority, our sovereignty, our growing expertise about our own inside experiences and our curiosity about the inside experiences of others.

We ask questions such as:

Where does age reside?

What does it feel like to be the embodied creatures we are right now in this present moment? (And what might it feel like to be a differently embodied creature?)

What assumptions are we holding about what a particular age should be like, or look like, and where did these assumptions come from? (And are we served well by these assumptions or do we want to blow them up and create new ways of thinking and being?)

How might our confusions, mishaps and missteps as we muddle through this life be sources of learning and wisdom, for ourselves and, by sharing them, for others?

And for those of us who are formally engaged in the work of gerontology, we ask to what extent do we see our aging experiences reflected in the official Gerontological theory, research, and practice? And to what extent are our aging experiences and our capacities to support others with their aging experiences informed by Gerontological theory and research? What are the connections and disconnections? What is missing and what might we add? What new questions might we ask?

As well, we ask: What capacities for self-care and intentional aging do we want to develop so that we can live vibrant and purposeful lives, no matter what challenges we might face as we continue our travels through the life-course?

Also this: What are the ways in which we might be of service to others, to the larger community, and to the world that allow us to enact our deepest longings and commitments,  to help us grow in all directions as human beings as we continue to ripen?

And perhaps most important of all, we ask: If we had play-dates with our 8 year old selves, what would we do? If we invited our future older selves over for a glass of wine, what would we talk about?

This is by no means an exhaustive list. But it is a good start.

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map 1

How are things where you are in Mexico, the Russian Federation, Turkey, Australia, the Republic of Korea, Brazil, Ireland and Egypt?

How would you describe the dominant cultural attitudes towards aging and later life in Iceland, Armenia, Syria, Tunisia, Thailand, Argentina?

Wherever you are located in time, place or space — Denmark, Pakistan, Malaysia, Kenya, Columbia, Israel, Peru, Mongolia, Fiji, Nigeria, or somewhere else — what’s your experience of traveling through the life-course?

Will you join us?

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Gero-Punk Meditation: Smile at the gap

shrineBreathe in.

(Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in.)

Breathe out.

(Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out.) 1

Breathe in.

(Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in and my breath is forced.)

Breathe out.

(Breathing out, I smile at my forced out-breath.). 2

Breathe in.

(Breathing in, I know that I am hearing a sound. What’s the sound? Let sound be sound.) 3

Breathe out.

(There’s that sound again. I think that I am hearing a song sparrow. Oh, wait: Let sound be sound.)

No breathing. Just the gap between breathing out and breathing in. 4

Breathe in.

(Breathing in, I sort of know that I am breathing in. I also sort of know that I am beginning to think about things other than my breath.)

Breathe out.

(Breathing out, I know for certain that I am thinking and what I am thinking about is my daughter Isobel.)

No breathing. Just the gap between breathing out and breathing in.

Breathe in.

(Breathing in, I know that I am thinking about Isobel who is soon moving far away to New York to begin college.).

Breathe out.

(Breathing out, I know that when I am thinking about Isobel moving far away I feel what is called “anxious” and “excited,” and also “ambivalent.”)

Breathe in.

(Breathing in, I wonder what it will be like when it is time to say goodbye to each other. When we were having brunch the other day, I asked her what her thoughts were about our upcoming trip to get her moved to and settled at college. Isobel requested that we only say goodbye once and that we don’t draw out our farewells longer than necessary, as she’ll be feeling very tenderhearted. This means that after I help her move into her dorm room I will probably leave campus immediately, missing the parents’ reception and other events. This means that once I leave campus, I won’t see Isobel again for four months. This means that I will be missing Isobel.)

Breathe out.

(Breathing out, I feel my mind slide to the side. I feel my cheeks flush. I feel my chest cave in.)

No breathing. Just the gap between breathing out and breathing in.

Breathe in.

(Breathing in, I know that I am gulping for air. That was a big gap between out-breath and in-breath! But the big airless gap between out-breath and in-breath saved me. The gap urged me back from my story about saying goodbye to Isobel to the immediacy of my breath. I smile at the gap.)

Breathe out.

(Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out. And I giggle because I know that I replaced the story about Isobel with the story about the gap.)

Breathe in.

(Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in. Wait: What’s that sound?)

Breathe out.

(Breathing out, I wonder, is that the sound of Isobel stirring? Is that sound the sound of Isobel waking up? Is that sound the sound of Isobel waking up on one of the last mornings she’ll be living here with me?)

No breathing. Just the gap between breathing out and breathing in.

Breathe in.

(Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in. Let sounds be sound. Let Isobel be Isobel.)

Breathe out.

(Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out. I smile at my out-breath. I smile at Isobel.)

 ***

1. This instruction — “As you breathe in, you can say to  yourself, ‘Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in.'” — comes from the Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hahn.

2. This instruction — smile at your out-breath — also comes from Thich Nhat Hahn.

3. The statement, “Let sound be sound,” is attributed to the Buddha. It is meant to remind us to practice being present and attending to our raw experiences rather than engaging in conceptualizations and stories about our experiences.

4. I learned about the significance of the “gap” or space in between an out-breath and the next in-breath from teachings by Chogyam Trungpa and Pema Chodron.

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