This old wreck

One of the mixed blessings of living across the hall is the constant reminder of the down-hill slide of aging. The reminders come in many forms. It makes me tired just watching daughter Kate and son-in-law Marton chase after two active wee ones while working or dealing with graduate school, all with too little sleep. I did it, but couldn’t possibly manage it anymore.

Then there’s three-year-old Leila who is so at home in her body. She is athletic and adventuresome, graceful and confident. What a contrast to my awareness of the need to be careful going up and down stairs. And she has questions: “Amma, what’s that?” pointing to a wrinkle or a varicose vein on my leg.

So why would I call it a mixed blessing rather than just a curse? Probably because I sense there is some gift in all of this loss of stamina, all these signs of an aging body.

Last summer Bill and I took a landscape photography class in Donegal, Ireland. We were taken to countless old wrecks, some all the way ashore, some still in water. At first I didn’t get it. Why would we want to take pictures of these beat up old things?

skeleton wreckAs we were coached in taking pictures from different angles and in different lights, I began to see the beauty. Some wrecks were worn down to their skeletons. We could see the graceful arc of their bones, often reflected in water. Some just had holes here and there through which one could catch glimpses of sky or out of which grasses and wildflowers peeked. Continue reading

A reminder from across the hall: “I need some privacy!”

open signThe first time she said it, it was a little startling.

To that point, three year-old Leila had been more of a proximity kind of girl, encouraging her parents and others to stay by her side even as she fell asleep or took care of business in the bathroom.

Anyone tucking her in would get a specific request: Stretch out on the floor by her bed until she nodded off. And she insisted on holding her Mom’s hand whenever, well, whenever nature called in a particular way.

Her sudden demand for some alone time — “I need some privacy!” — reflected Leila’s growing independence, of course. But it also reminded me how much being alone matters in a living arrangement focused on being together. Continue reading

The pesky question “why?”

I had completely forgotten about that stage of toddlerhood when “why?” becomes the most important question.

It goes something like this:

Me: “Leila, look at that bird in the tree”

Leila: “Why is the bird in the tree?”

Me: “Maybe she’s looking for something to eat.”

Leila: “Why?”

Me: “Maybe because she’s hungry.”

Leila: “Why?”

Me: “Because she hasn’t eaten for a while.”

Leila: “Why?”

And so on into infinity.

I often wonder if the word “why” means the same thing to her as it means to adults. If you Google “why do toddlers ask why?” you’ll find some answers. But mostly you’ll find advice about how to handle the frustration of constantly being asked questions you can’t always find answers for. The site I found most informative suggests that toddlers aren’t as interested in cause and effect as we are. Rather, they want to know more about a subject and have discovered the power of that little word to keep an adult talking about it. They’re also learning about and practicing conversational give and take.

Maybe all of this is fueled by wonder – that sense of looking around outside of oneself, marveling at what’s there, and wanting to know more about it.

Leila looking upOur daughter, Kate, when pushed to the limits of her knowledge, often tells Leila, “I don’t know. We’ll have to look it up.” She began to notice that whenever she asked Leila a question she didn’t know the answer to Leila would tilt her head back and examine the ceiling. This puzzled her immensely until the day she asked Leila if her brother had taken a nap while the nanny was there. Leila said “I don’t know, Mommy, let me look up.” Continue reading

Wednesday’s choice: Mateo gets the nod over Mateusz

Mateo and Papa

Mateo and Papa hanging out at lunchtime. Photo by Marton Balla

The (mostly) retired life in Boston holds two big attractions for us: Proximity of not only family but of more interesting things to see and do than we’ll ever have time for. Sometimes, like today, those two attractions collide head on.

Monday night, taking advantage of one of those many interesting things to do, I joined an SRO crowd at Harvard to hear Washington Post (and former Boston Globe) editor Marty Baron interviewed by On Point’s Tom Ashbrook. I bumped into Grzegorz Piechota, a Polish journalist (and Nieman Fellow) who tipped me to another cool event upcoming on campus: A lunchtime discussion with democracy activist Mateusz Kijowski.

A relative unknown (at least to me), Kijowski in recent months has assembled what the Associated Press describes as “the largest civic protest movement that Poland has seen since Lech Walesa’s Solidarity defied the communist regime.”

Thirty five years ago, I was excited to be running around Warsaw and Gdansk in pursuit of Walesa. In those early days of Solidarity, there were so few foreign correspondents in Poland that it wasn’t unusual for several of us to follow Walesa and his family home from Sunday Mass and squat on his living room floor as he sketched his vision for a democratic Poland.

All of which is to say that the chance to get a look at “the next Walesa” was pretty intriguing. Until I was reminded this morning that I had lunchtime duty with Mateo, covering an hour’s gap between Marton heading to work and Kate returning from school.

As I’ve written previously, there have not been many occasions — despite our across the hall availability — when Carol and I have found ourselves in traditional babysitting roles. But this was one of them.

At first I whined to Kate about not wanting to miss Kijowski (her furrowed brow spoke louder than words: “Who?”). But then I did my best to man up and come to grips with my new reality: Hanging out with my grandson instead of pondering the looming power struggle in Poland.

I’m sure Mateusz was compelling over there across the river. But there was no way he could measure up to the clapping, grinning and drooling choice I made instead.

_________________

What are some of the interesting choices you’ve found yourself faced with recently?

Reclaiming delight

My best teachers these days are my grandchildren. Since they range in age from one year up to twenty years, there is quite a range of what they have to teach.

The other night our eighteen-year-old granddaughter, Maddie, called to interview me for a project for school. She’s a freshman in college in her first year of nursing school. The assignment was for a psychology class and involved interviewing a grandparent about their life and the aging process. Her questions made me think a lot and drew things out of me that I hadn’t entirely claimed before.

When Maddie asked about the good parts of aging, I found myself saying that having more time to notice things and take joy in them was one of the very best things. The two grandchildren across the hall have been teaching me about that.

mateo in sunlight

Mateo, age one, laughs easily about the simplest things – peek-a-boo or sunbeams in his face. He teaches me to be silly again – to make funny faces and funny noises and then to laugh at them. It brings back memories of my own grandmother, Martha, playing with me and even more so playing with my children. The older Martha got the sillier she got. I start to realize that all this being so serious and adult all the time really stifles the little kid still trying to live inside of me. Continue reading

On the road to 1 divorce, 2 marriages, 3 bikes, 4 seats, 1,800 miles

In response to our post about getting rid of the car, Danish friend Ernst Poulsen noted: “The European solution: Bicycles?”

Two other friends, Mark and Jutta Brayne, have taken Ernst’s two-wheeler notion to a whole other level: An 1,800 mile ride on a bicycle built for two — from the top of New Zealand’s northern island to the bottom of the southern one — in part to raise money for freelance journalists who encounter trouble (or worse) on the job.  After pedaling on their own for nearly six weeks, Mark and Jutta were joined for the journey’s final few days by their daughter, Katie, and her partner, Mela. Katie and Mela covered the same ground (and then some) but the advantage of individual bikes (and younger legs) made for fewer days on the road.

brayne arrival

Mark, Jutta, Katie and Mela celebrate their arrival at New Zealand’s southernmost shore

We were taken with this Brayne family adventure for all sorts of reasons. I first encountered Mark and his bike 35 years ago in Vienna, where he cycled to work at the old Bankgasse press center where we occupied side-by-side offices. Although in sporadic touch over the years, it wasn’t until last summer — during our final days at Beacon Hill Friends House — that the four of us re-connected in person. Mark and Jutta were visiting the U.S. from their home in Sheringham, on England’s east coast, and there was a lot to catch up on.

In Vienna, we were parents of young children and new babies. Last summer in Boston, we were 60-somethings comparing notes about new stages of life. Continue reading

The car is gone

It took us a while, but I woke up one morning early in the new year and knew it was time. Carol, who gets behind the wheel more frequently than I do, wasn’t so sure. Within a couple of days, consensus arrived and the car departed. For the first time in a half century, neither of us had wheels.

Our Volvo wagon ended up on a used car lot down the street from the high school I attended in New London. Ct.

Our Volvo wagon ended up on a used car lot down the street from the high school I attended in New London. Ct.

Here’s how we decided — and what we’ve learned so far about life without a car.

Depending on your situation, there’s almost always — or almost never — a better way than driving to get from A to B. We count ourselves lucky to be in these circumstances: A cross-town bus at the end our street, a couple of trolley lines within several blocks, Zipcars parked down the street and Lyft and Uber at our relatively inexpensive beck and call.

If those alternatives didn’t represent enough in the way of incentives to going carless, consider the disincentives to car ownership: Our apartment building has no parking, and the city of Brookline bans parking on city streets between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. Since moving here from Beacon Hill in August, we’d been paying $200 a month — more than we paid in rent for our first few apartments in the ’70s — to park our seven year-old Volvo wagon in the lot of a nearby office building.

And then there’s the environmental impact, even though we may be diminishing our carbon footprint even more significantly with our reduced consumption of beef. Baby steps in both cases, of course, but they feel like steps in the right direction. Continue reading

“Knock, knock. It’s Leila”

I’m just back from spending two weeks in California teaching in a prison. The prisoners with whom I work are learning to become addiction treatment counselors. Many of them are lifers, doing time for murder. Of necessity, they have to do their own recovery and rehabilitation work in order to become effective counselors. It’s a long hard road for them.

The majority of these prisoners were seriously abused and/or neglected as children. Terrible things happened to them. Most of them used substances to numb the pain of those terrible things. Because, for whatever reason, they couldn’t recover, they, in turn, did terrible things. Author Richard Rohr says it like this: “…if you do not transform your pain, you will surely transmit it to those around you and even to the next generation.” (The Naked Nowpage 125) Continue reading

Mornings with Mateo: Body language reconsidered

As we shared our plans to move in across the hall from Kate and Marton and the kids, one of the frequent reactions went like this: Uh-oh, lots of baby-sitting in your future!

Fair enough. Mention grandparents living nearby and baby-sitting is a blessing or curse that comes naturally to mind.

But in the six months we’ve been living across the hall so far, I can count the instances of what I’d consider baby-sitting — supervising the kids while the parents head off for other pursuits — on a single hand.

Our alone time with the kids seems less like baby-sitting and more like hanging out. Mateo tends to hang out in the mornings, Leila after dinner.

Mornings work like this: As the early riser on our side of the hall, I decide when Apartment #4 is open for business with Apartment #3. When the time comes, I hang the OPEN side outside our door. If Mateo has also awakened early, Marton or Kate take occasional peeks across the hall to see if the sign is up.

If it is, Mateo makes his entrance. Coming up on ten months and 31 pounds, he’s a big guy whose mobility has not yet progressed to the stage of crawling that involves his belly leaving the floor.

He’s a contented kid, usually as comfortable playing with toys on a blanket in the middle of the living room as he is twirling around in his exersaucer. But we like to start the mornings in my lap.

Maybe like most people, I’ve always been a little lost when it comes to communicating with babies. Baby talk feels too cute; normal talk seems inappropriate in its own way.

With Mateo, I let him take the lead. His lack of words doesn’t appear to concern him one bit. He’s got his moves: gaze, grab and bite, all supplemented with his repertoire of grunts, squeals and raspberries.

My conversations with Mateo, such as they are, got me thinking about conversations I have with people closer to my age. We rely mostly on words, but body language certainly adds a layer of understanding. Continue reading

How many miles from Mom?

family by the tree 2

Clockwise from the white-haired guy: Matt, Lanie, Leila, Maleita, Carol, Marton, Matt, Mateo, Kate, Maddie, Mitch (Photo by Lauren)

The typical American lives within just 18 miles of his or her mom, according to a recent study by the University of Michigan, with 40 percent living within five miles.

That news hits home for us this week, with our kids (and their families and significant other) under one roof (if you include the roof across the hall) for several days between Christmas and New Year’s. This happens for us just once a year, and it’s a good occasion to reflect on the role of geography in the way we’ve lived our lives.

When Carol and I got married in 1970, we were pretty open about where we might live. We did rule out at least a couple of places: Florida and California. Funny how we ended up spending about a decade in each state.

We were each encouraged by our parents, especially our mothers, to seek our dreams wherever they took us. In Carol’s case, that meant living near home (Louisville, Ky.) for the last time at age 17, when she went off to college. Same with me, living in Groton, Ct. for the last time at age 18.

In retrospect, it’s clear I was never very intentional about the role of geography in my life. I’d never even visited Detroit when a Free Press alum in the New York Times Washington bureau (where I was an intern in 1971) set me up with my next job. Our next several moves were also the result of opportunities more presented than sought (in Washington, D.C., central Europe, Detroit (again), Silicon Valley and Florida).

We considered opportunities to live closer to my folks in Connecticut only a couple of times — Boston in 1975 and New York 20 years later — but neither job worked out and we ended up staying put in Michigan and California.

Ah, how the tables turn! This week we’re joined by our daughter and her family visiting from their home 700 miles away in Michigan and our son and his girlfriend visiting from — wait for it — 3,155 miles west in California. Continue reading