Elderhood

Posted by John Graham-Pole

I don’t know when Dorothy and I became elders, but I’ll date it from our simultaneous retirement almost eighteen years ago. We’d first met in July, 2005, corresponded by email with growing frequency, then started phoning between Gainesville, Florida, and Antigonish, Nova Scotia, even more often. We used my work phone for what grew to be a twice-a-day necessity, as those 1900 miles stretched longer and longer between us. The University of Florida paid for every one of those countless calls, one of the few departmental perks I ever took advantage of in my thirty years there.

Wedding photo with Puss, Dec. 4, 2006

By November, 2005, when I made my very first trip to Antigonish, taking advantage of the four-day US Thanksgiving holiday, we’d already decided to marry as soon as my divorce papers were finalized, and to retire together at the end of the following June, when I would be 65 and Dorothy would be 60. And it was on that first trip to Nova Scotia that I decided we’d settle down here in Dorothy’s now one-hundred-year-old farmhouse, which she had bought as a fixer-upper in 1978. She was at first nervous that this firmly acculturated Floridian could handle the Canadian weather, but I was never in doubt. Looking back southwards today at the insanity of America embroiled in another election year, I count my blessings that my instinct was right on, clouded by love though it may well have been.

So from that point on of our elderhood together, no one was telling us what to do. For the  first time in either of our lives, no parent, no teacher, no boss was in charge of us. We were free! And surprise, surprise—to me at least—it was terrifying, especially all the questions that at once started to  confront me, not just in my dreams but in my everyday waking life:

What am I here for? What am I supposed to do with all this endless time? Can I settle for a life of  just me and Dorothy? Who’s out there to give me clear and unequivocal answers?

Because Dorothy was absolutely the only Canadian I knew, as far as I knew. You might think I’d have met a host in Florida, but I can only remember one and we were long out of touch. So how about this bunch of life transitions for starting over? A new marriage to create (the third for each of us), a new country for me to figure out, and—Aah! The biggest figuring of all—what am I supposed to be doing with myself? Well, in case you’re reading this, dear reader, and feeling sorry for me and anxious about what lies ahead for yourself, you can relax because eighteen years on I’m as blissfully happy as I’ve ever been. To emerge from a miserable adolescence and young adulthood to such daily joy in my eighties is nothing short of bounteous.

A word or two about those dreams, though. They’re a vital part of everyone’s life, yet I rarely remember any of them clearly, let alone can interpret their meaning when I wake up. But they have this way of persisting—even haunting me. Work dreams are by far the commonest, and more often than not I’m back  being a lower-than-low intern on my first job. Back at Barts hospital in London in 1967 at the beck and call of Gordon Hamilton Fairley, Britain’s first professor of medical oncology. Not that he paid me any attention, just shot through Dalziel and Annie Zunz wards at close to a run, as I chased after him and his entourage of research fellows, desperately trying to keep those voluminous charts, Xrays, and laboratory data in some sort of shape for immediate and precise presentation when summoned.

My best interpretation today of these dreams is that I’m still working through the horrible impostor syndrome that beset me from the very first moment that I sat myself in the back row of the medical school lecture hall to tune into (and just as quickly out of) Professor Rotblat’s inaugural physics lecture.

Now we’re eighteen years into elderhood/retirement, for which the best definition I have  is unwaged, except that both Dorothy and I are blessed with monthly cheques from three separate governments, however idle we may have been all month. Yet Dorothy never even worked in the US, nor did I do a single day’s waged work in Canada. Yes, both of us worked our little butts off for forty years or so apiece, but it’s still a wicked thrill to see all those dollars showing up in our bank accounts after another month of doing whatever we choose. And the US dollar has been strong against the Canadian dollar all these eighteen years, so transferring my Florida state and social security US pensions to my Canadian bank account gives me another frisson of glee.

What Dorothy and I have been exploring together is the purpose of being an elder: deep fun, this exploring. We’re blessed at this moment with good health, a safe roof over our heads, and more than enough money. When we wake up each morning, and I’ve brought the tea and a muffin and half a banana each, we stay horizontal for rarely less than an hour, because we make a point of not making any ‘appointments’ before ten o’clock in the morning. We’ve taken to calling these horizontal but wakeful times our business meetings, and it’s certainly the longest spell in our waking day that we’re close together, and almost always wrapped around each other. Total bliss. We talk, mostly lazily, but sometimes with increasing urgency and excitement, about whatever’s on top, splitting the time between us unless one of us needs more urgent attention. From very early on in our married life, I started fully expecting to wake every day to another of Dorothy’s crazy, hairbrained, subversive, and scarily exciting ideas for how to fill our time. Fun way to wake up, right? As if our lives weren’t already fuller than a double-yolk egg.

One thing I’ve come to realize: answering existential questions is exactly what retirement, aka elderhood, is all about. And the answers will take at least the rest of our lifetimes, and quite possibly several more return-to-earth lifetimes if we’re granted them. It comes down to exploring, separately and together, what we can usefully do with all this time. What is useful for us and what is useful for our community. I’ll define useful here as doing things  that give us a sense of purpose.

It’s hugely helpful to remind myself, as often as I think of it, that there’s no hurry. “Hurry, worry, bad curry!” an Indian yoga teacher of mine used to remind me. It’s fine to contemplate future possibilities, and to look back on past events and experiences, but it’s far best to do it from the viewpoint of this present moment, not from one of those persistent states of past regret or future anxiety that beset us all. I know, easy to say, but…

I spent my forty years of working life in four university healthcare systems, two in the UK and two in the US. I think of my work as in three parts: giving care to ill people—mostly very ill or actively dying—teaching, which came in many forms but most enjoyably in small groups or one-to-one—and learning—which included researching.  I devoted my research throughout the second half of my waged life to exploring how the arts could heal us, both personally and communally.

In our elderhood, Dorothy and I’ve continued on this path, though often in a pretty zigzag fashion. We saw early on in our time together that it was best to collapse the above three activities: caring for ourselves and others overlaps with learning and teaching ourselves and others, and with exploring new ideas and new ways to do these things. To cut to the present time, because writing about these eighteen years of evolution would certainly take a book (and may very well do so), I’ll take a look at what we’re up to now.

Our big activity for the past five-plus years has been HARP, The People’s Press, our publishing house. HARP stands for Healing Arts Reconciling People, but that only begins to describe what we are doing with it. We started out writing our own books, then publishing more and more of other people’s, and what they all have in common is their dedication to the healing arts and to healthy equity. We’ve published twenty-three so far, plus a CD and several videos, and we have ten more in the works. If we’d known what a steep learning curve we’d be climbing, we’d never have embarked on this publishing business. Yet as soon as I say that I see how foolish it is, because you can never know what’s ahead when you embark on a new adventure; it wouldn’t be any fun if you could. Joseph Campbell said, If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it’s not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take.” I like that, though it’s scary as hell.

For the past year or so we’ve been working with This is Marketing (TiM), a marketing company in Dartmouth, and we’ve spent much of that time figuring out where we are going and what we want to achieve. Out of this back-and-forth and often difficult dialogue, we’ve figured out this: we want to take HARP ‘off the page’ and turn it into a ‘movement,’ whatever that means. All we know right now is that there’s a distinct difference between healing arts and health equity, but they’re also inextricably linked. Dorothy, the lifelong educator and champion of health equity, has become a fearless activist, her activism finding expression through blogs and podcasts on the new webpage TiM has created for us (www.tryhealingarts.ca), combatting the farcical—actually criminal—inequities that our government is perpetuating against our fragile ecology and against our Indigenous peoples. While I stay primarily a writer and editor, which has filled me with joy ever since I started outrageously writing poetry back in 1990, back in the midst of my wage-earning life. No sooner do I finish one book than I’m ready to get into the next. I have half-a-dozen in the works, at least in my head if only rudimentarily on the page. This blog will very likely become a book in time.

Enuff said….

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