Thursday, April 30, 2009

Life-Cycle; Optimist/Pessimism; LIFE...

My Grandma Gangl with Ray (my dad) and his brother, "Bud" in 1915.

Here is an interesting question from a former student of mine:
“Alzheimer's residents teach me, daily. They become the babies, again, often. Is that our life cycle?”

Many more wise than I have contemplated that very notion. Is our life-cycle taking us from infancy back to infancy? From many perspectives, one might have to say a resounding “yes.” But the journey from one to the other IS the experience of life, is it not?

That journey takes many pathways which, when seen from a distance, may even form a noticeable pattern. Now that I’ve “retired” I tend to have far more time to think – which isn’t necessarily a good thing. Too much thinking leads to TOO MUCH thinking and to too little doing or being… My thoughts, as I age and encounter physical diminishments, aren’t always productive or insightful, simply worrisome or maudlin. I’ve noticed that self-discipline is required more often in my thoughts than in any other area of life. If I could control my thoughts, I might be better able to control my words, actions, choices, and more.

Now some folks are naturally up-beat – the optimists among us. Then there are the rest of us, still seeing life from the half-empty side of things. It has been stated, by many authoritative researchers, that we can change our thoughts, perspectives, ideas, and opinions at any time throughout life. They say it is possible to change from essentially a pessimistic viewpoint to a positive perspective. While I believe that is possible, it also seems to me to be somewhat of an exaggeration of possibilities.

Probabilities, on the other hand, seem to indicate that once a pessimist always a pessimist and visa versa. Dramatic changes in circumstances, situations, and/or relationships can bring about major changes in one’s outlook on life – for better or for worse. Yet the probability that a major change from optimist to pessimist triggered by circumstance will be permanent in all situations throughout one’s entire life may be a bit, shall we say, optimistic?

I’m wondering if the underlying nature of an individual remains, no matter the changes from here to there, and tends to resurface more strongly towards the end of life. The elderly that I have known seem to revert to the personality at the core – unvarnished, childlike, happy or melancholic. My eighty-seven year old/young uncle has always been an upbeat, can-do kind of guy. Like my dad, he learned early in life to do for himself – to fix what was broken, to do what must be done, to make the best of all situations, to keep on keeping on no matter war, pain, loss, sorrow, ill-health, depression, or joy, peace, prosperity, good health, loving family, etc. He remains happy (with the temporary help of antidepressants) despite his constant physical pain (WWII war injury), the loss of his beloved wife several years ago, the cancers invading two of his childrens bodies, his inability to type on the computer and more. He can and does still dance amazingly well, and he is always off visiting others, cheering them up, telling funny stories of the old times, and generally being helpful to any and all. When I was last able to visit, it was 2004 and he gave me quite a ride in his PT cruiser – like the upbeat old pro he is and always has been.

Their mother and my grandmother, by contrast, was somewhat their opposite. Like my mother before me, these women focused on the negatives in life. They were often found trying to avoid some remote possibility of doom and gloom. Grandma lived a very long life, most of it unhappy, perhaps worsened by her own attitudes. But one must wonder if she was even able to change? Would it have been possible for her to become optimistic?

Grandma was the eldest of 12 children born to a strong German family. As the first daughter, I’m sure she was expected to care for the house and her younger siblings quite often. Here she is second on the right, at her parents 50th wedding anniversary. Their youngest daughter sits between them.
She married a very dashing, charismatic, yet alcoholic young man who accepted little responsibility and abandoned her frequently. She essentially raised her 4 children on her own, often having to live with siblings just to survive. Her eldest son, my dad, was denied a private school scholarship by the county welfare agency because, at 13, he was old enough to earn money to support the rest of the family. And so it was. Then came the depression making hard times harder. Two of her children were genetically predisposed to alcoholism. She herself suffered from major migraine headaches – it was said she was far healthier following menopause than she had been in her youth.

Grandma was also a highly resourceful, creative woman. She was rather tall and her posture was excellent. She served as a washer woman, a laundry clerk, and bookkeeper. She was a seamstress, who altered clothing, made artificial flowers, crocheted, hand-painted china, quilted, made hats, made lace doilies, beaded rosaries, and so much more. I still have several of her cotton lace doilies and her crocheted-top hand towels.
Here is a quilt her mother made featuring hand-embroidered birds of the 48 states, probably made from a kit in the early 1900's.
When she was 75, she fell and broke her wrist. She had been living in a second floor room with another older woman but her children became worried that she might fall down the stairs. Together, the four children decided to arrange for Grandma to go to a lovely, Catholic nursing home near her eldest son. From having a large, private, roomy space all her own, she was moved into a double room with another woman. Now kleptomania is common in nursing homes. Lack of privacy surely is one reason why, but also some folks lose their inhibitions and simply fall into less socially acceptable behaviors of all types. Grandma quickly became disillusioned with her living circumstances – understandably so. There were no small neighborhood stores to walk to, no old friends nearby, no public transportation that came close to the nursing home. Someone would have to pick her up in a car or she’d have to take a taxi to go anywhere. Since Mass was said daily, there was no reason to even leave the home once a week…

Grandma Gangl in 1965 at age 77
Grandma became more sullen in her later years, particularly after my parents deaths. She wanted to die, but couldn’t and didn’t. She hated seeing her first born die when he was 75 – she was 97. By that time, she was confined to a wheel chair for most outings, but she was still alert and did not suffer the mental impairments of senility. My uncle told me that he would go regularly to visit Grandma and that he would find her sitting in her chair facing the wall – not the window, not the hallway, but the wall. She was angry and depressed, to be sure. A few years later, she fell and broke her hip, leaving her bed-ridden the remainder of her life – to age 104.

I’ve heard and read stories much sadder than hers, of people who over-came such adversities and lived long, happy, productive, useful lives brightening the lives of all they encountered. Grandma lived a long, productive useful life – she was well loved by her family but she was never able to overcome her propensity to depression.

As medical research continues on the brain/mind, it is interesting to note some of the discoveries. Stimulate the brain here and someone feels happy. Do it there and they feel pain. While depression is finally considered a medical condition, it is still somewhat of a hit or miss adventure in the treatment aspect of the illness. Which drug works best for which patients? One steps into a world of try-it-and-see. Not a world of scientific proof, certainty or perfection of any sort.

Perhaps what my strange thoughts have brought me around to is this: pessimism may be inextricably connected to depression – a physical/biological state of being that one can not control by positive thinking.

So too, perhaps, the life cycle brings us from infancy back to infancy at the close – hopefully to be reborn into another reality thereby to experience more LIFE than we know exists…

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

April Flowers

This is our first April in our home and it has been delightful to walk through the gardens each day and discover what a wonderful array of native and cultivated plants are here for us to enjoy. Here is a sampling of various bits of our garden - in no particular order.

Virginia Bluebells

Pink Meadow Rue

Dutchman's Britches


And the happiest wildflower of all...

Monday, April 27, 2009

Central PA Pow Wow

A week ago, representatives of many Native American tribes came to celebrate, socialize and compete in the dancing competitions at a regional Pow Wow celebrated in State College, PA. The costumes were colorful, decorative, and vibrant. The ever-present drumming moved the soul, mind and body. The dances went from whirling dervishes to slow promenades around the gymnasium. Vendors sold hand-made drums, painted and unpainted; turquoise and silver jewelry of all kinds; beaded head bands; hand-made wooden flutes; as well as the typical T-shirts and cheap imitations of true tribal craftsmanship.

The dance competitions were delightful eye candy whirlwind of flying color and swiftly moving feet. The men seemed to do most of the dancing - all sorts of styles from the Fancy Dancing to hunting and war dances. The womens dancing was more circumspect - lots of whirling, with tinkling bells as their costumes are layered with rows upon rows of metal bells. I took more photos than I would have thought possible in the 4 hours I roamed the school hallways and gymnasium. To give you an idea of what it was like, see the image below.

After I got home, it took me a good dozen hours to edit the photos, wipe out the confusing backgrounds, eliminated unnecessary details, and silhouette the participants.

The costumes are intricately beaded, layered with bells, feathers, fringe, ribbons and more. This Pow Wow seemed more social and more "modern" than others I have attended. Perhaps that is due to the fact that this was at a public school and others I've been to have been on reservations... In any case, it was a wonderful experience, as always. Unique in it's own way.

Even the children have intricately designed and sewn dresses for these competitions. This little gal was quite a dancer!

Below is a close-up of the excellent beadwork and feathers work in the traditional dance costume seen above.

Hope you enjoy seeing them here half as much as I enjoyed being there and recording these images.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Spring Critters

I was sitting out on the deck the other afternoon (when it was at least 50 degrees out, as opposed to today's brisk 30's) and happened to see a Robin fastidiously preening him/herself after a quick dip in our neighbor's pond. Such simple pleasures...

Pine Siskins: It's spring molting season and the American Goldfinch are the most conspicuous of all the birds during their molts. Right now they look a tad dirty, but they'll soon be glowing daffodil yellow as the courtship season begins. I took these photos of the male Cowbird through our kitchen window - not noticing at first the "giant" squirrel eating nearby! And a pair of Chipping Sparrows came to the feeder yesterday for the first time. We have many happy memories of our daughter feeding parent chippers while they sat on their eggs. They had nested in a small arbevita by our back porch and Chris would catch lacewings to feed to whichever parent was on the nest. We took lots of photos, but back then, neither the cameras nor the processing were that great so the photos have lost much over the years. Our memories have not, however! Last but not least, here is one of our resident chipmunks dining under one of the feeders.