The beauty of fireworks exploding outward in streaks of color, the anticipation of each boom and whiz, the technical ability to create multicolored images that are suspended in the air before they are diffused into the night sky, all make for a display that is impressive. But to think of my country’s anthem, “the bombs bursting in air” makes me very uncomfortable with the creative use of explosives. I understand that wars are fought to establish boundaries and political power gains that may not be crossed. But I cannot reconcile war with my desire for an end to such a violent means of being human within a society of other humans. Surely after thousands and thousands of years of warfare and slaughter, we might have found another way to respect the needs and betterment of all people in all lands.

Apparently not, for here we are unable to reconcile raging divisions in America “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” let alone stop the vicious determination of a Russian autocrat to crush and swallow his sovereign neighbor, Ukraine. Because we have become so technically advanced in the art of weaponry in the form of nuclear weapons, we do not dare push the insane man dedicated to that conflict- in case he decides to obliterate the world faster than climate change will.

As a species, I am hoping we have given ourselves enough time to continue to evolve beyond our more primitive instincts. I have hope that we will. I am not necessarily thinking it will happen in my lifetime. We have a long way to go. May my baby grandsons become part of that growth. May new leaders emerge from this split from reality, from cause and effect, from shirking responsibility for global cooperation to guide us away from short sighted destruction to a long-term sustainable creation of a new society of equals.

Yes, that sure sounds like a fairytale. There will always be inequalities of one kind or another. There is need for balance between opposing views and we seem to be reaching a tipping point that negates exploring that possibility. Us and Them, Right and Wrong, Progressive and Conservative, are mortal enemies, and are no longer seen as potential partners for solutions to the very real needs of our world. When will the pendulum swing away from this madness?

This 4th, I am unsure if our town will be holding fireworks. There were some shaky legal issues. Fireworks are expensive and the insurance must be astronomical. Not all people in our town have enough food to eat or can be given the healthcare they deserve. There are people in my town who are hungry and hurting and barely getting by. Giving them fireworks to celebrate our country’s freedom from England’s rule might not be the best use of resources. They might be better served by strengthening the systems that are supposed to support them. It is hard to cheer for the path America has taken. Freedom is best served with a strong dose of responsibility to the whole of our community. If our individual freedoms come at the cost of taking away someone else’s it cannot be truly free.

Here at Kendal, we have our own rituals of a very homemade parade, of recumbent trikes and pets and a whole brigade of lawn chair enthusiasts who open and fold them and clack them on the ground with amusing precision as they march around the circle before our main building. That is always followed by the thoughtful remarks of a long-term resident, entitled, ‘Towards a More Perfect Union’. I am always touched by his wisdom and his deep faith in reaching for that goal.

Living Here

I received an email today that featured a photograph of empty baby carriages and strollers lined up at the train station in Poland placed there for Ukrainian refugee mothers arriving with infants in their arms. It broke me open, and I wept.

With the Ashes, Peace 3/7/22

I cannot leave a baby stroller at the train station

for Ukrainian mothers fleeing to Poland

I cannot open my nursing home here in Ohio to house them

I cannot feed the millions of refugees

hold their hands to

absorb their shock and devastation

I can leave hope on the tracks

for my own baby grandchildren

to carry forward into their lives

open my heart to bear witness

to bloodshed and violence

feed peace into the turmoil

of my own war-torn mind

I can only absorb my shock and devastation

from the chaotic world we share

from losing the country I thought I safely lived in

And with the ashes of our world

intentionally cultivate peace. Peace. Peace.

We live here in our time, in this world. We each bring what we can, where we can, as best we can, every day. For this I am grateful. That I live in a community where I am safe and valued and cared for is a gift I do not take for granted. We move on and need our lives to reflect our commitment to living as fully and as engaged a life as we can. I am astounded every day at the life stories and talents my fellow residents bring.

As a community, Kendal has been changed by the long adaptation to the pandemic. We are less interconnected through community gatherings. Although we are now able to meet in public spaces and eat together without masks or the mandatory six feet distancing, there are many among us who are fragile and feel that it is still not wise to mingle so freely. There has been a tendency to stay home in cottages, apartments, or rooms rather than attend newly sponsored lectures or concerts in the auditorium. Now that many presentations are videoed and played directly on our internal TV channel or zoomed, people often choose to stay and watch in the comfort of their own dwellings.

We are healthy and aware of these choices and we are proud of our resilience. The Audio visual teams work very hard to bring programs to us all in this new format. Sometimes they are hybrid shows-performers have the satisfaction of smaller live audiences while many watch the same show on their TV. The next annual celebration at Kendal is called Spring Fling, and the theme this year is Dance! I wrote a very silly spoof of a waltz to the tune of Daisy, Daisy, an old favorite. I include a video that the waltz- meister taped of me and my piano player Betsy while the AV group was filming us for the event. He will have three couples waltzing in a line dance to my song and the tape will eventually have cuts of me and Betsy and the dancers sliced together to create a whole piece. I gather the women will dance on oblivious to the increasing frustration of their partners as the verses indicate. I was wearing a mic and my voice will hopefully be much more clear and articulate than what my friend’s phone picked up in this clip. I include the lyrics here and it will give you a taste of life here as we approach the inevitability of spring.

Berserker’s Waltz for Spring Fling 2022 (to the tune of Daisy, Daisy)

Waltzing out winter, here at our Spring Fling.

I’d love to understand you, more than anything

The mumbles behind your mask,

make it hard to ask

Our hearts seem to click, so please tell me quick

The results of your last testing.

Darling partner, give me your answer true

Do you have Omicron or happen to have the flu?

Behind your mask is the answer

I love that you’re a good dancer

At six feet apart, you’ve still got my heart

But you just won’t give me a clue.

Darling partner, perhaps this just won’t work

I wish we could be closer, but I don’t want to be a jerk

What should happen next?

Maybe I should just text?

Call me lazy or maybe half crazy

It’s enough to go berserk.

Two Great Transitions

Two Great Transitions

I wrote to my daughter about the impending death of my friend recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Because she gave birth to her second son just a month ago, she texted back, “Yes, the two great transitions: birth and death.”

I was not physically with my daughter during her labor, but I was psychically tuned in the whole 24 hours. The news of her safe delivery of a healthy child brought such joyful relief to me. Holding Sebastian a few days later was a marvel. How is it that a new human being emerges from within such a tiny earth-bodysuit? His endearing oceanic features swirling around the tireless effort of nursing and digestion melted the supposed boundaries between us. Holding a newborn has that effect- the sweetness of no apparent ego softens the heart with the utter vulnerability infants offer to their caretakers.

Four weeks later I had the great honor and privilege to sit with my friend as he breathed his last. He had been having digestive difficulties since September, but until he violently vomited all Christmas night, his doctors had no answers for him. After that horrible experience, he underwent more elaborate tests and a tumor in his small intestines was finally discovered. Given that the cancer stemmed from his pancreas, it was a terminal prognosis. After giving him a stent through the tumor to allow him to maintain a liquid diet, he was told he had had 5-6 months to live. He came home and seemed to tolerate this arrangement for a couple of days. Then he was stricken with bouts of intense stomach pain/nausea.

It was a matter of hours before his condition further worsened and within a day, he was actively dying. He had moved from his home to a room covered by skilled nursing just down the hall from me so he could be rehydrated. After a day of agony when no medication could ease his distress, his hospice team put him on morphine to curb his pain and to naturally speed up the death process. Yesterday, his wife asked me to sit with him so she could take some time to eat.

After sitting with my husband during his death, I took one look at my friend and knew he was very close to the end. No longer conscious, eyes unfocused and gasping for breath, I sang to him because it was what we shared most together- singing folksongs and listening to him play his guitar. From my own Hospice volunteer training years ago, I remembered that hearing is the last sense organ to go. I sang songs he knew and towards the end, found myself singing melodies and words that emerged just for him. His moments of apnea increased and when I told that to the nurse outside the door, she administered some more drops of morphine. His body relaxed deeper into the bed, the space between breaths lengthened as he lifted his shoulders once or twice to expand his expiring lungs. After a few more quiet gasps, he was gone.

My friend was an adamant atheist. I quieted any of my own beliefs as I watched him leave. But that Great Transition of leaving the earth-bodysuit behind, is a powerful magnet. When that which animates the body departs, it feels like a pull towards Other. Whatever you know or think you know about what happens next is filtered through our human mind. For me, it feels like a withdrawal to somewhere that is not frightening, but more peacefully spacious and to me, like Home. I am glad he is wherever he is or isn’t and no longer suffering. The Hospice team was sweetly efficient and respectful.

His wife returned quickly when she was summoned. I was reminded that many people die when their beloveds are not present. It seems easier for the dying ones to let go. She and I are friends on our own behalf, and there were tears and hugging and gratitude that in the end, though there were no long months to say good-bye or enjoy final experiences, neither was there prolonged suffering. I think many of us would prefer to leave that quickly and not count down the days we may or may not have left. Some people beat the prognosis and live quite well, months or even years beyond their supposed expiration date. But many more do not.

I can say that I had already determined to finally get my will transferred from New York to Ohio in the new year. I had arrived here in a widow shock fog over three years ago. It was past time to do this. After asking advice from my brother-in-law, I found a highly recommended lawyer that many Kendal folks use. I woke up this morning with renewed vigor to do to do what I can in taking care of all practical matters before my own Transition. The office of my new Ohio lawyer called me to say they had received the copy of my old will that a friend had dropped off for me in town. I am going to add my two grandsons into this new document, as they were not yet even a twinkle in their parents’ eyes when this former will had been written twelve years ago.

The two Great Transitions of birth and death remain a mystery and are full of potential sorrows and joys. I am grateful for my life and today, even grateful for the unknown chapter of transition that awaits me. I think I’d like to have someone sing songs or play music for me when I am leaving as well…

Here is one of my friend’s favorite songs. I sang it in his honor last night in our Song Swap music exchange we have every couple of weeks. The hour of singing we shared was a moving tribute our pivotal folk-singing friend.


Diary 9/19/19

This year, my birthday falls on the International Day of Peace. What a wonderful concept, and a marvelous stretch for humanity to reach for. May we arrive there one day. I had a deep conversation with my friend about her becoming a member of the Quakers during WW11. As you can imagine, the war was a hot topic for a spiritual community that espouses peace and favored Conscientious Objectors. Is there a right time to take up arms to combat evil? It is a good question to ask again and again. My friend fell on the side of supporting the war effort and was admitted to Quaker membership in spite of that exact split in her particular meeting. The Quakers here in the Oberlin meeting have a very large, honest umbrella which makes for a very diverse and interesting community. Peace is still a mutual front and center concern. In our last gathering, someone sang the song I learned in Girl Scouts many years ago, “Peace, I ask of thee oh river, peace, peace, peace…” Many of us sang along remembering the words as we went.

My body is not peaceful, my back has not been pronounced fixable by surgery, though I see the second opinion doctor again next week. I did not yet have my MRI disc in hand, so with new x-rays, he could only be sure of so much. Based on that, he said he thought surgery would relieve just the specific nerve impingement running down the outside of my right leg. This causes an annoying symptom, a numbing ribbon that includes my three outside toes. It is not the major problem for me. Pain and weakness in my whole lower back is. I liked this doctor very much and if I did do surgery, I would probably go with him.

I left his office realizing once more that my issues are not simple to address- they are a many layered cake. Muscle atrophy remaining from MS, arthritis, which this doc noted as more significant than my last surgeon, recurring bouts of inflammation, which, if not MS, may be caused by another auto-immune disorder, and mild spinal stenosis altogether create this dense confection. It felt as if I was again facing the reality that this loss of functional mobility is not going to improve very much. Reality always wins any disagreement I may have. Going forward is more about managing my body, and I am deep into exploring a variety of hopeful solutions to address the pain. Somewhat lessened already, I am swallowing new drops and using creams of various kinds that have mitigated the worst of it.

It is ironic that the idea of becoming a grandmother exacerbates the battle of accepting my condition. The grandmother who bounces the baby boy as she walks around and sings him to sleep, the one who easily picks up and puts down a squirmy little fellow for a diaper change, the one who chases after a giggling toddler is not the grandmother I will be. I cannot help my daughter with cooking or cleaning or doing errands for her. The grandmother I am is safely sedentary. The grandmother I am cannot sit up for long periods of time. Who Grandmother Judi will be is yet to be revealed and I am working on becoming more content to let the picture unfold as it will, and not as I will it. That leaves more room for joy, a much more delightful state of being in which to anticipate my grandson’s arrival.

Peace I ask of thee, oh river, peace peace, peace.

When I learn to live serenely, cares will cease.

From the hills I gather courage, visions of the day to be.

Strength to lead and strength to follow, all are given unto thee.

Peace I ask of thee, oh river, peace peace, peace.

Written by Quaker Gwyneth Van Anden Walker in 1947