Mortality

Self-portrait Hollifield

The Crone- self-portrait by Suzanne Hollifield

Last night I participated in a Facebook live session with my Moonshine class and teacher Effy Wild. One of the topics was grief and how we as a culture tend to shove it into a nice, neat little compartment.

I totally agree with this, and I could write pages on grief from the death of friends and family, grief from divorce or other loss of relationship, grief from loss of home, grief over the loss of a pet (I’ve cried more over the death of my dogs than over breaking up with my fiancés. And yes, that’s plural), even empty-nest syndrome, which is a bittersweet kind of loss.

However, the grief I want to explore is one I think that is especially taboo. It is the grief we experience as we grow older and realize we are mortal, that we can no longer do the things we used to do, and that we are in danger of losing our independence because of illness, frailty, or finances.

I imagine that different people confront these feelings at different ages. No one really talks much about it, and there really isn’t a lot written about it that I’ve found. Even seniors themselves avoid talking about it in a deep way, but I am convinced we all have to deal with it at some time.

Some people deal with it at retirement, and others when they get a serious illness or when a spouse or significant other dies. For me, it was right around the time I turned sixty-five, which was the age my father died. It was then I realized I had outlived my entire immediate family–my parents and my siblings. Not a long-lived family, I realized I could die of a heart-attack any day. I began to get very jealous of my time.

There were other signs of my aging that were creeping in as well, and I am sure they added to my feelings of mortality. I am not sure if I went through the stages of grief in the traditional order, but I think the journey was very like the stages and gradually led me to acceptance. By the way, I was not really afraid of death. I was afraid of dying. There is a difference.

It seems to me society tries to make getting older some wonderful, happy place, and it is. But so is young adulthood and so is middle-age. We don’t deny the problems that go with being a twenty-something or a middle-aged person. We need to acknowledge both the advantages and problems of elderhood as well.

I am happier now than I’ve ever been in my life. I wish I could still walk three miles without feeling like my psoas muscle is going to lock up, and I’d like to have my thirty-year old body and still be able to eat pizza or burgers and drink beer every night. But my understanding of who I am and what I want is closer to being spot-on than it ever has been. That’s not a bad trade-off.

I just turned sixty-eight. I’m in a much better place than three years ago, but it was a hard pull up the road. Now, I am enjoying being a crone, and I’ve even resolved to enjoy my eccentricities openly. I realize that my senior friends who are dealing with aging with the most wisdom most often do it a bit tongue-in-cheek, and we appreciate those who can smile at the absurdity of life. We value the time we have left, and realize that life is precious.

Now, I don’t do things unless I really want to do them. I don’t have time to do otherwise. I spend more time in stillness and in just enjoying the present moment than I used to. I paint nearly every day. I suffer fools a little less gladly, but I do worry it is because they are mirroring the parts of myself that I haven’t worked on, so I had better get busy with that. The recognition of others that I used to crave seems sort of silly now and too much work. I do like giving people massages. I still love rock-n-roll and sing in the car.

I’ve found that helping people with grief, no matter where it comes from, is about listening. It is not about offering advice. Listening to someone talk about fears of their own mortality may be uncomfortable, but if someone shares with you, just listening is the best thing you can do to help the other person to move on.

A Blog a Day

I started this blog because of a challenge in 2017 from one of my online art teachers, Effy Wild, who is a master of art journaling. Twice a year, in April and September, she challenges her students to blog along with her every day for a month. It is truly a challenge for me because although I used to write all the time, I am finding that as I grow older, my right brain is becoming more and more dominant, and my left brain doesn’t really want to form logical paragraphs.

I’ve been thinking I should start writing in this blog if for no other reason than my art has improved. I was actually shocked to see how long its been since I’ve written anything- shocked and a little embarrassed. I can do better that this.

Suzanne Hollifield original watercolor for a class taught by Ildiko Karsay called Nature Art, Spring 2019.

Indeed, my art has improved. I’ve become independent, and I’m using more mediums regularly. If I copy now, it is so that I can learn instead of because I can’t produce anything of worth on my own. That’s been both liberating and satisfying. I’m learning to use Photoshop to combine elements of reference photos, and I am using collage in the same way. I’m painting flowers and animals as well as faces. I’m happy.

Sometimes I will hear teachers talk about how art helps with getting the pain out on the paper. This is true. I have certainly worked through depression and anger by arting it out. However, more often painting is pure joy for me. I don’t really care if others like it although I’m happy when they do. It’s just that when I paint an apple and it actually looks like an apple, or I do a pastel owl that is delightfully quirky and fun, I feel joy. I have lots of my paintings in my home. They make me smile. Undneath some of them, especially the art journals, are some writings where I poured out my soul, but always by the time the last of the paint dried, I felt happy.

I encourage you to try to draw even if you think you can’t. Start with stick people or cartoon people. Lots of folk art looks fairly simple in style. It is the joy in the painting that make it worth something. Do it for fun. If you can’t do that, buy a coloring book. Give up that idea that you aren’t artistic. It just isn’t so. You might find joy is as nearby as your pencil.

Defeating the Darkness Within

Collage of girl with flowing hair

Like my last post here, I’m behind on the prompt/daily nudge train. I read blogs written by other people in the “Blog Along with Effy” group, (which, by the way, is worth joining even if you don’t want to write, just so you can read the amazing blogs being produced in the group), and I suddenly start thinking about what I’d say to the nudge. So here I am on day six, discussing day five’s prompt: What is something you struggle with? What battles are you fighting that most people know nothing about? What’s something about your life that makes you feel weird, or different or isolated?

It was amazing to read a couple of other people say that they either often or occasionally had suicidal feelings as a regular part of their inner dialogue. They had no intention of acting on those thoughts, but the demon thoughts were there. What???? I am not alone??? I am not some totally strange (deranged) Pisces Enneagram Four INFP with suicidal thoughts who is relatively happy and has no real intention of offing myself. I just think about it a lot…especially when I get stressed and usually in the morning…I am not alone?

I never tell anyone about those thoughts. For one thing, I was a public school teacher for thirty years, and have lots of teacher friends. We were taught to take such thoughts seriously and to report them immediately when expressed. I’m not sure anyone would really understand the difference between the inner wimp who just wants to give up but is basically impotent and the real inner devil who can push one into the deepest despair and consequent action. Fortunately, I know the difference, and I know when I need to seek help.

So what pushes me to feel this way? Day four’s prompt was about stress, and I’m going to address that here, too, because usually I get those sucky thoughts when the stress gets too much to bear. Money stresses me out for one thing. I have a huge amount of debt, and I don’t seem to have the self-discipline to pull myself out of it. Some of that is hiding my lack of cash from others by charging, some of it is a certain OCD about books, art supplies, shoes, etc. You get the picture. I also have a rather weird self-defeating attitude that if I actually had money, my friends and family might only value me for what I could give them instead of for myself. I think that comes from of my earliest relationships with men, which is a whole different story.  Anyway, being short of cash can really send me into a tailspin of depression even though my finances always work out, and I actually have a very good credit rating. 

I am a codependent person. You may have deduced that. I can worry about my friends, and I can really obsess about family.  I am much better now that I used to be, thanks to Al-Anon, which I really credit with saving my sanity. I am now able to set boundaries and walk away from the most toxic people. When I don’t though, I can start feeling life isn’t worth living, especially if I start taking criticism too much to heart or thinking everything is about me. I can also do it when I start thinking I can fix other people instead of making them responsible for themselves. Those are red flags for me. It shows that I am really stressed and I’m reverting to earlier, self-defeating behavior instead of taking care of myself. It’s a message to me to step back and regroup.

I’ve got lots of ways to deal with my stress and my depression. I love reading both fiction and non-fiction. I go on spiritual retreats, and I live only about an hour away from the Blue Ridge Mountains (roadtrip to Boone or Asheville). I love watching old movies and reruns of old favorite TV shows. Painting has become more than a hobby, it’s a necessary part of every day, and I draw, art journal or paint something every day. I enjoy genealogy and have traced both sides of my family back to the 1700s when they came to America. I get a massage every two weeks and go the the acupuncturist monthly. I used to go to an energy healer monthly, but she moved, so I am looking for someone new. When all else fails, I lie in the floor with my dog and cry. Then I call a friend and cry. Then I call the doctor if I still need help. I know if I wait it out, I will be okay. I alway am. Always. And in the end, I always get up and want to live.