The Slant of Light

Reflections on Aging

Elaine Greensmith Jordan
 

© Copyright 2019 by Elaine Greensmith Jordan
    

 

Photo of Elaine.


This story/essay brings back memories of my teaching days. Those are past now, but the pain and insights gained from remembering have shaped my soul.

We read in upbeat self-help books that aging occurs only in the mind. We can stay young if we think young. If we put on a happy face, we’ll be youthful and live a long time. People write sappy junk about us older folk, says a writer I admire, because it makes better greeting cards. “They mistake fatigue for serenity.” I like that. I think aging is more complicated than smiling a lot and pretending that life is wonderful. Contentment is just as elusive in old age as it is for teenagers. Take my word for it. I’m seventy-two, healthy and mostly contented, but I find that aging well means accepting the past with a lot of courage.

Self-help books can give us a boost, perhaps, but my spirit is a capricious thing. I could even say that it’s affected by the slant of the light on the world outside my window. Indeed, the gift of tranquility is available or absent, I’ve found, depending on the simple things like the world news on NPR or if lunch was satisfactory. (I resist mentioning the joy of efficient bodily functions.) Or serenity can be a more complex gift coming from experience with suffering and surviving the trauma.

Our losses are what can break us down, I think. We read that we should be grateful for the losses—of loved ones, of parts of ourselves—that come with aging because losses teach us what we need to know. Maybe so, but I could never be grateful for a loss, not the loss of my spaniel, not the loss of my teaching career, not the loss of my youthful body. Losses, even necessary ones, are often wounding and can cripple the spirit. Self-help books may give courage to some and help them cope; for me, books like The Secret that try for a religious tone or offer easy answers are insulting. They feel contrived.

Finding the way ahead after loss is like pressing forward into emptiness, and we do it frightened and weakened by events. How we come to accept and respond without collapse is a function of how well we are loved, or maybe how much we’ve learned over time. Or something I can’t name, some gift of survival that doesn’t permit defeat. The courage required cannot be found in self-help books made up by pretty ladies with sunny smiles or by ministers who tell us that angels are there to help. For me, the best books are by survivors, especially if they’re honest. I liked Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle for its gritty truth about her difficult childhood and her way of accepting deprivations without angels but with resilience and humor.

I have to agree that a loss may teach us what we need to know. My divorce from a gay man did that for me. I went from a child-wife to adult in a month and cried and complained all the way. Wisdom does come when a confrontation with life knocks you sideways and forces you to grow up—like the time one of my students died suddenly.
 
*****

I sat alone at my desk at the end of the school day, a young teacher organizing and planning, my efficient hands piling papers in necessary stacks. I smiled to myself—convinced I was doing the work of a productive professional—when I looked up to see a gaunt woman standing in the room, her flat purse held in front of her stomach like a shield. Her face looked pained. I stood, surprised by a person I didn’t know. Late sunlight came in slanted beams through the window-blinds, marking stripes of light and shade on the two of us.

I’m Jarred’s mother,” the woman said quietly. Standing before me was a mother whose son had recently died of complications from the flu. “You know we lost him on Friday . . . I’m here to collect everything you have in. . .uh . . . his handwriting.” She looked around the room as if searching for her boy. For a moment her face disappeared into the shadows.

I sat down. “Oh . . . yes. . .” Of course I’d known of Jarred’s incomprehensible death. The news had shocked me, but I was twenty-six and unacquainted with sorrow. Did I have any of Jarred’s papers? Was there an essay on the bulletin board? No. I’d eliminated the boy from the room, crossed off his name, and reordered the seating chart.

My face flushed. I could hear clanging from the flagpole outside. Someone had taken down the California Bear and American flags for the night, and the fasteners slammed a reprimand against the pole. “I’m sorry. I don’t think I have any of . . . his papers . . . uh. . . Mrs. Kenten.” Embarrassed for stumbling over her name, I was unable to meet my visitor’s eyes. Why hadn’t I anticipated this? A child had died, for God’s sake. My head started to ache. “I’m so sorry.”

Then Mrs. Kenten was gone. I couldn’t finish my work so I gathered papers and left the classroom. Conscious of my unsteady walk, I went to the drinking fountain and took two aspirin.

At home that afternoon, I screwed the nozzle on the garden hose, turned the pressure to full force, and made a wide arc of shimmering water. My black cat Shadow at my feet, I held the hose in front of me, a stone cherub, peeing eternally. I tried to empty my mind, blend into the green in some metaphysical way. But the yard did not shimmer with transcendence; it lay at my feet as inert and buggy as always. The cat brushed against my leg, reminded me that my body was finite too. I was bound to this prosaic backyard by uncomfortable reality. Jarred, I’m sorry. I watered on, and the sycamore and box elder tree accepted my ministry to them without a noisy word.

A spray from the hose drifted over us like a blessing, and a bold mockingbird called out. She was eyeing Shadow so she could dive down and peck his vulnerable bottom. They raced around the yard, but Shadow managed to evade attack by taking shelter in the ivy. I moved to the paved driveway, and the sound of the water shooting pebbles off the asphalt diverted guilty thoughts in a pleasant scattering rush.

Inside, a few minutes later, Shadow proceeded to the couch, hopped to the high back and positioned himself to observe the birds fluttering in the sycamore outside. I sat in a comfortable chair facing outward too. The landscape beyond the window seemed changed. Shadow and I had been cast into a smoggier, grayer world empty of birdsong. The cat must have been thinking of avenging mockingbirds. My thoughts went to the classroom. I’d not really known Jarred, except for his appearance. His narrow face matched his twin sister’s. Both had dark hair and eyes. He was a silent boy. I couldn’t remember a single word he’d offered during class discussions. What books had he read? It was foolish to think I could be a successful high school teacher, never mind a compassionate one. Certitude seemed to evaporate that afternoon, disappearing as if it had never perched in my soul.
*****

Wisdom comes with shame like this, when the loss of another human being jars your senses into knowledge no amount of reading can inspire. I like to think that when my face turned for a last glance outside at the shadowy afternoon it also turned from innocence to the beginnings of maturity. Guilt and sorrow over Jarrred’s death banished my credulous spirit. Death can do that—spell out in neon: everything ceases, even you. I can’t say I’m grateful for Jarred’s death, of course. That’s a cruel conclusion.

Mrs. Kenten and her lost son have not been washed out of my memory despite the compelling drama of historical change that was going on outside in the Sixties. I’ve been imprinted with that sorrowful face. Her ghost stands before me still, a narrow sad-eyed reminder of self-examination and attempts to find in literature some sustaining hope.

The changing weather outside my window seems to dictate how much courage I can generate to meet what is ahead. Smog and drought bring despair about the fate of nations and a sense that nothing can be done about starvation and fighting. My existence doesn’t matter. Nothing can be done. Then, sunshine on a watered lawn brings hope for an end to war, a sense that the planet will survive and people will find ways to exist with enough resources. I will too; I’ll go on writing and having my say.

Emily Dickinson wrote that “everything depends on the slant of light,” and I find that true for me. Whether I can learn from the past, transcend sorrows, and find joy in existence seems related to the silent and comforting beauty in the world.

Elaine Jordan is a retired teacher and minister. Her memoir of her ministry, Mrs. Ogg Played the Harp: Memories of Church and Love in the High Desert, won the Great Southwest Non-Fiction Contest. She enjoys teaching memoir and acting in the OLLI (Lifelong Learning) program at her local community college in Arizona where she lives and writes.


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