The Slant of Light
Reflections on Aging
Elaine Greensmith Jordan
Copyright 2019 by Elaine Greensmith Jordan
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.
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
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.
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.
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
try for a religious tone or offer easy answers are insulting. They
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
way of accepting deprivations without angels but with resilience and
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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
box elder tree accepted my ministry to them without a noisy word.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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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story by Elaine
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