Figuring out how to lead our lives is rarely easy; I guess it isn’t meant to be

There is no doubt that at different phases of life we feel different pressures. As a full-fledged senior, I’m happy to report that most of the pressures of being a kid, being a teenager, being a young adult seeking success in forging a career and close relationships, and being in those middle years, where you have your own work stresses, family stresses, and often parent responsibilities as well (hint, hint) … they all dissipate. It’s like a miracle; you no longer care what other people think (well, at least not obsessively), you no longer worry that you aren’t as good as the next person – you don’t have to prove yourself to anyone. It’s remarkably freeing.

There is no easy way to alleviate the different pressures we put on ourselves at different phases of life. Perhaps it’s meant to be. Living through each phase is what makes us the people we become. And our personal goal should be to become the best we can be, even though we rarely know what that means in advance.

TT-TimeIsPrecious

These thoughts came to mind when I read a highly thought-provoking blog post by fellow blogger Barry Hopewell this past week, called Letting Go. This is how Barry starts his topic; I highly recommend reading it in full as he explores ways in which we can lead quality lives in the moment.

Approaching the later years of life, I realise more and more that life is all about letting go. We spend the first part of life building up an ego, a bank of experiences, attitudes, habits, patterns of behaviour, traumas, relationships, material things. Over the second half of life, essentially we have to let go of our attachment to all of these, as we go through the process of preparing for our approaching death. If we do not, the ego dies with the sudden traumatic loss of all those attachments – surely the reason why death is so feared by many.

Why do I come up with this theme at this point in time? Because I have been touched by the experiences of those going through this very process, suffering illness, problems with memory, suffering from attachment to past relationships, suffering from anger, suffering from stress ‘because of’ the behaviour of others…

Of course, Letting Go is not just about dying, it’s about living life in the present, here and now, unencumbered by the past. This is the essence of life.

The day after I took note of Barry’s post, a good friend sent me an article entitled Treating Alzheimer’s as a matter of degree that provides a better example than I could have possibly imagined of how, when one door closes, we can find new doors to open (thanks, Francine). New opportunities. Letting go of what we can no longer do and finding new paths to personal growth and fulfillment. At any age. Despite infirmities. See what you think!

Getting a university degree at age 84 is a bit unusual. Preparing to start a Master’s program at 85 is a rarity. Doing all this while diagnosed with Alzheimer’s is stunning.

Ron Robert walked across the stage at King’s University College in London, Ont. last month to collect a three-year Bachelor’s degree in political science. Now, at the age of 85, he’s taking a few more courses in the hope of embarking on a Master’s degree.

“I’m going to go — I hope, if my head is still working — for my Master’s. It is working, so I’m not going to stop,” Robert told The Catholic Register.

King’s Political Science professor Andrea Lawlor has no doubt Robert’s head works. She taught him through four different courses in Canadian politics and law — four of the 35 courses Robert completed for his degree.

“I didn’t know Ron had Alzheimer’s for the first few weeks I taught him. It wasn’t until he mentioned it in class — quite casually — that I found out,” Lawlor said in an email.

There were small accommodations for Robert — primarily oral exams rather than the traditional two hours of writing longhand answers in a hushed lecture hall. But Lawlor and other professors at King’s were more often making allowances for Robert’s deteriorating eyesight (macular degeneration) than for his memory troubles. Robert recorded lectures so he could listen to them again. Professors assigned him podcasts and documentary films, knowing that hours of reading would be a problem.

Long-term memory is one of Robert’s strengths.

“My long-term memory improved, but I lost my short-term memory,” Robert explained. “I remembered things from when I was five years old, which I couldn’t have remembered before I got Alzheimer’s. So figure that one out. It’s weird.”

He also looked into the world of puzzles and memory exercises often recommended to people trying to stave off dementia.

“There’s nothing empirical about them though, unfortunately,” he said. “So, I thought, ‘You go to university’ — which I had always wanted to do. You know, you’re tested on a regular basis. To me that made sense. It’s no good just trying to memorize stuff if you don’t have an objective to memorizing.”

In class Robert was an asset as a witness to history, generous with his knowledge.

And it’s that reference to the knowledge Robert had accumulated through his long life that he shared with his classmates, even with Alzheimer’s, that reminded me of another article that had been sent to me this past week (thanks, Marilyn).

In Elizabeth Keating’s article in The Atlantic, The Questions We Don’t Ask Our Families But Should, she starts out by making the very true observation that

Many people don’t know very much about their older relatives. But if we don’t ask, we risk never knowing our own history.

You might think you already know your family’s stories pretty well—between childhood memories and reunions and holiday gatherings, you may have spent hours with your parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles soaking up family lore. But do you really know as much as you think?

In my research [as a linguistic anthropologist], I have been astonished to find that so many other people also know little of the lives of their parents and grandparents, despite the fact that they lived through some pretty interesting decades. Even my students, some of whom majored in history and excelled at it, were largely in the dark about their own family history. Our elders may share some familiar anecdotes over and over again, but still, many of us have no broader sense of the world they lived in, and especially what it was like before we came along. The people I interviewed knew so little about their grandparents’ or parents’ early lives, such as how they were raised and what they experienced as young people. Few could remember any personal stories about when their grandparents or parents were children. Whole ways of life were passing away unknown. A kind of genealogical amnesia was eating holes in these family histories as permanently as moths eat holes in the sweaters lovingly knitted by our ancestors.

She goes on to posit several questions she encourages young people to ask their parents and grandparents. I have to admit that I sure wish I had asked these questions of my parents and grandparents. And, needless to say, it’s way too late for me. But not too late for all the young people out there. Her questions include basic background information, such as where someone was born, as well as more abstract inquiries, such as how someone conceives of their identity, what they believe in, and what they’ve noticed about the passage of time. Talk about interesting questions. She also reminds her readers that:

When you ask for descriptions of an elder’s childhood home and the neighborhoods they roamed around, you’ll hear stories that place you in a rich sensory world you knew little about. So ask what family dinners were like and what your relatives were taught about expressing emotion. Ask about their worst first dates and where they bought their clothes. And remember that the most important questions can also be the plainest. One of my favorites is just “What do you wish people knew about you?”

So give it a try. You may be surprised by how much your parents and grandparents haven’t told you, perhaps because they thought you wouldn’t be interested, or they weren’t sure how you’d judge them. Just as the precious oral literatures and histories of whole communities are being lost the world over through rapid change, migration, language death, and a failure to ask, there is a risk that your family’s personal stories, too, will be lost forever. Your parents and grandparents have unique snapshots and memories of the world they knew, and in learning about them, you can not only preserve the past but also create lasting meaning and connection. In families and communities, there are secrets to be discovered.

Or if you’re the parent or grandparent, encourage your offspring to ask these questions. They’ll eventually thank you for it. You could even incorporate some of these questions in your customized Kindness Calendar!

The reality is that we all age – if we’re lucky, and these later years pass pretty darn quickly.  We should make sure that we’re leading our lives the way we want to – the best lives we can – and that we’re building good memories to leave those we love and care about.

Have fun making those memories, and make sure that you’re sharing them.

Memories

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41 Responses to Figuring out how to lead our lives is rarely easy; I guess it isn’t meant to be

  1. Victoria says:

    Beautiful, Jane. Thank you…for the whole piece but especially for sharing Elizabeth Keating’s article. Hubby and I were just discussing, during Thanksgiving, the missed opportunities to learn more about his parents and my own. Wonderful advice and encouragement. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the mention, Jane. 😊 The times I asked my mum about our family history, she rarely could remember details to pass along. Similar to her, I don’t remember much about my childhood, even though it was a loving one. I once asked my mum how much I weighed when I was born and her response was that she had no idea as that was such a long time ago. 🤷🏼‍♀️

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jane Fritz says:

      LOL. Now that’s interesting! Maybe it’s more that we don’t think that our everyday experiences would be of interest to others; they seem so ordinary and mundane. But in fact, things that we take for granted may be quite surprising to younger generations. Like talking on the dial phone for hours with your best friend. Or buying your first record to play in your record player. Or learning to sew or cook with your mother – or not. It’s the story of who we are and what “made” us. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Barry’s account of Ron brings back lots of memories I have of my mother, who suffered from Alzheimers. While Mom didn’t have the capacity or even the desire to go back to school (Ron’s curiosities and ambitions are heroic!), I remember vividly how her long-term recall was crystal clear, but not her short-term. You are so right, Jane, that we should make sure we live the lives we want and need. – Marty

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jane Fritz says:

      So interesting about what Alzheimer’s does to our short term vs long term memory. Presumably someday they’ll figure it out. I’m sorry you had to experience that decline in your mother. It’s an awful disease.

      Like

  4. Mary Rimmer says:

    Another possibility for those of us who are entering or in those later phases of life might be to start keeping a journal where the memories get recorded. I feel lucky that my mother left so much writing–both deliberately written essays and accounts of her childhood, and day-to day journal entries. She kept that journal for several decades, writing the last entry the night before her death at 102, and though the subjects range widely from politics to daily happenings to comments on what she was reading, she often recorded memories as well. Some of the latter are familiar to me, but others come as a surprise. That archive has been a great gift, and since she kept all those journals I feel sure that she meant her children to have them.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Oh my gosh, Mary, that really is a gift. And she lived to be 102!!! I did write out my mother’s story as I knew it from our many discussions and from letters and notes she left so that our sons could know her – that was one of my first retirement projects. But I wish I had asked more questions about her parents’s lives, etc. Same for my Dad. I like the idea of journaling, although I’d be starting it fairly late! I hope you’re planning on developing something significant from your mother’s journals.

      Like

  5. Excellent follow-up to Barry’s piece and has certainly got me thinking about an abandoned project from several years ago, my story. As my wife will attest I have a terrible long term memory unless specifically tasked to think about a certain time or place and then I can dig them up from some long forgotten reservoir. So I think it’s time I found that file in my computer and add to it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks for commenting, Wayne. My guess is that you have a wealth of memories, insights, and wisdom to share with those you care about … and the world at large. You’re right, there’s no time like the present! 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Wynne Leon says:

    What a lovely and thought-provoking piece, Jane. Thanks for putting this all together in a way that is so encouraging and inspirational! I couldn’t agree more about asking our loved ones for their stories – I’m so grateful I did with my dad!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. candidkay says:

    Thought-provoking post, Jane! Thank you for sharing with us.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thank you for a thought provoking post. It took me back to my past and ahead to the future with the idea of sharing stories with the younger generation. As you said, I never had the impression that they’d be interested because they don’t ask. So I will.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jane Fritz says:

      That’s really it, isn’t it, Julia. We’re not usually all that interested when we’re young, or at least we’re preoccupied with our own lives. And then we just get too busy … and then it’s often too late. Ask them and share. I think/hope you’ll all be pleasantly surprised.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Excellent, poignant post, Jane. My husband and I wanted to write about his grandfather’s colourful history, escaping China at a time when his life was being threatened, then coming to Canada and doing odd jobs. When his grandfather got to the part about organizing illegal gambling dens after WWII, he wouldn’t tell us anything more, which is a shame. I remember as a young college student, working on a paper for a sociology class, asking my grandmother what it had been like for her during the Depression. It was an insightful piece of her history I hadn’t known until then, and I wish I’d asked more questions.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jane Fritz says:

      So many fascinating personal stories to be had. Yes, it’s really a shame that your husband’s grandfather didn’t want to talk about it anymore, Debra. That happens often when people have been in wars and other traumatic situations. All the more reason for the succeeding generations to learn, so they/we have a sense of the sacrifices our forebears made, as well as what their dreams were, what gave them moments of happiness, what drove them, what made them laugh. So much to learn. It was terrific that you were able to have that interaction with your grandmother. I really, really wish I had thought to ask my grandmother questions about her young life when I had the chance. When we’re young it’s just not on our radar screen.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. “Do your best to be a good one.” Yes, yes! And so many things I wish I had asked my parents and grandparents.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jane Fritz says:

      I know, me too really wishing I had asked my parents and grandparents more. Actually, I wish I’d asked my grandmother ANYTHING at all about her life. I love that several schools seem to be making that a project for their students.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. There was so much in your post I could relate to and link back to what I’d been pondering on in the Role to Soul post I wrote. It seems more important than ever, when we reach the Senior/Elder phase of life that we share memories, as well as not caring anymore about pleasing others or living up to whatever expectations are around. I call it being honest and true to oneself. Our US granddaughter had a school project last year, asking parents and grandparents to respond to several questions on aspects of what life was like when they were growing up. I fully approved of that and happily took part! I think it’s really important for the next generation to know about their roots, and where they’ve come from – it’s like suddenly finding some new pieces of the puzzle of life, which may have fallen down the back of the sofa, and putting them in place. Thanks for a delightful, positive post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jane Fritz says:

      I love this school project that has been spreading a bit, having school kids interview their parents and especially grandparents. Those schools are into something. I sure wish I’d been given such an assignment. What a marvelous sentence: “it’s like finding some new pieces of the puzzle of life, which may have fallen down the back of the sofa, and putting them in place.” You’re exactly correct, and you’ve expressed so lyrically. Thanks, Joyce. (P.S. And I’ve ordered the book you just blogged about.)

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Oh what a lovely and inspiring post, Jane. Thank you ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Rose says:

    There were so many sentences you wrote and linked to, I wanted to copy down for reminders to self or send to others. I was always curious about the past of my family, but they were unwilling to share. I’ve done some of my own research, but wished I had ‘real stories’ told to me by my parents or grandparents (all are gone now). I’ve written my life story and I have notebooks and planners filled with the day to day – in case any of my grandbabies have a desire to learn things from my lifetime.
    “What do you wish people knew about you?” – I plan to ask this of many people over the holiday season.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jane Fritz says:

      I’m glad this post resonated for you, Rose. It IS a powerful question, isn’t it?! I think I’ll try it out as well. I actually think that I’ve learned quite a bit about you from reading your blog posts; your compassion comes shining through!

      Like

  14. barryh says:

    Great thought-provoking post, Jane. Yes, I think it’s valuable to have an idea of how our forebears lived their lives, and we can help with that. I always valued the stories left by my great grandfather and the audio tapes of my father talking to his oldest sister. But getting the grandchildren interested – now there’s a challenge, when the competition is the latest social media, roblocks, rubix cubes etc!
    At the end of the day, it’s what we are that will influence them most… My grandfather left no stories, but was a wonderful gentle soul, who lived close to the earth…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Oh my goodness, you have some very, very special material left for you – and for your kids and grandkids. I love your observations about the younger generation. To be fair, I think the young ones are always like that; undoubtedly it is part of becoming who you are meant to be. I know I was far more interested in Elvis Presley than asking my grandmother about her life when I was young! But I do love that teachers are starting to assign students to interview their grandparents, as Joyce mentioned. Barry, your description of your grandfather is precious: a wonderful, gentle soul who lived close to the earth. Surely there is no better legacy to pass on. ❤️

      Liked by 1 person

  15. heimdalco says:

    What a delightful post & it comes at a special moment for me. I’m friends with a fellow blogger & have recently helped her find another avenue for publishing some of her exceptional work. She is considering writing a book. I sent her my latest that came out in June 2021. Shed told me the only thing she has written in “”book form” is a family memory book written for her children & theirs & other close family members. She sent me a copy & it is beautifully done. In it she tells anecdotes about her parents & grandparents, uncles, aunts, & children that have added to the rich history of the family. The stories are involved … stories that might not be remembered & passed along without her having written them down, such as stories about a family member’s dreams about his service during World War II, which caused him to have recurrent nightmares & helped shape his interaction with the family & his legacy. She recounts stories of grandparents long dead, their personalities, the small yet fascinating parts of their lives that may not be included in memories of them that are vital to understanding the “heartbeat” of the family. I don’t know any of the people she writes about but after reading half the book I have a wholesome understanding of who they were & how they shaped the family. I hope she tweaks this “family book” a bit & considers taking it to a publisher. Because of her time & talent the rich history of her family will be passed along in depth to generations to come. What a gift!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. kegarland says:

    Jane, I so love (and agree) with this advice, in particular, the piece about asking elders questions. You’re probably not surprised, but I’ve always believed we should do this, and finally encouraged my husband to do this with his father. He found out his uncle was roommates with Jesse Jackson in undergrad, and that his mother once wanted to be a nun! You and the author are so right about how big of a door of conversation this can open up.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Oh my gosh, Kathy, those finding your husband unearthed from his father are, as the saying goes, priceless! Adding color to people’s lives. I have quite a few gems from my Mom, who always loved talking to me about her life, but I missed so much by never being curious/interested enough to entertain questions to my Dad or grandparents, who had all passed away by the time I was 20. I’m looking forward to opening a few doors! 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  17. Margaret says:

    What an informative and thought provoking post Jane.
    Your caption of life passing by too quickly is evocative for me, remembering a special aunt and close friend who died of Alzheimers. What a courageous man Ron is – bravo!
    Having two Grandparents that died at 26 and 34 and another when I was 2 years of age there is so much loss of not having known them. If only I’d gained more information from parents when it was possible! Too late now but I’m going to leave it for my children and grandchildren. I want them to know the real me, not the idealistic saint through rose coloured spectacles – after all I grew up in the 60’s(!!) and then there were the 70’s and 80’s but they are another story to be told 🙂
    For me it’s important to hold on to what I have – acquaintances, friends, family – too many have already left and are unable to.
    It’s my Dad’s birthday today – St. Andrew’s Day – he would have been 105, born at the onset of the Russian Revolution and one year before the end of the 1st World War. He was a kind man, born into poverty, often told the story of going to school in his mother’s wellingtons because he didn’t have any shoes, valued education, went to technical college, improved himself, a good husband, a great Dad whom I respected. He died of a heart attack whilst at work aged 54. So young. My children never knew him, so I’m off now to tell them a bit more about him today, his birthday. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jane Fritz says:

      What a rich response, Margaret. Thank you for sharing these thoughts and history. We have very similar regrets, and also similar intentions to not let those omissions happen for our kids and grandkids. My Dad also died young – at 53 – and my Mom 8 years later at 57. I only knew one set of grandparents and never thought to ask any questions. Like you, I want to reverse this pattern! What a perfect plan, to share stories on his birthday. I think I’ll adopt that strategy. Thanks again for sharing.

      Liked by 1 person

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