With mirth and laughter, let old wrinkles come

“Bear with my weakness. My old brain is troubled. Be not disturbed with my infirmity”, says Prospero in Shakespeare’s Tempest. But at what age does one become old? And if we could answer that without resort to comparisons would it be a useful thing? Or does it, in fact, require perspective to sort it out? The famous passage in the King James version of the letter Paul wrote to the biblical Corinthians declares, ‘When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.’ Really? I’ve always thought of the journey through the years as more the chiaroscuro in a painting. I can still see shades of childhood, despite my age, in the bright colours of a laugh, or the shadows of a memory. Indeed, I’ve come to see my life as a pentimento -nothing wasted, nothing forgotten, merely painted over as best I could.

I am drawn, therefore, to others who recognize their own plasticity and smile when the veneer of time is chipped. The patterns underneath persist -or would, if encouraged with a little wipe. It has become fashionable to talk of today’s ‘seventy’ being our parents’ ‘fifty’, although, again, a comparative rather than an established fact. A trope, rather than a datum. But, there are hints that this is changing, as an article in the BBC reports: http://www.bbc.com/news/health-43308729

‘Doing lots of exercise in older age can prevent the immune system from declining and protect people against infections, scientists say. They followed 125 long-distance cyclists, some now in their 80s, and found they had the immune systems of 20-year-olds.’ As a long-time runner, and avid cyclist, I am happy to hear this kind of thing.

‘Prof Janet Lord, director of the Institute of Inflammation and Ageing, at the University of Birmingham, and co-author of the research, said: “The immune system declines by about 2-3% a year from our 20s, which is why older people are more susceptible to infections, conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and, potentially, cancer. Because the cyclists have the immune system of a 20-year-old rather than a 70- or 80-year-old, it means they have added protection against all these issues.”

‘The researchers looked at markers in the blood for T-cells, which help the immune system respond to new infections. […] They found that the endurance cyclists were producing the same level of T-cells as adults in their 20s, whereas a group of inactive older adults were producing very few. […] A separate paper in Aging Cell found that the cyclists did not lose muscle mass or strength, and did not see an increase in body fat – which are usually associated with ageing. “You don’t need to be a competitive athlete to reap the benefits – or be an endurance cyclist – anything which gets you moving and a little bit out of puff will help.”‘

A few months ago I was driving back from a day of cycling along some forest trails in the mountains, and feeling rather smug that I had managed to avoid the rain now pounding down on the car. I was still on a narrow, pot-holed asphalt road winding through the trees, and even though my bike was securely fastened to the rack on the trunk, I had to drive slowly. Visibility was limited because of the meandering road in the rain, and more than once I confused a tree, waving its limbs in the wind, for someone standing along the side of the asphalt wanting a lift.

And then I saw him -or rather it: a figure walking slowly along the side of the road with its head down. It didn’t acknowledge my approach, and I couldn’t really tell if we were heading in the same direction. The figure was sodden in the driving rain and walked with a pronounced limp. Wearing a rather thin jacket and a toque, it slogged doggedly on as if it didn’t mind the weather.

I don’t usually offer rides to hitchhikers, and especially not here in the wilderness, but sometimes conscience beats down harder than rain. I slowed, and rolled down my window enough to shout at the bedraggled figure. On first glance he appeared to be a thin man, but as I stared inquisitively I could see long grey hair streaming across the face, almost covering a pair of bright, but suspicious eyes inspecting me.

“Do you want a ride?” I yelled, trying to be heard above the din of rain pounding on the metal of my car.

The eyes, alternated between wariness, and disinterest as they inspected first me and then the car. And finally, when I could see them resting on the bike on the trunk, they suddenly softened. “Yes… Thank you,” said a very female voice.

We were both silent for a while as we wound along the endless sinuous road, each of us waiting for the other to speak. Finally, my curiosity won out. “So, why were you walking along a lonely forest road, so far from town?” I asked. She was probably in her nineties and certainly not dressed for the weather.

Her eyes made the trip to my head at last, but danced about trying to find a place to settle. Finally, they chose my cheeks. “I try to go for long walks each day…” she said slowly, obviously trying to decide how much to tell me. She was, after all, a vulnerable elderly woman, in a car with a stranger.

I smiled. “I was out for a rather long ride today myself,” I said, trying to open up the conversation further.

She smiled in return and stared out of the window at the rain for a while. “My husband and I used to ride our bikes every day -even in the snow…”

She trailed her sentence off again, like she didn’t know how much she should reveal to me. “And now you walk?”

She nodded and I could see her sigh with the memory. “My husband had an… accident,” she said, looking out the window again.

“I’m sorry.” It was the right thing to respond, I suppose, but it sounded so anemic, so empty, in the full fury of a May storm.

She looked down at her lap, her face contorted for a second before she wiped her cheek with a damp sleeve.

I glanced at her out of the corner of my eye as I drove slowly and carefully along the bumpy road through the increasing fury of the wind-driven rain.

“We didn’t mind the rain,” she began again. “It was a challenge to see how far we could get before one of us noticed the other was tired. Neither of us would ever admit we were, of course.” She sighed again, this time deeper -as if it was a relief valve for things that were building up inside her. “But we always looked out for each other.”

I was concentrating on the road in the worsening conditions, but I could tell she was watching me carefully.

“We were always like that,” she continued, as if she had to let me know. “We’d ride until we were exhausted.” I could feel her eyes poking at my cheeks like little birds. “In our younger days, we’d take a tent and strap some supplies on the bikes and just take off. It didn’t matter where… Just to be together on a new adventure, not knowing where we’d end up…” She sighed again -this time loudly. Then she was quiet, as we both listened to the rain on the windshield and the wipers pretending to help.

“I really miss him,” she said suddenly, her voice barely audible as the car visibly shivered in a gust of wind. “It will be a month tomorrow since he died…”

I risked a glance at her. Sorrow was written like a paragraph across her face, but her eyes were resting on me in a coda of gratitude, and I think I blushed.

She took a slow deep breath and exhaled it softly. “I wasn’t going to turn around, you know,” she said, suddenly. “I was just going to keep going…” A gentle smile slowly formed on her lips and she closed her eyes and sat back on the seat, relaxed and relieved that she’d been able to talk about him. “Then I saw your bike…” she sighed again. “He had one just like it.”

And then uncertain quite what to do, she reached out and touched my arm. “I know he was telling me to turn around…”

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Let Every Eye Negotiate for Itself

We are very attuned to patterns, aren’t we? We see them even when they aren’t there, filling in the lines, reading the shadows to complete the image. But does the face we see in the play of light on forest leaves, or the finger in the sinuous beckoning of the windblown grass really fool a mind that can do mathematics in its head? Or is it just a brief dalliance, a foray into a theatre for a moment or two? A titillating fantasy that fades when the eye moves on to other, more important, things?

A stereotype is a pattern too, but more deeply etched, and coloured so convincingly it is mistaken for the thing itself. Not recognized as a simulacrum, it is treated as archetypal, requiring few, if any, revisions –so self-evident it is almost a causa sui. And yet, hic sunt dracones, to continue the Latin –here be dragons- for stereotypes are, by default, fancifully-charted territories. Like incomplete maps filled in with imagined beasts, they are not reliable guides. They do not help.

And yet they are so prevalent, it is often difficult to recognize them, let alone extract them from the gestalt. So they persist, and like a Where’s Waldo face, only emerge from the background if we make a concerted effort to find them. But usually, there has to be a motivation to look –something that shakes us from our apathy. Our indifference.

It’s so easy to slip into somnolence, isn’t it? So easy to let things pass us by unexamined as long as they don’t threaten to disrupt our day. And yet, to escape the pastel hues in which our waking hours are often painted, it is sometimes an adventure to search for the chiaroscuro hiding in plain sight.

There was a delightful article I noticed a while back that managed to open my eyes again: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-38132503

It recounts the story of a a 19-year-old woman from Guatemala who designs clothes for people with Down’s syndrome. The thing is, ‘Before she was an internationally-recognised designer, Isabella Springmuhl says she was rejected by two fashion schools in her native Guatemala because she has Down syndrome. “They said I would not be able to cope,” recalls the 19-year-old. But that rejection was exactly what Isabella needed to turn her life around […].’

So, instead, her mother took her to a sewing academy that would accept her. ‘While learning how to sew, Isabella was asked to design outfits for worry dolls – traditionally hand-made dolls originating from Guatemalan and Mexican folk traditions. The tiny dolls are usually put under children’s pillows in the hope that they will take away their sorrows while they sleep.

‘Isabella took a different approach.

‘”Isabella didn’t want to design clothes for… finger-sized dolls,” says Mrs Tejada [her mother]. “She created life-sized dolls and dressed them in the colourful embroidered jackets and ponchos that she’s now famous for.”

‘Isabella moved from designing for dolls to people, and soon enough produced a collection that gained the attention of the fashion world. Earlier this year, she became the first designer with Down’s syndrome to take part in London Fashion Week.’

But it didn’t stop there. Isabella points out that her main inspiration for designing arose after a struggle to find well-fitting clothing for her body type.

“It was difficult for me to get clothes,” Isabella says. “We have a different body constitution; we are shorter, wider, or very thin. My mother always had to fix the clothes she bought for me. So I decided to design clothes that fit people with Down’s syndrome, plus I really love Guatemalan textiles and the diversity of colours and textures they represent.”’

Wow! I get a shiver down my spine when I think of the odds that Isabella was willing to tackle. But, I wonder if she ever thought of them as odds, or merely as challenges that needed extra effort each time they arrived. Not only are there rivers to ford as a young person hoping to succeed in a highly competitive field, but the water sweeps all but the most determined, the most talented, downstream with barely a ripple.

But what am I? asks Tennyson, An infant crying in the night, An infant crying for the light, And with no language but a cry. I doubt that Isabella ever thought of herself like that. From time to time, there arise those exceptional people who do not understand the concept of failure. Who do not doubt or lose their way. Who are so confident in themselves, no matter the circumstance, that they press on and build on what they know they have, and are ingenious about what they don’t.

Stereotypes fail these individuals, as they do anything unique. How can you epitomize a Caesar, or cage a Churchill? How can you oversimplify a courageous person? How to paint the journey of a cloud? Tennyson, again from In Memoriam A.H.H:

The hills are shadows, and they flow

From form to form, and nothing stands;

They melt like mist, the solid lands,

Like clouds they shape themselves and go.

And so, how to stereotype a syndrome? In Down syndrome, or trisomy 21, there is an extra (part or whole) chromosome 21, which causes an assemblage of physical and intellectual features, including a characteristic, recognizable, but variable facial dysmorphia. It is the latter that may prejudice unthinking employers into feeling that they couldn’t cope, that the individual could never fit in, or perform like the rest of their employees –or other students, in Isabella’s case. But they were wrong.

Creativity knows no boundaries; we all fit somewhere on a spectrum –individuals with Down syndrome included. And imagination, like courage, does not stop at the edge of a chromosome.

Let every eye negotiate for itself, says Shakespeare’s Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing, And trust no agent, for beauty is a witch against whose charms faith melteth into blood.

I think Isabella is a beautiful person, don’t you…? And how do you stereotype that?