The Shelf Life of Ashes
When I sought a job working with the elderly, I did so with the intention of finding models of healthy aging. And I failed. In The Shelf Life of Ashes, I chronicle my experiences with my wards, as well as the trip I embarked upon when my mother, who was convinced she was dying and entreated me to come “home.” Trips back, traumas triggered, identity in crisis, equanimity gained—this quasi- comic, concentrated journey engages the reader in the process of naming and facing the tasks involved in growing old, while asking a simple but weighted question: Can aging be done well?
I’m part of the conversation about aging in our culture. There are lots of us getting old, and this is serious! I’ve written a memoir about it – and given rich examples of what not to do.
I think my experience of taking care of the elderly is pretty telling. It’s a funny, unique, and personal story about how I cared for my aging, ailing mom. There was little love between us. But I had to go back – “home” – to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania from my Seattle haven..
The book will be published by She Writes Press this May. Now I need to pay for the costs.
I am talking to you, Fellow Baby Boomers — you dealing with your aging moms and dads, and also, by the way, with your own aging. Start thinking! “The Shelf Life Project,” a 4-series workshop aimed at the boomer generation has been developed in conjunction with this memoir so help get these resources out into the world by supporting this project, and be a part of changing the conversation about aging!
The purpose of my Crowdfunding Campaign is to raise money to pay for the publication, publicity, and print costs of The Shelf Life of Ashes.
Aging for the Baby Boomer generation is a big issue, and the conversation about aging in our culture is intensifying in many sectors: financial, health care, community building, housing and employment. Quandaries abound: how to “do” it with mental and physical health intact; how the aging population can be both better served and treasured by our culture and institutions; how to shift the perception of aging from one of decline to one of growth along the continuum. Concern about a lack of preparedness for aging and dying is at the heart of The Shelf Life of Ashes: a Memoir, and the Shelf Life Project that it has inspired. Supporting The Shelf Life of Ashes through Crowdfunding will bring more participants to the conversation. According to the Pew Research Center, roughly 10,000 Boomers turn sixty-five a day. Adding to the conversation about aging will inspire a reframing of cultural biases and perceptions, and focus on how aging can be experienced and perceived as a healthy and mindful life phase.
Excerpt from The Shelf Life of Ashes
A Complicated Journey
I BEGAN A MEMOIR WHEN I WAS NEWLY FIFTY, MEANING to freeze the year, to locate it as an event, an exact sensation, an experience, an obelisk that split the clouds. By the time it was “done,” that year had grown into many and fifty had revealed itself to be no more identifiable than something seen teasingly far out in the ocean—is it a seal, a kelp, a piece of driftwood? Fifty compelled me to question the notion of the self,—my Self, an entity I had fabricated from conditions and reactions to conditions, from hopes and fears—and face certain nasty truths: that youth and all its gay attendants flee; that impermanence is king; that death will issue me an invitation with my monogram.
I submitted this memoir to myriad prospective agents and publishing houses, from which it garnered myriad rejections over a period of two years. I remember one particularly vexing “reason” I was given: “the market is glutted with books about aging; therefore, there is no market for this subject.” There really is no such thing as too many books about aging, or dying, or redemption. That’s like being turned away from a potluck dinner because you’ve brought brownies and there is already pie, three cakes, and a melon. I wasn’t convinced that this was the real reason; rather, I thought it had something to do with the truth that I had not gone deeply or sincerely enough into my subject, which after all, is everybody’s subject.
I put the memoir aside. I left my writing the way one leaves a bar—maudlin, reeling. I was tired of my mind, unsatisfied by the elusive nature of its products. I started gardening, began a business in that field, thinking that finally I could make things of physical beauty, employing simple values of design, making order out of nature’s rich messes. But I began to wonder if, in returning to the memoir with the intention of developing my themes by bringing a more seasoned perspective to this process, I could make a parallel narrative. For my evolving sensibility—indeed, my aging—had invited my perception of this material to change. And so I decided to let the original chapters stand, following them with a commentary, adding auxiliary and autonomous chapters.
The original work had a problem with “inside.” It neither got inside the experience of others’ aging nor into a deeper understanding of the phenomenon itself; thus, I didn’t let my reader inside me. I defended myself—my thoughts and more genuine feelings—with humor and hyperbole. In a writing project dedicated to truthful exploration, these are disingenuous ploys. I had nothing to lose by returning, I thought, and perhaps everything to gain.
Here is how I saw it then.
The Map of Aging Well
THE APPROACH OF MY FIFTIETH BIRTHDAY INVITED queasy speculation. Was it a beginning? An ending? A bit of both? I did not actually feel myself turn fifty, nor become, in an eye-blink, middle-aged. But I wondered, could one train for the onset of aging the way one must for a two-month bicycle trip up the Canadian Rockies, say, or any such gravely rigorous, life-altering event? I wondered could a map be found to help one through the tasks of aging? Where lay the key to, if not graceful aging, then the cultivation of a brave and resilient mind that would find something more in the process than losses heaped on losses, middens and mounds?
If I went at it as a project or a seminar, it might be poss- ible to make an intentional transition. Perhaps by working with the elderly, I would get it in my bones and heart and tissue that I, too, was headed there. And so, on the morning of my first week after turning fifty, I sat in the offices of the Columbia Lutheran Ministries, about to have a job interview with a Jewish woman from New York City, who was a former social activist, and, I’d soon learn, dressed like me, which is to say she utilized a palette dominated by black.
Before interviewing me for a $7-per-hour job assisting a population of very old people who wanted fiercely to remain in their homes for as long as they could before being hauled out to assisted-living facilities, Harriet handed me a stack of Xeroxed forms. I looked them over. Now, I really don’t mind paperwork of this nature. Filling out forms makes me feel tidy and orderly, and as if my education has accrued to something —the ability to fill out forms, for example. Where it falls apart for me is the job history. I do nothave a job history. So when- ever I apply for a job, which admittedly is not that often, and have to produce a history, I must improvise. For one thing, my jobs bear no relationship to one another. Quite the contrary. At one particularly misguided moment in my life, for example, I was going to chemical dependency counselor school. When I came to my senses and dropped out of the program, I imme- diately got work at the local winery. Irony has always been my guiding light in the world of work.
Even though Harriet was encouraging and the job wasn’t a job so much as researchtoward discovering the Map of Aging Well, I began to sweat. I wondered, should I list my actual jobs, in which case there loomed many chronological gaps, or should I disclose that I am usually busy being a writer, which carries with it gobs and gobs of gaps in the income department? Fortunately, I had brought along my writer’s résumé as an antidote to my undistinguished list of unrelated jobs.
Harriet looked at it for a long time. She looked at it and looked at it and looked at me. “Why in the world do you want to work here?” she asked, and this is the moment in the job interview that always stumps me, because I know that my answer will come out sounding as if I’ve just read an article in some dumb personal-growth magazine.
I said something about turning fifty. I said something like working with old people would teach me how to walk fearlessly through my remaining days. It was my attempt to bring aging up close to my little, squinty eyes, I said, and read its message clearly. I said something about the sad fact of my aging parents, in their eighties and so far away in Pennsyl- vania, and that my wanting to work with old people had the flavor of proxy about it. That is, I couldn’t help my parents as they aged, but I could bear in mind their experience as I cared for others.
“With a résumé like this?” Harriet said, her eyebrows arching, her hands urging me on. Apparently, the sharing had not impressed her.
I was flattered, though, that here was someone who was actually impressed that in 1970-something I had gotten pub- lished in the American Poetry Review, and that my previous memoir chronicling my adventures on an all-women cross- country peace walk—though it had never as a whole seen print —had appeared in a handful of literary magazines. I was glad that I had chosen to wear black, the cuffs of my linen jacket turned halfway up my arms and my pants, though baggy, pressed. It was clearly going to be okay to be odd with Harriet.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” she said. “If you work for me, you’ll never lack for material.” That cinched it.
I hold a B.A. in Fine Arts with a minor in theater (Lake Erie College), and an M.A. in English (Lehigh University). When I lived in Philadelphia, I co-founded The Wilma Theater, whose mission was to showcase the work of experimental dance and theater companies from major East Coast cities. It is still thriving. I fled the East in 1979 to settle in Seattle, where everyone else is now also and once again fleeing to. What can you do? I taught writing once upon a time. My memoir, The Shelf Life of Ashes, will be published by She Writes Press in May of 2016. I have published in a variety of magazines: “Prairie Schooner,” “The North American Review,” “Ms.”, ‘Women’s Sports and Fitness,” “Calyx,” “Vogue,” and a handful of others. I have been awarded an National Endowment for the Arts (N.E.A.) literature fellowship, a residency at Hedgebrook, the PEN/Jerard, honoring “a distinguished nonfiction work-in-progress for an emerging woman writer” for On the Line: Memoir of a Peace Walk (1988). I continue striving to emerge.
Among my teachers: Rosellen Brown, Patricia Hampl, William Humphries, Natalie Goldberg, Brenda Peterson, Gerald Stern. And the late Peter Matthiessen.
I remain committed to self exploration and subsequent reflection, writing to celebrate the world and how I see it, and for the delight in language.