aging · Spirituality

Getting Old

On a recent sunny day, I went to the drive-through carwash to clean the dust off my Prius. I pulled up to the gate and rolled down my window to put in my preference and pay. Touch screen to begin, said the instructions. I touched the screen, and nothing happened. So I touched it a little harder. Still nothing. Now a line of cars was behind me and I could feel their impatience. I started banging the screen, getting more and more frustrated. Finally, a nice young man came out from inside the office and in his most patient “have-to-be-polite-to-old-ladies” voice, explained to me that it was a touch screen. With one deft finger, he skimmed the screen, made my selection, took my money, and moved me along the line.

I felt about ninety. I wanted to call after him and tell him I was very adept at touch screens, that I use an iPad and laptop all the time. I even have an Apple Pencil and several blue tooth speakers and headphones. And, last month, I fixed the sound problem on our big screen TV using the remote!

Unfortunately, despite the young man’s good manners, I can only imagine what was said about me in the carwash office as I held up the line with my inability to get the touchscreen to work.

This is my birthday week and I have to accept that I am old in the eyes of some people. I don’t feel old except when I can’t get a touch screen to work or when I realize I’ve been out of college for forty years. Or when I have never even heard of the entertainer for the Superbowl Halftime Show.

I remember thinking when I hit forty that I would now be mature and wise and able to rise above the stresses of life. That didn’t happen. Then fifty rolled around and now I’m on the other side of sixty and I’m still trying to get my act together.

But I hope I’m making progress. I have spent my whole life getting to know myself and learning to love and accept that person. I’m getting closer to my spiritual core.

I’m reminded of the unfinished statues by Michelangelo that I saw when I spent a semester studying in Venice. To this day I remember the emotion I felt when I visited the Academia Gallery in Florence, where his famous Davide stands. But his unfinished works, known as Michelangelo’s Prisoners or Slaves, moved me the most. The figures appear to be straining to push free from the marble blocks that contain them,

Michelangelo’s Atlas Slave

The great artist had the rare talent of being able to look at a piece of marble and see the sculpture inside it. Once he had chosen the right stone, he saw his job as chipping away the excess marble to create his masterpiece. Simple, right?  The four unfinished statues at the Galleria give a remarkable insight into Michelangelo’s process. The men inside the marble seem to be fighting their way out, stuck forever in the limbo of never becoming their true forms.

These statues remind me of my spiritual growth. At times in my life, I’ve felt like I was pushing against rock in my effort to become the woman God wants me to be. But God keeps chipping away at the parts of me that prevent me from being my true self, the one He created. It is a slow process.

Paul talked about this process of spiritual growth as becoming “transformed into the likeness of Christ, one degree of glory to the next.” (2 Corinthians 3:18) Moses had to put a veil over his face when he was in God’s presence, but when we accept Christ, the veil falls away and we can look fully at Him. As we grow in understanding, we are able to get closer and closer to that glory, making us a reflection of Christ’s light. We inch along, one degree of glory at a time.

Becoming fully one with God will not happen until my time on earth is over, but I pray that I can keep pushing away the boulders of anger, unforgiveness, jealousy and fear that hold me back. Each stone that falls away puts me one step closer to the light.

Meantime, I will work on my touch screen technique for my next trip through the carwash.

All of us are looking with unveiled faces at the glory of the Lord as if we were looking in a mirror. We are being transformed into that same image from one degree of glory to the next degree of glory. This comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”

2 Corinthians 3:18
aging · Peachtree Road Race · Uncategorized

Memorial for Beth Austell

My aunt Beth passed away peacefully in her sleep in the early hours of September 14th, after slowly getting weaker and weaker from the lung cancer that she knew would take her life. Early on she had asked me to speak at her memorial service and the following are the remarks I gave at Milford Hills Baptist Church in Salisbury, NC.

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I am Millicent Austell Flake, and my father was Beth’s oldest brother, James. I’m honored to be here today to talk about Beth, who in her modest way had a great impact on my life and I think on the lives of most of us here.

As I thought about Beth’s life, the scripture that came to mind is from I Peter:

Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. 4 Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. I Peter 3:3-4

Beth had one of the most beautiful spirits of anyone I’ve ever known, not in an overly sweet or spiritual way, but as someone who genuinely cared about those around her, especially the underdog and downtrodden. Although privately she may have had her opinions, she was never judgemental and was always forgiving. We will never know the people she helped not only monetarily, but with a listening ear and sound advice. Her “gentle and quiet spirit” is an inspiration to me.

From the time she was a child, she had a heart for the less fortunate. Beth, for some reason given the family names of Douglas Elizabeth, was the 4th child born to Ruth and Cline Austell and she grew up during the lean times of the Great Depression. My father was the oldest, then came her only sister Mary Frances, then their brother Maynard also known as Gabe, then Beth, then the youngest brother Morris. They grew up in the little town of Blacksburg, SC where their daddy was the police chief and their mother taught English and Latin at Blacksburg High School.

Life was not always easy for Beth growing up. Hard work was expected at home and at school. Money was tight, but so was the family. Beth was especially close to her baby brother Morris and throughout his life felt the need to look after him.

A college education was expected for all the Austell children, and each helped the others along. Career choices were limited in the late 1940’s for women, so Beth chose nursing. Following her graduation from Presbyterian nursing school with her RN, she did her stint in the military, working as a nurse with the Army Nursing Corps in Louisiana. She was always proud of her time in the military, as evidenced by her desire to have her coffin draped in an American flag.

Beth was a feminist before that word even existed. In the 1950’s when few women lived on their own, she moved to Salisbury and began working with the VA hospital. She bought her little house and took care of herself. She told me once that in the beginning she would cash her check and put the money she owed for her mortgage, car, electricity, phone and gas into separate envelopes so that she would be sure to pay all her bills first. I know my father often remarked how proud he was of her and of how hard she had worked. Up until her last days, she worked hard to be independent.

She was an old time “tough as nails” nurse who lifted and pulled on the patients under her care, mostly men, advised the doctors and taught the younger nurses the ropes. She worked all shifts, day and night, and went home to her dachshund, Sam. Later, after Sam died, she had Mr. Tubbs, a chubby beagle. Being a nurse, she was always there for anyone in the family who was sick, and was especially good to my sister who went through a difficult year of cancer treatments before her death in 1976.

Beth was special to us grandchildren. We thought she was pretty cool because she wore blue jeans and penny loafers with shiny new pennies, and was the first person we knew to have an air conditioned car. Her cars were probably her only weakness, and she traded in for a new Buick every 2 years. She always liked to sit at the “children’s table” at holiday meals and was genuinely interested in our lives. She didn’t miss a graduation or wedding and was excited for every baby and grand baby. And she also never missed a birthday, always sending a card exactly on time, signed “Auntie Beth.” I will miss those cards. Whether she was sitting in the sand building castles with us or going to Tweetsie Railroad and Carowinds, she always seemed to enjoy herself, and I’m sure it was a welcome change from her work at the hospital.

Beth always felt a sense of duty to her parents, and for many years spent almost every weekend in Blacksburg looking after them. It wasn’t until they died and she had retired from the VA that she began to settle into life in Salisbury. She joined this church, started going to water aerobics, made new friends and in general had a good time. She loved her time at the beach, went on several cruises, and made trips to visit family. After her nephews got her set up on the computer, she loved keeping up with her friends and family through Facebook,

Beth was a rather shy person who liked to stay in the background, but she had a strong core which showed through after her cancer diagnosis. She faced it with pragmatism and courage. Many of you here went through those difficult days with her as she struggled through chemotherapy. She finally beat it and was able to enjoy simple things again.

When her cancer returned, she made plans to move to Arbor Acres so that she would have family close by and be able to move into the health care if necessary. Again, she faced a difficult time with courage and pragmatism. As she knew that her time was getting short, she planned out every detail of her burial, even prepaying for the flowers here today. Even in her last days, she was thinking of others and trying not to be a burden to them – more evidence of her “quiet and gentle spirit.”

This past summer I participated in a well known running event in Atlanta called the Peachtree Road race. I had Beth on my mind and heart as I plowed through the mass of people running and lining the streets, knowing that she was coming up on the end of her race. The writer of Hebrews gives us a beautiful picture of how that end will be:

12 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.

The scene is of a stadium full of cheering spectators, the great “cloud of witnesses”, which includes all the heroes of the Bible, Abraham, Moses, Joseph and David and at the center Jesus. As we run our final laps, we are to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, who will bring us to the finish line. In my mind’s eye, I add to the cheering crowd all those that have gone on and have been waiting for Beth, her parents, brothers, aunts, uncles and cousins, my sister Anne and my cousin Larry, her good friend Sonny and others that you may know. I even picture her dogs, barking and jumping up and down. They are all waiting for her to cross the finish line, for Jesus to wrap His arms around her and say, “Well done Beth, my good and faithful servant.” I hear her in her self-deprecating way say, “Well, I guess I made it.”

My hope and prayer is that some day I will leave behind a legacy like that of my aunt Beth.

aging · Christianity · Health · Running · Uncategorized

How strong are you?

About a year ago I was diagnosed with the beginning of osteoporosis, which made me feel old and brittle and worried about getting a humpback. My mother fell and broke her hip while putting up Christmas decorations when she was younger than I am now and suffered from it for the rest of her life. I have a horror of something similar happening, so in addition to the over-the-counter calcium the doctor suggested, I started going to a class for weight training. Resistance training builds strong bones. 



Most Tuesday and Thursday mornings I crawl out of bed at 4:20, drink a cup of coffee, put on my clothes and meet some other brave souls to lift weights for an hour to loud music. Our leader, Jan, is a high school math teacher who actually makes getting up that early fun. Our class is not one of those where you kill yourself by pushing over tractor tires, but it’s not easy either. We put weights on a bar and place it on our shoulders and do lots of squats and lunges. We then work on our biceps and triceps and shoulders and lie down on our mats and do planks and crunches. Afterwards we have a relaxing cool down stretch. 



I love how the weight lifting makes me feel and I hope my bones are getting better. One of the unexpected results of the cross training has been how much my running has improved since my legs and core have gotten stronger. I am running less miles but feel great during my runs and I’m even a little faster. Also, I have less jiggly stuff under my arms. 



But I  know my limitations when it comes to weights.  My legs are fairly strong, but like most women, I don’t have much upper body strength. I still cheat and get on my knees instead of my toes for push-ups. I’m sure I would improve with more work, but I am never going to be able to bench press like the body builders at my gym. My ’50 something’ body can only do so much.



I’m realizing, however, that when it comes to getting stronger spiritually, I’m barely tapping into my resources. Some friends and I are doing a “virtual prayer group” and praying through the month of January with 31 Days of Prayer for the New Year. One day last week the prayer was: 

 

”Pray that you will lean on God for strength, in the good times and in the bad.  May He become your backbone and source of your strength.”

People in Bible times needed to be physically strong. I wonder if because our day to day lives are so much easier that we can’t appreciate how Jesus’s words sounded to them. Take for example the woman at the well in John 4. When Jesus tells her that He has water that will keep her from being thirsty again, her first thought is how wonderful it would be to not have the daily chore of lugging water back to her home. Think about how much water we use in a day, taking showers, washing our clothes, doing the dishes. I can’t imagine having to carry that into my house every day. So of course that is what she thinks about. But Jesus is not talking about her physical needs, but her spiritual ones. As she struggles to pull the heavy bucket up from the well, he tells her: 

Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”  (John 4:13-14)

This is the source we have to draw from, but I feel I often ignore it.

 Sometimes when I am going through a hard time and ask God for strength, I treat Him like a trainer at the gym. “Just show me what to do to get results” is the unspoken request. But instead, He has this infinite supply of power that is there for me to draw from. I don’t have to be strong within myself, I just need to keep the channels open between Him and me so that I can pull from that source when I need it. It’s kind of like having one of those body builders around all the time to pick up anything heavy that I need. 



What a relief to know that I don’t have to work on building my spiritual muscle, that God has already done it for me!


aging · grace · Uncategorized

Covering Up

We’re all hiding something.

I have been thinking about this ever since our tree man was out a few weeks ago to take away yet another of our big old trees, this one a giant walnut that was uprooted during a bad storm.

“That big walnut came down because it was weak on the inside,” he informed us, and sure enough, when I walked around to the other side, I could see where lightning had hollowed it out many years ago. All this time it has been standing, growing, producing walnuts, giving us shade, and providing a home for squirrels and woodpeckers, but was dying on the inside. I didn’t know.

The more I talk to people, the more I have decided everyone has something not right in their life that they are hiding. Even the happiest, most full of life people have heartaches and problems that they don’t want others to know about. Just like that tree, most of us try to look good on the outside while dealing with rot that threatens to take us down.

I have a physical deformity that I try to keep under wraps. My left foot has slowly become misshapen over the years with a bunion that extends way out to resemble the coast of North Carolina, while my second toe subsequently juts up into the air and then crosses over my big toe. It’s pretty scary looking, and I do my best to keep others from seeing it. 

People have asked me why I don’t get it operated on, but I have been twice to a very handsome orthopedic foot doctor who told me that if it was not hurting to leave it alone, because if he operated it would be stiff and I would not be able to run. As long as I wear my cute little Skechers or my running shoes with the mesh top or my sandals with the huge flowers, my foot feels fine and and doesn’t bother me.  After all, what’s a goofy looking foot in the great scheme of things?

Every now and then, however, it becomes a problem, like when I need to get dressed up. Recently I was going to a very fancy wedding and bought a beautiful new dress, so I needed to buy dress shoes to go with it. Ugh! 

After looking all over the mall with no success, I went to a gargantuan shoe store that seemed to stretch for a mile. Surely they would have something I could wear that wouldn’t look like my grandmother’s orthopedic shoes. I felt like Cinderella’s stepsister as I tried to squeeze my weird foot into pair after pair of heels.  I finally found some that were pretty stylish and that I thought I could wear at least for a few hours without too much pain. And all this because I want to cover up my ugly foot!

Wearing my fancy dress and new shoes!

My messed up foot symbolizes this whole issue of keeping our problems hidden. When I look at it I am reminded of my imperfections, which are a part of me as much as my foot. As I have gotten to this phase of my life, I am realizing that, like my foot, I can’t do much to change many of the issues in my life other than to work on my attitude. And working on my attitude means lots of prayer, over and over. But it also means sometimes letting others see those parts of me that I usually keep covered up, and through God’s grace, finding that my problems seem smaller when shared.


Most of us have known someone who falls, like our walnut tree, and then everyone says, “We didn’t know there was a problem!”  That is a tragedy. Knowing how much I appreciate other people giving me the gift of grace and understanding, I  try every day to be sensitive to those around me and to remember to be kind, because everyone we meet is fighting a hard battle.  


 

aging · Marriage · Mother's Day · Uncategorized

Happy Mother’s Day Bobbie

My mother-in-law Bobbie loved to tell the story of the time Keith gave her a Mother’s Day card that said, “To someone who has been like a mother to me.” She would throw back her head and roar with laughter, because it was so like him to run into the store and grab the first card he could find. But it would have been an appropriate card from me.


I loved my mother-in-law and in many ways I was closer to her than to my own mother. From the first time I visited with Keith in her small house in Paducah, Kentucky, she welcomed me with open arms. She treated me with the same exuberant love that she showered on Keith and his brother Alan, and later on Adam. She would literally do anything for one of us. 

Bobbie and Adam around 1992


Bobbie was a character, a small woman who was funny and smart and exasperating. She was obsessively clean and neat and her house was always spotless. She loved Elvis and Neil Diamond, dessert, classic cars, old movies and CNN.  She was happiest in her home, and loved to have company visit her there.

She was a talker, and back in the days when I was a stay at home mom, we spent hours sitting around the table drinking coffee or out in the yard while Adam played, and she told me the stories of her life. Growing up as the youngest of three sisters in a house with lots of yelling and strife, she vowed that she would never have that in her life. She was one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, yet dropped out of school at 16 to marry her boyfriend in order to get away from home. (She later finished her GED and nursing degree.) She moved with him to his parents’ house in the country, where, in the late 1940’s, they had no electricity or running water. When he became abusive, she left him, something that was unheard of for the times. Keith’s father, Lester, was 12 years her senior and had been friends with her older half-brother. The story goes that he saw her out roller skating when she was a little girl and vowed that someday he would marry her. After her divorce, they got together and had a long and loving marriage until his sudden death from a heart attack when she was just 55.  A few months before she died was the anniversary of his death and she commented to me, “I never thought I would live 20 years without him.” Although she grieved him every day, she chose to not be down and was always upbeat. 

Bobbie and Lester around 1949


Adam was her only grandchild and literally the light of her life. For the first five years after he was born, she drove the 6 hours from western Kentucky to visit, but hated being away from her house. After a particularly difficult drive back in a snowstorm, and with Keith’s brother Alan moving away, she made the hard decision to leave her snug little home with all her memories and move into a new house overlooking a pond a few miles from us. I was frankly worried about having her so close – now she would see how we really lived! – but she was always careful to allow us our privacy and was never critical of me. Adam loved having Nanny close by to spoil him and they had a special relationship. She loved him totally and unconditonally. She would often say, “My friends think their grandchildren are smart and cute, but Adam really is the smartest!”  He was 14 when she died and when he got his license a few years later, he wished he could have taken her for a drive. “Nanny would have loved that.”

Visiting in the yard


She could be frustratingly stubborn and independent. One swelterng summer afternoon after she moved to Resaca, she had some friends from Paducah visiting. I went by to say hello and found them sitting in a thin slice of shade on the back porch. Her air conditioning had gone out and she was sure no one would come out on a Sunday to fix it, so she had just accepted that they would be hot.  “We’ve all lived without air conditioning before,” she said. The temperature in her house was about 90, and no way could they sleep there. I got on the phone and had someone out to fix it within the hour.  She would have never asked us for help.

Smoking was her biggest weakness. She knew it was bad for her, but chose to smoke. Like my mother, she had always been able to eat whatever she liked and stay thin until she hit her 30’s and 40’s, when she began struggling with her weight. She once quit smoking and gained 10 pounds in a week, and swore never to do that again. As she told her doctor, “I don’t drink and I’m not having sex, so don’t take away my cigarettes.”

She also loved sweets and her motto was, “Eat dessert first in case you run out of room.” She battled her cholesterol, but would sacrifice in order to have a huge slice of pie. In the end she died of a stomach aneurysm, probably caused from the smoking, but I wished she had enjoyed more pie and worried less about her cholesterol.

One of the traits I loved the most about her was her honesty. She didn’t believe in sugar coating the past.  Even though she and Les had a strong marriage, she admitted that she remained angry with him over some things even after his death. I grew up in a strait-laced family where appearances were important, and being with Bobbie was a breath of fresh air. She taught me that marriage is work and that no matter how strong our personalities, sometimes we have to give in to keep the peace, and that a wife needs to make her husband feel special. 

The key to her positive attitude was her deep faith. She had not had an easy life, yet I never knew her to wallow in self-pity or fall into depression. She had a special place in her house where she read her Bible each morning and I am sure the many prayers she sent up for me and Keith and Adam were what got us through. 


She has been gone 12 years now, but it doesn’t seem like it. Instead of sadness, I feel happy when I think of her. I am happy she got to see Adam almost grown, that she died quickly and did not have to go through a long drawn out illness, that she never had to move out of her house or lose her mind. However trite it sounds, she was pure love toward us her family and I was privileged to be included. 


We will soon be adding a daughter to our family and I am thrilled.  Jess and her mother have a close relationship and she will probably not need me in the way I needed Bobbie, but I am looking forward to the years ahead and all that holds for her and Adam. I hope and pray I can be the support and cheerleader for her that Bobbie was for me. 

Adam and his grandparents