Strange moment this morning when I checked my blog stats and realized that I get a fair amount of traffic for a movie review I wrote last year. I was checking the stats to see if any of the Quaker-related search terms might give clues for future content on Friends Journal or QuakerSpeak and for that purpose the review’s popularity with Google (and readers) isn’t that useful.
But this blog is just my life spun out. I don’t aim for keywords and I don’t want to dominate a thought-sphere. If I see a movie and jot down some impressions that attract a small audience, then my blog post is a success. A dozen or so random people a month Google in to spend a couple of minutes reading my thoughts on a fifty-year-old movie. That’s cool. That’s enough. In all the talk of targeting and SEO we sometimes forget that it’s an honor to simply be read.
The other night stayed up late to cuddled with my wife and watch good-natured but flawed Rom-Com. I read some reviews on IMDB and pondered the cliches in the shower the next morning. Boiling these impressions down into 500 words on a train commute would be easy enough. I should do it more.
My mother died a few days ago. While I’m overwhelmed with the messages of prayers and condolences, at least at some level it feels like cheating to accept them too fully. This isn’t a new condition. This is just the final moment of a slow-motion death.
A little over five years ago my mother was formally diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. It was quite brave of her to get the testing done when she did. This had always been her most-feared scenario for aging. Growing up, we had befriended an active elderly neighbor who had gently died in her sleep after a minor slip on some ice. My mom thought that was the best exit ever. She swore Mrs. Goldsmith had come to her in a dream the next night to congratulate herself, saying “See, I told you I was lucky!” For years afterwards, my mother convinced herself that she would go in a similarly elegant way.
My mom, Liz, must have sensed that Alzheimer’s was a possibility when she scheduled that doctor’s visit. The news didn’t come as much of a surprise to us family. I had been joking for years that my mom seemed to have only twenty stories that she kept on rotation. After she read a study that crossword puzzles keep your brain sharp as we age, she became an obsessive crossword puzzler; when the Sudoku craze hit, she was right on top of it. She had bravely bought her first house in her late 60s. How proud she was. At the time she let us all know, repeatedly, that she would be leaving it “in a box.” Caulking trim, replacing windows, and troubleshooting a mud room leak that defied a dozen contractors became her occupation, along with volunteering and watching grandkids. But by 2010, she must have known she wasn’t going to have Mrs. Goldsmith’s luck. It was time to adjust.
When she called to tell me the diagnosis, she couldn’t even use the A-word. She told me her “brain was dying” and that the doctor was putting her on Aricept. A quick Google search confirmed this was an Alzheimer’s drug and a call with the doctor later that afternoon helped map out the road ahead.
Alzheimer’s is a slow-motion death. She’s been disappearing from us for a long while. Regular outings became less frequent till we couldn’t even take her out to a nearby restaurant for her birthday. As words disappeared and speech began faltering, I’d show her recent kid photos on my phone and tell stories to fill the emptying space. Eventually she stopped showing interest even in this. On my last regular visit with her, I brought the kids and we had lots of fun taking pictures. Mom kept pointing out at the phone’s display as if it were a mirror. But conversation was too disjointed and after a few minutes, my kids started wandering in ever widening circles looking for interesting buttons and alarms to touch and pull and I had to round them up to leave.
In the past few weeks her forgetfulness has extended to eating and swallowing. Intervention would only buy a little more time until she forgot how to breathe. Alzheimer’s is a one way trip.
On my last few visits she was mostly sleeping. She’s was calm, preternaturally calm. Lying on her back, pale and peaceful, she looked as if she might already be a body resting in a casket. Only the slight rise of sheets as she breathed gave away the news that she was still with us, if barely. I felt awkward just sitting there. Some people are good in these kinds of situations, but I self-consciously struggle. With little chance of interaction, I struck on the idea of reading from a favorite book of poems that she had read to me on countless nights as a child. “Up into the cherry tree, who should climb but little me?” I don’t know if she heard me or pictured the cherry tree in her haze, but it was a way for us to be together.
The slow-motion nature of Alzheimer’s means she slept a lot until she didn’t. For reasons that go deep into biography, she was a wonderfully friendly person who didn’t have a lot of close friends anymore. It seems peculiar that one can walk upon the earth for so many decades and only have a dozen or so people notice your departure. But then maybe that’s the norm for those who live deep into their eighties. Most of us will leave life with the same kind of quiet ripples with which we entered.
My mom Liz just passed away tonight. It’s not unexpected. And sadly, given her health, it’s perhaps not even so tragic; she’s been declining for years from Alzheimer’s and all but stopped eating in recent weeks. I’m sure I’ll find voice to tell some stories in the months ahead, but for now I’ll share some pictures. She would have turned 85 next month.
Liz Kleintop, 1950 or 51, approx 20 years old
The last visit with my kids, May 2015.
Dancing with Theo, Christmas 2009
In October 2007 we had a family weekend at a B&B in thr Strasburg Pa train country. Here Theo explains something to her at Cherry Crest Farm.
Francis explores her new room, July 2013.
Liz and my wife Julie at Longwood Gardens, Spring 2006.
Enjoying polka night at the Ukrainian hall in Millville, N.J.,following granddaughter Laura’s baptism.
April 2003, on one of our standing weeky lunch dates.
A visit to her independent living apartment, July 2012.
Probably the oldest picture of Liz I have, from 1931. Elizabeth “Lizzie” “Grammy” Williams Noll, Elizabeth Kleintop, Puerette “Puri” “Pappy” Noll. On porch of Columbia Ave. home, Palmerton.
A note about names: she was born in late summer 1930 as Elizabeth Ann Kleintop. In her adult life she went as Betsy and took the last names of her partners. In her late 60s she decided to take back a variation of her last name and overnight Betsy Kelley became Liz Klein.
One of the white ministers with James Reeb in the 1965 attack that helped propel the Voting Rights Act remembers the night.
He also reflects on the value of white lives vs. black lives for national attention in the Civil Rights Movement. While the actual Selma march was protesting the killing of black civil rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson by a state trooper, national outrage focused on the visiting white minister.
In 1967, Dr. King noted, “The failure to mention Jimmy [sic] Jackson only reinforced the impression that to white Americans the life of a Negro is insignificant and meaningless.”
In the last few weeks, the fashion segment of the Internet has gone all a-buzz over new term “Normcore.” Normal, everyday, clothing is apparently showing up in downtown Manhattan — gasp! Like many trendy terms, it’s not really so new: back in the nineties and early oughts, Gap ruled the retail world with posters showing celebrities and artists wearing t-shirts and jeans available at the local mall store. “Normcore” is just the leading edge of the utterly-predicable 20-year fashion industry pendulum swing.
An analogue to this fashion trend has been occuring among Friends for a little while now. The “New Plain” discussion have revolved around reclaiming an attitude, not a uniform.
If you read the old Quaker guide books (called “Books of Discipline” then, now more often called “Faith and Practice”), you’ll see that unlike other plain-dressing American groups like the Amish, Quakers didn’t intend their clothes to be a uniform showing group conformity. Instead, plainness is framed in terms of interior motivations. Avoiding fashion trends helped Friends remember that they were all equal before God. It also spoke to our continuing testimony of integrity, in that Friends were to dress the same way in different contexts and so vouchsafe for a single identity.
When I began feeling the tug of a leading toward plainness it was for what I began calling “Sears Plain,” indicating that I wore clothes that I could find in any box store or mall. I developed a low-maintenance approach to fashion that freed up my time from shopping and the morning dressing ritual. Modern plainness can lesson the temptation to show off in in clothes and it can reduce the overall wardrobe size and thus reduce our impact on the environment and with exploited labor. But all this is nothing new and it never really disappeared. If you looked around a room of modern Quakers you’ll often see a trend of sartorial boringness; I was simply naming this and putting it in the context of our tradition.
Over time I found that these motivations were more prevalent in the wider culture, especially in the minimalist techie scene. Steve Jobs famously sported a uniform of black turtleneck, jeans, and New Balance sneakers (explained in 2011). In a 2012 profile, Barack Obama talked about limiting his clothes to two colors of suits so that he could free up his decision-making energies on more important issues (I wrote about his fashion in “Plain like Barack”).
Non-celebrities also seem interested in working out their relationship with fashion. My articles on modern plainness have always been a big draw on my blog. While my fellow Quakers are sometimes mildly embarrassed by our historic peculiarities, outsiders often eat this stuff up. They’re looking for what the techies would call “life hacks” that can help them prioritize life essentials. If we can communicate our values in a real way that isn’t propped by appeals to the authority of tradition, then we can reach these seekers.
So now that “Normcore” is appearing in places like Huffington Post , the New York Times and fashion magazines, will Friends be able to talk more about it? Do we still have a collective witness in regards to the materialism and ego-centricity of fashion marketing?
My father-in-law died in January. These are few pictures I put together while Julie was still at the family home with the close relatives. Thanks to our friends for sharing a bit of our life by reading this one. He’s missed.
A look at Friends testimonies and the difficulties of being a fair-trade pacifist in our hyper-connected world today. I think George Fox and the early Friends were faced with similar challenges and that our guide can be the same as theirs.
A number of new services are trying to update the culture of blogging. This post looked at comments; a subsequent one considered how we might reorganize our blogs into more of a structured Wiki.
This year saw a lot of hang wringing by mainstream journalists on the anniversary of the Iraq War. I didn’t have much patience and looked at how dissenting voices were regularly locked out of debate ten years ago – and are still locked out with the talk that “all of us” were wrong then.