Hello. Sorry to bother you. I have to complain to someone and this is the only page still working properly around here. I’m here to bitch, so fair warning.
I had this hare-brained idea to start an author’s page on WordPress, where I could corral all of my writing into one space–where it couldn’t go wandering off into the wilderness, never to be seen again. I decided to call it “Ramona Grigg”, since that’s my name and I apparently have no imagination. I figured I could move my 10-year-old Blogger blog, Ramona’s Voices, over to WP and we’d be one big happy family. All together.
You’ll notice I didn’t link to Ramona’s Voices? That’s because I’ve done something that has rendered it invisible. Or Blogger is mad at me for leaving without notice and they’re hiding it. Something happened and it doesn’t redirect to anywhere now. It’s in limbo. So if you go there it’s a dead end. I hate that!
I’ve been chatting with the really nice folks at WordPress but every time they tell me to do something that seems reasonable, I’ve already done it and it hasn’t worked. I’m waiting right now in what I assume is a chat queue, but maybe not. They keep telling me they’ll be there for me but son of a gun they’re not there.
What do I expect you to do about it? Nothing. Just listen. Or pretend to listen. I’ll just keep writing here to keep from panicking, if you don’t mind.
It’s not as if the world will end, or anyone else will care, and it’s not as if some of my posts haven’t been cross-posted in other places where I can maybe grab some of them back, but I would love to see my decade-old blog come through intact.
So that’s all for now. I’ll let you know how it goes. Thanks for listening. I needed this.
And I’m betting you’ve already decided not to read this.
There’s a story going viral about an old woman who took down a cashier because the cashier told her using plastic bags was a no-no in this new environmentally-aware society. The old woman spent 10 minutes holding up the line, first annoying, then enchanting the crowd as she talked about recyclable glass bottles, paper bags, cloth diapers, push mowers, vehicles that didn’t guzzle gas, gadgets that didn’t need walls full of plugs, accessories that didn’t need satellites to make them operable — stuff like that.
The story may or may not be apocryphal, but it’s everywhere. In some versions the old woman is described as “elderly”, as if to make sure we understand just how how awesome this story is. She had lived in an era that no longer exists, that most don’t remember, and, man, wasn’t she wonderful? Who knew? Yay!
I’ve always hated that word “elderly” and now that it appears to apply to me I hate it even more. It’s a sniffy, insulting descriptor having nothing to do with the honorific, “elder”.
If you call me elderly it tells me you’ve put me in a box that separates me, that diminishes me, that labels me as a freakish anachronism only good for studying — as if, at 82 years old, I’m an anthropological wonder, a fragile specimen threatening to go extinct at any moment.
If you tie a glossy ribbon around me, if you talk to me softly (or loudly, in case you think I’m deaf), if you treat me as if I have a “Handle With Care” sticker on me, you don’t honor me, you insult me.
My age and the condition of my body does not define me, any more than those things define you, but I’m not Tina Turner or Jane Fonda (Both my peers and looking great.) My gait, my stoop, my skin, my eyes, my hair, my voice — I can’t fool you. You’ll know instantly and you’ll change how you react to me. It’s inevitable.
But if I play my cards right you’ll forget all that and pay attention to the person inside. If I can get you to shut your eyes and ignore the quaver in my voice we’ll be right there on the same plane. Not peers — that can’t happen — but equals.
And, as equals, we’ll be far more comfortable. I’ve been a kid, a grown-up, a wife, a mom, a grandmother, a traveler, a supermarket cashier, a long distance operator, a real estate agent, a receptionist, a secretary, a paraprofessional, a professional writer, a conference speaker, a creative writing instructor, a grant recipient, and, currently, a blogger who sometimes pretends her keyboard is as mighty as Excalibur. (Opinions, you may have noticed,are my thing.)
I have a Linkedin page, two Facebook pages, and a Twitter page with 3700 followers. (Chicken feed for some, but “Trending on Twitter” is on my bucket list.)
There are some things I won’t do now. I won’t get to Europe or Asia or anywhere outside of North America. I won’t get a college degree. I won’t watch my great-grandchildren grow up. I won’t become an actress. I won’t sing with Tony Bennett. I won’t be that writer whose quotes can be Googled.
And you’ll be happy to know I won’t be running for public office.
Elizabeth Warren is 70 years old. Donald Trump is 73 years old. Joe Biden is 76 years old. Bernie Sanders is 78 years old. One of them is president and the others are working to take that job away from him. No matter what you think of any of them, their age should be way down on that list of qualifications. There are plenty of young people with far lower energy levels. Three out of four of them have brains that still work well.
Three out of four of them know exactly how much energy and stamina it takes to campaign for and then do the job. They’re prepared for long days and sleepless nights and schedules that many young people couldn’t endure. If they’re not worried about their age, why should you be?
You might not want to admit it, but you’ve made this an ageist society. You give arbitrary cut-off dates for jobs old people might still qualify for, if only you could look past our appearance, or even our infirmities, and recognize our worth as still useful, still viable human beings. (See Jimmy Carter.)
If only you didn’t feel you have the right to decide for us.
How old is too old? Let us figure that out. Not all of us are so impaired we can no longer think for ourselves. If we are, then you get to interfere.
Not all of us need help getting through the day. If we do, we’ll let you know.
But a lot of us — millions of us — are okay with who we are, just as we are. Old. And if you don’t judge us for our age, we won’t judge you for yours.
Because — let me remind you— we’ve already been where you are now. (Insert smiling emoji so you’ll see I mean this as a sweet put-down and not a total insult.)
From the time I discovered that letters of the alphabet are there to make words, I’ve loved the words they make. As my reading matured I grew to love how those simple words could be molded into marvelous sentences. Sentences made stories and it was stories I lusted after.
Good stories. Stories that made my eyes grow wide, that made me shudder with excitement, that made me laugh. Stories that gave me peace and filled my heart with happiness.
It didn’t occur to me until I was much older that stories didn’t magically appear just at that moment when I needed to read them. They appeared because a mortal writer took the time to select just the right words and put them together in such a way they caused a decided reaction from an unknown reader in a far-off place
I read everything when I was young, everything I could get my hands on. I checked out library books that were far beyond my comprehension, but held something that drew me to them. The cover, the feel, the smell? More likely it was that first sentence. Or the second. Or the third. I didn’t need to understand the whole of the book. What I was after were those words put together in such a way they read like songs, and I would read them as if I were singing. I didn’t need to understand the premise or the idea, I only needed to feel something.
It wasn’t until I began writing myself that I realized how much work it took to produce a sentence that might even come close to doing that thing. There are mechanics involved. Those words don’t just fly off my fingertips, wrought whole and in just the right order. No matter how much I wish it, that’s not how it works. I learned I had much to learn.
Because I was a voracious reader I thought writing would be easy. I thought it was osmosis when, in fact, it was closer to manual labor.
When I realized how hard it was going to be, I almost gave up. I could think those perfect words but writing them down was an effort so clumsy it was embarrassing. Even when no one was around to read them, it was embarrassing. How could I not know how to write?
I’m learning, even now, after all these years, that in order for writing to become art it first has to become a skill. There is a learning process, the same as there is for artists and musicians and dancers and actors — for anyone involved in creative work.
Nobody writes or paints or performs straight out of the box without lessons of some kind. If those things were easy we wouldn’t venerate the people who do it well. We appreciate and honor them because we know how hard it is. But because, from an early age, we’ve all learned the mechanics of writing, and because writing requires so few tools, it’s easy to believe writing is as natural as breathing.
It is, in some sense. Anyone can write. Some will become writers. But not all will rise to a level where their writing is treasured and shared and read to the point of dog-earing. They’re the gifted ones — the rewriters.
They’re the writers who have such respect for the written word they wouldn’t dream of sending their efforts out into the world without strengthening and polishing and checking again and again for flaws. Every successful writer we look to for advice talks about rewriting. Almost none of them see it as a chore. It’s an important part of the process.
Knowing we’ll be rewriting gives us permission to just get it down. We’re free to experiment, to play with words, to juggle and move and rip out and put back in. It’s the part that becomes art.
Perfection is an illusion, but striving for it isn’t. Rewriting is striving to be best, but if it does no more than make us better, it’s worth the effort.
Sometimes it’s the journey, the unexpected side-trips, that gets us to those places we’ve been wanting to go.
Aurora Borealis, the Milky Way, and my own North Star.
I love this map of the lights from space, but I have to look really hard to make out the outline of my particular neighborhood. That’s because it’s dark up here.
Look just above Michigan’s mitten. See that white dot? That’s Sault Ste. Marie. It’s 60 road-miles to the northwest of us. See that dark area just to the southeast of it, right above Lake Huron? We’re in there somewhere.
I live on an island off of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, above the 45th Parallel. We’re not exactly in the wilderness, but just far enough off the beaten path where city folk think we’re kind of quaint for wanting to live way out here where there’s a whole lot of nothing.
We live here precisely because it’s peaceful and quiet, and, while I like more daylight than darkness (when the days grow short, with more dark hours than daylight, we’re outta here), I would gladly pay good money for every cloudless night, when the moon is a silver sliver. On those nights it’s pitch dark. On those nights magic happens.
If you pull into my driveway after dark a motion sensor will find you and light your path. When you step out of the car and head toward the house, another motion sensor will turn on a spotlight leading you to the next spotlight. And the next. If I know you’re coming, I’ll leave the light on for you. But when there’s nothing moving, it’s black as night out there. It’s the way it should be in the deep woods.
Deer and coyote and even rabbits will turn on the motion detectors, but, oddly, when the lights go on, they’re not startled. They go on feeding at the compost heap as if nothing had happened. They don’t even look up. I want vision like that. I want to see what they see when the sun goes down and the woods go black on black.
I wonder if, on those nights, they ever think to look up at the sky?
On those quiet, clear, often cold nights, I bundle up and sit at the edge of the shore, where, when I face north, two tiny lights, barely visible, let me know there is another inhabited island out there, far across the bay.
To the Northwest the sky is lighter at the horizon. The glow comes from the the lights of The Twin Soos (Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, separated by the Soo Locks). There are no other towns in my vision large enough to light up the sky.
The summer people are gone and most of the cottages and cabins are closed and shuttered. There are a few dim lights along the shore, but the only other gleam I see is above me. The sky is filled with tiny glistening pin pricks. Every dot in that magical sky is light years away. I couldn’t get to any of them with the years I have left, but on these nights they seem so close I want to reach out and touch them.
On rare occasions, if I’m still awake in the early morning hours, I might see Northern Lights. But we’ve lived here for more than two decades and I can count on two hands the number of times we’ve seen them. Our TV station alerts us to possible sightings but cloud cover likes to play tricks on us. Sometimes I see a bright green glow on the horizon and I know they’re out there, under those damned clouds.
On the clearest of nights, I see the meandering path of the Milky Way. I see the Big and Little Dipper, and Polaris. The North Star.
The North Star is the anchor, the guiding light. Because it’s always where it should be, for millennia those at sea have used it to find their way.
I thought of all of this when Rep. Elijah Cummings died last week, leaving so many of us bereft and feeling adrift. It came to me when Nancy Pelosi said of him,
In the House, Elijah was our North Star. He was a leader of towering character and integrity, who pushed the Congress and country always to rise to a higher purpose, reminding us why we are here. As he said whenever he saw that we were not living up to our Founders’ vision for America and meeting the needs of our children for the future: “We are better than this.”
I live far away from the lights of Washington D.C but it doesn’t mean I’m far removed. I can live in relative darkness and still see the light. I live in a country where the citizens are still ultimately in charge and I fight every day to keep it that way.
I look up at the sky and I’m humbled by the enormity of the universe. I’m grateful that I’m alive, still a part of it, still aware of it, still in awe of it, and I know this is a fight worth fighting. I know this is a life worth living. And I’m thankful for yet another day.
I love movies. Sometimes I call them “films”, but only if they have subtitles. Otherwise, they’re movies — short for “moving pictures” —the emphasis on “moving”.
I love movies that move me. I love movies that make me cry. I love movies that make me laugh and cry and do it all over again, until I’m reduced to a soggy but satisfying mess. (Looking at you, Terms of Endearment. Bring it on, The Color Purple. Steel Magnolias! Yes! You’re killing me, Dreamgirls.)
I love movies that speak to me; that share my sense of honor and duty and don’t talk down to me. (Gandhi. A Few Good Men. Silkwood. Matewan. The China Syndrome. Norma Rae. Erin Brockovich. All The President’s Men. )
I love movies that build up to scenes so amazing they take my breath away. They don’t have to do it with pyrotechnics or special effects. Memorable dialogue and spectacular cinematography will take me there. (The Life of Pi. The Black Stallion. Out of Africa. )
Although there’s nothing wrong with special effects. Avatar and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon are spectacular. (That battle scene with the ludicrous general nearly spoiled Avatar, but the special effects redeemed it.)
I love movies that make me laugh out loud. (It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World — still the funniest movie ever made. But What’s Up, Doc? is right up there. So is Elf. Oh, and My Favorite Year. Because Peter O’Toole!)
I love quiet movies. Movies that tell a story without beating me over the head. Movies that immerse me and make me care about the flawed and the vulnerable. (Tender Mercies. The Yearling, The Bridge Over the River Kwai, The King’s Speech. On Golden Pond. Educating Rita. Field of Dreams, Cinema Paradiso.)
I love movies with many characters, many stories, all coming together in the end, as they should. (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (Added attractions: Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Dev Patel). Love, Actually (I mean, Colin Firth? Emma Thompson? Alan Rickman? Pure heaven.) A Passage to India. (Judy Davis is insanely superb. Peggy Ashcroft, Victor Banerjee, and Alec Guinness — unforgettable.)
I avoid most violence in movies — I don’t find it entertaining at all — but I admit there are some epic movies that I can’t get enough of. I can’t explain it, I just go with it: Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Never-Ending Story.
Edited to Add: OMG, I can’t believe I almost left out Princess Bride! INCONCEIVABLE! (Don’t even TRY to do a remake. You hear me??)
I own an almost complete DVD library of Studio Ghibli/Miyazaki anime films. Spirited Away hooked me first. Weird and amazing and like nothing I had ever seen before. And they only got better. Miyazaki was a genius. He’s gone now and Disney owns the franchise, but the stories will live on. (Spirited Away is having a resurgence this week, showing in theaters across the country.)
I love some movies that everyone else either hated or ignored or are so obscure nobody ever heard of them. I’m okay with that. I love everything about The Color Purple, but it was snubbed badly at the Oscars. Stephen Spielberg’s 1941 was panned, but I like it. Ned Beatty is amazing in Hear My Song. I love Peter Reigert in Local Hero and in Crossing Delancy. Strictly Ballroom was one of Baz Luhrmann’s first as a director and it’s quirky and mesmerizing. Peter Dinklage is hilarious and heartbreaking in The Station Agent. Bagdad Cafe is weird and wonderful. I’ll never stop watching Educating Rita.
So that’s just some of them. You’ll notice that most of my favorites are old now. I’ve tried to think of more current movies that might stick with me and I haven’t come up with any. Yet. It could be them, it could be me. But I love that I can go back and watch almost any of my favorites any time I want to.
This was fun. Maybe next time I’ll talk about the movies I hate. I have a long list of those, too, and many of them were highly successful.
But for now, tell me some of your favorites. I promise I won’t judge if you won’t, either.
Everyone who isn’t old yet seems to think being old is all we old people talk about. If we’re old we’re supposed to spend our last days griping about toenail fungus or bowel movements or ungrateful children. Eventually, if you hang around long enough, we’ll get to the hard stuff: joint replacement, Alzheimer’s, and the dread cancer.
We’re losing our hearing and our eyesight, so all of us need hearing aids and have had cataract surgery. You’re sure we’ll want to tell you all about it.
If we were vain when we were younger, we’re supposed to complain about putting on pounds and losing our looks. (There are 100 words for flab, including cellulite, beer belly, blubber, and cottage cheese. Or at least it seems that way.)
We have wattles and arm flaps and dark patches all over our skin.
Our dentures don’t fit and sometimes we spit.
We’re really kind of disgusting.
But here’s the thing: We’ve lived such a long time we can’t help but have stories to tell. Some of them are even interesting. Don’t ask us about our health. We might feel forced to tell you. Ask us, instead, what it was like when we were growing up without TV remotes or phones we could carry with us. Ask us how we ever learned to drive a stick shift. Ask us how we lived through the disruptions caused by World Wars and atom bomb scares and women’s lib and the hippie generation.
Ask us about carbuncles. (Oh, wait, that was the generation before us. Never mind.)
We want desperately to be interesting. (It’s why some old men tell the same stories over and over again. They got a rise out of someone once and they figure it’s worth another try. Also, it beats having to reach into the vaults for something new.) We know, long before you yawn and make excuses to leave, when we’ve failed to grab you and keep you. Not all of us are good at it. Some of us have to be drawn out in order to get the gold out of our life stories, but sometimes it’s worth it.
When I was much younger I taught creative writing in our school system’s Adult Ed program. I didn’t require anyone to show their work if they didn’t want to, but in every class there were several who read out loud every week. Several students were there to learn about publishing, and I warned them I would be tougher on them; that I would probably red-pen their purple prose to death. But I didn’t set a lot of class rules, preferring to get these newbies comfortable with their writing. It was pretty free-wheeling. Lots of laughs.
An older woman — I’ll call her Dorothy — came every week and left without saying much of anything. At first I wondered why she was there, since she never showed her writing and didn’t engage in any way. But finally, toward the end, she turned in a story she’d written about growing up in Appalachia during the Great Depression. While the depression was in full force her neighbors and kin were so used to subsistence living, she said they barely noticed. She wrote about the food they grew or foraged or hunted for, about making lye soap, about how they kept going without electricity or machinery.
It was wonderful. It needed some editing but I left it pretty much as it was. I asked her if she would read it to the class. She said she couldn’t do that. I asked her if I could read it to them, and she agreed. When I was finished, the classroom erupted. She was in the dreaded spotlight and at first she just smiled and nodded. But the questions came hard and fast and before long she let herself go, and she was into it.
She apologized for the way she talked, as someone from deep within the Appalachian “hollers” would, but explained in charming detail how they made use of almost everything they could get their hands on. She talked about poke salads and rabbit stew and moonshine and how you could turn a 50 pound flour sack into a serviceable dress. She talked about herbs and roots used for holistic healing. It turned out that Dorothy was a born storyteller, and I’d like to think my class opened her up to doing more of the same.
All old people have a lifetime of stories to tell but most of us are shy about telling them. We think they’re not worth telling, that nobody would be interested, but it’s not that hard to draw us out. It’s all in how you relate to us. If all you see is aging skin and bones, if all you hear is a kind of melancholy wistfulness, if all you say is, “How are you doing?” (and hope we don’t tell you), you’re missing out on the best parts of your elders. The stories.
When we talk among ourselves we tend to crack ourselves up. We turn even our most horrific ailments into black humor. We sometimes laugh at you guys. (We used to be you.) But mainly we talk about the old days. Not just the good old days, the “Happy Days” days, but sometimes about the bad old days — those days we would sooner forget.
Our best days are behind us and in our circles “nostalgia” is always trending. Our stories get better with age — especially when everyone who could dispute them is dead already. We might make up some of the details we’ve forgotten now, but our stories define our generation. Every generation needs to understand what came before.
A lot of the stories written by old people today are written for the express purpose of showing how someone in an old body can keep up with you young ones. I think they miss the point of writing while old — that they’ve witnessed periods no young person can even imagine.
We’ve lived without things that now seem essential. Everything electrical was tethered to a plug. Long distance telephoning was expensive and intimidating. Our main forms of communication were letters written with ink pens, and, later, with those marvelous but leaky ball points. We lived through our entire childhoods without pizza or MacDonald’s. Or TV.
We read books and listened to the radio. We listened to soap operas and mysteries and detective shows and had to imagine in vivid color everything that was happening, from settings to movements to murders — all with special effects that clicked and clanged and whooshed and whizzed.
We lived our lives differently and now we’re living our lives as you do. The transition from then to now is amazing. So much had to happen and we had to grow along with it. But the most amazing part is that we’re still here — still alive — still interested and interesting.
I know it’s awful to stay away for so long, only to come back to brag. But here I am and I came back to brag.
I sold a piece to Huffington Post Personals! (Key word: sold) This is how it happened, for those of you who are writers and are wondering how these things happen, and for those of you who are just curious, or for those of you who think my writing stinks and you want to get over there to see what the hell they saw in it.
My husband and I celebrated our 63rd anniversary this year, and it seemed like a pretty big deal, at least to us. (Nobody else seemed to notice, but I chalk it up to having had so many they’re getting bored with that whole rah rah thing.) So I wrote a story about what it’s like to share our lives together for such a long, long, long, long time. It was a kind of a fluff story with just a touch of conflict, just so no one would think it was a little bit of heaven all the time–or that I must have been lying.
But once it was finished I didn’t know what to do with it, until someone on a private Facebook writing group mentioned this great editor over at Huffington Post who was a dream to work with. (Who knew HuffPo took personal stories?) I wrote his name down–Noah Michelson–but when I went to send it I forgot to address it to him. So mad at myself! But wonder of wonders, he got it and he liked it and he asked me to wait a while until he could get back to it. He said he’d have some edits.
So a couple of weeks later he sent my draft back to me with a boat load of “suggestions”. He wanted names, he wanted pictures, he wanted a better feel for what it’s like to live with the same person for 63 years, growing from young to old. He wanted conflict. He wanted a complete rewrite.
I admit I balked at first. This wasn’t what I had in mind. I just wanted to throw something out there and call it an anniversary remembrance. But when I began to work on it, so much of what made up our lives over those sixty-plus years now seemed important. We lived through some of the most tumultuous times in recent history. We were married in the mid-fifties and matured during the crazy 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s.
It changed us. We raised a family. We grew apart. We grew together. But mainly we grew. And as our careers moved in different directions, we became more interesting to each other. We became more interested.
I loved writing the new story and I think it came out well. Much better than the original story. So I have to thank Noah for pushing me to dig deeper. I need to do this more often.