Old Age and the Point of Being

Back in July, I started a part-time job in a nursing home across the bridge on the North Shore, up in West Vancouver. It’s a long-term care facility, which means that many if not most of the residents I interact with have dementia. Some of them are pretty mobile and cognizant, but some sit in the same spot all day in a hallway or by a TV, needing help to eat, to use the toilet, to move from wheelchair to bed and back again.

I spend a lot of time wiping off chipped polish with acetone and repainting nails in colors that make ladies feel like themselves, walking slow, bent folks down long corridors to and from precious COVID-time family visits. Sometimes I sit by someone and fill in a mandala with bright colored pencils or scoop ice cream while dozens of eager faces line up, eyes fastened to the tub of butterscotch. Sometimes I just crouch and hold a hand. I’ve never been so frequently snapped at or so frequently thanked without really deserving either.

Inglewood has over 200 residents and on the weekends when I work, alongside the medical care staff, there are usually only four or five recreation staff members like me around, so I spend a fair amount of time rushing from place to place. The residents watch as I pass them by. Some smile and wink at me, though they no longer have the cognitive capacity to learn and retain my name. Others sometimes call out as I go—thoughts many of us harbor anxiously in the back corners of our minds all our lives, but which have now become so central to them in these final years that they speak them aloud in desparation. Can you help me? This is such a long hallway. I need to go to the washroom. I live here? What should someone do who feels lost? Will I be okay? What’s next? Then when will I go home?

They’ve returned, some of them, to watching adult life from the sidelines, like children crouching at the top of the stairs when they’re supposed to be in bed, catching glimpses of what goes on in the party below through the slats in the railing, trying to make sense of what is happening and why they are no longer able to participate. Inside these people, of course, are decades’ worth of their memories and lives and skills and selves, which still flicker out of even the most confused in occasional bright flashes. One lady I walked back to her room in her closed unit spoke to me nonstop in Romanian, and kept hugging me and kissing me as if I were family. She gave hugs as if she’d given thousands and would never lose the talent.

It is easy and often sweet when talking about old age to draw upon these vulnerable, childlike images. In fact, the comparison with childhood is nearly unavoidable, because the similarities of need, fragility, and even innocence are so obvious. And to think like that helps us to care for our elders with gentleness and patience. But there is a glaring, uncomfortable difference between the old and young with which we must reckon. 

Neither the very old or the very young are “useful” or have anything of practical value to contribute to the world—they are, in fact, a drain on tangible resources and energy. However, our culture understands that children make this worth our while because they are bursting with potential—tomorrow, we hope, they will serve their community in great and glorious ways. But what about these toothless folks with ninety years to their name seated on blue incontinence pads in their wheelchairs? What’s the point of them? What work will they do? They have no potential. They’re all used up and many of them, painfully, know it.

This hard truth must be faced because none of it is theoretical. This is our parents, our grandparents, and one day it’s us.

A few weeks ago I brought a tiny old lady named Belva downstairs for a visit. We were a few minutes early and since this wasn’t her regular unit, I took her around for a little field trip. We went out into the back garden to see the bright flowers, which made her light up, and we returned more than once to the large cage of colorful, twittering birds just inside the main lounge. As she stared at them, she whispered to me, “Oh, this is a good place.” And it was a very good place indeed, I could see. It was a place which had no time for measuring the relative usefulness of Belva or of her birds or even of me, young and productive as I am. Her place contained only the beauty of the moment and the joy inherent in existence. She was awed by the birds, and then twice over, she was awed by the automatic door when I pressed the button, and applauded as it did its work. She said that it was “wonderful.”

The work of the aged, the point of them, is the same as the ultimate central point of all of us. They have been made, and now their work is merely to be. Humans were made not to produce, but to be, just as hands, I am increasingly beginning to think, were made for holding. Hands are useful and important in a myriad of other ways, certainly, but to be held is their highest calling.

Lighting the Turtle

Last night I was searching through the depths of my school google drive for something and stumbled upon a mid-year self-evaluation I had completed during my first year of teaching. The young woman who was me almost three years ago came across as sweet and hopeful. She said that she was learning to teach and slowly getting better, that her students seemed to at least be learning something, that she was grateful for the support of the teachers around her, and that she loved her students. She italicized it. She loved them.

I’ve found myself able to be actively grateful for a couple things the last week or two. The first is that God is in control and I am not. I have been holding my hands open recently because if I tried to clamp them tight around my own plans and power, there would be nothing to grasp onto but air. I am reliant on the grace of God. The second thing I am grateful for is the manner in which God has shown me this grace: I’m grateful for my students.

They haven’t been perfect in the last few weeks, but they know that. I haven’t been perfect, and I know that too. Regardless, whenever they’ve walked into my classroom over the last few days, I’ve found it easier to breathe deep. I know that their coming will distract me and cheer me. They’re unwitting bearers of perspective and sometimes even joy. Also, I love them.

This afternoon in fourth period, after I passed out a reading from Frederick Douglass, the boy who sits directly in front of my desk looked up and asked, “Miss Hodgkins, are you going to light the turtle?” On my desk is a turtle candle holder, a gift from a student right around the same time the earlier Alice wrote that self-eval. I remember him telling me cheerfully that I could use it to help calm everybody down. It’s heavy polished stone, with a brightly painted back, and just enough room in the middle of his shell to hold a small tea light. The turtle is a familiar sight to all the souls who like to wander up to my desk between classes and fiddle with its contents. It’s a presence in my classroom, so I’ve been asked to light it many times before, but I’ve always said no. (I say no a lot.)

But today I said yes. Or rather, I looked back at the asking student for a moment, and then I dug into the glass jar on my desk, and pulled out the little blue Bic lighter that lives there. (Note that the lighter mysteriously appeared in my classroom a couple months ago. It’s not originally mine.) The kids cheered softly as I lit the dusty wick. I smiled. (I smile a lot too.)

The turtle burned for the rest of the afternoon. A few of the girls announced that it was the “eternal flame.” A student in fifth period magnanimously promised to buy me a lavender scented candle. At the beginning of sixth period several boys took turns trying to blow it out from a distance, until I stood a folder around it to protect it. After the final bell rang, I walked out into the hall and almost laughed, because the boy who’d originally given me the candle, long-graduated, was standing there with a friend, home from college. I was well-satisfied. I love them.

On Slow Learning

If you have ever owned
a tortoise, you already know
how difficult paper training can be
for some pets.

Even if you get so far
as to instill in your tortoise
the value of achieving the paper
there remains one obstacle—
your tortoise’s intrinsic sloth.

Even a well-intentioned tortoise
may find himself, in his journeys
to be painfully far from the mark.

Failing, your tortoise may shy away
for weeks within his shell,
utterly ashamed, or looking up with tiny,
wet eyes might offer an honest shrug.
Forgive him.

-Scott Cairns

The Smallest Joys

This is going to be mundane. I’m excited.

First, you have to understand that I don’t spend much money. This is partly because I don’t have much and partly because I don’t need much, but also, and perhaps most importantly, because I have very, very good sales resistance. I usually walk into stores with a very definite list of what I need, and often I walk out with less than that. In fact just last week, I went to one specific store to buy one specific thing, looked at it for a while, decided that I didn’t want it after all, and went contently back home with nothing. I’ve never learned to be a good consumer.

So everytime I go to the Farmer’s Market out on I-40 I stare wistfully at the stalls of gorgeous bright flowers and tell whoever I’m with that really the only reason I want to get married one day is for an excuse to buy buckets and buckets of those things to fill a church with. Usually my companion tells me practically that since they’re only ten dollars, and typically my paycheck is more than that, I should go ahead and buy some now if I like them so much. I never listen.

But last weekend I threw a little bridal shower for a friend and, feeling a little giddy, I headed out to the Farmer’s Market with Karen, and walked away with a bunch of the much-desired flowers cradled in my arms like an infant. Since the bride was leaving town two days after the shower, I kept them and the most hardy of them are still sitting on my kitchen table, shining out the last vestiges of their glory.

Then on Tuesday I went to run an errand for a friend before I had a hair appointment and realized I had some extra time, so, perhaps feeling the afterglow of the marvelous floral purchase, I decided to wander around a little bit. I went to Barnes and Noble, where I bought myself a just-for-fun book, and then to Schiffman’s, where I had my ring cleaned, and then I took myself to lunch and read in the car. Granted, at both Barnes and Noble and Panera, I used gift cards, the book I bought was from the clearance table, and jewelry cleaning is an entirely complimentary service, so I didn’t technically spend a cent on myself all day (even, incidentally, at the hair appointment.) Yet as I stood there in Schiffman’s waiting for my ring, smiling into glowing glass cases at the silver and gold, and politely deflecting the saleslady’s attempts to get me to start a “wishlist” (ha!), I felt a warm, creeping joy, and decided that no matter how puny and silly it might seem to anyone else, I was having my own personal girl’s day out. I felt incredibly frivolous and also heavenly.

Most of the time, especially since fully entering the adult world two years ago, I try to go into every situation and do what should be done. I buy what I should buy, I go where I should go, I say what I should say. I live by the word “should.” Should is a very important word. Should makes the world go round.

But should is not the only word. Perhaps, at times, I need to keep an eye out for places and moments where should has nothing to do with it, where the only real operator on the scene is small, bright joy. And, if you’ll excuse me for applying theology to something as silly and ephemeral as consumerism, I think Jesus died so that “should” would no longer have to be my master. He died so that he, the Light of the world, the Lily of the Valley, could be my master instead.

I’ve worn my grandmother’s ring nearly every day since my senior year of high school, and in that time, I’ve only had it cleaned twice. Now when I look at it, it sparkles. And it makes me happier than I ever knew it could.


This school-year began hard. At the end of the first day of school, I walked down the hall to a co-worker’s classroom and sat on a desk and cried. I told her that it wasn’t my students (and it wasn’t), but it was me. I wasn’t sure I was made to do this. I didn’t have enough ability or energy, or perhaps most of all, enough love. I looked at my students and I looked at the teachers around me and I thought that maybe inside of my ribcage, instead of a muscular heart, pumping and giving, that maybe I only had sand. I did not seem to be enough.

And then my grandma died and my sister moved to London within days of one another, and things got oh-so-busy. So busy that I have not written here for over a month, even though I’ve wanted to. By way of an update: I have cried a little, been angry a few times, and laughed more than maybe I should. I have learned what it is to be unexpectedly encouraged through supportive parents and writing poems and silly games at the end of class and getting to act in a play again.

I’m reading through The Jesus Storybook Bible with a couple students, (which is a different story for a different day,) and a few weeks ago while reading about the battle of Jericho, I came across a line that stopped me and held me still: “So it was that God’s people entered their new home. And they didn’t have to fight to get in — they only had to walk.” So maybe my heart need not be a muscular hero, because there already is One. Maybe I am not always called to be a soldier “on the front lines of humanity,” but just a child who walks faithfully after my God. Of course I am not enough. I was never intended to be.

And I don’t know if God meant me for teaching, but right now, he certainly means teaching for me. High-schoolers can be uniquely bitter and uniquely joyful, often within the same hour. Last weekend I went to a regional one-act competition with Caldwell’s drama department. It’s funny to see what happens when you put about three hundred theatre kids in an auditorium for hours on end. They eat it up, they find friends, they get loud, they glow. More than once, in the forty-minute breaks between shows, sixty or seventy of them would congregate down front to play a game called Pony-something-or-other (or maybe it was Something-something-Pony?) They stood in a huge circle and clapped and chanted and danced with each other. They turned exuberant and pink and out-of-breath. I sat curled in my hard seat and watched and laughed and said “absolutely not” over and over whenever our kids bothered me to join them. To watch them dance is to be warm and to be still and to know.

Learning to Live

My senior year of college I wrote a novel: one draft fall semester, and two more during the spring. When I had a deadline approaching for honors seminar I would be crouched on my desk chair till two in the morning, whispering and backspacing words on to the page, hardly noticing when my roommate came in and out. I’d be up at nine the next morning writing again: in t-shirt and sweatpants, curled in a snarl of sheets on my bed, dirty tea-mugs mounting on the stacked crates beside me. Late in the morning, I would get dressed hurriedly and head to class with a hot hole burning in my chest, because I had left my heart lying on top of my closed laptop back on my desk, still fast-beating a story. It was terrible and glorious.

The summer after I graduated, I very purposely took the summer off from any serious writing. I travelled and saw people I loved. I read a good deal. I made nervous stabs towards planning for teaching.

Then I taught.

And now there’s this summer: what with travelling and moving, this has been my first real week of it, of having the days all to myself, to dispose of however I choose. I have meant to get back to that serious writing, that state where I produce, produce, produce and walk around a little lopsided, because I have one foot on the ground and one foot stuck in the air. I meant to write for hours each day. But instead this week has confirmed for me something which I have to quietly admit to myself I already knew: I am not a creature of routine. I never will be.

I like to plan, but then I live on a whim: now I want to make myself some eggs, now I want to read a new book, now I want to take a bath, now I will do dishes, now (though it’s five-thirty) I will make my bed!

This leaves the short story that I’m working on moving slowly, painfully, in twenty-minutes-a-day starts and backfires. But college is college and this, for now, is real life. My mom and I are making a deal to keep each other accountable for writing this month, and I think that this will help.

Part of real life (if not most of it) is making do with what you have: your hands, your feet, your mind, your time, your lack, your abundance. Making all these things work for the glory of Him who loves us. Even when we submit to having all the parts of us brought together, the days we do this right, the unexpected and complex amalgamation of gifts and understandings in each of us combines to make strange little people, creatures who limp and plod along on odd numbers of legs, looking laughably like misfits. (The cloven in The Wingfeather Saga made me cry because I know that they are true.)

But what matters is not whether we look funny, but whether we are moving, and moving in the right direction, even if it goes in fits and starts and circles that don’t seem to make sense. What matters is that we walk alongside one another and that we laugh because we know the great secret. We know that we are not misfits after all’s said and done. We are “kept in grace.”

Oh, I like living. I like making do.

Christian Bookstores and the Joy That Keeps Me Awake

Last week one of my students asked me to lead a Bible study. There was one particular book which she wanted to go through, written by a local youth pastor’s wife. With play rehearsals on top of senior thesis grading on top of the rest of my job, it wasn’t until today that I got around to finding a copy to read. First I went to Barnes and Nobles, but they didn’t have it in stock, so I called my dad. I asked him what other big bookstores there were in town. He told me none. So then I asked him where that Christian bookstore was, and let him tell me, although I already knew. And then I went.

From the moment I pulled up, I was, as my pastor during college would have said, profoundly uncomfortable. I am a follower of Christ and I have spent my whole life in Christian community. I love walking into churches. I love books. Quite obviously, I think it is a good thing to read and write about Jesus, and I know full well that if the contents of this blog were ever to be really published, that is the sort of store that would sell them. And yet.

There were posters of smiling women all inside the display windows, and when I walked in it smelled like potpourri and both cashiers shouted hello.  But potpourri doesn’t bother me, and I am definitively in favor of smiles and people who give them to me.

I was probably inside for a total of three or four minutes. I can find books very fast when I want to, and they had the one I needed. It was just past the Christian board books section, in the women’s section, where most of the covers were pink or had pictures of rushing water on them.

When the lady rung me up she asked for my phone number, my full name, my mailing address. I wanted to say, Please don’t send me things. I don’t want your things. You have an entire wall devoted to Beth Moore, Karen Kingsbury is displayed with your “Best New Reads,” and your open sign is shaped like an ichthys. Why can’t it just be shaped like an open sign?!? But instead I told her my phone number, my full name, my mailing address. Then I walked out with a bag which said “Biblical Solutions to Life” on the side. I drove away and tried to figure out why that had been such an unpleasant experience.

Sometimes I lie awake at night because I have too many thoughts. They don’t  have time to be thought of during the day, so once I turn out my light they tumble around and around in my head, delighted to have my attention at long last. Sometimes they are angry and bitter thoughts. More than once this year I have decided with great certainty that whoever dreamed up the idea of teaching as an actual career is a sadist, on level with Rasputin or Iago, and ought to be taken out and shot.

But other nights are different. Other nights joy keeps me awake. Joy that I bought stickers at Target to put on a rough batch of tests, joy that high schoolers like to laugh and like to laugh at themselves, joy that I have people I love enough to miss, joy, to be honest, that students want me to lead a Bible study. This is the sort of joy that makes me feel very small. Small and loved and promised and clean. The greatest lesson I have learned in teaching is the hugeness of my own inadequacy and and the irrelevance of that inadequacy in the face of God’s abundant grace.

I think that there are fair and wise criticisms to be made of the idea of a Christian bookstore or of a Christian culture in general. But I don’t think I am the person to make them. I walked into that place this evening as a female teacher at a Christian school with plans to lead a Bible study for teenage girls. I knew I was their ideal demographic and I resented it. I did not want to think they might have anything to teach me. I wanted Jesus to reassure me that no, of course, he would never have come to a place like this. I was prepared to remind myself that he was my God and not theirs.

But the God of small joys, who pries open my fingers and teaches me to hold my palms out empty before him, is far wiser than I. If he can change me through cheap princess stickers and flubbed blocking in a high school drama rehearsal, it is faithless of me to claim he cannot be present in books that cry out his name on every page. Perhaps I will lie awake tonight thinking about that.

You will show me the path of life; in your presence is fullness of joy.