Josna Rege

436. Feel-good, feeling good

In Aging, reading, reflections, seasons, Stories, Words & phrases, Work, writing on June 13, 2019 at 12:09 pm

from Friday’s Tunnel, written and illustrated by John Verney

It is a grey weekday morning. Rain is forecast, with gusty winds and temperatures 20°F below what is usual for mid-June weather, but so far it is pleasantly cool, overcast, and expectantly still. The street, too, is still, now that most of the students have left for the summer, with only the occasional dog-walker dawdling in front of the house with his cell-phone, studiously indifferent to his companion marking my newly seeded strip of lawn, and a car going by maybe once an hour, if that, and at a snail’s pace.

Yesterday I pruned the bushes out back, inexpertly and overzealously. Now the clippings lie in heaps on the terrace steps, and before the rain I ought to pull on gumboots and tick-proof clothing to dump wheelbarrow-loads of them in the copse at the end of the garden. All such a joy and a luxury now that my grades are finally in and I am officially on summer break. But instead, a lady of leisure, I have donned an old dressing-gown of Andrew’s and gone back to bed (after a breakfast of oatmeal and strawberries) to read and write. Rain looms, brush clippings beckon, and a clipboard with its fresh notepad awaits my long To Do list, but it will all just have to wait; I’m feeling good.

In ten days I will turn 65—or complete 65, as we say more accurately in Indian English—officially a Senior Citizen. I wonder, will I command greater respect, inspire pity, or simply become irrelevant? Will I cease to strive or strive with all the more urgency? Will I slow down and count my blessings, or set myself demanding new goals to keep mind and body active? I’m noticing the aches and pains in my joints, especially my thumbs, the decisiveness with which exhaustion dictates my bedtime at the end of the day, the lag before the word I want comes to me. How much more time do I have to set my house in order, to write, even to think?

As a young smart-alec, I routinely mocked and dismissed “feel-good movies” as sentimental, without any critical edge, opiates synthesized simply to attract the largest possible audience (and, of course, box-office profits) and turn their minds to mush. Yet at the same time—and I didn’t seem to notice the contradiction here—I personally avoided horror films, thrillers and tragedies. Life was horrific enough, I argued, with more than enough misery to go around; why pay to subject oneself to even more? I preferred to lose myself in romantic comedies—why? Because they made me feel good.

In an email a few years ago, Barbara, an old friend, made an observation about me  which I continually find myself returning to and mulling over; she had noticed that I didn’t want to do things I didn’t want to do. Although this may appear tautological, in fact it goes right to the heart of things. My attitude toward the feel-good movie—and perhaps to feeling good in general—is of a piece with Barbara’s penetrating insight. There are things I need to do that I must tackle with a will, whether or not I want to do so. Afterwards there will be time to relax and feel good in the knowledge that the work has been accomplished. On the other hand, there is nothing inherently wrong with doing things that make one feel good, as long as it isn’t at the expense of doing what has to be done. And it is downright counter-productive to make oneself, or others, feel bad about wanting to feel good.

I’ve looked up and it’s already raining, hard. That’s put paid to any hopes of garden clean-up today. Andrew’s just come in—he’s already tackling the To Do list I haven’t even made yet—and I’ve told him guiltily that I am about to get up and at ‘em. So, signing off to face the day but feeling defiantly glad that I made the feel-good decision to go back to bed. Old and obstinate and feeling good about it!

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435. Wild Things

In Nature, Stories on June 4, 2019 at 1:47 am

I. Grandfather
Stink bugs were my nemesis. In our old farmhouse, everywhere I looked, there one was. Late at night, while I was dropping
off to sleep at the laptop, one would materialize, right on my keyboard. When I was in bed, all defenses down, a stinkbug would appear, all alert, on the edge of my bedside table. Flicking on the light to go to the bathroom in the dead of night, I’d find stink bug poised on the edge of the sink. I was starting to take it personally, even getting superstitious about it. But one day, everything changed.

My old friends Maureen and Ruth had come to visit, for a “girls’ sleepover” we were having once a month. This was the first time I had hosted and, sure enough, a stinkbug appeared obligingly, as if I had whispered it up. Because I had an audience, I squealed out loud; though when I encountered them alone I shrieked inwardly. Ruth, always a person to count on in a crisis, remained perfectly calm. Josna, she said, speak to it and call it Grandfather. Out of politeness, I complied; inwardly, I scoffed. But it worked! Never have stinkbugs troubled me again. Oh, they still dog me unfailingly, but they menace me no more; I simply speak to them, unperturbed. Grandfather, I say, in respectful tones, let me take you back outside.

II. Eyes to see
We were in the dining room the other day, having a late breakfast with our friend Michael, and talking about the wildlife we’d seen in the neighborhood in the ten months since we’d moved here: a plump and very complacent rabbit, a well-established resident squirrel whose methodical daily routines put me to shame, a chipmunk who lives under the overhang of the magnificent stone that is the back doorstep, and a massive attack-cat who rules our terrace as its personal den. I had exaggerated these commonplace sightings as if they were something rare and precious, rueing the loss of the rural. Slowly sipping my morning tea, I remembered our old place, just across from a large conservation area with acres of wild woods beyond, and the many wild creatures we’d encountered there over the years: squirrels, rabbits, and chipmunks, certainly, but also fireflies, crickets, tree frogs, snakes, toads, mice, skunks, raccoons, woodchucks, pheasants, and red foxes. Just then, what did I see loping across my field of vision in our next-door neighbor’s back garden, but the biggest, shaggiest, bushiest-tailed brown fox I had ever seen? It wasn’t a hallucination because Michael saw it too, though by the time I had sprung to my feet to look out the door, it was long gone.

The wild things are still with us, if we have eyes to see them. Thank goodness.

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434. Friends from Way Back

In Books, people, reflections, Stories, United States on May 26, 2019 at 9:59 am

In Chinua Achebe’s modern classic, Things Fall Apart, the hypermasculine, highly-strung protagonist Okonkwo has a best friend and agemate, Obierika, who is the only person who can speak home truths to him without making him fly into a rage. They are both well-placed, well-respected family men, but Okonkwo, bull-headed and defensive, is perpetually falling afoul of the community because of his uncontrollable temper, while Obierika is a much more deliberate, thoughtful man, with a wry sense of humor. Even though he is the stereotypical strong silent type, Okonkwo will regularly go over to Obierika’s place where they may share kola nut and palm wine and sit quietly for a while, until Okonkwo blurts out what’s on his mind, or his friend raises the subject more delicately and then gives Okonkwo a piece of his. In Igbo society back at the turn of the twentieth century, agemates had gone through the circumcision rituals together in adolescence; having shared that arduous coming-of-age experience, there was little they could hide from each other ever after.

As I get older, the people in my life who have known me since childhood and youth get fewer but all the more precious. Yesterday old friends visited who go all the way back with our family. The parents were good friends of my parents, who met them on the IIT campus in Kharagpur in 1955 when they were still newlyweds and I was just six months old and “still crawling”, as Mona remembered yesterday, visiting us with her daughter Ginny on her 92nd birthday. Mona’s son Jim, just a little older than me, was my playmate, and when our families miraculously crossed paths again in the U.S. after having lost touch with each other for fifteen years, we took up the friendship as if it had never been interrupted. By now each of them had had another child, and the two daughters were also agemates whose lives proceeded to take parallel tracks. Fast-forward 33 years, and Mona and Bajirao attended my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary celebration, bearing the ceremonial cake. Like my parents, they had a mixed marriage, Bajirao coming from the same part of the country and the same community as Dad, and Mona, like Mum, a foreign wife in early post-Independence India, though Mona was American and Mum English. Bajirao was the first to pass away, nearly nine years ago, and as my sister Sally and I drove back in the snow from his wake, Sally pointed out that our friends had shown us the way we, as fellow half-and-halves, might honor the passing of our parents in a foreign country. At Dad’s memorial both Jim and Ginny spoke eloquently, and Jim’s heartfelt words for our father brought tears to his family’s eyes as they no doubt remembered their own. Now, after our families’ lives have been intertwined for nearly 65 years, there is little that we can’t share with each other.

This is Old Home weekend for us. Today we are eagerly awaiting the arrival of our dear friend Michael, Andrew’s best friend from eighth grade on, sharer with him of teenage exploits of all kinds, who now lives in New Mexico and is driving down to us from Maine where he has just scattered his parents’ ashes by the ocean. Michael and I go way back, too, back to 1970 and my very first day at Brookline High, a new immigrant entering an entirely foreign school system mid-year. I took the first joyride with Michael and his then-girlfriend Laura the day they got their drivers’ licenses, an important American rite of passage, and when I met Andrew it turned out that he and Michael were best friends and that they had built a treehouse together, a dream of a treehouse in which we three shared many happy hours and which helped us all survive high school (see TMA#4, The Tree House). Later in the decade, Andrew and I drove out to New Mexico in our 1950 International Harvester milk truck (which Andrew had bought at the same time and from the same man who sold Mike a 1964 Triumph TR-4 sports car) and lived with Michael in Albuquerque for nearly a year, sharing another defining period of our lives. His parents retired to Portland, Maine, so as they grew older, Michael made the pilgrimage Back East to visit them more and more frequently, and we got together almost every time. Once he brought his parents to visit us in Amherst, where his father had attended “Mass Aggie,” as UMass, then the state agricultural college,was called, and he pointed out some of his old haunts. We gathered to toast his parents’ on their 50th wedding anniversary, celebrated landmark birthdays with them, and attended Mike’s father Pete’s funeral. Pete, who managed the farm and greenhouse on the Brookline estate where Andrew’s family rented a house, was Andrew’s first employer, and later, for a few months after college when I worked at the same greenhouse, he was my employer too. The last long car ride Mike’s mother Velma took was down to Amherst with him to attend Andrew’s father’s memorial, and we went up to Maine to dear Velma’s funeral just before my own mother passed away. This weekend I look forward to the three of us sitting out back just hanging out, Andrew and Michael agemates from way back, both men of few words, and for once I think I will quiet my chatter and be content to just be.

Here’s Jimmie Rodgers singing My Old Pal. Thinking of all my old pals with love and gratitude.

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