Living and Dying at Ninety…It Ain’t For Sissies

“I’m celebrating the 60th anniversary of my 30th birthday!”
Something my mother would have said if she was still saying these sorts of things.

There are at least two people cited with the “sissies” quote of the title—Bette Davis (of course), also Jerry Lewis (go figure)—but the most memorable person who said it (a lot) was my mother, Virginia Phyllis Amandes, who is turning 90-years-old today and incapable, anymore, of uttering that pithy phrase.

Nope. It ain’t for sissies.

Back in 2011, I wrote about the journey my mom and I set off on almost ten years ago when she came to Los Angeles for her last chapter. In its most recent version, The Mother of My Reinvention… our continuing journey, it tells the story of those early years, so I won’t reiterate here (though I hope you’ll click over and give it a read), but I do want to pick up a bit from there in acknowledgement of my mother’s persistence in staying alive. And to honor her on this, her 90th, birthday.

She doesn’t realize it’s her birthday. When my brother, Tom, mentioned to her recently that she was turning ninety, she looked at him with incredulity, her eyes wide in either stunned disbelief or because she had no idea what he was actually saying. We don’t know these days.

She speaks little now. If she does, it’s usually inexplicable and often incomprehensible. Most days she’s curled in her bed-like wheelchair or the bed she never got out of. Sleeping or staring. Usually sleeping. A woman who loved to laugh, and would regularly do so with boisterous abandon, she’s now locked in the labyrinth of her dementia, incapable of recognizing anything as complex as humor…though my brother and I still try. It’s possible we’re just not that funny. 🙂

He likes showing her photos of his grandkids, and on good days she responds, recently uttering “darling!” when gazing at one prancing around for proud parents in a video. The babies seem to strike a chord.

I sit with her watching “Fixer Upper”—there was nothing she loved better than rearranging the living room when we were kids— occasionally singing hits from our folksinging era, or Doris Day favorites. We still walk around the grounds from time to time, but, though this activity used to elicit exclamations about the bouncing squirrels or that tree groomed like a “gumdrop,” now it’s all silence all the time.

Which is strange for a woman who never stopped talking.

What can we say about this process of living and dying? I don’t know. I suppose it depends on your philosophical beliefs; your faith, your religion, your worldview. She always used to say, “the minute you’re born, you start dying,” which I always found to be a most depressing philosophy of life. But I’m not religious, nor is my brother, so without a subscription to the heaven/hell/God paradigm, one has to surrender to not knowing.

Sometimes I look at her and wonder why she’s holding on, why her frail, failing body hasn’t given up the ghost. Something in her is persistent in this urge to live, this instinct to stay alive, and who am I to presume she’s not having a good old time floating around the ethers, taking it all in with curiosity and appreciation? A medium actually told me that was exactly what she was doing, so I’m happy to let her fulfill whatever destiny is hers. But still…

One of her caregivers said the other day, “She looks good for ninety,” a statement I might take exception to, having known how lovely she was in her day, but maybe she does from their point of view. Maybe the part of her that still peeks out from time to time gives her a spark other 90-year-olds in their care don’t have.

This is one of my favorite pictures of the two of us. You can ignore the voluminous statement of my cheeks (was that much necessary?!) and focus, simply, on her beautiful, smiling face… Ginny, sparkling.

Time, ill-health, and dementia have taken that sparkle from her eyes, a fact that, when I recall her at her most ebullient, celebratory, and engaged, hits my heart like a punch. For someone who “lived out loud” (in ways good and, yes, sometimes less good), the silence of her current state is jarring. I used to say I could still find her in there, but that’s less and less these days. Sometimes we can’t even get her to open her eyes and I wonder: is she busy traipsing through some higher consciousness dream, or just unwilling to wake to a world in which she’s old and weak? I don’t know that either. But I still bring her M&Ms and sing ‘Que Sera Sera.”

And today we’ll celebrate her birthday milestone with verve and cake, because clearly, whatever her reasons, that’s what she wants… to keep living. Keep marking the passage of her life. Keep coming, trying, talking, singing. Keep her company. Keep her in our thoughts. Keep her warm, fed, and cared for. Because she’s still here, still living her life… at whatever volume she has left.

Happy 90th, Mom.


Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.

Advertisements

The Geeze and Me: Age Ain’t Nuthin’ But a Number…or 20!

The Geeze & Me” is a funny, irreverent, and poignant original musical. This timely show features a comedic troupe of eccentric players who team up to wrangle aspects of aging from an expert. An eclectic blend of songs ranging from pop to blues to corner street doo-wop, accompanied by innovative choreography. The perils and benefits of growing older are reflected in the concerns of this diverse group of people.

Think “Hair,” after it’s gone.

YEP. That’s me… one of those “eccentric players.” Back on the boards again after a decade or so off; singing, acting, dancing like the theater maven I used to be, inspiring the question: “Is it like getting back on the bike?”

It is. And isn’t. It’s better than that. It’s like getting back on the bike and discovering the bike became more precious in the interim.

I was always a dramatic child. From the moment my mouth opened and started expressing itself, my mother called me “Sarah Bernhardt,” her passive-aggressive way of telling me I was pushing the limits of emotive enthusiasm.

But when you’re one of eleven children, and every one of those is loud and unfettered, you have no choice but to be assertive getting your points across. And I was assertive, whether doing basement plays, church folk songs, college theater majoring, or kicking ass as a rock & roller.

geeze-cast

There’s just something about singing and acting that’s always been exhilarating to me. I know you other performers know exactly what I mean. That sense of channeling thought and feeling through your limbs and legs and vocal cords in ways that are physical and purging and yet can still convey fragility or love or anger. I remember moments of feeling so high (and with no enhancements involved) just standing in front of band or orchestra, singing my lungs out with soul-cleansing abandon. It’s a stunningly visceral experience and when I stopped doing it a while back, for reasons to do with lack of opportunity or heightened selectivity, it felt as if I had to adjust my breathing just to get enough air. Strange how that works.

Writing has been a lifetime Muse as well, as many of you are aware… a joyful one, a deeply satisfying one, but one of quieter comportment. More solitary and less collaborative. And I missed that collaboration, that madness particular to creating within a group. So as I’ve joyfully written, I’ve kept an eye out for opportunities. And one finally came my way… in the form of The Geeze and Me.

My pal, Nancy Locke Capers, my very first girlfriend made when I moved to Los Angeles as a toddler (okay… a young-twenty), has been living in La Jolla (near San Diego) for decades now, and, unbeknownst to me, was years into creating a musical with her very musical husband, Hedges Capers. Hedges, whose pedigree as a singer/songwriter is long and impressive (you can catch up with both their careers by clicking HERE and HERE), had an astonishing repertoire of songs—witty, clever, soulful, kickass, heartfelt songs—that literally oozed with narrative, and with those bones, he and Nancy created a witty, clever, soulful, kickass, heartfelt show analyzing, defining, debunking, and celebrating the “vicissitudes of aging.” They titled it, The Geeze and Me.

hedgenancy

We were sitting together at a friend’s wedding when I first heard about the show. Over, I believe, arugula salad with rosemary croutons, they asked if I’d be interested in getting involved. Interested? I felt old muscles perk up, dusty lights blink on; vocal cords vibrate with hopeful anticipation. Involved? OF COURSE! But it was reading the script, and, particularly, hearing Hedge’s songs, 20+ songs, that sealed the deal. The singer in me was tantalized, the storyteller impressed; the emoter wanted nothing more than to get out on whatever stage these two put together to sing those songs. I was in.

Now, Nancy and I have done many a production together, from collaborating on a feature screenplay (which was quite good, mind you), to working within the theater company at The Alliance Repertory in Burbank, to the premiere of an odd and hilarious play called Buried Together at Theater at the Improv in Hollywood (which Nancy directed). So our history as collaborators is long and storied. I trust her sensibilities, both artistically and personally, and know how great she is to work with. I also knew her years as a therapist would imbue her writing and directorial vision with deep understanding and wisdom. In fact, I love what she personally had to say on that topic:

As a writer, I was hoping to bring energy to the musical landscape with something fresh and new: a story with a post-modern structure, exploring the territory of intimate relationships as we age, personal loss, and the crossroads of adaptation and holding on. We plumb the ground of friendship, illness, sexuality, loneliness, personal dreams and anxieties. Oh…and make it funny!

I’ve tried to balance reality with a surreal quality of personal transformation, which I’ve witnessed during my many years as a psychotherapist. Working with a dream cast and the many collaborators who bring abundant creativity to the table is a thrill.

geezemetwitterbanner_2

As for Hedges… well, he’s all heart and soul: on his sleeve, in his words, woven throughout his music. A consummate artist, he’s put everything he’s got into this production, from creating the projections, to supervising set builds, to collaborating on the script, to designing the production, but, damn… it’s those songs! He seems to have a well of inspiration unlimited both in depth and breadth, the show’s repertoire evidence of that astonishing creative spectrum. Being able to perform songs that are everything from absurd, to funny, to provocative, to rip-your-heart-out tender is a gift for any performer. So I feel gifted to be there, to be working with them, with the incredible staff they’ve assembled, and certainly the amazing cast of actors and singers who impress and delight me daily.

Of course, I’d love for all of you to find a way to San Diego during the run: March 31st—April 29th. You can check the website for details, get connected to the show’s Facebook or Twitter pages for updates, and certainly you can contact me. Believe it or not, there are several nights that are already sold out, so if you’re planning to get there (and San Diego is a great place for a weekend field trip!):

Click HERE for available dates and ticket information.

So there you go… that’s my latest. Getting on with the act of creating during this strange and trying time in our country, and so grateful for the opportunity. Thanks for catching up, rehearsal’s in an hour; gotta go warm up the cords (damn, this is louder than writing books! 🙂 )

FOR Media and Press:

SUSAN J. FARESE
SJF Communications 408-398-5940
sjfcommunications@gmail.com
www.sjfcommunications.com

LDW w glasses


Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.

Damn. I Was Supposed To Get Famous Before My Face Fell

LDW @ 20

I’m joking. My face was never supposed to fall. 🙂

I’m writing this today because, after a recent commenter accused me of being “too old” to grasp the finer points of whatever it was they were schooling me on, I got to thinking about the currency of age and aging as an insult. It is one strange sword.

Aging is a weird thing, though, no getting around that. Yes, it’s universal, it’s inevitable, and even your three-year-old is doing it, but the term seems only to apply to persons of a certain demographic…and is rarely offered as a compliment. A baby is “getting so big!” A toddler becomes “such a big girl!” A kid is “all grown up!”; a teen, well, let’s face it: a teen couldn’t be happier than when hearing, “you look so much older than your age!” Twenty-, thirty- and even forty-somethings are “coming into their own.”

The rest of us? We’re aging.

The Aging Demographic (or “AD”) is loosely comprised of those past their “prime” years, the years when most people look the best they’re ever likely to look, when sex drives every conversation (consciously or unconsciously), when everything seems possible, and when people admire you without the addendum of “for your age.” I knew I was in the demographic when a record producer commented (as he was rejecting me in lieu of a much younger singer), “you’re just not current anymore…though I bet you were hot in the 80s.” Really. He said that. To my face. My old, sagging, AD face.

Fuck ‘im… I was hot in the 80s!

But despite the raggedy edge of age’s cutting tool, I think I’ve surrendered to the process rather graciously, with humor, acceptance, and a certain appreciation for its cloak of invisibility (there is freedom in knowing hardly anyone’s looking at you anymore!). Then again, what are the options?

Being ungracious, for one thing. Fearing it, denying it, defying it in ways that reek of desperation: silly clothes from Forever 21, surgery from the “best of Beverly Hills,” inordinate obsession with all things trendy. Many of our demographic have undergone the microscope and knife, leaving us with peers whose gently aging faces now have jawlines so sharp they could cut paper, cheeks that give Alvin a run for his money, or, God save us all, those duck lips that turn even the finest face into something oddly inhuman. It seems we’ll soon have whole generations of aging men and women who resemble Katherine Helmond in Brazil and I don’t mean the country. This, apparently, is our culture’s misguided answer to the conundrum of aging.

But I get it, too. It’s tough to stay relevant in our overcrowded and viciously, vacuously viral world. It’s work, it’s effort, and it can be soul-crushing. As the old saying goes: “If you wanna dance, you gotta pay the piper,” and those who dance in the world of business, media, music, movies, TV, or even literature (if you can’t look hot you better write hot!) have been forewarned: payment is the currency of youth and beauty… even for those who are still young, particularly women. As controversial hip-hop artist, Iggy Azalea, all of twenty-five, explains:

“It’s hard to be a woman in 2015 with social media. There’s so much more emphasis on taking pictures of ourselves and the ‘likes’ or people commenting on them. There’s a lot more pressure to look beautiful. Some days I just want to look like s**t and feel okay with that.”

I hear ya, Iggy! When the front pages of even the most esteemed news sources lede with stories about who lost their baby weight the quickest, whose butt is breaking the Internet, or “can you believe these stars are in their 50s??” (when we all know they have seen Dr. Beverly Hills!), it’s clear we’ve lost our way on this topic.

But even everyday people are more pressured than ever to stay uber-competitive in jobs where management’s bleats about “fresh and cutting edge” are most often code for “watch your step…your old ass can be replaced any time.” I have friends in their fifties, sixties, and seventies who are smart, vibrant, and rife with expertise and know-how, but worry daily about when the “aging axe” will fall.

Ice floe, anyone?

But, on the flip side, there’s an interesting thing that happens once you get past the indignity of no longer being seen as “hot,” whether sexually, creatively, or commercially, perks to aging that no one tells you much about. There’s little emphasis on the fact that (forgive the cliché), much as it does with fine wine, artisanal cheese, or expert haircuts, time can season and perfect a thing, evolve it into its finest incarnation, its best version of itself. Things like a mind, a heart, a worldview, a sense of self… a person.

They don’t tell you how much calmer and less frantic you’ll feel, or mention the well-spring of patience you might discover within yourself. They forget to make clear just how philosophical and accepting you may become; how circumspect and objective about the minutia of life that tends to drive younger people crazy (that drove you crazy). Infrequently mentioned is how you’ll feel less apologetic, less beholden; more independent, and certainly more irreverent. You’ll care less about what other people think and more about what feels right to you, what resonates in your gut… even if your gut is bigger than it used to be!

You might even find yourself feeling sorry for those with the burden of youth: the pressures to be trendy and hip, the intensity of expectation for success and wealth; the confusions around how to be caring and compassionate in a culture built on snark, smartphones, and mindless “feuds” amongst privileged pop stars. I watch younger women work so damn hard to meet every beauty standard demanded of them — from managing body hair and high heels, to posting the appropriate number of selfies — and it all looks so exhausting. Clearly I’d have never made it as young person today…too damn culturally lazy!

As for young men, I observe many struggling to find the exact right balance between affecting cool and competence, romantic and non-committal, devil-may-care and well-employed, and I know how delicate that youthful branding exercise can be. It all matters when you’re young, self-obsessed, and certain all eyes are upon you. Which they often are.

Then you’re aging and nobody’s eyes are upon you. How freeing!!

Well, sorta. I mean, it is freeing in all the aforementioned ways, but occasionally I walk into a room where I would’ve caught glances in the past and notice how few look up these days. That’s OK, I say to myself, you’ve got other things to offer. Then I see the woman in the mirror and wonder, when did that happen to my neck and where did my jawline go? Or wince at candid shots that don’t involve the elegant lighting required for an aging face. I find I’m uninterested in posting TBT pictures, because, at this point, I prefer to focus less on what I was, and more on my ongoing journey of embracing and accepting what I am. That’s the journey we are all obligated to: the present… with its not-so-distant cousin, the future.

Sure, it would have been swell if my lifetime of creative effort had led to my fullest vision of success while I still held the flush of youthful exuberance; it would’ve been fun to take that ride while still eager and inexperienced. But should any of those big-picture goals be met in years to come, I hope to be gracious and graceful about openly sharing my AD self — lines, wrinkles, sags, and all — without apology, without self-consciousness, and with the newly-acquired exuberance of age and its many gifts.

Because damn if we ADers didn’t work hard to get where we are, a place replete with wisdom, experience, and, yes, our aging, fabulous selves. It’s a good mix, I’ve discovered, one that every lucky person, even Iggy Azalea and that bouncing three-year-old, will, hopefully, one day discover.

LDW w glasses


Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.