Monday, June 11, 2012

The Alchemy of Age

In case you haven’t noticed – and judging from the lack of comment I’ve received, you haven’t – it’s been a long time since I’ve added to this blog. Strangely enough, I’ve been busy. Since my “retirement” from a Large Religious Organization, I’ve been on the lookout for something else. I want to re-group and re-purpose myself. I’m looking to find a new reason for starting the day and new things to talk about when I get home. People keep telling me that “it” is out there somewhere. They just don’t have a clear idea where or what “it” is.

Neither do I.

Still, I recently finished something that gives me at least a glimmer of what “it” might be. This spring, I launched on an adventure that brought me no fame and no fortune. It actually cost me a pretty good chunk of change when all was said and done. That’s how my life tends to work.

In lieu of gainful employment, I embarked on a chaplaincy internship. Ron, a good friend and former colleague in the aforementioned Large Religious Organization (hereafter referred to as the LRO), called me and told me about an opportunity that had come up very quickly. If I wanted to be part of it, I needed to decide and get my application done in about 24 hours. Thanks for the lead time, Ron! Anyway, I filled out my application and sent it (along with the non-refundable $50 fee) to the Care and Counseling Center of Georgia. After a few days and an interview, I was officially a Chaplain Intern for Presbyterian Homes of Georgia. I would be working Philips Tower, a senior independent living center in Decatur.

I had no idea what I was getting into, but it was an opportunity to explore not only a possible interest and a new area of service, but to explore who the last 27 years of loyalty to the LRO had made me to be. I should have been nervous. Really, I was more curious than nervous and looked forward to it. Sitting around searching the internet for possible employment will make anyone look forward to just about anything.

I had never worked with senior adults. The minimum age to be a resident of the PHofGA is 62. Most of our residents were well above that. Would I have anything to offer them? After all, I had spent my career dealing with the issues faced by college students. Would they want to accept anything I had to offer? They didn’t know me. Why should they be open to anything I said or did? What about the staff I would be working with? Would they allow me to be a real part of life at Philips Tower? It would take some kind of magic or divine intervention to make it all come together.

It would take some kind of alchemy.

The basic definition of alchemy is creating something of great value – usually gold – out of a common substance believed to be of little worth. I spend three months in an alchemical cauldron of people from different places who led different lives and who now found themselves residents of the same 10-story high rise. Into the cauldron they poured their personalities and quirks, their preferences and their experiences and their faith. To that mix I added my own experience, whatever expertise I had and my hope to be part of something bigger than myself.
I found myself amazed. I now believe in the alchemy of people. Remarkable things happened when we worshipped and celebrated communion together or when we talked together or when we simply encountered one another in the hallway. I had arrived hoping to witness alchemy. I stayed to become part of the gold.

Why? Simply, it was the people. Most of the residents were glad to see us on a daily basis. They supported us as we were trying to support them. I was humbled at the extent of their experience and the lives many had led. Some were sad. Some struggled with physical illness or limitations. A few were dealing with things that happened early in their lives but were so horrific that they were still in pain. Some were happy to still be able to talk or laugh or sing or pray.

I didn’t get the chance to thank everyone like I needed to and should have. I’ve never really been good at that anyway. Still, it’s important to be able to say that these people became part of my life and I’m glad for that. Some I will never forget.

For Ilene, who told people that I was her adopted son and who told great off-color jokes, thank you – I’m still laughing. For Jim, who was a high school classmate of baseball great Joe Torre, thanks for the stories. For Dorothy who never could remember what she had told me so she told me again every 5 minutes, I miss your smile. For Gwen, sharp as a tack at age 105, you inspire me. For Ben, who sometimes struggles for answers, I’m right there with you.

For the staff of Philips Tower, I thank you too. Mary, my supervisor, always wanted me to be more open and more transparent. I’m trying, Mary. Thanks for all you did for me. Bob, the funniest Activities Director around – I miss hearing rock and roll in the office. Rae and Belinda, thank you for your support and acceptance – and thanks, Rae for letting me play the djembe. Connie, empress of the office, we will continue to pray without ceasing. Stacy, thank you for accepting me as a part of the staff. Russ, I appreciate all your encouragement. Shawn and the Blue Men who keep things running – it was a great ride. And Scott, who got there two weeks before I left, I’m glad we reconnected. Who knew a former student would show up and be a fellow staff member?

I don’t know what the future will hold for me. I wish that I did. If I can find a place for myself that mirrors the alchemy of age that I found in that senior living center, I will be more than happy. I will be re-purposed.