Lessons in Survival

britannica.com

Lily was almost 100 years old when she left this world, very peacefully. I hadn’t yet reached my 20’s, so she was like, (channeling my former self), this other-worldly relic of times that I struggled to imagine. Small, under five feet tall; pure white hair that looked like spun sugar, always worn in a topknot on her head (people said she stopped cutting it when her husband died 20 years earlier); a pink-cheeked Apple Doll face that spoke, “I’ve just seen stuff, alright? You don’t even want to know”. Except that, like many really old people, Lily loved to talk about her younger life and had an amazing – almost unbelievable– recollection of her teenage years. Her story began right after she was married at age 16. Traveling West, to California, in a Conestoga Wagon. Shot in the leg by friendly-fire, as the wagon train defended itself from prairie pirates (Lily claimed a hostile tribe of indigenous people, but lots of predators were out and about, during the American Westward Movement). There was a doctor in the wagon train, but he declined to operate on Lily. The bullet traveled down her leg and lodged in her foot, where it was eventually removed, in California. That she survived the wound, and potential blood poisoning, was incredible, so the operating doctor said.

Annie Oakley, the Female
Spirit of the American West

Lily’s travails put my teenaged view of my family-issues into perspective. Like a lot of people, my biological tribe was a mixed bag of “Stable”, and, “Not so much”.  After my mother’s (self-inflicted) death when I was 11 years old, my college-professor father married one of his students (that’s an entire story unto itself). Lily was my new step-mother’s grandmother. So, my step-great-grandmother? Although she wasn’t in my life all that long, Lily had an impact. Even as an impatient, erratic and impulsive teenager, I instantly grasped the meaning and importance of Elder:  a sometimes tedious blend of stories, neverending advice, a few lectures (rare, with Lily), and comfort. This woman had been married at 16 (not uncommon back then) and “rifle-shot”, at the age of 17, for God’s sake. How bad could my life be, so far? It felt pretty ‘cushy’, back then.

One of the major adjustments, moving on down the road in Life, is the way in which your Elders begin falling away. (I know, important people can leave at any time, but the ones with a little extra life-experience to share seem to leave the biggest holes in our lives). And as they fall away, you suddenly realize that – for a growing number of people in your life – you are now The Elder. If you’ve had a ‘Lily’ in your life, you wonder about the quality of your own wisdom. Do your stories carry the same value (not to mention, ‘shock and awe’)?

Thankfully, with age also comes perspective, which just might be the greatest gift of living. While I may not have survived the Westward Movement experience and lived to tell the tale of Homesteading as a 16 year old bride, I do know a thing or two about ‘grit’. Most importantly, that it’s pretty much ‘relative’. Life is Good, from all appearances, until it’s not. Rare is the person who hasn’t experienced some degree of tragedy. And if it hasn’t happened yet, it just might. Even those in the Spotlight, those we worship and envy for their ‘perfect’ lives, have things going on that are messy and painful.

‘Grit’ is also called resilience, which is so much more than just ‘persevering’. I’ll confess that I’ve become a little bored with hearing about it :  the result of the hundreds of TedTalks, books, articles and Agony Aunt columns on the topic. Nonetheless, I know that it’s essential to living bravely and just can’t be praised enough. If we’re lucky, we have an Elder or two in our lives that have flourished, despite tough odds. But hearing a gritty story’s not the same as living-through and triumphing over whatever bad times or mental demons threaten us. That courage, bravery and resilience come from the heart. Even deeper. It’s the sheer, tough, Will to Survive.  It can’t be taught; it has to be lived.

I’m feeling a little lost, without a compass, now that so many of my Wise Elders have transitioned to wherever spirit energy goes. On the other hand, I continue to measure my own responses to Life against things like the perilous Westward Movement, the Great Depression and World War II. I try not to minimize my own progress, by comparing it to these ordeals. After all, each beating heart faces unique trials. They may be external, and historic; but very often they’re very personal, and of our own making. With, or without voices and memories to guide us and reassure us, we struggle and manage to find our way through dark times. If we’re lucky, we live to tell some precocious young person about our survival. They won’t really listen, or hear, of course. But, they will somehow remember.

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