The Human Experience

July is a poignant month for my family. My dad died in July, 2008. He and mom had just celebrated their 59th anniversary, on July 17. Three years after he died, Mom broke her leg and, in July, had to move from their beloved home in the high desert of Hesperia, California. That was in 2011. She just celebrated her 89th birthday last month. In spite of leg pain and other challenges, she’s doing great (I know many of you will remember my posts about her resisting the move.)

Just before she moved, three years ago, I wrote a post that reflects our aging experience: us, and caring for our elders, and the drive to be independent. I’m reposting it here in honor of my family. I hope you enjoy it.

I spent several hours at Mom’s house today. I alternate weekends with my SoCal sister. We get Mom’s mail, water her plants, check her phone messages, and just generally make sure all is well while she’s in the rehab hospital.

The sky really was that blue today

Yes, it’s inconvenient (it’s a 90-minute drive), but it’s short-term because she has agreed to sell her house, and this time I believe she will follow through. I’m glad, but also heartbroken. To think of them – them! but it isn’t “them” anymore, is it? It’s just her – not living up there ever again. Well, I’ve held off the tears all day but I guess I can’t forever. Time moves on, and we all get old and die.

I feel conflicted. I want her to move down by me (“up” and “down” relate to land elevation) for all the logical reasons, and then all of a sudden, like right now, I don’t want her to move at all. I want her to risk it, to inconvenience and vex and terrify us with her dogged determination to stay as long as she can in the house that she and Dad built. For me to yank her away from that – and then add in the heartbreaking, elegiac, mind-numbing beauty of the high desert – I can hardly bear the thought.

Poppies grow wild in her yard

It’s an end. I’d like to think it’s a beginning, too, but who can say? Mom is healthy and vibrant for almost-86, there’s no reason she can’t have a great ten more years. But will she have the courage to start over, to walk away from that place?

It hurts to think of losing it, because for ten years, Hesperia was my home, too. It was a difficult time, when I worked harder than any human should have to, and delayed my dreams, and saved everybody.

The memories are good and bad.

As a young single mother, I took my son Danny (now 33) on his paper route some weekend mornings when the snow made it impossible for him to ride his bike. One morning I ran over his foot, but the deep sand saved him and after we got over the shock, we laughed. And then newspapers stopped hiring kids and kids stopped getting up early and riding bikes and getting their first paychecks.

On the negative end, my previous marriage ended there. And Dad died up there! I wouldn’t live there now. Couldn’t. But I miss it.

When Dad and Mom build the house in the ’80s, they preserved the native juniper trees

But I digress. Today I worked my butt off, getting Mom’s house all spiffed-up for Amber to look at next Saturday. Amber might buy it. That would be nice, to know it’s still in the family. Amber is a dear friend of my step-daughter. So we would know the house that Dad and Mom built in the ’80s would be well cared for.

It was so beautiful up there today! I swear, when you live in such a place as the high desert, and especially on a spring day like today, you feel a sense of hope and optimism about rearing kids, growing your own food, having quiet and privacy and clean air and astounding skyscapes. You can pretend that you’re living life on your own terms. I imagine this is what people seek when they move to Idaho or Montana or the Dakotas.

This picture hints at the mountains they can see out the back AND the front of the house

Mom’s coming home to my house tomorrow. I started out being excited, and I still am, but we’ve had a couple of conversations since the hospital said they’d cut her loose, and I realize I’m a bloomin’ amateur. I see that Mom’s looking for ways (already) to cut corners and speed things up; and now I understand it’s not about reveling in the relative luxury of my house as compared to a rehab hospital. It’s about my house as stepping stone to – you guessed it – her house. I think she’s just biding her time until she can go home, and once she’s there, who knows? And my other sister, the one who hasn’t yet adapted to her new home near Canada, would do almost anything, including promising to take care of Mom, to be able to come south and thaw out for a couple of months.

So I rearrange furniture at my house to make Mom comfortable, to encourage her to stay, but like an inadequately compelling acquaintance, I know I don’t have much pull. Because I suspect she’s going home for good, even if she doesn’t yet say it. And the tears and frustration and anger of her children and grandchildren are nothing compared to the incense of creosote and sage calling to her from the high desert.

Turn up the volume and you’ll hear the wind chimes in her back yard.

 

 

Web-Addicted Boomer Goes Offline for One Day and Lives

Like all baby boomers, I grew up in the days of carbon paper and white-out. So it’s funny to find myself, at this age, more or less addicted to the Internet. I spend way too many hours online. Maybe you do, too.

How many is too many?

It’s too many if you have a hard time breaking eye-lock from the small screen long enough to pay attention to the people you love and/or live with, if you’re late to everything, and if your to-do list chronically goes unfinished. I am guilty of all this and more.

I love the Internet. It’s so much a part of my life, for information and community. I wouldn’t truly say I’m addicted, but I am habituated. I’m on two computers and a smartphone all day long, checking email or social media, handling little tasks or answering a million questions. Like:

  • when is Jersey Boys going to be at my local theater?
  • where is my new doctor’s office?
  • how hot is it going to be today?
  • can Elon Musk invent a way to stop wasting flared gas? (I tweeted him)
  • must compliment my local paper on new Home section
  • must share this/that/the other article with my networks
  • must entertain resulting comments from said sharing
  • how many tablespoons in 1/4 cup?
  • how long have the Sunnis and Shi’ites been fighting?
  • ideas for new blog posts!
  • must order that from Amazon
  • must see what Goodreads friends say about this book
  • etc. blah blah blah

Once in pursuit of the above, I fall down the rabbit hole, chasing other pretty stuff. Although it’s fun, the time expands as I read one thing after another, commenting and/or sharing, and hurrying, always hurrying. Because I’m aware of time slipping away, I’m anxious to get off the computer and go do what I do in real life. (Sound familiar?)

But that’s the problem. This is real life. Used to be we would separate Online Life from Real Life, but no more. Online is our Barbershop, our Cheers. We all know each others’ names.

As enjoyable as it is, I really need to work on my next novel (and pay some attention to my sweet hubby), so on Sunday, I decided to stay offline and see how it felt. To prepare for this foray into unknown territory, I made a list of offline things I could do. I’m so unused to going natural that I wasn’t sure I would know how to act.

offline funSo, that was last weekend. How did it go?

Fantastic! I worked on the yard; organized a bunch of recipes; read in a leisurely way; sat on the patio and listened to birdsong; with my darling honeybun, watched Michelle Wie finally win a major; meditated; and wrote in my journal (with fountain pen, in cursive, on paper).

The main difference between a regular online day and Sunday – the Lord’s Day, the day of rest – was that I did feel more rested, grateful, present, and in control of my time. Reading was especially rich, being able to savor the meaning and depth of the writing, whether fiction or non-. I liked it very much, and felt more at peace. Strangely, time seemed to expand and last longer, but I was never bored.

It was beautiful. I’m thinking of making it a twice-a-week thing, at least.

Do you ever feel like you’re online too much?

The Most Surprising Discovery of My Life

I’m a little sad today. Yesterday marked the end of another year of babysitting, and even though I have a weird sort of empty-nest heartache going on, it’s time. I’m ready. So is Bill. He’s been with me every step of the way.

Let me point out that nothing could be more gratifying than the privilege of sharing this time with our grandkids and their parents. For me, that’s as essential as air. I couldn’t live without them.

But there’s a reason Mother Nature favors the young when it comes to procreating. Bill and I are in our sixties, and childcare is harder for us, physically and mentally. The last few months, we’ve relied on TV and fast food more than we’re proud of, and I’ve felt my patience wearing thin.

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A Great Tool for the New Year

I always feel energized by the arrival of a new year. It’s like a clean slate, twelve sprawling months ahead for reaching my dreams. Do you feel that way, too?

If so, maybe I can help by sharing my own plans and a great book recommendation. My goals are to lose weight and become a best-selling author in 2014, which is the year I turn sixty.

Hey, a girl can dream.

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Re: the weight loss, I’m a recidivist Lifetime member of Weight Watchers. I like the program because they taught me how to eat during the craziness of menopause. But I’m not plugging them – any program you stick to will work. So, how do you do that?

To prepare myself, I picked up a great book, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. In it, I learned:

  • Habit is more powerful than addiction
  • Your brain resorts to habit because it conserves energy, which is then freed up for survival
  • Scientists now agree on proven strategies for developing new habits or changing old ones.

To change an old habit, Duhigg reports, you learn to recognize the cue that triggers the routine that leads to the reward. Then you leave the cue and reward alone, and change the routine. In other words, you don’t try to rewire your brain not to want what it wants – you just go about getting to the reward a different way.

This intrigues me. To test the theory (so you don’t have to), I’m going to work on one of my worst habits: I crave a glass of wine around 3 p.m., which usually leads to a cascade of consequences like eating too much for dinner, etc. That’s an old habit I need to change.

On the other hand, creating a new habit, Duhigg says, requires a slightly different approach. You create a cue and reward (which must be cultivated into a craving). Then the routine connecting the cue and reward is the desired practice, like exercise or meditation. In other words, in order to create a new habit of meditating, I’ll have to invent a cue and reward that make me want to repeat the routine.

I know this is vague but why load you up with details before I test drive the theories? But if they work, how cool if you could develop a foolproof strategy for making yourself into the person you’ve always wanted to be? The future would be unlimited! 

So here’s my plan: I’m going to get started, and right around the first of January, I’ll report back to you about my degree of initial success, so you can decide whether Duhigg’s methods hold promise for you.

As for the best-selling author plan, I’ll be working on some strategies (like better time management, and daily meditation to enhance my creativity). One thing I’m not very good at is asking for help, so here goes:

If you read Dakota Blues, and liked it, would you mind telling a friend? And if you haven’t yet tried it, I’m getting really good reviews on Amazon, so you might want to check it out. People say it’s empowering, inspiring, and joyful. Also, it contains tips, strategies and wisdom, delivered in story form, for living your best life after fifty. Here’s the link, and I hope you love it.

What are you planning for 2014? Why don’t you share your aspirations in the comments below?

How Terribly Strange to be Seventy

V. Putin by Sculptor Sherry Cavan

After a career as a social science professor, Sherri Cavan became a sculptor post-retirement. Her Vladimir Putin trio above was meant to illustrate three kinds of power – the Fool, who gains power through his antics; the Predator, obvious; and the Beauty Queen, who seduces.

Sherri and I met last March on a cruise ship. She was doing Tai Chi, alone on the darkened dance floor on Deck 14. Unbeknownst to her, I was lurking in a corner of the bar, tapping away on my laptop. When she finished, I introduced myself and asked about Tai Chi. She said she’d started for the health benefits. Same with sculpting, to exercise her right brain. We talked for almost an hour. I was entranced by her energy.

Smiling an impish grin, she leaned toward me. “Do you want to know how old I am?”

I said, “Yes, but I’m too shy to ask.”

She was seventy-five, and I could tell she was proud of it, a model of confidence and joie de vivre in older age. I wanted what she was having.

As we began our goodbyes, she said she’d recently learned to play the ukulele. For a woman cruising alone this was a cool way to socialize, as uke players tend to bring their instruments on trips. She’d jammed with a group on the beach in Waikiki a few days earlier. After I got home I saw an article about how ukulele is hot right now.

I loved Sherri’s wit, humor and curiosity. If she wanted to know something, she went out and learned it. I felt drawn to her aliveness. Sherri is exceptional, but she represents a wave of change in regard to aging. My husband has made lots of friends on the tennis courts, men in their mid-seventies who are gourmet cooks, singers, world travelers, speakers, writers, and government activists. Remember how we used to see old people when we were young? Here’s a reminder: the lyrics to Old Friends by Simon and Garfunkel. They wrote it as young men in 1968.

Old friends, old friends sat on their park bench like bookends

A newspaper blowin’ through the grass

Falls on the round toes of the high shoes of the old friends

 

Old friends, winter companions, the old men

Lost in their overcoats, waiting for the sun

The sounds of the city sifting through trees

Settles like dust on the shoulders of the old friends

 

Can you imagine us years from today, sharing a park bench quietly

How terribly strange to be seventy…

I wonder if we’re aging more slowly these days. Not just older people; on the other end of the age scale, young people seem to take longer to mature. Maybe it’s all the preservatives in our food. Better living through chemistry.

Are You Downsizing?

At our age, some of us are beginning to feel material possessions are a burden. Maybe we’re returning to our sixties roots, or maybe we’re tired of the family-sized house, the multiple sets of dishes, the appliances. We’ve had it with closets full of clothes, linens, and seasonal decorations that now feel like a job to take out, set up, pack up and put away. With our kids grown and careers not so much of a consideration, it’s easier to lighten your footprint.

When the local storage unit raised our rates, Bill and I shipped the footlocker full of baseball cards back to our 30-something son, donated the extra set of golf clubs, recycled what we could and merged the rest into our garage.

My personal challenge was the fake Christmas tree. It looked good for many years and we enjoyed it. Now it’s getting raggedy and I’d been playing around with the idea of replacing it with a table-top model. I’d still have the wreath to hang on the fireplace, and the seasonal tablecloths and candle holders. I told Bill about it, and we realized that day was recycling day. So we broke it down and stuck it in the bin with giving ourselves any more time to think about it. If in a couple years we start feeling deprived, we’ll buy a new one.

But that’s just me. My friend down the street has twenty boxes of Christmas decorations in her garage. It would kill her to get rid of one bulb.

I have a cousin who dreams of renting a quiet two-bedroom apartment in a community with a pool, clubhouse, ready-made friends and no yard. Some of us are tired of  home maintenance. Much easier to call the landlord with your problems. Some Boomers sold their homes and went to live fulltime in RVs or even on boats. I Googled “tiny houses” and you wouldn’t believe how many websites came up.

I’ve often thought it would be cool to live in a city apartment where I could take the elevator downstairs and walk everywhere; to get coffee, groceries, whatever.

And if it were just me, I wouldn’t mind living in this. I’d want patios and porches all around, a few trees, and a community to keep me from turning into a hermit.

Z-glass house

Tumbleweed Z-Glass House

What about you? Are you downsizing and if so, how and why?

Confused and then Freed by Forgiveness

Forgiveness is confusing.

When my dad died a few years back, a family member and her husband flipped out and attacked the rest of the family. I figure they misunderstood something, panicked and overreacted, and then they couldn’t back down for years, probably out of embarrassment or just not knowing how to stop without feeling stupid.

Then Mom fell and broke her leg and things began to change. The family member (FM), moved in with Mom. She helped with Mom’s convalescence and also organized and packed almost the entire house, which Mom had agreed to sell. Mom was scared and angry. She grieved Dad’s loss, that of her network of friends and of her beloved high desert. FM had to deal with that, as well as her own physical pain. She wasn’t in the best of health herself, but she remained stoic and kept working.

As time went by, FM began hinting at remorse and a desire for a better relationship. Which is what happened.

After all that went down, I can’t believe I came around to a place where forgiveness is possible. I don’t mean the kind of forgiveness where you accept that the offender is a total asshole and walk away, just to keep yourself healthy. No, this is the old-fashioned kind of forgiveness, where I actually feel compassion for FM, and derive no joy from her remorse.

Which is confusing. I had clung to my anger out of self-respect. Having been physically and verbally abused all through my childhood and first marriage, I swore I would never allow anyone to do that to me again. Forgiving an abuser feels like I’m still a doormat, like I’m once again capitulating to the dark forces.

Given the above, will I ever be able to maintain a self-protective wall of anger? Isn’t it necessary? How can I preserve my self respect if I go around forgiving all the time?

After a lot of thought, I’ve found my answer. I share it with you because it’s beautiful. It’s my gold watch, my gift of a long lifespan, the reward of having lived through family vitriol and come out the other side with my sanity:

Sometimes, it just doesn’t matter.

That’s the answer, and it’s shocking to me. Sometimes, it’s just not important to hang onto the anger. To quote one of my friend’s favorite sayings, “The tide comes in. The tide goes out.” Everything changes.

Recently, there was another dustup in my family (I know; we must be a bunch of brawlers, right?) But based on all the above experience, I’ve decided this too will pass. Or not. It doesn’t matter. I’ve gone on with my days, and I don’t think about it anymore. It’ll resolve itself or it won’t, but everything changes. You just have to go on, and have a good life. No sense spending all that precious energy hanging on to the anger.

This is yet another gift of older age. After a while, you earn resilience. Quite the silver lining, wouldn’t you say?


Grandma Will Save Civilization

This is the third of four posts celebrating the good news about the way the brain ages.

There’s something called the Grandmother Hypothesis, so named because researchers discovered that chimpanzees lived longer if they were part of a band that included elder females, who helped the mothers find and share food.

Of course, researchers speculate about the application of this hypothesis to humans. One benefit of having elders in the tribe is because at about age forty, people start getting really good at regulating their emotions. According to studies in 2003 and 2004 by MIT researcher Mara Mather:

Although the brain wants to focus on the negative (it’s a survival skill), the aging brain makes a deliberate effort to focus on the positive, which is actually harder. Studies show that emotions grow stronger, not weaker, as people age.

Mather theorizes this positive focus may be an evolutionary trait. When we’re young, we need cautionary knowledge so we focus on threats more, but at older age, we’ve accumulated so much of that cautionary knowledge that we view danger in a more complex fashion.

This ability may have evolved because it works well for the species in general. As we get older, we have more mixed emotions, allowing for a more nuanced response to the world. This slows us down, restricting impulsive acts, and that’s good for individual and group survival. Especially since our world is becoming so much more complicated.

Alice Walker (Flickr)Alice Walker hints of this in her essay, All Praises to the Pause.

I am convinced that in earlier times women during menopause drifted naturally to the edge of the village, constructed for themselves a very small hut, and with perhaps one animal for company – and one that didn’t talk! – gave themselves over to a time without form, without boundaries. They were fishing in deep waters, reflecting on a lifetime of activity and calling up, without consciously attempting to do so, knowledge that would mean survival and progression of the tribe.

More and more good news:

1. According to the Seattle Longitudinal study, our brains are awesome after forty. Seattle tracked the same 6000 people for forty years, finding that people reached their highest cognitive ability from age forty through seventy.  This was in four of six areas: vocabulary, verbal memory, spatial orientation and inductive reasoning.

2. We’re also, in the new century, aging more slowly. Researcher Elizabeth Zelinsky found that her group at age seventy tested similar in cognitive ability to the historic levels of women in their mid-fifties.

3. Here’s another goody for you: There’s a substance called myelin, the fatty outer coating of the trillions of nerve fibers in the brain. The white matter acts like insulation on a wire and makes the connections work. Get this: the development of myelin in the brain area relating to language peaks from the 50s to the 60s (2001, Bartzokis). The insulation allows the neuron to recover faster after signals have been sent and get ready to send the next signal more quickly, giving brain cells what Bartzokis calls greater bandwidth. “As myelin increases, it builds connections that help us make sense of our surroundings.”

I was going to end with a wisecrack like I usually do, but I guess I’d rather get serious. We often feel unhappy about getting older, because we’re moving closer to the Great Beyond. Also, we’re inundated with messages from the media 24/7 saying we’re pointless if we’re not young. It’s easy to fall in line and drink the Kool-Aid.

But once you know about all the brain-benefits of age, you might talk about them more. You might celebrate the good news (“I’m more intuitive at this age. Really!”) and spread it around. It might become common wisdom, and attitudes might begin to change in this youth-obsessed country.  Wouldn’t that be the gift that keeps on giving? Like to our kids?

Merry Christmas, my friends. Next week, we’ll talk about how one woman was able to continue thriving mentally until she died, in spite of having severe, advanced Alzheimer’s disease. See you Friday.

I Would Change a Thing

Do you ever hear this?

Sure, I had it bad when I was growing up, but I wouldn’t change a thing. It made me who I am today.

I admire the “can-do” spirit in those words – the refusal to be kept down by adversity. Since we can’t go back and change things, I guess it’s good to adapt, but what if adaptation involves denial, and that denial interferes with our ability to enjoy the last half of our lives?

I’ll give you an example. My friend, let’s call her “Carol,” had a horrible childhood, worse than you can fathom, so bad that I’m not going to describe it. Carol says it made her what she is today. Let me tell you, what she is today is heartbreakingly valiant. She labors along, saving the world with her heroic efforts, but never seems to get what she wants or needs. Most of her efforts benefit others.

I had a challenging childhood, so I have the battle scars to speak to this. I ask Carol, “What if we hadn’t had to endure such torture? Who or what might we have become?” She refuses to consider it, as if the answer would open a Pandora’s Box.

My upbringing made me a slave for many years, always putting everyone else first, or hypersensitive to the moods of others, unable to relax and enjoy fulfilling my own needs. I still fight the tendency (like you?) to apologize all the time, and I tend to fidget, doing repetitive movements that substitute, no doubt, for banging my head against the wall in frustration.

What if Carol had been born to parents who adored her and told her how smart and capable she was? For she is a genius, and hugely talented, but has hidden her light under a barrel for almost sixty years. This girl could have played Carnegie Hall, or written the Great American Novel. Instead…not. She’s a hero, no doubt about it. She’s the hero of her life, the same role I decided to shed almost twenty years ago.

I’m sure it’s wrong to extrapolate from just Carol and me, so I’ll refer you to one of the most useful books I’ve ever read, The Narcissistic Family by Pressman and Pressman. An excerpt:

One of the biggest problems for adults raised in narcissistic family systems is that they tend to take responsibility for things over which they have little or no control, yet refuse to take responsibility for what is happening to them today.

I started watching the new HBO series, Girls, but couldn’t even get through the first episode. Everybody is so young and vulnerable. Thank God we get older and, I do believe, smarter. At least most of us. For Carol and the rest, I pray you win the lottery so you can quit working so damned hard and enjoy the rewards you deserve.

Reflections on a Birthday

I turned fifty-eight yesterday, so if you’ll permit me, I’d like to do a retrospective in pictures.

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My love affair with bread started early.

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Kindergarten was magical. At naptime the teacher played a recording of Claire de Lune. I still remember the image I saw in my 5-year-old head: Cinderella (me) and the Prince dancing under a rose arbor.

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Dad used to call me Freckle Face.

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Here I am in sixth grade. Mom made this dress. Slaved over that scalloped collar, I’m sure.

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In my senior pic, you can see I was in love with big hair.

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Happily married to Husband #1. This was Danny’s first birthday. I made that pantsuit. And underneath all that hair, my ex looked a lot like Clint Eastwood. We’re still friends.

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Everybody looked like this in the 80s.

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This was when I was in my thirties, in 1987. I was an up-and-coming
personnel manager, before they started calling it Human Resources.

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My husband, Bill Spreen, whom I was lucky enough to marry in 1997. You’ve read about him in this space before, enough to know he’s a real doll. And speaking of dolls, our granddaughter, Miranda, was born a few years later.

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In 2010 with Amy (who married Danny), and my new granddaughter Ella.

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2012: At fifty-eight, I’m older, wiser, more wrinkly, but still excited about the future! I totally get what Dr. Christiane Northrup means by “menopausal zest.” I haven’t felt this energetic since I was a kid. The other day I hardly ate, I was so involved in my work. Me, forgetting to eat? THAT’S new. Partly it’s because I want to get a whole lot done before August, when I will have the privilege of babysitting my (soon-to-be-born) grandson fulltime.
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Thanks for putting up with this little exercise. I guess I still can’t believe so much time has passed. When Mom laments over being “so old!” I remind her that what seems like a curse is a blessing: we humans, if we’re lucky, get to live many decades.
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Though much is lost, much abides,
And though
We are not now that strength that in old days
moved earth and heaven,
That which we are, we are.
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
made weak by time and fate
but strong in will,
to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
                                                               -  from Ulysses by Tennyson