Beyond the Tunnel: the Arts and Aging in America was published some thirty years ago, based on my experiences bringing art appreciation and the cultural resources of the art museum to older adults in the Washington, D.C. community through my non-profit organization Museum One, Inc. The world has changed since then, sometimes for the better, other times not so positively.
The concept of the tunnel was based on an actual nursing home I visited frequently in the 1980s. The facility still exists although it has been turned into an assisted living facility that I hope has been modernized. Yet, the tunnel is a state of mind, representing the ageism that continues to permeate our society. Ultimately, Beyond the Tunnel is simply a story—human and I hope, enduring—as well as a reflection of our society and ourselves.
This next chapter is about another tunnel and a special person I will never forget.
I often walk past Sarah’s tunnel in the neighborhood just up the hill from where I live.
The Cathedral neighborhood, I like to call it, with its blocks of spacious, unassuming houses marching comfortably and pleasantly upward to the medieval church at the top. As if they are drawn by some natural force or affinity to the giant relic of the past, although just recently completed.
Early English in its architecture, recalling distinctly some abbey ancestor in Bath or other British counterpart, the National Cathedral seems oddly situated here, rather like a grand ship without an ocean, bulky yet elegant.
Sarah’s tunnel lies within the radius of its towering reach, along with other edifices of the neighborhood’s main avenue: commercial shops, restaurants, a chain grocery store, a few apartments, and single homes, their appearance slightly faded in spots, verging on genteel seediness.
But Sarah’s tunnel is a newer building, a streamlined, vertical, two toned shaft of postindustrial noncolors, beige and unbeige. When first erected, it was undoubtedly a bit startling and disconcerting in its raw modernity; now it blends in nicely and respectfully with the rest of its neighborly surroundings. Only the white uniform of a nurse’s aide or two standing and chatting leisurely in front, while waiting for a ride or avenue bus, symbolizes the structure’s true function.
Rarely, very rarely, does an actual resident materialize, usually frail and unsteady, with a walker and always accompanied by someone. His or her stay in the fresh air is brief, inevitably overwhelmed by by the regular onslaught of the traffic or the afternoon sunlight that somehow seems too bright for fading eyes.
Occasionally I stop before it, as if tempted by obligation, conscience, or rote to enter the inconspicuous glass doors, descending into the hotel-suite lobby of pseudo-antiques and plush carpets to seek Sarah and the others. Or to peer into its tiers of windows, hoping to see a face I might recognize.
And yet I realize my search is futile, that it is now impossible to imagine Sarah and her friends there. Transformed over the years into a rumored purgatory on the edge of hell, it has become a tunnel of alleged abuse and theft, innocently camouflaged to the unknowing passerby.
But the spirit of Sarah remain along with the memories of summer evenings and art in the Blue Room.
I have no clear idea why I chose Sarah’s nursing home more than a decade ago, or even why I wanted to teach art appreciation to her and the other residents. Perhaps I was more desperate than I realized that spring of 1977. Already a couple of years out of graduate school, having earned my master’s in art history while studying in Italy, I still had no job in my profession.
Not that I hadn’t been warned. Starting with my graduation from college, I had been consistently discouraged from pursuing what I vaguely envisioned as a career in art history by what seemed a multitude of professors, counselors, acquaintances, and even strangers I might confide my ambitions to on a crowded bus.
“Oh, you know there are hardly any jobs in that area,” was the universal response after I had declared my intentions of working in an art museum. “It’s going to be very difficult,” my companion might add. “And there is very little money in it,” inevitably sighing at this last revelation, as if already encouraging me to discontinue my chosen path.
“it won’t work. You’ll never do it,” I could almost hear the others whispering as I turned away, a dull undertone disturbing my consciousness, impeding my willpower. Only my family and closest friends continued their support of what appeared to be an increasingly impossible quest.
In the beginning, I had been lucky. Within a few months after graduating from college, I was hired as a “park technician,” a rather glorified tour guide in a national historic park of the American Revolutionary period near my parents’ home in New Jersey. Although it was not my first choice (and I would stay there for a year), I had at least saved myself from the fate of one of my art minor friends who had just taken a secretarial position in an insurance company, a decision I dramatically viewed as the virtual end of one’s ideals and ambitions.
It had literally made me ill, then, still in my early twenties, to imagine a life in an office setting. Yet somehow, fiver years later, despite the intervening period of graduate school in Florence, I was a most reluctant participant in that life. Employed as a temporary typist, I felt trapped, enclosed with a claustrophobic arena of impersonal typewriters, telephones, and fellow employees who appeared to be suffering along with me.
How I hated these windowless landscapes, with their artificial lights and synthetic-colored walls, as I migrated from one assignment to another, like an exotic bird always contemplating the ultimate flight. Down and around, back and forth, between the semi-skyscrapers of K Street, stuffed with suites of Washington enterprise—associations, law firms, consultants, and other paper inundated spaces. Mainstream fortresses I soon discovered, full of alcoves and corners of human intrigue that I pretended not to comprehend.
In my naivete, I had mistakenly thought I could somehow successfully fulfill my professional destiny. But ironically, here I was in the mecca of American museumdom, condemned to a kind of slow, clerical humiliation. It became clear that I had to act to find some way to maintain a link, a connection with art and my career.
COMING NEXT: SARAH, HER STORY CONTINUES
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