NEW ULM - It is hard to define Verna Joel, especially on the basis of a single, somewhat rushed morning's meeting.
She had been described to me as feisty, full of life, fun and adventure, persistent, energetic, an avid biker, a traveler in search of new experiences, a woman living a healthy life on many levels...
Yet even this lengthy series of labels misses the elusive essence of an exceptional person - it doesn't even touch upon the rare serenity that envelops you in her presence, the almost meditative aura that wraps around her conversation.
Staff photo by Kremi Spengler
Verna Joel in her apartment, with a painting of a horse given to her by her daughter Marian Kamm. The horse resembles one Joel, 90, had in her childhood.
The feeling that you are in the presence of a sage is perhaps the only hint that she is 90 years old; there's nothing old, and even less of the staid or pessimistic, about Joel; a sunny, happy, wise woman who cheers you up and helps you internally re-focus merely by being.
I visited her in her apartment - simple, very clean, uncluttered, decorated in soft whites, free of television and other electronics, anchored only by a few faith items and pictures with a personal meaning, the physical environment reflective of the woman at its center.
Joel talked about her life - blessed by a warm, loving family and a passion for the outdoors - and her interests - biking, hiking, boating, dancing, tennis, swimming, para sailing...
"Living each day for God, Life is a prayer"
"Life is precious and I turn to God always for guidance, to be where I need to be and do what I need to do to help. Through prayer I sought God's help in achieving this balance, I gain strength, confidence and knowledge.
"I have a spiritual life that is very rich - I have seven wonderful understanding children, which gives me that spiritual life. Their hearts are full of grace and caring, lots of humor and laughter. That makes me rise above any challenge, as a I fill my mind with the lightness of joy and I live simply, peacefully and fully.
"I like doing things that are difficult. I like the thrill of not knowing; throwing myself head first into the deep end is my kind of fun.
"I like flowers and things that make people smile, it erases 10 years in 10 minutes..."
"Grandmas are unique little girls"
"Old means experience, love and strength. Old means wisdom, loyalty, insight. Always look more leisurely at sunrises and sunsets.
"Key note to life is growth, life does not grow old, I live by nature of God's world, time by sun, stars and sky, they have natural wisdom and common sense.
"I keep pace with time, without letting it age me.
"I love to bike, it elevates the spirit. It creates endurance, clears the mind, heals the body and builds energy.
"I'm content, God's always leading me, he helps me shifting in gears constantly..."
- Excerpts from Verna Joel's journals
She described experiences which, while measured in brief moments, distill the essence of living to the fullest: riding horses and listening to coyotes under the moonlight, the light of the stars on her face; watching the ball drop in Times Square, wishing strangers a "Happy New Year" and dancing in the streets; thrilling adventures and changes in scene and action; breathing in the early morning air, its oxygen invigorating and making her grateful to be alive...
She showed me albums with photos of outrageous, lovely hats, which she creates out of odds and ends; "a hat for every season."
Joel and two girlfriends - all in their 80s or 90s and once aptly dubbed "The Hot Shots" - don the hats on outrageous, wonderful occasions.
They have dressed up on holidays, worn "shocking" Halloween costumes and hula skirts and danced around a maypole they once built; often brightening the day of "old" people in assisted living or nursing homes.
Joel grew up on a farm in West Newton Township, eight miles west of New Ulm.
A happy child with a love for the outdoors, the lone girl among three brothers, she'd do anything on the farm.
"I trained pigs, which followed me all over, and taught horses to bend down, kneel, and roll side to side."
She rode through the fields on horseback to deliver lunch to the farm workers, baked huge loaves of bread, washed pots and pans, gardened and picked "every vegetable imaginable."
She walked two and a half or three miles to school.
She loved hanging around her mom who in large measure imparted the happiness that radiates from Joel.
"My mom would say, be happy and cheerful and always keep the Lord in your heart...," Joel shares, through her journals. "It's there with me always."
"Prepare a plan for spiritual growth - always look for an open door to help someone.
"The world is a garden of Mary... Talking to God and experiencing God's presence is so easy and natural for me, with the kind of understanding and forgiving and spiritual mother as my teacher... Mom taught me humor and grace."
Joel later married and, with her husband, raised seven children along the same simple lines of spiritual clarity.
The family lived a life marked by love of one another and of nature. They experienced togetherness in simple, yet meaningful ways - cheerfully doing daily chores together, cleaning, ironing, hanging out clothes, going on picnics, the parents gently guiding the children into making and understanding choices; just being there for each other...
After her sons and daughters were grown, Joel worked at 3M from 1963 until 1984. (She biked to work.)
She was widowed in 1987.
Joel's children are spread out around the country, but the family, which now includes 12 grandchildren and six great grandchildren, continues to make time for each other.
Those who live in the New Ulm area often spend their lunch breaks with mom.
"My family has given me lavish gifts of God's courage, strength, love, wisdom and joy, they always know the perfect thing to do and say, they make my whole day by first saying something that no one else could have said," shares Joel.
"They inspire me daily, they light up my life with their humor and laughter - thoughtful, considerate, serious and fun - and share with me the beauty of the outdoors - they have blessed me beyond words.
"Their special way of listening and understanding - they are my protective warriors, always their to celebrate my victories. How blessed I am..."
Joel has had her share of setbacks, just never let them grind her down.
In good weather, she bikes 15-20 miles each day.
By 6 a.m., she is out on a bike trail.
She loves the beauty of the early morning - "a joyful and wonderful time" - and has inspired friends to join her in that appreciation.
Something of metaphor for her personality, her car - a convertible equipped with a bike rack, a gift from her children - helps her reach bike trails outside New Ulm (Mankato, Sleepy Eye).
"I learned that biking equaled freedom and independence," she shares.
"When I go biking I repeat a mantra of the day's sensation, bright sun, blue sky, warm breeze, birds singing. Sometimes I try to sing the birds on the telephone wires (who look like notes on a musical staff). But I am mentally far, far away from civilization. The world is breaking someone else's heart. Nature is completely open, whatever drama may unfold.
"I experience a sense of revelation and gratitude. Nothing need be thought or said. It is a way of beholding which is a form of prayer.
"When I see a rainbow, I praise its creator. How magnificent, how radiant its beauty. Like a bow by the hands of the Most High, it spans the horizon in a circle of glory, and the shining stars make the night sky lovely, brilliant ornaments in the Lord's high heavens. They stay in the places assigned to them by the Holy One and never relax their dutiful watch. The setting sun sets fire to the hilltops like a metal furnace glowing from the heat..."
In bad weather, Joel keeps fit by doing moderate yoga-style exercises on the floor of her apartment for about two hours.
Long before current efforts to resurrect common sense in eating, Joel educated herself about health and nutrition.
She eats, and raised her family to also prefer and enjoy, healthy "whole" foods: herbs, fruit, nuts, grains, vegetables and fresh water.
"I am always experimenting with food prepared in a traditional fashion," says Joel.
She also fasts three days a month, which helps her feel re-energized...
Well-being is more than a physical state - it is a spiritual and emotional balance, achieved through mental exercise and contemplation.
"Spiritual reading brings clarity to my thoughts and life," shares Joel.
"I love writing because you discover what you feel and think as you are doing it. It's an act of both meditation and discovery."
By Kremi Spengler