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Saturday, October 31, 2009

Home Port

"You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves..."
---Mary Oliver

I carry this poem around with me and refer to it often. To me it feels much like a home port does for a sailor. Grounding and safe! It reminds me, at age 64, to show my real authentic self to the world and let that be enough. With all the imperfections, passion and whatever wisdom I have accumulated.

It's not always perfect but it is grounding and safe.

Blessings!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

"Because........."

Jenny's wonderful story about her Mother reminded me of a story about my Paternal grandmother.

She was as "hard-baked" as they come. Sixth-grade education, married very young and then widowed by the first world war. Remarried and divorced years later. With no money or job she spent the last 15 years of her life living alone in a single wide trailer in Garden Grove, Calif with a view of the Disneyland Matterhorn from her front steps.

She was "rough" and toughened from years of being a camp cook, single parent and the only woman in several logging camps and on cattle ranches in northern California. She could cuss with the best, drove a team of horses by age six and a tractor by age eight. She also loved to tell stories in a matter-of-fact way about shooting her "kitchen gun" through the open back door and bagging any stray bird or critter that wandered in to her garden. She was also honest, loving and a source of great support and care for me growing up. And I never, not once, heard her complain about her life or even wish for something more than she had.

After my son was born she came to visit us ..well actually she came to see her only Great grandchild. One day she and I were out driving to get groceries and I was a little agitated as she drove the highways letting car, after car, after car cut in front of us. I wrote it off to her advanced age and diminished driving abilities. I was provoked to ask why she was being so nice...didn't she know it was just slowing us down?

After I was done ranting she paused for a long minute and looking straight ahead and in a very warm and loving voice said "Because that's how I want to be treated!"

That moment still lives brightly in me. I hear her voice all the time and it guides me in my daily interactions with others. It reminds me to slow down and act kindly to others because I need to "be" the change I want see in the world.

Recently I was driving with a young friend who was a bit critical of my letting others "barge" in to the lane in front of our car. I turned to him and in the best "grandmother" voice I could muster responded to his inquiry with; "I do that because that's how I want to be treated!"

I hope he passes that on to the next generation!

Each of us can be a source of wisdom, support, care and inspiration everyday to those around us. We may not even know it though. Let your real self shine and enjoy each moment.....Just because that's the kind of world we want to live in!!

Blessings!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Transforming trauma by telling our stories

There is a silly thing I sometimes say when I’m teaching. Though I’ve been saying it for far too long, I still get laughs, which I love, so I keep making the joke. More to the point, I keep making the joke not just because I get laughs, and students don’t laugh because it is especially humorous, but because I suspect what I say is apt, it accurately describes our shared embodied experience and it gives us an unexpected chance to release our built up tension, it provides a small moment for relaxation. So, it happens something like this: A student will be complaining about a particularly difficult reading assignment (usually something theoretical) or discussion topic (usually something theoretical!), lamenting the impenetrability of the ideas and how they’ll never be able to get their minds around “this stuff,” and describing vividly the excruciating pain involved in thinking deeply. I listen closely to their plaintive cries and only when I am sure they are finished speaking I ask, “Does your head feel like it is going to explode”? And they always respond, “Yes!” and then laugh, to which I reply with something along the lines of, “Good, that’s exactly the experience I was hoping you’d have. If your head doesn’t feel like it is going to explode once in the while, then you aren’t doing your job!” Also, the “joke” might happen this way—Sometimes, when a student says something particularly insightful, brave, or innovative for her or him, I exclaim, “Everybody out of the way – that’s so amazing what you said, my brains are about to explode!”

I never once imagined that my mother’s brains – or mine, for that matter – could explode for real.

Two weeks after she celebrated her sixtieth birthday and one week after returning from a cruise to Mexico with her younger sister an undiagnosed aneurysm ruptured in my mother’s brain as she was driving from the library at the university where I work to my house in order to meet me and my daughter for dinner. I had recently celebrated my thirty-ninth birthday, my daughter had celebrated her tenth birthday, and we’d all felt as though we were emerging from a period in our lives that had been extraordinarily challenging, even traumatic. In my own life over the past decade there had been many unanticipated events that demanded of me what felt like an almost constant process of adjustment and adaptation, periods of recovery and reflection followed by rebuilding of self and life-world. But in the most recent months there had been my maternal grandmother’s rapid decline and near-death, followed by her equally rapid and unexpected improvement. This woman, my only surviving grandparent, had been my “best person” throughout my growing-up years, my primary source of care and regard, my model for the reality-bending possibilities of intent, curiosity, will, and the belief that there could always be something better. Rushing to her side and caring for her during what we thought were her final days on earth had been in many ways a singular experience – when I arrived at her bedside, she seemed to be dying; I climbed in beside her and slept with her all night. In the morning, she woke up, toileted and dressed herself, whereas I woke up vomiting and continued to do so for two days. This was an unexplainable yet empirically verifiable event that deeply shook me.

Also during the half-year prior to her ruptured brain aneurysm there had been the unexpected and violent end of my mother’s second marriage and her first sustained experience of living alone. She and her first husband, my father, married when they were both eighteen-years-old; I was born nine months later. Three years later my brother was born with severe and irreversible auditory and visual impairments caused by a congenital syndrome, the existence of which was heretofore unknown to my family, and until he left home in his early twenties, my mother’s daily reality -- her identity, in fact – was organized around the considerable responsibility of parenting a child with disabilities. She’d been married to my father for twenty-five years and had cared for my brother for twenty-one of those twenty-five years when, the day after my brother’s twenty-first birthday, when I was a twenty-four year-old married graduate student, for the first time in her life she chose herself. Quite courageously, she walked away from life as she had (and we had) known it, as she felt her responsibility to keep the family together for my brother’s sake was over. I’d known for several months that something of significance was going on as each time I saw my mother she’d hand over to me another small box of objects that were important to her, that she wanted me to protect for her. I even suggested to her on the occasion of one of these exchanges that it seemed that she was “preparing for flight.” And so, when she called me and asked that I pick her up and help her “run away from home” I wasn’t too surprised – I’d always wondered why she hadn’t fled sooner -- though I was in shock because of all of the foreseen and unforeseen consequences of her actions. After a few months, in between staying temporarily with me or friends and for a very short while alone, she met and married her second husband, to whom she was married for thirteen years until the day after Mother’s Day 2005, when she found herself, for the first time in her entire life, truly on her own.

In the months that preceded the sudden explosion in her brain she had gone a long way toward establishing her life as a single woman who’d already traveled through the life-course for several decades, to fully embracing her “third age” with vitality and purpose. I’d helped her to acquire an apartment in the neighborhood where my daughter and I are established; a friend and I had moved her into the new place and had kept her clear of her second husband. I’d also suppressed another wave of mild shock and even some panic when she announced that she had decided to return to college – in fact, the university where I am a professor – in order to complete her undergraduate degree and fulfill a life-long dream that had been disrupted so many years previously, a dream that she shared with the majority of my students who are also mid-life women.

She’d worked for over two decades as a medical assistant without a college degree in a managed-care setting. (And it is important perhaps to know that this was the same setting where she’d be a patient after the aneurysm ruptured; the same stubborn institution that I’d have to navigate as her caregiver, with varying degrees of success and a lot of exasperation; the same setting that would attempt to renege on their commitment to her as an employee and client, threatening to deny her medical claims and discontinue her relationship with the specialist to whom they had referred her.) She had decided that with the approach of her sixtieth birthday it was the ideal time to pursue as many of her dreams as she could: going back to school; training for a walking marathon; building economic security; developing current and new friendships. She felt an unfamiliar vitality, clarity, and purposefulness; she said she’d never felt better or younger in her life, that for once her “insides” and “outsides” matched, she felt a coherence and symmetry she could grow accustomed to and wanted to make last as long as possible. (When my mother speaks of her “identity” in this way, I can’t help but think about the subtle and sufficiently complex analysis of the self-constructions grown-ups engage in offered by Biggs, 1999.)

As well, there seemed to be a more fundamental shift happening throughout the substrates of her identity, her very way of being in the world was transforming; for what felt to me to be the first time in the almost forty years I had been her daughter, she started expressing her thoughts and feelings in a way that impressed me as representing some deeper truth that she’d carried around for decades but never felt up to narrating. And she not only expressed herself in an increasingly open and innovative way, but she began, at least discursively, to assume responsibility for her choices in a way I was completely unaccustomed to and wanted to put my faith in with a desperation that surprised and somewhat concerned me because I hoped so much that her new habits of thinking and being in the world would “stick” (And I must admit here that I wanted this as much as for my own sake and the sake of my daughter as I did for my mother’s sake.).

My mother was asking the kinds of questions that she’d never allowed herself to ask before without being paralyzed by fear, as if to ask such existential questions about the universe and her place in it would unleash uncontrollable and destructive forces. And I noticed that she was inventing a wholly new language to describe her current self, whom she aspired to become, not only whom she’d been in the world in her “past life.” Before my eyes, my mommy, who seemed resistant for so many years to engaging in self-reflexivity and assuming her own agency, was evidencing the possibility of the “reversibility of discourses” about her life and self . For the first time in my life as her daughter I experienced her as a growing-up person, by which I mean to say, she was exhibiting the characteristics I had come to associate – theoretically and in my own struggles with personhood -- with grown-up-hood, an intentional commitment to our own deep development and a purposeful and responsible life.

All of this was jarring – largely because of its unfamiliarity to me from the standpoint of being my mother’s daughter – and it instigated for me what felt like yet another spiraling period in my own identity work. But the innovations my mother seemed to be making in herself and her life-world were also a source of new hope for me about potentialities for her life and our life together as growing-up mother and daughter.

She was becoming – how to say it? Not so much a new person but a larger person in the world, an expanded mommy who took up more space, a fuller-being.

Telling Our Stories

Recalling one's life story and offering it to the world can be a major part of the intentional aging process. However if it is ego-driven it loses much of the value to following generations.

Our lives are built on the relationships we have accumulated from the past and those we will create in the future. So our story is not just about us but also about others who have come into our life. In fact Richard Leider writes in his book "Claiming Your Place At the Fire" that our lives can be connected to people spanning more than two-hundred years. Imagine!

This reminds me that our lives will influence other peoples lives, no matter how we choose to live. This also reminds me that our time on the planet has not been for naught....no matter how successful, affluent, healthy, or creative we are. In other words your life makes a difference. How do you want it to be?

Our life stories then should not be a rehash of the events of our lives, rather they can be about the very principles of humanity and the concepts that bond us all together no matter our age. Using life stories to illustrate these principles and illuminating how we learned from our experiences is an inspiring way to influence others.

We did not get here alone. Leider further says "Our historical circumstances are as important as our genetic makeup. Unique advantages or disadvantages, challenges or privileges, opportunities or handicaps are ingredients of our own story. Neither are we born into, nor do we live our lives, in a vacuum."

Here on the Intentional Aging Collective we will be using specific examples of life stories from time to time and we would love to have your stories here. I think that Jenny had a great example of this when she told her story here about the Four Generations. Check it out!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

No Map

To accept the challenge of intentional aging means you are seeking something different..something special in the second half. You want to leave something more of yourself to the world.

But, alas, there are no maps! No "12 Step" program for successful aging. No hard bound textbook on the "do's and don'ts" for aging intentionally. Not even an agreement about what the term really means. We are all in a metaphorical boat together leaving our comfortable port and going out on uncharted waters. Are you excited or do you feel lost? I admit to feeling both!

There have never been so many people on the planet who will live to be 100. There has never been a more educated, healthy, and, some people believe, affluent group than the Baby-Boomers. There has never been a collective age group of world citizens who will venture in to the uncharted waters of an extended second half of life. Indeed this is a revolution and there are tens of millions of people who are going through this process.

If there are no maps, where will we, then, find guidance for the trip? Jenny and I believe it is from inside our selves. It comes from a willingness to look deeply at who we are at this time of life as we locate the nexus of personal values, a lifetime of experiences, and renewed sense of life purpose. And then..... letting that guide our life choices!

It is a commitment to living authentically as we really are and to find ways to be a unique blessing to our communities and the world. This is the challenge of aging intentionally!

We are all writing the Book of Intentional Aging together. Neither is this a solo journey. This demands that we create relationships that support this inner exploration. It also requires that we look out for one another and communicate our findings as we go. I am very much looking forward to it!

I hope you will share your journey in this space.

Blessings for your journey!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Legacy is caring in all directions

The usual framing of legacy is that it is a planfull activity engaged in by elders on behalf of youngers, it is about ensuring a good future for the generations that come after one’s own, and it is about the transmission of resources, both material and cultural.

I’d like to assert that legacy is not only about planning for the future, but it is an activity that happens in the here-and-now, in the context of our present relationships with each other, and – and this is an important point – it happens in all directions and amongst people of all capacities, not only from elders to youngers, but it goes in the other direction, too, and between age-peers, as well, and not only from the well-resourced to the less-resourced.

Creating legacy is about planning for the future, certainly, but it is also about how we care for each other now, how we are present to each other and share our greatest resources, ourselves, most especially our loving attention, with the wisdom that what we do now for each other shapes how the future looks for all creatures on the planet.

These are must my notions. I'd invite you to share your thoughts on legacy, too.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

She loved the earth so much she wanted to stay forever...

Speaking of the role of illness in our lives and how it reminds us of our frailty, our impermanence, and offers us an opportunity for self-reflection, I've been struggling for the past week through an episode of a strange, chronic condition I developed a couple of years ago--thus, my lack of visibility in the Collective. I'm down to the basics right now--self-care, teenage-daughter-care, and teaching (and a few meetings and such that can't be avoided). Otherwise, the pain makes me puny and tired. So puny and tired today that I just woke up from a short nap on my office floor (I even put a "do not disturb" sign on the door knob!); when I'm having an episode of my condition, I can't teach for three hours without a bit of rest.

In August of 2007, I was hospitalized with painful "twirly guts," as my former student Darcy calls my ailment. A much more eloquent and playful designation than the official diagnosis: "transient jejunal intussusception without lead-point." Bottom line--part of my small intestine got knocked out of commission, perhaps by a virus, and now it is limp and poorly functioning. When the areas around it are spasming, either normally in the process of digesting food, or abnormally because my system is irritated (like now), the "twirly" section twists and folds back on itself (try this with the arm of your shirt and sweater; then imagine trying to drink, eat, and generally function!). Though this is a rare condition (especially in the absence of underlying pathology), I'm in good company with other creatures: horses and babies are prime candidates for intussusceptions because of the nature of their anatomy. And so, it seems, am I.

The title of this post, by the way, is borrowed/adapted from Stanley Kunitz's poem, The Long Boat.

I hope you are all well and I look forward to future posts. Thanks for holding down the Collective, David!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Prescription for A Longer Life

How would the medical establishment and our political leaders respond if they found an unknown virus which prematurely killed people more than 7 years earlier than expected? Wouldn't there be a huge outcry to find a cure? Wouldn't we spend hundreds of millions of dollars to find a remedy?

For years now studies by American researchers have known that those individuals with a positive perception of aging live 7.5 years longer than those with less positive attitudes. These studies also determined that self-perceptions of aging had a greater impact on longevity than did age, gender, status in the community, loneliness and functional health.

Researchers considered that negative stereotypes of aging play a key role in fostering ideas about our own aging. And yet....and yet, such stereotypes are all around us. A one-size-fits-all belief that older people over 50 are rigid, forgetful, dependent, unattractive, boring, etc. And this belief is sanctioned by society.

The long term answer is to shift society's attitudes about aging. The good news is that the short term answer is simple and does not cost any money! It does require some individual vigilance, fortitude and resistance by each of us. Because if we resist absorbing negative images and messages about our own aging, we are likely to ultimately live longer, happier and with more fulfillment. This is the gift we can leave to those generations which follow.

And what a great legacy of aging intentionally that would be!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Ideas to Live By

'A life directed chiefly toward the fulfillment of personal desires will sooner or later always lead to bitterness." Albert Einstein

This is a theme that I am becoming more and more certain could be one of the biggest social contributions from older people. The challenge is to find the appropriate opportunity to share this or any wisdom with the following generations.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Grace and Wrinkles

"When grace combines with wrinkles, it is admirable. There is an indescribable light of dawn about intensely happy old age....The young (person) is handsome, but the old, supurb.", Writer Victor Hugo

Here's a wish that we can all see the opening and the light for new opportunities no matter our age.

Monday, October 12, 2009

A Benefit of Aging

"The older I get, the greater power I seem to have to helpthe world; I am like a snowball----the further I am rolled, the more I gain." Feminist Susan B. Anthony

This is a reminder to "keep rolling"!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Wisdom In Action

"When I was young, I found out that the big toe always ends up making a hole in a sock. So I stopped wearing socks." Albert Einstein

I'm wondering how many people he got to share this piece of wisdom with in his life?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Acceptance of Mortality

Jenny and I have been having a side discussion on the relationship between accepting our mortality and living intentionally. So we decided that it might be a discussion which our blog readers might like to join.

"How many of us," asks author and minister Wayne Muller "are secretly waiting for some magical permission--like a diagnosis of terminal illness--before we truly begin to listen to the quiet dreams, the desires of the heart?"

To live intentionally is to live authentically. To show up for each day ready to create something special that reflects of our unique blend of values, wisdom, passion and skill. It takes some courage to live this way. And I wonder if it is this fear of our own mortality that keeps some of us stuck and unable to live authentic lives.

Perhaps, if we had a terminal illness maybe we could more freely let go of tasks and responsibilities we have no other excuse to avoid. Would we feel less rushed in life and live more quietly, peacefully and purposefully?

Muller suggests that if we can accept our mortality we can be set free from the illusion that "one more phone call, one more meeting, another hundred dollars will buy us safety, happiness, and immortality." Does our presumed immortality permit us to be sloppy and imprecise in our lives? We can always clean up later, right? We give hardly any thought to what we hold sacred as a fully franchised adult member of the human species...let alone let that guide our lives.

And what's our culture telling us about the aging process? Is it affirming our mortality? From where I am, I don't see this! So each of us who really strive to live life intentionally will have to find this acceptance of our mortality and in so doing free ourselves to live each day with courage, clarity, purpose and love.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Upcoming Event: Global Aging--Emerging Issues

The little private Catholic university where I teach, Marylhurst University, is celebrating homecoming all next week, October 13-18, 2009. At a place like Marylhurst, which is a non-residential university that serves primarily adult learners, and a university which has re-invented itself many times in its long history under the watchful eye of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, homecoming is a very fascinating event--we don't have sports teams, or a marching band, or a school dance, and our alumni are very diverse in most ways, especially generationally. What we do have to offer during homecoming are many interesting educational presentations and events sponsored by various departments.

I wanted to let readers of this blog know about one event in particular, a panel presentation with three of my colleagues who do great work at other educational/advocacy organizations in Oregon and whom I consider to be important partners in the realm of Gerontological work.

Here are the details:

The event is on Friday, October 16th, 2:00 to 3:30 p.m. in the Old Library on the Marylhurst campus. Our focus? Emerging issues at the local, national and global levels related to aging and later life. The panelists? Dr. Margaret Neal, Ph.D., Director of the Institute on Aging at Portland State University (she'll be talking about her work around urban planning and age-friendly communities); Dr. Jan Abushakra, Ph.D., Coordinator of the Gerontology program at Portland Community College-Sylvania (she'll be talking about her work around older learners and career retooling); and Jerry Cohen, J.D., Director of Oregon-AARP (he'll be talking about AARP's current initiatives around health care for all). I'll be the panel organizer and discussant.

My hope is that we'll have an interesting, rich collaborative conversation about how the issues we work to address at the local and national level are connected to larger global trends. It would be cool, as well, to talk about whether and if gerontology as we do it in the U.S. has relevance for other places on the planet....we'll see if we get to talk about this!

The event is free-of-charge but if you're local and would like to come, please do RSVP.

For more information: http://www.marylhurst.edu/alumni/alumniweek2009.php

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Just A Provocative Thought

Here's a thought to digest!

"The closing years of life are like the end of a masquerade party, when the masks are dropped." philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer

How would the world be different if we all dropped our masks or maybe never created them in the first place?

Monday, October 5, 2009

Upcoming Event: Positive Aging Conference

For those of you who are interested in this subject the 3rd Positive Aging Conference is coming December 7-9 at Eckerd College in St Petersberg, Florida.

I had the wonderful opportunity to attend the first two and I am fortunate again to be able to attend this year as well. I am looking forward to topics such as Life Transitions, Creativity, Wellness, Community in the second half of life. It is a wonderful conference in a great place.

Hope you will join in the discussions. For those of you who are not able to attend I will be writing about the conference in this space. (But then you will have to put up with my interests and biases! :-) So attend and get the info yourself, first hand!)

Hope to see you in Florida!

David

Here's the link. http://www.eckerd.edu/positiveaging/

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Growth

"Growth in old age" says Joan Chittister, "requires the curiosity of a five-year-old and the confidence of a teenager." Change is the very essence of life. It comes whether we like it or not and it usually is not change itself that is so challenging as it is our attitude and ability to embrace it. At least it is for me and others I talk to about such things.

I suspect that the second half of life can liberate us like no other stage of life. With no child-rearing, career-building, fortune-hunting duties to occupy our time and energy the external striving is over. We don't have to prove ourselves anymore nor look for approval. Yet it continues to challenge everyday. Neither is it "a time of rampant narcissism. It is the point of life in which everything we have learned up until this point can now be put to use."

Can we embrace a life that has no titles, careers, or need to climb the social ladders of earlier life? That is the question, isn't it? We can be whatever we want to be. We are now free to do things that have value for us as individuals.

The only requirement is that we first consciously choose this new life and way of being. This is not always easy as this newness requires a commitment to change. And perhaps change in ways that we have long resisted. To be more authentic, to say what we really feel and think. To do what we really want to do we first must embrace the idea of change. This clears our view and sharpens our focus to see life with all it's glorious possibilities.

I hope we will all enjoy the journey!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

And yet, and yet...more on letting go

David, I've been thinking about your lovely mini-essay on Letting Go for the past two weeks, and the theme of letting go seems to keep appearing in my life right now (or perhaps it is always appearing my life but I'm actually noticing it right now!?!). When I read your wise words, I thought of what a difficult human struggle it is to do so, at all life-course stages, and also how crucial it is to help each other learn how to do so over and over again.

I am reminded one of my favorite poems by Stanley Kunitz, The Long Boat:

When his boat snapped loose
from its mooring, under
the screaking of the gulls,
he tried at first to wave
to his dear ones on shore,
but in the rolling fog
they had already lost their faces.
Too tired even to choose
between jumping and calling,
somehow he felt absolved and free
of his burdens, those mottoes
stamped on his name-tag:
conscience, ambition, and all
that caring.
He was content to lie down
with the family of ghosts
in the slop of his cradle,
buffeted by the storm,
endless drifting.
Peace! Peace!
To be rocked by the Infinite!
As if it didn't matter
which way was home;
as if he didn't know
he loved the earth so much
he wanted to stay forever.
____

Also, the morning you posted your Letting Go piece, I read a haiku by a Japanese Buddhist who was writing 200 years ago or so named Kobayashi Issa. It, too, resonated:

This world of dew
is a world of dew,
and yet, and yet.