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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Joshua's Tree

Portland was hit with a surprise snow storm yesterday afternoon. It wasn’t a surprise to me, as early yesterday morning during my walk with Happy-dog through the park near my home, I could smell the potential for snow (I even documented my snow-sense in an email to my daughter, who is visiting family in France, announcing to her that I thought it just might snow. And it did!). We received a couple of inches in a few hours, the big fluffy flakes that fall when the temperature is hovering around 32 and there’s a mixture of warm and cold air in the atmosphere. Of course, once it began snowing, around 2:30 pm or so, the part of my brain I use for work went on strike and all I could do was look out the window and watch to see if the snow was going to accumulate or not. When I was sure that we were experiencing a real storm, I strapped on my snow boots, and Happy-dog and I headed back out to the park for a very long session of marveling and frolicking.

As the duskiness came, and the snow kept falling on us, I felt sad for my fellow Portlanders stuck in the bumper-to-bumper traffic I could see on one of the main commuter routes that flanks the east side of the park. I heard the cries of geese trying to fly through the snow, and the wails of ambulance sirens, so I gave a little prayer for whoever was in the accident toward which the ambulance was attempting to rush through the traffic and the slush. By bedtime, the real snowing was over and the temperature was high enough that I knew we’d be lucky if we woke up to still find snow blanketing our city. In bed, preparing to sleep, I wished it were still snowing—do you know that sound when it is snowing at night, when you are under the covers in bed, trying to fall asleep? And the quality of the light outside, even at night, when there is snow on the ground? How would you describe that sound, that light?

I am glad to report that when I woke up this morning, there was still snow on the ground, though it was melting. And that I didn’t have to go into work, as I’m working from home one more day, pretending to be on vacation (though I’ve only just been able to reactivate the work part of my mind—the snow had to be melted enough for me to be able to place my attention elsewhere.). This means that Happy-dog and I got to enjoy a last session of marveling and frolicking in the snow. We were out this morning for a nice long while, running sometimes, walking sometimes, sometimes stopping to look at the various water fowl, all of whom I’m in love with and learning how to tell apart (thanks to the field guide I received as a Christmas present!).

Toward the end of our walk, I decided to disrupt our regular routine, and rather than walking around the casting pond, we walked parallel to it through the big stand of trees that live in between the highway and the east edge of the pond. As we approached the last tall tree (a big spruce, I think), I thought I detected something out-of-the-ordinary about it; in fact, I saw something which caused me to stop in my tracks, catch my breath; I could feel my heart jump. There, wrapped around the bottom third of the tree (which is the shape of a huge Christmas tree), were yards and yards of ribbon garland, dark red and gold, about 8 inches wide. I quickly glanced around to see if any of the other trees were decorated this way, and none were. Then I wondered how long it had been decorated in this way – how many days had I not been aware of this little sweet miracle? The closer I was to the tree, the more I saw; in addition to the garland, there were little butterfly ornaments attached to various boughs. I walked a circle around the tree and saw blue, red, and white butterflies. They were wet from the melting snow, but intact. (I have many little bird ornaments in my Christmas tree at home, but next year, I think I’ll add some butterflies—how lovely and charming!) Happy-dog started pulling me, wondering why I was walking in circles around the tree (it is usually he who does so!), and perhaps also wondering why I was talking to myself. I was trying to record the experience so I could remember it, and the best way for me to do so is to start writing, which often means talking to myself.

Once I thought I’d seen all there was to see about this surprising tree, I began to turn away, and out of the corner of my eye, I caught site of something under the tree. I knelt down and peered underneath the heavy boughs, melting snow falling on my head, and I found there a memorial plaque, affixed in the dirt. It was in memory of Joshua John O’Leary, on the earth from 1978 to 1997, honored brother, son and friend. Again, I was stopped in my tracks, my mind racing with questions—What was Joshua’s relationship to this tree? Was this the tree he liked to climb? Was this his favorite park? How did Joshua die? Who are his people whom he left behind? Perhaps were his ashes strewn under the branches of this tree? Could it be that his family adorned “his” tree every December, to celebrate him during the winter holidays? I tried to take photos of the tree and the memorial plaque with my cell phone, but the resolution was poor and melting snow kept dripping down on the phone. (I’m notorious for cell-phone-death-by-drowning.). So I ran home through the melting snow, dragging Happy-dog behind me, hoping to keep all these details in mind.

Now as I come close to the finish of writing about my experience, I feel the very strong urge to walk back over to the park – without the dog!—to verify that I’ve got all the details right. The snow has stopped melting, so I can take photos and write notes without big drops of water pelting me. More later.

As I approached Joshua’s tree the second time, I saw that part of the garland had fallen off the boughs since this morning, probably the outcome of the drag of melting snow. My initial reaction was that I would fix the garland, but as I trudged through the slush toward the tree, the thought occurred to me that perhaps the decorations on Joshua’s tree are like Tibetan prayer flags which one hangs outside, allowing them to disintegrate over time, a reminder of impermanence. I decided not to interfere, leaving the garland where it had fallen. Let me also report that it is a good thing I returned to Joshua’s tree, because I misremembered his middle name, which is James, not John. He was, as I correctly remembered, 19 when he died. The inscription on his memorial plaque reads: “Our hearts forever touched. Son, brother, friend we love and miss so much.” Among the butterflies, there’s one who is silver, a detail I missed before.

As I walked back home to finish writing this little piece, the neighborhood blue heron (and my most favorite bird of all) flew overhead, a rare site to see in the middle of the day. I thanked the heron and I thanked Joshua and I thanked his tree and the folks who had the sweet thought to decorate it, and the snow, because the snow, the heron, Joshua, his tree and the other folks all reminded me today that intentional aging is fundamentally about intentional living—a commitment to a certain kind of attention to the smallest, most exquisite details of life as it unfolds in, around and before us moment-by-moment.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Positive Aging Conference Overview--Wellness

Unfortunately I did not hav ethe opportunity to attend any of the sessions for this topic so I am not able to write from my own experience. Many of the presentations were related to health care and nursing home operations which according to others did not have anything new to add to the discussions. However there were a few presentations which were thought provoking:

Several presenters related the importance of inter-generational interaction to a greater sense of wellness. Joan Chadbourne, EdD gave a presentation on how elders telling their stories to younger people increased energy and mended intergenerational riffs or misunderstandings. Storytelling accompanied with compassionate listening can create legacies and suggests new possibilities for positive aging.

Joan Chadbourne; Healing Conversations;

Kol Birke, Commonwealth Financial Network, gave a stirring presentation on how our sense of "satisfaction" can be linked to not just being less "dissatisfied" but to increased wellness and a deep sense of contribution by aligning how we spend our money with our passions and sense of life purpose.

Lesley Hart, University of Strathclyde, Scotland, talked about a program in Scotland that created new careers for long-term unemployed individuals through life-long learning initiatives.

In addition there were two presenters who made the connection between creativity and improved wellness and being in a meaningful community to improved wellness.

If you are interested in more information send me an email: or comment to this post.

The 2010 Positive Aging Conference will be in Los Angeles in early December.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

a moment of intentional aging

Today is my forty-third birthday. I have silver-shooting stars dancing on my head, having ceased coloring my hair a year ago. When I stand still and close my eyes, I might as well still be twenty-three, that's how good and at ease I feel in my body when it isn't in pain (yesterday it was, and the day before, but not today). The mind I have today is my favorite mind so far--I like how it has changed over the last year, the new ways it can think!

My sixty-three-year-old mommy is back in Portland, almost completely moved into her new apartment, just in time for the winter holidays. She has hopefully stopped running and is going to stay put, close to me and my thirteen-year-old daughter. She tried life in California with a man she's known since childhood and it didn't work out well, not at all well. So, she's back.

This is the first year of all of my years this time around on the planet that I've not received a birthday card from my dear Gramma Jewell. I can't help but see the absence of a birthday greeting from her as a sort of negative milestone. Without a reminder from someone she probably doesn't remember that today is my birthday; if someone does remember for her, I know she's going to be devastated that she forgot (so I almost hope she's not reminded.).

In addition to preparing for Christmas Eve and Day, big celebrations in our little funny household, we are preparing for my daughter’s big trip to France with her father--they leave the day after Christmas. How brilliant that she gets to live such an interesting, expansive life as a young person. It will be bittersweet for me to drop her at the airport and wish her and her father a bon voyage. It is always difficult, as happy for her as I am.

Positive Aging Conference-Creativity

For me, one of the really big takeaways from the Positive Aging Conference was a presentation from Dr. Michael Patterson, Founder of mindRAMP and Associates and board member of the National Center for Creative Aging. He spoke on 'Why Creativity Matters' using research data from a major study of the long-term effects of creativity on health and wellness in a senior population.

They found that as a result of regular creative activities (playing music, dance, visual arts, writing, painting etc) people used less medications, had fewer doctor visits, were more independent, less depressed and happier. Dr. Patterson then mentioned that if every nursing home were to hire just one artist-in-residence to coordinate creative activities for the residents it would save twenty times more in health care expenses than such a program would cost.

Although this "good news" is slow in getting spread there were many presenters who offered a variety of ideas on innovative creative activities. Here is an overview of other presenters and topics in from the Creativity track:

Lifelong Dancing: Rusti Brabdman, PhD, Shands Arts in Medicine

Creating personal "elder tales": Jacquelyn Browne, PhD, Nova Southeastern University

The Quicksilver Model: Arts for the Aging: Anthony Hyatt, Arts for the Aging

My last post on the conference will be about the Wellness track speakers.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Positive Aging Conference Overview--Community

Community and Positive Aging:

One of the tracks that interested me at the Positive Aging Conference was "Community". Although many of the presentations were specific to care facilities or retirement communities there were a few new and interesting concepts presented.

I did not get a chance to hear many of the presentations because they were all going on at the same time but I did get to two sessions. Here are some of the things I took away.

Community through Social Networking: Carol Orsborne, and Sharon Whitely,

The focus of this session was mostly about women and I was taken by the facts the presenters gave regarding the number of "boomers and beyond" who are familiar with social networking and the expected growth. It also reminded me that the meaning of "community" is changing and the electronic media is a growing option for building a new sense of community.

Still, isn't it hard to have coffee regularly with your cyber-neighbor in New Zealand?

For more information go to

Cultivating a Culture of Successful Aging David Gobble, Masterpiece Living Academy.

Dr. Gobble suggested that nursing home managers know that in order to attract the new, active, informed older adult, they must offer, in addition to exceptional amenities, an opportunity to remain healthy, vital and independent. However, the research on aging tells us that it takes more than a wellness program, as we currently see them, to age successfully. It takes an environment which believes that older adults can grow...a culture that is dedicated to helping them to achieve their life's goals.

For more information go to

Dreaming and the Community of Generations: HR Moody, AARP

Rick, talked about how to interpret "big dreams" through ancestors, parents, children and even grandchildren. He used classic dream scenarios as discussion points.

For more information contact

Other topics and speakers in the Community sessions were:

Sandra Timmerman; MetLife Mature Market Institute: How to discover what really matters in Community

Dick Goldberg; Coming Of Age; Jan Hively, Vital Aging Network; Community Networks to Support Positive Aging

Maria Malayter; Center for Positive Aging National-Louis University: Creating a Center for Positive Aging in Metropolitan Chicago

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Exercising Our Spiritual Organs

"The average woman generally feels once in her life the full happiness of love and once the joy of freedom. Once in her life she hates bitterly. Once with deep grief she buries a loved one, and once finally, she dies herself. That is too little for our innate capacity to love, hate, enjoy, and suffer. We exercise daily to strengthen our muscles and sinews that they may not degenerate. But our spiritual organs, which were created for a lifetime of full activity, remain unused, undeveloped, and so, with the passing years, they lose their productive power."

Have you used your spiritual organs today?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Elders and Wishes

"Like our shadows our wishes lengthen as the sun declines." Poet Edward Young

Isn't one of the key advantages of age that we have a broader more compassionate perspective of the world and those in it? Is this not also true for what we wish the world to be? The role of elders is to be the "keepers of the big picture". If we let them they can pull us back, individually and collectively, from the brink of destruction.

I sometimes advise people who are seeking inspiration about what they should really do in life to consult a trusted elder about what is really important in life. With their lifetime of wisdom they have wishes that are bigger than themselves. Perhaps we should all listen more!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Aging Denialist, Realist or Enthusiast?

One of the takeaways from the Positive Aging Conference last week was something that Bill Thomas said in his keynote speech, a call for each of us to embrace our own aging process.

For those of you who do not know Dr. Bill, he is a geriatric physician and a self-proclaimed nursing-home abolitionist who has, for many years, worked to create a new model for care facilities that empower residents rather than isolate or diminish them.

In his inspiring talk Dr. Bill touched on the three different types of personal relationship with our own aging process: denialist, realist, and enthusiast.

According to Dr. Bill, denialists say "Not me, Brother!" and refuse to even think about aging and certainly do not talk about it.

Realists acknowledge that they are aging but believe that there is nothing "good" about it and see it as something to be overcome. These are the people who take so-called age "defeating" drugs, vitamins and other associated products. They are the ones who must go to the gym to look younger. They are the "age fighters" and often feel defeated when their bodies or minds show their age.

Enthusiasts realize that they are aging and accept aging as growth and that it is sometimes painful. This group is also excited to realize that as a culture we don't know how this new aging paradigm will turn out. They relish the fact that they are "aging explorers" (pun intended!)

Although you can make a case that as individuals we might wander between these groups, Dr. Bill suggested that until we have more Enthusiasts than Denialists a new aging paradigm will not occur and we will have lost our opportunity for change.

The fact that he was talking to a room of mostly "enthusiasts" was not lost on him or the audience. In fact he called us out to go back to our communities, jobs, families and begin to foster a more enthusiastic attitude for aging. One that celebrates the opportunities along with the losses. To embrace the process as well search for new purpose and meaning.

He also reminded us that the prominent attitude in our culture is still "Denial and Realist" and to remember that for these people aging might be terrifying and scary. They will not change easily nor will their allies, the drug companies and others who sell eternal youth.

Our role is to accept our own mortality no not just accept but "love" it. Accept the mystery and the unknown as the great explorers did and arrive on new shores where aging is seen as natural and actually empowering. Until we can do this for ourselves we can't expect change in others.
Dr. Bill Thomas web site:

Friday, December 11, 2009

After the Positive Aging Conference

All the way back yesterday from the the Positive Aging Conference in St. Petersburg, Florida, I was thinking about the quality of people that come together each year around this issue of positive/intentional aging. We are fortunate to have the quality and committed people from all walks of life who are working to make our culture more empowering for elders and generally supportive of a new way of aging. Even though I return tired and with a sore posterior I have a briefcase full of information, a full notepad and very nice memories. Over the next couple of weeks I will write about some of the thought-provoking information and presentations from the conference.

Generally, here are a few overall thoughts that I took away from the conference.

What's In A Name: Isn't it a little unfortunate that we have a conference called the Positive Aging Conference. That says a lot about what the dominent paradigm on the subject of aging in America. I look forward to the day that we all automatically see this time of life as a natural continuation of human development. A time where we recognize that along with some physical diminishment there is even more room for personal growth and contribution to the culture. A time when we see the value of our elders and create opportunities for elders who choose to play a bigger social role.

Where are our leaders? The conference was keynoted by Bill Thomas, M.D. author, nursing home abolitionist and advocate. He did his job wonderfully and greatly inspired many people in attendance. (I will write more about the specifics of his presentation.) Although I have heard Dr. Bill talk once before he was "on fire" Monday evening. He called on us all to work to change the perceptions and meaning of aging in America starting with own attitudes and biases. He also challenged us to speak out in support of a new aging paradigm.

What was disturbing for me was that other than Bill, there were no other inspiring speakers at the conference. Don't get me wrong, there were many great and very committed people and plenty of good information, but no one else who I would want to put up in front of an audience to lead the way in this movement. Maybe it's a sign of the void Gene Cohen's passing means to us?

Tribute to Gene Cohen: Susan Perlstein, Founder of the National Center for Creative Aging, gave an emotional tribute to Dr Cohen who was the recognized national voice, scientist and advocate for the idea that the human mind is capable of continued develop throughout the life-span and that creativity is the door to unlock this ability. Susan talked about her relationship with Gene at the start of the Center of Creative Aging and with the landmark research project Dr. Cohen did in the 90's.

Best Conference Track: The conference had 4 tracks: Life planning; creativity; wellness; and community. Although, due to timing, I did not get a chance to really delve in to all the tracks I was really taken by the quality of presenters in the "creativity" parts of the conference.

Everything from dance and theater to dreams and writing fairy tales were topical sessions.

Biggest Disappointment: Attendance! If you go on attendance for important gatherings as a measure of growth then we are not doing very well. In 2007 the first Positive Aging Conference brought 300 plus people to St Petersburg. In 2008 the conference was held in St Paul, Minnesota with about 700 people linked in electronically at more than 20 sites across North America. Marylhurst Univ. was one of the sites and we could not find room for all the interested participants settling for a packed house of 80.

Sadly, according to one official at the conference there there were only about 130 enthusiasts at the 2009 version.

Hope each of you will find the interest, time and money to attend next year's conference which will be in Los Angeles.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Functional elders

Where are our functional Elders?

If they are around they are certainly hard to find. I’m not talking about the demographic of everyone over a certain age. I’m looking for those men and women, of any age, who make it their calling to continue their own spiritual, psychological and emotional development at the same time they are being in-service to the following generations. Are they culturally hidden or really not there? Are they even relevant in this day and age? Hmmmm!

I did a quick search, recently, for elders in my neighborhood on the internet and it illustrated part my point. To be an elder in our society, it seems, you have to have a physical ailment, in need of a place to live, in need of a price discount, need legal advice for dealing with abusive families, or have any number of other problems that need to be solved. If we were to believe this as the total representation of an elder then it would seem that elders can’t take care of themselves and are, indeed, are nothing but a ball of problems and a burden to society. I don't believe this to be true.

Ancient societies had a place and purpose for the elders. They were often honored for their wisdom and contemplative skills. I love the story that American spiritual teacher Ram Dass tells. I think it goes something like this: While traveling in the Himalayas he was approached by a friend who upon greeting him said “You’re looking so old!” Ram Dass, being a typical Westerner, reacted with some horror to being called “old”. Then he realized that his friend was actually congratulating him for becoming an elder, white hair, wrinkles and all. In some places in the world elders are still cherished and even celebrated. Why not here?

Personally, I want to believe that there is a growing group of individuals who seek peacefulness and emotional stability; contemplative yet authentic lives; life-long self-discovery and growth; and show a commitment to emotional, intellectual, and personal integrity. Individuals who are wise, spiritual, generative, and humorous. Furthermore, I want to believe that our culture is smart enough to create special places where such individuals would thrive and have a recognizable positive impact on our communities and society. I'm fascinated by this issue and will be writing more about functional elders in the weeks to come.

I wonder what such civic structures would look like? Maybe we need an Elder assigned to every school yard as a soothing presence over emotional or physical nicks and scrapes? Maybe it is an organized group of Elders tasked with testifying at every city council meeting to advocate for future generations? How different would our lives be if we knew that we could have access to someone with these qualities to provide council and console us at any age? Imagine! Now that would be radical!

Please give us your Elder story!

Note: this article was first posted on the Intentional Aging Collective September 2009.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Mortality and Spirituality

According to Gay Luce, author of Longer Life, More Joy, elderhood is a time to discover inner richness for self-development and spiritual growth. Elderhood is also a time of transition and preparation for dying, which is at least as important as preparation for a career and family.

Many of us in this culture, and I include myself, fear that even thinking about death will somehow bring it's certainty closer and hasten the inevitable. So we ignore it or pretend that we will live forever. However, I think this only acts to minimize our opportunities in the second half.

When we come to terms with our mortality we start to look at the moment with open eyes and maybe a sense of fearlessness or increased urgency. Maybe even a profound sense of gratitude for our lives. In fact, maybe if we lose our fear of dying we can also lose our fear of living. And in doing so will live more intentionally and authentically with integrity, compassion and acceptance of each precious moment we get.

Individuals who chose to age intentionally refuse to follow the well-worn aging path. Instead they create their own new path that leads them to exciting and fulfilling possibilities that include developing their full human and spiritual potential in the second half.

Imagine a world where elders were actually supported and encouraged to do this kind of personal development. Now imagine what a gift these individuals could be to society and the world!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Importance of Purpose

"During my long life, I have learned one lesson: that the most important thing is to realize why one is alive----and i think it is not only to build bridges or tall buildings or make money, but to do something for humanity. To bring joy, hope, to make life richer for the spirit because you have been alive, that is the most important thing." Musician Arthur Rubinstein

[This topic is one that Jenny and I will want to share about from time to time in this space.]

To know why we are alive is a great gift--to ourselves and others. To be able to go to bed at night and feel like we have been purposeful brings joy to our life and a sense of meaning. And this does not necessarily have to be on a grand scale, either. It can be as simple as a exemplifying a quality we want to see more of in the world (ie love, laughter, compassion) or as grand as contributing to world peace or eliminating hunger. Having a purpose is like having a "life compass". It is a powerful tool!

Purpose keeps us in alignment with who we really are, our values and dreams for humanity. It helps us make choices every day for how we will spend our time, money and life energy. Purpose also points us in a direction so we find or attract like-minded people who want to support our life and us as individuals.

Intentional aging brings a commitment to develop ourselves throughout the entire life span and letting our purpose or passion guide our choices is a powerful way to "make life richer for the spirit".

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

wet and windblown

December 2, 2009
7:30-8:40 a.m.

Just in case we needed more direct evidence of the power (and necessity!) of collaboration, let me acknowledge that my dear friend and colleague David has been holding down the fort single-handedly for the past several weeks. You may not have noticed that I’ve been missing from the Intentional Aging Collective for awhile, but I have noticed that I’ve been missing, and I’ve sure felt my absence, and quite acutely! Since September when we launched this space, I’ve grown accustomed to the sweet pleasure of having a place to engage in ongoing conversations about our shared journey of traveling through this strange life together and our exquisite potential for deep development.

Lest you think I’ve had a dry period in terms of intentional aging inspiration, in fact the opposite is true—I’ve had a rainy period, a deluge of experiences. If you’ve seen me lately you know I’m all wet and windblown (I’m pretty sure when Tash dropped by my office yesterday and witnessed me trying to return voicemail messages in between an endless string of meetings, she noticed my eyes were spinning and I was rather disheveled.).

As I write this posting, I’m doing so in small segments as I race around getting the morning started—dog to walk in the full-moon dawn, lunches to make, clothes to iron, fifteen minutes (not enough!) of meditation, teenager to wake up three times and invite gently into the day…once I get started writing, I don’t want to stop, I don’t want to be interrupted by these “mundane” activities! Not to mention that today is not a day (no day is for me) to be running late—so many meetings to attend once I arrive at the university. Bad combination—being possessed by the muse on a day when there’s little time to entertain her!

My daughter is up now and wondering if she could have the cup of tea I said I was making for her over fifteen minutes ago. (As I make her belated cup of tea I remind myself that part of the commitment to learning to live intentionally is to be mindful of where we are and what we are doing!) Okay—more later.

11:50 while eating my lunch in my office:

I’ve started many postings in my little brain – some that were might have had some potential – but time and energy, the stuff of this universe, have been in short supply for me recently, and so getting the ideas out of my brain on onto the blog has seemed impossible.

Some days recently it has been all I could do to get out of bed as my chronic intestinal condition has been so painful. Some days recently it has been all I could do to do anything besides sit on the couch next to my daughter, who was swooning with a high fever from the swine flu. Some days recently I have felt so heavy with worry for my mommy that my brain has seemed to shut down temporarily.

Also in recent days – early this morning, in fact – I've experienced moments of such staggering beauty, the profound, fleeting thrill of being aware of my present experience: watching the blue heron rise from the cold stream and fly off in a big arc, first to the north, then looping around to the south-west; glimpsing my daughter’s sleepy face as she emerged from bed; acknowledging to my dog as he follows me around the house after our walk and his breakfast that he is a brilliant creature and that I, too, enjoyed our time together; admiring my new haircut, the way my the streaks of silver in my dark hair are almost all the way grown in; noticing while sitting in a two-hour meeting how varied and lovely my colleagues are in mind, body and spirit.

So, that’s what I got to say for today, and maybe also for tomorrow and the next day. And any way, it is almost time for the next meeting!

Hope you are all well and enjoying whatever moment you are in.