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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Books, Regret and The Future

There's a pile of fifteen books next to my bed.  I'm not at all sure why I store them there.  Except for the two which I read before I go to sleep most nights the others just gather dust. A couple of times a year they get moved around, cleaned, sorted, prioritized and then re-stacked, but never read.  The "stack" is bothering me.

Included in the stack are books on meditation, jazz, mythology, gerontology, novels, science, songwriting, travel and spirituality.  Some started, most still sitting with their receipts sticking out.  All bought with the expectation of great things and personal transformation.   There they are, unread, gathering dust.   For some strange reason I am feeling regretful that these books have been abandoned and unread.  I even feel a little guilty that I have apparently abandoned my own enthusiasms that initially inspired me to buy them.  

Oh, boy, now I'm starting to brood over this.  What about all the other things I have not done or completed in life?  And what about all the other accumulated mistakes and failures?  Hmmm, such a deep topic!  I should have done better in school; I should have waited to get married; I should have taken that job in Washington D.C.; I should have become a Priest like my Grandmother expected. It goes on...and on!  Whew, I'm now exhausted... and depressed!

The years have apparently slipped by without my realizing it.  Now it is too late to make the changes that these regrets demand of me. My life is almost over and I don't have the answer.  I am comparing my life to old acquaintances and new ones. Now I really feel bad! The thoughts of what could have been eats at my heart pretending to be "reflection" or life review.  But it feels more like failure.  What have I made of my precious life?

Regret is such a temptation, isn't it?  Regret entices us to lust after what never was while we lose our sense and connection to the present.  This is such a misuse of the aging process.  One of the gifts of aging is to become comfortable with who we are rather than mourn what we are not.  Regret also fogs our ability to see the present and the future as full of possibility and grace.

This is not to say that we should not look back.  We must ask ourselves why we are where we are.  It is also important  that we gently and gracefully think about past choices and motives as these inform us who we really are now.  It is from this vantage point that intentional aging begins.  It is the judgment about our past that leads to regret.  When we look at our lives as a loving non-judgmental observer we receive both the wisdom about our past and enthusiasm for our future.

Now maybe I can recycle the old stack and begin a new one.

Blessings!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Contemplative Gerontology

We tried a contemplative exercise on age identity in my Embodiment in Later Life seminar a few weeks ago.

I asked students to stand in front of their desks in a circle.
Then to be still, eyes closed, feet firmly planted on the earth but body as relaxed as possible.
Then, in an unforced way, to begin breathing, sending their breaths down into their bellies and then gently back up through their nostrils.
And, after awhile, I invited them to begin silently counting their breaths…1, 2, 3…

And, after twenty or so breaths, I posed the question: “What age are you right now at this moment, standing still, breathing deeply”?

After a few minutes of silent reflection upon this question, we opened our eyes, sat down, and engaged in a round-table discussion about our experiences.

Some of the questions we explored:

Where does age reside?

In the absence of and in addition to the concept and structure of chronological age, in what ways do we categorize ourselves and others as an aging person?

In the absence of social feedback – signals from others – how do we know what age we are, that we are aging?

In the absence of embodied feedback – signals from our bodies that we’ve come to associate with aging and age – how do we know what age we are, that we are aging?

What can we describe about the phenomenon of aging, of growing older, from an experiential standpoint? What is our capacity for using words to describe our experiences? When we reach the edge of our capacity to put experience into words, what are other modes for expressing our experiences?

Some of the insights we shared:

The profound lack of solidity of the inter-related phenomena of age and aging and being old. They are concepts, they are experiences, they are social structures, and yet, in the stillness of breathing, eyes closed, they are without form and substance.

The paradox of the simultaneous experience of disembodied, timeless consciousness, on the one hand, and the embodied mind, the materiality and time-bound nature of consciousness, on the other hand.

The extent to which our experiences traveling through the life course are shaped by social constructions: about the nature and passage of time; the meaning of chronology; phases and stages of the life course; what we expect to do, and when (and what society expects us to do, and when).

And the stories we tell to ourselves and others about our embodied selves.

What stories do you tell about your embodied self?

When you stand still, feet firmly planted on the ground, body relaxed, eyes closed and your gentle attention resting on your breath, what age are you?

Friday, November 26, 2010

Never Spiritually Unemployed

Would you agree that being employed is important? A job/career certainly gives us the legal tender to engage in the economic workings of our culture and it defines some of us as well.  It also provides a sense of community and self-esteem.  But what happens when we lose a job or choose to retire or leave a career?  Do we lose a sense of ourselves or can we fall back on strong underpinnings of a spiritual life.

From a spiritual perspective we cannot lose our given "job".  We are, as Marianne Williamson says, the "permanent holders of a spiritual career".  It is what we are and not just what we do in the world that represents our greatest work. I think it is always with us and we choose to ignore it at the risk of dissatisfaction and isolation in life.

So what is this "spiritual career"?  I can only speak for myself (and hope that some of it resonates with you, the reader) but I am opening up to the idea that a spiritual career at any time of life but especially in late life is really about achieving "abundance".  An abundance of forgiveness, and service.  An abundance of love and character.  And an abundance of integrity and empathy for others.

This is not a job that is given then taken away by a boss or corporation.  It is the job we all have to accept if we are going to find well-being, joy and a renewed sense of self which resonates through our families, communities and nation.  It is the opportunity inherent in every moment...to find our own truth. When we remember that we are always "spiritually employed" we open up to the possibilities of a life filled with the notion that we are bigger than our problems.  And while we might sometimes forget this when faced with unemployment,  retirement or other challenges it is always there for us to discover. To be intentional in life is to be authentic and letting our true self "shine" seems like a pretty good gig!

Blessings!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Apricot upside-down cake (best eaten with your toes)

Tomorrow, November 20th, 2010, is my friend Ginny’s 90th birthday. I discovered this fact two Wednesdays ago when I was conducting my last collaborative inquiry session for this year at Mary’s Woods, a continuing care retirement community. I read “A Legacy Tale: Part 3,” which felt like a keenly appropriate choice for our last session together, given that in it I tell the story of my friend Fred’s final physical decline at this time last year, as a way into telling the tale of how my relationship with Fred continues in the present, though he is no longer alive, he’s gone back to the stars. Any way, as almost always happens in my current writing projects, I mention food, and my friend Ginny happens to be cut from the same cloth as I am: she loves to talk about, cook, and eat beautiful food. And so, after the pause that happens after I’ve finished reading to my old friends at Mary’s Woods, Ginny mentioned that her 90th birthday was coming up and that her family wanted to throw a big party for her. And knowing their matriarch, they knew she’d have strong opinions about the food to be served at the birthday party. So, she told her grown-up children that she wants a bunch of different kinds of classy finger-foods and her most favorite cake ever for her birthday celebration.

Ginny’s favorite cake ever is a bit unique: upside-down apricot. As she knows best how to make it, she’ll be making her own birthday cake, thank you very much! Her twin six-year-old great-granddaughters, upon hearing about the fact that Ginny wants an apricot upside-down cake, asked what on earth such a cake is, as they are accustomed to the usual chocolate cake with chocolate frosting, etc. The Great Grandmother informed them, “Well, an upside-down cake is a cake you eat while standing on your head!” One of her great-granddaughters became very concerned that if she stood on her head to eat cake, Ginny would fall and break a bone, as she’s already suffered nine broken bones in her later years. The other great-granddaughter thought eating cake upside-down was the coolest, funniest thing she’s ever heard, and it is now her favorite story, which she tells anyone who will listen. She’s also prone to slightly embellishing the story; not only must one stand on one’s head to eat apricot upside-down cake, one must eat it with one’s toes!

In the Oregonian, the Sunday before last, a photo of twenty-year-old Ginny was published on the page that has obituaries, wedding and anniversary announcements, and birthday tributes. Ginny’s kids found the photo after much searching and sent it to the newspaper and asked that it be published to mark their mother’s 90th birthday. At our inquiry session, after she talked about the apricot upside-down cake, Ginny talked in a way I found very interesting about her feelings in reaction to seeing the photo. Before our eyes, she critically reflected upon the fact that she recognizes that girl whom she used to be, the lovely girl in the photo, she remembers how she felt 70 years ago – the quality of her energy, her joy, her zest for life, how funny she was. All those years ago, long before having children, caring for a spouse after his stroke, single motherhood after he died, re-careering to become a teacher, remarrying, become a widow once again, and relocating from her own home to Mary’s Woods. What Ginny engaged in before us was less reminiscence about the past, more marveling at who she is in the present, the quality of her energy now, what brings her joy now, the centrality of humor in her life as an almost-90-year-old; her 20-year-old self is a foil for her current self, almost a visitor from the past here to tell her secrets about who she is now, and what the future might hold. At one point in her narrative, Ginny admitted to us that she thinks quite a bit, especially as she’s falling asleep at night alone in bed, about how she probably has only a few years ahead of her—or, rather, she says, fewer years to live than she’s already lived. She tries to describe how her experience of her daily life is shaped by this profound recognition of her own temporality and mortality, but she says she’s still pondering all of it and will get back to us after she thinks awhile longer. And celebrates her 90th birthday.

Happy birthday, lovely Ginny.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Silver Shooting Stars

There’s a poem by Kathian Poulton that I’ve loved for some time. I offer it to students on the first day of the Embodiment in Later Life course I teach every fall. Here’s the poem:

Though not occasioned
to mirror watching
I stopped
and saw delightedly
star streaks, grey lights
moving through my hair.
I was mother-reflection
then, my mother watching me
becoming old as she had not
lived to do.
I cannot know
what she would have felt
as age came on in silence,
but I dance elated on seeing
touches of silver
appearing unasked
but earned by living
as widely as I dare.

My “touches of silver” appeared unasked starting when I was a still quite young, when I was eighteen or nineteen, barely an adult. Early greying runs in my family, on both sides. So does denial of greying (at least amongst most of the women; as long as I've known her my Gramma Jewell has always had the most beautiful steel-grey hair, and Aunt Elsie never denied the existence of her bold salt-and-pepper curls.). And, so, I have been doing fun, strange things to conceal my greying hair since I was eighteen or nineteen: raspberry spikes; dark brown pixie cut; auburn pyramid of curls; back to the pixie cut; then a decade almost of solid black, black bob, black waves, black, black...black.

Then, in November of 2008, when I was a month away from my forty-second birthday and had spent a ton of money before an important conference presentation on getting a professional coloring job, the gig was up. Actually it was a lovely coloring job, for the first couple of days, but after the first washing, my greys started showing. I thought, among other things, What the hell? That was a waste of money I didn't have! And--What am I doing? I'm a radical gerontologist, a critical social theorist, and I am spending my time and money on trying to deny the fact that my hair is pretty much wanting to be silver!?!?!

I was outraged, not just toward the colorist at the salon, but toward myself as well. I also saw the strange humor in the situation, the irony, and I decided to call my own bluff (in other words, I decided to “live my theory,” put my money where my mouth is, walk my talk.)

(Let me say here that I want all grown-up people, all women and men of earth, to do what they want, as long as doing what they want doesn't hurt others and as long as doing what they want is predicated on a considered, intentional decision. I mean--I'd never want to begrudge a woman's right to choose to color her hair, to conceal her grey, as there may be many legitimate reasons for her to do so. I guess I just want her to be sure she knows the reasons why she's doing what she's doing, the reaches and limits of her agency. But even then, if she doesn't know why she's doing what she's doing, I still want her to have the right to buy a box of punk rock black dye and cover her grey hair. Well, maybe dark brown is a better choice cuz the black stuff isn't good for your brains!).

So, after the failed attempt two years ago to continue concealing the truth about my hair, I stopped. Just like that—cold turkey. I grew out my punk rock black hair and grew in my silver shooting stars. And let me be honest and tell you that this process of revealing the truth sucked for a long time (by "long," I mean a year and a half) because I have dark eye brows and dark eyes and still some dark hair upon my head, so the grow-out was crazy-obvious. Time played tricks with me-- I was like a kid waiting until it is time to go to the birthday party, you know, when an hour seems like a day. I thought the growing-out period would never end.

Also, I was traveling through unknown territory, I didn’t know what would happen to my appearance, my vibe – my identity! -- once I gave up my cool punk rock black hair. My mind monkeyed around, thinking thoughts like: Would I look older, would I look my age, what does “my age” look like, what’s the problem with looking older, what's the problem with looking my age, would I still be cute, would I be respected more, would I be respected less, would I fade into invisibility, would I become more visible, vivid, weird, a cartoon character? But I persevered and prevailed!

And now, after must ado, my whole head of hair is authentic, it is the real deal, unaltered (well, mostly, except for the little matter of the natural waves I straighten…the grass is always greener!). There’s very little appearance concealment going on now, and I must say that while I'm still growing accustomed to my real hair, the hair with the silver shooting stars, I think I really quite like the silver as much for how it looks as for what it represents for me.

I’m still finding words for the deeper meanings of letting my hair go silver, but there’s something for me about being upfront with the fact that I’m an aging person, specifically an aging woman (We are, of course, aging from the moment we are born, but in mid-life our aging takes on more intensification phenomenologically and symbolically; grey hair has a different semiotics now compared to what it might have had when I was twenty-three.).

In liberating my hair from concealment, I liberated my aging and eldering self from concealment as well.

My silver shooting star hair is an invitation, an invocation to my future older embodied self to join me now, to dwell in my consciousness and guide me into my future.

I’ve been thinking that I’d like to ask some of the women I know to share their stories, women who, like me, have invited silver shooting stars to dance through their hair.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Sweetness of Time

Lately I am feeling like the future is a very sweet ingredient of getting older.  I must admit though that I don't have that feeling every day and I am still learning how to accept this new feeling.

It's like the future is no longer something that is "later". It has an urgency that I have not experienced before. In fact it seems so present to me that it is shouting and maybe even a little demanding with each passing year. When I was younger I thought I could put off doing what I needed.
A college degree could be put off till after I get back to a normal life! I be more compassionate after I get the new job. I'll have time in 3 years to really study music and the guitar! The list went on and on. There was no urgency in life?  There was always plenty of time! Then in August I came running in to my sixty-fifth birthday; relatively secure, brimming with enthusiasm and self-confidence, and in pretty good health and yet I was depressed.  Not a deep "Get yourself to the Doctor!" kind of depression...more like a malaise. Not wanting to get out of bed, or coach people, or exercise, see friends, practice the guitar, or even write in this blog.

After contemplation and the opportunity to sit with some wonderful and very wise people I realize now that what has occurred in me is an increased inner awareness of time, actually, the absence of it.  I am being introduced to my own mortality. This has led to the inevitable question: Do I fill up the remaining time or just "live out the string", waiting to pass?  Although I am embracing the notion that filling it up is better than waiting for the end it is not clear what I will fill it with.  Busy-ness or purposeful-ness?

I am coming to understand at a very personal level that old age (There, I said it!) is the time for letting out the authentic version of David. Whatever I want to do I could do, with some limits. Whatever I want to say, I can say.  I could be dangerous too!  According to Joan Chittister I could be dangerously alive. Or dangerously involved. Or dangerously truthful. Or dangerously fun-loving. Or all of those and much more. And this is what brings me back to the sweetness. 

Today is a time for living and it is a sacred gift that each of us is given every twenty-four hours.  It is a powerful reminder of life.  I am not given this day simply to become a day older and less alive. The future starts today! How I live each day is everything I have to give back.

What sweetness!

Blessings!

Monday, November 8, 2010

A Legacy Tale, part three

Fred’s car is still in his driveway and seeing it there still catches me by surprise. As I am coasting down the street, heading home at the end of the day, or when I am backing out of my own driveway on my way out some where, I see his little car – old maroon Honda Civic – and my heart leaps and I think, “Oh, great! Fred’s home!” In the next moment, I remember that Fred is no longer here in his previous form, that his house, which he lived happily in for decades, is unoccupied, that his car sits unused in the driveway. Some times it also happens that very early in the morning, when it is still quite dark, as I’m heading out with Happy for a trip to our park for some exercise, I look across the street to see if the light is on in Fred’s kitchen, if he is at the window washing dishes or looking out to see if I am up yet. I always felt like the two of us, Fred and me, and Happy the dog – and the water fowl at our park – were the only creatures awake in the neighborhood.

Last year at this time, during this season, was when Fred’s decline began. He had months of unexplained recurrent anemia, fatigue and vertigo. For awhile it was feared that the non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma he’d had previously was back for another round. But Fred’s team of doctors ruled that out, other cancers, too, and made sure that his diabetes was under control, gave him periodic blood transfusions, and kept a close eye on him. His daughter Joanne or son Peter took turns taking him to various medical appointments throughout the autumn months and into the winter. The dizziness from the vertigo drove Fred crazy, especially because it prevented him from taking his own walks through our neighborhood, puttering in his garage or the dormant garden, or jumping into his car in order to visit Peter at his shop or attend mass at Saint Agatha’s. Fred was home-bound. If the lights in Fred’s kitchen were on later than I thought was usual, or weren’t on in the early morning when I woke up, I would be worried.

As often as I was able, in those darkening days of autumn 2009, I’d pay an evening visit to Fred, dropping by for a chat, sometimes with some homemade soup to offer him (“Could you use some lentil soup, Fred?”, borrowing his favorite phrase of generosity.) Because of his diabetes and my chronic intestinal condition we ate virtually the same diet, so we took pleasure in giving each other homemade treats, especially if the ingredients came from Fred’s garden. During these visits, or on the phone when I was unable to stop in, he’d tell me about his day, how he was feeling, the results of a medical appointment, reminiscences about the old country, or last summer’s tomatoes, or what not. And he’d ask me about my day, or he’d wonder after Isobel, so I’d tell him highlights, mostly having to do with what was happening at the park, or politically, or I’d describe in great detail some fantastic recipe Izzy and I made or planned to make soon.

Fred was fortunate that he had a couple of short periods where he felt stable enough – not too wobbly and weak – and so was able to leave his home not just for medical appointments or a transfusion, but for Sunday dinner with his family, or for a short cane-assisted walk around the block. But the overall trajectory for his embodiment was downward, back toward the earth.
So, now, a year or so later, on the particular day I am writing, a day in early November, there is unexpected mildness to the weather, no rain, moderate temperatures, that quality of light when the autumn sun is bouncing with glee off the edges of the leaves, which are all those ridiculously beautiful throbbing shades: bright red, deep purple, hot orange and yellow. I have exactly forty-five minutes at home in between things, so I decide to mow the front lawns at my home and then at Fred’s – hopefully this will be the last mowing before the rainy season kicks in with earnest intensity. As I am mowing Fred’s lawn – something I began to do regularly the summer before his final months on earth – I feel his presence quite strongly.

My relationship with Fred is undoubtedly based in part on memories of our past experiences, the things we did for or with each other. As I mow his lawn, I think about the many times he’d “watch the homestead” for us when we went out of town, taking in our mail, keeping an eye on things, and welcoming us back even if we’d been away just for the weekend. Fred was – is – one of the best and truest friends I’ve ever had, and so I continue to have a great deal of space in my mind for remembering him, and obviously I feel moved to tell and write stories of him, as a way to keep him alive.

But – and this is so important and yet I’m struggling to match my experiences with words and thus communicate it to you -- my relationship with Fred exists in the present, in the unfolding of my daily life, and I feel quite certain that we are still cultivating our relationship, though we exist on two different planes of reality. That he is still alive for me, still a central part of my daily life, that I actually have an active relationship with him is a beautiful, perplexing phenomenon.

I still have Fred’s phone number in my cell phone contact list – and, along with his, under his entry, I have his son Peter’s and daughter Joanne’s numbers as well, leftovers from the time last autumn and earlier this year when Fred was in his physical decline, contact numbers “In case of an emergency.” Now, Joanne and Peter have their own entries in my contact list. Peter and I occasionally text message each other, most recently about whether he had any photos of Fred I could use in a digital storytelling project I’m starting – images of Fred to accompany the words I’ve been writing about him and our relationship. Joanne some times calls me about the garden or to let me know what’s growing at her C.S.A. farm. On Fred’s birthday this year, September 1st, the three of us exchanged messages. I realize how fortunate I am – and how it was far from inevitable, it didn’t have to happen this way – that in addition to knowing Fred, I have the opportunity to know his adult children as well, to have an active relationship with all three of them in the present.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Resources for Intentional Agers

This is an exciting time as the interest in topics related to aging has never been greater or more dynamic.  New books, web sites,  newsletters and blogs are created every day.  If you have resources  related to intentional aging that you wish to share, please offer it here.

Here are two items worth a look:


Positive Aging Conference in December

The 4th National Positive Aging Conference will be held in Los Angeles from Dec. 7-10, sponsored by the Fielding Graduate University and co-sponsored by AARP.  Speakers include Marc Freedman and George Vaillant, with presentations from Tipi Hedren ("The Birds") and the original Gigi, as well as many breakout sessions and workshops on creativity, community, wellness, life transitions, and much more.  For more info click on Positive Aging Conference:

Note: Jenny will be presenting her story about "Fred's Fig" at the conference.  Hooray!!

Human Values In Aging Newsletter:

This is a monthly electronic newsletter published by Rick Moody under the auspices of The Gerontological Society of America and National AARP.  If there is only one newsletter I read every month it is this one.  Often provocative and always chalk full of good information and comment.  A wonderful resource for both individuals and professionals.  To subscribe  send and email to hrmoody@Yahoo.com

Monday, October 25, 2010

Spirituality and the Ageless Questions: A series

Just a heads-up that there is a 3 part discussion series starting tomorrow (Tuesday Oct. 26th; 5:30 to 7:30 PM) on spirituality and aging. There is no cost.

The topic for the first session is Finding Meaning and Purpose

November 9th will focus on Learning From Faith Traditions and Secular Perspectives

December 2nd will focus on Contemplation, Action and Community

Featured speakers/facilitators are Jack Kennedy, Mary Lonergan; Bob Epstein; and Stephen Ristau.

All events will be held at the Main Branch of the Multnomah County Library; 801 SW 10th Ave; Portland.  Sponsors are Multnomah County Library and Life By Design N.W.

Hope to see you there!

Four weeks later.

It has been almost four weeks since Dr. Mary Catherine Bateson came to Marylhurst University to give a presentation on her latest book, Composing a further life: The age of active wisdom. Almost four weeks, and some of us are still talking about her presentation. Like fans reliving a rock concert, we remind each other of especially powerful ideas she offered us, paraphrasing her phrases as closely as we can. Some of Bateson’s ideas have even popped up in the blog posts, on Facebook walls, and in the academic papers of my friends, colleagues and students.

In 1989, when the prequel to Bateson’s current book was published, I was completing my senior year at Willamette University majoring in psychology and music. The book was titled Composing a life, and in it Bateson, the daughter of anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, wove together an extraordinary portrait of five women’s life journeys, using their comparative biographies as a way to take face-on the complexities of women’s lives as they travel through the life course and attempt to balance work and love, their own and others’ development. The way Bateson lovingly represented the lives of the women she studied, the gentle and precise attention she gave to her interviews with them, so deeply moved me in my early adulthood; reading and rereading her book cleared space in my heart and mind so that I could imagine a different life-course for my self than the one my family history had fated me for.

I was also jarred and deeply impressed by the form of Bateson’s inquiry, the way in which she wrote, the way her sensibility enveloped every word on the page. In my infancy as a Human Scientist, in my still relative newness as a human adult, and even though I was not yet in graduate school, I knew enough to know that the kinds of questions she was asking, the way she approached her research, and the way her sensibility enveloped every word on the page was, well, somehow transgressive and radical. And sane and beautiful and hope-filled. To me, Mary Catherine Bateson was a major rock star, an imaginary friend and yearned-for mentor, a model for the kind of scholar and teacher I aspired to become.

So, after her significant and insightful presentation four weeks ago tomorrow, when she’d finished signing books, as she was gathering her people and things in preparation to leave, I had a moment to tell Mary Catherine how much she’s meant to me for over twenty years. She embraced me, which brought tears to my eyes, and thanked me for making it possible for her to come to my university to give a presentation. I told Mary Catherine Bateson that for a long time I had wanted to be her, but at a certain point in the last few years I had decided instead to be inspired by her to continue in my becoming the best me I could possibly become.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Lessons from the Sage-ing Guild Conference

One hunded people came together a week ago at the annual conference of the Sage-ing Guild to celebrate the conscious aging and spiritual eldering work of Rabbi Schacter-Shalomi and to share life experience and learn from and be inspired by others.  There are several things I took away from the conference that I would like to share with you in the next few posts.

What is it to be be a  "wise sage"?  Bob Atchley, an award winning and internationally recognized gerontologist,  offered a new twist on this for many of us in attendance.  Dr. Atchley defines Sage-wisdom as the ability to respond to a situation with clarity, compassion, deep understanding , broad knowledge, and powerful listening and interpersonal skills.  It is NOT about having the correct answer or even an answer at all! How different this is from what we normally label as "smarts" or "intellectual capacity" where having the answer to a problem is highly regarded.

But how can a person have "clarity", "deep understanding" and "broad knowledge" and still not have the answer,  I asked him?  His response was that clarity relates to personal clarity about your sense of purpose, deep understanding relates to understanding human nature and broad knowledge comes from life's lessons, philosophy and experiences and not from anything specific learned from a book.  In short a wise sage has mastered the art of "waiting" for the answer to develop.

Is there a role for Sages in today's society?  Although there was no consensus among the participants I discussed this with, there was agreement on the following.  Sages embody the values that transcend individual conflicts and selfishness. With the attributes listed above if modern sages were provided the opportunity and authority to exercise their advisory capabilities, they might inspire society to discard short-sighted mentalities in favor of broader spiritual values that lead to a more sustainable, peaceful, and joyful lifestyle for us all. 

Can you imagine how your family, neighborhood and community might be different if more people like this were available as resources?

Blessings!

Merci, Alain!

Well, I guess you know that the situation in France is out-of-hand when Lady Gaga, or should I say "Madame Gaga," cancels her Paris concerts. Perhaps in solidarity with the multitudes of people across the age spectrum protesting President Sarkozy's attempts at major pension reforms, but for certain because, in addition to cross-generational protests, there have been ongoing country-wide strikes, including strikes by workers at fuel refineries and depots. No fuel = no ground transportation for Lady G. and her entourage.

Things are, indeed, quite out-of-hand in France. The situation, which I briefly wrote about in my last blog posting, can be seen from multiple positionalities and perspectives, and it reverberates widely, impacting many people (including international rock stars!). As well, it illuminates something very interesting and quite specific about what happens in France when citizens are pissed off with the government. They take to the streets. They shut stuff down. They fight.

So, I had an ulterior motive lurking behind my first posting on this subject: In the spirit of provocation, I wanted to instigate critical analysis and discussion about a really timely socio-cultural, historical event happening in another country that's sort of like the U.S. in some ways, and, well, sort of not in many ways. Guess what? I succeeded!

Me and my colleague Alain, who grew up in France and still goes back yearly to visit his multi-generational family, have been engaged in a dialogue this week about his life-experiences and family history, and how they shape his interpretation of the current discord in France. He’s generously agreed to let me include some of our dialogue in this post. I also want to thank other colleagues who have emailed me articles from the international press – mainstream and alternative – reporting on the situation from various, often conflicting, standpoints. I’ve learned a lot.

(If you want to read some of the stuff I've been reading, thanks to my friend t-sloan, start with "Work Harder to Earn Less" by Diana Johnstone, at www.couterpunch.org)

So, here’s what Alain had to say in response to my original post on this subject:

"Yes, “In France, high school students are marching alongside elders to protest changes in policies around retirement age” and that can indeed be understood as an indication of positive inter-generational support. However, having grown up in France and being somewhat acquainted with the system, I am afraid that the political reality underpinning the current movement has more to do with partisan politics than inter-generational understanding. The simple truth is that whenever a government, whether Republican or Socialist, has tried to bring change to France, it has failed. For example, when French Philosopher Luc Ferry, a scholar in the field of Secular Humanism who holds an Agrégation de philosophie (l975), a Doctorat d’Etat en science politique (1981), and an Agrégation de science politique (1982) and was Maître de Recherche at several major French universities tried to implement a needed reform of French universities, unions pushed students in the streets to protest against a reform that they did not even understand and represented the only chance for French universities to maintain and/or improve their international standing.

Several of my family members are educators. I remember some of them telling me that many of their colleagues were AUTOMATICALLY against Ferry’s reform because we was Minister of Education in a conservative government, regardless of the fact that he is a brilliant mind, was totally right on the issue, had the best of intentions and knew the sad economic reality of French universities.

For 30 years, I grew up in a system where “the left” passed legislations that France just could not afford. The latest one was “les 35 heures”; a legislation promoted by Martine Aubry out of absolute ambition as her and Ségolène Royale want to enter history as France’s first female President – one of the reasons why they so dislike each other so much... They will stop at nothing, including pushing high-school students to strike instead of studying, to shamelessly gain a political advantage.

The bottom line is quite simple: to their credit the French have built, like many other European nations, a great social welfare system that has, in many regards, prevented some of the excesses and injustices of the American system. The system worked as long as the tremendous resulting costs were absorbed by a growing economy. However, over the past 20 years, France lost 10,000 of it 100,000 small and mid-size firms (the ones that create employment) because they were asphyxiated by unreasonable social security and other charges. The French like many other people just can’t live longer, lose their economic infrastructure to low labor countries and expect to maintain a social system built upon 30 years of economic growth. Something just does not add up.

My Dad is 87 and has been retired since age 62. In truth, the French system has been very generous to him. However, he earned his retirement by working for 50 YEARS from age 12 (yes, age 12 doing logging for my grandpa as he was the single son of a poor French logger) to 62. Contrarily, two of my cousins are high-school teachers; they work 14 hours a WEEK – not per day – per week! Because he earned his doctorate in Mathematics, their son, who started working at age 32, will NEVER work more than 12 hours a week… Hence, should he even retire at 62, he would have only contributed to the French economy for 30 years, at a 12-hour weekly rate; not even a 35-hour (the world’s lowest work week). One of my friends is a P. E. teacher; he works 20 hours a week. Another cousin has worked for the French Tax Administration for 30 years; she told me that she has so much free time that “she does not know what to do with it…” The longshoremen of the port of Marseilles work 18 hours a week, earn $5,000 a month and want a $500 bonus; they are on strike…

It is very simple: something has to give. All that I learned in America in 25 years is that everything has a cost, and sooner or later someone must absorb that cost. The problem is that we French are schizophrenic. We are a creative and generous people, but a schizophrenic people. The students protesting in the streets of Paris just don’t understand that they are being manipulated by a handful of leftist leaders. Moreover, they don’t even realize that they may never be able to retire or will do so at age 70 after working for a Chinese company, once France’s socio-economic structure has been destroyed.”

A compelling first-person account, yes? Alain reminds us of the complexity of seemingly straightforward issues, the ways such issues reach into the past and the future, and how individual lives are shaped by how the issues get addressed and resolved. His narrative fills in some of the spaces in between the various “official accounts.” And there are many other stories to be told, of course.

The news this morning--the French Senate passed the pension plan reform through a fast-track process. It isn't quite a done-deal, but damn close to it.

I am fascinated by this event, professionally and personally, and I must admit that I sympathize with the workers on strike, the protesters young and old; I offer solidarity with their cause by following what's happening, writing a bit about it and hopefully instigating critical, thoughtful reflection and conversation, and praying for the best outcome for as many humans as possible. And as much as I disagree with how Sarkozy and his comrades have been handling this situation, I acknowledge that the French government is trying to solve a complex, significant problem that the U.S. and the U.K. and other western nations are facing given many factors and forces, in particular population aging and it consequences.

So, what do you think about all of this? Reactions? Ideas? Inspirations? Agitations?

Saturday, October 16, 2010

What are you protesting?

In France, high school students are marching alongside elders to protest changes in policies around retirement age. Can you imagine such a thing happening in the U.S.? We have heard that current young people "lack confidence" in the future of Social Security, but I can tell you that when I moderated a community conversation about Social Security privitization a few years ago (when Bush Jr. was still in office), there were very few people in the audience who looked to be members of generations other than the Boomers and current elders.

The history of major social movements in the U.S. has shown us that people have to be self-interested in some significant way in order to feel compelled to put their energy and time -- their very lives, perhaps -- toward a larger effort of protest and change. One of the challenges with issues around aging and later life is that many humans in the Western world don't exactly dig confronting what it might mean to be a future older person (which is why I am so committed to doing intentional aging and cross-gen radical inquiry).

Though a couple of my more radical gerontologist colleagues from the U.K. think it is impossible, I still maintain that if we can figure out how to have a cross-generational social movement in the U.S., focused narrowly enough on something we all care about, we could instigate significant, lasting social change.

What matters to you? What are your deepest hopes and concerns? Imagine that on a beautiful autumn Saturday in Portland, Oregon you and your grandchild and your Gen-X friend from school and your neighbor from Pakistan are facing bravely a line of police who are trying to break up your protest march. What are you protesting?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

When in doubt, bake a cake.

I am reflecting upon the phone conversation I had with a colleague, on speaker phone while I drove from campus to my neighborhood this afternoon. I had asked him to call me because I have been quite distressed – profoundly distressed, actually – about an ongoing difficult situation in my professional life which has recently intensified. Part of the intensity is that I really care about the outcome of the situation, I care about the people involved, I am attached to my role in the situation (which has been a long-term role), and though I should know better than to take anything personally, even when something is indeed personal, I still feel it in my gut, which is twisting, and my heart, which actually hurts. Life has taught me that I think better with others, I need to talk through complicated situations, even if I find direct communication very painful sometimes, even if I’ve spent many years of my life trying to avoid such communication. I know how important it is, life keeps teaching me this, and because I believe we humans can learn new things, can change our minds (and thus our feelings and actions), I’ve worked in a very intentional, focused way in the past couple of years to learn new ways of being when it comes to communication and facing up to things (which is not to say I have learned all that there is to learn….there’s so much more to learn!). So, I reached out to my colleague (and this reaching out can be a challenge for me, too!).

Any way--My colleague really helped me because he listened, he commiserated, he answered my questions with what felt to me to be honesty and compassion, and when he couldn’t advise me because he didn’t know what on earth to say let alone think about the situation, he told me so. And toward the end of the conversation, when I was sitting in my car in the parking lot of my neighborhood market, when I told him I had to get off the phone and go into the store to buy supplies for supper, he said something that stopped me in my tracks and reminded me to be here, now, and not self-absorbed, but other-focused. What he said wasn’t the kind of something I’m used to him saying, so it jarred me even more so. He said something along the lines of, “Cook the food you buy with love in your heart, so the food really nourishes you and your daughter.” Wow, I thought. Wow! And to him I said, “thank you,” about three times; I was so grateful. And he said back to me three times “you are welcome”.

My daughter and I are having left-overs tonight for supper, but I decided to take my colleague’s advice. So I bought some yellow corn-meal and some sweet cream unsalted butter. And some beautiful deep orange carrots. Right now, I’m roasting carrots in the oven to serve along-side our left-overs. And the minute I arrived home, about thirty minutes ahead of my daughter, I made a corn-meal cake and got it into the oven so the quite unbelievable scent, a combination of nuttiness and honey-sweetness, would be floating through the house when she walked in the door.

When you are in pain and distracted and worried, bake a cake, I reasoned. And it was a really great decision, because the minute Isobel walked in the door, she wanted to know what the scent was, what I was doing home early at 4:00 in the afternoon, wearing an apron and baking, and whether or not I’d had a good day. I told her I had absolutely not had a good day, but... I had baked a really great cake.

The cake came out of the oven about a half hour ago, and Isobel has already had a little, hot piece of it. Cake-success has been declared! And I’ve been given several bonus hugs!

I just now pulled the roasted carrots out—little pointy orange gems. And I’ve collected some tender autumn lettuce from Fred’s garden, which I’ll dress with lemon, olive oil, chives and crème fresh, if there’s any left.

When in pain, when in doubt, bake a cake (or carrots)!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Annual Sage-ing Guild Conference

The Annual Sage-ing Guild conference is next week in Loveland, Colorado from October 15th - 17th.

For those of you who are not aware, the Sage-ing Guild was founded in November 2004 to support and promote the philosophy of conscious aging described in the seminal book, From Age-ing to Sage-ing: A Profound New Vision of Growing Older, by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Ronald Miller. Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi's philosophy of saging as a process of spiritual development that deepens self-awareness, enhances interpersonal relationships, hones communication skills, and cultivates a valuation of Elders as mentors and wise counsel in our community.

The Sage-ing Guild is a networking organization for professionals trained in these non-denominational methods and philosophy and other individuals interested in creating a new aging paradigm. Some members of the Guild teach classes, facilitate discussions, and run workshops throughout the United States for people seeking to age consciously and with purpose.

The keynote speaker this year is Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi who is speaking on a new vision of Sage-ing. Other notables include Rick Moody talking about Conscious Aging In Today's World and Sandy Sabersky discussing Spirituality and Dementia.

For a full schedule and more information go to
www.sage-ingguild.org.

I'll post more after the conference.

Blessings!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

A thimble-full of sake

Yesterday, I made a quick stop at home after attending with Isobel her high school registration. As these things do, the registration event took twice as long as we anticipated, so I was running on the edge of lateness all morning. I dropped Izzy at her job at the rock climbing gym, then raced home so as to let Happy-dog out to do his business in the yard and to make myself a little lunch to take with me to work, as I had stretching before me several hours of back-to-back meetings and appointments. While home, I also did something uncharacteristic of me at 10:30 a.m. – I indulged in a small thimble-full of sake to calm and slow myself down. Tea wouldn’t do, I needed the immediate serenity that a slug of great sake offers.

High school. Really? That’s where we’ve arrived together in this life, so suddenly?

Isobel was excited and nervous, and in her excitement and nervousness she was impatient with me, edgy, really. She contradicted half of what I said, even if I was correctly answering her question; she laughed when I tripped (which I do often because my vision is so shaky now); she criticized me pre-emptively if I looked at how one of her classmates was dressed, assuming (wrongly) that I was going to say something critical. I understood what was going on with her emotionally, empathized, embraced this as an opportunity for spiritual practice (Oh, hooray! Yet another opportunity!), but I was nervous, too, and rough around the edges. I was on the verge of tears, actually. But I managed to make it home for 15 minutes of safety and solitude, and a slug of sake. I didn’t actually start crying until I was back in the car, driving into the university for work. Then I let myself go all to pieces. Izzy had a delayed reaction—she didn’t fall apart until this morning, when I woke her up for her last day of work for the summer. She was on the verge of tears, dragging, exhausted, complaining of a sore neck, a stuffed nose, she said she didn’t sleep at all. I had her get up, I made her a cup of sweet, milky coffee, but it was clear after 10 minutes that the biggest gift I could give her was permission to get back in bed, and be a sick girl, and maybe even fall back to sleep for awhile.

Transitions are so experientially difficult, so emotionally complicated and interesting and complex, aren’t they? Transitions remind us of our impermanence, our mortality, the time-bound nature of each human life. That’s why humans have created rituals to mark and celebrate transitions, why some cultures have elevated certain life-course transitions into “rites of passage.” That’s also why many of us living in these times in this culture feel unmoored in the middle of our transitions, because we haven’t a ready-made ritual to grab onto, to hold us safe and give us a framework for making meaning when we are muddling through a major transition.

I’m pretty sure the sore neck can be explained by the fact that Isobel rode the “Screaming Eagle” roller coast several times yesterday afternoon. Though she wouldn’t describe it this way, my daughter created a kind of ritual to mark the transition from summer break to back-to-school, from being a middle-schooler, to becoming a more independent high-schooler. After the high school registration, she met up with two friends with whom she rock climbs – a young man who will be a freshman at the same high school she’s attending, and a young woman who is a year ahead of them at another area high school. The three jumped on the city bus, rode it to the Sellwood Park, then tromped down the Oaks Bottom path to Oaks Amusement Park. They spent the afternoon – one of the hottest all summer – riding the rides, drinking cold coke, and roller skating to 70s music. Ah, freedom on a summer afternoon, the sweet, fleeting freedom that comes when you know you’ll be back to school in a week’s time! But not just “back to school,” because high school is a different gig than all that’s come before. Familiar in some ways, but altogether new in others.

Transitions – big and small - are every where, in all our lives, all the time, but sometimes they seem to be foregrounded in our daily lives and the lives of our close people; our experiences of them become a dominant element of our storylines.

So, Isobel is starting high school. A close colleague’s son is ending high school and preparing to apply for college. Another colleague’s son is ending day care and starting nursery school, while a friend’s baby has become – overnight! -- a toddler on the brink of his first steps. And, of course, there are transitions happening at the other end of the journey: a former student struggles with the discovery that her father is rapidly descending into dementia; my dear Gramma Jewell moved into an assisted living facility last weekend; a much-older colleague struggles with the identity work involved with letting go of professional responsibilities and re-establishing priorities as her vital energy down-shifts.

And there are the transitions that in this culture we’ve come to call “midlife transitions.” (I’ll point out that while “midlife transition” has become part of the cultural vernacular, we’ve yet to create shared, common practices for ritualizing the transitions of mid- and later-life. This is a bunny-trail I’ll not go down right now, though perhaps it would make a great topic for discussion!) This summer, I finally admitted that I’m dwelling somewhere in the vicinity of the middle, chronologically speaking, but also in terms of where I’m situated in relationship to my family members. I heard myself say to a colleague, “I guess there’s no denying I’m in my mid-life.” I am muddling in the middle, in the middle of the muddle, and to greater and lesser degrees so too are my generational comrades; but in this case, I shall only speak about the particulars of my own experience, which, right now, have a lot to do with embodiment, or, more precisely, how to live creatively and with vitality in the body I have which is often in quite a lot of very distracting pain.

That’s enough for now, maybe soon I’ll write more, because right now I’m finding my attention arrested by the glorious being that is my 14-year-old, soon-to-be high school Freshman. This isn’t only her transition; after all, it is our transition, as we’ve journeyed here together.

So, it also occurs to me that this experience offers me a great opportunity for engaging in a little intentional aging practice! I’ve decided to leave the musing about the rapidity with which time flies by to my dreaming-mind; the dreams I’ve had the past two nights have been pretty wild, let me tell you! And I’ve also decided to invite my mind back to the present each time it casts itself into the future – say, four years from now, when Isobel is getting ready to go off to college. It doesn’t get me any where good to deny these thoughts about the past and the future, but dwelling in them overly-much distracts me from the exquisiteness of being here, now, with Isobel, as she prepares for the next leg of her life journey. Dwelling here, now, clears some space in my mind so that I can begin to dream about little ways to ritualize this transition, and all the others, big and small and in-between, as well.

Perhaps this little essay is part of my ritual-making for this shared turning-point.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Part Two: Fred's Figs

I had intended to offer Fred’s figs as dessert at a picnic my friend Erica and I planned, so yesterday afternoon I headed into the garden, wandering past the zucchini, corn, and tomatoes, pausing periodically to check on the ripeness of various fruits and veggies, acknowledging the spent raspberries and close-to-finished potatoes to my left, anticipating the sweet perfection of Fred’s Figs. The figs looked sound as I approached the tree, but I discovered upon gently grasping a fig that while I had been away from the garden for a few days Fred’s fig tree has been taken over by starlings and yellow jackets and a couple of hummingbirds. All of the enormous, sexy, ripe figs had been poked with little holes (hummingbirds), eaten from the inside-out (yellow jackets) or almost completely consumed and left like deflated balloons dangling from their stems (starlings). Fig pulp dripped onto my head and blouse, yellow-jackets buzzed in my ears, and I realized that there would be no figs for dessert. I was already running late for the picnic, so I didn’t even have time to change out of my stained blouse, nor fix my bangs, which were stiff and sticky from the pulp.

The only consolation for my disappointment was the knowledge that the last basketful of glorious ripe figs was quite appropriately consumed by a group of World War Two veterans. As Izzy and I were leaving town for the weekend, we offered to Joe the figs that I’d just picked, thinking he could share them with his colleagues at the Portland V.A. Medical Center (ripe figs don’t travel well!). His colleagues loved Fred’s figs, and so did his wizened old vets. I love thinking about how Fred was a World War Two vet – perhaps he even served with some of Joe’s clients! Maybe they were in the same unit that liberated one of the concentration camps? – and that all these years later, after his death, Fred’s figs were being gobbled by his contemporaries.

Today, the day I write part two of “Fred’s Figs,” was the very day this month when I offer a collaborative inquiry session at Mary’s Woods continuing care retirement center. I’ve been offering a monthly session since this past January, and will do so for the rest of this year. The custom is for me to read a short piece of writing, usually something I’ve written or am in the process of writing, and then we spend the remainder of our time surfacing themes, making connections between what was read and our own experiences, reminiscing about the past, and talking about our present lives, too. So, today I read “Fred’s Figs: A Legacy Tale, part one.”

After a short span of silence after I read the little essay, the group participants offered many thoughtful, even surprising insights and stories from their own lives. One gentleman, P., sighed, paused, and then said, “I think you vividly illustrate the web of life, and how it crosses generations. I like the feel of your essay.” His wife, D., remarked: “When people have died, they live on in us – in our memories and the stories we tell. You and your daughter are so lucky that you had Fred in your lives.” Another woman, H., remembered how as a young girl she met her lifelong best friend because of a cherry tree, the kind that grows the bright red little sour cherries best for pies. The cherry tree grew in the yard of her friend’s family’s home, and H. and her best friend started out as enemies – the future friend had caught H. stealing cherries from the tree! Then P. shared another story having to do with a dilapidated row-house in 1960s inner-city Philadelphia. He reminisced about renovating the row-house and living happily with his family for many years in the middle of an ethically and economically diverse neighborhood. The highlight of the story was his mention of the plate of ripe figs offered by a local progressive politician supposedly as a housewarming gift; from there after, P. and his wife referred to figs as “political figs.”

The group went on to talk about gardening, of the gardens we’ve known, the gardens we tended now, as well as the merits of letting plants do what they want, letting the garden exist in some indeterminate zone between absolutely wild and overly designed. And we connected this strong, shared sensibility about our roles as human stewards of micro-agriculture to a more expansive, aspirational commitment to letting other creatures become and be who they want to be, acknowledging the delicate balance to be sussed and cultivated between providing structure on the one hand, and freedom on the other, for those who are under our care, whether children, frail elders, companion animals, neighbors, colleagues, or vulnerable members of the community.

Suddenly, and jarringly, though not surprisingly, one of the collaborative inquiry participants asked me to tell more of Fred: Who he had been over his almost nine decades of life on earth, and how it was that we came to be such true friends. I told what I could in the short time I had to tell it, and they made me promise to continue writing about Fred and to bring what I write to them for their consideration. I promised to do so as my elder friends prepared themselves to leave me and move on to the next event in their hectic schedules as “retirees.”

After I returned home from Mary’s Woods, Fred’s son Peter stopped by to say hello, check in, and offer me some green beans from Fred’s garden. He also brought some figs—smaller, harder, and less sexy than the figs from last week that the WW2 vets gobbled. He has it in mind that we must fight a battle to save the rest of the figs from the humming birds, yellow jackets, and starlings. As well, he says he’s going to make some fig jam this weekend. I told him about my harrowing experience in the fig tree yesterday, in vivid detail, of course, and then we reminisced about our past experiences with yellow jackets – he shared a story from his boyhood about how he and his friend were pursued through our neighborhood by a swarm of hornets; I shared about being stung multiple times on my head while riding a horse in the back-country and how I had to dunk my head in a snow-melt mountain river and sleep off the venom-hangover in a bivouac. We laughed and commiserated, and then turned our conversation back to Fred’s figs. We wondered if there was still a chance for the unripe, hard little figs to ripen, and we acknowledged that had we remembered to put foil strips on the tree branches and enlist the scarecrow in security detail, we’d probably still be enjoying the best of Fred’s figs.

We made some provisional plans for next year’s growing season and turned our attention to re-sowing the lettuce—we could probably get another two months of lettuce from the garden, especially if we have an Indian summer.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Age of Active Wisdom

I'm really thrilled to announce that the great Dr. Mary Catherine Bateson, daughter of anthropologists Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead, will be coming to the Marylhurst campus! Save the date: Tuesday, September 28th, 7 to 9 p.m. in the Flavia Salon. She'll be discussing her latest book, COMPOSING A FURTHER LIFE: The Age of Active Wisdom.

This event is being co-sponsored by the Marylhurst University Department of Human Sciences, the Provost's Office, the Marylhurst Gerontology Association, Life by Design Northwest, and...the Intentional Aging Collective!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Fred's Figs: A Legacy Tale, part one

I prepared myself to scramble up the tall, rickety wooden ladder. It’s been leaning against the ancient, grand fig tree since last summer. Fred left it there at the ready in order to gather the figs before the birds could steal them and the bugs could eat them from the inside-out. Fred, my old friend, the angel of our neighborhood, died this past February. Now, he’s back in the stars, but this is still his fig tree, still his garden – almost a mini urban farm – and Fred will always dwell here. For the past six summers, Fred has offered me figs from his tree; this summer, I will carry on his sweet fig-giving custom. And I will serve as caretaker of Fred’s garden.

I discovered the first ripe fig of this summer last night because I bopped into it as I was heading into the garden to water. The fig was dangling, bulbous and green, a lovely ornament. I was caught very much surprised by the ripe fig, as last I’d checked, on the previous Sunday, the figs were seemingly days away – weeks, even – from ripening; the tree was covered with many small, rock-hard dark green tear drops!).

So, last night when I discovered the ripe fig, or, maybe the ripe fig discovered me, I wondered if perhaps there were more – how could there be only one ripe fig? – I decided to ascend Fred’s ladder high into the lush uppermost branches so as to look down upon and from within the tree and survey it for potentially ripe fruits. Lucky me—I found two more!

I also acquired a wholly new view of Fred’s garden: to the lower left, through the layers of lush leaves and branches, the rows and rows of heirloom tomatoes (after Fred died and we were making early preparations for this year’s garden, Joanne, Fred’s daughter, and I found plant tags in the greenhouse. On the tags Fred had written in black marker “a-i-r l-o-o-m” for use in indicating which seedlings were collected from last season’s crop of round, gorgeously purple Russian heirloom tomatoes.). Glancing diagonally toward the middle of the garden, being careful not to fall off the ladder, I saw the island of raspberry bushes, now finished fruiting; the new potato patch, ready to be excavated with a pitchfork; the ancient apple trees who no longer offer fruit. Rising up on the near horizon at the garden’s edge, the pole beans, vines stretching in all directions—small purple buds – future beans! To the right – opportunistic weeds, asparagus stalks gone-amok, misbehaving roses, and colonizing grape vines.

As I perched in the fig tree, so far above the ground below (where there was garlic planted until we pulled it up for curing last week), I had many memories, visiting from near and far, flash through my mind. I was a major tree climber as a girl, and I closed my eyes momentarily and asked myself this question: What age do I feel right now, tangled in the arms of Fred’s fig tree?

I also had a strong, visceral remembrance of visiting my dear friends Sara and Herb the year before Sara died of the cancer that colonized her body, at the house on the west bank of the Willamette River, just north of the Sellwood Bridge; they’d invited Isobel and I over to help pick ripe figs. Herb, my elder colleague, and his wife Sara, my mentor and co-conspirator, enjoyed only a couple of years at most in that house on the river – they’d just gotten the interior walls tinted the colors Sara saw in her imagination, planted some new plants in the well-established garden, hosted a fantastic Passover Seder for which Isobel and I made homemade kosher chicken soup with two kinds of matzoth balls: the small dense kind that sink, and the large fluffy kind that float!

I’ll never forget that charming, hilarious experience helping them pick figs on a late summer afternoon at their final home as a couple. Herb on a rickety, ancient ladder propped against the old, lush fig tree; Sara watching from an upstairs window (we broke the screen as we tried to open it widely enough for her to lean out and see Herb), alternating between begging him to be careful and bossing him about where the best figs were and the proper technique for picking them (in response to which Herb sweetly sang songs to Sara promising to be careful, reminding her that he was an old man with many years of ladder-climbing experiences to call upon.). Izzy and I stood on the deck below the tree with bushel baskets – I attempted to catch the figs as Herb tossed them down to me, and then I handed the figs to Izzy, who placed them in the baskets for safe-keeping, occasionally eating a fig that was too ripe to carry back to our house on our bicycles.

Now as I eat figs too ripe to carry across the street from Fred’s garden to my house, I think about the legacy Fred continues to give me, though our relationship exists in a different dimension now that he’s no longer living. To be trusted with the caring for Fred’s garden, a garden that has grown perpetually for 85 years, tending the plants, cultivating the land, allows me to continue my relationship with him. To spend Sunday afternoons with his adult children pulling weeds and gathering the harvest allows me to expand my relationship with Fred, to learn new things about him, about his people.

I’ve even adopted some of Fred's habits-of-speech. I hear myself asking a friend, “Could you use some figs?” I take delight in watching my friend break open the green flesh to discover the sweet purple insides of one of Fred’s figs.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Grumpiness and Irritability

Recently I had a surprising existential moment and I am more than just a little embarrassed.

Call it anger, rage, fury or irritability but it came quickly and took over my entire body. Every organ and every cell of my body infected. I'm embarrassed because it is the exact opposite of how I was taught growing up and in the work-life. I was encouraged to be calm, patient and serene.

I'm told that irritability and fury in old age is quite a regular thing and as old as well, human nature. We sort of expect this from the old, don't we? The stereotype is one of "Grumpy" from the Seven Dwarfs. Why do we expect bad-temper from older people? Perhaps a more important question is why do we make fun of it as if that was the whole emotional picture of some older people?

What is also revealing is that this recent experience with anger also left me invigorated, excited and connected to the world in ways I had not experienced since I was in college. I felt like I was raging about something socially important and yet perplexed by the inherent contradiction of trying to be patient and feeling impatient. After all, elders should be patient and serene! Right? What is going on with me? Am I not good enough to become an elder?

And yet, from an intentional aging perspective, the feeling was an honest one and from the heart, so to speak! I don't know if this new found irritability is because I am feeling impatient with still being on the planet or because I have more work to do and don't want to leave just yet. Or some deeper reason. I hope it isn't the first one.

I'm sure I'm not alone in this. I'm going to try out being both impatient and patient as two contradictory sides of my character and see how that shapes my life. Maybe I will also find the other Seven Dwarfs inside, as well!

Blessings!

Friday, June 25, 2010

Life As A Spiritual Practice

When I get in to discussions of spirituality and aging I have been at a loss to find the words to explain my belief that my spiritual practice has more to do with being authentic than the amount of meditating, praying, etc I perform. For me, there is no more powerful feeling of connection to my higher power than living a purpose filled life that aligns with my values and passion.

I recently rediscovered a little book (Everyday Grace by Marianne Williamson) and the following quote that describes what is true for me. I share it here in hopes that it assists on your journey.

"If you're not fully alive, then you're not being who you were born to be or living the life you were meant to live. If you're not living the life you are meant to live, then you're not doing on this earth what you're intended to do- you're failing to take part in the unfolding drama of infinite good, which is the spirit of God"

Each of us has a very special way to connect with our universal source...and it is through recognizing and polishing our uniqueness and offering it to the world through our life.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Human Development and Aging

Our attitudes about longevity and aging mirror the conflicting montage of beliefs and ideas we have about the subject. This is wonderful, isn't it? Aging in the modern world is not just one thing or way of being it is many practices. There is no "right" way to age! But, perhaps there is one theme that will allow us to think about the aging process differently....Developmental Aging.

Developmental Aging, as geriatric physician William Thomas says, is the concept that allows us to see the aging process and old age specifically as part of the "ongoing miracle of human development". The fetus becomes the newborn, the infant becomes the girl, the girl becomes the mother, the mother becomes the grandmother, the grandmother becomes the elder in her community.

Each stage of life requires a different set of skills, knowledge and way of being. The question is are we willing to acknowledge this set of acquired attributes in old age as worthy and positive or are we going to be stuck with the view that aging is a disease and must be thwarted at every turn.

If we fully engage in our own intentional aging process we gain clearer insight, acceptance and respect for the human condition. Isn't that what we all secretly want!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

This One Hurts

I couldn't take my gaze away from the images. The dense black cloud moving out and rising continuously. The tally meter shows more than fifty million gallons already released in to the Gulf of Mexico with no end in sight. Twenty gallons every second for what now is sixty days.

I have to wonder what recommendations a coastal fisherman would have made years ago when British Petroleum first wanted to drill for oil in deep water off the coast of Louisiana? I wonder what a true "Elder" would have said when told that the valve that was supposed to shut off the flow in the event of a break had never actually worked in practice?

I hope that we learn from yet another environmental catastrophe that our decision making process for these type of things is dysfunctional when we only look at the revenue and balance sheets as our source if information.

If ever there was a need in the world for elder wisdom it is now! As we look to worldwide deep water oil wells, increased nuclear power proliferation, and renewed toxic strip mining for materials to make batteries for our electronics, where are the voices of wisdom and compassion? The voices to speak up for the environment and the human species? It is not enough to speak up after a catastrophic occurrence...voices need to be heard at the other end of the process...the beginning.

This one really hurts!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Does Gerontology Really Serve Us??

Is the field of gerontology really serving humankind? Does it really assist us in understanding ourselves or the life process? Does it even study the important things about the aging process? I ask this because what I'm seeing is alarming.

With an apparent lust for all things related to the biology of aging we continue to get scholarly studies with a never ending array of facts about how we can be more active, eat better, practice your memory skills, work out, stop worrying, think harder, and develop new relationships. Don't get me wrong, those are all important to a long and vigorous life. But, is that all there is?

This singular focus on biology leads to a huge bias that leads most professionals in the field to treat aging as if it were a disease, something, if not terrible, at least unfortunate and certainly something to be avoided wherever possible. It's as if all we see are the 3Ds; dysfunction, decay and death. Where are the studies about the psychology of aging? The life-long opportunities for development and humanist studies?

The science of aging is young. Gerontology is "new in its methods and youthful in its hopes and outlook; its researchers tend to be young." Psychologist James Hillman goes on to say that youthfulness studying aging will naturally view the related issues through the lens of youth. If this is true about Gerontology (and I suspect it is), won't its research be skewed against anything that does not look like youth as the pinnacle of human development?

Aging is not just a physical process, though. And this is my point. It also is a process of finding meaning, purpose, character and self-improvement throughout the life-course. Where are the studies about these parts of aging? Where are the studies that go beyond the model of aging as a disease? Its as if our gerontologists have given up and settled for the easy stuff...monitoring the "disease". Where are the studies of the aging human body as a source of insight, courage, grace, honor, humor and character.

It's as if we use the idea of death, the natural end point of biology, as a reason to give up on any other study, observations or even conversations about the aging process. Without these we just continue to perpetuate fear and ignorance about aging and "oldness". For if aging is just a disease we are all certainly terminal and we can stop studying!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Character

My friend Ken and I recently spent some quality time in my "church", the Metolius River in Central Oregon. These annual Spring trips or renewal have become a wonderful ritual for us.

This year we spent several hours in conversation about what it is to have "character". People with noble intentions are found everywhere, but people with a strong character seem to stand out from the crowd. They just seem to know the secret for personal success. This secret indirectly draws the respect of others.

Although I don't think we have exhausted this topic of discussion between us I think Ken would agree that character goes beyond just good intentions. I think that what gives a person character is taking responsibility for their actions and their own happiness. This is especially true when their life is not exactly like it was planned. In short, they take responsibility for the outcomes of their life..both the good and well.. you know!

I also believe that character goes way beyond just taking responsibility for your life, however. It includes living ones truth. Not as doctrine, religion or principles but more from a place of understanding and trusting their instincts. These people are guided by a force that is intuitive and personal. Not infallible but uniquely them. A singular force that influences others to imagine their own "Character".

As we move through the life course we have many new choices to make. Can we choose to develop our character in new ways? Unencumbered by the reality of career and family care we are free, maybe for the first time, to be ourselves and explore what it means to become a "character". Our families, communities and the world need more people of character. Step out!!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Of Witches and Goblins

Lately, I've been reading stories. Fairy tales, mostly, as I prepare for a summer course I am facilitating.

Did you know that older men and women appear in almost every fairy tale, but they are usually minor characters. They are usually cast as the wicked or the evil or as the unbelievable good. Rarely do fairy tales cast the older person as a realistic main character.

Fairy tales make life a little easier by offering a vision of what life can be. I like fairy tales because they focus on ordinary people with fears, frailties and other human qualities that I can relate to because I share them. I believe this is what makes them so enduring and accessible; they are about average people with similar aspirations and values.

But what about portraying the aging process in fairy tales? With advances in diet, public health, and medical practices we all can expect to live to an age never dreamed of by our grandparents. But what's the point of this gift of longevity? What is the meaning and purpose of living so long? Where are the stories and myths that will assist us on our journey to discover these things?

In a society centered on youth, the older person finds herself caught between the ominous cloud of "decline" and the striving for eternal youthfulness. How can you win in this struggle?

Elder tales might offer a dramatic alternative to this struggle, or at least some respite. They could portray a new image of maturity with a focus on transcendence, hope, generativity and self actualization instead of decline and decay. Allen Chinen in his book "In the Ever After: Fairy Tales In the Second Half of life" suggests that elders and therefore "elder tales" are paradoxical. They could entertain children with the magic, suspense and inspiration, as they also address the concerns of the mature adults who struggle with the physical, spiritual and psychological tasks of later life.

To this end I am collecting new and old elder tales to share with the world. Please share whatever you have and consider this site as a place for your stories and tales for the good of intentional agers everywhere. In fact, why not write a new one and post it here?

"Once upon a time ......."

Friday, April 30, 2010

Reclaiming "Old"

"Old"! What a wonderful and contradictory word.

In most meanings it is different from aging. In fact it is generally a category all by itself separate from aging and the nearness of death. Isn't the thing we like most about old things is their ageless character? We are drawn to old tools, towns, whiskey, paintings, jewelry, hats and cars exactly because they seem timeless, the opposite of death. With old things we get comfort and sweet memories. And old can be visible condition not necessarily dependent on years. We have children who are sometimes called "old souls" with wise character and vitality. In this context having the quality of "oldness" is positive, nurturing, and includes a richness.

"Old" only seems to be negative when we attach it to people of age. It has come to mean everything that is not youthful, "hip", or modern. Other meanings we attach to the term include hateful, cruel, mean, controlling and you can add your own. And we congratulate old men and women only when they look or act young.

Earlier this week I had lunch with my friend, mentor and fellow blogger Jenny Sasser and we were discussing this phenomena. Jenny wants to reclaim the word "old", as applied to people of age, from the trash heap and put it in its rightful place alongside all things old. I signed on with her!

Don't be afraid to use the word and to hold people of age in higher regard because they have achieved character and a sense of richness that only years on the planet can deliver. They are also valuable social images of oldness which we need to balance the supposed deity of youth.

Embrace the "old" in everyone, especially yourself!

Saturday, April 24, 2010

I'm Just Bored!

I don't usually post a lot about personal things here. I have my reasons for that. Among them are two; self disclosure is awkward and, second, I grow increasing weary of people sharing everything with everybody through Facebook, and Twitter, and other electronic media (like this "Blog" :-))... but I am feeling compelled to share today. So please bare with me.

I am bored and feeling like a change is coming!

I have to say that I am even reluctant to write the words because given what others are challenged with every day, my being bored seems so.. well, trivial and self absorbed. I can hear my Grandmother telling me, "Get over yourself!" And yet it feels real and palpable and important for me. As I have examined this state of affairs I am finding out is how much time I spend on things that feel like wasted time. I am also re-learning that although the circumstances of my life are not always exciting, they tend to change only when I do.

I admit that I read too much "junk"; from books, magazines to the internet. I listen to too much sports talk radio (I do love my Portland Trailblazers and San Francisco Giants, though!). My meditations are shorter and not as fulfilling and my retirement coaching practice has lost some of its importance and luster just as I have lost some of my coaching sharpness. Wow...in "coach speak", I guess I'm really not fully showing up for my life!

This morning I talked to a dear friend and counsel about this, saying "I'm Just Bored!". Then my friend was lovingly direct enough to remind me that every moment is a practice in the art of living. I am reminded that my life is a continual series of choices. That if I was feeling bored it was because I was making choices (and not always conscious ones) that were "boring". Life is always a creative process which I must work on every day with mindfulness, diligence and, I hope, healthy doses of grace, humor, and forgiveness. I have lost some of those qualities with all my doing and stimulation seeking.

It is also coming home to me that the answer is not going to be in finding other things to fill the spaces that seem more exciting. (Flyfishing in Yellowstone, hiking in my beloved Steens Mountains, chartering a sailboat in the San Juan islands, volunteering in a foreign country have all come up.) The results I seek are going to be found when I can go inside and answer the question I usually challenge my clients with....How can I transform myself and make a positive difference in my family or community or the world?

If there is a spiritual lesson in every moment what can I learn from a flyfishing trip to Yellowstone? Or is it just another line in my already pretty full life resume? I don't have the answer, but this morning I signed up for a meditation class which I hope will help me find more quiet and grounding.

I am also trying to draw strength from the fact that if every day and in every moment others who are perhaps being tortured, or starving, dying or grieving rise above these things, I can rise above the frustration of being stuck in life.

Thanks for reading this and I hope my wanderings are somehow helpful in your own intentional aging journey.

I think I'll go for a walk now..without my iPod!

"Old men should be explorers!"

Blessings!

Monday, April 19, 2010

More On Living An Authentic Life

Recently I posted about the importance of being authentic or "real" in our lives as an expression of personal integrity. I would like to go a little deeper, at least as far as I understand it.

James Hillman puts forth the idea that integrity asks only that a person be what they truly are. According to Hillman, if you are a despot, or corrupt or sneaky then you exhibit integrity if you live life out of those truths. Conversely if you are peaceful, loving, generative, spiritual and creative and DO NOT live your life from these principles you are out of integrity.

Some people suggest that they can't be what they really want to be because they have children and responsibilities or their families wouldn't know how to react or they would lose their friends if they were authentic. For others it is an economic decision to feed and house themselves and their families. In my opinion, a very good value to have!

However,the value of living a long life is not in having a longer resume...more money, more stuff, etc. The value of a long life is taking the opportunity to become a unique person of character and integrity, sharing ourselves with our family, community and the world in new and wonderful ways. Our long-term health may just be dependent on which we choose.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Authenticity and Aging

Through my coaching practice I often come in contact with men and women who are making the transition to retirement and the second half of life. They find their way to coaching because they feel like they want something different from the first half of their lives. Usually this is accompanied by a sense of urgency or longing the intensity of which unexpected and perhaps unsettling.

In the first half they have acquired experience and maybe achieved fame or recognition. They know what it is like to have a job and accept obligations to families. They are, by most standards, successful individuals. So what is this longing about?

For many, this is perhaps the first time in their lives that they feel like they have a choice about how they spend their precious life energy. Their commitments to raising family or having a "career" are complete and they can now choose a different path. And many do not yet have a compass or map to help them get where they want to go.

A very vital ingredient in intentional aging is having a passion about how we spend our time and really caring about the impact we have in service to our community and the following generations. The second ingredient is that we "show up" authentically. That is, we make choices and live our lives according to our own unique set of values and sense of calling. This is how we can change the idea of aging from simply decline and diminishment to one of possibilities, joy and fulfillment.

Having said this I do not want to imply that living an authentic life is easy...it isn't! It is a big challange and maybe none greater in this culture. (More on that next time, though). Right now please ask yourself this: "If I were to die next year what is the one wish I have for my family, community or the world that would make it better?"

If you can answer this you just might be well on your way to aging intentionally.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Gate 72 (twenty minutes or so)

In a relatively short span of time, at Gate 72, awaiting the boarding of Flight 344 from San Francisco to Portland, I have several interesting experiences. I am wandering through the waiting area at Gate 72, looking for a place to sit – there are none to be found except upon the ground, as everyone without exception is sitting with at least one vacant seat (where they deposited their carry-on items) in between themselves and the people on either side of them, unless they are traveling with families or companions, in which case they might be sitting in adjacent seats.

As I am making my way through the crowded waiting area I notice a spectacular array of humans, including a Buddhist nun. Shaved head with dark stubble, round face with gleaming dark eyes – Asian, but I am not sure if she is Chinese, Tibetan, or Japanese, or any of the many other ethnicities she may be. He robe is cream-colored and quilted, her bloomer-like pants cream as well but constructed of a rougher fabric than the robe. On her back, she has a fabric pouch-like backpack; like a pillow case with drawstrings and straps. On her feet, white socks and martial-arts-like white slippers. She holds prayer beads and I can tell by her eyes, the look on her face, and how she is holding the beads that she is meditating or praying. I let myself look at her; in my mind, I imagine bowing to her. I wish that she would look at me – maybe later.

Finding not one place to sit and seeing that no one is making a gesture to make room for me, I find a space on the floor upon which to squat for a few minutes. After a time I realize we will be boarding the plane late, and so I take the opportunity to visit the restroom one last time. Upon my return to Gate 72, after finding a good place to stand where I can watch the Buddhist nun, who now is walking slowly back-and-forth between the rows of seats, still praying with her string of beads, it is only minutes before I become aware of a disturbance; I feel it and hear it, feel it first. It comes from the ticket counter, where a very small Asian man – very small and very old, and very dapper, dressed in a tweed jacket and trousers – is speaking loudly and with some mild but growing agitation to the also-Asian gate attendant, tall and dark, who was with obvious impatience telling him where to go to catch the bus to the international terminal.

He is not understanding her – at first I think because English is not his native language. But then I realize it is perhaps that, but also because he has a hearing loss – I can see his hearing aids. He repeats his questions, and the agent repeats her answers, and they do this tense awkward dance several more times until it seems they are on the verge of a mutual melt-down. All of this happens in a span of minutes – I think perhaps no more than two minutes – and each time through the dance, more of my flight-mates are taking notice of the commotion.

In an even quicker moment, I decide to intervene – the plane is boarding late, I was assigned one of the last boarding spots in the queue, and something has to be done so the agent can start boarding the plane to Portland and the lost little ancient man can find his international flight. I walk over to the ticket counter, and say to the old man, “I will show you to the right place, sir.” Good timing on my part--The agent is in the process of literally dragging him out of the waiting area and into the busy concourse so she can point him in the right direction, and he is frantic, saying, “You must understand, I have a hearing problem, you must speak slowly.” I tell the agent, “I will make sure he goes to the right place”; I put my hand on his elbow and say, “follow me, I’ll help you.” He asks me if I am going to Taipei as he is, and I say that I’m not, I’m on the flight to Portland. He tells me that the gate agent had confused him and I commiserate with him, saying that she seems overwhelmed and impatient. So off we go, in the direction I remember the agent was pointing him – turn left at the end of the concourse – but the signs I see don’t match-up with the agent’s instructions. I have a moment of panic! What if I tell him to go the wrong way and he gets even more lost, misses his flight? What if she told him to go the wrong way? I have taken responsibility for this person and I must see him to where he needs to go, but what if I miss my flight in the process and don’t arrive to Portland in time to get my daughter from school? Understand that my mind is racing, I’m spinning a bit like a top, but I’m also reassuring him with calm and slow words that everything will be okay. At that very moment, a flight attendant who recognizes him from his previous flight walks up to us and offers to show him all the way to the bus that will take him to the international concourse. The gentleman thanks me for my help and off he goes, under someone else’s care.

I return to Gate 72, which now is even more crowded; not only are there no seats to be found, there are few places to even stand. I find a patch of ground next to the phone kiosk and a caucasian man with freckles and strawberry blond hair. We smile at each other and then he tells me that he thinks what I did for the little old man was great, that he’s been watching the whole situation unfold. We talk a bit about it – I tell him that the man has a hearing loss and the gate agent was harried and that something had to be done to help the situation. He agrees and says to me, “Well done—good for you!” Then we talk a bit about how agitated everyone seems, how difficult air travel is, because of the hurried and impatient energy that seems to be in the atmosphere. I tell him about my various strategies for staying calm and unhurried – arrive early even if it means waking up at 3:30 a.m., plan a lay- over so I have time to re-collect my wits and take care of my body, and board the plan toward the end of the line so I don’t have to battle with people who are more rushed than I am. He asks me what I am traveling for –I tell him briefly about it. I ask him what he is traveling for – he tells me that he’s an Oregon State Trooper and has been in San Francisco for diversity training. He was doing recruiting for ethnic minorities and women. He’s had his position for 8 years and he loves it. Before doing this job, he was a parole officer. He says that he believes in what he does and so everything about his job excites him.

He asks me more questions about what I do, what I teach, why I was out-of-town. I tell him about my faculty position at Marylhurst and the guest teaching I just did at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara. He asks about the course I taught while I was there and who the students are. I describe the program, how adult students from all over the country fly once a month to Pacifica in Santa Barbara for a four-day intensive stint of doctoral-level courses. I tell him about their insanely busy lives, deep commitments to their education, and their anxieties around doing well in graduate school in the context of their complex lives as grown-ups, and how I have to account for all of these complexities when I show up for a day to coach them in how to do scholarly research and writing, how to survive their dissertations. He said that I must find such work to be very gratifying. "Yes, indeed," I say. "Gratifying and transformative."

Then it is time for him to board the plane to Portland and he walks away to get in line. He doesn’t say “goodbye,” or “nice chatting with you,” but when he gets in place in the line, he turns back and waves and smiles at me – I return the wave and the smile.

I look for the Buddhist nun. She isn’t where she had been before, and then I see her, on the edges of the line, waiting her turn to board the plane. She looks at me – eyes to eyes – and I see her recognize me, really see me. And she smiles warmly and I return the smile, bowing to her ever so slightly.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Longevity and Character

Is aging necessary for the human condition? Since we all age, getting older is apparently built in to the human physiology yet extends beyond what we conventionally think of as the "productive" years. In fact, in spite of some people's efforts to the contrary, as we all know, aging goes beyond physical usefulness and even mental acuity. Why do we live as long as we do?

First of all I want to get on the record that I do not support some common theories that human longevity is just the unfortunate result of human civilization's science or it's social system which yield "a crop of living mummies, suspended in the twilight zone." Or results in the view of aging as a disease. I believe that this is an unprecedented time for continued active personal development, growth and creation even as we lose some of our mental and physical attributes.

James Hillman ("The Force of Character and the Lasting Life") provides one provocative notion about the purpose of longevity. Hillman suggests that longevity confirms and fulfills a societal need for "character". Hillman says that the source of character is the soul and that the gift of longevity is the opportunity to more fully develop our spiritual life which, in turn, feeds the soul.

Character is usually defined as the combination of qualities, features or attributes which distinguishes one person, group, or thing from another. On a deeper personal level it can also mean the unique combination of values and beliefs which a person actively uses to direct or guide their life choices. When someone says "S/he has character.", don't they usually mean a person who is living a life which exemplifies their unique combination of qualities, values and beliefs? "True to themselves" might be another way of explaining a person of "character".

Hillman's notion has a ring to it that both excites and troubles. It is exciting because it puts a positive spin on "oldness" beyond the usual diminished capacities and decline. Exciting also because it takes the dialogue beyond the dysfunctions of aging to the functions of character building and the benefit that might have for society.

Troubling because there are no templates or definitions for what character means or how to achieve it. Even more troubling is the notion that society does not embrace "oldness" nor appreciate "character" or know how to engage it or use it.

All this said, it is somehow uplifting to think about aging as a process of character development and exciting that we get to make it up as we go through the process by aging intentionally. I'm also wondering how many people have the courage and independence to follow their path and become a "person of character"?