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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. "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!"


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 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"?

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Creative As A Rose

One of my dearest friends, a healer, kinesiologist, and writer, has spent most of his adult life investigating the nature of human creativity as it impacts our sense of wellness. He has an analogy that I want to share with you about creativity and aging.

Each human being is like a rose bush. Every year until it dies the rose bush produces beautiful blooms, none of which are the same yet they all are beautiful. The bush does not judge whether or not a bloom is "the prettiest" or "the biggest" it just does what it does. As it ages it may not produce as many blooms each year but they are still beautiful and unique.

In many ways we are like the rose bush. We are by our nature creative beings with the ability to manifest extraordinarily throughout our life course. It is in our DNA, to choose not to be creative with our lives might just go against this nature and maybe just be the a major cause of our unhappiness and loss of identity as we age.

The analogy works for me!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

"But I Don't Paint"

I admit it, I'm biased! In fact I may even be a little blinded by a belief that everyone is, by nature, a creative being and that this creativity improves our health and wellness and general sense of joy and fulfillment throughout life.

The National Center for Creative Aging and others tout the benefits of art, music, and acting on health and brain function. The National Endowments on the Arts and the National Council on Aging have joined forces to research and promote artistic "creative endeavors" in the second half of life. This is all wonderful and important but somehow misses the mark for most people!

Every time I get in to a discussion about creativity with a gerontology colleague the discussion does not get beyond "the arts". As if that is the only expression a person has for their innate creativity. There are senior dance and thespian groups popping up all over the world. Hooray! I love that there are orchestras and bands and , now, even art gallerias dedicated to the "creative" endeavours of people over 55. But what about the other 98 percent of us who choose or can't participate in these activities? Are we not creative, too? Hmmm! You tell me!

Here is a definition of "creativity" that I find both useful and hopeful at the same time: "Creativity is the ability or power to (intentionally) bring into existence, to invest with a new form, to produce through imaginative skill, to make or bring into existence something new." Where in there does it say that we must be "artistic" or "musical" to be creative?

Using this definition it would seem to be just as creative to plant and grow a garden as it is to dance on stage. It is just as healthy to participate in a program that improves the natural environment as it is to paint a wonderful landscape; and it also improves brain function just as much to read to or mentor a young person as it does to perform an improvisation musical piece.

Please think about is very important. Your entire intentional life then becomes a creative expression. Unique to you! Your passion, imagination and sense of purpose lead to your creative source which in turn leads to something new and wonderful in the world. As far as health and wellness as concerned a new salad recipe can be a Picasso, an intentional hour spent with a child can be an Eric Clapton guitar solo, and fixing a broken water pipe in the basement can be the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

What is your creativity outlet? Have intention!