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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?


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

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

I'll post more after the conference.