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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 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!


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,

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!


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