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Monday, December 26, 2011

New Year's Wish

Recently I came across Bronnie Ware's web site and her thoughtful article, “Regrets of the Dying”, in which she highlights her experiences with dying patients during her many years of working in palliative care.

Bronnie asked her patients if they had regrets about their lives or anything they would do differently looking back. Here are the five most common responses from these conversations:

1.   I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2.   I wish I didn't work so hard.
3.   I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.
4.   I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5.   I wish that I had let myself be happier.

I encourage you to read her article as she briefly explains each of the responses and how they might impact our lives.

What I find interesting in these responses, however, is what is missing.  Where are the regrets about NOT making enough money, or NOT having a bigger house; or NOT looking young enough; or NOT achieving power and prestige?  Isn’t that why we strive, strive, strive?

Our society is constantly sending us messages about these things and yet in the end the things we care the most about seem to be related more to quality of life than quantity. And yet many of us spend our precious life’s energy caring about the size of house we live in or the car we drive and the schools we attended as if these were the marks of a successful life.

This is not to ignore the benefits and importance of striving to be better in life. Acquiring wealth is not a bad thing either.  It is just, well, uninteresting!

I am personally not interested in how much money you have or where you live or went to school.   I don’t really care what you do for a living or where you have traveled in the world.  It doesn’t really interest me that you may be a liar or a thief.

What does interests me is if you can find joy in this moment?  Can you sit with another person’s pain and not try to fix it? Can you be happy? What really sustains you on the inside when life is not going as expected?  Can you be your own person in spite of what others might think or say about you? And, can you put everything in your life aside to do the right thing for the children and our elders? These are some of the things I want to know about you and I hope you want to know about all those who are close to you.

My New Year’s wish for the world is that we all care more about each other than we do about acquiring more things. That we listen to each other instead of always having to be right. Our world is under attack we must start raising our expectations about what is possible and to remember the lessons from the dying.


Wednesday, November 2, 2011

"What do you do?"

The Fall season has finally come to the Pacific Northwest.  What a beautiful time of year. My favorite. I look forward to the natural slowing in nature that occurs in the Fall. As the days get shorter the temperature drops the trees glow with yellow, red and gold I am reminded to take notice, to withdraw a bit from my daily busyness and go inside myself to prepare for winter.

As I get older I find that although I still love the activity of Summer and the abundant opportunities to be in nature to be productive in the garden, the house, my business, the fall is when I feel most connected to the universe and my community and am drawn to be more contemplative.

Yesterday, in a contemplative moment, I remembered a conversation I had recently with a colleague.  My friend asked me a simple question “How are you enjoying your retirement?”  and my response was to list all the things I have been “doing” as if the long litany accurately measures how much “Joy” I was getting out of life. Why do we do that?   What I would like to say to her now is “I’m learning how to be” , which is the stronger pull for me.

“What do you do?” is the central question in a society devoted to production and consumption.  The answer puts us on the social pecking order of success. In retirement, if you can’t produce economically surely you can still brag about your consumption as a socially acceptable substitute.  But in the quiet moments I often wonder how much joy we receive from a life of consumption, even if what we are consuming is fun.

The years after sixty provide a unique opportunity to explore, learn and master new definitions and understanding of ourselves and the world around us. It is also a time to let our innate spiritual nature direct our lives through values and sense of purpose. This form of mastery is marked by slowing down and committing to a life of meaning-making, spirituality and character building. In short, to being authentic.

Personally, I feel the imperative to be more authentic now at age sixty-six than I did at 30,40,or even 60. Yet I have a struggle with the culture that only sees my value for what I can produce or how much I have to spend.  I would prefer to be valued for my collected life’s wisdom/experience and perspective about how to sustain nature, each other and the world.  I would like to be valued more for the questions I might ask than the answers I could provide.

The more appropriate question I would like to be asked is “What have you learned, David?”  How might that question change our later years?

“Keep our eyes open to both the fading light and the blaze of the sunset.”  James Hillman, April 1926 – October 2011

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Speed and Pace In Life

The modern world is filled with instant access to anything and anyone at any time and pressure to multi-task and produce more with less. I create lists, both written and mental, so that I can feel accomplishment and yet even on those days where I manage to complete these lists I feel no satisfaction.  What comes for me on those rare days is exhaustion.  This is not how I want to live my life in the second half and yet this pull is so powerful in my person that I sometimes feel powerless to change.
What I really want is a more balanced life. A life of only doing does not leave much time for spiritual matters, creativity or a sense of connection to others or the planet.  As I have gotten older I strive to be conscious and present to the opportunities and situations which greet me every day, however, I remain, for the most part, speeding through my life.

And yet, the universe sends opportunities to look at another way of being. There is no “To Do” telling me to talk to the neighbor about her garden, console a friend who has lost his cat or watch the last of a beautiful Northwest sunset. Yet, these are the things that give me great joy and a deep sense of connection and also nurture my soul. Yet, still,  society is telling me that these are not important and in fact are “unproductive” or not purposeful. How have I let the doing control my life?

Searching for some guidance I came across a wise little book (The Seven Whispers by Christina Baldwin). Christina offers hope and sustenance for the soul.  Christina suggests that what is missing from modern life is discernment between what she calls “Speed” and “Pace of Guidance”. Speed being the heroic journey that consumes the lives of the common man and woman demanding that we act fast and be driven by our technology. Pace of Guidance, on the other hand, means slowing down enough to be present to everything that comes through life’s front door and being able to hear the guidance that is available if we choose.

I resonate with Christina when she says “The pace of guidance, like peace of mind, begins internally—in me. Even though all my conditioning teaches me to accommodate speed, I am responsible for the pace I bring to the moment, just as I am responsible for the peace I bring to the moment.”  Yet I am so wired to the doing, doing, doing that to slow down and be present to my life feels like a character flaw or laziness or like I am somehow giving up. And yet I am constantly called to slow down.

I don’t know what the pace of guidance looks like on a full-time basis but I know that when I experience it I sense joy and deep appreciation and connection to Spirit. Every moment holds the opportunity to be totally present and intentional to my life.  Isn’t that really the foundation of a spiritual life?

For the time being it will have to be enough to simply ask the question, How do I move at the pace of guidance, no matter what speed the world asks me to move? Asking the question helps keep me present to what is happening in my life and reminds me to leave room for guidance to be heard. This is enough for now.

For Christina Baldwin's book.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

What is an Elder - Part II

I found this quote in a recent article by Michael Meade.  I offer it here as a piece to contemplate and maybe as inspiration. Thanks to Ken Pyburn for sending the article.

"An old idea suggests that the only ones more idealistic than young people are the elders. It’s not that the elders naively believe that the great ideals of humanity, peace and justice, healing and compassion, are simply attainable. Rather, the idea is that without a commitment to such ideals a culture simply collapses into political infighting and economic warfare. The gridlock in the nation’s capitol may be an increasing national shame, but the grid lock on American imagination may be a greater tragedy in the making.

While the political parties fight over who might be the “adult in the room,” there is a desperate need for elders in communities throughout the country. Whereas the ’60s were characterized by change brought on by a youth revolution, the current morass may only be changed by an elder awakening. The revolution waiting to happen in this country may involve an awakening to the necessity of the role that elders can play in the great crises facing both culture and nature."

Sound familiar?

Here is the entire article.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Mature Conversation About Aging

I continue to be amazed by the level of excitement and interest generated by a good question. In my coaching practice and in the classroom I use questions to provoke discussion or thinking outside the box.  But not until recently have I become aware that I too have a need for discuaaion and conversation and sharing of wisdom around topics related to my own aging process.

Depending on the situation people come up to me and ask," Where can I go to have a mature conversation about growing older?" or "Where can I find people that share my desire to age differently?" or "How can I pass on my accumulated wisdom?" I usually don't have a very helpful response as there is no right answer, however, it has made me think which has led a few of us to start a peer group to have these kind of conversations we can't have with family or other friends.

Our group is using the guidelines laid out in Cynthia Trenshaw's little pamphlet "A Harvest of Years: A PeerSpirit Guide for Proactive Aging Circles" available from PeerSpirit.  What is unique about Cynthia's process is that there is not one leader but we are all responsible for the success of the group. I love that idea and I will let you know how we progress.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Can We Broaden the Discussion, Please?

The Elder Corps


Psychologists believe that the aging process naturally brings out a strong desire for higher-order altruistic community service and care for the natural world which can actually supercede the lower-order needs for food, shelter and comfort. Yet society and late-life adults themselves remain fixated on their basic needs because we have such low expectations and no real role for people who are not actively engaged in earning a living in order to consume.

Without an acknowledged role to play these late life adults are often robbed of their dignity and self-worth and suffer from feeling socially useless. Perhaps as a culture when we recognize the intrinsic value of functioning elders our limited expectations and discussions will broaden from just the financial cost and care of our aging population to the cultural, moral, character and spiritual benefits we receive from engaging our aging population in building social equity.

An Elder Corps might be an answer.

How They Might Serve?

The Elder Corps idea would provide opportunities for members to serve as volunteers in schools, hospitals, universities, hospices, day-care centers, and nursing homes.  They might take part in helping to repair our communities, and work with youngsters to heal their lives. Maybe they become mediators in the court system and neighborhood senior centers providing peaceful wisdom, selflessness and moral character to challenging and difficult problems. 

Elder Corps members would not seek political office or power nor would they typically take sides in debate as their main roles would be to stimulate dialogue and discussion, to listen to the views of all and offer sage advice when invited. However sometimes they may be called upon to be a force of moral and spiritual persuasion. By being in selfless service in this fashion they could earn the respect which they need and younger people might revere them not out of obligation of simply lived long but for their willingness to show true character and ongoing commitment to the greater community and the following generations.

Who Are These Elders?

The modern Elder is a person who is still growing still a learner, still with potential and whose life continues to have within it promise for, and connection to the future. An Elder is still in pursuit of happiness, joy and pleasure, and her or his birthright to these remains intact however this is directed by spiritually enlightened service. Moreover, an Elder is a person who deserves respect and honor and whose work it is to synthesize wisdom from long life experience and to formulate this into a legacy for future generations.

In addition, these older women and men ages fifty-five and beyond feel an ongoing responsibility for maintaining the well-being of our communities and society and safeguarding the health of our ailing planet. These individuals are today’s social pioneers committed to exploring the depths of this time of life through continued mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical development in their own lives.

The Elder Corps will attract men and women who have a passion for service and community and who see the aging process more as an art form than a predetermined outcome. These people want to make a difference and leave a legacy that enriches the lives of others and inspires us to live our lives by the highest possible values and are inspired to.

Can you please just imagine what it would be like when we as a society begin to have a dialogue about how to engage everyone in meaningful service. Not just for the sake of keeping busy in old age but to gain a renewed sense of contribution, purpose and self-worth. What would that be like for us all?

A different outcome is available for this time of life if we collectively choose to apply our minds an creative juices to a new vision of the aging process while also not accepting the traditional limited and diminished expectations for people our elders.

Friday, May 13, 2011


by Harry R. Moody, guest blogger

 “The problem isn’t the things that we don’t know,
it’s the things we ‘know’ that ain’t so.” (Mark Twain)

“Retirement is bad for your health.” Or “People often die soon after they retire.”
(Proven false long ago by longitudinal studies of retirement; see the work of Gordon Streib and many others.  There are of course cases where people in ill-health opt to retire and do die soon afterward.  But retirement wasn’t the cause.  Maybe there are other reasons to encourage people to delay retirement but fear of bad health isn’t one of them.)

“Ageism is the work of the advertising industry.”
(Actually, ageism was invented by the ancient Greeks, as a glance at their youth-oriented art will show.  It was rediscovered by the Renaissance and then propagated in the 20th century for a variety of reasons.  Advertising and media mainly trade on stereotypes already widely accepted in society.)

“Anti-aging medicine today is making rapid progress.”
(Actually, no progress all; no intervention has ever been shown to slow the biological process of aging, other than caloric restriction (eating drastically less).  Herbal supplements sold in health food stores are totally unregulated; many are dangerous. None, including anti-oxidants, has ever been proven effective in slowing aging.)

“Advance Directives would have prevented the case of Terri Schiavo.”
(Not at all. Her husband Michael would almost surely have been appointed proxy decision-maker, since a spouse is already presumed as such by the courts.  As for Living Wills, they have been shown to be mostly underutilized and ineffective according to most  serious empirical studies on the subject: see Hastings Center Report in Summer, 2004 issue for details.)

“People are always worse off when they move to a nursing home.”
(Not true; many people actually thrive and blossom in the new social environment, as countless cases prove. See, for example, the recent memoir Making an Exit for an inspiring story on this point of a daughter who was astonished by her mother’s flowering after moving into a long-term care facility.  Any nursing home social worker can tell similar stories.)

“Cosmetic surgery is a sign of ageism.”
(Maybe in society at large but lots of people feel compelled to go for plastic surgery for defensive reasons: to get a face lift for dating or to avoid being discriminated against in the job market.  Hey, give ‘em break.  They’re not ageist, they're just trying to survive.)

“Home care is cheaper than nursing homes.”
(Would that it were so.  But economic studies for decades have shown just the opposite, whenever all relevant costs, such as rent and unpaid caregiving, are taken into account.)

“Respect for elders was higher in the past.”
(A common myth, debunked by historian Peter Laslett thirty years ago; see his classic The World We Have Lost.  Maybe there’s a reason why the Bible contains the Fifth Commandment, “Honor thy Mother and Thy Father.”  It’s the only Commandment that carries a reward for following it.)

“More people today are retiring to move to the Sunbelt.”
(Some do and always have.  But 90% of retirees stay right where they’ve always lived and most of the remainder move only within their state of residence.  See Charles Longino's work on “The Mobility Myth.”)

“Only 4 percent of older people live in nursing homes.”
(A half-truth propagated by well-intentioned advocates.  What is famously called the “4 percent fallacy” number applies only to a single point in time.  But on a life-span basis, 40%  or more of those who reach age 65 will spent time in a long-term care facility before they die.  One more example of the fallacy of cross-sectional versus longitudinal comparison.)

“We need more regulation of nursing homes to prevent elder abuse.”
(Actually, long-term care is already more highly regulated than any industry in America, except for nuclear power.  As for elder abuse, it’s more likely to happen—and remain undetected--- in a home care setting.  Citizens groups could certainly contribute by closer consumer scrutiny and advocacy of nursing homes.  But more regulations may not help since we’re not enforcing the ones we already have.)

“Older Americans have declining rates of disability.”
(Yes, Ken Manton proved this point—but only for the past.  Epidemiologists are now looking at accelerating rates of obesity or diabetes and there is reason to doubt that declines will hold true in the future.  See Jay Olshansky’s article in JAMA (Spring, 2005), and more recent research warning about projected ill-health of Boomers in retirement. Obesity rates are an ominous sign of things to come.)

“Religion is good for your health.”
(It’s true that people who attend church tend to live longer, but no one knows why. Some studies suggest that volunteerism, the arts, lifelong learning or even having a pet will give the same result.  It could be that religion has little to do with it; maybe bowling would do the same (but not bowling alone).  Here, as so often, correlation is not causation.)

“The 20th century witnessed dramatic gains in longevity in later life.”
(Another myth; life expectancy from birth did increase from 47 to 77 in the 20th century, but life expectancy for people at age 65 only went up a modest 5 years, not nearly so “dramatic”)

“The U.S. spends a lot on health care, but it also gets results.”
(Haven’t we heard that “We have the best health care system in the world!”  Yes, we’ve heard it but it isn’t true.  According to UN data, US life expectancy is lower than Costa Rica.  Recent studies suggest that, in state-by-state comparisons, higher spending is often associated with worse health outcomes, as suggested by the fact that up to 100,000 Americans die each year as a result of medical errors.)

“Prevention and health promotion is the way to save money in health care.”
(Sounds good, but it’s probably not true.  That’s what Prof. Louise Russell concluded more than two decades ago in her massive economic study, Is Prevention Better Than Cure?  The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office in 2009 has agreed, finding that health promotion measures would in fact not save money in healthcare reform.  Prevention might be a good idea, but it won’t necessarily save money.)

“Geriatric medicine today is becoming more widely accepted.”
(Quite the opposite.  There are more M.D.’s who are members of the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine—a bogus field-- than there are Board-certified geriatricians.  The number of geriatricians is actually lower today than a decade ago and it continues to decline.)

“Older people are more likely to be victims of crime.”
(According to Justice Department data and the FBI, older people are less likely to be crime victims than any other age group in the population.  However, they're more afraid of crime, perhaps because they watch more television than other age-groups. Older people should probably be more afraid of falling, since falls injure more seniors than crime does.)

“Stem cell research will help us find a cure for Alzheimer’s.”
(Few neurologists believe this chestnut.  We don't even know the cause of Alzheimer's and most favored hypotheses have not been supported.  Stem cells may work for other conditions, but probably not Alzheimer's.  However, California voters probably believed it would when they passed their Stem Cell Initiative.  Parkinson’s maybe; Alzheimer’s, very unlikely.)

“People are retiring earlier than ever.”
(In fact, the trend to early retirement has been reversing for the past 10 years.  It’s may soon be a thing of the past.  The recent recession has only strengthened the trend.)

“The U.S. introduced age 65 for retirement, following German Chancellor Otto Bismarck, who picked that number because it was own age.” (It’s true that Germany was a model considered in planning Social Security. But Germany set age 70 as the retirement age at a time when Bismarck himself was 74.  It wasn’t until 27 years later that the age was lowered to 65, when Bismarck had been dead for 18 years.)

“Americans have less free time than they did previously.”
(True, Americans have less vacation time than people in other countries.  But “free time” overall is another matter, according to University of Maryland’s John Robinson’s definitive study of time use by Americans.  What people say about use of time doesn’t match their actual behavior when measured by reliable research methods.)

“The Gray Lobby holds a strangle-hold on aging policy in America.”
(A favorite myth of those who don’t like AARP or other advocacy groups.  But even Social Security is no longer the “third rail of politics,” as used to be said by pundits.  Apparently George Bush didn’t believe it in 2005, nor does the Obama White House, which convened Commission to figure out how to rein in entitlement spending.)

“America spends more on the military than on health care.”
(A hardy chestnut for liberals eager to cut military spending. Actually, health care spending is nearly three times bigger than defense spending.  The “health-industrial complex” is alive and well.)

“Poverty among the old remains a major problem.”
(Maybe in 1959 but not today; child poverty is vastly higher and older people as a group are less likely to be poor than other adult groups.  There are serious problems faced by the near-poor elderly and there are sub-groups, including minorities, who do have high rates of old-age poverty.)

“We lose a million neurons every day.”
(A familiar nugget of ageism, now long disproven by neuroscience.  Check out the latest findings on neuroplasticity by Marian Diamond and other investigators.)

“Aging is not a disease.”
(An article of faith among gerontologists, but it's actually not established at all.  In fact, a growing number of biologists reject this proposition and serious work on slowing the process of aging is underway in the laboratory.  Besides, no one has ever defined exactly what a ‘disease’ is, so it’s hard to prove the point one way or another.  For more on this point, see my article “Has Anyone Ever Died of Old Age?”)

“Until recently, families lived together, but now we’re isolated into nuclear families.” (A sentimental belief long discredited by historical demographers; see Peter Laslett and others on this one.  The nuclear family of residence became the preferred mode as long ago as the 18th century and was actually a distinctive characteristic of European societies long before that.)

“Older people are being abandoned because our society is becoming more mobile and families are living at greater and greater distance.”
(This myth of “abandoned elders” was dubbed a “hydra-headed monster” by gerontologist Ethel Shanas.  But the myth never dies not matter how many times you cut off the heads and prove it false.  As for the “Mobility Myth,” that’s been debunked by demographers.  There are other reasons to be concerned about elder care, but increased mobility isn’t one of them. See Wolf & Longino, The Gerontologist, 45:1, 2005)

"Health care costs are high because of the profits of health insurance companies."
(Not quite.  According to the 2009 Fortune study of America's largest corporations "Health care insurance and managed care" ranked only 35th in profitability, at a mere 2.2% profitability, when measured by return on shareholder equity.  It was far behind aerospace, oil production, and food services, for example.  But some health care sectors, like "Pharmaceuticals" and "Medical Products and Equipment" were very profitable indeed (19% and 16%).  Health care insurance companies pass along most of their revenues to providers, but insurance companies are the ones whose bills we see so we naturally blame them for our problems.)

"The 2010 Health Care Law introduced  'death panels' and rationing of Medicare."
(Evidently, more than a third of Americans believe this.  But there's nothing remotely like this is the Affordable Care Act that was passed.  Earlier in the legislative process, a Georgia Republican did introduce a provision permitting payment for Medicare patients to talk with their doctor about end-of-life choices, but it was stricken after controversy.  The health care law did not cut Medicare but it did slow the growth of future Medicare spending, thereby extending the life of the Medicare Trust Fund from 7 to 19 years.)

"Drinking red wine will make you live longer."
(A lot of people believe this one based on a TV story on "Sixty Minutes."  There is a substance, resveratrol, found in red wine and grapes that has been shown by some laboratory studies to promote longevity.  But you would have to drink amounts of wine far beyond what is humanly possible in order to have any of the hypothetical effects.  Studies of resveratrol on human longevity continue but alcoholics need to find a different excuse for drinking more wine.)

"Health care costs are high because we spend most of the money in the last year of life."
(This one can be dubbed 'The Last Year of Life Fallacy' because it confuses treatment for severe illness with unreasonable extension of life for people who are dying.  Actually, it's not easy to know when  'the last year of life' will turn out to be.  When we look at the data in retrospect, it turns out that Medicare spends about 25% of its money on people who are the sickest, i.e., in "the last year of life."  It's another illustration of the 20-80 rule: 20% of your customers account for 80% of your revenues.   Of course there are cases when dying people are unreasonably kept alive, just as there are many cases of undertreatment.   But we only know  "the last year of life" in retrospect."

"Social Security is going bankrupt and going broke; within a two decades, there won't be any money to pay promised benefits."
(People often assume that "going broke" means there will be no money in the Social Security Trust Fund to pay benefits.  It's true that, in coming decades, policy-makers will have address solvency, as they did in 1983, by making modest changes in benefits or revenues.  But even if they do absolutely nothing at all, by 2037 Social Security will still be able to pay 78% of benefits, which is hardly the same thing as "going broke."  With modest changes Social Security could remain solvent for decades beyond that.)


            We’ve all heard these urban legends before: for example, “Alligators are living in the sewers of big cities,” “Children have been poisoned by Halloween candy,” or “Isaac Newton discovered gravity when an apple fell on his head.”  (None are true.) But why do we continue to believe these popular urban legends about aging?  Is it just misinformation?  Maybe not.  The “lies we tell ourselves about aging” may serve a purpose—namely, propping up ideological views about the world that we find comfortable for a variety of reasons.  Here are a few of those reasons:

Sentimentality about the “Good Old Days”

-“Respect for elders was higher in the past.”
-“Until modern times, families lived together, but now we’re isolated into nuclear families.”
-“Older people are being abandoned because our society is becoming more mobile and families are living at greater and greater distance.”
-“Religion is good for your health.”

The Illusion of Progress

-“The 20th century witnessed dramatic gains in longevity in later life.”
-“People are retiring earlier than ever.”
-“Older Americans have declining rates of disability.”

Better Living through Chemistry (Science, Medicine, Rationality, etc.)

-“Geriatric medicine is becoming more widely accepted.”
-“Stem cell research will help us find a cure for Alzheimer’s.”
-“Anti-aging medicine is making rapid progress.”
-“Advance Directives would have prevented the case of Terri Schiavo.”

Horror of Nursing Homes

-“People are worse off when they move to a nursing home.”
-“Home care is cheaper than nursing homes.”
-“Only 4 percent of older people live in nursing homes.”
-“We need more regulation of nursing homes to prevent elder abuse.”

Older People as Victims

-“Older people are more likely to be victims of crime.”
-“Poverty among the old remains a major problem.”
-“We lose a million neurons every day.”

Right-thinking (bien-pensant) Aging Advocacy (“Gerontological Correctness”)

-“Aging is not a disease.”
-“Cosmetic surgery is a sign of ageism.”
-“Ageism is damage done by the advertising industry.”

The Idols of Politics (Liberal, Conservative or None of the Above)

-“America spends more on the military than on health care.”
-“The U.S. spends a lot on health care, but it also gets results.”
-“Prevention and health promotion is the way to save money in health care.”
-“The Gray Lobby holds a strangle-hold in aging policy in America.”
- "Social Security is bankrupt."

Retirement Dreams

-“More people today are retiring to move to the Sunbelt.”
-“Retirement is bad for your health.”
-“Americans have less free time than they did previously.”

See Jan Harold Brunvand, Encyclopedia of Urban Legends, Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2001.

“Myths of the High Medical Cost of Old Age and Dying,” Cynthia X. Pan, Emily Chai, and Jeff Farber, International Journal of Health Services (38:2, 2008).

This report challenges commonly held beliefs about the financial and medical impact of older Americans during their last months of life. Written by physicians specializing in geriatrics, the report offers a wealth of data to refute seven misconceptions that currently influence U.S. health care policies: (1) that the growing number of older people has been the primary factor driving the rise in U.S. health care costs; (2) that as the population ages, health care costs for older Americans will necessarily overwhelm and bankrupt the nation; (3) that putting limits on health care for the very old at the end of life would save Medicare significant amounts of money; (4) that aggressive hospital care for the aged is futile and the money spent is wasted; (5) that it is common for older people to receive heroic, high-tech treatments at the end of life; (6) that Medicare covers everything that older adults need in terms of their health care; (7) that if older patients had living wills or other kinds of advance directives, it would resolve dilemmas of how aggressively to provide care.


       We can’t take care of the old folks because everyone’s moved away, right?  Or will "intimacy at a distance" make the heart grow fonder? 

      It turns out mobility is mostly a myth, argue two noted demographers specializing in migration.  According to recent data, Americans are actually less and less likely to move than in the past.  "The idea of an increasingly mobile society is widely held but untrue..." says Douglas Wolf, co-author (with Charles Longino) of a major study on the subject.  They argue that U.S. elder care is not being threatened by increasing mobility because of one simple fact: The United States is NOT an increasingly mobile society, if 'mobility' means the propensity to move house:

      "There are all kinds of social change that might inhibit family care—women's greater involvement in paid labor; more divorce, which tends to stand in the way of intergenerational relationships; the growing prevalence of childlessness," says Wolf. "There are lots of good reasons to be concerned about the future of elder care. But an increasingly mobile society? That isn't one of them."

    For more details (including data) see "Is 'Increasing Mobility' a Threat to U.S. Elder Care?" at:

Hidden Dangers: Falls Injure More Seniors Than Violent Crime
(New America Media, Apr. 4, 2011)

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Pause, Reflect, Recommit

Why commit one’s self to intentional aging? (Why commit one’s self to the discipline of intentionality?) Why “intentionality” and not something else?

How does practicing intentionality allow us to think and feel? What do we think and feel and do from the basis of intentionality?  Does intentionality function most optimally in balance with other capacities, other modes of consciousness? How does intentionality connect to critical reflection and mindfulness? How does intentionality connect to praxis?

(What other strong ideas might be nested with “intentional”: Critical? Contemplative? Reflective? Playful? Radical? Improvisational?)

How do we know we are “intentionally aging”? How would others know (and does it even matter if others know?)? Another way to ask this question: How do we know intentional aging when we see it?

To put the question yet another way: How does intentionality – and intentional aging -- feel from an embodied standpoint?

Is intentionality a characteristic? Is it a capacity? Is it a sensibility or a commitment that can be learned? Is intentionality an individual-level phenomenon – that is, does it reside mostly or exclusively within an individual’s consciousness?

And/or, perhaps is intentionality also a communal characteristic, capacity, sensibility, commitment?  How might we harness the power that comes from being a part of a web of inter-dependence in order to support each other in our intentionality, specifically in our intentional aging (which is, in actual fact, intentional living)?

And what are the potential limitations of intentionality? Of intentional aging? (And why is it important to inquire about limitations, as well as opportunities and openings?)

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

contemplating cronehood

Right before the alarm rang early this morning I was having the most delightful and curious dream. I must admit that I’ve been having many strange dreams, the kind you have when you are a bit delirious from being sick and in pain, as I’m half way into week two of being quite ill (though on the road to recovery, knock on wood). But this dream in particular captured my attention.

I won’t recount all the details, just the part right before I was rudely awakened.  I was a waitress as a cafĂ©, obviously enjoying my work very much as I was smiling and almost dancing around as I served and chatted with my customers. One of my customers was the lovely young actor Robert Pattinson, a.k.a. Edward the vampire from the Twilight saga. (Truth be told, I would have preferred that Daniel Radcliffe was one of my customers, as I’m a Harry Potter woman. But apparently I was not the casting director for this dream.) Any way, I approached Robert’s table, twirling and skipping, and joyfully served him his order. Suddenly, though with slow grace, he stood up from his table and faced me; he was quite a lot taller than I am, and he kind of bent down and reached toward my face, gently taking hold of and caressing my chin. Staring into my eyes, he said, “I find the little lines around your eyes to be so delightful, so charming.”

As the alarm sounded and I began to emerge from the depths of the dream, the last image I recall is the dream-Jenny smiling somewhat wryly at the dream-Robert and saying with quite a bit of sass, “Gee, thanks.”

After my daughter woke up and had a bit of tea, I told her that I’d had a dream about Robert Pattinson (who she thinks is “hot” though not as fine an actor as Daniel.). She gasped and asked for details.  As I was telling her about the dream and watching closely her reaction to what I was telling her, she said, “That’s really sweet that he said that to you.” Yeah, I thought, how terribly sweet that I dreamed that a beautiful young male British actor thinks the increasingly visible wrinkles around my eyes are delightful and charming. That's just great.

The dream, of course, has nothing to do with me having the hots for Robert Pattinson, nor does it predict that I am going to re-career and leave academe for waitressing (which would be less re-careering than retro-careering—food service: been there, done that.).  I’ll have to consult my colleague Gillian the dream expert, but the strong image I especially resonate to as I reflect more on this dream is the dream-Jenny who is twirling, skipping, smiling, utterly absorbed in her work as a waitress, e.g. as one who serves and nourishes others. Also, visually, the dream-Jenny appears to be the “real-Jenny,” me in my current form as a mid-life woman, in the here-and-now (though perhaps more energetic in her embodiment than I actually am currently) – silver shooting stars in my hair and increasingly visible wrinkles around my eyes. 

And the other strong image I can’t shake: Dream-Robert, sweet as he was, stopped dream-Jenny a bit short, thus the wry, “Gee, thanks” in response to his well-meaning complement. Until he gazed into my big dark eyes and saw and commented upon the wrinkles around them, I was fully embodied, un-moored to time, dancing through the unfolding dream story, unselfconscious, not a mid-life female waitress receiving a side-ways complement from a younger, foxy male.

I will pause here to say that my attitude toward my dream-life has always been first and foremost to honor and attend to the dream itself, to explore the story or stories inside of any particular dream, rather than by beginning with asking questions about what the dream is trying to tell me about things outside of itself. That’s not to say that in the process of reflecting upon and perhaps making some sense of my dreams I don’t wonder why I have had a particular dream at a particular time, what’s going on in my life that I’m experiencing or processing that my dream-consciousness might be offering me information about, even calling my wakeful attention to.  But I always start with the dream itself and work my way out from there.

And in working my way out from the particular dream I’ve just recounted in an effort to dwell with it a bit longer and see what insights might be discovered, I find myself moving backward to yesterday.

Yesterday was the second session of the gerontology course I teach this term, Women's Issues in Aging. The course is fundamentally a collaborative inquiry course, by which I mean there’s very little pre-determined content, because over the course of a few weeks as together the students and I create a learning community we determine together the focus of our inquiry. As the instructor, I design a framework for our inquiry, I model collaboration and collegiality, and I offer some strong, provocative questions as a way into the work, but everything else that happens is emergent, a manifestation of our ongoing learning together. 

So, here are some of the questions I offered as a starting place:

v     Who is a woman?  (And how do you know one when you see one?)
v     When do women begin to age? When does a woman become “old”? (And how do you know a woman is “old”?)
v     What are “women’s issues in aging”?  Are the issues women face as they travel through the life course distinct from those faced by men? 
v     What are the implications of looking at complex human reality from the standpoint of gender? What do we gain and what do we lose when we “slice” reality this way?
v     What are the ways women have been socialized which limit who we imagine we can be?  How do we resist social forces in small and large, subtle and obvious ways as women traveling through the life course?
v     What are our political and ethical responsibilities as educated women?  What do we feel is owed to us by society, and what do we feel we owe others?
v     How do we imagine our future older selves? How important is our gender in that imagining?

Of course, there are countless other kinds of questions, at different levels of analysis, which we could ask and explore, and I’m certain new questions will emerge as our learning community grows and we begin to collaborate on creating the focus for our ongoing work in the seminar. Already, students have been provisionally articulating new questions about global aging, aging in the LGBT community, social roles for older women, aging and appearance, and women’s agency/freedom/choice.

Another one of the questions we pondered yesterday in the context of a contemplation/free-writing/discussion exercise was:

If you lived your life in the present, whatever age you are, guided by “crone energy” and “crone consciousness,”[1] how might key features of your life look (such as relationships, work-for-pay, service, self-projects, etc.)?

The students participating in the course this time around are an interesting mix – they are characterized by a wide range of ages and gender identities, they are both male and female, not only Westerners but one student is Egyptian; they are not only gerontology students but students from other disciplines and areas of study, and both undergraduate and graduate.  They come from different family, lifestyle, spiritual, economic, and professional backgrounds, and they have various aspirations for their next selves, not to mention their future older selves. So imagine the material for discussion this contemplation and writing about crone energy and consciousness generated!

What do you imagine when you hear the word “crone”? What does crone energy and consciousness mean to you? Do you think of an old haggard witchy woman, face a wrinkled mess, body hunched over, dwelling in isolation but manipulating events from afar? Do you think of a wise old woman, a goddess of the cross-roads, a powerful healer, a kind (perhaps very opinionated) matriarch? Do you think of a beloved elder in your own life, aspire to grow into your own version of the example they set? Do you envisage your future older self as a crone – wild and wrinkled and wise? Or does your mind shut-down at the thought of envisioning your future older self, is the question of your old age, let alone cronehood, incomprehensible and impossible to contemplate? 

(And how might such provocative questions sneak into your dream-world? How might your aging-contemplations reverberate throughout your limitless consciousness?)

[1] Ray, R.E. (2004).  Toward the croning of feminist gerontology. Journal of Aging
            Studies, 18(1), 109-121.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Priviledge Of Being Alive

I am lying on my back in my sleeping bag woken from a sound sleep by the imperceptible presence of something outside the tent.  Was it a noise that woke me with this fear I am feeling?  I don’t know.  No growling or rustling sounds.  My mind races as I lie perfectly still for what seems like an hour or more waiting for whatever is there to reveal itself or vaporize in my imagination. Nothing. I hear the sound of the river nearby and the wind blowing through the Ponderosa Pine trees surrounding the camp site. I am wide-eyed and my heart is pounding loudly.  I am overwhelmed by fear!

I have come to the wilderness alone for the first time since my father’s passing.  To a place we had been before and to the exact spot on the river where we had fished a couple of times during his last years.  I had come seeking peace and connection and, yes, even to grieve his loss. But as I am lying there I am not thinking about any of this..I am fear!

Then I hear it.  The soft groans and gentle sniffing sounds.  I sense something very close to me outside the tent.  I am energized and want to yell or run but remain still and quiet. What is it; bear, possum or raccoon, who knows?  My heart beats louder and I think I am dreaming but this is no dream. I am terrified but remain strangely tranquil and there is a growing presence inside of me suggesting that this fear is a good thing and all will be well.

The animal soon moves away but I lie still, heart pounding. I wait relying only on my sense of smell and hearing to inform my next move. I realize that I am actually enjoying this experience.  I am quiet but alert and my entire body is engaged in the fear yet I have surrendered to the experience.  I am alive and it is perfect! My fear is turning to awe and appreciation.

After some time I get out of my sleeping bag and go outside to survey any damage to my food or equipment.  Finding none and not sleepy I decided to walk down to the river in the dark and found the log that my father and I once sat on.  It was fully illuminated by the moon and the full sky of stars and I felt the presence of him and a healing and palpable connection to the Universe.


It has been nine years since this wonderful experience and ten years since my father’s passing. As I grow older I am also profoundly aware of the amount of time in my past that I have tried to ward off  any emotion as if it were a virus.  I ache when I think how many times in my life I let fear make decisions for me and how much time and energy I spent trying to avoid being afraid. As I transition deeper in to the “Fall” of my life I want to live life full and alive.  I want to experience the “juicy” parts of life even if I am afraid or uncomfortable.  I want to remember lying alone in that tent letting fear take me with such extraordinary clarity and consciousness and how totally alive I felt in that moment. It’s a privilege to be alive!



Monday, March 21, 2011


What is your tolerance for no-sense?

What is your habitual response to being faced with situations or experiences that seem to make no sense and about which you want to – are desperate to—make sense?

I ask these questions as much of myself as I do of you, because I’ve found myself staring into the face of no-sense over and over during these past several weeks. (And not just these past few weeks, but these past few years, and by “few” I mean at least 40!)

I ask these questions because I’m almost at the end of grading my students’ work for the winter term courses we engaged in together.  I find myself rejoicing at the profundity of what each of them, to a student, has written about their learning this term in the face of so much personal and global tumult.  Writing sometimes helps us make a certain kind of temporary sense of complicated things; sometimes it is the medium through which we declare our near-certitude about some previous state of no-sense that now seems to makes sense; and sometimes it gives us a way to document our confusion, our anguish in the face of no-sense. And sometimes, writing is about all of these things, and other things, too. What an honor to bear witness through reading what my students have to write about the learning they are experiencing, and to get to write back to them, even if mostly in the form of my official “assessment feedback.”

Much of what learners – students and teachers, alike -- engage in when in formal academic settings is together trying to make sense of things. That is, in fact, what all formal, institutionalized, and codified ways of knowing are about, whether scientific, artistic, philosophic, or meta-physic (or, or, or…). Students get taught and learn about knowledge traditions, and hopefully how knowledge(s) are produced and used and their implications, and perhaps even go on to shape (dismantle, re-create, create anew) these knowledge traditions. And educators determine, model, and facilitate what should (can, can't, and might) be known, and the many ways to go about knowing.  When we assess how we are all doing in this ongoing, grand learning project, we look to see how well students are learning about different ways of making sense of complex reality, and how well we as teachers are doing in support of their learning.  We are all trying to make sense.

From a broader perspective, the human journey across the life course is fundamentally about learning how to make sense of no-sense. Which is really about trying to make meaning of experiences that are given to us, that we stumble into, that may or may not have “inherent meaning” in and of themselves, despite what we are taught to think about who we are and our place in the ever-emerging universe. 

We are all trying to make sense. Which is really about trying to make meaning of things that we may not understand, not now, perhaps, and maybe not ever. There are some things that are unknowable, or only partially, provisionally knowable. In the middle of, in the aftermath of, all that’s been happening in individual lives and within the larger human community right now (and always), we are all trying to make sense. Some of us call upon our spiritual or meta-philosophical practices to bolster us in the face of events and experiences that challenge our capacity to make sense of that which seems to make no-sense. And yet, and yet. 

Oh, wow—you know what I just realized as I'm writing this? No-sense can actually be a certain, sneaky kind of sense – Think about your own experiences: Have you ever had to conclude, after much learning and consultation with others and critical reflection and obsessive-thinking and spiritual practice, that something just didn’t make sense, and that this no-sense might, in fact, actually be its sense, its meaning?

Circling back to what I was saying about formal education, there’s always at least one moment in the course of facilitating a learning experience where I or one of my students meets the morass of confusion. And back to my question about our habitual responses to no-sense, I’d observe that I and many of my students almost always panic when we reach this place of confusion and lack of clarity, we resist it, fight it, beg for it to be over or to magically evaporate. (And in the case of my students, they may even become temporarily mutinous and claim that they shouldn’t have to be in such a muddle, that 1) the book is unclear; 2) the course is poorly designed; and/or 3) I’m not doing a good enough job explaining things!). (Also, I’ll admit that I intentionally build in moments of confusion into the learning experiences I facilitate; that’s how deeply I hold to the importance and transformative power of not-knowing, of no-sense.)

But when we really reflect upon how we learn and develop as humans we know that these moments or periods of confusion, or no-sense, are absolutely necessary, and without them, well, the process of learning – and of traveling through the human life course -- wouldn’t be as deep, meaningful, and interesting.

Of course, it is helpful – perhaps crucial-- to have someone in our life who has developed wisdom about how all this seems to work and holds the faith on our behalf that no matter how long it takes, something new will come out of the confusion, some sense will be made of the no-sense. I try to serve this role as a teacher (and a parent!), but I’m still learning, and what’s really beautiful is that my students (and my daughter!) often serve this role in my life; we are all in it together, you know?  Some of my elder friends at Mary’s Woods who participate in our collaborative inquiry group also serve this role in my life, and it occurs to me that this tangled matter of living in the face of no-sense would make for a great discussion topic. And, also, that I might thank them for serving this important role in my life.

So, what do we tell ourselves and each other about how to respond to and live with no-sense, how to make meaning of experiences and events that seem to defy coherence and rationality?  One of my students wrote early this morning, asking what I thought about the fact that she’d experienced so many losses – big ones, deaths – in the past month. She felt completely uncertain, worried, a bit superstitious, even – She wanted so much for there to be meaning for all that she and her close-in people and companion-creatures (two dear pets were amongst the deceased) were experiencing, a bright side to all of the darkness. And in pondering my potential responses to her questions,  I realized that often –always?--our desire to make sense of no-sense, to find meaning in what seems to defy meaning-making, is also about our yearning for permanence, for certitude, for the fundamental soundness of our own and others’ existence. I mean, this stuff that hurts so much, that scares us so deeply, it has to count for something, right? 

As I’ve written elsewhere, we make plans for a future we may not experience; we have one foot on the earth, and one foot in the stars.

I’m never sure what to say. Sometimes it seems the best I can do is to murmur sweet assurances that while right now it feels that absolutely nothing makes sense, that this crappy no-sense is a totalizing force, at some time in the future, maybe soon, maybe not, I promise things will feel more sensible, some things will start to make some sense again.  And this is actually true, right?  And sometimes it seems that the best I can do is to cop to one of the other true things that can be said: All of this loss and the no-sense and the enormous pain that is experienced in the face of it—it totally and completely sucks.  Wouldn’t it be nice to not have a creaturely-consciousness such that you are aware of what’s happening and how you feel about it?

But we do have such a creaturely-consciousness. And we are aware, more aware, even, than we sometimes want to accept. And, no doubt about it, there is so much that makes no-sense. And -- please try to get your mind around this -- that no-sense actually is a certain kind of sense, a fecund kind, the kind where you think all is lost, only to emerge, with the support of your comrades (who sometimes help, sometimes just witness) into a new kind of self-sense, with a new kind of understanding about and purpose – impermanent, tentative, temporal and glorious— as a human-creature on the ever-changing Earth, in the ever-emerging universe.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Do you know what I mean?


All week, I’ve been haunted by a particular line from Stanley Kunitz’s poem “The Layers,” and by my friend Sara, who died in November of 2006. I’ll save my story of Sara for another time.

The line from Kunitz captures the question that seems to be at the center of everything that’s happened this past week: “How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses?”[1]

Change and loss; every minute, somewhere on the Earth, someone is hurting, suffering, letting go, or holding on for dear life, running for the hills looking for safety.

(At the end of one of the many articles in today’s newspaper on the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and the potential for tsunami off the Oregon coast, there was the line: “In Bandon (Oregon), for example…45 percent of the people in the hazard zone are older than 65 and ‘telling them to run for the hills might not be fair.’” What does “fair” look like when a tsunami is coming?)

The events of last week – large and small, local and global – hit me particularly hard because I went through the week sober. By which I don’t mean to imply that I usually go through the week drunk. It’s just that right now there is work I need to do, work I want to do – must do – that requires that I have my wits about me, that my edges are sharp and unsoftened by a nice glass of wine (or two) at the end of the day, that my capacities for awareness and lucidity are as expansive as possible. Do you know what I mean?

So, the events of last week.  

One of my students asked for help so she could plan her spring term schedule of courses around her chemotherapy schedule.  Another student wanted to let me know that they may miss a couple of sessions in some of their courses next term because they will be flying home to take care of their partner, who has just been diagnosed with stage-four terminal lung cancer. Another couple of students have missed a lot of work this term because they have older adult parents who have dementia or other serious, life-altering circumstances to manage. I just met a new student who is a single parent of two special needs children. And just last weekend, there was a memorial service – the second one this term – for a student who died an untimely, sad death. My colleagues at my university and I talk all the time about the delicate balance of our adult students’ lives (and our own lives, as well!) – work, family, education, service, self-care – but how do we help them, help each other, create and maintain their delicate life-balance when we are facing  the immediate, cataclysmic matter of our or our loved one’s very existence? You asked the right question, Stanley Kunitz: “How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses”?

This past week, I was reminded at all levels of reality – from the cellular to the geophysical – what I already know but so often forget unless I make it a devotion to remember it: I am a little creature living in an emerging universe on an ever-shifting and changing planet; sometimes the ground I stand on seems solid and stable, and sometimes it shakes and threatens to swallow me whole. I can tell stories of the past, I can cast my mind into and plan for a future I may not actually experience, but I can only ever triumph in the present by courageously embracing whatever happens as best I can (which sometimes means being sober and lucid, sometimes means having an extra glass of wine, sometimes means skipping in the park, sometimes means writing until my eyeballs fall out of my head, and sometimes it means taking to my bed for the day.). Do you know what I mean?


The newspaper this morning told me that because of the strong earthquake in Japan, the Earth’s axis may have shifted by about 3.937 inches: “…earthquakes can involve shifting hundreds of kilometers of rock by several meters, changing the distribution of mass on the planet. This affects the Earth’s rotation.”[2]

My first question, after experiencing complete amazement about this fact, was: How does the shift in the Earth’s axis affect the creatures living on the Earth’s surfaces, in its waters? What reverberations does such a geophysical shift have for human consciousness?

In addition to the axis-shifting, it seems that time shifts as well, as a result of the Earth’s rotation speed increasing in the aftermath of the quake. The newspaper tells me I won’t really notice it, because it is only a difference of 1.6 micro seconds. But if you think about all of the major, massive earthquakes that have transpired in the past 111 years, those microseconds add up!

What does all of this mean? We may not notice these changes, whatever “notice” means here, in our conscious minds as we may not have developed (or remembered) the sensitivities required to do so, but how can these changes not affect us and all other living creatures on this planet?

Disasters, whether “natural” or “human caused,” have the potential to arrest our attention away from the local and person and onto the global and transpersonal. [3] Catastrophes on a grand scale, crises on a personal and interpersonal scale, have in common that they can close us down or open us up (sometimes both!). They jar us, shake us up, and remind us of the deeper reality in which we live – which is temporal, provisional, vulnerable, impermanent, changeable-- and invite us to live our lives as fully, richly, and audaciously as we can, committed to all that is most important to us, rejoicing in our great good fortune that at least for the time being the ground beneath our feet is solid, stable. Do you know what I mean?

Disasters, catastrophes that happen to others, that we witness from some distance as onlookers, by-standers, can be opportunities for enlarging our sensitivities, our capacities for empathy and compassion.  I think of Rushdie’s essay, “Step Across this Line,” in which he entreats the reader to examine how the lines that we draw, the boundaries and borders we create and erect to keep some people in and some people out, are constructions: made by humans during particular times, in particular places, in responses to particular forces. And, thus – good news!-- can be unmade and remade, as well. “Step across this line,” he invites me, he challenges me – disrupt closing down, resist separation and isolation, reconnect across differences, embrace complexity, behold reality face-on, even when reality sucks.[4]

Catastrophes, tragedies that happen to others can also give us moments of temporary amnesia – the good kind – in which we forget what the fight was about that caused us to not see or talk to each other for awhile, and in forgetting, we remember that we are actually all kin, all of us traveling through the life course together on this magnificent planet with its shifting axis and inconsistent speed.

In addition to wondering how it is that we can withstand so much loss, I also wonder what happens next.  What happens when we have these feelings of kinship, when we forget to separate ourselves from others and in forgetting start remembering really important stuff?  What happens? Do we witness? Do we stand-by? Or do we step across the line and reach out?


Before I went to campus yesterday, after I dropped Isobel off at school, and after I finished writing a report for work that I’d procrastinated on all week, and after waking up to the news of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the reverberations across the Pacific Ocean, Happy and I took a walk around our park.  As we approached the north-east bend of the pond I saw sitting upon the shore a pair of grebes.  Grebes aren’t ducks, so don’t make the mistake I made for years of mixing them up.[5]

Ducks, geese, and swans belong to the same family: Anatidae. But grebes are their own family entirely, the podicipedidae, and there are seven species and four genera of grebes. Nonetheless, it is important to note that ducks, geese, swans AND grebes all belong to the same class: Aves, e.g. Birds.[6]  But back to Grebes, which are amongst the smallest waterfowl at my park and thus are sometimes hard to spot, but when you do spot them amongst the other members of the Aves class, even if you don’t know they are properly called a grebe, you will know you are seeing something not quite ordinary (not that ducks, etc. are ordinary.).  I’ve always found the grebes to be more formal and fancy, all dressed up for their time at the pond—splendid forehead plumes, solid patches of saturated colors marking their heads, lovely curved necks, and short, delicately pointed bills. I always look for them (and I wonder sometimes if they ever look for me?), because spotting them causes butterflies in my chest, which I enjoy feeling. 

So, I stood on the path, Happy at the end of the leash, and watched the grebe-couple for a bit. May I take a moment to commend Happy-the-dog, who seems to have grown so accustomed to my habit of stopping to watch the waterfowl that he doesn’t even pull the leash, but waits patiently until I’m finished?  As I watched the two handsome grebes, male and female, my attention was suddenly pulled away toward a commotion at an upward angle to the grebes, great splashing and squawking and carrying-on in that part of the pond.  It took me a few beats before I realized what was actually happening—five or six male mallard ducks were holding one female mallard duck under the water.  She kept trying to fight her way up for air, but each time she did so, a couple of the male ducks would grab her by the neck with their bills and  push her head back under the water’s surface.  She was fighting so hard, she was ferocious, but she was outnumbered.  

Let me admit that I am no innocent bystander. I don’t -- actually can’t – stand by. Since the time I was a little girl, I’ve been unable to just bear witness and stay out of it when there’s what seems to me to be something aggressive, even violent, going on, whether between humans, between humans and other creatures, or between other creatures. This uncontrollable impulse has gotten me into a lot of trouble, but it has also gotten a few others out of a lot of trouble. Any way, quite possibly the mallards were engaged in some sort of mating ritual, or perhaps a disciplinary procedure of some sort. Maybe what the males were doing to the female was part of some intra-species agreement that evolved over time which my non-Aves consciousness (and untrained ornithologist mind) has no capacity to understand. All I could do was observe and react.  And wonder what the hell to do. I wanted to exercise cross-creature cultural competence, I didn’t want to throw my human weight around, but standing there, watching this thrashing, screeching tornado of ducks, I couldn’t innocently stand-by – I had to step across the line.

First, I tried reasoning with the mallards.  I stood on the shore and yelled, “Hey, you ducks, stop that!” They ignored me.

Then, I tried taking a long stick and poking the ducks when they spun closer to the shore. This was an ill-conceived strategy, as they never got close enough and I didn’t feel quite right about poking them, so I threw the stick in the water and made a big splash. They ignored me.

Then I turned to Happy, and I asked him for help. Literally, I yelled, “Happy, you gotta do something!”  Fortunately, he was already a bit worked up, since I was so worked up, stumbling along the shore of the pond, waving a stick, trying to talk reason with the ducks. So, I let him have as much leash as I could without letting him go, and he ran a bit into the water, barking, which spooked the gang of mallards enough that they disbanded temporarily and the she-duck was able to escape.  But, alas, she didn’t get far, she experienced but a momentary respite, as the guys followed her and this confusing drama began anew.

I realized then that I couldn’t actually do anything.  I also wondered if I even should have been trying to do something, if it even made any sense to intervene in the affairs of other creatures, if I even had a right to do so.  There I was, thinking I could do something to help the mallards. But at the time, in the moment, I wasn’t really thinking, I was feeling, I was acting from a place beyond thinking, I was in the throes of empathy, compassion, kinship with the mallards: for the female, because from my viewpoint she was being victimized; and the males, as well, because – and I’m a bit embarrassed to admit this – I wanted those guys to behave better![7] My actions were probably very misguided, prideful in the way only we humans can be, but there you go. This is exactly how I felt, exactly what I did.

In the aftermath, as Happy and I left the scene and headed home, I reflected upon the few times in my life when a non-human creature had intervened on my behalf, when I was in danger, real danger or the appearance of danger.  I remembered various family dogs having helped me, Marlowe most of all, and remembering this made me feel better about my decision to try to come to the aid of the she-mallard. Now, as I write this, I also recall the first essay in Kingsolver’s collection, Small wonder, in which she recounts the verified story of a mama bear who took care of a little human toddler who was separated from his family.[8] I also think of a passage from Skolimowski, and am somewhat comforted: “Men can be arrogant creatures, but so can lions.  However, among all creatures it is we, human beings, that can understand fully and completely the meaning of compassion and can act on it; can take the responsibility for all, can defend the rights of species different from our own.”[9] I’m not sure if we humans are the only creatures who can do so, but I do know that we humans are creatures who, indeed, do do so.


Reflecting further on my experience with the ducks, which happened to happen on the morning after the earthquake in Japan, and which took place before my encounter with one of my students who had such monumental and tragic news to share with me about her partner who is dying – and the poignancy of their geographic distance and emotional closeness – I realize that all of these stories I’m telling are pointing to the same few strong ideas: interconnection and creaturely-kinship; deep participation in each others’ lives and in the weird world that we live in; the instability, alterability, and fluxness of everything, and by “everything,” I mean from the micro-cosmic chaotic duck pond, to the macro-cosmic axis-shifting Earth, and everything in between.

In an instant, the ground beneath our feet shakes and shifts, waves swell and crash, buildings sway and topple. Some lives end and some are spared but forever altered.

Citizens of the world watch what happens: earthquake, tsunami, revolution, famine, hurricane, genocide, war, corruption, violence, environmental devastation. Many cry and yearn to help, desire to not only bear witness and stand-by, but to step across the lines that separate us from each other, to support their Earth-kin to re-establish a sense of safety and stability on an ever-changing planet, in an ever-emerging universe.

I have a small wonderment: Can we keep these rekindled feelings of kinship with other humans, other creatures, and willingness to boundary-cross as needed at the center of our hearts and the front of our minds once the current catastrophe has passed?

Do you know what I mean?

[1] To hear an NPR interview with Stanley Kunitz and see the poem in its entirety, go to:
[2] “Daily Developments,” The Oregonian, March 12, 2011, page A7.
[3] We could have quite a discussion about whether there is any such thing at this point in Earth’s history that is beyond the influence of humans and thus pure, pristine, and “natural.”
[4] “Step Across This Line, from the book Step across this line: Collected nonfiction, 1992-2002 (2002), by Salman Rushdie. 
[5] (I wonder if grebes would mind being mixed up with ducks. If I were a grebe, I think I might not like to be mistaken for a duck! But why, is the question.)

[6] All classification information comes from The Sibley guide to birds, by David Allen Sibley (2000).  By the way—and I know you’ll be very impressed--in middle school science I won “most likely to succeed in science” because I could recite from memory scientific taxonomy: “Kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species.”
[7] I wonder what the ducks would say to me if we spoke a shared language? “Hey, human, what makes you think we want your help? Stay out of our duck business, it has nothing to do with you!” What do you think the ducks might say?
[8] “Small Wonder” by Barbara Kingsolver, from the book Small wonder (2002).
[9] The participatory mind (1994), by Henryk Skolimowski, page 26.