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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Gero-punk Lexicon, installment four


Welcome to a work-in-progress, the “Gero-punk Lexicon.” In case you are new to the Lexicon, check out the third installment for some explanatory commentary.

Contemplative Gerontology

As we travel through the life course, as we accompany and witness others as they travel through the life course:

We place our attention and awareness upon our odd, unexpected, flummoxing, and contradictory aging experiences; we accept our experiences and those of others as sacred and real, if yet (or perhaps always) unexplainable.

We develop our capacity for aging consciousness and allow our selves to exercise this consciousness through ongoing curiosity about and pondering of our own and others’ aging experiences.

We try on different ways of moving through the world so as to develop our empathy for and imagination about aging experiences we’ve yet to (or may never) experience.

We ask questions about the meanings of our aging experiences without engaging in analysis, nor with attachment to finding answers. We rejoice in the spilling-forth of yet more questions.

(Key words that may be related: Temporality; Impermanence; Mindfulness; Intention; Space and Time; Stillness; Slowness; Wonderment.)

Example One:

What happens when I decide to go slow through the world, to take a more leisurely pace through space and time? What happens when I decide to go more quickly, to speed things up? How does my mind experience the world differently depending on the speed my body is moving? What does slowness allow me to see, to feel, to understand? And what has speed to offer to me? And what is the experience of being able to have agency regarding the speed I travel in my body through space and time? And what might it be like for me someday when I must adjust my sense of agency so as to adapt to my older body which perhaps will have a narrower range of speed-options? What might I still learn from times in my life I’ve already experienced when, because of illness or injury, I was forced to move slowly, sometimes not at all? What might it be like to be told (perhaps with impatience, frustration) by someone who has different options for speed than I have that I must speed up (or slow down?)? Can we negotiate our shared velocity, find a comfortable meeting in the middle? Why are these questions important to ponder?

Example Two:

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 stand 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, 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 roundtable discussion about our experiences. 

Some of the questions we explored:

Where does age reside?

In the absence of and in addition to the concepts 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 are 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 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 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 you breathe down into your belly, what age are you?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Gero-punk Lexicon, installment three

The Gero-punk Lexicon: Installment 3

Welcome to the third installment of a work-in-progress, the “Gero-punk Lexicon.” In case you are new to the Lexicon, let me tell you a thing or two:

You probably think you know what a lexicon is (a collection of words and their definitions, usually in alphabetical order, but since this lexicon in a work-in-progress and totally gero-punk, it will be in any order I please. So there.). But you definitely don’t know what a gero-punk is, and neither do I, because to be a true punk of any sort is to live experimentally, to live in love with emergence, the unexpected, the improvisatory, the rebellious, the chaotic, guided by your own star, propelled by a good measure of playfulness and well-placed righteous irony. Right now, this project is about de-colonizing the minds and lifeworlds of aging people (And by “aging people,” I mean all of us, and you know I am right!) by critically reflecting upon, interrogating, and offering different interpretations of words and concepts that have become a major part of normative public and academic discourse about aging, later life, and old people. Resist the normative, or at least understand it before you live by it.  The stuff of this project comes from my daily life as a gero-punk. Thanks for reading—Jenny.

Why Gerontology is Cool

First, let’s begin with a little quiz. (Though if you are quiz-averse, a short-answer essay question is available.):

Gerontology is:

a)      The scientific discipline concerned with the history of the earth as recorded in rocks.
b)      That new rock band from France.
c)      A very common but under-diagnosed phobia whereby one is afraid of people over the age of 30.
d)      The multi-disciplinary field concerned with the biophysical, cultural, psychological, spiritual and social aspects of adult development and aging.
e)      All of the above.
f)        None of the above.

(Here’s a hint: The correct answer is “d.” By the way, you can earn extra credit if you can distinguish between “Gerontology” and “Geriatrics.”)

Next, let me acknowledge (in case you are wondering) that I know one can’t just go around claiming that something is “cool” without being prepared to provide specific evidence as to why something is cool, especially when that something is an academic and professional field like Gerontology. I mean, it is one thing to say that a rock band is cool, or a movie is cool, or a particular book or professor is cool, but it seems a bit of a stretch to claim that the study of adult development and aging is cool.  As such, allow me to outline the finer points of my claim to being involved in one of the coolest fields of study and practice there is:

Ø      The older population is the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population – as a result there are many needs and opportunities for knowledge production, advocacy, and service provision.
Ø      In the historical landscape of the Human Scientific disciplines, Gerontology is a relatively new academic and professional field that is in the process of developing itself in real-time– As a result there is the potential to get in on “the ground-up” and participate not only in socially and personally important and meaningful work, but the creation of Gerontology itself.
Ø      Of all the social categories, “old person” is the only category (besides Human Being) each and every one of us will occupy, should we be so fortunate to live the long life most of us in the U.S. can expect to live. Some social categories, such as ethnicity or race, can’t be changed; some social categories are mutable but only as the result of great effort and commitment, such as gender identity, education level, and class.  But many of us will get to experience becoming an “old person.” (As such, there’s a tremendous, largely unacknowledged and un-harnessed opportunity for developing and expanding empathy and compassion and solidarity across all social categories and generations based on our shared aging journey and potential for becoming an “old person”!)
Ø      Adult development and aging are multi-faceted, complex processes: bio/psycho/social/spiritual, historically contingent, and within particular socio-cultural-political contexts. As such, Gerontology is a multi-faceted, complex field of study and practice. Many other academic disciplines, fields of study, and professional areas are incorporated into Gerontology or can be used as lenses through which to view the human aging experience: psychology, sociology, geography, epidemiology, nursing, social work, history, philosophy, economics, anthropology, political science, literature, to name twelve! (As such, there are many different “styles” of being a Gerontologist, depending on which aspect of the aging experience you are interested in studying and whether you want to teach, do research, design programs, create policies, provide care, advocate…the possibilities are fantastic and endless.)
Ø      And, here’s the most important reason of all, as far as I’m concerned: The questions that drive Gerontological inquiry and practice are fundamentally questions about what it means to be a human being—The grand, surprising, ultimately unfathomable adventure involved in our precious human existence, however long it may last, however it may unfold.

(This is by no means an exhaustive list—it is just a start, a prolegomenon! And, also, don’t be thinking that I’m so in love with Gerontology that I’m blind to its challenges and limitations, nor ignoring questions as to its usefulness, legitimacy, not to mention its very future as a field. I’m not. Ask anyone, I talk about this stuff a lot of the time. But that’s not what I’m talking about right now. Maybe another time. For now, let’s appreciate the beautiful, aspirational, well-intentioned Gerontology! Hooray!)

























Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Changes to Blog

As you can tell we are updating the Intentional Aging Collective to make the content richer and more informative. Like any community that is growing we are changing to be more responsive to our mission and you the reader.  This is an ongoing process that we hope will continue to offer unique and thought provoking topics about this thing we call "Aging".

Eventually we will be adding photos, videos and other content to enhance the discussions.  We will also investigate adding a "Guestbook" feature so you, the reader, might better contribute.  Please let us know what would make your time spent with us more rewarding and we will attempt to expand our approach.

One of the new features already added is the "Approved Web Resources".  As we go along this will expand to include a rich and diverse array of resources that might include links to appropriate news, articles, web sites and other resources as we find them.  With this in mind we are looking for provocative and informative items relating to intentional aging, wellness, spirituality; community and relationships; creativity; legacy building and renewed purpose and passion to name just a few discussion topics.  Do you have a favorite resource?  Let us know by emailing at dkrozell@comcast.net.  We reserve the right to determine if the resources are appropriate for posting on the blog.

Thank you for your interest in the Intentional Aging Collective.  Jenny and I are looking forward with great expectations!

Blessings!

David

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Gero-punk Lexicon, installment two

Champion for aging (A provisional Manifesto)

Provisional definition:

What does it mean to be a “Champion for aging”?  Here are some of the central principles that, for me, come to mind. To be a Champion for Aging is:

One: To insist that aging is so much more than the number of years lived on this planet, but, more interestingly, it is the accumulation of life experiences, the nuancing of our identities, the deepening of our relationships and commitments, the ongoing creation of our life-stories.

Two: To argue that we become more ourselves as we travel through the life course, to be willing to challenge – with our words, with our very lives – the ageists stereotypes that put all individuals into a one really boring box according to age and stage. Sure, we have things in common because of the categories to which we belong (age, cohort, gender, class, ethnicity, etc. etc.), but as we travel through the life course, the edges of our fantastic uniqueness are sharpened. Individual differences rule; resist category errors.

Three: To understand and promote the strong idea that aging is a lifelong process that all human beings (and other living creatures) experience, not something that only older people are doing, not a process that only begins at a certain chronological age.  Our aging journey is something that can hold us together as a human community, it has the potential to become a powerful source of understanding, compassion, and solidarity that transcends generational, gender, class, ethnic, geographical, political, ideological, and other differences that serve to categorize and separate us from each other.

Four: To embrace the inherent contradictions involved in being a human being: our frailty and strength, our timelessness and finitude, our bodies and our embodiment, our materiality and our transcendence, our messiness and our purity.  Also, the fact that we are singular individuals (see point one) as well as members of a generation, and, more importantly, the human community (see point two). We occupy – and can learn to be mindful of so as to positively harness -- multiple positionalities simultaneously.

Five: To embrace and take-on the complexity of the human aging journey, to resist simple constructions of aging, later life, and old age; to clear space for experimentation, innovation, authenticity in creating our own sovereign and intentional aging experience.

Six: To develop the capacity for courage and curiosity in order to commit no matter what to developing as deeply as possible, as long as possible (in whatever time we have); to accept the amazing gift of this time in the earth’s history: To potentially live a very long life and explore unknown territories, inside and outside of  ourselves.

No doubt, to be a Champion for Aging means many more things to me, but I think I’ve offered enough, for now.

Example One: From “Silver shooting stars on my head”

My “touches of silver” appeared unasked starting when I was a still quite young, since I was eighteen, barely an adult.  Early greying runs in my family, on both sides. And I have been doing fun, strange things to conceal my graying hair since I was eighteen—raspberry spikes, punk rock black bob, dark brown pixie cut, auburn pyramid of curls, then a decade almost of solid black, black...black.

Then, in November of 2008, when I was a month away from my forty-second birthday and had spent a lot of money before an important conference presentation on getting a professional coloring job, the gig was up. 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? I'm a radical gerontologist, a critical social theorist, and I am spending my 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.)


Example Two: From “Mid-point: Installment One”

And why is it significant to me, if not the rest of the world, that I’ve decided to designate now as my mid-point in my life course journey?  Age 44 is less clearly socially constructed than age 65, or age 21, for example. But most of us living in the Western world at this particular time in history have developed – been socialized into – an expectation that there is, indeed, something called mid-life or middle-age, though the chronological age when this phase commences is a moving target, there aren’t any discounts associated with it, no age-entitlements. Just, it seems, a particular orientation to who one is and the life one has lived thus far as an adult. The most banal and wide-spread association with mid-life is that it is a time of major crisis (not just major change), a time during which one is often forced under duress to reassess one’s priorities, a time when one feels compelled to get one’s act together before it is too late (drop some weight, watch cholesterol, get a mammogram, exercise more, commit to sanity, etc.), or not.  For some folks, the mid-life period has almost magical qualities to it[1], there’s this weird sense that the balance of one’s life is delicate, that with one false move everything will blow up: job, home, family, finances, the very future one has been working so hard in preparation for.

More optimistically, more positively, one might approach mid-life as a chance to make up for past mistakes, to transform experience into wisdom, to learn to think and feel and act in new ways, to respect one’s limited energy and finite time and thus use both well and fully, to re-affirm what’s really important and adjust priorities accordingly, and perhaps to commit to daily practices – spiritual, emotional, embodied, political… – on behalf of becoming one’s best self now.  There’s also an opportunity here in the middle to refresh one’s roles and responsibilities as part of the web of interconnections of which one is a part in one’s current life, but also in the services of one’s hoped-for future elderhood.[2] 

As I write this, I realize I may be close to a working definition of “intentional aging,” an idea some of my colleagues and students and I have been exploring together for a few years.[3] To commit one’s self to intentional aging involves getting into the critical reflective practice (and praxis) of asking one’s self and one’s close people the kinds of questions often associated with the liminal phase of mid-life: How can I best live in the body I am for as long as possible?  How well are my current thought-structures serving me? Am I willing to face what’s what (sometimes referred to as “reality”) so I can take care of crucial things now before they become truly outside of my influence? Are there any messes I’ve made that it would be right and good for me to clean up?  How are the creatures with whom I am interconnected flourishing and am I caring well for them, and they for me? What new dreams are emerging for me that I could enact for this phase of my precious human life? What do I really care about? What am I willing to live for?

These questions may be important questions to ask throughout adulthood, but I’m feeling in real time the difference in my experience as I ask them now, compared to twenty or ten years ago, even five years ago; and I know I will feel differently when I ask them in ten, twenty years from now.  And there will be new questions, questions I can’t know yet to ask.



[1] I am remembering Margaret Morganroth Gullette’s “aging studies” work, in particular “Mid-life as Magic Marker.”
[2] Again, I’ve introduced a juicy concept, “elderhood,” which I’ll take great delight in exploring further and writing more about in a future installment.
[3] For some evidence of our on-going collaborative work in the Intentional Aging Collective see www.intentionalagingcollective.blogspot.com

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Gero-Punk Lexicon, installment one


Welcome to the first installment of a new work-in-progress, the “Gero-punk Lexicon.” You probably think you know what a lexicon is (a collection of words and their definitions, usually in alphabetical order, but since this lexicon in a work-in-progress and totally gero-punk, it will be in any order I please. So there.). But you definitely don’t know what a gero-punk is, and neither do I, because to be a true punk of any sort is to live experimentally, to live in love with emergence, the unexpected, the improvisatory, the rebellious, the chaotic, guided by your own star, propelled by a good measure of playfulness and well-placed righteous irony. To be a gero-punk is to take responsibility for who you become as you travel through the life-course, to resist simple states of consciousness and having your aging experience defined by others, to see your life as a riveting story unfolding in amazing, strange, vivid, and cool ways.

Right now, this project is about de-colonizing the minds and lifeworlds of aging people (And by “aging people,” I mean all of us. You know who you are, and you know I am right!) by critically reflecting upon, interrogating, and creating new interpretations of words and concepts that have become a major part of normative public and academic discourse about aging, later life, and old people. Resist the normative, or at least understand it before you live by it.

The stuff of this project comes from my daily life as a gero-punk. Here’s an entry to get us started. Stay tuned for more.

LEGACY

Provisional definition:

Legacy goes in all directions and is deeply, fundamentally relational, and beyond the material.  By “all directions,” I mean that legacy is trans- and inter-generational, and not exclusively about transmission of resources (material and otherwise) to younger generations from older generations, but it can go in the other direction, as well, and in all directions at once.  By “fundamentally relational,” I mean that the creation of legacy happens in the context of cultivated, on-going relationships (And between both the “living” and the “no-longer-living”; that is, a member of a legacy-creating relationship may no longer be alive but still very present and influential to others); it is an expression of deep, consequential connections between humans. By “beyond the material,” I am pushing back at the idea that legacy is primarily about the transmission from elders to youngers of material resources: money, property, possessions. A larger-mind view of legacy is that it is about intentionally creating the conditions necessary for a vital present and future life for not only our closest-in people, but for all creatures. As such, members of multiple generations traveling through the life course simultaneously join together to pass-around (rather than pass-down) resources. These resources certainly may be material in the traditional sense of legacy – money, property, possessions – but also ethical, intellectual, spiritual and emotional (for example, “ethical wills,” spiritual traditions, creative projects, family traditions and practices).  Legacy may also entail carrying on not only the traditions and practices of an other who is no longer living, but adopting – embodying – one of their quintessential characteristics or commitments: a particular habit-of-speech, a jaunty hat they always wore, or their role in a larger system. In this way, they continue to exist but in a different form, and we are forever changed – and changing -- because of our relationship with them. Lastly, a larger trans-personal view of legacy encompasses non-human creatures, the planet, and our universe, as well as future humans whom we’ll not know because we will no longer be living, but for whom we care nonetheless (and who may someday in the future learn and care about us, their ancestors, as well.).

Example One, from “Fred’s Figs: Part One”:

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

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

Example Two, from “Gramma Jewell”

My small, strong, stubborn Gramma spent most of her life dreaming on behalf of others – sometimes even living vicariously through others. Her life was never quite big enough for her, so she tried her hardest to create bigger lives for the rest of us. I was the first person on either side of my family to pursue college besides my grandpa the Geologist, and I owe this to my Gramma, as she planted the notion in me like a dormant seed for some new kind of plant, and she protected me the best she could from the harsh conditions of my immediate family so that the strange seed in me might grow. (When I was in college and graduate school, I would send the materials for each of my courses to my Gramma—syllabi and reading lists, even books, and copies of the papers I was writing – so that she could follow my journey, think along with me, see how her work on my behalf was amounting to something. I’ve never known anyone as curious as my Gramma.)

Friday, February 4, 2011

Mid-point: Installment One


On the day I began writing this essay, I was one month into my forty-fifth year of life on this planet.  In December, 2010, I celebrated my forty-fourth birthday, and while I resonate aesthetically to “44” because of its great symmetry as a number, I resonate existentially to “45.”  There’s so much I still aspire to do, now in my present life, as well as into the future, however long my travels through the life course end up lasting. As such, while the difference of two years between 44-doubled (88) and 45-doubled (90) may not seem significant, once you apply this rudimentary math to your own life, your own hoped for future older self, two years can make a big difference!  Two years more to learn, love, and be alive to the world can be like a life-time. (But who knows what those two “extra” years, should I get to live them, will be like?  From the vantage point of 88, should I be fortunate to experience such a long life, I may feel that my life has been well and fully lived, that two more years are bonus but not consequential. Also, it is quite possible that I’ll be living with some pain and vulnerability in my late much later years, and I may wish to rethink or retract what I’ve just said—more is not always better.  But for now, from the vantage point of having just commenced my forty-fifth year, full of aspirations and wonderment about what the next forty-five years might bring, I’ll let it stand.)

From the vantage point of forty-five….

I have been working my way up to the realization since around 2006, but it has come to me with full-force recently that I may well be at or near the mid-point in my travels through the life course.  Of course, I can never know for sure. I (or those who out-live me) can only look backward from some future vantage point and determine that I was at my mid-point in 2011. Or look backward and realize that at this particular moment I was shy by 10 years, that my mid-point was sometime in the decade of my 50s; or, perhaps,  I have already passed my mid-point, perhaps it was back there in my third decade; I was already there, and I missed it.) 

I am not making a morbid point, but a mindful point: I don’t know, I can’t know.

Certainly, I can consult a “Life Table” in one of the books I use in my teaching, looking down the y-axis of the table for my current age, and then across the x-axis, to determine my estimated average life expectancy.  I do this exercise, knowing what will happen. I consult the table, scrutinizing the simple data – the average age I can expect to reach is 81.5; stated another way, as of my next birthday, I will have approximately 36.5 years of life remaining, or 13,332 days.[1] I tell myself, “Well, that number is just an average, and it pertains to the population-level, and thus it doesn’t take into account everything about me that makes me me – all those contingencies and conditions, my family history, my “individual differences” (as we say in the profession), everything that makes me so much more than “average”.  I let myself muse with optimism about how I could quite possibly live well beyond the average. And I attempt to push out of my mind the equally real possibility that I could die short of the average, by a little, or a lot. And, yikes, I realize that according to the data on the “Life Table,” notwithstanding that it represents averages at the population level, I probably already passed my mid-point a few years back.

In actual fact, consulting the “Life Table” may be one of the least relevant sources I can consult when it comes to my prospects for experiencing a meaningful life, be it long or not.  I’d be better off finding my inspiration, if not comfort, in a regular consultation with the daily horoscope, as the horoscope tells me things that ground me in the present – arrests my attention onto the this day I’m experiencing right now, which is all I really have – and gives me a moment to pause and think about my intentions for how to move through this particular day, if perhaps not the rest of my days on earth. So, for example, my consultation with a daily horoscope reveals this: “This is a time of great change in your personal and family life and a time of great inner psychological change.”[2] Wow! Indeed, it is a time of great change in my life!

But what quality of heart and mind do I want to bring to this time of great change?

Understand that I’m not claiming that the daily horoscope is more accurate than the “Life Table”, or accurate about anything in particular – I’m not making a point about accuracy, but about the information’s usefulness for and proximity to the daily unfolding of this life I’m living. I’m increasingly convinced that by living as fully and intentionally in my present life as possible I am engaging in the most creative and positive kind of preparation I can for the future older self I aspire to become.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it a thousand times more: We humans are time-travelers, living simultaneously in the past, present and future. I, for one, must exercise care about when and how I enter into the past or the future, as traveling in either direction takes me away from the present, and the present is the domain under my greatest purview and influence (Notice I didn’t use the term “control.”).[3]

So, I have momentarily moved somewhat away from my main assertion, which is that I can’t possibly know when I’m actually at the mid-point of my travels though my life course, though I have a wide and elemental feeling that I’ve entered into a new existential and developmental phase.  This phase is the phase that I recognize as being called “mid-life,” a phenomenon I’ve heard and read about, witnessed in the lives of others, learned about in graduate school, a transitional phase of somewhat indeterminate length, in between full-on adulthood (and all of the responsibilities adulthood often entails) and the beginning of later life.  There are, of course, various formal and informal constructions of this phase of the adult life course, which I won’t be elaborating upon here, but I will emphasize the word “construction” because, indeed, we actively construct (though often not knowing we are doing so!) the phases and stages of the human life course: What’s expected, and when; what we should plan for, and avoid; what we should fear and what we might hope for; and what kinds of experiences are  “normative” and “non-normative.”[4]

I gather up what I know about current and projected patterns for human longevity, average life expectancies for Women born in the U.S. in 1966, and current and emerging recommendations for positive and healthy aging, and I put this bundle of professional knowledge together with what I know about my family history and my own little life thus far, where I’ve been and where I seem to find myself pointed during this “time of great change” in my personal and professional life. And where I hope to travel as the future unfolds.

I’ve just commenced my 45th year.  Isobel, my daughter, celebrates her 15th birthday on Valentine’s Day, and my mother just celebrated her 65th birthday on February 2nd.  My dear Gramma Jewell, in her 90th year, just experienced her second hospitalization in less than one year; she fell again and has pneumonia. I play make-believe and imagine she’ll live forever; alas, she won’t.)  This is more than a time of great change; it is a time of liminality. The women in my family are all standing at their own particular thresholds, passing from one phase into another. 

Izzy is half-way through her first year in high school, increasingly independent and differentiated from me, already anticipating getting her learner’s permit so she can start driving, already exploring where she’d like to go to college.  My mom, who spent 2010 almost completely (and quite courageously) rebuilding her life again after the end of a relationship, just crossed that monumental life course marker: She’s now a “senior citizen,” an “older adult.” Talk about the social construction of age and stage! Never mind that two years ago she had to take her Social Security benefit early in order to survive financially, no matter that after a short retirement from decades of work in nursing she had to return to the workforce as a part-time professional caregiver for other “older adults” and will probably need to work for pay for the foreseeable future, for as long as she’s able.  As a newly-turned 65-year-old she holds certain expectations for her life as an older woman, and her life in turn manifests both “normative” and “non-normative” characteristics simultaneously. She doesn’t know, she can’t know, how her life henceforth will actually unfold. I don’t know, I can’t know, but I’m along for the ride.

Why is it so significant to turn 65? Why is turning 65 associated with the ability to qualify for age-entitlement programs and benefits like Social Security and Medicaid, not to mention the 10% “senior citizen” discount at the local health food store (My mommy called me from the store yesterday, her birthday, to tell me about how cool it was to get to use her senior citizen discount for the first time. She seems too young to me to qualify for a senior citizen discount, but as I write this, I realize I don’t even know what I mean when I say “too young.”)? No doubt about it, this chronological age and all that it is connected to is significant, we’ve spent the past 75-plus years in the U.S. constructing it is as significant, right?  But why is it so significant? How come? In what way? Who says? What does it actually mean?

And why is it significant to me, if not the rest of the world, that I’ve decided to designate now as my mid-point in my life course journey?  Age 44 is less clearly socially constructed than age 65, or age 21, for example. But most of us living in the Western world at this particular time in history have developed – been socialized into – an expectation that there is, indeed, something called mid-life or middle-age, though the chronological age when this phase commences is a moving target, there aren’t any discounts associated with it, no age-entitlements. Just, it seems, a particular orientation to who one is and the life one has lived thus far as an adult. The most banal and wide-spread association with mid-life is that it is a time of major crisis (not just major change), a time during which one is often forced under duress to reassess one’s priorities, a time when one feels compelled to get one’s act together before it is too late (drop some weight, watch cholesterol, get a mammogram, exercise more, commit to sanity, etc.), or not.  For some folks, the mid-life period has almost magical qualities to it, there’s this weird sense that the balance of one’s life is delicate, that with one false move everything will blow up: job, home, family, finances, the very future one has been working so hard in preparation for.

More optimistically, more positively, one might approach mid-life as a chance to make up for past mistakes, to transform experience into wisdom, to learn to think and feel and act in new ways, to respect one’s limited energy and finite time and thus use both well and fully, to re-affirm what’s really important and adjust priorities accordingly, and perhaps to commit to daily practices – spiritual, emotional, embodied, political… – on behalf of becoming one’s best self now.  There’s also an opportunity here in the middle to refresh one’s roles and responsibilities as part of the web of interconnections of which one is a part in one’s current life, but also in the services of one’s hoped-for future elderhood.[5] 

As I write this, I realize I may be close to a working definition of “intentional aging,” an idea some of my colleagues and students and I have been exploring together for a few years.[6] To commit one’s self to intentional aging involves getting into the critical reflective practice (and praxis) of asking one’s self and one’s close people the kinds of questions often associated with the liminal phase of mid-life: How can I best live in the body I am for as long as possible?  How well are my current thought-structures serving me? Am I willing to face what’s what (sometimes referred to as “reality”) so I can take care of crucial things now before they become truly outside of my influence? Are there any messes I’ve made that it would be right and good for me to clean up?  How are the creatures with whom I am interconnected flourishing and am I caring well for them, and they for me? What new dreams are emerging for me that I could enact for this phase of my precious human life? What do I really care about? What am I willing to live for?

These questions may be important questions to ask throughout adulthood, but I’m feeling in real time the difference in my experience as I ask them now, compared to twenty or ten years ago, even five years ago; and I know I will feel differently when I ask them in ten, twenty years from now.  And there will be new questions, questions I can’t know yet to ask.

There’s something that feels qualitatively – energetically – distinct about where I find my self now in my travels through my life course.  I remind my students frequently that human reality and our understanding about it is fundamentally emergent in nature – we muddle through this grand human adventure in real-time, and it is only after-the-fact that we can look back and do the work of trying to explain what on earth happened and why. I think this grand idea captures where I’m at right now in my own little precious life – I’m in a state of personal emergence: I know the questions I’m asking, I am becoming acquainted with my deepest longings for myself and those of and for my people, and I know the direction I am pointed: back to the stars, someday, but in the meanwhile, I’m committed to this adventure, however it unfolds.

And that’s about all I know, for now.



[1] From Olshansky, J.,  & Carnes, B.  (2001). The quest for immortality: Science at the frontiers of aging. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
[2] From http://www.astro.com
[3] I know I’m just scratching the surface of the idea that “we humans are time-travelers,” so this is a thread I’ll not follow further right now, but will pick up and pursue more fully in a future installment of this multi-part essay.
[4] This essay, I’m realizing as I write and edit it, is most likely going to serve as a prolegomenon for future installments.  A “prolegomenon,” according to Webster, is writing that contains “prefatory remarks; a formal essay or critical discussion serving to introduce and interpret an extended work.” The contours of the “extended work” are but little ideational glimmers at this point, but I can imagine a section in which I revisit and critique the extant scholarly and popular work on “mid-life” and “middle-age” human development.
[5] Again, I’ve introduced a juicy concept, “elderhood,” which I’ll take great delight in exploring further and writing more about in a future installment.
[6] For some evidence of our on-going collaborative work in the Intentional Aging Collective see www.intentionalagingcollective.blogspot.com

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Gramma Jewell

If there is a single human being who is responsible for priming me to become a Gerontologist, it is my maternal Gramma—Jewell Cochran. My Gramma comes from poor, scrappy folk. No one knew who her father was and she grew up without much stability. After her teenage mother abandoned her she was fostered by various family members until her late teens when she left her people in the Yakima Valley to move to Southern Oregon, where she found a job as a waitress. She met my grandfather, Preston Enslow Hotz, a much older man who frequented the café where she worked.

This Grandfather is a pivotal character is my family history as he changed Jewell's lot in life in many ways, and thus, two generations later, mine. At the time he met my Gramma, he was training to become a Geologist, and the young Jewell yearned to become his assistant, as well as his wife. In fact, they spent much of their life together, along with my future mother and her two siblings, exploring the Western United States in a little silver trailer, surveying and mapping the Great Salt Lake, Mt. Shasta, and the Klamath Basin (where my future mother, then only a teenager, met the teenage boy who would become my future father.).

My small, strong, stubborn Gramma spent most of her life dreaming on behalf of others – sometimes even living vicariously through others. Her life was never quite big enough for her, so she tried her hardest to create bigger lives for the rest of us. I was the first person on either side of my family to pursue college besides my grandpa the Geologist, and I owe this to my Gramma, as she planted the notion in me like a dormant seed for some new kind of plant, and she protected me the best she could from the harsh conditions of my immediate family so that the strange seed in me might grow. (When I was in college and graduate school, I would send the materials for each of my courses to my Gramma—syllabi and reading lists, even books, and copies of the papers I was writing – so that she could follow my journey, think along with me, see how her work on my behalf was amounting to something. I’ve never known anyone as curious as my Gramma.)

A couple of summers ago, my daughter and I had the chance to spend some time with my Gramma Jewell. Until last year, when she had to be moved into an assisted living facility, my Gramma had lived for several years with my aunt and her family, an arrangement that began when she could no longer care for my grandfather, who had Alzheimer’s Disease and had to be moved to an assisted living facility, where he eventually died.  Soon after he died, Gramma started having a series of small strokes and falls. Whereas she used to divide her awake time as an old woman between taking long walks, writing letters, helping with chores, and reading, now she spends most of her time sitting in her recliner reading large print books and observing the activities unfolding around her; her lucidity is ever-shifting, so it is of benefit to sit quietly beside her for long stretches of time so you don’t miss one of her insightful questions or statements.

So, the first night of my visit three summers ago, I crawled into bed beside her. She asked me a series of questions to confirm that what she was remembering about me was in fact accurate—which of “her girls” I am, where I live, what I do. She got all the details correct. She was a little confused by my daughter, whom she hadn’t seen for a year and who had undergone a teenage-transformation. While I snuggled-down in bed with my Gramma, she on her back, I on my right side with my arms and legs embracing her and my body curled around her, eventually she cast her mind into the remote past, when she was a girl picking apples on an orchard; when she was a young married woman and mother, raising small children and helping my Grandpa with his work.

Like a shinning jewel, Gramma was luminous there beside me, in her flannel pajamas, her teeth and face freshly washed, her hair cut exactly like mine but completely silver. The smell and feel of her skin – like a soft, almost over-ripe peach – started to unwind tight little tangled balls of my own memories. I had temporal distortion—my daughter Isobel had changed so much in the past year; I certainly felt time working on me; but my Gramma seemed suspended in time.

So, why do I tell you this story from my life? What relevance does it have for our work, for our own aging journey? This story foregrounds inter-connection, specifically how who we become as we travel through the life course happens in the context of the web of relationships of which we are a part – together we dream, grow, fight, get stuck, care, misunderstand, and try again.   


And, if we are fortunate, we have people in our lives who see us, are interested in us – who behold us – who are so curious about us that they read what we read so they can discuss new ideas with us, as my Gramma did for me. Or who --  figuratively or for real -- crawl into bed next to us or sit beside us waiting to hear what we have to say, as I did for my Gramma.