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Wednesday, September 5, 2012

white plastic wash basin

I’ve been working on this particular memory for the past handful of weeks. The memory crept from the right side of my mind, from the back and bottom toward the top and front (though I don’t suppose the mind has geographic analogs to the conventional locations given to the brain). I felt it as it was creeping and once the memory announced itself to my conscious awareness, my entire body shivered with pleasure. 

My daughter Isobel, our dog Happy and I had returned home from a short camping trip and I was sorting out our supplies and washing up the dishes and utensils in the white plastic wash basin that we use when we go camping.  We are a household in which dishes are hand-washed —we are mechanical-dishwasher-less – so hand-washing our camp-cooking supplies once we returned home wasn’t an unordinary occurrence. What was out of the ordinary was that I decided to use the camping white plastic wash basin to wash the dishes, rather than using my typical in-the-sink method.  That’s when the memory wiggled its way into my mind (Such memories tend to come to me when I am in a relaxed and un-analytical and embodied state of being.).  A couple of days later I told Simeon about the memory, but I couldn’t follow it any further until it reminded me about itself again tonight.

As long as I can remember, and I only remembered this once the memory reminded me to remember it, my Gramma Jewell has used a white plastic wash basin to wash the dishes.  As far back into my own history as I can cast my mind, my Gramma Jewell has had this practice, and she continued this practice until my aunt moved her and my grandpa out of their home to live with her, followed by moving my Gramma into an assisted living facility after my grandpa died. After that, my Gramma didn’t get or need to do dishes any more, and until my aunt moved them, my grandparents lived in the same home for decades, in Menlo Park, California.  And they lived in a strangely modest way. For my entire life, or at least as long as I can remember, they had the same furniture and style of dress, they adorned their walls with art rented from the library, and their diet was sparse and narrow-band. There were other seemingly related practices, too – they walked or took public transportation rather than drive their old-model car.  And during one of the California drought summers, my Gramma, so as to conserve scarce water supplies, pulled up by hand all of the lawn in the front yard until all that was left was a hard earthen surface (Though now I suspect it was as much about water conservation as about preventing my grandpa, who was quite a bit older than my Gramma, from having to mow the lawn.). Despite all of these indicators of a kind of carefulness and frugality, never have you met more generous folks! Nor more well-traveled. In addition to helping the rest of us live, they used their savings to visit the Wall of China, New Zealand, the British Isles…when I was little I fantasized they’d take me with them on a trip someday.

I never had the opportunity to go on a grand global adventure with my grandparents, though I do have intense memories of walking all over Menlo Park, Palo Alto, and “The City” (San Fran.) with them, and of sitting on my Grandpa’s lap when I was seven years old to watch Charlie Chaplin films at the Stanford University auditorium (And I should add that I had recently been burned by hot oil, I had a third-degree burn on my left arm which emitted a unavoidably rancid odor, but my Grandpa held me close nonetheless.).  I also remember my “R-and-R” trips to visit my Grandparents during my late teens and early 20’s when I was on break from my undergraduate and graduate studies. I always looked forward to talking with my Gramma about all the books I was reading and big ideas I was thinking about. We weren’t just Gramma and Granddaughter, we were comrades.

So tonight I was listening to the Democratic National Convention coverage as I washed-up dinner dishes.  And as I was washing-up the dinner dishes I caught out of the corner of my eye a hummingbird flitting through the persimmon tree in the backyard.  I had made a special dinner for Isobel to celebrate her first day of school: a little game hen, mashed potatoes, and roasted garden veggies.  I washed the dinner dishes in the white plastic basin which instigated this remembrance of my Gramma Jewell. Earlier, as I was harvesting veggies for supper and sowing carrot and radish seeds for a autumn harvest, a sexy hummingbird couple who was completely enthralled with one another took a temporary interest in me, hovering over me as I bent over the garden.  The summer garden is winding down—perhaps a week more of tomatoes, the beans are done and so is the lettuce.  The herbs are still going strong but it is time to sow new carrots and radishes (and maybe beets).

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

In between

By guest blogger Erica Wells

Life took an unpleasant detour last week, and in response, I began taking stock of my current situation. This activity of taking stock was less a physical task and more of an emotional endeavor. I searched heart, soul and mind, curious to see if reserves of strength or energy might emerge that would propel me through my crummy circumstances. Because so much of my motivation to engage in life comes from my relationships with others, in particular my family, that's where I began.

To one side of me are my children: young grade schoolers, no longer my little ones at home all day, yet they are still very much in need of support, nurturing and guidance from me and their dad. I see two young people poised to begin the adventures life has in store for them. I recognize the innocence their youth offers, the luxury of only knowing love and security, the purity of two minds largely undisturbed by hardship.

To my other side are four (grand)parents: an average of 50 years of marriage between two couples, each raised 3 children and each has 6 grandchildren. I see four lives being lived in full measure, accomplishments, regrets, success and sadness. Even more, I see the experience, wisdom, faith and perspective that decades on the planet can offer.

And here, in the midst of the youngest generation and the oldest generation, I am. Me, my husband, our siblings, many of our friends. This positioning in the life course is generally referred to as middle-aged, signifying the mid-point of our careers as human beings. But are we really? Isn't that presumptuous, albeit statistically accurate for forty-somethings? I'm troubled because the concept of mid-life assumes a particular longevity none of us can be certain of until it happens. I've been hearing the term mid-life crisis since I was a teenager and I know it's just a label, just words we're using to define something but not really thinking about what we're defining. And if you are like me and apt to read the obituary pages, you know that our individual mid-points vary wildly. Yet we persist in what I am tempted to argue is a just a convenient assumption that our forties represent the middle portion of our lives. Instead, I thought about alternative concepts, asked questions and allowed myself to be distracted for a while from my initial problem (isn't this always how it goes?). 
So while I bolster my resilience and forge a new path after this detour, I have discovered how fortunate I am to be book-ended in day to day life by loved ones from two generations, to be in between.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Ten Minutes with John

By Guest blogger Susan Cain (Self-proclaimed "Sometimes weary but recently enlightened life course traveler.")

Tired from a turn-around trip that began with a 6:15 am flight out of Portland, I waited at San Jose Terminal B, gate 23 for my return flight on Southwest. Together with my business partner, Patrick, we had spent much of the past week preparing for the new business meeting that took us to San Jose. While the meeting went well, we wouldn’t know if we won this account for probably three or four weeks. As I sat in the terminal, I thought about business, the slow economic recovery, money and retirement.  What could I have done differently to avoid such personal implications of the recent crash? When would conditions truly improve? Was I getting too old for this work? Looking up, an older man, somewhat disheveled caught my eye as he walked unevenly and tentatively toward the desk. With shaky hands he withdrew his ticket from his shirt pocket handing it to the gate agent, “Am I in the right place?” She responded automatically, “Yes” and offered nothing else. He looked around and walked towards the empty chair next to me. Almost automatically I thought, “Please don’t sit here—I’m exhausted and can’t make conversation,” but the thought passed just as quickly. I knew I wanted to help him feel more comfortable. We’ve all been on that trip—whether it’s our first flight, we’ve experienced a number of cancelled flights, or we are waiting in an international airport with signs and voices that are unfamiliar.

I began, “Hi, are you flying home to Portland or visiting someone?”

“I’m going to visit my son. I haven’t flown in a very long time and I feel so unsure of myself.”

“It’s fine. Together we can listen for the boarding call and then I can show you where to line up. When you get on the plane, you won’t have an assigned seat so sit in any open seat.  Has it been a long time since you’ve seen your son?”

Tears filled his eyes as he replied, “No, he and his brothers and sisters have visited me often recently. Their mom died three months ago after being on life support for too long.  It’s an awfully hard decision to know when to say “it’s time’ after more than 60 years of a life together. I just couldn’t let go and I think I made her suffer too long.”

Filled with his pain, I offered what seemed like empty platitudes, “There’s no way to know when the time is right and no one can guide that decision. It’s something you worked though, and when you were ready and you felt she was ready, you let her go.  There’s no timeline for letting go of the person you’ve loved so dearly.”

His smile of appreciation felt undeserved. 

“I’m John.”

“Hi John. I’m Susan. It’s so nice to meet such a brave man.”

With a weak chuckle he said, “I’m not brave. In fact, I know this will sound bad but I’m not sure I will choose to stay around much longer. That must sound awful to you, but each day when I begin to wake and reach over to the empty place on the bed, I can barely breathe. I lay in bed sometimes till afternoon. Just waiting for the pain to leave, for her to talk to me, for something…I don’t even know what. I’m so empty inside.”

Frozen in grief I couldn’t find words, and I knew that nothing I said could answer his need.  Still the energy connection gripped me. His heaviness was now mine as well.

Slowly and painfully I offered, “I don’t judge you. I have told my children that I would hoard pills or find some sort of poison so that when I’m done, I’m done. My father died recently—he was 95 and he very much wanted to die for the last two years of his life. It hurt me terribly to watch him. He even asked me to help him die and I could do nothing.  He thought he wanted to die when he was about 85 and my mother died. The first year was the worst.  After that he began going back to church, getting out a little more, and he found he had more life to live. Meaning and purpose may shift for you too.”

“I don’t know. I can’t see beyond today. I don’t really want to visit my son although I love him. It takes so much energy and I’m exhausted. I’m hoping that if I force myself, I might find some relief.  Traveling is hard on me. I’m uncomfortable asking for help or directions. I feel like people look at me like I’m just a helpless old man. I’m getting forgetful—happens when you are old.”

“John, I’m forgetful and I’m 63. I don’t know when this “forgetfulness” started for you but it started for me in my 20’s when I had four children!  It’s not exclusive to being older. It comes about because we accumulate years and years of to do lists, of birthdays, of 85 years worth of schedules and memories we want to hold onto.  People think so many things are old age related when in fact aging begins the day we’re born.”

He laughed and his hand grabbed my hand and he simply said “Thank you.”

The gate agent called for “A” boarding—my group. I asked John to move closer to the lines and told him that when they called for B boarding he would line up in the first column pointing to where he should stand. Noticing a seat near the line I suggested he sit until it was time to line up. As we walked together, I noticed a young woman making her way toward the seat. Touching her arm I asked if she’d mind if John sat. She nodded to him and said, “Of course not.”

John looked at her slyly and said, “Or I could sit and you could sit on my lap.”  Pleased with himself he lit up and we all laughed.

I was hopeful as I boarded the plane that his momentary joy might be a brief peek into a life of renewed purpose. He is such a beautiful soul and to have him leave this world early would be a loss for all those whose life he touched, including me. Ten minutes with John and my life is forever changed.

Friday, August 17, 2012

mid-summertime pause, reflect, recommit

I've asked these questions, or some variation of them, before -- many times! And it occurs to me on this hot mid-summer's night that now is a good time to ask them once again.

So, here I go--

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, August 14, 2012

Spirit of '45

This evening I attended a summer party hosted by Mary’s Woods, the continuing care retirement community next door to the university.  The event, the theme of which was 1945, took place on campus, and when I arrived five minutes before the time the event was to begin, I found ancient folks in period attire milling around enjoying cocktails while a big band played historically appropriate music.  I was wearing my ubiquitous summer hat but I received many sweet compliments as if I’d worn it as part of a costume so as to be festive for the party. I accepted a whiskey sour from a waiter and then made the rounds, greeting guests and looking out for my Mary’s Woods friends. 

I first spotted a woman whom I’ve interacted with many times over the past several years and with whom just a few weeks ago I had ambled slowly hand-and-hand all over the Marylhurst and Mary’s Woods campuses, chatting about our lives, past and present. Tonight when I walked up to her and greeted her she looked at me without even a flicker of recognition. At first I thought it was because I was wearing my hat and thus I appeared unfamiliar, but then I remembered that I had been wearing my hat when we last spent time together. I sat down next to her and began asking her questions about how she was and what she was up to this summer, but she couldn’t converse with me. She smiled almost apologetically in response to my questions and after a time I wished her a lovely evening and continued my rounds, feeling mildly shocked by the changes in her that had taken place in just a few short weeks. 

The next familiar elder friend I spotted happened to spot me at the same time and he jumped up out of his chair and came toward me with a huge smile on his face, calling my name.  We hadn’t seen each other since last year, a fact which he lamented as we shook hands and then hugged, acknowledging that we are both extremely busy with our various commitments.  He then mentioned that he’d just been talking about me, that my name had come up in a conversation about Buddhism, and that he had enjoyed setting straight one of his Mary’s Woods friends who thought all Buddhists were Asian.  We had a charming exchange and promised to be in better contact.  I left him and continued meandering between beautifully set tables around which sat mostly old women enjoying their cocktails and trying to hear each other speak over the quite loud swing tunes.  I pecked a few gals on the cheek, wished bon appetit to others, and worried that some of my closest Mary’s Woods friends didn’t seem to be at the party. I made my way to the table reserved for Marylhurst staff and sat by myself for awhile, wondering where my colleagues were.

After a time, one of my colleagues whose mother lives at Mary’s Woods came over and invited me to sit with them at their table.  I was introduced to his mother – he forgot we met two years ago at the winter holiday party. His mother and I remembered that we had already met and sat down next to each other and began chatting. We made small talk and she complimented me on my hat.  She reminisced about dancing with her husband. And then she asked me what on earth qualified me, someone so young, to be a gerontologist. Actually, she didn’t ask me as much as demand an answer.  And I gave her one – I said that gerontology isn’t only about what it is like to be an older person, which I  couldn’t know about until I was an older person, but also about the experience of being a human being aging throughout the life course and becoming an older person.  She responded by saying, “Oh, you are justifying your position.” I was stunned by her brazen response, and I said so. I said, “Wow, well, that’s one way of thinking about what I said, and I thank you for being honest, but actually, I don’t need to justify my position. What I am saying is true. And what you asked me is really important to ask gerontologists, especially younger gerontologists – why do we do this work? What do we think we can know, and what can’t we know until we are ourselves old?”  She laughed and said she was mostly teasing me (and I thanked her and said that it is important to be teased as it prevents one from taking one’s self too seriously). And then this amazing thing happened – she admitted that now that she’s old she says whatever she wants to say and doesn’t hold anything back.  Being that I am a Gero-punk I couldn’t help but ask her when she began un-censoring herself, when in her later adulthood she began speaking her mind. I didn’t say so to her, but I wanted to know if it was an intentional decision or if it was an emergent phenomenon, I wanted to know if  she had a strong image in her memory of herself the first time she let go of notions of  propriety and just said what was on her mind. Alas, she didn’t remember when it began; she said that she just realized at some point that she was no longer holding back her thoughts and opinions.

Two more of my colleagues arrived and then an unfamiliar woman was brought to our table to join us as she didn’t have anywhere else to sit.  She wasn’t someone I had met before – I wondered if she was a new resident at Mary’s Woods.  My table mates and I began chatting her up. Her responses to our questions were mash-ups of what would commonly be referred to as “appropriate” answers, on the one hand, and completely bizarre answers, on the other. She laughed as if everything she said was a joke, and we laughed with her. At the next table I watched as my friend who didn’t recognize me earlier ate her dessert first but left untouched her salad. And across the way an old couple danced to the music of their youth.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Dear Aliza

Dear Aliza Mizrachi Keddem,

I suspect the first time you met me – was it 13 years ago? – you wondered what on earth qualified me, just a little girl to you, to be your “boss,” the Chairperson of the department at Marylhurst University in which you were teaching sociology as an adjunct instructor. So, that was the first of several things we had in common, as I wondered the same thing! I didn’t know at the time that you were more than twice my age--I only came to know that recently. But what I did soon discover upon meeting you was that you had already lived at least three or four lives. As someone said today, you lived the history most of us only read about.  Born in Israel in 1930, immigrating to the US in your youth, you’d been a Zionist (I heard someone today mutter that you’d even been a “gun-runner” on behalf of the effort to establish Israel's independence.); you’d been a fierce freedom-fighter, an activist, a sassy spiritual warrior; you’d been a mother and a wife, and then a single mother struggling to make ends meet; you’d been a leftist-feminist-sociologist; a mentor, a friend, a colleague, a  Safta (grandmother). You were opinionated, sometimes even dogmatic; you were principled, deeply moral, critical, lucid, argumentative, exacting, frugal and generous. Though we were world’s apart culturally and chronologically (but not, in actual fact, philosophically and politically), we turned out to be almost contemporaries in terms of when we did our graduate work, you in sociology, and I in gerontology (as I discovered today, I was at UO close to the same time you were, and we even took courses from some of the same sociologists!).  

Unlike many of the people who offered tributes to you today, I knew you only as a colleague and member of my faculty, as a treasured professor to our shared students, as an enthusiastic and committed educator. Now I wish I’d also known you as a friend.  I enjoyed the few times we went out to lunch together; I discovered today that going out to eat was one of your most favorite things ever (mine, too), and, as I experienced (and found terribly charming), no matter whom you invited out to eat you almost always picked up the entire bill and left a large tip.

I think I may have made a grave mistake, the kind of mistake one makes when one is overwhelmed with responsibilities (professional and personal) and isn’t thinking spaciously enough, because I think you extended the opportunity of friendship to me several times. I didn’t realize until today the gift you were offering me, and now it is too late to accept it. Had I accepted it, I may have learned much sooner how to mash-up in cool ways the categories of  "colleague," "student," "teacher," "friend," etc.  I might have learned much sooner how to be a gracious and generous host, opening up my home to others for conviviality and "theory talk," even when I was feeling under-resourced and stretched thin. I might have learned much sooner how to not feel ashamed when I speak my mind and expose the "elephant" in the room, I might have learned much sooner the power and beauty of living my convictions and beliefs no matter what.

Toward the end of your memorial service today, one of your friends, the wife of a graduate school comrade, spoke about the raspberry shoots you gave her years ago when you were preparing to move from Eugene to Portland.  She planted the shoots in her garden in Portland, where they grew “wildly crazy” and produced wonderful plentiful fruit. And then she dug them up and transported them to and transplanted them at their current home in Gig Harbor, Washington, where they evidently are doing even better than they (the raspberries) did when they lived first in Eugene and then in Portland. Continuing on the theme of raspberries, one of your daughters-in-law spoke about how you knew raspberries are her favorite fruit and harvested berries from your own Portland bushes in the heat of the noon-time summer sun in order to bring them to her for her pleasure. And then someone else said something that rang so true to me about how your legacy can be found in the noble life you’ve lead, the ideas you have taught and promoted, but also in the raspberries you have shared.

You will be missed, you will continue to be an inspiration, and we will continue to fight the good fight.

Love, and thank you,


Monday, August 6, 2012


I hadn’t seen Dave in well over a year though I had wondered about him periodically, kept my eyes open for him whenever we were at the park.  Then this past Tuesday while on a run with Happy, there he was, I saw him again, walking from the opposite direction toward us, unmistakably Dave. 

The first time Dave and I met each other was April 10, 2011. I didn’t want to forget the special details of having met him and so I wrote an entry about it in my journal.  On that particular morning Happy and I were about to run across  the northern-most foot bridge at the park when I spotted a creature that looked kind of like a duck but was larger in size and seemed to be walking on hind legs, torso almost vertical.  My attention was arrested by this strange water fowl and I was trying to figure out who it might be – Loon? Some duck/goose hybrid? I was disconcerted as I’d not come across a water fowl quite like this one; it was strange and I kept thinking that it was missing its arms.  As I got closer to the mystery creature, it took notice of me,  or, rather, it took notice of me and Happy-the-dog, and it took off running in its armless verticality, so un-duck-like.  I couldn’t help but giggle at the site and I must admit that I tried to do with my body what the mystery water fowl was doing with its body, and trying to do so made me giggle even more and broke the spell just in time for my attention to become arrested anew by another creature coming into my view. 

And what stole my attention away from the strange duck was a human, specifically a human man. He had a red cap on his head and a blue track suit (with white stripes on the sides of the legs) on his body.  He had white hair and wore wire-rimmed glasses. He was walking quite briskly but there was something particular and interesting about how he moved his body—his torso was bent forward at an angle from the hips such that his face was looking down at the ground rather that straight ahead. In order to alter the angle of his vision he swiveled his head from his neck so that his face was pointing to the side.  There’s also the matter of how he used his arms.  He swung them but they were very straight, stiff even, not bent from the elbows.

I watched him as he traveled toward me. At a certain moment he saw me and Happy, and we arrested his attention.  “Hello, how are you?” I called.  He responded, swiveling his head to the side, “Fantastic!” I replied, “I am as well.”  Then he commented on the dog and how exuberant he was. I told him that my dog’s name is Happy, and he laughed and walked right up next to me and said, “I’m Dave.”  I reached out my hand into his field of vision and said, “Nice to meet you. I’m Jenny.” Dave replied, “Nice to meet you, Jenny!” and then talked a bit more about Happy, congratulated me for being out in the park running, said it was great to meet us.  I said, “I’m sure we’ll see you around the park again soon.” At that, off we went in opposite directions around the pond.  A few minutes later, when I’d reached the south end of the pond and Dave was still mid-way down  the east side, I saw him turn his head to the side enough that he could catch sight of me. I waved.

Once Dave and I (and Happy) were no longer in range of each other, I attempted to replicate his way of moving in his body – I rotated forward at my hips, approximating the angle of his bend, stiffened and straightened my arms and swung them a bit more widely than usual, and I tried out swiveling my head on my neck so as to see to the side.  (This is a practice I’ve been engaging for some time; I’ve been experimenting with trying out other creatures’ (human, dog, water fowl…) gestures and movements as a way into understanding something about them that is non-verbal, empathetic, embodied.)

So this past Tuesday I finally see him again, walking from the opposite direction toward us, unmistakably Dave, and yet not quite the same as he was when I first saw him a year ago.  This time we notice each other simultaneously and this time he doesn’t have to swivel his head to the side in order to see me, because his torso is more upright (though not completely). Recognition flashes across his face when he sees me, though he doesn’t seem to recall my name.  He smiles and says, “Looking good!” And I say, “Thanks, Dave!” Happy and I are running and Dave is walking; we lap him. When we pass by each other again, he laughs with joy and yells, “How wonderful!”

It is uncanny and beautiful to have met a creature only one time, to have had a fleeting and short interaction with him, but to remember him so vividly and wish to see him again, to know him.  I suspect that one of the reasons why Dave is so memorable to me is because I not only observed him intensely from afar (after having observed intensely the strange water fowl, who is also memorable to me), as well as had the good fortune to meet him and exchange good words with him, but because of our sweet mutual curiosity.  That’s why I just had to try out his style of embodiment, because to do so offered me a sense of closeness to him, an imaginal access into his particular way of being in the world – special, singular Dave.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

A Happy lesson

A couple of days ago something happened between me and one of my close-in humans. I had a surprisingly strong reaction to what happened. My feelings felt really hurt.  I’m still experiencing the residual effects, like a strange energetic aura vibrating around all of my thoughts, feelings and actions. I didn’t like my initial reaction of feeling hurt and I struggled not to retreat into self-protection mode. But what I really don’t like is that now, a couple of days later, I’m still feeling a bit like the wind got knocked out of me, a bit rough around the edges. Situations like this ideally call for a healthy dose of intentional reflection on the nature of reality, relationships and being human, or, if that seems a bit ambitious in the heat of the moment, a couple of glasses of wine or a day of napping in a dark room. But since I’ve taken (and renewed, yet again) a vow to not engage in practices which I know I’m using to avoid my own strong emotions, and since I’m not feeling quite ready to engage in mindful contemplation, this morning I went on a long walk with Happy-the-dog, and yesterday morning we took a great three mile run.

Besides the pacific influence of exercise and fresh air and water fowl on my overall state of being, time with Happy always helps me.  If you’ve read even a few of my essays, you’ll know that Happy and I have got a pretty sweet sync going, we really dig each other. We spend a lot of time together and pay a lot of mutual attention so we've come to know each other rather well. Just like I do, Happy has his habits and quirks, one of which is to plant his feet, widen his center of gravity, and pull back hard on his leash when he comes upon an intoxicating scent so as to indicate that we have to stop immediately what we are doing – walking, running – so that he can really pay full attention to and luxuriate in this particular scent that has completely captivated him. Sometimes I yield to Happy’s overwhelming desire, most times, actually, because he’s fully involved in being a creature in the world, and I respect that, even see it as my responsibility to foster opportunities for him to do so. But sometimes I must insist that Happy yield to me, to my overwhelming desire to keep moving. And so we engage in a quick tug-of-war – he plants his feet even more firmly, he pulls back on the leash even more fiercely, and I do the same in response in my own two-armed, two-legged way. 

And then -- so suddenly! -- the tug-of-war is over, and we are on our way again.

What happens next is the most wonderful thing ever. Happy, as he resume trotting along, looks back at me and smiles as if nothing happened.

We humans engage in tug-of-wars with each other and even with ourselves.  And once any particular tug-of-war is over, we humans tend to hold on to the energy of the misunderstanding or conflict, let it continue to reverberate inside and around us, sometimes for a really long time.   

My aspiration on this day is to do as Happy does: When I feel I must, give it my all in the tug-of-war, but for the least amount of time and doing as little damage as possible. And then when the tugging has ceased, trot back into the flow of this life with a smile on my face, as if nothing happened.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Contemplative Gerontology: Thank you, Gramma Goose

Feeling warm nectarine juice dripping down my chin; watching chickadees snatching seeds before the jays can monopolize the bird feeder; getting caught in the mingling sexy scents of the trio of tomato plants, I remember the bit of text from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek that Isobel’s father and I borrowed to use on her birth announcement:  “…A single cell quivers at a windy embrace; it swells and splits, it bubbles into a raspberry…Soon something perfect is born. Something wholly new rides the wind.”  I can’t help but think about the raspberry shoots Simeon and I dug up from Fred’s overgrown garden two Sundays ago and then transferred into a newly prepared plot in my side yard. Fred’s gone, and his garden soon will be, too, but perhaps next summer we’ll be enjoying a new generation of Fred’s raspberries.

Before I ate the nectarine, I had been intentionally contemplating my ancestors. I was reminding myself of -- or, rather, I was trying to remember – the creatures from whom I’ve come, the creatures whose miraculous existences millennia ago preceded my existence and my daughter’s existence. I was day-dreaming about the spiral of development and transformation across time of which we are all a part. 

I was imagining how were I to draw my creaturely family tree, it would begin with multiple species of microbes, followed by worms and snails, then fishes, amphibians, dinosaurs, reptiles and (my favorite ancient family members) birds. Long before my Gramma Jewell shows up on the family tree, and long before her grammas and all the generations of grammas (and grandpas, and mammas and papas and all the other human kin) who came before her, there was Gramma dinosaur, Gramma sturgeon, Gramma tree frog, and Gramma goose. And don’t forget the plants! There are also a ton of plants in my family tree, because on this planet creatures and plants can’t do anything without each other.

What happens next is that I realize that the strong concepts I’ve been circling around in so much of my recent thinking, writing and praxis – legacy, kinship, elderhood, to name three – have transpersonal, cross-creaturely, and metaphysical resonances. When we think about the human journey – being alive at/in this time/place/space – let’s not forget the other creatures with whom, because of whom, we travel. When we think about our kin, our elders, our ancestors, and our descendents, let’s remember the resplendent living world of creatures – not just human beings -- with whom we are inexorably interconnected.  When we think about answering the call to become an elder – now or in the future – let’s expand our conceptualization of this sacred vocation to include a commitment to doing our part to heal the world and all its creatures, not just in the present or on behalf of near-future generations, but on behalf of far-future generations of creatures of all sorts (even sorts which don’t yet exist!) whom may never know we even existed.

Or maybe our far-future kin will contemplate our existence so long ago in the very distant past (which is our present, now!), perhaps they will imagine our special place on their family tree, and they will be grateful that we not only existed but developed and transformed in such a particularly perfect way that something wholly new could one day ride the wind.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Growing Pains

Mother and daughter both have some important things going for them. Their love for each other is deep and abiding (though not unproblematic). They are both committed to authentic – though different – spiritual practices. They share some good genes for health and longevity on the maternal side of the family tree (though the daughter has a father, of course, and the genes from that side of the family tree aren’t much in her favor.). Mother and daughter both eat beautiful food, they exercise, they engage in preventive healthcare, they volunteer, they read voraciously. They are curious about and engaged in the layers of the world in which they live. They are hitting many of the important marks for “Successful Aging,” and although they don’t have many material resources (and no back-up plan or rescue strategy), they do have just enough resources to get by, they have sweet little places to live in the same part of a fantastic city, and they know how to spin gold from straw – they are scrappy and they are survivors. And, for better or for worse, together they make a strange little family.

But mother is exhausted. When she wakes up in the morning she feels like she has barely slept a wink. And when her part-time work is over in the late afternoon, she’s completely wiped out, sometimes close to tears because the stress of her work exceeds not only her physical capacity, but her energetic and emotional capacities as well. She’s confused by how her life has turned out. How can it be that she’s already in the second half of her seventh decade? How can it be that she feels simultaneously “young” for her age (She is strong, fit, and giggles like a girl) and so “old,” a state she associates with being worn out, without resources, sometimes even without hope?  How can it be that she’s toiled so hard her whole life only to find herself in her later years working as a paid caregiver, taking care of people who are even older than she is, people who need more care than she can actually give them? How can it be that she’s alone, without a partner (she’s gone through two messy divorces and one messy break-up), with dreams for her “retirement” years that are incompatible with the material reality of her daily life?

She asks her “mid-life” daughter, whom she wishes she could talk to and see everyday, how it is that her life turned out this way, how it is that she has to work so hard, for so little, and spend the last part of her time on earth feeling lonely, anxious, exhausted, and worried. Her daughter struggles to know what to say (Her daughter rehearses different things she might say but the risk of unintentionally hurting her mother serves to censor her, restrains her speech.). Her daughter wishes she could do more to help her mother -- supplement her income; encourage her to expand her social network; entreat her to work with a therapist. Her daughter has her own set of life-course challenges with which to contend; her daughter is attempting to do better at her own self-care; her daughter must negotiate her own material conditions and a finite amount of energy with which to create a life for herself and her young daughter.  In not knowing what to do, or feeling bad about not being able to do more, or feeling resentful about being expected to do things she can’t possibly do, sometimes her daughter feels frozen and unable to do anything at all.

Most of the time, her daughter does what her daughter can do—pray in her own way that her mother’s broken heart can heal, that her mother’s loneliness can be assuaged, and that her mother’s disappointments can be counterbalanced by the great good fortune of being alive, now, here.

If my framing of “intentional aging” as “...a radical concept that has at its core the notion that there are always opportunities for deep development and new ways of thinking and being throughout the human life-course,” has any meaning at all, it must be meaningful not only to me, but to others, as well. What do these opportunities for deep development and new ways of thinking look like in the context of economic struggles, physical exhaustion, spiritual disillusionment, loneliness, serious illness and emotional suffering?  In other words, is intentionality a luxury, a practice to be engaged in only by those who are meeting the “successful aging” baseline, only when all conditions are optimal and we are feeling good, feeling positive about our lives?  If by intentional, “I mean to convey that as individuals and communities we can create together ways of thinking about and experiencing the challenges and opportunities of adult development and aging. Wherever we are in our travels through the life course, whatever our lives look like at any given time, we can choose to be present as fully as possible to our experiences,” how do I, how do we, bring this potential to fruition? How does this principle inform how I relate to and serve others, do my work as a gerontologist, and live my own precious unfolding life with as much agency and awareness as I can?

I’m still sussing what I mean by “intentional” when connected to “aging,” but I can say this for certain right now: Intentional aging must be a potential for all human beings, no matter what any individual’s life looks like or how they are experiencing their aging journey, or else it is a too precious, empty concept that while inspiring for some folk, is unobtainable for others.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The summer after Fred died, continued

Two summers ago as Fred’s grown children and I tended to his garden, we started talking about the possibility of turning the garden into a working urban farm.  We brainstormed about how to connect with the local community gardens program, about how to establish mutually beneficial partnerships with community organizations – schools, senior and community centers, and churches. Inspired, I began to dream about Fred’s garden – his future urban farm – as a potential space for intergenerational collaborative learning about localism, permaculture, food security, and beautiful food for all. We three we were quite excited about the possibilities, and we agreed to continue to work together into the future and committed to the principle that at all costs Fred’s garden plot and his house must stay in the family (Although I am not an official family member, I felt a sense of deep conviction that I had a right to weigh in on the matter, given my true friendship with Fred and my commitment to his legacy.).

I must say yet again that I imagined that the summer of 2010 was the first of many summers working together to continue Fred’s legacy, perhaps even re-visioning Fred’s garden and extending his legacy in new directions, though I’d have been quite thrilled with keeping his garden growing and going in the form and shape it had been for decades. And, as I’ve admitted, I quite innocently, perhaps even naively, assumed that the garden would continue at least for the rest of my lifetime, and that as long as I lived right across the street I’d be intimately involved in watching over it. So, I took all of these conversations with Fred’s family very seriously, even began putting feelers out into my own networks to see what friends and colleagues thought about the idea of expanding Fred’s garden into an sweet little urban farm and place for community-based education.

As I write this I realize more clearly than I have previously that my vocation as the caretaker of Fred’s garden was for me a blessing and responsibility of such profundity that it became a significant part of my identity and lifeworld.  I began to write about my experiences, informally and formally, personally and professionally; I also began to participate more extensively in the local sustainable food movement.  I was discovering yet more ways to enact Fred’s legacy, as well as ways to do some legacy work in my own right. And, fundamentally, I suppose my relationship with Fred’s family and our shared commitment to his legacy was the way Fred continued to have a central daily presence in our lives.  Fred’s garden served as the location for us to continue to cultivate our individual connections with him, and to form new relationships with one another.

As I worked in Fred’s garden, as I dreamed about future possibilities, I was thinking all the while about him, about our relationship. Though he was back in the stars and I was still here on this planet, Fred was still very much present to me, and it felt certain to me that his garden and our relationship would continue to grow.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Intentional Aging Redux

A couple of weeks ago, David and I (finally!) had the chance to spend some time catching up and dreaming together about our shared intentional aging aspirations.  The day after that meeting, two of my Gero-babe colleagues and I met to do some dreaming of our own. They asked me to articulate for them what my current thinking is around this thing we’ve been calling “Intentional Aging.”

One of the great pleasures of my life is the opportunity to collaborate with others, and one of the cool things that happens when you collaborate with others is that you find yourself inspired to participate in the creation of new ways of thinking and talking – provisionally, too-the-side, playfully -- about the human aging journey. To whit, “intentional aging.” What can happen over time, though, is that we fall into the habit of using our invented language as if we all have agreement as to what various words (and the conceptual or experiential landscapes they are meant to express or evoke) mean, or as if the meanings of the words are static and final, that what we meant two years ago, or even last week, is what we mean now.

So I’m grateful for the opportunity to reflect on where my thinking happens to be currently (And – are you surprised? – to ponder the new questions that are emerging as a result of reflecting!).

Some of the strong principles at the heart of my vision of Intentional Aging are:

Aging is a lived experience, a life-long journey that we are all embarked upon, though we are at different stages in the process depending on our chronological age and life-course stage.

We travel through the life-course together and we have much to learn by embarking on this journey together; we can develop deeper understanding by intentionally creating opportunities to interact and know each other, to discover our shared interests as well as all the ways we are unique creatures.

More specifically, we can think together about difficult issues, we can solve problems and create new ways of thinking and being in the world in order to make life better for all creatures. We are experts on our own lives, and we are teachers for each other.

And coming to deeply know each other, being present before each other, thinking together, is about telling each other our stories, as well as creating new stories together. This can become a form of shared legacy-creation.

Legacy is not only about planning for the future, but it is an activity that happens in the here-and-now, in the context of our present relationships with each other, it happens in all directions and amongst people of all capacities, not only from elders to youngers, but it goes in the other direction, too, and between age-peers, as well, and not only from the well-resourced to the less-resourced.  Creating legacy is about planning for the future, certainly, but it is also about how we care for each other now, how we are present to each other and share our greatest resources, ourselves, most especially our loving attention, with the wisdom that what we do now for each other shapes how the future looks for all creatures on the planet.

Intentional aging is a radical concept that has at its core the notion that there are always opportunities for deep development and new ways of thinking and being throughout the human life-course. By “intentional”, I mean to convey that as individuals and communities we can create together ways of thinking about and experiencing the challenges and opportunities of adult development and aging. Wherever we are in our travels through the life course, whatever our lives look like at any given time, we can choose to be present as fully as possible to our experiences.

For me, the promise of intentional aging is that is offers a pathway for deep and meaningful learning, development and growth throughout the adult life-course. Together we can explore the frontiers of human experience with curiosity and hope, we can transform meanings of aging and old age, and we can make a profound difference in one another’s lives.

Yep, that about captures my current, provisional nested conceptual web related to "intentional aging." But what I realized as I wrote this little discourse is that I am actually a bit uneasy with the concept "intentionality," that it has various meanings in Western history and culture, and that some of its strongest meanings manifest from a very particular set of ontological and epistemological assumptions, and these assumptions quite possibly aren't compatible with my framing of intentional aging, let alone my own experiences traveling through the life course as embodied consciousness. In a future post, perhaps, I'll write more about what I mean by "a very particular set of ontological and epistemological assumptions," but for now -- I hope you don't mind -- you'll have to take my word for it. I also realize -- yikes! -- that I still have yet to actually operationally defined what I mean by "intentional" when connected to "aging." 

(Thank you S.C.McC. and M.J for asking me to revisit the dream of intentional aging.)

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The summer after Fred died

Fred was my across-the-street neighbor, and then my friend, and only later in our time of knowing each other, the year before his physical health began to decline dramatically, my gardening partner.  Fred was about twice my age, and in the spring and summer of 2009 I began to notice that he was slowing down and getting dizzy climbing the tall ladder to pick figs from the uppermost reaches of the old tree. He needed some help, after so many years of being of help to so many others, in so many ways.  I like to think I tricked him into taking me on as his gardening apprentice by asking him to teach me everything he knew, posing as if I were a gardening innocent. But it has occurred to me more recently that perhaps he had been hoping for some time that I’d take a more active role working alongside him.  We lived across the street from each other, after all, and--even better--we were true friends, so how could we pass up time together doing something we both loved to do?

We never talked about it in any direct or explicit way while he was still living, but after he died in January of 2010 I knew with a certain conviction that he wanted me to do what I could to keep his garden growing. My intuition was confirmed when his adult children, son and daughter, invited me that next spring to join them in planning and preparing the garden, and then planting and tending the garden, and then – joy – sharing in the garden’s gifts: raspberries, red and blond; artichokes; asparagus (which I discovered hiding under weeds and for which I created a little protective rock wall); green beans; lilies and iris; figs; roses of all hues; lemon cucumbers; winter and summer squash; and many varieties of tomatoes and lettuces (including radicchio.). Oh, and concord and Muscat grapes.

That first spring and summer after Fred went back to the stars, the three of us gathered together at the garden almost every Sunday for part of the day to make lists of the different vegetables we wanted to plant, to prepare the soil, build the support structure for the green bean plants, plant and tend to wee seedlings, and, once the growing season really kicked in, water and weed and – best of all – harvest the fruits of our collective labor. In between our Sunday meetings, I served as the caretaker of Fred’s garden and yard – I mowed the front and back lawns, pruned the roses (and made some lovely bouquets!), plucked raspberries and picked figs. I also made arrangements with a local organization that serves meals to folks who are homeless to give them excess produce in exchange for their compostable kitchen scraps. Fred’s daughter, proprietor of a small Community Supported Agriculture farm outside of the city, sold some of the extra produce from Fred’s garden to her CSA members, along with unique treats from her farm (green garlic; homemade goat milk cheese).

What a great summer we had! Caring for the garden, working alongside his children, extending his legacy in new ways kept Fred alive and central in my daily life.

At the time I imagined it was the first of many summers working together to continue Fred’s legacy, a legacy that began many decades previously and involved not only nurturing what amounted to an urban farm started by his parents in the early part of the last century, but also continuing Fred’s practice of sharing saved heirloom seeds and the variety of fruits and vegetables grown on the large plot.  I must admit that I assumed the garden would continue at least for the rest of my life-time, and that as long as I lived right across the street I’d be intimately involved in watching over it.

Note: If you are interested in knowing more about Fred, ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­please read the essays Fred’s Figs: A Legacy Tale, Part One; Part Two: Fred's Figs; and A Legacy Tale, Part 3. You’ll find it in the archives from 2010. And please stay tuned for future installments!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Traveling Together

For quite some time I have been thinking about the importance of my relationship with Happy-the-dog.

He has changed over time, I have changed because of knowing him and he has changed because of knowing me (and, so too, he has changed because of knowing my daughter Isobel, and she has changed because of knowing him.). Our relationships have changed over time.

I know this to be true because I am experiencing it, but the common categories or terms in my areas of study and practice for talking about the relationship between humans and other creatures are dissatisfying to me.

Happy isn't my "pet," nor my "animal child." He's not Isobel's "brother." I'm not his "owner," nor "master," nor "human parent." He's something beyond all of these categories and he's a singular being in my life. Our relationship is akin to the closest relationships I have with other humans (with my daughter, my mother, my brother, my partner, my best friend, treasured students and colleagues) but profoundly distinct, as well, because we don't communicate in the way I communicate with other humans or he with other canines, and because his consciousness and my consciousness have some significant differences (which I continue to discover).

As well, I struggle because I don't have language for what I mean by “changed” when I talk about all of this.  Or, rather, I mean that I do have language to describe the nature of the changes I’m experiencing and that I witness in Happy (and I happily describe to anyone who will listen, including his Veterinarian), but all of my training as a life-span developmentalist and gerontologist is human-focused. I haven’t any explanatory frameworks – yet – for sussing what is going on, for making sense of the changes I’m experiencing over time in the quality of our relationship, Happy’s and mine. (I wonder—does Happy have an opinion of all of this? Does Happy experience our relationship as changing over time as we know each other more intimately?)

Thank goodness that I don’t need an official explanation to validate my experiences!

I am traveling through time and developing as a being. Happy is traveling through time and developing as a being. We are traveling through time together. We are developing together, and not just together but because of each other. But our creaturely life-spans, while over-lapping, differ in length. We are both middle-aged according to human time-keeping (though Happy is a bit older than I am, but not until recently). Baring any unforeseen circumstances, I will most likely outlive Happy; he will become an old dog before I become an old human. And I will definitely not get to spend my ancient years with Happy by my side.

As I write this essay I see that there are questions here about mortality, about the life-spans of human beings and other-than-human beings, about how these life-spans overlap and diverge, and about how as traveling companions across time and space we watch each other (sometimes Happy comes into my bedroom at night while I am asleep and stands at the side of the bed watching me until I wake up), figure each other out as best we can, and make a precious little life together.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Gero-Fragments (or time-traveling back to 2003-04)

I want to (I need to) synthesize biography, theory, methodology, pedagogy and praxis. I want to (I need to I might) write some little essays that are formed from a series of scenes, episodes or gestures.

Favorite words!

How are these connected? (Don’t know yet.)

Life-span development—deep development
Life-long learning—transformational learning
Adult education—educating the whole person
Experiential learning—holism, constructivism

(It has to be)
(I believe it to be)
Not (only) about becoming an…a whom or a what? (And according to whom or what?)
…but about something deeper and bigger – about meaning and purpose; about imagining other possible selves and other possible futures, about curiosity and imagination.

(Why is it so difficult for so many of us to imagine our possible future selves when those selves are old? Our future older selves have so much to tell us…)

Traveling through the life course is about the passage of time – we are riding the arrow of time – and about the accumulation of experiences. We are our experiences, but experiences aren’t enough. Deep learning emerges from the intentional reflection upon our experiences.  (We can do this alone, we can do this together. I often think better with others.)

Development and aging happen throughout the human life span; they are inter-related, multidimensional and multi-faceted. (Everything that has a beginning, has an ending. But what happens in between?)

The human creature is flexible and “plastic” – from a thigh muscle to a neuron! – Cognitively, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Humans can continue to learn develop undo hold habits of thinking and acting but not if they believe the discourse which says they can’t the older they get.

But, to do so requires intentionality – a point of decision whereby the individual dedicates energy toward their own self-development (in what ever form this takes?).

The human life course is lengthening – what an opportunity!!-- we are living longer, but it remains to be seen whether we will live better. (And there are multiple and contradictory definitions of what constitutes “better.”) (And there is inequality in the aging experience – we don’t all have the same long-life and well-later-life chances.)

We need to imagine a holistic model of the human as a life-long becomer...And create the conditions that support as many creatures as possible to flourish as fully as possible…

(What does it might it would it will it look like if I take all of this really seriously?)

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Thanks for the compliment, but I left some stuff out...

So, evidently there’s more to say about my last blog piece titled “We ain’t no puppies (but thanks for the compliment.)".  It has been made known to me by my number one fan that it may not have been apparent enough to the reader that the title was meant to be ironic. I admit, had I thought of the title sooner than after I’d written the piece and was itching to post it, I may have spent some time further exploring the irony contained in the title.

What’s the nature of the irony I meant to capture in the title? Well -- and this won’t surprise you, probably -- but I have a bunch of questions to pose, rather than answers. 

For starters, why is it perceived as complimentary when one is told that one looks younger than one’s age, particularly when one is at one’s mid-life  (such as Happy and I happen to be)? How is a compliment about our surface – how we are perceived to look in relationship to our chronological age or life course stage – related to the our inside self, to a deeper vibe that has to do with our embodiment, our vital singular energy, and how we move through the world? Is the outside a proxy for the inside? Does the outside reveal something about the inside? What about when there's a disconnect between the outside and the inside? What about when an assumption is made based on the outside appearance rather than getting to know all aspects of the being in question, body/mind/spirit-in context? And why are certain qualities – curiosity, audacity, flexibility, openness, and innocence, a particular style of enthusiasm -- often associated with youthfulness, rather than humanness or creatureliness?  

Think about and honor your own experience and measure what I say against it, but no matter where we find ourselves in our travels through the life course, moving through the world with openness, curiosity, and vitality feels good to one’s self and is appealing, even irresistible, to others.  This vibrancy is attractive whenever and in whomever we encounter it, no matter their age, stage, or species.  But because this vibrant vibe gets conflated (that is, confused) with a socially constructed notion about age and stage, rather than being complimented for being the best creature we can be at present, we are complimented for looking younger than our age. (And as I've written in other essays, it is good to ask: what is age and where does it exist and what does it mean?) Such compliments, I believe, are well-meaning compliments, but they are compliments shrouded in layers of largely unexamined and unconscious ageism and sexism (and probably other forms of oppression as well). 

(And, I must ask: what happens when the compliments change to,  "For someone her age, she’s still doing pretty well." What happens when the complements stop altogether?)

Alas, it is hard for me to take such compliments straight, whomever the giver and whomever the receiver, though in the moment, before critical reflection kicks in, compliments meant well, especially given by a loved one, go down quite easy.

I just realized as I write this post that along with the tangle of meanings associated with such compliments, meanings about which we might be suspicious and about which we might think critically, there is also sweetness. I mean, what is as sweet as being beheld and appreciated by another creature? Not much.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

We ain't no puppies! (But thanks for the compliment.)

On our walk this evening Happy was once again mistaken for a puppy.  When we found him at the Oregon Humane Society in 2006 he was thought to be at least one year of age, which means that by now he’s at least seven-going-on-eight. This makes him older than I am by a few years, and I ain’t no puppy!

Happy is routinely mistaken for a puppy, and when this happens I always respond with something along the lines of “Well, he certainly seems to act like he is! But he’s actually not a puppy.” Today, I responded by saying, “He’s not a puppy, he’s middle-aged, like me!”

If  you’ve met Happy, you know that he has a little gray soul patch on his chin, which I think adds some gravitas to his countenance, but apparently no one else even notices his gray hair because of his overall vibe. But I wonder, what is this overall vibe that strangers are picking up on, and why do they almost to a person associate it with the status of puppy-ness, e.g. youthfulness?  

There’s no doubt that I have a heightened sensitivity to discourses about human development and aging. I’m especially sensitive to the words we use to talk about age and aging and stages of the life course, and in particular to how the concepts of “young” and “old” are associated with other concepts. For example, how many times have you said or heard someone else say that during a period of illness or recovery from a serious injury they felt “old”? What about the statements that are so much a part of normative age discourse as to be almost beyond questioning? “You are only as old as you feel.”  Or, “He’s young at heart.” Or, “She looks really good for her age.” When we say these things, what do we actually mean, what are we actually communicating? Do we even think about what we are saying before we say it?

I’ve thought quite a bit about why Happy might be mistaken for a puppy, and I think it has to do with the way he inhabits his body, the way he moves through the world. Happy is always looking around, checking things out, in addition to pissing on what seems to be every single light post and bush.  As we are walking, he often pulls on the leash out of his exuberance and desire to be out in the world; he also periodically looks back at me and smiles as if to say, “We are together taking a walk and it is my favorite thing and you are my favorite person!”  He never forgets that I’m there at the other end of the leash—it is about both of us taking a walk together.  When Happy comes upon strangers, he does so in an open, friendly, casual way – I have to say, I’ve never seen anything quite like it. I get the feeling that he’s just so darn pleased to be alive, to be himself in the world and to hang out with his people and anyone else he happens to meet.

But why are all of these qualities associated with youthfulness?  He’s not a puppy. And yet, and yet....

On a related but to-the-side line of thought, in an episodic, meandering way, over the past several months I’ve been turning my mind toward questions about interconnectedness as we travel through the life course. Not just the connections between human beings, but more broadly between human beings and other creatures.  My curiosity about this is specifically connected to Happy and our relationship (which is intimate and has changed over time and is in need of care as are my relationships with my human companions). My relationship with Happy, because of its close-in-ness to my daily lived experience, and because our relationship is cross-creaturely, offers me opportunities to ponder questions about how our travels through the life course, our deep developmental journeys, are inter-related.  

I’m still working this out, and I’ll write more once I have more to write.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Contemplative Gerontology, continued

After a walk in the park with Happy-the-happy-dog, we return to our little house. As I walk through the front room, this thought comes to the front of my mind: There will be a point in the future when I no longer live here, because I live somewhere else or because I am no longer alive in my current form.  This jarring moment of awareness – awareness of my present state of being (where I am located in time, space and place) alongside awareness of some certain future state of un-or-altered-being (the timing and circumstances of which I cannot know) -- is an opportunity for spontaneous contemplative practice. It is also an opportunity to engage in one of my other favorite related practices, the practice of pondering “What happens next?”

(I don’t always take the opportunity. Today, I did.) 

Here’s how it works. As I have the realization of impermanence and transience that comes with the thought “At some point in the future I will no longer live in my precious little house either because I live somewhere else or because I am no longer alive,” I am having not only a mindful, spiritual experience, but I am having a profoundly embodied-consciousness experience as well. So, I intentionally behold what happens next in my body, which is a feeling I have learned to call nervousness or even anxiety—my heart rate speeds up and my guts feel turbulent. I feel scared of and shocked by the certitude that everything that has a beginning also has an ending.  Including my precious little life.

I wonder next how I learned to have this embodied experience of the thought that I will at some point no longer live in this house, and, more to the point, no longer live in this particular body. And then I make myself really feel these feelings, amplify as fully as I can stand at this particular moment on this particular day this feeling of anticipatory grief at the passing of a phase of my life, at the passing of myself as alive in and to the world as I am right now.

And then, what happens next is that I start shrieking (though using my inside voice): YIKES! I don’t want to leave here – I don’t want to leave this house, I don’t want to leave this life,  I don’t want to leave me!!

And then, what happens next, and what becomes the antidote to my existential anxiety, is that I intentionally shift my awareness back to the here, the now.

I think I’ll finally paint the kitchen walls some happy hue. I think I’ll mop the wood floors and give them a lemon oil massage. I think I’ll plant some lemon cucumbers. I think I’ll weave new prayer flags through the backyard bamboo.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Reaching Out

I often hear people my age and even younger lament that being young in this society is easy. And being older is impossibly hard. Youth has all the perks of the culture and being young, we are made to believe, is the real definition of life. In fact, sometimes, I can hear myself taking this position.

Age, in a youth-oriented society, can often become a very depressing proposition resulting in the isolation of an entire age group. We hear the stories all the time. Older men and women who stay in their homes or in public housing and even expensive condos in the most desirable neighborhoods die anonymously with no one knowing or caring. As empathetic citizens we may ask “How is this possible?” that someone can die and their absence not be noticed in any way. Seeking answers, we look to government and other social programs. There is even a discussion here in Portland about offering electronic devices to help in the monitoring.

But at least part of the problem resides in the fact that, too often, the older we get the less we stay in touch with the world around us. It’s as if we believe that no one wants or needs us and there is no place for us in life anymore. So we wait for the phone to ring or the email to arrive or the visit from a friend. And steadily we grow more isolated and perhaps depressed.

The fact is that for the vast majority of older people we don’t have to be isolated if we don’t do it to ourselves. Reaching out is the gist of getting older. We need to go out of ourselves and meet the world, rather than waiting for it to come to us.

Generativity (giving ourselves to the needs of the rest of the world) is the most important function of growing old. Generativity is not just the act of being more social it is the act of giving yourself to helping someone else. The key word here is “giving”. Old age is the only age when we can be so giving because it is the first time in life when we are free to give thought and time to the larger world. But we need to initiate that relationship. We are ready to test ourselves for the sake of the world. The opportunities are there we choose to reach out.

“A blessing of these years is the freedom to reach out to others, to do everything we can with everything in life that we have managed to develop all these years in both soul and mind for the sake of the rest of the human race.” Joan Chittister