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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.