Saturday, October 29, 2011

Inspired and Inspiring Elders

Since I started writing this blog, I have covered a variety of inspired and inspiring elders. Some of them are elders whose lives and work I already am aware of and others are folks I have found in articles in major newspapers. This week on the NPR site, I saw an article on a 100-year old man finishing the Toronto marathon. Here's a photograph of Fauja Singh after he crossed the finish line.

Singh, a British citizen born in India, took up running at the age of 80.

I was saddened to note the passing at 83 of James Hillman, a brilliant thinker, fascinating writer and Jungian psychologist whose book The Force of Character and the Lasting Life is one of my favorite books on aging. The New York Times obituary provides some details of Hillman's life. I spent months contemplating Hillman's writings as I developed Sage's Play and began to write A New Wrinkle. He was a major influence for me.

I wanted to review some of the people I've featured in this blog because lately people have been talking to me about how hard they find it to locate positive news about elders. I am very aware of ageist prejudice but I also manage to find wonderful stories about inspired and inspiring elders in major media.

In my October 23rd post, I mentioned 92-year old folk singer Pete Seeger appearing the other day at Occupy Wall Street. In June, I linked to Dominique Browning's great article on natural aging The Case for Laugh Lines, which appeared in the New York Times.

In May I featured the 82-year old British model Daphne Selfe. "Your face is your history," she commented. "If you have a few lines, it's your life that you've lived, and people should embrace that. Some [models] want to alter themselves and I hear talk about getting all this wretched cosmetic surgery done, but I don't want to do that myself as it costs too much, it might go wrong and what's the point? It won't stop you from getting old."

Also in May I mentioned a great article from the New York Times on 100-year old Bel Kaufman, author of Up the Down Staircase, a lively gal who likes to dance the mambo and tango. Another blog from May links to a New York Times article about comedienne Betty White.

In my April 8th blog, I covered the cross-Atlantic sailing voyage of the An-Tiki whose crew was led by 85-year old captain Anthony Smith. The rest of the crew of three men were between 56 and 71. They successfully completed their 2,800 journey across the Atlantic on April 7th when they reached St. Maartens on their raft made of pipes after 66 days at sea. The expedition was intended to raise awareness about lack of clean water on the planet and to raise money for WaterAid. The An-Tiki voyage--yet another example of late-life adventure and altruism.

In that same blog I featured a 91-year old retired dentist who took up body-building at the age of 85. I found out about both the sailing trip and the body builder in the Guardian, a paper from the United Kingdom.

In February I featured 91-year old track star Olga Kotelko. I read about her in the New York Times. Yes, the New York Times prints many wonderful articles on inspired and inspiring elders.

However, the New York Times also has an editorial policy that favors the use of the word elderly as a generic way of describing older adults. Ronni Bennett in her great blog Time Goes By posted on October 25th a letter she wrote to NYT editor Arthur S. Brisbane protesting the Times' prejudicial use of the word elderly. As she pointed out in her letter, elderly is a word that implies frailty and does not apply to the vast majority of elders. Hopefully the New York Times will see the light and change its generic nomenclature to older adults, which is neutral.

Over the past two years, I've written about dancers, painters, sculptors, political protesters, explorers and writers. All of these folks are in their 70s or better.

I consider it great fun to explore the media and find positive, inspiring stories about older adults. This time of life is an adventure on both outer and inner levels.

How do you find the good news about inspired and inspiring elders?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Things you can do at 92 when you're Pete Seeger

Here I am sitting in my casa in Phoenix, Oregon watching some You Tube clips of 92-year old Pete Seeger walking in the crowd of protestors at Occupy Wall Street. Last night Seeger, Arlo Guthrie and a few other musicians did a short impromptu concert there. The crowd was singing This Little Light of Mine and We Shall Overcome, songs that Seeger helped to popularize during the anti-war and civil rights protests of the Sixties.

That was 50 years ago. Some of us have been waiting for a long time. It seemed that the U.S. populace was lulled into stupification for so many decades. But finally here we have a bona fide popular uprising. Hallelujah. Long time coming. It's impossible to know what will come of it, but as Occupy Wall Street protests continue, it does my heart good. I feel my cynicism melting a bit, exposing how deeply I long for real, positive change to take place in this country. Starting with a radical change in the power and structure of corporations and the terrible corruption of Congress.

That phrase I don't know anything about art, but I know what I like comes to mind when I think about politics. I don't know much about politics but I know what I like. I like peace and ecological diversity. I like it when people have plenty to eat and when they enjoy life and each other. On this earth plane, it seems that those simple riches can involve a terrible amount of struggle. I rejoice that so many people are inspired to stand up for change.

Take a look at the crowds that are gathering at Occupy Wall Street, and notice the white heads among the younger folks. That is real sage's play in my book. Like Seeger at 92, an elder with decades of commitment to cultural change.

I really enjoyed what journalist Chris Hedges had to say about various revolutionary movements he witnessed firsthand and how he views the current Occupy Wall Street movement. It's moving. I'm moved. Are you? What's your take on this popular uprising that we find ourselves in the midst of?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

In Medias Res

In medias res is a Latin phrase that means "into the middle of things." The story begins in the middle or towards the end, with flashbacks.

The phrase came to me this morning as I woke, which was a pleasant change from waking with the music of Baba Yaga's Raga or Sex after Sixty going full tilt boogie in my mind as they have been each morning for over two weeks. I suppose they will fade back one day soon, or at least that is my hope, much as I enjoy those two songs of mine. Having songs you've written greet you that way as soon as you wake is a bit like having your kids wake you up by jumping around on the bed.

Jack Leishman's photo--"The View from Grouse Gap on Mt. Ashland"

Well, I couldn't wait until winter to re-read Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward Angel, as I said I would in a recent post. I went to the library immediately and took the book home. I can see why I loved it so much when I was 17. Decades later, I am weary of contemplating grotesque families seen through the eyes of a sensitive misunderstood artistic genius. I confess I skipped parts of the story. It may be great writing but it just doesn't captivate me the way it did.

Instead, I content myself with reading Jane Kenyon's Collected Poems. She suffered from depression but had a very happy marriage. Her poems are wonderful. There are so many of her poems I love. Like this one.


I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

I much admire anyone who can take wonderful photographs. I have not mastered that art myself. I love Jack Leishman's images of our regional landscapes. Jack was kind enough to allow me to include a few of his photos here. These two are taken at Crater Lake, one of the most magical places in Oregon.

May you find such beauty in your home ground.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Freedom of Nothing to Lose

Steve Jobs's eloquent speech at Stanford University's 2005 commencement ceremony has been widely circulated since Jobs's untimely death at 56. Perhaps you've already perused what he had to say more than once. I know I have. Some comments are worth reading over and over.

"Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose."

I'm struck by how direct Jobs was in discussing the keen edge that death brings to human life. Death is a subject that is often concealed or denied in our society. But there he was at a celebratory commencement ceremony laying out the basics.

"No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life."

"It is life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.""Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma -- which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary."

What passionate, honest and liberating advice. I join millions of others in feeling saddened that he's gone. He was a brilliant, independent artistic genius.

How many of us live with the fierce, joyful freedom of having nothing to lose? Of being unconcerned with the opinions of others? Of following one's own heart and intuition? I reflect on these questions fairly often.

There's a keynote for one homeopathic remedy (I don't recall which one) that goes "half dead on one side and buried on the other." I can relate because that phrase describes how I felt for many years.

I cared far too much about the opinions of others. I helped others to fulfill their goals rather than fulfilling my own. I didn't understand how to engage my gifts or offer them.

I recognize that this slow and late-flowering understanding about the innate freedom we all have was my own necessary way of maturing--though it would have been grand if I found my way out of the various confines that held me decades earlier. I wasn't ready for that yet or so it seems.

Now that I'm in the final stretch, I appreciate life as an exhilarating adventure in ways I never did earlier. I enjoy engaging in challenges that I would have dismissed as impossible decades ago. Impossible? Oh, really? Hmmm....let's see if that's really so.

I'm not saying I have no resistance to learning new things or that I flow effortlessly into the fresh assignments that appear as my work and life evolve. I can be found digging my heels in pulling back at the idea of learning how to use webinar technology or calling philanthropists I've never met to describe my musical revue and its funding needs. But if it is part of what I want to engage, I engage it after a bout of hopefully not too obvious kicking and screaming.

What a gift it is to have this freedom and the time and energy to engage in the deeper meaning and purpose of life. Work/play in creative aging and healing work is one part of that for me, and engaging in my inner or spiritual life is another. Doing and being--two aspects of one big adventure.

What about you? Do you feel more free in the ways that Steve Jobs described in his speech? What makes you feel free and fulfilled?

P.S. My first Healing Power of Memoir and Life Review workshop takes place this Sunday, October 16th in Ashland, Oregon. There are two places still available. This flyer gives some details. If you'd like to join us, call or email me to register.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Of Time and the River

"All things on earth point home in old October; sailors to sea, travellers to walls and fences, hunters to field and hollow and the long voice of the hounds, the lover to the love he has forsaken."
--Thomas Wolfe

I was 18 when I read Thomas Wolfe's wonderful Look Homeward Angel, a book written in a passionate, gorgeously poetic stream of consciousness style that I found absolutely thrilling. This morning I tell myself firmly I must get a copy of the book this winter and read his chronicle of "the strange and bitter magic of life" again.

Put it on your list, Gaea says that one inner voice. Yes, another voice within replies. I imagine you have various inner voices too.

It was Thomas Wolfe's writing that inspired Jack Kerouac to start writing. Kerouac later abandoned Wolfe's romantic style to forge his own version of stream of consciousness chronicles. Now Kerouac is much better known. Such are the vagaries of literary fashion.

Incidentally, I mean Thomas Wolfe who is often considered one of America's great mid-century writers, not Tom Wolfe the journalist known for Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and Bonfire of the Vanities.

I never read Thomas Wolfe's second book Of Time and the River, but that did not stop its title from dancing into my mind this morning as I was musing about how quickly the summer streamed by-- and how quickly the years have streamed by.

This is a recurring topic of late. And it's perfectly natural that as one ages, one sits by the river and contemplates the flow of time.

Now it's autumn already. It's 2011 already. I am 70 already. Protesters are occupying Wall Street, the president of Brazil postponed (hopefully forever) flooding a huge swatch of the Amazon rainforest and we are in the midst of gigantic global, political and economic changes. These are the times we live in.

So of course it is a perfect time for an ancient Japanese poem about autumn.

The hanging raindrops
have not dried from the needles
of the fir forest
before the evening mist
of autumn rises.
--the monk Jakuren

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