Monday, August 17, 2009

Character and What's Revealed Over Time

I took a picture of this 20 foot tall boulder by the edge of the sea two weeks ago. It has a lot of character. Strata. Pattern. Complexity. Beauty. Age. How old? How long has it been standing there at the edge of the Pacific? I have no idea, but I do know how happy I am to see it there.

Everything in nature has character of course. It's all a beautiful panoply--ferns, massive geologic formations, lakes, oak groves, elephants, whales, foxes, beetles--each living thing has its own distinctive, marvelous qualities.

In human beings, character is usually something that develops over time. Though character development in psychology has largely focused on children. Sometimes young children appear who seem wise beyond their years, but on the whole, it takes decades for human character to develop fully or mature.

"We become characteristic of who we are simply by lasting," James Hillman notes in his book A Force of Character and the Lasting Life, which I mentioned in my last post. I am re-reading the book. When I read what Hillman writes I think of how many friends have said to me, "Now I feel comfortable with myself." As they age, they relax and settle into being themselves more fully. In the process, they embody and share their distinctive qualities more easily. Their character--what has accumulated and been learned over time-- becomes easier to see and know.

"What ages is not merely your functions and organs," Hillman writes, "but the whole of your nature, that particular person you have come to be and already were years ago. Character has been forming your face, your habits, your friendships, your peculiarities, the level of your ambition with its career and its faults. Character influences the way you give and receive; it affects your loves and your children..."

What is revealed over time? What is most deeply important? What is unfinished and wants to be released? What is unfinished and wants to be completed? What healing, reconciliation and life repair cries out for attention? What wants to be shared? These are some of the questions I ask myself these days as I sail towards 70. I have character, and sometimes I am a character, too, less confined by social convention and expectations than I was in earlier decades. This is relaxing. There's still plenty of work to do. My character development is incomplete. The alchemical process continues.

I've always been an artist and it has taken many forms over the years--journalism, environmental activism, experimental music, healing work, theater, (last but never least) poetry. Since January, I've been working on a musical on aging titled A New Wrinkle. I probably could have finished it sooner, if I had ever written a play before. But I never have written a play. I have done some one-woman shows, but that is another creature entirely. So writing a play has been quite a learning process. And without help, especially the help of my playwright friend Carolyn and the help of good lady Hilary, a woman with highly developed literary sensitivities, I never could have gotten to the place where I am, which is close to being finished with a good first draft. That includes the lyrics to 7 wonderful songs. I am working with a marvelous composer on the music. It is a very exciting project.

Couple of weeks ago I went to a playwrights meeting at the local library. When we were introducing ourselves I shared that I was writing a musical on aging. One man (far more obvious in his reaction no doubt) laughed out loud. And let's face it, it is funny. A musical on aging. Most people think aging is pretty awful, laughable, ridiculous. I can't say that's why the guy laughed at me, but I can say that's one reason why I am writing this play.

It is time for the emergence of a new paradigm of aging and old age, with millions of people aging, living longer and staying healthier.

Have a wonderful end of summer. My next blog post will be in September.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Reclaiming the Word OLD

An old forest is different from a young forest. It is fuller, deeper, more complex. When we enter an old forest, we feel nourished, rejuvenated, inspired. It took a long time for that forest to mature to the point where we feel embraced so fully by it. That's oldness.

The mysterious winding paths of very old cities are satisfying to us in ways that new cities cannot be. We find in old manuscripts and statues, old brandy and old gardens a kind of pleasure and sustenance particular to oldness.

Here's something strange: an ancient redwood forest is wonderful, yet an old person is laughable. Nobody wants to be called OLD. The word OLD when used to describe an older person is as genuine a dirty word as any 4 letter word, even though OLD has only 3 letters.

Yesterday I was imagining what it would be like to create a T shirt that simply said OLD and wear it around town. After I thought about it for awhile, it seemed that the whole thing would work better as a piece of performance art, with a troupe of kindred spirits and a bit of fun choreography. I smile to imagine this happening in cities all over the country. It's quite possible and it would be quite wonderful to see that flower.

In his marvelous book The Force of Character and the Lasting Life, psychologist/scholar James Hillman takes a look at the word OLD and our ideas about oldness and old people. I love Hillman's writing and his keen and poetic mind; I highly recommend this book, which will provoke and inspire you to explore aging in new ways.

"Since 'words do not live in dictionaries; they live in the mind', as Virginia Woolf put it, the old mind is lowered by the lowering of "old" to its present undesirable condition: old maid, old fashioned, old guard, old boys, old witch, old fogey, old fart," Hillman writes.

The word old, he points out, is itself a very old word, deriving from an Indo-European root that means "to nourish." Oldness nourishes. We know that. As older people, we know the ways in which an old forest is different from a young forest.

It seems to me a very good idea to reclaim the word OLD. Personally I don't want to be describing myself as 70 years young, if I have the fortune to live to 70. Which of course I hope to do. I was young already. Why would I want to settle for being called 70 years young, the description of an earlier stage of life, which does not take into account everything I have thrown into the alchemical retort over the years?

When did you know you were old? one of my friends asked me the other day. It reminded me of how for many years I was uncomfortable about being a woman in a male-oriented culture. I wanted to be masculine, which I identified with successful. So I am quite familiar with the sense of not being the highly accepted one. It was a struggle to find and accept myself, to understand the unique and valuable qualities of being a woman, a particular woman, and to let go of trying to be one of the guys. I did that and at this point I don't need to do it again, in terms of trying to imitate youth. I was young already. Young people have not yet experienced being old. They still have that to live into.

It's only recently I feel comfortable with being old. I knew I was old when I felt comfortable with it. I acknowledge and value where I am now. I'm an activist of OLD these days. I'm coming from the OLD days, singing the OLD songs. Reclaiming OLD.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Waters of Memory, the Sky of Dreams

When I was in my mid 50s, the past, which had never much interested me before, became fascinating. I spent almost a year reading and musing about the ancient Silk Road and the oasis cities that flourished there so briefly before being buried by the sands. Thinking of those lost cities and the civilizations they contained was a kind of doorway that spoke to me piercingly of impermanence, and also led me to aspects of my own psyche that up until then had been buried in the rushing torrents of life.

It's sometimes said that with age, qualities of reflection naturally arise. This has been true for me. Yes, I continue to show up in the outer world. I do the laundry, work, pray, cook good food, enjoy my friends, music, dancing, plunging into nature and the elements just as I’ve done for years. Yet as time passes, I find myself “living in the past” something that has been widely vilified as a sign of elder dottiness, but which I find to be a worthy task. What have I lived through and what is the meaning of the patterns, impulses, events and people that have filled my life? We live as the Christian mystic Jacob Boehme pointed out in two worlds. The material and the immaterial.

And as one grows older, it is possible that one may live more in the immaterial world--In the past, in the imagination, in prayer, meditation, spirit. Though I may be conjuring much consternation perhaps by putting all those things together. It works for me. If it does not work for you, adjust as you will to valences your psyche finds harmonious.

Every stage of life has its peculiar dreams. So during my mid 50s I found myself dreaming of a big white marble room with tall, narrow windows. The room contained a long table with a globe on it, ancient manuscripts their pages edged with gold, and some instruments and substances I associate with alchemy. In that room, I was a woman whose forehead shone with light. I was my own beacon.

In what we think of as the ordinary world, one doesn’t describe oneself this way. That is a bit of a problem with the ordinary world, because all of us have mythic, archetypal, immaterial qualities and when we ignore those, we are diminished.

From the beautiful white marble room, a heavy wooden door opened out to a narrow hallway. I had to take a lantern with me. The hallway curved, its stairs descending deep into the earth. The air was old and dry. I arrived at a doorway covered with heavy, deep red brocade cloth, gently pulled the cloth aside and looked into the small room that appeared before me, which was illuminated by votive candles set on a ledge that ran along its walls. Its ceiling was low, its dark walls were hewn from black rock. Three icons hung on the walls-- one of Jesus, one of the Black Madonna, and one of St. Michael. In the candlelight, their golden halos blazed out from the dark backgrounds of the paintings.

I saw an ornate, jewel-encrusted coffin in which lay an old King, strong and undecayed. His deep red robe was embroidered with flowers sewn of golden threads. His beautiful golden crown was set with rubies and emeralds. His Queen lay beside him like a still flower. She had a perfume, not of death, but of the ineffable.

Was it this dream that led me to begin excavating the archeological layers and the brightly lit memories that comprise the way stations of my life experience? I do not rightly remember if it was. But it was around that time that I started reflecting on and writing about my life in an effort to understand, reconcile and let go.

“I come to the fields and spacious palaces of memory, where are the treasures of innumerable images, brought into it from things of all sorts perceived by the senses,” as St. Augustine wrote in his Confessions. It takes both fierce focus and soft trust to enter the territory of the soul with both eyes wide open, to describe the seasons and stations of the inner journey. It is a task and opportunity that can be taken up in the elder years, if one is drawn to do it.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Don't Let Old Age Catch Up to You!

I'm not telling you anything new when I say that modern industrial culture is obsessed with vigor, youth, production and consumption. When people are not productive or consuming, vigorous or young, they no longer fit into what's valued.

That's why I saw an ad the other day (I forgot to note what it was advertising or where I saw it) which depicted a forlorn old woman under the headline, "Don't Let Old Age Catch Up with You." Because I am a curious woman, I soon found myself on Amazon perusing descriptions of two books I have no intention whatsoever of reading. One was titled "How Not to Act Old" and the other "How Not to Look Old."

Imagine living in a culture where people wore white wigs in order to look older and more authoritative. Forget the wigs even. A culture where people were reading books How to Look Older and How to Act Older. With millions of people aging, a change in how we regard age is inevitable.

Sometimes I wonder whether "active aging" touted by retirement communities and the aging network is just an extension of our obsession with youth and vigor, our disinterest in the inner life and our unwillingness to consider death. If older people are pushing themselves to keep busy in order not to let old age catch up with them, I would say yes, it is just another kind of shallowness, a frenzied avoidance of some of the deeper aspects of life's tapestry.

So many people are living longer and staying healthier. Imagine the positive impact of millions of older adults who choose to mature altruistically, harvesting their accumulated life experience and setting out a feast to share with others. Older adults who recognize the power of their numbers and the value of their accumulated experience for the common good. This is what I visualize and imagine. Not old people running from age and death, old people filling up their days with distracting activities or old people withdrawing as if they are useless or already gone, but millions of old people like a wave of peace--loving, caring, enjoying and contributing to the welfare of others as their review their own lives, forgive, heal and let go into the bigger picture.

Photo by Rick Z/Flickr