Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Being at Home

“I long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever I find myself.”--Maya Angelou

I am enjoying my new shared household and my housemate Louise. I liked living alone for 11 years, and I understand why sometimes elders prefer to continue living by themselves. But right now, this makes more sense to me. I've been here for just over a week and I feel very much at home. I'm glad I made the move.

The other day, I went to visit a very dear friend whom I've known for over 30 years. When we were younger, she swept through town in long capes, her wildly curling red hair framing a beautiful face with ivory skin. "My high priestess period," she laughs. Now we both have children nearing 50. Recently, after a number of falls, she moved into an assisted living facility. She navigates using a walker, joking that without it her gait resembles that of Frankenstein.

I have always loved her profound intuition, keen powers of observation, her humor, marvelous poetic speech and her intellectual and spiritual curiosity. None of that has left her. She's still as much the liminal woman as she ever was. It's just that her body is declining. She has undiagnosed neurological problems and high blood pressure.

Her new living situation, she tells me as we head to the dining room, is a great spiritual practice. "This is where I am now," she says. "I'm glad I have such an appetite for experience." She is interested in everyone. "Some of the people here don't have all their lights on," she confides. Indeed it seems that the description applies to quite a few of them. I notice how starkly some people's emotional habits stand out in that environment. There's a woman who makes a strange whistling sound to draw attention to herself, a loud narcissist who tries to commandeer the conversation, a genial man with only short term memory who presents a cheerful attitude, a gentle, youngish woman disabled by an accident, whose kindness radiates out to others, and many others I had not enough time to notice in my relatively brief visit. The place itself was pleasant and friendly, as were the staff members I saw. Facilities for older adults are often not this good, I know.

My friend has made herself at home there, taking her current situation and condition as a voyage of discovery and as preparation for dying. I am touched by her vividness and the way she is resting in her experience. Being with her in her changed physical condition gives me a great deal to contemplate.

What does it mean to be at home? I am thinking about our earthly homes--the home as an outer dwelling. I love this kind of home. Like the photo I chose for this post. The old farmhouse, the flowers, the feeling of being in a dear, beautiful place. I love architecture and old buildings. The first book I received in the mailbox at my new place was Behind Adobe Walls, a look at the beautiful homes and gardens of Taos and Santa Fe, New Mexico.

The body is another kind of architecture, another kind of earthly home. I love my body, even as it softens and ages. I rely upon it. Then there's mind and emotions, the patterns of my habitual thoughts and feelings-- I nest in them, feeling at home in myself. But that kind of nesting, that at-homeness is double-edged and deceptive. How relative and evanescent all these expressions of the earthly home are. What an astounding and unavoidable mystery--how we come from the intangible realms and return again to them.

And voila--I'm contemplating death again. I'm a Buddhist. Been one for over 30 years. Buddhist practice emphasizes contemplating death which is considered the major life passage to prepare for. So I've been contemplating death for awhile now. It's a good practice, a necessary one in my mind. And part of that work is loosening and letting go of the fixation on the solidity and permanence of this body and this life.

Visiting my friend has put an edge on these contemplations. I'm thinking of how temporary a way station the body is, how I will have to take leave of my entire life and the world I have created over decades, how thoroughly I have made myself at home in it. I am at home and I will have to make my exit, releasing it all. What irony, finally to feel so at home being myself, being in a body and being in this world, flawed as it is. But I wouldn't trade this acceptance and relaxation. It seems to be the right ground for releasing into the intangible.

Meanwhile, here in this body, in this new shared dwelling on a rainy evening in spring, I celebrate being at home. And I am reflecting on how the essence of everything as light, right now. Nowhere to go, nothing to do.

I am reminded of this Kabir poem:

"I laugh when I hear that the fish in the water is thirsty.

You don't grasp the fact that
what is most alive of all

is inside your own house; and so you walk from one holy city to the next
with a confused look!

Kabir will tell you the truth:
go wherever you like, to Calcutta or Tibet;
if you can't find where your soul is hidden,
for you the world will never be real!"

While on the subject of being at home, I wanted to share this documentary I found the other day which spotlights St. John's on the Lake in Milwaukee, Wisconsin,a retirement community that includes independent living, assisted living and nursing home. The film documents St. John's efforts to transform from a medical model to a social one that focuses on the residents' individual choice and personhood, creating a home-like rather than hospital-like environment. The documentary appeared on PBS. You can view clips at AlmostHome I especially recommend the clip Culture Change.

Of course, this kind of culture change is wonderful, and hopefully we will see a lot more of it. Most older adults remain independent,living in their own homes, but when we find ourselves in a retirement community, assisted living, or nursing home, I know we want it to be like home. We want to retain our personhood, our dignity, the kind of self-efficacy and well-being that comes from being able to make our own choices. The Eden Alternative, which is the work of Dr. Bill Thompson, is another avenue to culture change in institutional living for older adults. These pioneering efforts have not yet reached the tipping point. But I hope that they continue to exert their positive influence on the way elders are housed when they live in "retirement communities" until our present medical model gives way to a person-centered approach.

I used to joke that I just wanted to live in a teepee in the woods when I became really old. That's still my fantasy. Like Goatman, the odiferous old fellow who lived in a cabin in the Colestine Valley up the road from Tashi Choling. I would take more baths than he did. But living the way he did in the midst of the meadows and mountains seems pretty good to me.

Even though I have my preferences, I wonder how much control we have. Sure I want to be one of those elders who remain healthy until the last few months of life. Most elders do remain healthy until the last few months of life (so don't believe the propaganda of the Decline Model, which makes us believe that elders are all sick and dependent). And maybe I will be that fortunate. But I could need more support. If I do have to move into some kind of facility as my dear friend has, I want to be treated with respect and caring, the way one treats a real human being. Don't you want that, too?

Photo by Bob Travis via Flickr

Saturday, March 20, 2010

First Day of Spring

Take 9 days of cold/flu sickness and combine it with moving from one house to another. No thanks. Anyone knows that when you put those two ingredients together it spells deep weariness. Sorry lady, this is what we've giving you. A somewhat rough passage. And that about describes my last 9 days. But I came through it--hallelujah.

I am grateful for the help of some dear friends and taking rests when my body informed me that it simply would not repeat absolutely would not allow me to unpack another box. Lie down please, my body urged me, or wouldn't you like to take a bath or have some tea? The body has its own wisdom, as we know.

So this morning, I woke up in my new peach colored bedroom feeling thankful and happy. Today is the first day of spring, my cold/flu is finally departing. The boxes are all unpacked and recycled. I am pretty nicely settled into my elder house share.

Today I will spend most of the day at Tashi Choling, the Tibetan Buddhist retreat center I helped to found over 30 years ago. ( if you want more info) Gathering with my spiritual community to meditate and pray is my idea of a truly wonderful day. After we practice, we'll have some lunch and then a group of us will put together our spring newsletter for mailing. I'm looking forward to being out there in the mountain valley in the beautiful temple after these past 9 days of travail.

I hope that your celebration of the first day of spring brings you refreshment, too.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Originality and Origins

"Be daring, be different, be impractical, be anything that will assert integrity of purpose and imaginative vision against the play-it-safers, the creatures of the commonplace, the slaves of the ordinary."--Sir Cecil Beaton

This is a quote I certainly can relate to and a sentiment and way of life I have believed in for many years.

Lately, I found myself thinking again about originality. Those contemplations soon led me back to memories of my 17th year, when I resolutely presented myself as a non-conformist to my high school classmates. I wore black, refused to salute the flag and espoused bohemian sentiments like those expressed above by Sir Cecil Beaton. I must have been quite convincing, because many of my peers believed I would be honored as the class valedictorian. They were very surprised when my scholastic average placed me modestly right in the midst of everyone.

My classmates connected my originality with studiousness. But my non-conformist posture had nothing to do with hitting the books, even though I loved reading and learned more from my own studies than from the ordained curriculum, such as it was. Which was often quite irrelevant and uninteresting. With non-conformity, I was taking a stance in favor of independent thinking/learning and the value of the life of the imagination. In that way, I have not changed much.

I think about originality, the pursuit of which is something so peculiar to Western culture. "Insist upon yourself. Be original," Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote. People are naturally original, left to their own devices. But are we left to our own devices? I mean the devices of imagination, leisure, creative expression, contemplation, in fulfillment of what is original in us.

"Originality consists in returning to the origin," the architect Antonio Gaudi once said. After all these years, I begin to experience that more fully. As Gaudi explained, originality is returning through one's resources to the simplicity of earlier solutions.

Earlier solutions, the glints of which were there all along from the very beginning. Perhaps much earlier, out in the timeless, free of the constrictions of logic and history and education.

At this age, I am free to be the woman I have become. I no longer struggle to be original or repress my originality. I am just being myself, natural and easy. No big deal really.

Given all that, there is still plenty of reason to refine and learn. Which brings me back to You Tube-- my new artistic medium. Now I would like to get really sophisticated and creative with You Tube-- and I certainly am in my imagination. Yet my limited ability with the darling little Flip Cam and editing protocols make my brief productions extremely naif--translate primitive.

In Artist Conference Network, a coaching community I belong to, this would be noted as a "story." And it is a story. Fact is, I love doing the funny homemade Flip Cam clips, and if I keep at it, I will learn more. Or I could magnetize a marvelous human being who loves what I am doing, has video skills and wants to do the darling Flip Cam clips him/herself. I am putting that on my list of things to womanifest.

Today I did a short interview with Laura Rich, the composer with whom I've been collaborating for months. It is #3 in the Sage's Play/A New Wrinkle series. I feel glad because I completed my three-month goal for Artist Conference Network to post 3 video clips on You Tube! The latest clip doesn't seem to be posted yet, but it will be soon. (I can't attach a link in other words, but you can show your curiosity by searching for it! Or not, depending on your inclination of course.)

What are you up to these days? What is inspiring and challenging you?

Sunday, March 7, 2010

News on Creative Aging, Older Artists and Re-invention

I thought I would share a few of the things that I've read or seen on creative aging recently. The New York Times ran an article on dancer/choreographer Twyla Tharp, 68. The article talks about Tharp's career, her successes, failures and latest works.

Another current New York Times article reports on the large number of people over 55 who are starting new businesses, which is certainly a form of creativity.Starting New Businesses at 55 or Older Older adults are starting their own businesses at a great rate, partly because of the economy, which makes it difficult for them to find "jobs" and partly because they want to stay engaged with new adventures.

Here's another link I wanted to share with you. It's a video clip from US News on the value of creativity for health and wellness in the later years. It includes an interview with the late Dr. Gene Cohen, who pioneered the field of creative aging with his marvelous work.
US News Article

Perhaps you are tired of clicking on links by now. Are you? I enjoy it myself, but not everybody does. I read a great article on creative aging in the November-December issue of Aging Today. It's by Gay Hanna, executive director of the National Center for Creative Aging. I am not going to put a link to it, but you can easily find it if you are fired up to read it.

I am a real fan of slowness--spaciousness, leisureliness, enjoying things in the moment and connecting fully rather than rushing onto the next whatever. I was delighted to find a great book about it-- Slow is Beautiful: New Visions of Community, Leisure and Joie de Vivre by Cecile Andrews. It's quite a marvelous exposition on how happiness and slowness are connected. I will probably talk about it further in another post once I've finished reading it.

The photo in this post is of a Cuban dancer. I have a collection of images of older people from our own and various other countries who are engaged in various kinds of creative expression. They will make their way onto these posts as time goes on.

I am getting ready to do more video clips for You Tube, and I am packing, packing packing for my upcoming move. Today I am having a friend over for lunch, then attending a concert of the Rogue Valley Chorale where my friend and collaborator Laura Rich will sing a solo from Guys and Dolls. That's my news of the day here.

Enjoy the emergence of spring with your own fervent dances, in your own unique style. Be yourself, everyone else is taken, as my friend Cache likes to say.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Boredom, Curiosity and You Tube as an Art Medium

First we must discuss the photographic image, which is of Los Banos de Dona Maria de Padilla, or the "Baths of Lady María de Padilla" -- rainwater tanks beneath the Patio del Crucero in Seville. Of course there is a story-- and it's not one I like very much, especially compared to the architecture itself. Let's face it. Architecture is much more reliable in many ways than are the vagaries of human life.

Pedro the Cruel fell for María de Padilla and had her husband killed. That's how the story goes. María resisted Pedro's advances and poured boiling oil over her face to disfigure herself to stop Pedro's pursuit. She became a nun and moved to a convent afterwards. Meanwhile, in some way whose logic is hard to trace, this gorgeous rainwater collecting place was created and given her name. Sigh. Such sad lives. Such marvelous architecture.

Moving on, I read an article in the San Francisco paper recently that reported how being bored could be bad for your health. Duh. The more bored you are, the more likely you are to die early, it stated. Bored people tend to cultivate unhealthy habits like smoking, drinking or eating too much and not exercising. One researcher noted that boredom is linked to anger suppression. And that reminded me of a quote from theologian Paul Tillich, "Boredom is rage spread thin." Hmmm.

There's another quote about boredom that is attributed to someone named Ellen Parr, a person one cannot find any information on whatsoever. To me this quote sounds like something Dorothy Parker would say, though there's no evidence she ever said it. But who cares anyway? The quote is, "The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity." I have to agree with that.

According to Wikpedia, "Boredom is an emotional state experienced during periods lacking activity or when individuals are uninterested in the opportunities surrounding them." Which sounds depressing. I've had my bouts with boredom over the years, as many of us have. These days though, curiosity has the upper hand. Where are you on the spectrum at the moment?

I am curious about many things, even though they sometimes scare me. I mean, things I never did before? I have a reaction to that sometimes. Not always, but well-- fairly often. I wish I could assert that I just slide into new experiences with ease and spontaneous bliss, but it doesn't always happen that way. Like You Tube. I thought, oh shuckydarn. Another learning curve. Can I do it? And you know this type of stuff is basically silly especially compared to being lost in the midst of vast space without a clue or a track of breadcrumbs in sight. So I forged ahead and made a couple of You Tube clips, destined to be a whole series of clips which will hopefully be varied and fun.

Maybe not fun in the same way as those extreme shepherds who put LED lights on their sheep and did various patterns with them out on the hills (check out Baa Studs) but fun--and extreme--in ways yet to be defined. So what I can say is this: it is good to begin. It is good to get familiar with the new artistic medium called You Tube. And it is good to imagine really relaxing and letting loose with it. That's one thing I'm doing right now. Stay tuned for further adventures. Meanwhile here are the first two clips.

#1 includes a fragment of Barbie the Doll singing Passing for Young
Clip #1

#2 includes a fragment of Baba Yaga's Raga
Clip #2

YaY! Hope you are enjoying the natural creativity of what is.

Photo by Kamil Porembinski