Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Ravages of Time: Taking Things at Face Value

When my daughter Sophia and I got together for brunch to celebrate my 70th birthday, she gave me a birthday card which bore this image of an old native American woman.
"Isn't she beautiful?" Sophia asked as I gazed at the photo. "Yes, she is," I replied. I certainly am very glad I have a daughter who has a capacity not only to see beauty in a diverse way but also to appreciate the beauty of the aged. The beauty of the woman in the photo has much to do with her innate dignity, her character and the life she lived, which from the looks of her eyes, had its share of sorrow. Her face is not what most people would call beautiful, affected as many of us are by commercialized, homogenized ideas of beauty. Her beauty points up the ravages of time, how life imprints itself on us, on our faces and bodies. It invites an exploration of what's more than skin deep. The photo was taken by Milton Rogovin,well-known as a social documentary photographer.
Rogovin passed away in January 2011 at 101 years of age. He took wonderful photos of minorities and poor, overlooked people--including native Americans, Mexicans, Chileans, working class people in Buffalo, NY, miners in Appalachia, Scotland and France--and more. His work over decades illuminates social issues and the common struggle of the working poor. Beautiful work. Well worth contemplating.

I posted this photo of the beautiful 82-year old British model Daphne Selfe on Facebook the other day. Selfe is in high demand these days. Her career was so-so until she hit her 70s. Then she appeared in Red or Dead, a show put on by London Fashion Week, and it's been uphill for her career ever since. She claims her long grey hair is the secret behind it, but I think her cheekbones and eyes and lithe body are doing their share, too. Selfe does yoga to keep fit, eats large amounts of fruits, vegetables and fish, drinks plenty of water and says she doesn’t feel a day over 60. She has never had cosmetic surgery.

"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."

I celebrate her beauty, health and her late-life success. Of course, though each of us has unique, innate beauty, few of us were ever as "classically" beautiful as the lovely Daphne Selfe. The rest of us, women and men both, are challenged to come to terms with the ravages of time on our less than super-model faces and bodies. Older women are especially ridiculed, and older men have to bear the brunt of a great deal of scorn, too. Let's do what we can to expect and create a more generous definition of beauty, including the beauty of the aged. Please don't internalize these toxic prejudices about age being ugly. It's not good for the health of the body or soul.

Our culture applauds "active aging." Sometimes this lifestyle seems so hyped up I call it hyper-active aging. It's trendy to spotlight elders who are doing extraordinary work in their later lives, ignoring everyone else who don't fit these high-visibility standards. The overall presumption is--how amazing that these older people are still able to do this or that.

In this Sage's Play blog, I also spotlight exceptional elders, in the spirit of sharing wonderful models of aging. Do I sometimes seem like a cheerleader who focuses only on the positive aspects of aging and the creative, artistic, social and scientific accomplishments of elders, without ever stopping to mention the obvious?

The obvious is that our bodies are aging. We are mortal; we will die at some point. As Rain pointed out in a recent exchange of comments on this blog, we have to do the best with what we have. That's true at any time of life, and it is more obvious as we age. We have to pay more attention to diet, exercise and rest. We have to shepherd our energies each day. We may have to deal with illness or pain or loss. Age involves a fair amount of loss. On that level, growing old is not for sissies. There is a lot of demanding emotional and spiritual work that is part of the aging process. And it is all practice for "laying down one's mantle" as they say in gospel songs.

I've been a Buddhist for over 30 years, and my spiritual practice has included contemplating old age, sickness and death. Not popular subjects for many in our culture. To me, they seem like essential topics, especially as one ages.

Age is a time of life for going deeper, for stripping away, for letting go, for loving even more than ever, for sharing the bounty of what we've learned, for leaving a legacy. It's a profound territory, and it demands courage, creativity and trust. Solitude. Slowness. In the midst of my creative work, I make time for meditation, exercise, prayer rest and just doing-nothing. Here's to the blessing of living long. As Rain points out it is a mixed blessing. It's not all a bed of roses. Parts of aging are full of tribulation. And it's up to us to meet life open-hearted, to work our soul alchemy with whatever arises.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Wildflowers, creativity and wild wise elders

The wildflowers are in bloom here, even though it has been a remarkably chilly, wet spring. I found these beautiful blue flowers on a walk up in the watershed above Ashland about a week ago. Now if it would just warm up enough to make a visit to the swimming pool at the hot springs seem feasible....

The promo CD for our musical revue A New Wrinkle has been engaging us at Dave Scoggin's recording studio. With no musical education or training, I am out of my element. But that doesn't stop me from enjoying the whole experience as Laura Rich and Dave work together on creating the right sounds and feeling. Dave is using a synthesizer to create most of the instruments. We're bringing in a live violinist though, because even though a synthesizer can do a lot of wonderful things, it just can't reproduce the sound of a violin well at all. We will add the voices last. It's exciting that this project is progressing. Even though I wish it were done yesterday or even 6 months ago. My mother always used to tell me that patience is a virtue.

I gave a talk titled "Let's Re-Imagine Aging" at the Ashland Library yesterday, which was a rainy, chilly Sunday. I discussed our society's toxic stereotypes about aging, noting that ageism affects older adults both physically and psychologically. With so many demeaning and scornful images and stereotypes proliferating, some older adults appear to become apologetic as a way of life. Some in my audience yesterday seemed shocked when I compared this to the kind of shuffling apologetic behavior that characterized stereotyped portrayals of "blackies." Any type of prejudice results in its subjects developing feelings of inferiority. People internalize the prejudice, often unconsciously. Caricatures start to have a life of their own.

I can get pretty passionate about why ageism needs to be eradicated. It is such a blight on all of us, not just older people. And it keeps older adults from fulfilling their potential, holding them back on many levels.

Of course, I also spoke about age as a valuable stage of human development, discussed current research about the mature mind, the relationship between creativity and well-being, and the opportunity to continue to learn and grow and deepen as we age. The conversation after the talk was enthusiastic and ranged over a wide variety of topics. Older adults just do not have a lot of opportunity to talk together in this way. It was a very interesting couple of hours. I hope I did inspire and provoke some positive change. Afterwards, I had some tea with someone I've known for many years, though we have never spent any time together. It made me happy to hear about her life and get to know her a little better.

I read a wonderful article the other day in the New York Times about Bel Kaufman, author of Up the Down Staircase, a novel about the challenges and joys of teaching in New York City; the book remained on the New York Times bestseller list for 64 weeks. Ms. Kaufman, now 100, is an adjunct professor. She just taught a course at Hunter College on Jewish humor, which may be in her blood, since she is the granddaughter of the great Yiddish storyteller Sholem Aleichem. She likes dancing the mambo and the tango, and she seems to be surprised that people make such a fuss about her age, though she does acknowledge that she survived a lot.

Since I began writing this blog, I have featured a variety of wonderful elders, including dancer Anne Halprin, explorer Anthony Smith, yoga teacher Tao Porchon-Lynch, sculptor Vollis Simpson, poet Maya Angelou and track star Olga Kotelko, among others. All of them are at least 70 and some over 90. What do they have in common? Each of them is inspired. They have a sense of purpose. They are passionate, whether it is about writing poetry, dancing, sailing across the Atlantic on a raft, teaching, or making immense sculptures out of welded metal. (If you want to catch up on reading about these wonderful folks, check out past entries of this blog.)

My artist friend Betsy was telling me the other day that she thought I should write a blog about chaos. But today is not going to be the day for it. Sorry Betsy. Even though tomorrow is a full moon.

I do agree with Steve Martin when he says,

"Chaos in the midst of chaos isn't funny, but chaos in the midst of order is."

I like what Bob Dylan said, too.

"I accept chaos, I'm not sure whether it accepts me."

Happy full moon!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Elders in denial, passing for young...and meanwhile spring has come!

I've been enjoying my recent talks with chiropractor John Kalb who is about to publish a new book titled "Winning at Aging" next month. I will review the book when it is published. John is a wonderful man who has been part of the New Warrior community for years. It makes me very glad to know that men have the opportunity to participate in this kind of training, which is described as a process of modern male initiation and self examination. You can find out more at the ManKind Project.

In our last conversation, John told me that the New Warrior community uses the acronym EID (elder in denial) for men who have not accepted the truth that they have entered the elder phase of life.

Elder in denial. What an apt description. So many older adults continue to try to pass for young. I like to imagine what it would/will be like when most older people in our culture relax into the gathering of years, rather than battling the onset of age as many now do.

What does it mean to be an elder? The word has far more potency than the word senior, which has been tainted with a variety of disempowering connotations. Nice old people. Senior discounts. Senior programs. Senior housing. Keep the seniors in the box.

But elders are out of that box. To become a real elder is to assume a role of natural authority in one's community, a role that includes mentoring, teaching, visioning and leaving a meaningful legacy. An elder not only accepts his or her gathering of years, but embraces aging as a powerful part of life's journey.

Where are you placing yourself in that continuum? How are you sharing and visioning and mentoring these days? What kind of legacy are you creating? These are questions I ask myself often.

I'm still learning more lessons from my recent standing room only Sage's Play event, "A Celebration of Aging." There are usually lessons to learn and this was no exception. It was raggedy in ways. Things didn't always hang together. But in spite of that, overall it was uplifting and there were some truly shining moments. I am very happy that so many older people gathered to hear the pro-aging messages that we presented there with previews of some of the songs from A New Wrinkle and in the presentations others shared. The celebration inspired many audience members to look at themselves and the opportunities of aging. Check out the marvelous speech that Dr. Rick Kirschner gave that night at his Art of Change blog.

And as far as I'm concerned, it was a great way to celebrate becoming 70. A real love-in of many dear old friends and some brand new ones, too.

Hey, what about comedienne Betty White? The New York Times just ran a wonderful article on her life and career as an actress. Now in her 80s, she is a wonderful example of why passion, purpose, motivation and mission continues to be important as we age.

Of course, there are as many ways to express purpose, passion, vision, lovingkindness, creativity and motivation as there are humans to embody them. It doesn't always take the form of outer work or display. Some people's elderhood unfolds through quietude, solitary contemplation and stillness. I often feature older adults whose lives and work involves expressive, active engagement and creativity, and I believe it's important to acknowledge the more inward aspects of aging, and the value of stillness, life review and immersion in the inner life.

Meanwhile, spring is springing forth. At last. Ahhh....

P.S.--if you would like to connect with ongoing Sage's Play news and events, please visit our Sage's Play website and sign up for our monthly newsletter. For those of you in the southern Oregon region, I am giving a free talk at the Ashland Library on Sunday May 15th at 2PM. It is titled "Let's Re-Imagine Aging" and it will include a discussion after the talk.