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!


  1. I see your point but also see that some of the problems with ageism is that there is truth to it. There is not to being a black as naturally leading to this or that quality.

    With aging, we will lose abilities. We likely will have more health problems, be less apt to be able to eat this or that. Our memories do change. It's just a fact of a body that is wearing out. Naturally it's different for different people; so you have those examples you gave of those who have aged with seemingly none of that but when people want to say it's wrong to see old age as a certain way, I say that it will be that pretty much for most people and trying to get people to pretend they do not see what they see, it's not a logical approach to it.

    More to me it's accept it's what happens but there are compensations as you mentioned. Be understanding of the weaknesses you see in the elderly as most of us will be there too someday.

    With the black experience in America, we won't be there. It's a different issue regarding discrimination like the guy who just said black women aren't as attractive as a race. That should offend us all. Its a bias that is not only ignorant and offensive but a lie and when it comes for a supposedly educated person regarding a study, it's even worse.

    I understand what you are trying to get people to do which is not limit themselves by expectations but expecting old age to be like any other age is likely to end up a disappointment for most people who are lucky enough to get there. It's accepting what is and making the most of it even when that means limitations that I think makes for the most happiness in being elderly from my observations of the elderly in my own family.

  2. Hi Rain, I agree with what you are saying about the losses and changes that may occur in aging. I do tend to focus in my blogs and creative aging work on the positive aspects and opportunities, because there is so much social focus on the losses and assumptions about older adults that are terribly limiting. It's a different experience from either racism or sexism, certainly, but there are parallels, too. I am shocked by how few older adults take ageism seriously, how little it enters their awareness.

  3. The problem with ageism is it's a mix. There is the reality that aging does take away from what someone was. So, like in a recent post you had on facebook, you have these women who were totally gorgeous when young and still are when old; but how realistic is that goal for the average woman? Aging does take away and we expect help because of it through Medicare, SS and pensions; but then on the other hand, we want to be treated as we always were as though aging wasn't doing anything.

    My concern with the totally positive view of it is that it makes many feel it is what it should be for everybody and it isn't. Some is genetic luck; some environment and some willpower. It's a mix. I like to see the positive side but also feel there is a negative side and if we haven't had much of it yet in early 70s or late 60s, it's coming. For those who will live to be 100, it might not come until their 80s but for others it starts much earlier and it's not all about expectations. That's all I was trying to say.

  4. Yes I agree that it's a mix and I am going to talk about that more. Because I have been a Buddhist for over 30 years, I've spent a lot of time doing one of the traditional meditations on old age, sickness and death, which is the part of aging that most people are terrified of. So Rain, watch for more about the losses and adjustments that come with age in future posts from me. Thank you for your comments. I am not a relentlessly cheerful person, and do recognize the truth of what you are pointing out.

  5. I think there is much to be said for focusing on the positive aspects of aging, especially if we consider the power of the psyche. I think doing so as you do does not deny the negatives. Frankly, I believe there are negatives at all ages -- they're just different.