Monday, November 21, 2011

The Poetics of Aging

"As a white candle in a holy place so is the beauty of an aged face."

---the Irish poet Joseph Campbell

The Poetics of Aging conference had already been going on for 2 days when I arrived at the Unitarian Universalist Church in San Francisco where it was being held. Described as "a gathering to celebrate elderhood and value aging as the basis for depth and wisdom," the conference featured some wonderful older artists, authors, psychologists and pioneers in the field of aging.

I missed some of the heavy hitters who were scheduled during the first two days. I was sad to have missed dancer/choreographer Anna Halprin's performance of The Courtesan and the Crone. I missed poet Judy Grahn's reading and the reading of old friend/poet Julie Rogers and her new husband David Meltzer, a well-known poet in the Beat school. I missed Marion Rosen, who developed the Rosen Method of bodywork. Halprin remains a vivid presence in her 80s and Rosen is still going strong in her 90s.

I've been to some big aging conferences, but the mood of those conferences never engaged me the way that The Poetics of Aging did, right from the start. I think it is because of the sensibilities and vision of Dr. Nader Shabahangi.
Dr. Shabahangi is a psychotherapist and the CEO of AgeSong, an organization that operates several residential centers for elders as well as a training institute. AgeSong was the main sponsor of the conference.

I think that if I share a few excerpts from a recent interview with him at the SevenPonds blog you'll understand more about why I was so drawn to The Poetics of Aging, which certainly was a vivid expression of Dr. Shabahangi's philosophy and work.

In the interview, Dr. Shabahangi said, "When I got thrown into the world of assisted living in my mid-30s, I thought, this can’t be true; how is it possible that you have these beautiful, deep elders, tucked away, not part of society? I looked around and saw very few elders on the street, mingling with young people. I have lived in Italy, where you can go to any park and see people of all ages, but here I did not see any of that. I would tell elders, you have all this experience and knowledge; why are you tucked away? Often, I would hear, oh, I’m useless, I have no purpose. This came to me as a shock."

I am pro-aging. I want to age because the more I age or mature, the better of a human being I become."
--Dr. Nader Shabahangi

"I was raised by my grandparents," he continued. "From early on, the highlight of my day was to sit on my grandfather or grandmother’s lap and have them tell me stories about their lives. Just to look at my grandfather’s 70- or 80-year-old face and think, wow, look at how much this person has lived. So from childhood, I had this incredible appreciation and love for elders," he said.

I was very happy to learn of the work of Dr. Shabahangi, whose perspectives on aging are very much like my own. May his wonderful work continue to flourish and may his positive influence expand. What a beautiful person from the inside out.

It was marvelous to have the opportunity to sing in the church's sanctuary with its high, vaulted ceilings and beautiful stained glass windows. That architecture drew me to give voice to some wordless singing and it resonated beautifully in the space. I also rocked the place with Baba Yaga's Raga, shared a little from my book Songs of the Inner Life and talked about why I am so engaged with moving the musical revue A New Wrinkle out into the world. I had two other opportunities to share songs from the revue at the conference. Wearing the Baba Yaga wig, I played and sang along with songs from our new preview CD. It was a terrific experience on many levels. I enjoyed performing there and learned quite a bit by noticing the ways various people present.

John Gray was one speaker. Author of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus and other Mars/Venus books, he has been on the lecture circuit for years. He was a skillful, engaging speaker. Even though I agree with much of what he describes about the differences between men and women, the man just pushed my buttons. Bless his heart. I just don't see that the role of woman can be confined to sitting in the well-feathered nest waiting expectantly for her shining hero to return. Be that as it may. Not my cup of tea.

At the end of the first day, I joined my old friend Carolyn Myers and her theatrical colleague Terry Joan Baum, who had just run for mayor of SF on the Green Party ticket. We attended a retrospective celebration of the work of Krissy Keeler, founder of Wallflower Order and Dance Brigade. This was an absolutely astonishing event, far beyond easy description. I count it as one of the most outstanding artistic experiences of my life, period. What a fervent, amazingly varied, provocative artist Krissy Keeler is.

I enjoyed all the speakers at the conference, especially one cluster of presentations by Norm Amundson on metaphor, imagination and creativity really engaged my interest. I loved the improv comedy troupe from Stagebridge Theater and storytelling by Bob Kanegis and others, and the jazz singing by Faith Winthrop, who was celebrating her 80th birthday that day.

It was great to hear about the work of Barry and Debbie Barkan who have created warm and innovative ways of working with elders through Live Oak Institute in Berkeley. (I shared a house with Debbie at the time when she met Barry and haven't seen either of them since then, so it was wonderful to learn about how they have used the past 30 plus years.)

All in all, I think the Poetics of Aging conference was an auspicious beginning. It brought a wide variety of people together in order to contemplate aging in very fresh ways. I certainly hope that this conference is the first of many. I have so many ideas about what could enrich and expand the next gathering.

I was glad to spend a couple of days in the midst of the tribe of pro-aging elders. It was rejuvenating, stimulating, delightful.

The ride back up to southern Oregon was wonderful, too. We stopped in Mt. Shasta where the bright snowy mountain shone in the sun. We breathed in the fresh mountain air and collected some delicious water from the headwaters pool.

It's amazing how much can change while you are somewhere else for a couple of days. When I got home, I saw that all the leaves had fallen from the trees in wonderful deshabille, as this poetic image of Lithia Park by Graham Lewis shows.

That's the news from this cottage. Hope your Thanksgiving holiday is full of love and joy.

I am thankful for many things. For poetry. For awareness. For this strong wind that blows the trees around my house tonight.

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