Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Artist's Life: Gardens and Creative Expression

"Garden writing is often very tame, a real waste when you think how opinionated, inquisitive, irreverent and lascivious gardeners themselves tend to be. Nobody talks much about the muscular limbs, dark, swollen buds, strip-tease trees and unholy beauty that have made us all slaves of the Goddess Flora." ~Ketzel Levine's talkingplants.com

"I cultivate my garden, and my garden cultivates me." ~Robert Brault

This is my first spring in my new home. I found these Japanese quince flowering at the west side of the house yesterday and had to cut two branches to bring inside. The painting is by my daughter Sophia.

In the front garden, the roses and honeysuckle have begun sending their leaves out and the daffodils, hyacinths and tulips are in bloom. A few days ago, I had 3 yards of dark fragrant compost delivered and unloaded by a handsome, cheerful young man named Jesus. All in all, it seemed a good way to greet the spring.

The beautiful blue violet of these grape hyacinths is my favorite flower color. It's so ethereal.

I spent the winter months wrestling with masses of ivy roots and branches. That's still not completely over (perhaps it will never be done, like so many things in this life) but I did make a significant change in the garden beds there.

My daughter planted three fruit trees in the back gardens--a Gravenstein apple, a Tilton apricot and a Hungarian cherry.

Come along with me as I change the subject a little. I love this photograph I found of an old building surrounded by and crowned with green. It has the patina of oldness. Oldness is reassuring, especially in the example of old gardens, forests and cities, even ruins.

When I was younger, gardens were simply not of any interest. It was not until I began to study healing and Buddhism in my early 30s that the ecstatic beauty of gardens dawned on me.

I was writing articles then for the New Age Journal. The opportunity popped up to write a feature on master gardener Alan Chadwick by visiting his gardens in Round Valley, California.

Chadwick was a marvelous human being--dramatic, original, passionate and very attuned to the energies of nature and the garden. He was 72 when I met him. He was elegant--tall, lean and suntanned, full of energy-- with a personality that was both mesmerizing and cantankerous.

It was good to see someone that old--40 years older than me at the time--living so vividly. I still hold him as a powerful model of positive aging. Here's a photo of Chadwick when he was in his 60s.

What I remember most about my approach to those gardens Chadwick created was the palpable resonance of their energies. It was as if everything was singing, trembling and shimmering together--the flowers, vegetables and herbs, the trees and vines were an intricate composition of color, form and voices.

Hmm, I mused to myself, this is what a great garden is like-- uplifting and healing, a display of the innate holiness of nature.

If you are at all interested in either gardening or elders who are making a difference, I recommend the book Growing, Older by Joan Dye Gussow. Gussow also wrote This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader. At 81, she is considered the pioneer of the locovore movement. Her writing is humorous and inspiring. She's a terrific example of how life-enhancing it is to have a great passion.

"Hope is the lesson Nature keeps teaching me. She keeps producing. She recovers. She creates beauty out of loss. She forgives us our impatience and frustration and insistence that things turn out the way we planned. They don't. They turn out the way she planned. We need to be willing to sacrifice control to learn adaptation."

Joan Gussow, from Growing, Older: A Chronicle of Death, Life, and Vegetables

Well, I have to return to working on developing a video script and setting shots for a film clip on A New Wrinkle, our musical revue on aging. It's always astounding how much work it takes to create a well-crafted, brief piece of writing. Another form of weeding, pruning and transplanting. And it looks as if the sun is coming out and giving us a respite here between rainstorms.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

It Feels Good to Be Old at Heart

Last year a company called Circle K began an ad campaign for Geezerade in Canada. Geezerade was its usual icy slush under another name, in this case a catchy ageist name. The Geezerade campaign was so obviously ageist that it aroused a popular outcry on Facebook, where many irate older adults posted about their reaction to the ads.

As one person noted, “It’s discrimination. If there was a public ad that called young people punks and dimwits, no one would stand for it,” commented one poster. Another said, "I wrote to Circle K to express my disgust at this derogatory ad campaign. If they were to advocate any other ethnic or demographically defined group as a name for their awful product, the outrage would be biblical in proportion. But, denigrate seniors? Who will stand up and protest? I did."

And this is what is going to change pervasive ageist ads--people saying they will not stand for it and doing something about it, whether that something is picketing, writing a letter or organizing a collective protest.

Advertisers continue to use images and taglines that ridicule the appearance and qualities of older people. It's deeply ingrained in our culture. Often older women are the target. But it can change. It depends on each of us taking responsibility. Not numbing out but instead taking part in changing things by complaining, waxing eloquent, demonstrating--using the methods that have already been used and continue to be used to counter other toxic prejudices.

In a wonderful essay in Audacious Aging (a book I highly recommend), philosopher/teacher Ram Dass discusses how difficult aging is in our culture, especially for women, whose attempts to continue to pass for young "... often masks a profound despair." Ram Dass continues, " It is as if we are urged to fight, over and over again, a losing battle against time, pitting ourselves against natural laws."

Oh my dear. Pitting oneself against natural laws is such an awful lot of work. It's stressful-- and of course ineffective. I stopped coloring my hair years ago. My silver hair dates me, and I am okay about that. I even advertise my vintage. I am glad I've lived this long and I enjoy finding positive ways to embrace aging as a natural part of life. It feels more real and certainly more relaxed.

I've spent quite a bit of time musing about the fear of aging and the shame accompanies being old for many people. It's been a regular preoccupation of mine, especially over the past 2 years as I've developed the lyrics for A New Wrinkle. I wrote the song Passing for Young as a way of looking at the insistent belief that we have to appear youthful in order to be a viable, worthy human being.

I wrote Hip Hop Elder's Rant to give voice to other forms of prejudice about aging, in order to raise awareness and catalyze perceptual changes. Sex after 60 debunks the stereotype that older people are sexless. Scintillating Secrets of the Older Brain debunks the stereotype that older adults are senile. All the songs in A New Wrinkle debunk ageist stereotypes and present a pro-aging view.

I am always surprised when even in the relatively sophisticated town of Ashland, Oregon I encounter older adults who are in denial of their aging or ashamed and apologetic about being older. But why should any place be immune from that, even if its residents do have a high level of education? Ageism is pervasive and largely unchallenged. Most of us do not investigate it or look at the ways it affects our self-image or our lives. As Ronni Bennett commented recently in her blog Time Goes By, we've been so brainwashed by ageist language and images since childhood that we become "complicit in our own stereotyping."

According to a study that appeared in The Gerontologist (Vol. 41, No. 5):

In a survey of 84 people ages 60 and older, nearly 80 percent of respondents reported experiencing ageism–such as other people assuming they had memory or physical impairments due to their age. The 2001 survey by Duke University’s Erdman Palmore, PhD, also revealed that the most frequent type of ageism–reported by 58 percent of respondents–was being told a joke that pokes fun at older people. Thirty-one percent reported being ignored or not taken seriously because of their age.

Negative stereotypes hurt older people and may even shorten their lives according to psychologist Becca Levy, PhD, assistant professor of public health at Yale University. In Levy’s longitudinal study of 660 people 50 years and older, those with more positive self-perceptions of aging lived 7.5 years longer than those with negative self-perceptions of aging. The study appeared in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 83, No. 2).

Don't belittle aging or being old. Don't cave into pervasive cultural stereotypes and shuffle around apologizing for being over the hill and ready for the scrap heap. Move into the authority and expertise and wisdom of your years.

Relax into being old at heart.

On that happy note, I was glad to find this wonderful statement of values by Oregon elder attorney Orrin Onkin at Ronni Bennett's Time Goes By blog recently. Brilliant! Right on! Let's create a society where our elders view aging in these ways.

• We will not be judged by the values of youth.

• We will not be expelled from work or play.

• We will not equate aging with illness.

• We will not be a subject matter for experts.

• We will not be the objects of condescension or ridicule.

• We will not be a social or economic problem.

• We will not be trivialized.

• We will not be docile.

• We will not be interned.

• We will treat our later decades as a unique stage of human development.

• We will grow and learn.

• We will integrate our social, our psychological and our spiritual lives.

• We will take care of our own.

• We will cooperate across generations to create a better world.

• We will nurture and guide the young.

• We will contribute according to our abilities.

Orrin Onkin wrote and published this Older American's Pledge.

P.S. Do you read my monthly newsletter? You can subscribe to it at www.sagesplay.com

Sunday, March 4, 2012

A Cultural Obsession with Senior Moments

Senior moments--if you're over 50, you have had at least a few of them. And don't forget it.

In case you do, there are many reminders in many forms.

Like the T shirt from Cafe Press that shows a person searching for something, with the caption, "I know it's here somewhere."

You can play the Senior Moments game, "a memory game for those who might need the practice" or get a book on senior moments, either a humorous one like "1,000 Unforgettable Senior Moments: Of Which We Could Remember Only 246" or one that focuses on memory workouts.

And of course there is a persistent attention to senior moments in cartoons, jokes and everyday conversation. "Are you having a senior moment?" (pretty soon you will be a doddering idiot, just wait and see.)

I attended a senior forum sponsored by the local chapter of AAUW a few weeks ago. One of the presenters make a self-deprecating mention of her senior moment as a way of gaining rapport with the audience. Many people grinned or laughed out loud, but I groaned inwardly.

Why? As those who know me are quite aware, I am very fond of having a good laugh. Senior moments just don't do much for me as laugh material. Instead I usually get grumpy.

Sometimes I wax philosophical. I muse, "If we lived in a culture that was more friendly towards the process of aging, I imagine I would find senior moments funnier."

As a society we view aging as a time of vulnerability and decline. You lose your teeth, you lose your mobility, you lose your social cachet, you lose your mind. Of course this is quite hilarious on some level--hilarious, highly charged and discomfiting-- and yes, we often deal with difficult things through humor.

No one wants to lose it. For most of us, this applies especially to our minds. And prevalent portrayals of aging make us very anxious about the prospect of losing our minds. The current focus on debility makes it seem that Alzheimer's or another form of dementia is inevitable. Here's the story--from the age of 65-80, 5-7% of older adults become ill with Alzheimer's. That means 95-93% of older adults do not have dementia.

After 80, the risk increases to 50%. None of us want to be afflicted with dementia. I think our obsession with senior moments is related to that fear.

I was thinking the other day about how it's okay for black comedian Chris Rock to make jokes about black people, but it's racist for (boring) white entertainer Billy Crystal to try to do the same thing.

I'm of that mind about senior moments. If you and I are talking and you mention your experience of senior moments, I can empathize or laugh. But if I am getting bombarded via popular culture with the senior moment phenomenon and its implications --"you are losing it, you are losing it, be afraid, be very afraid!" I am not in a friendly mood.

Of course, I have senior moments. I also have aches and pains sometimes. (I had aches and pains earlier in life, too. Didn't you?) I move more slowly and tire more easily than I did 20 years ago when I was in my youthful 50s.

But I am not interested in defining myself by my deficits. I am interested in illuminating my potential, strengthening positive character traits, healing old wounds, taking risks, and enjoying the freedom and fulfillment that's possible in this stage of life.

I love this photo of an old woman in Indonesia performing an offering dance. I prefer to engage this way, as an old woman performing an offering dance. There is no time when one is too old to create a sacred gesture. In fact, old age lends itself to engagement with life from a sacred perspective.

I wrote the song "Scintillating Secrets of the Older Brain," as a counterpoint to our cultural obsession with senior moments. It's one of the 12 songs in A New Wrinkle, a musical revue on aging.

Why focus on what's wrong? Why not focus on what's right? It feels a lot better and is much more fun overall.

As some of the song lyrics for Scintillating Secrets of the Older Brain tell us:

"New research shows cognition peaks midlife or older—
midlife or older! Cognition peaks midlife or older.

Farewell, outdated theories of the human brain!

Thinking and creating all those years
Means you’ve got dendrite density my dears
forest of dendrites in your brain—branches that shimmer
the woodlands in the younger brain are so much thinner
youth needs more time to grow a wiser mind.

Memories, insights, lifelong skills and great imagination
Brings a capacity for complex cogitation
Now everything you know is an architecture
ready to be orchestrated with a flare
that only you can muster!

And why use one hemisphere when you can use two?
Though few folks know it—that’s exactly what older people do.
Bi-lateral brain activity –a proclivity that grows with age
the stage when you gain access to life’s whole archive
holistically—synergistically—and on dual drive.

Though the subject has not made headlines yet
Don’t let that stop you from enjoying it!

Scintillating secrets of the older brain!
Let’s not forget the almond-shaped amygdala—
With time, torrential storms of feeling
that earlier sent us reeling no longer blow through town.
That’s right! Old people mellow into greater wisdom
and partly that is due to the amygdala and limbic system.
Farewell outdated theories of the human brain!

In other words,
Be erudite or recondite
be smart, be wise, embody equipoise
be an authority or a magician
be prone to flights of great imagination
raise your expectations
set aside your reservations
engage big neural fireworks
& join the celebration!"

You can read more about the fascinating new research on the expanded capacities of the older brain in Dr. Gene Cohen's wonderful book The Mature Mind. You can read more song lyrics from A New Wrinkle at the Sage's Play website.

He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.
---- Epictetus

We are all inventors, each sailing out on a voyage of discovery, guided each by a private chart, of which there is no duplicate. The world is all gates, all opportunities.

---Ralph Waldo Emerson