very present

sisters 1987

sisters 1987

Here I sit in the morning sun, the whoosh of cars beyond the windows indistinguishable from the rush of heat. This created sauna of over-hot apartment and sunlight steams me back into undress.

Despite single digits beyond, my temperature rises in inverse proportion to my hope. Hope that this time I can help my sister navigate her failing health. Why do I imagine that my stubbornness trumps hers? We are who we are, sisters in more than skin.

This gift of presence is my focus. Sitting with her, doing nothing. I entice with aromas that waft through her modest rooms. We dance with invitation, refusal, a tentative taste, a genuine smile, though weak. Moments pass between us. A memory flickers at the edge of a clear-eyed gaze. We slide seamlessly from symptoms to sorrow. She sleeps, wakes, shuffles slowly from here to there. We pass the time. Time passes, each moment a present.

[Thanks to today’s DPChallenge: write a post entirely in the present tense]

passion within

photo of book coverToday’s WP Daily Prompt asks about appearances. I am deeply involved in helping bring Full Circle Festival to fruition this April in Burlington VT, celebrating the heart and art of aging. Do appearances matter? Not to us! My interview with author Jane Buchan takes the conversation to a deeper level. May her perspective open your eyes beyond the mirror!

SWB:  This is the 30th anniversary of your novel, Under the Moon, a novel “begun in the intemperate fires of outrage when I was in my late-twenties… (in) response to the evils of segregating people according to age…” You lament that not much has not changed in the past 30 years.

JB:  The most troubling aspect of growing old in our culture is the assumption that at a certain age, or with the onset of a certain condition, we are no longer capable of making wise decisions for ourselves. The aging story we all live with is that adulthood grants us control over our lives.  Yet once we’re vulnerable, this cultural bias places us on an unstoppable decline into ‘less than.’ Many believe this negative view because anti-elder propaganda is so pervasive.  As we grow older – to borrow a vivid metaphor from My Dinner with Andre we’re conscripted into building the prison of ageism by assuming our doctors and family members are correct about our decline and need for medical intervention.

Edna, Under the Moon’s protagonist, capitulates to her daughter’s insistence that she move to a retirement home to be “safe.”  Edna realizes her mistake as soon as she moves into Sunset Lodge because she recognizes that an overly medicated, sterile, hyper-regulated life is no life at all. There are exceptions of course, but generally the ageism of thirty years ago has grown worse with more drugs available to “manage” residents and more regulations in homes designed for staff convenience and cost effectiveness, a euphemism for maximum profits.

SWB: You say “modern consumer society invented the ‘senior citizen’ to capitalize on that great motivator of spending, fear … ” Tell us a bit about alternatives to fear as a motivator for those not yet familiar with your work. 

JB:  Consciousness is always the most effective alternative to fear. We lose physical strength and speed as we age. This does not mean we have a disease that is about to do us in.  When we view growing old as an opportunity to learn from the wisdom schools, the natural world, and men and women who continue to define themselves until they draw their last breath – think Margaret Mead, Doris Haddock, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and closer to home, of Madeline Kunin and Bernie Sanders – we align with the life in us, not the fear. Amazing faculties emerge as we move into our final decades:  the ability to form highly complex global perspectives, the sense of connection to all that is, and the capacity for deep reflection.

SWB: Has your recent research suggested specific directions for change or improvement ahead? If not – what would YOU as a positive change agent like to see in your lifetime?

JB:  I hope Under the Moon will help to inspire aging conversations among diverse populations.  As more of us move into old age, we have the opportunity to discover our collective wisdom.   Until now, we’ve pretty much accepted the ‘Consumer’ label of the 1970’s, and readily follow anti-aging trends as if these are more valid than our actual experiences and desires. Given our present cultural choices, it is far too easy to accept that we either beat aging with surgery and drugs, or we capitulate to aging with surgery and drugs.

Once we’ve dismantled the cultural view of aging promoted in the media, we can tune in to the amazing reality of what it means to be an aging being on our beautiful Earth.  Some elders are creating their own group living arrangements, often in modest spaces with gardens, open kitchens, and shared resources.  A little more common are long-term facilities where pets, gardening, and the arts are becoming an integral part of institutional life. Now more than ever before, people in their sixties and seventies are talking about pioneering new living arrangements that support individual choice, lifelong learning, and a variety of solutions to common aging problems. Those who can are choosing retirement residences that allow for complete autonomy until nursing care becomes necessary.  However, residences supporting autonomy are few and far between, and their high costs make it unlikely they will become the norm.

We are on the cusp of great change, both as an aging society and as overly medicated citizens. Alternative medicine practices – acupuncture, massage, energy medicine, yoga, naturopathy, and the like – are helping people establish connections with their inner states of being rather than mask symptoms that are actually helpful messengers of important physical changes.  More of us are choosing these alternatives as complementary to necessary medical interventions.

Learning the health benefits of exercise, growing and eating local organic foods, and participating in skills’ exchanges to support sustainability and resilience, all can help us to refute the view that life is finished with us at a certain age.  I once stood within the hollowed out trunk of a thousand-year-old yew. Despite its thousand years, it hosts birds and squirrels, perfumes the air, enriches the earth, and feeds human spirit.  Before I die, I hope to meet hundreds of thousands of people who identify with ancient, life-giving trees as they age.

SWB: Your website offers a delicious array of tools and inspiration for empowered aging in a soothing and inviting design.  How do you make the translation from training to leadership in your offerings?

JB: I am passionate about dance, energy tools, and journal keeping as methods of maintaining my healthiest aging self. These tools are what I offer others to prevent on-the-job compassion fatigue and a general loss of joie de vivre. Each participant in a workshop or gathering is deeply involved in her or his own life. Yet each needs rejuvenation, broader perspective, some tools for deeper self care.  I offer very simple but highly effective tools to influence the positive daily flow of personal energies.  After an evening or a weekend, participants tell me they feel far more centered, optimistic, and peaceful than before; and best of all, more comfortable in their own skin and more empowered to remain so.

SWB: You write that Edna “becomes the change in her own unique way.”  What ‘advice’ might you give to someone in later life to be the change, uniquely or otherwise?

JB:  Live your passion. I often ask participants, “What are you passionate about?  After an initial “Oh, I don’t know …” people erupt with a flow of insight about how our children are overscheduled, or the terrible food served in hospitals, or the dangers of climate change, or the assaults on our water supply, or the appalling conditions in prison.  For me, a person’s passion is the link to her Higher Self, that all-wise Being who recognizes, “This isn’t the place for me,” or asks, “I wonder why I didn’t find this place of service sooner.”

Passion – for liberating bodies or spirits, for growing interconnected communities, for nurturing plants and animals, for creating sacred space, for repairing quilts and neighbourhoods, for building friendships and sustainable dwellings, for singing songs, for dancing alone and in groups, for storytelling – passion holds the key to our joyful involvement in making the world anew. Many Boomers grew up with Depression Era fears of scarcity. We learned to postpone what we loved as responsible citizens doing all we could to make the world a better place through duty. In the process, many of us lost touch with our unique passion.  As we enter later life, we have the opportunity to rediscover our passion and channel it into creating a world that will survive current environmental, social, and spiritual crises, a world we will be proud to leave to future generations.

headlining into the past

credit - rudylife

credit – rudylife

Know how little kids, in an attempt to wrest control from an uncertain world, cover their ears and taunt, “I’m not listening!!!” Often accompanied by a defiant stomp of the foot. Perhaps averted eyes. Definitely a stance of distance and refusal to engage.

Somehow this petulant image is what comes to mind before even reading the third headline on the New York Times front web page this morning. As if the justices, in refusing to hear Arizona’s appeal to revive the abortion law, were lined up in the classic ‘hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil’ monkey trio of my youth.

But I also lived through the years of hard-won abortion rights – we called it a woman’s right to choose what happens to her body. Just as the little kid and the justices choose not to hear. Only in this case, the choice sends women’s control over their bodies headlong into the past. Is ANYBODY listening???

Thanks to today’s WordPress Daily Prompt: to incorporate the third headline on the page of a preferred news source, in this case the New York Times, front page, into a post. It turned out to be “Justices Won’t Hear Arizona’s Appeal to Revive Abortion Law.”

looking in from outside

woman waving behind glass

credit – superstock

Weekly, I write inside Vermont’s women’s prison with a group of 12 – 15 women. They are ‘inside.’ I can go ‘out.’ How does this feel?

After four years of this work, I have built trust and several strong relationships with many who are ‘inside’ for a long time. No longer do they eye me with the distrust of a gawker come to stare at them as if they were a rare species of bird or worse – a criminal with no name, no life, no story.

Of the many, MANY stories I could tell, one inside/outside moment remains seared in my heart even years after the event.

One Thursday evening as I was heading home late, I looked through the glass while waiting for the officer to hand me my keys. One of ‘my’ writers stood beyond. She doesn’t write with us anymore – English is tough for her and she’s severely depressed. But our eyes connected. I put my hand to my heart, nodded and smiled to her. And SHE crossed both arms over HER chest, held my gaze with palpable tenderness. Oh, the compassion that can pass through time, space, even glass prison walls – not to mention the enormous divide between us in terms of where we are in our lives . . .

Thanks to WordPress Daily Prompt: the experience of being outside looking in.