Sunday, December 13, 2015

Bah Humbug

"I don't have pet peeves; I have whole kennels of irritation."

My commitment to be realistically optimistic has been sorely tried these past days, what with news from and about San Bernadino, Chicago, and Baltimore.  So I'm taking a break and venting.  Hoping that by doing so, the air from my balloon of discontent will be released.  My "kennels of irritation" include:
drivers who pass on the right
private conversations held in public
commercials in which anyone is demeaned in the name of humor
this excruciatingly long and nasty political campaign
political candidates who don't answer the questions asked of them
interviewers who let them get away with it
people who demand respect while being disrespectful to others
opinion masquerading as fact
diatribe posing as debate
the atmosphere of extreme polarization 
sweeping generalizations 
hearsay repeated as truth
rights without responsibilities
assertions without evidence
labeling that diminishes and isolates

But most of all,I am distressed by the current hate and fear mongering that brings back the horrors of Joseph McCarthy and HUAC - and the knowledge that too many Americans know very little about this period of our history and the damage that was done to individuals, our trust in our government, and our reputation in the name of protecting America.  Am I just showing my age?

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

A Challenging Choice

    "To the question whether I am a pessimist or an optimist I answer that my knowledge is pessimistic, but my willing and hoping are optimistic. "              
~ Albert Schweitzer

I recently came across an expression that has taken up occupancy in the corners of my thoughts, popping up at the oddest moments.  "Realistic optimism"*, the term for at attitude that can support us as we face the challenges of aging in the midst of a "forever young" movement**, initially seemed an oxymoron.  Whenever I watch the news these days - a plethora of chaos and cruelty, fear and hatred - I have to fight off a sense of despair that can threaten to shroud the day in a dark consuming cloud.  When I receive a call saying another friend or family member is struggling with loss or incipient loss, it's hard to stay optimistic.  When I struggle to call forth a word or name that I know I know, I experience a moment of anxiety.

But then, an e-mail arrives with a photo of my nephew's beautiful children, or a friend's daughter, a lovely young bride.  Or I hear from someone I don't recognize telling me how the course he took from me years ago influenced him to be a better husband and father.  Or, surprise, surprise, a local TV station shares a story of compassion or generosity.  Or - best of all, I look at this week's calendar and see three dates with my husband and realize once again that we have found our way into a deeper, gentler friendship than I would ever have expected.  We have learned how to discuss our vastly different political views (well, much of the time); we laugh at the same jokes; we like the same people; we enjoy The Voice together - he a Country Western fan, me an Opera fan.   Go figure?!

Realistic optimism - accepting the reality that the world seems, no, is more dangerous, that bad things happen to good people, that we and those we love will decline and die.  Yet,  AT THE SAME TIME, remembering there are reasons to be optimistic. There are moments of unbelievable beauty and unexpected gestures of kindness and decency from strangers.  There are the people we love who return our love many times over.  Old friends who forgive our forgetfulness.  New friends who open their hearts and homes to us.  Another opportunity to learn, another possibility to contribute.  AT THE SAME TIME.

So, when John and I drive to meet friends on Thanksgiving Day for a splendid buffet that eliminates the need to cook, and we take turns sharing gratitudes from the past year as has become our tradition, high on my list will be discovering this concept of realistic optimism.  Not always easy to maintain, but always, always a blessing.

Happy Thanksgiving!

* realistic optimism - from The Wonder of Aging by Michael Gurian
**forever young society - from Travels with Epicurus by Daniel Klein  

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Simplify, Simplify

Our life is frittered away by detail.  Simplify, simplify.
~ Henry David Thoreau

My efforts to simplify started four years ago (although I didn't recognize it as such at the time) when we decided to move to St. George where we owned a second home.  When we sold our Vegas home, we had just 27 days to move. In the midst of the recession, and deluged with foreclosures, the Vegas consignment stores had a glut of belongings.  So we moved a houseful of furniture to a house full of furniture.  There were boxes and crates, chairs and lamps, electronic devices stacked in the garage, and on the patio and courtyard.  Luckily, St. George is a low crime community, so nothing was stolen - I think.

After more than 25 years of marriage and a business run from our home, the accumulation of "stuff" was overwhelming and the decisions required to diminish it equally so, but necessity IS the mother of invention. Boxes and bags of books went to the library; we placed furniture and accessories in several consignment stores; Catholic Charities volunteers came to know John by name as we sent crates of redundancies for donation. Gradually, the patio and courtyard cleared and I could park my car in the garage.  We had successfully downsized.

What followed was months of organizing what was left.  Organizing and reorganizing, labeling and relabeling until I finally realized that merely organizing the stuff was like the proverbial rearranging of the deck chairs on the Titanic.  Better organized, yes, but still too much stuff - so this January I began a campaign of donating or gifting three objects, tossing three objects, and reusing or storing three objects every day. I waged war on the stuff  for six months!  

So recently, when my sister commented that although we have a lot of stuff, our home doesn't look cluttered, (and meant it as a compliment), I was initially disheartened.  All that work, all those months of donating and consigning and tossing.  All the organizing and labeling.  What had I missed?  

Looking back on my efforts, I realize that I had used the criteria of orderly, functional, and creative as I made my decisions. But not simple.  Why not simple? Why now?  And why has it become so easy to let go of things I thought so important until now?

Over these past weeks, I have renewed my campaign.  Another donation to Catholic Charities.  Another to the library.  A box to the food pantry.  I don't have satisfactory answers to my questions yet, but this much I know:
  • The more I let go of, the easier it gets.
  • The fewer choices, the easier to choose.
  • As I simplify space and objects, I'm instinctively simplifying routines and activities as well.
  • Less IS more - more space, more time, more freedom, more peace of mind, more satisfaction.
  • And less is less as well - less to clean, less to maintain, less to insure, less to worry about, less to remember.
  • For me, simplifying means making life simpleR, not necessarily simple. (I'll never be a minimalist!)
  • To let go of possessions, I've learned to let go of the meaning attached to them.
  • Possessions have no intrinsic value in themselves.
  • People simplify their lives for different reasons - some political, some ethical or spiritual, some economics, some purely out of immediate necessity.  I started out of necessity but am now thinking about simplifying more philosophically.
  • Although there are movements that foster simpler life styles (the tiny house movement, Voluntary Simplicity, minimalism, etc.) and that are attracting younger folks, I suspect conscious aging fosters simplifying for different reasons.
  • Holding this as a process rather than a project reduces stress and encourages creative problem solving.
  • Some days it's even fun.

Sunday, October 18, 2015


"Inside every older person is a younger person wondering what happened."
                            ~Cora Harvey Armstrong

Sometimes I do wonder what happened.  I wonder how the years have flown by so quickly. How my little nephew is now a corporate executive in his forties, a father of two.  Or how the talented teacher I helped hire not that long ago has been retired for a few years now.  Or how an actor that I haven't seen for awhile is suddenly so....old.  (Like Nick Nolte in A Walk in the Woods!)  Or how I see my mother's face when I look in the mirror.  

Even though I understand that change is occurring more frequently than when I was a youngster and that technology and the explosion of information are driving that speed, I can still be taken back for a few moments when someone doesn't recognize the singers of my childhood - Perry Como? The Four Lads? Rosemary Clooney - was she related to George? I find the In Memoriam segment of the Oscars increasingly saddening as I watch the actors and actresses of my youth disappearing and knowing, as I watch, that there are generations who do not know much, if anything, about them.  Or that they seem to know so little about the movements and events that have shaped this culture and the individuals and groups who initiated them.  Sometimes not even recognizing their names.  Jonas Salk, Bobby Kennedy,  Barry Commoner, Betty Friedan, Edward R. Morrow - or the SDS or Joseph McCarthy.

So, although I still occasionally wonder, I am not surprised when I hear a young woman with some disdain proclaim that she is not a feminist.  Or listen to some politicians speak so easily, too easily,  about sending young men and women to war.  It is not that I feel old at these times, I feel sad.  I feel like an observer, not a participant.  Could it be that folks who lament the good old days, whether young or old, are lamenting the familiar?  Not that those days were better, but that at least they were familiar.

It is, therefore, with great gratitude that I find myself in this sweet community of St. George. Recognized recently in Consumer's Report and Money Magazine as one of the best locations for retirees, I find myself among other seniors who do remember, who share some similar values, and who also wonder.

Note:  If you have been following this new blog, please note the addition of a new gadget for signing on as a follower.  Apparently the two previous gadgets do not achieve that end.  Good thing that I enjoy learning!

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Role of Role Models

"...a role model in the flesh provides more than inspiration,
his or her very existence is confirmation of possibilities one may have
every reason to doubt, saying "Yes, someone like me
can do this."
~Sonia Sotomayor

"It just makes a difference to see someone who looks like you
doing what you want to do."
~Nia Wordlaw, Pilot

The subject of role models has been on my mind for a few days now, ever since I asked a group of women, including several older women, to name some of their role models.  When they - and I - struggled to come up with examples, I recognized the need to give this more thought.

I see now that I could have framed the question much better.  I could have first presented the dictionary definition - role model: n. a person looked to by others as an example to be imitated.  The key word that makes a big difference - imitated, not only respected or admired, but imitated.  How many people in my life have I been moved by enough to want to imitate in any way?

After more deliberation, I realized that I could have asked a more specific question, a more meaningful question - 'Who are the role models for you at this stage in your life?''  Heaven knows, in a forever young* society obsessed with success and beauty, positive role models for older women, and increasingly for men, are hard to come by.  Betty White?  Jane Fonda? Tony Bennett?  Madeline Albrecht.  Most of us don't have their resources, their access to support. Then there are the commercials for older men and women that promote medicines, emergency alert systems, assisted living homes, adult diapers.  "Help me, I've fallen and can't get up."  I know these speak to a certain reality.  But all the statistics I'm reading suggest this is a reality for a small percentage of people over 65.  Not me.  Not my friends.

So, I turned to quotes, scouring hundreds.  The Sonia Sotomayor quote got me thinking about older women from my past who left their mark, even though I did not consciously seek to imitate them at the time.  Women who presented a picture of aging well. Mrs. W., in her 70's when I was in my 20's, intellectually and creatively curious, still weaving, knitting her husband's argyle socks, reading Thackeray and French novels with one eye, the other lost to Glaucoma.  Jane L, a gentle Quaker, then in her late 60's, whose counsel during my divorce I have called upon in subsequent crises, whose equilibrium I've never matched but certainly use as a yardstick.  M and L, ahead of me in the stream by a dozen years, both interesting and interested in politics, art, literature, the larger world that I had ignored, so intent when I first met them on my business, my family.  

Which brings me to the Nia Wordlaw quote that I came upon this morning while watching the PBS special, The Women's List: American Masters.  I suddenly recognized that I do have role models and am blessed that they are at hand.  Women my age, women ahead in years and experience.  I am more engaged in my community because of these women.  I am reading better literature because of these women.  I am more concerned with public policy issues.  I have a renewed sense of purpose that has been missing in recent years. Thanks to these women.

Ultimately, however, the most important result of all this musing may be to remember that we all have the opportunity to be role models in some small but important way, and often are without realizing it or intending to do so.  So the question in my mind right now - what kind of role model am I?

 *the forever young society - coined by Michael Gurian in The Wonder of Aging

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Words Have Power

"You can change your world by changing your words."
Joel Olsteen

As a youngster of Sicilian descent, raised in the 40's in neighborhoods where Sicilian was synonymous with Mafia and crime, and therefore, distrusted, even feared, I became painfully aware of the power of words at a very early age.  In the 50's, as an adolescent and teenager, I experienced how easily labels become stereotypes and how those stereotypes create barriers and estrangement.    How easily what the outside world says about us can become what we believe about ourselves.

Fortunately, my parents worked consistently to counteract the words and messages they knew their children were receiving.  They encouraged us to take pride in who we were, our talents and what we could accomplish with them. To not let the outer voices become the inner voices in our heads.

Perhaps that's why I have no problem with political correctness, other than my concern that we seem only to have created more subtle ways to imply a group is less than, weaker than, out of the mainstream, not quite as capable.  Or conversely, of course, better than, more competent, smarter, more righteous, more valuable.

I'd like to think it isn't always mean-spirited.  That using the word "deserve" in ads from pharmaceuticals to flooring isn't intended to encourage entitlement.  Or the word "anti-aging" for so many products and services out there isn't intended to suggest there is something wrong with growing older.  But I notice the visceral reaction I have to these words or to the words attached to growing older, words like - forgetful, diminished, feeble, Luddite - words I hear some of my contemporaries using for themselves.  The outer voices having become their inner voices.

Recently, in my quest to learn more about the aging process and what I might think or do in order to age well, I returned to a classic volume I read years ago when taking on the care-giving of my parents (who weren't aging well), appropriately titled, Aging Well by George Vaillant.  How could I have forgotten that gerontologists, who certainly do mean well, have labeled the last stages of life as old, old old and very old.  Imagine my shock to discover that I am officially old old when I don't even feel old yet!  I'm not inordinately forgetful, certainly not diminished or feeble, and working hard not to be a Luddite.

So, I'm on the hunt for better words to describe myself and my contemporaries, words like elder, and sage, mature, vital and wise.  More positive labels like the labels social philosopher and family therapist, Michael Guerian suggests we adopt for life after fifty, The Age of Transformation, The Age of Distinction and The Age of Completion.  Who wouldn't prefer to think of themselves as members of The Age of Distinction rather than one of the old old!  

I don't know if this is the first or most important step to aging well, but I know it matters.  I agree with Joel Olsteen, so I want as much as possible to use words to describe myself, my world, and my stage in life to be positive, words that encourage rather than limit satisfaction, words that promote healthy optimism.  Yes, elder and sage, mature, vital and wise.  And....???

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Next Chapter

To know how to grow old is the master work of wisdom and one of the most difficult chapters in the great art of living. 
Henri Frederic Amiel

I have struggled for some time with how to start this new blog - and then I came upon this quote, and like all the quotes that have spoken to me over several decades, this captured my thinking more concisely than all my attempts to date in my head or on paper. Learning how to age successfully, with dignity, with grace and with wisdom has become the work I have been looking for since retiring, without knowing I was looking for it.  And this blog is an element of that work.

A good quote also reminds me of what I already know.  I  know that work is valuable, and that important, passionate work provides meaning and purpose to my life. I've known it for a long time. I just forgot it for awhile.

In my mid-30's, struggling after a divorce, lamenting that I would never be happy again, in constant distress because I had never lived alone and convinced that I would have to the rest of my life, a friend took pity on me (or just grew tired of my drama) and arranged for me to have dinner with a woman he knew and believed to be living successfully on her own. I don't remember her name, never saw her again after that dinner that she was so kind to prepare for me. But I do remember what she said that evening.

To live successfully on one's own, she said, you have to have three things, think of it like a three legged stool:  work that you believe in and are at least enthusiastic about, or better yet, passionate about, avocations that engage your mind and perhaps your hands, and friends of the same sex.  At that time, I had two of the three.  I was teaching elementary students and loved it.  I had several strong, supportive female friends. but I had no hobbies. So I went in search of one, and after much experimentation, landed on needlepoint and proceeded to stitch up a storm - must have created a dozen needlepoint pillows.   And settled into a comfortable, satisfying single life.

For several decades after, I sat comfortably on that stool.  After remarriage, I created  a training/coaching company that provided great satisfaction for 25 years, I developed female friendships across the country, I developed other hobbies.  Then I retired - and without realizing it, knocked out one of the three legs of the stool upon which I had rested so well for over 30 years.

On moving to St. George, I set out to find activities that would occupy my time and make use of my experiences and expertise, a common practice among retirees, I've discovered.  I became a docent at the Art Museum taking 4th and 5th graders on art tours; I joined two book clubs, took continuing education courses, joined organizations, even becoming an officer on two boards.  In retrospect,(what's that other quote, "Hindsight is 20/20"?), I approached this search as I had the search for an avocation.  Experimenting, checking out solutions that seemed to work for others. This go round, however, I remained somewhat disconcerted, knowing that, though I found many of these activities enjoyable, something important remained missing.  

Then, a moment of synchronicity - a few months ago, my brother recommended two books he had enjoyed, books about aging - Travels with Epicurus and Rules for Old Men Waiting. Moved by both, I began to pay attention to my mounting irritation with the incessant anti-aging commercials, noticed how frequently my contemporaries expressed concerns over memory lapses or the onset of yet another physical ailment or decline, observed my melancholy as one by one the celebrities of my youth passed away, and filled the pages of my personal journal with my observations and a growing list of questions that began to arise about this process called aging.

Questions that sent me off into memoirs and journals, classic tomes on aging, websites and blogs and - quotes, and among them the Amiel quote.  Here was the work, the missing leg of the stool, learning how to age with dignity, grace, and wisdom  . Here was work that would require research and creativity, trial and error, effort and thought, and learning with and from others.  Here was work that might be a contribution to others. Everything that was satisfying and worthwhile about work in the past.

In the weeks and months ahead, I'll share resources, questions, observations, the stops I'm making along the way.  My hope - to contribute to a different way of thinking about aging, to learn from and with others how to do more than cope with the very real challenges I know aging can bring, but also to use the opportunities and blessings this stage in life can offer. Not either/or but both.