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.