“Magical Realism” & Aging Upward

What a great term – “magic realism,” a phrase used to described the critically & commercially successful author Isabel Allende’s writing.   It also describes what I believe about aging upward, what I saw my mother, other adults around me live every day.  Magical realism.

In fiction, magical realism is not escapist – it is engagement.   It takes us outside of the everyday experience to experience every day’s reality & our personal deeper truth.  It escorts us from where we are situated in the world to see our place in it.  Where science fiction  & fantasy often interweave the serious with escapism, magical realism is always serious, always striving to convey different experiences, perceptions, views that actually do exist, or existed at some point.  It is different from what we or our culture experiences as reality, so we can’t lump it under realism.

In the same way that Isabel uses magical realism in her writing, she brings it into her talk on living passionately, given at TED2014.  She shares stories about people who are living in our country, our world who experience LIFE in different ways, as a different reality.  The woman whose red patterned shoes announce on her feet the free spirited activist in her heart.  Sophia Loren looking the way she does at the age she is due to … spaghetti.  The old woman who saves young girls from parents selling them into slavery.  Different worlds, different experiences, different perspectives than what’s outside my door, yet they ARE real inside my head.  Magical realism.

In her stories, Isabel may interject a ghost, not to create a frisson of fear but to manifest a reality I believe but  been spooked into hiding or silence;  to show  a reality beyond anything I could experience, yet can feel through another’s eyes.

Isabel weaves just such a tale at TED, making the audience – and viewers – see her exotic world through our own eyes.  She takes the kid of twenty-five by the hand to show what being seventy-one can be, reminds the 90-year old of the richness of aging upward.

For too many years, the magical realism spun around aging was a horror story, burdened with limitation loss liability.  Isabel invites us into her life, to feel its passion, to experience it (including erotic fantasies) as if it is our own.  Then to weave our tale of magical realism, welcoming others to enter the story & help us celebrate the years!

 

Brothers

It’s sad when family relationships – even the rockiest – are stunted, cut short.  My own life is much happier for having kept doors open,  even when a better something seemed an impossible hope.

Been thinking about brothers a lot over the past 24 hours, about mine & how different our relationships have turned out than I would have guessed just a shade over ten years ago.

In 2007, I didn’t feel like I had any deep connection to any of my three brothers.

That changed first with the most improbable of the trio – with Ian, who died almost 60 years ago, when he was eleven & I was seven. Ten years ago this past spring.  – when I was 55 – we bonded.  Seriously!  I’d always assumed that Ian was as different from me as the rest of my sibs, but thanks to a combination of discoveries & fresh aha moments I made that spring, for the first time it clicked that “B-Boy” & I had similar natures & mutual  interests.

For years, a family joke has been that I married my brother, because my John seemed so much like Ian, but it took stumbling across those report cards & befriending a litter of feral kittens for the light to dawn that Ian & I were more alike than I’d ever imagined.

Ian was just four years older, while brother Mike (#2 🔆) was a long-stretch ten.  Mike joined the Navy straight out of high school, a couple years after Ian’s death, then bopped off on world travels between stints working for our father at Lockhart Lumber & Millwork.  I never really connected with my brother in his footloose & fancy-free days.

Alas, he married someone who – unbeknownst to me – experienced her younger s-i-l  as beyond irksome.  Took me 27 years to discover (the hard way)  what Mom knew since the early ’70s – that I stirred such deep dislike, as soon as I entered the same room, Kerry wanted to walk out.  OUCH!

When Kerry is not in the picture – when she  returned home to Australia a week before Mike after an early ’90s Christmas visit & when he visited solo several years ago for his 50th high school reunion – we connect.  Who knows where we will be ten years down the road?  Like MOTEL 6 , John & I will leave the light on.

Which leads to Peter.  Fourteen years older, it would be easy to assume we had the least contact over the years.  If only!  Peter has been a more or less constant presence throughout my life, weaving in & out of stays as his life circumstances ebbed & flowed, but always letting it be known  innate superiority put him on a different plain from us lesser lights  Peter talked big, but his life – to his baby sis – seemed… meager.  We had our share of dust ups – he expected to treated like a guest instead of a member of the family & I expected him to pull a fair share – but they’re back in the past.  Too little time left to waste any acting mingy.

While my relationship with Ian has improbably strengthened & deepened, am resigned to the possibility Mike & I might never connect as bro & sis.  As for Peter… It doesn’t matter to me that he still strikes his “kiss the ring” attitudes – if he wants or even just needs my support, it will be my sisterly pleasure to do what I can.

At 65, having lost more immediate family than remain, I’ve come to a place where just being a sisterly presence is enough- in fact, it is way more than I’ve expected over the years.  This mellower me is content with ALL that is, holding a sister’s love for near, far & in lofty realms beloved brothers.

IAGG ~ let the play begin!

Deep breath – the Inernational Association of Gerontology & Geriatrics quadrennial 21st World Congress kicked off with registration today, with the full-blown program from tomorrow through Thursday.  In San Francisco!!

Blessings on the small but mighty circle of supporters whose big & small contribution$$ got me here & for the side trip to Auburn to visit my brave cousin, Bob Ripley, who’s doing all he can to have all the time he can with family & friends.  The short trip made a BIG difference I never tightening broadening deepening family relationships at a time when they matter most.

Mega thanks to the many whose best wishes, blessings & “You go, girl”!! encouragement helped power the AWEsome forces that got me here.  Never underestimate the POWer of invisible but mighty positive energies.

Put in a lot of walking today to spots that hold great memories of trips with Scott & Mom, with just Mom, solo.  Photo shoots with Sissy, Stephie & Sissette at Aquatic Park, breakfast at the Buena Vista, drinks at The Fairmont’s Tonga Room, dinner on Tiburon.  I don’t have the spare $ to indulge, but oh I can recall the playful times & the ab fab memories that helped Mom stay power-ful to the last moment of her life in this playground.

Let the mega moments that are sure to fill the IAGG begin!!

Peace With The Past

One of the greatest treasures of the last few years has been my relationship with my oldest brother.  It took a lot of tries on my part to open a pathway to connection & effort on his part to make it work.  He is in his late 70s, I am in my  mid 60s & we are both doing our best to create a relationship that hadn’t existed before.

People look at me in disbelief when I say that, but it is true.  It was true with all of my surviving siblings, who tended to non-verbal (yes, even Mike – being cheery doesn’t equate to necessarily being readily forthcoming), all of whom graduated from high school before President Kennedy’s assassination (Peter graduated in ’56!) while I got my diploma less than a year after Woodstock.

Our current relationship is very special to me.  He sends us clippings & keeps us up-to-date on his adored three granddaughters; we take him out for rambles & to his favorite spots for breakfast or lunch.

There is A LOT of heartbreaking history between the two of us, but we choose to leave it where it belongs – in the distant past.

It would be nice if everyone could make peace with people as they grow older.  Our outings with Peter have been a godsend to me, in so many ways.  The greatest blessing is simply being able to speak our truth to each other, without judgement.

Peter’s experience with our parents is wildly different from mine – he’s the first, while I’m the baby.  Our birth order, gender & age difference aren’t the only things that conspired against any relationship – we’re rooted in two different generations,  we have different ideas of what constitutes success, different ideas about class & the importance of social position, different religious beliefs & political leanings.

Perhaps our greatest difference is that Peter seems to see our parents in a radically different light than I do – over forty years since Dad died & sixteen since Mom slipped from us, he still rails at their parental inadequacies.  Will never forget Peter sharing one of the oft-told tales of Dad not being the father he needed.  Had heard it many times – from mother’s side as well as from Peter’s little boy memory.  This time, I was able to respond differently than I would have years ago.  Having an active relationship with Peter made that possible.

Peter’s jaw just about dropped when I looked him straight in the eye &, far from defending our parents, laid out the truth – “Dad & Mom had a remarkable partnership, were deeply in love & utterly devoted ~and~ they were terrible parents.”

It felt GREAT being able to say that, even if he didn’t seem interested in what came next. Mom & Dad were gosh awful parents because they’d never seen good parenting.  There was no Benjamin Spock, no magazines devoted to every stage of parenting, no row upon row of baby books.  In the 1930s, it was assumed a mother knew how to parent & could teach the dad.

Reality… Mom’s father died when she was 19, succumbing to a congenital heart condition that had left him an invalid for several years.  Mom adored her father, a man who loved to play with his children, who enjoyed good times with friends, parties, good music.  When he died, not only did his light leave Mom’s life, so did the happy times.  Her totally self-absorbed mother moved Mom & Aunt Betty, who was just 18, into their grandfather’s strict Methodist household.  Mom had no template for a normal family – the one she had formed, working for a family as nanny & dear companion to the children, was destroyed when the couple unexpectedly divorced.

Dad didn’t fare any better.  He was an only child – his mother was rh neg back when that couldn’t be treated;  all her subsequent children died at birth or soon after.  When Dad was in his early teens, his mother was again pregnant – and carrying the grief of knowing her husband had a mistress.  The New Year’s Eve before her death, she & Dad waited up for “Gar” to be home to see the new year in, as he’d promised;  to the end of his life, Dad remembered his mother’s tears.  The baby died soon after birth, as did my grandmother days later.  Dad’s father subsequently married his mistress.  When Dad was given his choice of where to go for prep school, he narrowed his choices to Haverford or Harrisburg Academy, choosing the later because there would be no expectation of him coming home over weekends.

When Mom & Dad found each other, a whole new reality became possible for each of them.  Dad did what he thought a truly good father should – he loved our mother, was faithful & true to her.  Mom was the image of what she believed was a good mother – keeping house, being supportive of her husband & her children’s #1 cheerleader.  In one way, they were not typical at all of their era.  Looped-out crazy about each other, they were open about being eager lovers to the end; in a stab at lightness in a dark time, Mom said the grave stone should say, “They did it till he died.”

Recalling when, within four months, their youngest son was killed & the lumber yard where Dad was a company officer burned down, leaving him without an income, Mom said she & Dad were lucky – “Tragedy can draw a couple together or tear them apart;  we were blessed to be the former.”  But what brought them together did terrible damage to the family, who only once discussed the impact of Ian’s death on each & all of us – in a meeting in the late 1990s, forty years later, and that was commenting on the fact the Ian was brought up but never the tragedy, never its aftermath.

That was then…  Peter knows these stories, grew up with them as I did, but they didn’t seem to humanize our parents to him.  The difference NOW is that when he lights into Dad about the awful treatment he feels he received at our father’s hands, I can speak up. Not from an impassioned desire to “set the record straight” as I might have at one time. Peter’s experiences are his experiences.  If I want him to respect mine, I have to first respect his.  When he talks about how our parents never said, “I love you,” it’s an opportunity to point out, without trying to score points, that they came from a time where parents showed their love in actions.  I understand that Peter remembers Dad as stern & I remind myself that as father/son they had a different relationship than daddy/daughter.

It is such a blessing that Peter & I made peace, that we have a here & now relationship.  I feel sorry for all the people who don’t get a chance to hear their siblings’ stories as an adult, to hopefully bring to the connection a willingness to hear & the courage to share without any agenda, other than putting out your truth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Play’s The Thing

Human beings need play the way they need vitamins.  ~ lionel tiger ~

Spend the day with a typical older person living in even one of the better “senior lifestyle residences” & notice if any semblance of spontaneous, unstructured PLAY is part of his or her experience.

Too often, not much, if any.

The greatest source of playful interaction & connection is typically mealtime, where – if she’s lucky (and the vast majority of residents are women) – she’s part of a regular circle of friends sharing lunch & laughs.  Alas, such “breakfast brigades” & “lunch bunches” are far from the norm & many of the ones that meet every day focus on aches pains problems rather than providing lively & expansive back & forth.  Even the best are haunted by the specter of alteration by debilitation & death.

Typically, the more high-end a senior residence, the more choices there are for playful interaction, from year ’round swimming to fair weather golfing, dancing & bridge & the performing arts (as participant or audience). But how many of residents actually take part in those activities?  And if they want to participate, who helps makes sure they get to & from them?  Personal care in even the best facilities can fall prey to being top quality maintenance rather than continual enrichment, however well-meaning & best-intentioned its goals.

Top of the scale, Ma!   Everyone on the face of the planet needs a steady diet of laughter-lobbing play, play that gets the energies flowing, the heart pitter pattering, that deepens old ties & forges new ones.

I think of a young family who swiped my heart this past spring when I helped with the youngest while their mother finished up her degree work at a local college.  Those children –  & parents & grandparents – breathe play into everything they do, bring a sense of adventure & the unknown into all aspects of their lives.

That family sits atop the high end of my playfulness scale.  Don’t look to me to describe the sorry folks of all ages who slide down the scale to the very end.  My True North purpose is to duplicate/modify best practices, then upgrade, even transform lives.  Think Galileo, Pasteur, the Wright brothers, Robert Goddard – each was considered a crackpot or kook & look at all they accomplished, the paths they opened that others have traveled.  Boys – move over & make room for me.

When I look at that wondrous play-filled family that scampered off with my heart, I see children & parents who know their boundaries, who have chores, who place expectations on each other.  They live work play within a creative structure.  How can we create a structure where older people could value & access more play?

Alas, when people think about play, they tend to limit it to children.  Back in February 2008, the NY Times Magazine’s ran a cover story on play – spinning off a presentation by Stuart Brown & Krista Tippett at the NY Public Library discussing its biological & spiritual roots.  But four months later, in a wildly popular TED talk, Stuart (I like to think of myself as friends awaiting an introduction) pointed out that the cover didn’t show a single adult at play, only children.  They’d missed the point of his work – that play is as needed in adulthood as it is when we are in our single digits, teens, twenties.  In my experience, it is as important as fresh air & good nutrition for a happy, healthy life.

Background – seventeen years ago, I expected that 2017 would find me easing out of my corporate career.  I had an exceptional run & quite a few professional accolades & honors, including 2000 Employee of the Year.  Then, in late summer/early autumn 2001, it became clear the Universe had WAY different plans for me.  But it wasn’t until I crossed paths with Anne Davis Hyatt that I got the first aha about my True North life purpose.

Kent, Anne’s best beloved, died after a stroke, in his late 80s.  She was suddenly solo.  And depressed.   Oh, and been recently diagnosed with dementia.

Anne’s family gathered together, discussed the situation, then checked out best next steps.  Their conclusion – infuse Mom with play activities, with a variety of play mates.  They brought me on for rambles & restaurant runs; Tamar to scoot Anne back to her beloved little hometown for visits with family & friends, pal up with her for weekly painting classes, play the piano & read aloud; and, always, Anne’s children were there for numerous regular weekly visits, after-church Sunday dinner & Sunday supper.

In the 7+ years Anne was our client, I don’t recall a single serious illness, nor a hospitalization.  The healthy dose of social interaction every day played out in a strong spirit housed in a declining body.  She was out & about doing things right up to the day she fell in her apartment.  This was a woman whose dementia had progressed to the point where she could not remember from moment to moment the day let alone the date, but no one – NO ONE – was more primed for the next great FUN moment.  Anne would frame the sunset with her hands, saying, “I don’t remember what they’re called (the sky, clouds, sun, trees & fields), but aren’t they BEAUTIFUL?!”  Imagine if she had been left, as the vast majority of seriously older people are, without an infusion of play into her day?

Play’s the thing!   For now, Anne – like my mother – would be considered an outlier.  Praise be, I have spent my life surrounded by older people whom others would consider similar fabuolous outliers!  My goal is to help turn that around so that the qualities that hallmarked their lives are considered the norm rather than a happy aberration.

Ten years ago, even 7+ years ago when I first started chumming around with Anne, that goal might have seemed unimaginable.  Today, it’s more & more can-do, with remarkable individuals groups organizations coalescing to turn around our current culture’s woeful attitudes around & expectations of aging upward.

It speaks volumes that next week’s International Association for Gerontology & Geriatrics (IAGG) World Congress will, for the first time (!), feature as one of its official venues, The Age Stage.  It’s HUGE, that such an august body recognizes the importance & power of creativity, a cornerstone of play, in aging upward.

The Age Stage is a physical reminder that “the play is the thing.”

Four years ago, I discovered that the National Center for Creative Aging is rooted in the findings of Gene Cohen, a “book mentor” of mine for many years who died far too young in 2009.  So much has changed since the years where Medicare allocated a laughable (not in a good way) $250 a year for mental health. Gene fought to get that increased, fought for oldsters elders ancients to be considered deserving of good mental health, whether a kid of 65 or a 95+ grey head.  Just as most people accept the various ages of life, Gene believed that older age has its own stages – reevaluation, liberation, summation & encore.

I will be thinking of those stages – and reveling at my liberation – throughout the IAGG World Congress, blessed to be who I am with the background I’ve gathered (or been gathered for me), at this age, in this era, at this time, in this place.

Next week, the IAGG will give space & time to showcase the importance of aging creatively.  Give me a little time & watch me win them over to giving play its due!

 

Meet Mom

As I grow older, it gets clearer to me that  our goal is to be as quietly radical as the Lord was while on this earth.  We need to put our new wine in those new bottles.  We need to expect extraordinary things from ourselves and from our institutions.

 Oh my goodness, sometimes I am unrecognizable, even to my self.     >>KRL<<

This is from an online posting  my mother sent  to a large circle of friends who explored the role of women in our church.  (She dictated, I transcribed to the internet.)  Mom was 90 when she wrote those words.  Over the previous few years, she had stretched herself in ways that she’d left behind when Dad died, 27 years before.  In their partnership, she’d found & developed a strong sense of worth & personal identity, alas tied to Dad.  When he died, at 63, so did her confidence in herself.

Never say never, because she began regaining it half way between her 87th & 88th birthdays.  Through her own courage, grit & determined actions, Mom dug down deep inside herself, found that woman her Pete loved & nurtured, brought her out into the world for all of us to admire & applaud.