Sometimes in the murky waters called the news, one finds a gem. I did last week when I read a story announcing that Jane Goodall had won the 2021 Templeton Prize. Templeton honors the achievements of people “harnessing the power of the sciences to explore the deepest questions of the universe and h
Sometimes in the murky waters called the news, one finds a gem. I did last week when I read a story announcing that Jane Goodall had won the 2021 Templeton Prize. Templeton honors the achievements of people “harnessing the power of the sciences to explore the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s place and purpose within it.” The $1.5 million award recognized Goodall’s lifetime of work at the intersection of science and spirituality.
Of course, I cheered their choice. What’s not to love about this primatologist, conservationist, environmentalist, and lover of people who has spent decades in service to the planet?
The gem for me came in watching Templeton’s 9-minute video about Goodall and seeing how much light still shines through her eyes. At 87, she gives me hope for the planet as well as for my future.
Creative Commons image by Franz Johann Morgenbesser from VIenna, Austria.
She shared a delightful story about her curiosity as a young child. She asked her family how a hen lays an egg. She wanted to know, “Where is the hole?” No one offered a good enough answer so Goodall decided to wait in the hen house to see for herself. It took four hours for the hen to produce an egg and reward Goodall’s passion for patient observation.
Using that story, she now illustrates the principles that have guided her approach to science for decades:
Not getting the right answer
Deciding to find out for yourself
Making a mistake
Not giving up
Goodall has authored many books and given many talks. Rather than write about her work, I refer you to her own words. Instead, I want to describe a feature that struck me as I looked at her eyes.
It was her radiance.
Radiance is a quality that I see in the faces of many of my eighty-year-old plus friends. (You know who you are!) It comes from an inner light shining through a skin that is becoming more translucent. It reflects soul qualities like peace and purposefulness, curiosity, acceptance, and wonder.
Radiance doesn’t require a charmed life, unmarred bodies, or a peaceful world. Many of us, post-eighty, will experience some level of bodily pain or grief from the inevitable losses that are a natural consequence of a life lived long.
Yet radiance can be one of the gifts available as we age. It doesn’t mean that we all will have, at 87, Goodall’s energy and ability to speak and travel. How our radiance shines will be as individual as we are.
As I approach, (oh my), turning seventy, it’s something I hope to cultivate by recognizing it in others.
Seeing the beauty in others who are aging is a way to find it in ourselves.
In the video, Goodall’s light is so evident. Some of it may come from her faith in the future. She believes that change can come, even if not directly through her hands.
But last month, it wasn’t cool at all to learn that a favorite cousin has just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
That hit me hard. I was shocked and saddened.
Despite our years of close friendship, I was scared to call her.
But when I did, we had a great call. Laughed a lot. Reminisced. Talked about her diagnosis and what she was going to do.
She doesn’t consider her dementia a tragedy. Neither do I.
Dementia isn’t a tragedy.
I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. But we need to invent a new narrative, a script about dementia that doesn’t turn my cousin into a victim, but keeps her as a loving friend still capable of humor, art, caring, and so much more.
Tragedy thinking undermines us all
Tragedy thinking turns dementia into a scary thing. Like the monster who might come over the horizon at any moment. Too horrific to think about. Better to lock our fears about dementia in a box and never look at them.
And avoid contact with anyone who has been diagnosed. You never know when it might reach out and catch you.
But here’s what the tragedy narrative about dementia does:
Allows us to write off a group as being different, and then stay away from that which makes us uncomfortable.
Turns the person with dementia into a problem, rather than seeing them relationally as players in a larger community.
Creates a world of “we’s” (those who are still cognitively ok) and “them’s” (doomed with dementia).
Curbs our curiosity to know folks with dementia and see each one of them as an individual.
Leaves the rest of us in fear about what could happen to us.
Cutting through “we vs. them”
I’m part of a global movement of people who want to dump the tragedy narrative around dementia and reimagine a different world. There’s enough real tragedy out there without assigning it to a class of people who didn’t ask for the title.
If we paint over a group of people with just one big brush and just one color, (black), we never see what’s really going on: nuances, differences, colors, giggles, warmth, and all the good stuff.
When we focus on the “can’t do’s,” we ignore what someone can do.
We create a caste of social untouchables.
It gets personal
In addition to my cousin Emily, who was just diagnosed, (not her real name), another cousin, Brenda, died of early-onset dementia. For most of her adult life, Brenda feared that she would succumb to the form of early-onset dementia that led to her mother’s death when she was about 64. In her late forties, Brenda experienced her first symptoms.
Yes, that was painful to see. But here’s what Brenda did while struggling with her condition:
Took long walks into the New Hampshire hills.
Delighted in nature. Gardened.
Continued to make art and sold paintings to subsidize Habitat for Humanity in Bolivia
Prayed for a cure.
While she could still drive, volunteered at her church and helped an elderly man who couldn’t.
Promised to give money to dementia research if she ever hit the jackpot.
Watched movies with her daughter, allowing her to explain the plot, again and again.
Loved her family and laughed at their foibles.
Kept her sense of gratitude.
The family shared laughter and celebrations, through the almost two decades Brenda lived with dementia. She was able to die at home in her mid-sixties.
I was surprised to learn that Emily also feels grateful. She even appreciated the two men who screamed nasty remarks when she made a potentially dangerous mistake driving. “They helped me to see that it was time to stop driving.”
She appreciates that receiving a medical diagnosis has given her a way to explain her learning difficulties to others. Her grown children now understand why “Mom is so slow” figuring out anything at the computer.
Together they can laugh about her mistakes and crack jokes. Even though Emily’s a shy person, she told me, “I think I have a comic coming out.”
She knows that she’s lucky. She’ll move in with her daughter soon. And even though she faces many frustrations daily, dementia has not stopped Emily from finding beauty and grace.
With a lilting voice, she tells me, “I’m here and I’m still me.”
Will she remember our conversation tomorrow? Who cares! Iwas uplifted by it and we were both happy to connect.
Finding the we
Emily, Mary, and the millions of people with dementia have names. They are part of us, not a weird subset to shun or lock-away. (By lock-away, I’m not talking about thoughtful, dedicated memory care residences that help so many.)
What if we all have something to learn from people with dementia? I feel blessed to have a friend with Down’s Syndrome in my life. He inspires me whenever I am with him. So did Brenda and so does Emily. Though they may be cognitively challenged, they have much to teach me.
Seeing the humanity in dementia lessens my fear.
We have a choice. We can separate ourselves from those who are different, including people with mental health issues, disabilities, as well as different backgrounds, races, nationalities, and skin tones.
We can generalize about “who they are.”
Or, we can be curious and get to know them as individuals.
I want to be part of reinventing the conversation around dementia. If someday my cognitive capabilities fade, I want to be treated as someone who still has a soul and spirit. Someone who still loves art, music, and dancing. Someone who creates stuff and loves walking in nature. Someone with a purpose for being here, even if I’m no longer sure what that is.
I hope I could be like Emily and say, “I am still me.”
Let’s change the narrative to one of love that lets us join our friends with dementia and say, “How are you today? What are you enjoying? I don’t know what’s happening within you, and I want to know. You are part of my world. I love you.”
Having a big brain, and a facile set of cognitive skills is not what makes us human.
I just finished Nina RIgg’s uncommonly beautiful and ultimately uplifting memoir of the last year of her life, The Bright Hour. Nina, a great-great-great-granddaughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson, weaves reflections on Emerson and Michel de Montaigne into this tale of family and cancer. Although living while dying might sound morbid, it isn’t. It’s a challenge we all face, ultimately, even if we’d rather ignore it. Nina dies the month after finishing her manuscript, leaving us with a note of sorrow and a great appreciation for life.
Nina had no interest in “bucket lists,” full of dramatic must-do-before-dying experiences. She preferred to spend her year immersed in her family, treasuring the commonplace, appreciating what she thought she’d miss most. She wrote:
“I want all of it–all the things to do with living–and I want them to keep feeling messy and confusing and even sometimes boring. The carpool line and the backpacks and light that fills the room in the building where I wait while the kids take piano lessons.”
Today, with COVID-19, “bucket-list” travel is not an option. We’re unlikely to jet to Paris, climb on Macchu Picchu, or walk the Great Wall of China.
Yet we can admire, like Nina, the messy and ordinary in our lives, finding within it magic, knowing how much we would miss it if our lives were to change.
I started a list: small, ordinary, no-cost things I adore in my life today. This was easy to make.
Small, ordinary (no-cost) things that I love and would miss
Dappled sunlight on a path.
Face-coating licks from bro-dogs Winston and Royce.
A bear hug from my husband, Steve.
A blueberry, fresh-picked from our patch.
The moon before dawn.
Purple gladiolas in bloom.
A simple piece of Chopin I can play on the piano.
The two Doug firs standing sentinel next door.
This list goes on and on.
But the more important list, perhaps, is the second I made:
Small, ordinary (no-cost) things that I don’t love but would also miss
Thatching ants, colossal composters, whose two-foot-high home (for a million ants?) covers a much-used walkway
The birds who have abandoned our protocol of share-zies at the raspberry bush and have decided “winner take all.”
A lawn full of false-dandelions, with bright yellow flowers and puffballs about to send their seeds everywhere into the garden.
Royce’s mistake as he steals my best pear off the counter then distributes its juicy remains on my favorite carpet.
The electric hammer my neighbor is using to build his barn.
My husband’s wheezie snore at night.
If I knew my life was limited, which of course it is, I would not take any of these for granted. The moment I thought I might lose them, I’d regret them all.
For these lists, I focused on small parts of life in front of me. In these days of global crisis, what’s right in front of me brings me the most comfort.
Appreciating the small in a time of COVID-19
With COVID, I move in a reduced orbit. Yet, my world is plenty big when I enlarge its scope by noticing the magic around me.
Two questions for you
You don’t have to meditate on dying, even though this is a powerful spiritual practice. Instead, try these two questions:
What are the small, ordinary things that you love?
What are the small, ordinary things that you don’t love but might dearly miss should your life be at risk?
Then, bask in appreciation for what is messy, common, and wonderful around you.
Do you ever wish that you could go back to the past and tweak a few memories?
The past can be changed. Not the facts, (an endangered species we need to vigorously protect), but the meanings and feelings that accompany them. What we focus on shapes our memories.
When we shift our focus, we recast what we remember.
Last week, I visited the African-American History Museum in Washington, D.C., a stunning presentation of culture and history that has consistently hosted sold-out crowds since its opening three years ago. Within a few hours inside the museum, my story about who were the founding fathers and mothers of this country profoundly shifted. (I strongly recommend that everyone visit.)
A few days later, I had an opportunity to re-view my own past.
Putting the past to the test
Shortly after the museum visit, I time-traveled back to high school and attended my 50th high school reunion.
I’m not someone who dreams about high school as the greatest time of life. When my parents ripped me out of my well-established nest in Connecticut halfway through my high school years and moved the family to New Jersey, my world crumbled. I joined a class where some folks had been together since grade school. I was an outsider.
The prospect of attending the 50th reunion, though, lured me across the country. I wanted to see how life had played out on faces I remembered, to hear the stories, and connect with a few special friends.
I’m not a big reunion go-er. I don’t love walking into a large gathering where I know hardly anyone. I attended my 20th high school reunion at a time when I still felt the need to prove that I had turned out OK and was living an interesting, even exciting, life. Struggling to make small talk under the drab, fluorescent lights of an Elks’ club banquet room, I was probably not the only one who was comparing herself with others.
Going to the 50th was different. This might be the last reunion many of us would attend. Our tribe was faltering. The list of deceased classmates was long and sobering.
In light of classmates who had passed, thinking that I had to “prove my worth” seemed ridiculous.
Those of us still present had survived. Good enough.
(Would that I could have told my younger self to stop trying to prove herself to others sooner than I did.)
Not everything had changed. I was still worried about my clothes (always) and my hair. Vanity had me wanting to look good, but at least, this time, it was for myself. I hoped that a flouncy skirt could help me transcend the aches in my back so that I could dance. (I did!)
Memories start to shift
I entered the reunion’s first event still wearing the invisible cloak of an outsider. After a series of warm greetings by reunion organizers and classmates whom I barely remembered (at least until we talked), I began to wonder if that label fit anymore. I felt more appreciated and remembered than I’d expected. Who is an outsider anyway? Scanning the room, I saw no outsiders–if you don’t count a few spouses doing obligatory escort duty.
As a tribe, my classmates shared experiences in the late sixties no one else would ever know: that high school, with that set of classmates and those teachers. We came of age at a turbulent time in history, when raging teen hormones merged with social unrest. We swam through the years together. Perhaps, I was never the fish out of water I believed myself to be.
What does and does not matter at a reunion
As I greeted people, I realized some of what doesn’t matter to me after 50 years:
Your GPA in high school.
Whether you were invited to all the dances/parties.
Whether you were cool or hung out with cool or popular kids.
Whether your parents were rich.
Whether you starred on a team, were class president, excelled in your studies, or flunked math.
Your original hair color.
It also doesn’t matter to me:
How big your house is.
Whether you are married, single or divorced, gay/straight/other.
How high on the (corporate) ladder you climbed or what honors you received in your profession.
How many spouses, children, grandchildren you have had.
What does matter to me:
Whether you love the people in your life–including partners, children, grandchildren, and friends.
How well you listen.
How you pay attention and support others.
If you feel called by life and care about the world.
If you are willing to risk sharing about your life.
Whether you are content with your own being and consider yourself still growing, learning, and giving.
The gift I received
Despite the swag bags (thank you organizers), the real gift I left with was gratitude.
I’d forgotten how many amazing friends I had and how we pulled ourselves through difficult times. I delighted that, even after fifty years, some of those friendships are still there for me to pick up on.
Many of my friends had blossomed. I spoke with a man who had been a science nerd in class, a true geek before geek was cool. Now, he’s a delightful guy with gray hair, a welcoming smile, and a loving partner who likes to travel with him in their motor home. Well done!
I chatted with a man with whom I had gone to my first high school dance as a junior. For years, I was haunted by a photograph of me standing beside him in a sleeveless, seafoam green dress I made myself. (Gag.) It was taken by a photographer who specialized in stiffly posed shots. Awkward on steroids!
At the reunion, I found my old friend to be kind, attractive and attentive as he shared about losing his wife and meeting a lovely new partner in a bereavement group. My heart melted when I met her and heard her story of meeting my friend and how happy they both are today. She said, “I never thought I would love again.”
I wanted to cry, “Yes! That’s the gift of life. We’re wounded. We move on. We create. We love.”
I could feel my internal record player needle shifting off of where it had been stuck for so many years. Now I heard a more soulful song, about how an old friend found new love.
Our memories of the past are like a kaleidoscope, filled with the facts of our experiences, waiting to be turned and rearranged.
With one twist, intriguing images spring forth that reveal fresh stories about the past. We can choose new images that don’t indenture us to memories of shame and regret.
The future, based in that old past, changes as well.
Then, blessed with fresh gratitude, we can continue on.
With so much to learn in life, I’m always on the lookout for new tips about learning.
This week’s lesson came from an unlikely source, my friend Joan, a 74-year-old unicycle rider. We talked about how she has learned demanding, physical skills, even in her seventies.
You can apply her lessons to many types of learning.
An aging beginner goes to Circus School
Joan was 64 when she fell in love with circus arts at the School of Acrobatics and New Circus Arts (SANCA), in Seattle.
Learning circus arts requires strength, agility, flexibility, and coordination–not to mention years of practice. Most of the students exploring that world of unicycles, trampolines, German Wheels, Chinese Poles, juggling, and aerial work are young. Although Joan began her studies without the benefit of youth, she brought with her awareness of movement, gained as a dancer, and her great zest for learning.
I always figured that people who do Circus Arts were a different race from you or me. Joan dissuaded me when she described the class she co-teaches a class for people with Parkinson’s and other disabilities, including a traumatic brain injury.
Her students make steady, if sometimes minutely little, progress. While none of them plan to walk the high tightrope or master the German wheel, they have fun. Their training at SANCA helps their minds to function better and their bodies to suffer less. One participant reported shaking less from her Parkinson’s.
If they can learn, progress and have fun despite significant disabilities, what could be possible for the rest of us?
Tips inspired by how Joan works with her students
Calibrate your expectations–there’s no “there” you have to get to. As long as you can be with the small gains you are making, the world can be yours because you’ll be inspired to keep learning.
Don’t curse your body or lament what you cannot do. We all have limits, and sometimes deal with pain, but we don’t need to add suffering to the mix.
Don’t judge–explore. Use your curiosity to keep your learning fresh and exciting. Don’t waste precious energy judging or comparing yourself with others.
Stay tuned in to your breath and learn to relax. To be able to juggle, (hey, I’m up to one ball!) requires a body that’s in balance, relaxed but tuned. Focusing on your alignment while breathing and relaxing can help all kinds of learning.
Stay in discovery as much as possible. When you come up against increments that give you problems, relax – it’s an opportunity to learn. Try to experiment with adjustments to help you counter pain or find an alternative route to the result that you want.
Discover your strengths as you learn how to move most effectively. Forget aiming to be The Hulk. You’ll find your strength as you learn to use yourself correctly, align your spine, and engage the right muscles, especially your core ones.
Forget “No pain, no gain.” Instead, use your brain. Who said you had to suffer to learn? Listen to your body. Discover what’s right for you. If the pain comes up, perhaps you can take smaller steps and still enjoy progressing in micro-increments. Smaller moves can keep you from getting hurt while allowing you the pleasure of advancing.
Joan’s guidance is timely, as I work with a left ankle has been troubling me for some months now. Last spring, after a history little twists and sprains, it announced, “no more” and asked me to stop leaping and hopping in Zumba dance class.
I don’t like to rein back my dancing since I want to believe that I can still jump around as I did in my 30’s.
However, I’m using this new (above) approach to become more friendly with my ankle, and curious about what sets off the pain.
Fortunately, the Zumba class I’ve been teaching, my first, is at the local Senior Center where I doubt my students (several in their late 80’s!) have any desire to jump.
In honor of my class, I’ve come up with some new mantras–you’re free to apply them to life.
What you lack in energy you can always add back in attitude.
Make up in sass what you don’t have in steps.
When you can’t do a mile, do an inch, but do it with gusto and a big smile.
Then, don’t forget to give yourself a rousing round of applause.
What do we do when we keep getting clobbered by bad news?
Find our way back to thriving.
This week, I’m continuing my survival guide to pulling a little hope from tough times. Hopefully, you don’t need it, unless, of course, you made the mistake of listening to the latest report on Global Warming or what’s happening at the border with Mexico.
Topping my list of things-I-didn’t-ask-for-and-didn’t-want this week was Monday’s emergency root canal and the death of a favorite cousin. Plus all the national and international news.
I’ve also been questioning my authority to write about thriving creatively in the second half of life, while my list of woes keeps accreting with medical and health issues, financial concerns, the loss of a beloved, and even letting go of plans to adopt a dog I had been counting on.
Maybe this week’s episode of the Survival Guide should be called Thriving is Not What You Think.
Raw and a bit crumpled, I’m wondering how I can have any legitimacy to talk about thriving. But this has been the perfect time to explore how we keep going when we feel broken, so maybe I still have something to talk about. I figure there might be a few others out there whose lives are rich, complex, and full of stuff not chosen.
It’s one thing to thrive when everything is going great, or an affirmation or two can turn things around. But challenges will come with life after 50 (or living in general), and we know better than to think that we can varnish over them.
Don’t believe the well-packaged books, posts, and articles being marketed with titles like Do This One Thing and Your Life Will Be Instantly Wonderful. Yes, they’re tempting. (Disclaimer: I occasionally read this stuff.) But, even as I unconsciously take the bait and click on the tempting tidbit flashing over the Internet with a sexy, pseudo-solution, I know it’s a sham. After the headline, “clickbait” is always boring.
Moreover, the one-stop solution feels disrespectful of those of us who know it ain’t that easy.
Finding a way back to thriving.
I decided to notice, on root canal day, what kept me going.
When you’re feeling raw or broken, the good stuff stands out. Maybe the darkness makes the light brighter. (Forgive me if that sounds like a bumper sticker.) With my customary, entitled belief that things should go my way worn off, I started noticing lots of small things that were, in fact, working for me. I found hints of delight.
The day of my root canal was brilliantly sunny, and I enjoyed a spectacular view of Mt. Rainier on the way to the endodontist. The “C” bus that I needed to catch came promptly. A brisk walk to her office gave me some exercise, and the warm greeting from the receptionist felt genuine. Throughout the visit, I experienced respect and compassion. The endodontist, whom I fell in love with as much as you can love working with a dentist, soothed me as she gently touched my arm. Beautiful music distracted me from the procedure (thanks Pandora Radio)–the nitrous oxide helped me relax into a semi-comatose state where every song seemed spectacular.
Returning home, I needed to run to catch a bus and discovered that my knees, ankles, and back could still pull as a team. Back on the island, my husband was waiting for me on the street with an open-hearted smile. A friend who was also in pain called to ask me a question. I was buoyed by an opportunity to help another.
Each small step was a grace.
I discovered that life is never all one way…all happy or all sad, all dark or all light.
I can’t pretend that everything that happens to us is good. The fact that my cousin struggled with early onset dementia for twenty years, knowing that she would eventually die of the same condition that had killed her mother, was tragic. Yet in her life and death, there were many miracles: her resilience and hope, her peaceful death, the way cousins are reconnecting around her departure.
Within everything, we can find enough good to keep us going.
I won’t call the pain, hassle, and expense of a root canal good. Yet my day contained so much good within it, that I discovered that I was, indeed, thriving.
True, it broke my heart to not be able to adopt the dog I had been counting on; yet along the way I experienced a new friendship and generous, caring support from the dog’s current foster Mom. The heartfelt, compassionate back-up from the animal-loving friends to whom I reached out for guidance, touched me deeply.
Etty Hillesum, whose writings about life during the Holocaust have inspired me so much, wrote about the touches of beauty she discovered in her horrific surroundings, like how the sun bounced off the walls of the concentration camp or how a flower could grow in the broken concrete.
All is not good. But we can always discover the good that is waiting to be noticed.
My list of saving graces is full of items that are small and, seemingly, insignificant, like being able to run a few blocks. On my “Life-is-working-aren’t-I-great-days” I can forget to appreciate these small things. On my bad days, they are the gifts that bring me back to life.
The days when life drops us to our knees are the days when we may look down to find the flower in the concrete.
People come together in remarkable ways after the worst tragedies, like the recent fires in Paradise, California. Small acts don’t bring a burned home back; they bring back hope.
When we get raw, we get real; we drop some of the masks we carry that separate us from life.
My book is taking a new direction. I don’t need to be a cheerleader for “Isn’t it great to thrive after 50?” Rather, I can say, “Stuff is going to happen, but we can still find our way to thriving.” A bit of depression, a period of brokenness, or a calamity or two don’t banish us from experiencing the small wonders of life. At times, they may even be enhanced.
That’s how we will continue to thrive. We don’t have to force fit life into an ideal reality.
We follow its flow and discover what is ideal within the reality we have.