How to change your past without fudging the facts

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.

Learning Tips from a 74-year-old Unicycle Rider

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.

 

 

Taking the small steps back to thriving

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.

 

When Grief comes to call

Last week Grief took me down, yet left a gift.

If you’re dealing with personal pain or the low-grade, chronic grief a lot of us are feeling about the world, it may be time to learn to walk with him.

I can’t tell you how to “get over” grief, but I’m learning about how to deal with his dominating, demanding presence.

Grief is one tough master. (I’ve gendered him, but you can change that if a force that takes you to your knees and threatens to flatten you to the ground feels more female to you.) He’s unyielding, sometimes cruel, and yet not without occasional kindness.

Losing Riley

Grief took my husband and me for a wild ride last week after we decided that it was time to put down our little animal companion, Riley.

Riley was our foster-rescue dog, a sweet, gentle Springer Spaniel, who came into our lives for four months, until his dementia and neurological difficulties made life too painful for him.

Our passion for Riley defied logic. We were smitten the moment we saw him walking in circles at the park, on a leash with the woman who brought him to us from the Seattle Animal Shelter. No matter that Riley was deaf, near blind, had trouble lifting himself to walk, and at times couldn’t contain himself for more than three hours.

He became a vessel for the biggest love we could give.

When Riley looked at us with his clouded eyes, our hearts melted and all we could think of doing was showering him with the safety, care, and love that he had missed during his days of abuse, neglect, and abandonment.

Grief was watching our moves.

Grief took aim as we kept opening our hearts to our little fella. Grief knew how to pulverize us the moment that we decided that Riley’s pain and confusion had outstripped his joy in living and it was time to say goodbye.

NEVER say to anyone, “He was just a dog.” Grief doesn’t care. Grief shakes us with loss and strips from us whatever we hold precious, whether it’s a beetle or a treasured photo, lost, of a deceased grandmother.

In the soul, sorrows mingle. My mother’s long-awaited death evoked few tears (they may still come), but putting down Riley took me to a place where I couldn’t stop sobbing.

Last week I read the words of Elizabeth Gilbert, who experienced a tsunami of grief when her wife Rayna died. As she shared in a recent TED interview:

“Grief… happens upon you, it’s bigger than you. There is a humility that you have to step into, where you surrender to being moved through the landscape of grief by grief itself. And it has its own timeframe, it has its own itinerary with you, it has its own power over you, and it will come when it comes. And when it comes, it’s a bow-down. It’s a carve-out. And it comes when it wants to, and it carves you out — it comes in the middle of the night, comes in the middle of the day, comes in the middle of a meeting, comes in the middle of a meal. It arrives — it’s this tremendously forceful arrival and it cannot be resisted without you suffering more… The posture that you take is you hit your knees in absolute humility and you let it rock you until it is done with you. And it will be done with you, eventually. And when it is done, it will leave. But to stiffen, to resist, and to fight it is to hurt yourself.”

Quote cited in a post at Brainpickings

Gilbert’s words resonate as memories of Riley continue to haunt our house.

A piece of chicken fat turns into a memory of how Riley would have swallowed it whole and then licked my hand. The baby gate we put in place to keep Riley in his section of the house is down, yet I still try to step over it. After-images of Riley keep appearing: Riley stumbling to stand, Riley being carried down steps by my husband, Riley panting and turning in circles in the hall, confused by his growing dementia.

Part of me wants to numb this pain, but neither drinking nor drugs are appealing. Grief is adept at waiting out numbness. Reasoning feels equally useless. Who cares that Riley was only with us for four months or that we gave him the best life we could? That may matter, but not to Grief.

Grief comes with a gift

Bearing the pain, I walk through our vegetable garden. I notice that the colors of the leaves on the smoke bush have become more vivid. The beans I left dangling from their vines stand out like a piece of art. The rustle of the quaking aspens turns into a melody.

Words, inspired by Riley, start flooding into me and I create a small poem. Grief waits with me as I shape a blessing from Riley for my husband, another for a friend who loved our furry companion.

The power to shape and craft my words is the lifeline I need, a way to stand with my grief, neither running from it nor drowning in its waters. Creativity lifts me out of the darkness, with compassion. I do not have to produce something lasting or great, I just need to follow its suggestion and open my senses and imagination.

I follow the thread, creating other small poems, trusting that each step I take is leading me towards healing, knowing that light will follow the dark, sensing that the gashes in my heart are expanding my perspective, and giving Grief its due.

Whether you are happy with the elections or not, concerned about the Caravan of refugees coming towards the Mexican border, or not, or tracking on other sufferings, know that in today’s world, Grief is likely to be a frequent guest.

Give Grief his place at the table

It’s a small price to pay for the right to love and care deeply about the world.

Let Grief stand at your side as you dip into that place in your soul where joy and sorrow mingle and deep hope lives.

From there, you may find solace. From there, you can create.

From there may you find a place of wholeness, a rainbow within that can bear the storms.

A blessing from Riley

To the friends I met
and those I never did,
I send you blessings.

I will be watching over you.
So grateful to have received love
in your difficult world,
a chance to leave in peace
even though I couldn’t wag my tail
or say thank you.

I will be romping again
with those you have loved
in a place called Dogland.

If you listen quietly
you may hear us bark.

.

 

 

 

 

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What you can and can’t afford to forget

Do you forget things? I do…and it bugs me, although the consequences are often minor. Selective amnesia is not such a bad thing. Think of it as a kind of spring cleaning of the mind, so you can free up some room for stuff that matters.

That said, here’s what I’d be happy to forget…and what I hope not to.

Stuff to forget during brain-cleanings:

My childhood phone number: (WO6-0642).
The star of Dr. Kildare: (Richard Chamberlain).
The name of the girl down the street who bullied me: (Maureen).
The teal dress I wore to the Junior Prom.
The Kardashians.

I forget other things, and often it’s not a big deal.

What I can forget (no big deal):

Occasional words.
The reason I just came into the kitchen.
How old I am.
The botanical names of the plants in my garden.
The name of the last book I read. (It was good…)

Forgetting can also have consequences–embarrassing, but largely remediable.

What I wish I hadn’t forgotten (but nobody died):

My anniversary. (Isn’t our love to be celebrated every day?)
Birthdays. (“Belated” is a term I use frequently.)
The name of the former client I ran into out of context. (Embarrassing!)
A Monday morning meeting. (Why didn’t I check my calendar Sunday night?)
The list I made to take to the supermarket.

Yet there are memories burned into me that I hope never to forget.

What never to forget:

The twelve people who were murdered in a Jewish Synagogue last weekend.
The children who have died in school shootings.
The stories of my grandparents and other ancestors, fast disappearing.
The lives of the faceless refugees leaving terrorized lands.
The children separated from their mothers at the border.
That guns kill.
That the marginalized: elderly, prisoners, disabled, or poor, are human like me.
That our world needs elders and my job is to become one.
That democracy cannot be taken for granted.
That hope heals even in the worst times.
To vote.

Let the small stuff fade away, but hold on to what counts, like remembering what’s in the United States Constitution.

And please, don’t ever forget to vote.

With prayers for the families of recent victims,

Ask a better question…create a better world

Whenever I lose my glasses, which, I’m embarrassed to admit, happens increasingly frequently, my world devolves into a glasses-finding operation. Walking through my house, I stop seeing the art, the dog, or the freshly-picked apples on the counter. Instead, I ask, “Where the heck are my glasses?” and view each piece of furniture as a potential hiding ground. My question sets the stage for what I see as I comb through the house.

Once the misplaced item is found (hopefully), I could create a different future (if I were wiser) by asking new questions instead of hopelessly playing and replaying my game of lost and found. By asking, “Why do I keep losing my glasses?” and “What system could I use to keep me from losing them so often?” I could create possibilities for change, rather than staying stuck in reaction.

Questions shape what we see

The slogan Make America Great Again, continues to polarize us in the United States. Framed as a question, it sounds like, “Why isn’t America great?” with the embedded assumption that America is not great. Asking that question (and the phrase itself) invites us to look at America and find ways we are “not great.”

If we were seriously interested in manifesting the greatness inherent in phrases like “liberty and justice for all,”  we might begin with a set of questions that offer a different lens through which to view the country:

  • In what ways is America great today?
  • What values lie underneath our true greatness?
  • Where are we living those values?
  • What stories do we have that capture the essence of this greatness?
  • Why is being great important?
  • When we embody our greatness, how do we act?
  • What could we do to bring out more of our true greatness–and make sure it benefits all?

When we examine our world for signs of true greatness rather than its lack, we start finding lots of examples.

We also see the gap between our values and our reality. We’re provoked to act out of our desire to do more of what is good, rather than fixing what is broken.

How to change the narrative, one question at a time

Sometimes the cultural narratives we live in, our “big stories,” are outdated.

For example, the narrative that shapes how we look at growing older is usually some version of  “aging-as-something-to-be-avoided-as-long-as possible,” “aging-as-a-problem-to-be-fixed,” or simply “gloom, doom, and decline.”

No wonder as a society we’re not turned on about getting old!

If we started asking questions that offered a different frame, we’d kindle a more hopeful perspective.

Next week, after my talk at Sageing International’s Global Conference in Minneapolis, I’m going to invite audience members to try out a few questions. Sageing participants support positive, conscious aging, so imagine the energy if people started asking each other:

  • How are you thriving now that you are past midlife?
  • What are you exploring or discovering that inspires you??
  • How is your life vibrant today?
  • What is calling to you now?

The mere act of asking those questions subverts the old narrative!

“Questions are fateful. They determine destinations. They are the chamber through which destiny calls.” – Godwin Hiatshwayo

Let questions shape the world we want

Looking for what we want doesn’t require that we deny the shortcomings or problems in our society. We acknowledge the gap between our aspirations and values and our current reality, and then ask:

“What’s a change we could make today to bring us more in line with our values?”

The world orients to our questions.

Want to give it a go? You’re welcome to try out these:

  • What about life has pleased you today?
  • Where in your life are you feeling most yourself?
  • Where did you catch yourself thriving?

Or, you could always borrow mine:

“Where did I leave my glasses tonight?”

 

 

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