Is It Florida Time?

Franny and I just returned from five days in Florida.  We had wanted some relief from the New England winter and a break from routine.   Admittedly, the idea of a vacation defies credulity since I’m retired and on permanent vacation.  But we like new places and time to explore.

As it turned out, the Florida temperatures—high 90’s every day—were oppressive and less conducive to outdoor play than 50’s in New England.  Still swam and walked in the relative cool of morning. We read for hours and explored the “new south” in an air conditioned car.  Since childhood, Florida has ranked high on my list of places not to go—too crass, too humid—but we wanted to give it a chance to redeem itself, which it did.  Sarasota, Venice, and other coastal cities were filled with art museums, quirky town centers, and beautiful beaches with diverse and intermixing ethnicities.

We chose Sarasota primarily to explore Pelican Cove, an idyllic community of about 1200 elder refugees from the intellectual and artistic centers of the north.  Residents had created their own “university,” with classes taught by renowned experts and recent enthusiasts.  There are self-organized groups for yoga, gardening, folk music and jazz—you name it.  The housing is comfortable, unpretentious, and gloriously set on the Sarasota bay, with sunrises and sunsets welcoming and wishing farewell to every day.

Friends of friends, who had just purchased a PC home, showed us around.  Michael, the founder of TV’s Nova programming, and Lynn, a psychologist, spent a couple of hours singing PC’s glories, as if they were paid—and brilliant—sales people eager to line their pockets with gold.  But no.  They were Pelican Cove lovers and we paid close attention.

For a couple of years now, I have been writing about what I think of as the next-to-last period of life.  That period, sometimes brief, sometimes long, begins with the realization, deep in our bones, that our time on earth is limited, and ends with dementia, disability, or death.  Generally, our culture paints this period in shades of gray, impressed mostly by diminished capabilities and grumpy moods.  I’m impressed by its intensity and vibrancy.  David Milch, creator of NYPD, puts it this way: “There’s an acute sense of time’s passing.  Things are important.  You don’t want to be inconsequential in your perspective on things…everything counts.”

Pelican Cove looked to me like an active experiment in making the most of this extraordinary period.  It seems to be built for people in their 70’s, who are still physically capable and seeking to suck the marrow of the time remaining.  A morning walk, a little yoga by 10:00, some reading or a seminar in the early afternoon, a nap at 3:00, sunsets and twilight, ideal for contemplation and meditation.  A place and a time for relaxation, maybe even a hint of wisdom in the offing.

And yet, except for maybe a month or two in the winter, the Pelican Cove life seems a little premature for Franny, who isn’t yet 70, and for me, too.  We aren’t ready to cut or limit our ties to our children, grandchildren, friends, and even old colleagues.  We’ve both retired but remain more or less connected to our professional communities and, with them, our ability to contribute to fields whose goals we still feel committed to: Franny to children, through early childhood education and policy; me to equity and diversity through the education of nonprofit leaders.

Neither of us earn a living any more but neither have we made complete transitions into what is generally considered retirement.  There’s too much energy and opportunity remaining.  Sure, the kind of work we have done throughout our life can never be completed, but maybe I’m waiting for a sign that says you’ve done what you can.  Be gone?  Nope. Not yet.  The connections I feel when working are too deep and satisfying to give up entirely in order to relax or to pursue “interests”—all the time.

I know how simplistic that declaration sounds.  And I know that it’s important to avoid black and white distinctions: working and retired; professional and volunteer; active and relaxed; letting go and holding on.  There are all kinds of mixed, often complex balances that can be struck.  Even while living in a community like Pelican Cove.

But for me there’s something about Pelican Cove that feels like withdrawal, like a radical break from ways that I have been engaged during my entire life.  Having family and friends and colleagues 1500 miles away, feels like divorcing myself for the natural life cycle.  My imagery about this phase of the cycle includes close, visceral ties to the people I know and love.  They have been so much a part of my life that, in a way, they are me.  Or the relationships we have formed is a essential to who I am.  Distancing myself from them feels like distancing from myself—a kind of alienation.

Pelican Cove seems like an admission that I’m not yet willing to make any more than I might choose a monastery to pursue my spiritual development with greater intensity. For now, it says that I will stop being a citizen of the larger world, that I will stop striving, and begin to focus almost exclusively on amusing myself.

My objections don’t hold for everyone, of course.  Franny tells me, for instance, that she has always held service to community as a sacred act.  Particularly service that isn’t directly reciprocated, isn’t even well known.  And she yearns for a time when she can devote herself to it.  She might not be any more ready for Pelican Cove than I am but she can see the pathway there.  I admire, maybe even envy her for that.

But it isn’t exactly me.  Too much of me still faces outward, towards the greater world, even though I do precious little to help it.  And I have too many internalized injunctions against a life of leisure and a life focused entertaining myself.  I do wonder whether the injunctions have begun to wane, whether I need to work harder to diminish their hold on me, in order to be free to fully enter the leisurely stage of life promised and promoted by American culture.

The near perfection of Pelican Cove amplifies these questions.  It makes me uneasy, as though I should make decisions, as though I should move on with my life and not cling to what some people might call the past.  What is clear, though, is that Franny and I are not going to make a decision now.  It is premature.  And I, for one, remain mostly comfortable and enlivened by the uncertainty.   In that way, Pelican Cove has been exquisitely clarifying for me.

 

Advertisements

Don’t Tell Me About Old Age

Franny and I belong to a study group, whose members were already pushing old age when we joined 19 years ago.  One day I asked them to participate in a little bit of research.  “Sure,” they said, because they generally like me.  Until I announced the subject: What’s it like to be old.  “Old?  Who’s old?”  I thought they were kidding.  With the exception of Franny, our ages range from 76 to 87.  We had already lost a member to cancer.  Others have suffered heart attacks, strokes—you name it.  Still, when I pressed, they looked at me like I had belched, loudly and involuntarily in public.

Mine was more than a breach of etiquette.  It was as though I had challenged their identity, or maybe their lives.  “I’m old,” I declared, trying to break through their resistance with my own candor.  They didn’t bite.  To accept their age meant accepting society’s stereotypes of aging, including the likelihood of being dismissed and disdained, a self-portrait they must not internalize.

The fight isn’t only against the way we are pigeon holed; it’s also a cry for independence, for control of our lives.  In spite of the way that old folks are portrayed in the movies, we are not children, bumbling idiots, or simply shells of our former selves.  We know ourselves pretty well; and we don’t want to be told who we are or what to do.

Their opposition to what they imagined would be the premise of my research, then, was necessarily fierce and sustained.

————————————————————-

Every culture has its unofficial, generally unstated ideas about everything, including  marriage, parenting, well being, morality, and old age.  Collectively, these ideas can be called a cultural narrative.  They come to us through word of mouth, through TV, film, and other social media.  The stories and images are ubiquitous.  Growing up in a given culture, we hardly know that we are taking them in; and, after a while, it is hard to distinguish them from what we think of as our own feelings and thoughts.

The struggle to make that distinction, the struggle to know ourselves as distinctive individuals, to determine our own character, is one of life’s great dramas.

The drama plays out with particular intensity during old age because old people have lost many of the defining activities and social arrangements—family and work, especially—that once served as barriers between themselves and the influence of cultural imagery.

The contemporary narrative of old age is familiar to most of us.  It differs from the narratives of other eras and other cultures, where the accumulated experience of old people is venerated.  Instead, it emphasizes a loss of vigor, competence, and productivity, and the absence of knowledge that’s appropriate to and valued by society now.  American culture generally glorifies youth and fears—sometimes, despises—old age.  Just look at comic or tragicomic portraits of old people in TV, film, and popular fiction.  At best, we forgive our old people their incompetence or chuckle affectionately at their bumbling ways.  At worst, we distance ourselves from their neediness and dependence.  And we are offended when they take the places of better qualified youth and drain the resources of the already beleaguered younger generations.

Even more painful, I think, is the narrative of continual, remorseless decline and diminishment.  Accordingly, bodies grow weaker and demand more attention.  Minds grow slower and command less respect.  Instead of continued leadership in families and communities, old people become invisible.

We may fight the inevitable with exercise, diet, and cosmetic surgery but, in the end, there’s nothing much we can do about it.  We might slow or modify the downward journey but that’s all.  For the most part, we accept its inexorable logic.  Perhaps not consciously but subconsciously, we internalize the fundamental message of the narrative.  Margaret Morganroth Gullett puts it beautifully: “We are aged by culture.”

What this means is that we filter our actual, distinctive experience through the cultural imagery.  We live as though the narratives are more real than any genuine feelings that don’t quite fit the narratives.  It’s hard to escape their omnivorous desire to tell us who we really are. So we discard large parts of ourselves.

This does not mean that we fall before putting up a fight.  During the last few decades, the Baby Boomers, anticipating their own decline and accustomed to having their way, have championed an alternative narrative.  They call it “Successful Aging.”

John Wallis Rowe and Robert Kahn, whose book popularized the “successful aging” movement,  tell us that healthy aging involves three main factors: (1) being free of disability or disease; (2) having high cognitive and physical abilities, and (3) interacting with others in meaningful ways.  This calls upon us to eat good food, to exercise regularly, and to cultivate a friendship circle or close community ties around churches, synagogues or more secular venues.  Follow this prescription and you will live a (relatively) happy and fulfilling life.

But after reading enough “successful aging” stories, they began to feel a little strained.  The stories look as much like admonitions as reports. The promises seem more aspirational than actual.

Divergence from “successful aging” is too often a cause for shame.  There must be something wrong with you if you succumb to illness, lethargy, or fear.  There must be something you have done or, worse still, something inherent in your character.  If you were a good person, a strong person, a purposeful person, you would be headed towards your goals.  You might fail sometimes but eventually, with effort and the will to succeed, you would get there.  When you don’t, it calls everything about you—your history, your character, sometimes your family or your education—into question.

Cultural narratives, both negative and positive, however, are just that.  They are like theories.  And, as the great anthropologist, Gregory Bateson, once said about theory, “The map is not the territory.” It is not the whole, complex, confusing, and often messy truth about our lives.  It misses the telling details by which we know ourselves.  We make a terrible mistake when we reduce ourselves to a map or a narrative.

It makes no sense to yield entirely to either the anticipation of  “healthy aging,” as though we could pursue the fountain of youth, or to the idea of remorseless decline.  Nor to bounce back and forth between the two: “I’m decrepit.  No, I’m not.  I can be as strong and healthy as ever.  Well, that’s a lie.  I don’t want to deceive myself.  But maybe if I felt better about myself, I could ‘succeed’ as an old person.”

In my view, it is far better to embrace the whole: the vitality and the decline, the freedom from obligations and the loss of place—and the terrible knowledge of mortality. And all those experiences in between.  We are all of these things.  And more.  We never fit entirely within stereotypes.  We know this truth when we take seriously the discrepancies between experience and narrative, when we don’t try to adjust ourselves to a “reality” described by others.

Each of us has our own experience.  It’s a matter of knowing ourselves and trusting our own perceptions.  Only then can we separate ourselves from the cultural narratives of old age.

I know this to be true.  I am aging.  I don’t know how fast or completely.  But I am. And I am alive with energy and thought.  I am mortal, and with each friend whose death I mourn, mortality grows more prominent in my thoughts.  I have just so many days and months and years to live.  That’s a fact.

But when I live my days fully I don’t think very much about decline and death.  I lose myself in the complexity and spaciousness of my life, which isn’t just a passage to death or to health.  It is more like a field of flowers, steams, and rock formations, busy with people and ideas.  Unlike a narrative or a pre-determined journey, the field is alive with possibilities.  When I am present in those fields, my life takes on a timeless quality.

 

Friends,

Many of you tell me that you send my essays to your friends and your parents, among others.  A father in Taiwan.  A mother in Alaska.  A friend next door.  It’s extraordinarily satisfying to imagine my essays stimulating thoughts within you and conversations with others.  It’s why I write.

So I have a request: please pass the blog to one other person.  If each of you pass on word of the blog and the information about how to access it (www.barrydym.wordpress.com/ then press the Follow button on the right side), I would be very grateful.

Thanks,

Barry

Keeping the Faith

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve begun a discussion about politics, usually about Donald Trump and the enabling Senate, only to have friends say: “Please.  No more!  I can’t stand it!  I want to shut out all that noise so I can live my life.”

Often enough, they invoke the privilege—or the earned vulnerabilities—of age to shut off conversation.  Their arguments range from plaintive to enraged.  On the mild side, it might go like this: “I just want some peace in my old age.”  Some are more indignant: “I only have so much time left.  I’ll be damned if I’ll jerk dominate it.”

Almost everyone seems a little taken aback by my passion, and I’ll admit that I lack emotional distance when it comes to the high-jacking of my country by a narcissistic, greedy, ostentatious, ignorant, child who has the compassion of a stone and the inclinations of an autocrat.

My persistence seems to go against the cultural grain.  At my age, my observations and reactions should be leavened by my hard-won perspective.  “This too shall pass,” I should intone.  I should have turned my full attention to philosophical and spiritual pursuits.   Or to amusing myself. I should tend my garden and mind my own business.  What’s wrong with me?

The polling data are clear.  They tell us that, generally, the older you get, the more conservative you get.  Psychologists explain; We draw inward when we age: “…when people become more aware of their own mortality, they are more likely to engage in protective or defensive behaviour.”

But, of course, I’m not a general idea.  I’m an individual and my mother’s son, to boot.  Let me give you just a tiny example of her spirit.  At the age of 87, in the middle stages of dementia, and imprisoned in a “memory unit,” my wife, Franny, said that she had to get home to vote.  “Is that jackass Bush still there?” she snorted.  There was no let up from her.  I loved it when Franny first told me the story and feel buoyed by it now.

In my family, politics defined character.  When my parents described someone, they would first say: “She’s Left” or “She’s Right.”  Not that the person was nice, generous, stingy, smart, talented.  The core of a person’s identity and values could be found in their political views.  If you were Right, you were probably selfish, unwilling to share the national largesse with the majority of people.  If you were Left, you were generous.  This language might have been cryptic to outsiders, but to us it was crystal clear.

I have gained some sophistication over the years, reading extensively in political theory and psychology, working with scores of people, sympathetically practicing therapy with every kind of person, and living through many decades; but, truth be told, just like political researchers tell us, I haven’t wandered very far from the proverbial family tree.

Politics was like religion in my family.  As deeply as some people held their belief in God and the prophets, my family worshiped our nation’s ringing declaration: “We hold these truths to be self evident:  that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness….”  We were patriots in that very literal way.

Admittedly, we practiced our patriotism in a form that others considered unpatriotic—we were socialists in the 1940’s and 1950’s, during the ‘red baiting’ fury of the McCarthy period.  We never doubted that ours was a truer representation of the American faith.  Others did. We were censored and ostracized.  But the experience of being outsiders simply fortified our commitment to “the Left.”  We would be damned before caving to the convenient and conventional views of the majority, whose interests, we believed, had been appropriated and then discarded by the 1%.

To this day, I have no inclination to grow mellow or to acquiesce to what we then called “the power elite.”  The idea that the Trumps and the Koch brothers and even Democratic-leaning bankers and hedge fund managers should tell us what’s best is no more palatable to me now than it was to my parents.  I’d prefer a rejuvenated labor movement and the continued growth of grass roots activities.

At times of upheaval or before then – when change is in the air – liberals invoke the curative effects of moderation and political centrism. Bill Clinton, for instance, is famous for, downplaying poverty and disparities of wealth, and the increasing corruption of our political system.  He helped to dismantle important parts of the welfare system. Democrats and Republican moderates have long soft-pedaled environmental degradation and other key issues of our time.  In other words, they sacrificed the greatest good of the greatest number for their own victories, and convinced enough people that they were right.   We the American people need to do better.  We need to risk defeat as we aspire to a better world.

There are a slew of contemporary politicians, like Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and AOC, who will compromise on strategy but won’t readily compromise their core values.  And because of their utter sincerity, and the trustworthiness of their values, they may capture the American imagination more vividly than the appeasers.

I know that victory over Trump and his bigoted authoritarianism is paramount.  But isn’t it possible that those who sincerely stand for values, not just victory, stand a better chance of winning in 2020?

I know that people of my vintage tend towards moderation and what some would call wisdom.  But I don’t believe centrism is wisdom.  I believe that it is wiser and stronger to take a stand.  At this great historical crossroads, much like the times leading up to the Civil War, we will be measured—and need to measure ourselves—by our moral stamina.  So many of the people now in their 70’s stood up for Civil Rights and against the injustice of the Vietnam War.  Even as we worry about the costs of retirement, even as we want quiet and calm, we must stand again.

As I look back over my years and over our history, it is clear to me that wisdom doesn’t always trend towards moderation.  Sometimes it trends towards a stark, clear, and immoderate vision of doing the right thing.  Now is one of those times.