Category Archives: Dances

Retirement or ReFIREment?

Manta_1_800x600Her full-bodied smile gave her secret away to anyone astute enough to notice. As the calendar and clock ticked away the last hours of the job that had consumed the last 17 years of her work life, her step seemed lighter, her eyes brighter. Things had happened so suddenly, there hadn’t been time to fret over the details. One phone call, “yes, we’d love to have you give more time to our organization.” A visit to HR to confirm she could take her benefits with her, and her new life in “retirement” began, at least in her mind’s eye.

As an elder, born slightly ahead of the baby boomer generation, I’ve faced the need to navigate more than one transition from a familiar work life of many years to…something else. Whether an employer no longer needed my services, or I left a position and moved to another city as a trailing spouse, or I resigned to help my daughter take care of her children as she went through treatment for breast cancer – after each incident it seemed a “second” or “third act,” in my career life or, a label I prefer – another refirement.

Retirement hasn’t been around that long, just since the middle of the last century when longer life expectancy met the increased benefits corporations and social security provided to a white male industrial work force physically worn out by the age of 65.

For most people, then and now, retirement has never been a practical reality. Low salaries and lack of benefits during their most productive work years disallowed the accumulation of the nest egg necessary to leave paid employment completely. Since the decline of the single job career life, and the recession that began in 2008, many middle class workers now can only think of a “semi- retirement” that leaves plenty of time for paid work for necessities like housing, food, and health care. Hopefully, this model can still includes more time for personal relaxation and enjoyment of family and friends.

Refirement, an even newer concept, involves thinking of a “second or third act” for the energy that has been consumed in one’s work life. According to James V. Gambone, a major proponent refirement means being guiding by one’s values and passions, to create a life-style of work, play and renewal. Refirement can include, in addition to paid work, reinvesting in a hobby, learning new skills, connecting purposefully to the younger generation, and contributing to projects for the common good.

In the mid 70s my engineer father accepted his company’s offer, after 40 some years, to retire a year earlier than he’d expected. When his company was merging with another, they offered more money to stay home than to come to work. Fortunately he’d had the good example of his uncle whose model of a long retirement might be an example of what we now call refirement.

Uncle Lloyd retired from Bell Labs at age 50 and lived a vibrant life until his death at 90. His retirement, which turned out to be longer than his working life, didn’t involve golf or boating, or traveling to distant exotic places. And no bridge or shuffleboard in a 50s+ retirement community either. He and Aunt Bertha spent summers in their New Jersey home and winters in a small farmhouse in Florida. His busy active 40-year retirement consisted of doing each day whatever his passionate interests inspired. Travel was to reconnect with and visit family. His creativity was exercised in his extensively outfitted basement workshop, his curiosity satisfied at neighborhood swap meets and his legacy insured by mentoring his nephews like my father.

IMG_3601Last night our improv troupe, Wing & A Prayer Pittsburgh Players performed a Retirement/Refirement Ritual to help our friend Lynn with her career transition. We shared stories of her strengths and appreciations for her gifts, many achieved during her past career life. We helped her identify what she wanted to leave behind as people who had been through it told of what they haven’t missed from their previous careers. To represent what she didn’t want to bring along to her new life, the community helped her place her old business cards into a fire. We shared our hopes and dreams for her joyous new life by dancing and blowing bubbles on her behalf. Perhaps it was a good omen that the bubbles remained intact on the wet ground for a considerably long time. I heard rumors that her breakfast this morning was left over rum cake and blueberries. Sounds like the fun has already begun.

Taking To The Streets

Last Friday when I was visiting New York City to celebrate a cousin’s wedding I googled “Things to do this weekend.” Two large-scale street events with themes relevant to my life popped up. The 11th Annual Dance Parade was being held Saturday from 1 – 3 pm. Approximately 10,000 dancers would be dancing down Broadway from 21st Street to Tompkins Square Park in the Village. IMG_3365One hundred and sixty seven groups demonstrating Salsa, Hip-hop, Tap, Ballroom, African, Bolivian, Indian, Chinese, Jazz, and Flamingo – in short, every kind of dance imaginable, organized the event.

Sunday morning AIDS Walk New York was happening through the streets of Central Park – the largest event to protect public health and support people living with HIV/AIDS. Versions of both of these events are held in other cities across the country but the NY versions are likely the biggest and the best.

As a life-long dancer, few things are more rewarding for me than to dance, witness dance and celebrate dance. I welcome any occasion to dance, and I love being inspired and challenged by different types of dance. I know through my own experience and through my studies the gifts that dance brings to our physical health and well being, to our brains and memories, our emotions and our spirits. Though scientific research is currently documenting these benefits, they are not widely known and appreciated in western culture as yet. So a parade and festival are a great way to go. I loved dancing along the sidelines as I snapped pictures of the beautifully costumed people of various sizes, shapes, ages, and abilities, as they demonstrated their cultures and the dances that enliven and invigorate them.

IMG_3420The AIDS Walk opportunity was especially meaningful to me because I had just told one of my friends that the 20th anniversary of my son Ken’s death from AIDS is coming up next month. ”I’d love to find some special way to honor him,” I told her. So here it was, a chance to support a cause that mattered a great deal to Ken and our family. I found my way to the park and the sign-in table after a challenging ride on a under construction NY subway, to seize the opportunity to stand and walk with others who care about this important issue. I felt I had found my tribe; people who have lost friends and family members to the disease, who are living with or know people living with the disease, and whose fondest wish is to insure that no one else need suffer from it.

As I joined into the stream of hundreds of other tee-shirted walkers, clustered in occupational and church affiliated groups, I thought about the power of taking our concerns to the streets. How rewarding it is to enter a group body that is walking on behalf of what we care about and how we want our world to be. I was reminded of a ritual practice and chant I learned from some first nation people, “Every step a prayer.”

Given the strong connection I have to each of these themes, I was amazed that they were both being held the particular weekend of my short visit. When I told one of my husband’s relatives about this she smiled and mentioned a Yiddish word. It’s meaning – “it was meant to be.”

Why Dance?

performing the book sheila twirling1Nearly 25 years ago now, I branded myself a “dancing social worker.” I wanted to connect my two careers, that of a professional dancer and my social work career, which included time as a social work professor, a family therapist, and the director of a behavioral health care clinic. I believe now that I also wanted to lay claim to the power of remaining a person who dances, no matter what career I might pursue.

In my personal life when I would tell people “I’m a dancing social worker,” the frequent response I’d get would be an appreciative laugh. It seemed to me that people recognized that I was owning a more important truth than any of us could articulate at the time.

Scientific documentation for the value of my decision to “just keep dancing,” is now available. Neuroscientists, through brain imaging methods, have documented that dance “bulks up the brain,” sparking new brain cells and their connections. According to Judith Lynne Hanna, PhD, the author of Dancing to Learn: The Brain’s Cognition, Emotion, and Movement, dancing stimulates the release of the brain-derived protein neurotropic factor that promotes the growth, maintenance, and plasticity of neurons necessary for learning and memory. Plus, dancing makes some neurons nimble so that they readily wire into the neural network, improving memory and different kinds of learning.

performing the book sheila twirling5What this means is that dance activity promotes cognitive development by increasing the plasticity of the brain of the mover. At this time of near epidemic cognitive impairment diagnoses in older people, it’s important to note that these advantages continue throughout life. Some sports, martial arts, and exercise regimes, may offer some of these brain enhancing results as well, but they must be as totally physically involving and varied as participating in a variety of dance forms is for the person who continually and consistently continues dancing.

 

A Dance At Easter

Anticipation for Easter this year was enhanced by an invitation from Gail Ransom, a minister friend, to dance at her church’s Easter Service. Dancing as part of a worship service goes to the roots of dance itself, and sparks reminders of my past dancing career. Over 40 years ago, for a period of six years, I was a member of Festival Dancers, a dance company sponsored by the Jewish Community Center of Detroit and directed by Harriet Berg, who is still holding forth as Ms Detroit Dance. We performed frequently during that period in churches and synagogues around Michigan.

IMG_1216The ministerial team at First United Methodist Church came up with inspiring music and ideas for my colleagues and I to play with as we developed our contributions for the Easter service.  Rather than choreographing a dance piece from movement phrases I knew or thought up, I decided to use InterPlay’s improvisational forms, and arrange them in a sequence and in formations that fit the music and this particular church space. This was a natural choice because InterPlay founders Cynthia Winton-Henry and Phil Porter created InterPlay over 30 years ago on the altars of churches in California as a way of creating dance sequences for worship services.

A week before Easter I met with three young girls, members of the church, and taught them the primary forms we’d be using – shape and stillness, side-by-side solos, and gesture choir. When the members of Wing & A Prayer Pittsburgh Players joined me on Tuesday we worked out spacing and added a variation I’d call shape/travel/shape for each dancer to repeat until arriving at her assigned spot in the sanctuary. Inside these forms each of us created our own movement, connecting to the music and to one another.IMG_0332_2

The piece we were given to dance to was “Let the River Run” by Carly Simon. It had won the 1984 Oscar for best song in the movie “Working Girl.” The river referred to and celebrated in the song is a river of women, hundreds of thousands of women, taking their places as productive and fully contributing members of societies across the globe.

I was delighted and surprised by the synchronicity between one of my deepest lifetime longings and an opportunity to dance it.  Having the eager and dedicated young women join us added another layer of meaning to the piece since they are the future. As the choir lauded the coming of the “New Jerusalem,” we dancers of various ages leapt for joy, and my entire being tingled with what I could only describe as ecstasy.

Memory 2.0

My husband and I shiver as we stand with our friend Randall at the front door of the Memory Care Center waiting for someone to let us in. “How long has Jyoti been in this facility?” Rich asks. Randall briefly details the 10-year history of his advocacy for his wife in a string of facilities of this type and, blowing my breath on my gloveless hands,  I wonder if it might be time to move her again. “This company pays its staff a bit more so their turnover is lower,” Randall says. Through the glass door I catch a glimpse of a cleaning cart and knock more vigorously on the door. A maid responds and lets us in.

We walk into the main living room and find Jyoti, one of our best friends of 30 years, asleep in a recliner in front of a dark television screen, the same spot I left her on my last visit nine months ago. She’s dressed in comfortable, warm looking grey slipper boots as Randall approaches her chair from behind and gently calls her name. Coming around to the front of her seat, he offers his hands to pull her from the chair and lead her to a more private area for our visit. My husband Rich and Randall walk on either side of her, each holding a hand, and I walk behind. When we arrive in the new space she and I look at each other and I imagine I see a spark of recognition on her face.

IMG_1162The men and I slow way down in order to be in communion with her rhythm. She and I sit close together on a love seat and she lets me put my arm around her. As we hug she murmurs and mumbles a sound that sounds like “Mama.” Randall sits in a chair across from her and teases her about looking so intently at him. Rich sits in a chair on her other side while she creates sounds a young child might make, occasionally saying expressions like, “Oh, my,” with an inflection of surprise or delight. She breaks out in a song, and I respond by singing a few lines of “Amazing Grace.” I tell her that’s what her song reminded me of. She says some syllables in a rhythmic manner like reciting a poem and we remind each other and her of what a good poet she was. Randall invites Jyoti to dance with him and she seems delighted to do that. She’s a bit more reserved when Rich and I join the two of them in a circle dance, but though shaky on her feet she allows it. 

We take pictures of us together and Randall leaves the room and bringing back a framed picture of several women and us in our spirituality group from her room. I comment, “We’re all dressed up and at a wedding but I can’t remember whose wedding it was.“ As we study the picture together I say, “I look pregnant in that picture, but that couldn’t have been the case. I was way too old by that time.” Jyoti begins making a cooing sound and pointing to my stomach. As we sit together in the silence she rubs my tummy while making cooing sounds and I get the message that she’s teasing me about there being a child inside.

Returning home to Pittsburgh I’m disoriented, having trouble picking up the threads of my usual life, as though I’ve traveled to another place beyond space and time, another place we are all headed toward, one way or another. 

Towards a Resilient Grief

Like many people around the world, I watched the bereavement rituals for the beloved Nelson Mandela. In my case, I was looking for clues to answer a question that has been on my mind for years. “Can what is done at the time of a death, and immediately afterwards, help survivors to accept it, and be strengthened by the grief experience?

coffinMandela Mandela of course, was an international hero, an elder statesman and founder of a new nation. The mourners experiencing this loss included not only immediate and extended family members, but citizens of an entire nation, and of the larger world. In looking at this instance of public bereavement, important elements seem relevant to us all.

Celebrating a life

Following the announcement of Mandela’s passing, spontaneous dancing and singing broke out all over South Africa. In the city streets and village squares, and in the stadium before his state funeral, people whistled, sang, and danced with one another.  Having danced at my own son’s funeral I was delighted that people were using song and dance to create a joyful celebration of thanksgiving for Mandela’s life. We know that Mandela would approve since, in a video at age 81, he is seen dancing and he states, “Music and dancing make me at peace with the world…and at peace with myself. (to the audience) But I don’t see much movement happening out there, so let’s join in.”   

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2013/12/05/watch-this-delightful-video-of-an-81-year-old-nelson-mandela-dancing-on-stage/

womanwithmandelaimage

Expression of Feelings

As the camera panned the crowd it was not hard to spot people crying openly. When a loved one dies, sorrow and tears help us to recognize our loss.  I was grateful that people were able to have their sorrow in the setting of a supportive community. Some people decorated their bodies to express their admiration for Mandela, sporting his image on their shirts, headgear, or ink-stamped upon their faces. People attending his funeral stood in the rain for hours, and when asked about their willingness to do this, they said this was a small inconvenience given the difficulties Mandela had confronted on their behalf. They considered this a way to express their gratitude.

Lessons Learned

During Mandela’s eulogy, world leaders and well-known celebrities, through storytelling and personal reflection, spelled out the lessons of his life. They pointed out events, such as the years of his imprisonment; and lauded him for how he handled his challenges; his ability to forgive and make allies of his former enemies. In President Obama’s comments he asked himself, “How well have I applied his lessons in my own life? “ I’ve noticed that, when friends and family are given the opportunity to share stories with one another, formally as part of a eulogy, or informally at a wake or visitation, a fuller picture of the deceased emerges. It’s as though each person’s life were a puzzle, and each story, a piece. When placed along side one another, the picture becomes complete.  

Relating to what is unfinished in a life

South Africa Mandela Mourning

Mandela lived an unusually long life, yet as his ex-wife Winnie stated it, “Even though he was 95 and had done so much, there was so much that was still undone.” Those of us watching and reading about the rituals of Mandela’s crossing; the full military honors, the 21-gun salute, the 95 candles, one for each year of his life, the slaughter of an ox in his home village, know that the true tribute to his life will consist of what we, the mourners choose to do in the years remaining in our own lives.

Taking Warrior Mother on the Road

 “How’s your new book doing?” people ask, and I don’t know quite what to say. The official reviews have been wonderful, most of them thoughtful and articulate, better than I could have hoped for. I have felt blessed by such intelligent and crafted responses as different reviewers have picked up on and emphasized, different themes from the book, rather like turning a prism to refract the light into the various colors contained therein.Sheila Performing Book

Friends and acquaintances who have spoken to me or sent me an email after reading the book have had very good things to say. Of course there may be people who read it and didn’t like it, but they’ve failed to contact me. No one so far has demanded their money back. One woman friend I ran into in the grocery store detained me for quite a while with wonderful comments and complements, followed by a pledge to bring several friends to my next book reading. And she did just that.

Amazon rankings have been all over the place, but today the book is number 51 of the top 100 books in the category of parent and adult child relationships. I had a big disappointment when one of the top reviewing companies that had spoken highly of the quality of the book, and had promised to review it, declined to do so at the last minute.  I learned they were concerned it “wouldn’t have wide enough appeal.” (I think that’s code for “it won’t sell enough books to make it worth our while.”) But in the two and a half months the book has been out, this has not been my experience.

There’s the man I gave a promotional post card to, who read the synopsis on the back quickly as we stood together on the street corner. “I’m gonna buy one of these and give it to my daughter-in-law,” he said. When I asked why he said, “She’s been having a rough time. Our nine year old grandson was killed last year in a boating accident.”  Several people have told me they were buying the book for a friend or family member going through grief, or stuck in an old grief, having trouble moving on.

Wing & Prayer Book Performance
Wing & Prayer Book Performance

 

I’ve become very cognoscente of the universal themes contained in Warrior Mother through a system I’ve developed for book readings. In place of a traditional reading, I connect with people in the community where I will be presenting who do InterPlay, (the system of movement, song, and storytelling that I use) and have them join me in “Performing the Book.”  We select themes that emerge from the snippets I read, and link them to an InterPlay form. The improvisational artists then add their own stories and experiences to mine.

At Performing the Book events we’ve explored relating to adult children (or being one), accompanying a friend or loved one through medical diagnosis, treatments, and death, and rituals that heal grief and loss of whatever variety. Feedback from these presentations has given me a realization that Warrior Mother is about finding ways to authentically communicate about, and honor, the human condition. And that condition is that everyone dies. Once we face that reality, we can enthusiastically choose life for whatever moments that we, and our loved ones, are allowed.

Dancing on the Fringe

The streets of Edinburgh Scotland were filled, as they are every August, with performing artists and the tourists and locals who had come to see them. Rich and I, along with 22 other InterPlayers from around the world were among them. RichCatapillerphoto-16Pushing our way through the hordes of mostly young performers on the cobblestone street which is the Royal Mile, we observed the ritual of performers dressed as caterpillars and clowns, giving out flyers, barking as circus midway callers do, to draw attention to the free samples of their art on the makeshift stages of High Street. Though a little less flamboyant, and a good deal older than most of them, we too had came to perform on the Fringe.

Edinburgh Fringe
Edinburgh Fringe

The Fringe Festival, the largest open access arts festival in the world began in 1947 when eight theatre companies showed up uninvited to the Edinburgh International Arts Festival.  The juried arts festival is still in business but the Fringe, officially organized in 1951, has grown way bigger that that one. In fact it’s bigger than anyone could imagine an arts festival becoming. By 1959 there were 494 companies and by this year, 2013, the festival had over 40,000 performers in 359 venues. Unlike those original participants, we did have an invitation from Mairi Campbell, a well-known Scottish folk singer, http://www.mairicampbell.co.uk/

Meeting up with a dozen members of our US InterPlay community, and joining another dozen InterPlayers from Germany, Finland, England, Australia and Scotland, we formed an improv troupe. After practicing together for several days (which was a big part of the fun of it all, along with time spent with fabulous local home stay hosts), we came together at Venue #127, St. John’s Church in the center of the city. Our performance of the Unbelievable Beauty of Being Human was part of the Just Festival, a subset of the Fringe that focused on social justice, spirituality, and peace.mairiUBBH-17

Our well-attended performance was a fitting tribute to the festival’s themes as we danced, sang and told our stories in the moment and on the spot, highlighting what’s wonderful about being human and what’s not so great about it. As one of the elders in the group, this was my 9th performance of Unbelievable Beauty, having participated in the first series of performances in San Francisco CA in 1997, in Sydney, Australia in 2004, and in Seattle and Chicago in the years in between.  Each improvisational performance followed a similar format yet each was a unique and never-to-be-repeated experience for participants and audiences.

In the 50-page program for the Just Festival, which was a subset of the 390 page program for the Fringe, the program description read: “Re-igniting hope for human kind, passionate, funny, honest, affirming of real people and real living. Performers elevate both the miracles and struggles of every day folk in a daring, spontaneous, fresh way.  Directed by InterPlay founders, the program features InterPlayers from around the world. UK debut”.UBBH.Edinburgh1

And so it was, a never-to-be forgotten, Unbelievably Beautiful Experience!

My Excitement’s Dancing Me

It’s twenty-one days till my book Warrior Mother’s official launch, but there’s plenty to get excited about in the meantime. And excited I am. I can tell because my insides feel like I’ve left my motor running and my body is going faster than my brain. I keep reminding myself to breathe slowly, fully. Since these are not new sensations to me, I know there is only a thin line between excitement and anxiety. And oxygen is what makes the difference.

toddler-excited

The endocrinologist, Hans Selye defined this kind of stress as eustress. It’s stress that comes from a positive situation like moving into a new house, preparing for a wedding, or bringing a new baby home. Birthing a book into the larger world seems like some combination of these types of situations. Though positive stress is a sign of well-being, it’s stress nonetheless. And through many positive events in my long life, I’ve learned that it can be exhausting.

Two weeks ago at the Iowa Writing Festival I tried to blame the caffeinated coffee I’d had at breakfast for the difficulty I was having sitting still in my classroom seat. But when my cell phone vibrated and I saw that a long awaited review of the book was in, and I read it on my break – (five stars YAA!) – no hyperactive elementary school age child had anything on me. 

Last Monday I hosted a group of people in Pittsburgh who had supported me through the five plus years of writing the book, and the Wing & A Prayer Pittsburgh Players helped me to “Perform the Book” for them. Seeing so many dear people all in the same room was stimulating and exciting. I found I couldn’t stop smiling, a sensation I remember from both my wedding days.  

Today the need for extra deep breaths was due to the emails I was receiving from members of the InterPlay community that I will be meeting up with in Edinburgh Scotland next week. I’m doing a Warrior Mother Performing the Book event August 15th at 2:15 pm at Word Power Books, the leading independent bookseller in the UK. So far, I’ve heard from InterPlayers in Finland, Scotland, Virginia, and North Carolina who will be joining me at the bookstore to improvise themes that emerge when I read excerpts from the book.

shopfront cropped 2

As I get ready to turn in for the evening, I’m hoping that this hyper-excited state will calm down, like stage fright always does, once Warrior Mother and I step out and into action on the world’s stage.  

Rituals That Heal

There was dancing in the streets in Pittsburgh, and many other cities around the country last week when the Supreme Court struck down Section 3 of the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act. Marriage for same sex partners will not soon be available throughout the US, but major bricks in the legal barriers preventing it have been torn down.  DOMA became law in 1996, the year before my then 31-year old gay son died of AIDS. In those days, people like my son were closeted, most to the larger outside world, and many to their own families. Members of the general public often maintained they didn’t know any gay people.

doma-19

Seventeen years later, nine million people in the US identify openly as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, 3% of our total population. The public celebrations around the country on June 26th demonstrated the increasingly strong support these brave men and women have earned for themselves and their cause. It gets harder and harder to look at LGBT people as being different than the rest of us, as they speak out regarding their desire to love and be loved and to create a life together that can be recognized as a legal marriage.

 But it is the families of gay and lesbian people that have come to the front in this day and time. There have always been parents whose children were gay, (even if the parents didn’t realize it) but now there are children with gay parents. As Justice Anthony Kennedy pointed out in his majority opinion, “DOMA humiliates tens of thousands of children now being raised by same-sex couples. The law in question makes it even more difficult for the children to understand the integrity and closeness of their own family and its concord with other families in their community and in their daily lives.
doma.men.-11

I rejoice that this has happened as quickly as it has. But things have not moved swiftly enough for this warrior mother who, in the mid-1990s wanted for her gay son what he wanted for himself – that it be ok that the love of his life was a man, and that he would be able to marry and have children. My son was hopeful and perhaps a prophet when he believed that someday there would be a cure for AIDS and that someday, gay people like himself would be able to marry. Neither of these developments occurred in time for him. But wherever he is now, I like to imagine that he and his fellow compatriots know that our culture is well on its way toward both goals, and they’re dancing in the streets with us.