Tag Archives: aging

Love Sweet Love

What the world needs now is love,” lyrics Hal David, music Burt Bacharach

1-jyoti-black-hatI’m in the shower, preparing to attend a celebration of the life of one of my dearest long time friends, Jyoti King. The first lines of this song come to me….”love sweet love. It’s the only thing that there’s still too little of.” I guess it would be natural to think that the world has less love now that Jyoti’s left it, but the event organized by her husband Randall last Sunday, involving 60 or so friends and family members, taught me otherwise.

We gathered in an upper room of a restaurant in downtown Fort Worth Texas, and read Jyoti’s poems and other writings out loud for nearly three hours. Taking turns we added our own stories of Jyoti, whose life has meant so much to each of us these past 30 years. I spoke of my vast personal indebtedness by quoting one of my favorite African sayings, “I am because she is.”

Jyoti and Randall were midwives for Rich and I, for the behavioral health clinic we co-founded and directed, “Iatreia Institute for the Healing Arts. Jyoti was clinic manager for most of its ten years. She helped edit my first book, Stillpoint: The Dance of Selfcaring, Selfhealing, a playbook for people who do caring work. She left the clinic briefly to pursue her writing, but when my youngest son was diagnosed with AIDS, she returned to support me. When a year to the day later, her son was diagnosed with AIDS, we wept together, fearing we’d taken this sister bond too far.

When my friend Rose asked me to come and be with her as she was dying, Jyoti, a former childbirth midwife, encouraged me. “It’s in the coming in and the going out that there is the most light, when the veil between the worlds is lifted. It’s an honor and a privilege to be present at both occasions.”

Jyoti’s exit was one of the long, long, goodbyes that people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and their family members endure. She and her husband and friends lived this journey for 12 years, before her death last month. There were many stories of lessons Jyoti taught before she got sick. Her son, whose ‘s been sober for 25 years now, told how no matter his mistakes, his mother always forgave him. When he had to go to prison Jyoti washed his feet to protect him. “She told me, keep remembering, you are just a visitor there.”

I shared some of the gifts Jyoti gave me during the course of her disease. Shortly after she was diagnosed I moved to Pittsburgh but I traveled back to Texas often. I always visited her, first in her home and then in the memory care center. Each trip on the plane I would caution myself, “She may not know you this time. Get ready for that.” But, though she eventually lost most verbal language, she always knew who I was. Perhaps better than I did.

Once we walked together in the garden of her home when she was still living there. I noted that she felt unsteady on her feet. Her once good coordination would flounder and she’s grab my hand going down stairs or on the uneven path. Having been a nurse, when she entered the memory care center, she saw herself as a nursing assistant, always looking out for the other residents. A film aficionada, she advised a staff member on movies the community would enjoy. On one visit she brought out a musical instrument, and played and chanting for me.

sheila-and-jyoti-2When my second book was in manuscript form, I brought it with me on a visit. I told her I knew she wouldn’t be able to help me with this book as she had the first one. “But I’d like you to bless it,” I said as I placed the binder in her lap. There were no words, but she took the binder and gently hugged it to her heart. She smiled and we both knew we were doing a ceremony.

On what turned out to be our last visit, I found her in the parlor of the memory care center alongside other residents. They were all seated before a television displaying a blank screen. She was rocking in a rocking chair and coming closer, I heard her singing to herself. I couldn’t identify the song but it was clearly a Texas boot-scooting two- step.

A Visit to Who We Used To Be

img_2724While visiting relatives in Boston this past weekend we toured the Presidential Library of John R. Kennedy, our 35th president. This experience confirmed an important truth I learned from two of my African American girl friends, from their culture – Sankofa. It means sometimes it’s necessary to go back in order to go forward. For my sister and I, reliving the inspiring political conversations that took place before we were old enough to vote, proved to be a balm to our troubled souls.

The goal of the library with its 5 million pages of personal, congressional, and presidential papers, 500,000 photographs and 12,000 reels of sound recording, is to promote greater understanding of American politics, the process of governing, and the importance of public service.

In the 60s politics wasn’t a dirty word as it has become in present time. It’s been difficult to watch lately, as people believe a candidate when he declares what he alone will accomplish. This widespread gullibility demonstrates profound ignorance of the process of governing in a democracy. Let’s hear it for amping up high school civics classes. But It’s that last goal – “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” that ignited our hearts. It took us back to a day when serving one’s country and the greater good were what we young people aspired to.

The sections on the initiations of space travel to the moon, the establishment of the Peace Corps, the nuclear test ban treaty, the civil rights legislation – left us in awe of all that was accomplished in three short years. Of what’s possible when our country is united behind an articulate, inspiring servant leader.

President Kennedy had his own version of Sankofa when he said, “We celebrate the past to awaken the future.” As this past election process has been teaching us, when we do not stay true to the wisdom of our better angels, our collective demons take over our public and private lives.

What’s a patriotic citizen to do? I was especially inspired by Kennedy’s response when asked by the press if he was enjoying serving as president. He said that he agreed with the ancient Greek definition of happiness, which was “the full use of your powers along lines of excellence.” My sister and I decided we needed to revisit more historical  that inspire us to do that.

Let Me Read It To You

My then 20s something daughter said it best. “The main problem for my mother is that she has always been ahead of her time.” She supported this assertion with the statement that her mother had used what was then called “natural childbirth” when she was born. She added that her friends, who were just beginning to learn that taking drugs during labor might not be advisable, couldn’t believe her mother had acted on that so many years before.

Perhaps creative people have always had this problem but in the present era’s ubiquitous focus on branding, the timing and seeming appropriateness of an idea or project seems to have become even more critical. Being seen as a trendsetter is of value, but it’s not advisable to get too far ahead of where most of the herd are grazing. So recently I’ve been paying special attention not only to what’s emerging in my creative consciousness, but also to what’s happening in the larger culture, hoping for some possible connections during my lifetime.

Here’s the way my creative process works. Like most people, I get a lot of ideas, but every now and then, one idea won’t leave me alone. It continues to emerge and reemerge in spite of my efforts to question the advisability of acting upon it. Take for example the idea of writing a book. I wrote a book that I started with a co-author in 1985 and my version was finally published with me as the sole author in 1992. The process was so grueling that I told myself I would never write another book.

The idea to write another book came to me sometime in 2006, but it had to keep competing with the part of me that had taken that vow of “never writing another book.” I’m happy to say that the process of writing the second book was much more grace-filled and enjoyable than the first, but it did take, just as the first book had taken, seven years to become a reality. So perhaps our reticence to act on our inspirations exists to protect us from all the years of work that will be required to go from idea to reality.

Closet StudioSo here I am again, about to act on one of my ideas, to “ground my vision in reality, “as Anna Halrpin would say. Almost from the beginning of working on my second book I thought about the idea of creating an audio book version where I would read to my “readers”, making the book available for people to listen in their cars, or on their mp3 players while they worked out in their gym or garden. In the ensuing years, this idea has grown into a passionate desire.

Since Warrior Mother was published by She Writes Press in 2013, I’ve been Performing the Book, around the country and internationally, reading passages from the book while improvisational InterPlay performers respond with stories from their own lives. This idea, conceived as a way to get the word out about my book, has been most satisfying for me, and I believe for the participants who have performed or witnessed it.

All this practice in reading sections of my book out loud has given me the confidence to hire a sound engineer to help me create a sound studio in my closet and read and record the entire book for an Audio version of Warrior Mother.

Those inner voices of reticence and dissent have been making quite a ruckus lately as I prepare to act on what is now a burning desire. But all that became silenced this morning when I read Wyatt Mason’s article, Audio Books Read By the Author in the New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/17/magazine/letter-of-recommendation-audiobooks-read-by-the-author.html?_r=0

Mason begins by extolling the virtues of poets reading their own work but then he says, “I would extend Rilke’s idea beyond poetry to prose. Because in prose, the author’s voice is even more essential to making the text not only intelligible but also meaningful.”

As I enter my sound chamber/closet to begin production of my audio book tomorrow, I take this as encouragement from the universe that this project will be both timely and relevant, and serve the purposes for which I intend it. Stay Tuned.

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.

 

Our Lady of the Broken Wings

“You’re not as you were,” the doctor tells me as he shows me the x-ray of my shoulder. The picture has little meaning since I’m not totally clear on what the shoulder bones are suppose to look like. It’s three months since my fall, and after he directs me to push against his hands and reach up overhead he declares, “you are at 80 percent.”

IMG_1511I agree with his assessment but let him know I will not be satisfied until I have regained what was for me, a full range of motion. He’s careful to make no promises. He tells me to make an appointment in three months and continue physical therapy. If I am not satisfied with my recovery by then he will do an MRI and see whether there is any surgery that would help. If I’m satisfied with where I’m at that time, I can cancel the appointment.

Standing in the examination room with my husband as my witness I am grateful for yesterday’s conversation with Susan, a dancer friend from Chicago, about her own recovery from a shoulder injury. “I’m at 100 per cent. I’ve gotten it all back,” she says as she moves her left arm in a gigantic circle overhead and reaches behind her. She looks straight into my eyes when she says, “I wanted you to know that. It’s possible,” and then she tells me how she did it. Physical therapy twice a week, 20 minutes of exercise three times a day, and Reiki sessions weekly to deeply relax the muscles that are constricting the movement. In other words, it takes work but it’s doable.

At my favorite dress shop yesterday Helen, a woman who claims to be older than me though she won’t say how much, lifts her arm upwards to show me her range of motion. Her shoulder injury was more than five years ago and her arm is about like mine is now, but she’s satisfied. Somebody else can reach the items on the top shelf. In other words, it’s not only what you’re used to, but also what you’re planning to do in your future life. I’m still a member of the “going for the gusto club” though I realize it takes more effort than it used to.

Another dancer friend and mentor Cynthia, had a shoulder injury a couple of months before mine, (her right, my left). She’s nearly back to a complete range of motion and her recovery program included all of the above along with her spiritual practice of making art with whatever comes into her life. We’ve commiserated about our “broken wings” and when I saw her at InterPlay’s national conference she gifted me an art piece she created out of found objects. It’s a shrine to honor our brokenness – individual and collective, to call on the energies of renewal and restoration, and to remember our bones, and other body parts need lots of love, commitment and a caring community in order to heal. 

The Pain of More Than Halfway There

Neck-pain-generalAfter ten weeks and the twice-weekly Physical Therapy sessions and daily exercises, I am no longer managing with only one hand. The injured arm still needs strengthening but that’s starting to happen, so being able to drive seems to be in my near future. Monday I get on a plane to Chicago on my way to Racine WI where I will chair the national board for Body Wisdom, the organization that oversees InterPlay. It will feel good to be in a useful role and in community again after so much alone time this summer but getting there feels more than a little daunting.

Several weeks ago the woman who cleans my house and who had broken her wrist several years ago, told me, “It hurts more later on, when it’s healing.” I did not want to hear that and I was hoping that my experience wouldn’t be the same as hers in that regard. But she was right. For me, it’s not just that the shoulder and arm are healing, it’s that I’m challenging them everyday, trying to unfreeze that shoulder, stretch the muscles and strengthen them to regain my range of motion. Every gain brings new discomforts.    

20050622-9562-painYesterday as I was getting emails about taking a train from the airport to a particular stop in Chicago to meet up with someone who would be driving to Racine, I got in a pretty cranky mood. “Nobody’s getting that I only have a hand and a half to lug my suitcase,” I’m thinking, “although a hand and a half is better than only one.” The low-grade pain running down my arm was a big part of the problem and the ice pack I put on after my exercises had not helped to any great extent. Reflecting on it later I am amazed at the people whose every action in life is accompanied by a certain level of pain. The next cranky person I meet, I’m going to take this possibility into consideration and be in awe of their heroism.

 

 

 

My Summer of Disability

healthOur family began naming our summers in 2002 when our daughter was navigating treatments for breast cancer. The first summer when she was doing chemotherapy became known as the “summer of self-sufficiency.” Her children, (ages 11, 9, and 3) needed to not rely so much on their mother and learn to do more for themselves. The second summer, when she underwent a bone marrow transplant became the “summer of sanitation.” Due to her fragile immune system, we all had to be vigilant about keeping surfaces and ourselves germ-free. No one could visit her if they had even, a simple cold.

Now that I know my recovery from a broken shoulder will take the entire summer, I’ve named the summer of 2015 my “summer of disability.” It’s not how I wanted to spend the summer but I’m working on being a grown-up about it. After all, the measure of a person’s character is how we behave when we don’t get what we want.

I’m learning alternative ways of doing everyday tasks and novel approaches to getting around town. (Think: walking, rides from friends, limousines services, and now, Uber.) I’m also challenged as anyone with a handicap is, to look again at my abilities. What are things I can still do? And even better, what things need doing that, when I’m fully able-bodied, I don’t take the time to do? (Think: sort and give away unneeded clothing, organize photos, clean out office files, finish the article I’ve been working on.)

My daughter Corinne told me once that struggling with challenges to her health had caused her to realize she had been prideful about her state of fitness and good health. A student of the bible I think she was influenced by proverb 16:18, often shorten to “Pride goes before the fall.” I feel a sisterhood with her on that, but I don’t see it as automatically a fault. Maintaining ourselves in good health requires a great deal from us, as does rehabilitating our broken parts after an injury. We should take pride in these accomplishments while recognizing we may not be seeing the whole picture. Tough stuff can happen in spite of our best efforts.

Jim Collins in his book, How the Mighty Fall looks at institutional decline like a disease: harder to detect but easier to cure in the early stages; easier to detect but harder to cure in the later stages. http://www.jimcollins.com/books/how-the-mighty-fall.html My hope for myself is that, when I return to full-bodied functioning, (goddess willing) I will not take that precious gift for granted. The summers, winters, springs and falls I’ve spent accompanying my adult children and dearest friends through life threatening illnesses have taught me that life is precious, even when our bodies are functioning less than perfectly. And three quarters of a century of living has taught me that we do our best, but we are able-bodied and healthy until we are not.

 

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. 

Memories

“My memory is perfect,” our 98 year-old former dance teacher, Eddie Deems said, as we gathered in Fort Worth in the living room of mutual friends. My husband and I hadn’t seen Eddie for at least 10 years, and on this recent visit to our former hometown I’d been delighted to learn that he was still alive and able to meet with us. The original plan was to have dinner together but Eddie called that morning to tell our hostess he wasn’t having a good day, so he’d not make dinner. But he was determined to come to see us, so he instructed us to go ahead and eat without him. He told me later, there are no more good days due to his emphysema. Breathing problems make it hard to eat and talk at the same time, and he’d decided he’d rather talk.

IMG_1165Before he began reminiscing with exquisite detail about experiences with famous customers of the dance studio he and his wife ran for over 50 years, he prefaced his remarks. “Now I’m going to name drop, in order to tell you this, so forgive me. This is something my son holds against me. I’m a namedropper.” Getting well into a story he would sometimes interrupt himself and ask, “Now why was I telling you that?” The people in the room, our friends, and Eddie’s present wife of 17 years, would then reconstruct the threads of the conversation and he would remember how the particular incident he was relaying fit with the point he was trying to make. He would then pick up the story where he’d left off.

Eddie remembered some things I ‘d forgotten until he reminded me. He still seemed grateful that I had visited the hospice hospital room of his first wife, Lavonia, who had also been our dancing teacher, when she lay dying twenty years earlier. This reminded me of attending her funeral and a visit I’d made to Eddie’s hospital room several years later, when he had seemed surprised that anyone he knew would make such a visit.

We hadn’t been able to get our dinner in before Eddie arrived so we were quite hungry by the time he got up to leave. “I’m amazed I’ve been able to talk this long,” he said, “I’ve said more tonight then I’ve said all week.” After posing for some pictures we would treasure as mementos of the occasion, Eddie left and we sat down to dinner, grateful to have the time with it and glad he had elected to talk rather than eat.

Tis the Season

IMG_1067The view from my window this December morning, just after first light, announces a foggy grey day. Streetlights and car headlights from across the river are the only signs of life in the stark landscape. The lawn and shrubbery are the clear winners as a steady rain swells the Allegheny River and thoroughly soaks the ground. The patter of the water hitting the roof and back deck seem to say, “stay where you are today if you can, inside by the fire.”

There is plenty to do inside this time of year, this season of completing 2014’s projects and preparing for the upcoming Christmas/New Year’s family celebrations. There’s the organizing and reorganizing, the putting away and throwing away of clutter accumulated during the way-too-busy fall. And whether it’s my dresser top or my closet’s shoe rack, my computer email box or my iphoto albums, finding a place for everything and putting everything in its place is my least favorite way to spend a day. clutter-affect-life-1

So I linger with my cup of green tea which is no longer warm, and think about the friend who gave me the holiday mug I’m drinking from. She is no longer able to take care of herself, according to a mutual friend who herself died this past year. Living in a memory care facility is one way to avoid the cumbersome, unpleasant tasks of keeping one’s life organized, and no longer living in this dimension is another. But I’m choosing today to clean up my own messes since I still have the capacity to do so, and to look for the beauty in each season’s landscape without comparisons to a more preferred one.