Age is a Work of Art

img_1552 This is the adage that I cross-stitched for my stepdad to commemorate his eightieth birthday. The framed handcraft was displayed on Dad and Mom’s wall for seventeen years. It was returned to me, after their deaths, and has graced a wall in our guest room for fourteen years. Most days I hardly notice it, but recently it captured my attention, fueled my meditation, and raised many “third stage of life” questions. What does it mean to “age well”? What causes some people to die long before their last breath? How does health effect the aging process? On a very personal level, how can I make my life a true “work of art?”

Of course, there are many people who attempt to run away from the process. That is one of the reasons plastic surgery in the U.S. is a booming business, cosmetics are a billion dollar industry, and pharmaceutical companies advertise so abundantly. However, most people don’t mind growing older, we just don’t want to “get old.” There is a big difference!

Growing older means having more experience, endurance, and empathy. Aging well means that as our visual acuity decreases, our spiritual vision broadens. As our heart of flesh weakens, our empathetic core is strengthened. As we weather the storms of life, our psychological levee is fortified. As our physical ability wanes, our capacity for patience grows.

Getting old conjures up visions of canes, walkers, prescription bottles, doctors’ appointments, hospital stays, pain, and suffering, but getting old is really a state of mind. It happens when we emotionally stiffen our necks, refuse to explore or learn, lose a positive focus, and allow the natural physical challenges to overshadow every waking moment.

One of the negative factors that promotes “getting old” is a loss of purpose. Retirement is a critical time for those who have drawn all meaning from a job. Many retirees have related that “free time is nice,” but having hobbies, interests, and social connections is key to aging well. Every person I know who is happily retired says they are actually busier in post-retirement and “have no idea how I worked forty-plus hours a week.” They participate in activities that allow them to deepen their sense of inner contentment. They garden, bake, woodwork, exercise, bowl, golf, volunteer, maintain their homes, cook, bake, rebuild old cars, pray, take classes, visit the sick, care for grandchildren, go to the movies, meditate, travel, dance, do yoga, or build puzzles, play games and write blogs! Anything that helps connect us to our inner value and energy keeps the mind and body nimble, and boosts growth of the soul.

The blessing (and curse) of the gift of a long life, is that we experience the death of friends and loved ones. Oft times the weight of grief, brought on by the losses of a spouse, dear friends, and family members, becomes too much to bear, causing a person to lose their joie de vivre. That depression influences all the components involved in health maintenance. The person becomes sedentary and isolated, eats poorly, suffers the effects of dehydration, and avoids routine health care. Sadly some die before they draw their final breath, by succumbing to mental negativity, loneliness, apathy, and dread, which kill the spirit long before disease destroys the body. It is important to recall that some of the greatest works of art can be very dark.

When we experience grief, we need to be kinder and gentler with ourselves and others. We need to carefully tend to the needs of body, mind, and spirit with special focus on the present moment. We need to be willing to ask for help. If we are companioning someone who is grieving, we need to be patient, attentive, and quiet. Sometimes the best thing to say is nothing! We can not remove someone else’s grief, but we can lovingly accompany them as they journey through it.

Certainly, health is a significant player in this drama of life and death. I have heard elders say, “Health is everything!” Yet, for decades, we take our health for granted. As young people, we take many physical risks erroneously thinking we are immortal. We are blissfully unaware that all the energy and impulsiveness of youth, in future years, will impact our naturally deteriorating mechanical systems. Some physician will diagnose conditions like “arthritis,” “heart disease,” “diabetes,” “gastric reflux,” “diverticulosis,” or “emphysema.” However, there is no reason for regret, because those early days of impetuousness and daring contribute to the light and shadow–the deeper beauty of the completed artwork. The voice of Wisdom reminds us, “to everything, there is a time and a season.”

As the body ages, maintaining good health requires greater attention, time, and effort. What we eat and drink, how we exercise, how often we have physical, dental and vision check-ups, must change. These basic activities demand more planning, sacrifice, discipline, determination, and perseverance. The challenge is to accept those new requirements with a positive attitude. It is important to embark upon each new day with a sense of gratitude and adventure. The key is to balance the demands of an aging body with the care for a growing soul. I often have to remind myself, “Yes, I am older than I have ever been, but also younger than I will ever be.”

When it comes to the aging process, I have no universal directions to ensure that each person will discover his/her own inner artist. After all, there was only one DaVinci, one Renoir, one Van Gogh, one Picasso and one YOU! All I can say is that I am preparing the canvas for my masterpiece by incorporating the techniques of those who have been my teachers. My mother taught me the value of laughter. My stepdad, John, taught me humility. My Aunt Lil exemplified gratitude and acceptance. Aunt Alice is my example of joy and wonder. My adopted “Mom,” Charlotte, gave me a love of nature. I believe I am on the road to aging well, because my education is ongoing and there is still much work to do!

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Nurturing Peace

This morning I found this quote in my Facebook newsfeed, “Peace, it does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart.” I don’t know the true source of this quote, though one site erroneously gives credit to Lady Gaga. It is evidently a more ancient wisdom that has been reworded many times over. I have been meditating about this topic of inner peace a lot lately. It is a wonderfully simple thought, but not as straightforward in its execution.

So I’ve been collecting wise quotations and trying to develop a list of specifics that could be helpful to me, and I hope to others, in connecting to this inner calm. There is certainly a lot more wisdom in the writings of saints, mystics of many cultures, and yes, even ordinary people, but I really gravitated toward these in particular. I have listed the sources in italics. In some cases, the source of the quote is known only to the Eternal. In either case, here are ten simple suggestions, and three super quotes for each, to set us on the road to becoming a more peace-filled people (even in the midst of life’s storms).

1.   START WITH YOU

  • Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without. Gautama Buddha
  • For peace of mind, we need to resign as general manager of the universe.  Larry Eisenberg
  • Let him that would move the world first move himself.  Socrates

2.   SEEK REAL PEACE

  • Real peace is not in power, money, or weapons, but in deep inner peace. Thich Nhat Han
  • Each one has to find his peace from within. And peace to be real must be unaffected by outside circumstances. Mahatma Gandhi
  • Peace is a daily, a weekly, a monthly process, gradually changing opinions, slowly eroding old barriers, quietly building new structures.  John F. Kennedy 

3.   IT REALLY IS THE LITTLE THINGS THAT MATTER

  • Peace begins with a smile. Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta
  • Talk about your blessings more than you talk about your burdens. Tim Tebow
  • Better than a thousand hollow words is one word that brings peace. Gautama Buddha

4.   SLOW DOWN

  • Never be in a hurry. Do everything quietly and in a calm spirit. St. Francis deSales
  • Just slow down. Slow down your speech. Slow down your breathing. Slow down your eating. And let this slower, steadier pace perfume your mind. Doko
  • Slow down and enjoy life. It’s not only the scenery you miss by going too fast – you also miss the sense of where you are going and why. Eddie Cantor

5.   DEFUSE THE DRAMA

  • Don’t let people pull you into their storm. Pull them into your peace.  Unknown
  • Let no man pull you so low as to hate him.  Martin Luther King Jr.,
  • The less you respond to rude, critical, argumentative people the more peaceful your life will become.  Unknown

6.   BECOME COMFORTABLE WITH SILENCE

  • You must daily practice the habit of putting your mind at rest, “going into the silence,” as it is commonly called. This is a method of replacing a troubled thought with one of peace, a thought of weakness with one of strength. James Allen
  • When the restless activity of your mind slows down, when your thoughts stop rushing like waves on a windy day, then you will start getting glimpses of the sweet taste of inner peace. Remez Sasson
  • Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah? 1 Kings 19:11-13

7.   SEEK AND ACCEPT FORGIVENESS

  • Inner peace can be reached only when we practice forgiveness. Forgiveness is letting go of the past, and is therefore the means for correcting our misperceptions. Gerald G. Jampolsky
  • Forgiveness is the ultimate spiritual practice. St. John Paul II
  • We are all on a life long journey and the core of its meaning, the terrible demand of its centrality is forgiving and being forgiven. Martha Kilpatrick

8.   NURTURE BODY AND MIND

  • Don’t eat junk foods and don’t think junk thoughts. Peace Pilgrim
  • Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit? 1 Corinthians 6:19
  • Good for the body is the work of the body, good for the soul the work of the soul, and good for either the work of the other.  Henry David Thoreau

9.   CULTIVATE PATIENCE

  • Inner peace is impossible without patience. Wisdom requires patience. Spiritual growth implies the mastery of patience. Patience allows the unfolding of destiny to proceed at its own unhurried pace.  Brian Weiss
  • The task we must set for ourselves is not to feel secure, but to be able to tolerate insecurity.  Erich Fromm
  • The key to everything is patience. You get the chicken by hatching the egg, not by smashing it.  Arnold H. Glasow

10.  ALWAYS CHOOSE KINDNESS

  • We must sometimes bear with little defects in others, as we have, against our will, to bear with natural defects in ourselves. If we wish to keep peace with our neighbor, we should never remind anyone of his natural defects. Saint Philip Neri 
  • Never respond to an angry person with a fiery comeback, even if he deserves it…Don’t allow his anger to become your anger. Bohdi Sanders
  • Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love.  St.Thérèse de Lisieux

So there it is in a nutshell, my collection of the components necessary to bring serenity into one’s life and the many gems of wisdom from the folks who have made this connection better than I. May your heart forever be a place of calm in the midst of life’s tempests.

Freedom and Letting Go

We’ve all heard it! Since the movie Frozen became a hit, and John Travolta introduced “Adele Dazeem” instead of Idina Menzel at the Oscars, the tune Let it Go has been heard in school plays, elevators, restaurants, Disney ice shows, and dozens of other music venues.

For those of you who might be unfamiliar with it, the song is the main character’s (Elsa’s) declaration of liberty. After years of hiding her ability to create ice and snow at will, she treks up a mountain singing, “the fears that once controlled me can’t get to me at all. It’s time to see what I can do, to test the limits and break through.” That’s all well and good, but then she sings, “no right, no wrong, no rules for me, I’m free.” Elsa then uses her power to build an ice castle, imprisons herself alone, and plunges her hometown into an eternal winter. She has good intentions, protecting her sister Anna, but there are terrible consequences.

Ever since I first saw the movie, which ultimately has a positive message, and every time I hear the song, I become introspective. For me “letting go” means relaxing into the moment, accepting things as they are, and moving forward without clinging to old hurts, desires, resentments, fears, and disappointments. Elsa’s song is more about giving in to desires and expressing oneself regardless of the consequences. Mistakenly, Elsa thinks that focusing on her own solution is the answer, but her path just solidifies her fears and actually impedes any true freedom.

After much thought, I realize my discomfort comes from the fact that I, like Elsa, have a deep need to control situations and there is a part of me that wants what I want, when I want it. Yet that path does nothing to alleviate any of the fear that undergirds it. I am old enough to know that the only thing I really have any control over is my attitude, and most of the time I experience the extreme difficulty of that task.

My experience has also taught me that whenever I strive to “claim my power,” I am actually less “liberated.” That happens because I am not reaching out for a “we” experience, but I am building my own ice castle, so that I can do things the way I see fit. Like Elsa, in an effort to make the situation “better” I have charged forward, with little introspection, communication, or empathy, believing that my way is the path to freedom. As Elsa and I have discovered, those choices lead to greater fear, isolation, and more chaos.

When I hear people say, “I’m taking back my power,” they generally mean they intend to put themselves in an adversarial position. It also implies that, at some time in the past, they felt their power was taken (or given) away. Since true strength is found at the very core of being, it may lie undiscovered, be buried or suppressed, but it can never truly be given or taken away. It is who I really am.

What most people describe as power is merely an extension of the ego. It is mere window dressing! I may increase my financial wealth. I may strengthen my body. I may improve my mind, I may even have plastic surgery to change my appearance, but the core of my being is beyond alteration. It is the part of me that exists beyond time and place. It is the truest me, the me that belongs to the eternal “we.” It is true power!

Finding one’s inner strength has less to do with worldly accolades and more to do with being grounded. When I have a strong sense of who I am at my center, and focus less on the incidentals and appearances, I am better equipped to extract myself from drama and be a channel of peace. For me, and many others, this also involves a sense of knowing “whose I am.” When I consider myself a son or daughter of the Eternal Source, I have less need to be acknowledged or validated by someone else. My ability to “let go” becomes less of a struggle and I experience greater patience with myself and the other. My soul becomes open to greater expressions of love and sacrifice. I am more capable of seeing and being a path to peace. I am not there yet, but (even at my age) I am a work in progress.

I think that a better song about productive letting go comes from the pen of poet Richard Lovelace.

Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage;
Minds innocent and quiet
Take that for a hermitage.
If I have freedom in my love,
And in my soul am free,
Angels alone, that soar above,
Enjoy such liberty.

The Good Old Days?

My Facebook page has recently been flooded with images such as, “Aren’t you glad you grew up before technology?” These posts generally talk about blissful play, returning home “when the street lights came on,” and “drinking water from a hose.” I have two concerns about these memes. First, they devalue today’s experiences and secondarily, they romanticize a time that was far from idyllic. Maybe it is a survival instinct that, as we get older, we focus on memories of joyful times and compartmentalize (or forget) the experiences that were less than perfect.

If you are younger than 60, it may be very hard to truly understand what it was like living in “the good old days.” Some folks often say it was a time of greater faith, more safety, greater innocence, and strong family values, but I think it is all about perspective. I believe humanity is brimming with potential and that the best times are still ahead. I am also very aware that many things are better today than when I was growing up.

I will soon turn sixty-four and my memories of the 1950s and 60s are not all roses, unicorns, and rainbows. I have lived through riots, assassinations, wars, “military conflicts,” kidnappings, murders, terrorism, and recessions. I have also experienced great innovation, altruism, spiritual awakening, courage, and perseverance.

For eons there has been nastiness in the world. In my youth, media outlets were prevented from publishing many of the darker stories. The underbelly of life was relegated to small-circulation tabloid papers. Today, the shadows are out in the open. Unfortunately, this disclosure can cause people to fall prey to cynicism and pessimism. I want to challenge those temptations with some reasons I am glad to be living in this time.

My maternal grandmother lost two infant sons. One was called a “blue baby” and died because he had a hole in his heart, the other died of rickets caused by malnutrition. My mother’s older sister was a premature baby, born weighing two pounds. She was wrapped in cotton and kept warm in a shoe box on a coal stove. She survived, but remained sickly and had “dropsy” (congestive heart failure) most of her life. She married a man “from the old country” and gave birth to 10 children in nine years. Only six of those children survived, and of those it was her eldest who was physically and mentally strong. Subsequent children had various disabilities including club foot, schizophrenia, and what was then called “mental retardation.” Though doctors often suggested that her “tubes be tied for health reasons,” her Catholic beliefs prohibited the procedure. She died at 48 years of age and most of her children died in their 40s. I am grateful for improvements in reproductive health.

The same aunt’s husband was an immigrant, and could never manage to secure anything but menial labor and my mother and father often had to help their family financially. I know there are dishonest people, but statistics show that the vast majority of welfare recipients truly are in need, just like my aunt’s family was. I appreciate the work of food pantries and welfare programs.

The ladies in my old neighborhood would speak in hushed tones about local suicides and murders due to, what would now be called, postpartum depression and spousal abuse. Yet none of these episodes were on the Nightly News with Walter Cronkite. Women suffering depression were often institutionalized. Battered women were instructed by the police, courts, and religious leaders to be “submissive,” and if their husband beat them “they must have had it coming.” I am thankful for all the efforts to assist women in dangerous relationships.

When I grew up there was a definite separation in my neighborhood between Catholics and “pagans.” Churches in the south were often fire bombed. When John Kennedy ran for president, editorials and political discussions showed concern that a “papist” would allow the Vatican to rule the United States. Religious finger-pointing and suspicion is nothing new! I am glad that people are discussing and fighting for equality among belief systems.

In my childhood, racial and ethnic epithets were common place and even acceptable. My dad, and many of his friends and business associates, regularly used at least a half-dozen derogatory references for people of color, or ethnic origins. We were often called “Polacks” and portrayed as being stupid. I grew up among real live Archie Bunkers! I am glad that “political correctness” makes people moderate their language.

My mother managed a “beauty salon” for Goldblatt’s. One of her co-workers was a homosexual man. He was a great worker and clients always praised him, but they also talked behind his back. He was never invited to any co-workers’ homes, including ours. He could never be honest about his inner thoughts and feelings. In the 1960s he committed suicide. I am grateful that we have open discussion about the dignity of all people.

When I was a girl, prostitution was hidden but common place, and men knew where to go to obtain those services. There was little concern they would be caught and/or prosecuted. Heck, some fathers took sons to a “pro” as a rite of passage into manhood. I am grateful that there are organizations to fight against sexual slavery.

My paternal uncle and grandfather both died of tuberculosis, aged 27 and 48 respectively. My paternal grandmother died of congestive heart failure at age 32 only six months after giving birth to her 7th child. My husband’s father and four of his maternal uncles died of heart disease before age 45 and my dad died at 58! I know people who were orphaned in the influenza pandemic of 1918. I went to school with a girl who wore leg braces because of polio, and my stepdad had a permanent limp because of that disease. I rejoice daily that my husband, and many others, are alive because of the advancements in medical treatment.

I have two cousins who died in “mental institutions” and another cousin whose family member died in an “insane asylum.” I am grateful for improvements and hopeful for future advancements in the treatment of depression and other psychological struggles.

We certainly have a long way to go in learning to truly be the land of the free. Still, I believe the vast majority of people are doing their best to live honest and loving lives in the pursuit of happiness. Ultimately, I agree with Billy Joel, “the good old days weren’t always good, tomorrow’s not at bad as it seems.”