“Ripening Time”

“Ripening Time: Inside Stories for Aging With Grace”

There’s an intriguing new book about getting older in our fast-moving society and world. It is completely different from the self-help books that present any number of steps to survive the physical and mental challenges that lie ahead. This is a slim paperback with a gorgeous cover painting of harvest fruits and vegetables, the analogy to nature that the author weaves through the true life stories of “elders” . Whether a reader is in the middle years or beyond, “Ripening Time” is a positive provocative book, combining deep knowledge with expressive prose.

Sherry Ruth Anderson, Ph.D. is a writer and speaker who has spent the last decade studying conscious development in aging. She is the best selling co-author of “The Feminine Face of God” and “The Cultural Creatives.” In Canada, she chaired the Department of Psychological Research at the Clark Institute of Psychiatry and was Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto Medical School. Her research from that period appears in her book with J.R.Martin, “Crazy Talk: Studies in Schizophrenic Thought Disorder”. She lives in Northern California with her husband, Paul and “takes great joy in walking in nature preserves near their home.”

This how she describes her latest book: “Ripening Time” presents a new perspective on aging through the art of inner inquiry. We enter the inside stories beyond the culture’s mind traps, listening as elders name the lies they’ve believed for too long and uncover the tender and bittersweet and ferocious truths of growing old. The stories become an indispensable compass to a new kind of maturity where aging can be a fruition, the genuine grace and gift of human ripening.” In her book, she poses possible answers to the most searching questions that middle aged and older women and men face in their daily lives.

An easy way to find out if this book is for you is to click on the author’s website: sherryruthanderson.com She posts blogs and some are available on the web site that correspond to chapters in the book: “Is There a Map for Growing Old?” , “Shadows of Aging Part I: Powerful Forces”, and Shadows of Aging Part 2: Disturbing the Furies.” That third blog became the blockbuster Chapter 8 in the book. An earlier chapter tackles the common assumption that “Old Age is Boring”. The writing throughout is gripping, drawing the reader into what it means to become an “elder”. The author shares experiences from her own life that add first person authenticity and generosity of spirit to the narrative. The subject of aging is serious, especially to those of us who are in the midst of the process. Yet, Anderson has been able to write as if she were having a conversation with the reader.

Here is an excerpt from Chapter 12: “Ancestors” : The author was visiting the ancient city of Dubrovnik in Croatia in 2011.
“I’d found my way in the Old City to Zudioska ulica, Jew Street, on one of the alleyways leading off the Stradun, the main promenade . Getting directions in a pizza shop, I arrived at #5, an old house with a sign announcing, Sinagoga, 15 kuna. I gave my kuna to a bored -looking young man who handed me a ticket.
“What time are Shabbat services this week?” I asked brightly, thinking I’d like to sing prayers in Hebrew with Croatians.
“No services,” he said.
“No services?”
“Only on High Holidays.”
I wanted to make some contact with him. (Hey, hello. Are you Jewish? What’s it like living here? I grew up in New Jersey.) I figured that was too over-friendly American and tried for something more neutral.
“How large is the Jewish community?”
“Forty-five.”
“So no rabbi?”
“No rabbi,.” he replied in the same flat voice. And finally, to get rid of me, “Go up to the synagogue first, then come down to the museum on this floor.”

Anderson climbs wooden stairs to the third story sinagoga and then the final stairs to the women ’s section. She sits for awhile and then descends to the museum on the main floor.
“Two very old Torahs lay open in a glass case. A sign says they date from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries and ‘bear witness to Drubrovnik’s Jewish community throughout six centuries of history.’ …Suddenly what has happened here breaks in on me. I’m looking at a yellow arm band with a black star of David printed on it. The next exhibit is the order for confiscation of Jewish books, and after that the order of confiscation of Jewish property, and then the deportation order of all Jews from the city of Dubrovnik. I’m crying by the time I get to the list of names with a scroll drawn around them. Two vines with thorns curl down the scroll, and at the bottom under the dates 1941-1945, a small sign reads, ‘Died in the
Holocaust.’”

There are two valuable sections after the close of the book: “Creating Elders Circles” and “Questions for Discussion and Reflection”. The questions are springboards that follow each chapter and can be pursued individually or within a group. She suggests that an optimum number for an Elder Circle would be 6 to 10 people and her web site offers resources for creating Elder Circles. Finally, every book has blurbs that extol its virtues. This is my favorite for “Ripening Time”: “This book is a harvest of shining wisdom — earthy, funny, lyrical and very human. Maturity, Anderson says, is as complex and rich as old-vine wine. And it is hard work — the fruit of a life lived with honesty, soul and care for others. Stand by and for what you love she urges, and the miracle will happen.” Janine Canan, author of “She Rises Like the Sun.”

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Asking Children Questions

Asking Children Questions

For as long as most of us can remember, young children have been asked the mind-numbing question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Since they are creative and resilient, children learn to deal with this intrusive query with such culturally approved responses as “a doctor” (why not go for the number one prestige and money), “the president or a rock star” (interchangeable in some young heads these days), “gourmet chef” (now, there’s a sophisticate) and “computer geek”(a pragmatic choice).

A range of occupations from the adventurous “astronaut” to the prosaic “stockbroker”, flows without hesitation from the lips of the youngest tots. Have they been primed, coached, influenced by their parents, relatives, friends and television shows and games? Of course. Will their designated choice last? Perhaps. One thing is sure. The good old days of answers like “fireman” (now firefighter), “farmer”, “teacher”, “policeman” (police officer today) and “nurse” are long gone. These kids have moved ahead with the times. They know how to operate Ipods, Ipads and Iphones by the time they are three or four.
(But that’s another subject for a future blog.)

What about us, the adults who keep asking the same nagging question? Each time we pose it, we are making four assumptions:

* Children already know the answer. Management experts might label this “very early goal setting.”
* They should know the answer.
* When one is grown up, there will be one position for each of us in the work world.
*One’s being is defined by one’s occupation.

If the questions we ask determine the answers we get — as philosophers have been telling us for centuries —then, we need to stop asking children what they want to be when they grow up. We need to break the cycle and ask ourselves what we want to matter most to our children when they grow up. If the answer is the best paying job, then we can go back to the original question and refine it a bit. However, if the answer includes occupations related to clean air and water, beauty, human compassion, health, freedom, mature love, world peace, a sense of accomplishment, and the pursuit of truth and wisdom, then we need a very different set of questions for our children.

Here are some possible open end questions for young children:

What makes you very happy?
What makes you very sad?
Who is the kindest person you know?
What is the most beautiful thing you ever saw?
How do you make other people happy?
How do you make other people sad?
Who should take care of the trees and flowers?

For older children, possible questions to pose:

Why should we be honest?
What makes you laugh or cry?
How do you feel when you help someone else?
What does love mean to you?
What does it mean to be free?
What does peace mean to you?
Or, if you must stay with the vocational bent,
What do you like to do most of all?

These lists, of course, are tentative and personal. We each need to create our own lists for our own children and those we know and care about. Our questions reflect our values; they emphasize and pass on to the next generation those values that matter most to us. This should not be a casual or habitual transference. Young minds are open to questions. They pose them constantly to us. They tell us with their questions what concerns them. We need to do the same. To develop meaningful conversations from the answers they give.

If we want them to become adults who care about other people as human beings with feelings, the environment of air and water around them, the ideals of truth, beauty, wisdom, compassion and peace, then we have to stop outlining their futures in terms of jobs, careers, money and prestige. What they want to be when they grow up should be a reflection of the values and goals we are striving to teach them now.

Iraq: War and Remembrance

Iraq: War and Remembrance

Fallujah. Mosul. Tikrit. The deadly names leap from the headlines and resonate once more. And I remember the day in 2008 when I read the obituary of Adrian Mitchell in the New York Times during the raging Iraq War.

I had known neither his name nor his works as a British anti-war poet. I was struck by the inclusion of the opening stanza of his most famous poem, ”To Whom It May Concern (Tell Me Lies About Vietnam)”. The power and imagery of the first line, “I was run over by the truth one day” had a stunning impact. It kept repeating for hours through my head. Mitchell who died at 78, had been widely quoted, saying “Most people ignore poetry because most poetry ignores most people.” He read “Tell Me Lies About Vietnam” for the first time to a crowd of thousands in Trafalgar Square in 1964, and updated the poem over the years to suit changing events.

It is now 2014. Insurgent Sunni and extremist forces have captured northern provinces and are advancing toward Baghdad. Senators John Mc Cain and Lindsey Graham are calling for American drone strikes to save the embattled Shiite army. They criticize President Obama once more for bringing our troops home from Iraq. However, the American people are war weary. All polls report that the majority believe the Iraq war was not worth over 4500 military deaths and one trillion dollars in national treasure.

A debate has been escalating since President Barack Obama’s recent speech at West Point. He spoke to the graduating cadets and the world when he called for a United States foreign affairs policy that aimed at restraint and diplomacy rather than military force and deadly wars in dealing with crises in countries overseas. Obama is a Nobel Peace Laureate and it should have come as no surprise to his critics that he has viewed his role as Commander in Chief through a broad lens. He planned and ordered the pursuit and death of Osama bin Laden. Yet, he did not strike Assad in Syria with threatened missiles when negotiations with Russia accomplished the goal of monitored deportation of all poison gases from Syria, bound for destruction.

I am thinking again of Adrian Mitchell’s anti-war poem. I believe he would substitute Iraq for Vietnam if he were alive today. As a former RAF pilot, he knew first hand the human costs of war. Here it is for you to read and consider.

“To Whom It May Concern (Tell Me Lies About Vietnam)”

I was run over by the truth one day,
Ever since the accident I walk this way.
So stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam.

Heard the alarm clock screaming with pain
Couldn’t find myself so I went back to sleep again
So fill my ears with silver
Stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam

Every time I shut my eyes all I see is flames.
Made a marble phone book and I carved out all the names
So coat my eyes with butter
Fill my ears with silver
Stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam.

I smell something burning, hope it’s just my brains.
They’re only dropping peppermints and daisy chains
So stuff my nose with garlic
Coat my eyes with butter
Fill my ears with silver
Stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam.

Where were you at the time of the crime?
Down by the cenotaph drinking slime
So chain my tongue with whiskey
Stuff my nose with garlic
Coat my eyes with butter
Fill my ears with silver
Stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam.

The Cenotaph, Mitchell refers to, is in London in Whitehall. Like other cenotaphs around the world, it is a tomb erected in honor of a person or group whose remains are buried elsewhere. The word cenotaph comes from the Greek kenos meaning empty and taphos, tomb. The Cenotaph in London was built from Portland stone between 1919 and 1920. The only decorations are a wreath on each end and the words, “The Glorious Dead” chosen by Rudyard Kipling. The Cenotaph is the site of the annual remembrance held on 11:00 a.m. on Remembrance Sunday, the closest Sunday to November 11, World War I Armistice Day.

Some years ago, during a visit to London, my husband and I were part of the crowd gathered at Whitehall to witness the laying of wreaths at the base of the Cenotaph by Queen Elizabeth and officials from other members of the Commonwealth. This followed a parade of the remaining WWI veterans to the Cenotaph, most in wheel chairs, and veterans of WWII, all in full uniform. It was a very stirring and solemn ceremony. The British observe November 11 with reverence and respect. Having witnessed the British ceremony that day at the Cenotaph, I can better understand the hatred of war that Adrian Mitchell felt when he wrote his famous poem. It is as timely today in the 21st century as it was then.

A Woman of a Certain Age

For some years, I have been intrigued by the phrase ‘a woman of a certain age’ when I hear it in conversation or read it in articles. Now, that I’m that woman, I am still trying to figure out what it means. Of course, in French where the phrase originated, it sounds sexier: ’une femme d’un certain age’. An air of mystery. I like that.

We live in a youth-besotted culture. Movies, music, clothes, TV shows and commercials seem to be pitched at the youngest common denominators. Yet, scientists talk of the graying of America. More of us are living longer and healthier lives — women in particular. So, what does it really mean to be an older woman today — a woman of a certain age?

First, it means that my birth date and my age are my own affair. Just between me and the Social Security Agency. This translates into over 62. The cosmetics companies tell us, with the billions they spend, that we are “as young as we feel.” Then, they hawk the myriad anti-wrinkle creams to rescue my skin from telltale crow’s feet and laugh or stress lines. I have news for them. I’ve earned those lines. They show that I’ve taken part in life. Besides, we can’t all look like Catherine Deneuve!

It takes real discipline to eat the right foods, drink mega ounces of water and exercise to ward off the body’s aging process. Yet, gravity pulls relentlessly on the chin line. Did I consider a face-lift? Yes, I even researched and visited two plastic surgeons. Then, I decided that route was not for me. I was afraid of emerging with a better chin line, but not quite looking like me after all. So, my haircuts keep getting shorter. And like Katherine Hepburn, I wear assorted turtleneck sweaters and blouses. It seems to be working so far.

For many women, and I am among them, the advantages of being over 62 far outweigh the disadvantages. There is the wonderful freedom of saying exactly what I want, when I want and to whom I want. I do, however, try to modify any possible hurtful effects of being outspoken — a lesson learned from years of living in a family and raising children, as well as being a part of a social network of friends.

In her valuable, provocative book, Wisdom and the Senses , Joan Erikson wrote, “Love, intimacy and work provide life with its essential meaning. That’s a strong statement in a book that stresses creativity as the key to healthy human growth and development. Erikson, a psychologist, wrote this book when she was well into her 70’s. As for me, I’ve worked hard and well in two careers. Writing has been my third endeavor. And I’m loving it.

Does love translate into enjoying one’s grandchildren . Of course. It’s a delight to take part in their childhood at the birthday parties and later the graduations from high school and college. Appreciating their successes is the second chapter to the years we nurtured their parents through the same sequence of growth and accomplishments.

But the central focus of life, as a woman of a certain age, has to be with my own life. What are the measures of my days? Am I counting them out with T.S. Eliot’s ‘coffee spoons’? Am I finding intimacy and love in my human relationships? With my husband, my children and my friends? Am I giving as well as receiving? These are existential questions for a woman of a certain age. More than 62 years are behind me. I know that. It’s doesn’t make me sad. I don’t dwell on it in a morbid sense. The number of years ahead is unknown. And that is the wonder. The mystery — a mystery that brings me into what Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the 19th century philosopher of the woman’s movement called ‘the solitude of self’.

The essence to me of being a woman of a certain age is having a glimpse into what the human condition is all about. That glimpse imparts a mixture of four things: wisdom, compassion, a dose of humility, and the absolute necessity of a sense of humor. Finally, reaching a certain age should entitle me and other women to certain rewards, some tangible and some intangible. Among the important intangibles are admiration and deference — the right to a place of respect in our families and in our society. A woman of a certain age is someone very special. I can vouch for that.

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Wisdom and the Senses by Joan Erikson and The Solitude of Self: Thinking about Elizabeth Cady Stanton by Vivian Gornick are available on Amazon.com