Pollyanna?

 

 

On a chilly Sunday morning in March, my granddaughter Livia and I went on an adventure through a nearly-deserted downtown Kansas City. Judging from her response, there’s nothing quite like the joy of cartwheeling through an empty passageway between a mall and a hotel lobby. She showed me how to use the slow-motion video function on my phone and then continued wheeling back and forth in front of the fountain. She found it hard to stop.

For as long as I can remember my natural instinct has been to be hopeful and positive. I see possibilities and go for them. My parents encouraged me or, at least, stayed out of the way enough that the impulse stayed alive. I still carry the residue of a childhood belief in Annie Oakley’s, “I can do anything.” The sense of possibility I get from leaping into things to see what I can do feels akin to Livia’s cartwheeling spirit.

That spirit has certainly been tested over the years, seldom more than it is today by the state of our political and economic world. Can we really doanything? I’m convinced we can, and I’m egged on by a positive frame of mind that I just can’t shake.

Several decades ago a friend, Jennifer, sent me a postcard because it reminded her of me. Despite pack-rat tendencies to save documents and memories on paper, I can’t find the card now, but I remember it being a black and white photograph of a cobblestone street, in what I took to be early 20th century Paris. In the middle of the street, a man had popped his head out of a sewer, the round sewer cover on his head and a big smile on his face. My memory is that he looked happy, even a little giddy as though asking, what’ll we do next?

Jennifer wasn’t the only one who pegged me as cheerful. I remember being asked once, why I seemed so happy all the time. Since I couldn’t think of a good reason, I said something like, “It’s just easier this way.” More than once in the past, I’ve been called a “Pollyanna.” This may partly have been because nicknames tend to play off one’s own name, but I’m sure it also had something to do with my general disposition. At first being called Pollyanna seemed complimentary or just descriptive. More and more, though, I began to cringe when I heard it, feeling its pejorative undertones. I was embarrassed. Was my cheerfulness irrational or annoying? And who was Pollyanna anyway?

Bronze statue of Pollyanna in front of the public library in Littleton, New Hampshire

Pollyanna, a 1913 children’s novel by Eleanor H. Porter, told of a girl who got through a terrible childhood by playing what she called her “Glad Game,” in which she found something to be glad about in every situation, no matter how dreadful it was. Briefly summarized, this might not sound so bad, but colloquially, “Pollyanna” has come to mean being foolishly or blindly optimistic, sometimes responding insensitively to terrible things. The adjective Pollyannaish has a male parallel in “Panglossian.” Dr. Pangloss, in Voltaire’s Candide, was “an incurable, albeit misguided, optimist who claimed that ‘all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.’ So persistent was he in his optimism that he kept it even after witnessing and experiencing great cruelty and suffering.” (Merriam-Webster)

Even when I was younger, I knew this wasn’t the way my energy worked. I’ve never felt that taking a positive attitude into the world denies the conditions I find there. Being aware of suffering or unfairness can in fact move me to act, to see what I can do about it. I wouldn’t characterize my actions as playing a “glad game,” even though something like gladness can come from it. There’s a kind of joy in figuring out what can be done to right a wrong, find a solution, or discover a new way to see an old problem. My hopefulness lives, at least partly, in often small but ultimately positive acts.

I long to talk more about why or how I can be positive or hopeful now, but it’s not easy. I stumble when I try to write about it. I struggle with the words when I try to talk about it out loud. Hope and possibility can feel sort of wimpy and irrelevant. There always seems to be something more important and urgently serious. How does one take a hopeful stance in the midst of the fight for immigrants’ humanity or for protection of children and all of us from a lethal gun culture? What positive frame can one possibly create when democratic systems are failing and under attack and when we so urgently need to fight against more environmental destruction and against racism, the abuse of privilege, and increasing economic inequality?

If it’s not Pollyannaism or blind optimism that drives my hopefulness, what is it? And how in the world do I put that into words?

Whenever I get stuck and can’t seem to move ahead, I read, I listen, I learn and borrow from others to put the pieces together for myself. I can’t do it alone. Though I sit here now, by myself – trying to learn a little more and be clearer about my words – I’m not really alone. I’m surrounded by what I’ve pulled together from reading, from my own immediate experience, and from what I hear in other people’s stories.

As part of an early 2017 episode of WNYC’s On the Media, Robert Garfield interviewed writer, historian, and activist Rebecca Solnit.* He began by mentioning that her 2004 book, Hope in the Dark: Untold histories, wild possibilities,was again “flying off the shelves.” The interview began with her reading a passage from the book outlining recent historical instances of unexpected, often nonlinear ways positive change has happened. Despite these lessons from history, Garfield was troubled. “In the foreseeable future, he said, “we are likely as a society to go abruptly and maybe irretrievably backwards on civil rights, human rights, climate, sanity. Isn’t a man permitted to be morose and desperate without surrendering? Isn’t that a reasonable reaction to horrible events?”

Solnit replied:

You’re talking about two different things: How do we feel, and what do we do? I’m not telling people how to feel. I’m telling people that there is scope for action. One of the great conundrums is that unless we believe there are possibilities we don’t act, but the possibilities only exist if we seize them.

I’m not an optimist. Optimism believes everything will be fine no matter what we do, and therefore we don’t have to do a damn thing. Pessimism is the mirror image of that that believes everything is going to hell in a hand basket, and it gets us off the hook. We don’t have to do anything. Hope for me is deeply tied to the fact that we don’t know what will happen. This gives us grounds to act while being clear that terrible things are happening.… There’s wiggle room in there. A lot of extraordinary stuff is happening and it’s happening in complex ways… We’re not talking about a future that’s already written.

Solnit inspires my determination to hang on to a positive orientation while not losing track of the conditions that keep me moving. One definition of positive is “concentrating on what is constructive and good.” That feels right to me.

My hope is not abstract. Hope can be an opening that gives us grounds to act, but it can also be triggered by stories of real people finding new, or sometimes bringing back old, ways of living and working together. It grows not just from the possibilities of an unknown future, but also from the actions, work, and ideas of real people who loudly, or often quietly, make a difference and show us new ways to live. Solnit reinforces my own observation that “a lot of extraordinary stuff is happening.”

Over the past year or so I’ve struggled to figure out the best ways I can respond to the current state of the world – to find my piece of the puzzle. One thing I’ve come to is that I want to contribute to imagining how we get out of this mess. Another way to put it is that I want to help answer questions like, Where is it we want to go? What do we want to be creating as we go forward, and how do we get there? For me, real-life stories along with leaps of imagination that tie them together are like fuel for my hopefulness.

Now and then in coming months, I plan to share stories I’ve collected and new ones I will discover, the kind of extraordinary stories that Solnit refers to. I also plan to write about some of the connecting threads, broad ideas or theories that draw on the various stories and that may tie them together and add to their potential and their power. As I write, I’ll try to avoid being blindly Pollyannaish without losing my own stubbornly positive voice.


Photo credit

The original photo of Littleton’s Pollyanna statue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. The photo is by David Fulmer, Daveynin, shown here with my modifications.

Note

* “Rebecca Solnit on hope, lies, and making change,” interview by Bob Garfield for WNYC’s On the Media, first broadcast on January 12, 2017, rebroadcast on December 28, 2017.


Where in hell are we?

 

Where in hell are we? Judging from our national politics, international tensions, and the suffering described in news reports and visible on sidewalks in my own neighborhood, we’re in pretty deep. Like many people, I struggle to shape and reshape the way I take action in this post-2016 era without completely losing my balance in the maelstrom.

My vision of hell probably looks a lot like Dante’s Inferno (1320), an image I encountered in college when Dante’s long poem of his journey through the nine circles of hell was assigned as an essay topic in a philosophy class. I remember liking the premise I’d come up with, and it has stayed with me since then. It pops up especially when I get to wondering just how bad a particular incident or situation is – could it be worse? what could I do to help make it better? Given the current political, economic, and social climate, I’m not surprised that the premise of that 54-year-old essay is on my mind again.

A few weeks ago, a folder of college papers surfaced in one of the many boxes I’ve stashed away over the years. This essay was among them and I was eager to see it again. As I started reading, I remembered the panic I felt when I turned the essay in. Not only had I, a generally rule-abiding student, not read the whole book, but my essay was only about a page and a half, double-spaced. The suggested length was ten pages. With no prefatory comment and no helpful title, my 19-year-old self just leaped straight into my basic contention:

The severity of punishment in Dante’s Hell does not vary from one circle to the next. There only seems to be a difference to an observer, like Dante, passing through. But all souls in Hell are suffering and all are in agony no matter which circle they are in. Each soul has no other punishment with which to compare its own agony, and with this lack of comparison, that soul’s punishment would feel just as severe as any other. Each soul receives the worst and most appropriate punishment for the sin that soul committed. The soul of a thief is punished by having nothing, not even a form, that is not stolen from it. A glutton’s soul is punished by having to wallow in mud, an appropriate punishment for one who wallowed in material things on earth.

Dante says, “The more perfect, the more keen, whether for pleasure’s or for pain’s discerning.” A person evil on earth will not be as affected by a punishment in hell as will a person less evil on earth. The souls in the Circles of Incontinence, because their sins were not thought to be as bad, would be “more perfect” so the suffering they felt would be “more keen.” The souls in deeper circles do not suffer any more than the ones in higher circles. It just takes a stiffer punishment to make a sinful soul suffer the same agony.

After all my trepidation, the professor gave the paper an A with a hand-written comment, “In three brief, brilliant paragraphs you have touched the soul of the Inferno.” Only now do I appreciate her use of the word “soul” in the comment, which seems apt given that I used the word 13 times in the three brief paragraphs. I have no doubt, though, that her note played a part in how firmly the idea that my 18-year-old self took from a medieval text got planted in my mind.

The power of comparison burrowed into my thinking. If souls in the upper circles of hell had been able to compare their punishment with the punishments received in the lower circles as Dante had, might they have felt a little better about their plight, might they have suffered a little less? I suppose, though, that this wasn’t the point. In fact the upper levels only seemed better if, like Dante, you were able to walk from one circle to the next and observe the comparison, but not if you imagined being caught in one of hell’s circles suffering its specific punishment.

 

About 15 years ago, an editor I admired used a quote that felt true to me. Purported to be from Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, though I can’t find proof, it said, “The root of all unhappiness is comparison.” Memory of the idea planted by Dante may have helped this quote feel right to me. I pinned it on the wall over my desk and it stayed there for years. I tried applying it to my life.

If I could let comparison go, I reasoned, my sense of worthiness or even happiness would not depend on comparing myself to others. It wouldn’t matter how I or anyone else judged my life against the lives of others. The amount of stuff or money or fame I had, whether or not I had a partner or children, how I expressed my activism, or any other of the many measures I’ve used, consciously or unconsciously, to judge myself – wouldn’t have so much influence over me. I’d use the quote over my desk to remind me that I’d be happier, more at peace with myself, and more able to be active and useful, if I could quiet those comparisons.

This expands Dante’s lesson to include pleasure along with pain. In hell, the pain experienced is appropriate partly because the souls in each circle aren’t aware of the pain felt in other circles. In my lived experience, I’m fuller, happier, more ready to be and act in the world, when I can stay in my own circle of pleasure and pain, keeping comparison away.

The impact of comparison takes a different but at least as powerful a turn when I step into the turmoil of the world around me. Much as Dante considered the circles of hell when he moved through them, I’m acutely aware of the widely differing conditions of people’s lives as I move through and act in the world today.

More than two decades ago, I discovered an exchange between Hannah Arendt, a German-born American political thinker, and Mary McCarthy, an American author and political activist, in a book of their letters from 1949 to 1975.The ideas they discussed have stayed with me over the years, but only now am I making a connection with the Inferno.

On June 9, 1964, McCarthy wrote to Arendt about an idea she longed to write about.

The present idea has to do with equality. I’ve long thought that this is the spectre that has been haunting the world since the eighteenth century. Or at least it has been haunting me all my life. Once this notion was introduced into the human mind, existence became unbearable, and yet once there it can never be banished.

The only people who remain happy or content are those who haven’t yet heard of it, for one reason or another – at either end of the social scale. The beknighted squires (and there still are a few) who don’t have a guilty conscience, and the beknighted peasants (and there still are a few) who don’t suffer from envy. Both these groups, as it were, don’t question God’s disposition of His favors, whether He smiles on them or frowns on them. But everyone else is only pretending if they claim to take inequality for granted. On both sides. “Why should I have this and not he?” or “Why should he have this and not I?” 

…I have the sense, maybe subjective, that the worm of equality is not only eating away at the old social and economic foundations but at the very structure of consciousness, demolishing the “class distinctions” between the sane and the insane, the beautiful and the ugly, the good and the bad.

Arendt replied on June 23, 1964.

Let us talk about the equality business; most interesting. The chief vice of every egalitarian society is Envy – the great vice of free Greek society. And the great virtue of all aristocracies seems to me to be that people always know who they are and hence do not compare themselves with others. This constant comparing is really the quintessence of vulgarity. If you are not in this hideous habit you are immediately accused of arrogance – as though by not-comparing you have decided to be on top.

McCarthy’s words, like ideas sparked by Dante, are firmly planted in my mind. McCarthy’s “worm of equality” digs through layers of class, health, beauty and morality, just as Dante’s downward path draws him through the circles of hell.

But what of Kierkegard’s root of unhappiness or Arendt’s vice of envy? What if we long for the satisfaction and joy that might come from living in a world that allows us to know who we are without the envy and arrogance that can come from the habit of comparison? Can we imagine such a world without assuming that it requires returning to an medieval realm inhabited by beknighted squires and peasants?

If we’ve found such a place, why would we venture out to see and feel the inequalities in both suffering and joy in the world around us? Why venture into a world that demolishes the distinctions between classes and between “the sane and the insane, the beautiful and the ugly, the good and the bad”… the truth and the lies?

Why? Because the suffering is just as unbearable today as it was in the past. The violence now may be less but the pain remains as keen. Perhaps our hell, the circle of suffering being experienced right now, is exactly matched to the conditions we’ve created, just as the punishment in Dante’s hell was perfectly matched to the sin. And if, in absolute terms, today’s conditions are better – “more perfect” – and the suffering less than in the past, as some research shows2, the reason the world has improved must be because many people have ventured out, seen the differences, and insisted that things get better. Digging through the layers of class, health, beauty, and morality and comparing what we find, one layer with another, can be a source of energy to act. Things would not be better now if so many people in the past had not been restless, dissatisfied with what they saw, and determined to be part of making things better.

Choosing to work to reduce suffering or strive for more equality doesn’t have to mean living without joy or pleasure. We just have to engage in two apparently opposite ways of living a life, one that digs down through layers of inequality, taking action as we can, and one that allows for the pleasures that come from being ourselves, avoiding envy and comparison with others. In The Crack-Up (1936), F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.”

I see it as a matter of continually weaving back and forth between stepping outside the dynamic spiral of action and into a more constant awareness of our own groundedness, then getting up and leaping back into the fray…then stepping out, then back in, and out, and in.

 

 

Notes

  1. Excerpts from two longer letters in Between Friends: The correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy, 1949-1975, edited and with an introduction by Carol Brightman. Harcourt Brace & Company, 1995, p163-167.
  2. For example, The Angels of our Better Nature: Why violence has declined, by Steven Pinker, Viking, 2011.

Alice, Alzheimer’s, and special powers

“Alice Anne”

I was named after my two grandmothers, Alice Ross Crawford and Anne Bosworth Focke. My parents liked the sound of Alice Anne much better than Anne Alice, but Alice lived with us for most of my life through high school and having two Alices in the house would be confusing. Whenever my parents felt I needed a strong talking-to, they called out both names. And these were almost the only times I heard them together. So, except as warning or reprimand, I was Anne.

I developed strong attachments to literary and historical figures with each of these names, girls who led colorful, exciting lives. I was called Annie as a kid, and two Annies especially fascinated and influenced me. One was Annie Oakley, a famous sharpshooter in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and featured in Irving Berlin’s musical Annie Get Your Gun, which I heard as a girl at San Diego’s Starlight Opera. (Recalling this, Annie’s song, “Anything you can do, I can do better,” is now stuck in my head.) A second seminal Annie was Little Orphan Annie of the long-standing comic strip, who in the background had a protector, Daddy Warbucks, and who foiled evildoers by herself with her dog Sandy.

The most influential of my heroines, though, was probably Alice from Alice in Wonderland. She never seemed afraid and instead was simply curious. She followed the White Rabbit in a hurry and fell down a rabbit hole. She landed in a strange and magical place where she got larger and smaller, swam in a pool of tears, shook hands with a dodo bird, watched Father William balance an eel on his nose, conversed with a hookah-smoking caterpillar on a large mushroom, watched the smiling Cheshire Cat in a tree disappear, had tea with the Mad Hatter and Hare, tried to play croquet with a flamingo and a hedgehog, and had to testify before the court of the fearsome Queen of Hearts.

I went on those adventures with her while my dad read the stories aloud. Her story and Sir John Tenniel’s original illustrations provided beginning points for imaginations of my own Although Tenniel’s drawings are the source for my strongest visual memories of the story, I’m sure the characters in Walt Disney’s movie have a role in my memories as well.

Alice, Annie, and Annie taught me the special powers of imagination, believing in myself, and the thrill and adventure of catching evildoers.

My grandmother Alice died after I left for college. From my youngest brother Ross’s brief descriptions of her last years, I now assume she died with dementia or Alzheimer’s. Years later, my mother did also. Looking back on it all now, I’m saddened by how distant I was from gran’s death and in many respects from mom’s death as well. She died in 1997. My brothers Frank and Ross – especially Ross – were the true caretakers of my mom in her last years. They’ve become bright stars for me as I remember their caregiving role.

The few times I was with mom by myself toward the end of her life, I remember wondering how to enter her world of dementia. I felt I had to be carefully present-tense, consider things that were right in front of us, that we could see and touch, not things that happened yesterday or that might happen tomorrow. Being unable to remember yesterday or think about tomorrow made her feel bad or angry and just increased her confusion. I didn’t understand the disease well enough to know that if we’d jumped much further back in time, we might have opened up older, more enjoyable memories for her and for us both.

Perhaps influenced by my Alice-in-Wonderland past, I’ve always found it easy to jump beyond present circumstances, imagining ways of being that might be but aren’t yet. I wondered how I could see my mom’s and her mom’s dementia – perhaps my own in the future – as interesting or useful, or simply as another acceptable way of being. I thought about historical tales of the wise fool, the wisdom of the village idiot, the ancient oracles, or the mystic seer.

Today dementia is an evildoer. At a 2010 symposium of designers and developers of senior housing, a speaker referred to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease as the biggest fear of aging boomers, a fear he urged his colleagues to acknowledge.1

What are we losing by not including in our lives – personally and societally – relationships with and insights from people who seem to exist in other realities? Are we losing their special powers in our super-rational world? How do we understand the edges dividing dementia and wisdom?

A year or two ago, I discovered a book by Dana Walrath, Aliceheimer’s: Alzheimer’s through the Looking Glass.2

In Aliceheimer’s, Walrath, a medical anthropologist, graphic artist, and writer, tells the story of her mother Alice’s journey with Alzheimer’s, especially during the two years when Alice lived with Dana and her husband in their Vermont home. In the introduction, Walrath says that the biomedical story of dementia “is in desperate need of revision.”

The dominant narrative is a horror story. People with Alzheimer’s are perceived as zombies, bodies without minds, waiting for valiant researchers to find a cure. For Alice and me, the story was different. Alzheimer’s was a time of healing and magic. Of course, there is loss with dementia, but what matters is how we approach our losses and our gains. Reframing dementia as a different way of being, as a window into another reality, lets people living in that state be our teachers – useful, true humans who contribute to our collective good, instead of scary zombies.

Wow, I thought. I’ve been waiting for this. Perhaps this begins to show how to slay the evildoer.

Alice in Wonderland seems to be as important to Walrath as it was to me. She uses Lewis Carroll’s book as an emotional frame for her book. “I found the story’s voice the day I cut up a cheap paperback copy of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, using the page fragments to make her bathrobe, Alice’s favorite garment.” Alice falls slowly down the rabbit hole of her memory loss and disappears gradually like the Cheshire Cat.

Walrath’s book is part of the Graphic Medicine series.3 She chose the graphic narrative form in the belief that it could reach someone with dementia. She writes, “Graphic storytelling captures the complexity of life and death, of sickness and health. Going back and forth between the subconscious and conscious, between the visual and the verbal, lets us tap into our collective memory, an essential element of storytelling.” It allows us to “better understand those who are hurting, to feel their stories, and redraw and renegotiate social boundaries.” She made her Alice drawings in part “to process my own grief after placing my mother in an Alzheimer’s residence…. But I was also drawing to remember the magic and laughter of that time.”

With a community of help that included pirates, good neighbors, a cast of characters from space-time travel, and my dead father hovering in the branches of the maple trees that surround our Vermont farmhouse, Aliceheimer’s let us write our own story daily – a story that, in turn, helps rewrite the dominant narrative of aging.

Most of the book alternates between graphic and written pages, each two-page spread telling of a day in Alice and Dana’s world.

“Dana, am I going crazy? You would tell me if I had lost my marbles, wouldn’t you?”

I’ve heard these questions many times. Repetition. Anyone who lives with Alzheimer’s knows from repetition. As her rudder, I always supplied Alice with the same steady answers. “No, you’re not crazy. You have Alzheimer’s disease so you can’t remember what just happened.”

“Oh. I forgot. What a lousy thing to have.”

One story, early in the book, tells of Alice losing her home. The accompanying drawings count Dana’s days with Alice. “Alice is disappearing. Soon there will be none.”

Often the “internal governor” of people with Alzheimer’s also disappears; they say exactly what’s on their mind. This disappearance lets new things appear. Alice found parts of herself that she had kept hidden, from her children anyway. She wished out loud that she had gone to medical school instead of becoming a biology teacher. Her years of pushing me in this direction and away from creative work made sense at last.”

One of the reasons Walrath moved Alice into her home was “our unfinished business of finding a good close.” They had never been close. In gentle, surprisingly direct ways, they found resolution, “at last.”  After one quiet but deeply felt exchange of apology and forgiveness, Walrath writes, “I knew that if I wanted it, Alzheimer’s would let us have this conversation every single day.”

Alice remembers all the songs from The Music Man and countless others from her youth. The present is more elusive. These days she doesn’t remember that she has Alzheimer’s. But she used to. And she always sings.

One May morning, she stood by my dining room windows, looking out over the rolling field, and she sang this bit from Babes in Arms:

It seems we stood and talked like this before
We looked at each other in the same way then,
But I can’t remember where or when.
The clothes you’re wearing are the clothes you wore.
The smile you are smiling you were smiling then,
But I can’t remember where or when.

She stopped and she smiled and said, “That should be the Alzheimer’s theme song.”

Aliceheimer’s.

As a medical anthropologist, Walrath’s broad, cultural and historical understanding of sickness and health reaches beyond the medical system that so dominates the understanding of health in the U.S. today. She writes in her introduction:

Biomedicine locates sickness in a specific place in an individual body: a headache, a stomachache, a torn knee, lung cancer. Medical anthropologists instead locate sickness and health in three interconnected bodies: the political, the social, and the physical.4  The prevailing political economy impacts the distribution of sickness and health in a society and the means available to heal those who are sick. …The social body constructs the meanings and experiences surrounding certain physical states.

Some cultures locate sickness not in individuals but instead in families or communities. As any caregiver knows, we live the sickness too. And while biomedicine can cure diseases, it flounders with permanent hurts, troubles of the mind, states present from birth or that are incurable or progressive. In biomedicine, these states are stigmatized and feared. We medical anthropologists have a term for this: social death.

The role of “social bodies” – that is, communities – in the health of individuals is being discovered and described more and more often. Alzheimer’s is one kind of “social death,” and British writer George Monbiot identifies another. Loneliness and isolation constitute a “disease of epidemic scale today,” he writes in Out of the Wreckage: a new politics for an age of crisis.5 “Of all the fantasies human beings entertain, the idea that we can go it alone is the most absurd and perhaps the most dangerous.” Monbiot is constantly on the lookout for ways to combat this disease. He begins a recent column for The Guardian, “The town that’s found a potent cure for illness – community,” this way: “It could, if the results stand up, be one of the most dramatic medical breakthroughs of recent decades. It could transform treatment regimes, save lives, and save health services a fortune. Is it a drug? A device? A surgical procedure? No, it’s a new-fangled intervention called community, as results from a trial in the Somerset town of Frome [England] show.6

Although Monbiot warned that the findings are based on what he termed “provisional data” – that is, not yet published by the academic press – he also wrote that “this shouldn’t stop us feeling a shiver of excitement about the implications.” Results of the Compassionate Frome project, begun five years ago, appears to show that when isolated people who have health problems are supported by community groups and volunteers, the number of emergency admissions to hospital falls dramatically. Sometimes the help took the form of handling debt or housing problems, sometimes joining choirs, lunch clubs, exercise groups, or writing workshops. The point was, he said, “to break a familiar cycle of misery: illness reduces people’s ability to socialize, which leads in turn to isolation and loneliness, which then exacerbates illness.”

When [Alice] was certain that her own mother, who died in 1954, had just been sitting on the sofa in the living room and talking with her, she would say, “You see her, don’t you?” I’d say, “I can’t see her, but I’m sure you can. You have special powers. You can see things that we can’t.” For her that was enough.

 

What Walrath offered her mother was a way to break the familiar cycle of Alzheimer’s misery. And it’s telling, I think, that Dana and Alice’s “wonderland” – the community they made together – offered gifts to them both.

Notes

1  Robert Kramer, founder and president, National Investment Center for the Senior Housing and Care Industry, speaking at the Senior Housing Design and Development Symposium at the University of Maryland, 2010.

2  Aliceheimer’s: Alzheimer’s through the Looking Glass, Dana Walrath, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2016.

3  Graphic Medicine book series, from the Pennsylvania State University Press. “Books in the series are curated by an editorial collective with scholarly, creative, and clinical expertise, and attest to a growing awareness of the value of comics as an important resource for communicating about a range of issues broadly termed ‘medical’.”

4  From Walrath’s introduction: For more on this see Nancy Scheper-Hughes and M. Margaret Lock, “The Mindful Body: A Prolegomenon to Medical Anthropology,” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 1, no. 1 (March 1987): 6-41.

5  George Monbiot, Out of the Wreckage: a new politics for an age of crisis, Verso Books, 2017.

6  George Monbiot, “The town that’s found a potent cure for illness – community,” The Guardian, February 21, 2018.

 


Get up, get up! Like a busy lady bug

Get up! Anne Focke, 2013, letterpress.

Commissioned for an exhibition at the Frye Art Museum in 2013, “Get up!” was the first artwork of mine to hang on the wall of an arts institution since the 1970s – the Moore College of Art in 1975 and the Portland Center for the Visual Arts in 1978. Without it being a conscious plan, “Get up!” gave me or identified for me a theme that runs as a kind of refrain through my life, at least since then and probably for years before that. Get up, get up!

Each of the 36 commissioned artists worked with one of 36 poems in a 1907 collection of poems, Chamber Music, by James Joyce . . . or more correctly, we were asked to make a work on paper (10.5 x 14.5 inches) inspired by a piece of music based on the poem. In the flurry of having to get my piece done in a short time, I ignored or forgot the musical aspect of the assignment and went straight to the poem. There were other layers to the exhibition and to my contribution, but the poem and producing something for the wall had to be my first focus.

Scott Lawrimore, deputy director of the museum at the time and curator of the exhibition, suggested “Chamber Music XIV” for me. The final line in the four stanza poem is, “Arise, arise!” As I read it, a young lover (with Joyce as author, I assume a male narrator), is trying to get his love, his “beautiful one,” to get up. And he’s having a hard time of it. I can almost hear a little irritation as he repeats his request – “arise, arise” – three times in the sixteen short lines. Here’s a stanza from the original:

The odorous winds are weaving
A music of sighs:
Arise, arise,
My dove, my beautiful one!

Scott’s surprise invitation to participate was a gift, even as it rattled my world for a few days while I tried to decide whether or not to take the project on and if I did how I would. It began a shift in my understanding of who I am and how I want to get things done, an understanding that’s always changing and continues today as I stubbornly keep asking myself what’s my place in the troubled but hopeful world we live in today. As I say in my own Chamber Music text, I regularly make that demand of myself, “Get up, get up!”

Seasonally, I share my apartment with lady bugs. The 1908 building I live in “breathes,” according to a contractor who did some work for us a few years ago. For one thing, he said, this has kept structural elements inside the walls dry and free of rot. For another, I’m sure the “breathing” has provided easy access for my small red visitors. There aren’t many tiny critters I enjoy living with, but having fallen in love with lady bugs as a child, they are welcome in my home now. And occasionally they teach me something, like this busy lady bug who, even in silhouette, reminds me to keep getting up. See her demonstrate here.

The odorous winds are blowing.

Get up, get up!

 


Production notes

From the printer, Miss Cline Press (Ana Karina Luna): “Get up!” text was “letterpressed by hand using linseed oil ink from photo polymer plates onto Arches River BFK 100 lb. paper using a 1870 iron manual platen press. Paper torn by hand. Printed in an edition of nine, plus newsprint proofs.”

Karina also printed my calling card, designed by Warren Wilkins, the upper half of which appears below and in the banner of my website, Carrying On. My characteristic “a:” is also imprinted in the lower right-hand corner of “Get Up!” As I’ve told Warren, he gave me the best “a” logo on the internet. Just try to find a better one!


Creative Tension – Individual interests vs. the common good

The principle of [the United States] seems to be to make private interests harmonize with the general interest. A sort of refined and intelligent selfishness seems to be the pivot on which the whole machine turns…. But up to what extent can the two principles of individual well-being and the general good in fact be merged?…This is something which only the future will show.   

— Alexis de Tocqueville, 1831

 

 

 

Introduction

There’s a high likelihood Tocqueville’s question will never be settled definitively – not now, nearly 200 years into Toqueville’s “future,” and not two hundred years into our future. I can’t imagine a time when one group of human beings won’t be tugging another toward one of these principles and away from the other. It’s a tension that’s probably best not settled, one we should constantly question and struggle to answer in new ways.

I’ve borrowed the Toqueville quote from “Civil Society and Its Discontents,” an article by Bruce Sievers published in 2004 by Grantmakers in the Arts.1 At the time, I was co-editor of GIA’s periodical, the GIA Reader, and had the opportunity to work with Bruce on this and other pieces for the Reader. Working with him was the best introduction I could have had to the crucial role that civil society plays, or should play, in our world. Civil society, the common good, the commons, and many concepts and understandings spinning around these ideas continue to play a central role in my thinking.

The essays that Bruce wrote for GIA were among the precursors to his 2010 book, Civil Society, Philanthropy and the Fate of the Commons.2 As it was being published, the book provided the structure for a series of five conversations I organized with friends and colleagues Wier Harman, Carol Lewis, and Ted Lord. In mid-2010 after the five sessions were over, I considered “serializing” the notes so the ideas we wrestled with in conversation could be shared with others.

To try out my plan, I drafted a few pieces intended to provide a general context, without discussing the conversations. That would come next, I thought. I only got as far as three pieces before being swept up in other work, which has been a common fate of my writing over the years. Recently, I’ve gone back to the few I wrote and to my notes from the conversations themselves, knowing that a greater understanding of civil society is at least as important now as it was then. One piece follows here, and a second, ”Can we stay in the same room?” was posted on this site earlier.

January 2018

Creative Tension
Individual interests vs. the common good

January 2011

One evening in the fall 2004, a notice slid under my apartment’s front door notifying residents that the board of my condo association had just fired the building’s live-in managers, a couple who had shared responsibility for managing and maintaining this 80-unit residential building for about ten years. They were already out of a job and a home. That day, the notice read, had been their last.

In addition, the board had decided to change the association’s long-time practice of hiring resident managers. Instead we would now contract with a commercial property management firm and, in fact, a particular company had already been selected. A central argument for the change seemed to be, in essence, “keeping up with the Joneses.” Other condominiums in our neighborhood used commercial firms; resident managers were simply unprofessional, the board’s argument went, and was probably devaluing our individual investments.

Many of us who were owners were stunned. The managers had received no notice and the board gave them ten days to move out. (Activist owners managed to extend the allotted time to a month.)

Rancor and strife erupted and prevailed openly for months. Charges of secrecy, calls for due process, accusations of inappropriate use of power were countered by claims that it was all for our own good and, besides, it was a personnel matter that had to be confidential. Concerns for maintaining the value of the property clashed with concerns for open process and justice for the managers as human beings. In one way of understanding it, upper floors (with larger apartments, higher property values, and votes that counted more) seemed pitted against we on the lower floors. Some decried the loss of democratic process and of community and shared values. The imbroglio was intense and exhausting, and the bruises continue under the surface today, six years later.

This very local turmoil in my building played out in tandem with the 2004 national presidential campaign, then in high gear – on the radio, TV, and internet, in newspapers and in discussions at work and among friends. Angry debates about the Iraq War (barely a year old), the tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, the PATRIOT Act, and the voting controversies and irregularities of four years earlier – all colored the campaigns. Strident claims seemed barely connected to fact.

For a few days, with the Republican convention on my kitchen radio and meetings of a rump group of disaffected condo owners in the apartment next door, I retreated to my home office to meet a publishing deadline. At the time, I was executive director of Grantmakers in the Arts and co-editor of its periodical, the GIA Reader. Much of my role as editor was essentially interactive, communicating with writers and thinkers whose ideas subsequently reached GIA members and others through the publication. Aspects of the editorial work, though, required concentration and focus; the space and time for this was often easier to find outside the office.

One of the essays I worked on at home that fall, with the backdrop of both local and national dramas, was “Civil Society and Its Discontents: Philanthropy’s Civic Mission,” by Bruce Sievers.

Sievers’ piece opened with a quote from Alexis de Tocqueville (Sing Sing, 1831):

The principle of the republics of antiquity was to sacrifice private interests to the general good. In that sense one could say that they were virtuous. The principle of [the United States] seems to be to make private interests harmonize with the general interest. A sort of refined and intelligent selfishness seems to be the pivot on which the whole machine turns…. But up to what extent can the two principles of individual well-being and the general good in fact be merged?…This is something which only the future will show.

Later in the essay, Sievers describes what characterizes civil society and distinguishes it from both commerce and government:

[The world] we inhabit when we are acting in civil society is very different from those of other spheres of social life: the economy and the state. Each of these three worlds has its set of goals, expectations, norms, and incentives. In the economic world, we think and act as producers, consumers, and investors; in the political world, we play the roles of voters, lawmakers, and public administrators. In the world of civil society, we become community members, volunteers, and civic actors.

What particularly characterizes [civil society] is pluralism, distinctive social values, and a creative tension between individual interests and the commons. It is the sphere in which private visions of the public good play out in interaction with one another to shape the social agenda. Participating in civil society involves the pursuit of a mixture of public and private goals, of social problem-solving and individual expression.

Yikes! “Creative tension” hardly states it strongly enough. The words in the essay and the worlds I inhabited beyond my desk began to get mixed up with each other. Sievers, for instance, referred to looking within civil society “for the sources of a familiar institutional gridlock in which it becomes easy to obstruct actions aimed at achieving public purposes but extremely difficult to take positive steps forward to accomplish them.” It doesn’t take more of an institution than a small condo association to see that gridlock in action.

Later in the essay Sievers writes:

It is…the erosion of essential civic values – the steep decline in public trust, diminishing belief in the efficacy of civic action, increasing fractiousness of public debate, and diminishing bonds of common civic identity – that poses the fundamental threat and that prevents the solution of large social problems. We are back to Tocqueville and his worry about reconciling the principles of “individual well-being and the general good” in the American experiment.

Although Sievers focused on the specific role that philanthropy can play in strengthening civil society, I paid as much attention to what the essay taught me about democracy and the principles of civil society. I was struck by the thought that somehow these abstractly philosophical ideas had an essential relevance to both the immediately local and the far-reaching national debates unfolding around me. But it was as though each of the three worlds – the local, national, and theoretical – existed on parallel planes that didn’t overlap in ways I could get my mind around in a practical way.

Big ideas – like those of Tocqueville and Sievers on civil society – help me adjust my understanding of what happens on the ground where I live, but they leave me unsettled until I figure out how to adjust my actions in response to them.

Coda 

The “erosion of essential civic values” that Sievers mentions seems to be occurring at an ever faster rate. Daily…hourly…we are urged to write this congressman, show up for that action, resist another dreadful bill, proposed legislation, or executive decision. Given the rise of ever-more powerful individual interests, how do we also begin to shore up public trust, dilute the fractiousness of our public debate, and strengthen a common sense of civic identity? Without it, we stand to lose the creative tension between private interests and the general good that Tocqueville called the “pivot on which the whole machine turns.”

January 2018


Notes

1  “Civil Society and its Discontents,” Bruce R. Sievers, GIA Reader, Autumn 2004.

2  Civil Society, Philanthropy and the Fate of the Commons, Bruce R. Sievers, University Press of New England, 2010.


Time away . . . calm, solitary, and uninterrupted?

Or maybe wild, accompanied, and interrupted?

Last month I spent two weeks on an island, in a beautiful home tucked in the forest, with a view looking south over the water. The evening sunset on the first night, after Heather and Greg – my friends and the home’s owners – left for Mexico, looked like this:

And the woods were lush and green with moss and ferns and trees on top of trees.

Pretty idyllic, right?

I was working on a gnarly question I’d posed to myself and had imagined that a stretch of calm, solitary, uninterrupted time was just what I needed to tackle it.

I was wrong.

First, I was wrong to assume I’d have two calm, serene weeks. The beauty remained, and I wouldn’t want to have missed all the forms it took while I was there. But after that first sunset, the wind and storms picked up and the beauty took a wildly different form. I’d been warned that the island could be windy, but it kicked into the extreme . . . gusts up to 50 miles an hour, I heard later. Big branches landed in the roads, a door in the house blew open, and things outside got tossed around. In early morning, the power went out across the island, only briefly, but the outage may have triggered the string of other little interruptions over the next few days – the geothermal heat pump stopped working, I couldn’t figure out how to turn the stove top back on, and one night the smoke alarm over my bed began chirping.

All this meant I also got to know islanders, like the folks at the island hardware store (where I bought space heaters and then smoke alarm batteries) and the neighbor up the road who helped me install the batteries when the chirping started in the middle of the night.

Even after the weather and surprise home tasks calmed down, I had one of those crazy-making, computer-based meltdowns that consumes a day in a minute.

Then, I was wrong about the benefits of being solitary. After all, Fergie came with the house and was my companion for the two weeks. Sharing my life with a dog was new to me.

She and I took walks twice a day, up Buck Mountain in the morning and somewhere farther away for a longer adventure in the afternoon.

I learned that living with Fergie came with both costs and benefits, with responsibilities and interruptions but also with the joy and comfort of companionship. I’m not ready to find a dog of my own, but I would not have traded those two weeks with Fergie for something closer to complete solitude.

I was also wrong to anticipate that being out of my normal routine would provide a long stretch of internal focus and calm. One afternoon early in my stay as I was still learning my new routine, I began to prepare for venturing out in the rain to do a few errands and take a walk with Fergie. Did I have the leash, the doggie treats in my pocket, the car keys, my umbrella and scarf, the flash drive for printing at the library, the grocery list, my driver’s license, the doggie poop bag? What had I forgotten? And while figuring it out, Fergie, with her extrasensory powers, tried to be patient (sort of), circling me by the door, chomping at me in her friendly way, waiting for this slow human to get her act together. Putting my shoes on (I’d left a couple of pairs right by the door to make it easy) was the final step before going out. Our flurried departure was hardly calm.

After a short drive to the town library, I stepped out of the car and noticed my feet. I paused a moment to consider how ready I was to show off my new fashion statement, and then I went inside to print.

Most of all, I learned I was wrong about needing serenity and no interruptions in order to tackle the work I’d brought along. Sometimes I need extended stretches of quiet time. But for this “time away” that wasn’t what I needed. I needed a wildness and a companion and all those interruptions. I didn’t answer my question. I didn’t “solve” my problem. Instead I learned that, like other puzzles in real life, it doesn’t have an easy or a simple solution. Living with my gnarly question, which itself involves a mix of dark and light, anxiety and hopefulness, was well matched to my time away on the island.

Those two weeks were a gift that will grow in value over time.


It’s not a jigsaw puzzle at all

 

In mid-January, I traveled about two and a half hours north by bus from Seattle to the ferry landing in Anacortes. Once there, I hurried as quickly as I could, given bulky bags, to the ferry landing and walked on the waiting boat that would take me to Orcas Island where I would soon be house- and dog-sitting for friends. The hour-and-a-half ferry ride took us past many of the San Juan Islands and stopped at two of the more inhabited ones before reaching Orcas. While we sailed, I noticed at least three or four tables-full of my fellow passengers engrossed in jigsaw puzzles.

After briefly wondering why, on such a nice day, the view outside our windows hadn’t captured them as it had me, I wondered how it happened that so many different groups came up with the same idea for passing time. In fact, I learned later that the ferry system itself provides the puzzles, which are often left unfinished as one group disembarks and new passengers pick up where the first group left off. But watching them got me thinking about puzzles.

One of the tasks I’d given myself for my time on Orcas was to take another pass at my stubbornly unresolved desire to find “my piece of the puzzle.” How am I finding my place in our current political, economic, and social circumstances? Am I using my time and specific experience in the best way I can?

Being surrounded by jigsaw puzzle players made me think about the kind of “puzzle” I actually want to help piece together. From the moment I began asking myself the question, the image I’ve had was of a giant jigsaw puzzle. As I watched the ferry-riding puzzle players I realized my puzzle is not a jigsaw puzzle at all. I’m not trying to help put back together a picture that was once whole – a picture, in fact, that is usually on the box the puzzle came in, propped up in front of the players. The players knew exactly where they were heading.

What faces us in this country right now is not at all like that. We need to be creating a new picture or a new pattern, made of both old and new parts, one that is constantly in motion and changing and that can help us know where we’re heading and, maybe, how we’ll move forward.

For quite different reasons, the year 2005 was another time filled with reflection on where I’d been, how well I was doing what I was doing, and how I wanted to be working and living in the future. Though I don’t put too much significance on what I call the “big round birthdays,” I turned 60 that year. Both my job as the director of a national nonprofit and also my life and work in Seattle were filled with assessments of my role.

At my job, the board of the nonprofit organization I served as executive director, seemed to go into a fury of evaluation. They asked me to describe my “leadership style,” something I hadn’t thought much about before. I engaged an “executive coach” and created “mini-mentorships” with foundation leaders I admired. I participated in team-building efforts and personality tests with the staff and assisted with a board governance assessment.

At home, in the very same year, “assessment” took a different form as I received several awards and other kinds of recognition for contributions I’d made to the Seattle community over the years. Though only coincidentally coming in the same year, each honor put me in front of a microphone to say a few words – of gratitude, certainly, but also of my perspective on the award, the occasion, or the times – each also a valuable moment of self reflection.

Finally, toward the end of the year, I was commissioned to write an essay that allowed me to reflect on the way I get things done. The invitation came from a writer I admire, Matthew Stadler, who also edited and published (in early 2006) the result, A pragmatic response to real circumstances.* At the time I wondered how I might take advantage of all this reflection and assessment, of feeling “so extensively diagnosed — washed, scrubbed, rinsed, and polished up.” As part of my current search to understand my “piece of the puzzle,” I’ve looked back at that essay to see what I might learn from my 12-year-younger self. Here’s an excerpt:

From “Risk and drift” in A pragmatic response to real circumstances, 2006

Recently, I’ve imagined that the ages when risk might be easiest would be in our 20s and again in our 60s, before we have a lot to lose and after much work is behind us. In fact, Gene Cohen (M.D. and Ph.D. with a specialty in aging) says that as people move into their 60s, “they often feel free to do something they have never done before. It’s a time when people begin to hear an inner voice thåat says, ‘If not now, when?’ These are powerful feelings of liberation…a counterpoint to adolescence, but with a formed sense of identity.” I have no idea whether this applies to me — or, if it does, maybe “liberation” will simply be a quiet, barely audible release of insecurity and a willingness to own up to my own patterns.

Rebecca Solnit, in Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (2004), recasts this private shift as a part of something much broader:

In important ways, little ripples of inspired activism around the United States parallel aspects of the global justice movement and the Zapatistas. All three share an improvisational, collaborative, creative process that is in profound ways anti-ideological, if ideology means ironclad preconceptions about who’s an ally and how to make a better future. There’s an openheartedness, a hopefulness, and a willingness to change and to trust. Cornel West came up with the idea of the jazz freedom fighter and defined jazz “not so much as a term for a musical art form but for a mode of being in the world, an improvisational mode of protean, fluid and flexible disposition toward reality suspicious of “either/or” viewpoints.

I take heart from that. And Jane Jacobs, twenty years earlier in Cities and the Wealth of Nations: Principles of Economic Life, articulated a similarly widespread practice that she called “drift,” a kind of work defined not by “practical utility,” but by play, curiosity, and aesthetic investigation. Jacobs described an “aesthetics of drift” and said that successful economic development had to be open-ended and make itself up as it goes along. Her words gave me new ways to understand artists’ work and new ways to imagine their place in the world. Now, I see that much of it also corresponds with patterns that matter in my own life. Here is Jacobs (and the ellipsis is hers):

We might call development an improvisational drift into unprecedented kinds of work that carry unprecedented problems, then drifting into improvised solutions, which carry further unprecedented work carrying unprecedented problems…

Coda

If ever there were a time that we’ve needed to operate with improvisation, to not rely on old patterns, and to be aware of and participate in the “little ripples of inspired activism,” this is it. We definitely face unprecedented problems and have to be prepared for unprecedented work in the hope that it will lead to unprecedented solutions, knowing all the while that those solutions will also lead to more unprecedented problems. It’s a never-ending process, as implied by the ellipsis that closes the quote from Jacobs.

Clearly, jigsaw puzzles don’t capture the kinds of patterns suggested by words like “ripples,” “improvisation,” or an open-ended process that “makes itself up as it goes along.” Images and metaphors often help make ideas tangible. And if the image isn’t of a jigsaw puzzle piece, what is it?

For ideas, I looked back on images I’ve used in other contexts:

I’m still working on it.

 

Notes

* Anne Focke, A pragmatic response to real circumstances, Publication Studio, 2006.


Thankful

2017 Thanksgiving Day walkers

When I started living alone about 15 years ago, all of a sudden my daytimes on Thanksgiving Day were wide open. Since then, almost all my celebratory Thanksgiving meals have been with friends Norie and Ralph, who enjoy preparing the evening’s magnificent food with little help from us, the guests. So, what on earth, I wondered, does one do during the day on Thanksgiving without any hosting or cooking responsibilities?

Take a long walk, of course!

At the time, I lived downtown, an easy walk – about a mile – from the south end of Lake Union. So I decided to walk around the lake. I wanted to see how close to the water I could stay as I circumambulated. Over the course of about 6.5 miles, the terrain and the landscape change many times – from docks with fancy water craft and restaurants, to light marine industry, houseboats, small street-end parks, two bridges, a major regional park constructed on the site of an old gasworks plant, a couple of sea plane terminals, and much more. And the weather is just as changeable – rain, fog, clearing, sun, wind, drizzle – anything goes.

I always made curious little discoveries and encountered memorable characters. One year I passed the same couple twice, and we realized we were doing the same thing, just in opposite directions. We said, “See you next year!” though we never did. Another year I ran into a wild-looking guy on a little road that ran alongside a run-down ramshackle complex of buildings where I suspected he lived. As he chased pigeons away from the building, he muttered to me, “Too much society!” I smiled and scooted away hoping I wasn’t also too much society. When I got twenty yards or so down the street, he shouted, “Hey!” in my direction. When I turned, he gave me a big thumbs up, saying simply, “Thanksgiving!” You just never know where you’ll find joy.

One year, Norie took time out to join me. From her I learned that Seattle City Parks and Recreation had given “my” path an official name: “The Cheshiahud Lake Union Loop.” The City’s path doesn’t always stay as close to the water as my path did, though I suppose parts of mine were probably a little too sketchy to ever be “official.” But the course is marked with signs, and information about it is posted online.

The Loop is named for Cheshiahud, a Duwamish man, also known as Lake Union John or “Chodups,” who lived most of the last years of his life on the edge of Portage Bay, an extension of the lake. The photo below shows him with his wife Tleebuleetsa, also known as Madeline. Born in about 1820, Cheshiahud died in 1910. It was said he was the last of the Duwamish people to live a traditional, independent lifestyle near the lake, land historically inhabited by the Duwamish people and their ancestors. More about his life is here.

Cheshiahud and Tleebuleetsa

Eight years ago I began to invite friends to come along. We start our walk at 11 a.m. at South Lake Union Park. We head out, whatever the weather, walking counterclockwise. With a few side trips – to the lake at street ends, a photo-op stop at the north end, and a coffee break at the Fremont Bridge about two thirds of the way around – we allow about three hours, though it often doesn’t take that long. The weather is always a surprise – bright or gray, sunny, drippy, or down right wet. For the first shared walk, we even had snow on the ground.

Each year, we have a few stalwarts who walk almost every time, many repeaters, and always new people – young and old, very small children in strollers, and a nice assortment of dogs. One year, we picked up a few curious strangers part way around. The past few years, we’ve passed, or more correctly, been passed by, quite a caravan of families on bicycles of all sizes.

I’ve loved the way that, over the duration of the walk, people drift forward and back along our loose line of walkers, talking with both long-time and newly-discovered friends. All in all, there’s never been a year when I didn’t end the walk feeling invigorated and grateful, for the walk, for the weather, and most of all for the friends.

Note: The  photo of Cheshihud and Tleebuleetsa was taken by Orion Denny, the first white male born in Seattle.

 


Introducing . . . the wise-ager

How do we refer to ourselves, we who are beyond the traditional age of retirement?

For years now, I’ve puzzled and searched for a word or a phrase that seems right – one that’s true enough, easy to say, spirited and with a splash of irreverence. Most terms don’t fit my image of us. If the terms aren’t boring (senior citizen, mature), they’re generally male (codger, geezer) or derogatory (hag, battle-axe). Others feel pretentious if referring to oneself (sage, wisdom-keeper) or are just too sweet (golden-ager).

In a 2011 talk at Town Hall, Mary Catherine Bateson gave me some of my first solid insights into how to think about this phase of life. Almost everyone after age 50 has some condition, she said, that would have killed them in the past. I can name at least one in my life, more if I count near misses. On average we live 30 years longer today than people did just 100 years ago. The U.S. instituted its retirement plan in 1935 and set the age at 65 when average life expectancy in the United States was 61.7 years. Today, for a woman my age (I’m 72), life expectancy is 86.5 years – not quite 30 years more, but it hasn’t been 100 years yet either. In addition, many people more or less my age have unprecedented levels of health, energy, time, and resources. We don’t have to expect, Bateson stressed, that a long life means “perpetual decrepitude.”

If we do live into these extra years, the big question is, what are we going to do with the time? Society isn’t organized to know what to do with us. We hardly know how to refer to this phase or what it’s for. I’m eager to help figure out what this age means, but we need a new word. For now, I’m calling us “wise-agers,” accent on the first syllable.

I mused on the question of terminology in “Gee, you look great!” – a short piece that was prompted by memories of a friend, Helen Gurvich. There I made a short list of nouns, adjectives, and phrases that have been used to describe us, and I included a comment from a friend: “My mum ‘n dad, both 73, call themselves recycled teenagers.”

Exactly!

Wise-agers have many decades of experience to stand on. The time we have now gives us a chance to reflect on what we’ve learned, to share it, to mix it up with what we learn from younger people, and to act with the stamina and energy our relative health gives us. Especially given the times we live in, our world needs every source of human energy, knowledge, and action it can get.

Jini Dellaccio, Helen Gurvich, Anne Gerber (photo credits below)

Many remarkable people provide inspiration for how these wise-ager years can be lived. One is Jini Dellaccio, a remarkable woman and photographer whose life and work frame a project aimed to enhance the ability of wise-agers to continue as engaged, contributing members of the community – the Jini Dellaccio Project. There are others. One among them is Helen Gurvich, mentioned earlier. And another, Anne Gerber – a hero and close friend of mine until she died in 2005 – showed me how a wise-ager life could be lived. She was proof, for instance, that we don’t have to choose between art that matters and politics that matter or between a love of nature and a life of ideas. From her too I learned the simple joy of walking on the beach in the rain.

Thinking back to the wise-ager definition, my favorite root of the word may be wiseacre. I like the edge of sassiness or eccentricity it adds. Defined as “one who pretends to knowledge or cleverness, an “upstart,” or “smarty pants,” wiseacre was the Merriam-Webster Word of the Day on August 5, 2012.  Merriam-Webster says,

Given the spelling and definition of “wiseacre,” you might guess that the word derives from the sense of wise as in “insolent” or “fresh” – the sense that gives us “wisecrack” and “wisenheimer.” But, in fact, “wiseacre” came to English in the 16th century by a different route. It derived from the Middle Dutch “wijssegger,” meaning “soothsayer,” “prophet,” or “seer.”

And “wijssegger,” according to the Oxford Dictionaries, probably came from the Germanic base “wit,” that is, knowledge or to know.

Together, soothsayer, smarty-pants, wit, and knowledge – especially when combined with wisdom and wizard – capture something of the spirit that I admire in all three wise-agers I’ve named. If enough of us start using it, perhaps one day “wise-ager” will make a proper appearance in a legitimate dictionary. Perhaps it can at least sneak in as a footnote.

Photo credits
•  Jini Dellaccio, 2012 photo by ML Sutton, with a self-portrait of Jini from the 1960s.
•  A still from “Round Table with Helen Gurvich,” a video by 911 Media Arts Center, 2009.
•  Anne Gerber in a travel photo by an unnamed photographer.


The Jini Dellaccio Project – The story of a wise-ager

A fiscally-sponsored project of Artist Trust to honor photographer Jini Dellaccio

 

A wise-ager is like a teenager, just at the other end of life, apt to cause trouble and give hope. Etymologically, “wise-ager” is related to wiseacre, wisdom, and wizard.                                                                                                    

 

The Jini Dellaccio Project participates in redefining life after 70, the “wise-ager” years. Its aim is to call attention to the real potential of the wise-ager stage of life and to demonstrate the value of using and sharing experience gained over many decades. It believes wise-agers have the imagination and power to be part of making the world a better place while living fully and finding joy in it at the same time. It’s about investigating the potential of the years many of us are given after the traditional age of “retirement,” years many or most people in our parents’ generation didn’t have.

The project is named for photographer Jini Dellaccio who died at age 97 in 2014. She was an exemplary wise-ager. She set her own course and lived a spirited and meaningful life that spanned playing saxophone in a girl band in her 20s during the Great Depression to learning to use a digital camera in her late 80s. Her story grounds the project in the inspiring life of a real person. My peerless co-conspirator in the project’s creation is Sarah Cavanaugh, who knew Jini and stood by her through the final phase of her life.

Years before the Jini Dellaccio Project began, I could imagine the potential of the “wise-ager” life. As these years came closer, though, my high aspirations for how I’d spend them ran smack dab into a practical, financial wall. I couldn’t afford to give myself over to the work I wanted and felt I had the potential to do. Like many others my age, I needed to find a way to keep making a living at the same time. Until then, I’d managed to make up a life that allowed me to be paid for work that mattered to me. That work got harder and harder to find. I know that other wise-agers and I are not alone in this challenge, and I also know that there is a huge amount of work in the world that needs to be done but that isn’t attached to jobs that pay anyone to do it. So, rather than squeeze my “real” work around a patchwork of small jobs, I chose to make up another way to gain enough financial flexibility to do the work that matters to me now. Helping to create the Jini Dellaccio Project is a result.

The Jini Dellaccio Project is a three-year experiment funded by a gift exchange rather than a market exchange. It is fueled by gifts that individuals make to Artist Trust, the project’s fiscal sponsor. With the funds collected, Artist Trust pays me through a contract to help define and manage the project and to exemplify a wise-ager life. I treat this as a gift that carries a strong sense of obligation to give back to the community. This gift also offers me a sense of freedom from specific expectations for what the return will be, a flexibility to learn and adapt as I go, with the possibility of giving back something unexpected.

For years I’ve been musing on the history and meaning of gifts and their place in our lives and in our economy today. In the abstract, giving and receiving gifts seems as honorable an exchange as buying and selling a product or service. But in real life, gifts are emotionally charged.

From Lewis Hyde’s book, The Gift,I came to understand that gift exchange establishes emotional bonds (it’s a relationship, it’s messy), while market exchange leaves no connections behind (it’s a transaction, it’s clean). One is associated with community and obligation, the other with freedom and alienation. From James Allen Smith, a historian of philanthropy, I learned that “the substantial power of a gift coexists with great potential for harm.” The old Germanic words gift and gif convey both gift and poison.

I believe in the power of gift exchange, in our societal need for gifts as a balance to the marketplace, and in gifts as characteristic of a commons and of civil society. As I took on this project I had to deal with the queasiness I felt being on the receiving end of gifts. But I want to use the language of gifts and not that of investments. With all its messiness, the language of gifts is closer to the values that Sarah and I want the project to stand for.

The whole story of the project and the way it came into the world is much larger and more complex than what’s here. My part of the story began in the middle of anxious nights of financial worry, of shame at not having put together a financial plan for my “retirement,” of losing my familiar cheery self, the one always able to see the sunny side of a setback. I began to get out of this hole when I found the courage to share my anxiety with Jini’s friend, Sarah, the other half of my writing group. In fact, none of this would have happened without her, the project’s co-creator. Her story is different from mine, but our two stories cross and intersect in ways that have changed us both. Another part of the story is the role played by Artist Trust and its director, Shannon Halberstadt. The role of fiscal sponsor isn’t one Artist Trust has played before: legal and fiscal responsibilities had to be clear, mechanics had to be developed, Shannon and the board had to believe in the value of the project. After deliberation and due diligence, though, they did what artists themselves often do, they took the risk.

So, here we are, with one year of the project behind us. When the year started, I wanted to tell people what would come of it. “I don’t know yet” never felt sufficient, even though I knew it was the right answer at the time. So, it feels good now to look back and see what actually happened. A summary of some of the activities in the first year and a few thoughts about what’s next is available online here.

The Jini Dellaccio Project is a grand experiment, an exercise in imagination, collaboration, and many tiny details. I’m eager to see what the next two years bring.

September 1, 2017

Note
Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Imagination and the erotic life of property, 1983. Re-published as The Gift: Creativity and the artist in the modern world , 2007.