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.

 


What can happen in a year?

The Jini Dellaccio Project’s first year

The Jini Dellaccio Project encourages a redefinition of life after 70, the “wise-ager” years. It calls attention to the potential of this phase of life and to the value of using and sharing experience gained by wise-agers over many decades. The Jini Dellaccio Project is a three-year experiment funded by a gift exchange. I have a contract with Artist Trust to help define and manage the project and to provide an example of a wise-ager life. We are in the midst of the project’s second year. What follows is a report on some of what happened during the first year.

September 1, 2017

 

July 2016 to June 2017

A year of living with this gift had a big impact on the way I used my time. I loved having the open-ended flexibility to learn and adapt as I went without needing to be sure I was paid for what I did. It opened up the possibility that what happened might surprise me, and others too. It freed me up to do much of the work I’m doing now.

Office Hours  Last fall I began offering a twice-monthly schedule of “office hours.” This started as a way to try out my new role, and it continues as an open invitation to anyone who wants to talk with me about anything. Both Artist Trust and I periodically announce the program, and the slots fill up. Anyone interested contacts me or makes a date using an online scheduling app that Artist Trust set up. I wanted the lightest structure possible; the schedule and the name “office hours” are as formal as it gets. Better terms for these conversations might be coffee breaks, happy hours, tea time, or chit chat for trying out someone’s own new ideas or discussing whatever’s on their mind. The stories, ideas, and sometimes dilemmas that people bring range widely. I feel privileged to be brought into their lives this way and never know at the outset what I might have to contribute. I’m often surprised to discover what it is that turns out to be useful. What started as an experiment has settled down to be something I love having in my life.

Like the other activities that have come from the Jini Dellaccio Project, the office hours are not designed to make money. In fact, part of what makes them work is that they aren’t part of a market exchange. No one who schedules an office-hours slot has to start by figuring out if they can afford to pay me, and I can show up with an open mind and no pre-planned materials, ready to discover what’s on their mind and to share whatever seems valuable from my own experience. And the learning is always two-way. We both take a risk and then trust that it will be a good conversation. This allows us a freedom to respond in the moment and take our talk wherever it leads. The spontaneity and our ability to change course would not come as naturally if a meter were ticking.

Alum in Residence  Last summer (2016), Jamie Walker (director, UW School of Art + Art History + Design) and I created a new, year-long Alum in Residence position at the school. I was given an office (a major gift since “real estate” in the art building is dear) and many other privileges of being an official part of the school’s program. Through the academic year, I kept fairly regular hours, visited classes when invited by a faculty member, and organized a conversation with David Mendoza about his life since graduating with a UW art history degree 50 years ago. The largest project I undertook involved working with a small team of interns who sorted through the records of Arts Wire, an early online network I started in 1989. Not only did we inventory the contents of many banker boxes, but the intern team helped bring the material to life and relate it to our world today through two exhibitions – one in the coffee shop, one in the gallery – an Instagram account, essays posted on the web, and a podcast series about what they learned, for which they interviewed people around the country who had been involved.

Jamie went through all the institutional hoops necessary to establish the position, but, given the constraints of the school’s budget, one hoop he couldn’t leap through was finding money for it. The Jini Dellaccio Project gave me the flexibility not to require it. Being unpaid is its own kind of benefit: the position is an experiment, and I was given a lot of latitude to figure out what it could be. I’m also happy that plans are underway to continue the experiment with another graduate. I’m sure the next Alum in Residence will bring to the role their own ingenuity, life circumstances, and past experience.

“Carrying on”  Writing is a thread that winds through all the messiness and many directions of my past and present life and work. As part of the Jini Dellaccio Project, I made a commitment to write – specifically, to regularly add pieces to this website, Carrying on. I consider it to be “writing in public,” meant to be read by others. Like many people, a long string of half- and almost-completed pieces fill paper and digital folders, and I have many little books and odd pieces of paper full of ideas I want to explore in writing. I finally decided that, if not now, when? This project and the challenge to figure out how best to use this phase of life gave me the shove I needed to keep it going. And writing is real work. The truth of Thomas Mann’s words becomes clearer every day: “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”

Grandma Anne  Recently I realized that the Jini Dellaccio Project also made it easier for me to step in and spend time with my grandkids Livia and Henry, relieving pressure on their parents while giving me the chance to be “Grandma Anne.” I’ve often made the case, on behalf of other parents, grandparents, and friends with aging parents, that, paid or not, caretaking is real work. I’ve never believed that work has to be onerous to qualify as real. My time with Livia and Henry is most often full of joy, it’s sometimes invisible, sometimes demanding, but always essential. Having time this last year was especially meaningful because in late August they moved from Seattle to Kansas City.

What’s next?

The coming year’s work is beginning to take tangible shape, but it’s still very much in motion and alive. Among other things, it will play out against the backdrop of the times we’re living in. Our political, economic, and social systems are racked, and I still struggle to find my role in it. I’ll keep writing, I’ll maintain my office hours, I’ll continue hosting and participating in conversations both with others and on my own. I also want to explore whether and how this project might continue after me to benefit others. I plan to keep living as one example of the difference the role and support of a project like this can make, and I’ll approach its next phase with an open-ended attitude similar to the one I started with . . . making it up, alone and with others, as I go.

 

The Jini Dellaccio Project is fiscally-sponsored by Artist Trust in honor of photographer Jini Dellaccio.