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Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Weathering the Winter in the City

I’ve been listening with interest to the recent radio ads running for the “Weather the Winter” marketing initiative at Friendship Village in Schaumburg. The Village is described on its website as:

“…a Continuing Care Retirement Community near Chicago, IL for adults aged 62 and older offering a range of services and amenities in a vibrant community of neighbors and friends. Our accommodations include independent living, assisted living, skilled nursing, and memory support for Alzheimer’s and dementia care, so it’s no surprise that we’re Chicagoland’s leading retirement community.”

In one of the ads, two friends are talking on the phone. One lives at the Village and enthusiastically invites her friend to come visit. The friend, though, is stranded in her home, alone, needing to shovel her sidewalk after a blizzard. She then describes how she’ll be spending her non-shoveling time: alone, with “just me and the TV.”

The image that comes into my head about the sad woman is that she lives alone in a house in the suburbs, probably not far from Schaumburg; is single, divorced, or widowed; has no children or grandchildren, nor nearby neighbors to help or spend time with her; and is dependent on a car to get around, as there is likely no good public transportation available out where she lives.

And so the most obvious response to this dilemma—older woman alone shoveling snow then cuddling up to a TV by herself—is to come “Weather the Winter” in a retirement community that she just may want to end up living in beyond the Winter.

Here’s how the FV website describes what awaits her during her 90-day stay:

Warm up to
Friendship Village!

Welcome to Weather the Winter, the easiest way to get familiar with Friendship Village. It’s a no-obligation, low-cost 90-day trial. Simply fill out the form and we’ll do the rest. A sales counselor will contact you to set up an appointment. All you have to do is pack a bag and relax in a beautifully furnished apartment home.

One simple monthly service fee covers everything:

Access to five dining venues, the fitness and aquatic center, scheduled transportation, housekeeping and more.

All utilities except telephone and flexible meal plan included.

Security and safety from the winter elements is guaranteed.

Sign up for Weather the Winter between now and March 31st and change the way your winter looks.

Now while perhaps a good marketing strategy, this initiative highlights what “aging in place” in the suburbs may look like for a sizeable portion of my fellow agers.

And it’s a pretty bleak picture, especially from the vantage point of an older, also single, city dweller, surrounded as I am by a multitude of communities to be a part of—libraries, cultural institutions, parks and preserves, circles of friends, music venues, etc., etc.—that ease the stress of Chicago’s fierce winters and are often a train or bus ride or short walk away.

Oh, and the best part is that these communities are rich in diversity and difference: Not everyone in them looks just like me, which only adds to the pleasure of belonging to them.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A Sense of Urgency

I was grateful to spend Thanksgiving day with my lifelong friend Judy and her large extended family, including many young people, both in college and college bound. I don’t really know these kids all that well, chiefly as their great-aunt’s friend who they may see every couple of years.

But they are good kids and polite and so put up with my questions about how they were doing in school and what they hoped to do once they graduated. The usual questions non-familial adults might ask the young, I imagine.

And, of course, once I heard their answers, I couldn’t help but offer some unsolicited advice. After all, I’ve been around the block several turns now, including the academic one, having been adjunct at several universities over the years.

But all the while I kept trying to imagine myself at their ages—late teens/early twenties—wondering how I might have responded to the advice, even from a reasonably knowledgeable source. Would it even have registered? And if it did, would I have given it more than two seconds’ worth of my time?

Then, the day after Thanksgiving, I stumbled on a book review in the New York Times by Heather Lende: On Living, by hospice chaplain Kerry Egan. (Link below) Here’s how Lende describes the book:

“On Living” is part memoir, part spiritual reflection and part narration of tales told to Egan by her [hospice] patients.

Each of those “parts” of the book interests me, as a writer and a teacher especially, but also as someone thinking about how to use these remaining years of what’s turning out to be a blessedly long-ish life.

Ah, so here I am, a bona fide old person, now seeking the unsolicited advice I would’ve ignored—or even scorned—while in the midst of my late teens/early twenties. Funny how that works.

But, lucky me, this particular bit of advice from Chaplain Egan definitely struck a chord, especially the sense of urgency:

“If there is any great difference between the people who know they are dying and the rest of us, it’s this: They know they’re running out of time. They have more motivation to do the things they want to do, and to become the person they want to become. . . . There’s nothing stopping you from acting with the same urgency the dying feel.”

So, if like me, you’re looking for how to stay motivated in your life—to “do the things” you want to do and “become the person” you want to be—this book might be worth a read.

Monday, November 21, 2016

The Beauty of the Living World

Decades ago, I bought a little red Birthday Book—the official title—that includes “astrological notes and selected quotations.” I’ve used it over the years to note the birthdays of friends and family, going through it each month and marking the dates on my calendar. Pre-Facebook, this meant I was sure to send a birthday wish their way and/or make a date for lunch or dinner.

Recently I’ve become aware of the number of people I’d put in the book who I’ve lost touch with or who are no longer living, the latter including my father and step-mother (my mother having died in the mid-1960s); both sisters-in-law; and three pretty significant friends, all younger by a couple of years than I.

And so what was once a way to celebrate their lives—these people so close to me—is now how I mark their deaths.

Earlier this month, I had my own birthday, and, for some reason, it felt more like a solemn occasion than a celebratory one, despite the fact that the Cubs won that night and I found $40 earlier in the day.

I think the solemnity is related to those Birthday Book names that are now among the deceased, especially as that list is only going to keep growing. You can’t be old, even young-old (65-74), and not face that reality.

And so when a friend emailed me the following poem a couple weeks after my birthday, it struck a chord. Or, as I wrote in reply: “Thx for sending, especially as these exact thoughts have been coursing through my mind lately.”

by Stephen Dobyns

The awful imbalance that occurs with age
when you suddenly see that more friends

have died, than remain alive. And at times
their memory seems so real that the latest

realization of a death can become a second,
smaller death. All those talks cut off in midsentence.

All those plans tossed in the trash.
What can you do but sit out on the porch

when evening comes? The day’s last light
reddens the leaves of the copper beach.


Yes, and so what can we do with all this loss, but celebrate the beauty of the living world—and of those we loved who were once part of it.

NOTE: "Recognitions" by Stephen Dobyns from The Day's Last Light Reddens the Leaves of the Copper Beech. © BOA Editions, Ltd., 2016. Reprinted with permission on The Writer’s Almanac website.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Telling Our Stories: A Postscript

Five years ago, while listening to Terry Gross interview author Tom Perrotta on NPR’s Fresh Air, I heard Perrotta say: “There are these dueling [human] impulses to…remember and bear witness and to forget and move on.”

Five years, and I still think about those “dueling impulses.” So when we want to write down our personal stories, how do we decide which to remember and which to forget?

Some people might opt to forget and move on from their setbacks, losses, and hardships. Others might want to record them as a way to move on from them. They see “bearing witness” to those darker, sadder stories as a kind of release, a way not to stay trapped in a story they no longer wish to inhabit.

Or at least be defined by.

A very common example is when we experience a bruising breakup, divorce, or death of a significant other. Do we want to record that story? And in the process remember and bear witness both to the love and the loss? Or do we want to forget that particular experience altogether?

These questions—no matter the experience—have often come up in my workshops. Someone will say, “I don’t want to write down that story. It’s too painful.” Over the years, anticipating it, I begin each workshop by reading Dr. James Pennebaker’s ”Flip-Out Rule,” which I describe on page 24 of my book, Finding Your Voice, Telling Your Stories. I introduce the rule with: “Each of us is the final authority on when or even if we tell certain of our stories.”

Which is to say that we are the author of that decision. Just as we are the author of our life’s story, including how we see it unfolding from this point forward.

NOTE: I am forever grateful to Dr. Pennebaker for giving me permission to use his Flip-Out Rule in my book; it originally appeared in one of his books, Writing To Heal. 

Monday, October 31, 2016

Telling Our Stories: Being Truthful vs. Accurate

One of the purposes of this blog—and of my teaching—is to encourage people to write their personal and family stories, whether for themselves, for friends and family, or to publish. Often these stories will describe events that happened many years ago and involve people who may no longer be living.

And unless we’ve kept rigorous private journals over our lifetime—recording the conversations we’ve had with people not long after they took place—we will be “making up” some of what they actually said. Some would say that even with those recorded conversations, we may be “making them up,” in that we are describing what we heard, which is often not the same as what was said.

All of which means that when we include dialogue in our personal stories—and doing so is critical to making them compelling and interesting—we are in some way imagining what was said, i.e., fictionalizing parts of it.

Published memoirists have written much about this issue; in fact, one of the earliest pieces I read on personal narrative was Patricia Hampl’s essay, “Memory and Imagination.” That title pretty much sums up what those of us who write our personal stories must rely on.

This, of course, doesn’t mean that we can make things up that we know didn't happen; it does mean, though, that we have to rely partly on our imagination when reconstructing, i.e., remembering, what happened.

What got me thinking about this was an article in yesterday’s New York Times, about the new Netflix series, The Crown, which is about Queen Elizabeth II’s “unexpected reign” that began in 1952. Interviewed by Roslyn Sulcas for the article was, among others, the series writer, Peter Morgan, who also wrote the 2006 movie, The Queen, and the play, The Audience.

Here’s what Morgan had to say about writing the personal conversations between the historical characters in the series. In this one sentence, he captures the essence of what it means to write true vs. write accurate:

“Of course I have to imagine the private conversations, and those are necessarily fiction, but I try to make everything truthful even if you can’t know whether it’s accurate,” he said.