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Thursday, November 16, 2017

Friends With Benefits: The SuperAger Version

Well, I’m not yet a SuperAger—though I hope to be—but this latest aging study confirms what we might kinda, sorta already know: strong social ties are good for us, can even make us healthier.

As reporter Kate Thayer writes in “Being social and sharp,” (Chicago Tribune, 9 November 2017):

“Such strong friendships [as those of 103 year-old Edith Smith] may contribute to higher cognitive functioning and sharper memory in adults as they age, according to a new study by researchers at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. The latest findings are part of Northwestern’s study of so-called SuperAgers — adults 80 or older with the cognitive abilities of those in their 50s or 60s.”

Now I’ve not studied the science that looks at the social, even tribal, relationships among human beings, but I’d guess they have, from the git-go, allowed us to survive, especially in hostile environments.

And not only physically.

There are surely emotional and psychological reasons for bonding with others, joining forces with them, creating group names and secret handshakes. And it turns out, spoiler alert, that the need for these bonds never goes away: more than simply persisting, our social ties may allow us to persist.

I marked several passages in Thayer’s article, but was heartened to learn from Emily Rogalski, senior author of the Northwestern study that it was “the first to go beyond biological factors of SuperAgers.”

Yes, we are more than our biology, our physical selves, something SuperAgers have likely learned along their long journey.

To read more, and especially to make the acquaintance of Edith Smith, champion SuperAger, click here:

Thursday, November 9, 2017

RIP: Miss Pirman

I didn’t even want to go to Nazareth Academy, at the time an all-girls Catholic high school in LaGrange. My older brother had gone to Immaculate Conception in Elmhurst, still Catholic, but co-ed. Why couldn’t I go there?

My Catholic father wouldn’t budge, believing that the nuns and lay teachers at Nazareth would be stricter, keep me more in line, and so less likely to get into the kind of trouble my brother did regularly at IC.

Well, yes and no. I mean, if one is prone to that kind of thing, the setting doesn’t really matter. Which is why when I get together with my fellow Naz grads—those eight “girls” who still live in the area—we have many funny stories to share of how we daily tested those nuns and teachers.

But I must add that in addition to our shenanigans, we were also fairly decent students, the lessons pouring in spite of ourselves.

For me, some of the most important lessons came from my high school English teacher, Miss Pirman. In fact, it’s probably not an understatement to say that had it not been for her, I would never have become a writer, and never 51 years after being her student, become an author.

It was my pleasure to show my gratitude to Miss Pirman in my book, Finding Your Voice, Telling Your Stories. In Chapter 3, “Telling Stories About People,” I describe her generosity and her influence, something I wish I could’ve done in person, long before she died last Tuesday at age 81, just one day after my 74th birthday.

Miss Pirman is not the first of my high school teachers to die, but her death resonates more than the others. The following excerpt from my book—“People from High School”—might help explain why:

People from High School
High school is a critical time for most of us, so it is no wonder that many of our important, even dramatic, stories originate there: stories of classmates, best friends, and hated enemies; of dances, sports events, and talent shows; coming-of-age stories about first loves, finding our place among peers, finding even our life’s work.  For some there are dark stories as well, of troubles at home or at school.  And of course there are stories about the adults from that time: those teachers, coaches, and counselors who inspired us, saved us, or whom we barely survived.
            In my writing workshops, I regularly invoke the spirit of my freshman English teacher, Miss Pirman.  I’d arrived in her class ill prepared in the basics of English grammar and so she’d volunteered to tutor me on her own time after school, to help me catch up with the others.  I can still see us sitting there in that empty classroom, the thin autumn light coming through the windows, me hunched over at my desk, her next to me, that quiet, encouraging voice leading me through the monotonous grammar drills. 
            It was in that tedious process that Miss Pirman unwittingly instilled in me an enduring love of words, which she then recognized by publishing my first poem in our class anthology.  It was a bouncy little paen to a St. Bernard dog that I can recite to this day.

And if there is a heaven--the "Paradise" that Argentinian writer, Jorge Luis Borges, imagined "will be a kind of library”--then I imagine I’ll be seeing Miss Pirman again.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

From Ancient Greece to the Present: The Healing Power of Stories

A friend told me last night about an article in the Smithsonian he’d just read: “The Healing Power of Greek Tragedy. Do plays written centuries ago have the power to heal modern day traumas? A new project raises the curtain on a daring new experiment.”

Charles knew I’d be interested in the piece for several reasons. First, I help people write their personal stories, including as a way to better understand the darker moments they’ve lived through.

Also, I’m a writer, currently working on an Op-Ed piece I’m hoping to see published on or before Veterans Day. Inspired by what I experienced during the Vietnam War years, it is a longer, and more detailed version, of my brief story that appeared recently on, as part of the Ken Burns’s “The Vietnam War” film website:

“I was 23 when the two men I loved most in my life served in Vietnam. Philip was stationed in Cam Ranh Bay and returned home in 1967. I married him in October, and in August 1968 we stood with thousands protesting the war in Chicago’s Grant Park during the Democratic National Convention. Eddie was killed in Vietnam in 1969, just as Philip’s drug use was escalating and he and I separated. Best friends, Eddie and Philip were both casualties of that war.”

The timing of my Op-Ed piece and of the Vietnam War documentary series and of Veterans Day makes the Smithsonian article especially relevant to me. I want to pass along the link should some of my readers find it relevant as well.

And note: While the article focuses mainly on The Theater of War—the creation of director and co-founder Bryan Doerries—the piece also mentions other traumatic situations, including Ferguson, to which Dowries applies the ancient Greek tragedies:

“Theater of War Productions has presented more than 650 performances for military and civilian audiences all over the world, from Guantánamo to Walter Reed, from Japan to Alaska to Germany. Doerries has employed other plays from ancient Greece to serve other purposes as well, addressing issues such as domestic violence, drug and alcohol addiction, gun violence and prison violence. Presentations can be tailored for service members, veterans, prison guards, nurses, first responders, doctors and police officers.”

Finally, here’s Doerries himself, on what he sees as the connection between the Greek tragedies, i.e., stories, and trauma:

“Through tragedy, the great Athenian poets were not articulating a pessimistic or fatalistic view of human experience; nor were they bent on filling audiences with despair. Instead, they were giving voice to timeless human experiences—of suffering and grief—that, when viewed by a large audience that had shared those experiences, fostered compassion, understanding and a deeply felt interconnection. Through tragedy, the Greeks faced the darkness of human existence as a community [emphasis mine].”

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Getting Old, Staying Humble

A mere seven days from now, I shall have my last birthday as a “young-old” person, one of three categories of “old” described in some study or another. The other stages of aging are “middle-old” and “oldest-old.”

And I thought turning 49 would unhinge me.

But I do take some comfort knowing that come 2018 I’ll be advancing, if I’m lucky, into the middle stage. The word “middle” seems sort of benign, especially as it lacks that silly “est” tacked onto “old” in the third stage, the one that takes us from 85 to, well, eternity.

Now all this dancing around the singular “old” is, of course, a function of how the Boomers came along and changed our ideas about what it means to age: they are simply living longer and in better health than any generation before them. 

But all of these numbers mean zip to one’s singular self, no matter which generation she is a member of.

All I know is that next week I will turn 74, at which point I will have lived 24 years longer than my mother and 21 years less than my father. Trying to guess where I might fall between those extremes—a span of 45 years—is quite fruitless, of course, and so, freed from the effort, I’m just doing my best to live each day as fully as I can.

A mental exercise I do each morning is to imagine that that particular day is my last. I do this while walking with my Starbucks grande through two local parks, staying as present as I can to the sights, sounds, and smells around me, especially to the trees, the flowers, the pond with the turtles, all those reminders that I am made of the same stuff.

What follows from this exercise is a review of how that day will actually unfold, at least the part I’m in charge of: Will I be doing the work that matters to me? Seeing the people that matter to me? Eating my favorite potato chips dipped in sour cream? Having one of my favorite beers at my favorite local bar? And so on.

And if something comes up on my list that I’m not too crazy about, then I have to either not do that thing the next time around, e.g., not schedule a workshop that gets me home too late. Or, if it’s unavoidable—doing the laundry—find a way to reward myself for slogging through it. (Like maybe an extra helping of potato chips?)

But with the birthday drawing nigh, I’ve planned many days before, on, and after that will definitely pass the “last-day” litmus test: many delights to anticipate, such good times to enjoy and recall fondly. Oh, I really did good this time.

And then I remember that old saying, “We make plans, God laughs.”

Thursday, October 19, 2017

“At The Crossroads Without A Name”

One of the best parts of writing in a library—the only place I seem able to do so—is that it's loaded with books. And, as Samuel Johnson once said, “[t]he greatest part of a writer's time is spent in reading, in order to write: a man [sic] will turn over half a library to make one book.”

So once in the library, and before I haul my Mac and backpack of writing files up the stairs—to the relatively quiet area—I browse the first floor stacks and pick out a book to take with me.

Now the book always has something to do with what I’m currently writing, usually an essay or three I hope to eventually publish. And so two days ago, I found and started reading Joan Chittister’s Following The Path: The Search for a Life of Passion, Purpose, and Joy. I’m not even sure why I chose it, except that I’ve read other of her books, and some of her articles, and find her both interesting and often provocative.

So on Tuesday, when it came time to stop writing and start reading, I opened the book to page 35 and read this: “What fills the heart with happiness, ironically enough, is not what we get out of the world; it’s what we put into it. Being about something worthwhile, spending our lives on something worth spending a life on is what, in the end, makes us happy.”

Now this is not news to me. After all, I’ve spent the last 30 years reading, writing, and teaching people how to write their personal stories. All of it has made me pretty damn happy, and has also felt worthwhile.

But for the last two years now—as I continue headlong into Act 3 of my long life—I’ve been in the midst of some kind of transition, one that could possibly take me back to graduate school, and with a different focus than either my BA in Psychology or MA in English Literature. What I’m considering—and I emphasize considering--is an MA in Social Justice.

Because once again it seems that everything old is new again. And so the fire in my old lady belly—a fire lit back in my twenties—is starting to flame again, tentatively, but also a bit urgently.

Because, as we know, there is no Act 4.


NOTE: The title of this blog is taken from Joan Chittister’s introduction to her book mentioned above.

This book is meant to give someone in the process of making a life decision at any age—in early adulthood, at the point of middle-age change and later, when we find ourselves at the crossroads without a name—some ideas against which to pit their own minds, their own circumstances. Its purpose, as they wrestle with the process of trying to find and follow their own special call at this new stage of life, is to both provoke thinking and to clarify it. —Joan Chittister