Monday, August 24, 2015

Mentors for our journey to becoming

It’s hard to beat a good example---a role model who shows us how to deal with the good times, and more particularly the hard times. Many of us late-life travelers on the road to “becoming” appreciate that---having someone illustrate, by a life well-lived, how fruitful October, November, even December can be. It’s a fact, you know. The souls we choose to guide us will help shape our journey.

In that light can you think of a more inspiring sight than watching President Jimmy Carter smile his quiet, confident smile in the face of an intimidating future? Is there any doubt that you are witnessing a strong faith at work? In what is likely his personal December he is still showing us how to make the most of our time and energy, illuminating new pathways to becoming.

And beyond the trauma of his present situation consider the lasting legacy he has created. Whatever you thought of the man’s politics, there is no denying that he has been a prime example of how to live a productive and eventful life after the “main event” has come and gone---another proof that becoming is a life-long process. Though he rose all the way to the top, here he is making his December as important and meaningful in its own way as his September and October.

Take a moment to think about your own life journey. If you’re like me you’ve been retired so long that it’s hard to remember when you weren’t. Yet chances are you can still recall the giddy moment when you finally reached the end of that work-a-day rainbow. Since then, if you are among the lucky ones, you have had the time and opportunity to pursue at least some of the dreams you dreamed on the way to your October. I hope it’s worked out that way for you. 

But what about those late-life peers who complain of having too much time on their hands. Listening to them grumble I wonder why they ran out of reasons to keep going before they ran out of time. More to the point, don’t they realize that in a world full of possibilities we never stop “becoming”? We are always on the way to somewhere. In that case why not make the journey a productive one?

It’s true, we will never be able to do everything we dreamed of back then. Our world has changed. Our expectations are different. We have new goals to strive for. Besides, our capabilities have probably retreated a bit, perhaps more than a bit. The old ways of doing things may no longer work. But there are new ways that will.

We have learned that when circumstances change our responses need to reflect that new reality. We must adapt. We used that logic in our career, our parenting, and our relationships. Surprise! It also applies in retirement---one of the most important “change of circumstances” we will ever encounter. October and beyond is bound to be an unfamiliar world, with new rules and new challenges. If ever there was a time to trust our instincts and reach for the most inspiring role models we can find, this is it. 

I know there have been times when I’ve had to “adapt.” I’ll bet you’ve been in that space too---where the old ways were not as effective as they used to be, and better ones were hard to find. That happens at our stage of the game. I’ve probably spent more time than most focusing on October and its challenges. In the course of ten Tanner Chronicles novels I have explored many late-life speed bumps and their impact on October lives. 

I have dealt with loneliness and grieving, with disability and dementia, spending weeks at a time weaving those unsettling elements into a story. Along the way I have created friends that I consider October role models---who even in the worst of times trusted their instincts and never stopped becoming.

I suppose I have always been drawn to the imagery of the “role model,” a label I gladly assign to President Carter. On the other hand, the notion of “trusting our instincts” was one I had not explored until recently, when I read T D Jakes’ latest title---Instinct.

I sometimes make a big deal of “change.” It is, after all, an important part of October. So I was taken by Jakes’ way of addressing change---at any time of life, including retirement. The change he writes about is not an “off-the-shelf,”  “one-size-fits-all” process. Instead, he stresses the uniquely personal nature of change. For it to be successful it must focus on the individual ---on his or her history, preferences, expectations, and perhaps most surprisingly---his or her instincts. All that, of course, requires serious self-examination, something most of us resist. Yet, without an understanding of what makes us the person we are, how can we expect to create effective change?

I realize that for some T D Jakes’ reputation will precede him. He is, after all, a highly successful mega-church pastor who often writes on Christian topics. For some that can be a red flag. My take on such concerns is pretty simple. If you disagree with Jakes’ treatment of change, and the role instinct plays in that process, I assure you it won’t be because he has turned his case into a religious rant. There is nothing remotely approaching a sermon in the whole book---just his straight-forward explanation of the many ways our instincts impact change, or the lack of change.

Those of us who reside in an October world know the truth of it, change happens at every stage of life---no thing and no one stays the same. Our choice in the matter is rather simple---we can choose to play a part in directing our own change, or simply sit on the sidelines and accept whatever change comes our way. 

Perhaps you have decided to have a voice in the matter, but wonder how to make that happen. Should you model your response to change on The Donald---and the juvenile ravings of a geriatric egomaniac---or instead the quiet counsel of a caring role model? Personally I am swayed by Jimmy Carter’s example, and T D Jakes’ reasons for relying on my own instincts, along with my old friend Wayne Dyer’s thoughts on the power of intention---all of which urge me to continue my becoming, while retaining my role as co-author of my own story. 

In the end the choice is ours to make, dictated by our own soul prodding. But don’t forget, our choices and the way we live them are apt to influence those whose lives we impact, who like us are still becoming.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Geriatric Adolescence --- Really?

One bit of detail I was unwilling to delete from the new blog heading was the tagline -- "A writer's blog." Thing is, I call myself a writer because I write---in the same way you may call yourself a golfer because you play golf, or a painter because you paint. It's what I do, that's all

Of course, being a golfer doesn’t necessarily mean you play like Tiger. (Though that seems to be easier than it used to be.) Being a painter doesn’t mean you have to paint like Michelangelo or Rockwell. And being a storyteller, the label I prefer, doesn’t mean I have to write great literature. It means that I tell stories because that’s what I like to do. And I’ve decided to spend my October and November doing the things I like.

So I’m a writer, and from the beginning I have viewed this blog as a place to explore and explain some of the storylines I have woven into my Tanner Chronicles narratives. Since I tell the stories I want to tell, I take these ramblings very personally. At the same time, I understand that my stories and the ground they cover are not everyone’s cup of tea. So don’t feel like you’re the only one shaking your head.

Truth is, the most fortunate of us October types remain in satisfying, time-tested relationships. I am blessed to be one of those, and very glad of it. I hope you are too. Yet we both know that too many seniors, male and female, are not so fortunate. They are alone, and too often lonely. 

Before you start throwing things at me, let me be the first to admit that a great many, perhaps most, of those “alone” folks are exactly where they choose to be. They have no need for, and no interest in, a new relationship. What they had, and have taken from that time, will carry them through just fine. They too are among the blessed, and I respect their feelings. But for others, the ones I depict in the Tanner Chronicles, the notion of facing their remaining years alone is not an attractive option. They want, even need, the affirmation and companionship of a new life partner. It is those “wanting” ones who are candidates for my stories.
As you might imagine, October relationships---the ones I write about---are something different than the March and April connections we once pursued so eagerly. If you’re an “October or November” type you don’t need me to tell you that. To begin with, there is an obvious difference in hormonal levels---nature’s sneaky and very effective way of continuing the species. At the same time there are other priorities at work the second (or third) time around. Other considerations have become primary. 
At first glance it may look like those “seekers” are replaying earlier experiences---ones they first encountered as teenagers. Yet the reality of their latest wanting, what I half-jokingly refer to as their geriatric adolescence, is not at all like that first time. In most every way their measure of a prospective partner has changed. Appearance, status, income, even sex appeal, have become less important. The comfort of a caring companion means everything---someone who understands what a “special” person they are, and is willing to help them face the uncertain future that awaits us all. In the end, that undisguised affirmation and caring is apt to outweigh everything else.
A case in point. Johnny Blanton is one of my very favorite Tanner seniors. Fact is, he reminds me of someone I once knew rather well. True, some folks may find his laissez-faire life view a bit off-putting. Yet, given the person he is and the future he faces, his attitude strikes me as spot on. I suppose I even envy his willingness to accept the unvarnished truth of his sad situation.
In Best Friends and Promises Johnny has left the hospital to move in with Jan Pierce, a lonely and very caring librarian. Truth be told, Jan hardly qualifies as an old friend. They first met less than twenty-four hours before Johnny’s latest heart attack. Yet, for reasons she scarcely understands herself, she has invited him to spend his recuperation with her.

Watching Darien bid her father goodbye, Jan Pierce was struggling to make sense of the sudden and dramatic changes in her normally pedestrian life. She was sixty-four years old and had always thought of herself as stable, to the point of boring---given to cautious deliberation, cautious expectations, and cautious actions. An impulsive one-night affair was not her style, any more than inviting a man she scarcely knew to share her home. Why then was she feeling so comfortable, so committed to her unlikely choice?
Truth to tell, Jan was not accustomed to having a man in her life. She had not been a cute baby and had never grown into that condition. From her perspective the only constant in her life had been weight, too much of it. She had never married. As far as she knew, no man had ever considered proposing. Over the years there had been a few casual liaisons, including one that lasted for several months, largely because she had been willing to settle for the minimal affirmation it offered. 
Then, just days before, in the course of a single night, a worn-out Johnny Blanton had accepted her caring as something special. Later, during his days in the ICU, as she waited to know whether he would live or die, she had felt that caring grow.
Now, back in her apartment, Johnny was seated at the end of the sofa when Jan returned. He patted the cushion beside him and nodded for her to join him. “You know,” he said. “I really appreciate this---letting me stay here. I’m not sure what I can offer to make all the trouble worthwhile.”
“Just be yourself. That’s all.” Resting her hand on his knee she leaned against his shoulder. “We’re much too old to be playing silly games. I want you here. That’s enough reason for me. Besides, it’s not like I’ve ever had men chasing after me.”
“I don’t believe that.”
“You should,” she nodded. “The thing is, from the first time we talked, about my scotch-on-the-rocks of all things, it was like I was visiting with an old friend. It just felt right. And too, I like being able to help. It’s been a long time since anyone needed my help.” 
“You’d better believe I need you and your help. And not just because I’m feeling so puny.”
She looked over into his weary, deep-set eyes. “So tell me, Mr. Blanton. Why does this work for you?”
“Well, to begin with I’ve never been very good at being alone.” How blunt should he be? “But, at the same time, I’m not everyone’s idea of good company.”
“Why would that be? What’s not to appreciate? Is there something I should know about?”
“Oh my. How can I describe it?” Was there a polite way to explain, in words that would not be graphically offensive? “I’ve been called ‘undisciplined’ and a ‘free spirit.’ To some folks I’m a ‘loose cannon.’ And there are other descriptions I won’t repeat in mixed company. All that stuff is pretty negative, but I suppose it’s partly true. It's just that I’ve never cared much what people thought of me.
“But there’s another side to that,” he continued, taking her hand in his. “The part I want you to know about. When I’m on your side I’m there one hundred percent, no matter what. That’s something you should know. I’ll be here for you in any way I can.” There was a moment of quiet as he searched for a way to spell out his final concern. “But there is something else.”
“What’s that?” 
For the first time Jan was witnessing Johnny’s obvious, almost blushing embarrassment. “You may have noticed,” he said. “Based on our one night together, that I am no longer the youthful love-machine my mind tells me I once was.” There, was that subtle enough? Had he made his point?
Jan stifled her laugh and poked playfully at his ribs. “Do you recall hearing any complaints?” 
“You were very kind not to bring that up. Actually, my situation has changed a bit since that first night. For the worse, I’m afraid.”
“Well, after a heart attack, I should think so.”
“When we were kids we used to joke about wanting to die while we were making love. If we had to go, that sounded like the best way. Just so you know, that is no longer my goal.” He paused to let Jan’s soft laugh wash over him, knowing it was exactly the tonic he needed. “I just don’t want to misrepresent my reasons for moving in.”
She leaned over to wrap her fragile old man in a most affectionate hug. “Don’t you ever worry about that. I want you here with me. You want to be here. What other reasons do we need?”
Johnny Blanton was weak and tired---there was no doubting that. But in the midst of his weariness, he sensed the pleasant knowing that he was wanted. That must mean he was exactly where he belonged.

And that is precisely what each of us wants, isn’t it? Even this late in the game, in spite of all the baggage we drag along behind us, the existential quicksand that keeps getting deeper and hills that get steeper each time we climb them---we want to believe that we are “exactly where we belong.”

For some that may look and feel different than any place they’ve been before. It may even include a new “someone.” If that is the goal they must be willing to set aside their outdated “April” qualifiers and focus instead on more-relevant “October and November” attributes. Perhaps their situation calls for a modest dose of geriatric adolescence. In that case, they could do worse than seek a Jan Pierce or Johnny Blanton to share their life.