Friday, September 27, 2013

Aging and Breaking Boundaries

Now that I'm 62, the government officially classifies me as old for purposes of Social Security.While I realize that I could be old for, say thirty more years, my initial response to aging is one of disappointment. Where is the wisdom that is supposed to come with experience? Where are the young folks gathered to hear about the tumultuous era we boomers instigated in our adolescence? Instead the main thing I'm finding in my sixth decade is that the abyss between my generation and society seems to grow wider and deeper with each passing year.

Coping with medical problems increases individual isolation. I always knew that aging came with wrinkles and new rolls of fat, but somehow no-one warned me that getting old is like trying to keep a much-used car in running condition. The carburetor gets clogged, the engine begins to sputter, there are too many dents to bother with body work and decorative pieces of the interior begin to fall off.

I see fewer and fewer reflections of who I am in the media. I get tired of seeing twenty or thirty-somethings doing whatever with no hint that others exist. Racism, heterosexism, and just plain sexism were always problematic in media depictions of society, but now even young LGBT folks see me as their mom or granny and society encourages this behavior.

What does aging really mean? I just had an intake interview for a therapy group around transitioning into retirement. The two facilitators are late thirties/early forties women. That shocked me. In the old women's community we would never use people from outside an oppressed group to facilitate it. When I expressed this sentiment to my interviewer she claimed that she understood aging issues. If she had rolled in in a wheelchair or was missing an arm, perhaps I could buy this. But it's strange that she is dealing with something she has never experienced. I have been her age, but the reverse is not true. 

So what doesn't she feel? Invisibility would be the main thing. This is not always a negative. The fly on the wall gets to witness life happening minus the self-conscious obsessiveness of the elephant in the room. But, beyond the circus element here, we all desire to be full participants up until the moment we expire.

The granny syndrome is something that seems to happen only to aging women and it is a major factor in this invisibility. I rarely read a "human interest" article about a sixty-plus woman that doesn't refer to her as a grandmother. This is because the main socially-sanctioned pursuit of women's lives is still reproduction. So, what becomes of us non-breeder broads after we pass through menopause. The answer is that, in the eyes of mainstream consumer-culture, we disappear.

So families become the default refuge of the old although, just as with the young, not necessarily a safe one.  Unfortunately for us childless types, the rugged individualism and capitalist mystique that we were weaned on takes its toll as well. Competitiveness separates us from each other. It often seems that we can no longer connect with compassion and without animosity and suspicion. Our years have scarred us. Thus, as people age, their worlds are in danger of getting smaller and smaller.

The best remedy for a shrinking personal universe is to think outside of preconceived boundaries. Activists and artists who embrace a larger focus have the right idea. We can build an alternative elderly community just as we built the social movements and non-traditional communities of our youth that changed the world. As long as we live, we have to age but we don't have to settle for the same old routine, the same obsolete stereotypes. My hope is that we can age in unique and unprecedented ways, just as we have done in every other stage of our lives.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Lost Art of Conversation

I am a person who truly enjoys conversation. I like it one on one and I also enjoy it in a group. When I was searching for a partner utilizing dating ads, I described myself as a "conversexual." Good ones open me up and turn me on in a sense much broader than sexuality alone. I cherish conversations that include exchange of ideas, playing with humor and language and building emotional intimacy. It makes me wonder if the passion and skills required for good conversation is, in fact.  disappearing.

Maybe it's because I'm getting old. Perhaps it's just due to rampant technology and the creation of "social media." It feels like actual conversation is being replaced by what I refer to as the "drunks at a bar" phenomenon. This involves two or more individuals doing run-on monologues about the issues in their lives without the slightest regard for what the other person is saying. The biggest missing piece here is listening. There is no back and forth, give and take, no, what they call in support groups, "cross-talk." To me, this feels like a hollow, empty exercise devoid of support or caring. It's an each person for themselves dog and pony show.

I have to assume that this level of self-obsession emanates from alienation, loneliness and despair so I don't blame the victims. When it happens in the peer support group co-facilitate, I try to ask more questions, to initiate and back and forth. When it happens, one on one with a new acquaintance, I don't know how to proceed. I would try to turn it around if only I could get a word in edgewise!

Listening is a large part of the battle. Therapists are paid to do it. My cat, Luna, is a great listener but I wouldn't say she is a conversationalist. She does speak a bit, but her subject choice seems to be limited to one dead, Chinese leader. But, therapists and pets aside, listening is a good starting point.

A conversation is a real-time, living, breathing entity. Having an idea of what you want to talk about and attempting to steer it on one course, destroys it. That's why some of the best conversations in college were had in groups of the substance impaired. Being just a tad high helps with spontaneity.

I'm sure some really great talkers are out there still hoping to build a bridge of words that will not only span the distance between our lives, but get us actively thinking about ways in which to improve them. I am already looking forward to our future conversations.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Why Jews Wander...

A Shtetl in Poland circa 1900
Jews have always been wanderers. I'm inclined to believe that a large part of the reason is that often we have not been full citizens of the  of countries where we have resided. Jews have been merchants bringing back spices and products, money lenders, scholars and, most frequently, refugees running from genocide.

Traveling brings up painful truths for those of us who long for a genuine history that immigrants from other countries take for granted.Yes, some folks settled in Israel, displaced the population living there and revived an ancient, unspoken language to call their own and pass on to their children. The real history of the way Jews lived in countries all over the world has been obliterated. Aside from the obvious suspects who brought us the Cossacks and the Holocaust, Jews have been systematically expelled from many other countries including Iran, Turkey, Morocco, Iraq, Syria and Yemen. 

As I travel, I hear folks tell stories of homecoming: finally arriving in a place where the people look like you, hearing the language of your parents or grandparents come alive, seeing the town your ancestors called home and meeting long, lost relatives. For Jews, these places no longer exist. Our ancestors live only on paper and in the memories of a generation that is now dead or dying.

There are no actual Russian shtetls or Polish villages for me to visit. No new immigrants bringing the language and customs of my people. As a group we are alone, making our way without the wisdom of the past to guide us. I feel I have more in common with Native Americans than with Greeks or Belgians. There will never be a living window into either of our societies. Both groups have been deprived of the historical experience of our people.

The world that nurtured Geronimo and Isaac Bashevis Singer cannot be retreived. We can read about it or listen to tales passed down by those who remember. But we have been deprived of a vast legacy that cannot be replicated, reconstructed or replaced. It is just gone, a loss I grieve deeply.