Lust For Life

This wasn’t the article I intended to post today, but lunch with a friend yesterday was quite interesting. She brought up the concept of lust. We discussed it. I also thought about it a lot after our meeting. It reverberated with me so much I got up early this morning to put my other article aside (next week) and hastily write this perspective on lust.

This isn’t a perspective on the sexual type of lust.  However, that’s where I’m starting.  Lust is, after all, most often thought of as purely sexual desire and often a sexual desire that is out of control, making it a titillating subject indeed. I, myself, have referred to people who abandon a spouse for a new lover as being in lust not in love. Lust is one of the seven sins. The Bible says lust is bad or bad for us if it replaces love. It also says we shouldn’t covet material objects belonging to another.

Looking for a definition outside my Biblical teachings, I found all reflect this one from Merriam-Webster.com: ‘a strong feeling of sexual desire; a strong desire for something.’ That last part is what my friend and I talked about mostly — other forms of lust. In between sips of chardonnay (it was a late lunch), we agreed, although we are aging, we still have a strong desire, a lust for something.

I call it a lust for life. A strong desire to continue living with zeal and fervor and excitement for what may materialize on our still glorious horizons.

If lust is a strong desire like a craving, we all crave things at one time or another. We may crave something as simple as ice cream or a long, hot bath.  We may crave a new car or trip to some far off place. Didn’t many of us have a strong desire to leave the work place and be free in retirement to do what we want with our time? We may crave hitting the road in our RV and kicking around the country for months on end. We may have a strong desire to help others. We may have a strong desire to volunteer, leave money to a charity or create a scholarship to help someone go to college. We may have a craving to reinvent ourselves in retirement and do something we always dreamed of doing. Our cravings, our desires, our lusting after something is not necessarily bad or bad for us.

We have been lusting all our lives. Remember that cute boy or girl sitting across from you in junior year English, the one who invaded your dreams at night? That was probably about the same time you were lusting after a drivers license and your first set of wheels. After that you went on to lust after a great many things. Perhaps the taste of your first adult beverage, a real job, promotions, your first house, a bigger house, a masters degree, a trip to Europe or India or the Fiji Islands. Lusting fired our engines, not just our loins.

When we are young, we lust after life with an eagerness to experience all that we can. We dream. We scheme. We plan. We have a boundless energy focused on the future we strongly desire, we crave, we lust after. We want to gorge ourselves on all that life has to offer — the physical, emotional, mental, spiritual — the entire smorgasbord.

I still feel this way to a certain extent. Oh, I’m a little jaded at times. I have my been there, done that moods. Yet, there are many, many things I want to do in life. I still crave some adventure, trying a new activity, meeting new people, seeing new vistas, straining my brain, pushing my physical boundaries, entering a spiritual dimension I’ve never explored.

Lust gets a bad rap. A little lust for life can be good for us, especially as we age.  In a cliche we are older and wiser.  We aren’t going totally off the deep end, over the cliff. We are a little jaded.  Grabbing the world by the shirttail and twirling it around to see what shakes out is good for us.

Even now, for me at 64, it’s a big wide world out there and it’s easier to access than ever before. There are opportunities waiting to be taken advantage of. There are surprises to be found. There are secrets to be unlocked. There are discoveries to be made. And, I intend to continue lusting after them with a lust for life.

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I Don’t Know What I Don’t Know

Last week’s post “You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know” received a lot of comments. One of the comments came from Nancy, who cited a book another reader mentioned in an earlier comment. Nancy is reading the book and highly recommends it.

After reading some reviews of the book, I decided to pass the information on to everyone as it looks like it can help you find your path in retirement. Deanna originally mentioned the book back on June 11 in a comment and I thank her for that. Although Nancy picked up on Deanna’s comment, I obviously missed the import of the book. Ain’t that a kick in the pants! This scenario reminded me I don’t know what I don’t know and need to keep my eyes, ears and mind open.

The book, “It’s Never Too Late To Begin Again — Discovering Creativity and Meaning at Midlife and Beyond” is written by Julia Cameron. It should show up in my mailbox today, so I have not read it — just reviews and parts of it online.  I did read her book “The Right To Write”.  Cameron, 68, is an artist. Stop right there. The book is not about becoming an artist although there are many, many forms of art and you may end up finding one you like. Cameron is also a creativity teacher and her books include exercises and prompts for helping you figure things out.

In the introduction to this book, Cameron tells us why she wrote it. I think this will resonate with some of you as it did with me.

“Twenty-five years ago I wrote a book on creativity called The Artists Way. It spelled out, in a step-by-step fashion, just what a person could do to recover — and exercise —their creativity. I often called that book “The Bridge” because it allowed people to move from the shore of their constrictions and fears [self-imposed limitations] to the promised land of deeply fulfilling creativity. The Artists Way was used by people of all ages, but I found my just-retired students the most poignant. I sensed in them a particular problem set that came with maturity. Over the years, many of them asked me for help dealing with issues specific to transitioning out of the work force.”

Cameron goes on to describe the book as her attempt to answer the question we all have about this stage of our lives, “What next?” Along with the many forms of art, there are also many forms of creativity. No matter what your career consisted of doing, from engineer to fashion designer, you engaged in creativity in some way. I was a banker and real estate executive yet business required a certain amount of creativity to get the job done. Inventing your retirement life will also take a certain amount of creativity on your part. Cameron’s step-by-step approach may well help you figure it out.

One of the steps involves memoir writing. This exercise is not to make you into a writer. It is there to put you in touch with your life experience. It’s in keeping with my advice to re-visit your childhood self. About 18 months ago I took a memoir writing class. Since than I’ve taken several other writing classes and continued with memoir writing. Why? Because it caused me to drill down into my past and excavate so much of myself buried under a lifetime of working. It helped me remember me. It helped me to fully transition from work to retirement. I regret not passing this piece of wisdom on to my readers earlier. It took reading the reviews about Cameron’s book for me to realize what a gem this exercise is for finding out who you are and who you want to be in your third stage of life.

That said, if you do read the book, I would love to hear what you think and if it did indeed help. As always, I love to hear from my readers. You often pass on wisdom or information such as this and that helps all of us. A great big thank you and hugs to Deanna and Nancy!

THE LUCK OF THE DRAW

Native American in pencil

Native American in pencil

Since I was traveling this week, I’m reposting a previous post from July 2014.  I hope you enjoy it a second time around.  I’ll be back next week with a fresh post.  Until then…

We need purpose in life. That is a given. And, that is one of the challenges we face throughout our lives. Retirement is no different. While you lived your work life, you probably reinvented yourself many times, developing new skills, taking on a new position or switching careers altogether. If you looked for a new job at a new company, you probably threw yourself into job hunting, updating your resume, looking at different companies and opportunities. This may have been a very exciting endeavor giving you a renewed sense of purpose. During this time, you may have also taken on the role of spouse and, then, parent. More transitions, adjustments and challenges as you wended your way through these new roles. Though stressful at times all of these provided purpose in your life.

Now, you have waved goodbye to the regular work life and the kids have flown the nest (hopefully). And, as some of you have written, retirement is not all you dreamed it would be. Setting aside the normal transitioning, disillusionment, grieving the good parts of your old work life, in order to reach a state of renewed purpose, put yourself in the same mode you did when you went after a new position, a promotion, a job with another company. Become open and exploratory. Prepare to reinvent yourself in order to re-purpose your life. The sooner you do this, the sooner you will find satisfaction with your retired life.

A reader recently mentioned how they would love to hear more stories about people successfully transitioning into retirement. So, would I. If you have a story to tell, please pass it on.  To get us started, here’s how I found retirement bliss or Atchley’s Stage 5 of a Retirement Routine. It took me about two years. For some it will be shorter; for others, it may be longer.

If you don’t have a bucket list, make one. Though it’s become something of a cliché these days, the bucket list is a very useful tool for getting your dreams down on paper. I have my bucket list and, for those of you who have been with me for a while, you know one of my dreams was to take classes in watercolor painting. I didn’t expect to become world famous or even be all that good as I never thought I had any artistic talent. So, I shouldn’t have been surprised or felt the disappointment I did when the class turned out to be a disaster. But, being the trooper I am, I decided the real problem was not knowing how to draw.

On a whim, I signed up for a drawing class. Then, the little voice in my head started saying things like, “Who are you kidding? You can’t even draw a smiley face so what makes you think you can draw anything at all?” Doubt, that destroyer of dreams, would not get out of my head. I decided to cancel. But, my dear husband, talked me into sticking with it and giving me an out. If, after a couple of classes, I felt the same as I did with watercolor, I would just drop the course.

'Bella' in pencil

‘Bella’ in pencil

Well, I never dropped it. Instead, by the fourth class, it was exhilaratingly apparent that not only can I draw, but I am talented. Since then, I have taken two more classes, moving on to pen and ink and colored pencils. I spend hours upon hours drawing. I’ve made new friends. In addition to the art, I enjoy the camaraderie with the other students.

I’m looking forward to more courses this fall with a new instructor and other perspectives. I have not felt this much excitement about a discovery of my personal abilities since I was 16 and took my first journalism course. Learning to draw has changed my life. And, think about it, I almost didn’t even give it a shot. What seems like a masterstroke from the outside, I know was nothing more than the luck of the draw. I tried something that stuck.

‘Autumn Joy’ pen & ink pointillism

If you are carrying around old notions about your likes and dislikes or what you can or can’t do, discard them now. If doubt clouds your thinking, kick doubt to the curb. Henry Ford once said, “Think you can, think you can’t; either way you’ll be right.”

Reinventing yourself, repurposing your life requires an openness to new possibilities. It requires a willingness to try new activities. It requires taking some risk. In order to be a success at anything, you have to be willing to fail. After my perceived failure with watercolor, I didn’t want to fail again with drawing. It was easier to cancel then to face the possibility of another mistake. But, in retirement, all bets are off. Put yourself out there today and find your purpose. And, send me your story.

The Joys Of Not Working

A 'work' day of hiking

A ‘work’ day of hiking

Last weekend was a long weekend for workers in the United States as our country celebrated its birth on the 4th of July, Independence Day. Sacrosanct among holidays, it is one of those dates modern day Congress has not fooled with to deliberately make it into a three-day weekend. It happens only by the rotation of the calendar as was the case this year. Before I retired I looked forward to such a weekend. Oh goody, the 4th is on a Monday this year! No longer do I think that way.

After all the fireworks, parades and barbecues were over, Tuesday morning America’s workers returned to the grind, while I slept in, lazed around the garden after breakfast with my cup of coffee, picked blueberries and finally headed into the woods to do some real work. Ahhhh, the joys of not working, the pleasures of real freedom.

As a child older members of my family often told me the story of The Ant and the Grasshopper. The Ant and the Grasshopper is one of Aesop’s fables, which trumpets the strong work ethic of the ant while denigrating the grasshopper’s laziness as he fritters away summer only to starve during the winter months. Raised on a strong work ethic highlighted with stories such as this, I always found it difficult to be anything but productive.

Wasting away my hours at any time of the year in the manner of the grasshopper is never happening for me. It is not in my make up. Neither, however, am I the previous corporate ant, who dutifully put in a long productive work day week after week, month after month, year after year. It took a couple of years to re-program myself to enjoy days of simply browsing, from reading a good book to strolling through my garden to leisurely watching the sun go down. I also enjoy my more ant-like productive days of writing, working in the garden or hiking one of the trails in the local state parks. Eventually, I developed a new mindset mid-way between the ant and the grasshopper.

Among the joys of not working is not having to ask a superior’s permission to take time off to partake in the activities you love doing. You can do them every day. Even if they are work, they don’t seem like work because you are doing what is pleasurable to you. Another of the joys of not working — work is not work. And, another joy — you have no superiors.

With freedom also comes responsibility. That, too, can be a joy. Though it may seem daunting at first to fill your previous work hours with activities of your own making, savor the luxury. Few people on Earth get to experience the joys of not working. Revel in your accomplishment. Luxuriate in the ability to choose or not choose, to do or not do, to bore yourself silly today or find something to do heretofore unknown to your senses. You are no longer a worker looking forward to a three-day weekend and perhaps loathing the return on Tuesday. You are free! Enjoy the joys of not working.

Where The Wild Things Grow

Lady Slipper

Lady Slipper Orchid

When Martin and I bought our property thirteen years ago, it was so thick with wild blackberry brambles, honeysuckle, poison ivy and Muscatine grape vines, we were unable to step more than a few feet into it from the road. The aerial photo on the county records site wasn’t much help either. Beyond the clogged meadow at the road frontage thousands of pine trees hid any view of the rest of the property. We bought it anyway. At the time I was working as a real estate broker. I knew wooded properties were few and far between.

From the road we could also see mature oaks, hickory, maples, poplar and beech. We sited the house right smack in the middle of the six acres for privacy. When our builder cleared a path for the drive and started building, we started spending weekends clearing the brush and pines. I wasn’t much of a conservationist then. Still, it was low tech clearing with loppers, pruners and hand saws. Our builder didn’t burn debris; he had it hauled away. Using hand tools as our ancestors would have, Martin and I cleared enough to fill two dump trucks!

Ghost Pipe

Ghost Pipe

During the nine months of building and clearing, we made many discoveries. I remember the late March day I walked up the drive to see the white flowers of dozens of dogwoods welcoming spring. As spring advanced we found wildflowers popping up everywhere _ pink lady slipper orchids, crested iris, yellow loosestrife, Solomon’s seal and many more I didn’t recognize. I bought a book on wildflowers of the Southeastern United States. There were ground covers like wild ginger, partridge-berry and coral berry. Summer brought milkweed and butterfly weed.  The strange looking ghost pipes made an appearance.  Fall brought the orange berries of hearts a burstin’.

Hearts a Burstin'

Hearts a Burstin’

With these discoveries the property took on new meaning. I felt like we needed to conserve the wild things. Thus came the decision not to allow any further heavy equipment on the property. No bulldozers or backhoes to remove the onerous pines.

By now we also realized something was wrong with the pines. Clemson University Extension agents helped us identify two types of pines beetles gnawing their way through the woods. They are also Virginia pines, which do not fare so well this far south. Planted decades ago as a relatively quick money crop, now too dense, many are diseased. Our woods were declared as unhealthy. Chainsaws were purchased to make the job of removing them easier, but we still have thousands of them. Because of the pests and disease, they have to be burned. It is an arduous task. It is also a labor of love.

We made paths over the years, clearing out the old logging trails, and can now walk through most of the six acres. There are two fields of rocks across the upper ridge, rocks large enough to sit upon and contemplate the emerging beauty of the woods. Mountain laurel will bloom in May along the back path. June will bring a show of creamy panicles on the sourwood trees as bees work them to produce what some claim is the best honey in the world.

The more we clear the pines, the more the sun finds the earthen floor of the woods, the more the wild things spread to feed some animal. In recent years, we’ve had a bear appear, probably in search of the huckleberries growing wild beneath the trees. The raccoons, opossums, skunks and fox have been here all along. There are plenty of squirrels and chipmunks. An owl hoots all night long in the woods behind the house.

Native ferns fill in my hillside garden

Native ferns fill in my hillside garden

In the landscaped gardens surrounding the house, much to my delight, many of the wild plants have invaded. Wild ferns fill the sunny hillside off the screen porch. Solomon’s seal dots the shaded hillside to the front of the house. Red flowered trillium showed up in the side garden a couple of years ago and continues to spread.

I try to be a good steward of what has been given to me. It is not always easy. But, as I watched the first hummingbird of the season flit through the garden and woods last week, I remind myself this is why the wild things must continue to grow.

Let’s make every day Earth Day!

MINDFULNESS

Today, there is a growing movement centered on being aware of, and staying with, the present moment. It is called mindfulness. Each time I hear the term, it reminds me that as a child, whenever I was going to a party or a friend’s house, my mother said, “Be sure to mind your manners.” She was telling me to pay attention to my behavior. Remember to be polite. Be aware of how you act. Mindfulness is simply an extension of what my mother was expecting from me. It’s paying attention to what is happening in your surroundings and within you at the present moment. It is staying with your current experience including all your sensory perceptions and emotions. It is remembering to stay present instead of letting your mind wander off into the past or future. It is being aware. I call it living consciously. While this concept has been around for centuries and is steeped in the Buddhist practice of meditation, it serves a real purpose in our stress filled, frenetic modern world. If we stay present, instead of mind-spinning about the past, which is non-changeable or the future, which has yet to unfold itself, we can eliminate much of the stress we, ourselves, create in our lives.

I first heard of mindfulness a year ago when I was taking the Dynamic Aging Program at Furman University. We touched on the subject as it relates to aging. While most people start out believing retirement will be stress free as they leave the workplace behind, they soon find there is stress in retirement. We just encounter different stressors from what stressed us while working. Instead of deadlines, office politics and not enough time for family or ourselves retirement stressors may include health concerns, finances, 24/7 with our spouse or significant other or too many requests to volunteer for organizations. Once I understood the concept and practice of mindfulness, I also realized I had flirted with the idea for years. During my most hectic years of working, being a wife and mother, volunteering in the community, I knew I either had to stop dancing as fast as I could or go down in flames. I chose to slow dance, become more focused on what was important to me and stop trying to be super woman. In a nutshell, I chose to become more choosy. As a result I stopped being a leaf in the wind, buffeted by other people and self-imposed commitments. I stopped living unconsciously. I started living fully awake and aware of what I was doing and why. I became more mindful.

Last Friday I took a mindfulness seminar at Furman. Our coach, Brenda Verdone (www.ANewGreenville.com), is an energetic and engaging woman who takes mindfulness beyond meditation and into our everyday lives. The two-hour session was interactive as we explored how to use mindfulness in our daily activities to ward off stress, restore health and well-being, and create a balanced life style. While I am already practicing much of what Brenda taught us, I also learned a few things. We started out learning how to breath. That’s right – breath. How to inhale a breathe so the air reached all the way down to our diaphragm. With hands on our bellies, we then exhaled fully and slowly, counting the seconds, and paused, which is natural, before taking the next breathe. We do this involuntarily right? Perhaps when we are calm but what about when we are stressed? The old flight or fright goblin causes quick, shallow breaths taken in and let out of the lungs in such a hurry we don’t get enough oxygen to our other organs. Sometimes we may be so stressed we do this unconsciously, unaware that we are robbing our bodies of much needed oxygen. Quite some time ago my doctor told me that most of the people in hospitals are there because of stress, which causes inflammation to the body and leads to various diseases. We are so stressed out in our fast-paced world that we are killing ourselves!

Besides how to breath with awareness of our bodies, Brenda went on to talk about relationships, recreation, communication and even mindful eating, drinking water and posture. You may remember I took up mindful eating with the assistance of the My Fitness Pal APP in order to lose 18 pounds. It took me about 30 days to form my new eating habit, which made a huge change in my health, most notably avoiding diabetes. The APP helped me to eat mindfully, to be aware of what I put in my mouth as well as when, where and why I was eating. Being mindful in all aspects of your life can provide immeasurable benefits as we age. Brenda laid out six areas of life along with some questions to ask yourself about each area. I’m sharing this with you here. Exploring each area and answering the questions will help create a balanced, harmonious lifestyle. Honesty with yourself, of course, is necessary. Ditto for taking action.

AREAS OF LIFE

Spiritual – Peace of Mind
Physical Health
Relationships with Family and Friends
Life Purpose
Financial Stability
Recreation

CRITICAL QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF

Do I feel satisfied in this area of my life?
Is this area in balance with all others, or is it too much or not enough?
Is this an area I’m equipped to handle myself or do I need someone to guide me? (i.e. clergy, teacher, holistic wellness consultant, interpersonal relations counselor, financial advisor, trainer/instructor)
Where would I like to be in this area one year from now?
What do I need to get or do in order to move forward in this area?
When am I going to do it?

While this may strike some of you as more New Age nonsense, which has come and gone over the last several decades, it is one tool for getting your retirement life on track. Mindfulness is by no means a cure-all for everything which may ail you. But, it is my personal experience that balancing out all aspects of your life can create a feeling of harmony thus removing a good deal of stress. Being mindful of what you are doing, why you are doing it and where the benefit is to you, will help you crystallize your retirement purpose. This can lead you to a happier, more fulfilling retirement lifestyle. If you have not given mindfulness a try, now is the time. Let me know if it helps! Or, even if it doesn’t.

NEVER STOP LEARNING

Last Thursday, Martin and I attended the Spring Term Back to OLLI Reception along with two of our neighbors who decided to become members as well. We sipped tea and nibbled on cookies and talked with many people we didn’t know before the reception and anticipated the start of classes this week. Now, the week is here where I start a writing class and Martin begins Carving 201. What is OLLI? Well, last May as I looked for new and exciting ways to spend my time, I searched the web for things to do in Greenville, SC for people 50 and older. Expectations were not high for anything out of the ordinary. But, I was in for a real surprise. In a short time online, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at Furman University (http://www.furman.edu/SITES/OLLI/NEWSFROMOLLI/Pages/default.aspx) popped up among the usual senior living choices. As I visited the site and read further, I could feel my excitement and anticipation mounting. The discovery of a lifelong learning center dedicated to people 50 and over right in my backyard was more than I could have hoped for when I started trawling the web that morning. By the time I finished reading the OLLI pages, Martin and I were headed to the car and the Furman campus. Although it was the end of the 2014 school year, our visit to the Herring Center convinced us to join OLLI in the fall. As we enter our third term no less enthused than we were last May, never stop learning has never held more meaning for us. The good news is this. There are 119 OLLI campuses throughout the U.S. and there are colleges and universities throughout the world with adult learning opportunities.

In 2000 The Bernard Osher Foundation (http://www.osherfoundation.org/index.php?olli) made a decision to start doling out multi-millions to support lifelong education centers on campuses across the U.S. so mature adults (that’s us) would have access to continuing education classes, which met their needs. In other words, fun classes in photography, art, history, literature, technology and exercise that were non-accredited but just for, well, fun. With million dollar endowments now handed out to 119 campuses throughout the country and at least one OLLI established in all 50 states, the Foundation is not currently giving further endowments. However, the impact of what has been accomplished by this generous gifting cannot be underestimated. For a generation looking to reinvent itself after leaving the workforce, OLLI offers the opportunity to continue learning new skills, take up new hobbies, soak up new ideas and make new friends. For those with skills to share, there are teaching and volunteer opportunities. If you are looking for renewed purpose and meaning in your post-retirement life, continuing to learn new things is the place to start exploring your next move.

But, what if you don’t have an OLLI in your backyard or even in your part of the world? Every developed country has colleges and universities. In Europe and Great Britain programs similar to OLLI are called University of the Third Age or U3A. Other colleges offer adult learning in the form of accredited courses only but you may enjoy applying yourself toward receiving a certificate or grade. My alma mater, Michigan State University (Go Spartans!) offers a Lifelong Education Program, in which students take the University’s courses on a non-accredited but graded basis at a reduced tuition cost. In the State of South Carolina, residents 60 and older can take courses at state supported colleges tuition free, although, they have to pay an application fee and pay for any materials required for the course. Look for similar options in your part of the world. Most institutions of higher learning also offer lecture series, plays, concerts and sporting events. Affiliating yourself with a local college, with or without continuing education or adult learning courses, may open new doors in other ways.

Don’t assume it’s out of your financial reach, but costs do vary widely, so do your homework up front on the financial requirements. I pay a $50 per year membership fee at OLLI Furman. Paying for classes individually runs $50 per course but, I bought a one year course package at $210 for 6 classes. That’s $35 for an eight week course, a bargain. The University also offers Friday Bonus Events, which are tuition free with students covering the cost of any materials. Then, there’s also Lunch and Learn Tuesdays, where students bring a lunch and listen to area speakers talk about various subjects. This Friday I’ll be hiking the Jocassee Gorge, one of the most wildflower rich areas of the world, in search of spring ephemerals. My cost? Chipping in for gas as we’re carpooling from the University. The cost of membership includes access to the University library, a boon for readers. And, tickets for many cultural events are as little as $10. Additionally, we are in a technological age where many colleges offer courses online and free. You’re not likely to meet people in that forum, but you can learn new skills.

Then, there are the things you gain, by entering college life, which really can’t be quantified. First of all, you have a chance to get outside that comfort zone I keep harping about. You know, the zone that keeps you in a rut with little or no excitement in your life. Remember, all the things you are comfortable doing today were probably outside your comfort zone when you started doing them. Try taking something at a college or university, which you, never in a million years, would dare to try. Here’s your chance to open new neural pathways and exercise your brain. Go ahead. Do it! Secondly, you will meet other people and you may even strike up new friendships. While you may not normally walk up to a stranger and introduce yourself, the classroom environment is conducive to doing just that. There are people with all kinds of interesting backgrounds and lifestyles attending classes. And, they are there looking for the same thing you are, a connection with people and learning.

Just as the concept of working for the same employer for forty years has become outmoded, so is the idea that we stop learning after we retire. Continuing to learn new things, meet new people and engage in the world around us will keep us active and sharp-minded as we age. And, there is no better place to begin than at a local college or university. Now is the time when you have the hours to put into learning a new skill or taking up a new hobby or filling your mind with new ideas. Can you imagine your grandparents seeing how the world has changed and what has been offered up to us and not wanting to take advantage of it? They would think we were crazy fools not to engage with these learning activities. Our generation is at the leading edge of a huge cultural shift in the concept of aging. Become an active part of this cultural shift and never stop learning!

MYTH BUSTERS

It’s the time of year again when we start looking forward to what a new year will bring as well as saying goodbye to the recent past of the old year. Auld Lang Syne as poet Robert Burns called it or days gone by. Thinking of the recent days gone by, I ruminated on how much I learned in the last year about the changing face of aging. I read plenty of dreary articles about the supposed inevitable cognitive decline, which comes with aging. There are the articles advising us to talk to our children in our sixties about our finances and health and how we should make a plan for the kids to take over for us on both fronts as we age. Well, poppycock. That’s how I felt as I processed what these authors advised. I kept thinking about all the eighty and ninety somethings with complete control of their minds, senses and lives, often continuing to live in their own homes rather than an institutionalized housing arrangement. How is it that a few maintain their cognitive selves right up to their last breath, while the majority slowly decline into a muddled mental state? Was that even true?

As it turns out, the belief that our brain inevitably declines is totally untrue. There is nothing inevitable about it. At universities like Stanford and Cornell, studies of the brain over the past ten years using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) have busted a number of myths concerning our brain power, from children to aging adults. Back in the 1970’s when I was just getting my first buzz on from a nice glass of cheap wine, we used to sit around imbibing and joking about killing off brain cells with alcohol. Ahhhh, youth. At the time, it was believed we only had so many brain cells and alcohol was a brain cell killer. But, hey, we also believed our twenty something brains were at their peak performance and would soon begin the inevitable decline toward old age when we couldn’t even balance our checkbooks anymore. But, the technological revolution of the late twentieth century produced some incredible gadgets with even more incredible computing power, among them the machine responsible for mapping our brains during different experiments with various aged subjects. Though the research is complicated and there’s a lot more out there on the subject than I could ever hope to cover in these pages, the bottom line is cognitive decline is NOT inevitable. There are even indications your brain is actually at its peak somewhere in your 50’s.

September of this year, I heard the term neuroplasticity for the first time. Neuro what, you ask? Plasticity meaning the brain is pliable, adapting to its changing circumstances a lot like plastic can be molded into different forms. The term use it or lose it never held greater meaning. Our brain may actually have the ability to grow additional tissue if we just keep using it. In fact, over the past couple of years, as a survivor of one of the last polio epidemics in the United States, I researched findings on post-polio syndrome. One of the theories behind the recovery of people like myself who exhibit few residual effects from the disease is the idea that polio victims’ neurons grew extensions to compensate for the damage done by polio. Our bodies heal from cuts and broken bones by growing new tissue. Our muscles can be strengthened, the minute little tears from exercise mending to create more mass. Why is it, then, we bought into the belief our brain can’t grow more intelligent or recover from an occasional sip of wine or even trauma or maintain its capacity to manage our finances as we age?

In our society there is a strong belief that if we eat a healthy diet, get some exercise, take vitamins and use the medications our doctor prescribes, we can stave off aging…to a point. Our society believes it is inevitable our bodies and cognitive abilities will decline. The specter of dementia looms ever present as we have ‘senior moments’ when we can’t find the right word, walk into a room and can’t remember what we came for, or we forget where we left the car keys. Well, eventually something will lead to our demise. But, believing our brain is most certainly one of those parts is no longer justified. Research is now proving that belief to be a myth of aging. Sure, we’ve all heard of the heart doctor still performing surgery in his nineties. But, that’s unusual, right? What if that’s really what the norm is if we all believe we can continue to maintain our cognitive capacity and we work at it and I mean really work at it, instead of buying into our societal myth of inevitable mental decline? If we continue to use our brain, our mental capacity can stay intact. Using our brain means staying engaged with other people, with life, with learning new things, accepting new ideas, absorbing and growing like a baby in the first year of life, opening new neural pathways. A growth mentality where we continue to learn and grow, even as we age, is the key to keeping our cognitive abilities intact.

As we move into 2015 and leave 2014 behind us, let’s also leave the myths of aging behind us as well. Make 2015 the year you take control of your aging process. Determine right now to add a new activity to your 2015 calendar. Learn something new. Try something new. Go somewhere new. Get out of your comfort zone. Live on your personal edge. We are the generation who can reshape attitudes about aging. We are the myth busters. And, the first step is to use our brains.

YOUR TRUE POTENTIAL

It’s been five weeks since I started the Dynamic Aging Program. Yes, time still flies! I wish I could tell you, “Here are the five things you need to know in order to age dynamically.” But, it’s not that simple. In fact, between the class time, books to read, websites to visit, personality and intelligence tests to take and the class forum questions, I feel like I’m back in college. Class alone is over 4 hours on Wednesdays, which, for someone who has been out of the workforce for a few years now, requires a bit of effort to remain focused toward the end of each session. But, enough whining about the work load. What you really probably want to know is what am I learning.

Well, this could be categorized as cheap therapy as self-examination, self-awareness and self-actualization are at the center of all this time and effort. As I’ve chronicled in this blog and, as most of you surely must know, most people who have a career and retire, usually have identity problems. According to what I’ve learned so far, they also apparently think they are going to continue with the same hobbies, pastimes and activities for the 20 to 30 years of their retirement. That is, until the loss of identity and boredom set in, which is the moment in time for introspection. While self-examination can be done at any time in life, all the stars and planets are more apt to be perfectly aligned during our last third of life when our basic needs are met, the career is over, the kids are raised and we finally (finally!) have time for ourselves.

While making personal development a priority may appear selfish on the surface, if we are to reach our full potential as human beings, which puts us in a position to truly give our best to the world, then personal development must be a priority. If we are to age dynamically, enjoying a higher quality of life where new meaning and purpose emerge, we must continue to expand our personal capabilities. Another benefit for taking this less traveled path is greater self-esteem as we discover our unique potential. The difficult part in all of this is taking responsibility for your personal evolution, especially in the face of societal norms, which tell us we need to wind down instead of gearing up. Choosing to take action means you will not be one of the flock. You will most certainly encounter people making comments about how you can’t teach an old dog new tricks or how these are your golden years…relaxation is what you’re supposed to be doing. You earned it. Right? Wrong. What you’ve earned is the right to reach your unique potential. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in this course, it’s that stability is not an option. We live in a rapidly changing world. That world will continue spinning at light speed. And, it belongs to the people who are ready to change and grow with it, including those of us in the last third of life.

Clearly, as we age, our bodies will decline, health issues will arise, the parts will wear out. However, cognitive decline is not a given. Continued dynamic interaction with other people will keep neural pathways open, fending off cognitive decline. So, another benefit of working toward finding our true potential is maintaining our cognitive function. Rather than crossword puzzles, which apparently only open new neural pathways to a point, my instructor recommends Mind_Spark or Lumosity computer games. But, the best option by far is continued meaningful engagement with other human beings.

What is meaningful engagement, you ask? Well, again, in order to answer that question, you have to take responsibility for your personal evolution. That’s the part requiring introspection, thought and self-awareness. It’s work. And, working toward something meaningful, especially when you don’t know what that something may turn out to be, takes a leap of faith. The first step is identifying any self-imposed barriers to your personal growth. Our barriers often show up in negative self-talk such as, “I was never any good at doing that kind of thing.” or “I never liked doing __________.” You fill in the blank. The key here is having (1) an open mind; (2) a willingness to recognize your personal barriers as self-imposed limitations; (3) an openness to new possibilities; and (4) readiness for change. You don’t have to go jumping out of an airplane or off of a bridge with a bungee cord but you do have to be willing to ask yourself, “If I could do anything, what would it be?” And, give yourself an honest answer. You may want to read one of the recommended books for this course, “The Untethered Soul” by Michael A. Singer, to put you on the road to identifying any self-imposed barriers to your self-actualization.

There’s a lot of self, self, self here but aging dynamically is all about yourself. You are much more than your ego, your work identity, your family, your community. What could be more fun in life than seeking your true potential as a human being and actualizing that potential? What could be better than giving your family and community your full potential as a human being? The work I have done in the last few weeks has left me more open to new experiences, more aware of living in the present moment and more willing to trust my own feelings and instincts. It is absolutely empowering. As I think about what I want to be when I grow up, I feel more alive than I have in years. So, that’s where I am with the Dynamic Aging Program. There will be more to come in the next few weeks…stay tuned. In the meantime, try taking a leap of faith. No bungee cord needed.

AN ARTS AND CRAFTS MOVEMENT

After writing my last post, many of you wrote telling me what gave you renewed purpose in life after transitioning from work life to retirement. THANK YOU! I enjoyed reading all of your stories, comments and notes. There were a couple of surprises from this informal survey but most of you found renewed purpose by finding a new activity, which struck a personal cord. There was an undeniable thread of joy, which ran through all of your stories of self-discovery. Now, I’d like to share the results with all my readers. Since many of the writers asked for anonymity, I’ve decided not to post any comments received on the previous post nor give too much detail.

Most of you retired as I did, cold turkey. No part-time work to ease into retirement like my doctor suggested as the ideal scenario. In fact, a few wrote about leaving work due to stress. For the most part, it wasn’t clear what type of stress but a couple of people wrote about age discrimination and being pushed out by a younger supervisor and/or co-workers. One writer mentioned feeling an urgent need to find new purpose in order to fully move forward in life and leave the stress behind. There was only one writer, but it’s good news we had one, who chronicled a five-year transition into retirement, working three-quarters of the month, including some telecommuting for the company that employed them for 37 years. This writer’s spouse enjoyed a similar arrangement with their employer. So, I guess we can count that as two who were able to transition into retirement the way my doctor suggested. Even after this transitional period, the employer still wanted to keep them around for special projects. Smart employer! Since this person did a lot of pre-planning and transitioning into retirement, when the moment finally came, it was more of a non-event with little transitioning left to do. Most of us, however, do not have the luxury of such an accommodating employer.

The big surprise for me is how most of you found renewed purpose in arts and crafts. While there are a few of you who fell in love with gardening, even a couple who have hobby farms, it seems most retirees are part of an arts and crafts movement. And, gardening can even be considered a type of art form for it requires a certain amount of creativity. Far from unusual, I am not the only one to discover artistic talent after a career in a vastly different environment. After life as attorneys, accountants, bankers, realtors, office managers, manufacturing jobs, medical technicians, teachers, IT administrators, nurses and more, most of you found renewed purpose in painting in all mediums…watercolor, acrylics, oil, jewelry making, sculpture in both clay and metal, glass bead making, knitting and felting, stained glass, photography, weaving, quilting, wood carving and collage art. Two of you mentioned supplementing retirement income with the sale of your art work and one is even teaching an art class. Some of you spoke of travel but it was almost always in conjunction with your ability to photograph new scenes or explore local art and culture. You also spoke of making new friends within the arts and crafts community, joining clubs and social networks centered around your chosen art or craft. I recently spotted a sign in an art shop. It said, “Artists never retire.” Perhaps that’s why we are drawn to our creative sides in retirement. We have now created a job for life.

Another surprise was how no one mentioned volunteering as an activity, which offered renewed purpose. Only a couple of you mentioned any volunteer work at all and even that was as an aside, an “I also do this” type of remark. As a volunteer for the Master Gardener Program, I fully enjoy working the booth at the local farmers market where I answer gardening questions and hand out information to all kinds of people from all walks of life. It makes for a fun morning. However, it’s not something I want to do everyday. Yesterday, at lunch with a friend, I asked for her thoughts on this as she, too, does volunteer work, but, it’s not her focus. Her not-so-surprising comment, “ I don’t want to be scheduled.” I believe, for most of us, volunteering is too much like working a job. It comes with time constraints, supervisors and work-like responsibilities. Many of us want to give back to our community in some way but in retirement, we also want to enjoy a less structured, more relaxing life. If anyone has other thoughts or ideas about this, please chime in.

To all of you, no matter where you are, no matter what your circumstance, I thank you for all of your heartfelt responses. I hope this post inspires those of you who have not yet found a renewed purpose in life to explore the possibilities, explore your wants and needs and perhaps ignite a spark within, which you didn’t know was there.