Gero-Punk Contemplation: Completely Grateful

A human being can change in significant ways in a relatively short period of time. Often change isn’t chosen, it just happens as we travel through the life course.  Sometimes the change is perceived to be “positive,” and sometimes not.  I wonder: what makes a change “positive,” and what makes it not?

For example, when one of my students brought her little boy with her to an advising appointment a few weeks ago, I found the changes in him since the last time I saw him to be astounding! When I had seen him a few months ago he was still being carried around by his parents, he still looked like a “baby.” But when I saw him recently, he was locomoting around my office, he was commanding his mommy’s attention with proto-words and gestures, and he was looking me in the eye and holding my gaze. In other words, he was no longer a baby, he was a little boy!  Let me tell you in case you don’t know–There’s a big difference between being an eight-month-old who is still crawling and being a one-year-old who is tottering and experimenting with first words. That’s a heck of a lot of growth in just four months, don’t you think?

Here’s another example.  Last week, on Wednesday, I resumed my gero-punk collaborative inquiry sessions at the Continuing Care Retirement Community that’s contiguous to my university.  I haven’t been able to hold sessions for the past year, but before my temporary hiatus I was hanging out 90 minutes at a time, twice a month.  What is a “gero-punk collaborative inquiry session”?  Well, it happens something like this: I try to show up early, greet my old friends (both old and new old friends) as they arrive, engage in informal chitting-and-chatting, and then when I’m pretty certain everybody who is going to join us has, I read an essay (usually one that I or another gero-punk has written, though not always) and then we talk about whatever comes to our minds in response to the themes explored in the essay. We close the session by brainstorming what participants might like me to ponder, write about, and read the next time we meet (or, sometimes, what they would like to ponder, write about, and read the next time we meet).

Any way, enough exposition, let’s get back to what happened last week

So, I showed up early. I was excited for my kick-off inquiry session after being on hiatus for over a year. One of my old old friends – a friend whom I hadn’t seen for six months — was already in the room when I walked in. This is a mini-aside, but when I was holding sessions regularly I had on average six to ten participants. But I’m cool with only one person showing up—it makes sense, given that there’s so much going on at the CCRC and I’ve not been around much lately, so I have to vie for attention and work myself back into folks’ routines. Truth be told, I’m happy no matter who shows up, as long as I have at least one person with whom I can interact.

Any way, as I said, one of my friends showed up at my inquiry session last week.  I was thrilled she was joining me and I was curious about how she was doing. The last time I had seen her was this past summer – We saw one another in July and then again in August at the yearly formal dinner the CCRC holds. I mentioned my friend in an essay written in August, 2012 and inspired by the dinner, The spirit of ’45”:

I first spotted a woman whom I’ve interacted with many times over the past several years  and with whom just a few weeks ago I had ambled slowly hand-and-hand all over the Marylhurst University and Mary’s Woods campuses, chatting about our lives, past and present. Tonight when I walked up to her and greeted her she looked at me without even a flicker of recognition. At first I thought it was because I was wearing my hat and thus I appeared unfamiliar, but then I remembered that I had been wearing my hat when we last spent time together. I sat down next to her and began asking her questions about how she was and what she was up to this summer, but she couldn’t converse with me. She smiled almost apologetically in response to my questions and after a time I wished her a lovely evening and continued my rounds, feeling mildly shocked by the changes in her that had taken place in just a few short weeks.

When I greeted her last week at the inquiry session she didn’t recognize me.  I (re)introduced myself and mentioned that we’d taken a walk together a few months ago.  I also let her know I’d thought a lot about the stories she’d shared with me about the world traveling she and her late husband had enjoyed together over many decades. My mention of her travels jogged her memory and she began talking about the safari they went on in South Africa, and about how saddened she was by the shanty towns on the outskirts of Johannesburg.  Then she asked me again who I was and why I was there. I told her I had come over from the university to visit and perhaps read something I had written in order to get some feedback. So she asked me to read what I’d prepared and I asked her what her preference was—a story about my mommy or a story about my daughter. She chose the story about my mommy because, as she said, “Everyone can relate to a story about a mother.” So, I read Gero-punk Tribute: Happy Birthday Mommy! 

I read somewhat slowly and carefully because my friend has some hearing impairment. I stopped reading a couple of times and asked if she had any questions. When I was finished with the reading, we sat in silence for perhaps a minute or two.  Then she began to reminisce about her grandfather, an Englishman who performed with the London Philharmonic before immigrating to the U.S. and establishing a theatre in a small town in Washington State. She described him as a generous, wonderful man (When I asked about her grandmother, my friend described her as not as wonderful as her grandfather and “easily bothered”.). Sadly, her grandfather’s theatre eventually burned down to the ground and he lost everything except for his “wonderful, positive attitude.”  Then my friend began to reminisce again about the safari, and other trips she and her husband went on many decades ago, and how grateful she was to have shared so many adventures with her husband, who was a wonderful man.  I asked her questions about other places she had visited (I remembered from previous conversations that they had been to Japan and China and Europe.). She wasn’t sure, but she thought that they might have been to Japan and China, and Europe for sure. I asked her about her sons, and she told me I asked an awful lot of questions! I let her know that if she wanted to ask me any questions, I’d be more than happy to answer.  But she reminisced some more about her husband and their life together, and she again told me that she was grateful for her life, completely grateful.

I did my best to be sensitive to my friend’s energy and attention-span, to be as present as I could be and continue with our conversation for as long as she seemed interested in doing so. As we approached the end of the hour I let her know that I should probably begin to get ready to say goodbye as I needed to pick up my daughter from school. My friend asked about my daughter – she said she didn’t know I had a daughter (though we’d talked about Isobel before).  Picking up on my friend’s reoccurring expression of gratitude for her life experiences, I told her I was grateful to her for sharing time with me and that I had enjoyed hearing her stories and getting to know her better.  She told me it was nice to meet me and she hoped to see me again soon.

There is poignancy in the rapid changes being experienced by my student’s little son and there is poignancy in the rapid changes being experienced by my old friend living at the CCRC.  When I interact with my student’s little son my dominant feeling is excitement about all that he is learning second-by-second, about the amazing adventure he is on and all that he’s discovering and will discover.  When I interact with my old friend my dominant feeling is curiosity about her real-time experience of time-traveling between the past, the present and the future, but my curiosity is tinged with sadness. But why, why do I feel sadness in response to the changes my old friend is experiencing but not in response to the changes my student’s toddler is experiencing? Is it perhaps because I imagine my student’s son’s changes are governed by “development” and are “normal,” and, thus, “positive,” but my old friend’s changes are harder to pin down, they are “not-positive” because they seem to be governed by some other force, not development, probably not aging per se, but some irreversible and irresistible force related to living for a long time in a body on this planet?

He’s new, she’s not, but they are both close to their times of living in the stars.

Our travels through the life course involve a balance between gains and losses; development and aging are inexorably intertwined, commencing at birth when we become terrestrial and ending when we return to the stars. 

And listen closely when I tell you this important secret: development isn’t just about gains, and aging isn’t just about losses.

And life in a body is glorious and dangerous and contingent on time/place/space.  We get out of this adventure neither unscathed nor alive. But whatever happens, the journey can be an exciting adventure for which we feel grateful, completely grateful.

About Jenny Sasser, Ph.D.

I am a freelance educational gerontologist, writer, community activist and facilitator. I am former Chair of the Department of Human Sciences and Director of Gerontology at Marylhurst University. I joined the faculty as an adjunct member of the Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies program in 1997 and since that time, I've been involved in designing many on-campus and web-based courses and programs for adult learners, including in Gerontology. As an undergraduate I attended Willamette University, graduating Cum Laude in Psychology and Music; my interdisciplinary graduate studies at University of Oregon and Oregon State University focused on the Human Sciences, with specialization areas in adult development and aging, women’s studies, and critical social theory and alternative research methodologies. My dissertation became part of a book published in 1996 and co-authored with Dr. Janet Lee--Blood Stories: Menarche and the Politics of the Female Body in Contemporary US Society. Over the past twenty (or more!) years I have been involved in inquiry in the areas of creativity in later life; older women's embodiment; sexuality and aging; critical Gerontological theory; transformational adult learning practices; and inter-generational friendships and cross-generational collaborative inquiry. I am co-author, with Dr. Harry R. Moody of Aging: Concepts and Controversies (now in its 10th edition!) and first author, also with Moody, of the recently published Gerontology: The Basics, as well as author/co-author of several book chapters, articles and essays. I am on the Portland Community College Gerontology Program faculty.
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