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Tools for Better Aging

Affirmation: The Best is Yet to Come.

 

Unknown-3-2On a delightful day in the North Carolina Mountains, my friend, Travis and I headed to the Watauga County Farmer’s Market. What would we find? We found fresh from the farm fruits and veggies, hand crafted pottery and jewelry, home made jams and soaps, wild flowers and giant sunflowers and a street musician or two. There were gifts for all of the senses and there were all types of people from the farmers and craft people to the tourists and the “snow birds.” So, while we found loads of goodies, the neatest part of our outing was meeting a couple of the vendors who were not selling produce but were selling services.

logo-2One young woman was there representing the Women’s Sustainable Agriculture Association. The following Saturday was to be the local garden and farm tour. You would receive a map and for $15 you could spend the day driving from farm to farm. She was with AmeriCorps. She explained it was like the Peace-core. Her two year assignment was almost up and when I asked her about her experience she exclaimed that it was, “wonderful!” Wonderful! Wow, I immediately wanted to be in my early twenties and a volunteer or perhaps I could at least share the concept with my grandchildren and encourage them towards “wonderful.”

fairydaysquaresmall-2Then we headed to the Daniel Boone Gardens. They were sponsoring “Fairy Day.” There were dozens of little girls skipping around in tutus, flowery headbands and gossamer wings. Once again I wished I were younger and had a pair of those shiny sparkle wings. Part of the event included a group from Appalachian State University. They were there representing the AgeLabs of the Psychology Department. The young woman, Lisa Emery, we stopped to chat with was a professor in that department and they were looking for older adults to volunteer for some of their research projects. Would we be interested? Well, I wasn’t young enough to join AmeriCorps and I felt too old to wear fairy wings and tutus but I didn’t feel old enough to qualify for an “older adult” research study.

As we talked we gravitated towards my favorite subject, our self-talk; how we create it and how it influences every aspect of our lives. She shared that one of the studies regarding aging and attitude showed a direct relationship between our later years and our perception of aging. For example, if one believes that one’s memory will definitely deteriorate as one ages, one’s memory will most likely become worse. What that pre-conceived notion also creates is a vacuum for a helpful medial diagnosis like a hormonal issue, a thyroid condition or even perhaps a brain tumor. This belief system may lead one to an earlier deterioration or even an early death.

What are your pre-conceived beliefs about aging? Do you think you must get heavier, weaker, less agile, more crotchety? Perhaps you think you’ll be a worse driver, have no real purpose, or not find any meaning in life anymore. Maybe you’re someone who chooses to see the later years as a time of freedom and adventure. Guess what? The future you imagine is more likely to happen than not. Certainly, if you do not see a future filled with blessings and possibilities, even when they arrive you probably won’t recognize them.

Unknown-1-2Sister Joan Chittister in The Gift of Years, Growing Older Gracefully says one of the challenges of aging is that there’s no defined purpose to life after the age of 70. Before that most people, not in a third world country, are getting an education, then raising a family and developing a career and finally crafting a retirement plan and then “wham” if you’re one of the lucky ones you’re on your own to figure out what life without a societal definition looks like. I find her writing to be uplifting and filled with hope. Her chapter on Immediacy reminded me, once again, of the power I have to choose moment to moment, day to day, on what I want to focus. She writes, “What we too often fail to realize is that living fully depends a great deal more on our frame of mind, our fundamental spirituality, than it does on our physical condition.”

images-2-2The question that I find myself asking is, how do I want to live out the years I have left? What words do I want to choose to craft a joyful, meaningful later life? I have some of the most inspirational older men and women in my life. I want to emulate them. I have one dear friend, Joanne, who at this time is almost retired and has prepared for it by taking up gardening at the NC Museum of Art, helping different chefs demonstrate their cooking techniques at a local kitchen shop, refurbishing furniture for people with limited incomes who are trying to set up a home and she also became a qualified “barbecue” judge. Another of my dear friends, Jean, is a phenomenal artist who founded and supports The Cary Artist’s (coop) Gallery. Two of my heroines are Sisters Mary Margaret and Judy, who are co-directors of A Place for Women to Gather in Raleigh, NC. At the Duke Cancer Patient Support Program there are dozens of retirees who show up once a week and sometimes more often to be patient navigators and supporters. The list is endless. People who created meaningful, fulfilling lives after their years of defined work.

images-4Some of my passions are learning, yoga, the fiddle and writing. I love to travel too. I love a car trip. I actually took up the fiddle because of my deceased Uncle Frank. I never heard him play but I knew he played with the Long Island Senior Symphony until his late 90s. He and my dearly departed Aunt Alice had a very rich older life revolving around their music and their church. I recognized that I might need something I could do while sitting. Little did I realize the physical toll violin playing or fiddling can take on the body. (I’m often asked, “What’s the difference between a violin and a fiddle?” The answer came from a seven year old one day. “A violin has strings and a fiddle has strangs.”) It has been a joy learning how to fiddle. As an adult learner I still struggle but I love love love playing. If my arm and shoulder don’t cooperate, I plan to take up the Irish drum. (If you’d like to see my group in action view, The Elderberry Jam Band: https://youtu.be/Bp7hu358LH8.)

I plan to stay strong. I see myself as still agile and alert. I see myself still trying new things and embracing new people and new ideas. I see myself surrounded by love and compassion. I see myself as still contributing anyway possible, especially with prayer, to hopefully make this world a better place. I can’t help but see some of the challenges and loses I will also face but I see myself dealing with those the same way I’ve dealt with the ones in the past, with grace, dignity and even some humor. I think the affirmation that most fits this concept of looking towards the future with excitement and optimism is: The Best is yet to Come. I can own those words. I can believe that with all the tools I’ve collected over my lifetime, especially that of my faith, family and friends, life will be better as I age than it has ever been before.

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Just Breathe

Affirmation: I take several deep belly breaths throughout the day.

 

YogaBreathingorPranayama28129Stephen Levine, author and death and dying guru, presented several workshops in the 1990’s at Duke for The Flying Monkey Foundation. It was the first time I heard the expression “soft belly.” He suggested that one easy way to reduce tension was to let the belly relax, to maintain a soft belly. It seemed then as it still does now to be the opposite of the cultural norm. As far as I can see, most of our society is focused on tight abs and six or even eight pack “wash boards”. For most, the bulging belly is not a thing of beauty unless it’s filled with the potential of new life.

One of the eight limbs of yoga is pranayama, focusing on the breath. There are many different breathing modalities. Some require short shallow pants, others slow deep breaths. Some focus on nasal breathing, others include mouth breathing. Some encourage making sounds, others are completely silent but the one thing they all have in common is that they keep you present to the moment. As soon as you stop focusing on the breath, you’ve lost your concentration. One of the easiest breaths to practice is “dirgha” breath. You inhale through your nose and slowly fill your lungs. You begin with the upper part of your lungs, the chest area. Then you go to the middle part, expanding the area around the heart finally you let the breath expand into the bottom of your
lungs, the belly section. It’s the deepest breath you can take. Once you have filled all three parts of the lungs, you slowly exhale from the top down, like you’re pouring out a pitcher of liquid.
You squeeze out every last drop so that all the stale air from the very bottom of your lungs is expelled. In the process, your heart rate slows, your blood pressure drops and your mind calms.

breathe-2It seems like such a simple, essential rule, “Take a deep breath.” How many times have you heard that statement, especially when someone is becoming agitated? “Take a deep breath!” It would seem like the most natural thing in the world to remember to breathe, but we forget. How many times do we find ourselves holding our breath? One of the women in my fiddle group forgets to breathe every time she’s learning a new song. I know whenever I’m faced with a sudden shock, I hold my breath. It’s my first reaction. There’s also the fight or flight reaction to distress which means our breath becomes faster and more shallow. That’s why some people actually faint in those situations.

img-rex-wellness-carylocation-2Yoga, practiced properly always includes a focus on the breath. Sometimes the teacher will instruct you when to inhale and when to exhale, other times they may simply tell you to “watch” your breath and to decide for yourself. “Watching,” the breath, however, is always an important part of the practice. I begin all my classes and my personal practice by calling attention to the breath. “Watch the rise and fall, the in and out, the up and the down.” Just by creating that simple awareness, the body and mind unite and calm. Taking it one step further, you can let your exhale be longer than your inhale. That has been shown to engage the parasympathetic nervous system: The part of the involuntary nervous system that serves to slow the heart rate, increase intestinal and glandular activity, and relax the sphincter muscles. Karin Johnson, yoga teacher extraordinaire at Rex Wellness in Cary took our inhale and exhale to another level at one of our recent classes. “What qualities can you take in on your inhale? What can you release on your exhale?” Ah, the gift of time deliberately spent moving and breathing.

What additional benefits come from breathing “properly” by taking deep belly breaths? Recently I learned that if we want to keep our internal organs healthy and perky, we should not be holding in our abdominals. For me, that seemed completely the opposite of what I’d learned over the years. I’ve always made an effort to contract my abdominals but I have now been instructed by my PT, Sarah Talley, to let my belly “blossom.” It has been explained to me that by sucking in my gut, I’m pushing my internal organs down and constricting their ability to properly function. It makes sense but I must say letting my belly be soft is taking a very concentrated effort.

sorrow-2My intention for the year has been to “let go of struggle.” I never dreamt, however, that would include letting my belly relax but that’s what I’m being guided to do. In his book, Unattended Sorrow,
Recovering from Loss and Reviving the Heart, Stephen Levine offers this advice,

As we soften the belly, letting go of trying to control the rise and fall of each breath but instead observing it as sensations come and go with each inhalation and exhalation, we begin to free level after level of holding. In the levels and levels of softening are levels and levels of letting go. Let old holdings begin to float in the new openness created by softening, as there arises a new willingness to heal, to go beyond our pain. As we begin to soften the belly, we unburden the body and mind of their automatic withdrawal from and walling-off of pain. As these burdens begin to lift, we find ourselves a bit lighter and the road ahead that much easier to travel; we’re a bit more able to continue on with our lives.

He goes on to suggest we make a conscious decision to soften the belly several times throughout the day and that many people who use this practice claim “a better day.” Give it a try. Take a deep “dirgha” breath and let the belly expand and then slowly let it release. Not only will you be improving your day but your health. All those crunched up organs will thank you and you might just find that by softening your belly, you also soften your heart. There will be more room for healing and for love.

Journeying Through Motherhood

Affirmation: Being a mother is my greatest joy.

 

Geese-2As we walked around the lake the geese couple were crossing the path and next to them was a gaggle of goslings. The female goose raised her head and stared right at us daring us to come closer. Behind us was another walker and her dog. The mother goose didn’t hesitate. She took off charging, squawking loudly at the dog. It had come too close to her babies. I’ve been a mother for over 40 years now. Now, I’m also the grandmother of four great people. I’m also very non-biased. My adult gym now offers toddler swim lessons on Saturday mornings. I feel a deep ache as I watch the parents interact with the children. I have an even stronger reaction when I see the fathers caring for the little ones, holding out their arms for them to jump into and holding their little hands as they lead them to and from the pool. I’m nostalgic for that time but I remember those lessons when I did them and I am just fine that now I’m simply an appreciative observer.

parents-2One day a young mother shared with a group of us that her 15 year old teenage daughter and husband had had their first terrible blow out. She was worried they would never have a trusting, loving relationship. The other mothers present assured her it was all normal growing pains and if it had taken this long for them to have this type of interaction, they were probably going to be just fine, probably even better than fine.

Many years ago the New York Times ran an article about the happiness level of parents. The researcher reported that in general the parents of teenagers were unhappier than parents at any other stage. I don’t remember being unhappy when my children were teenagers but I do know that now that they are adults, I thoroughly enjoy their company and that of their spouses. It’s pure joy when I have the opportunity to spend time with them. I think what we spend our money on reflects on that which we consider to be important and I’d rather spend my money on events that bring us all together than on anything else.

jeanDay1-2Today when I see a young family together I want to run up to them and tell them it’s a “short long journey.” I want to embrace them and shake them and make sure they know it and tell them to savor every moment of it. Motherhood is work. It’s painful and it’s challenging. It’s demanding and it’s tiring. It’s frustrating and it’s confusing. As a young mother I was never around extended family. Our first move was when my oldest was 6 weeks old. Our second move five years later was when my middle child was 18 months old and then ten years after that, we moved when Ellen was just three. I never had a support system. Every time we moved, I was completely on my own. I didn’t have a clue how very hard it was but looking back I can see how hard it was. Each time we moved, I had to create a new support system. It was easier sometimes than others. It was exciting to go to a new place but it was also lonely. Our last move brought us here to North Carolina over 25 years go. We began again. Now, I live close to most of my family.

My oldest girl, Melissa and her kind, loving husband, Larry and my four grandchildren live about 2 miles away. My son, Joey and his beautiful (inside and out) wife Belen also live close and I’m blessed to still have my husband of 45 years. My youngest and her sweet husband, Adam are in London but I’m optimistic about the future.

costafamily2My years of motherhood are not over. Once a mother, always a mother but this stage of being the mother of adult children is for me a rich blessing. While the children were growing, I was too busy with the cares of life and daily activities to savor all the precious moments they offered me but now, I can relish each moment. I can relax in their company. When I was doing my Master of Social Work I decided I would ask each of them, all adults at that time, how I did as a mother. Truly, this has been my life’s work. I wondered how they felt I did. When I look back I remember each of their births. I remember all the times they were sick and needed care. I remember all those miles in the car to different sporting events or classes. I remembered making dinner almost every night. I remember reading stories and grabbing hugs and kisses as often as possible. I remember helping with homework and visiting schools. I remember helping find colleges and going to ceremonies. I remember a home that I always hoped felt safe and secure. I welcomed their friends and eventually their spouses. I encouraged them to follow their dreams and listened when life went a different way. I hadn’t had any training and other than my wonderful husband, I hadn’t had any family around to guide me but it appeared I’d done alright. What did they think? I was curious and I was brave.

jeansandyYes, it’s been a “long short journey.” If I could do it again what would I change? If I were as wise at 20, 30 or 40 as I am now, what would I do differently? I’d not clean the house so often. Occasionally I’d have cereal for dinner instead of taking time to cook each evening. I’d read even more stories, hold hands even more often. I’d sit and just listen whenever they wanted to tell me something. I’d know this moment will soon be gone and I’d treasure it for the gift it was.

They were kind to me when they answered my question. That response alone was an answer in itself. I’d done ok. I must have done ok. Sandy, my hubby, and I must have done well. They’re still hanging out with us. In fact as I write this it’s almost Mother’s Day and the family and Sandy have gifted me with flowers, cards, a rice cooker and most importantly, time together. Yes, I might change the way I did some things, go slower, be more mindful but I wouldn’t change choosing to be a mother, especially to these three remarkable people. I’ve been blessed and at least now I can go slower and relish each and every moment I get to spend with them.

Happy Mothers Day!

Believing in Angels

Affirmation: I choose to believe in Angles.

 

angle-2Do you ever think about angles? Not the LA baseball team but the ones that appear in mythology and theology. They are a part of all the major religions. Do you believe in angels? Do you think they all have wings? Are they male and female or gender neutral? Do they ever appear in their true form or do they take on human characteristics? Do you think we really have guardian angels? What if you did believe, truly believe that there was a powerful spiritual presence hovering over you, advising you, and guiding you? How would that feel? Would it make you feel calmer? Would you become more conscious of your choices?

There have been many movies made about angles. My favorite is very old. It’s the black and white version of The Bishop’s Wife with Cary Grant, David Niven and Loretta Young. There was the TV series that ran from 1994-2003 called Touched by an Angel and of course, Hallmark loves stories that have an angel theme. I’ve also read several books about angles. There are stories about people who see angles, talk to angels, and receive guidance from angels. One of the books I read many years ago offered a journaling process to help you “hear” the wisdom of the angles involved in your life. And, of course, there is the ultimate angel book, the Bible.

The whole salvation story begins with the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she is to be the mother of the Messiah. They go on to announce the birth of our Savior to the shepherds and then continue to guide and protect the Holy Family throughout the beginning of the New Testament. Was that it? Did they stop visiting after that?

angel-104-2For many years one of my affirmations has been, “I have a very active guardian angel.” I don’t know when I began to truly believe that she (yes, she) was actively looking after me but looking back on my life, I completely believe that someone very powerful was helping me make decisions that were to my benefit rather than my detriment. There has always been a greater force in my life planting thoughts and ideas that led me along a path that has resulted in the life I now relish, a force that was not recognizable, not tangible. I look back and I am in awe of how I’ve been guided. I mean let’s face it, we all have those moments when if we went left instead of right, we know without any doubt that our lives would have been much harder, maybe even shorter, had we gone in that perilous direction. I simply look back and feel blessed. I know it has been my Guardian Angel, Saranna.

I’d been talking to her, Saranna, for many years when my dear deceased friend and massage therapist, Valerie Kelly, one day announced that there was an angel in the room with us. She took a deep breath and seemed quite startled. I was not surprised. Then she asked me if I wanted to know her name. I had named my angel many years before. Someone told me it was a good idea. I had named her Anna. It seemed like a nice angel name. Valerie stopped and listened for a moment and then said, “Her name is Saranna.” And so she is.

I call on her guidance quite often. I invite her to lead the way or to pave the way. Sometimes, I request that she speak with her fiends who are my loved one’s angles and ask them to smooth the way or direct the way. I know if you are a realist and don’t believe in the spiritual world, you probably have stopped reading by now. I know if you’re a therapist without any faith in a power greater than us, you have diagnosed me as someone with a problem or at the very least an overactive imagination. I haven’t heard the angels and sadly I haven’t seen them, in their natural state but I know they are here. I simply know it.

My husband, Sandy, will not pass a homeless person without giving him or her money. He always tells me that they could be an angel in disguise. The weekend of April 25th, 2015 was the twenty first Angels Among Us Walk for the Preston Robert Tish Brain Tumor Center at Duke. They open the walk with the song, “Angels Among Us” and the survivors lead the way for several thousand walkers who are there to raise awareness and money for brain tumor research. This year they raised over $2,094,000. Two of the first patients treated with the new polio virus technique led the way. They are cancer free of glioblastomas, an unheard of accomplishment until the last couple of years. I didn’t “see” any angles that Saturday but I am sure there were many, many of them present.

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Archangels-2In May my friend and massage therapist invited me to be part of a chain begun in 2000. She explained to me that I would be inviting the Archangels into my home for five days and when they left I would invite three other friends to host them. Why not? I followed the directions and set up the little welcome station that had a candle, a white flower, three slips of paper with a personal request, a family request and a community request and an apple to absorb the blessings of their presence. They arrived at 10:30 PM on the date I was told and as far as I was concerned they were using my home as their base for the next five days. Were there any unusual happenings? We’re there any miracles? Did I see or notice anything unusual? No, no and no but I felt difference. I had a sense of peace and comfort that was beyond my normal. Just the thought that they were blessing my home and family gave me comfort. They are “gone” now but I’ve decided since I’ve opened my home to them, I can now consider them to be close friends and when I have a pressing need, they will return.

I looked up the mythology revolving around the Archangels. It seems there are somewhere between three and seven. I don’t know how many were here during their visit. I know Michael, Rafael and Gabriel were here for sure. I attend St. Michael the Archangel Church. I live off of Rafael Drive and have several people in my life named Gabriel. It’s all a mystery, isn’t it? I am comfortable with mystery at this time in my life. I don’t have to understand everything that I believe. That’s what faith is all about, believing the unbelievable. I choose to believe in angels. I choose to believe there is a higher, compassionate, wise power that wants to lead us to a better, more fulfilling life and with that belief, for me, it brings peace and comfort and hope.