Living in Free Fall

 

Free Fall A recurrent theme in my life is that you grow the most when you step outside your comfort zone. It is a heady feeling to realize that a painful experience that had you in free fall for a time has made you stronger and wiser … to realize that, using Bradbury’s metaphor, you have indeed grown new wings.

What’s easy to forget, once those new wings have grown and set, is just how rough it is when you are in free fall … when you don’t know where you’re trying to get to … when you don’t trust your own judgment … when you have no idea quite what to do next.

It’s all the harder when you are in free fall off a cliff you didn’t even see coming.

To put this in perspective, I will take you back to 2008. Depending on how you count, I had changed careers half a dozen times over the previous 38 years, including several times when I dropped off the corporate ladder for a period of years. Some transitions were harder than others, some more successful than others, but there seemed to be a consistent pattern, one in which my skills in one arena provided a temporary branch to hang on to while I grew new wings in another.

When I decided to give up finance to be a creative writer, I expected this transition would go smoothly. After all, I was an experienced business writer. I’d taken university-level courses on creative writing. I’d published a memoir about sailing around the world at age 40.

Friday, I was a financial consultant.  Monday, I would be a writer.  How hard could it be?

Pretty hard, as it turned out.

What I overlooked, as I launched myself into the writerly world, was the common thread that stitched my earlier transitions into a satisfying quilt … the opportunity to work with smart people who were big thinkers. My success lay, to a very large extent, in my ability to carry out complex projects that these big thinkers—whether mentor, client or husband—believed were important.

In 2008, however, there was no client or mentor or husband. I had lots of ideas, but no way to set priorities or assess whether they were worth pursuing.

And then, one morning, as I waited for the first edition of Sailing Down the Moonbeam to be delivered, I recalled one of those wing-growing experiences as we sailed across the Pacific Ocean. Most of the time, my husband and I were vulnerable to unpredictable winds and currents. Setting goals was an exercise in frustration, since we could not control our progress on any given day. The best we could do was set a course that took us in the right general direction. All too often, we revised our course several times. More than once, we had to change our destination.

The metaphor seemed obvious.  If I wanted to I be a writer, I needed to write and hope my words would cumulate to a writer’s persona. Write something. A blog. A book review.  An essay.  Anything. Now, today.

It was a eureka moment.

I’d like to be able to tell you that I grew my writer’s wings that day.  I didn’t. Those simple goals got me out of bed every morning, but it was months before I did so with any enthusiasm.  It was several long and painful months before my wings started to grow.

Now, six years later, I have a writer’s wings. A novel and a memoir. A regular blog. A steady stream of freelance work. Invitations to speak to book clubs, libraries and community groups.

But once again, I seem to be in free fall. How can I be a writer if I don’t have a meaningful story I feel compelled to tell, or an idea I feel compelled to write about? Having just turned 70, I’m intrigued by the personal and societal challenges as the boomer cohort ages.  But how much of my thinking is unique enough to be worth writing about?

Once again, I seem to be grasping frantically for a branch to retard my free fall … give me a few extra moments to develop the wings I’ll need for my next act?  But what’s that next act? A writer in her 70’s with temporary writer’s block. Or a humanist for whom aging IS the next act, whether you write about it or not? Or maybe something else I haven’t even thought about?

What do you think? Can we still sprout wings at 70??

The Ineffability of Aging

 

IMG_9068No so long ago, I viewed 70 as the beginning of “old age.”

Trouble is that today—my 70th birthday—I don’t feel old.  Yes, I have grey hair, along with wrinkles in some places I would never mention in polite society. I do get annoying muscle cramps more often than I would like.  But I can climb six flights of stairs several times a day, and the body that I see in the mirror looks a whole lot better than it did when I was 18. I have fewer aches and pains today than I did at age 50, a combination of eating better and getting more exercise. And good genes certainly don’t hurt.

Statistics tell me that I could live another 10-15 years; given my health and genes, it could be easily be another 30 (my mother lived to 90; I have countless friends with parents approaching 100).  I’ve been encouraged by several articles I read of late, including a recent editorial in the New York Times by David Brooks, that report on the “U-Curve,”–the pattern of changing levels of emotional satisfaction over the course of life.  Statistics on the U-curve suggest that happiness/ contentment declines from childhood to about age 50, and then trends upward more or less steadily. Given my own emotional pattern over the decades, I should be bordering on ecstasy by 100.

But do I really want to live another 30 years?

An interesting approach to the question of aging comes from physician, academician and bio-ethicist Ezekiel Emmanuel. In a recent article in the Atlantic Monthly, he coined the term “American immortal”—what he calls the obsession “with exercising, doing mental puzzles, consuming various juice and protein concoctions, sticking to strict diets, and popping vitamins and supplements, all in a valiant effort to cheat death and prolong life as long as possible.”  You can add to his list, of course, all of the various medical interventions—mechanical, surgical and pharmaceutical—that we use to mask the reality of our inevitable aging and mortality.

Emmanuel has concluded that he would prefer to die at age 75. In his view, that is plenty long enough to have lived a full and rich life with a satisfying career, a good marriage and a thriving family, including grandchildren.

It seems at first, to be a curious position for someone who opposes suicide, assisted or otherwise. But his argument is not that he refuses to live beyond 75.  Rather, he has decided that as he approaches 75, he will cease taking pro-active steps to retard aging or prolong his life. No flu shots, vitamins, or anti-biotics. No screening exams. No surgical or mechanical (e.g., a pacemaker) interventions. No chemotherapy.  No drugs (e.g., statins or blood pressure meds) to keep his bodily functions performing as if he was still young.

The only medical treatment he will consider is palliative care, if he needs it to keep him comfortable toward the end. In his words, “I will die when whatever comes first takes me.” This is, of course, what mankind has done for thousands of years … until medical technology took over the management of aging and death in the mid-1900’s.

I find his argument compelling, although I’m not sure 75 is the age I’d choose.  Perhaps 80 or 85.

And I also find myself pondering the boundaries of palliative care. Shouldn’t it include the repair—surgical, pharmaceutical or mechanical— of traumatic events that diminish the quality of life but will not kill you? A broken arm or leg?  A case of poison ivy. A hernia. And what about diet and exercise? Eating properly is its own reward, just in how you feel, regardless of its long-term benefits for your health.  Similarly, exercise stimulates brain chemicals that make you feel better, mentally and physically. Should I stop doing it simply because it has the age defying-ability to preserve muscle tone and bone density?

What would you do?

P.S. Emmanuel explicitly reserves the right to change his mind at any point along the way!

Legacy: What Will Your Verse Be?

 

In keeping with my recent focus on issues of aging, my blog this week comes from change management consultant, Jann Freed, whose most recent book looks at aging with wisdom, or “sage-ing.”

 

legacyWe often think of a legacy as something that emerges at the end—the end of our lives, the end of a job, the end of a career.  But in reality, we leave our legacy daily with what we say, how we say it, and what we do.

I like to ask:  Are we living our lives in ways we want to be remembered?

After the death of Robin Williams, people reflected on his many movies.  While I loved Good Will Hunting, my favorite movie was Dead Poet’s Society.  As someone whose first career of 30 years was that of a college professor, I was enamored by the way in which his character, John Keating, engaged the students in learning.  Here is one of my favorite lines from that movie:

“We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race and the human race is filled with passion. Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life but poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, ‘O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?’ Answer: that you are here; that life exists, that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”

 

What is your verse now?  

We often think of legacies as positive—people who have made a positive difference.  But legacies can also be negative and it can happen fast, as we witnessed with Coach Joe Paterno and even more recently with Bill Cosby, whose legacy went from great to bad almost overnight.

Yet, legacy thinking is forward thinking.  When we are intentional about our words and actions, we are anticipating how we affect others.  Many of us do not have the money and influence to have our name on a building, an endowment, or a stadium named after us.  But are we leaving the world a better place?

When talking about legacy, I advocate writing an ethical will, which is more than a legal document that describes how we want to allocate our financial and physical assets.  An ethical will (www.ethicalwill.com) is a document that communicates our values, beliefs, and other stories that we want to pass onto others.  Sometimes this document is referred to as a legacy letter, but the intent is the same—to share with others what matters most to us.  An excellent book on ethical wills is titled So the Tree Grows—Creating an Ethical Will—The Legacy of Your Beliefs and Values, Life Lessons, and Hopes for the Future by Jo Kline Cebuhar.

Since many families are scattered and most of us are not sitting around the kitchen table every week sharing stories, being intentional about what you want people to know is important.  When I realized that my sons kept the notes, letters, and cards I sent them at camp, during college, and beyond, I have started writing them “legacy letters” on their birthdays.  While I don’t call them that, I write the letter with the mindset that I am sharing what I want them to know and remember right now.  As they have gotten older and grown in maturity, the subject matter changes.  This has been a nice tradition—whether they realize what I am doing or not.

As Barry Baines, the founder of “EthicalWill.com” says:  “We all want to be remembered and everyone leaves something behind.”  It is the little things that can make a big difference.  Being intentional and thoughtful helps give purpose, meaning, and direction to our life.

So rather than drift with the wind, I challenge you to think about how you want to be remembered.

What will your verse be?  

 

Jann Head ShotIn Jann’s first career as a college professor of business management, she held the Mark and Kay De Cook Endowed chair in leadership and character development at Central College in Pella, Iowa.  She retired in 2011 as professor emerita and is now a leadership development and change management consultant with The Genysys Group.  She calls herself “The Transitionist” because her focus is on helping organizations and individuals get from where they are to where they want to be.

She is the author of five books and the latest is titled Leading with Wisdom:  Sage Advice from 100 Experts. If you want to explore how some of our great leaders have created a legacy, you might enjoy Chapter 9, which is titled “Leaders Live Their Legacy.”

Do Labels Inform or Conceal?

 

labelsOne definition of a “label” according to the Oxford Dictionary is “a classifying phrase or name applied to a person or thing, especially one that is inaccurate or restrictive.”

I was reminded of this definition as I read David Brook’s editorial today on “partyism,” a word coined by Cass Sunstein at Harvard to describe discrimination based on political affiliation.  Brooks’s comments were prompted by surveys that indicate that discrimination based on political affiliation is now greater than discrimination based on race.  He noted, for example, a comparison of polling data from 1960 with 2010. In 1960, the percentage of people who indicated they would “be ‘displeased’ if their child married someone from the other party” was about 5 percent for both Republicans and Democrats. By 2010, it has risen to 49 percent for Republicans and 33 percent for Democrats.

Much of Brooks’s article focused on the destructive impact of what he called hyper-moralization (the automatic association of moral and ethical values with party labels) on the political process.  His conclusion, on a higher philosophical plane, is worth repeating:

“This mentality [of hyper-moralization] also ruins human interaction. There is a tremendous variety of human beings within each political party. To judge human beings on political labels is to deny and ignore what is most important about them. It is to profoundly devalue them. That is the core sin of prejudice, whether it is racism or partyism.”

Or, I might add, sexism.

The subject of labels and the damage they do has been a recurrent theme in discussions with book clubs and women’s groups about sexual fluidity as it relates to the same-sex relationship that occurs in my novel, A Fitting Place. I’ve been surprised at the number of women—a relatively small percentage of my audiences, but more than I expected—who flatly reject the notion of sexual fluidity, and insist that any woman who has had a same-sex relationship at some point in her life must be lesbian (or at least bi-sexual) because “a straight woman would never do that.”

When pressed for why they insist on these labels, the typical response boils down to: “Well, I’m straight, and I’d never do it. I just don’t get why any one else would—unless they were gay.”  A few will add that they simply aren’t interested in learning any more about the subject of sexual fluidity or same-sex relationships.

I never cease to be amazed when people assume they can speak for the world at large, based on their own individual experience. But the more disturbing aspect of these responses is that words that seemed descriptive in my college days—words that opened up a discussion about a different approach to sexuality—have become labels that all but eliminate the possibility of talking about diversity of human experience.

In Brooks’s words, these labels—lesbian, bi-sexual and even straight—have the effect of devaluing what is important about one of the most significant lifestyle decision that most of us have to make.

Notwithstanding my comments above, I have to keep reminding myself of the difference between a description that starts a conversation and a label that closes conversation off.

How often do you use “labels” in a way that shuts down the possibility of a conversation?