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Life’s Little Train Wrecks

Life’s Little Train Wrecks

Over the weekend, a group for which I have written grants in the past blew up. Not literally, but in terms of the cohesion of the volunteers. One of life’s little train wrecks. Sometimes it’s a community effort, as this is. Sometimes it’s a work group. Sometimes it’s a family. What’s the lesson when it happens?

I’d like to believe that as we get older, we get better at not only staying out of the middle of this kind of stuff, but of also being peacemakers–the force that helps knit the group back together. In this case, the older ones were nowhere near that. I’m not central to this group, and my role in the weekend disaster was as a spectator. But there are positive things to learn just by watching.

The group is a niche historical society, tasked with maintaining and providing access to a lighthouse and related structures in a city park. They have been diligent over the last 25 years. Six of the seven buildings in the compound have been restored, and they are in planning to do the last one–the lighthouse itself.

One of their annual community events has been an afternoon tea at the lighthouse keeper’s cottage during the month of December. These folks weren’t spring chickens when they started doing that, and they’ve been at it a while. They’ve been thinking they needed to stop hosting the tea because they didn’t have the stamina anymore.

Then several new volunteers agreed to do the tea. Problem solved, right? It should have been. Instead it turned into this train wreck. Usually, something trivial triggers this kind of disaster. In this case, it was two words–“Holiday” and “Christmas”.

The email I watched spool out was to okay the flyer announcing the tea. What should have been a routine nod, turned into a major email argument over whether they were going to call it a “Christmas Tea” as they had since when they started doing it or a “Holiday Tea” as the team planning the event deemed appropriate.

At first it was civil: “Please change it back to Christmas.” Then people started to “vote” with more heated words. Then Santa (the guy who said he would BE Santa for the event) said he wouldn’t show up if it wasn’t “Christmas.” My thoughts ran in two directions as I watched: “This is so sad” and “This would be really funny in a sitcom.”

Except it wasn’t funny. I also don’t think it was political. (I live in the Pacific NW, a proud part of “the Left Coast.”) No, the problem was an inability to let go that the longtime members couldn’t even see in themselves and a frustration with that for the newcomers who had to use their energy and enthusiasm to deal with the roadblocks instead of the event.

I tried to defuse the situation by asking whether they were planning a community event for our diverse, current community or a reeneactment of what the lighthouse keeper would have celebrated in the early 20th century–aka “Christmas”. But it wasn’t a rational situation so that went nowhere. (Silly me.)

Eventually, one of the new volunteers forthrightly described how difficult it was for the team that was so ready to make it happen to have everything they suggested and planned shot down or stonewalled. That was brave. But it didn’t stop the wreck either. The oldsters involved have “hearing problems” that have nothing to do with their auditory acuity. No one stepped up to that truth from the old guard.

In her last sentence, she quit. I can’t help but wonder if the rest of the new volunteers will follow suit. It wasn’t about “Holiday” versus “Christmas.” It was that the old guard wasn’t able to do the work any more, but they weren’t able to let go of dictating exactly how it was to be done.

So….the lessons…

First, I do NOT want to do that. Ever. If I can’t do the work, how it’s done isn’t my call. No matter how many times I excelled at doing it in the past.

Second, peacemaking is a lot easier if people are willing to be rational, but that’s not the typical terrain in this kind of train wreck. You can try, but don’t be surprised if you get ignored.

Third, there will be differences of opinion when you’re part of a group. Respecting and addressing them is best done face to face, and, if possible, one on one. Also right away and bravely.

Fourth, some things cannot be fixed. This organization may end up folding because they are so inept at giving full status to new volunteers.

There’s no good lesson in having that happen.

Psst….the World is not flat. Pass it on.

Psst….the World is not flat. Pass it on.

We’ve known for centuries that those who thought the Earth ended with an abrupt edge had it wrong. Some day, our descendants will shake their heads in every bit as much disbelief that we could be so naive and clueless in how older members of society were perceived in the 21st century.

photo by Jacquie Webster-Patton

Getting older is not the catastrophe it’s assumed to be. We are not illness waiting to manifest. We are not a burden. We are not useless. It’s really stupid to expect us to just go away so that younger members of society can get on with making the world a better place. We’re still here and ready to help. Why is it so hard to find ways to do include all ages in our problem solving? And in the solutions themselves?

Older people need to be part of making the world better every bit as much as the teenagers who will eventually take their place. Why? Because they are an amazing resource. It’s absolutely insane that as a culture we’re assuming there is no value in being older. That youth is all.

Think about it.

  • We’ve had many more years of learning about life than those who are younger. A lot of what we now know is critical to solving some of today’s biggest problems–how to get along with others, how to fight for what you believe in with integrity, how to nurture without coddling, how to confront a bully, how to not spend money you don’t have. We’ve learned a lot by living this long.
  • We had the chance to try stuff before everything became “too dangerous” to be allowed to do it. So there’s a good chance, that absent all the baloney about keeping us “safe” because we are old, we’re ready to take risks. Some of the risks we took when younger were stupid. (You cannot fly by jumping off the garage roof. Ever.) But a lot of it was both educational and confidence building. A lot of it was stuff that transferred to other endeavors and situations. The dilemma in this is that our innate tendency to take risks has been squelched by this goofy notion that we must be taken care of and kept safe above all…because we are “old” and thus un-able. The oldest among us could be such a resource as mentors for risk taking.
  • We are far more likely to have acquired wisdom than younger people. Wisdom is currently in pathetically short supply. Wisdom will get us a lot farther as a culture than this idiotic bravado and “I am the greatest and my answer is the only answer” that’s so popular right now. Authentically old people can see the folly of what seems to be “the only solution.” We don’t get as worked up about things. We have the chops and the time in grade to be more patient. And we are willing to share all of it for the greater good. For any one person’s good if they seek it.

Not using an outstanding resource isn’t even the worst of this unenlightened thinking. No, the really BIG downside to current cultural expectations is that they encourage all the bad stuff we envisions as “old”–numerous health problems…which then need expensive medical procedures (or are at least assumed to). Eventually people who could still be highly productive, caring, independent members of society require huge amounts of support just to live a semi-life in some assisted living facility where they are “safe”–and bored to death, literally. The cultural mindset plays out: If there’s nothing else to do and everyone is expecting it, then, well, “maybe I’m supposed to be sick when I’ve had this many birthdays.”

There are a lot of older adults who would be just fine until their last breath if they had a legitimate role to play.

We need to mobilize this segment of the population–to help communities, to help kids, to help each other. We need to let them shine. If you assume THAT is what is expected to happen, there will be a whole lot more of it happening.

We all cheer when we see the video of the 90-year old woman doing a sexy tango in competitive ballroom dancing. We watch the centenarian who’s still teaching yoga with awe. I remember being in absolute bliss after reading about a 100-year old woman who was still the fulltime proofreader for the local newspaper. We want that continued engagement for ourselves.

Then we go right back to assuming that “people that age can’t do those things.” This is just so inane. Let older people do all they can. Everyone will benefit if we use every single morsel of talent, skill, and passion the best we can. The world is not flat!

Why are you going?

Why are you going?

I just got back from “the trip of a lifetime.” Another one. This time, it was an ocean cruise calling on ports in the Mediterranean for eleven days in a row from Rome to Barcelona. If you’re prone to drooling with envy, let me tell you how it went, first. I have done over 100 days on ocean liners. Sometimes, I am an incredibly slow learner.

At the Vatican

This was an “amazing deal,” offered by a travel agency that gets clients via pitches to the mailing lists of college alumni associations. I jumped on it because it offered two-for-one fares (and a dear friend and fellow alum was interested). Other goodies were free airfare, and six free shore excursions. Those ARE nice enticements. But I forgot to be sure I understood why I wanted to go at all. Turns out this was not the best way to do what I was I thought I wanted to do. And it turns out also, that what I thought I wanted to do wasn’t really what works for me at all.

I have done a lot of world travel, but little of it has been in Europe. That was always “for later–when we need to do the easy things.” That was naive. If you want a travel contact sport, try touring famous sites in Europe. The situation in the Sistine chapel has zero room for awe as the Vatican police bark “Keep moving. Keep moving!” from the second you walk in. (I actually got a better feel for the art from a traveling digital version that had been mounted on the walls and ceiling of our local former armory last year.) The truth is rude on this. Going to see this stuff in person is NOT going to be a highlight unless you are good with doing it in the middle of a crowd and without the chance to stop and LOOK. My experience was the same at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem 20 years ago. Like I said, I am sometimes a slow learner.

The “romance” of a Mediterranean cruise has stuck with me over time, even though I am no longer married to the man who so loves to be on the water. This ship appealed because it is small (684 passengers, which is about 20% of what you experience on the newest and best of the ocean liners). I liked the idea that it had a port of call every day, something I enjoyed river cruising last year.

I just plain had it all wrong. Ocean cruising is best when both sea days and port days are part of it. The whole notion of being on a floating luxury hotel has to be part of how you see it. And you need to like the idea of being in the middle of a crowd. Pretty much all the time, unless you take the time to do a formal meal instead of the buffets.

Wherever we toured, there were a LOT of people trying to see the same things. That’s just how it goes when several cruise ships are in port the same day and they bring thousands of tourists with them.

I finally got to experience the kind of travel I enjoy on the 10th day of a 13-day trip. I booked a tour that went to somewhere out of the way: Carcassone, a walled city in the south of France. The tour guide knew his stuff and spoke English well enough that I wasn’t doing an ongoing translation in my head to figure out what had just been said. And it was about a very different topic–military architecture. (I didn’t even start to process how problematic seeing the extravagance of all the Catholic churches was for me until after I got home.)

We had free time in the little town after the tour. I sat down in a cafe for some lunch and promptly made friends with a couple from Wales at the next table. It was then that it hit me: I had pretty much missed the fun I typically have on travel adventures because I’d been in the middle of a herd. My best travel memories are times in cafes, watching the locals, sipping a glass of local wine, sampling their version of food, and being open to what’s happening right there, right then.

So…what I thought I needed was to see some of the most important sights along the Mediterranean. I chose the wrong method for that. (Some friends on a Rick Steves tour of Italy in the same time frame had a much more successful experience: much smaller groups; more intense focus on an area instead of just “the big deal site”; tour guides who spoke the tour clients’ language well.)

But that’s not what I enjoy about traveling. I need to just experience the place. No famous churches, fountains or plazas required.

All is not lost, of course. Now I know I can wisely delete ocean cruising from my future. I suck at sunbathing, can only do so many buffets, and do not enjoy herds–except maybe buffalo in Yellowstone or Custer State Park, South Dakota.

I also learned this time around, that if I want to learn about these sites, a good documentary will do a much better job. They film when there aren’t a gazillion people trying to see the same thing. They get the shots that let you really SEE it. To “be there” is not the romance it seemed to be. This is very good to know.

Of course, if all you’re after is to say you went to those famous sites and to brag about being on a Mediterranean cruise, then a 2-for-1, free airfare, 6-free-shore-excursions ocean cruise might be just the ticket.

It’s About Time…

It’s About Time…

This is a repost from 2014. Still relevant…

I’m in a bar fight with Time right now. I’m not even sure who started it. At the moment, I’m in a big transition—moving to new space in a new area to a house that’s needed significant TLC before I moved in.

So I’ve been painting, cleaning, and  organizing storage areas, plus trying to corral all the stuff I’ve managed to accumulate in the two years I’ve been living where I am now.  All that takes time.  And I want Time to cooperate and give me enough to get it all done–to give me the sense that I have it under control. Time is not hearing a word of that. I am not in control. Nope. Not at all.

Time is not flying; it is evaporating, like needed rain that never gets all the way to the parched desert floor. There “should” be enough time. This move is certainly doable. I have good support from family and friends. I have good resources to call for paid help as needed. But still, I am in this absurd wrestling match with Time.

On the surface, it looks like it’s my own silly fault. This cleaning that I’ve been doing….I’ve gone through three toothbrushes at it…plus a bunch of bamboo skewers…untold numbers of Q-tips…a few toothpicks. I’ve been manic about getting that last bit of gunk out of whatever it is that I’m sprucing up.

There is so much to get done.  And yet I’ve been piddling around with a toothpick trying to get the dirt out of the ridges of a light switch. I’ve painted almost every wall and most of the ceilings of the new place. I’ve replaced the carpeting and refinished the hardwood floors. I’ve been absolutely anal about how I set up the kitchen.

Have I gone over the edge—to where cleanliness is no longer next to godliness but instead has moved into the marginally functional wing of a looney bin? How can I possibly get all the work done if I putz at little things? Why am I fighting with Time like this?

But as I admit this and look more closely, it’s starting to make sense. There is a lot to get done with this move. And I do like to start with things as clean as possible. (Dirt is okay but only if it’s mine.) But this move is one of a kind and involves more than getting my stuff from here to there. When I move, someone I love will remain behind—by choice, but still…. Much of what I take with me will have to be replaced if he wants to be able to cook, clean, eat off a plate, etc. (He’s a guy; he may not….) So this preoccupation with getting things clean was probably a good way to end up with the right pacing.

Is there anything in this insight that’s useful for life in general?

Yeah, I think so.  I’ve always been an exceptionally well-organized person. I have not been like that on this move. Instead of making list after list, I’ve been blindly doing whatever seems to need to get done next. It turns out I have been letting my heart lead instead of my General-Manager-of-the-Universe mind.

Sometimes a list is not the answer. Sometimes, you just have to trust it’s going to work out and keep trudging along, even if what you’re working on seems to be getting a higher priority than it deserves. Sometimes, your hands have a better sense of what must be done than your mind does.

And that’s a good thing to realize at the start of a new year. “Because I’ve always done it this way” is a weak reason not to grow. By now I would be a raving lunatic if I’d have tried to manage this move the way I’ve done them in the past. I would also probably be heartsick and depressed. There are too many layers, too many extenuating circumstances, too much room to cause emotional hurt–to myself or someone else–by steamrollering through this move. What a blessing that I had the chance to piddle around with a toothbrush cleaning up someone else’s microscopic messes.

I haven’t been wrestling with Time after all. We were dancing, and I just didn’t know it.

Ahem…about your “stuff”…

Ahem…about your “stuff”…

This is a repost from 2014. It’s still really relevant.

It’s time to admit something important. At some point, someone is going to have to deal with your “stuff”. We don’t seem to be aware of this as we keep adding belongings.  Clutter is just a fact of life, right?

We keep stuff for all kinds of reasons–  “I might need it…”  “It was Grandma’s…” “I might decide to go back into that…”  But the ongoing accumulation of “things” is a slow motion disaster.  A few weeks ago, a woman in Connecticut was killed when the floor of her house collapsed—because of the weight of the stuff she had on it.  They didn’t find her until two days later; the volume was so massive that it looked like the floor was still there when the police checked initially.

That’s an extreme case, but we’re all affected by “stuff.” If you haven’t had to deal with someone else’s after they’ve died, count yourself lucky. If you have, you know what I’m talking about. But here’s the deal. If you can’t face dealing with it, how can someone else—who knows a whole lot less about it–manage to do it after you’re gone?

My family just went through this. Six siblings plus a dear and unflinching sister-in-law hauled load after load out of my youngest brother’s 900-square-foot home for five full days. We got rid of over 100 cubic yards of “stuff.” Don’t naively assume it was just a case of walking it to the dumpster again and again either. Landfills have rules these days. You must dispose of electronics, assorted batteries, fluorescent light bulbs, oil-based paint, other hazardous materials, etc. in very specific ways—or face a fine. There’s a whole different routine for latex paint. Plus, if those doing the disposing have half a conscience about environmental stewardship, there will be trips to the local food bank, Goodwill or a similar second-hand store, and perhaps the local Habitat for Humanity ReStore to donate appropriate “stuff.” And there will be lots of trips to the recycle center.

Accumulated “stuff” is not the benign, minor flaw we want to believe it is. Letting stuff you don’t need, don’t use, and don’t care about pile up leaves less space, resources, and time for what could bring you joy now. Holding onto too many things from the past means you don’t have faith in the present–or the future. It’s also a waste of money if you’re insuring, maintaining, paying for space to keep, and otherwise lavishing resources on all that “stuff.”

My loved one didn’t set out to leave a huge mess for the rest of us to clean up. He felt he needed everything he acquired. That’s how we usually amass stuff…a teeny bit at a time, time after time. But “stuff” doesn’t go away on its own. Somebody is going to have to deal with it eventually.

All six of us siblings came home vowing “I’m not going to do that to anybody!”  So I’ve been thinking a lot about what I can do make getting rid of my “stuff” less of a burden when I depart. Everyone’s list will be unique, but here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

  • Clean out the file drawers! Going through files is huge time sink for next of kin, and I can find most of what I’m keeping online if I do need it.
  • Make sure my kids really want what I’m keeping for them.
  • Whenever I learn someone needs what I’ve discovered I have (and don’t need), give it to them.
  • Mark the contents of boxes I do keep. Include a “Get rid of after ___” date to avoid going through boxes again myself when I can.
  • Donate to the food bank from my pantry. (This gets food I bought for a unique reason and then didn’t use onto someone’s plate rather than sitting on my pantry shelf until it expires.)
  • Dispose of the old paint immediately when I repaint. (But do keep the new paint for repairs.)
  • Be honest with stuff I get as gifts. If I’m not going to use it, return it, donate it, or regift it.
  • Remove anything I haven’t worn in the last year from my closet. Donate what I’m willing to part with. Put the rest in a separate stack. If I don’t wear it in another 12 months, donate it then.
  • Go through my bookshelves quarterly. Pass on anything I don’t expect to read again.
  • Leave notes for my loved ones about what’s what and how to get rid of it.

I want to do this right. From what I’ve seen lately, it’s a really good way to say “I love you.”

“Disneyland” Retirement

“Disneyland” Retirement

We have all these fantasies when we are getting ready to leave work. The excitement. The fun. The joy of just doing what you want as it occurs to you. It is a bit like Disneyland when you dream of it.

Photo by Taylor Rogers on Unsplash

But what happens when you actually live it? Well…

That’s like Disneyland, too–at least at the start. But it’s the reality of an actual trip to the Magic Kingdom in how things play out.

Yes, there’s Adventureland–all the exciting things you want to do that you’ve been waiting to experience. Yes, there’s Sleeping Beauty’s Castle–where you are special (if you book and pay for that experience). Yes, there’s Mickey’s Toon Town–where you can act like a kid and no one raises an eyebrow. Maybe you will even do the Star Wars stuff–or maybe you’ll pass because of the crowds (but on a mega cruise ship or in a busy city you’re visiting, not in Disneyland itself).

But there are two things about actually living your “Disneyland retirement” that are starkly different than the still-at-work fantasy: it wears you out, and it’s fake.

Anyone who has actually gone to Disneyland (or Disneyworld for that matter) knows the trip typically involves a lot of planning, a significant amount of expense, and days of nonstop effort to make sure that you’re having the maximum amount of fun. You fall into bed each night. You rub peppermint lotion on tired feet and aloe vera on sunburned arms at the end of the day to be ready for the next day. You eat anything you can find because finding it is more work than when your refrigerator is within arm’s reach. You walk and walk and walk and wait and wait and wait. You love it. You pull it off for three or four or five days.

Then the fantasy starts to wear thin. Do you really want another ride, even if it looks like the Matterhorn? Do you need anything else with Mickey Mouse ears on it, even if your five year-old granddaughter is begging for it like her life depended on it?

You start to notice this magical place is a business. You become aware of the “cast members” (staff), cleaning up trash and trying to keep order in the crowds. You are a customer. It’s not real magic. It’s a consumer enterprise. Buy your ticket and stand in line (literally!)

All this is fleeting with a real trip to Disneyland. It’s a short period of time, and it’s easy to dip back into the fantasy to have fun while you’re there. But in “Disneyland retirement” the timeline is a whole lot longer. There, you will eventually surrender to the fact that you need something more authentic–more substantial. Why?

A trip to Disneyland is a vacation. The idea is to step away from your normal identity for a short time for fun–to recharge. Then you go back to being the Real You. With actual retirement, trying to live as if you were an extended trip to Disneyland isn’t satisfying because you give up your real identity to do it. That’s why vacation doesn’t work as a full time, long term gig. Retirement needs to be custom fit and an honest reflection of who you really are. You need to build it out of the stuff that really makes a difference to you, not off-the-rack, one-size-fits-all adventures day in and day out.

The Real Deal still includes a lot of fun. It might be fishing with your grandson rather than riding around a fake lagoon on a fake paddlewheeler. It may be creating a garden instead of walking through one carefully maintained along the Grand Promenade. The genuine experience will last longer and resonate more deeply than the commercial version. It might not be as flashy as the theme park variety, but it will feel right for you. (Then again, it may be a wilder ride than anyone concocting the commercial version could have imagined.)

Don’t buy a ticket and wait in line. Customize what you decide to do from Day 1 of your retirement. It works a whole lot better if you make it your own.

Livin’ in Fast Times

Livin’ in Fast Times

So much of what we do in our lives now is “fast.” Fast food, of course. We don’t have to buy the ingredients, make the dish, put it on the table, or sit down to eat it like our grandparents did. We just order it without ever getting out of the car and eat it as we drive out of the parking lot. Done.

author in 1981

Last week, I watched a news article about “fast fashion.” We can buy so much for so little–because of cheap labor in China and other developing countries–that we no longer focus on those “few good pieces” like we used to. Forget the classic blazer and the “great pair of jeans.” We buy and buy and buy–ten pair of jeans and that cute little jacket that will be out of date by next spring–because our money goes far enough to do that with what the world economy offers.

We’re also ingesting way too many “fast facts.” We get our information via quick paragraphs and video snippets posted on the internet and consumed in less that a minute. The “facts” are not in context. The validity of the source is rarely questioned. And the selection is curated “just for you” via the artificial intelligence used by Google and others to guess at what you want to see. “Just bits of the facts, m’am. Nothing but the bits.” Most of us could not knit a comprehensive statement of what’s going on in the world together to save our lives (which it could….).

What is said about fast food is true of all this other fast stuff. It’s JUNK. Our big, uber-sophisticated society is trying to live on junk, junk, and more junk. Usually, consumers vote with their wallets. They decide not to buy junk so it stops getting offered. But we’ve become anesthetized. Like zombies, we just keep buying–food, clothes, facts–that simply aren’t worth being consumed.

It’s time to give some thought to why we buy all this “fast” stuff. We all know that eating real food gives you a much better nutritional bang. But what about the rest? What do we gain by owning ten pair of jeans? What do we get from slurping up the garbage that’s presented as “news” rather than seeking out a longer, more thoughtful presentation of what’s going on so we can truly understand the situation?

A counterfeit sense of having nourished ourselves? A bulging closet that confirms our ability to buy things? A false sense that we know what’s going on?

We need to slow down. On all of this stuff. This fast-paced world is not doing us any favors. Going too fast can get you killed–from a traffic accident, a heart attack, or a stressed out coworker (or the collapse of your closet because you had too much in it!).

As the older members of society, we could be the ones to lead the way on this. We are wise enough to know that getting there first usually means you wait longer for whatever is going to happen. Getting there with nine pair of jeans in your suitcase just means it’s heavier to carry. Eating something from a drive thru that you gulped in four bites will leave you feeling like you haven’t eaten. Those strategies don’t serve us–or the world

“Fast” is good in racing. In saving a life. In stepping up to a priceless opportunity. But in day to day decision-making, perhaps not so much.

Time for an Annual Check-up?

Time for an Annual Check-up?

We get a lot of advice about doing a financial “check-up” once a year. And we tend to be aware of the value of making the effort to have an annual health check-up. But there’s another check-up that we need just as much. How are you doing on learning?

There’s more and more research coming out that confirms the importance of continuing to learn as we age. The more we put effort into developing new skills and enhancing our knowledge, the better our brains will continue to work.

But there’s even more to it than that. Learning also keeps us healthy physically. Plus the emotional benefits of staying engaged, of being an active part of the social fabric outweigh the benefits of all the preventative medicine a person can find to practice.

Learning = growing. Growing = thriving.

What are you learning these days? How are you giving your mind good solid exercise? Travel is good–if you do more than sit on the beach or hang out in the casino. Your grandkids are good–if you are listening to them instead of thumbing your phone on the days you agreed to watch them.

Crossword puzzles and Sudoku are better than nothing. But those are solitary pursuits using a limited range of mental gymnastics. Taking a class or joining a discussion group will stretch you more. And be more fun. (Kind of like the difference between hiking in a beautiful place with good friends on a gorgeous day and walking the treadmill while you watch the news alone at home.)

Actually making a commitment to take a class or learn a certain body of knowledge and then following through has additional benefits, too. Completing something enhances your sense of worth. And if the others in your class aren’t people you already knew, you get the chance to make new friends.

The blend of learning opportunities that works best for you is unique, just like your health and finance efforts. But to be sure you have what you need going, you need to take a look at what you have going for learning every once in a while. What better time than the start of the school year?

When the wheels fall off…dealing with decline

When the wheels fall off…dealing with decline

The last 24 hours have given me a front row seat on something none of us want to think about: decline.

Photo by Jacob Kiesow on Unsplash

Yesterday afternoon, I visited a dear friend who is dealing valiantly with the limits imposed by a 99 1/2 year-old body. Her ability to continue to be engaged is inspiring. She remembers that I have granddaughters, asks about my time with them after I last visited her, tells me about her family, sees me to the door at her home, and makes me feel about ten feet tall in her opinion of me. She is definitely a gem. But there’s no denying that it’s getting harder and harder for her to be alive physically.

Last night, my son and daughter-in-law were over for dinner. My daughter-in-law is in the unenviable position of having to manage her dad’s finances when he still believes he’s capable as an investor but has reached the point of making mistakes. So far, she’s been able to mop up behind him. She doesn’t want to deny him his identity as a savvy business person, but how many mistakes is too many?

This morning, a good friend is starting a “tile job.” He has done this work for friends for a long time. This time, he needs to do it with one hand that doesn’t work very well because of the combined mess of falling off a ladder and too much delay within the healthcare system. He’s been resilient his whole life. Can he figure out a way to do it again?

These things don’t look similar on the surface, but a closer look reveals them to be the same thing: how to keep on living the best you can when life smacks you with some kind of “disability.”

In other words: What do you do when you can’t do what you used to do the way you’ve always done it? Especially if that activity has defined you as a person?

We need to see it differently than we see it as a culture now. Decline…becoming less able…isn’t some kind of personal failure. It’s a normal part of life and deserves respect. It’s also not “the end.” It’s a turning point–a change in direction. As with all turns in the road, it’s diffcult to see what comes next until you’re through it. You still need to keep going. You may need to slow down to get a sense of what this curve can tolerate, but stopping entirely isn’t even safe, much less interesting. And turning around isn’t an option at all. This is where you are and forward is where you need to go.

You can still have a life, you just need to figure out how to accomodate this new reality in how you go about it. That’s not easy, but after about thrid grade, most of life is not easy. Believe or not, we’re back to Nike time: Just do it.

Start by figuring out what was most satisfying about what you were doing before. It could be the competence you felt. Or the interactions that effort involved. Or what you created. Or one of a million or more other things. What did it give you?

Then work at coming up with other ways, that are more feasible in the new reality, to give yourself that same kind of satisfaction. Choose one and try it. If that does it, great. If not, choose a different one. Keep going. Period.

Not being able to do what you used to do yourself also means you have the chance to learn something most of us never get good at: Asking for help. This critical skill is not taught in our society. We mature either expecting someone else to do everything for us or refusing to admit that we need help at all. Ever. Learning how to ask for the help your really need–and only that–takes skill. And skill takes practice. This is one we’d probably all do well to work on our entire lives. Later in life it’s mandatory if you want to thrive.

Decline is inevitable. But there is a choice in how to deal with it. What you do when you can’t do what you used to is a chance to grow into someone new. Someone more skilled. Someone who’s moved to a higher level on how to gets things done. This is not a bad thing. Unless you decide it is.

Good Work

Good Work

It’s Labor Day. Let’s talk about work.

Did you groan? Or maybe even flinch? If so, there’s a whole lot of stuff that you can’t see in what you’re seeing as “work.”

Photo by NEoN Brand on Unsplash

Work–absent the paycheck and the boss and the nosey cube-mate–is something humans have been doing since we arrived on this earth. Some of it was for survival. Some of it was for the approval of others (another form of survival). And some of it was just because it was fun.

Yes, work can be fun. Actually, work should be fun. We have things really screwed up in our current approach to it, and that’s killing us, individually and as a society. We work work work without feeling joy in what we are doing–and that’s not “good work.”

We need to be doing work that reflects our sense of what’s important. If that’s not happening, a lot of things can go wrong. Physical health. Job performance. And the biggie, mental health. Doing bad work really can kill you–or someone else. This is not safe. Is anybody listening?

Even worse, when we retire, everyone assumes this problem is solved. It’s not. It just morphs. Sometimes there’s still a paycheck involved. Sometimes it’s unpaid–as a caregiver to a family member or to help kids who need child care for their own kids. Work does not stop when you retire. It shouldn’t. But it needs to be good work.

If you do not want to do it, it’s going to be bad work. So a big factor in work once you retire is honesty. If we were doing this right as a culture, that would be true from the get-go. At least in retirement, you have control over what you choose. So put some real effort into choosing well. If your friend wants you to volunteer and you really aren’t interested, don’t say yes. If your service guild needs a President and begs you to take on the role, only do it if you believe you can take pleasure in doing the work.

More important than anything when you get far enough in life to decide whether you want to do things or not is to choose the things that you want to do.

The vast majority of the time, this will not mean choosing to avoid work–which you may find surprising. Work has huge personal benefits even when there’s no money coming in as a result. Work is confirmation of your competence. Doing work says you have value to the world. Work usually gives you the chance to be with other people, too. And we do need to be with other people. Social connections have more impact on our health as we age than everything modern medicine can do.

Once you retire, you’re still going to work. Get used to that idea. You’re going to need something, both to confirm your value and to offer good social contact. You many need some time to figure out what that is once you leave the job. You may have been doing it as a hobby or volunteer effort for years. But you’re going to need it–provided it’s GOOD work.