Category: aging

Thinking About an Old Mentor

I met him 23 years ago in a McDonald’s in East Tennessee. I was a twenty-something community organizer embarking on my first “real job” after college. I’d only just arrived in Tennessee from Wisconsin a few weeks before full of brilliant ideas and energy, ready to save the world. He was a middle-aged factory worker who’d grown up and lived his whole life in Appalachia. My young and oh so wise self was sure I’d have so much to teach him from my infinite stores of knowledge. It didn’t take long for me to see just how wrong I was.

My co-organizer Gil and I had just arrived. Gil would be introducing me and starting to hand over the work of coordinating the strip-mining issues committee. We were meeting Landon Medley, the committee chair, at McDonald’s that day. Gil and I had spent a lot of time discussing the Fall Creek Falls campaign, a major campaign to protect more than 60,000 acres of land surround the tallest waterfall east of the Rocky Mountains from strip-mining. He’d told me a great deal about the strategy so far and where it was headed as well as about each of the committee members and allies involved. He told me quite a bit about Landon and who he was. I don’t remember if he ever mentioned the crutches though. I remember not quite knowing what to do when this short middle-aged man using Loftstrand crutches walked toward us and Gil greeted him. Should I help him? How could I assist?

It was only a moment. Then as quickly as those crutches were set aside, I began to learn. Landon was one of the children of the 1940’s in Appalachia who survived polio. While the illness left him with a disability that impacted his life and health, it never stopped him and maybe even made him stronger. He had a love for his Appalachian home that ran deep in his soul. I still have a painting on my bookshelf that he made for me of those beautiful mountains. There is no place on earth like it. He was a gifted historian and author. He was also a great leader of the fight to protect his mountain homeland from multinational mining corporations and others who have sought to destroy it in so many ways. It was a gift to call him my friend and mentor.

Today I learned that because he’d had polio as a child he wasn’t able to receive the COVID vaccine. A little boy who won the fight against one the most devastating diseases of the 20th century thanks to medical advances and much struggle, lost the fight against COVID. It hurts to think that he didn’t have to lose this struggle. He lost because of all the people who’ve opted not to get vaccinated, who’ve chosen not to wear masks, who’ve taken unnecessary risks, thinking that their actions only impact themselves. We aren’t separate beings. We are connected. I ask that each person who reads this act not only for yourself, but for the love of others. I wish you all wellness and joy. Take good care.

What is an Activist

When I began Sustainable Life in Action back in 2013 the Grassroots Leadership College had only been closed for a year and I was trying to find enough work to keep my rent paid and figuring out how to keep doing community organizing. My dreams were of starting a new Grassroots Leadership College maybe statewide or maybe in northern Wisconsin along the shores of Lake Superior. It wasn’t too much later that I left Madison. Life didn’t take me to northern Wisconsin, but to Minnesota.

In those days, for me, being an activist still meant organizing people, coordinating trainings, taking part in protests, speaking at rallies, being a force, and fighting out loud in a non-violent yet intense way. While my work was for a better world most of my actions still landed in the realm of working against the evils. I loved my work. I loved getting to know people, making connections, supporting others in achieving their dreams, creating positive social change. We did create change. Every time we people connected and came to know each other, to see each other as valuable human beings we were creating change, not to mention all the battles won.

Despite my love for my life work I was burning out. That’s why I started Sustainable Life in Action. It was a tool to encourage my own self care as well as to support others in caring for themselves. It has been a helpful tool for me. I hope it has been for others as well.

My journey as an activist has reached a new stage. It is an interesting one for me. After seven years in Minnesota and one in Poynette, Wisconsin, I have returned to Madison where Sustainable Life in Action began. When I left this place I was deeply involved in the activist scene. My name was known for work I’d done, nine years running the Grassroots Leadership College, coordinating the non-violence trainings for the capitol take-over during the Walker administration, Green Party stuff, Labor Radio and board leadership at WORT 89.9fm, and more. Now, I am coming back in quietly to a place where there are many new leaders and much of the old guard seems to have disappeared or maybe just is quiet in these times of COVID. It is coming back to a place where I’ve never been before.

It’s good to stand and watch this new place as I too am in a new place internally. After looking for jobs in the nonprofit realm and at the university and colleges to no avail, feeling my stomach churn a bit as I considered roles in organizing again, I decided to go back to another of my earlier careers. I accepted a position as an infant/toddler teacher in a large local child care. I’ve been intrigued by the reaction of old friends who seem to believe that going into teaching early childhood is leaving the world of activism. These people tell me how I’ve “done my time” and that it’s okay for me to do something else.

How can there be anything that is more about social justice than caring for our children? Being an activist isn’t all about holding up signs and shouting slogans. Being an activist is about how we live our lives. At this phase of my being, much of my time will be dedicated to holding the little ones and showing them love. I’ve also chosen to commit my time to being creative, telling my stories, and playing with art. All these things are important. I haven’t done my time, none of us has. We all have a duty to care for this place and for each other each day for the remainder of our time. How we do it is up to us.

Take good care of yourselves. That’s where it all begins.

Women and the Fear of Aging

I was listening to a podcast by Michelle Obama earlier today. She was discussing women’s health and talked a bit about our fear of aging and our general dislike of our own bodies. It’s a common belief, but I’m not sure I understand anymore. Sure, I have disagreements with my body. I’m not happy that I have seizures. I would like that to change. But, at 49 years old, I have to admit that I look in the mirror and I feel pretty good about what I see.

I don’t see the image that society would call a a model or a superstar. What I see though is a story and that story is far more valuable than any commercial image that we’re sold.

I see my scars. I see where my cat jumped on my face when I was asleep some years ago, missing my eye by only an inch or so. I see where my friend’s dog took took a chunk out of my arm leaving a mark that looks strangely like a smiley face. I see that reminder on my finger of when I was maybe six or seven and I wanted to see if I was strong enough to break a glass with my bare hand, I was. I see the reminder of swimming with friends in college and jumping off the cliff and the memory of when my puppy in his over energetic play landed on my ankle causing it to break, and the lines of surgeries most notably my my VNS implant that keeps me safe from seizures. My scars are like a physical storybook of myself.

I look at my hair. It’s wild. It’s always been wild ever since it started growing when I was two years old. But now, it’s something special. It’s turned almost entirely white. It’s been turning this way for years. I never really got into coloring it. I dyed it at home a couple times, but just for fun. The white means a lot to me. My father’s hair was silver or white since black and white pictures. I don’t know if anyone remembers or knows what color hair grandma had before hers turned white. They both had the most beautiful white hair. I look in the mirror and I see them. How can I not embrace the gray that reminds me of these beautiful people who are now just memories?

I look at my body. There’s extra here and there. My muscles aren’t as toned as they used to be. But, I take good care of myself. I eat healthfully. I walk and do yoga and maybe some other workouts. Still, it’s the body of someone who’s lived some years. Yet, I think of my mom. At my age she’d lost one of her breasts to cancer, was bald, and dealing daily with the impacts of chemotherapy. I cannot feel anything less than extremely grateful for my body and all its flab.

I look at my face. I see that turkey chin that never used to be there when I was twenty and I see all my aunts and uncles and who I am becoming. I am reminded how all of these supposed imperfections tell me who I am and how proud I am to be this person. I have been gifted this life in this family and my body tells me each day who I am.

Starting the New Year

For the last few years I’ve posted my New Year’s resolutions here. This year I am a bit late, but that’s okay. 2021 seems to be getting a slow start separating itself from 2020, I can do the same. We humans have a strange time to start a new year these days anyway. It’s not the solstice or the equinox. It’s not the beginning of a new season. It’s just a day it seems to me. Anyway, moving into the goals for the upcoming. First, we start with my resolutions from last year.

  1. Getting my seizures to stop
  2. Getting to my goal weight
  3. Reading at least 12 books
  4. Cutting my screen time

Well, I got my VNS and my seizures have been been roughly cut in half and those I have seem to be less intense. So, I’d say I did pretty good with that one. On getting to my goal weight, honestly, I haven’t really worked on it. I feel pretty good about not gaining any weight and actually losing a couple of pounds during COVID. I think it’s a goal that I can let go of. I think I’m on book 15 or 16 now. A few of those were ones I read before, but they were good enough to read again. So, success on that goal. I can’t say the number of hours by which I’ve cut my screen time, but I feel certain that I have cut it. I took Facebook off my phone. I go out hiking and to dog parks more often. I’ve made a regular practice of daily guitar and piano practice, time for household tasks, and reading time all of which take me away from the screen. I’m guessing that I’m probably dropping 1-3 hours a day. I’d say I did pretty well in 2020 toward reaching my goals.

I think 2021 will be for continuing some these goals and adding in a few new ones.

  1. Becoming seizure free
  2. Reading at least 12 books
  3. Continuing to keep my screen time in check
  4. Writing a children’s book
  5. Finding my Ikigai (Japanese concept meaning reason for being)
  6. Getting back to being intentional about exercise 3-5 times a week

This should keep me going and keep me flowing. Wishing you all well in this year to come. Take good care.

Five Months Later

It’s been five months now since I lay in the epilepsy monitoring unit at Mayo, practicing my guitar, reading, watching movies, crocheting, doing just about everything but having seizures. But, from that visit and my prior one the doctors had enough information and we agreed to surgery and the installation of my VNS. While my seizures aren’t totally gone yet, it’s been a huge help both significantly cutting the number and intensity of incidents and just giving me better energy and raising my mood.

I am thankful for that for many reasons. A big one is that today also marks the five month anniversary of another huge change in my life. It was five months ago today that Dad made his journey to the spirit world.

I’ve not lived at home for any length of time since 1990. For the six years prior to Dad’s passing I lived in a different state. I only saw him around holidays and maybe for a few days in summer, but until his dementia took over we talked every week, usually Sundays, on the phone. Over the past year with his dementia taking hold phone conversations weren’t an option any more. I saw him last Christmas. He still knew me then, but by Easter when I called, because COVID didn’t allow for a visit, he no longer understood the staff when they tried to explain to him how to use the phone. I would never hear him speak to me again, at least not in this world.

It is the strangest thing, neither sad nor happy, but simply beautiful I suppose. I have seen more of Dad in the past 5 months than I had in years. He visits almost every night in my dreams. I don’t remember what he’s said when I wake, but he’s always happy, always his smiling self, laughing and joking, and just enjoying being where is and still watching out for his baby girl. Each day it seems I have a moment where it hits me again that he’s really gone. I can’t call him. I really won’t see him. He won’t be there when I go visit family. It hits hard and knocks the wind out of me for a moment, but my dreams bring comfort. While he isn’t here, he isn’t gone.

Over time, I suspect, both the daytime hits to my heart and the nighttime dreams will fade and eventually go away. But, I really do believe that Dad will always be there. That he will always be watching out for his baby girl. I feel so lucky.

Here I am five months later in a new job that I like, living in a new place close enough to family and friends that even with COVID I’ve been able to get together with people for hiking and dog park visits. My seizures are getting a lot better. And, having just looked at the goals I wrote before moving, I can see I’m doing well is most all of the area that I want to. I am thankful.

Mixed Feelings

What strange times. I continue to find myself flying about in this bizarre whirlwind of transition where I don’t quite know what to feel or how.

I spoke with a financial counselor this afternoon. I’ve worked most of my adult life in small nonprofits and childcare, so low paying jobs without a lot benefits beyond feeling that I’ve done some good in the world. That means I’m like most Americans haven’t built up a big nest egg and have a few bills to deal with, nothing major. I decided to talk with the counselor though after becoming a beneficiary of a small sum of money. I wanted to use it the best way possible. She was really helpful and we were able to figure out a good plan to address my debt and build my savings. I left the conversation feeling really good. Yet, it feels strange to feel really good about those kinds of conversations.

Mixed feelings came with my VNS implant too. It’s an amazing thing to be there in the doctor’s office getting this little device turned on, to feel that little tickle and feel my voice change, to know that it might really be the ticket to regaining my life and stopping my seizures. Yet, when it was done I couldn’t call my Dad to tell him how it went. All I could do was rely on the belief that he already knew, that he was there in the room with me, taking care of his little girl.

He keeps taking care of his little girl, helping me with my finances, making sure I’m safe and doing all that he can to help me be healthy again. It’s making me so happy, so thankful and at the same time I just want to see him smile, to give him a hug, to tell him I love him one more time. I guess that’s how it always is and that’s how it will be. I am so thankful though and amazed at that power, that power of love that keeps taking care of his baby Amy even after his body is gone.

Seeing Doughnuts

It’s funny how those little moments surprise you.

I just stopped at the grocery store. I’ve been letting a little sugar sneak its way back into my diet in recent weeks since Mayo doctors assured me that as long as I keep my diet in balance it shouldn’t be a problem to eat. Anyway, I decided to pick up a couple of creme rolls. So, I took a quick walk down the block to Willie’s. I wandered into the bakery department and there they were– doughnuts, the conveyer of memories.

I had no interest in eating doughnuts, but they bring back memories. My dad was a Krispy Creme junkie for years. Oh those things were awful! But he always had a box at his apartment and was passing them out to whoever visited. He was so kind and generous. I just found myself in that moment seeing the doughnuts and thinking– “Dad, he’s gone.”

It’s such a strange thing, such a strange time when I can just be walking through the grocery store and just suddenly realize–“Oh my god, my dad is dead.” It still seems unreal. I still want to buy him a box of those horrible doughnuts. Life is strange. Dying is stranger.