Think you're giving more than you get? Think again . . .

There was a reason I loved my job in high school, when I served as an evening receptionist for a St. Louis nursing home. A reason I was thrilled when the recreations director let me create and run summer activities for the residents. A reason I tried twice—although somewhat unsuccessfully—to serve as a nurse’s aide during college. And it wasn’t altruism.

During and after college, the reason I rode the Greyhound bus, many times, from Minneapolis to Nashwauk, Minnesota—a four-hour ride—to visit my great uncle was not because he needed my help. My uncle Ben—married first to my great aunt and then to her sister, my grandmother—was a brilliant, ninety-something lawyer with an amazing memory and a head for details . . . a man blinded at age four by illness, who one day spent several hours explaining to me exactly how and why the US got into two world wars. . . . a man who had run every other lawyer out of town since he had arrived there in his thirties.

In the 1990s I didn’t tape a two-hour interview with my grandfather, who was slipping into dementia, so that my family would appreciate me; that was over twenty-five years ago and they still haven’t heard the tape. And I didn’t spend eighteen years writing about women over eighty in order to help them come to grips with the past. A few of them thanked me for giving them a chance to work through painful memories, but that wasn’t my goal.

And now, I don’t speak publicly about the close relationships I had with all those people because I want to feel good about myself—I talk about my friends because of what I personally received and gained as a result of knowing them. In spite of the ways my culture encourages me to pity my elders—to see them as victims or think of their forgetfulness as a return to childhood—and in spite of the products and services being pushed at my generation to help us “feel younger,” I really don’t want to think of my elders—or myself—that way.

Here’s the thing: For decades, I’ve pursued people in their eighties and nineties because I’ve treasured what I learned. I’ve loved their stories and their wisdom and their calm reactions to what has felt like calamity in my own life. I’ve had fun spending time with them. . .I’ve depended on their guidance. I still do.

Today I’m wondering what would happen if we, as a culture, acknowledged what our elders have to offer and actually pursued them. What if we brought conversations with the most experienced among us into our high school and college classrooms? Into the workplace? After all, many of them still work within their professions—I know several faculty physicians in their eighties. I also know quite a few octogenarians, retired or not, who LIKE this stage of life. Many would even be gracious—and patient—enough to answer our questions. Who knows—maybe we’d make better decisions.

I know I have.

20180907_072527 copy 2.jpg

Sadie Anton- Community Treasure

At 102, this wise woman was still serving patrons at her community’s annual dinners.

The advice you crave is right next door (or down the street)

Last winter, I contacted an 82-year-old writer who had penned a beautiful essay for the NYTimes “Modern Love” section. I had heard Sophy Burnham on NPR as she read her essay, “At What Age is Love enthralling? 82,” and I was so taken with her language and message that I emailed her directly, to ask whether I could send her a copy of my book. Most celebrities don’t respond, but Sophy did, so I sent her a book and heard back within days that she liked the first chapter.

When weeks passed without word from Sophy, I emailed again to ask for feedback. She replied that while she had enjoyed peeking into my life, she had missed what she herself needed more of, from women who are older than she is now: advice about how to navigate this new stage of her life.  

That made me wonder exactly who a woman in her eighties—the one who’s supposed to be wise—could turn to for wisdom.

In May, when I told that story to another writer in her 80s, she thought women in their 20s would have some good advice. And that confirmed my own thinking about the importance of cross-generational conversation. So last month, when I spoke to a group of about 40 people, ages 30-90, I ended my presentation by inviting women representing three generations to join me (I spoke for my own generation) and answer two questions:

  • What kind of wisdom do you need right now, and which generation, outside of your own, will you turn to? 

  • What piece of wisdom do you have for women within a specific generation outside of your own?

Edith, age 89, said she would reach out to 20- and 30-year-olds to ask what she could do to make people that age want to engage with her. And Beth, who represented that very age group, wanted to know whether women in their 80s and 90s were seeing some of the same alarming social trends she was seeing now. And if so, how had women like my mother handled it? The other questions and answers were equally thought provoking, and of great interest to the audience.  

That led me to the conclusion that there really is nothing new under the sun—no problem we can’t help each other solve. The question is, how do we get four generations of women (and men!) to talk to each other? Do we even recognize the wealth of experience and advice each one of us can access through simple conversation?

How would you answer one of the two questions above? (Click the headline to respond.)


June 13 Panel Discussion at left bank books

Laketa Jefferson, (right), had this question for women in their 60s: “As a woman in my 40s, I’m seeking advice on how to become patient as you are striving to advance yourself professionally. I feel that patience is something I struggle with while waiting for success as I climb. At times I seem to be so close, but just somehow unable to grab it.”

“What about the men?” he asked . . .

In the dead of a brutal Minnesota winter I was invited to sunny California to attend a book club of thirty distinguished men and women, most over the age of eighty. Upon arriving I was greeted warmly by our loving and talented host, Sadie, and her father, Jorge—an impeccably dressed eighty-something physician who spoke and moved with warmth and authority.

Within a few moments I was seated for lunch and instantly became engrossed in conversation with my tablemates. After dessert we were a little short on time so we launched right into questions. And one of the first ones came from Jorge, who wanted to know whether I would be asking men for their advice any time soon. 

My eighty-eight-year-old father had asked the same question at my book launch, and my initial impulse had been to say, “Why would we do that—we already know what men think.” Instead, after a few seconds of stunned silence I had said, “No. I have no plans to do that. Next question.” That got a good laugh from the audience. 

Three months later, when Jorge asked the same question in exactly the same way, I was curious. When I replied that I had been hearing all my life about what men think, he said something like this: “You do know what men think about the things we want you to know about. But you haven’t asked us questions like this.”

“Would you answer them if I did?” 

“Yes,” said Jorge with a smile.

“Well, I may come after you next,” I threatened, with sincere affection. I understand this type of man very well. And someday, I may take Jorge up on his offer for an article or panel discussion. 

But here’s the reason I haven’t made plans to write a Before I Leave sequel focused on men’s advice: Every time a disenfranchised group or class of people gets an opportunity not enjoyed by the men in power under our patriarchy, it seems some of the most privileged of them feel left out. Discriminated against. Unheard. When they realize others are enjoying an opportunity not offered to them, they feel treated unfairly. 

Don’t get me wrong—most of the men in my life do not fit into this category, and many of them cringe right along with the women in their lives when they hear men in power complain about losing out. But the idea of seeking and sharing additional male advice doesn’t exactly inspire me.

So here’s my short-term strategy: As I do my part to give wise women a voice, I’m also offering men and boys an opportunity to experience firsthand what it feels like to share power. To make room for other voices. To listen carefully. 

 Imagine the conversations that could happen as a result—now that’s a book I would gladly write.

Photo by  Alex Chernenko  on  Unsplash

Feeling good about feeling old

I belong to several official and unofficial groups of women. Some groups exist online, while others gather in person. One group is enormous, another quite small. Some are private, with strict policies about confidentiality; others seem to operate just fine without the rules. Each of these groups is uniquely structured. But they all have one thing in common: whenever we get together, however we do that, we spend a lot of time grappling with how we are changing as we age.

Together, we worry about how we look, what’s changed about our sex lives, how to manage surprising new health challenges, and even how we might smell as we grow older. During one recent and delightful celebration of a friend’s milestone birthday, seven of us spent nearly four hours laughing about being in our sixties—probably the best way to handle things over the next twenty to thirty years. 

Unfortunately, most of my female friends who are over fifty still believe that the longer we can maintain the illusion of youth, the longer we’ll be valued. We’re afraid of what will happen after that. Who—and where—are our role models for the next stage of life?

I am lucky, because my own mother has never felt bad about getting older. She’s not crazy about the ways her body and abilities have changed, but she never expected anything different, and she’s grateful to be almost ninety. So maybe I have a choice. Maybe, if I can shut out the noise around me—like advertising that relies on shame associated with aging to sell products—I can revel in the fun I have with my partner and my daughter and my grandchildren . . . with my parents and my siblings and my friends.

Maybe—just maybe—it’s time to listen to my mother.

Are we really here? Again?

This week my 13-year-old friend from Cuba described comments made by the white classmates who passed her in the hall with calls like, “Hey, Mexican!” or “I hear you like tomatoes!” or some other comment meant to be a general, pejorative reference to Latinas. She lives in a northern suburb of Minneapolis known for its conservative views on immigration. 

Her father, my dear friend and dance maestro, added, “I remember a time when people who could speak four languages were admired.” And that reminded me of a conversation I had in 2003 with my Lebanese friend Sadie Anton (chapter 3 of Before I Leave). That was two years after 9/11 and she had told me that she would not discuss war or politics during our interviews. Period.

It was a time when some Americans felt free to express open hatred toward anyone who even looked like they came from the Middle East. So I had “wondered,” within the copy of the chapter I had given Sadie to review, whether she had been afraid of being profiled or discriminated against because of her heritage. She had written “Please Omit” next to the paragraphs that explored my concerns. But she left the question, “Did Sadie feel vulnerable?” alone, and answered it this way: “I was born in America, and [am] a true American.” Later in the manuscript she added, “Our people went to night school to learn the English language. They were true Americans.” 

Sadie is gone now, but I wonder what she would have had to say about our national immigration dispute. For me, the bigger question is whether we will ever get beyond it.  And an even darker question: Is it really about immigration? Or, is it about race.

I’m afraid of the answers.

Photo by  Emma Tin  on  Unsplash

Photo by Emma Tin on Unsplash

What, me angry?

Today a dear friend called to tell me how much she related to my grandmother’s story. She thanked me for showing compassion about the hardships Irene had experienced as a child, and for understanding how those hardships had affected Grandma’s relationships, including the one she had with me.

During that same conversation, my friend told me that her friend had read my book and asked afterwards, “Why is Jenney so angry?” I didn’t answer right away, but later I felt compelled to mention that I had addressed my anger by looking to the women I interviewed for understanding and advice. And that it had truly helped.

The problem is, I’m still angry.

In fact, some of what I was angry about twenty years ago is simply closer to the surface these days. When I sense that someone to whom I have given authority is about to abuse it, I feel angry. When I listen to the growing list of revelations about the celebrities and CEOs and football players who have harassed and assaulted girls and women, I feel angry. And when I hear women criticize other articulate, opinionated women for speaking up . . .when an articulate woman is referred to as a “bitch” for behaviors that would indicate strength in a man, I feel angry.

 The difference lies in what I do about those situations. You see, life has given me the words to describe what I see, and the patience to stick with a “conversation” about it until I feel listened to and understood. I’ve lived long enough to have a “back pocket” filled with anecdotes—or even personal experiences—to draw upon when I need to emphasize or illustrate my point. 

We tell little children to “use your words.” Well, the key to managing the anger that seems to have shown up in my book is to use my words. Once again.  

Photo by  sydney Rae  on  Unsplash

Photo by sydney Rae on Unsplash

Being Black in Minnesota: What White Folks Can Learn by Listening

As a 64-year-old white, Scandinavian Lutheran, I can hardly even imagine what it’s like to be a black person living in Minnesota, one of the whitest states in the nation.

Hallie at home

Hallie at home

When I’ve asked my black friends to describe our northern brand of racism, they tell me it’s beneath the surface. Buried under “Minnesota Nice.” 

 I never asked Hallie Hendrieth-Smith that particular question, but I did ask about her own experience with racism. She told me her parents had shielded their children by keeping them close to their rural, African American farming community, located outside of Selma, Alabama. 

“When I was a little girl . . . I was not aware of some of the negative kinds of things that were going on,” Hallie told me. “My parents were determined that we would not have a negative attitude,” she added. “And a lot of the things that were so close around me, I was surprised when I was a grown person to learn that these things were there! But when I asked my parents about it they said, ‘If we had told you and allowed you to experience all that, you would not have been able to move to where you are today.‘”  I thought that parenting strategy was absolutely brilliant.

 Hallie also mentioned several specific incidents during which she had to address racism personally. But it was her response to the question, “What do you do with your anger?” that stands out most. 

 “Ignore it,” began Hallie. “Don’t let it change you—it cannot change you if you’ve made up your mind that this is wrong.”  Later, she added, “I just don’t think white America can get away from being racist. They’ve absolutely been trained since the time they were children to be superior. And it just takes experience to break that kind of stuff.”

 Then she said something I have repeated to myself and others many times: “If you teach people to hate, they will hate. If you teach people to love, they will love.”

 Amen, Hallie. Amen.


Facing Down the Season of Glam

photo by Jayakody Anathanas

photo by Jayakody Anathanas

‘Tis the season to sparkle . . . a time for holiday dresses and jewelry and make-up. In years past it also brought a sense of heightened insecurity, as I searched for the perfect holiday look—a task that seemed to get harder every twelve months. 

 Seven years ago, I wrote a blog that I never published about the sense of dread I felt as I faced another event that was sure to dredge up old insecurities: my 40th high school reunion. That spring, I toned my muscles at the local Curves and remembered wistfully the days when, at age seventeen, I had sometimes felt “beautiful.” I mourned the loss of that ability many of us had in our twenties to stay slim without trying. I missed my thirties—those years when my chin line had still been firm.

I recalled with humor one day in my mid-forties—the moment things got serious as I gazed at the middle-aged woman looking back at me in the mirror. That’s when I could no longer ignore the changing shape of my body and the loosening skin on my face. 

 As a feminist, I knew this view of myself was unhealthy, and exactly what I had fought so hard to dispel. My obsession with age was madness, but I felt powerless to stop it. 

 And then one day my friend Ruth Yamamoto said something I have returned to again and again.

 I had told her about the difficulty I was having with the aging process, and how it truly bothered women of my generation when we began looking older. Ruthie said she had never felt that way herself, but she thought it made sense “with everyone telling you how you’re supposed to look and that you’re supposed to look young.”

 Then she repeated a saying, translated from Japanese, that reminded me of a message I had heard in different ways since I was a child.

 “My father used to say, ‘If you’re good in your heart, your face will show it,’” offered my friend. For some reason, I felt better immediately.

 Ruthie died several years ago but I’ve never forgotten that saying. And finally, it seems to have worked: This year I will pass up the slinky black dress I wore in 2013. I won’t even try to walk on the ice in high-heeled dress boots. By January 2, I may even be a few pounds heavier. But on December 29, when I play with my four grandchildren at our Christmas celebration, my face will reflect only joy as I look at their beautiful faces, marveling at the ways they can move. And I will know that if I had never reached this age, I would never know these children. 

 Then, I’ll have another cookie.