What do you think about birthdays?

Numbers have such an important influence on our lives. And sometimes have no bearing other than to reinforce expectations – and unfounded ones at that.

We ask little children how old they are – perhaps because we don’t know how else to start a conversation. They soon learn to answer proudly “I am four!” But what does “four” tell us about that child and how he or she is being shaped by their experience? Have they had opportunities to learn to swim or climb or look closely at insects or run very fast over a field or learn alphabet, counting or any of a myriad things?

Every so often, I think about the number of years I have lived, because I am at an age when people say “Are you still working?” Whatever they mean by that! (“Are you too poor to stop?” or ”Aren’t you getting tired of the job?” maybe “Aren’t you too old?” or even “Lucky you! I wish I were”)

This week two women friends quietly confided they were approaching birthdays that end in zeros.

I note that those are the ones that give you pause because the number preceding the zero is about to get bigger than it has been ever before.

Lithe and fresh-faced, with a habitual look of mischief, my  first friend announced that she was going to publicly stay in the 9 year preceding her birthday. Then she strapped on her bike helmet and pedaled off on the several miles’ ride home. She lives fully. Health is important to her, but not only her own. She has made her home as environmentally sustainable as possible; she just finished working on building a Habitat for Humanity home project; and her job involves her in research for sorely needed treatment for a fearful disease. Why should it matter how old she is?

The other woman (with a different birthday) is a mover and shaker who has steadily expanded a well-known non-profit to serve increasing numbers of people in innovative and needed ways. She is also writing a book on her area of expertise. Sweet-faced with kind-eyes, she looks like someone you want to have a good long conversation with. And many people do! She confided with a wry smile that her sister told her that they are old ladies and she should start behaving like one.

I remembered a time when visiting family in England and being told that I scandalized the locals because they learned I was in graduate school and had 2 children. I was in my mid-thirties, but by their standards I was too old to be a student. I remember how grateful I was for living in California where I would not have that prevalent attitude wearing me down.

I am also fortunate to work in the field of aging where I meet people who I know are in their 70, 80 and 90’s who sparkle, who are passionate about something, sing at bus-stops and who don’t buy in to the toxic message that tells us to act our age.

When my daughter was in the 2nd grade, her tap-dancing class was scheduled to perform on the hospital geriatric ward where I worked then. I asked her teacher if I should prepare the kids for the audience with whom they would be mixing after the performance.  I learned that my daughter had already oriented her class and I was curious to know what she told them about the geriatric patients.

“Just look past their wrinkles and you will see nice people with really cool stories!”

Great advice for us all, for meeting someone new, for collaborating in a professional arena – and for looking in the mirror each morning.

A few researchers have interesting things to say about the mindset of “acting your age.” In several studies Ellen Langer, Ph.D. put older assisted-living residents in environments that replicated those of their youth. When they weren’t reminded by their surroundings that they were old, their physical and emotional behaviors changed to more youthful ones (including a formerly wheelchair bound man walking with a cane).

Although the results of her studies were often discounted, one of her colleagues, Jeffrey Rediger, M.D. Medical and Clinical Director at Harvard’s McLean Hospital said of Ellen Langer “She’s one of the people that really gets it”….”That health and illness are much more rooted in our minds and our hearts and how we experience ourselves in the world than our models even begin to understand”. (1)

It is tough to hold onto our strengths and vitality in the face of the prejudices of a society suffering from Decline Fatalism (the assumption that we are doomed to decline when we reach a certain age). The age at which decline is supposed to start differs from culture to culture (note earlier reference to suburban British attitudes).

Dr Gene Cohen demonstrated that participants in their eighties who worked consistently in programs with artists made improvements in various areas and did not decline as their peers in control groups did. (Creativity and Aging)

Experiencing ourselves as being passionately interested individuals involved in a number of interests or exciting work can get us through any number of those birthdays ending in zero in fine style.

Hooray for the French who may have coined the phrase “being of an uncertain age”. If we act and think like 30 or 40 year olds combined with the experience of 60 or 70 year olds, of course other people will be uncertain of our age.

And in the doing of it all, we will be age-uncertain, too.

Just saw a FB post from an artist whose work I hope to show next post – absolutely showing us examples…

  1. Grierson, Bruce “In What if Age is Nothing but a Mindset?”  NY Times 2014
  2. “..those involved in the weekly participatory art programs,at the one and two year follow-up assessments, reported: (A) better health, fewer doctor visits, and less medication usage; (B) more positive responses on the mental health measures; (C) more involvement in overall activities.” Gene Cohen, M.D. The Creativity and Aging Study. <…>


2017 –>Creativity, Vision, Imagination, Stories, Belonging –>2018


In the spirit of Janus, the two-headed Roman god after whom January was named, this post looks back, reflects, and looks forward with some inspiration to share….



                   How dismantling social institutions can actually benefit us.

Last year, when I witnessed in horror the dismantling of major elements of a democracy,  I felt afraid and helpless. I must confess that there were too many weeks of feeling depressed and immobilized.  Only when I remembered learning that movement can help loosen the clinging, stifling, isolating fabric of depression could I shake myself free. Being a builder by nature, I decided I must re-frame (1.) and look at how the dismantling of social institutions could become an advantage to the citizens of this country – We the People! It is horrifying to see the destruction, but what cannot be destroyed is experience, is vision, is the energy to build anew. How can we build a better program there, and there and…? (read education system,  healthcare, poverty abatement (2.), and/or the issue that most concerns you)

So forward to 2018…..

I know how much we can accomplish by collaboration. Working together we can discern the flaws and shortcomings of our institutions and, with creativity and experience and love, clarify the vision needed to build better ones.

2017 Divide and Conquer

Looking back, I am most struck by the danger of complete, unswerving identification with the political party we voted for and the polarization that overwhelms the possibilities of working together for the good of all (and in this way keeping democracy alive). We all have the same basic needs. People of all political stripes suffer in the same ways, want the best for our children and ourselves. We all feel hunger, suffer poverty and may be homeless. We all become ill and need proper healthcare; red states and blue states alike are destroyed by fire, storms and floods. In spite of that, there is a huge effort in every sector of society to emphasize the differences. A divided people is easily manipulated and dominated. Divide…and Conquer!   Looking at history we see the long lasting effects of this colonizing strategy on countries all over the world – the Middle East, Asian subcontinent, African continent — and the US. Millions of people have been, and still are, living with the results.

We have to ask ourselves who benefits from this “time-honored” colonial strategy of Divide and Conquer? When we are fighting each other we don’t have time and energy to fight FOR what we all need.

2018 — Building visions

My wish for 2018 is that each one of us chooses a particular problem and focuses on possible end goals. In doing so, we must accept that we all have similar human needs and desires regardless of our political stripe. Once we acknowledge that all the problems facing us are so complex that they require many different approaches. If we can accept that there is not “one right way”, we may become unified by building a vision together and understanding the feasibility of a variety of different methods to attain it.  Remembering that we are all interconnected and so the gains, as well as the misfortunes of other groups, affect us. Once we each take that step, and look for allies, wherever they are doing that work of visioning and taking action.  I believe that by banding together on the “issue” closest to our hearts, we can create a vision of the desired end result even though the means may differ.

Vision and Dreaming

A vision can be a pole star – we may not be sure how to get somewhere but we know where we want to arrive.  Cathedrals, great pyramids, temples and democracy all grew from dreams that became visions. Many cathedral/pyramid/etc. builders did not live long enough to see the finish of their dream, but sharing in the vision, believing in the process and in its benefit to their children’s children kept them going. I imagine that they took delight in the process, and comfort in knowing they belonged to a group that was making something beautiful.  They each did what they could, propelled by the vision.

We builders like to turn ideas into reality, and have learned the importance of a vision, a trust in the process, and how necessary it is to examine the stories we tell ourselves and others about the world, life and meaning.


Stories are how vision is shared, either intentionally or unconsciously. The stories we tell ourselves can strengthen the vision and our belief in it – or undermine it. Listening to the stories we tell ourselves, and where necessary changing them, is vital.(1.)  Determining which stories coming at us through media, marketing, speeches, etc. are designed to make us afraid and to disempower us. Once we recognize this, it is easier to discard them. We cannot let what earlier generations believed in, strived to build and inspired other countries to follow, just slide away into oblivion because of our own disempowering stories (excuses) that we were too busy, too powerless, too much in denial, or did not have enough money.

Listening to others’ stories that help us imagine the possibilities is vital. There are enough of us who know what it is like to be educated, to freely speak, to vote, to have decent health care and enough to eat. There are enough of us who have honed critical thinking so that we can unravel the stories embedded in propaganda and the marketing of confusion. There are enough of us who remember that we had healthy food, free clean water and who experienced the wonder of land, waters and skies thick with wildlife. There are enough of us to build visions to live towards. Let’s pool all this knowledge and experience.  Colonialism does not like empowered populations!

My goal is to encourage you, the reader, to join me in picking an issue. Together we will imagine the story behind recent progress (noted below),  be inspired – and, act in the spirit of “well if they can do it with so few resources and advantages, then we can, too!”

(Thank you Andrew Hervey, in Future Crunch December 5 2016 – 99 Reasons 2016 Was a Good Year

We can research which persons and organizations are dedicated to working towards the vision that is important to each of us and join them. (As an aside, I feel it is important for maintaining our drive, our sanity and our energies to narrow our focus. This includes the difficult task of ignoring pleas for help or dire warnings of doom from elsewhere. We can do that if we remind ourselves that there are many others who want to build there.)

Questions:  What is your most important concern?    What doesn’t currently work in that area?  What is your vision of what it could be?

For example, talking to a friend who described that she is one of many who find healthcare too expensive, who can’t afford all the expenses of getting sick or needing surgery. She mentioned that the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare – what a silly name) was a stepping stone towards something better.  I asked her what that something better would. She replied with little hesitation “Single Payer Healthcare”. That is the beginning of a vision. Where will she find allies working on that?

Some inspiration to contemplate


  • A new study from the world’s leading health journal reported that the number of women dying from pregnancy and childbirth has almost halved since 1990. Guardian
  • Liberia was officially cleared of Ebola, meaning there are now no known cases of the deadly tropical virus left in West Africa.                                                              Vanguard


  • 93% of kids around the world learned to read and write this year. That’s the highest proportion in human history. And the gender gap between girls and boys in school narrowed in 2016 too. Medium

Poverty abatement:

  • In 1990, more than 60% of people in East Asia lived in extreme poverty. As of 2016, that proportion has dropped to 3.5%. Vox

My issue is Climate Change; one inspiration is “In July, more than 800,000 volunteers in India planted 50 million trees in one day. The country is planning on reforesting 12% of its land. National Geographic” and my allies back California Senate Bill 100. (3)

It feels better to look around and see what others have accomplished, are working on currently and then add our own energy to the cause.

It feels better to add to our vision than to feel powerless and upset at each destructive act.

We can use the memories and experiences of all to build something that is even better than we have had, BUT first, each of us must construct a vision of what we want to happen. It takes courage and like the cathedral builders, know that even if we do not see it come to fruition in our lifetime, what we are building is beautiful and necessary.

What is your vision?

Some resources

  1. The Frameworks Institute is very helpful. Also Arran Stibbe’s books on Ecolinguistics.
  2. Income: Timebanks <> Social Security for All or Universal Basic Income <> 
  3. California Senate Bill 100 for 100% Renewable Electricity by 2045


when you come …..

“…when you come to a waterfall
mist blowing against your face and arms
do you stop and ask for understanding at those moments?
I said not yet but I intend to start today.” (Raymond Carver)

I have always especially treasured the perspective of my friends who are older. Often I learn simply from how they are and what they do. I discovered that my friend Joe used to print quotes from his wife’s favorite poets and authors to hang on a peg over the washing machine for her to read and savor, transforming this most ordinary chore.

The most important lessons are completely unexpected. Here’s a story of a recent one:

It is an inviting and comfortable house in a pleasant neighborhood close to a beautiful park. Cheerful boxes of flowers line the steps to the front door. Once inside a quick glance reveals evidence of a cultured lifestyle – the many books, art, dvds and cds bear witness to a deep and long-standing involvement in the arts. The artifacts collected from foreign countries indicate well-educated and well-traveled owners.  It is the home of an elderly couple,  sadly each with a brain now mercilessly eroded by disease.

In one room, the old man sits at a table, head down, lost in his own reality. When he speaks, it is in great sorrow about the past and of a life of regret. He declares that he has never been loved. His son, who had traveled thousands of miles from his young family to stay with his ailing parents, carefully prepares each meal and lovingly ensures that it is his father’s favorite food.

Friends of many years come to visit several times a day. Each sits with him, holds his hands and reminisces about the many happy times over the years. We fondly describe the many celebrations and visits and travels and shared meals. Central to our memories is a devoted husband and a vibrantly affectionate wife. Theirs is a great love story, which we have all witnessed over the decades and that continues to inspire us, their friends, through time and into the present. The feeling of love in their house is palpable. We each tell the old man that we love him, but he denies it to our faces.  All the old man can recall is an ancient hurt, a rejection that has erased 60 years of life well-lived.

In a room upstairs, his wife lies dying, her life inexorably slipping away.

At each arrival of friends, she rouses herself and blesses each one of us with her characteristic smile. She murmurs in gratitude at the flowers she receives and when her son feeds her – she says clearly “I am so lucky!”


The old man and woman have shared a life in the same house for more than 60 years. They traveled together, went to plays and opera, art museums, sat and read from their extensive library in their comfortable house. They received the same friends and loving attention from their only child. We joked how his view of life’s cup being half-empty was more than compensated by her conviction that the cup overflows.

How is it that their last days are spent so differently?  He, crying and feeling unloved, and she, smiling and feeling so very blessed. Although, much needs to be attributed to the kind of disease they each suffer, it is worth “stop(ping) and ask(ing) for understanding” and  reflecting on how we choose to be.

Do we have a choice? If we each live a life of gratitude and appreciation, do we lay down so many neural pathways that they remain operating right up to the end? If we make the intention now, not knowing how long we have, will it bear similar fruit?

I think it is worth trying because, regardless of the end goal, the process – living – is much more enjoyable.

What important questions to ask. What important lessons to learn.


(in gratitude photos and art by M. Kellen-Taylor)

Doorways to Hope

This was published recently in LinkedIn

In just over 11 years 20% of the US population will be over 65 and, if recent ageist tradition holds, millions will continue to be dismissed as useless and obsolete.
20% of society with 40 or more years of life and professional experience constitutes a huge and rich source of social capital. In the spirit of sustainability, organizations in various fields including education, wellness and social service, are changing that waste-heap into recycling and repurposing sources.

Creativity and Aging – An Insider’s Hopeful View.

For the past 35 years my work has been to transform the feelings of purposelessness and depression that often arise from being consigned to the waste-heap of American society. The Arts and Humanities provide one set of useful tools in the transformation from discard to social asset.

The threat of reduction in Federal funds for the Arts and Humanities only reinforces the misperception that the Arts are solely for entertainment -and thus a mere frill. I am countering that misperception with how Arts and Humanities offer, instead, opportunities for meaning and purpose for the remaining 20 to 30 years of living. That is, living in the active sense!

Understanding how and why the creative process affects us is key to curing this political mis-perception.
I also hope to begin to reassure young people that aging includes many adventures, fun, excitement and even a re-ignition of passions and interests that they are presently forced to side-line.

The Insider: Practicing both art and aging for many years, I am sharing from the perspectives of an artist, a teacher, a developer of arts and humanities programs for adults and children, and as a past expressive arts therapist. This paper addresses work with aging adults but can and does apply to all ages – as research has consistently demonstrated the benefits (1, 2)

Although I describe the creative process in terms of the arts – visual, performing, literary – because I know about them, it is vitally important to acknowledge that creativity expands far beyond them. For example, my father, a retired mechanical engineer, designed and built working models of all kinds of machines. This miniature working steam-engine is a beautiful embodiment of his esthetic and creativity.

Involvement in the creative process means exploring the potential inherent in music, writing, performance, painting (or engineering design) and then actualizing it. At the same time we are also exploring, both consciously and intuitively, aspects of our own potential. We learn to actualize these through expression. This makes for a satisfying integrity to optimizing the aging /human process through the arts.

When a musician picks up an instrument, even if you know the piece she is going to play, you do not know how she will play it and how you will hear it. Imagine the hushed anticipation of the audience right before the performance begins, that exciting moment of “not-knowing”, when the music is still a potential. The musician begins to play, the actor speaks the first words of his part, the painter lays color onto the canvas, and all the possibilities – whatever they might be – are decided upon, actualized and become embodied into the final piece. This is also a great metaphor for living.

In the same way that artists actualize the potential of their latest piece, creative aging includes involving each individual in exploring his or her potential, and bringing into being, undiscovered aspects. It is such an exciting process of discovery! Over and over again, I hear “I never knew I could do that! How wonderful!”

This process can continue if we let it, until the last breath. I remember a hospitalized man in his late eighties in a visit by an artist from my team, enthusiastically confiding that he had “another design“ for their ongoing work together.  Neither of them knew that this was his last day of life. He had spent his prior final days in a sterile hospital room engrossed in imagining colors and shapes and mentally moving them into satisfying and beautiful patterns. Although his body was completely immobilized by disease, his imagination remained active and flew free. (3) We used one of his designs to advertise the Elder Banner Project of which he was a participant. (**)

Knowing this kind of freedom is a possibility invites us to reach for that freedom.

Stepping into the creative process is like boarding a plane. After take-off there is little sensation to remind you that you are traveling at 700 miles an hour, 38,000 feet above the earth’s surface. Similarly, being immersed in creating moves us into “creative time”, or flow. In that state there can be little sensation of time passing as we are transported out of the studio into other worlds. I think of this timeless place as a connection with the eternal, when the artist becomes ageless, and draws on past experience while reaching into the future.

The created piece itself, be it music or sculpture, writing or painting, has a similar ability to transcend time and place. The lines drawn on paper, thousand of years-old splotches of color on a cave wall reach across centuries and countries to touch us and share with us the artists’ views and experience. The hospitalized man was re-living his life and love of the abstract paintings he saw in the Berlin of his youth. That youthful vigor continues to be palpable in his remaining art-work. It reminds me that creativity can transcend and transform, even momentarily, the most dire physical state.

We have all felt how music can, and does, transport us. I listen to the guitarist playing a favorite and I am once again a dancing 17 year-old. Music can also serve as a two-way street. In our work we watch where, over and over again, a piece of music reaches the mind-spaces into which confused, institutionalized people have retreated and gently draws them back into present time-space. We watch in wonder as the musician throws out a life-line and we become connected in a group of people swaying in shared time.

The arts are an integrative force. Just as time and space are integrated into the moment of creating, our varied physical and emotional experiences are integrated, brought together into a coherent pattern. Using our eyes, hands, ears, arms, imagination, memory and feelings to create a painting, brings sometimes fragmented or forgotten aspects of ourselves into working in concert. In writing we bring forward ideas, experience, knowledge we did not know existed. The Arts and Humanities become doorways into social contribution and connection.

We practitioners in the field of Creative Aging believe that an individual’s potential does not disappear with age. That it is always there to be discovered is the crux of our work. For older adults to comprehend that we all continue to possess potential is vital. It is vital (from vita meaning life) because, in the face of widespread ageism, this reminds them/us that we have a purpose, that our experience is useful and valuable, that we can have hope.

With increased longevity, the demographic we call “older adults” includes several generations. We hear a great deal about the Baby–boomers and their needs, desires and hopes for the future. They can’t help the noise because there are so many of them. Most important, they are acknowledging the wounding this society inflicts on its aging individuals. I like to call the immediately preceding generational sub-group, Path-finders, and I am a member. We are quieter because, like all scouts, we need to hear the sounds and see the clues in the surroundings that indicate the direction of the path. In so doing, we revolutionized popular music, the theater and visual arts as well as social mores in the 1960s and after.

The Greatest Generation (of WW2), Path-finders, Boomers, the arts give us all ways to continue to be creative, self-respecting people, certain of our purpose and of the value of our contributions to our families and communities.

We are finding new ways of being the path for future generations to follow in joyful anticipation.

“So treat your dancers well
Remember their place.

They were not put here to serve you
But instead they give you grace.“

Caroline McElroy (4)

Maureen Kellen-Taylor, Ph.D. is a Visiting Scholar at The USC Davis School of Gerontology, Rongxiang Xu Lab for Regenerative Life Sciences. She was Founding Director of ArtWorks at Mount Zion Hospital, San Francisco; provided arts, humanities and intergenerational programs along with wellness and lifelong learning to 34 apartment communities in Southern California, for 14 years with EngAGE; adjunct faculty in Quest Lifelong Learning programs for South County Community College District, Hayward CA for 12 years; recipient of California Arts Council funding for 5 years and their Directors Award for dedication to the Arts in California.

1. Washington State Arts Commission, 2006. Arts for Every student: Education Resources Initiative, Washington State Arts Commission, Washington State
2. Silk, Yeal Z. Mahan, Stacey. Morrison, Robert. 2015. The States Status Report A Review of State and Regional Arts Education Studies. Americans for the Arts, Washington, D.C.
3. Artworks at Mount Zion Hospital, The Banner Project: Making the Invisible Visible,1981-84 San Francisco CA. A project under my direction that took designs from homebound elders to be constructed into 8ft x4ft banners by active elders and then displayed publicly.
4. Gibson, Ph.D, Morgan and Kellen-Taylor, Ph.D, Maureen (eds) 2014. Engage in Poetry: an anthology of poetry by residents of active aging apartment complexes.

Reflecting, Building Momentum and Relishing the Day

Back to the original point of this blog – to make a new road map for aging – or in other words to create a new story that is relevant to us now in this time and place.

Discussions with friends about what we can call the process of living life after a number of years, yet not invoke all the unpleasant and often untrue associations with the word “aging”, are stimulating and energetic.

I ran the name “Building Momentum” (The Frameworks Institute) from my previous blog entry past a couple of friends – and although they like the verb and the action inherent, they said it seemed too abstract.

L. who, after 90 or more years of living, has the first thought upon awakening daily of “Good! Another day to Paint- and Love my wife!” This touches on the important aspects of long life (in my book) – Creativity, Love and Appreciation.

A conversation with A. brought up the words “Relishing”, “Reflecting” – and, said quite wistfully, – “Relaxing”.

Another name”Recounting” grows out of my exciting intergenerational projects of putting old and young together in art and learning processes (and I like the potential double entendre). Combine these to the current process of “Reframing” and the alliteration is very pleasing, however a bit low energy for my tastes.

Florida Scott-Maxwell wrote: “Age puzzles me. I thought it was a quiet time. My seventies were interesting, and fairly serene, but my eighties are passionate. I grow more intense as I age.”

What an exciting prospect!

Some years ago, on a walk towards a city park, I met a tiny grey-haired woman who almost danced up to me. “Don’t forget to admire the tulips,” she said with great enthusiasm and joy ” They are gorgeous and make the day special!” I had just met the passionate eighties embodied.

It is important for me to have images as touchstones to remind me that I choose a dynamic path over the state of stagnation and decay so often depicted or implied in this culture.

I am playing with these and there will be many more to come:





What language do you have to offer that inspires you towards long living?

Much to think about!

(images by M.Kellen-Taylor 2015/17)

The Joy of Working in Arts and Aging

When people see a building with “seniors” in the name they often tend to think of a depressing place – a “warehouse where people wait to die”

This is scandalous and I have spent the last 14 years changing the fact of senior apartment buildings, while specializing in Senior Arts Buildings (or any age Arts for that matter). Now when I walk into a senior building I read an atmosphere of change.

IMG_0539Last week, unsuspecting, I closed up my office in a senior arts colony and walked into a moment that contained the essence of our work. Typically the programs are spread out over a week, but at that moment things were happening simultaneously!

Glorious singing and the sounds of violin and piano flowed out of the clubhouse door to my left. Ah yes, I thought, that would be the 3 residents being filmed for a documentary as they rehearse for their recital at the weekend.

Across the hall, the library – recently vacated by the poetry group led by a spoken word artist – was now occupied by another group.

IMG_2054_2As I passed the door, one of the writers called my name, jumped up and rapidly circumnavigated the group. Her excitement was palpable.

Sally, is a resident I know well, who participated in many of the programs I have been instrumental in developing. I knew she decided that she is a writer, and indeed she celebrated her 80th birthday by publishing a mystery novel.

She described her interview with the film-maker to me. “ He asked to see my paintings. And I told him that they are all crap!” She gave a dismissive wave of the hand, then continued”….but he persuaded me to show him, and when I pulled them out and looked at them, I realized that I was wrong – they are good, I even like most of them” and she beamed.

“Does that mean you will be painting some more? “ I asked “Oh yes!” and she happily returned to join the others deeply engrossed in crafting a story for an online interactive soap opera eventually to reach isolated people.

As I walked down the stairs, I greeted two men leaning on a banister and buck gold perform 2012surveying the street below. One of them had done well at our recent annual Olympics, and I wanted to acknowledge that, even though he doesn’t speak much English. So I said “Olympics” and held both thumbs up.

They smiled in return and his friend pointed at him and said emphatically “He is Champion!”

Music, writing, painting, winning medals, these themes weaving in and around that moment in time brought me such a sense of joy. A feeling of “This is IT!”

Others can talk about the value of arts in aging in the abstract but I have the privilege of experiencing the effects of our work. And it feels so good. As I write, the memory of that day flows through me like the music that echoed through the hallways of that building.

To see the extraordinary documentary by Russ Haan go to

This week I am celebrating Indigenous Peoples –starting with Monday October 12th.

I just hung a show of 15 Native American Elder Artists and it was a joy to work with the 6 or so artists who turned up to help. They were all so appreciative of having their work shown and not one acted as if their work is superior to anyone else’s. We discussed, decided, helped and were assisted, in turn. Although I was with 6 strangers we felt like a community woven by art.

I have been thinking of what Native American artist Caroline McElroy said about her people seeing things that most white people cannot and I asked her to tell me about it because ways of seeing interest me. We sat in a gallery surrounded by paintings expressing Native American heritage in images of dancers in ceremonial costume and portraits of salmon. Caroline explained that people from her culture see the patterns that exist everywhere. She described how collective energy creates symbols such as those, and these symbols bring the patterns into being in the form of traditions.  She acknowledged it is harder to define patterns of spirit. She talked about her cultural view of death and the ways in which we live on. Her deepest values include a respect for the power of the energy in the Universe and how it works for and against us. Perseverance and resilience are also important. Caroline also distinguishes compassion from weakness. Compassion, she explained, is grounded in kindness and in the dominant culture, kind actions are often perceived as weakness.

Caroline spoke of her work as a member of the American Indian Education Commission for Los Angeles Unified School District, an educator in the Indian Education program as well as a journalist, an activist and an artist. She has been very active in righting some of the wrongs against Native Americans. She spearheaded the movement to prevent a new rail system planned to cross through sacred Native American Burial grounds. She also worked to remove the name “ Braves” from a local High School team. “It was bad for the Native American kids to hear the team’s opponents shouting “Kill the Braves!” (Why are high school students voicing that attitude any way? It is “sports” for heaven’s sake) For her pains she was called “nothing more than a bug eating Digger Indian whose women know their place” by a school district administrator.

Now she prefers to work behind the scenes rather than continue to be a mover and shaker. In contrast to many women of her age, Caroline is clear that she is an elder and her role now is to advise and guide. She sees her work as grounding children and helping them to remember to be human. Family is everything – and she teaches that it is essential to keep communication lines open and to remember that words have power

I asked her what kept her going during these and other struggles and she said simply “Spirit.” She talked about always been aware of feeling a grounding wire that connects her to the earth. She reflected on her childhood and how much she learned a lot from quietness. She described how in quietness you can hear the music of the Universe. She lived near a Wash and spent much time there. Caroline described how she would pick up a rock and concentrate on it to feel its age and what it had been through. She also examined lizards and small animals to observe their color and shape and textured skins, to see how they moved and reacted. She contemplated these carefully to understand their experiences before gently putting them back. Although she knew few other Native Americans when she was a child, she was always certain of who she is and that she belonged as a Native American. She described a medicine wheel and an abalone shell with sage that has been handed down to her and how they are important symbols and reminders of who she is.

I was reminded of Eagle Poem by Joy Harjo –which says

“We see you, see ourselves and know

That we must take the utmost care

And kindness in all things.

Breathe in, knowing we are made of

All this, and breathe, knowing

We are truly blessed because we

Were born, and die soon within a

True circle of motion…”

Caroline sees art as a bridge from past to future across culture and individual differences and believes that art also serves as a bridge between the outward reality and the spirit and it helps us go deeper if we want to.

CAM00501Her collage of Buddha Rising in a recent show is a response to the news that the Taliban destroyed ancient Buddhist temples. It is also a reminder that the essence lives on and rises above human degradation, once again to burst into flower. A recent piece of her work is inspired by Kokopelli from the Hopi tradition. Kokopelli is the giver of pleasure and is an important reminder to live life fully. Enjoy Life – she said – don’t take it too seriously, pay attention and be open .

Fascinated by her stories, I told her that I am like many other whites who are interested in learning from Native American cultures but do not want to co-opt practices as other whites have been accused of doing. Caroline said that many Native Americans feel that they would welcome interest in their culture hence the Annual PowWow at UCLA where “whites can learn to behave.”

See the UCLA American Indian Study Center.

The Center maintains an active calendar of lectures, symposia, film screenings, and other events at the local, national, and international level.