First appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, 6/98

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Wisdom of the Ages

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.

–Auguries of Innocence, William Blake

Recently, three women who have lived past the century mark welcomed me into their minds and hearts. In my relative youth at forty-one, I was eager to discover what their individual life stories might tell us about our collective destiny as we approach the millennium.

In other countries and cultures, an elder woman is respectfully addressed as "Grandmother," acknowledged as a vessel of archival wisdom. Here at home, our nod to senescence seems to lie chiefly in celebrating the milestone birthdays without delving any deeper. I wanted the marrow.

What I learned as I sat with Myrtle Grundell, Marie Del Grande and Faye Noll is that we need to look at life through a larger lens as we invite self-inquiry. These women, who have witnessed the rise of every modern invention we take for granted–the telephone, the automobile, radio, television, central heating and McDonald's, not to mention space travel, the Internet, mutant ninja vegetables and liposuction–remind us that the bedrock values and ethics that served our ancestors are a code to live by.

As we struggle to evolve to a higher level of consciousness, these centenarians counsel:

  • Listen to your mother.
  • Learn the difference between right and wrong.
  • Don't be afraid to work hard. (All three held jobs during an era when it was much less common for women to work outside the home.)
  • Ask questions!
  • Think of others and how you can serve them.
  • Communicate clearly and honestly.
  • Cultivate a sense of humor–and use it.
  • Take time for fun!
  • Have faith.
  • Know yourself by practicing all of the above.

Basically, they are recommending a return to caring deeply. What a concept. Barbara Ramsey, a longtime nurse and Executive Director of Visiting Home Care of Sonoma County, says that is what all senior support services try to do: "provide the sense of family and community that makes a person feel more whole.

"Aging well includes being alert and aware, able to reason, and feeling useful, along with being physically healthy. But many older people experience a sense of isolation that leads to depression and deep loneliness. Providing a continuity of contact with someone who can say, 'I care enough to prepare your dinner the way you like it,' creates a link that breaks the spiral of isolation. We're not helping people cope so much by providing things, as by providing love," Ramsey says.

Clearly, we're living in a time of redefining what 'old' is. One is eligible for membership in the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) at fifty. Yet Ramsey, fifty-three, routinely puts in workweeks that rival her age in hours. "The Baby Boomers aren't going to want to age in the same way as previous generations," she asserts. "They're out running the Bay to Breakers, skiing at Squaw Valley, staying active and socially connected."

She envisions people aging in "clusters"–villages in which we support each other à la the co-housing model, a community-style approach to housing which combines private homes with shared group facilities. Ramsey reveals that she's been part of a multi-generational women's group for over twenty years, whose members have pledged to care for one another as they grow old.

Both men and women can benefit from what's been traditionally labeled "feminine wisdom," Ramsey adds. "Women talk about these issues more openly, but the nurturing aspect lives in all of us. It's not necessarily about being female so much as about becoming aware of the feminine qualities we all share."

And isn't this what our technology-enamored society is longing for now? A return to the nourishment that's been so long suppressed, that finds a sad substitute in gang membership and nuclear bravado? Viewed from the broader perspective of who we are as a people and as a culture, the wisdom of the feminine can be seen as a way of fostering a spirit of cooperation rather than competition, of encouraging us to rediscover our common ground. We're expert at pitting us against them. Will we now find the courage to transform our power plays into true power, the power of responsibility that shines straight from the heart of a collective vision?

It's a tall order. Ramsey ties the question back to ultimate usefulness, a requisite of positive aging. "Whether it's teaching your grandchildren, serving as a role model, or being a source of pure history, people need to feel that their lives continue to have meaning," she says.

One fourth of California's population–a projected 14.1 million people–will be over age sixty by 2040, a nearly four-fold increase from 1998. God willing, I'll be one of the Grandmothers by then. Wedding the feminine wisdom of the ages with our tech-know-how to create a sustainable future sounds like a plan our Mother (Earth) would approve. Let's use this millennial momentum to re-imagine our lives through a larger lens. Then, let's dance our dream awake at the biggest block party of all time.

Myrtle Grundell
Myrtle Grundell twinkles when I ask her why she thinks she's lived so long. "Because I'm so mean." This utterly delightful lady, who turned one hundred in February, has known her share of hardship. Her mother died when she was eight; her husband had an illness that prevented the couple from ever having children; she herself was a frail child whose doctor said, "I can't do anything for you," and predicted an early demise. Fortunately, says Myrtle, "I never believed him."

Instead, she drew upon the strength of her mother's belief in her. "Mother told me, 'be a leader', so I went to college. I always wanted to be a teacher. My parents built me a tree house and I taught the neighborhood children. I graduated from UC Berkeley in 1922 and taught home economics for thirty-one years.

"I also tutored students privately. Carla first came to see me in eighth grade. She's in her sixties now and she and her husband still visit. Carla says I taught her more about life than anyone she's ever known. I sort of adopted her.

"I'm still learning. And I want to keep on giving to other people. After the 1906 earthquake, my father took me to see the ruins and that made an impression on me. We invited people to come stay on our property.

"I realized that if I wanted to live a decent life, I had to learn to live the right way. I don't think you can just go out into the wild and carry on–people need to get advice from someone wiser. My mother taught me right from wrong, and she encouraged me. I had to make my own clothes, and she would watch me and help me learn by doing.

"People need to learn to live without luxuries. Too much is done 'for' people now. You need to experience for yourself. I taught myself to weave, wove four yards of fabric, and had a coat made for my husband Joe. People would admire it and want one like it, because there was love in it.

"Speak up for what you want. Before you get married, you have to know for sure the other person is the type you want to live your life with. When we were engaged, Joe said, 'I want you to take care of me and the home,' and I told him, 'Well, I want to keep teaching.' We both knew we'd have to adjust, to share. You've got to have clear communication."

And you've got to have fun. Myrtle and Joe went dancing often. She was a teen basketball star and a devoted churchgoer. And while she doesn't think it's essential that someone have a religious affiliation, a spiritual connection is "definitely important."

Marie Del Grande
At 101, Marie Del Grande still runs her household with minimal help. She cooks, cleans, does her laundry. When I arrived to talk with her, she was in the midst of preparing a brisket, potatoes and carrots for dinner.

Hard work has always been matter-of-fact to her. "We had a twenty-acre farm in Bayside, and I used to milk three cows every morning, carry the milk to the creamery, and bring the skim milk back for the pig. I still have one of the milk cans. Then I'd walk two miles through the fields to go to school. I only went through fifth or sixth grade–I brought myself up by talking.

"My niece encouraged me to apply for a job at The Emporium. I didn't think I was smart enough, and I ended up doing better than everybody else. Everything I touched, I sold.

"You have to tell the truth, be honest about what you don't know. I'd sit in the corner during my lunch break and practice what to say to customers, study how to work the register, or I'd go down to the stock room and check what was there so I'd be prepared. I was a good worker, and what I didn't know, I'd ask the manager, Mr. Scott.

"My mother taught me to handle money. She couldn't even add, but the loggers would give her their money to hold because they trusted her. Sometimes I still ask my Mom for advice. I sit in our family chair, and I feel like I have my mother's arms around me.

"God is good to me. If I didn't have God to lead me, I wouldn't have anybody. God's kept me alive this long. I used to go to church every day, and I pray every night."

Faye Noll
Service to others and an abiding faith have been the cornerstones of Faye Noll's life throughout her 101 years. Born in Tyrone, Pennsylvania, Faye spent her entire adult life in Ohio, until her son brought her out west to live with his family–when she was ninety. "I didn't know a soul. Being brave is a must.

"Once I graduated from high school, I worked as a bank teller until I married Isaac. His mother was my mother's friend. Isaac had a car, so when he brought his mom to visit my mom, we met." (Interestingly, Marie Del Grande met her husband, Frank, when her Dad brought him home to live with the family while Frank worked on the railroad.)

After their son was born, Faye stayed home to raise him. But she was always involved in volunteer activities, such as the Red Cross ("I got the volunteers to volunteer") and Catholic Daughters of America, who helped feed the homeless during the wars. She formed a knitting club that made afghans for charity.

A quiet woman, she says "traditional values" and "being kind to others" are the watchwords of "good living." Her power as a role model is evident in her son Ray, who is a college professor and deacon in his church.

Like Myrtle and Joe Grundell, Faye and Isaac Noll loved to go ballroom dancing. Card playing is a pastime she still enjoys. And like Marie Del Grande, Faye Noll prays daily.

"Be honest. Believe in God. And listen to your heart. Then you'll know what to do."

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As a "midwife for the soul" Amara Rose offers life purpose coaching, talks, CDs, e-courses, playshops, and an inspirational monthly newsletter, "What Shines." Please visit LiveYourLight.com to learn more. Contact Amara at amara@liveyourlight.com, or call: 1-800-862-0157 within the USA.

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