Friday, February 5, 2016

Tip #47 Choose happiness.

The Tip:
Life is a weaving of good and bad days, small and big moments. I believe that there is always a positive lesson to be found in our past experiences, even if they were devastating and something we have bottled up for decades. I was inspired to start this organization because of a series of phone calls with my grandma. These calls taught me that when an older person speaks from the heart, and a younger person slows down to listen, stories can lead to genuine conversations and a genuine friendship. Many of my grandma's stories are about difficult situations or complicated emotions, but after sharing them, she would laugh in the purest, deepest way because she realizes she has just confronted something that has held her back for years. 

The Moment:
Some of the most devastating stories I have heard over the years led to some of the happiest moments. This set of stories from Millie did exactly that for both her and me. Millie opened up a little more, week by week, story by story, and after every group session she and I stayed after to chat more privately about what she had written. Every week, I could see a greater strength and happiness in her eyes, until one day, she had a total breakthrough. She did the impossible. She broke free from a traumatic childhood experience that had held her back for decades. She said this: "This experience caused me to lose my voice. I am regaining my voice through writing about it."  She wrote down these feelings for me and let me take a picture, so we can both remember it, word for word, spoken in her voice. After showing Millie the picture on my phone, we looked at each other and we cried tears of joy. 

The Stories:
Millie Lilly

The cold and snow have limited my ability to get out as much as usual.  I am one of many who really struggle with the conditions.

A lot of my time was spent in cold climates.  When I was four and a half years old, my Air Force family moved to St. John’s Island, Newfoundland.  My older sister, younger brother, father, and pregnant mother lived in a house at the top of a hill.  We lived in the basement without a refrigerator.  The family who owned the house lived upstairs.  They had a son.

The wind blew off the frozen water bringing icy cold along with the sounds of the seals being clubbed to death in the early morning.  My father tells me the seals sounded just like babies crying.

I don’t think there was much thinking about the effects of hearing that crying on the adults or young children.

Newfoundland was a harsh place in many ways.  Some countries sent people they no longer wanted.  Surely some of those people did nothing to deserve it.

Millie Lilly
The Beginning

One of the hardest things about being far from S. Carolina was being away from my Grandmother. When she looked at me I could tell she loved me and I always felt safe with her.

St. John’s Island, Newfoundland was a long way from my nanny. I believe she would have seen something was going on that neither of my parents could see. My mother was pregnant with 3 children under the age of 6 years old. She didn’t have much time nor was she inclined to encourage her children to talk to her. My father was hungry for an older man to pay attention to him. The man who owned the house lived upstairs from our basement apartment and was more than willing to play the part of the older man in my father’s life. 

Harold was his name. His wife and son Tommy – who was around eight – lived with him. They were from England. It turns out Newfoundland was a hot bed of pedophiles. People expelled from their country of origin…

Millie Lilly
Just Tell Someone

I sat on the ground playing so it must have been during the summer I turned five years old.  The ground would have been too cold any other time of the year.

A few feet away my father and Harold were talking.  They stood in front of the house Harold owned and my family lived in the basement apartment.  A police car siren could be heard going by.  Harold said to my father, “You don’t want the police to get you, do you Ken?”  “Oh no”, my father said, “you don’t want the police to get you.”

Harold had been telling me how if I told anyone what he was doing to me, the police would do worse things to me.  Even at five years old, I knew he was jerking me around, but I couldn’t hold on to it enough to figure out to get help.

Harold was always thinking of ways to drive home I couldn’t tell anyone.  He was afraid about my father and my sister who was a year and a half older.  He knew I didn’t have a voice with my mother.  He never worried about me telling her.  He would threaten me with telling her I had done something wrong whenever he wanted to force me to do something.  When the baby was born dead, he said more people would die if I told.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Tip #48 Feel the love.

The Tip:
The Best Day of My Life So Far spirit is fun, friendly and feels like family, and can be felt every week at sites nationwide where we gather older adults and younger listeners around a table for an hour a week. I believe the best way to beat isolation for everyone, especially older adults, is to create and nourish genuine friendships by sharing life stories in a no-pressure, no-judgment environment. While the Best Day spirit is felt most strongly in person in our storytelling groups, it's a feeling and state of mind that you can easily experience from the comfort of your own home by reading our participants' stories and volunteers' reflections via social media. So, open your heart and fill it up with some L.O.V.E. and let it spill over naturally as you start a conversation with an older adult in your life. Don't overthink it. Just follow your heart.

The Moment:
Over the years, I have heard many different participants from different groups describe their Best Day groups as "family" - it makes me so happy every time I hear that. But Beatrice took my happiness to a whole new level when she said, "We are like a family. Or like a rainbow." I never thought of it that way before, but when I heard her say that, I thought, Wow, she's so right. That's precisely it. No matter who you are, where you come from, you are accepted, supported and valued here. I originally called the program a writing "class" when I started the first Best Day group. I didn't know I was actually starting a family.

The Story:
Beatrice Newkirk
Our Writing Class       

Our writing class is the place to see and be.  We do things together.  Everyone has a good time.  We listen to everyone’s stories.  Some are read out loud.  Some members talk about what they had written.  After everyone reads or tells their story, our pictures are taken.  We missed last week but we always make up what we missed.  Because of the storm, we were not here.  Everyone who comes to our class is from different places.  They come from different neighborhoods.  The stories I hear are very interesting.  We are like a family. Or like a rainbow.  To the writing class, I love all of you.  I miss everyone until the next meeting.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Tip #49 Honor the older adult’s version of the truth.

Today’s Tip:
Try not to worry if parts of the older adult’s life are missing between stories. What he or she has chosen to tell you are the episodes of the life that matter to him or her, the moments that contain his or her emotions, values and dreams. Whether they are exaggerated on purpose or by accident, they are the older adult’s version of the truth, which is more real than fact itself.

The Moment that Inspired This Tip:
At the end of my second ever call with my grandma, I distinctly remember her saying this to me in Chinese: “A lot to tell. A lot happened. As I start to think back, one thing blends into another, probably hard for you to understand, right? But you are patient. You ask me. You are very thoughtful. You want to know. This kind of deep, deep memory doesn’t usually come up when you are just talking about daily routines.”

At that point, I was already in love with her stories but I didn’t understand how to listen the right way. For the first couple weeks of our conversations, I felt this impulse or obligation to play family historian, to uncover every fact in her past. I would get so mad at myself for not being able to bullet point all the things that happened in her life and fit them neatly into a timeline. Then something shifted. I began listening with my heart, not my mind. After getting off the phone one night, I had an epiphany. I realized my grandma’s voice is more precious than any fact in any history book. I finally understood what it meant to be a granddaughter. That was when our friendship I think really began.

The Story that Inspired This Moment:

Mei Chiu
Bound Feet

My grandma had bound feet – did you know? She also lived in Guang Zhou in the same house with Old Li and me. Oh no, not my real grandma. My real grandma, I didn’t meet until I went back to the village and by then she was very old. When I was young, I didn’t know her; when I went back, she was already blind, so she never knew me. Gou Ma visited her and brought her food, and brought me along. Gou Ma was already sixty herself when she took me back from Old Li, and living by herself by that point. I never met her hushand, who had passed away by then.

And so, to be clear, the one I call “Grandma” was actually Old Li’s late husband’s mom. I can see how that could sound a little confusing, and am glad you asked! She and I spent many hours together in the house, most of which I spent watching her feet.

Sad for me – no school to go to and stuck inside. I wanted so badly to go to school.

Old Li was out a lot, and her mom was a nurse, or training to be a nurse, so she was out of the house too.

Grandma wouldn’t let anyone see her bare feet, so I had to use my imagination. It was pitiful, painful to imagine. Her four small toes were bent backwards under her feet. Her big toe was really the only shape in her cloth shoe you can see. She wore these shoes that had holes just for the big toes. I don’t know how she took a bath. I don’t know. Maybe she didn’t wash her body? But what I could observe was that she tipped her weight to the front of her feet when she walked.

Traditionally, the ladies had bound feet; poorer people had normal feet. But it was just going out of fashion by my time. Good thing!

I will show you a photo of my grandma next time you visit. I will find it. Back then, there weren’t many photos taken, so ones showing bound feet are very rare. It is they kind of picture they make many copies of and sell in Chinese arts and crafts shops – Americans like to buy pictures like that to decorate their houses. They must think the way Chinese people dressed is cute or special.

You know, rumor had it that Grandma was the first woman with bound feet who came to America. But how she hated it here! Because Americans wouldn’t stop gawking at her. She got here all the way by boat and rode all the way home by boat. The rides must have been unbearable, so the ridicule must have been even worse.

Grandma’s feet are really the main thing I remember about her. And I remember he singing. She sang to herself, staring into a book. You can listen if you want but it was intended for herself. Besides that, she spent her time reading the paper, listening to the radio (which had been invented by then and was pretty popular), and sang along to Chinese opera songs.

The Li family had a live-in maid. They had enough money. So Grandma just sat at home. And I was told to just sit at home. With no books to read. They said to me, “Girls go to school for what? You tell me?! Not like you will make money any way.” That is what Old Li said to me. I was very mad at for saying that but what could I do?

Meanwhile, Grandma would try to convince me to be a Chinese opera singer so she could go to shows for free. But I didn’t want to. I couldn’t tell if she was just trying to be funny, because she mentioned the idea often. If so, I didn’t think it was funny. I didn’t even like Chinese opera. I just couldn’t get into it.

What I loved was movies because they are about real life. In Chinese opera, you wave a flag around which symbolizes this or that, but it is not true. I didn’t understand. And besides, I was too short. I couldn’t see past people’s heads. They built low temporary scaffolds out of bamboo and threw wood planks across them. That was it – simple way of making many rows of benches, wasn’t it? The problem for me was that they were all the same height.

When I was twelve, Gou Ma brought me back to the village, where I finally got my wish – to go to school! Can you imagine my happiness? The sad part was, it did not even last a whole year. The teacher was old, and taught all the same classes in the same room. She tried to teach everything, but really only knew a little of everything. Now one good thing was, after I got out of classes in the afternoon, I sometimes went with other girls to the movies. Not too many times, but every time the movies gave me a mixture of real feelings, and I liked that.

Years later, when the Japanese came to fight in Hong Kong during the war, I went to movies a lot. There was nothing to do during wartime. And because of the war, movies got very cheap, only five cents. Your grandpa had a steady income so we had enough to eat and a little extra to spend. You ask why I had this kind of  freedom during the war, why I didn’t have to hide? You see, the Japanese kids were dropping bombs, yes, but just once in a while. You were as safe in the movie theater as you would be at home. We were ok, so why sit at home and be scared? You need entertainment to have a meaningful life. And for me, movies were very exhilarating. Of course, when peacetime came, life was easier in a sense. At that point the family grew, and sometimes we brought all the kids to the movies including you mom when she was little.

A lot to tell. A lot happened. As I start to think back, one thing blends into another, probably hard for you to understand, right? But you are patient. You ask me. You are very thoughtful. You want to know. This kind of deep, deep memory doesn’t usually come up when you are just talking about daily routines.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Tip #50 Stay a little bit longer.

Today’s Tip:

The moments that follow a genuine story are often the most amazing of all. Don’t just listen to an older adult’s story and rush out of the room. The process of telling a story from the heart will unleash all sorts of emotions for the older adult. Stay a while and give these emotions a place to go – keep your heart and ears open to receive them, and receive them gently. These emotions are often delicate and raw. Having another human being entrust his or her deepest feelings with you is not something that many people get to experience. Sticking around for a few extra minutes is nothing compared to the powerful human connection you will get to feel. 

The Moment that Inspired This Tip:
I discovered this tip years and years ago but it still feels like yesterday. I still remember thumbing through the notebook pages as Hattie walked back in after our group session. I was the only person left. Besides the sound of paper, the room was quiet.

"Hey! You're back," I said.

"Yes, I just came back to say... I want to come back to tell you this. Just now, in my story, I ended so abruptly with my grandmom, but there was more that came back to me, and I want to tell you."

"I'd love to hear more."

"So we were at the hospital. I was saying something to Grandmom. I don't remember what it was about. She smiled. Then she took a breath, like this," Hattie took a deep breath. "And her dentures slipped out a little. Her mouth softened, you know. I said to her, Grandmom, you aren't dying, are you? You know I am scared of dead people. And Grandmom looked at me and smiled. That was how she died. I cried. I told her I love her. All these years... and I've never been able to talk about it like this."

The Story that Inspired This Moment:
About Grandmom
October 15, 2009
Hattie Lee Ellerbe

On Friday afternoon it was time for Mr. Ferguson to come to our house. He was our music teacher. For $2.50 a week, per household, he taught all of us.

Grandmom was determined to have us all learn to play the piano. Growing up we always had a piano in our house. I never really learned to play but three of my sisters did.

Grandmom was so proud of us; she had us playing at church and anytime we had company at home. I am the middle child of five sisters. I admit, I was different. Grandmom wanted us all to be little ladies. I was a "Tom Boy" and was always having accidents by falling down or hurting myself. I was always on punishment.

Everyone, including myself, thought Grandmom "picked on me" and whipped me the most.

We had sufficient clothing and Grandmom worked very hard as a factory worker to see that we never went to bed hungry. She stressed education and religion. I never missed a day of school in 12 years.

It wasn't until I became a grown-up that Grandmom and I became close.

In later years, November 26, 1974 approximately 8pm, Grandmom died in my arms, with a smile on her face as I tearfully whispered - I love you.

Monday, January 11, 2016

New Year, New Blog Posts!

I love the start of a year, the beginning of a fresh lap in the marathon of life. This new year, I am thinking a lot about this blog that brought you and me together 6.5 years ago. I needed a quiet place to collect and reflect on the first stories my older adult buds told me, and knowing that all of you are gathered here with me turned this blog from something abstract into a real and happy place for me. The blog's siblings (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and our Story Letter newsletter) became extensions of my happy place. For all of that, thank you.

And now, 6.5 years and thousands of stories (so far!) later, I feel like it's time to make two leaps.

One. I feel that it's time to present our stories to you in a more organized, permanent and searchable way. For this reason, my team and I will work harder than ever to raise funds for a unified site that will allow all our program sites and you (yay, you!) to submit stories told by the older adults in your lives. Feel free to email me to get the inside scoop or get involved before we make the full public announcement.

Two. I feel that I need to present my reflections in a more compact way and include practical tips so that they can be more useful for you – I want to do what I can to help you start conversations and enrich relationships with the older adults in your daily life. So I am going to try something new on this blog this year. Every post will give you a tip you can use today, and every tip will be inspired by a Best Day moment or story that has stuck with me.

How does this sound to you? Let me know what you think! Your listening and support has kept me going and motivated to share for 6.5 years and I hope to continue for 65 more. Ha, yes, I am maybe getting too excited to become an older adult myself... I know ;) Inspiring stories can do that to you.

Love, Benita

Sunday, December 20, 2015

2016, We Are Ready for You!

Can’t believe 2015 is coming to a close soon! Looking back, I am so grateful for our local team of facilitators, Jana, Cassie, Hannah and Jen, for taking turns leading our weekly storytelling sessions, and doing such a good job – my older adult buds keep me posted on these things ;) For the first time since I started the group in 2009, I am feeling, in the best way possible, that I can simply be an assistant in the context of the group. By stepping back as the group’s leader, I can enjoy it with fresh eyes and a refreshed passion, and I can be a better leader for our national organization as a whole.

Today, for the final blog post of 2015, instead of an older adult’s or volunteer’s story, I thought I would share my vision for our organization.

My vision is a world where people come together, listen to each other and respect each other despite differences in age, background or opinion, where ordinary days are made extraordinary because of the friendships that are made and nourished, where past and current struggles are confronted and replaced with a new courage to face the future, where the experience and perspective that comes with age is a source of inspiration, where life is not measured by the number of days lived or days remaining but its quality, where community is made up of love, laughter and life lessons and is something you can feel deep in your heart.

Thank you so much for your support as a blog reader, and together, let’s make big strides in 2016 towards a world filled… not just filled, beyond that, a world that is totally bursting… with love, laughter and life.