Friday, January 29, 2016

Tip #3 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 #2 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 #1 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