Young at Every Age
I am currently at the beautiful Wildwood Retreat Center assisting my friend Don Clark in facilitating a week-long retreat for caregivers. Don recently celebrated his 80thbirthday, and being with him inspired me to honor three remarkable elders in my life who are still actively engaged in their community. When they have every right at this time in their lives to relax and enjoy life, what drives them to continue working every day for social change?
Jeannette Wei is the youngest of my elders. At 79, she still devotes three days each week tutoring children at Cameron House, a social service agency in San Francisco’s Chinatown. In 1947, she met 97-year old Donaldina Cameron, and Jeannette was so impressed by Ms. Cameron’s commitment and vitality that it inspires her to this day. Jeannette has remained an active volunteer for Cameron House for over fifty years, while maintaining a career as a schoolteacher and raising two children. Her secret? “Find a way to work with young people. They will keep you young.”
As a young man, Don Clark read this quote by Horace Mann – “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity,” and he has since devoted his life’s work to social justice and human rights. I met Don five years ago when I was a participant at the same caregiver’s retreat I am now staffing. It amazed me then how Don, at 75, was able to devote the physical, mental and emotional energy it took to facilitate a retreat for forty caregivers, and at 80, he is still going strong. His advice is simple – eat well, exercise regularly, get plenty of sleep, travel, and write every day. “Our stories have the capacity to heal – both ourselves and others. If you have the courage to share your story, you will heal the world.”
Finally, there is 95 year-old Grace Lee Boggs.In 1930, when Grace was 15, she became a feminist after reading “Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution.” And for the past 80 years, Grace has devoted her life to community work and social activism, including four decades in partnership with her late husband James Boggs, an African American autoworker and organizer. A perpetual student and questioner, I have rarely seen Grace without a notepad in her hand, writing in the long-obsolete shorthand. It doesn’t matter whether she is engaged with a 14-year old or an 84-year old, she always has something to learn. Her advice is to live in the present, keep it local and stay engaged. “You cannot change any society unless you take responsibility for it, unless you see yourself as belonging to it and responsible for changing it.” Her forthcoming book, “The Next American Revolution,” is clear evidence that Grace Lee Boggs has no intention of slowing down.
Getting old can happen at any age. There are times when I get down in the dumps and I just can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. But what I have learned from these three incredible role models is that staying young is about staying present to the opportunity and freshness of what life offers. They inspire me to keep learning and taking risks, to take care of my body, mind and spirit, to hang with young people, and to hold onto hope for what promises to be a long and exciting journey ahead.
You can find out more about Don Clark at his website, www.donclarkphd.com, and Grace Lee Boggs at her website www.boggscenter.org I would also recommend watching this Bill Moyers’ interview with Grace at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DzeezIsTZ_o.
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