Old Gold Key, ID _l_47980682 © Choneschones,dreamstime.com

 Unlocking the Past: How Dementia Became a Key to Awareness

A  documentary film by John Van Ness:

His internal and external journey with Patricia, his wife of nearly 60 years,

through her dementia and death in March, 2012.

Wedding, June, 1953

Wedding, June, 1953

50 th Anniverary, June, 2003

50 th Anniversary, June, 2003

By  facing his own fears, desires, and illusions, and surviving a stroke;   John found himself able to be mindfully present to Pat.

As her dementia progressed, Pat became aware of her own childhood abuse as well as her issues of being woman, and fear of the demonic. As a result of their inner and outer work, Pat passed to the next world in more serenity than John had ever seen; and John discovered unexpected joy in living alone.

Comments by author Thomas Moore, their three sons, other professionals and close friends, along with dozens of family photos, Rembrandt, Chagall, and Monet paintings, and an original improvisational piano accompaniment enhance the film’s emotional and spiritual impact. John’s seeking meaning and value in the journey of dementia as a blessing rather than a curse demonstrates the healing power of mindful awareness enhanced by John’s and Pat’s long-time spiritual practice.

Few presentations on dementia present a spouse’s first-person account of care giving and follow all the way to the death of the spouse. All care givers — professionals as well as family members — can draw guidance and inspiration from this film.

John's Bdy pty

John’s        Birthday             party,         January, 2012

Final production and editing are continuing.

No release date yet.  Watch for further information.

Posted by: jhvn | 10/07/2014

How Arrogant Can a Scientist Be! ?

Folks have asked, “What happened to the Geezer?

Apologies! This geezer has gotten swept up by many distractions — house repairs, family matters, financial matters (understanding the bills), etc. etc. All manifestations of the geezerhood slowdown and the cultural speedup.

This morning NPR had a story that got this geezer’s dander up. So here goes.

Why Saying is Believing – The Science of Self-talk
NPR Morning Edition, October 7, 2014

How arrogant can a scientist be!? Laura Starecheski, the hostess, described boosting her confidence to do a good job with this interview by talking to herself – using her own name. Ethan Cross, a psychologist at U. of MI. whom she was interviewing, appreciatively responded, “Your experience is borne out by our data”. A more truthful response would have been “Your experience supports our data.”

Starecheski’s experience was real and valid for her, regardless of Cross’s data. The entire piece emphasized that using one’s own name in talking to one’s self can effectively increase one’s self-confidence. Starcheski demonstrated for herself the truth of Cross’s findings.

Scientific research is essential for increasing human understanding of the universe in which we live. But the scientism of our culture elevates scientific data to ultimate truth. In fact scientific data reveals only the results of a particular experiment or study. The parameters of any study or experiment cannot account for all possible variables, since the experimenter could never be aware of them all. The reality of the universe contains vastly more than human consciousness can comprehend. That’s why scientists constantly modify previous scientific findings – as quantum physicists are modifying Einstein’s theories, who in turn had modified Newton’s “laws” of gravitation and motion. Showing more scientific humility would have enabled Cross to support his findings more effectively , and might open his awareness to reality that he cannot now imagine.

You can hear the whole thing at http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2014/10/07/353292408/why-saying-is-believing-the-science-of-self-talk

Posted by: jhvn | 05/29/2014

A Geezer’s Memorial Day Prayer

With the real Memorial Day coming up tomorrow, and the government sanctioned Memorial Day last Mon., this Geezer has been pondering all the wars he remembers since World War II, as well as World War I that his parents remembered.

The pondering began when our Town Moderator asked me to give the prayer at the Memorial Day celebration at the Town Common following the town parade that was held last Monday.

I know of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists as well as a variety of Christians in our town as well as a HIndu meditation center and an annual Native American pow wow in adjoining towns.

How to shape a prayer that all these religious folks could endorse?

How to honor those who have given their lives for our country without endorsing all the policies that led to wars?

How to express deep patriotic appreciation for American democratic values and ideals that have lighted the way not only for the United States but for the world, without glossing over the disgraceful failures of our government to honor and practice those values in our own country, and for our own people?

These dilemmas have been rolling around in my head ever since that phone call by the moderator.

So here’s the prayer I gave. I would deeply appreciate comments.

God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob;
God of Moses and the prophets;
God of Jesus and Muhammad;
God of Buddhist consciousness and Hindu rebirth;
Great Spirit of the Native people of this land, known in the winds of the North, South, East, and West;
God – the Source of our life and the Ground of our being;

We stand before You in awe –
marveling with the Psalmist: who are we humans that you know us?
and the children of us humans that you care about us?

We gather today to honor those who have served in the armed forces of the United States,
and who have served as early responders in fire, police, and rescue services in our local communities –
we honor those who have given their lives to create and to preserve a way of life
that honors the values we have learned from our great religious traditions –
values we have enshrined in our national identity:

In God we trust;
Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free;
Government of the people, by the people, and for the people;
Liberty and justice for all.

Enable our United States to give life to these values
for which so many have given their lives.

As we feel the wind blowing through our hair,
Heighten our awareness of the wind of your Spirit, Great God, blowing through our hearts,
to give us the wisdom and courage to make our own lives count
in maintaining those values in our lives,
in our families,
and in our community.

So Be It. Amen.

Posted by: jhvn | 04/11/2014

The Lamb of God — What?

Our little church choir was rehearsing Easter music – Behold the Lamb of God from Handel’s Messiah. I love it. We basses shine at the dramatic opening with a full octave leap in the first two notes. After sufficient drama has been squeezed from the opening line, Handel moves on to the next phrase: “Who taketh away the sins of the world”. As I strain for the high notes in that line, this geezer’s rebel voice pipes up in my head:

“After 2000 years, look at the mess of sins cropping up in this world – Syria, homelessness, the Newtown shooting, and on and on. And what is a lamb of God anyway?”

And then this geezer’s inner scholar looks up from his book,

“Use all that learning you absorbed in divinity school. You know perfectly well what that means. Pay attention to your singing, or you’ll go flat.”

OK. When he first saw Jesus, John the Baptist blurted out to the crowd around him, “ (John 1:19)

Here is (Behold) the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”

This phrase has become the Agnus Dei, Latin for “Lamb of God”, and is said or sung today in Catholic churches at every mass, and at this season also in Protestant churches. Since most of us have no clue what it means, this phrase helps shove the church to the sidelines of our brains, so it won’t interfere with our survival in this high-speed economic downturn.

For the Hebrews, at the beginning of the first millennium when John and Jesus lived, if you killed a member of another family or tribe, that family or tribe had the right to kill you or one of your family or tribe. “An eye for an eye”. The only way to atone for sin was to shed blood.

One purpose of the Temple at Jerusalem was to show God’s mercy by accepting the blood of an animal in place of human blood to take away your sin. If you sacrificed a lamb from your flock in God’s temple, your sin would be taken away – especially if you invited the aggrieved family to share the roast lamb feast.?????????????????????????????????????????????????

Perhaps you have felt deeply wounded by a tragic death. You will naturally yearn to lash out at someone. But you also may find a surprusing compassion in your heart for the one who caused the death.

Following the shooting, the people of Newtown, CT, have expressed a strange “love” for all people. The Blacks of South Africa have formed an amazing government along with the Whites who had subjugated them for centuries. Jesus stood his ground before Pilate, but told his friend, Peter, to put away his sword. Jesus accepted his own death rather than shed blood.

Jesus’s example has inspired believers and non believers alike to embrace what Walter Wink called Jesus’s third way – neither revenge nor surrender.– in order to produce reconciliation. So, my inner rebel, Jesus does embody that lamb of God, repaying the fear-based cruelty of Pilate with non-violent resistance to his power. That really does take away the sin. Of course it cost Jesus his life. If I really follow that third way, it might cost my life too. (print: The Lamb of God, Marc Chagall)

Posted by: jhvn | 04/03/2014

Geezers Have More Fun (like blonds?)

Two guys walked into a bar in Vienna. A quartet was playing. Joe recogized the music — he had written it. But the musicians were murdering it. Although Carl tried to calm him down, Joe got more and more upset. When the quartet finished, he elbowed his way through the crowded bar to  the musicians and loudly asked, “Who wrote that music?” The leader announced, “The great Franz Joseph Hayden wrote it.” Whereupon Joe shouted at the top of his lungs, “That’s a terrible piece of music!” (1)

Pandemonium erupted and the musicians started to physically attack Joe. Fotunately Carl grabbed Joe and got him safely out of the bar, where they laughed and laughed. Joe Hayden and Carl Von Dittersdorf — two accomplished geezers — agreed that they had had a great evening. 

Can you imagine yourself doing something like that?

Why did Joe and Carl break out in laughter?

Did Joe and Carl behave like true geezers?

Please leave your answers and other comments for us all to enjoy.

[(1) adapted from Fred Child on Performance Today, Nov. 8, 2012, and saved these many months]


Posted by: jhvn | 03/26/2014

When We Die, What Happens to Us?

Have you, like this geezer, reflected on where you’re going? I find myself thinking about stuff like advance directives, nursing homes, hospice care, and the approach of death. What will that experience of crossing the threshold be like? Nobody has come back to tell us. Part of me can’t wait to find out. You can imagine how the other part of me feels.

Hospice medical director in Houston, TX., Dr. John Lerma‘s book, Into the Light reports on the emotional healing of 16 hospice patients just before they died. They include a murderer, a priest, a child, a former Nazi SS trouper. They including people of various faiths and no faith. All of these patients reviewed their lives in one way or another and resolved lifelong painful issues. They also described para-normal experiences with angels, who assisted them with their life review and transition to the threshold of death.

Only with great difficulty did Dr. Lerma come to accept these fantastic stories. “When possible, I found a rational explanation and most often attributed the patients’ visions to their advancing disease, medications, or a complete shutdown of body systems.” However he found that these stories presented “inspiration and encouragement for the dying …”. He writes this book to offer “the presence of hope, redemption, and unconditional love that exists at the end of our earthly journey” that his patients and their families experienced.

Now this geezer has never encountered angels or heard anyone describe such an experience. I’ve encountered too many folks who use religous language as wishful thinking or to make themselves sound important. But I was intrigued.  The healing of Dr. Lerma’s patients in their dying process did resonate with what I observed when my clients found healing (back when I worked as a psychotherapist), although no angels were involved as far as I know. These experiences also resonated with what I did experience during the process of my wife, Pat’s death 2 years ago this month. So I take them seriously, and I invite you to take them seriously.

What has it been like for you when a loved one has died?

As folks you have known approached death, have they experienced healing? forgiveness? being able to forgive? reconciliation?

What do you make of angels? Have you known folks who have experienced them?

Perhaps we have to get to the final threshold before we take these things seriously. If so, Geezerhood could be the most important time of life. What do you think?

Make this a conversation by adding your comment to this post.

–© John Van Ness

Posted by: jhvn | 03/17/2014

Are Geezers Wiser than Adults and Children?

First, an apology.

I’ve neglected this geezerhood blog for a year! After Pat, my wife, died two years ago this month, I got all wrapped up in developing an article, which needed to become a book, then morphed into a video project. Now I’m searching for film maker. I want to show how the way Pat’s, dementia played out in her life transformed her last months, and enabled her to cross the threshold to the next world in peace. I also found new meaning for myself in living and dying .

This geezer is hanging on as my muse swings my tiger by the tail. After more months of gestation, I trust that the muse, the tiger, and as yet unknown energies will give birth to a film. It will be many months before this film appears, but I’ll keep you posted. My geezerhood amazes me.

Now I hope to get out a blog a week. We’ll see what happens. I hope you will hang in with me.

So wisdom. What in the world is wisdom?

It seems to be something happening to me. Here are five qualities of wisdom to consider:

1. self-insight;

2. the ability to demonstrate personal growth;

3. self-awareness in terms of your historical era and your family history;

4. understanding that priorities and values, including your own, are not absolute;

5. an awareness of life’s ambiguities.

Take a minute to reflect on each one. Do you find this quality growing in yourself?  Would you like it to grow? What negative side effects concern you? How might your life be different if you had more or less of it? 

Take another minute to ask yourself whether each quality has grown in you since childhood and/or adulthood. If so, how has it grown, and what has nourished it? If not, what has stunted it?  Now can you answer the title question for yourself?

You can turn this blog into a conversation, not a monlogue.  Post the results of your reflection, or any other comment, for all to see. Tell your friends, and let’s read your own wisdom.

These qualities were presented in an article by Phyllis Korkki,  The Science of Older & Wiser  in the NY Times for March 13, 2014. She quoted a psychologist, Ursula Staudinger, who described these qualities of wisdom.  Korkki provides lots of other insights on geezerhood (without calling it that).

Posted by: jhvn | 06/03/2013


First, I apologize for my geezer slip that required a password for my last post. To the best of my ability (such as it is) that will never happen again. However like many interruptions, that one caught my attention and sparked my realization that we all – children, adults, and geezers – often find ourselves coping with disabilities, accidents, or other interruptions to “normal” life.

As I reflected on that realization, up popped a memory of a story sent to me ten years ago by a client who had been disabled for decades and was at that time confined to bed; so I had visited weekly at home. To my wonder and delight I had saved the email in my storage file labeled “wisdom”. So read on – the story of an ultimate geezer. No further comment needed.

“Article from the Houston Chronicle…
“On Nov. 18, 1995, Itzhak Perlman, the violinist, came on stage to give a concert at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center in New York City. If you have ever been to a Perlman concert, you know that getting on stage is no small achievement for him. He was stricken with polio as a child, and so he has braces on both legs and walks with the aid of two crutches. To see him walk across the stage one step at a time, painfully and slowly, is an unforgettable sight. He walks painfully, yet majestically, until he reaches his chair. Then he sits down, slowly, puts his crutches on the floor, undoes the clasps on his legs, tucks one foot back and extends the other foot forward.Then he bends down and picks up the violin, puts it under his chin, nods to the conductor and proceeds to play.

“By now, the audience is used to this ritual. They sit quietly while he makes his way across the stage to his chair. They remain reverently silent while he undoes the clasps on his legs. They wait until he is ready to play.

But this time, something went wrong. Just as he finished the first few bars, one of the strings on his violin broke. You could hear it snap – it went off like gunfire across the room. There was no mistaking what that sound meant. There was no mistaking what he had to do. People who were there that night thought to themselves: “We figured that he would have to get up, put on the clasps again, pick up the crutches and limp his way off stage – to either find another violin or else find another string for this one.”

“But he didn’t. Instead, he waited a moment, closed his eyes and then signaled the conductor to begin again. The orchestra began, and he played from where he had left off. And he played with such passion and such power and such purity as they had never heard before. Of course, anyone knows that it is impossible to play a symphonic work with just three strings. I know that, and you know that, but that night Itzhak Perlman refused to know that. You could see him modulating, changing, recomposing the piece in his head. At one point, it sounded like he was de-tuning the strings to get new sounds from them that they had never made before.

“When he finished, there was an awesome silence in the room. And then people rose and cheered. There was an extraordinary outburst of applause from every corner of the auditorium. We were all on our feet, screaming and cheering, doing everything we could to show how much we appreciated what he had done.

“He smiled, wiped the sweat from this brow, raised his bow to quiet us, and then he said, not boastfully, but in a quiet, pensive, reverent tone, ‘You know, sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.’

“What a powerful line that is. It has stayed in my mind ever since I heard it. And who knows? Perhaps that is the [way] of life — not just for artists, but for all of us.

“So, perhaps our task in this shaky, fast-changing, bewildering world in which we live is to make music, at first with all that we have, and then, when that is no longer possible, to make music with what we have left.” — Jack Riemer

 These two characters inhabit most of us. Do you recognize them? There’s no denying it: death stalks us geezers more closely than it did when we were adults. This geezer identifies with the guy being interrogated more than with the junk collector.

 Not the Target DemographicUsername and PasswordSo why do I maintain myself in this big house filled with stuff I’ve collected over too many years — laziness? attachment? as my Dad would say, “I might need this some day”? procrastination? fear of isolation? Hmmm.  Yes — and more.

How in the world (or beyond the world) could we know what awaits us after we close our eyes for the last time? Speculation abounds. How can we know anything? Pat, my wife (may she rest in peace), loved to ridicule her college chemistry professor who instructed her class with intense  certainty in 1944 that the atom could never be split. Of course by then it already had been split. So what did she know? How can you know when you find the mate who will love you for the rest of your life? (I got lucky on that one.) When I was in college studying engineering, I positively knew I would be an electrical engineer for the rest of my life. Hah! I never did work as an engineer. So what do I know?

As adolescents most of us had to study geometry — so we think we can prove things –QED. Gary Marcus, an NYU research psychologist, has written in a New Yorker blog, “… outside of geometry, it is rare for scientists to literally prove anything. Rather, the more typical trajectory is to rule out competing theories, and accumulate more and more evidence in favor of particular hypotheses.” So much for adult attempts at knowing things scientifically.

We geezers have it better. By the time we reach geezerhood, numerous weird events have amazed us and defied any rational explanation. In California, my camera tripod disappeared from the shelf and then reappeared there a week later, followed by an uncanny conversation within myself with “George” who had once owned the house we were renting. (Yes, chills ran up and down my spine.) In New Hampshire, pipe smoke wafted in the window one evening just as Pat and I were going to bed, startling us with fear of a prowler outside. We had just  moved into the octagonal house we had built on land Pat had inherited from her grandfather, who had died in 1935. Suddenly Pat recognized that distinctive smell: “That’s my grandfather’s pipe!”  We both felt the spine-tingling chills. The aroma disappeared and has never returned in 25 years. We concluded he was blessing our living on his land. Most of you who read this could tell similar stories that you have experienced or heard from trusted friends or family. So what do we really know of this world and the next?

We do know what we experience – the delight of sumptuous ice cream;  teeth chattering after jumping into an ice-cold pond too early in the spring.  After allowing enough people talk us into stuff that turns out to be  false, we begin to recognize the hollow sense in our gut as a liar pumps out the b.s. As we hear or experience enough real truth, we learn to pay more attention to that leap of our heart, or its warmth, when we encounter reality. When the psychologist, Carl Jung, was asked whether he still believed in God, he replied,  I don’t need to believe. I know.” That sense of knowing is a mark of true geezerhood.

Whatever we know about the next world will have to come from experience, not from science, philosophy, theology, psychology or any other -ology. Dr. John Lerma, medical director of the Houston, TX residential hospice program, presents other-worldly encounters some of his patients desctribe just before they die. In his book, Into the Light, these patients describe a variety of “pre-death experiences” — angels who visit them and facilitate healing and reconciliation of abuse, fear, rejection, and other issues that have plagued them over the course of their entire lives. This process seems to prepare these patients to pass in peace to the realm of these angels and to join others — friends and family members — who have passed before them.

If I really could know at that level of reality, I wouldn’t need to collect and save all that stuff, like the guy at the top of the page. I would also make sure I knew my userename and password. But that knowing comes from inside myself, not from memory thank goodness. Username and password protect and proclaim my identity —  who I am. The angels know who I am better than I do myself (see I Corinthians 13:12). So the refrain to my poem (or song) about looking in the mirror and wondering who I really am, included in my previous post, goes like this: (with thanks to St. Oren (0r Odran) of Iona)

Oh the only hell’s within yourself

And death can heal the fall

In fact the way you think it is

It’s not that way at all.

© John Van Ness, May 2013

Posted by: jhvn | 03/28/2013

Why do Christians call it Good Friday??

As a child I could never understand this. The day when Jesus was killed was called Good Friday! Bad Friday, or Black Friday, or The Friday from Hell would have described it better. All the churchy talk of Jesus “dying for our sins” or “dying to save the world” or even dying to save me made no sense. As I’ve written earlier, although I was well cared for and not abused or deprived, I did grow up in a culturally narrow and emotionally sterile middle-class suburban family and community. In my world, no one needed to be “saved”, and “sin” was an abstraction that had no meaning.

Even as a young adult in seminary (a church graduate school) studying to become a church pastor, God’s Spirit (energy) and power even over death, which was demonstrated in Jesus’s  resurrection, captured my heart and loyalty. His death was merely a necessary first act leading to the grand finale of his resurrection. Rembrandt’s painting, The Supper at Emmaus, has become my primary Christian icon, rather than any of the hundreds of paintings of Jesus on the cross. The Supper captures the moment when two of his astonished followers suddenly recognize  the unknown stranger they had invited in for supper – Jesus, alive on the Sunday evening after his crucifixion.  The Supper at Emmaus

The hardest work I experienced as a young pastor was dealing with death – officiating at funeral, memorial, and burial services, and offering support to grieving families and friends. I felt  emotionally drained after that work. A startling new awareness dawned on me when President Kennedy was shot during my first months of pastoring a mid-sized urban church. I celebrated a memorial service. Horrible as Kennedy’s assassination was, I watched  individuals from all walks of life, from all segments of the political spectrum, from many religious, racial and ethnic groups come together to honor JFK and to support the ideals he stood for. When Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot, as a college campus pastor I organized a large campus memorial ceremony and played a recording of his I Have a Dream speech. No riots erupted.  Instead, Campus racial tensions vanished that day and became more manageable in the months following. The value of death as an agent of reconciliation finally was penetrating my early privileged suburban blinders and emerging into my consciousness.

These experiences were preparing this geezer for his later adulthood career as a psychotherapist, who attended to people grappling with various versions of deaths and losses of many magnitudes. I discovered that in order to recover from depression or anxiety, as well as from various physical ailments, a person often had to pass through the valley of the shadow of death.” That passage included accepting the pain of the loss, rather than seeking retribution; grieving the loss, rather than fighting it; forgiving the perpetrator of the injury, rather than taking revenge; and most difficult of, all forgiving one’s own self , not nurturing guilt at “causing” the loss. Only by taking on this journey, I discovered, can a person accept the forgiveness of others who have been injured, as well as the forgiveness of God. Christians, including this geezer, have discovered that Jesus’s voluntary death, rather than resisting arrest and defending himself, was God’s way of absorbing the pain of human greed, hatred and delusion. Hence Good Friday.

Little did this geezer realize during his practice of psychotherapy that he was also being prepared for the loss of his wife – the gradual loss of the relationship over 10 years of her dementia, as well as the loss of her life just a year ago. As a result of this journey through the valley, this geezer has been amazed at his own “resurrection” of new life during this past year – enjoying living alone, rather than fearing abandonment; accepting a variety of new friends, instead of shying away from folks who seem different; and most of all allowing this blog to emerge from that unknown aspect of himself discovered by looking in the mirror. This Geezer is discovering the wisdom attributed to Francis of Assisi in his famous prayer:

“Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console,

“To be understood as to understand,

‘To be loved as to love;

“For it is in giving that we receive.

“It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.

“And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”

As you grow in your own geezerhood, may you also grow in this wisdom.

©John Van Ness, 3/28/13

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