Successful Aging and Your Brain (on Parkinson’s)

Last night Chris and I attended a fun JCC Parkinson’s Holiday Party. After rounds of singing and before the raffle, music therapist Barbara Yahr, and Parksinson’s docs Alessandro DiRocco and Rebecca Gilbert spoke about ways to successfully grow older with the disease.

Here are four take-aways — and these apply to everyone:
1. Get more social. Apathy is a real problem for people with Parkinson’s (and thus, their families), because the dopamine, the reward mechanism in the brain, dwindles. To combat this, make sure that you’re getting out and continuing to wire new neuron pathways through interesting conversations and activities. Change your routine. Don’t do what you’ve always done.
2. Eat well. Best foods for Parkinson’s? They really don’t know. Someone from the audience recommended non-inflammatory foods, but the doctors on the panel could not confirm that this was the optimal diet. There was some consensus that the Mediterranean Diet works well for everyone as we age.
3. Be active. What’s the best kind of exercise? The one that you do! If you have Parkinson’s, exercising for 45 minutes six days a week will likely stave off the steady decline.
4. Make a joyful noise. Music helps. Anecdotally, Yahr spoke about the magical powers of music — a way to communicate when speaking fails. And the docs emphasized that any way of making or participating in artistic endeavors — fine arts of performance arts — is good for the brain.

Caroline Kohles
Caroline Kohles: Chris always says she should receive a genius grant. One of the amazing JCC Parkinson’s teachers, Caroline sparks health through exercise and a growth mindset in her NIA class. (photo courtesy of NIANow.)

So, as the moderator of the panel and Chris’s great friend and brilliant teacher Caroline Kohles summed it all up: “Keep a beginners’ mind.”

Keep growing mentally because the brain, at any age, has neuroplasticity. Instead of a fixed mindset, a growth mindset, built on a foundation of persistence, hard work and optimism, provides maximum health benefits.

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December Slump

I’ve lost my mojo. Is it under the table? Maybe in the kitchen? Is this normal? Or maybe hormonal? Seasonal Affect Disorder? The empty nest?

Oh, screw it. I have to dig myself out of my slump. Walking to my Via, the $3.25 car service this morning that takes me to work, I tried to give myself a pep talk. ‘Walk tall — remember the old adage, “Have the confidence of a mediocre white man.”‘

I reminded myself that I used to produce and star in — yes, star in — a Manhattan talk show. Sure, it was on cable access. But I was a star. Now, I’m a bit player. Maybe the dresser. Maybe the bartender at intermission. In any case, I’m definitely no longer a star. I feel like a has-been who never really was.

‘Tis the season for the December slump. I made a list of things To Dos and it includes making doctor appointments for family members and them gifts.

Whaaaaa! What about me?

Poor me, poor me. Pour me some egg nog. How to overcome this? I googled tips on SAD from the Mayo clinic and read the suggestion to use a light box. I bought one last Christmas for someone’s gift so will drag it out again.

Beyond increasing your light, the Mayo Clinic suggests you exercise, socialize, and meditate. I found this postcard in my bag. And I share it with you:

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And then, at lunch time, I remembered the secret task of the Artist’s Date from the Artist’s Way path.

I felt compelled to swing over to the Guggenheim down the block for 20 minutes and was BLOWN AWAY by this show featuring Hilma af Klint. OMG!!! A spiritualist and an abstract artist from Sweden produced these mind-bending paintings in the early 20th century  — moved by the spirit, joined by four other women (the Group of Five) and dismissed by the likes of Rudolph Steiner.

When I see Abstract Art, I like to pretend to fall into it. And I really fell into and for Klint. She is cool af. (Actually that’s part of her name, I gather, and not just that she’s cool as  f*^k.) A true prophet, way ahead of her time. New York never fails to lift me up when I’m feeling down.

So, yes, I’m in a slump, but I took in some culture. Now, feel cheered immensely.

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Write to Heal Rape Culture – press release

Join Mary Beth Coudal and Sheryl Burpee Dluginski for a series of workshops to focus on healing a culture that normalizes rape and sexual violence. Through memoir and non-fiction writing exercises and discussions, participants will create hope, healing, and a new vision for a safe, fair society, in which all people can thrive without fear of harassment and assault. To support participants through the process of turning their difficult stories into art, short periods of mind-body movement including yoga and energy work will be interspersed with writing, reading, and discussion. In four bi-weekly sessions participants will receive validation, support, and feedback as they progress through four steps:

Week 1: What I Want To Say

Week 2: Telling My True Story

Week 3: Using My Story as Fuel for Personal Growth

Week 4: Using My Story to Help Heal Rape Culture

The workshop will culminate with optional participation in a public reading and/or a published collection. Additionally, writers will receive suggestions for where to submit their polished work.

This workshop series is ideal for writers of any level who would like to be part of a supportive network of people involved in the important work of speaking out about, healing from, and preventing sexual violence. Due to the potentially triggering material to be discussed, we suggest that participants have therapeutic tools and support in place to help process issues and emotions which may emerge.

A portion of the proceeds from this workshop will be donated to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization.

When: Sunday, January 13 and 27 and February 10 and 24, 2019 from 10am to 12 noon

Where: Creating Health Studio, 222 East 75th Street, New York City.

Price:  $190 for all four sessions. $50 per session for less than four.

Early registration price, before 12/31/18:  $150 for all four sessions. $40 per session for less than four.

Mary Beth Coudal is a writer, teacher, and founder of the Writers Boot Camp. Sheryl Burpee Dluginski is a writer, mind-body fitness instructor, and founder of Generations Fitness and the Creating Health Studio.

For more information and to register, email Mary Beth at bootcamp4writers@gmail.com or Sheryl at sheryl.genfit@gmail.com.

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What I Learned and What Next?

I’ve spent this last month writing every day about creativity. Even when I didn’t feel like it (and I knew that would happen), I did it.

The first few days flew by in a flutter of enthusiasm and newness and then, there was the sameness, the place of not having anything new to say or retreading where I had tread before. Looking to hone my message of hope in some new-fangled way? Boring!

Then, I felt my own resentment for taking on something a little too large. And futile — what difference does my writing make any way?

How can I, someone so inconsequential, turn the axis of this country, governed today by the swamp of greed and fear, to shape the narrative into a story — my story, the country’s story — of overcoming hatred with love? Of somehow looking for and, occasionally, finding a pathway to grit. To grace. To forgiveness.

To make compassion the bottom line of life, to be open and vulnerable to others, to make community life the focus, and to let prayer be the breath of your life – that requires a willingness to tear down the countless walls that we have erected between ourselves and others in order to maintain our safe isolation. This is a lifelong and arduous spiritual battle because while tearing down walls with one hand, we build new ones with the other. After I had left the university and chosen a life in the community, I realized that, even in community, there are numerous ways to play the controlling games of individualism. Indeed, true conversion asks for a lot more than a change of place. It asks for a change of heart. – Henri J. Nouwen

I’ve drawn inspiration from the heroes who came before me.

So, this month, I’ve learned to write even when I didn’t feel like writing. To speak even when it would’ve been more judicious to stay quiet. To get quiet and listen to the still, small voice within.

I’ve learned that I don’t have to change the whole world, just myself. And if my writing moves the needle, even a fraction of an inch, towards more compassion, more self-empathy, more kindness, that’s good enough.

Still. I want more. Here are five possible next steps for next month:

More NaNoWriMo — national novel writing month. While I have loved joining this collective writing community and have done so in past years, I hesitate to produce a novel in a month from scratch. I’d love, even more, to revise past efforts at my novel-writing madness. I have many half-baked novels, wedged into the back of an overstuffed file cabinet. I’d like to unearth and revise these more than I’d like to begin something new. (And to clean out my file cabinet.) I am trying to strategize on how I can use the resources of NaNoWriMo for my own dastardly purposes. Rather than writing some new 50,000 words whole cloth, why not rework my old 50,000-word stories? I can still join the meet-ups and the timed writing opportunities, I just might not earn the badge.

More polished essays — I have a dozen, crafted essays about our political climate from my own humorous point of view to submit to places for publication. I would like to be more consistent with sending out my essays and getting them published.

More fitness — since my shoulder surgery, I’ve found I’m not as physically active as I was last spring. I really want to be more consistent with working out. Yes, citibiking to and from work is better than catching a Via, however, it’s still not enough. When I bike, I coast. When I work out at the gym or go for a long walk or short run, I get my heart rate pumping. This reminds me: support me as I undertake the 5K fundraiser for United Methodist Women. And I am probably going to run a 5K Turkey Trot in Chicago as well.

More workshops — I’ve got a little idea cooking on my back burner. A neighbor who’s taken my writing workshop literally stopped me on the street to suggest that I offer a class on writing to overcome and heal from sexual abuse, assault, and harassment. So, this is a goal for the month of November — to get this workshop on the calendar and promote it so we get a healthy enrollment. And we will all begin to heal the rape culture in which we live. I’d also like to plan some spring get-away writing workshop.

More travel — There is nothing like travel to open the mind and fill the heart.

So that’s it — continue to fill your days with creativity and hope. Believe that change for the good is always possible.

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Beautiful Boy and Beautiful Fall

This is what love is and what love does too. Was thinking of this last night when I watched Beautiful Boy at the Directors Guild. I have a special place in my heart for movies about recovery. I am always curious as to how AA and Alanon meetings are depicted in films. And is the preceding drug addiction or alcoholism or family disease glamorized at all?

One new twist in this movie is that the father’s worry over one child seemed to rob him of love for his other children. The younger children are merely props. Growing up in a big family, we five children had a radar for this kind of fairness among children. Any Coudal child that was getting any special treatment — say, you wanted to stay home from school because you were sick? — the others would whine, “you’re not sick! you’re faking it?” (Ugh, I’m sickened by the immature insult of calling someone or some news outlet ‘fake.’)

This is also the dance of addiction. “You’re not sick! You’re making poor choices!” The movie is a bit slim on the discussion of addiction and alcoholism as a disease; maybe that’s because we already know this, perhaps it is assumed. The film’s not preachy.

There’s some tough love in the movie too, which is new for movies about addiction. Steve Carrell, who plays the father, is stoic. I would like to see more chinks in his armor. He seems out of control only once — in the time-worn, film-weary trope of throwing his phone to show his anger. At least in this movie, he asks his wife to call his phone so he can find it. I could’ve used more ragged emotion from Carrell. But that’s me — I relate more to imperfect, sensitive people than walled-off, guarded father figures.

What the movie gets right, on so many levels, is that the disease of addiction is conjoined with mental illness. This actor who plays Nic, Timothee Chalamet, is perfect — so lovable, one moment, and monstrous the next. Is his brief, drug-induced ecstasy worth the pain, torture, heartache he causes himself and his loved ones? Again, he is in throes of addiction so naturally, the cause and effect of his illness are not forefront on his mind.

This movie does bring to light the scourge of drug addiction in this country. Starkly, at the end of the movie, this fact appeared:  Overdoses now are the leading cause of death of Americans under 50. Wow! Sobering.

There’s another theme found in the movie, which I love — the depiction of a writer’s life. In many films, you get the feeling that being a writer means you sit for about two minutes staring at a computer screen, maybe you wad up some paper — throw the wad, oh dang, it misses the waste basket — and then hooray! we see our hapless writer hero on their book tour. But the hours of research, loneliness, procrastination? Not so much. I liked that this movie depicts a writer’s life somewhat realistically as the solitary life of an artist — much like the life of a visual artist. In this film, Maura Tierney plays the artist Karen Barbour, the stepmom of Nic, who, too, is plumbing the depths through her visual art. Sitting alone. Which is what I’m doing right now.

Just a last thought and perhaps a feminist take on this movie, now that I’ve mentioned Nic’s stepmother, I’m wondering if this movie would’ve been made if the caring parent of a teenager in need of recovery was a female writer. I think we tend to glorify fathers and husbands (and male writers) in our Hollywood films, but from my true life experience, from what I’ve seen: most caregivers, at least among spouses with Parkinson’s Disease, are female.

It could be part of the novelty and romanticism of Beautiful Boy, in that it is the father is the parent depicted as the consistent, caring one. In real life, I’ve found, more women are primary caregivers for physically and mentally ill family members. But they rarely have movies made about them.

I’ve written about other movies on addiction: Great movies about alcoholics and mental illness: Great movies about mental illness.

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Am writing this from the Cooper Hewitt cafe. A beautiful fall Halloween day. 

Choose Love over Hate

in each new day, i commit to
be loving to the people i encounter.
at times it is not easy, to be encouraging.
to feel encouraged.

it feels like hate is winning.
when we see this administration meet a ragtag group
of immigrants at our borders with guns.
or defy the constitution.
when the hatred murders people praying in a house of worship
or sends bombs to anyone who dares criticize the leader,
it feels like hate is wining.
and i don’t know what i can do.
but i remember 9/11
i could not rebuild the towers or catch the fallen,
but i could make my own little corner of the world
better.
i could greet my neighbors and smile and nod at people who looked different.
who worshiped in a way different than me.
i could hold the hand of a child.
i could stand up for human rights:
the right to worship
to grow
to seek asylum and shelter
to not be bullied.
it feels like the social norms of the presidency are thrown away
and hate is winning.
i still cannot believe it.
two years ago, i woke,
insecure, frightened, sickened by the results of that last election.
i promised my daughters i would not stop fighting for justice
i still think of Martin Luther King
and Dorothy Day
and Eleanor Roosevelt
and Sojourner Truth
and Elizabeth Cady Stanton
and I will not stop fighting their battles
and there are more who walk among us:
the leaders of BLM, the ACLU, the Parkland youth,
my own Rutgers Church, and Shannon Watts and Moms Demand Action,
and yes, HRC and Maxine Waters,
and John Lewis.
and just this weekend when I heard Andy Hamilton of NYU speak to alumni,
I swear I cried, it was not something extraordinary that he said,
but it was the affirmation of a global education,
and a commitment to people in all their beautiful stories, histories, futures,
to hear a leader I admired, embrace and not condemn.
there are many school headmasters and college presidents
taking up the slack of leadership.

we must not stop fighting for international sister and brotherhood and siblinghood,

We are part of the same human family.
We are greater than hate.
Everyday, I seek to make a small dent in the world of hate,
to turn the world off the axis of hate and on to the axis of love.
sometimes I want to give in and spew hatred too —
hatred for the haters — for those who take away rights or render people invisible–
but my humanity will not let me. and as a follower of Jesus and the Red Letter Bible,
I am compelled to stand up for the poor
the peacemakers
the marginalized
the people of many faiths and no faith.
all i can do is
do justice
love mercy
and walk humbly with God.
it is all and it is enough.

choose love.

This was my morning prayer.

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Postcards to Voters button — am wearing this on my coat. It was a gift from my church friend for writing postcards to get out the vote next week. Voting is my super power.

Drama in the Classroom

In drama class a student learns to speak up, act, entertain, socialize, write, debate, collaborate, and create. I love enlivening curriculum with drama because students don’t have to sit still. They can get up, run around, and embody whatever literature they are reading. They can play. And I believe learning is playing. At the online MIT Learning Creative Learning class, the leaders often discussed learning in connection with tinkering — using tools to mess around as they sought to solve problems.

I’ve noticed that in many traditional classrooms students are required to sit at their seats for a long period of time. And I wonder if we do this because we assume that is the physical posture in which children will be expected to work as adults in their own professional lives. Do teachers do this because we want students to be pliable? Do we believe school is simply a preparation for work? Isn’t school also a preparation to live a creative life? Isn’t learning for the sake of learning one of life’s greatest joys? And isn’t the nature of work — the way we work — changing?

By asking students to sit for long stretches of time, aren’t we training them to be sedentary? I know students have gym class in which they can move freely, but all of us need to incorporate healthy and purposeful movement, beyond organized sports, into our lives.

Look, for many years as a professional writer, I could not write without sitting, plugging in my headphones, and tuning out the world around me. In high school art classes, students wear their headphones to get into the zone. But periods of restlessness ensue and built-in stretch breaks and walking breaks always sparked new ideas.

When I headed up a Christmas Party committee in my old office, I insisted that we have stand-up meetings. This kept our meetings short in duration and high energy in spirit.

Moving and standing while writing and working increases productivity. It may be apocyrphal but I’ve heard Thomas Wolfe wrote while standing and using his fridge as a desk. One day in the Village, I ran into my old dramatic literature teacher and author Una Chaudhuri. What was she doing? She was walking and thinking, she said. This was the best way for her to process her own writing work.

The infusion of any course of study with drama makes it more engaging. I have always loved reading out loud to my children and my students. It’s strangely calming for children (and adults too?) to be read to. Honestly, a read-aloud book is kind of like a drug. More effective than a sleeping pill, my husband and I used to read short stories to each other before bed. Cheever was our favorite.

Besides the calming and energizing qualities to a drama class, there is also the sheer entertainment value of it. I remember laughing so hard in my high school drama class when we did improv. Theater is a collaborative art. The guiding principle of improv — of saying ‘Yes! And’ to your given circumstances — is so needed right now. We need to build each other up and not tear one another down.  There is so much good to teaching drama in schools.

When I covered a maternity leave for the drama program at Riverdale, I loved helping the students write and perform their own plays. (See the press release) Students create such amazing work when given the chance to perform major drama in schools. (See for yourself at St. David’s drama/music program.)

It is our belief that people learn best when they are actively constructing knowledge by working on problems that are particularly meaningful to them, in a playful way. – Lifelong Kindergarten (LLK) Research Group at MIT

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Speaking of drama and playfulness, isn’t Winona Ryder great? (This tweet got so many likes!)