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GRAY MATTERS: Learning

Posted Jan 02 2010 2:30am

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the weekly Gray Matters column which appears here each Saturday. Links to past Gray Matters columns can be found here. Saul's Reflections column, in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation, also appears at Time Goes By twice each month.

In this the season of miracles, the one we have celebrated at our house is the birth in 1770 of Ludwig Van Beethoven which prompts me to suggest some things you might consider doing one of these cold winter weeks. It’s called adding a few synapses, better known as learning.

I do not wish to disparage Christmas; the obscene orgy of shopping does that. We usually send a check in the name of our family to one of our favorite charities, like the hospital that saved my life, in an amount approximating the money we’d spent on gifts. And we notify the kids and grandkids what we’ve done. I somehow think they appreciate it more than tchotchkes that have a short half-life.

Also, someone in the family will have a tree that will have no religious meaning. And we will get together to observe Hanukkah, the festival of lights, so that I can make, as I do every year, those potato latkes (pancakes) served with sour cream and/or applesauce. I will smell of the cooking oil for days. Hanukkah and Christmas, like Passover and Easter, become interfaith holidays that meet over food.

But starting some years ago, it occurred to me that Mr. Beethoven’s birthday, generally thought to be on December 16, was the more spiritually meaningful day coming in the midst of just about all of the religious observances. Jews, Christians and Muslims (this has been the time of the Haj) have been disappointing in their conduct over the years. Not Beethoven. He meant and he lived his words in the Choral movement of the Ninth Symphony: “All men become brothers.”

We don’t think of Beethoven as a political figure but he was a political hero; part of the revolutions of the early 19th century, tearing up the dedication to Napoleon on the first page of the Eroica Symphony because he, Napoleon, had declared himself emperor. Napoleon is long gone and so are all the kings, ministers and despots who have come after him. But Beethoven prevails; the Eroica was a revolution; the Ninth was a revelation.

So each year close to his birthday we have put on a dinner, serving the German foods Beethoven was known to eat (including prunes for his stomach upsets). And we play his music, ending with an Ode To Joy sing-a-long at midnight (badly done), toasting his birthday – his 239th this year.

All this has been a teaser, to urge those of you who live near the east coast to take advantage of a superb and inexpensive series of five-day Exploritas (formerly Elderhostel) programs at a favorite venue, the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, one of the nation’s oldest and most distinguished conservatories.

The upcoming program, beginning on January 24, includes “Symphonies of the Romantic Era,” Beethoven among them; “Piano Music of Chopin and Lizst” and “Great Piano Concertos.” The price, which includes all meals and lodging is $619.

Elderhostel changed its name to Exploritas to relieve itself of the misleading word “elder.” For those unfamiliar with Peabody, it offers year-round Exploritas programs on its campus, with rooms in its comfortable Peabody Inn where many of the classes are taught by Peabody faculty members. The inn has rooms that are accessible for the disabled.

The cafeteria is a short walk from the inn. The beautiful Baltimore waterfront, with great seafood, is a short drive away. Peabody invites participants to its student recitals and concerts, which are free. The Baltimore Symphony performs nearby. And so is the Walters Gallery.

If the classics are not to your taste, Peabody is famous for appealing to all tastes – for good music. One favorite is on Klezmer music. Beginning on March 21, the scheduled five-day program will include a retrospective on Al Jolson, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra as well as the films and melodies of Hoagy Carmichael, Gene Kelly and others.

Having attended a couple of Peabody programs, it’s a lovely way to spend a week. Recently, my wife and I splurged on a New York weekend. Whatever you do, be good to yourself.

Readers of Gray Matters, who have sent me their poems and stories, and contributors to Time Goes By’s Elder Story Telling Place, will appreciate another wintertime possibility - learning, thinking and writing for pleasure. We of a certain age know a great deal that we should not keep to ourselves. And the limitlessness of the internet and the freedom of blogging has afforded us an opportunity to stretch our minds with something to think and write about.

Only recently have we learned that, barring illness, there is no such thing as senility that comes with age. Our brains continue to add synapses as long as we live and as long as we exercise our minds. Truly, we may lose it if we don’t use it.

Thus, I’m putting in a plug for New Pathways for Aging, a paperback published as a product of a pioneer program of the Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement. It’s a venerable program in which older men and women, some of them professionals, have found, as the title suggests, new pathways for their own lives beyond their working years.

The book was sent to me by one of the editors, Dr. Rhoada Wald, who has been a member of and a study group leader at the Institute for 11 of its 32 years. It includes a series of essays, poems and personal reflections on the very serious but rewarding business of growing older.

The Harvard Institute, I learned from Wald, is one of nearly 400 such “learning in retirement” centers around the country - most of them, like Exploritas, are associated with colleges. There are one or more in each state including Alaska and several in each major city. Harvard’s Institute, part of the university’s Division of Continuing Education, has enrolled 550 members for 62 study groups. And the tuition is a modest $400.

You may find out more at the Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement website or in the book, New Pathways for Aging, and to see what’s available in your area you can consult the University of Maine website for the network of Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes.

There is no room here, of course, for the 27 contributions to this book, but unlike other such volumes that gild the lily of aging, this one does not ignore the illnesses and death that come as student colleagues and friends age. But of great wonder is the human impulse to keep going and learning in the face of mortality. One man, a cancer patient, called his poem, Set Dylan T. Aside.

Lillian Broderick, facing blindness from macular degeneration wrote:

“I’m not suffering the ravages of chemotherapy or drifting into the no man’s land of Alzheimer’s. I remind myself of all that remains–Mozart, Bach, the promise of spring in the air, the faces of my children and grandchildren safely lodged in memory, enduring friendships, the companionship of a 56-year-old marriage.”

Antonia Woods celebrated “the joy of slowing down” in Personal Best:

Once I scrambled up the mountain
Getting to the top my only goal
Now I stop often,
Resting in protected, sunny spots in the cold months
Finding shady rocks with breezes in the summer,
Sacred places where I can sit and watch and wait and listen.

(The book time for this hike is three hours, but my personal best is eight.)

What’s your story? Write to me at saulfriedman@comcast.net

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