Bonne anniversaire

IMG_0156Today is my birthday.

It’s not something that I generally advertise or talk about. I don’t really celebrate it. I have my reasons. Or at least I did.

Zora Neale Hurston said, “There are years that ask questions, and years that answer.” This year has been a year of questions so far, at least for me. The tail end of 2019 was, too. Some of these are newer questions; others are the same old questions or variations of previous ones.

It’s the questions that have kept me from celebrating.

“What’s the point? It’s just another day.”

“Does anyone care anyway? They never really did before.”

“When the person who made it special is no longer here, why bother? It will never be good.”

I feel the need to point out that my age is not why I don’t celebrate my birthday. But I would like to think that as I get older that I do get a tiny bit wiser. Or at least pay attention more, especially to Grandmother Wisdom.

Grandmother Wisdom is my absolute favorite type of wisdom. I like Grandfather Wisdom, too, but I’ve never had a lot of access to it. My paternal grandfather died before I was born, so that left the wisdom bit to my maternal grandfather who was a truck driver until my adolescence.

But Grandmother Wisdom I got in buckets because I was fortunate enough to know and spend time both of my grandmothers and all four of my great-grandmothers. And over the years, I’ve paid attention to the older women in my life—those friends and colleagues who know much more about the goings-on of the world than I do.

It was two of these women who admonished me last year for not celebrating my birthday. In response to my questioning rationale described above, my friend Annis from New Zealand simply replied, “it’s not about you.” Why would I rob the people in my life of celebrating my presence in their lives? Good question. And why wouldn’t I at least express gratitude for another year “this side of the sod.”

I am grateful, extremely. My life, though not perfect (who’s is?) and not always what I planned (again, who’s is?), is rather extraordinary. And if I look past the self-perceived flaws, it’s clearly the life I dreamed of, merely in a different form than I could have imagined.

If I’ve learned anything in the past several months, it’s been more appreciation of that—acknowledging the flaws in way that allows coexistence with my blessings. As I’m writing now, a clear and vivid image comes to mind.

In my mind’s eye, I see a stream running freely and clearly through the middle of a forest of tall trees. There’s a clearing around a portion of the stream and from its pebbly banks, you can look up and see the sky. Above the treetops in front of you looms snow-capped, red-rocked mountains. Behind you and to the right of your field of vision, you can see the slope of the forested hillside that brought you here. The water is a deep, inky blue. The bank is covered with smooth, dark gray pebbles to match the larger boulders punctuating the stream.

As you turn to your left, you see a wise woman seated at a simple loom closer to the water. Approaching her, you can see over her shoulder that she is weaving a tapestry, though the final pattern and image is not clear. It’s stylized, yet familiar—abstract, yet traditional. To her left is a basket containing a haphazard mix of yarn and thread. You know what she knows. These are the supplies she has been given with which to weave the tapestry. Dark, light, ugly, beautiful…all must be used and incorporated into the pattern, into the story this tapestry will tell.

This image is very familiar to me. I think about it a lot on my birthday. And I see it anytime someone talks about life and its events. It particularly comes to mind when I hear folks say things like “let it go” or “move on.” My ears and brain process those phrases as if one can divorce oneself from life events—the events that ask the questions that put off celebration. I hear these sentiments as if the weaver can throw an ugly skein of yarn back into the basket because they don’t like it.

To me, the tapestries of our lives present us with a multitude of threads, some grand and some not so grand. But we must find a way to incorporate all of these experiences, perceptions, thoughts, and feelings into our tapestry. Rather than letting it go, we’re letting it be. We’re learning and growing, following the patterns of our lives and steering ourselves toward the remembrance of our wholeness.

So, it’s my birthday. I doubt I’ll become like my friend Kellie and celebrate all month long. In fact, I have no plans to celebrate. At this point in my life, acknowledgment and gratitude are enough.


Good Moments

IMG_0688As I write this post, I’m sat in the Centre for Medicine and Aging (SESAM) at the Stavanger University Hospital in Stavanger, Norway, working with my IDSC colleague and friend Professor Ingelin Testad. She directs SESAM, leading a group of graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, staff, and volunteers in efforts to improve the lives of people with dementia in Norway. Through their public engagement platform titled Wise Age, they sponsor and host a series of events to support older adults in Western Norway.

I’ve been quite fortunate and grateful to spend the past twelve days here presenting my research in dementia family caregiving; meeting with existing and new collaborators from SESAM, the University of Exeter, and King’s College London; and consulting with SESAM staff regarding media strategy and engaged scholarship.

But as with everything in life, it’s been the people and the stories that have made it all memorable and have helped to create the good moments, or gode øyeblikk. This is something Ingelin and I have been talking about all week as she begins to develop her own professional blog and website. It has become our hashtag. So whether it has been laughing over a good dinner at Skagen on the harbor, appreciating the opportunities to connect with international colleagues from across Europe in meaningful conversations, walking through Gamle Stavanger, cruising up the fjords, dipping my toes in the North Sea, having my first sip of aquavit, or wandering through fantastically colored rhododendrons in peak bloom, this trip has been filled with good moments for me that I’ve been sharing on Twitter.

As with my last trip to Europe two years ago, I plan to pull together a digital scrapbook when I’m back in Tennessee that will make it easy to share and treasure the many things I did and saw while I was here. And I’m already looking forward to my next visit, as well as all of the inspiring work between now and then.

In the meantime, I’m very grateful to my friends and colleagues here in Stavanger for helping me to collect a skattekiste or treasure chest of good moments.

“Is this thing on?”: Leveraging communication tools to promote engaged scholarship

IMG_3626This morning, I received a more detailed itinerary for my upcoming trip to Norway in May. The twelve days in Stavanger at the Centre for Age-Related Medicine will be full of collaborative research meetings and networking events; presentations to a variety of audiences, including health care providers; and quality time with colleagues and friends. And let’s not forget the gorgeous surroundings of the fjords. All of this came about through purposeful engagement on several levels, including a willingness and drive to share what I do in my program of research, as well as to include in that program of research digital methods and tools.

Engaged scholarship is a term that increasingly gets thrown around in academia, along with words like impact and community engagement. The Carnegie Foundation defines community engagement as follows: “Community engagement describes the collaboration between higher education institutions and their larger communities (local, regional/state, national, global) for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity.

Essentially, I do what I do because I believe that care and compassion are important and because I know that we all need help along the way. I spend my days wearing my thinking cap and working on strategies and tools for symptom management and caregiver support in dementia, as well as exploring the impact providing care for someone with dementia can have on families and friends. And I’m fortunate to work with amazing scholars from across the country and around the world in these efforts. Together, my colleagues and I develop tools, design and test interventions, and explore social media data all in an effort to support these families.

But it doesn’t mean anything if what I learn and discover isn’t shared with the world. If my goal is to make the lives of caregivers better, then I can’t hide my scholarship under a bushel. The Office of Community Engagement and Outreach at the University of Tennessee has a page on its website outlining ways of sharing one’s research, stating “a fundamental part of the engagement process is sharing research findings with those in your discipline and with community members.”

Earlier this month, I collaborated with my College of Nursing colleagues Carole Myers, Robin Harris, and Terri Durbin on a colloquium for our PhD and DNP students about leveraging communication tools in new ways to promote engaged scholarship. We spent the morning working with our students on recognizing and owning their expertise as nurses, honing key messages about their work, and using tools like social media, elevator pitches, and media interviews to get these messages across to stakeholders. I explained to them how I use social media as a way to share and conduct my research, providing examples of how I use my colleague Wendy Looman’s approach of curating, connecting, collaborating, and creating on Twitter to engage with other scholars and the community. More and more, people are recognizing my work through that platform, coming up to me at conferences and telling me that they follow me or by sending me a direct message with an idea for collaboration.

It’s a big part of what is taking me back to Norway, after getting me there for the first time in 2017. My colleague and friend Ingelin Testad, the director of the Centre, and I have collaborated for several years now on manuscripts and symposia. But on this trip, she specifically wants me to work with her and her colleagues on these aspects of engaged scholarship because she has observed the impact this approach has had for myself and others.

So how does one get started if engaged scholarship sounds like a good idea or worth pursuing? During the colloquium earlier this month, my colleagues and I asked our students to think about what it is they wanted to say about their scholarship and how they wanted to say it. Sounds simple, but it is easy to get sidetracked in a digital world. Find platforms and outlets that work for you. I like Twitter and get a lot out of it. Others prefer to write editorials or do a podcast. My colleague Carole does all three.

Regardless of the medium, one must have a clear goal in mind. I use Twitter to engage with folks interested in the care of older adults. I like Twitter because the platform allows me to foster that engagement with academics, clinicians, advocates, and people in the community. Twitter is one way that I can share the what, how, and why of what I do in my professional life with more people than I would ever encounter at a research conference, community event, or through a paper that I publish in a journal. But I still do all of those other, more traditional things. My presence on Twitter and blogs is an enhancement and adjunct to those more common outlets and metrics.

How do you keep from tumbling down the rabbit hole? I suggest that people can simply set a timer. The Pomodoro Method is a great way of managing your time and is a strategy that works for some people. As with any strategy, it only works if it works for you. Too often, I think that we find ourselves giving up when trying to implement some ideal strategy or method because it really doesn’t fit our personality or circumstance.

The same can be said for the ways in which I approach engaged scholarship. My methods and media are not for everyone, and that’s okay. I get a lot out of it and not just international travel. The level of engagement is what is truly important to me. When a caregiver tells me that my editorial made them feel seen or when a fellow scholar reaches out online to let me know they appreciated a resource I shared, I feel like I am making a difference. It’s a humbling and rewarding experience.

An Evening with the Queen of Soul

It was the evening of June 4, 2000. My mother and I were sat in the War Memorial Auditorium in Greensboro, North Carolina. Like everyone else is the packed auditorium, we were awaiting the appearance and performance of Aretha Franklin. The level of anticipation was palpable and every time it appeared as if someone was about to walk on stage, my mother would eagerly move to the edge of her seat.

That June was my parents’ 25thwedding anniversary. As a gift, I had offered to take them to see Aretha in concert. Only my mother took me up on the offer, and so it became another one of those outings that was just the two of us. Looking back on it now, I’m so grateful to have been able to be part of this experience with her, and to have been able to provide such a gift.

When Aretha did finally step onto the stage, the ground was already on its feet. At the first glimpse of the Queen, my mother gasped and held her breath for what seemed like the entire opening number. I will never forget the look on my mother’s face as the Queen of Soul proved beyond a shadow of a doubt why she, and only she, held that title.

I’ve been thinking about that evening a lot over the past week or so when the news first broke that Aretha was gravely ill. It’s an odd thing, I think, when a celebrity or artist dies. It’s strange in that this person has been present in your life, in way or another, yet was not a part of your life at all in the traditional sense. It’s only in those moments of performance, like the concert, during which your paths actually cross.

Yet Aretha sang and was a part of our country’s history. The fact that one can simply use her first name without confusion or lack of awareness by anyone is testament, I think to her impact on our culture. Few have a voice so powerful, so expansive, and so indescribably wonderful.

It’s interesting to me how she not only sang our country’s history, but also our personal histories. Playing her music conjures up specific memories for me, from heartbreaks to triumphs. Funny how those songs instantly transport me across time and space to a particular situation or set of emotions. A wealth of memories is accessed, most poignant and some bittersweet.

And since her death a few days ago, her songbook has been playing on a loop in my head. I am at once taken on a trip down memory lane while simultaneously marveling at her vocal prowess. I turn over the lyrics, notes, and memories in my head and marvel at the ability of our brains to process all of this information simultaneously.

And I marvel at the legacy of a woman, an artist, who touched the lives of so many.


What I want you to know about Kathy

IMG_0163Today would have been my mother’s 60th birthday.

It’s funny how those years that end in a zero always feel like milestones for some reason.

It would have been her birthday because she died almost seven years ago from breast cancer. It’s weird how her death can feel like yesterday and a lifetime ago all at the same time. I think about her daily, but as her birthday as drawn closer, she’s been in my thoughts throughout the day more than other times of the year. Given the milestone nature of her birthday, I’ve been thinking about other milestones in her life and my own. And I’ve been thinking about her legacy. I know that my dad, brothers, and I carry that forward. At this point, if you never met her, then the only way for you to know her is through one of us.

My dad said to someone recently at my uncle’s funeral that everything that is good about my brothers and me comes from my mom. I think he’s half right because I know that I share qualities from both of my parents, who also share similar qualities with each other. But I do believe that some of my best qualities do come from her, and those are things that I hope people learn about her through me.

So, what is that I want you to know about Kathy?

For starters, she had a great sense of humor and smiled and laughed a lot. She was sassy and mischievous. She was smart and well-organized, with a strong work ethic. She was a self-starter who liked to get the job done. Oftentimes, she wanted to do it herself because Kathy liked things a certain way. These are all qualities I believe we share.

But what I really want you to know about my mother is her compassion. She loved her family fiercely and was what some might consider tenderhearted. She was kind, empathetic, and loyal to family, friends, and neighbors. She cared, she really cared. And she made you feel like she cared. You knew it. My hope is that my compassion is felt and known in the same way. And she was strong, in ways we never understood until she was gone. She wasn’t perfect because no one is. But I know she was as perfect as she could be. She wanted to be a good mother and she tried her best, even if there were times when she or I felt that she missed the mark.

I remember once asking her what she had really wanted to be as an adult given that she didn’t go to college and completed vocational courses in high school related to secretarial and office management work (which she excelled at). As a budding scientist and undergraduate student at the time, I couldn’t believe that what she was doing was what the dream had actually been. But I was wrong because it was. She told me she took the courses in high school because she really liked them and that what she really wanted to be—what she had always wanted to be—was a good mother.

As with me, her characteristic compassion and empathy was a double-edged sword. It makes you vulnerable because you feel. And when you feel, you can feel the good and bad. I think that sometimes that level of emotional intensity can magnify things, at least it can for me. What I mean to say is that she was self-effacing and, at times, self-deprecating. For example, I don’t believe she would describe herself as smart because few people ever told her that she was or made her feel that way. And I understand that aspect of her, too. It’s another quality that we share. I feel fortunate that through my education and life experiences, I’ve learned skills to help me in reframing those kinds of things when I get discouraged. And sometimes that is a skill you have to hone and practice often. As an aside I find it ironic that the kid who grew up often wondering if he was “good enough” ended up in a career in which peer review of one’s work is required. But I digress.

She was also unapologetically herself and authentic. She was, as we would say in the hills of Grayson County, just natural. She was just Kathy. Actually, it was about the time that she reached my current age that I really noticed this quality in her really coming to the fore, as evidenced by her adopting the nickname Special K around that time.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I hope that all of the things I got from her, that I learned from her, shine through in some way into the present. And I’ll tell you why.

Someone recently made an error in judgment and said to me, “oh, that’s right. You don’t have a mother.” I know this person meant no harm and it’s not the first time someone has said something like this to me in the past seven years. But I don’t like it. I don’t like it because I don’t believe it is accurate. I do have a mother, a great mother. Just because she’s no longer living doesn’t mean that I don’t have a mother. It feels like negating her existence.

So, it’s important to me that people know her through me—through my work, my actions, the way in which I approach my life. I don’t want to live in her shadow or do things only to suit what I think she might have wanted. But I do want people to have some inkling of who she was because if you never met her, then you missed out on someone amazing.

Between compassion and fear

This may be rambling, but bear with me.

Days after the election in November, I was sitting on the ground in protest with students, faculty, and staff at the University of Tennessee. Our voices cried out for equality, equity, and compassion in the face of the fear, hatred, and negativity that had pervaded the election cycle and ushered in its results. I had reminded myself then to use my voice to resist, persist, and stand up for the vulnerable. My privilege as a White, cisgender male allows me a seat at the table. My life experience, particularly as a gay man, informs my position while seated at that table.

But days like today give me pause and I find myself searching for words. Last night, I stayed up into the wee hours watching events unfold in Charlottesville, Virginia, a place I recently called home. While some on social media spoke of being shocked by what was and is occurring, shock is not a reaction I’ve had. I’ve lived in the South my whole life and I know this type of fear and hatred exists here and elsewhere. What is different in my perception now are the signal boosters of the fear, in this country and globally.

I was in the United Kingdom when the terrorist attack happened at London Bridge, traveling to London the day after. Then as now, I find myself very introspective and processing all that I’m feeling—sadness, anger, frustration, puzzlement, and wanting. And then as now, I find myself in a place of safety and quiet, in meditation and thought of how to use what I have—my voice, my skills, my position—to better the situation.

My training as a Certified Healing Touch Practitioner helps tremendously in having a measured response and keeping my outrage in check. It allows me to practice my compassion and offers me insight into the numerous ways in which I can do that on a daily basis. Still, I find my mind racing a bit—going through memories, thoughts, and ideas at lightning speed in an effort to find a solution, an action, a task.

I’ve thought about the times that I’ve stood where the events in Charlottesville are now happening. Specifically, the times I’ve stood on those very spots at rallies for peace, equality, and equity, and vigils of remembrance.

I’ve thought about the students who came to me for support during times of fear when I was a member of the faculty at the University of Virginia—students who were wrestling with their own responses to fear and hate.

I’ve thought about what it is like to be on the receiving end of that fear and hate myself, particularly during my teenage years when I faced verbal and physical harassment daily because of my sexual orientation.

And I’ve thought of the words of others.

Like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who said, “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

Like Garrison Keillor, who wrote

Gentleness is everywhere in daily life, a sign that faith rules through ordinary things: through cooking and small talk, through storytelling, making love, fishing, tending animals and sweet corn and flowers, through sports, music and books, raising kids—all the places where the gravy soaks in and grace shines through. Even in a time of elephantine vanity and greed, one never has to look far to see the campfires of gentle people.

Like Fannie Lou Hamer, who said, “You can pray until you faint, but unless you get up and try to do something, God is not going to put it in your lap.”

Like Maya Angelou, who said about hate that “it has caused a lot of problems in this world, but it has not solved one yet.”

Like Meryl Streep, who said, “Disrespect invites disrespect. Violence incites violence. When the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.”

Or Bob Marley, who said, “You never know how strong you are until being strong is your only choice.”

I know that the most important thing I can do is to continue to choose compassion over fear. For me, it really isn’t that much of choice. But I also know that compassion does not equate with complacency or silence. I will continue to use my voice, my skills, my resources, and my heart to do what I can when I can for as long as I can to strive for and speak up for compassion, peace, dignity, and equity.

And to think that it started with IFNC13

As an academic with a nine-month appointment, there is sometimes a perception that I have the summer off. And while I do have more flexibility in my schedule during the summer and can work at a more relaxed pace, I’m usually working most of the time. It’s the nature of scholarship; it doesn’t stop just because it’s summer.

But summer does afford me the opportunity to take advantage of opportunities that might not fit within the confines of the academic year, particularly travel abroad. I’ve always enjoyed traveling abroad. I remember the excitement and awe on that first trip to France while in high school. So many things were new and different. As I’ve aged, formed a cadre of international colleagues and friends, and traveled more internationally, I now tend to focus more on the similarities across cultures rather than the differences. But I digress.

My calendar had had IFNC13 in Pamplona marked in June 2017 for two years since leaving IFNC12 in Odense, Denmark, which I’ve written about here. It was an event I, and many others, had been looking forward to for quite some time. After a pre-conference workshop proposal put forth by my IFNA Communications Committee colleagues and I was accepted, planning for the trip could begin in earnest. My goal was to engage in the conference, visit friends and colleagues in the UK, and have a day or two for something touristy.

First, I reached out to my colleague Siobhan O’Dwyer at the University of Exeter. She and I had already formed an ongoing research collaboration and I proposed stopping there either on my to or way back from Spain to connect and work. I knew that I wanted to visit friends in the UK who I had not seen in four years, so it would be feasible. Schedules and funding aligned and plans for a week as a visiting academic fellow were put into place. However, given the complexities of our schedules, there was a one-week gap between my time in Exeter and IFNC13. At first I thought I would spend that time vacationing. But then I casually mentioned these plans to my colleague Ingelin Testad at the University of Stavanger in Norway.

“Come to Norway!” she said. Her center was having its annual regional conference the very week that was empty on my calendar. I could present at the conference and participate in an international research collaborative meeting bringing together scholars from the UK and Norway and, now, the US. It all just fell into place in the most brilliant fashion.

There are worse things than to spend three weeks in Europe for work. Coming from the Appalachian mountains of Virginia and humble beginnings, I’m always cognizant of and grateful for the wonderful opportunities that my career affords me. In this instance, I was keenly aware of this. I recalled a career bucket list I had sketched out in 2012 after accepting my first faculty position at the University of Virginia. One of those items was to be an international visiting academic fellow, in the UK. Not only was that now happening, it was happening along with these other amazing opportunities. And the best part was that it was happening with fabulous colleagues and friends.

My time in Exeter was brilliant and bookended with weekends at my friends’ home in Bristol. This was my fourth trip to the UK and it is increasingly feeling like a satellite home base. Norway was a country on my personal travel bucket list and it did not disappoint. Spain, too, was on that travel list and was another amazing experience, with IFNC13 the impetus behind the whole journey.

What I like most about IFNA, having experienced the biennial conference now twice, is the level of genuine collegiality and respect for the work done by those in attendance. With roughly 30 countries represented from all corners of the globe, it truly lives up to its name. It was great to share the stage with my IFNA Communications Committee colleagues during our social media preconference workshop, as well as to be at the conference with my colleague Sue McLennon from the University of Tennessee. The conference was a fine close to a great scholarly adventure that expanded my work in the use of social media by persons with dementia and their families, as well as expanding my network of collaborators, colleagues, and friends. Additionally, the whole experience enriched my understanding of our world, filled my heart and mind with beautiful memories, and was just the “summer break” I needed.