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Life Gets Real with Ann Reed Guest: Marcia Avner
All songs: words and music by Ann Reed
Life Gets Real, ©995
Lost & Found, ©1995
The Racing Tortoise, ©2006
Stars Come Out At Night, ©2017; flute: Constance Braden Gift Of Age, ©2002

(music: Life gets Real)

Hi everyone.

I'm Ann Reed and welcome to Life Gets Real.

It's a series of interviews with women, all of them over 60.
To me, it's a time of life where we know where we've been and the time ahead is to be savored.
It's conversations about experiences of life so far, what's behind, what's ahead; grief, love, loss and hope.
It's the question: what happened and how did you get to be where you are right now?
It's women's stories.

Today, an interview with Marcia Avner.
I have known Marcia since she was the communications director for Senator Paul Wellstone. The breadth and depth of her experience in public service still leaves me shaking my head in wonder. Here's a partial list:

Assistant commissioner of energy for the state of Minnesota, legislative director with the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group and Director of Public Policy at the Minnesota Council of Non-Profits; Marcia has served on the board of directors of Lifetrack Resources, the Non-Profit Voter Engagement, the Governor's Commission on Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Friends of the Mississippi, and Wellstone Action.

Advocate, candidate, lobbyist, organizer, educator with a capital "E", Marcia Avner.

Marcia: So, born in 1943, grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania when it was still a steel town. Lived in a neighborhood very close to the mills with my mom and dad, dad was an architect, not a businessman but an architect and poet; mom was a first generation immigrant, she came here as a teenager from Russia and Poland, escaping in the pogroms. Fascinating woman, disguised as a soldier to fight in the haganah to liberate Palestine. I come from a family that had interesting stories and a lot of mercurial activity. My mother had one sister, they were eleven months apart in age. They came to this country together speaking nine languages, English was not one of them.

Ann: You knew your grandparents too, yes?

Marcia: I knew my grandmothers. My grandfathers had both died by the time I was born.

Ann: Did your family ... how did they influence you in your activism? I mean, you've been involved in social justice issues and ... for your adult life. I know you were brought to that through your son's deafness ...But did your family influence you on that?

Marcia: My father did. He was a dedicated Democrat and while my mother didn't care much about politics, our dinner table conversations were either family fights, which happens a lot like a scene out of Woody Allen's "Love and Death," or discussions about interesting things people had read or topics or the elections or wars or crisis. So we talked about public affairs at home but my dad was the influence. And he and I had very special times together. My bedroom was an old pantry in our duplex and the duplex was a gift from my aunt to my mother so that we had a place to live and share the space with my grandmother and take care of her. But my dad would come into the kitchen at about eleven o'clock at night and rattle pans around and say "Oh, are you up? I'm going to have a sandwich, do you want to join me?" And so then we would have an hour of conversation. And that was really a lot of public affairs, and what does it mean and what can we do and how are we getting the news. And those were the days when we were got our news from fairly regular sources and everybody was getting the same news and it actually had editors.

A: Oh those days ...

M: It was a good thing to have editors! The good old days. (music bumper: Lost and Found)

Ann: In my life, my grandmothers and my mother were all role models of how to stay engaged and active as one ages. My father, on the other hand, showed me the other side of the coin. I asked Marcia if her parents or grandparents modeled how to age gracefully or vibrantly.

Marcia: My paternal grandmother lived into her 90's and she was elegant to the end. The long, white hair always braided, the white gloves and hat going out. So I watched her age gracefully. Unfortunately, she moved when she was in her ... I guess late 60's, early 70's ... she moved to Florida to be with her daughter, the youngest of her children. And so we didn't have as much time together once I was past college years, pretty much. But I visited her and gramma Rose was elegant. Gramma Munya lost most of her family in the war, was treated with electric shock therapy, had what they called "hardening of the arteries" but was not intact. In my family the expectation was that you wouldn't grow old. My grandfathers both died young, my father and his brothers died in their 60's, my mother died in her 50's, and so the thought of getting old wasn't present. It was: don't expect to get old, do what you have to do and wait for the heart attack that's gonna get you.

Marcia: I'm not kidding. It was really ... it was a surprise that my mother's sister lived long enough to have ten years of wretched dementia because nobody else really made it past that heart attack in your 60's or 50's, period. And it was always heart disease.

Ann: And here you are.

Marcia: And here I am. Much to my surprise. It pays to not smoke. (Laughter)

Marcia: Don't inhale anybody else's either.

(music bumper: The Racing Tortoise)

Ann: A life in front of or dealing with the public brings a special set of challenges. I was curious how Marcia has dealt with a life lived in the public eye.

Marcia: I think I was trained, if you will, to stay strong and calm in a public setting because I was never athletic so I joined the debate team and that's a solo practice, it's different from ... because what I did was extemporaneous speaking rather than the debate team per se, it was solo work and it was very public work. And it helped me understand how to maintain some kind of a calm presence in front of any public forum, a real audience, television audience. The good side of that is, I was never comfortable, I think it's dangerous to get comfortable in front of audiences, anybody who doesn't have butterflies is probably not doing their best work. I think it made me a good press secretary for the Wellstones because I could keep a calm voice while they were howling over some misinterpretation or attack or failure to cover what was really important. And I think in all of the public work being focused on what you want to accomplish and trying to check your ego at the door is really important. It's impossible to really do that, but if you can, for the moment, check your ego at the door, think about what's a win here, what do we need to get out of this moment; and then cry later. You can be a good fundraiser, you can be a good advocate, and I think this comes with experience. I can remember the first time that I had to raise money for a non-profit, it was an embryonic organization that had no funding, two funders were waiting for an executive director to come on board; I knew I was gonna either shut the place down or raise the money. I appeared before the men at the Bush Foundation because this was an era when that foundation was staffed by all Harvard graduate men and they were really insulting. "Why don't you just ask Mark Dayton to write you a check," they said. And being able to maintain presence and then cry in the elevator on the way back down to the parking lot was a good lesson.

Ann: I'm thinking about the time you were the press secretary for Paul Wellstone, that was unusual for a woman to be a press secretary at that time, wasn't it? I mean, there weren't that many...

Marcia: There were some. And Paul's office was quite egalitarian and inclusive. He had a number of Washington press secretaries, male and female and in the Minnesota office we really were beneficiaries of his recognition of talent. So it wasn't that unusual. It was, I think a benefit with the press core. I was good at creating access for the press and it was easy to develop good relationships with especially the Minnesota press over time. We're, as you know, really quite fortunate here. We have a well-established press core, they have institutional memory, they are talented and dedicated journalists and so for the most part it was not unusual to do that as a woman and it was exhilarating.

Ann: We were talking about the Wellstones and I was just wondering too, when we get to a certain age, and I think as soon as you cross the 60 mark, you've had some losses in your life, and certainly the Wellstones were a great loss for you, for all of us, and by then of course, you've lost members of your family, you've already mentioned that they died rather younger; did it change how you live your life, did it change you in a certain way or...

Marcia: Is it okay to cry in a podcast? At 76 but only recently almost completely retired, what I'm discovering is being a person who squares her shoulders and has a public presence has a potential for a real downside, because you can put up that armor and not grieve; you can put up that armor and not own some of the loss, the pain, the sadness, and we all know intellectually but not in practice that if we don't find ways to grieve or ways to relieve stress, it will come out sideways. It will accumulate. And so for me as a woman looking back over time and ahead to some years where I get to do things I haven't done and address some opportunities and some challenges I haven't even identified yet, the sense of not having grieved loss is overwhelming. And I think there's a huge lesson in that. I'm regretful that I never had mentors who addressed that part of life. I think we all need coaches and mentors. And we all have some responsibility to be mentors and coaches when the opportunity is there. But we often deal at that cerebral level. And not having people with the wisdom, the insight, the courage, the conviction, the comfort to say, hey, how are you processing this?Have you had a good cry? Have you taken that long walk? Have you thrown a plate at the wall and howled? That would have helped me a lot. And I didn't know intuitively how to do that. And so I think a lesson of aging is how do you confront the unfinished business? Some of that is grief, loss, sadness, some of it is the other side of that, never actually fully having processed some of the gifts. So I've actually been thinking about my parents, the Wellstones — in addition to Paul and Sheila, I lost other friends in that in that plane crash, one in particular, Tom Lapic, who was a confidant and I still sometimes think I'm gonna pick up the phone and call Tom and say "Did you hear the news and do you believe they said that?" But I've also not done the other side of that which is to sit back and say "Oh my word we had a marvelous time and do you remember the wild and crazy day that Paul won the seed-spitting contest in Delano at the fair?" I think the loss is something that culturally we're not attuned to address as some cultures do with wailing and howling and acknowledgment of how enormous it is, but we may make that same mistake with joy and so at this point in my life I'm trying to figure out how to reclaim and deal with some of that as honestly as I can and with some help from my friends and some professional assistance.

Ann: That's interesting because I think we're kind of taught to keep an even keel

Marcia: Mmm hmm, right.

Ann: I certainly was, and it's interesting now because I feel like as women age, not only do some of us become more radical, but all of this kind of comes to a head, it's like you're suddenly aware of just what you were talking about, of having to kind of be open to all ... Marcia: Right

Ann: ... that full spectrum of how you're living.

Marcia: And I think for those of us who have a public presence some of the time, and a lot of the things we care about, it's so easy to be too busy. Many of us, and I talk to many of my girlfriends about this, school and work are our safe places. And the issues of the heart and soul need a lot more work. It's so easy to mask that with the busyness of things that we can't deny need attention but sometimes take over our world.

Ann: Do you feel like you have a bit more freedom now to do things that you ... Marcia: Oh, Ann, I love it! I can sleep late if I want to, I can say no to people who think they have a claim on my time, I can walk the dog and call her my baby and if people laugh at me, it's just an old lady, I mean really, who cares? I think there's a lot of freedom to make choices. (music bumper: Life Gets Real)

Ann: Have you ever felt stuck in your life? I mean just personally or professionally being being in that stuck place and how did you get "unstuck" from that?

Marcia: I think there are different ways of getting stuck. So I've gotten stuck in the past in marriages that weren't satisfying, not wicked, not evil just not satisfying, and that's tough. Because you have to make tough decisions. There are also times when I've been stuck in work and once stuck in a job that was not doable and there I felt that my responsibility was to make sure I exited with a transition that didn't leave anybody in the lurch but that, as Mary Oliver says, the only life you can save is your own, I needed to get out. I think on a smaller scale, sometimes we get stuck in our thinking. I do, I get stuck in my thinking and so I need to do something a little unusual to jolt myself, to excite myself. As I process what it means to be aging and not working full time or even half time, I realize that I was beginning to think, oh how dull, there's not much for me to do. I better do more cooking and maybe clean the closets that have been waiting for me. That made me feel stuck so I said yes to a friend who invited me to go spend two weeks in Iceland. And away we go.

Ann: I feel like there's an invisibility that comes with aging in our culture, older people, especially older women are just not seen. Some of it is generational. I'm wondering what your experience is in your own family of of kind of being seen among your own children, your own grandchildren. I just spent some time this summer with different pockets of grandchildren and their parents and they're so involved in technology and extreme sports and things that are outside my experience or even interest, that I feel that affection and that connectivity but also the generational divide. I had an epiphany about a week and a half ago because we were in northern Minnesota with my step-daughter and her daughter and her daughter's boyfriend and her son and her son's girlfriend. And I watched an interaction of the son, his girlfriend and the step-daughter and I looked at them and I thought: Oh ... my ... word. I am not gonna be able to see how this story ends. And that hurt. But my next thought was: And that's the way it's supposed to be. So, yes, there is that invisibility, that generational divide. I try to work at inter generational connections because I like to have young people around me; until this summer, taught in graduate programs that have people in their 20's, 30's, 40's, 50's so surrounded by many generations but clearly no longer part of that mainstream. The counter pointing to that is increasing closeness with women who are both older and slightly younger than I am — and some men —in realizing that we're all kind of having this experience together and we have things to talk to one another about, that include this what does it mean to be older and a little bit out of the mainstream including the technology mainstream. Yesterday people were talking about using Hustle. Well, I thought that was a magazine but it's something else and so I'm willing to be ignorant rather than absorbed in my iPhone.

Ann: What's your quiet place? What's your refuge, where do you go to renew, where do you go to kind of re-energize?

Marcia: I'm not sure that I fully know the answer to that yet but I can tell you what seems to have worked for me and is working. I mentioned the trip to Iceland. That isn't a place to go to be peaceful. That's a place to prod myself into being exhilarated and pushing myself to do something that scares me. I didn't think I would do more international travel so it's a jolt yourself into trying it, go to places that are beautiful where you might see things you never imagined you'd get to see but that's different from the quiet of my own study, which is a sanctuary. It's the books that I love. It's the bed that's a platform bed that I can put into a reading position and read quietly while the sun comes in through the trees. So, home is very much a peaceful place. I love walking and because we live relatively close to the river, I get to walk in beautiful places. To live in a place that has the green spaces that we have is something for which I am aware of gratitude all the time. And so, green places, beautiful places, quiet places are my comfort.

Ann: How much solitude do you need? And has that changed as you're getting older, has your need for solitude changed?

Marcia: My need for solitude and sleep has changed. I think the need for solitude goes hand in hand with learning how to use solitude because I think we're all taught to be afraid to be alone. There's something that goes with if you're alone, you're lonely and that's a high negative in the way it's talked about but it's not true, so there's an art that I've had to take on in learning how to be peaceful and comfortable and eager for solitude. And to use that time to not schedule things, to not have a task list, but to be ... sometimes it's to read, sometimes it's to just drift, sometimes it's music, sometimes it's zinger ideas that I want to write down really quickly because they'll fly away in a heartbeat. But it's increasingly valuable and joyful to have that solitary time.

Ann: Do you feel like you're a spiritual person? I would imagine that has changed too. You grew up in a Jewish family, how important is that faith to you, that culture to you and how has that morphed or grown or ...

Marcia: It's very much what I am interested in and wrestling with right now. I'm not dedicated to organized religion but I identify very strongly as being a secular Jew, and culturally Jewish. Wellstone used to like to travel with me as his driver because he said, "you understand my Jewish humor." And I'm responding, I realize, to the rising tide of anti-semitism by being a little bit even more defiant about being Jewish and wanting to identify with the Jewish community not necessarily by affiliating with a synagogue but by being more active with Jewish Community Action, by spending more time reading some of the more radically left Jewish websites and giving them my little token donation. So, that faith piece is a secular and cultural connection. The spiritual piece is different. from that. And I have always believed that the forest was my cathedral and that beautiful places are a reminder of powers beyond our understanding, as are harsh places. As I think about the extremes that we see as evidence of climate change, that we have to understand that there are powers that are way outside of our control at many levels. But I believe in forces and powers that are both within and outside of us that we are not very good at understanding or tapping but we should recognize are there. (music bumper: Stars Come Out At Night)

Ann: I would imagine you know this question was coming but do you think about death and dying?When I think about aging we're all ... I'm thinking if you're lucky you're in the last third of your life and of course you're going to be thinking along those lines. Do you think about it and do you talk about it, do you talk about it with your friends or certain people, do you find value in talking about it?

Marcia: Yes, yes, and yes. I think about death without being afraid of it. What I'm afraid of is what I think many of us are afraid of, which is some horrible lingering illness before we die. So we have lots of conversations about how do you get phentenol when you need it and do you just jump off the High Street bridge, with whom do you make that pact to avoid an ugly dying process? Because nobody wants that. But death itself is an end. I don't think about that with a lot of fear. I don't even think of it with a huge amount of urgency. I thought I did, I thought I had this sense of well, you don't know how much time you have left so you'd better use it wisely, hurry up and figure out what you wanna get get done. And I've somehow let go of that. We don't know how much time we have, we don't get the expiration date stamped on us and so I don't think I've let go, I think I'm letting go of that sense of the clock ticking and saying there are things I'd like to do, I hope that when I can't do them anymore, I'm done without a lot of pain and suffering and just live more fully in the time that I have. To me a big piece of that is being with people with whom I can have the very conversations you suggested. How do we talk to each other about what's meaningful?And how do we relish the time that we have together, and how do we make peace with all the limitations in time, in health, in intellectual capacity, in energy. Ann: It seems like we have a lot of people who are looking at, we're reading about it, we're watching movies about it, we're listening to podcasts about it or radio programs about it, but we're not talking to each other about it; we're not talking to each other that much about death, we're not talking to each other about, you know, living the rest of our lives and what does that mean? You know, it just seems ...

Marcia: Those are conversations that have been almost taboo in the world in which we live and that's so silly because ...

Ann: Well, it goes back to that spectrum of being able to feel things, both joy and sadness and grief and that we've all been taught to kind of live on that straight line across.

Marcia: And to fear death, which because it's an unknown there's always some element of: if you don't believe that we're all gonna be together listening to endless harp music, with wings ... (Laughter) Oh dear, what a thought, spare us! If you don't believe in a hereafter it is an end and the idea of end carries with us the potential for regret: what was missed, what was lost, what we won't get to see. And I think that's an ongoing struggle. I can't say ... it's like I don't live every day fearing dying or death, but I'm aware that there are things I won't get to do or see or be part of that makes me sad, but I'm also mindful that there's great comfort in having lived this long and being able to say, I can still make some choices, I can still do some things. I would love to be able to have more conversations and I think part of aging is sorting out your relationships, get rid of the toxic people, first rule: get all the toxic people out of your life, life is too short no matter how long you live to have too many toxic people; and identify those people with whom you are genuinely comfortable, with whom you can say what you need to say, you can beg for forgiveness if you say something outrageously insulting or even stupid, stupid, stupid. And be understood and forgiven and talk about the things that are the matters of the heart. And that is, to me, part of what I want to do in whatever time I have left. My calendar is no longer full of meetings, it's full of coffees and lunches and walks and shared adventures because the way to keep relationships from being stale is to have new conversations and share new explorations even if it's just a walk at Eloise Butler.

(music bumper: Gift of Age)

Ann: How would you describe and ordinary, good day?

Marcia: I wake up on my own time, I read my three newspapers but never the headlines first, start with the variety section, read the arts, maybe the opinion piece and avoid the most outrageous news stories because really every day it's an assault and an insult to the psyche ... over a nice cup of coffee. More and more my husband and I are having wonderful conversations, we're both political but we don't have to talk about politics all the time so we're talking more about history because we're finding ourselves reading biographies and histories from other centuries, albeit that they're mostly about white men ... I've discovered women in espionage! That's a whole other conversation! So I'm reading all about what women did for D-Day and in World War 2, and so comfortable conversations where we're learning things and laughing about things have become a stronger part of our life together in that relationship and then walking the dog, doing some reading, being with a friend, we love theater, I love theater, so a week without a moment in the theater is a sad week. And a chance to take a nap if I need one is a gift, a chance to cook a meal that I'm going to enjoy serving and eating is another gift, and these are things that when I was doing the 70 hour weeks, what were we thinking? When we lived that way. And how did I do that and teach the whole way through because in all of my jobs, I taught both at Hamline and then in the MAPL program at the same time I was working full time so why and how did we do that and then eat whatever meatloaf was leftover from Sunday. So the joy now of living life with a little more intentionality is ... and not knowing what tomorrow's schedule is is also a good thing.

Ann: So, I have one last question here and that is: where do you find joy, where do you find hope? You've spent a lifetime now in politics, ups and downs and all over the place, you've worked with students, where do you find it?

Marcia: So, where do I find the joy? I think it is somewhat in letting go of all of the should and coulds and being able to enjoy the luxury of sorting out: what do I really want to do, what do I gracefully want to get out of, who do I want to spend time with. I never thought that I'd have the opportunity to make these choices. I still find it guilt inspiring to read novels in the middle of the day. Like is it okay to do this? It's not bedtime yet and I'm sitting on my mini-sofa that actually fits me well, is lightning going to strike? And I think being honest about — what are the fears and how do we make meaning out of them? And what are the freedoms and how do we select which of those to use, are really important questions and the luxury of being able to think about them and talk to friends about them and write a little bit about them is a surprise to me, and I find joy in it. I just never thought it would be like this.

(music: Life Gets Real)

Ann: You've been listening to "Life Gets Real." Thanks to Lin Bick, to my wise council of women, to Gail Hartman for production assistance. A special thanks to my guest, Marcia Avner. To leave a comment, please write to us at I'm Ann Reed. Thanks for listening.
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