Stephanie Raffelock is a graduate of Naropa University’s program in Writing and Poetics. She’s published articles in The Aspen Times, Quilters Magazine, Care2.com, Nexus Magazine, Omaha Lifestyles, The Rogue Valley Messenger, and SixtyandMe.com, among other venues. Her first book, A Delightful Little Book on Aging, was released through She Writes Press in April 2020.
A recent transplant to Austin, Texas, Stephanie shares her life with her partner, Dean, and their Labrador retriever, Jeter. She makes room in her life for hiking, Pilates, and swimming to offset her internal life, which involves thinking up stories and essays.
Dr. Barb: My guest today is a writer who has been documenting her own stories of midlife as well as those of other people. Stephanie Raffelock recently published a book entitled A Delightful Little Book on Aging, which I have to say is completely enjoyable. I totally loved it. It’s a relatively quick read but it’s very thought provoking. And I’m anxious to speak to her about her journey of writing this book. Welcome, Stephanie!
Stephanie: Hey, thank you for having me, I’m really pleased to be here.
Dr. Barb: So I’m wondering if we could start with your background. I think this recent publication might have been your first novel, from my understanding, and I’m just curious as to how you found your place to this stage.
Stephanie: Finding one’s place at any stage, I think, is pretty much a lifelong journey. I have been interested in writing since I was a young woman, a girl, even. I loved my writing classes. When I worked in Los Angeles, I worked for production companies and I thought that the writers walked on water, they were just amazing to me. But I didn’t have enough wherewithal at that point in my life to really own it that I, too, could be a writer. That was something I thought was for people who were much smarter than I was or came from a different background than I did. So it wasn’t really until I retired in my 60s that I suddenly had the time and the resources to pursue writing. And I’ve done so with great earnestness and it’s been deeply satisfying to me. Writing, for me, is a doorway into what Plato called the examined life, it’s not just about the words on the page, it’s about an examination of one’s life that you can present in the most authentic way possible in order to connect with another human being who then might also experience some of what you’re experiencing. In that way I believe that we are all connected by our stories.
Dr. Barb: So, I’m curious, did you just begin writing because you’ve always had interest and some ability or did you need to go back and really study and equip yourself before you started writing somewhat late in your career?
Stephanie: Well, I’d always had an interest in writing and I’d always thought, you know, that I could write here and there, but when I started writing seriously, I did become a student of the craft. And it’s not that I waited until I had enough craft under my belt to start writing, it’s just that I was writing and I became a student of what it was that I was doing.
Dr. Barb: Okay. And I think it’s a lovely gift to have space and time to pursue the passion that you had and fine-tune it so you could publish a book. Well, there’s an attitude in your book that I really appreciate. I know that you had said in your book that you have no intention of “going gently.” The podcast that we’re doing today is called “The Fullness of Midlife,” and I’m just wondering about how you think about living life to its fullest.
Stephanie: Well, I think most of it comes down to attitude. You know, do we live fully, do we love well. And then what does it mean to live fully? I think that’s a matter of engagement and how we engage. There’s an amazing phenomenon that’s happening with midlife women in our culture and you really see it everywhere, especially in the last, I would say, five to ten years. There’s this kind of coming-into-our-own where we’re losing those old stereotypes of, you know, being finished, not having anything to contribute; I hear a lot of women saying they feel insignificant or invisible as they get older. And that’s really being challenged by a lot of women. In the 2018 midterms, more women over the age of 50 ran for local, state, and national office than ever before in our history. That’s definitely one place that you see it. Another place that you see it as one of the fallouts and the effects of the #MeToo Movement was women stopped carrying around the dirty little secret. They stopped whispering about it in hushed tones in the ladies’ room somewhere and they started to take a stand about what was acceptable, respectable behavior and what was not. And so as a result of that, I think we’re experiencing a great surge in creativity in midlife women who are also not going gently into that goodnight. Age doesn’t make you washed up, that’s an old male-defined stereotype about what happens to a woman when she ages. So I think that is inspiring all of us, just to see the women around us and what they’re doing.
Dr. Barb: And I would completely agree with you and I’ve wondered over these last couple years as the issues you’ve mentioned have taken on more significance and women have stepped up, is there truly a shift in the culture or is it just because I share that season of life that I’m steering for and hoping for it, or is this truly something that we can anticipate will, moving forward, be different and new for all those women who are following behind?
Stephanie: I think it’s really a shift in the culture and the reason that I say that and the evidence I have for that is that I have looked at the lives of my great grandmother who came here from Russia and my grandmother who never went beyond a third grade education and my mother, and I look at what their lives were like and how they paid a price and paved a way for me to have some of the attitudes and ambitions and independence that I have. So I feel that, yes, you and I are definitely on the same page about what we hope will happen but now we’re the women who have paid a price and paved the way for this next generation. And I find that younger women are especially hungry for this kind of, what shall we call it, elder mentoring or elder wisdom because that’s who we’re going to pass the mantle to, who we pass the torch to.
And I do believe that it’s changing and not only women are changing but I look at my nephews who are in their thirties and forties now and my male nephews (well, I guess all nephews are male), but they have a different attitude about women than the men of my generation had about women. I remember a very poignant moment in my twenties: I was a student of the guitar and I was playing a very difficult piece and a guy that was in my music group said to me, “Gosh, you play good for a girl.” And I remember being so insulted and I turned around and I say, “I play good for a person.” But I don’t think that you hear that as much now, so in that regard, when I go back and I look at the feminist history in my own family, I can really see how far women have come, which is what gives me hope for the future. Like my mother and my grandmother, god bless them and their past, they still hold the light for me and they give me hope.
Dr. Barb: So, in talking about this myth of insignificance, I think you’re expanding on that right now, but I guess I’ve also wondered about thinking of it in a different way. The way I think about it is maybe do I instead have significance to fewer people?
Stephanie: Well, I suppose that’s possible. I do think that a lot of the sense of insignificance as we age, that that’s a call that’s coming from inside the house. That we have to look within ourselves and say, “Well, what is significance to me?” and is it your job out there to somehow make me feel significant?
Dr. Barb: And do you think that this myth of insignificance is more about the falseness of how women derive significance over time?
Stephanie: Well, I think that’s certainly a lot of it in our generation, I mean, we’ve held that physical beauty as being the end-all, be-all to being a woman and it’s just not true. I mean, if that were the case, then yeah, you wouldn’t have any purpose after your mothering years. But this experience of creativity that midlife women are having in our culture just goes against the grain of that whole idea of being insignificant or somehow not as valued because of a differing kind of beauty. I mean, it’s not that a woman grows unbeautiful--I think women grow more beautiful--but you have to learn to see your beauty differently. You know, you’re going to walk by the mirror and look and be surprised when you’re 65, it’s like, “When did that happen?!” But there is another kind of beauty that happens as we get older and it’s the soulwork of women our age. It’s the going inside of ones’ self and understanding that there is great vitality in developing the authenticity of heart, in developing the kindness and generosity of spirit. That’s where your beauty resides now. The truth is, your beauty always resided there, but Madison Avenue would have you believe something else. So I think that’s something that we need to recognize as we move forward.
Dr. Barb: I found it interesting that the first section of your book, your book is set up in four sections, but the first was entitled “Grief,” and it surprised me a little that that would be the intro of a book entitled The Delightful Book on Aging but I really appreciated it because I also felt like it brought up some areas of wisdom gathered and as you introduce that chapter you make a statement that “Loss and letting go become part of the landscape. They texture us, refine us, and educate our hearts, growing our capacity for compassion.” It made me feel just pleased to think the bumps in the road and all the hardships and all the turns and what you thought was the path forward, you know, we can use that for greater wisdom and, as you mentioned, mentoring. Again, it surprised me a little bit that it was under the heading of “Grief” so I just wonder if you talk a little bit more about that.
Stephanie: Well, grief is one of the great transformative forces of life and I think the other great transformative force is love and they don’t exist just separately in a bubble, they exist at the same time. That’s what aging is to me, is that you begin to embrace the grief as a transformative force. It’s interesting that we live in a time right now where our lives are taking place against a backdrop of grief. And in the one regard, it’s terribly difficult.
In another regard, the transformative force of the COVID grief is pushing us towards a kind of reimagining and reinvention and awakening that no other force in the universe could accomplish. And I think when there’s great social upheaval and changes like what we’re seeing now, it’s actually opening us to a greater potential and possibility than we realize that we had. So I have great respect for grief because it does texture the heart because somehow it gets in there and it makes us better people. We’re able to feel the loss and the suffering of others more keenly, more acutely, and thus change our behavior in some way to be more open and aware of that and perhaps proactive in addressing it in others. So, grief isn’t just this period of anguish about what’s happening, it is the force that pushes life forward. And yet the caution is that you can’t get stuck there. And yet at the same time you have to pay homage to grief in order for it to work on you as a transformative force.
Dr. Barb: And in that section you also talk somewhat about relentless positivity. So, can you expand a little bit on that, too. I’m curious about your thoughts on that, as to how much positivity is inherently ingrained in our nature or how much is intentional and a decision we make.
Stephanie: It’s good to be positive and it is a decision and it is an attitude, but I think I say in that section, “I’d like to find the positive-only movement and kick it in its little ass” because life is not that black and white. You know, it’s never that black and white, it’s all the shades of gray. So you can think positive and you can also have periods of time where you’re suffering. And you can’t just push away the suffering because those things will find a way back to seat back into your life if you don’t pay attention to them and give them their just due. So, I think being positive is good. I like the idea of aging with a positive attitude. And at the same time, I want to leave my heart and mind open for these other things that happen, too. The fact that, as human beings, we do suffer and you can’t just push it aside, we need to pay attention in order to heal.
And I don’t think that healing is something that just happens like at one time and now you’re done. I think it’s an ongoing process that happens at different levels all the time. I hope that made sense, but it’s the idea of healing, like awakening, it’s not a destination point. It’s something that keeps going, hopefully until the day you die. And positive thinking I guess I would put in the same bucket. Yes, it’s good to think positive and it’s also good to tell the truth about where you’re really at this day. You know, if you’re feeling moody, if you’re feeling cranky, if you’re feeling crabby, let’s just acknowledge it--it doesn’t make you a bad person, it just means that’s where you’re at right now.
Dr. Barb: You know, in my world, and providing healthcare for midlife women, that is a common thread that I hear many women almost apologetically recognizing that they are more free to really state their mind. And it’s so interesting, kind of a divide between women feeling emboldened and free at achieving that status and others truly apologetic about “Oh, I can’t believe I say that now!” So it’s an interesting kind of dichotomy of getting to the place in life where you really have earned a place to state your mind and be clear about it. But many women are reluctant to enjoy that.
Stephanie: Yeah, and as you point out, it is a process. You know, it’s not like one day empowerment descends upon you and you just go through the rest of your life in great confidence. That’s not the way it happens. I think that we’re constantly earning it. It’s constantly churning inside of us.
Dr. Barb: Well, I think your book was sort of a nudge to own it. To encourage women to be in that place. Another section of the book is entitled “Reclamation.” And, again, that’s a word we don’t use much, I don’t use much. I’d just like to hear a little bit about how that section of the book or how that term and how those thoughts came to you.
Stephanie: Reclamation is a great word. I think that, you know, as we go through our adult life, there are things that we set aside or things that fall away because there’s no room for them, there’s no space for them. People have a mortgage to pay, they have kids to raise, they have a marriage to tend to. So maybe the art that they made in their teenage and college years falls aside. I like to use my husband as an example for reclamation because he loved music as a young man and at a certain point in his college years, he had to make a decision whether he was going to pursue the sciences or he was going to be a full-time musician. Well, he pursued the sciences but now in the last few years, he’s come back to his music and every night after dinner he goes upstairs and he plays his bass. There was a 37 or 39 year absence where he didn’t play the bass at all and because of the magic of the internet, he can play bass with any rock and roll band that’s out there. And so he’s reclaimed this musician part of himself, this artist part of himself.
And I think that’s something we can all do, is you get to certain point where you can ask, well, what is it that you’d like to reclaim? What’s worth reclaiming? Maybe it’s just an attitude that you held as a younger person that didn’t seem to serve you during all those working years when you’re trying to acquire and accumulate and, you know, tick off the list of goals that you’ve got going. And maybe it’s something like art or something you’ve thought about for years and years and you finally just claim it or reclaim it and actually make it happen. So that’s what I mean by reclamation. And I love the word.
Dr. Barb: It is a great word, it’s a great term. But it also, as I read through it, I’m still fully engaged with working and at some point anticipate that I’ll be enjoying more free time so it also gave me a pause of, okay, what would I want to reclaim, what could I reclaim, how would I go about that? So I think for many people that’s a bit of a journey, but hoping to be surprised as well in the journey.
Stephanie: Yeah. You know, hopefully we discover things about ourselves and about our talents, you know, forever and a day. But it’s not just something that happens in midlife or something that happens in your retirement years that, you know, you’re always… Curiosity feeds a lot. And I think a curious state is a good way to go through life.
Dr. Barb: Yeah, I think that is important and the resources now available, like you mentioned your husband’s ability to play in a band, so to speak, there really aren’t any limitations to our ability to discover.
Stephanie: No, there’s not.
Dr. Barb: So, how does reclamation relate to vision?
Stephanie: When I was a young woman, I used to go on job interviews and ultimately the HR person would say, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” or “Where do you see yourself in ten years?” And to me it was always a question about, you know, what my ambitions were, what my goals were, but the question became more urgent for me as I got into my 60s. Well, where do I see myself in five years?
It’s no longer the same list of ambitions or goals, it’s more like how is it that I want to be in this world? Because the life that I’ve already lived is longer than the life that I have yet to live. So there’s an urgency to the “Well, then, what do you want to do with it?” If you know you have this much time left, ‘cause it’s not going to go on to infinity, how is it that you want to be as a human being? And in creating a vision for myself, I’ve been able to make some statements that I wasn’t able to make in my earlier years. I have statements like, “I want to be an uplifter of other women,” “I want to be a support to other writers.” Just those two things have informed a lot of what I continue to write about and talk about. And that’s a statement “I want to be an uplifter of women” is not a statement I could have made in my 40s or 50s. So that’s vision.
Dr. Barb: That makes sense. I think it takes some time to process that and what that might look like for each of us, but that’s very helpful the way that you stated it. You also talk about the gratitude practice and I’ve heard about the research and the benefits around gratitude practice and mental health, so what do you do or how could you make that practical for listeners?
Stephanie: Well, I’m going to give you a very simple gratitude practice because I think gratitude undoes a lot of the places we get ourselves stuck. Gratitude smooths things out. So here’s a very simple gratitude practice and that’s just to sit quietly for a couple minutes with you eyes closed and as you breathe in, say to yourself, “Thank you,” and as you breathe out, say to yourself, “Thank you.” Just do that ten times. The “Thank you” doesn’t have to be attached to anything. If you want to attach it to something, you certainly can. But just the idea of thank you and breathing that in and out is in itself a gratitude practice. Another gratitude practice is just to sit down every morning and name three things that you’re grateful for. I’m grateful that I woke up with strong legs today that are going to take me for a walk. I’m grateful that the sky is so blue here in Texas and I can get lost in watching the clouds. I’m grateful that I have a husband who loves me. The list, you know, when people start making lists of what they’re grateful for, I mean, you could write a tome, you could do a 3- or hundred or 500 page book. It’s in us, we just have to tap into it. And like I said, for me, gratitude smooths out a lot of the knots and the kinks and the places that I feel stuck in my life. Just breathing in and out thank you, listing the things that I’m grateful for.
Dr. Barb: And it nurtures in turn the earlier topic that we talked about, along the relentless positivity, I think by trying to be more intentional about gratitude. And I think especially in the times right now when there’s so many areas of division amongst even, you know, friends or relatives, gratitude is probably or has more significance to spend time… And I know for me, for mental health, it truly is required. So, as we wrap up time together, I often like to hear about where do you find fullness at this stage of your life? And I think our discussion in general probably has been sharing some of that journey, but is there anything else that we didn’t talk about that you could share with the listeners?
Stephanie: Well, I do think it’s good to explore what your sense of purpose is. And there’s no right or wrong answer to that. To some people, the purpose of life becomes being the ultimate grandparent and there’s great grace in that. For me, my purpose in life is to uplift other women through my writing and to help people realize that age is something you can embrace as a noble and courageous passage rather than something to be fearful of or disdainful of.
Dr. Barb: Well, thank you for sharing that and again I would just like to encourage our listeners to read your recently published book, A Delightful Little Book On Aging. Thanks for your time today, Stephanie.
Stephanie: Thank you so much for having me as a guest, Barb. I truly enjoyed talking to you.
Dr. Barb DePree, M.D., has been a gynecologist and women’s health provider for almost 30 years and a menopause care specialist for the past ten.