Interview with Leslie Black
I met Leslie years ago and she has always had such a happy, positive outlook on life. I didn’t realize until we talked, the depths of her suffering. Despite all she’s been through, she never took the course of the victim. She found a way to accept what life has given her and make something beautiful and positive and creative out of it. From a serious surgery that would have left most people basically immobile, Leslie has created an approach to aging that gets people on their feet, moving to the music and active in life again. Here’s her story…
In the summer of 2011, I was laid off from my job. I was pretty crushed, because I loved my job—I had created a program called Bridges that was very successful. At the same time, I was having incredible back pain and thought, “Well maybe this means I need to take care of myself.” Then my mom died. So I postponed the back surgery for a few months. Then, on 11/11/11, I had the surgery and they fused my spine. I was told I would not be able to do much. So I started looking at things like wheelchair tennis and stuff, because I was a dancer and an athlete. It was devastating not to be active. I was in a lot of pain and I was really scared. I had a lot of things with my body that didn’t work. It was a pretty dark moment.
My financial life changed profoundly. The surgery was huge—multi-level fusions in my neck and my lower spine. I was in the hospital for a week. Then, because I lived alone, I was in a nursing home rehab place for almost three weeks. It was a very difficult experience. However, throughout it all, I kept my vision that I was going to be able to move. Everybody around me was telling me that I couldn’t… that I wouldn’t… They wanted me to take narcotics, pain killers. But I was allergic to the medication. I couldn’t lie down or sit down, so I walked around a lot and talked to people. I went to the Memory Unit. I went to all the other units in the facility. And I saw that all these people weren’t moving. Nobody was moving. The staff didn’t know what to do with people like me, who wanted to move.
Starting a Class
I thought about all the things that fill me and bring me joy. I thought about music. And scarves. And community. When it was time for me to start physical therapy, I couldn’t find any classes that were like that, that fit for me. All the classes were in chairs, where people were talked down to and treated like children. There wasn’t any music. None of these classes provided what I needed for myself.
So, as soon as I could move, I got trained by the Arthritis Foundation. I already had a background in rehabilitation and a Master’s in counseling and had even done a little work in dance therapy. I’ve always been a movement person. Once I was trained, I walked down to Friendly House (the community center in my neighborhood) and volunteered to teach an arthritis class. I called it “Move It.” At first there were just three people. But then it started to grow. They asked me to teach an osteoporosis class and we called it “Better Bones.”
I don’t do a planned thing ahead of time. When people walk into class, I look at their bodies. I see the energy of the room. I watch their faces. And I adjust the music and the movement accordingly. In terms of equipment, I use everyday stuff like balloons and fly swatters. I tell them the balloon is your Move It Thigh Master: you squeeze the balloon between your thighs. We have little squishy clouds that you get at the scrap store so people can get mobility in their hands. I mean, I have no budget. In the other classes, they have regular weights and stuff. But honestly, I don’t know that it’s any better. These things are playful. You should have seen them today, playing badminton with fly swatters, lapping it around to the Beatles.
Some of my students have brain injuries. I can tell because, cognitively, their hand-eye coordination is off. So every bit of background I’ve ever had—all the psychology, all the counseling, all the rehabilitation training, all the creativity workshops and dance therapy—every bit of it helps. Everything I’ve done comes together for this work.
The age range I work with is 41 to 95. This includes people with juvenile onset arthritis to people who can’t walk a block. There’s a person in my class who is 95, a widow and a Japanese prisoner of war. She was depressed, so her kids made her come to class. She couldn’t walk down the driveway to get her newspaper. Now she’s animated, she comes to every class and she’s shimmying her hips with the rest of them.
Eventually I asked for money. What I realized is that I could say that it’s “donations only” and suggest an amount, like $5, which is affordable for everybody. Then if 25 people come, I’ve got it. Instead of saying seniors are low-paying and nonprofits are low-paying, what I’m seeing is that what I have to offer is extremely valuable. Everybody disagrees on longevity factors. The two things they agree on are moving and community. That’s what I excel at.
Inspiration & Moving Forward
I never, ever thought I would be a movement person for seniors and special populations. I was a counselor and a college teacher and quite successful at it. I love people and have always used my life experience to connect to them. We all do that—tap into what moves us, what touches our hearts. My mom had rheumatoid arthritis and she died. That’s what fires me to keep going, teaching classes for people like her. And like me.
I’m at a point now, though, where I need to make it bigger. As I said, my financial life has changed drastically. I had to pay off all the surgeries, because this was before health care reform. I was paying $1000/month for insurance with thousands of dollars out of pocket. First, I sold my house. Then, I had to move out of my apartment because the rent doubled. Now I live in a shared house and I bike or ride the bus where I need to go. I’ve changed my life profoundly. And I realized that I need way less than I thought.
But I want more. I’m working too many hours with not enough money right now. Because I’m doing it all myself. And that’s what I’m trying to change. I physically can’t do any more. So I want more without getting more exhausted. I think it’s possible to do good works and serve others and still make money. People pay for what’s important to them.
Even though I know people are attracted to my warmth and creativity and personality, one person isn’t enough. I’d like to train other people to do what I do—develop train-the-trainer workshops.
I also don’t pretend I’m a physical therapist or a physician. What I would like to do is to link myself to other professionals—physical therapists, acupuncturists, counselors, those who have a passion for dealing with people in chronic conditions. My vision is to have a charming house somewhere in Portland, with a movement room and space for different practitioners to meet with their patients.
I’m not sure what’s next for me, but right now I have a love in my life. I have community. I’m doing work that fills me completely and uses everything I have. And the money’s coming in. Not just money—all the rest that’s rich in spirit.
What is Prosperity?
Well, bottom line for me, prosperity is spiritual. It’s about connection. It’s about the web of life. I feel prosperous when I feel richly connected in a very deep, authentic way. I want to be a catalyst for this so other people can experience it too.
I don’t worry as much now. It’s not that I have so much money; it’s that I’ve simplified my life. I’ve found that I don’t need as much as I used to think I needed. To me, prosperity is having a smaller footprint and richer relationships.
But it’s still okay to have money. Enough money. What does that look like? Enough money, for me, is having healthcare. It’s having housing. And it’s having leisure, downtime. It’s not about the stuff. It’s about the quality. It’s about having time to have lunch with you and do this interview. Because it’s important to me. I don’t want to be too busy.
At this point in my life—I’m 61—I’m recreating myself again. I only do the authentic. It takes too much energy to do anything else.
Most Valuable Lesson
What I’ve learned is to be true to my passion and to my own wisdom, to what I know. To really be myself in the process. I am a creative free spirit who loves movement. I am also a person who’s been greatly compromised physically. And those two can co-exist. I never would have dreamed that those two things would create what my next thing is.
The other thing I’ve learned is that not everybody has to like it. Or want it. Or be in it. What I do is a specialized thing and it’s not for everybody. And I’m okay with that. At first, when people stopped coming to the class, it was hard for me. They’d had another teacher and they wanted it the same way. They wanted to talk and they wanted to just do weights and have no music and sit still in chairs. I couldn’t do it that way. I’m a life-long pleaser, but I learned that that really doesn’t work at all. I learned that what’s more important is to be okay with the process—it’s self-selection. Just like you or I would pick up on a class that feels right for us. Other people do that too. It’s their right. It’s not a personal thing.
Letting go is crucial to everything in life. Letting go and patience and forgiveness and all those basic spiritual principles. I can’t separate that anymore from anything. That’s just how it is.
Now I really take time, morning and night and every time I get in a car, to do gratitudes. Sometimes they’re little and sometimes they’re big. That’s really helped me get a perspective. Once a day isn’t enough. I have to divide it up. That’s my answer to fear and self-absorption.
When I was recovering from back surgery, I couldn’t do anything. I mean I really had to be with myself. And I hated it. Because I wasn’t just with myself feeling great, where I go and do things. I was with myself in pain. With no money. It was terrible. But eventually, you find these little things like, “Wow! I can walk two blocks and see the light coming through the trees on a morning where I would have been at work.” I’m not Miss Positive all the time, but the light does come. You have to go through the dark part first. Otherwise, how would you know the contrast? How would you know light if you didn’t live through darkness?