Spirit alive: 94-year-old seeker stays vital by exercising mind, body and soul

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Sunlight streams over the window-box flowers in her 1920s-era Belltown apartment as 94-year-old Ruthmary McDowell explains how she rose from what could have been her death bed last fall.

She was listening to the radio - it might have been Paul Harvey or Art Bell - when she heard about a new gadget called a "Cellerciser," a miniature trampoline with a waist-high grip bar for balance.

McDowell, a free-thinker born to parents who chased Alaska gold rushes at the turn of the last century, has been open to epiphanies all her long life.

A note to herself on her TV starts out, "I am exploring ... " Another says, "Find out what that's all about." In the 1960s and '70s, she searched for the world's soul with her head shaved while wearing the brown robes of a Hindu nun.

But when she heard that for only $265, plus $25 shipping and handling, the "Cellerciser" helped fat people get skinny and skinny people get fat, she knew instantly what that meant for her:

"I really have the power to live or die."

Who could argue the value of conviction with a frail, wispy woman about to take off for a psychic fair in Portland? The only thing holding McDowell back from the centennial celebration of the Nome gold rush in Alaska this summer is an invitation.

At 90 pounds, she's in remarkable health. Not so when her weight drops to 80, but that hasn't been an issue since she started gentle steady bouncing several times a day on her "Cellerciser."

That's where she sits now, lithely twisted into a lotus position despite a hip that was broken in her mid 80s.

"You know how you can feel kind of old when you get up in the morning," she says, hair shimmering white, eyes bright, "all that goes away."

On the move

It is Tuesday, another sunny day, and McDowell is learning to let her skeleton do the work so her muscles will be more efficient.

"Notice how you're standing," teacher LeeAnn Starovasnik almost whispers in low, soothing tones in a darkened schoolroom at the Lifetime Learning Center near Sand Point.

"Notice how your arms are hanging. Do they hang lightly or is it work?"

The Feldenkrais Method of Movement is a subtle retraining of the nervous system, reminding people of how to move with ease, much as they did naturally as toddlers. It's so subtle this group of five seniors looks like an aerobics class caught in molasses.

"We don't even think about how we are connected," says McDowell, thin body lost in a pink sweat suit.

Here at the Lifetime Learning Center, where McDowell takes classes on writing her life story, senior health - and would, if she could get there an extra day, study comparative religions - she is the oldest but among the most lively.

In her occupational life, she sought isolation. She dropped out of teacher's college after a quarter, repelled by the idea that all those students would be looking at her.

She worked the graveyard shift at Western Union in Belltown through the Depression because there were fewer people at night.

But these days she seeks places where she can reach out to people, including Seattle meetings of the Alaska-Yukon Pioneers.

"It was such a rugged place, there's a friendship there," says McDowell, who traveled by dog sled as a child. "They all care about one another."

McDowell gives as good as she gets at the Lifetime Learning Center. Ages range from 48 to her 94, says Shirley Hauck, director.

As some students continue their quest for knowledge even as they recover from broken hips or strokes, McDowell inspires.

"Anything is possible because they have inside them an incredible individual power," says Hauck. "Ruthmary shows them they can keep that power."

Still on the journey

The Catholics set McDowell on a journey that is still fully under way.

In boarding school in Nome, they told her their way was the only way. But at another boarding school in Oregon, the Episcopalians told her their way was the only way.

"So, I said when I grow up, I'm going to find out is there a god or isn't there," McDowell says. "That's how come I followed the metaphysical movement."

Why, just this very morning, McDowell read again that "established religions are very good, but you need to go beyond them."

McDowell has gone beyond, way beyond.

Her life story deepens when she tells about her father's trying to protect a gold claim in Nome with a six-shooter, only to lose it when he got pneumonia.

It skims past her husbands, though the third one lasted 20 years.

But, "Oh! Here's something interesting!" It's a photo of her in front of the Taj Mahal as a member of the Yoga Movement.

She went to Sri Lanka when she was in her 60s; stayed at the summer home of the ground-breaking psychologist Carl Jung in Switzerland; and lived as a bald-pated nun at a guru's retreat in Hawaii.

The guru sent her on a mission she couldn't complete: back to Alaska to get herself excommunicated by the Catholic Church. Failing miserably at that, she didn't bother with Part 2 - getting thrown out by the Episcopalians.

Religious leaders can be helpful, but they also can reach a point where they wrongly believe they know everything, she says.

"I assume too much," she explains about her spiritual journey. "I have to learn to trust myself rather than other people."

Her search has included involvement with the Harmony, Inner Peace Movements and something called Ascension, which she still attends weekly for personal growth.

All of it has helped her form her own opinion, which includes responding positively to life.

" In her studio apartment that's dominated by the "Cellerciser," McDowell has tacked up an eye chart she uses to improve her sight.

Tap, tap, tap, she shows how she folds the flap of her ear over the ear hole and then taps lightly, an exercise taken from Chinese medicine that she believes helps her hearing.

Until she's ready to leave this "Earthly plain" she finds so interesting, McDowell will live life to its flexible fullest.

One of the stories she tells about coming out of Alaska for the first time at age 11 on July 19, 1917, reflects the energy and enthusiasm she still holds.

Though it was a hot summer day, she traveled from the Seattle dock to Portland with her father and aunt in her Nome finest, long johns, a wool petticoat, boy's knickers, a green corduroy dress and a black plush coat.

Watching vaudeville for the first time, seeing acts that included lions and tigers, she nearly brought down the balcony with her bouncing.

"What are they going to do next!" she shows now how she shouted, an 11-year-old bursting from her 94-year-old frame. "What are they going to do next!"

Sherry Stripling may be reached at 206-464-2520 or at Sstripling@Seattletimes.com


Lifetime Learning Center classes

Spring quarter at the Lifetime Learning Center begins March 19 for 40 classes ranging from gardening to computers. Cost per class is $15 with a $25 quarterly registration fee. Call 206-985-3904. The 25-year-old LLC is at 6208 60th Ave. N.E.