An Excerpt: Aging Is Not For Sissies
Life is short. Live it up. -- Nikita Kruschev
There was a time, when I was younger, that a hike down by the Bay required little more than a light windbreaker and a pair of ratty sneakers. It was windy down there, but I liked the brisk cold and my stride was fast and strong. It’s a different story now. The other day as I left the house for a walk I noticed my reflection on the way out and was taken by surprise by the middle-aged woman standing there, hidden behind wraparound sunglasses, a wool hat, and a bulky parka. Her skin was wrinkling about the eyes and lips and her black hair had mostly gone to gray. Me.
Despite all evidence to the contrary, I still think of myself as young and agile, impervious to cold and hard work, a dancer who can stay on her feet for hours. But the image of my well-covered self in that glass was indisputable; I am aging. The years have taken their toll and my self-image has been in chaos. I have to admit, despite myself, that growing old has not appealed to me. As the novelist Jean Rhys puts it,
Age seldom arrives smoothly or quickly. It’s more often a series of jerks. After the first, you slowly recover. You learn to live with the consequences. Then comes another and another. At last you realize that you’ll never feel perfectly well again, never be able to move easily, or see or hear well.
I will confess it here: I am sometimes embarrassed to no longer be young, and often wish I could hide the evidence that my body is being reduced by time. Sometimes I even take off my reading glasses in the company of young people so I won’t look so much like a granny – even though I am a granny! All my contemporaries, of course, have to a person become middle-aged, but I still wonder if I might not be the one exception. Although nobody, however beautiful or brilliant has ever been able to do it, why couldn’t I be the first?
The fact is, though, that as I write this I happen to know that the walls of my arteries are thickening, losing their elasticity and thus restricting the flow of blood to my muscles and organs. My knees, oh, my knees! My brain is losing weight, I am told, and I can vouch for this because my memory is shot. This is very sobering. I can keep myself fit for as long as possible with exercise and eating well, but in the end it seems I have no choice but to grow older and older until I finally dissolve.
So, given that this is in the natural order of things, what is it that makes me and so many of us uneasy about growing old? Ronald Blythe, in his beautiful book The View in Winter, says,
To fall into purposelessness is to fall out of real consideration. Many old people reduce life to such trifling routines that they cause the rest of us to turn away in revulsion. And as W.H. Auden puts it,
“…via self-disgust, thinning blood and nipped vision, we find ourselves caring more and more about less and less.”
That is what I have feared - that once past my vibrant, useful prime I will become boring, caring more and more about less and less. Am I the only one who worries about being left behind by the world, caring only about small things, feeling worthless and invisible? As I decline will others define me as dependent and irrelevant - unlovable? Like Hans Christian Anderson, will I soon learn to be forgotten, and yet still to live?
This is grim. It implies that, once past our primes, there are neither gains, challenges nor positive experiences worthy of the final phase of our lives. Even the ancient Hindu practice of leaving home to end one’s years in contemplation is culturally unavailable to most of us. How do we change this story?
In my family, unfortunately, neither the men nor the women provided good models for aging gracefully. Some died young and tragically, and others stayed on for years in states of sad decay. My grandmother lived her whole adult life in the Beth Abraham Home for Incurables, completely crippled and emotionally undeveloped after decades of sitting on a bedpan in a wooden wheelchair. My mother, who was wracked with sorrow and guilt over the fate of her own mother, went mad. They both hated their situations and hated themselves. Naturally, I have had to work hard to try and break our family pattern.
I wonder if the real issue here is not getting older, per se, or even eventually dying, but the self-hate that tends to accompany us as our bodies and minds lose their abilities, one by one? Perhaps we might re-think our assumptions about aging as a curse, and shine a light on some of the advantages of being older and wiser, when our priorities change and new opportunities begin to emerge.
I was invited recently to an evening with good friends, in which the elders amongst us were going to be celebrated, and I was shocked to be considered one of the ‘elders.’ Who, me? As far as I was concerned, I was somewhere in the middle of the crowd, sort of the same indeterminate age as everyone else. When had I crossed the line into the status of elder?
It reminded me of a painful incident that had occurred several years earlier, when I interviewed a fascinating woman for an article on the Galapagos Islands. I had recently returned from a three-month adventure there, where I had come upon the campsite of a couple who had, decades earlier, lived in solitude for several years on the flank of a volcano on one of the uninhabited islands. Since the woman was still alive and now living close to my home, I went to see her.
She was a tiny, wizened lady with a cap of white hair and a wistful smile. She told me tales of their long ago adventure, and I told her about being at their campsite, that the doves had taken over their old seep well and that I’d made the long hike across the recent lava flow not far from their camp, where I had seen the flamingos fly at dawn. She and I had a wonderful afternoon, and I went home and wrote my article, describing her as I had seen her – an elderly, delicate, white-haired lady.
Later, when I showed her the article for her approval, she read me the riot act, hurt and furious.
“You’ve made me a little old lady,” she complained at the edge of tears. “That’s not who I am inside! I’m the same person I was then, even if I look different. Go away and don’t come back!” Sadly, she meant it. I never saw her again, but now I can relate to her frustration. I understand now that as we grow old, what we feel like and what we look like can be very different things.
A Laughing Matter
In this business of aging, a sense of humor may be essential. I find it quite funny to note, as we survey the ongoing mayhem of our situation, that exactly when we gain the precious wisdom that long experience brings, we lose our looks!
We laugh at our collective selves a lot, my friends and I, even as we regard the passing scene with its political shenanigans and environmental disasters. It is a poignant exercise to watch our foibled selves struggle to grow up into mature citizens, making one mistake after another in our attempt to save ourselves and our world. Each of us believes we know what is right, and I would guess that either none of us is right, or all of us are partly right. As elders, though, our task is to keep the humor of the situation in sight even as things come crashing down around us, for that is how we may be able to keep the younger generations from sinking into despair.
The other day I was comparing notes with a good friend, also middle aged; we were talking about how we negotiate in crowds. I tend to be claustrophobic, and she gets around in a wheelchair, so in both cases it is an issue. We had each other in stitches!
“Excuse me,” she mimed at an imaginary crowd, “there’s a wide load right behind you…” and I countered with,
“…I’m a leetle bit slow, you go on ahead…” and we rolled on the couch in hysterics, two crazy ladies of a certain age.
What’s not to love?
Youth And Age
It’s not all fun and games, of course, and the young people need us desperately right now. Have you noticed the radiance and wisdom of many of the current twenty and thirty-somethings? And the little ones starting out? They are here on assignment, I wager, to help us evolve out of the mess we humans have created. I am awed by these young men and women I am meeting, and watch them struggle to find their place in a society that neither supports nor encourages what they have to offer. The more courageous of them put patchwork jobs and lives together reflecting the world they wish to live in; those who are overly sensitive or too confused, are often victims of the system.
As an older woman in their midst, I am pledged to be there for them in every way I can be. I listen and teach; I learn from them and offer good soup; I hire them and make myself available to them. When they ask for a mentor, I mentor and when they just want a friend they can trust, I am there. Neither Mom nor Grandma, I am Elder in the ancient sense. And by keeping my standards high, I hold them to the same.
We can all do this now, as by this time in our lives, we have the experience and we have the time.
Slowing Way Down
“All the way to Heaven is Heaven,” said Catherine of Siena seven centuries ago, meaning that every moment of a life lived intensely – the pain as well as the pleasure, the youthful as well as the aging – is the gift. Heaven may be hidden from us at times, but it is there all the same, just beneath the surface of things.
Now that many of us no longer have small children to raise or a job to go to every day, we can take note of the intensely lived moments, even when nothing much is happening. I love that my days are no longer filled with the needs of growing children and I can just sit and be quiet - like the old Zen joke: Don’t just do something; sit there!
There is time for nothing now, and I enjoy spreading into the silence. It never ceases to amaze me that when I am willing to just be still, the universe seems to open up and take me by surprise with unforeseen gifts: insights and creative ideas; visitations from the natural world.
Early this spring I was sitting outside in the garden, just watching the green world come to burgeoning life, wrapped up in my red shawl against the chill. The rosemary bush was covered with blue flowers and the yellow of the oxalis was so vivid it made my eyes smart. Hummingbirds, bees and butterflies were busy buzzing about and the sun felt warm on my face.
While watching the changing scene, a hummingbird lit on my shoulder to feed on the “big red flower.” Wings whirring, it poked its tiny long bill into my red shawl, lapping with a miniscule darting tongue as I watched from a distance of about three inches. Then came another; then another. I was covered in hummingbirds, all trying hard to extract some nectar from me. When they finally all gave up I just sat there in thrall, grateful for that momentary intimacy with them, before sinking back into my own silence.
Free And Clear
There comes a time for most of us when we realize that we will not live forever, that propriety is a waste of time and that the good opinions of others count for very little. So, if we have not yet done so, it is time to:
Take up the cello; buy a forest; climb up and down Half-Dome in Yosemite in one day; sail along the coast of South America; engage in Tantric Sex with an old lover - even if you are a grandparent several times over, or even a great-grandparent. This is not a hypothetical list - I know each of these people and can vouch for their stunning successes.
Needless to say, they had to deal with the worried objections of their spouses and/or children (except for the Tantric folks, whose children never knew) but they paid them no mind and went full bore into their outlandish adventures, having a wonderful time and living to tell the tale. In fact, the Half-Dome climber did the 16-hour trip on her 65th birthday, up by day and back by the light of the full-moon!
Did their reputations suffer? Well, who cares?
There is an exhilarating sense of freedom when you are of an age to feel comfortable with your own desires, however unpredictable they might be. You no longer need to conform to anybody else’s expectations of how you must behave and what you must think. You may make a spectacle of yourself if you wish, or you can be invisible in a corner of the room and people-watch to your heart’s content. You can, as one white-haired friend tells me, infiltrate and be a spy, because nobody would ever guess that a proper little old lady might be a political radical!
I know the need to be in disguise intimately, as I am what might be called a ‘practical mystic,’ surrounded by a family of scientists in a society of materialists. I sometimes embarrass them – especially my grown children – who worry I will challenge them publicly, or tell my grandchildren things that they deem ‘ untrue.’
This hurts, of course, and for years I’ve tried to be careful – even in my writing - couching what I had to say in stories and allegories so that my work might be uncontroversial, accessible to everyone. My message was, from my point of view, essential, if not a bit before its time.
I felt that people had to change the way they understood the world, or we and the planet would suffer the consequences. And we are. Vehement resistance to these ideas by the mainstream seems to reveal people’s fear of changing from what they know to what is unknown. In fact, the more resistance I see, the more I expect I’m on the right track.
But now I am older and the world is edging closer to an essential turning point. If we are to collectively make this shift of consciousness, I no longer have time to mince words and pretend innocence. Like my gutsy friend who purchased land to create a forest sanctuary when she was 70, or those sexy octogenarians doing their thing I will, right here and now, do my thing and speak my full mind to all comers, whoever you are.
The word ‘senator’ comes from the Latin ‘senex’ meaning ‘old man.’ The elder men of the society were supposed to be the wise ones, and therefore trusted to govern. Well…
As I write, there is oil gushing out of a well drilled into the Gulf of Mexico, uncappable and destroying wildlife and a way of life in an enormous swath of the U.S. Yesterday, the men responsible were seen on T.V. for all of us to witness, each one passing the buck and blaming the others. Each of these heads of corporations is a gray-haired (or balding) male person – one of our elders. None is an inexperienced youngster, but not one would I call mature enough to carry the responsibility of an enterprise that has the potential to do such harm.
I could swerve off into a political diatribe here, but will not. I prefer bringing it all back home, to you and me, and ask how I measure my own maturity, and yours, and how we might recognize and foster it in ourselves.
Over the years, having been born to teen-aged parents still stunned by a Great Depression and a great war, in a family that included failed revolutionaries, suicides and lifelong cripples, I have had to leach the grief and disfunction of my childhood out of my bones. The process of self-examination has been ongoing for decades; it has turned me inside out and caused me to look closely at every thought and feeling I have ever taken for granted; it has laid me low and lifted me high, and now as I come into calmer waters, I would say it has grown me up.
Maturity, for me, has come to mean that I am neither helpless nor hopeless. Being who I am, while nowhere near perfect, has become quite acceptable to me now. I do some things well, am terrible at others. Sometimes I feel attractive, and sometimes think I look ridiculous. In some ways I count myself wise and in others, well, I’m still an unfulfilled kid. But here I am, as you see me.
But I recognize that the hard knocks that laid me low have also given me the very push that catapulted me into the finer air that perceives deep into a world much larger, much more complex, much more miraculous than the limits of the material world we take for granted – even though our culture believes it to be the only one there is.
I regret nothing of my hard childhood, having looked deeply into it and discovered its teaching powers, and its ultimate healing properties. Because of it, by some alchemical process, I have known so strongly what it feels like to be out of alignment with the universe, that I can almost hear how it sounds to be in alignment, to be in tune with its harmony and to feel the beat of its dance. “All the way to Heaven is Heaven,” as Catherine of Siena once said.
It is such a poignant paradox that, as my body begins to wear down, growing stiffer in the joints and more flaccid in the muscles, something else is emerging – that underground stream which has been concealed by my body’s covering of vigorous muscle and bone. My Self has started to daylight more and more. As this stream bubbles closer to the surface I can recognize ever more clearly the ageless part of myself that never runs out but keeps up its steady, strong coursing, and brings mortality full center into my view.
Even that is fascinating. I take another look at myself reflected in the car window, all wrapped up for my walk down by the Bay. Those eyes, though ringed with dark lines on drying skin, have looked upon much in all these years, and have responded with laughter and sympathy, with tears and love. This body, sagging here and there and everywhere, has birthed three children, has worked hard and been scarred by years of taking risks. She has lived well, this woman, and every day she learns more about what it means to be human, never taking a break.
I am amazed by her persistence, and grateful. I turned on the radio this morning and there was the Bach B Minor Mass, the glory of it bursting into my kitchen where I was making a melted-cheese sandwich for lunch, and I began to sob, stomping across the kitchen in time with the music and waving my knife in the air like a conductor’s baton. My heart was too big for my chest and I sang along at top voice, ecstatic. Had anybody come by I would surely have been branded a crazy lady, but I didn’t care. From a lifetime of being vulnerable enough to examine my own fears, I knew it was safe to be cracked open, accessible to the stream and the joy that passeth all understanding.
As I move towards the end of my life I sense the accumulation of my experiences alchemically transmuting into something like human gold: gladness, acceptance, love. It may be what alchemists were after all the time, this gold.
I have become a conjurer of joy, grateful for the privilege of having survived to elderhood – so many have not – and able to regard the varieties of my hard-won experience as refiner’s fire. All the dross: the regrets and the humiliations and the shame, may be neutralized in the intense heat of that fire, leaving behind the nuggets of wisdom that are pure and precious. So here am I, a bit unsteady on my feet sometimes, and worn around the edges in some places, but tested and tried. Mature.