Old age is a ceremony of losses.
Old age is a ceremony of losses.
Why is “older” an acceptable word and “old” almost forbidden?
To answer my own question, I suppose it’s because we’re all growing older, even the four-year-old next door. But old . . . at least in this youth-driven society, old smacks of incompetence, of irrelevance. Even worse, old smacks of that truly obscene-to-us word . . . death.
I am approaching my birthday this month. It won’t be a “big” dividable-by-five birthday, but still one that feels significant for the number it stands close to. In a week I will be 79.
Can you name the number?
Forty didn’t trouble me a bit. I had a friend, somewhat older than I, who, when I turned forty, said, “Forty is such a fine age. It’s the first number you reach that has any authority, but you still feel so young.” And she was right! I sailed into 40 feeling mature, confident . . . and still young.
Sixty-five slipped past without much fanfare. As a working writer I wasn’t facing retirement, after all. Moreover, I could sign up for Social Security, and for the self-employed that is no small thing. I’d been paying in, both the employee and the employer side, for a long time, and at last it was going to come back to me. Given the difficulty and expense of buying health insurance that isn’t handed down through an employer, being able to get Medicare was an even bigger deal. (I will never understand the flap in this country about “socialized medicine.” That’s what Medicare is, and it works! It works better than any other pay-for-care system offered in this backward country.)
When I turned seventy my daughter threw me a big party . . . at my request, I should add. It was a lovely party, and it exhausted me. Mostly it reminded me that I’ve never liked parties.
“I won’t ask you to do that again,” I said.
She, who has always been a loving and willing daughter, said, “Good!”
But this is 79! And yes, I might as well name the number. Eighty is a very short hop, skip and hobble down the road!
For the first time I find myself facing changes in my body that I know I don’t have the power to fix. Not that I’ve given up trying. I walk vigorously two or three times a day. I do Pilates three times a week. I stretch and I meditate and I eat healthfully and I practice excellent sleep hygiene. Actually, my sleep hygiene is better and more reliable than my sleep. But my body continues on its ever-so-predictable downward trajectory.
From time to time, bits fall off.
And my mind? That’s harder to define and even harder to talk about. I can still produce a workable manuscript. I can still offer a useful critique of someone else’s manuscript, too. But I find myself too often going back to the refrigerator to locate the eggs I’ve just set out on the counter or struggling in the evening to remember some detail of what I’ve done that morning.
My omelets still please the palate, though, and I’ve shown up wherever I was expected to be in the morning and done whatever I said I would do.
Arriving at a place called old in this culture is a matter for some amazement. Who is ever prepared? After all, old has never been something to aspire to . . . despite the alternative. A friend said recently, “I went from wolf whistles to invisibility in a heartbeat.” And I went from “cutting-edge” to “veteran author” in the same incomprehensibly short time.
I find I want more than anything else to use these years I’ve been gifted, however many or few they may be. I want to use them to deepen my acceptance of my own life, blunders and accomplishments all. I want to use them to enrich the peace my presence brings into a room.
I want to use these years to live. Not just to move through my days stacking accomplishments, one on top of another. I have enough of those. We all have enough of those.
I want to use these years to breathe, deeply and mindfully. And now, being old, I want use these final years to be grateful for every, every breath.
There is no need to be afraid of death. It is not the end of the physical body that should worry us. Rather, our concern must be to live while we’re alive – to release our inner selves from the spiritual death that comes with living behind a façade designed to conform to external definitions of who and what we are. Every individual human being born on this earth has the capacity to become a unique and special person unlike any who has ever existed before or will ever exist again… When you live as if you’ll live forever, it becomes too easy to postpone the things you know that you must do. You live your life in preparation for tomorrow or in remembrance of yesterday, and meanwhile, each day is lost. In contrast, when you fully understand that each day you awaken could be the last you have, you take the time that day to grow, to become more of who you really are, to reach out to other human beings.
It’s the time of year to think about beginnings. And endings.
We on this globe—at least those who live some distance from the unchanging belt around the middle—live in a world of constant beginnings and endings. The snow blesses then gives way to flowers. The leaves unfurl then tumble into dust. The sun rises then withdraws its bounty.
The essence of our Earth is change, a world constantly remaking itself in earthquake and volcano, in fire and flood, in life evolved and life eradicated. Even the seeming constant stars die, and planets are born in their fiery deaths. In the midst of this birthing and dying of everything we know, you and I enter, breathe for a brief patch, and are gone.
And while we are breathing we keep starting over. And over. And over.
There was a time when I thought my life was meant to be a straight line toward some distinct and thoroughly desirable goal. What goal I didn’t know, but I was certain I would arrive there. Otherwise, what was the point?
Today I look back across nearly eight decades and find a different truth. My life has been—still is—crammed with discovery, with dreams, with joy more sweet than anything I’d ever been told I deserved. It has also been littered with missteps, mischance, misperceptions, misunderstandings, mischoices. Perhaps that dichotomy shapes every life, but certainly it shapes of mine.
To my own credit I can say that I have learned along the way. Not everything. Perhaps not even enough. But the learning goes on, even in age.
Now, already deep into a century I found unimaginable when I was a child, I stand at the threshold of another New Year starting over once more. Not just nodding to an artificially declared holiday but truly starting over. So much in my life is new, is being done over, tried again.
New work. Work I have never dared attempt before. Hard work, even harrowing sometimes, but good, so good. Will it find a place in the world out there? I have no way of knowing, but it calls and I tiptoe after.
New understanding. So much I thought I knew seems unimportant from the vantage point of age. So much I understood has been proven wrong. Or if it isn’t wrong, it has moved on to become something I can no longer fathom. What to do in the face of my ignorance? The only answer seems to be declare my incompetence and open myself to discovery.
New peace. Not the kind of peace from which the chaos of the world doesn’t matter, but a struggling peace, one that seeks openness before the intractable, quiet in the midst of noise, caring against a world of indifference.
And love. A new love. Sweetest of all, this new love.
What have I learned as I start over once more after so many other startings? One thing that I can name.
I eschew regret.
My mistakes have formed me as deeply—perhaps even more deeply—than my gifts. And here I come carrying it all, mistakes and gifts together, into another day. Another precious day.
What can I possibly do but rejoice?
The thing is
to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it,
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it…
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you again.
— Ellen Bass