Tag Archives: Aging

On Being an Old Lady

sparrowI love being an old lady. I love the gifts age brings every single day.

This is what rising to an old-lady day looks like: I am first up, and I motion our two little dogs into action. They tumble down the stairs ahead of me, eager for a brief encounter with the back yard, then breakfast. And while they are rejoicing in their own routine, I slip into mine: emptying the dishwasher, straightening the house, making coffee and carrying it to my partner, showering.

I smooth my quilt across my bed, my hand lingering over its russets and burnished golds and forest greens. I acquired the quilt when I returned to Vermont for my dear friend Norma Fox Mazer’s memorial service. I had recently retired from teaching at Vermont College of Fine Arts, a privilege Norma and I had shared, and I chose the quilt to honor my years of teaching at VCFA and, of course, Norma herself. Each morning I unfold it remembering both. I remember with sadness that they are no longer part of my days and with the deepest gratitude that they are still part of me.

Then I take the dogs for a brisk if often interrupted walk.

Back home, I make breakfast, usually a veggie omelet, fruit with a sprinkle of granola, a tall mug of green tea. I gather my book of Daily Wisdom, 365 Buddhist Inspirations and another of Mary Oliver’s poems and my breakfast, and step out to sit on the patio in front of our house. (That is still true as I’m writing, but that part of the routine will, no doubt, have altered by the time you are reading. November in Minnesota is rarely a time for enjoying breakfast on the patio.)

And then I sit and eat slowly and watch the play of the breeze in the tall ornamental grasses at the edge of the patio and the play of life beyond. I live in the city, but our yard is deep and we have made it into a haven for small life. (“A paradise for rodents” an organic farmer friend said with some amusement.)

A chipmunk skitters beneath my chair, finding me as safe a fixture as the patio furniture. A black squirrel pauses, three feet away, and regards me with a quiet solemnity that almost belies the jerk and jitter with which she will resume her morning. A rabbit has managed to squeeze beneath a fence meant to protect a struggling bush and is enjoying a quiet breakfast. Chickadees, nuthatches, warblers, robins, blue jays, crows and more gather to the feast my partner spreads for them. Occasionally a red-tailed hawk appears at the very top of the ash tree, and everyone else vanishes.

As I watch all this, my day’s work gathers in my mind. As I watched this morning, this piece gathered.

I open my daily reading. Sometimes the day’s offering is so wise that I can only read it, set it aside and let my bemusement pass for wisdom: “A man named Lita Shiyu asked Yangshan, ‘May I hear the principle of attaining mind?’ Yangshan said, ‘If you want to attain mind, then there’s no mind that can be attained. It is this unattainable mind that is known as truth.’” (from Zen’s Chinese Heritage)

Sometimes I am deeply taught: “Be gentle with yourself. Be kind to yourself. You may not be perfect, but you are all you’ve got to work with. The process of becoming who you will be begins with the total acceptance of who you are.” (Bhante Henepola Gunaranta, Mindfulness in Plain English)

Then I turn to Mary Oliver. Perhaps one day I will graduate to another poet, but she teaches me so deeply—about writing, about this life I am living—that I feel no inclination to move beyond the home she makes for my spirit each day.

Mary Oliver says, “Watch, now, how I start the day / in happiness, in kindness.” (Why I Wake Early, new poems by Mary Oliver)

I do watch. And I am touched by joy.

For those reading this who can think only of the scramble and clutter of your own mornings—children to be fed and groomed and herded off to school; a job, even a beloved job, demanding deadlines; too many tasks lined up and waiting—I hold up my morning as a promise of good to come.

Our society does little to honor age, but you and I can honor it. We can honor, and when we arrive at that good place, we can enjoy.

I Stood before the Mirror


I stood before the mirror this morning
studying my chin’s newest collapse.
Two more grooves
inside the old familiars,
parentheses doubled for emphasis.
A sunburst of creases radiate from my lower lip,
as though drawn into being by an invisible purse string.

I tug my cheeks smooth.
Ah, yes . . . that’s the way I looked yesterday.
Or perhaps it was the day before.
Does it matter?
These new grooves are only a surprise
because inside my face,
inside me,
they don’t exist.

Standing here, though, before the truth-telling mirror,
I am reminded of another time,
another mirror,
another face—
also mine.
Many miles away my son lay dying.
We all knew except,
perhaps,
he.
Control of his body slipping away,
comprehension, too.
Visions we could not share galloping through his brain.
We watched him, son, husband, father leaving,
all of us watching.
We had been so certain he had come to stay.
And during those watching days,
during those months that stretched into years,
I rose each morning,
stood before the mirror
and saw that in the blessed dark
my face had
fallen
again.

It didn’t matter particularly,
that fallen face.
More a curiosity than a concern.
Watching your son die,
even from a great distance,
teaches you to care little about such things.
When you go out into the world there is so much you cannot say.
Your face is only doing its best to speak for you.

But still I stood then,
toothbrush in hand,
studying the grieving mother who studied me,
the collapse of flesh almost a comfort.
A substitute for the tears,
so nearly vanquished by
the
long
grieving.

Now,
when even grief lives far away,
as though all this happened in another lifetime,
to another mother,
I find strange comfort in this meticulously outlined chin.
The comfort
that comes with knowing
that death
will rescue us all.


This will probably be the opening piece for the memoir I’ve been talking about, a memoir that will now be primarily in prose. The title for the whole is one I’m returning to: When Even Grief Lives Far Away.

A Continuing Conversation

conversationLast week, talking further about the effects of aging on my work as a writer, I spoke of now being more successful in “getting out of my own way” when I sit down to write. I said that I find myself far less concerned about what anyone else—friends, agent, editors, reviewers, etc.—will think about what I’m creating and more able simply to let what I find within me flow. And I quoted one of my readers of the previous week’s discussion who referred to the process of aging as being like creating a reduction when cooking, after long simmering our own “me-ness” grows more intense.

I asked my readers for their experience of the impact of aging on their work, and here are some of the responses I got.

I love the idea of coming to an age where writing from the place of story is the thing that makes you feel most yourself. I think many of us get rare glimpses of this place as we move through our careers. I know I’ve been there…and I cherished that space. I’m always looking for it. Maybe, instead, I need to just let that place find me. —Ann

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I took great comfort from this post. This idea of reduction is like distillation, which ironically is a process used to create alcoholic drinks—”spirits.” Likewise, our spiritual life after age 60 is reducing life to its essence and saying no to many things that used to concern us. —Doug

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I find, as mortality looms ever larger in the window (assuming I have at least another 20 to live), that the mundane things and the pesty demands that KEEP me from what I want to do (write my novels) are more and more annoying, and, “no” is easier to say now, though the biggest thing I need to say “no” to, much more often, is the plethora of online interaction lol  —Donna Marie

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Thanks so much for this post – It helps me focus my thinking about writing and projects at this time of my life. I loved the line -“I’m simply reaching into myself, into that place where language begins, where story resides, and pulling out whatever I find there.”

This is what I needed to hear to let go of my own expectations to push outward. Now is the time to reach inside to find my stories. Here is a link to a bit more of my thinking —Joanne T.                            

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These posts of yours have actually frightened me – partly because you’ve expressed my well-buried thoughts, and partly because the concept of not being able to write some day due to age is horrifying. But what I have found with my recent projects casts a happier light on being an older writer: I know stuff. I don’t know where or when I learned it, I don’t remember the research, the study, but there it is – language and detail and nuance. I can bring a depth to my work that I couldn’t have brought to it when I was in my 20s. Count me among those writers who will never retire, and who doesn’t give a fig for the so-called career. All I care about is that my stories get better, that I care about them deeply, and that I keep on writing. —Janet

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I’ll soon be 74, and my days are among my happiest—rather akin to childhood. 

For many years, I worried about growing old and what it would be like. Such wasted energy! Now that I AM old, I live in gratitude for each day. Every day is different–with a rhythm that feels “right.” Today I did a book signing for my newest PB, Ben and Zip: Two Short Friends. The smile on the face of a three-year old (who had the whole book memorized) filled my heart. 

Much like you, the creaks and squeaks in my joints remind me that I’m old. But my heart has never been more fulfilled. —Joanne L.

Thank you to every one of you for your thoughtful, eloquent responses. I wish I’d been able to use every comment I received. Hearing from my readers makes this a conversation, and it’s the conversation that keeps me returning to the blog!

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While I’m Talking about Aging

11_11I thought of titling this article, “While I’m Talking about Death,” but I changed my mind. Aging is a difficult enough concept in our society, but death is almost an obscenity. Too many might turn away without reading. We all hope to age one day, even though we presume that day to be farther away than it probably is. Who hopes to die?

And yet, the older I grow, the larger death looms. Inevitably. A bout with cancer added to the three-quarters of a century I have been on this earth has brought death into my daily consciousness. Not necessarily in a bad way.

Death means limitation. Just that. And every artist of every discipline knows that limitation is power. Knowing that I will die, knowing it not only in an intellectual way without really believing it, but knowing it in my gut, changes the quality of my days. They have become precious, pearls strung on the most fragile of threads. I often pause and think Now. Now. This moment. Hold it. Treasure it. It will not come again.

I remember hearing in high school literature class about some old guy—was it John Donne?—who slept in his coffin. As an adolescent, all I could think was Weird! But now I understand, deeply, fully. He was reminding himself every time he entered the “little death” of sleep about the preciousness of his life. What could be more affirming?

My gratitude for my career as a writer in this late stage of life is boundless. I have work that calls me every day, work that I love to do, work that feeds me by connecting me with others. And yet I can do it at my own slower pace. I no longer take on deadlines. I no longer even create deadlines for myself.

My discipline is the discipline of doing each day what I most love to do, whatever that may be. Sometimes it’s writing. Sometimes it’s a day spent with my daughter and my grandchildren. Sometimes it’s a Pilates session followed by lunch with a friend followed by grocery shopping and preparing another meal for myself and my partner. (I’m one of those who loves grocery shopping and food preparation. It’s only putting the groceries away that annoys.) Sometimes it’s doctor’s appointments, of course, or other unpleasant necessities, but whatever else I’m doing, each morning I rise knowing the writing waits. And I always turn to it with gratitude.

Recognizing the limitation of my days, however, has prompted me to reconsider the choices I make about what to write. I stood before my book shelf one day and counted the books that bear my name. It will be one hundred very soon. And I said to myself, it will be nice to keep writing. I hope to continue to publish. But it’s clear, whatever I write, that the world doesn’t need more Marion Dane Bauer books. And so, though I was fully engaged in Blue-Eyed Wolf, a young-adult novel that I found challenging and fascinating and satisfying to struggle through, I put it aside for a different project . . . a memoir in verse.

This . . . this is what I most need to write. I need to write it for my daughter and my grandchildren if it reaches no one else. And I need to write it for myself. It’s a way of parsing my past, discovering its shape, finding its meaning. It’s a way—returning to the opening of this piece to create a writerly shape—of preparing for my death.

I think the memoir will be called Writing a Life, and it is another gift delivered to me by limitation. It would not have occurred to me to do this in middle age. I do it—and do it urgently—precisely because I know my time grows short. Maybe another twenty years short. Who knows? Maybe much less.

And what I could not have known when I was young and repelled by the idea of an old guy sleeping in his coffin, the urgency brought on by Death fills me with joy!

 

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Why I Don’t Want to Die at 75

11_4Recently Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel wrote an article published in Atlantic entitled, “Why I Want to Die at 75.” Not surprisingly, it has caused a stir. And being exactly 75 myself I find myself drawn to the fray. In a recent interview on Public Television the author of the article had this to say in justification of his premise: “I look at 75, when I look at all the data on physical disability, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, loss of creativity, slowing down of the mind and the body, and 75 seems like that, albeit somewhat arbitrary, moment where you get the maximum chance you’re still going to be vital and alive and vigorous.”

Dr. Emanuel is currently 57 years old, a relatively safe distance from which to make such a pronouncement. With my 76th birthday a couple of weeks away, I have—as might be expected—a different perspective.

This is just one man’s opinion, after all. Not a pronouncement anyone is obligated to live—or die—by, but when I consider the fact that Dr. Emanuel has been an advisor to President Obama concerning health care policy in this country, his opinion takes on disconcerting power. Imagine the kinds of public policy that could be influenced by such a perspective!

He acknowledged, as one must, that some people remain vital and creative past 75, and the reactions I have seen to his article have rushed to name such folks. A list like that always points out, in particular, those who are known for their contribution to the arts, as though the arts were, somehow, the gold standard for “vitality” and “creativity.” As though those who tend gardens and nurture grandchildren and simply live, maintaining friendships and families and history, barely deserve mention.

But there is a larger issue here. As Dr. Emanuel accurately points out, if we live long enough, our abilities will diminish. That is inevitable. It doesn’t matter how well we eat, how many supplements we take, how much we exercise, how positive we remain. And the diminishment won’t just be in our ability to run marathons or to wear high-heeled pumps without endangering our spines.

Our brains will slow. Our memories will show gaps. (I am often reminded, these days, of the statement, “I have an excellent memory. It just happens to be extremely short.”) The most common words will slip from our grasp. (I have been intrigued to note that I can easily find myself searching for an obvious word when I am talking, but rarely when I’m writing. I can only assume writing uses a different, more reliable part of my brain.) Our senses will be less acute. Our comprehension will come more slowly. (I wear hearing aids, and they work as well as hearing aids can, but my problems deciphering speech are confounded by the fact that my brain sometimes takes an extra beat to register what I have heard.)

And that doesn’t begin to touch on failures of joint and muscle, of heart and digestion, of strength and balance . . . or, of course, remembering my own bout with cancer three years ago, our greater vulnerability to disease.

I would seem to be agreeing with Dr. Emanuel’s argument, but I’m not. He has a right, certainly, to value his own body, his own life only for its agility and productivity. And I am more grateful than I can say that I continue to create and to publish as I pass the three-quarters-of-a-century mark. But Dr. Emanuel and our society as a whole makes a huge mistake not to value life for more than strength and acuity.

My knees creak when I rise from a long sit at the computer. Words I know slip away in conversation. But my life is richer today than it ever has been. I am content, not just with the harvest I have gathered, but with each moment that presents itself. More content than I have ever been.

Do I want to go on living when my life is reduced to pain or to a radical loss of comprehension? Absolutely not. And that is, no doubt, part of what Dr. Emanuel was reacting to, our medical system’s ability to keep us alive long past the time when we are of any use, not just to the world around us, but to ourselves. It is a profound problem and one we must find better solutions for.

But while I hope we work seriously and with deep love on that failure of our medical system, I also hope we don’t forget that life is about more than being useful. We are important, each one of us, simply because we are . . . even when it is time for us to receive more than we can give.

Because receiving is another way of giving. The giver grows in the giving. And that’s a truth we all need to hold close at any time of life!

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