I have a friend approaching eighty, Phyllis, of over thirty years, an artist, an artist of life, as well, the sort of person who enters a room on high alert, esthetics-antennae a-quiver. Without bothering to ask, she will, to your horror, rearrange your living room, and then to your surprise, you will feel grateful. She sees the possibility of the tablehere, in the improbable middle of your room; the brightly patterned throw not there, (it is bunched up in a sloppy corner), but here, lending the sofa new warmth, and a draped elegance.
Phyllis once offered a strategy for aging.
When she turned thirty, she began to ask older friends what the salient insights and episodes had been, in recollecting the decade she had just entered.
Thirty brought the giddy realization that people might actually listen to what you had to say.
Forty brought the thrill of being sexually vibrant.
Fifty brought the freedom from having to prove it.
Sixty brought relieving self acceptance.
Seventy finally brought the acceptance of others, specifically, one’s spouse.
She has yet to receive bulletins from the frontier of the eighties.
This made me wonder if my aging might be approached in a spirit similar to rearranging the living room.
For several years, my subject has been aging. The subjects of my study, whom I chose, provided myriad negative examples. I was struck by the surprise they expressed at finding themselves old. Believing themselves without choices or agency (and at their ages, and in their states, they mostly were), they had ended up suddenly in The Bog of Loss – the car keys, the friends, the physical strength, the mental sharpness.
Great Bog of Loss
My grandmother, in her eighties, sat weeping on her nubbly, ivory-colored couch. She believed herself to be abandoned, imprisoned in The Home, stuck there, and betrayed. Her daughter, Betty, my mum, flayed by Grammy’s paranoia, could only say, “I’m sorry, Mother, no” over and over each time she begged to come live with us, with no spare room to spare, in our family home in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
Once I believed her to be Wise and Kind. Of course, I would come to see that she was exceptional at neither – just a person shaped by circumstances, imprisoned, as are we all, by the flaws she could neither articulate nor master.
On her ivory-colored couch, in a beige frock with lace strained over the bodice, only half zipped up in back, she wept, in some horrid, transitional space between the keen realization of what was lost, and dying.
It was a humid Pennsylvania August. Even a jog up a pleasant country road offered no relief from that, or her leaden sorrow, which did not lift, but lowered and grayed like the storm clouds that finally broke through. Once I loved her fiercely – her clever Easter baskets piled with Hershey Kisses and onion skin died eggs; her tawdry, albeit beautifully executed crafts; the astonishing plethora of Pennsylvania Dutch foods and extravagant holiday dinners, her occasional eruptions of “Scheisse!” were a dish found chipped or broken, or a puff of dust discovered on the kitchen floor. She had an appetite for life, and from the physical realm, drank deeply, unlike her daughter, who took shallow, wary sips.
The vibrancy did not sustain; does it ever?
What would have kept her vibrant? Not her intractable desire, nor her losing pact with change.
At sixty-seven I know I’m not old; I’m just setting out on the journey. I pay attention to my health, following rules of omission and commission. Like: don’t smoke; like: do meditation. I maintain a cautious outlook regarding panaceas. I do not like, or believe in, for example, kale. Of course, there is the exhortation toward healthy exercise and diet. Fitbits and kale; hot Pilates and Nordic oils. The more I try, however, to focus on this, the experience itself – my aging – the more baffled I become. What is it to age well?
I haven’t been forbidden this study of aging, dying, death, but it’s not exactly like those subjects were on offer at Moravian Prep in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, or hot topics at the dinner table, or encouraged at Lake Erie College for Women in Painesville, Ohio. Regarding the latter, quite the contrary. It was 1966, and high tea was still served in the Green Room, where we – the wives and mothers in training – would gather, formally garbed and gloved, learning the art of Mingle, Small Talk and Self Effacement. The Arts of Death and Dying were not among the offerings.
No, at sixty-seven, I am hardly old. I worry that how I go about my study, with assiduity and zeal, will cause me to prematurely age, that tomorrow, for example, I’ll wake up an actualized seventy-eight-sixty-seven-year old. Where would that stop, once started? Would it be like that awful Gilford Progeria Syndrome, only existentially, not genetically triggered?
In the nomenclature of elderhood, there is, phrase – Aging in Place. A noble concept: let us, as we creep toward Elderhood, do so in the comfort of our homes. But the phrase sounds calcifying, as if one will turn incrementally into a pillar of salt. We will feel ourselves freeze; our joints will lock, our eyes grow marmoreal, our feet become one with the floor. Stolid but upright, we age in place.
Seriously, when I try to think about aging well, my mind draws a blank, and I struggle to find or define a formula: age-appropriate exercise plus community engagement, minus isolation and tequila = brain health and the postponement of Depends. We are all different, and so your formula will be unique to you. But we are all moving in our individual paces toward death, the victory of our animal carcass over our mental recoiling.
There is a delicate, old woman whom I see, who takes her tea and a pastry in the neighborhood coffee shop. I study her as if I’m pulling on aging’s character and features. I notice a fastidiousness of gesture, which I will come to recognize, upon closer observation, as a tentative holding of herself in space. She sits at a small, zinc topped table, facing the street. It is early fall and she is dressed for the weather – beige trench coat in the style of a London Fog, creased, wool slacks, scarf. Her hair, snowy and kempt, is up in a chignon. She is pink and white, blue eyes in a lovely face, sweet; alone, an elderly woman having tea and a pasty by herself, not reading, not keen, it seems, to engage or draw attention to herself.
She lifts the pastry to her lips and chews slowly. All movement is slow, and each function takes its turn under the scrutiny of attention – chew, swallow, breathe, lift cup to lips, sip, bite, chew, swallow. Each act separates into an autonomous gesture, and after each comes a pause, a recovery, a restoration.
She walks without an aid, but cautiously. Rising to clear her cup and plate, her steps are deliberate and tiny. Concentration is required to stay upright. Her eyes pull her toward the goal, a side board across the table-littered room, where patrons deposit spent napkins and emptied vessels and plates into tubs, or help themselves to water, and above which a bulletin board signals with its clutter of informational debris.
An elegant, old woman, takes herself to tea. She walks back to her table slowly and with determination, arms raised before her, bent at the elbow, hands reaching out into space, pulling her toward the next goal, her table, where her purse waits. I am tempted to insert myself and address her; break through the barrier between observer and observed so that my impressions can land in the actual person. Who is she? What is her experience?
Her fragile launch from table to pastry counter, which she leans on, choosing among the goodies. Will the brief communication with the counter “girl” or “boy” afford her meaningful social contact? Where will she go after? To the small, neighborhood grocery down the block; to a car? This seems unlikely.
The slow, deliberate movement through space, aided by arms and hands; the gaze, like her extended arms, in the service of drawing her forward. This is where we’re headed. For many of us, there has been revealed no path. And so, this is how we practice.
I am afraid of growing old. I am afraid of dying. There are Tibetan practices to help with this, to transform this small minded, ego-imprisoning view into one of liberation. This requires study and skill and finding the right teacher and a belief in reincarnation. But when I think about it, what in life is more important than “doing” this last phase richly and right? And what is the “doing?”
Maybe this: talking about the experience; sharing concerns; taking up time and space, and staying visible.
If the final task in the life span is, as Erik Erikson believes, one of ego integration, then the culture in general is well served if this final phase is seen as apex, and enrichment. That shifts the image away from walking the plank toward accomplishment of tasks unique to this phase of our living. But many whom I know of lead their lives in the erroneous assumptions that successfully continuing the tasks of the first half of life is “successful” aging.
Those various elderly clients I worked with both as a companion and later, with a bit of training, as a C.N.A. gave me pause. They were not succeeding at the tasks of aging. They had not successfully continued with their first-half-of-life-busyness, and so they had no ground left to stand on. My over-wrought investigation of “how to age” stems, in part, from witnessing catastrophe, much the way our highly trained earth quake preparedness team leader, Byron who, lucky for us, lives up the street, sees everything as a precursor to natural disaster.
Does it matter that we hydrate and eat healthy? My father did not “believe” in the benefits of drinking water; eschewed green leafy vegetables; if allowed would have lived on pork chops dowsed in pale, thick gravy. His relationship to fresh food consisted of a daily, half-banana or apple sauce or fried onion rings. He lived to be almost ninety-eight years old, so as far as I’m concerned, the jury’s out when it comes to an absolute causal relationship between an excellent diet and salubrious longevity.
Trying to think about, or get inside aging is like trying to get ready for Byron’s earthquake. The Big One. The 9.+ that experts say is just a matter of time. On a recent trip to Boston, I had packed an incongruous assortment of reading material – among which was an article written by Kathryn Schultz published in The New Yorker,entitled “The Really Big One: an earthquake will destroy a sizable portion of the coastal Northwest. The question is when.” I live in Seattle. It is about Seattle and its surrounding fragility. I forced myself to read it. The details describing the coming quake, defined as the Cascadian Subduction Zone, were graphic and harrowing. The seismic history of the region connected me with my acute puniness in the enormous geologic scale of things. That’s okay. It’s important to understand your speck status in the universe. The article was riveting People moved away. A friend of a friend picked her family up and moved them to Spokane.
I have been writing and thinking about aging for over a decade now. I have read books, taken trainings, created classes. I have put my experience of aging in the context of spiritual practice, or tried to, and all of that is just not the same as actually living it, getting it down into the strata of tissue and bones. While reading Kathryn Schultz’s piece, I found myself profoundly unsettled. It made me picture the force of the catastrophe, its devastation, and touch the terrible truth – at least the fringe of it. There is no solid ground, and I cannot control any of what happens. I am toast, tossed, a fleck – pounded, broken. I am so upset by this that I can’t even keep my images and verbs coherent; this terrifying scenario is on a par with what I feel about my aging. It is my body’s earthquake and reading Schultz, I rattled around in the womb of my devastation.
Disturbance has much to teach me.
Do not squander your life, the Zen Night Prayer cautions. I have knocked tenaciously, repeatedly, figuratively at these temple gates in order to learn how not to squander, or to recognize when I do. As I approach seventy, though, I feel an intensifying panic. One cause is my aging; the bigger one, my death. In the time left, I’d prefer to excise my panic.
My panic is predatory, a panther that has stalked me forever, so I may be straining to correlate panic with aging, panic with death. It may be really just what I contain: panic with its meaty breath and menacing paws – a part of me, like my crooked incisor, widow’s peak, skinny wrists and ankles, excess energy. Something bequeathed early in dark infancy, between the mothers.
A couple of years ago, I found myself looking at friends who were older than I by a decade – women who had been stunning in their younger years, and thinking, “Sexy. Still.” Not like thirty, of course; their appeal had to do with being wonderfully comfortable in their skins, merry in the evenness of their gazes. There had been won a freedom from the construct of femininity. They were women in their seventies, these friends. I can not say that such confidence and evenness of the gaze will follow into the nineties. Maybe this is a panther fear; loss won’t be warded off for much longer.
Aging, when perceived as dwindling and decline ruins the whole trajectory. Birth to the final wrap – all is cheapened. It’s surely not enough to shrug and assign mystery the larger meaning, although there is much that we can’t know. My friend, Phyllis says, “I honestly don’t think we’re supposed to know. I only know that it’s a very short trip.”