Seventy is the sum of our years,” says the psalmist, “or 80 if we are strong.”
Despite everything that makes today’s life supremely complicated and punishing, many of us are “strong.”
In my 70s I hardly thought of myself as “aging.” My husband and I took 14-hour flights; I wrote, went from one meeting and proceeded to the next. But when I stepped on the line of 8, I knew I was “old.”
All I had to do was look at the mirror. The evidence was there—the wrinkles, the sagging, the gray hair—the truest tattle-tales of age. But the lines on my face bother me the least.
It’s the decline of the rest of the body system that is so depressing that I envy super-optimists, always “feeling great” and habitually declaring that “it’s all in the mind.”
Maybe so. But aging is very much in the body. In my 70s I could ignore the aches and pains, even major surgery and serious illness, as temporary intrusions.
Now that I’m 80, the pain down the back of my leg, nose sprays, eye drops, palpitations, insomnia, my first denture, senior moments, belching, allergies, etc., are permanent baggage. The reflexes are gone; I watch my every step or fall flat on my face.
Most discouraging is the waning stamina, the flight of energy after some exertion, sending me to bed to recover.
At times, something ails “from the tip of my head to the soles of my feet,” made worse by creeping hypochondria, magnified fears and worries. This must be the end.
A doctor once told me that good company and good talk release a chemical that makes “ladies who lunch” and ladies who dance feel good. That’s scientific, like the release of adrenaline.
So, I dance (but no more since my spine problem), and lunch—pastimes I formerly scoffed at as a waste of time. Dispositions change.
Yes, they do. The body may be declining but some things are becoming sharper. They’re settling in with what seems like a “change” of personality, like a new woman with emergent traits, or heightened perceptions. The metamorphosis seems strongly linked with emotions and sentiments, now growing more keen and delicate.
Never before have I been aware of the “connect” between us and the natural world; of nature as truly bountiful and of the creatures of the earth as endowed with identities, unique and fully alive. I delight at the sight of chickens pecking around in the farm and I don’t mind a mouse skittering along the wall to safety.
It’s like looking at every one of nature’s phenomena with new eyes. I loathe the rising colonies of condos and business towers which to me are colossal concrete piles mercilessly driven into the earth. On TV, I watch gliding frames of lovely scenery where before I watched only the persons talking.
I have more time for music, a neglected love. The piano is the sound I enjoy most. Now unable to play even “All the Things You Are,” thank God for CDs. Sometimes I isolate the instrumentals from song and singer and never till now have I realized how mood-inducing musical arrangements can be.
Memories, especially of family, are now priceless, laden with affection and tinged with regret. Tolstoy in “The Brothers Karamazov” says it poignantly: “There is nothing more powerful … than some good memory, and particularly one that has been borne from childhood, from one’s parents’ home … a beautiful, sacred memory like that … is possibly the very best education of all. If he gathers many such memories in his life, a man is saved for all of it. And even if only one good memory remains within our heart, then even it may serve some day for our salvation.”
But unwelcome for me is impatience and irritability. Unwelcome, too, is this intensifying empathy whereby my heart weeps before any sight of suffering of any kind, or rages against rotten political leaders dumbing half the nation in poverty and ignorance.
This growing sensitivity to other people’s plight is said to be the fine-tuning of age, a quality that enhances character.
The trouble is, I no longer want to be “moved” or get “excited” as in my rather “engaged” and “committed” midlife. Instead I try, mightily, to remain even and composed. This is perhaps why, after my last book, I decided to stop writing except when certain crisis points compel me to do so. I have seen too many prominent professionals sticking it out in the mainstream when they should have graciously retired.
I feel that anyone like me who is out of the loop in all things Internet has little business being in media. Someone who now reads only the news heads, comics, editorials and favorite columnists; glances through Fashion, Food, Business; and totally skips Sports, Motoring, Gadgets, advertisements, movies, has no right getting printed.
I have also noticed that lately I have resorted to Roget’s Thesaurus too often. I won’t wait for whispers like, “she’s repeating herself,” “she ought to retire,” before I truly retire. Besides, I’m tired and frankly lazy. Somehow I don’t feel the need to remain “productive” or “creative,” and who am I to think I still have a “mission”?
What I crave is calm and serenity. Fountainhead of this calm is, I suspect, “God’s indwelling and surrounding presence,” fervently sought but very elusive. The straining toward the transcendent, and intimations of the Spirit, come unbidden, often faint and fleeting, or if one is lucky, lingering, but very briefly.
They’re pure gifts of grace, moments of silence when I involuntarily close my eyes to even the icons on my altar because they seem like distractions.
If there’s any sentiment lying at every turn and corner for the elderly, it must be gratitude. My entire life has been punctuated with serendipity, whose else but God’s, tracking the direction of my life; trivial ones like someone I can’t get on the phone because it’s not the right time to talk to her; or life-changing, like somebody’s X-ray mistaken for mine that dropped a bomb named “TB,” changing the entire timetable of my schooling and sets of classmates and friends that led to my husband.
I feel very lucky to reach the stage in which my students and I have become peers and good friends. I also thank God that I can still do such elemental functions like morning and evening ablutions by myself.
There’s a presence that sits like a sphinx in the back of my head. It’s a blind, personal Faith in God. When my slipped disk brought me to the verge of a spinal operation, I turned the matter round and round in my mind, but the hesitation persisted.
I then realized that one can’t bring everything to a resolution. Straight as an arrow, I was “forced back to stubborn, desperate faith”—stubborn, because it is forever there whether I mind it or not; desperate, because before a dead end, it’s the only secret door. It’s time for “miracles” to take over, little healings of body-mind-feelings, chance encounters and surprise epiphanies.
Of such stuff is this Faith I speak of, to the rescue when all else fails.
Calm and composure are my priority now, not as a recluse obsessing with “saving my soul” and “going to heaven” but in the midst of the coming and going in this hyperactive world. Every now and then the 1,001 minutiae of daily living have to be swept out to give space for a distant God.
Balancing serenity and activity is the challenge. Retiring will help—more time to read leisurely, to do nothing, to move slowly. I aim to remove “hurry” from my vocabulary.
My husband and I help young people through school, simply to help them have a better life. We hold activities in our small farm to create a sense of community and help leave happy memories of youth.
“Bonus” has come our way in different forms. It’s time to share, seriously, generously. That includes participation in discussion which I prefer to call “conversations.” I chat with anybody who shows the slightest inclination to do so, such that my daughters call me “Miss Congeniality.”
If I bring a nod or a smile to anyone’s face, I may have made someone better informed or a bit happier. Such is all I want to do now.