Aging: The Greatest Gift of All

As a rule, I don’t “do” birthdays. Yeah, each year I mentally note the fact of my birth. But that’s about it. No parties, cakes, presents, etc.

But this year’s birth anniversary is different from any other I’ve experienced --- because the age I am now feels, lives, is, different from any other. 

Today I am sixty and I start my seventh decade. And I’ve never been as aware of “life” as I am now. 

Indeed, the great gift of my sixtieth decade is an extraordinary depth of self-understanding and, more important, an expanded awareness of and appreciation for the “moment.” (aka “life.”)

 

 Portrait of An Aging Historian

Portrait of An Aging Historian

Those delights are all the more treasured because the sixth decade got off to an unexpectedly bad start. 

Ten years ago today, I celebrated fifty years and assumed the new decade would be even better than the previous. (I celebrated that birthday with the same two people I’m celebrating this one with. How great is that?)

Slam. Bang. Crash. Turned out the sixth decade was apparently hellbent on breaking my kneecaps.  

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First there was the “oh my god you mean I’m going to die someday?” thing. (If you’re not yet fifty, trust me: This notion will rear its head. And you won’t expect it. And you’ll freak out.)

Then there was menopause. (*1) Then I finished a book I’d worked on for five years and busted my butt trying to sell it and the book flopped and I had some truly weird shit happen with some people I knew and I contemplated divorce or at least running away from home (to where, I couldn’t decide). 

All of it interlaced with a horrific shoulder injury that caused excruciating pain of a sort that led me to the edge of the abyss and took two years and shitload of medical crap to repair. (I’m happy to report that my shoulder now works just fine.) 

And so forth.

So I read Dante (because isn’t that what one does in that circumstance?). His notion that he would pass through the dark wood became my mantra. I would survive. I would pass through this dark place and on the other side would be a different and presumably better appreciation of life. (*2) 

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And sure enough. I traveled that dark wood and on the other side --- I found a joy that I’d never imagined and certainly never experienced. 

Yeah, I’m gonna die. Yeah, life feels absurdly fleeting. Yeah, seize every moment. All that crap is true

Except it’s not crap. It’s glorious. The knowledge -- the gut, deep down knowledge --- that death awaits is spiritually and psychologically exhilarating: It’s gonna happen. So. Might as well enjoy what’s here and now.

That’s not the prescription for self-absorbed hedonism that it sounds. Rather, it means that I'm no longer hamster-wheeling toward a vague sisyphean end point in favor of the now.

Make no mistake: I still work. Indeed, I've finally admitted that, in modern parlance, I'm a workaholic. But I’ve moved past denial and into “recovery,” as the language would have it.

In plain English, I now spend part of each day doing nothing --- except living. Sitting on my porch gazing at the sky. Watching birds wrestle with a fruit-laden tree. Thinking about what to fix for dinner --- or not. Walking. I spend more time with family and friends.

Keyboard and words no longer occupy the center of my daily universe. Maximization of “output" no longer occupies my every moment.

I’ve taken up both yoga and meditation --- the latter embraced several years ago as a way to cope with the most hellish moment of the sixtieth decade, the former as both a form of meditation and a way to honor my aging body. (*3)

But above all --- or more accurately, underlying all --- is this: I’ve never been so aware of my age and of aging (aka the passage of time).

I’ve never felt so wise, so assured, so loved and loving. This glorious state of joy, I now understand, is what life is, can be, should be. 

Hell, I don’t even feel bad that it took me sixty years to reach that understanding. Because I know, I understand, I accept, that the long learning curve is part of the deal.

Another part is knowing that nothing beats simply being. Except perhaps the intense pleasure that being brings. (Yeah, okay. Veering dangerously close to Heideggarian/Foucaultian/RamDassian nonsense. If you're young, you're gonna have to take my word for it. If you're sixty, it makes sense.)

I am now precisely and exactly the person I want to be, and probably the one I’ve always wanted to be (but wasn’t sure what that was or how to get there). 

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I'll be the first to admit that my chosen life is, um, odd: I rarely leave the house because . . . why? What I need is right here. (Which, yes, is easy enough to pull off thanks to the ease with which I can arrange to have someone deliver necessities to my door.) (*4)

I’m systematically turning my house into a soul-pleasing sanctuary in which to live each day. I spend as much time as possible outside: walking, running, sitting, gazing. I don’t need much else. (*5)

When I venture out into the world, it’s for good reason. (No mindless trips to the grocery store for an ingredient.) Next week, for example, I’m headed to Denver to spend time with beer friends/writers from whom I draw inspiration.

I’ve even got a life plan, a fact that surprises me no end. My goal is to leave my house for the last time in a horizontal position. My plan to achieve that? When the time comes (ie when I can no longer manage on my own), I’ll arrange to “hire” a Buddhist monk/nun or two to be with me to the end. They get a place to live and pray. I get their support, aid, and comfort. 

But I’m also aware that “planning” is a bit of a fool’s game. I could walk out the door today and get creamed by a dumbass driving an SUV while talking on a cellphone. 

But if I do --- well . . . . That’s okay. I’m ready for that. Because that’s aging’s greatest gift: Accepting and embracing life in its entirety, death and all.

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*1: Menopause. Has there ever been a woman less prepared for it than me? Okay, yeah, every woman ever, I assume, and especially the living gobs of millennia ago. My pre-menopause attitude was “how bad can it be?” I didn’t need all the fingers on both hands to tally the number of times I’d experienced cramps, so I was all “well, no big deal, right?” Wrong. So wrong. I knew (at least intellectually) about hot flashes, but had NO idea that my chronic insomnia was about to get worse. NO idea that the hormone dump would produce such psychological trauma. NO idea that I’d get upset as my hair fell out in disturbingly large clumps. Most days, I lived in a state of cliche-come-true: as if aliens had invaded my body. It. was. not. fun.

*2:  I believed this with every molecule of my being. Because if I believed and assumed that  “life” would continue to be a hellish psychological nightmare, well . . . . I don’t know about you but that struck me as a recipe for giving up and surely I’d not lived all these years just to give up? Surely not.

*3: Because the body, it does age. Indeed, observing the aging process has become a fascinating hobby. My body isn’t the same as it was when I was twenty, and that’s fine and dandy and so I’ve learned to listen to what it tells me about what its sixty-year-old version needs and wants. And what it needs and wants ain’t the same thing it wanted at 20 or 30 or even at fifty. In fact, I’m astounded by how much the body changes during the sixtieth decade. It’s not bad. It’s just --- different.

 *4: Apparently I’m one of those modern-day hermits (I howled when  I read this article a few months ago. Never occurred to me I live on the leading edge of uber hipsterism).

*5: Yes, I know I’m fortunate beyond words to be able to live the life I’ve chosen. I know that. Don’t lecture me about my privilege. (And I'd like to point out that I made one choice after another to reach the place I am now.)

This intensely personal post is dedicated to my friends and to those I love most: Bill, Kay, Alys, Bernard, Jen, Trevor, and of course King Willem.