At the gym during a Zumba class some time ago, I made a reference to Jane Fonda—“Remember her workout videos?” to which the instructor replied that I was dating myself. I didn’t and don’t mind. This is who I am. I’ve got to love me, in all my complexities, before things really start to go wrong. Even people in optimum health have to die someday. Resisting the natural turns in our physical, emotional or mental condition seems like a good way to add extra suffering to an inevitable outcome. But, I ask, what of looking ahead in the direction of integration and contribution? Hal’s brother-in-law laughs when I talk about preparing for aging, but it’s true. There seems to be a formula to entering into the wisdom years with grace.
I like old people. I hope to be one myself some day. I wish I had known more of them in my life, especially my grandparents, none of whom I had the pleasure to get to know. By the time people get to their 70s, a perspective shift happens. These are years when the wisdom can flow down to generations. But this happens only if someone is there to listen. This is a good time to pull up a chair and hear about how things used to be, listening deeply for the story in between the words as carefully as to those articulated. When this happens, time gets stitched together, the histories of a full life woven into a tapestry that needs time to emerge. In the retelling, a new color, some forgotten detail gets worked in. Like an elaborate quilt, my elders reveal a beautiful tableau of personal history and triumph. These are gifts bequeathed to descendants, which need not be biological in nature.
I also enjoy doing nice things for the seniors in my community, but mostly I smile and give a kind greeting when I can. When I lived in New York, it seems I slowed down only to carry some heavy bags across the street for older neighbor. They’ve earned some privileges. What I’ve noticed is that some elders view my behavior as ageist, while another set revels in it. This is about perceptions, of course. We are meant to give and receive. To maintain balance, it is necessary to accept and ask for help, even if we don’t need it, making room for another’s gifts to inhabit our physical and interior spaces. It’s an invitation to open to connection, a time for sharing. And, that means accepting help with our load, as well as making time for intimacy.
For some people, those things are too hard to do and give. Take the example of my mother, who constantly complains of exhaustion, pain and fatigue, but when we spend time together, my mother wants to bleach the interior walls of my home, cook every meal and wash dishes (This for her vacation). Hal wouldn’t tell her where the broom was. Cleaning is wonderful, and my mom’s cooking is superb. But if she’s doing everything, all the time, when will she get a rest? It’s difficult for her to accept a small offering or service graciously; to sit still and let someone serve her is not in her nature. She’s not the only one. As I observe the behavior of other seniors in our community, I see similar patterns. I also see them in myself.
This is the other teacher in the school of life. It seems that if we refuse to accept basic support, loving gestures and kindnesses, we will emerge in our final hours without energy, possibly going without simple pleasures. We can practice now for the later years, when the door should open as often as it does in the prime time, whether we step through it or not. We do it for posterity. I’ll admit that having a cast on my foot is humbling. I get it. It’s pretty hard to ask for everything you need when you don’t want to depend on other people and you’ve done it all yourself all your life. I breathe into this space and see the years at the horizon and imagine this will be similar in the future. Unable to drive, and the sandwich isn’t quite as I’d make me, so I say “Thank you,” tasting the love that went into it, knowing one of these fine days, I’ll be making the sandwiches for someone else.
We can pay into this lavish reciprocity with a little mindfulness: Learn to leave a small task undone for a friend who asks, “May I help?” Assign jobs to young people that are simple and important, making sure to mention the impact that their service will have on others. When someone asks how you are, take a breath and look her in the eye before replying with your standard answer. When we do these things, we let other people into the sanctuary of our private lives. Start now, for it’ll get harder when you really need it. Form a habit of camaraderie and cooperation in your circle of friends. While we’re on the subject, I could really use a glass of water, please.