Tuesday, 11 December 2012
The Fourth Quarter
By June Calender of Big 7-0 & More
In 1956 few people in rural Indiana owned televisions. That year, tiny Milan’s basketball team made it into the state high school finals in Indianapolis and then reached the final game. They faced the taller and tougher players from a big city school.
That chilly Saturday night, I stood with my father and a dozen others on a sidewalk in front of a furniture store window on the courthouse square. A television was showing the game.
The score was tied. The last two minutes the team played a cat-and-mouse game. With 10 seconds left the ball was passed to the best shooter who sank it through the hoop to break the tie and win the tournament.
I still get goose-bumps when I remember watching that perfect shot on the 15-inch screen. The victory of the feisty local boys who did not learn in city gyms or on concrete courts but tossed baskets in their driveways or barn lots provided a can-do template for my life.
I am now playing my fourth quarter. Ahead of me is the final bell which most people fear and many ignore. I am 74; an actuary says I might live to 94. I’ve played a good game and racked up some points; I hope to score a few more.
The basketball analogy is not the only reason I divide my life into quarters. Actually, it divided itself — not neatly and equally but clearly.
In college, I read about the Hindu idea of the Ashram Ages of Man — very unlike Shakespeare’s melancholy Seven Ages of Man. The end was not a return to infantilism.
Surprisingly, in ancient India the human life span was considered to be 108 years. Life was divided into four 27-year periods. The first period was for education. In the second, one pursued a gainful and responsible civic life as a householder, father, professional or artisan.
From 55 to 81 a man withdrew from social involvement, pondered philosophy and shared his acquired wisdom with others. The fourth period was to be dedicated to spiritual practices, preferably in seclusion, to prepare for a peaceful death.
This outline was meant for Brahmin men. I’ve often remembered this outline for life although I am not a man nor the American equivalent of a Brahmin.
About three millennia later, my life played out differently. I grew up and was educated in rural Indiana. Part two began - not at all early for women of my time and background - with marriage at 23 and two children over the next four years.
I became mother and housewife and, simultaneously, deeply involved in community arts organizations. I had decided in grade school to be a writer. During phase two, I wrote articles, poetry and an unpublishable novel. I became immersed in theater and playwrighting.
A prize-winning play propelled me into phase three at age 41, after a divorce. I moved to New York City to live alone and write plays. That phase lasted until age 69 and resembles the Hindu proscription to gain wisdom.
I found jobs that suited me and was able to travel much of the world; I even trekked in the Himalayas. I discovered a compelling story to research and eventually write. I enjoyed productions of my plays, invitations to conferences and participation in groups.
I loved living and working in the most exciting city in the world. This third phase was not unusual for women of what feminists call “the cusp generation.”
By my mid-60s, playwrighting paled. I had published a travel book and had written a huge, unpublishable novel. I experienced late life growing pains. One day I completed a job and said, “I won’t be back. Ever.”
I took a few months to think about what to do. Then I moved to Cape Cod where part of my family lives. I had not been much involved with family. During that lengthy phase, three grandchildren had grown into interesting adults.
Entering the fourth quarter, I have settled into a life that includes great-grandchildren. My family and I have a comfortable balance of closeness and independence. I am writing the book I long ago researched - an appropriate subject for this phase: the biography of a man on a unique spiritual journey.
According to the Hindu model I still have seven years in which to impart my wisdom and 27 after that to learn serenity.
Ancient wisdom comes from the artesian well of archetypical human need. I am comfortable alone but have no inclination to seek seclusion. One hundred eight seems to me an unlikely, if not impossible, age. Our world is far less natural than ancient India. True, they had no antibiotics, fMRIs or organ transplants but they lived simply in a largely unpolluted world. They ate little meat and no refined sugar, no man-made chemicals. Life was simple.
I said yes to opportunities that came my way so that by the time I reached the fourth quarter, I had learned to speak up for myself, express my feelings and share what I’ve learned. I’m elated on the occasions when I feel fully myself whether it’s after I teach a class or write a page that rings true or walk beside the ocean at 8:00 in the morning alone with the gulls and the eternal tide.
Life is not a basketball game and I don’t “kill time” playing cat-and-mouse. I seek wisdom actively, mostly through eclectic reading. The world is far more dangerous than in ancient times. My adversaries this fourth quarter are the deficits of an aging body despite the care I gave it, the chemicals I breathe and eat, the dangers of a mechanized world.
The “game” of aging today is about fighting death, not learning how to finesse it through coming to terms with how we’ve lived and accepting the inevitable. I think the ancients understood much we’ve forgotten.
[INVITATION: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. Please read instructions for submitting.]