Thursday, 17 May 2007
Some Oddities of Being Old
[EDITORIAL NOTE: This story was originally published at BlogHer in slightly different form.]
It is the oddest thing, sometimes, being old.
I have often taken issue with such statements as, “I’m 65, but I don’t feel that old.” Huh? Since no one has been 65 before they get there, whatever they feel must be how it feels. What people really mean is, “This isn’t nearly as terrible as I believed 65 would be.”
But the feeling is more complex than that. It draws on unconscious ageism, misunderstandings of what old age is like, denial of one’s age, knowing but not “grokking” that you are nearing the end of life, and most of all that whatever number of years you have reached, you are still and can feel, when you close your eyes, all the ages that have come before.
Any number of occurrences can slam you back to age 10 or 25 or 50: an aroma, for example, a taste, a piece of music you haven’t heard in decades. When it happens, for a moment or a few minutes, it is more than a memory; you are there again.
It happened to me last fall at my first T’ai Chi class. The large, empty room, a full wall of mirrors, the polished wood floor and suddenly I was in ballet class again on the day I first accomplished a relatively competent series of pirouettes en pointe.
In that T’ai Chi room, I felt my calf muscle stretch up and down and the snap of my head during each turn, the thrill at controlling my balance through eight, ten, twelve turns along with the Wow! – how good I look doing it in the mirror. It was an important day 50-odd years ago, and I lived it again as both new and a memory in that T’ai Chi room. For those moments, I was 13 years old.
Even if you haven’t worked at it much, by 50 or 60 and more, you’ve gained a lot of knowledge. One of the most important things you’ve learned is how little you know and that continues to be more true as the years pass.
I always told myself that I’d wait until my old age to re-read all of Shakespeare. I’d save studying the philosophers for then too along with digging deeper into the history of the Middle Ages, and spending the time necessary to really understand Wagner’s music.
Yeah, right. In additional to all that, there’s always something new to learn and on the day I die, the list of what I wish I understood will be longer than it is now (and undoubtedly still include those items in the immediately preceding paragraph).
On the other hand, so much of life is easier in later years because of the knowledge, experience and judgment gained, sometimes without noticing it’s there until you need it. Practical stuff like what’s essential to ask when buying a house and how to give dinners and parties without panic. And when it’s a better idea to pay someone to do it than making yourself nuts doing it yourself.
By late life, you have answered a few of the big questions too: you know you can’t solve friends’ problems, but that listening, really listening, is almost as good. And you’ve learned how to mourn. It doesn’t take the pain of loss away, but you know how to feel your way through the darkness and that there will, eventually, again be light.
These are good things, but that other list of what I would like to know keeps growing even though I haven’t a chance of fulfilling it.
Then there is a paradox I have mentioned here before, one that becomes increasingly puzzling the more I ponder it.
In my youth and mid-years, I was always in a hurry. Rush, rush, rush so I could get on to the next thing to rush through – and woe unto anyone who slowed my progress. I still get irritated when my time is wasted unnecessarily (the only thing of value we own is our time), but the oddest thing has happened in recent years: it makes no sense to me that as my time on earth gets shorter, I am more willing to postpone almost anything (sometimes never to return) when another catches my fancy.
There’s no telling how many unfinished books there are around the house. And some of them even interest me.
Other elders I’ve spoken with have noticed the same phenomenon and are equally puzzled. Why, when there are so many things we still want to do and know, do we lollygag along telling ourselves we’ll do it tomorrow?
It makes no sense.
[EDITORIAL NOTE: At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Jo Ann writes of The Power of Love - with a twist.]
[A VIDEO EXTRA: I found this video from a young woman named snowfeet on YouTube this morning who is reading from my story The Mystery of Life published on Monday.]