[BIRTHDAY NOTE: Thank you all so much for the many kind greetings you left in the comments yesterday. You made my birthday extra special and I appreciate every one of you. You too, Peter Tibbles, for that excellent musical party.]
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It is not an easily ignored birthday, 75. At least not for me, having been thinking about “what it's really like to grow old” nearly every day for more than 20 years.
Seventy-five is one of those round number, big-deal birthdays notable especially in that it is three-quarters of century. That's saying something, having navigated that many years.
There's no foolin' around anymore. I'm old. No argument. No wiggle room. No forgetting that my mother died in her 75th year, when she was about nine months older than I am today.
A lot of people die at my age and it's not much of a surprise when they do. Even so, I am willing to bet that a lot of them felt as I do today – healthy, focused, curious, engaged - with no reason to think they would be dead tomorrow.
But always a certain number are. They get hit by a car, succumb to a terrible diagnosis or just quietly die in their sleep for no good reason except they're old.
Caught between being fascinated observing my body and my mind as they gradually accumulate the changes of old age and ignoring it all, I play a game with myself: Be careful, I say. If I think too much about what can go wrong, that will bring it on. It might not happen if I ignore the idea, but I can't pretend I never think about because while I'm pretending I am thinking about it and...
Well, you see how it goes. The human mind is a wonder to behold in the way it/we can confuse, obfuscate and bemuse ourselves.
I read somewhere that the body starts to seriously fall apart after age 75. However healthy anyone was before that birthday, it will change for the worse from that point forward.
First one thing, then another and another. It won't be so easy, they say, from 75 on. Maybe so but I think I will wait to cross those bridges when I get to them.
Nevertheless, such a remarkable birthday as 75 requires some reflection and perhaps an adjustment in how one lives, don't you think. It feels like a good time to make some changes in how I spend my time, to choose more carefully, more wisely, maybe, than I have in the past.
Doing so would definitely be something new for me.
Although not in much detail, I do recall deliberately deciding, one day in my early twenties, that because I had no idea what to do with my life, I would just follow along where the wind blew me and see what happened.
And mostly that's what I've done these 50-odd years since then with a few important exceptions of opting out rather than opting in.
No children because I knew raising them would take more effort than I was interested in devoting to it. Parents always tell me the time and sacrifice was worth it. I don't believe that is so for everyone and I made the right decision for me (and for those unborn kids, too, I'm pretty sure).
When I left my husband, it was to save my soul. I didn't know who I was any longer and I believe that if I had stayed, I would have disappeared, turned into something smaller and more invisible than I already felt.
As you can see, basically I have good self-preservation instincts but that's not particularly useful in deciding how to live a good or wise or just life which seems to concern me on this birthday.
My home holds an extensive library on the subject of ageing, quite a lot of which are individual takes in varying degrees of wisdom on growing old.
From antiquity there are Epicurus, Plato, Aristotle, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, more recently Montaigne and others. Then there are my contemporaries and near contemporaries – Simone de Beauvoir, Donald Murray, Helen Nearing, Penelope Lively, Ram Dass, Virginia Ironside, Judith Viorst, Helen Small, Wilhelm Schmid, Carolyn Heilbrun, even Dr. Seuss and others I wish I could invite to dinner.
What most of them have done in regard to the topic is pay attention to the details of their personal journey into this “other country” of old age then make educated guesses on how those observations might apply to the universal condition of humankind.
I've been waiting a long time but finally, I think, I may be old enough for this course of action.
Similarly to the negative choices of not having children and ending my marriage, I backed into writing about ageing and making it my work for the past 20 years.
Before beginning this open-ended study, my career allowed me to be a generalist – report on cancer one day, a movie star the next, fashion, cooking, finance, politics, disasters, book authors and hundreds more. I loved it.
Nothing in my background would have led me to believe I would stick with one subject, still fascinated with how much there is to know about it, for 20 years.
But here I am, ready I believe to take a page from the books of those philosophers, thinkers and writers who have taught me so much and trust my own experience as I try to clarify and untangle in these pages “what it's really like to get old.”
In Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf wrote:
”The compensation of growing old is that the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained – at last! - the power which adds the supreme flavour to existence – the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it round, slowly in the light.”