Dazzled by Aging

Back when I was in graduate school in Indiana, I traveled to Cleveland to attend a weekend Gestalt Therapy group as part of my dissertation research. What I remember most about that event was feeling awed by a young woman who spoke of ten years of experience — of what I can’t recall. At the time I was barely 24 and ten years was nearly half my life. I was dazzled by the idea of accumulating that much life experience and wondered what it would be like when I too could look back that far.

Fifteen years or so later, I found myself at a bar in New York with colleagues from the documentary production company where I was working at the time. In the course of our conversation I described a range of experiences I had had in my still rather short life: teaching college in Minnesota, running a group home in Las Vegas, working on the Navajo Reservation in Ft. Defiance, AZ and studying with a Sufi master in New Mexico. The young man to whom I was speaking was astounded by all my adventures and asked how I had accumulated so many. I smiled knowingly and told him I was older than I appeared. That was probably one of the last times I felt so thrilled by the fruits of aging.

In my forties, I began to get glimpses of what was really in store. My 20-20 vision began to slip away. First I ignored this. Than I resisted. I even tried one of those eye exercise charts, but thesquinting was giving me line. For a while I kept three of four readers planted throughout the house because I kept misplacing them every time I took them off. Finally, I got tricked into seeing an optometrist. I thought I was going to an eye doctor– a precautionary move in response to a friend’s unexpected diagnosis of a detached retina. At the end of my examination I had a prescription for corrective lenses. Five hundred dollars later, I was wearing progressives without rims. The optician assured me that Baby boomers love these because they were almost invisible. Not really. I still don’t recognize myself in the mirror when they are on, which is most of the time. I can, however, see.

The next physical change I noticed was in body resiliency. It was on a hike with a group of people from Sufi camp in Torreon, New Mexico. We were climbing one of the easier peaks in the Manzano Mountains, more of a saddle between the real peaks. About a half-hour after reaching the summit, one of our number decided he needed to get back to camp for a phone call. I offered to go with him. We skipped, jumped and raced most of the way down. It was exhilarating in the moment, but when I got to the trail head my knee was hurting. It was the same knee I had trouble with in a marathon five or six years before, but at the time had chalked up to running on pavement after training on dirt. This new manifestation of sore knee startled me. It was in that moment that I realized my body had changed. I was no longer young. A few months later, I went on a hike from Mill Valley to Stinson Beach with a much younger woman. The round trip was about 16 miles up and down mountain trails. I felt vindicated when I left her in the dust on our return. And she was no couch potato either.

Was this reaction to the first signs of aging, ego or intelligence? I try not to judge too much, although I smile at myself in retrospect. Shortly after my fiftieth birthday I road my bicycle all the way up the Arlington, a long steep road in the hills of Berkeley. Prior to that day, I would pack my bike in my car and parked most of the way down the hill before taking a ride. Following this break-through bike ride, I went backpacking in the Three Sisters Mountains in Oregon and then in the Wallowas.

I think it is good to continue to test our limits. Muscles respond to effort and stay serviceable much longer if we work them. At the same time, awareness is in order. We might not want to push ourselves too far lest we seriously damage our bodies and put ourselves out of commission. Or maybe we do, because that is the only way we can know for sure where the limits are. And, well, being out of commission has its own life lessons.

This Western culture of ours is not very helpful regarding the way we should handle aging. We are pressured to keep youthful and healthy for as long as we can. Elders are not revered. They are ignored, hidden in gated communities or exported to Florida. Rather than equate advanced age with experience and wisdom, we see it as a loss of capacity, utility and market value. So we resist the signs of aging with creams, supplements, surgery and exercise. Then we cheer when the 80 year old lady dances up a storm with a younger man on a Youtube. “Yes, honey, you go for it!” The result is, we live longer and stay more fit and active. And because of economic downturn, many of us take on second careers. So perhaps this approach to aging is not all bad.

In the end, however, fighting aging is a losing proposition. Human bodies are programmed to deteriorate. It is the natural cycle of things. Yes, there are scientists who promise that the elixir of lasting life is on the horizon — some ingenious pill whose composition they are still working on that will turn off the aging mechanism in our cells or at the very least, retard it’s progress. But is that even desirable?

Aging helps us die. “Can’t walk, can’t see, can’t hear, lost my taste, hurt like hell, life sucks. . . I’m out of here!”  Death is good. It gives intensity to our lives, like a time clock at a chess match. Death clears the old and makes room for the new so we don’t overpopulate earth. And death provides us with a whole new adventure or, at the very least, one of the biggest mysteries of life.

Given that aging is inevitable and unstoppable, and let’s assume for the moment it is, what other ways might we handle it besides fear, denial, exercise and resistance?

My mother provided me with a hint. In her youth she was a stunningly attractive woman. Birthing six children did not do much to diminish her beauty possibly because she spent a good deal of time cultivating it with eye pencil and lip-liner. However, in her fifties she developed a brain tumor. Although a benign one, it left her deaf in one ear, blind in one eye, and a lopsided face. How does one cope with the loss of beauty, especially a beauty so consciously maintained? “Well,” she said, “you don’t look in the mirror any more.” But her real strategy was to let the inner beauty shine. When the light is bright enough, people tend to overlook your physical flaws. She was generous, affirming, enthusiastic and kind. No grocery store cashier, pharmacy clerk, or nurse’s aid was too lowly to escape her notice and regard. She learned their names and followed their life stories. Also, instead of hiding herself and her facial deformity, instead of giving up on life and becoming a recluse, she wore a black patch over her blind eye, dressed in red, white and blue and used a red striped broom handle as a cane. Her brilliant wonkiness caught people’s eyes and her attention, their hearts.

A friend of mine, a wise elder, gave me another tip on aging. Treat every change as a new adventure. She told me that she had recently been having difficulty with her teeth and been forced to eat her meals pulverized to the texture of baby food. Instead of bemoaning her loss of the joys of chewing, she opened her mind to this new challenge — how to obtain a gourmet experience from food the consistency of gruel. Perhaps she will write a cookbook. It could be a hit in a few more years.

The most important lesson in both these examples is how you spin the story. Change happens. Are you defeated by the change or is there something new to discover?

“Don’t grieve. Anything you lose comes round in another form.” — Rumi

Last year, I regularly visited an elderly man with a serious heart condition. He had a pacemaker and often struggled with heart failure. He was a sweet man with a social calendar more full than my own. He did not believe in life after death and so he was making the most of his remaining time. On one visit, not the last, but close to the end, he had so little energy that it took him nearly ten minutes to open the front door. We sat in his living room and talked about what was happening in his life. He spoke slowly and there were many pauses. Someone was coming over that night to fix him dinner — ever the social butterfly! As the sun faded into that magic light of dusk, he suddenly stopped talking and just looked past me. I started to wonder if he was all right. Then he said, “The interesting thing about slowing down like this is that you see things you never noticed before. Like that robe on the end of the couch and the vase of flowers.” The barest of tears sparkled his eyes. I turned to see the turquoise silk robe thrown over the end of the oatmeal couch and the rich red roses in the cloisonné vase on the table beside it. They formed the elements of a still-life, painted in the golden light. “Yes,” I said, “You got it. Whatever happens, there’s always something new to discover.” I am told that in his final days as he lay dying, a friend asked what he wanted and he smiled an elfin grin and said, “More adventures!”


WANT TO USE THIS ARTICLE IN YOUR EZINE OR WEB SITE? You can, as long as you include this complete blurb with it: Grief Transformation Coach Michelle Peticolas, Ph.D. helps people transform their grief with a holistic approach to mind, body and spirit that heals trauma, reframes past attachments and releases limiting beliefs while uncovering a true life purpose and direction. If you’re ready to shift into a whole new way of being with death and loss, a new way of living your life, get Michelle’s complimentary guide, Essentials for Grieving Well at www.secretsoflifeanddeath.com

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