At 6:30 a.m. on Monday morning, we park in the dark, empty parking lot and use a combination keypad to enter the building and a key to unlock the door to the pool, re-locking it behind us. We turn on lights, computers and automatic doors. We run a shower in the men’s and women’s locker rooms, as the hot water takes several minutes to reach them and the early swimmers complain of cold showers. We check the temperatures and chemicals in the pools. We peel off our winter layers and put on suits, shorts, emergency fanny packs and whistles. We check the day’s schedule. All the while, a rising chorus of voices and laughter comes from outside the still-locked door where the early water aerobics class gathers, as though it’s noon and not O-dark-thirty on a cold November morning. The aerobics teacher gets her music ready and checks the wireless headset. This class is large, so she will teach from the pool deck rather than the water.
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At 7:00 we unlock the door and they stream in, laughing and talking, tousled heads of grey, white and improbable shades of blonde and brown. Not one of them is under 55. This morning the entire class consists of women. They disappear into the locker room, where the mirth and talk continue as they change and shower. I gather up a rescue tube and get comfortable in the lifeguard chair.
Descending the steps into the pool, the women tease one another and complain about the cold water. Many wear glasses, though they’ve removed their hearing aids. Many wear earrings. A couple of them dispense kickboards, foam buoys and floating foam noodles from plastic laundry baskets on shelves at poolside.
On this morning I count 17 in the class. We know one of them had a birthday over the weekend. The instructor gives her a blue plastic tiara and matching wand from the Dollar Store while we all sing “Happy Birthday.” She’s informed the tiara must stay on her head during the class. She presses it firmly onto her grey hair, laughing.
The instructor cues the music. I jiggle the dial on the wireless speaker, which never seems to work properly, and the class begins with the announcement of a Beatles soundtrack. “Hard Day’s Night” starts the warm-up to a 45-minute water aerobics workout.
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Music is so evocative. I can’t hear The Beatles without thinking of my brother, who owned and played all their albums when we were growing up. These women are a decade older than I am, and they greet each song with delight. They know every word. They bob up and down, kicking, twisting, using the kickboards and buoys for resistance and strengthening in the water. Most are generous-bodied and their bosoms bounce within the confines of their modestly cut suits. I see lime green, pink and black. I see loosened skin and wrinkled cleavage, pink scalp and cellulite while “Revolution” fills the brightly lit, echoing space.
The instructor guides the class from one set of movements to another. They stand in place. They travel back and forth across the pool. They lift, bend and stretch in a circle. We all sing together. They inform each other, soulfully, “I want to hold your hand.” The water churns with their efforts. “Got to get you into my life!” they shout at one another with hilarious passion.
As I watch, I try to imagine these well-ripened, glorious women as teenagers. I imagine them hearing “Good Day Sunshine” for the first time on radios, records and jukeboxes in diners, in cars and at parties. They were all young once, pretty, idealistic and probably as foolish as most young women are. They had homework and crushes on teachers. They had families and friends and gossiped. The Beatles were part of the soundtrack of their lives. Now, decades later, what old memories, thoughts and feelings do these familiar songs unlock? What stories do they recall, what pleasures, what griefs and disappointments when they hear “All My Loving?”
The very last song is “Yellow Submarine.” By now even I am breathless with laughter. Impossible to hear this music without moving to it, even if confined in a sitting position. The instructor is incapable with mirth. It doesn’t matter. The class guides itself, arms high in the air over their heads, red-faced, panting, dancing in the water. They turn, bump ample hips with one another, gesture flamboyantly, and we all sing at the top of our voices until the music stops and the class ends.
Knowing the routine, the class puts all the equipment away tidily in the sudden quiet. They pull the lane lines back into place and hook them up. They exit the lap pool and move to the 93-degree therapy pool, where they break into groups and chat, some in the shallow end and others floating peacefully in the deep end. The birthday girl is still wearing her blue plastic tiara. Now the talk is more subdued than it was before the class. I hear a discussion about snow shovels, snow blowers, and the performance of various men, hired and otherwise, with these tools. I hear talk of families, grandchildren and plans for the holidays. A group in a corner carries on a low-voiced discussion interspersed with much bawdy laughter. It’s not hard to imagine what they’re talking about. I smile in sympathy. Local news and politics are dealt with, along with the weather, the state of the roads, church gossip, local holiday activities and fund raisers.
It’s just 8:00 on a Monday morning. These women represent part of the backbone of the community. Seasoned, experienced, humorous and wise in the ways of the world, they know exactly who they are and what they’re made of. They’ve loved and lost, worked, raised families, volunteered, suffered grief, illness and injury. They’re outspoken, earthy and unapologetic. They know how to connect with others. They know how to play and laugh. They are kind and compassionate without being sentimental. They know how to love life.
Monday morning we all lived in a yellow submarine for an hour, and proclaimed it joyfully at the top of our voices.
I wish you all abundance this Thanksgiving.
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Have you ever had a dream of finding an undiscovered room in a familiar house? I have, several times. I like those dreams. A large piece of furniture moves aside, or I walk into a room I know well and find a new door in it.
Last weekend, my partner and I went to our small local theater and I saw Book Club while he went happily off to Deadpool. (Honestly, I’m so tired of comics, superheroes, space adventures, special effects and unending battles and chases. Whew. It felt good to say that.)
The movie was a relief. I didn’t have to spend most of it with my eyes shut trying to filter out the entirely overstimulating and, at the same time, boring hyperactivity, and it wasn’t excellent. It didn’t require anything from me except to sit back and relax.
No spoilers and this is not a movie review, but Jane Fonda tries way too hard. Instead of marveling at her artificial youthfulness, I felt rather sorry for her. There was also a lot of unnecessary drinking. It didn’t add anything to the story. Some of the humor was more of a wince than a chuckle, but there were some truly funny moments. The writing was a little inconsistent. It’s a movie about connection and being an aging woman.
Overall, I could relate to these four women and I found the movie oddly touching in an unexpected way. I’ve been thinking about it ever since, in fact, trying to understand why it made me feel so bittersweet.
It has to do with giving up. Well, not really. Not giving up, exactly, but settling. No, that’s not quite right, either.
It has to do with gradually forgetting to entertain possibility.
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We inhabit our lives like a house. It’s a finite space, and we’re intimately familiar with the floorplan, the closets, the windows and the doors. Our house is defined by ourselves and the way we live, and it’s also defined by the external world and people around us. Outside our house is a world where all kinds of potential physical and emotional harm crouches, waiting for us to take a risk and leave our shelter. Outside our house is a wilderness of Unknown.
When we’re young the house of our life is new and exciting. We experiment using the space in different ways. We begin to figure out what we like and don’t like, what works well in our lives and what doesn’t, who we can live with and who we can’t live with. We gradually accumulate furniture in the forms of memories, scar tissue, hand-me-downs, beliefs, and new stuff we find all by ourselves.
The years go by and we learn a lot (hopefully) about the way the world works and who we are. We notice an ever-enlarging population of people younger than we are.
Then, one day, we’re in our fifties. Then our sixties. Then our parents are old. Not older. Old. How did that happen? Then our kids are as old as we were when we had them. It’s entirely disconcerting. We begin to think of ourselves as middle-aged and secretly feel older than that a lot of the time. Then, if you’re a woman, comes menopause, which, just as the onset of menstruation changed everything in the beginning of our lives, remodels our house.
For one thing, we need to tear out the heating system and replace it with cooling and fans.
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By this point in my own life, I’ve made a lot of choices and taken notes on how they worked out. I’ve made decisions about what I will and won’t do, and about what I am and am not interested in. I’ve decided what dreams to discard and interests to drop, because I’m out of time, energy or both. I’ve decided I know exactly who I am, what I’m capable of and what I need and want. I have an entirely private (because it’s shameful) list of things I’ve given up on.
Book Club speaks to the ways in which we begin to limit possibility as we age. In my case, it has nothing to do with age, though. I’ve been slamming doors behind me my whole life. When I was 18, I turned my back on high school. When I was 20, I left residential college, never to return. When I was 21 and got married, I gave up on dating or looking for love. When I was 27 and had my first child, I stopped dreaming of freedom and adventure.
And so on.
Of course deciding we’re never going to do something ever again practically guarantees the Gods will throw it back to us sooner or later, giggling. Now when I hear myself say, “Never again…” I can smile.
An even darker aspect of refusing possibility has to do with the dreams and desires we’ve never fulfilled. I’ve always struggled with financial scarcity. I tell myself nearly every day I’ll never be financially successful, and it doesn’t matter, because I have a good life, I have what I need, I’d rather have my self-respect and integrity than be rich (note the belief one can’t have both), and it’s not a big deal. I say all those things to myself because I don’t see any possibility of financial security. If I haven’t found it following all the rules and working so hard, then maybe I don’t deserve it, or it’s just not something I can earn or have. I don’t want to live the rest of my life hoping for something that never happens.
The story I tell myself is I’d love to find a great job where I could contribute my talents, do meaningful work, be part of a team and get adequately paid. I’m always watching and listening for that job. But I know I’m too old, the things I love to do will never pay well, the kind of thing I’m looking for wouldn’t be here in rural Maine, and I’ll struggle to maintain adequate housing and feed myself forever.
If there’s no possibility, I can work on accepting what is and try to be peaceful.
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Book Club was redemptive. It reminded me possibility still exists for me. I’ve done things in the last five years I never imagined doing in my wildest dreams. Why do I think it’s all over now? Why do I make so many iron-clad assumptions about the size and shape of my house? Why am I deliberately trying to ditch my dreams? Why do I think of myself as a food item on the pantry shelf with an expired sell-by date?
Am I too old and jaded to invite miracles? Am I too worn out to move a piece of furniture (a bookcase, what else?) and discover a door behind it I never saw before? I know I’ve yet to discover my highest potential.
Maybe I’m just not very brave. I don’t want to fail anymore. I don’t want to be disappointed or feel I’m a disappointment, ever again. I don’t want to be let down, or hurt, or stood up or rejected. I don’t want to look like a fool. (I don’t mind being a fool, but I don’t want to look like one.) I don’t want to be scared.
I don’t want to play power games with people.
Perhaps this is the crust of old age, this gradual accumulation of weariness, scar tissue, limiting beliefs, and physical changes that keeps us sitting in our familiar, safe house, where the edges and boundaries are well-defined and unchanging and we control the dangers of possibility.
Some people successfully shut out life, or shut themselves away from it. I’m never (there I go again) going to be able to pull that off, though. I’m too curious and too interested. An overheard remark, a movie, a conversation, a book or even a song lyric invariably comes along and kicks me back into motion when I’m threatening to lock myself permanently in the predictability and safety of my house. Then I begin to write, and the walls waver and shimmer, new doors and windows appear, a corner of the roof peels away to show me the sky, and I remember I’m still alive, still kicking, still wanting and needing and still, in spite of my best efforts, dreaming of possibilities.
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It’s strange to be aging, isn’t it? It doesn’t matter if you’re in your 20s or 60s, getting older is a remarkable experience. As I move through my 50s, I see more and more of my life when I look over my shoulder and I no longer have the feeling of limitless horizons in front of me. Whatever is ahead, it’s not limitless.
I have a friend who looks at a tape measure and finds the number of inches corresponding to his age. He takes in the distance between the end of the tape and his place at 70 something. Then he puts his finger at another 10 years, another 15 years. The visual on this exercise is startling. What happened to all those years of our life, and when did we move so close to our last day?
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For at least a decade now I’ve been watching my elders and trying to figure out how to age gracefully. Every now and then I meet a remarkable elder. They have a twinkle in their eye, they laugh a lot, they’re curious and interested and they’re wonderfully authentic. I want to grow up to be just like that.
I’m convinced the great keys to aging gracefully are staying in intimate connection with ourselves every single day, no matter how old we are, and embracing change like a lover. Without consent and resilience, aging becomes a bitter battle to the end.
So many of us, as we age, live increasingly in the past. It’s understandable. We’ve been, done and seen a lot. The problem is as the years roll over us we don’t update our software. We hang on to what we were, what our bodies could do, how it all was during a time we remember as the best time (or at least a better time than now). We continue to define ourselves by outdated habits and routines. I’m not sure if this is a function of nostalgia or weariness or just plain laziness, but somewhere along the way we cross some invisible finish line, stop paying attention to embracing how things are right now and start waiting to die.
As our software gets more and more out of date, incompatibilities arise between how we show up in the world and our stories and memories. We lose credibility and effectiveness.
It seems to me the day we stop being curious about what we might learn, do or be next is the day our lives really end. People who age gracefully still have plans. They still dream. Their thinking remains flexible, even if their bodies don’t. They find some magical balance between letting go and moving forward. Change becomes a beloved friend rather than a feared enemy.
It’s not hard to see this in small external ways. We hang on to clothing, for example, that no longer fits, or was fashionable for a fleeting moment fifteen years ago. We hang on to books or movies or music we once loved and couldn’t do without, but now have outgrown. I don’t suggest there’s anything wrong with such nostalgia, but I do think all that stuff can pile up around us and block a clear view of what is now, or what might be ahead. Too often, the externals mirror our internal habits.
I notice many people my age still describe themselves by a job or position they no longer have. Some folks seem almost apologetic about being retired, as though they’ve lost personhood in the world, have become nobody. Others tell you all about some beloved skill or activity, how they practiced it, the ways it enhanced their life, their mastery, but never mention it was all long ago and right now, today, that activity is no longer part of their lives. Their lives have changed, but they haven’t updated their sense of identity. They’re stuck in their past and missing their present. They dangle in the empty gap between who they were and the stranger they are now.
I think some people feel angry about aging. We want our bodies to look, feel and perform the way they used to. We refuse to adjust to our present physical realities because they don’t match what we used to be able to do. We’re ashamed of our changing bodies rather than comfortable in them. We fear the changes the years bring and try to hide them or resist them.
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Then there are people, amazing people, who know the trick of beginning over and over again throughout their lives. They spend their professional years as a lawyer and then retire and become an artist. A woman marries, works, raises a family and then, divorced and in her 60s, begins traveling all over the world. People in their 50s and 60s go back to school and acquire a new skill or a degree. They live in the day they’re in, in right now, and they’re focused on the present and future rather than the past. They accommodate their physical needs, feel at home in their skin and are constantly updating their identity, intentions, connections and contributions.
Defining ourselves by our pasts is a sad business. I know aging can feel limiting, but I think the real limiting factor in aging is refusing to participate in it! Defining ourselves by what we can’t do, don’t do or once did (but no longer) is a terrible way to live at any age, but in old age it becomes a pernicious habit indeed. After all, anyone may have physical limitations at any age. Those limitations needn’t define us unless we invite them to.
Considering what is possible, what we can do, what we’d like to do and what we’ve always wanted to do — now, there’s a set of questions for living a full, rich life, today and tomorrow. An elder who draws wisdom from years of experience and has a well-exercised sense of humor, curiosity and the ability to learn is indomitable, irrepressible and irresistible.
Life brings many things, including devastating loss, injury and illness. Every day we live we’re aging, and every day is a new gift we might choose to receive, or we might turn away and look only at the old gifts, the old days, all that came before when we were younger, better looking, stronger, more hopeful, more innocent.
I know what’s behind me. Some of it was grand and some very painful indeed, but it’s all over, good and bad. Many of the clothes I wore, the thoughts and beliefs I held firmly onto, the meaningful routines and rituals in my life, are like so many dropped leaves, fluttering in the wind of my passing. I have no idea how much time I have left or what’s in front of me, but there’s so much I still want to do! Still, I cling to the past in some ways. I tell myself such-and-such (a lovely, longed-for thing) will never happen again. I say I can’t do XYZ instead of I’ve never done it before and will you teach me how? I feel frustrated and old when I wrestle with a 40-lb bag of bird seed and my back hurts for three days. I can be just as lazy, sulky, resistant and weary as anyone else.
Yet I’m convinced enormous grace lies in aging, if we can find it. I believe aging is full of invisible gifts, insight and strength. I want that grace. I don’t want to miss the last part of my life because I’m refusing to be present with it. I want to take the time to close all my programs and apps and let my psyche and body update and reboot regularly.
Aging with grace is a work in progress. Some days are more graceful than others.
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