My Mother used to say that the biggest challenge as we age is staying clean and interesting. All too often, that Q-tip (grey hair and white tennis shoes) has food stains on his belly and no recent experience that we are inclined to be curious about. By the way, that belly I heard referred to yesterday by an Aussie as the ‘veranda over the toy store’ – although in this case it might be more like veranda over the cemetery! Frankly, at 71, I find it challenging to be either one– clean or interesting. You can’t see the crumbs, missing your mouth more often than you know, and you buy into a shrinking reality. (And by the way, I have to admit that there are occasions when I don’t find 30-somethings either clean or interesting.)
Life after 60 can begin to gradually feel like another Bridge to Nowhere, especially listening to the commercials after the evening news for fixing your sex life, energy level, breathing, pain, sleeping, etc. A marketing manager once told me that the beauty industry was selling hope. Well so is the pharmaceutical industry…and we boomers buy. Our physical capacity wanes: eyes see less (so get cataract surgery and throw the glasses away); ears hear less (get ‘audio boosters’ at the first family suggestion); stop adding more salt because you can’t taste as well either; and take up weight lifting at any age. But it isn’t just our diminishing physical capacity to interact in the world that weighs on us. The world itself seems to look into our eyes less often. I remember a ‘who dunnit’ years ago where a middle aged woman was the culprit who got away with murder because no one looked at her—they didn’t see her at all.
It is the ‘staying interesting’ part of my Mother’s challenge that I’d like to address specifically. (It was when stylishly-dressed and beautiful Nel began to not notice her appearance that we were tipped off to the advancing dementia. But she struggled to stay alert and engaged for several more years due to her intelligence and wit. My question to myself as I enter my 70’s is how can I continue to ‘expand’ when everything around me tells me to ‘contract?’ I want to expand my thinking, grow my experience, learn new ideas, make new friends, try new things, go new places, create new projects, and stay open. Most of all I want to stay curious (and stay hungry, as Steve Jobs says.)
One of our primary reasons for growing smaller with age is fear but my Mother had little patience with running away from anything much less her own fears . In her 70’s, she decided to confront her anxious fantasy of being helpless and sick so she went out and volunteered to become a Pink Lady in the local hospital. What she learned was that she actually was quite gifted at connecting with strangers, putting them at ease, getting them to laugh even when hospitalized and in pain and that took overcoming all of her introversion and shy nature. Yes, it takes courage to move through your fear to the gift on the other side.
I had a long conversation yesterday with a good friend who had recently lost her husband. Even in his 80’s and struggling with congestive heart failure, this former business executive continued to expand his world. He orchestrated selling their city apartment, moving to a new state, buying a home and inviting his wife’s daughter, her husband and toddler to live with them. Their young family helped update the house (to his specifications) before he and his wife moved in. As he became more limited in his own ability to travel, he continued to encourage his 16- year-younger wife to bike around Europe with friends; true generosity of spirit and a determination to grow and adventure vicariously. Just weeks before his life ended, he committed to playing “Words with Friends” with his ten-year-old granddaughter and he rejoiced in finding a TV series that he could sink his teeth into – “Breaking Bad.” Right to the end, my friend’s husband was taking life in, not giving it up.
My own option to take a road less traveled came recently. It came after a period of noticing a gradual lessoning of requests for work and contact with
colleagues, plus enforced isolation with knee surgery and flirting with depressive thoughts. A colleague called to say that there was a new certification program coming to the U.S. next fall in my field of coaching that would allow me to more formally mentor and support less experienced coaches. Suddenly I realized that I was in that place where two roads diverged in a wood and I intended to take the one less traveled, which might make all the difference.
Reason said ‘why?’ You can’t afford it, you’ll never recover the expense with future work, you have to go to Seattle three times, write a lot of papers and read a lot of academic articles and dry books. What are you thinking? But the words ‘first cohort,’ ‘we need experienced, creative people,’ and ‘we’ll have fun’ was like manna for the starving. Intuition, gut, and light are pulling once again down the road and around a bend. Dewitt Jones, National Geographic photographer, once advised to “change the lens you are using to look through, and put yourself in the place of greatest potential.” Seattle seems to point to true north. The retrofitting and repurposing of my life continues to be an ongoing process.
Ultimately, I’ve learned that if the gold ring comes around again, grab it! As my grandfather said, “Keep moving and don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.” If you are alert, messages pop up everywhere when you are looking for direction. Last week, in the New York Times, there was a quote from Deeda Blair: “Study like you’ll live forever. Live like you’ll die tomorrow.” And always have plans and people and projects to talk about and look forward to. If you keep an open heart, open mind and bathe regularly, surely clean and interesting will follow!