Dignity, Courage, and Decline

In my 70’s, the experience of decline partly defines my every day.  Each morning I look to the window for a sunny day.  I think of all the interesting things I might do.  And I conduct a bodily inventory.  How’s that knee feeling?  Did the Prilosec ward off heartburn during the night?  How’s my hearing?  How energetic do I feel?  I laugh a little as I go through my list.  But there’s more sadness and weariness than laughter in this downward journey.

For years now, I’ve tried to offset the sadness with irony and a focus on my extraordinarily good fortune, but the inventory acts as a constant companion to these attempts.  The social critic, Malcolm Crowley beautifully captured the feeling.  “I feel old,” he says,

  • when it becomes an achievement to do thoughtfully, step by step, what he once did instinctively;
  • When his bones ache;
  • When there are more and more little bottles in the medicine cabinet, with instructions for taking four times a day;
  • When he can’t stand on one leg and has trouble pulling on his pants;
  • When he hesitates on the landing before walking down a flight of stairs;
  • When he spends more time looking for things misplaced than he spends using them after he (or more often his wife) has found them;
  • When he forgets names, even of people he saw last month;
  • When everything takes longer to do—bathing, shaving, getting dressed or undressed—but time passes quickly, as if he were gathering speed while coasting downhill.

Now if my daily inventory grades out on the positive side, I feel optimistic, ready for the day.  If not, I prepare to fight through the day, to make it as good as possible.  Laying around, for instance, would be a step too far, the first in a downward slide that I don’t like to even imagine.  I’ll exercise even if I’d rather not.  Read or make some calls when a nap seems like a good idea. And I take pleasure in fighting through the wish to give in to the negative.

There’s a purpose to this checklist: to determine a baseline of possibilities. The challenge is to conduct it as honestly as possible, leaving aside both wishes and fears.

Of course, honesty isn’t entirely objective.  All of us screen reality through cultural filters. In stoic cultures, for instance, we ignore signs of decay.  In self-indulgent cultures like ours, we give freer reign to complaining about our fate.  If culture glorifies “successful aging,” we’d best ignore the negative, or shame on us.  So, change our diet.  Exercise.  Cultivate optimism.

Sometimes it’s hard to read the signs.  Some years ago, for instance, I felt a constant weariness and turned to the most obvious explanation: I had passed my 70th birthday. I must be getting old.  “Get used to it,” I told myself.  But as it turned out, I had iron deficiency anemia, which was treatable.  After a few weeks of iron infusions, I felt like my old self.  So there’s some learning involved in translating the results of these inventories.

In the May, 2019, issue of the New Yorker, Mark Singer published an interview with David Milch, an acclaimed screenwriter and producer (NYPD Blue, Deadwood, and other heady and popular TV series).  Milch suffers from Alzheimer’s. and is now in the middle stages of this dreadful disease.  He’s become increasingly anxious and depressed.  Sometimes he gets lost and has to call his wife to rescue him.  Normally, a brash and decisive man, Singer tells us, Milch now seems tentative, almost frail, at 75.

Yet he continues to write every day with a commitment that belies—maybe defies—the terrifying decline in his mental capacity.  As I read the interview, I felt that Milch’s attitude spoke authentically and deeply to my own concerns about decline, so I thought to share my own musings on this topic with you.

The interview begins by exploring what having Alzheimer’s has meant to Milch, He notes, “(T)here’s an experience you have as every day goes on of what you’re no longer capable of and…it’s an accumulation of indignities.  At a more fundamental level, it’s an accretion of irrevocable truths: this is gone, and that’s gone.”  

The image of one thing after another drifting away is so damned powerful.  I imagine myself grasping after these floating objects, reaching and reaching, trying not only to hold them and bring them back but somehow also reintegrating them within my body or my mind.  But I can’t.  Much as I know that they are gone, I can’t readily reconcile myself to their absence.  I’ll pretend they’re still here.  I’ll pretend for a long while, until I really believe that they are gone.

What drifts away—or what is severed by disease and accident—isn’t like a replaceable machine part.  Each part, each memory, each tendon and organ, has been a member of an intricately organized whole.  It is the whole that constitutes our essential being; and the decline of the parts threatens the whole, threatens our sense of ourselves.  The drifting parts whittle away our selves.

The “accumulated indignities” that Milch talks about, shame us—shame me.  Unlike mere embarrassments, shame is a primitive, painful feeling that harks to early childhood: to being physically exposed, caught naked, being criticized harshly in front of others.  My cheeks burn.  I want to hide.  And many older people do run.  They “hide,”  or better…find refuge,  in elder communities, comforted by the shared decline of most of those around them.  I won’t yet abide this solution.  I still feel vital and strong.  But I’ve begun to understand its appeal.

To ward off the shame of decline, Milch says that “…we all make deals,…, in terms of how we think about the process of our aging.  It’s a series of givings aways, a making of peace with givings away…It’s kind of a relentless series of adjustments to what you can do….”   There is an “accumulated deletions of ability.  And you adjust… whether you want to or not.

At this point in the interview, Singer asks:  “…whether, despite what Alzheimer’s was stealing from him, it had given anything in return.  Yes, Milch responds, there is.  “There’s a continuous sense of urgency…There’s an acute sense of time’s passage. Things are important.  You don’t want to be inconsequential in your perspective on things.  I feel that with an increasing acuteness—that everything counts.”

What Milch asks for in the time he has left is “for the grace and dignity of a lucid cogitation.  I’m asking of my faculties such as they are, in whatever diminution they are, to meet you fairly.”  What I think he means is the ability to live life without artifice and evasion. Practicing a radical honesty, Milch believes, bestows a “grace and dignity” to life.

He has “disabused” himself “of any thought of a normal future” but allows himself “a provisional optimism about the possibilities of what time I will be allowed.  And I’m determined to experience what life will allow me… And I permit myself a belief that there is possible for me a genuine happiness and fulfillment in my family and the work I do.”

Alongside Milch, I also feel the gravitational pull of decline.  I ache with it and I know that there’s no avoiding it.  There are a thousand books now being published that practice one form of denial or another. And indeed, I have written my share of blogs that join the poets in trying to transform the fear and trembling of aging into some form of wisdom and excitement.  But I am coming to believe that there may be a greater dignity—and liberation—in simply acknowledging the ache and the place it has in my life.  It is another way to be unapologetically myself.

 

 

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Is It Florida Time?

Franny and I just returned from five days in Florida.  We had wanted some relief from the New England winter and a break from routine.   Admittedly, the idea of a vacation defies credulity since I’m retired and on permanent vacation.  But we like new places and time to explore.

As it turned out, the Florida temperatures—high 90’s every day—were oppressive and less conducive to outdoor play than 50’s in New England.  Still swam and walked in the relative cool of morning. We read for hours and explored the “new south” in an air conditioned car.  Since childhood, Florida has ranked high on my list of places not to go—too crass, too humid—but we wanted to give it a chance to redeem itself, which it did.  Sarasota, Venice, and other coastal cities were filled with art museums, quirky town centers, and beautiful beaches with diverse and intermixing ethnicities.

We chose Sarasota primarily to explore Pelican Cove, an idyllic community of about 1200 elder refugees from the intellectual and artistic centers of the north.  Residents had created their own “university,” with classes taught by renowned experts and recent enthusiasts.  There are self-organized groups for yoga, gardening, folk music and jazz—you name it.  The housing is comfortable, unpretentious, and gloriously set on the Sarasota bay, with sunrises and sunsets welcoming and wishing farewell to every day.

Friends of friends, who had just purchased a PC home, showed us around.  Michael, the founder of TV’s Nova programming, and Lynn, a psychologist, spent a couple of hours singing PC’s glories, as if they were paid—and brilliant—sales people eager to line their pockets with gold.  But no.  They were Pelican Cove lovers and we paid close attention.

For a couple of years now, I have been writing about what I think of as the next-to-last period of life.  That period, sometimes brief, sometimes long, begins with the realization, deep in our bones, that our time on earth is limited, and ends with dementia, disability, or death.  Generally, our culture paints this period in shades of gray, impressed mostly by diminished capabilities and grumpy moods.  I’m impressed by its intensity and vibrancy.  David Milch, creator of NYPD, puts it this way: “There’s an acute sense of time’s passing.  Things are important.  You don’t want to be inconsequential in your perspective on things…everything counts.”

Pelican Cove looked to me like an active experiment in making the most of this extraordinary period.  It seems to be built for people in their 70’s, who are still physically capable and seeking to suck the marrow of the time remaining.  A morning walk, a little yoga by 10:00, some reading or a seminar in the early afternoon, a nap at 3:00, sunsets and twilight, ideal for contemplation and meditation.  A place and a time for relaxation, maybe even a hint of wisdom in the offing.

And yet, except for maybe a month or two in the winter, the Pelican Cove life seems a little premature for Franny, who isn’t yet 70, and for me, too.  We aren’t ready to cut or limit our ties to our children, grandchildren, friends, and even old colleagues.  We’ve both retired but remain more or less connected to our professional communities and, with them, our ability to contribute to fields whose goals we still feel committed to: Franny to children, through early childhood education and policy; me to equity and diversity through the education of nonprofit leaders.

Neither of us earn a living any more but neither have we made complete transitions into what is generally considered retirement.  There’s too much energy and opportunity remaining.  Sure, the kind of work we have done throughout our life can never be completed, but maybe I’m waiting for a sign that says you’ve done what you can.  Be gone?  Nope. Not yet.  The connections I feel when working are too deep and satisfying to give up entirely in order to relax or to pursue “interests”—all the time.

I know how simplistic that declaration sounds.  And I know that it’s important to avoid black and white distinctions: working and retired; professional and volunteer; active and relaxed; letting go and holding on.  There are all kinds of mixed, often complex balances that can be struck.  Even while living in a community like Pelican Cove.

But for me there’s something about Pelican Cove that feels like withdrawal, like a radical break from ways that I have been engaged during my entire life.  Having family and friends and colleagues 1500 miles away, feels like divorcing myself for the natural life cycle.  My imagery about this phase of the cycle includes close, visceral ties to the people I know and love.  They have been so much a part of my life that, in a way, they are me.  Or the relationships we have formed is a essential to who I am.  Distancing myself from them feels like distancing from myself—a kind of alienation.

Pelican Cove seems like an admission that I’m not yet willing to make any more than I might choose a monastery to pursue my spiritual development with greater intensity. For now, it says that I will stop being a citizen of the larger world, that I will stop striving, and begin to focus almost exclusively on amusing myself.

My objections don’t hold for everyone, of course.  Franny tells me, for instance, that she has always held service to community as a sacred act.  Particularly service that isn’t directly reciprocated, isn’t even well known.  And she yearns for a time when she can devote herself to it.  She might not be any more ready for Pelican Cove than I am but she can see the pathway there.  I admire, maybe even envy her for that.

But it isn’t exactly me.  Too much of me still faces outward, towards the greater world, even though I do precious little to help it.  And I have too many internalized injunctions against a life of leisure and a life focused entertaining myself.  I do wonder whether the injunctions have begun to wane, whether I need to work harder to diminish their hold on me, in order to be free to fully enter the leisurely stage of life promised and promoted by American culture.

The near perfection of Pelican Cove amplifies these questions.  It makes me uneasy, as though I should make decisions, as though I should move on with my life and not cling to what some people might call the past.  What is clear, though, is that Franny and I are not going to make a decision now.  It is premature.  And I, for one, remain mostly comfortable and enlivened by the uncertainty.   In that way, Pelican Cove has been exquisitely clarifying for me.

 

Don’t Tell Me About Old Age

Franny and I belong to a study group, whose members were already pushing old age when we joined 19 years ago.  One day I asked them to participate in a little bit of research.  “Sure,” they said, because they generally like me.  Until I announced the subject: What’s it like to be old.  “Old?  Who’s old?”  I thought they were kidding.  With the exception of Franny, our ages range from 76 to 87.  We had already lost a member to cancer.  Others have suffered heart attacks, strokes—you name it.  Still, when I pressed, they looked at me like I had belched, loudly and involuntarily in public.

Mine was more than a breach of etiquette.  It was as though I had challenged their identity, or maybe their lives.  “I’m old,” I declared, trying to break through their resistance with my own candor.  They didn’t bite.  To accept their age meant accepting society’s stereotypes of aging, including the likelihood of being dismissed and disdained, a self-portrait they must not internalize.

The fight isn’t only against the way we are pigeon holed; it’s also a cry for independence, for control of our lives.  In spite of the way that old folks are portrayed in the movies, we are not children, bumbling idiots, or simply shells of our former selves.  We know ourselves pretty well; and we don’t want to be told who we are or what to do.

Their opposition to what they imagined would be the premise of my research, then, was necessarily fierce and sustained.

————————————————————-

Every culture has its unofficial, generally unstated ideas about everything, including  marriage, parenting, well being, morality, and old age.  Collectively, these ideas can be called a cultural narrative.  They come to us through word of mouth, through TV, film, and other social media.  The stories and images are ubiquitous.  Growing up in a given culture, we hardly know that we are taking them in; and, after a while, it is hard to distinguish them from what we think of as our own feelings and thoughts.

The struggle to make that distinction, the struggle to know ourselves as distinctive individuals, to determine our own character, is one of life’s great dramas.

The drama plays out with particular intensity during old age because old people have lost many of the defining activities and social arrangements—family and work, especially—that once served as barriers between themselves and the influence of cultural imagery.

The contemporary narrative of old age is familiar to most of us.  It differs from the narratives of other eras and other cultures, where the accumulated experience of old people is venerated.  Instead, it emphasizes a loss of vigor, competence, and productivity, and the absence of knowledge that’s appropriate to and valued by society now.  American culture generally glorifies youth and fears—sometimes, despises—old age.  Just look at comic or tragicomic portraits of old people in TV, film, and popular fiction.  At best, we forgive our old people their incompetence or chuckle affectionately at their bumbling ways.  At worst, we distance ourselves from their neediness and dependence.  And we are offended when they take the places of better qualified youth and drain the resources of the already beleaguered younger generations.

Even more painful, I think, is the narrative of continual, remorseless decline and diminishment.  Accordingly, bodies grow weaker and demand more attention.  Minds grow slower and command less respect.  Instead of continued leadership in families and communities, old people become invisible.

We may fight the inevitable with exercise, diet, and cosmetic surgery but, in the end, there’s nothing much we can do about it.  We might slow or modify the downward journey but that’s all.  For the most part, we accept its inexorable logic.  Perhaps not consciously but subconsciously, we internalize the fundamental message of the narrative.  Margaret Morganroth Gullett puts it beautifully: “We are aged by culture.”

What this means is that we filter our actual, distinctive experience through the cultural imagery.  We live as though the narratives are more real than any genuine feelings that don’t quite fit the narratives.  It’s hard to escape their omnivorous desire to tell us who we really are. So we discard large parts of ourselves.

This does not mean that we fall before putting up a fight.  During the last few decades, the Baby Boomers, anticipating their own decline and accustomed to having their way, have championed an alternative narrative.  They call it “Successful Aging.”

John Wallis Rowe and Robert Kahn, whose book popularized the “successful aging” movement,  tell us that healthy aging involves three main factors: (1) being free of disability or disease; (2) having high cognitive and physical abilities, and (3) interacting with others in meaningful ways.  This calls upon us to eat good food, to exercise regularly, and to cultivate a friendship circle or close community ties around churches, synagogues or more secular venues.  Follow this prescription and you will live a (relatively) happy and fulfilling life.

But after reading enough “successful aging” stories, they began to feel a little strained.  The stories look as much like admonitions as reports. The promises seem more aspirational than actual.

Divergence from “successful aging” is too often a cause for shame.  There must be something wrong with you if you succumb to illness, lethargy, or fear.  There must be something you have done or, worse still, something inherent in your character.  If you were a good person, a strong person, a purposeful person, you would be headed towards your goals.  You might fail sometimes but eventually, with effort and the will to succeed, you would get there.  When you don’t, it calls everything about you—your history, your character, sometimes your family or your education—into question.

Cultural narratives, both negative and positive, however, are just that.  They are like theories.  And, as the great anthropologist, Gregory Bateson, once said about theory, “The map is not the territory.” It is not the whole, complex, confusing, and often messy truth about our lives.  It misses the telling details by which we know ourselves.  We make a terrible mistake when we reduce ourselves to a map or a narrative.

It makes no sense to yield entirely to either the anticipation of  “healthy aging,” as though we could pursue the fountain of youth, or to the idea of remorseless decline.  Nor to bounce back and forth between the two: “I’m decrepit.  No, I’m not.  I can be as strong and healthy as ever.  Well, that’s a lie.  I don’t want to deceive myself.  But maybe if I felt better about myself, I could ‘succeed’ as an old person.”

In my view, it is far better to embrace the whole: the vitality and the decline, the freedom from obligations and the loss of place—and the terrible knowledge of mortality. And all those experiences in between.  We are all of these things.  And more.  We never fit entirely within stereotypes.  We know this truth when we take seriously the discrepancies between experience and narrative, when we don’t try to adjust ourselves to a “reality” described by others.

Each of us has our own experience.  It’s a matter of knowing ourselves and trusting our own perceptions.  Only then can we separate ourselves from the cultural narratives of old age.

I know this to be true.  I am aging.  I don’t know how fast or completely.  But I am. And I am alive with energy and thought.  I am mortal, and with each friend whose death I mourn, mortality grows more prominent in my thoughts.  I have just so many days and months and years to live.  That’s a fact.

But when I live my days fully I don’t think very much about decline and death.  I lose myself in the complexity and spaciousness of my life, which isn’t just a passage to death or to health.  It is more like a field of flowers, steams, and rock formations, busy with people and ideas.  Unlike a narrative or a pre-determined journey, the field is alive with possibilities.  When I am present in those fields, my life takes on a timeless quality.

 

The Comfort of Growing Old Together

Almost 30 years ago I wrote a book with my friend, Michael Glenn.  We called it Couples and it painted a picture of couple development in three stages.  I was 45 when I first hit on this theory and, callow youth that I was, I paid little attention to the experience of older couples.  These days my focus has unavoidably shifted.  I’m eager to share what I’ve been learning.

Then as now, the cultural narrative for couples—implicit prescriptions for success and failure—was almost impossibly demanding.  Historically, marriage was a contractual arrangement, mostly concerned with economic matters, the production of children, and the alliance of extended families.  In modern times, the narrative has grown more personal, including early romance, the need to feel loved and cared for, and a looser, and a more negotiated idea about how the common work would be shared.

In the 1960’s demands on couples, generally with women in the lead, rose exponentially.  Not only should marriage provide for security, safety, and companionship, but also sex, romance, and self actualization for each partner.  Couples should be best friends, confidants, intellectual partners, and personal cheerleaders.  Even as you clean the kitchen or the yard, you should look fetching or dashing.  Even as you change a baby’s diaper, you should concern yourself with your partner’s personal growth.

Each of the three stages of couple development is profoundly influenced by this narrative.  The first, Stage of Expansion and Promise (the honeymoon phase), for instance, hews close to the cultural ideal. Its essential quality is expansiveness: in ourselves; in our partners; in the relationship.

In the early days of relationships, “We feel more capable and more available.  In the enthusiastic gaze of our new partner, we are likely to feel more witty, more charming, and more animated than ever before.  We feel vulnerable, yet strangely strong.  We are expressive, bold, and open.  We are in touch with images and yearnings from childhood as well as with hopes and expectations for our future.  Our unfolding relationship feels encouraging, flexible.  Possibility and potentiality abound.  There is space here for being awkward, for being funny, for starting and stopping, for fumbling about, for being passionate and sexual, and for making discoveries.  Time slows down as we linger with our new partner, but it also rushes by, and we find there are never enough minutes in the day for everything we want to do.”  P 64

The Stage of Contraction and Betrayal follows when couples cannot sustain their expansive promises.  “The Stage of Contraction and Betrayal ruptures the Expansive Contract, threatening both the relationship and our sense of ourselves.  It’s essential quality is contraction: contraction into ourselves, contraction in the picture of our mate, contraction of the relationship as a whole. It is like pulling back into our skin.  We are less impressed with our partners and find them less enamored, less infatuated with us.” P 84  Where Expansion is based on a “virtuous cycle,” where one good thing leads to another, Contraction is characterized by a “vicious” and downward cycle.

In Contraction, the relationship that had opened and transformed us now closes us.  Against our will, old limitations and problems resurface. Reluctantly we conclude that we are more loving and competent with friends and colleague than with our partners.  Where once our relationship brought out our best selves, now it reveals our worst.  The loss is terrible. The contrast between the two stages is agonizing.

In Contraction, couples have three basic options: break up; remain painfully stuck in their struggles; or move into the Stage of Resolution.  Resolution is characterized by a spirit of accommodation, a capacity to see the complexity of things, and an inclination to emphasize affection and partnership over romance and passion.  This is a stage of compromise and successful conflict resolution, emphasizing perspective, balance, stability and shared responsibility.  We feel in control of our lives again.

Now the cycles.  Here’s the irony: The resolution of conflict, the escape from our worst selves, is such a relief that it precipitates another visit to the Stage of Expansion and Promise.  This return is one of life’s great highs.  It’s like falling in love again—and a personal redemption. For a moment—or a little longer—everything seems possible again.

Expansion then lasts for a while, sometimes brief, sometimes longer.  But then a challenging event—the birth of a child, the loss or the beginning of a job, an illness, a big salary raise—jars us and, often, awakens our fears again.  We pull back.  A sense of Betrayal and Contraction sets in.  It seems like we’ve never left.  This place feels like bedrock, the real relationship, while Expansion seems a frothy illusion.  For couples with the stamina and courage to withstand the fall, though, there follows a second move into Resolution. Like being pulled along by powerful ocean currents, we move, once more, into the protective waters of a coastal cove.  And so the cycle goes, never ceasing because life events almost always trigger further revolutions.

The cycles continue through the lives of couples.  From a hundred feet in the air, it is the full cycles, not a single stage that may best define relationships.  Some couples zoom through the cycles.  Others take a leisurely path.  Usually time is short in Expansion and most couples find a Home Base in either Contraction or Resolution, fighting fear or finding friendship and trust.  For those who get stuck in Contraction, divorce, either legal or informal—through distance and endless struggle—is often the answer.  

Learning through the cycles.  As we pass through each stage, there is something essential to learn.  In Expansion, for example, we experience ourselves at our best.  We learn more about our capacity for love, compassion, excitement, energy, empathy, to name a few feelings or skills.  Much as our skeptical psychological culture may protest, there is nothing illusory about these feelings and our capacity to trust and amplify, then integrate them into our character is one of life’s greatest opportunities.

The passage through Contraction and Betrayal offers up a comparable classroom.  There we encounter the fears, anxiety, defensiveness, and rage that burst forth when we feel abandoned or spurned by a loved one.  These feelings are not all of who we are but when they rule, we have little access to our best, and they feel all encompassing.  The way to release their domineering grip is to acknowledge them, to deepen our knowledge of them, to grow more comfortable in our ability to withstand their attack.  There’s courage in this kind of honesty.  There’s learning in our refusal to run or hide.

In each stage of couple relationships the opportunity for greater self awareness and  the ability to transcend our limitations presents itself.  Some of us do not accept this challenge.  In our anxiety, we may choose a more narrowness and rigid path.  Some of us do accept the challenge.  Some of us learn almost in spite of ourselves.   I would say about myself, for example, that the constant cycling has broken down boundaries between what I like and what I know about myself.  I find my internal life to be more fluid.  I find myself less judgmental and more curious.

Extending the cycles into old age.  With time, many, maybe most couples learn to accept the complexity of their individual and shared lives—and make a home in Resolution.  As we move into our later years, individual development increasingly lends itself to this home base.  For instance, researchers tell us that aging people generally develop a “cognitive bias” towards positive, and away from negative, experience.  We literally structure our lives to minimize stress.  If we were to begin again, to find a new partner, we would choose a harmonious companion and avoid people and situations that create disharmony.

We seem to gravitate towards the Stage of Resolution as though drawn along some slow but powerful waterway.  The qualities of Expansion and Contraction have been absorbed into our individual identity and into the workings of the couple relationship. Resolution seems the natural place to be.  The cognitive bias towards positive experience, noted by the researchers, prevails—but without the denial of negativity.  Harmony with our companions becomes the norm, and we deal more efficiently with volcanic flair ups from Contraction.  We choose to be kind to one another, even when we recognize unkind impulses within ourselves.

And this is key: In Resolution, we become skilled practitioners of self-determination.  We understand the complexity of our inner selves and of our relationships and we get to choose—most of the time—which parts of ourselves we bring to the table.  And the sense of agency is delicious.

Here’s a second key:  the more comfortable we grow with our own and our partner’s whole selves, the more spacious the Stage of Resolution becomes.  There is room within the relationship for more of our selves.  Those who learn to nurture the stage of Resolution find deep friendship, with a romantic patina around the edges.

To achieve this space, paradoxically, we often learn to limit or omit some of who we are—there’s no need to insist that our partner accept every one of our warts—in order to create the emotional space capable of including more and more of our selves.

As we age and retire, we spend more and more time with one another, grow more dependent on one another.  At first this kind of closeness can be off-putting, at least, and frightening, at worst. This is one of those disruptive experiences that, even late in life, sets the cycle in motion.  Frequently it awakens the fire of Contraction.  A frightening moment late in life.  A moment we thought—hoped—we had transcended. But it also provides an urgency to move through that fire and back into Resolution, with yet more of ourselves intact.

I want to add one more ironic observation about the way that relational cycles can serve as our teachers.  As the Stage of Resolution grows ever more complex and spacious, it is easier to appreciate our partners in their fullness.  By appreciating the complexity of things, we stop trying to change them.  When we stop trying to change them we can, at last, see who they are, independent of our own needs and anxieties.  This allows us to see one another with a freshness that has been unavailable since the earliest stages of Expansion and Promise.

And here’s the best part: the freshness permits a new kind of intimacy that is simultaneously gentle and intense.

 

 

Liberation 101: “Decluttering” Our Minds

These days it has become popular to declutter our homes and offices, an unsentimental drive to make our lives cleaner, sparer, and more efficient.  The same principle, applied more broadly, is particularly apt for older people.

My posse of age mates — old by most standards, but not yet frail or beset with too much forgetfulness — is entering a phase of life that is both fraught and filled with opportunity. It is the moment between acknowledging, with bone-chilling certainty, the finitude of our lives, and actually reaching that end point. Time is short, intensity is high, everything matters.

I’ve been asking myself how to make the most of the time I have left.  There is much to do, but first I have to clear my mind — declutter.  By that I mean, shedding the ideas, the narratives, the philosophies, the solutions to old problems—ways of understanding the world that have guided me for decades but are no longer relevant.  I need to free myself to experience this stage freshly and honestly.

There is nothing new about my desire to shed thoughts and images that interfere with  my ability to do this.  But each period of life seems to require something different.  When I was young and busy with work and family, for instance, I would tell myself to slow down, to step outside the whirlwind.  Sometimes I’d succeed through meditation, journal writing, hiking and running.

My most successful efforts took two forms.  One began in adolescence, when I noticed that imagining a worst-case scenario had a paradoxically calming effect.  For instance, when anxious about an upcoming exam or a tryout for my basketball team, I’d envision myself failing.  From there I’d move to the consequences—more failure, loss of confidence, social ostracism—eventually leading me to flee my home and, finally, into a life of homelessness.  As I dwell for a time on these worst case scenarios, I begin to feel like I can deal with them.  I can get back on my feet.  As I imagine myself rising, my confidence returns.  The exercise acted like a bloodletting.  As the poison drained from my system, I’d grow calm and, suddenly, able to manage whatever problem stood in my way.

Obviously, death is a more fearsome problem than anything I generally conjure up, but it serves very well as a worst-case scenario.  When I’m most frustrated or frightened, imagining the end sometimes frees me from the moment and brings me peace.

A second strategy looks to the future.  For most of my life, the future has been my balm.  Often when I failed, I’d say to myself: I’ll be better.  I’ll learn more, build my skills, better understand opportunities that fit my character.  So I never had to fail completely and I could keep my hopes alive.  In this way I could face the present much more squarely, because I had a future.

But in old age, the future no longer feels like my friend.  Strategies that long served me now seem futile.  They have become clutter that stands between me and the experience of the world I currently live in.  They block the sun, the wind, the beauty and intensity of being alive in the last years of my life.  To live well now, I need to clear away the clutter of old thinking.  Here’s a scan on what it will take.

* To begin, there are the details of life that, when unresolved, leave us with a sustained feeling of uneasiness and take up too much of our mind share.  So, of course, we need to get our finances in order to insure that we can live well enough through this period.  That means determining what is affordable and sticking with it.  We need to write our wills and determine our health care proxies. And yes, we need to consider living arrangements for the time when we cannot wholly care for ourselves.

There are several keys to this process.  The first is to determine what is good enough—not perfect.  The second is to be decisive.  The third is to understand what you can and can’t control—and stop obsessing about things you can’t.  You can’t control the stock market or the value of your home.  You will never find the perfect independent living facility.  Just one that satisfies enough of your needs.  The goal is to free your mind from obsessive “what ifs.”

* Second, we need to let go of that tall pile of activities that we once loved, still miss, and no longer want.  I’m thinking of parenting young children, working passionately with long hours, pushing our bodies to exhaustion in some athletic endeavor.  We may feel nostalgic.  We may be grateful for past experience.  But, to live now, we need to acknowledge that these activities are yesterday’s bounty—and let them go.  There is loss in that acknowledgement, but there is liberation, too.

* Third, let’s loosen our grip on regrets.  They clutter and paralyze our minds.  They serve no useful purpose.  I’m thinking of sins of omission and sins of commission.  Sins of omission include time we’ve not spent with our children; accomplishments that have eluded us; friends we haven’t cultivated and friendships we haven’t deepened; risks that might have been productive that we failed to take; places we haven’t visited.  As the old song goes, “I want to wash them out of my hair.”

Regrets of commission include the many and various ways we have harmed others, particularly those we love and/or esteem – family members, friends, employees and employers, neighbors, colleagues.   We made decisions to follow one course of action that precluded others; we pursued certain jobs and not others, lived in certain neighborhoods and not others, adopted certain religious practices and not others.  We did those things.  But they are past.  Obsessing about them now only weighs us down, saps our energy, imprisons us in the past.

* Finally we have to update our personal identities.  For many of us, the hardest part of growing old is the loss of identity, the loss of being something more than an old man or woman.  Once we were useful.  We were parents, teachers, carpenters, and doctors. Our roles made us feel worthwhile, lending dignity to our lives.  They offered comfortable ways to view ourselves.  The social and work communities we inhabited provided not just a concrete but also a psychological stability.

Who am I, then, when I leave my work and parenting identities behind?  Just me? Often, that doesn’t feel like enough. Or is there some timeless quality that remains me, that doesn’t need social interactions to let me know who I am, to make me feel like I’ve got a stable self? Is that why some of us talk about our legacy, as though we will live after death in people and ideas that we know—and maybe beyond?  Is that why we write memoirs, so people will remember who we really are?  And who we aspired to be?  Might we orient ourselves for the afterlife, find a role and an identity that lives forever?

It is challenging to live without ways to identify ourselves to others and to ourselves.  Yet the day by day quality of retired life lends itself to that sense of absence.  Maintaining an identity might have taken a lot of work.  We would have to correct people’s impressions about us, fit into their impressions—and our own.  But living within a clear cut identity felt secure. Living without clear identifiers is a little like living outside, without the walls that define our human lives.  It feels a little naked.

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Where once we were civilized, now we are Adam and Eve, exploring a garden we hardly knew existed.  We are old but the sun is very bright, the colors are vibrant.  We move carefully in territory that is new again.  It is a little frightening but it is also exciting.  This is the possibility that comes when we let go of life’s clutter.

 

 

 

 

Flu Lessons: Being Old and Sick

The second he completed the rapid flu test in his office, my doctor put a mask on his face and threw one to me.  “Don’t go near anyone without it,” he almost barked.  That was unlike him and took me aback.  Then he lightened up:  “Don’t worry.  There’s only a 5% mortality rate for the flu with people your age.  You’ll be fine.”

For more than a week, Franny and I were felled and jointly quarantined by a flu that, in me, moved ineluctably from a faucet of a drippy nose to a sore throat to coughing that felt like a thousand knives to the chest, to an unsettled stomach, to … well you get the picture.

We spent our days like zombies, our minds clouded and glum, lazing about the house like two vaguely related objects in space, not touching, hardly talking, each in a solitary universe.  Hours and hours passed with junk fiction, television, naps, and almost no food.  I lost a pound every day and felt progressively weaker.  Boredom.  There was nothing to break the monotony of the days.

Sunday afternoon was the occasion of our sweet, two-year-old granddaughter Lucy’s birthday party. Franny and I maturely declined the invitation, not wanting to infect anyone.  In the morning, Gabe brought over a vat of  potato-leek soup, and left it on the door step for us.  We cracked the door to retrieve it, feeling like long-term, immobile residents of an assisted living facility, peering for a moment out into the world.

As a child, I hated being sick.  The drill in those days was to relegate people to their beds.  Even urinating took place in milk bottles.  And believe me, we weren’t treated tenderly.  The idea was to get us up and about as quickly as possible.  I agreed because bed rest was boring and, even while sick, I was physically restless.

And I still hate it.  It may be 40 years since I’ve been laid up with a flu.  During the last decades, whenever there’s been a hint of illness, my attitude has been simple: Ignore it…it’s just a state of mind…plow through.  I’ve virtually staked my identity on what I saw as my strength of mind.  On a similar but side note, one year I decided that feeling cold weather was also a state of mind, and spent the winter without a coat.  Superman lives here.

Then I moved into my 70s, where I began to take more notice of those stomach pains, the weakness I felt on some days, the aches in my joints. The imagery I have for old age is antithetical to how I conceived of myself as a young and even middle-aged man.  But indeed, Superman is gone.  I no longer believe that I can plow through.  Now these dis-eases signal something beyond the immediate experience.  They portend big time trouble.  Almost any ache or pain seems a signal that my body is weakening, and my days are numbered.

A few years ago, I entered a period of feeling tired all the time, and thought:  Oh, this must be what it’s like being old.  Instead of plowing through, I was inclined to resign myself.  Wasn’t that the mature way?  Just in case, though, I saw a doctor, who diagnosed me with anemia, caused by a hiatal hernia.  Surgery stopped the bleeding that led to the hernia and my energy returned.

It turns out to be easy to conflate illness and aging; in my desire to be wise in the way of aging, I resigned myself to decline far too readily.  Now I found myself in search of a more balanced view: being strong; being alert; taking care of my body and my difficulties; and finding a philosophical perspective to accept my increasing vulnerability.  I needed a perspective that found strength in holding all of these views together at the same time.

When the flu arrived last week, though, all of this wisdom flew out the window.  There was something disorienting about the inward focus it brought.  How to lay still, how to cough less, drip less, eat less.  How to time my medicine to minimize my headache.  In fact, I felt like an addict, looking forward to my next fix of Tylenol.  The outside world grew distant, unimportant.  My body was all.  I felt like I was floating through time, occasionally noting the outside world, as though threw the thick glass of an institutional window.

I imagined that this is what it feels like to be really old.  There is a transition that the researchers talk about between the “young old” and the “frail old.”  The young old are often still vigorous, active, optimistic.  The frail old are largely confined by their illnesses, their vulnerability, and their isolation.  Even when they are with people, the connection can feel tenuous, insubstantial.  Somewhere in my cloudy consciousness, I knew that I wasn’t yet at this point, but I could see it.  It was like the island at the end of life’s journey was well within view.

To combat the disorienting, floating, inward focus of illness, most of us seek an external anchor, like finding a large object to focus on when growing dizzy.  Often it’s some way to keep busy:  a simple task like folding laundry.  And keeping busy helps for a while.

The busyness exercise is also true when healthy, especially during retirement.  We busy ourselves to keep our mind off of our troubles, our fears, the inevitability that things will get worse.  Mostly we keep busy to avoid a dizzying internal focus.  So we keep to our routines, develop projects, travel plans.

To be honest, though, keeping busy has never been my cup of tea.  It feels useless and superficial.  It feels deceitful.  I can’t stop judging myself when I am “just” keeping busy.

Purpose—or a sense of purpose—feels better.  Purpose ranges from the very simple: I want to get well and will devote myself to it; I want to help with the grandchildren so my children can pursue their careers; I want to volunteer, to do my little part in making the world a better place.  All of these approaches take my mind, at least temporarily, off of myself.  When I feel purposeful, I don’t feel self-centered.  I feel part of something larger than myself.

Feeling purposeful, I suppose, is as strange an experience as the zombie-like disorientation of illness.  When we enter its zone, it’s as though a giant magnet gathers all the molecules that were drifting and colliding during our inward focus and pulls them in a single direction.  We feel aligned.  For a moment, at least, our energies and values flow together.  We get off that great, slow conveyor belt that has been pulling us into the world of the frail old person, who will one day inhabit our body and minds.  As we step off that conveyor belt, as we feel the magnetic pull of purpose, our vitality is restored and extended—at least for the present..

As my flu receded,, I pushed myself to attend a few meetings and got back to writing my blog.  I called friends to see how they were doing.  Nothing earth- shattering, but I felt more like a participant than a victim of some demonic process of aging.

I don’t want to act like Pollyanna here.  Most of us, if we’re lucky, are headed for that frail old stage.  During this part of our journey, feeling purposeful, feeling like we matter, will be harder to come by.  But the opportunities will always be there.

 

 

Melancholy and Me

When I was a boy, my mother would take me to greet my father as he returned from work.  He had traveled from the garment district in Manhattan via the D Train, then transferred to a bus in Jamaica.  An hour and a quarter later, having read the afternoon Herald Tribune and fifty pages of a book, he’d step off the bus, wearing that long gray overcoat, whose musty smell I still recall and treasure.

I’d run to him, happy every evening to have him home; and, with that melancholy smile of his, he’d fold me into his arms.  All of my most loving memories of my father include that melancholy.  When I think of myself now, when I imagine what I look like from the outside, I imagine that I am wearing a smile like his.

If you had asked me from the time of my youth through my 60’s what I would like to see reflected on my face, it would probably be joy or depth, certainly enthusiasm, seriousness of purpose balanced by playfulness, which would look like a wry smile following a witty comment. But at the age of 76, the expression that moves me most, inside and out, is melancholy, which the dictionary defines as “pensive sadness”.

But in my mind, melancholy includes a feeling for the humor of it all, a sense that there’s so much more than what we see on the surface.  For me, melancholy comes with an appreciation for the complexity of life.  For every joy there is a sadness; for every defeat there’s a triumph.  There is love and hatred, pleasure and pain.  One does not eliminate the other.  The melancholy person holds all of these feelings at once.

Picture Abraham Lincoln’s face, filled with that beautiful sadness of his.  Or imagine, Rabbi Nachum of Bratzlav, who, like Lincoln, was said to have absorbed the sadness of his entire congregation, and you could read their stories on his face.  I imagine Moses and Jesus and almost anyone who cared deeply about people and knew their suffering would have a look of sustained melancholy, even as they led us through various forms of wilderness to various holy lands.

Old age is a kind of wilderness.  There is so much about it that feels unknown, uncharted.  It is a humbling time, a time when we are inclined to be honest with ourselves.  We tend to cast off illusions and false hopes.  We acknowledge ourselves as we are.  With the passing years, we understand that we have grown less and less important, even to those who love us.  They are busy with their lives.

How could we not be humbled?  Our bodies ache and grow less responsive.  Our friends fall away.  We feel naked in this vast universe.  There’s nothing to do but acknowledge the decline.  And what kind of expression do you imagine on your face as you acknowledge these changes?  For me, it’s melancholy.

This melancholy I know is not depression, which feels different.  Depression is dull, withdrawn, often angry.  Depression is a clinical condition, possibly managed with chemical and interpersonal assistance.  Its colors are gray or black.  Its music is discordant.  In depression, you withdraw from others, no matter how close and loving.  Even their love feels like either a demand that you return it—and that feels like too much—or a lie.  They don’t really love you.  There is no depression in my father’s embrace.  It’s more like joy tempered by the knowledge of how fleeting the joy might be.  There’s nothing about depression that lends itself to leading a nation, a community,  a family.  Yet so many of our leaders, knowing the extent of their responsibility and the limitations of their very human power—they are often melancholy.

Our society doesn’t make this distinction.  Melancholy and depression are conflated.  It frightens people, who are taught that it is best to be upbeat, optimistic, gay.  Think of all those Facebook smiles.

I do think that melancholy was once more acceptable.  If you look at the photographs of historical figures, they aren’t smiling.  They aren’t bright and cheery.  They are thoughtful.  You see seriousness, comprehension and, yes, sadness in their eyes.  And, if you could ask them: Is this how you want to be seen, they would say: “Of course.  This is who I am.  Why would I want to appear as anyone else?”

This isn’t all others see on our faces, of course.  I’d bet, for example, that many if not most people would characterize my expression as determined, enthusiastic, amused, energetic, endorsing.  I love to watch the joy and excitement in children. Their whole beings light up when they achieve something wonderful, when they receive gifts, or when they have been surprised.  Adults too.  Old people light up, sometimes, in the most inspiring ways.  I heard an interview with Franklin Foer the other day.  He was talking about his grandmother, his heroine.  She had survived the Holocaust, yet she sparkled with vitality and hope for her grandchildren.  I listened as I drove and barely held the wheel, simultaneously applauding and tearing up.

But more often than not, those of us who have lived through decades of great and varied experience also wear our melancholic visage—which is as it should be.

It fits the great, late transitions in our lives.  As we ‘retire’, we leave communities that have been so much a part of our lives.  We are equal parts glad and sad to leave.  When we talk about the departure, there’s more relief and wonder and very little depression, but we are aware of our losses and aware that we are beginning an uncertain future.  As we talk with our friends about how we feel, you see the beautiful melancholy in our smiles.

Melancholy feels just right when we say that dying is coming closer.  Most of us aren’t terrified or angry, at least most of the time, that we must yield — that we must leave the ones we love.  That’s just as it is.  I smile at such a moment, a wan smile, a sad smile, but a smile nonetheless because, at the exact moment that I recognize the loss, I am also grateful for all that I’ve had.

The music I listen to nurtures my melancholy.  I like jazz and the blues.  I like Yo Yo Ma playing Bach cello sonatas.  I like poetry and take notice when ee cummings describes his father, who “walks in dooms of love.”  There is so much sadness and joy in the music and the poems, and I dissolve into it.  I lose myself in my melancholic ruminations.

Many of the films that I love are filled with melancholy.  Think of those Humphrey Bogart stories where he has to walk away from the woman he loves.  Casablanca, for one, ends as Ingrid Bergman flies off with another man, and Bogart, with humor and a depth of sadness tells Claude Rains:  “Louis, I think this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”  Life doesn’t always go your way but it has its compensations.

Think of the excruciating beauty of For Whom the Bells Toll.  The “earth moves” for Roberto and Maria—because they love one another so deeply and because the war will soon separate them.  Much like the image of Moses leading his people to Israel but remaining behind, overlooking the land from the mountains but forbidden by God to enter.  These melancholic stories, combining our best hopes and greatest fears, speak to some of the strongest images in the history of our civilization.  We oughtn’t run from them.

When I accept my melancholy, when I refuse to fight it, I enter a contemplative mood, much like the best of my meditations.  My heart slows.  My vision clears.  When I yield to my melancholy during a walk in the hills and near flowing streams, when I don’t tell myself that joy or exhilaration would be better, then I dissolve into the pleasures of the scene.

I find more of these experiences in old age than at any other time in my life.  After years of confusing melancholy and depression, after decades of holding off the melancholy that offers the most enduring key to my heart, I accept it now with my whole heart.

For many years, I have been searching for a kind of wisdom that I thought would lift me out of my suffering – what I imagined that Buddha discovered under the Bodhi tree or Yeats’ ancient wise men, “whose ancient, glittering eyes, are gay” found in the high mountains.  But I no longer think that is the path for me. Me

For me, wisdom runs through melancholy.  It comes from an honest assessment of life, with its immense variety of experience.   I don’t have to work to achieve melancholy; it is simply there.  I can admit this to myself and to others.  It is rooted in the reality that gives me great strength and a quiet mind.