I slept and dreamt that Life was happiness; I awoke and learned that Life was service; I served and discovered that service to Life was happiness.
(I have no idea who said this or even if this is the exact way it was said, but it is the expression of what I know to be true for me today.)
This year I am turning 75. Sometimes I find it hard to believe and others it is just a number with no meaning whatsoever. When my grandmother turned 75 and I went to wish her a happy birthday, she said: “I’m 75 years old and I don’t know what I have done with my life!” I have commented on this before but want to once again thank my grandmother for this warning. I know now mine has been a life consciously lived –although not always consciously liked- and will continue to be so as long as consciousness remains.
Recently, a dear and ‘old’ (both in duration of friendship and personal age) friend sent me a brief text (anonymous) with the title “What’s it like to be old?” Everything contained in it was absolutely true for me, even though some of the examples did not pertain to my experience. I decided to plagiarize the writing and turn it into my own. So I began and found the following outpouring of my heart blending with the outpouring of that unknown heart to whom I am deeply grateful for the gift of words (theirs and mine).
So, what is it like to be old? The text in front of me posed the question, and I was forced to answer much like the original author. I don’t think of myself as old, there is in me a something that doesn’t age, a something or a place that is as curious, as open and as excited about life now as when I was three years old and just beginning to become conscious. However, as I contemplated the question, I felt grateful and excited about being able to answer it along with my unknown collaborator.
Old age, we decided, is a gift.
I could joyfully say –along with the text on my computer screen- that I was, perhaps for the first time in my life, the person I had always wanted to be. For once (say I) I live the daily miracle of waking up with myself, delighted to meet me once more and curious about the day that lays ahead. Of course, I don’t bound out of bed and race towards the day as I once used to, but rather close my eyes around the 10 or 20 extra minutes I allow myself under the blankets, savoring each second of added warmth and relaxation.
Yes, old age is a gift. Oh, not precisely my body (I cry out in unison with the invisible author, my new friend)! Agreed! Not the wrinkles (and Life is so kind to take away the sharpness my eyesight as it increases the wrinkles), the fat around my middle, the bags under my eyes, the pains in the joints that come and, sometimes, go. Often I feel the shock of seeing that stranger in the mirror that looks so much like… my grandmother! Then I smile, a secret smile, and feel gratitude for a long life lived a duo.
I would never trade in my wonderful life, the profound love for my family, the marvelous friends, all the new adventures and the deep satisfaction of my actual work, for less wrinkles or a more sculpted figure. As I have aged, I’ve become so much kinder to myself, so much less critical. I’ve turned into my best friend, a wonderful companion.
I no longer scold myself for eating my big plate of Häggen Das occasionally, or the third cookie I slyly snap up on the way through the kitchen. I have no problem spending the extra money that comfort sometimes requires; I deserve that consideration, that simple joy. I can splurge on myself and not worry or splurge on my loved ones (which is the same as splurging on myself) with abandon.
In my life, I have seen too many people arrive at the birthdays I have now celebrated, complaining endlessly about their old age, angrily wanting back the youth they no longer have to do the things they hadn’t thought of until too late, and completely oblivious to the gift of freedom that comes with the years.
After all, who cares if I decide to spend a Sunday afternoon playing computer games, or if I go to the movies more to eat popcorn than to watch the film, or if I take a cozy nap curled up on the sofa under a warm, woolen blanket? And whose business is it if I find myself dancing wildly to a hit song from the 50’s or 60’s, or collapsing into a loving heap of nostalgic tears over a remembered boyfriend or lover? I no longer fear taking all the courses I want even though the youths that fill the classroom might ask what good it will do someone my age; they too will become old someday.
“Yes” (I whisper to my anonymous author) sometimes I forget things, but then some things are better forgotten. Over the years I have found that the tragic stories about my childhood and youth are no more than that: stories. And, in the long run, I remember that which is important to me today. I find my mind much more flexible than before, willing to let go of useless beliefs, willing to not be right, anxious even to step out of the role of the-mind-that-knows. My mind today seems perfectly happy to live with me in the present, to be clear about the options that open up before us and to direct me wisely and kindly towards the best path. Today, this mind that once was a torture chamber of mistaken beliefs, is a faithful friend, my favorite toy and beloved instrument, my constant and loving companion. It takes me where I want to go without my ever leaving the chair where I sit.
I’ll agree –if you insist- that life has sometimes seemed hard, that there have been unwanted frustrations, the loss of loved ones, painful separations, trials and tribulations that at moments seemed insurmountable. But the trials and the frustrations are what have provided strength, understanding and compassion. A life without trials is sterile and empty and will never experience the deep joy that the miracle of living bestows on us.
From the deepest corner of my soul, I am grateful for having lived enough years to begin to see the laughter and tears of youth etched into the expanding grooves on my face. Time, far from taking away, has rather given me the opportunity to live many lives in one, to experience the true abundance of each day (not the abundance of “stuff”), to reach the precise place inside myself where unlimited and unconditional love is born. Today I understand that what others think of me is beside the point; I have earned the right to be wrong, to make mistakes or look absurd in the eyes of others without punishing myself, for I have arrived at the knowledge that nothing is ever a mistake… not ever.
So the next time someone asks me (or I run across the question) what it feels like to be old, I’ll be able to honestly say: I love it. Age has freed me. I love the person I have become, the one that was born of me thanks to the years that life has provided. I know I won’t live forever (heaven forbid!), but as long as I am here I am not going to waste a minute complaining about things I have not had, moments I have not lived, persons I have not been, goals I have not achieved; neither will I spend and instant worrying about what awaits me in the future. I will live in the fullness of the unwavering present, seeing how I might best serve this life, this person, this instance in front of me, for serving today gives me the extreme joy I once searched for in others, in things, in sex. I’ll eat popcorn and ice cream, I’ll sleep that extra hour in the morning with the furry warmth of my little schnauzer clinging to my back, I’ll take the longed for journey as it occurs to me, and every morning I’ll contemplate the day ahead through the eyes of innocence that life has returned to me. Above all, I will love with all my heart until this heart stops beating. I know now, this is what I am here for, and my heart fills with gratitude.
When someone near me exclaims: “Oh God! I am about to turn 30 or 40 or 50 or 60!” I will be able to tell them honestly that it only gets better, that each decade surpasses the previous one in ways unsuspected. I know this. I’ve been there, at 30, 40, 50 and 60 believing that it couldn’t get better. And it has! Life has proved me wrong each time around. It not only could get better, it did!