WHAT’S IT LIKE TO BE OLD?

WIN_20170722_130919 (2)                    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).20131116_105036

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 AUTUMN 002under 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.20160520_143050

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.

20130622_225437So 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!

EATING DOG

There is a joke that goes something like this: «Two Indians from a dog-eating tribe arrive in New York and suddenly one says HOTDOGto the other: ‘Look, hot dogs! Let’s have one’, so they go over to the hotdog stand and order two. When they receive their buns, one Indian opens his up and looks at it. Then he turns to his companion and asks: ‘What part of dog you got?’»

untitledDid such a ‘dog-eating tribe’ ever exist? Yes. Maybe not in what is today the United States, but in Mexico the Aztecs even bred special, vegetable-eating, toothless, hairless dogs for the purpose of eating them. They are called escuincles and they exist today as a very prized breed of house pet.

The other day a dear friend sent me an irate protest letter against the Dog-Eating Festival in China asking that I sign it in order to stop this barbarous act. I didn’t sign it. I couldn’t sign it in good faith and, believe me, I love dogs and anyone who reads this blog knows that. I, personally, have never eaten Dog, nor do I expect to in this lifetime, but I am not a vegetarian or a vegan; I am omnivorous and I eat Cow and Sheep and Goat and Chicken and Fish in moderate quantities without batting an coweyelid. And three of these things I eat in their tender, sweet, baby form as Veal, Lamb and Baby Goat. I have also eaten Deer (what could be more adorable!) and probably, unknowingly, at some point eaten Horse as I now live in a country where it is sold in the marketplace because there are people who prefer it to Cow. I have also eaten Baby Eels lambwhen they weren’t so expensive, Manta Ray (recently in a restaurant), Iguana (in a food fair in Mexico), Snake and tasted fried Grasshoppers (once, in Oaxaca, Mexico), Ant’s Eggs (called escamoles and considered a delicacy in Mexico today, along with Maguey Worms which I have not tasted). There is also a town in Mexico where they eat live beetles called ‘jumiles’ or ‘chumiles’ (in English ‘stink bugs’) wrapped in a tortilla and the trick is to get them all into your mouth before they crawl out of the tortilla onto your cheek (they’re fast little critters!) And if you consult Google, you will find that Insects in general, have been eaten the world over for millennium and that they have a very high protein content, are low in calories and very ecological to breed and farm. To each his own. So, as I said: I am omnivorous even though at this time meat makes up less than a fourth of my diet.goat

So, if I can eat these really adorable animals, why should I criticize the Chinese for eating Dog? I can’t do that. I would have to join a campaign against Cow, Sheep and Goat eaters and, of course, those terrible people who eat Chicken (according to a friend of mine, whose chickens are part of the family and receive better treatment and more love than my dog!).

One of the convincing arguments for not eating meat (and it is very convincing!) is that we were never meant to be carnivores and our bodies are not equipped to digest any form of meat. (Here is the link to the article http://www.celestialhealing.net/physicalveg3.htm). As I said, it is very convincing, and yes herbivores like those mentioned in the article (cows, goats, gorillas, elephants, rhinoceroses), are neither scrawny nor unhealthy, but they consume their vegetables raw along with a large amount of very protein-rich BUGS. So the chickenfact that many mainly vegetarian or indigenous cultures eat Insect is not strange at all.

One thing stands out in our carnivorous history and that is that we don’t seem to favor eating other carnivores, but rather stick to herbivores. That is Nature’s rule, carnivore eats herbivore. Even the Nahuas or Aztecs bred toothless vegetarian dogs to eat. So, the habit of the Chinese of eating ‘normal’ carnivorous dogs goes against the natural (Carnivore eats herbivore) grain of things to say the least.

The same aforementioned article claims that vegetarians are healthier and live longer. I have no proof of that. I know quite a few vegetarians and some vegans and those that are around my age seem to have the same as or more physical complaints than I do (and that’s not hard seeing as I have very, very few at this moment… knock on wood). Yes, they do seem slimmer on the whole and I notice that they eat A MUCH SMALLER amount of food than I do in general, so I am not sure if the slimness is due to amount or kind.

On the other hand, they seem to suffer a lot more stress around food matters than I do; they are sometimes very worried deerabout what they put in their mouths or where they eat, what kind of food they buy and what ingredients went into every dish. I do not stress over what I eat: I love ALL food (possible explanation for why I struggle with my weight). Nevertheless, I am accustomed to avoiding carbs and/or not combining even ‘good’ carbs with animal protein. This doesn’t make me better, but it does make me happier and less stressed out, because carbs (any kind of carbs, even the good carbs like quinoa, lentils or chickpeas) awaken a compulsiveness that makes me insatiable, so I shy away from them.

I also can understand how difficult it is to be a vegetarian in a meat-eating world, I have a similar experience being a non-drinker in a world that thinks alcohol and fun/enjoyment are inseparable. Just as a vegetarian might not enjoy going to a coctailsbarbecue, I shy away from cocktail parties (I hated them anyway, even when I drank). So I can understand a vegetarian’s frustration when the menu in a restaurant includes no dishes without meat or meat products, and I sympathize.

Maybe the principal reason why I do not become a vegetarian, in spite of the fact that I am a COWARDLY CARNIVORE (if I had to kill the animal myself I would give up meat immediately) is that I am lazy, I do not like to cook for myself so I eat out every day. If I had a vegetarian at home who would cook for me, I would probably eat vegetarian. When I have gone on retreats (spiritual) I have often enjoyed the vegetarian diet immensely (and gained weight). C’est la vie! I will continue for now to be a Cowardly Carnivore and just try to not talk about it in front of my vegetarian friends (out of respect for their house pets, especially their chickens). One thing is for sure: I would feel the same way about someone eating my dog, as my friend feels about anyone eating her chickens!

OLD AGE

Before, the only thing I thought of Old Age was that it was the better of two choices (the other being, obviously, dying young), but now that I am about a foot and a half (or more) into the Matter, things are looking differently.

Still aliveOld Age does not come overnight, at least not in my case. I remember clearly when I was about 50 things began to make noise, things -I mean- like joints and bones and what-not. I called it the “Rice Crispies Age” because everything went “Snap-Crackle-and-Pop”, and that reference might make sense only to persons reaching the same “ripeness” as myself who have heard the advertisement in their youth. After the noise subsided, the small occasional pains began: a joint here, a vertebra there… My second partner reminded me joyfully that, after 50, if you wake up in the morning and nothing hurts it means you died in your sleep.

But unless you have done the Dying Young thing, Aging is inexorably progressive, although there are many, many days when one is allowed to forget it (as long as you don’t look in the mirror).

The Powers that Be, however, are kind and they soften the way as best they can. They take your eyesight away as fast as they put the wrinkles on so, unless you are stupid enough to approach the bathroom mirror with your eyeglasses on, you really don’t notice all that flabby crinkly skin around your mouth and jowls. They diminish your physical energy at the same time as they add aches and pains and physical danger to exertions beyond a simple walk to the supermarket two blocks away.

Nevertheless, things do change and by “things” basically I mean the body. As my grandmother used to quip: ‘”If it’s not one thing it’s another” said the woman with the nosebleed.’ Things ache: if it’s not the ankle, it’s the knee; the neck gets stiff and cracks when you turn it too sharply; no sooner has the shoulder stopped hurting than you get a pain in the right hip before dawn that has you twisting and turning in bed to find a position that alleviates the twinge. Sometimes everything comes at once (the ankle, the hip, the shoulder, the knee) or everything suddenly disappears and you feel like 20 again until it creeps back in.

Photographs stop being fun, although for heaven knows what reason, Skype seems to improve one’s looks. Good hair days become fewer and fewer, and if you have my fine straight hair, you begin to feel “holes” on the top and sides of your scalp where the hair barely covers and you curse the Universe for not abiding by your belief that only men go bald. There is, however, the advantage of being blond which makes grey hair almost, if not totally, invisible… unless of course you look at my eyebrows which I have to color over every morning to hide the white ones everyday more numerous.

Hands are a good measure of how much you have aged. You can make up a face, brush over the balding spots on your head, pretend that your joints don’t hurt, but there is no way -except gloves- to hide the devastation of your hands. I remember entering my father’s studio one morning when he was in his late 70’s and suddenly noticing his hands and realizing that he was going to die some day in the not too far future. It was a shock and my heart squeezed into a painful ball at the thought. Today I look at my own hands and feel tenderness towards myself, for the beating I have given this body and the noble way it has not buckled under the punishment. Nothing is as wrinkled or splotchy as my hands, bless them: I do love them so.

So for quite some time I had the attitude of ‘grin and bear it’ in the face of advancing deterioration, but suddenly I realized I was making a very grave mistake.  This Getting Old business is actually very exciting. First of all, I have never done it before and I have no idea of what comes next. Everything is so new, from the wrinkles to the flab to the pains to the sun spots. Everything belongs to the This-Never-Happened-Before world.       no idea what is going to happen

I have become very conscious of my body and find myself dedicating much more time to its care and its observation. I catch myself feeling extremely grateful to it when a pain that has been around for a few weeks or months suddenly disappears as incomprehensibly as it had appeared. I talk to it alot more, making sure it understands how much I appreciate its capacity for endurance. I almost broke down crying with gratitude when it threw every fiber into allowing me to take all the walks and do all the climbs when we went on the trip to Machu Picchu. And recently, during the silent retreat with Jeff Foster in Belgium, when I slipped going down the slate stairs and my body flew into the air landing with a resounding thump on the pavement on my right hip which had been hurting anyway for the last 6 months, what a difference it was to think ‘Oh my goodness, I am sure this blow is going to knock everything into place and all pain will be gone’, instead of ‘Oh shit! Now I’ve really  messed up this time!’  I was so grateful that I hadn’t broken a bone, that the tearing of a ligament in my knee seemed a small price to pay for the experience of flying through the air with both legs flaying about wildly. Today, one month later, the pain is still there, although it doesn’t stop me from doing anything I want too. When I feel it as I walk into town or even through my apartment, I think to myself: ‘Well now, there is my body letting me know that I’m still alive.’

There is also a new liberty and a new comfort in growning Old. I allow myself to do things that I didn’t allow before like taking short naps when I feel tired or playing a few games of solitaire on the computer when I’ve worked for several hours or watching a tv series while eating homemade popcorn. I am kind to myself and exercise patience; I don’t push anymore; I have stopped believing that “I should be doing something purposeful”.  And I follow the wise advice of whoever created the following cartoon:

Today I will live in the moment

And there is something else: I am happy, happier than I ever thought I could be when I thought about being happy. I have no idea what I have done to deserve this, like María in the The Sound of Music, perhaps somewhere in my youth or childhood, I did something good. I know what serenity is, I am not trying to change anything, and much less myself. I live in a state of astonished, unending gratitude, absolutely in love with this incredible Universe that parades itself before my eyes instant by vibrant instant.

MY BODY’S A DISASTER ZONE

In October of 2010, a month before moving to Salies, I threw my back out. I was at a ranch outside of Palma de Mallorca attending a workshop. Every morning, one of the participants would direct yoga exercises. Every time I assumed the flat-on-my-back-legs-stretched-out position, the thought that this was not good for my particular lumbar region would flash through my mind and I would ignore it. Continue reading