Amazing Eighties

Eighty! You’re eighty? Eighty’s really old, right?

That’s how I used to see it when I was younger. Maybe you, too.

But now that I’m around 60, and involved with writers and writing groups, I have friends that age. Girl friends who will sit with me, drink wine, and whine about whatever. We discuss our writing, our dreams, other people, sex, wanting to lose a few pounds…

Here’s the news: Age is irrelevant. It truly is “just a number.” People age differently these days. We’re all over the map. You cannot stereotype based on a number, because people differ so substantially at this point in life.

One of my friends, MJ, is 82 and her hair’s on fire. She’s working on her second novel. Another friend, Ray, will be 90 next May. He’s published thirty books so far and there’s no end in sight. My mom is 88. She attends exercise class three times a week, has tons of friends, and loves the novels I recommend. (We had the best discussions after Water for Elephants, Cutting for Stone, and Two Old Women).

What’s going on? Weren’t these people supposed to be in rocking chairs, gazing vacantly into space? Whether due to better nutrition, changing societal expectations, or something else, elders have kicked it up a notch. They’ve been places, they’re doing things and they aren’t done yet.

And I think they have tons of information we’d all benefit from hearing.

The people who really have something to teach us are in their seventies, eighties, and beyond.

Mary McPhee

Mary McPhee

Mary McPhee, 87, wrote a book based on her blog. The book, called “Code Name Nora” is about moving to a retirement home. She is sharp, productive and independent, with her own apartment and car. Very unusual, I think, to move to a home under your own steam while you still have choices, but she did so because it was a nicer place to live at the same price as her mortgage, for one reason. I suppose the Midwestern winters had something to do with it.  Mary is thriving while enjoying the security and comfort of the home. In Nora, Mary reproduces her blog posts, most of them funny or lighthearted. However, she occasionally makes an observation that reveals the thoughtful elder behind the comedic persona.  For example, this is a reflection on a couple of her neighbors who are aging faster, mentally, than others:

It didn’t take much to amuse them. They were on leisure time; holding-pen time; lame duck time; they had no cares or worries in the world. Which of course was not true because they still had plenty – their families and their own health – but nature had relented a little, softening their brains so these things weren’t so sharp for them anymore. Or they had the ability to forget their cares and worries for long periods, if forgetting can be called an ability.

Mary has written twelve books so far in her life, and she’s still writing. Here’s her story.

Mary McPhee's first newspaper“As a child, I fell in love with words.  I read constantly and collected words which I inflicted on helpless people, often mispronouncing and using them incorrectly. When I was nine, I started ‘publishing’ newspapers for my father, who traveled Monday to Friday, to tell him what had happened during the week.

MMP newspaper page 2

“I got a degree in Journalism from Oklahoma State College, but lacked confidence in my writing so mostly did secretarial work before marrying. Five children later, in my mid-thirties, I began to write. I wrote casual, humorous pieces about raising children. Over a hundred of these were published in newspapers and magazines, each earning between $50 and $150. An article on the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s was featured in the Chicago Tribune’s Sunday magazine. $250 for this. But all the time I wanted to write fiction.

“I churned out twelve novels, but I couldn’t get an agent. Then I discovered blogs, and by this time, widowed and my children grown and gone, I moved to a retirement community, and began blogging Code Name Nora. I was eighty. Some readers thought I was a fraud, a much younger person. Writing the Nora blog helped me adapt to community living. I am somewhat shy, preferring mostly to observe, but living in the Twilight Zone, as I called it, helped me to be more outgoing. I moved to my new retirement home because it’s much nicer and the rent is the same as before.

“Then I discovered self-published ebooks on Amazon. It was difficult to learn the technical aspects but I finally managed to put eight novels on Kindle. I wrote several new novels and dusted off some old ones.

“I write early in the morning for an hour or so. I used to write by hand but now on the computer. I belonged to Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, a large group in Denver that offers critiques, but I don’t any more. I don’t have any beta readers but wish I did because writing is lonely.

I think existential angst is part of the creative make-up.  Art of any kind is a way to deal with it.

“Despite what we might have to offer, people my age are frequently left out of discussions with younger people, which is hurtful. This is ironic for me because

I have never felt as creative as I do now at the age of 87.

“But then I remember when I was young and felt older people wouldn’t understand or would be accusatory. And of course, many older people have trouble hearing. (I do, and wear hearing aids.) I mostly listen but when it seems a good time to speak up, I do. Sometimes younger people laugh at what I say, and I’m not always sure what that means. Older people appreciate being listened to but they shouldn’t talk too much or about their ailments.

A Fresh Start cover

“I have ideas for new books but none coming out just yet. I’m busy promoting the eight books I have on Kindle. A Fresh Start in a New Place, my memoir about dropping out of big-city life at age 53, to live in a tiny Vermont hamlet, is my next promotion at which time the price will be discounted.

“My blog is MaryMac’s Booktique and my Facebook page is here. The cover for A Fresh Start uses a picture one of my daughters painted when she was eighteen and spent the summer with me in Vermont. The other image is one of the front pages of two of my childish newspapers, yellowed with age. You may need a magnifier to read them. I just include these for fun. Oh, and my blog is kind of a mess. I need to work on it.”

Lynne again: I’m 59. I admit, sometimes my sisters and I feel anxious about getting older, but then I remember people like MJ, Ray, and Mary, and I relax. We have these awesome trail-breakers forging the way for us. They are powerful role models from whom we can draw strength. I am grateful for them.

Who Decides Your Life Course?

Recently, Oprah said most people, especially women, lead their lives following a course that is not their own.

No kidding.

I mean, you’ve noticed, right? How a woman will partner up with a guy, and pretty soon she sounds like him. Maybe even looks like him, body-wise. She used to be thin, now she’s not. She used to be debt-free, now she’s a spendthrift. Used to be politically apathetic, but now she’s a passionate partisan.

This phenomenon fascinates me. I want to write a book about it, a novel of four women who, over the course of a summer all realize they’ve fallen victim to this. I don’t really want to write about a younger woman – I figure we all did it when in our teens and twenties, but then you start to figure out who you are and what you need, and theoretically, you don’t become the clone anymore. No, the people who interest me are the older women who are still stuck in this mire, whether they know it or not, and whether they change or not.

Of course, this is only a problem if it’s a problem. Sometimes people influence each other for the better. In some ways, I’m my husband’s mini-me, but that’s more a case of God shaking her head in despair and sending me a car salesman, due to the fact that I desperately needed somebody to show me how not to be such a doormat and martyr. But I’m not talking about the good influencers, and neither was Oprah. She said,

Unless you find a course that is truly your own, you betray yourself, and then you’re no different than the person who betrayed or hurt you.

Sometimes pain is sweet. The fact that we’re not “allowed” to clean up the garage, because he insists on things being a certain way, means we get license to complain without actually having to do anything about it. Not taking the reins is a relief, sometimes. So is the feeling of being limited by somebody else – it’s how a lot of us were raised, right? We’re told to be obedient, follow the rules, let the other person go first, give up our seat, be flexible. It becomes a habit. Pretty soon you’re afraid to take the reins, but it’s okay – you’re comfortable with it. Resentful, but comfortable.

Let me ask you this: What if you had no limitations? What if you could do, create, live, or be exactly what you wanted in the days, weeks, months, years to come? What goals would be on your list, and how fantastic would it be to realize those goals? Now, ask yourself what is standing in your way, and what can you do, if anything, to get around it? If you’re tempted to shrug and say, “Nothing,” I have a titillating question for you: are you happier with that answer than with the alternative?

No Picnic for Young People, Either

My son walked in the door one evening after the daily commute with his 2-year-old daughter, who attends day care near his job. Their arrival signaled the end of my ten-hour shift, and as I prepared to hand off my 7-month-old grandson, I watched my son shift gears, from tired elementary school teacher to tired dad.

Getting in my car and driving away felt good, in that I was free to go back to my “retiree” life, but this babysitting gig reminds me how hard it is to raise kids. When we’re young we think it’s never going to end, and then when we’re old and it’s over, we wonder where the time went, and I think our perspective gets rosier in the rear view mirror. Maybe too rosy.

The adult kids suffer. They’re sleep-deprived, and they don’t have the sanguine approach to life and career that you earn with age. Everything is harder for them, and in spite of my own problems, if I had to do what they’re doing, it’d kill me. Like the “It Gets Better” campaign, I want my kids and all young parents to know it really will even out. And at the risk of pissing them off, here are some coping strategies I’ve learned over the years that might help them feel less pressure and stress: (UPDATE: I realize these comments might reflect on my son, but he’s a sweetheart and wasn’t the impetus for my thoughts. It’s just memory coming back, from my younger years.)

(SECOND UPDATE: I don’t mean to leave out my DIL. Everything my son is doing, she’s doing too, IN ADDITION TO breastfeeding. So she gets the Ginger Rogers Tip-of-the-Hat award for dancing as well as Fred, but in heels and in reverse).

  • After a long commute, you shuffle in the door after dealing with tailgaters and other assholes, and for about the first ten minutes you’re in no mood for civil conversation. So Bill and I have learned to tell each other, “I’m still on the freeway,” which is code for leave me the hell alone until I have the energy to behave normally again. If you have little kids, focus on them. They’re entertaining. Leave the big stuff for later.
  • You’re more in control of your feelings than you think. If you put on a show for your conscious mind, your subconscious will go along with it. So if somebody asks you, “how was your day?” you answer, “pretty good,” even when you want to say, “IT SUCKED LIKE HELL AND I HATE ALL HUMANITY!!” And not only will your subconscious start to lift your spirits, you won’t have a depressed/pissed off spouse to deal with. (I learned this the hard way, and not until I was about 40.)
  • Correlation to the above: music can and will change your mood, for the better or worse, so choose accordingly.
  • Fatigue and alcohol will get you in arguments in which you believe, at the time, the Authentic You is speaking. But the next morning, when you feel like a jackass, you realize it was the tired or buzzed you. And now look at the mess you have to clean up.
  • Don’t get too hungry. It messes with your head. Have a snack when you start dragging. See Authentic You, above.

Retirees with lots of free time sometimes develop amnesia about What It Feels Like To Work Fulltime and Have No Life. Working people – young or old – must hate hearing us geezers yabber on about finding ourselves, since they barely have time to find a clean pair of socks. So if we forget, and start pondering aloud a need to search for “my true purpose in life” or “finding my passion,” know that you, Young Person, will get your chance. Along with thinning hair and involuntary farting.

What about you, Older Person? Any tips for the kids?

Aging with Grace

I asked my friend Nanci, at long last retired from her career in K-12 education (as a teacher and principal) how she is adjusting to all her free time. Nanci, in her early sixties, has a brilliant, introspective, ethical and spiritual mind. You might remember her from these skydiving pictures. She’s no wuss. Here’s what she wrote recently, and I think it exemplifies transitioning with grace as we age:a
Last week I went to a kayak class in our local Ocean Kayak Clinic. It offers lots of classes from kayak surfing, rolling, expeditions, crabbing and rescues. My neighbor, Roy, and I thought that we might take rescue together, since we often kayak and it would be good to be able to help each other and ourselves should we capsize. I had taken the same class 8 years ago and felt that it was a good class to have and to repeat.
It was a cold, rainy day… there were eight of us in the class. I was one of two women and the oldest in the class. I feel that I am a pretty accomplished kayaker, but in this class I was terrible. I was able to help others, but every time it was my turn in the water I could not get back into my boat, except with a ton of help. I remember being in classes with other “lame” (IMO) people and was embarrassed for them and wondered why they were even in the classes.
Eventually the class ended and I took my very chilled and soggy body home. I then ruminated on what exactly this means for me. Should I work to regain upper body strength (although I do yoga regularly and it’s not usually a problem for me) or should I just not do any hard kayaking where I might get in trouble or perhaps there may be some other ways to think about the experience.
I hosted a Tapas Party a few days later with a bunch of “foodie” friends, including my wonderful yoga teacher. During the conversation, someone asked me about my class…I laughed and said, “True confessions”, and told the group of my struggle.
Laura, my teacher, said, “Well, Nanci, what I hear is benevolence of spirit.”
And she was right…and this is my real learning from this experience. Because for most of my life I would have been totally humiliated and would have slithered home and berated myself for days. I would never have shared my experience for the sheer embarrassment of it.  For once, I had accepted and loved myself enough to be able to just contemplate what this meant in the realm of my life, without severe judgement. And it felt good. I’m not sure if this is a gift of age, or if it is a late learning for me. It is something I wish I could pass on to young people who live in the shame and embarrassment that I have carried with me all these years. Imagine what we could accomplish as humans if we could be self loving.  Benevolence of spirit, what a wonderful term and a life expanding concept!
Nanci, I’m inspired by your words, and happy you’ve found that sweet place of self-appreciation. Unfortunately, it probably is something the kids will have to wait and work for, because I think it mainly comes with age. Thanks for letting me share your story.