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.

A Bittersweet Ending and Blue Skies Ahead

Most of you know that Bill and I spent the last school year babysitting two of our grandchildren. Our “assignment” ended a week ago, and I’ve enjoyed time to reflect. This past year has been as fabulous as it has been draining, and now that it’s over, I feel a bit lost, as if the babies are leaving us behind.

phone Nov 4 295

Each one of the benefits is worth the whole year to us:

  • We know the little ones almost as well as do their parents.
  • They act excited when they see us.
  • We were privileged to spend each morning with our son and DIL, getting the day off to a good start. I’ll never forget arriving before dawn, letting ourselves in, hearing the baby fussing as he awoke. Then a few minutes later, us four adults chattering in the kitchen as everybody rushed about. I’d get the toddler to the table for her breakfast while Bill gave the baby his bottle. Dan and Amy got organized, prepared lunches and did minor chores. We felt like the extended family of yore, when multiple generations worked together for a family’s success.
  • Dan and Amy appreciated our contribution to their family’s welfare.
  • We have a new understanding of and compassion for parents of small children.

Mothers Day 2013 009

The challenges have been significant:

  • The toll on our bodies, most of which is temporary. Not temporary are the surfer’s knots I acquired on my knees from crawling (happily in and out of large boxes turned into forts, for example. Or changing the baby on the floor, because he’s so wriggly and strong we don’t dare change him on an elevated surface.)
  • The time away from marketing Dakota Blues, and from the world of writing in general.
  • Finding time for doctor, dentist, and other appointments – just like working people!
  • Concern that, as parents, we shouldn’t be so intimately involved in the lives of our kids. Our son and DIL benefitted, for sure, but they gave up a ton of privacy for the duration.

Bill and Andrew June 2012 3

In spite of it all, the babies came through okay. They are now 14 months and two-and-a-half years, bright, happy and healthy. Dan and Amy completed another year as elementary school teachers. Bill and I are already feeling like our old selves again, although we feel guilty for being so free, and we wonder almost every minute how the little ones are doing. We miss them! But fulltime parenting is for younger bodies than ours.

Professionally, I’ve managed to keep up with our Friday visits here at Any Shiny Thing; sales of Dakota Blues have been fantastic, thanks largely to good reviews and an award for women’s fiction from Next Generation Indie Book Awards.  I also found time for five public speaking gigs and three book signings during that period. I’ve drafted some short stories and put together a compendium of my best blog posts for an ebook, Sometimes You Feel Like a Sandwich: Reflections on Caregiving, that I hope to release by Thanksgiving.

I wrote this post today to celebrate a milestone – that Bill and I are returning to our normal life after taking a one-year detour for the good of our family. We feel so blessed, but we’re also sobered by having lived the life of young adults trying to balance career and child-rearing. As a result, our lives are fuller and we have much more appreciation for the younger generations. We are back to being retired and the skies are a brilliant blue.

Do You Lack Purpose?

After you retire, you sometimes lose your way. People who are working fulltime, and especially those who are also caring for dependent family members, don’t have this luxurious problem. But if you’re lucky enough to have a lot of free time, you sometimes feel guilty, as if you’re wasting your days. Lethargy swamps you. You can’t seem to move forward. You need a jolt, something to wake you back up.

At one time in my life, I felt that way. I was between careers and drifting. I thought of signing up for some kind of mindfulness retreat, a weeklong camp for indolent introspective old farts. And then my mom asked if I would help her get back to Indiana to see her dying brother-in-law. It was early December and she was too frail to go alone. We were gone a week, during which time I lived with, and like, my sick and elderly relatives. This experience snapped my head around. By the time I got back, I felt reborn, newly grateful for the world of possibility in which I lived.

But if you don’t have a week, you might attend a funeral. Preferably of someone you don’t know.

I used to be a professional funeral-attender. Like a US Vice Prez, I dutifully attended numerous services, representing my employer during my thirty-year career. Although I didn’t suffer as much as those who’d lost a loved one, it was still hard to see them grieving. After a couple hours, I could leave, and I would feel a guilty appreciation for my own more fortunate circumstances. I was alive. My child was well. I had a job, and a roof over my head. Life seemed blessed.

Or, lacking available funerals (or too classy to attend as a voyeur), you might help out at your local elder care facility. Mom spent three weeks in one while recovering from a broken leg, and I visited her  twice daily just to straighten up, make sure her water jug was refilled and her necessary supplies within reach. These places are always understaffed and an inmate can go hours without a drink of water. Walk out of there, my friends, and you’ll feel like turning cartwheels for the great gift of independence.

You don’t know how free you are until you survive cancer, a car accident, terrorist attack or heartbreak you thought would flat kill you. At your age, you’ve already gone through some of that. If you’re feeling brave, you might close your eyes and let your mind drift back to those harsh times. Visualize those days when you were suffering. Remember how it felt to be paralyzed by illness or grief? Now open your eyes, grab a hanky, and blow. Good God – you’re still here! You’re okay. For the moment, you’re safe, and you have the world at your feet. What are you going to do with it?

Who took these pictures?! Dude

Nanci celebrates her retirement as an elementary school principal by leaping out of a perfectly good plane.

Boomers Gone Wild

I feel guilty sometimes that I’m retired and don’t have to work so hard. I see my kids doing what I used to do and somehow, it seems harder. I remember working six days a week back then, but I still feel for them, probably because at 57 I don’t have the same energy level. And I’ve lived through drama and fought upon battlefields that, while new and exciting to them, would kill me to have to revisit. So I laughed at this Mother’s Day article, “62 Going on 22″ by Jessica Grose. Jessica is just entering the young adult world, working her tail off and looking forward, when she has a spare molecule of energy, to marrying and starting a family. Her parents, on the other hand, are beginning to enjoy the carefree adulthood they never had. I know the feeling exactly and enjoyed reading the article. You may as well. Happy Mother’s Day!