Wild and precious

Remember when your definition of “old” kept changing as you grew from a child, through adolescence, through your 20’s, 40’s and so on? I thought old was my parents’ age. Then it was my grandparents’ age. Now that I’m 66, my definition is hardly based on age at all.

Old is, inevitably, the unrelenting drift as your body and mind start to slow—the decline that’s hard not to see as indignity. Watching with dismay as the skin spots multiply, as your body slowly sags and bulges. Forgetting the word for, you know… damn, it’s on the tip of your tongue. Struggling to keep up with the gizmos your grandkids operate as second nature. Old is watching where you put every step; the breakdown of one more critical component that threatens to tip you into frailty.

But old is also in your head. It’s allowing your horizons to narrow. Assuming you’re done learning or dreaming because you’ve reached a certain age. It’s forgetting what it felt like to be young; writing off the immature as bad or stupid. It’s also holding on to your youth so you’re closed to the positive side of aging.  It’s confusing slowing down or impaired abilities with lack of choices or agency. It’s anxiety about trying new things. To me, it’s slowly beginning to give up.

And more than anything, I think old is when your culture writes you off as having nothing more to contribute.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, basically since I “retired.” That is, after exiting a career in tech marketing to explore the country for a while, I was lucky (believe me, I know how lucky I was) to be able to choose, at age 63, not to return to my full-tilt pace.

Because heading into this next stage—moving on after launching kids and a stressful/gratifying work life—has also has given me such marvelous (true to the root of the word!) freedom. Getting to decide what to do when I get up each morning has been the most precious gift. While some choices are closing off (the Olympics are increasingly unlikely; my chances of become an astronaut are dwindling; porn star is completely out of the question) just having this free time has been an unbelievable bonus.

For a while after traveling, then settling back in Seattle, I spent months just reveling in my deadline-free, office politics-free, pressure-free life.

Now I find myself enrolled in a new ‘old’ school—I want to learn how people keep delight alive in spite of some notably disagreeable changes. How to stay engaged. How people grow, even while growing old.

To be sure, many in the latter half of life may not consider me old yet—I’m only 66. In truth, and in pretty good health, I’m more like late middle-aged. But I find myself in a state of reinvention; I want to broaden my scope, regenerate vitality. Now I’m doing work that gives me satisfaction, stimulates imagination, and spreads out possibilities.

My friend-on-the-page, the poet Mary Oliver said, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”*

I plan to die young as late as possible.

* Mary Oliver, A Summer’s Day. loc.gov/poetry/180/133.html
Image and content: ©2018 Susan Cummings. All rights reserved.

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