On the path of choosing

My mom was a keen observer. She could be fun at a party, but she could also step back and just watch people acting themselves out. I recognize some of that impulse in myself. It can be so entertaining, such a show, watching people.

Listening is even better. I especially like hearing people tell their own stories, hearing someone explain themself, sharing aspirations and a little peek into a distinctive personality. 

Listening is especially fun when you meet someone like Jess Mooney, who proved to me that this experiment in writing about aging well is relevant even when I’m talking with someone a generation younger. She has one foot in an active career and the other in what some would call “retirement.” In other words, she’s intent on having a zestful life now, not waiting to do her living and traveling in later years.

Jess has an engaging face, a big friendly smile, longish brown hair and a nice curvy shape; she’s dressed for the heat on this July day. We met at Hugo House, the place for writers in Seattle. I’ve always been on the path of choosing, she tells me. She did once try a traditional, stable marriage-and-career path—she did listen to the voices of loved ones, urging her to settle down—but it didn’t click. Now she works in tech marketing, for a company she likes and a boss she loves—and has decided to work half time so she has the flexibility to do things like meet me to talk in the middle of the day! Seattle is now her home base; her original connection here was her sister (Jess just moved out of her condo because her sister needed a place to live). She spends, maybe, half her time here, but if she’s in this grey town for more than a couple of weeks at a stretch she gets blue. So most weeks she spends long weekends camping solo in the woods, where serenity lives. Her “irregular” way of living is her regular way.

Jess and her sister were raised as nomads, their Navy dad moving them twelve times before high school. Jess looks back on that as an adventure, not just seeing the world but learning to make friends with each new school. Now she does things like camping her way across the country. She was curious about Southeast Asia, so she spent four months exploring there. She’s figured out how to support her chosen path, with a job she can work from anywhere. And she’s thinking about heading to the Southwest next, maybe Mexico for a while. 

How is it that her sister is the opposite? “She’s binary, I’m shades of grey,” Jess says. “She seeks stability, likes structure.” Their parents struggled financially and were emotionally abusive, Jess tells me quite frankly; their home wasn’t safe. “I’m still teasing out how much that plays into things.” And her sister was kind of a handful growing up, she felt a lot of anxiety. So their mother sometimes sent Jess to live with her grandmother. Lucky for Jess, her grandma was a positive force, building her up and modeling the freedom to be herself.

We got to talking about what gives us each contentment. I like how Jess describes it as a grounding, a feeling for having some control in life. Her favorite paradox as a philosophy major (how many can say they have a favorite paradox?) is having control, and at the same time no control. But you can tell, she recognized the agency she had at that young age. Her parents had just divorced; she got in-state tuition in Oklahoma, got an acting scholarship, and paid the rest of her way. And university was a big playground; she tried veterinary med, but couldn’t take the physical trauma the animals experienced. She switched to English lit and loved arguing about the stories. Then philosophy. Finally, she circled back to acting. 

They say resilience is a little bit genetic and a little bit learned. Your response to stress or trauma, how well you bounce back, is a function of both your internal biology and external experience. Resilience means being able to adapt to life’s setbacks, to deal with upheaval, defray depression and anxiety, or cope with trauma. Luckily, there’s lots of focus today on how to learn resilience; thus all the emphasis on the importance of mindfulness, exercise, and fresh air on positive mental health.

Of course, when you ask people to talk about themselves, most will tell you the story of their best self, share the side they like. But to hear Jess talk about her life so far, you can see she was fortunate to discern, at a young age, that she has some freedom to choose. She adapted early to a nomadic life and loves the curiosity she feels, the novelty of new places. 

Part of what I’m searching for here—in these little essays—is how people arrive at older age with the ability to make the most of it. Every life has trauma of some degree. Every life has stress and hardships. Like Jess, I’m a strong believer, also from a young age, in the power of choice. That’s given me a positive sense of agency. Of course I don’t mean that I control every event, but I can mostly choose how I feel about it. Maybe not immediately, but even with big, terrible experiences, I’ve worked hard to eventually decide how I want to respond.  

I know that many people experience older age with dampened resilience. I know that setbacks of later years: losing some physical or mental capacity, losing loved ones, loneliness—all can really squash one’s bounce. I’m learning from those who have gone before, about the value of treasuring my social connections, staying curious, staying engaged with interests I find meaningful (like Jess, that includes traveling to remarkable places), and yes, exercise and fresh air, every day. Thank you Jess. If you’re reading this, I’ll always welcome more of your sanguine, seasoned perspective.

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