Me and We

A few weeks ago, my granddaughter and I took a summertime walk to the local market. On the way home, the afternoon sun was at our backs. In front of me, I saw the shadow of an eight-year-old girl and her grandfather, holding hands as they walked. 

I was momentarily surprised that it was me, and then I smiled appreciatively. What a beautiful sight—my own shadow as an older person. What a wonderful image, and it was me!

Seeing that flash of shadow reminded me of my present age as well as when I was an eight-year-old. I remembered spending time every summer at a lake near where I grew up. Our family still makes recurring pilgrimages to that lake.

Anytime I wanted, I’d run full steam down the hill, arms outstretched like wings, and just plunge into the water. Ducks, frogs, minnows, turtles and sunfish would make room for me. I loved the exhilaration of swimming underwater with my eyes open, surveying the lake bottom, and then bursting through the surface for a gulp of air and to feel the warmth of the sun.

My granddaughter and I have been looking forward to jumping into that lake when we make our post-vaccination pilgrimage this summer—perhaps jumping in as we are holding hands! That would be another wonderful shadow to see.

That changed with an email detailing how swimming has been banned in the lake because of cyanobacteria. What? No swimming? This lake is 15 miles around!

Cyanobacteria phytoplankton form the base of the food web of some freshwater ponds and streams. The presence of cyanobacteria is natural and important, but too much cyanobacterial growth (called blooms) leads to the release of dangerous amounts of cyanotoxins, which can poison wildlife, humans and pets. Over the past decade, there have been late-fall blooms of cyanobacteria in the lake, but never as early as mid-June and never enough to force people and pets out of the water. 

Global warming, fertilizer runoff and septic tank seepage have combined to create blooms and to change the world I knew. That world would have changed no matter what. Life is change. But this is harmful, human-made change, which is not inevitable.

As we age, we have a continuing responsibility to be good stewards, good role models, and to work alongside younger people to right the wrongs. One aspect of aging with intention is to share and listen while forging intergenerational relationships.

Not everyone grows up near a lake, but all of us older people will have our own cyanobacteria in one form or another—systemic harm that hits close to home. It could be ecological security or economic security or health security or job security. It could be the intersection of ageism with ableism or racism or sexism or homophobia.

Toxic cyanobacteria blooms are one thing calling me to activism in my third stage of life. What calls to you to age with intention?

Hours of Angst

I was just this side of asleep. I was lying in bed, early morning, remembering my just-waking thoughts.

I had realized two really good points regarding a thorny concept I’d been pondering for weeks. It was a breakthrough and very clarifying for me. Even at that early hour, I was pleased with myself.

As I lay there with my eyes closed but my thoughts clear, I was thinking, “Maybe I should write this down before I lose it.” But they were such clear and meaningful ideas, how could I possibly forget them? Just as I made the conscious decision to not write them down with the pen and journal that were right next to my bed, a third idea popped into my mind that was a nice complement to the first two.

What couldn’t have been more than a minute later, I rolled out of bed, only to realize that I didn’t remember those ideas of which I’d been so proud.

I sat quietly on the edge of the bed and focused, but they were gone, very gone. I was pissed off at myself for not writing them down. In a matter of seconds, I’d forgotten what had been so clear and memorable. I tried to focus on what I’d forgotten. Then I became concerned. Was there something wrong with me?

My wife rolled over, asked me what was going on, and I explained. She was understanding, comforting and reassuring. The harder I tried to remember them, the more gone those lovely ideas became. I had never forgotten something so completely and so quickly.

Then I got scared. Is this the beginning of the inexorable decline? Am I on the downhill slide? Is this the beginning of the end? And then scared became really scared.

I hadn’t felt this anxious before. The closest I could remember was when I had to force myself to walk into the courtroom to deliver the closing argument in my first murder trial. But even that was not like this scared and lost feeling. I felt, with my toe, the edge overlooking a precipice of degenerative dementia.

I sat with this feeling as I worried. For some reason, I thought of the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl quote, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.” I tried to calm myself by thinking how it’s harder on the people who love a person with dementia. That didn’t work at all. I was still scared.

I remembered my wife’s advice to let it go and eventually the thoughts would return. But it was difficult to relax. To me, in those moments, dementia was no longer a theoretical concept. I could feel it in my stomach.

In the end, my wife was right. Late the next day, after hours of angst, I remembered ever-so-lightly that third complementary thought. An hour or so later, my two breakthrough ideas popped full-blown back into my consciousness.

Intense. Sobering. Educational. Humbling. Next time I’ll write them down.

 

The Old Normal

Marc Blesoff was a criminal defense attorney for 35 years. Six years ago, he began facilitating Conscious Aging workshops. He says that helped him melt the armor he’d built up as a defense lawyer. He’s a founding member of A Tribe Called Aging, which defines itself as a group of “activists and thinkers trying to understand and change our culture’s outlook, policies and fears about aging and dying.” 

Three days ago, I had a face-to-face meeting with another person for the first time in over a year. Two days ago, I had coffee on my front porch with a friend for the first time in over a year. Yesterday, accompanied by my daughter, I went shopping at Costco for the first time in over a year. What a week, and what a year.

It felt like the “old normal.” My meeting lasted for two hours and we could have kept going; I still make my coffee too strong; I spent more than I needed to at Costco. Some things never change.

Before you read any further, let me be clear—I am not advocating stupidity. For those of us who have been so careful for so long, abandoning caution now would be plain stupid. 

My face-to-face meeting was outside, both of us vaccinated, sitting at each end of a park bench, wearing masks. My friend is vaccinated, and we sat more than six feet apart as we sipped coffee on the front porch. My daughter, who’s been in my bubble since December, is vaccinated, and we shopped wearing masks. 

Caution definitely needs to be part of the unfolding new normal. As do the many improvements forced upon us by COVID-19, such as working from home, telehealth and digital meetings.

As we shopped, I couldn’t help but notice how my daughter shouldered much of the load—she was more organized than I was, made great suggestions, lifted the 40-pound bag of dog food and remembered the several items I failed to get. I had this clear sense of just how I was getting older. Out of the blue, I thought how I’d already outlived my father by six years. The last time I saw my father alive flashed before my eyes.

As I drove out of the parking lot, thoughts came quickly, including: it was good to be back shopping in person; how fortunate I am to have had supplies delivered to my door for over a year; and a question, how many more times would I get to shop at Costco before I died? Suddenly, I realized how poignant my relatively mundane shopping trip had become. 

The pandemic experience is allowing me to appreciate things I’d taken for granted. And that reminded me how my aging has helped me to slow down, to take notice and, sometimes, to appreciate seemingly small things.

That’s when the tears started—not sobbing tears, but poignancy tears, the kind you can keep to yourself, but tears, nonetheless. Sitting beside me in the front seat, my daughter didn’t notice. Wondering what these tears were about, I realized that it wasn’t just how many more times might I get to Costco, or my own dad’s death. It was also about my daughter, and how many more times I’ll get to be with her, and how she’ll feel after I die. And then it was about the rest of my family too. It was a serious, realistic and honest awareness of my mortality.

There I was, driving home with the groceries and feeling, actually feeling, the inevitable.

Aging from the Heart

Marc Blesoff was a criminal defense attorney for 35 years. Six years ago, he began facilitating Conscious Aging workshops. He says that helped him melt the armor he’d built up as a defense lawyer. He’s a founding member of A Tribe Called Aging, which defines itself as a group of “activists and thinkers trying to understand and change our culture’s outlook, policies and fears about aging and dying.” 

Aging from the heart doesn’t happen to everyone, but it can. I think it’s happening to me.

I didn’t have any negative reaction after I got my first COVID-19 vaccination. I kept hearing rumblings about possible intense side effects after the second shot, especially if the first went smoothly. Being aware helped with my preparation. I hydrated well, got my second shot and kept my eyes and ears open for even the slightest sign of any reaction.

I was actually trying to listen carefully to my body, not something I’ve had very much experience with throughout most of my life. I slowed down, stayed still, paid attention to small things and focused on what was happening in that moment. It was like letting my body be my friend. This awareness is what aging from the heart offers me.

For the past year, to one degree or another, we’ve all been faced with the tremendous uncertainties of immune systems, lockdowns, social isolation, physical distancing, economic instability and/or dying alone. 

At the same time, I’ve been, and continue to be, educated about long-standing systemic prejudice and inequity. Some of my lifelong assumptions and habits are being sorely challenged, and I’m making friends with some of that discomfort. 

These uncertainties and discomforts have shaken much of my world and have provided me with an opportunity to accept and work for change. Similarly, my body will change and I will die, but I don’t really know how or when. Aging from the heart offers me an opportunity to trust not-knowing those details.

Trust in not-knowing can help me throw open the curtains of life and let in more light.

Science tells us there is much more to our existence than just the physical light we can see.

And as I see more of the glorious, physical light, I might also get to know some invisible infrared or ultraviolet or perhaps get a sense of unseeable dark matter. I might even be able to remember my dreams or to hear the whispers of my own intuition.

Carl Jung said that “Synchronicity is an ever-present reality for those who have eyes to see.” Aging from the heart makes that ever-present reality more visible to me. When I am lost in my head, I may not see the synchronicities and noncerebral information of my environment. 

The same applies to my relationship with myself. By allowing me to see more of who I am and what I am “seeing,” aging from the heart can help me become my own best friend.

“That’s as exciting as watching paint dry!” I remember using that sarcastic expression a lot throughout my life. Now that I’m older, it’s not so sarcastic. It means I’m being more aware of what’s going on around me. 

For example, as I get older, I’ve been spending time appreciating the different speeds at which trees move, from wind in the branches to motions underneath the bark to just watching them grow. I’ve been watching trees grow —that’s kind of like watching paint dry! The noetic character of aging leads me to know that a forest is actually one connected, living organism. Noticing and appreciating what I’ve previously taken for granted is part and parcel of my getting older. I want to explore more of the possibilities  offered as I age from the heart.