Life Stories

Five years ago, I scoffed when I heard older people comment about starting to read their local obituary columns. I smirked to myself as I wondered if they had anything better to do with their time. Recently, I was startled to realize that I’ve been looking at obituaries on a regular basis. Sometimes I just scan them and often I read the entire entry. Reading obituaries kind of snuck up on me, but there’s no denying I now do it. 

I can think of a few reasons for this, not necessarily in order of importance. One reason is what I call keeping score. Or maybe it’s just keeping track—keeping track of friends, colleagues and contemporaries. The small-town character of where I live makes it probable that, these days, if I don’t actually know one of the people listed in this week’s obituary, I probably know of them.

Another reason is that my attitude toward death has shifted. Conscious aging has opened me to different points of view and different awareness. I’ve started thinking about and talking about death, including my own. I respect death as a teacher who is helping me live more fully. As I read the obituaries, I review my own life as well. Sometimes the recently deceased person reminds me of someone I’ve already known. Sometimes they even remind me of myself in some way. Reading obituaries has offered me a glimpse into embracing what, up to this point, I have feared and denied.

Obituaries can assist us with the gift of feeling empathy. Obituaries can be a thread linking generations. It’s not just older people who die. This past week, I read obituaries of two people who died battling addiction. Ahmad was 22, David was 29. The disease of addiction is a continuing, national epidemic, ravaging our younger people in particular. If we can pause to read about real people who recently died, whatever their age, we might actually think of them as people who could have been a friend, or as unique individuals. Then, it might be just a bit more difficult to write them off as just a statistic.

Obituaries are basically out of sight, out of mind, except for the few times someone we love or know is the topic. They’re written like that too. This is consistent with how we consider death in our culture. What if obituaries were written more like a story? What if we wrote our own obituaries? What if we updated our own obituaries every 10 years? Picture your family and friends gathered together in one room, at your memorial, all thinking about you. Is there something you’d like to say to them? This just might help us review our own lives or even plan for our futures—short-term and long-term. It might also help generate discussions today amongst our families and friends about difficult topics. This could help us live more connected lives.

I used to avoid reading obituaries, probably like most people. Now I can see opportunity as well as loss behind the list of names and ages as I slowly turn the newspaper pages.

So What If I’m Old

Every so often, I have a flash of insight about my own internalized ageism. When it happens, I am both disappointed and pleased.

To set the stage: I am driving to a doctor’s appointment at a major downtown medical center. (In case you’re wondering what the appointment is for, be patient—that just might be a topic for a future blog.)

I’ve not been to this doctor before. I am rushing not to be late and am just a tad anxious about finding the correct office. Valet or self-park? A crowded parking garage, and now waiting for a terribly slow driver to back out of a parking space. (And no, the slow driver is NOT an older person!)

Following my scribbled notes, I eventually arrive at the correct office and receive terrific care. I retrace my steps to the parking garage, walk to the level where I parked, but my car is not where I’d left it. I quickly recognize that I’m not on the correct parking level, and I can picture clearly what that level looks like.

Not certain of the best route to my car, I walk up the ramp hesitatingly, about five or six steps, just to get my bearings and rethink the correct location. I smile to myself as I confidently turn and walk slowly to retrieve my vehicle. That’s when I notice her.

A woman, standing in the middle of the pedestrian walkway on the parking garage ramp, watching me. I think to myself, “What’s wrong with her, she might get run over.” Then she approaches and asks if I need any help.

What? Me? Need help? I smile and say no, and then say a curt thank you. That’s when I start seething inside. I am NOT the disoriented old guy who needs some pity help! How (bleep) condescending of her.

I judge her ageism—that she assumes because of my appearance that I probably need some help. I am personally offended. Bruised ego. A bit outraged. 

That’s when I catch myself with just a flicker of humility. Perhaps she just thinks I might need help, no matter what my age, and inquired. What’s so wrong with that?

And besides, so what if I’d been a bit disoriented?!  My being ashamed of being disoriented is internalized ageism. So what if I have a skin-flap under my chin. So what if I’m slower in line. So what if I’m old. 

That’s when I am both disappointed and pleased. Disappointed in myself that I have once again reacted out of the deep habit of old is bad, young is good. And pleased with myself that I have caught it and caught it so quickly this time. 

 

In the Land of Postadulthood

Last month, I returned to the place where I grew up, to the lake where swimming had been banned earlier this summer. The cyanotoxins had cleared, so every morning I went for a swim and a kayak ride. This year, I saw and appreciated things on that lake that I hadn’t really seen before.

I guess the first thing I appreciated is that I am still swimming there. And believe me, I don’t for a minute take that one for granted. It is not uncommon that, as we age, our inevitable changes will include physical difficulties, so some level of staying active is both wise and joyful.  

I also noticed trees with unique shapes and bark, as well as the loud gaggle of geese that flew by at water level every evening at about 8 p.m.. The otter that let me kayak within three feet of her is most memorable. 

Even as we appreciate the beauty of this physical existence, things are not always as they appear. Why else would we continue to use the term “sunrise”? Everyone knows that the sun doesn’t rise, but that it is the earth rotating. Similarly, our apparently solid world is fundamentally composed of vibrations and energy, the stuff of subatomic particles. 

The outward appearance of aging can be a misleading hindrance. The declinist view of our aging is that it’s all downhill, that we’re making the best of a bad situation. The truth is that there are always possibilities open to us in our third third of life. We don’t always see them. In the land of postadulthood, life can keep getting better.

One reason we may not see the possibilities is because we often take things for granted. The amazing, raw, uncommonplace beauties of our physical existence become commonplace due to repetition. Also, we don’t see the possibilities because, as we age, our inevitable changes and diminishments usurp our attention. 

Yes, our physical changes as we get older can be painful and difficult. They can be more than minor irritants. Wishful thinking causes us to deny or minimize the inevitable. Need I say that most of us do this in regards to death? Especially our own death.

Many of us succumb to the commercial consumer pressures that equate “successful aging” with becoming gray-haired teenagers, judging ourselves using society’s standards of youth. This reinforces our societal mantra that old is bad, young is good. Oh, and besides, how can one succeed or fail at aging? It’s going to happen no matter what we do.

Aging is more than what we see in the mirror. It is a choice made in the heart and mind, not in the body. The question is, how are we going to respond to it, not what are we going to do about it.

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.