Joe at his diner, 1955 (Norman Rockwell)
Joe at his diner, 2016
Time slips by.
My computer screen shatters into pieces because like many objects it slips through my hands and crashes on the floor. Sometimes I feel like a doorman with a broom and dustpan forever in my grip, sweeping up the remains of the latest mishap. It’s a symptom of getting older, those changes we continually read about and experience that are a normal part of aging: memory, balance, bones – everything thins out or diminishes. Certain things get more challenging, but there’s usually an upside: It’s harder to multi-task, but in the long run it’s more effective and satisfying to do one activity at a time. Going slower, you can notice more. You can be more grateful for birds and the smell after it rains and a perfect cloud. The laws of physics may be against us but there’s wisdom to level the playing field.
Unfortunately, sagacity tends to get short shrift in a youth-focused culture. Just think of the remaining Presidential candidates (as painful as that may be): all 3 are well over 60 and maintain an energy level that belies their age.
Hillary at 69 is a tireless campaigner, and just look at the stamina she displayed during the Benghazi hearings! Through 11 hours of congressional blathering she stood on her feet – calm, collected and articulate, and most amazing of all, going hours without a bathroom break – a feat for any woman over 40, let alone one in her late 60’s.
Then there’s Bernie, who hasn’t stopped gesticulating and wagging his finger for nearly a year. How many people over 70 have arms and voices with that much endurance? He’s so robust!
And last and least, there’s the guy who tweets like he was in his 20’s and has the maturity of a 12 year old bully. He doesn’t need sleep! He’s one tough asshole!
These are aspirational perceptions, because who wants to imagine slowing down? But real, physiological aging is unavoidable, if we’re lucky. And when you get past the terrifying fact that you have no idea what forms it will take or how severe the decline may be, it’s fascinating.
Take shrinking, for example. I have witnessed so many loved ones – my aunts and grandmother, my mother – diminish in size. And now I am following my ancestors down that dwindling road. After the initial “I’ve shrunk an inch?!!, holding my face like an Edward Munch painting, I accept it for what it is. I have become the lady in the supermarket asking customers to reach items on the top shelf for me. After 30 years of saying I’m 5’2″ when I’ve only been 5′ 1 1/2”, I own the fact that I am barely 5 feet, and will likely shrink more. It’s an unavoidable fact of life.
Yet sometimes when I’m on the elliptical machine at the gym – something I don’t really enjoy but do for the sake of those thinning bones – I’ll program in another person, lopping off 12 years and 10 pounds and for 40 minutes I imagine being tall and toned with a ponytail and two gorgeous kids I see an hour a day yet talk about like they’re a full-time occupation. I’m only in my early 40’s so people still find me passably attractive and interesting enough to engage in conversation rather than an ineffectual or quirky secondary character, which is how women my age commonly get treated in movies and the workplace.
There’s little I can do about the culture of youth, other than ignore it or give it the finger. But there’s much I can do to try to prolong my life, along with everyone else hoping to make it to “really old” one day. I’m starting this year with the most essential ingredient to a long life, which has nothing to do with eating well, exercising, or running for national office.
As a very generous early birthday gift, my sister and sister-in-law took me to the Berkshires for a weekend. I could feel my stress melt away in days filled with hiking and yoga and good food and fresh air. But more, it was the unhurried meals and long conversation, the laughter and shared experiences — including meeting Joe outside his diner, as depicted above — that had the most impact. Away from my usual socially isolated state of being, I could literally feel a shift in my body. Not surprising, given that scientific research shows that loneliness operates on a cellular level,
creating mechanisms within the body that cause adverse health outcomes. Lonely people have less effective immune systems and more inflammation.
Recent research on longevity finds that for people under 65 it is loneliness and social isolation that shortens the lifespan – more than smoking, alcoholism and obesity combined! Loneliness can increase the risk of premature death by 14%.according to a recent study out of the University of Chicago led by loneliness expert John Cocioppo. (Yes, there are loneliness experts and yes, I read their work the way that you might devour a mystery novel.)
I came home from the Berkshires feeling more energized than I have in ages and determined to make it last. I deactivated my Facebook account in anticipation of my birthday, to avoid the hard to avoid ‘compare and despair’ aspect of social media. It’s not easy given that FB now quantifies the number of well wishers each member has. My good friend from high school, who I haven’t seen in 20 years has 95 , the cousin I see once a year had 80, there are people I barely know who have hundreds of people wishing them a happy much younger than me birthday and why does this even matter ? I spend little time on virtual relationships but still, every May it makes me dread my birthday. I’m shorter and older and less socially connected.
But I’m also wiser. I pull the plug and lower my expectations, and find myself delighted and pleasantly surprised by every call, text, and card I receive. And I’m trying to do the same now, as I complete this much truncated version of the 30 + pages I’ve written since my last post, with various threads and story lines that captivate me but would take more time than I have to weave into a whole. ( Comments are most welcome…please, you’ll increase my lifespan!) Someday, I will have time to write more consistently and at least dip a toe into the much loathed arena of marketing necessary to find readers or opportunities.
Someday I hope at least one of the books (or podcasts, theatre pieces, documentaries, and TV series – I have a big imagination!) will come to fruition. Disappointment is a bigger part of our lives than most of us like to admit and the best we can do is be honest, to try to find the humor in it all and people to laugh with.
For now I’m here, all five feet of me, listening to the birds sing and feeling lucky to be alive.