Aging with Serenity

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”–Serenity Prayer

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After writing humorously about the aging process a few weeks ago, I ran across an article written by Paula Span, focusing on the research and work of Becca Levy, a psychologist, epidemiologist, and professor at the Yale School of Public Health. Part of Levy’s work specifically points to 7.5 years that can be added or subtracted from a person’s life based upon personal and societal attitudes towards aging.  Since then, my brain has picked up Levy’s thesis, as if it were an object of study, and has been manipulating it from all angles as I consider its premise with what I thought I knew and what I hope to understand/apply. 

And what do I know? I know that I definitely won’t be retiring during my 50s as I once believed. At one time, I harbored some resentment about this.  Then, we went through the pandemic, and I experienced the heat of transformation with millions of other people, like sand particles melting into glass.

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It was during the pandemic that I slowly began to observe many of my attachments to “how things should be,” such as my retirement age, and I began to undergo a practice of  learning to say “yes” more often to things that weren’t, “how they should be.”  It was, and continues to be, a very imperfect practice.  Learning to accept AND surrender to the things that I cannot change is NOT my natural inclination.  

In addition to my belief about retirement age, nearly ten years ago–I battled low back pain due to three bulging discs and an extra vertebra.  Without belaboring the topic, the pain led me down a meandering path of chiropractic care, regular epidural steroid injections, and ultimately two 12-week rounds of physical therapy.  Both well-meaning doctors and physical therapists, told me that I should never participate in any form of high intensity exercise, including running again.  I accepted this theory because, after all, they were the professionals, and besides I was getting to “that age”–whatever that means.  

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Fortunately, one physical therapist disagreed, suggesting that I should strengthen the weak muscles that were causing imbalances that led to my injury in the first place.  Then, if I continued to work on maintaining that strength and listen to my body, he believed that I could gradually resume running and other forms of exercise I had been told to avoid. His advice later proved to be spot-on.

Therefore, as the pandemic continued, work changed, living conditions changed, and exercise changed as we said goodbye to gyms and group exercise.  Work meant sitting for hours. Low back, hip pain, depression, and sleep disruption escalated. I learned that I was not made to sit for long periods, and I began to realize that in-person work was more beneficial to my life than I realized. 

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Through trial and error during the pandemic, I began to resume various forms of exercise that I had once abandoned, including running, and I began to rethink my belief system about my own aging process.  I started approaching my life, and my physical body, with a bit more curiosity–making observations, asking questions, forming hypotheses, testing them, and making adjustments. This continues today.

The pandemic forced me to make peace with the fact that I will work longer than I had originally planned because it is still beneficial for me. Furthermore, I have embraced my need for movement; I cannot sit for hours, and even if I could, it is NOT good for me physically or mentally.  Additionally, I need interaction with others, even if I am an introvert at heart.  However, I still value and honor my need for downtime, introspection, reflection, and quiet. 

Span’s article, combined with the pandemic experience, inspires me to seek the courage in the coming years to continue to change what I can, but to also hone my ability to know when I can’t.  This is only possible through the wisdom that comes with life experience, aka, aging.  Aging is not a point for which to attach shame, negative stereotyping, or embarrassment.  Instead, the process of aging should celebrate one’s life experiences and provide us with opportunities to not only apply the knowledge gained from these experiences to our own lives, but to also use them for the benefit of those with whom we interact and/or mentor.

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To be certain, aging brings unavoidable changes in the physical body and in the way in which we think (and forget), but it is not necessarily a time for stopping, like much of our cultural cues teach us by celebrating youthful beauty, prowess, and achievement. In fact, after reading about Levy’s work, I realize there’s plenty of money to be made.  In fact, according to Span’s article, Dr. Levy and her colleagues estimate that “age discrimination, negative age stereotypes, and negative self-perceptions of aging lead to $63 billion in excess annual spending on common health conditions like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and injuries,” not to mention all of the money made from products promising to turn back the clock. 

One of the most compelling examples of psychological absorption and damage of cultural ageism in Span’s article occurred when Levy took her 70-something grandmother shopping in a Florida grocery store and her grandmother fell over a crate left in an aisle. The grandmother’s injury was superficial, but it did bleed profusely.  When the grandmother suggested to the store owner that crates should not be left in an aisle, the store owner replied that “old people fall all the time, and maybe they shouldn’t be walking around.”  After that point, Levy observed that her once lively grandmother began to ask others to do tasks for her that she once regularly completed.  It was as if her grandmother began to subconsciously view the grocery store incident as her cue that she was old and incapable of caring for herself.

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Meanwhile, in Blue Zone parts of the world, geographical locations in which people live the longest and are the healthiest, centenarians are celebrated as if they were highly acclaimed celebrities.  If these parts of the world can encourage, foster, and honor a culture where aging is not only accepted, but highly valued, why can’t we?  

Maybe I cannot change the current culture, but I can change my own personal view on the maturing process.  Wrinkles capture the adventures in the sun as well as countless moments of smiling. Gray hair celebrates the continuation of our inner child wanting to roam free and wild, and body aches/pains are a reminder to care for the vessel God gave us. 

I now know that phrases such as, “that age,” reflect cultural and social programmed attitudes that marketers, business, and the healthcare industry prefer is an ingrained part of our vocabulary.  While not every business or healthcare provider is personally invested in this ageism, I no longer desire to accept those marketers’ money-making, psychological damaging propaganda. What about you?

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The Ceaseless Wonder and Amusement of Aging

“You don’t stop laughing when you grow old, you grow old when you stop laughing.”–George Bernard Shaw

Aging is a funny thing.  Only last week, I looked in the mirror at the end of a work day and thought I saw a streak of eyeliner running up the center of my brow bone toward an eyebrow–which seemed odd.  With a shrug, I thought, “Who knows?” as I tried to wipe it off.  Then, I just had to switch my gaze to the magnifying mirror, an addition whose assistance I seem to require on a daily basis. I should have realized–since this is not the first time it happened–what I thought was a makeup streak, turned out to be a new wrinkle.  Geesh!  Another serving of Fun-for-all Aging Humble Pie, whipped up by the Chef Life.

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Heaven forbid, if I make comments about my age to my parents, they merely make jokes about it and offer encouraging comments, such as, “Just you wait,” or “You don’t know the half of it yet.”  Nonetheless, there are seemingly preternatural changes that are beginning to occur that give me pause.

For example, at work I am (along with my husband, John) in the top 5-10 oldest employees on staff; and in all honesty, we’re probably in the top five.  On the bright side, I am pretty sure it’s the first time in my life I can claim to have ever been ranked so highly! On the downside, I often pinch myself, wondering if I am in a dream state, when coworkers ask when/if I am close to retirement; or better yet, when they can have my job. It feels otherworldly to now be one of the teachers that is perceived as “old.” Of course, in my oh-so-ignorant early career years, I also thought I would be able to retire early in my 50s, and would already be working a not-so-serious retirement job. Ha! 

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In addition to my recent elevation in work rankings, there are other insidious signs that I could be aging.  It seems my skin is now changing at an alarming rate as it thins, folds, hangs, and forms once unimaginable cavernous crevices and fanciful spots.  In fact, I am pretty sure I’ve spotted (pun-intended) a miniature Australian continent currently forming on one of my cheeks and Antarctica on the other! 

Then, there are body parts that are beginning to rearrange themselves in entertaining and unprecedented ways.  Who knew cellulite could be so shifty?  And, of course, the new found plot twists of balance, digestion, sleep, and the ever elusive recovery.  I mean, my goodness, aging is an amusement park of fun–no need to pay for the Tilt-a-whirl, Bumper cars, or Scrambler here–the aging body gratefully provides this amusement for free!  

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In the midst of all this wholesome clean fun is a bit of good cheer! Since John is only a couple years older than me, he probably hasn’t noticed ANY of these so-called changes in me.  Right? After all, the changes in vision, as we age, is like walking through life in a perpetual tunnel of Funhouse mirrors.  I’m sure he’s never noticed my thinning, gray hair or any of the other deviant developments gifted to me by life.

Oh, and then there’s the shrinking height.  I can not begin to express the sheer amount of joy that GROWS within my heart, with each annual checkup, swelling my head to new proportions, as I am reminded that I have already scaled to my highest height of  4’11”, and I will never conquer anything taller. Instead, I have the good fortune of experiencing other parts of me that are now growing, like my ear lobes, nose, and jowls! Those are nasty rides of nonsense I’d rather put a stop to–the sooner the better! Sigh, I guess I am going to finally have to set aside runway model as potential retirement gig! 

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Another fun fact? Getting lucky has a new definition.  I can’t tell you how many times I have had the titillating experience of walking into a room only to wonder, “Why am I here?”  If I remember BEFORE leaving the room, I think, “Yeah, Baby, I just got lucky.”  If, however, I start walking back and remember mid-path; well, that’s at least making it to third base.  If I return all the way to my original starting point, but then remember, I’ve at least scored a single or a double. If it is the middle of the night, or the next day, before I remember, that is a definite strike-out since it probably means I’ve left the ice cream or the cheese in the car to melt into a gelatinous gooey heap of spillage that I now need to clean up. 

While I don’t seem to have yet acquired some of my acquaintances and friends’ talents, I am told that with age, they now possess an even greater ability to multitask.  One friend claims she can sneeze, pass gas, pee, and laugh all at the same time.  Meanwhile, another person states that, like George Burns, when they bend down to tie their shoes, they look around to see if there’s anything else they could do while they are down there.  In fact, I can recall my Papaw once telling me that he was living in a haunted house with my grandmother as he claimed there were lots of unexplained sounds and smells floating around the place!

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Recently, one of my 6th grade students asked me if I ever tried to rewind movies on Netflix after I finished them.  Before I could answer, another student jumped in and asked if I ever had to step over dinosaur dung when I was a kid.  While they were on this downward spiral of frivolity, another student, inspired by their knowledge of the Holy Land, asked if the Dead Sea was only sick when I was their age.  Youth, along with its pernicious sense of humor, is indeed wasted on the young!

In the meantime, I’ll keep plucking those gray hairs sprouting in random places like spring onions in a flower bed.  I’ll continue to write-off forgetful moments to, “Sometimers,” and I’ll continue to be grateful that cellphones and social media were NOT things when I was coming of age.  In fact, I am pretty sure in bourbon or wine years, I haven’t even begun to reach perfection, but I’m leaning closer!

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 So good news, Dear Readers, if you’re reading this, the best is yet to come–no matter your age.  It’s like riding a roller coaster, as our age keeps climbing, so does our sense of humor and our sense of humility as we watch other things start sliding. Besides, I prefer to think I’ll never be “over the hill”; after all, I’ll forget where the dog-gone hill is, or I’ll be too tired to climb it!

Here’s to life! With age comes wisdom, so I am eagerly anticipating my rise to near-genius level! In the meantime, as once suggested by the great Will Rogers, if we could perhaps get Congress to take issue with aging, we could at least be guaranteed that the aging process would be slowed down for years to come! 

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Becoming

“To be what we are, and to become what we are capable of becoming, is the only end of life.”–Robert Louis Stevenson

Standing on the crest of a small hill, my senses were heightened.  I could feel the weight and seemingly taste the moisture in the air. Scents of earth, rain, and floral encompassed me.  Dewy variations of pink, red, and coral stood out in contrast to the overcast dawn. Meanwhile, the unmistakable melody of creekwater rushing over rock, bed, and banks provided additional ambiance to the unfolding morning. There could be no mistaking it, this was a brief interlude before the showers once more resumed.

Down the hill I trotted, past the pristine rows of roses and on towards my companion for the next hour or so, Four Pole Creek, or “Four,” as I have come to think of it.  

“The more I run, the more I want to run, and the more I live a life conditioned and influenced and fashioned by running.  And the more I run, the more I am certain I am heading for my real goal:  to become the person I am.”–George Sheehan

Hello Friend.  My heavens, but you are swollen today, full as a tick bug, as my Papaw used to say, from the feast of overnight rain.  It’s good to see you looking lively today.  Your rhythmic song will be a welcome distraction from the noise in my mind.  

You see, a stunning new realization has recently taken root in my mind.  It whispers conspiratorially to me that I have reached a point in my life in which the years ahead are more likely to be less than the years I have lived.  What am I to do with this information, I ask you?  It is such a staggering revelation.

What’s more, my aqueous friend, the image reflected in my bathroom mirror no longer matches the image in my head.  There are these white hairs at my left temple and even more sprinkled throughout the parting of my hair.  Likewise, there are lines, especially when I smile, that run from the top of my cheekbone down towards my jaw line!   Tiny versions of those lines romp across the top of my lip, corners of my eyes, and all along my forehead.  How am I to be with this?

It seems I am not the only one changing.  I keep running across pictures from previous years in which family and friends look different.  They look incredibly young in those pictures–like unfledged, inexperienced youth.  I don’t recall that image.  In my mind, they are ever the responsible, mature, and wise people who never age, but remain frozen in time–never too young or old. 

Oh, and Four, there are all of these nagging aches and pains.  They niggle me awake during the night or flare up in the middle of work.  Sometimes, I down right hurt all over, and I can’t determine the cause.  However, I can tough out these minor hurts.  I can.  It’s the suffering of my loved ones that trouble me more.

I see my loved ones injured, battle-scarred, aging, and/or struggling.  You see, I want to help, to make them better, to help them feel whole again.  Even more than their ailing physical beings, I want to offer peace to the emotional wars waging within their minds and hearts.  I try.  I do try to help in small ways, but I am not a doctor–I don’t even play one on TV.  Thus, at times, I feel limited in what I can do to ease their burdens, pains, and sorrows.  

Still, it encourages me to see you full of vitality.  For a couple of weeks, you have been waning.  Your shallow flow lacked its usual energy and zip.  It is good to see your waters revived once more.

By the way, did you take care of the terrapin that I sent your way recently?  It was headed away from the safety of boundaries of your banks towards the traffic rolling alongside you.  I picked it up, even though it seemed offended by my action, and placed it carefully within your borders.  Hopefully, you were able to redirect its journey to safer ground.

As I was taking this picture, a couple days later, I was able to catch this image of a walnut falling into the water from the tree above.

Back to my original point, Four.  Have you any thoughts, ideas, or insight you can offer?  It seems as if your soundscape is whispering commentary.  Perhaps, if I quiet my head, I will hear it. 

“Life is a lively process of becoming.”–Douglas MacArthur

Four, I can’t help but notice that you have more riffles, rapids, and runs today. It’s nature’s way of breathing oxygen into your waters.  In return, your waters can give support to the life in, below, and around you.  

Earlier in the week, your waters were different.  They slowly glided from one pool to another. Of course, it was quite hot outside.  I couldn’t help but laugh at the number of neighborhood dogs splashing around or sitting in the cool shallows of those pools.  You remain ever the friend to the creatures in need, no matter levels and speed of your waters. 

 I have to ask though, do you ever hurt? Do pollutants irritate you?  What about those pesky people trying to reconfigure earth around you in order to build in the name of progress? Does that cause you pain as the drainage of rainwater and groundwater shift, ultimately influencing the levels and speed of your flow?  Do you mourn for your former self or for the forested neighbors that must have once lined your banks?  Regardless of those things for which you cannot control, it seems to me that you keep going, keep giving, keep supporting life to those in need of water.

Your waters are gathered from different sources. There are times, like today, when your waters are swift, becoming deep and darkened with the mud of debris, rocks, and earth.  Other times, like this past week, your waters are nearly still as you become shallow and more clear.  No matter what you are becoming, though, Dear Four, you remain ever Four Pole Creek, part of the Ohio River Watershed that feeds into the grand Mississippi River, and empties into the Gulf of Mexico flowing into the Atlantic Ocean.  Along the way, some of your water is evaporated into the air, cooled, condensed, and eventually returned to the earth–molecule by sweet molecule–a single droplet that is all part of the larger body of creation.

Four, in spite of your continuous changes, from the levels of your water, to the shapes you take; from the color of your waters, to the speed at which it flows; and from the lives that your waters support, to the beauty you offer the landscape, you are constantly evolving, ever changing, and continuously becoming.  Yet, you remain a creek, one creek in the great cycle of water.

“By being yourself, you put something wonderful into this world that was not there before.”–Edwin Elliot

Like you, Four, I am changing, and so is the life around me.  Some of my loved ones have flowed on to their heavenly shores, while many others remain bound to the earthly waters of life.  Like you, no matter my shape, my hurts, the gray at my temples, the lines of my face, or the pace at which I move . . . I am still me.  I will remain me–becoming, evolving, and adapting to the changes within and all around.

One day, I will dance among the ether of your molecules.  Together, joined by those who slipped ahead, we will become part of the Great cycle–the ever more and ever was. 

Thank you, Four.  Your song returned me to the hill of roses.  Back to where I started.  This running cycle is complete.  You were a fine companion.