When Time Speeds Up

I’m tired of hearing the weary maxim that old age is not for the “faint-hearted” (attributed to Mae West) or “sissies” (Bette Davis). Could we of a certain age show a modicum of gratitude?

Most studies on aging set the boundary for being old at sixty-five. I know of no one who feels old at sixty-five. If they do, they probably felt old at thirty-five. But something — something — happens in our seventies. A friend, seven years older, alerted me on my seventieth birthday that major changes were ahead, and soon. 

That was just recently … No, wait! That was nearly eight years ago. Or, as long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad observes at age seventy-two: Time “actually speeds up as you get older. It speeds up exponentially every month, every day, every hour.” She was quoted in New Yorker magazine’s review of the podcast, “70 Over 70.” Reviewer Rachel Syme observed we might seek wisdom from the old but not always find it. “[W]e’re all works in progress,” she concluded, “up to the very last moment.”

That “very last moment” once was so far distant I couldn’t see it over the horizon. Now it’s visible, flying fast in my direction. Life expectancy is declining in the United States — by one-and-a-half years in 2020. The average life span fell from 78.8 to 77.3 years. Looking at it another way, if you’ve made it past age seventy-seven, you’re into the bonus years!

Also on that seventieth birthday I was given a book, “70 Things to Do When You Turn 70.” I haven’t had time to read it yet. Flipping through, I spotted an essay by a social justice activist, Sandy Warshaw. She wrote: “My seventies have been a time of self-realization and self-actualization built on the foundation of the three decades before.” 

For most of us bonus-year recipients, those “decades before” produced scar tissue — physical and emotional. We’ve been there, done that, don’t need to any longer. We’re free to let go of stuff, of attitudes, judgments, grudges and fears.

“When you age, you become wiser in so many ways,” said the late Coretta Scott King at age seventy-four. “You make adjustments for having less stamina, but you know in your mind what you can achieve.”

Living fully in the bonus years is not the same as retirement. Many retired folks think they’ve “earned” a particular lifestyle, so charmingly illustrated in AARP magazine ads. All that golfing; traveling; sunny climes; and electrically powered, multi-position recliners. Bonus years are not what we’ve earned but what we’re given as a matter of grace.

Years ago, my late husband was studying life expectancy charts. Given the difference in our ages, he predicted I would live another twenty-two years after he died. He lived to age seventy-five, “graduating” (as a friend refers to death) in 2007. You do the math, because I won’t bother. All I need to know is, I’m alive and feeling good today. With grace, tomorrow will bring the same.

Looking Out

Covid has not impacted socializing among my neighbors all that much. Truth is, we don’t socialize all that much. In this quiet neighborhood of modest homes, we simply look out for each other.

I’ve lived here by the river for thirty-eight years. All the neighbors who were here when I arrived have moved on or passed on. I even moved: from the house I lived in for thirty years to a smaller one next door. The population change has not changed the culture: no block parties, no multi-family yard sales. We mind our own business but pay attention.

One time neighbors noticed a side door to my house was wide open. I was out of town. They called police, who entered the premises with guns drawn and found no intruders. I’d apparently not latched the door adequately and it blew open. I was embarrassed when I heard about it later, and at the same time gratified that neighbors were paying attention.

Usually, looking out is more simple, like watering plants for vacationers, or picking up their mail. At this time of year, especially after a snowstorm, my neighbors not only look out but help out.

In the 1990s, after my husband was paralyzed by stroke, neighbor Doug cleared our driveway after each snowfall. Neighbor Jerry shoveled the front walk. One winter, Doug was recuperating from surgery and realized he couldn’t handle both his driveway and mine. He found a snowblower for me. I never did as meticulous a job as Doug, but I felt so macho, so in control running that little single-stage blower. By that time, Jerry was slowing down. After clearing my driveway, I happily steered my snow-blower to his place, clearing out the entry to his carport, which is now my carport.

Snow removal becomes particularly daunting after the city snowplow clears our street, leaving densely-packed snow berms that block our driveways. My snowblower cannot chew through that stuff. A couple winters ago, I was attacking the berm when a neighbor I’d  never really met — a single mom — pulled up in her truck. Leaving the motor running with heater on for her toddler strapped inside, she ran home, grabbed her shovel and had the berm cleared within minutes. 

As we grow older, we find ourselves more often on the receiving rather than the giving end of kindness. It’s humbling, and a little uncomfortable, an acknowledgment that our independence is waning.

After the first snowfall this year, Doug called to say his son Josh was on his way and instructed: “Do. Not. Pay. Him.” Josh has been on the job, gratis, all winter. I remember how Jerry used to venture out to the carport while I blew away his snow. He too must have felt humble, uncomfortable. He compensated with his penchant for irony. “I’ll send you a bill!” he’d call after I’d finished. I’d laugh.

I doubt Josh would understand if I tried Jerry’s line. I compensate with a humble thank you.

A great teacher was asked: “Who is my neighbor?” Here’s one of mine

Simply Christmas

Old folks, I decided as a child, don’t know how to celebrate Christmas. I occasionally accompanied my parents visiting elderly church members, most of whom had no Christmas trees or decorations, no apparent interest in presents. Cookies, if offered, came from a tin and tasted weird.

Now after nearly eight decades of Christmases, I get it. At a certain age (varies for each of us), we let go of futile attempts to recreate the Christmas magic that can happen only when we’re children. 

When it comes to remembering childhood Christmases, no writer can outdo Dylan Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” My memories of a child’s Christmas in Minnesota echo Thomas’s opening passage: “One Christmas was so  much like another … that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.” 

Probably both.

In my childhood, certain traditions were sacrosanct. The main course on Christmas Eve, in deference to my Swedish father, was the notorious Scandinavian seafood dish, lutefisk. It was the only meal of the year when we children were allowed to pass up what was placed on the table. As an adult, I finally developed a taste for the pickled-in-lye white fish, but where I live, it’s impossible to find.

My memories of unique Christmases have to do with presents — which for a child is the whole point. There was the year I was given a Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer lapel pin for my coat. His nose lighted up — a handy way to illuminate the hymnbook during our candlelight worship service. 

There was the year I received a much-longed-for doll with REAL hair. I immediately gave her a shampoo and set. As a result, every day was a bad-hair day for the rest of her existence.

There was the year the gift from my mother’s “rich” aunt arrived in a large carton, too heavy for just one person to lift. We kids were intoxicated with anticipation: it was the size of a TV console, and we were the only home in town without a TV. Or so it seemed. Finally, the moment arrived. As the carton was slit open, we spotted a lovely mahogany case, containing? 

An entire set of Encyclopedia Britannica. 

Even my adult Christmas memories have a childlike flavor, such as watching my husband meticulously place his favorite, bubbling lights on the lower branches of our tree where his tiny grandchildren could enjoy them.

Now my favorite Christmas present is the presence of Christmas. We open that gift simply by opening our hearts. Because my late husband was born on Christmas day, the high point of my celebration is laying a blanket of greens on his grave. Any self-respecting kid would roll her eyes, but that’s okay. Kids have important work to do, living the magic that will become precious Christmas memories decades from now.

The Final Passage: Out of time but not out of opportunity

In the late 1970s, journalist Gail Sheehy helped a lot of people understand their lives with her book “Passages.” Alas, I was not one of them. I tried to read it, but didn’t get far before setting it aside for my usual fare, a murder mystery. In those years I was more into detection than introspection.

The subtitle of Sheehy’s book is “Predictable Crises in Adult Life.” She describes those crises using the framework of decades: The Trying 20s, The Catch 30s, The Forlorn 40s, The Refreshed (or Resigned) 50s.

The Library of Congress listed “Passages” as one of the ten most influential books of modern times. But that was then. A thirtieth anniversary edition of the book was issued in 2006. In the new introduction, Sheehy (who died just last year) wrote she’d been asked to address what had changed since the book’s initial publication. 

“What hasn’t changed?” she asked rhetorically. “Passages” is steeped in the culture and mores of the ’70s. An apparently younger reviewer on the website goodreads.com declared, “I’m SO glad I didn’t grow up then. [As a woman] I’m so grateful for my ‘freedom.’”

My own adult passages did not coincide with the decades but occurred like clockwork every fourteen years with a major event in my life. At age twenty-one, I married my high school sweetheart, which he observed much later, seemed at the time “like the thing to do.” The next fourteen years included an amicable divorce, much searching and discovery.

At age thirty-five I married my soulmate, John, and settled into fourteen years of maximum productivity, a full life. When I was forty-nine, John suffered a brain stem stroke, resulting in total paralysis and catapulting us both into an era of disruption and deeper discovery. Fourteen years later, when I was sixty-three, John’s death coincided with a sense of my own maturity.

Now at seventy-seven, it’s not a personal event but a global pandemic that has ushered in what is most likely my final fourteen. I don’t know if that’s fourteen years, months, weeks, or days. Google says the number fourteen in Chinese tradition means “guaranteed death.” Well, we’re all guaranteed that. 

I do know that I’m afraid, but not of death, which Jane Goodall at age eighty-seven describes as “the next great adventure.” My fear comes with the certainty that the next fourteen years are critical for the life of our mother, Earth. She and I may be on a parallel path, and her health is already more fragile than mine. Climate crisis is not some day. Climate crisis is now. As recent months proved, our four seasons now are autumn, winter, spring, and hell. Moreover, hell is sneaking across the boundaries, invading spring and autumn. 

In the darkest of black humor columns, New Yorker writer Dennard Dayle suggests, “You’re not looking at the death of the human race. Just the death of the  human dream.” I disagree. We may be out of time, but we’re not out of opportunity. And opportunity offers passages to dreams, to hope.

We have the opportunity of choice. We each make hundreds of choices every day. Many, if not most, affect the whole of creation. When we make choices as captives of a consumer culture instead of as free children of a beloved Mother Earth, we diminish the dream. Paraphrasing theosophy writer Alice Bailey: “Let Reality govern my every thought, and Truth be the heart of my life. For so it must be for all of humanity. Please help me do ‘my part.’”

Odometer Lessons

99,999. When I spotted the numbers on my car’s odometer, I pulled off the highway onto a rural road. I wanted to be out of traffic so I could celebrate 100,000 by honking the horn, a family tradition.

When I was growing up, my family never had new cars. High mileage — not miles per gallon but miles travelled — was the norm. Whenever the odometer was about to line up the zeroes, the driver would alert all aboard. We’d wait in hushed excitement. Time itself slowed as the odometer rolled out a perfect symmetry of ovals. The horn would honk and onward we’d travel, a milestone reached with jubilation and relief that the old sedan had managed to transport us across yet another ten thousand miles. 

I was a teen by the time my parents managed to achieve the status of actually having two cars — both used, of course — in their two-car garage. My mother wryly explained that we needed a car that started so we could push the one that didn’t. It was sometimes tricky to tell which was which.

My current vehicle — the one that just turned 100,000 — had fewer than thirty miles on the odometer when I bought it ten years ago. It’s a 2009 model, a special order that sat unclaimed on the dealer’s lot for two years. The original buyer apparently suffered an economic setback and forfeited their deposit. It still had the new-car warranty when a neighbor tipped me off that it was there.

“You’re the only person who could manage to buy a two-year-old new car,” a friend observed.

Those 100,000 miles are only a portion of my travels over the past decade. For three years I also owned a camper van in which my dogs and I crossed multiple states, West to East, North to South. What adventures we had! But like many RV owners, I ultimately decided maintaining the van was more burden than blessing. 

Down to one vehicle now, I ceremoniously honked the horn as the zeroes rolled into place. The road was quintessentially rural: a field of corn stalks growing tall and green on one side, a wooden fence looming tall and brown on the other. The fence shielded the sight but not the smell of one of Okanogan Valley’s more odoriferous crops, cannabis.

Instead of heading back to the highway, I meandered along the backroad, no particular destination in mind. The skunky smell of marijuana gave way to the pleasant perfume of ripening apples and pears. As I drove slowly alongside orchards, I thought about another measure of travel on my dashboard — the speedometer.

A friend recently remarked how time passed so slowly when we were children but races by as we age. Just like the speedometer. Drive slower than 10 mph, and you feel like you’re barely moving. But over 70? Hey, wait! Slow the heck down! I can see 80 on the horizon. 

With aging comes the dilemma of when to give up driving. I hope to see the zeroes line up at least a few more times before I get there.