It Isn’t Just the Body

Getting older | Riza Kazemi | Flickr
Getting Older – Reza Kazemi – Flicker – Creative Commons

I had a bit of a scare the other morning. It turned out to be nothing but it made me think once again about my age.

These days the news seems to be full of those my age or a bit older – especially the icons of my youth – who have died. Those kinds of stories have always been news, but my younger self only clucked over them in an abstracted way because they were not my contemporaries. The older me finds them disturbing in a “you’re moving up in the queue” kind of way.

As I move up in the queue, I no longer have the luxury of eating what I like and being cavalier about the amount of rest and exercise I get. More than that, I now find myself considering new conditions of my body, evaluating new pains to determine whether they are transitory or some harbinger of an oncoming health concern. I’m fortunate that the ailments I have are manageable using current medicine. But not all ailments are that amenable and the longer I’m alive, the more the odds tip in their favour.

Stories about how younger people are refusing their elders’ treasured antiques made me blink. I had not considered this at all and I’m left wondering what will happen to the things I have collected over the years. I don’t even have to consider whether my children or grandchildren will want them or not because I have no descendants. Everything I own will have to someday be sold, given away, or consigned to the trash.

I have already given or thrown away a great deal out of the understanding that no one but me or my late husband could find anything in them. I have tried to keep only what still matters to me; what I find beautiful and uplifting or what – like my dog Rufus’s leash or my dog Buffett’s collar or the pictures of people long gone from my life – I cannot bear to part with, though I know items like these will eventually be disposed of. They will have no sentimental or artistic value to anyone else.

Growing older has also affected my consideration of new things. My decision to acquire is often coloured less by cost than the item’s possible future with me. And I’m mindful of the burden that will fall on whomever is unfortunate enough to have to deal with what’s left of my life once I am dead.

For the present, I will continue to take pleasure in the art I have, the music I have collected, the full set of china I own and use on a daily basis. I will continue to add things I desire because of the way they call to me and I will enjoy them for as long as I can.

I have seen many articles asking “What would your older self tell your younger self if it could?” I’m not sure that my younger self would listen, but I would tell her not to get hung up on the idea of getting older as becoming physically diminished.

Younger people tend to think of advancing age wholly in terms of the body. But aging is really an evolving condition – one that taxes the mind and spirit, too. You will still need to make decisions that affect not only your present but your future. But when you are older, there is less future to consider. And that, in itself, becomes another thing to consider.

Fishful Thinking

Deeper Understanding of Our Facts

Knowing something and knowing something can be two different things. Most of the time, we know a thing intellectually, like global warming is changing the face of our planet, or that our partner loves us. We accept those things as facts, but it isn’t until we have a sort of emotional awakening to go with that knowledge, that we fully comprehend it.

We see a picture of how a glacier is now 50 percent of what it was a decade ago, or we have a narrow escape and see our partner completely distraught because of it, and we suddenly have a more complete picture of the fact we merely accepted before.

I had one of those recently: I’m approaching elderly.

It’s not as though I wasn’t aware; of course I was. I can count the candles on my cake. I make jokes to the supermarket checkers about being able to remember when an avocado cost a lot less than a buck.

Lately, I’ve been annoyed by a spate of articles blaming everything that’s wrong with modern life on Baby Boomers (and no – realizing we did the exact same thing to our own parents and grandparents and they to theirs doesn’t make it any more palatable). I knew intellectually that I’m considered old by a good sized segment of the population. It’s irritating to have people discount you because you’ve lived longer than them, but it happens. Still, both the number of cake candles and casual ageism were just facts that I accepted as evidence that I’m older. Not the same as knowing it.

Lots of people mark their aging firsts – first grey hair, first noticeable web of wrinkles, first chronic ache or pain. But age can still sneak up on you; you might not really notice even when your social chatter has gone from who’s doing whom, then right past investments and baby sitters, to what the doctor said the last time you had an office visit. Because you never actually feel old. No one does until they can’t help it any more.

And eventually you can’t help it because some thing, a fact, conjoins with experience, causes an emotion, and all of a sudden you realize.

I’ve got some medical issues – most of them related to genetic predisposition (thanks, family), but nothing that can’t be regulated by some medication and a little more attention to self-care. Except for the tendinitis from decades of keyboarding lots and lots of words, I haven’t noticed much difference in my physical life. Then last month, my doctor took me off one medication and moved me to another because she was worried that the previous meds were interfering with my kidney function. Just an adjustment. A minor adjustment. And yet…

All of a sudden, I saw myself at the beginning of the end of the road. I didn’t have a panic attack about it, but I admit to being unsettled. This type of thing is the point where you start looking for mitigation – people in my family tend to live long lives without much frailty and I clutched that observation to me as though it was a life ring. But even as I tried to minimize the effects aging has had on me so far, I truly understood for the first time that, from now on, my life may become more and more circumscribed by a process over which I have limited control.

Someone once said that from the moment we are born, we move towards death. I could have as many as four decades left or as little as one day or even one hour. No one knows when their existence will end, and I’m fine with that.

What gets me is how I went from knowing this thing to knowing this thing.

I attended a block printing workshop a month or so ago and had prepared by drawing what I wanted to print, only to discover my drawing was slightly too large for the block provided. It would have taken a while and materials I didn’t have to reduce the size, so I opted to improvise by drawing something new: A wide-eyed cat with little fish raining down around her.

When I started writing this post, that block print came to mind. We all indulge in fishful thinking – it’s our capacity to imagine, to daydream and turn those dreams into something concrete and touchable that makes for some of our most worthwhile creations. But we’re also the kind of creatures to let facts lay shallow in our minds – to understand them on a thin level, not touching us in any other way until something happens that changes that, which is usually an experience.

So we might say we understand that saying “one day at a time”, but it takes on a deeper, richer meaning when you have to struggle hard to maintain your equilibrium because of addiction or illness, whether yours or someone else’s.

Accepting the facts of your life is something many religions and philosophies strive to teach, but they also teach that we should work for a deeper understanding of ourselves and our world. Deeper understanding can be hard to achieve, despite putting in a lot of work. So it almost seems a wonder – those moments when a fact comes together with experience and emotion to create that deeper understanding. Like an unexpected and unusual rain.

Because we only have the one (physical) life on this planet, living it is the most important thing. But living it with the most understanding of what it truly is – connecting what we know to what we have experienced and what it makes us feel can challenge us and result in a richer understanding and appreciation of our lives, no matter how long they may be.