therestlessnest

where life's not empty, it's restless.

Archive for the tag “aging”

Heart + Vitality = Courage

IMG_0911 “Roger-dodger on flight #97 SFO 12:25 PM May 20,” my brother John wrote to me, 43 years ago. “No sweat picking you up out of the horrors of the SF airport.” There’s more, in his rapid-scrawl handwriting on a sheet of notebook paper, and I love every word of it, even though it’s not the exact letter I’d hoped to find last night, as I lifted one envelope after another out of the plastic bin in which my letters have rested, ignored, for four decades.

I pulled out every piece of mail that was addressed to me at Bates Hall, where I lived during my homesick first two years at Wellesley College. I wanted so badly to find one specific note that I knew John had written me in the spring of freshman year, when I wrote him for advice about whether I should transfer. The long New England winter was killing me. Why on earth had I even applied to a women’s college? Etcetera.

What I found instead were exactly two other letters from John: one I’d long forgotten, which he was thoughtful enough to send in September (“Have you thrown yourself to the wolves at any of the cattle shows/mixers yet?”) and then the one he sent in May, after I had written to ask if I could visit him in Berkeley on my way home to Seattle.

“Roger-dodger,” he replied. Which cracked me up, and then made me cry. Twice: when I opened it 43 years ago, and when I read it again last night.

John and I had a tough time getting along when we were kids. He was five years older, and he had a lot of perfectly sensible reasons to resent the hell out of me, the doted-upon firstborn of our mother’s second marriage. He began to lighten up when he went off to M.I.T. By the time I left for college five years later, we were tentative friends.

But what made me think of him, now, were a few things I heard at the Frye Art Museum’s recent Creative Aging Conference. Before I even got there, the very name of the event felt like a taunt. Sciatic nerve pain shooting up your leg this morning, making it hard to walk for more than five minutes? C’mon, Ann, get creative! You’re sixty, dammit!

“The pure bitch that is mortality,” began keynote speaker Wes Cecil, as I dropped with relief into my seat, is our one major “design flaw.” And yet it defines our lives. From the moment we’re born, we’re aging; at its most basic, “aging” simply means “not dead yet.”

I’m sixty, dammit. I’m having a year of physical challenges the likes of which I’ve never experienced: two foot surgeries, with this sciatic setback in between. Poor, old, aging me.

But John? His aging was stopped cold by a brain tumor at 52.

Mortality is a pure bitch. Aging is a privilege.

Cecil, an independent scholar and lecturer on philosophy and literature, went on to riff on the etymology of the word, which he said comes from an Indo-European, Sanskrit root that translates as “vitality.” Courage, for example, comes from the roots for “heart” (coeur) and “vitality” (age).

The vitality in those long-ago letters from John jumped from the page.

“The great sin” of humankind is “not loving our lives enough,” said Cecil, paraphrasing Friedrich Nietzsche. But that doesn’t mean we love our lives because they’re somehow perfect, because of course they never are. We never are. But we can love the great gift of being alive. Throughout our lives. Through all the changes and challenges and decades that we are lucky enough to get.

I heard many more good speakers at the Frye: healthy aging expert Eric Larson on resilience; 91-year-old documentary filmmaker Jean Walkinshaw, who embodies resilience; Frye curator Rebecca Albiani on artists who lived long lives and found ways to turn challenges like blindness or arthritis into new ways of creating.

But it was that notion of loving our lives—no matter how messy or exasperating or imperfect—that stayed with me. And which I will hold close on this Day of the Dead, as I remember my brother, in all his complicated, thrumming heart vitality.

 

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Dining Alone

IMG_1068     Cacio is an old central Italian word for cheese, but I didn’t know that until I looked it up later. What I wondered, as I crossed Second Avenue on a silky spring night, was whether it might mean “gift:” as in, a gift for me; the gift of a restaurant where I would have the courage to sit and dine alone on a Friday night in New York.

On any night, the East Village is chock-a-block with groups of friends and tightly clinched couples. These days, the trendiest restaurants have lines out the door and deafening crowds in the bars. But Cacio e Vino was a quieter place, just around the corner from my friend Lisa’s apartment, where I was staying. Its garage-style windows were rolled up, its tables invitingly half-outdoors. I thought I could do it.

I knew I needed to do it. I was hungry and thirsty and fresh out of mojo. I wanted to do it. But after 27 years of marriage, dining out, alone, is something I just never seem to do. Or maybe it’s something I have forgotten how to do.

11228506_10152771366521394_8112740348622402682_n         Funny thing is, the week I’d just spent in New York had been all about female empowerment with a capital E. With the help of Lisa, who is president of the Women’s Media Group, I gave my first New York reading from Her Beautiful Brain at Book Culture on Columbus Avenue. Later in the week at Book Expo, I was on a panel of women entrepreneurs. I spent one evening with old friends from my all-women’s college and one with new friends, fellow authors with my all-women’s publishing company, She Writes Press. IMG_1813I even had a ten-second encounter at Book Expo with Julianne Moore, who was signing copies of her latest children’s book, in which I managed to thank her for her Oscar-winning performance in Still Alice and, gulp, give her assistant a signed copy of my book.

By Friday afternoon, I was ready to rest. Lisa went out to see her mom in Brooklyn. We had plans to meet up later, but Lisa called to say she needed to stay put in Brooklyn. It’s OK, I assured her. I was exhausted, and I had an early flight the next morning.

And so that is how I came to be dining alone on a Friday night in New York.

You must do this, I told myself. It’s too beautiful an evening to get take-out and hide in the apartment.

I walked in to Cacio e Vino. The waiter offered me a choice of tables. I chose to look out on the street instead of hiding along the wall. He brought water and bread with fragrant oil. I ordered a glass of wine and a plate of pasta with zucchini, mint and goat cheese. Mint! Why not?

I didn’t have a book with me and I didn’t want to stare at my phone, so I pulled out a pen and a few note cards I’d bought. But for a long while, I simply sat and sipped and ate slowly, gazing out at the soft lights along the avenue, watching the New Yorkers walk by.

A young couple, oblivious to all but each other, stood outside Cacio e Vino for several minutes. Eventually, they came in, which made me happy, because I knew they’d love it. And because the sight of me, a solo diner so quaint as to have note cards and a pen on the table, had not scared them off.

It’s strange now to try to articulate the reasons why I might not have sat down and enjoyed that solo meal. Was it that I did not want to be looked at and pitied? Was I afraid someone—a man, most likely—would spoil my solitude by trying to strike up a conversation? This is much less likely to happen to me now, in my fifties, than it once was, and maybe that bothered me, in some illogical way. Was it the money? Did it feel too indulgent, spending restaurant dollars on me, alone? But here’s the real question: would a man ever, ever go through these mental hurdles before he took a seat at a restaurant table for one?

What’s odd is that sometimes I secretly daydream about dining alone. When I’m at a restaurant with other people, I have thoughts like: oh, that small plate would be the perfect thing to eat alone. And yet back in Seattle, if an evening comes along when I could actually do such a thing, I never do. But maybe now I will. Because here’s what I learned, last Friday night in New York: after a week of wall-to-wall empowerment, it was wonderful to be alone, and taken care of by a good waiter. As if I deserved it.

HBBfinalcoverBuy Her Beautiful Brain from the small or large bookstore of your choice. Find a bookstore here. Order the Kindle version here. An audiobook version will be available later this year.

Are We Old Yet?


It’s kind of touching, isn’t it, the way we fifty-somethings insist on calling ourselves “middle-aged.”  As if.  People: I read in the paper this morning: the average life span in America is still 78.  Half of 78 is still 39, no matter how you slice and dice it.

I remember being 39.  I do, really.  I remember thinking people in their fifties who couldn’t say the word “old” were kind of sad.

At 39, I had a seven-year-old, a four-year-old, a novel I so hoped would find a publisher and a freelance career I had allowed to dwindle.  My 65-year-old mother’s disturbing memory lapses were soon to be given the dreaded label that would define her final descent: Alzheimer’s disease.  At 39, the statistical middle of an American life, I did not feel young, middle-aged or old; I felt seasick. I had jettisoned the ballast of a secure job. I believed motherhood, marriage, writing and my mom’s desire to be a hands-on grandma would be my anchors for the next decade or so.

Looking back, I see my younger self as touchingly naïve.  Surely not at any sort of mid-point, any sort of stable axis.

But are we ever? And isn’t that what’s so ridiculous, really, about the whole notion of a “middle age”?  Because of course we don’t know whether we’re going to get 78 years, or 98, or maybe only 28 or 58.  So when exactly should we call ourselves “middle-aged?”

What we do learn, as we churn through the decades, is that whatever middle age is, it is not the same as wisdom.  Which, we also grudgingly learn, is not some inner lightbulb that suddenly clicks on.

Wisdom is more sedimentary. Layered. It’s more like that fusty old poem called “The Chambered Nautilus,” in which the poet imagines us adding years, like rooms, to the spiraling shell of our lives.

“Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul, as the swift seasons roll!” poet Oliver Wendell Holmes Senior intoned, already well past the mid-point—though of course he didn’t know it—of his impressive 85 years.

Our generation doesn’t warm to the word “stately” the way Holmes’ did.  We don’t want to be stately snails; we want to hold on to shiny, speedy youthfulness.

And yet: there’s an appreciation of slowness that creeps up on you, maybe somewhere between, oh, 39 and 54, during those years when life often feels way too much like a white-water rafting trip, rapids all around, your little boat barely under control.  You find that the stuff you really care about doing—writing, for me, or good conversations over dinner, or reading or growing a garden—mostly gets done slowly.

There was a story in the New York Times last week about an 85-year-old jazz piano player named Boyd Lee Dunlop.  He released his debut CD this weekend.  That is one stately pace.

I know one reason I sometimes, still, want to speed around and Get a Lot Done is because I watched time and memory run out for my mother and I fear her fate.  I dread it.  It’s what often wakes me up at five in the morning.

But rushing around doesn’t make it better, it makes it worse.  Boyd Dunlop didn’t just decide it was time for a CD at 85 and poof! There it was.  It took him four years of pounding away on an out-of-tune piano at the nursing home where he lives.

Boyd’s a good model for us wannabe middle-agers.  I bet he doesn’t spend much time at all dwelling on age.  He’s way too busy making music.

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