I didn't want to admit that turning seventy was hard. I talked about how I just couldn't grasp it, but I kept saying it wasn't hard to be getting older. Until I knew that it was. Then I bought three books on aging well. I started with the one by Sister Joan Chittister, and that one didn't move me or give me anything to chew on. Then I took up Aging as a Spiritual Practice: A Contemplative Guide to Growing Older and Wiser by Buddhist priest Lewis Richmond. And this is where I am. Every morning I read until I find something that speaks to me. Then I underline it and journal about what I've noted. Or I journal on the questions at the end of each chapter.
The chapter I've been working on over the last few days is titled "Stages of Aging," which isn't, as it might sound, about what happens to you in each decade as you grow old. Instead it explores how we come to terms, adapt, and appreciate our aging. Responding to this chapter's "Contemplative Reflections," which ask us to look at the emotions involved in reckoning with aging, here's what I wrote yesterday morning:
Initially, as I began my sixty-ninth year, I felt baffled. It was because on my next birthday, I would turn seventy (obviously). I simply could not grasp that this was happening. To me. Such mystification had only happened to me once before–when I was about to turn five. I recall lazily swinging from the oak tree above our house while my mother hung clothes down below. I shouted to her, "I can hardly believe I'm about to be five!" My mother, with typical Dutch bluntness, shouted back something to the effect of, "It's no big deal," and went on hanging diapers.
But seventy sounded so much older than sixty-nine. Dealing with it was akin to trying to grasp that one day I will die. One day I will no longer be here in the only place I remember having been–on the Earth. When I reached seventy-one this year, I felt that over the previous two years I had embodied the age I now am. It is what is, I tell myself, and I feel I've accepted it and am ready to explore it now–to find out what it's like to be this old. What might it mean as I progress through more years, if I'm given them?
In part it has meant that I felt another emotion–regret. Richmond says there's often some other emotion underlying regret, and he names fear, anger, or anxiety as possibilities. For me it's sorrow. Sorrow because I have not been successful in creating intimate relationship. Capital R Relationship. I've had two long-term relationships that lasted seven years each, and I would not describe them as successful, though I learned a lot through both. I've been single now for more than thirty years.
Shortly after I turned sixty-nine-I fell in love with a much younger woman. We became good friends, but my feelings of being in love and hoping for something more were not returned. I couldn't help feeling if I'd been younger it might have been different. The unreturned love, sorrow, and regret about things I have no control over–another person's heart and my age–became part of the stage Richmond calls "Coming to Terms" with aging. For months, I wanted to go back to being younger.
Now I'm consciously choosing to enter a new emotional stage–one of gratitude. And I am grateful–grateful to have reached the age of seventy-one, to be in excellent health, to be physically remarkably fit. I am grateful for the gift of life, for the beauty I'm privileged to witness every day, for the love of friends and family, and for continued meaningful work. I'm grateful that I am beginning to engage in the spiritual practice of aging.