The setting: I am in the Manhattan office of a colleague I much admire for his leadership and stellar career, and we are having a rich conversation on aging, aging men in particular. He tells me a story of his friend who lost his wife of many years, and then suffered deeply and for an extended time the loss of his life partner. In a candid moment with my colleague this widower in pain gives his friend his best advice on aging. He says it in two words: “Go first!”

As I heard this I took the words at two levels. The first was—good advice, who wants to go through the pain of that loss? I thought…

In about 10 seconds, I hear a second voice in my head, one I did not voice to my colleague. “And who do we think we are that we have a right to inflict the loss and grief process on our spouse/partner.”

I could not get this conversation out of my head for several days, coming back to it with strong reaction.

The more I thought about it, the more it felt to me that an act of love for your life partner would be to let them go first. Gladly we have little if any control over these things, although there are advocates for assisted suicide and I have had thoughts at times that for the suffering this may indeed be an option we should offer. But that feels different than what we are talking about.

The advice from this man still in grief was to go first, as if your partner should be the one to bear that burden.

My truth is, in this, my 70th year, that if it happens that my wife Patricia is the first to go to the other side, then I best be ready for that. And if I could have my preferences, and if it would spare her a lot of pain, I will take the bullet and do the suffering as it comes my way in the letting go of her.

And I may be making brave talk here. This is how it seems to me now—ask me, if it happens, how it went when it is over; or ask me in ten years if we are both still around, how I am feeling about my bold assertions. I may change my mind over time—talk can be cheap when compared to the experience.

Still, as it is now, I figured I ought to tell Patricia what I had been thinking. On one of our regular night time walks under the stars, after some weeks of hesitating and waiting to see if I meant it, I found a good enough time to bring up this heavy topic. Tears welled up in my eyes as I shared my thinking and I thought of losing her. Patricia got what I was saying and took it to heart. She takes all things to heart. She knew this was the “death do us part” section of our vows re-affirmed in the reality of being 70, versus 32 years ago in the imagining space when we were in early mid-life and the words came easily.

So what is your take on this advice and where do you stand do you think? Or would you rather not think about it because it is out of your hands? That may be the wiser way to go for all I know.

My 77-year-old friend Fred Andrle created a haunting haiku on this. The former NPR radio personality at WOSU, Columbus Ohio, now retired and a haiku composer, put it this way, so beautifully.

You will bury me
Or I will bury you sweetheart
Autumn turns winter

Ah-h; so few images, so poignant. One of the two goes first. And then the winter comes.

 

 

Image above “2008_12_15” by Taz Licensed under CC-BY 2.0  Original source via Flickr

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Stay Happy, Stay Restless

by evoker on June 21, 2018

in 70th Year

The body will become restless until the soul paints all its beauty on the sky
~Rumi

 

Do not go gentle…
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
~Dylan Thomas

 

You don’t have to take Dylan Thomas’s advice exactly, and on your 70th b-day rage against the night. But you have my permission to stay restless, even in the most positive of aging journeys. Tranquility, perhaps the number-one goal of many a mindful practitioner, may be overrated. Rumi agrees apparently, or he would never have composed that gorgeous line above about restlessness “painting all its beauty on the sky.” As long as you have a soul doing its work in the world, you are restless; happily, restlessly, unsatisfied.

 

Not agitated or wound tight, but restless. Something needs doing, some part of you is at work and needs to express itself or get something done: a conversation needs to happen, a phone call to that friend you love, that projects needs to either get started or benefit from an artful finishing touch. Restless is good—there is work to do.

Two women who write about restlessness in old age have moved me with their thinking. Florida Scott Maxwell and Simone de Beauvoir.

First, Florida.

In 1879, an 82-year-old woman, who, having been a mom, a playwright, and having trained to be a therapist at age 50, published a book on her later life experience. Her report on aging includes how her aging body on the outside was not correlated to her dynamic, bursting-forth flow of emotional and mental energy on the inside. She is restless…

“Age puzzles me.  I thought it was a quiet time. My seventies were interesting, and fairly serene, but my eighties are passionate. I grow more intense as I age.  To my own surprise I burst out with hot conviction.”

I highly recommend you read her The Measure of My Years. It is an honest, penetrating set of questions and observations.

Second, Simone.

Simone de Beauvoir was hanging around the Left Bank crowd in Paris when that was totally cool in mid-1900s Europe (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rive_Gauche if you don’t know of what I speak). She took on big social ills with her writing. She exposed the industrial age’s pre-Medicare non-support for the aging population in her voluminous (the mid-life exuberance of many words versus Florida’s later life conciseness) Coming of Age. A passage to make us feel guilty about equating aging and tranquility goes like this:

“Clearly, there is one preconceived notion that must be totally set aside – the idea that old age brings serenity. From classical times the adult world has done its best to see mankind’s condition in a hopeful light; …It has deliberately chosen to look upon the end of life as a time when all the conflicts that tear it apart are resolved. … this is a convenient illusion: it allows one to suppose… that the old are happy and that they can be left to their fate.”

Neither De Beauvoir nor Maxwell had the advantage of the now decades-long work in mindfulness that we can employ to stay more calmly centered. Nor our helpful, and less helpful, drugs.

But both make a lasting and important point.

Aging and slowing down may have some serenity built into it, and it might be a worthy goal, but it is not universal nor to be expected. Many of us will stay riled up about politics that piss us off, and our spiritual or relationship yearnings, and commitments and to-do lists, until the end. As long as we don’t get overtaken by it, that could be just ok.

In words similar to the handsome guy in the World’s Most Interesting Man commercials, “Stay thirsty my friends.” (again, if you don’t know of what I speak, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Most_Interesting_Man_in_the_World.)

“Stay restless my friends.” Good can come from this at any age.

 

Image above: Night beach” by danielardite Licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0  Original source via 500px

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