by Jerry Waxler
In the ’60s, I ran wild in the streets, figuring that if I protested loudly enough, the world would stop this nonsense about me needing to grow up. My resistance made no difference. Soon, I became an adult like everyone else and settled down to the long middle years, trying to make the most of the world as it actually was.
Four decades later, these middle years are drawing to a close. I’ve reached the daunting age of 60 and I feel no more eager to grow old than I was to grow up. Perhaps I could participate in a new round of protests. There must be millions of people my age who would sign a petition to stop the aging process. Despite my reluctance, each year I grow a year older. I need to figure out this aging thing.
To learn more, I read books like Gene Cohen’s “Creative Age” about how to use senior years as a time for creativity, and Marc Freedman’s book “Encore: Finding Work that Matters in the Second Half of Life” which attempts to redefine retirement. I attend “Boomer Conferences” in Philadelphia with speakers like Kenneth and Mary Gergen, editors of the Positive Aging newsletter. I explore the “Coming of Age” website, looking for meetings where someone can help me prepare. It’s all interesting, but I want more and am not sure where to turn.
There’s no point in asking older people. Like most people in our youth oriented society, I have always imagined that when people get older, they grow duller and more out of touch. But that attitude has problems. If all older people are dull, and I’m an older person, does that mean I’m dull too? I decide to take this line of inquiry to the old people themselves, and I know where to find them. Many of the students in my memoir workshops are older than me by 10, 20, even 30 years. As we work on memoir writing, I pay close attention to their stories.
One describes the ration coupons that controlled how much sugar and gas the family could buy during World War II. When he reads this, several others nod in agreement. Another remembers growing up with an unheated, hole-in-the-ground outhouse. Another won a beauty contest 65 years ago. A woman in her 90s remembers her pride of accomplishment, entering medical school when women were seldom able to do so. Then she had to drop out of when her family ran out of money. Her voice chokes back the pain. Together we consider those years, visualizing each other’s moments from long ago, and sharing how it feels to live a long life.
It lifts me to hear about their lives, and clearly it makes them feel good too. Everyone grows brighter and more alive. As we arrange the anecdotes into a sensible whole, it feels like we are creating a vital strength in the room, waking us up to some sort of continuity or meaning.
As I listen, I look for the wisdom to help me cheer up and face my own aging. At first I don’t see it. All these details sound just like life. Then I step back and take a broader look at what we are doing. And there it is. The wisdom is not some grand lesson hidden within the events. The wisdom is in the storytelling itself, transforming the raw events of our lives into something worthwhile.
The students in these memoir classes become my teachers. One lesson they teach is that time will not stop. I should have known this already but their presence helps me remain calm and brave about it. And the other lesson is that stories of the human saga are everywhere. With a little collective action, we band together to develop those stories, basking in their richness, passion, and variety, and feel the subtle unfolding of whatever Mystery we are here to discover.
So, working with these people at the senior center, I form a plan for the next stage of my life. Instead of raging against some common enemy, I turn towards my peers, and together we discover what it has been like to be us. In the sharing, we grow stronger, bolder, and enjoy ourselves far more than if we marched alone.
As I remember my own younger days, I am amazed by my intensity. I didn’t like the world, and thought that if I was going to enter it, I ought to scream and protest in order to bend it into a better shape. What a crazy, gutsy, desperate thing to do. I don’t know if there is a lesson in my youthful enthusiasm. But I do know there is a story.
Links to resources mentioned in this post
Coming of Age, http://www.comingofage.org
Encore, Civic Ventures, http://www.encore.org/
Creative Aging, http://www.creativeaging.org
An excellent book on creativity and aging: Creative Age by Gene Cohen