CRIMINALS OF A CERTAIN AGE
[from my friend, Margaret, previously published in Second Journey}
Eleven spirited elders – ranging in age from 50 to 87, met in the non-fiction section at Quail Ridge Books recently and faced reality together: we are aging, and we will die. What to do?
Seated in a small circle within a large circle of books about art, science and philosophy, we pondered both infinite finality and infinite possibility. Quandaries, both spoken and unspoken, migrated across the spaces between us. How do we enlarge our lives so that we arrive at life’s end with a broader sense of possibility? How do we let go gracefully? And what does “letting go” mean? Are we still relevant if we are no longer beautiful? What does it mean to “age consciously?” Are we “wise?” we wondered, our laughter providing the answer.
Our eldest member – a sage, beautiful woman of 87 – related her strong religious beliefs and the uselessness of fearing the inevitable. She faces death clearly unafraid. Another member described the uncomfortable new experience of being ignored by younger people. All of us pondered – how being busy or non-busy is healthy for elders? It is better simply to be and to breathe, suggested a member. “I want to be more active, not less, as I grow older,” said another. “What is my role now that I am no longer defined by a job and career?” pondered a man.
Who am I, really? Who will love me when I am the only one left? What if I want to choose the time when I die? At what point in time did I step from midlife into elderhood?
Ram Dass – whose book, Still Here – Embracing Aging, Changing and Dying, was the occasion for our circle – had his own thoughts to share: “Dying remains one of our culture’s last taboos,” he writes. “The images our culture generates are designed to make you feel that aging is a kind of failure; that somehow God made a big mistake.” And “There’s the fear that Social Security will be bankrupt as more old people require support. In the eyes of the economists, the aged aren’t merely a problem – we’re a disaster. And we didn’t do a thing!”
We sit in a circle at Quail Ridge Books, “criminals” all, and contemplate our growing misdeeds: graying hair, wrinkled hands, lapsing memories, slowing gaits – the vandalism of time that are the subject of countless humorous greeting cards. Sentenced by the years and criminalized by society, how are we to respond as death approaches? Our search for that answer is wisdom itself.
“In the depth of winter I finally found that there was in me an invincible summer,” wrote Camus. That summer is within us, too.