"We are all just walking each other home.” Ram Das
The other day I was washing my face in the bathroom. The light was such that I noticed the arching lines around my forehead. I made a face to highlight them and turned to look askance at my visage. Then I burst out laughing. I am getting old!
How can we look at a lined face, our own, and feel bad? Don’t we love to see the weathered face of a wise old Native American? Should we not welcome these lines? I get it that we want to be young and sexy. We want to be vibrant and able to climb mountains into our 80’s and 90’s before dying quietly and suddenly in our sleep. Can we redefine the purpose of being an older person, an elder?
Many of us baby boomers have adopted an attitude towards life that values living in the moment. Ram Das’s 1970’s book Be Here Now jolted us into being present with what is. Now, almost 50 years later, he is in a wheelchair, post stroke, with another book, Still Here. He muses on the fact that from this vantage point he has to learn how to accept help from others. He writes at length about that experience. At the end, he shares that he learned more from having a stroke than almost anything else. In a way, all his years of life fed into the moment of acceptance of his situation. He has found a new way, a new joy.
What does it mean to be in the moment? We don’t get to choose what moments we want to live through. Many of us have lost friends and family to death. There are other losses as well as joys. To be present to the moment means whatever moment. Patience is needed as a virtue to endure pain. We must find a way that strengthens, not destroys us by succumbing to damaging habits. We can’t rush through the experience.
To burnish is to “make or become shiny by rubbing.” I like this word. Life can burnish us through the rub and polish. To become shiny is to reflect and transform in response to whatever comes our way, even at our moment of death. Many of us have experienced this at the bedside of a loved one. Things fall away and we let go. Of course there are wrenching losses and deaths that don’t seem transcendent. All the more reason to contemplate earlier in our lives. Reflection and pondering can help us be ready to let go when the time comes.
A friend of mine struggled with cancer for a few years. In the end, when there was little hope of turning it around, she was able to let go and savor the last few months of her life. She wanted to be buried directly in the earth without embalming, so she found a place where she could. She chose to have a home vigil after death that allowed friends and loved ones to have a chance to sit with her body in a home setting. All these choices are legal and accessible to anyone. They reflect significant movements arising out of human yearnings. My friend bravely chose these options and demonstrated to the many people who loved her what was possible. Some who initially feared going into the room with her body, came out amazed with eyes bright. She showed us how to do this. She showed us what was possible. We experienced simultaneous grief at her loss along with a sense of expansion and transcendent love.
In yoga class I can’t sit on my knees any more. Even to watch others doing it is almost painful. With no cartilege in my knees and creeping arthritis (Yes, even with acupuncture!), there is no way. Pain results from the high mileage we have on our physical bodies. What to do about this?
Of course, we want to stay flexible and strong. We can participate in yoga, exercise class, biking, hiking. These are good things, but we must get real.
Along with the physical slowing down comes some refinement and reflection that was not possible before. Baby boomers who initiated a return to healthy food, awareness of our responsibility to the environment and natural birth now face our mortality. We shift our focus to the reality of death and apply those values and principles. The perspective of the years gives a slant much like the evening sun as it sets.
Baby boomers have contributed ideas about conscious dying, green burial, families more involved in the care of loved ones dying and after death. All of these help us to complete life in a meaningful way —whatever it was.
To gather together in celebration of a life allows a depth of meaning and the expansion of love in celebration. To attend a service for someone we know presents an opportunity of being in the moment.
C.G. Jung lived into his 80’s and discovered that there are challenges and opportunities in the older years. We do well to rise to the occasion to take them on. A focus on tasks specific to this time of life gives meaning and traction to dig into what we are doing here now.
I am a 65 year old white woman. I am a grateful professional, divorced and the parent of one daughter in her 20’s and a 2-year-old granddaughter. I lived and am living through many challenges, and have dealt with some better than others. Though not wealthy, I have enough and am fortunate in many ways. I can’t see retiring any time soon.
Awareness about race and gender issues creep in as I read over this writing. I want to listen to people who are different from me without jumping to conclusions, without getting defensive. I am curious about the perspective of baby boomers who are black, Asian, Native American, male. In my elder years I want to understand more about the role of women in history. I also want to understand the role of men. Women and men should complement each other. I am curious.
Confronting the reality of death is a starting place. Another friend who was dealing with cancer called me over a few weeks before she died. “Stand there!” she said, as she lay in her bed. “That shirt, the striped one, try that on. Ahh, yes,” she said. We went through a number of clothes she had in mind for me. This was something she needed to do with me and other friends. Those of us who received these chosen clothes laughed about it later. Just days before she died peacefully at home in her bed she did her taxes. That was like her too. Very close to her last day she said to me, “It is all about love really. That’s all.”
I would love us to reframe how we see faces with many lines, bodies perhaps bent and moving slower. Can we embrace these times? Can we grow into the gifts and challenges that come with later years? I think we can. And in the process, we accompany each other. We “walk each other home.” I hope that we can revel in our lives, and then turn back out to the world. We can reflect what we experience and still learn from what we see. There is a dynamic dance of many generations in which we all participate. Let’s savor the moment.
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass the world is too full to talk about.” Rumi
If you want to explore some tools and tasks to help navigate the second half of your life and and discover your wisdom, I'm hosting a ten-series that starts in October called "Tools and Tasks for the Second Half of Life." You can read more about the program and how to register here.
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