About a decade ago, not long after she turned 80 and I turned 60, Helen Gurvich and I made a lunch date, something we enjoyed doing whenever we could get our calendars lined up (hers was often as busy as mine). When she walked into the room that day she looked especially beautiful, just glowing with energy. My immediate reaction was, “Gee, you look great!”
My exclamation was followed by what seemed like a very long silence as she looked directly at me. “You know,” she eventually said, in that slyly smart-ass voice only she had.
“There are three ages in life – youth, middle age, and, ‘Gee, you look great!’”
Increasingly, I find myself on the receiving end of that phrase, and, understanding the intent, I take it as a compliment whenever it comes. But with a mental nod to Helen1, who died in 2013, I try not to use it myself.
Evidence of the struggle to find ways to name the gee-you-look-great age is all around us. Around the country, some senior centers are “rebranding” themselves by dropping the word “senior” and taking names like “the 50+ Center,” “The Heritage Center,” and “The Center for Balanced Living.” As long ago as 2003, the Hartford Courant suggested that names like “Center for Healthy Aging” or “The Wisdom Center” might be more appealing to “aging baby boomers.” And the national trade group for senior housing, once known as the Assisted Living Federation of America, is changing its name to “Argentum,” Latin for “silver.”
People of ‘a certain age’
Here’s a far-from-complete list of descriptors from a variety of sources. Let me know if you’ve got any good ones of your own.
Old timer, oldster, crone, hag, codger, coffin dodgers
Ancient, old-fashioned, over the hill, timeless, archaic, venerable
Gray-haired, practiced, skilled, veteran, centenarian, long-lived, gettin’ on
“You may refer to me as well-seasoned or experienced.”
“My mum ‘n dad, both 73, call themselves ‘recycled teenagers’.”
“Young at heart and still kicking a**”
“One-foot in the grave!”
“In London they’re ‘Twirlies.’ This is because when they try to get on a bus before their free pass allows they are told, ‘It’s too early.’ (twirlie)”
“Baba Yaga – the Arch-Crone, the Goddess of Wisdom and Death, the Bone Mother. Wild and untamable, she is a nature spirit bringing wisdom and death of ego, and through death, rebirth.”2
Then, there’s the simple word, “old,” claimed by Carol Miller3in an article, “Looking Old Age in the Eye,” published by Real Change, Seattle’s weekly street paper. A woman of “80-some years,” Miller wrote: “In America, I have found being old and admitting it a challenge.” In a longer excerpt she says:
This is the face I grew into, the face that I earned, a face of character and feeling, the face of time — my time. Of course, it is not the face I had at 18. I didn’t much care for my face then. We didn’t seem well acquainted. No matter how I felt, I looked fine. I remember suffering from a splitting headache and finding no change in the bathroom mirror. I realized no one would believe my complaint and decided I would have to go to work. Sometimes I would cry in frustration and my tears, when dry, would leave no trace. I had the classic poker face: Emotionless, unresponsive and unrevealing. I suspect it cloaked an equally under-developed heart.
Now I have the face of felt experience. My face and feelings mesh; I look the way I feel. I am pleased with my looks and wish others were as well. I would like to be accepted wearing this face without having others express remorse or pity or being metaphorically patted on the head. I particularly want to be acknowledged as a person of value and, at the same time, as old.4
I want to earn a face that’s clearly as old as I am with a spirit that can give a comeback as lively as Helen’s to “Gee, you look great!”
3 “For 30 years, Carol Miller, an anthropologist, studied a Romany (Gypsy) tribe, initially in Seattle and subsequently in California. She wrote a memoir of her experiences, Lola’s Luck: My Life among the California Gypsies.Real Change byline, 12/23/14
“You work too hard. You should take time to have fun, to relax and enjoy life!”
This advice from caring friends has been a kind of refrain through much of my life. Especially after turning 70 and venturing into my “eighth layer,” I find that the culture we live in assumes we will, even urges us to, slow down, stop working, or at least stop working so hard. There are many good reasons to do all these things, by choice or necessity and at various times in our lives. And I do slow down … sometimes. While over time my pace actually has changed from time to time, I can assure you that I do have fun and enjoy life. It just might not always look like it.
Over breakfast one morning I was reinforced in my apparently aberrant ways by a New York Times article I’d set aside to read weeks before.1 “Jonas Mekas Refuses to Fade,” it declared. The piece by John Leland is part of a series that looks at the lives of six New Yorkers over age 85 and how they “navigate their life at the upper end of old age in this city.”
I’d known of Mekas since the late 60s, early 70s. From afar, I learned of his life as a filmmaker, poet, organizer of avant garde film showings, and a founder of Film Anthology Archives. His life seemed tantalizing, exciting. Stories from his world fueled my own late-60s interest in the Northwest Filmmakers Co-op, the Seattle chapter of E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology), and exhibitions of art using new technologies at the Henry Art Gallery.
“Mekas Refuses to Fade” showed that, even now at age 93, Mekas is still going strong. Check out his website, especially his Diary with his short video “Welcome!” at the top.2 In the New York Times article, author Leland writes:
This year  alone, besides the Biennale installation, he is completing work on two books, sorting through several unfinished films, compiling his materials on Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground for an exhibition in Paris, continuing to post video diaries on his website, and trying to raise $6 million to build a cafe and library at Anthology Film Archives, the financially struggling nonprofit institution he helped start in 1970. In between, there have been readings to give, openings and screenings to attend, new friends to meet, old ones to revisit, preferably over wine.
What motivates him to keep moving and working like this? Where does his energy come from? Leland quotes Mekas:
Something is in you that propels you. It’s part of your very essence, what you are. Like, go back to Greeks and muses. How they explained that, the muse enters you at birth or later, and you have no choice. It becomes part of you. You just have to do it.
And a little later:
I don’t feel like I’m working. It’s fun. I’m just doing what has to be done.
So is there any science that might explain why Mekas is more engaged and seems more resilient than we might expect of people at the “upper end of old age”?
Leland wanted to know. So he spoke with Patricia Boyle, a neuropsychologist and researcher at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center at the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. Like others in her field had, she and her research team “observed that people who felt their life had a goal or purpose showed lower rates of memory loss and other diseases associated with age.” Doyle wanted to know why.
Their long-term study of 1,400 people, started in 1997, was designed to quantify the actual neurobiological conditions in the brain that link a sense of purpose with a lower risk of cognitive impairment like memory loss.3 They examined the brain tissues of 246 people who died during the study. The results surprised them.
Two of the most important markers of Alzheimer’s disease in brain tissue are an accumulation of plaque and what neurologists call “tangles” in the pathways of the brain. The researchers didn’t find any difference in the level of plaque or tangles in the brains of people who had a strong sense of purpose and those who did not. As Lane Wallace in a 2012 article in The Atlantic, put it, “A strong sense of purpose does not, in other words, prevent the accumulation of potentially harmful material in the brain.”4
What the results of the researchers at Rush indicate, Wallace writes, is that having a strong sense of purpose in life, especially beyond the age of 80, can give a person’s brain the ability to sustain the harmful damage of plaque and tangles, and to continue functioning at a much higher level. I like to think of this as our brains’ ability to develop work-arounds; the researchers call it, “neural reserve.” As we learn more and more about our brains, my sense of their amazingness just continues to grow.
Wallace’s piece for The Atlantic opens with a prayer from The Egyptian Book of the Dead: “May I be given a god’s duty: a burden that matters.” Toward the end of her article, she refers to other research (specifically, work by Dr. Carol Ryff, published in the Institute of Aging):
The kind of protective effect that purposeful living offers does not accrue from mere happiness, or what researchers call “hedonistic well-being.” It would appear that humans are hard-wired a bit like working dogs – we may dream about a life of ease aboard luxury yachts, but we are at our best when we are gainfully engaged in meaningful work.
Jonas Mekas told John Leland:
My time is limited, I choose art and beauty, vague as those terms are, against ugliness and horrors in which we live today. I feel my duty not to betray those poets, scientists, saints, singers, troubadours of the past centuries who did everything so humanity would become more beautiful. I have to continue their work in my own small way.
A few more prayers from the same passage in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, are apt:
May I create words of beauty, houses of wonder. May I dance in the gyre and draw down heaven’s blessing. May I be given a god’s duty, a burden that matters. May I make of my days a thing wholly.5
And as a mission statement that Mekas wrote for a friend and that hangs on a wall in his loft says:
Keep dancing. Keep singing. Have a good drink and do not get too serious.
4. “Effect of Purpose in Life on the Relation Between Alzheimer Disease and Pathologic Changes on Cognitive Function in Advanced Age,” Patricia A. Boyle, Aron S. Buchman, Robert S. Wilson, Lei Yu, Julie A. Schneider, David A. Bennett, Archives of General Psychiatry, May 2012.
In addition to being a prompt for new writing, another way I’ve imagined using this site is to create a kind of anthology – or maybe it’s an archive – of pieces I’ve written over the years.
With this in mind, here’s a piece I wrote two and a half years ago to let friends and family know about a move I was making.
July 31, 2013
Some things benefit from shock. – Nassim Nicholas Taleb
In late spring this year I became aware that a mostly unspecified impatience and feeling of antsy-ness or anxiety ran just under the surface of my day-to-day life. I could make a list of specifics, but the feelings touched on or grew from many sources – financial, social, intellectual, sense of purpose and worth in the world.
“I think I need a good crisis,” I told Ted on one of our walk & talks in May. He ran through various options for the crisis I could have – a major health crisis, dramatic accident, financial crash of some sort – and quickly crossed them all off the list as too messy, or painful, or simply unacceptable. Sitting at my dining table a few days later, Edie commented that my home feels really settled. “Right,” I said, “too settled,” thinking more broadly than just the physical place where I live. “I need to shake it up.”
When moving out of my apartment after nearly 25 years became a clear option, I was at first amazed at how easily it presented itself. Then I realized it was preceded by many small signs of the value of a break in the pattern of my life: a talk at Town Hall by Nassim Nicholas Taleb on his concept of anti-fragile – “Some things benefit from shock, they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors;” a determination in January by my writing group partner Sarah and me that 2013 would be a year of “clearing out;” Mary Ann’s observation that this phase of life is all about “editing;” finding thickly-crusted dust on protective pillow cases under the bed when preparing for an overnight visit by out-of-town friends; a comment from Cathryn, on hearing my complaint that it’s really hard to actually start clearing things out, “You won’t do it until you have to move;” visiting Anne and seeing how completely delighted she is with her new, much smaller home. And then there are the first lines of the piece I made for Scott’s Chamber Music exhibition at the Frye, “Get up, get up!/Let’s get going.”
Because of the age I am now, this editing is often called “downsizing,” which seems disheartening or depressing, a little too close to “downer.” I’d rather think of it as lightening up, gaining flexibility, maybe something closer to the “liberation” that author Dr. Gene Cohen attributed to this particular phase of life, a break when things open up, as in breakthrough. Actually, I’ve started referring to my pending move as “repotting.” Pull the plant out. Shake the dirt off. Trim the roots back to encourage new growth. And replant in new soil. Repotting may allow for new opportunities to engage with immediate friends and neighbors, civic affairs, the world of ideas, to be part of re-imagining a new role for older community members.
All this sounds good – positive, upbeat – and is definitely what I feel much of the time. But it’s also daunting and scary. It would be so easy not to. Or to say, golly, next year would be a whole lot easier. When I imagine not being in this apartment, I get wistful … the warm afternoon sun shining low through the summer foliage on my deck or the wonderful times I’ve had here with gatherings of friends. But too many things say now is the time. The next couple of months will be crucial.
Then, about a week after returning from a lovely weeklong retreat in San Francisco where I cemented the decision for myself, I broke my leg.
Actually the orthopedist’s report called the break a “spiral fracture of the right fibula.” On a very pleasant Monday evening, Edie and I had headed out on the grassy terraced slopes by the Ballard Locks, picnic makings in hand. Apparently I wasn’t paying attention to just how steep the slopes were. I slipped, things went flying, and my ankle did things it simply wasn’t meant to do. We didn’t realize anything was broken because I was able to hobble out. Along with picnic supper in my living room, I learned about RICE – rest, ice, compression, and elevation – all the right things to do for a serious sprain.
Even so, after a sleepless night, I called the doctor. My upstairs neighbor Douglas had seen me hopping around on one leg, and when he learned I’d just made a doctor’s appointment, he (now saintly in my mind) said, “I bet you need a ride!” He proceeded to ferry me around from one doctor to the next, patiently sitting in waiting rooms, until he brought me home with my new pair of crutches and bright red cast. “Red goes with everything,” I’d told cast maker Michelle.
With a cast and crutches, everything takes longer. I learned new ways to do familiar things. Like how on crutches to get a cup of coffee from stove to table, water the plants, and keep a cast dry in the shower with a plastic bag and rubber bands. Carolyn gave me tips on going up and down stairs. I practiced on the eight steps from my building lobby to mail boxes before tackling stairs from the sidewalk to the front door of a friend’s home for a dinner party. Getting help from friends has been a big part of the solution. Gwen took me to get my toes repainted so they could feel happy when propped up, by doctor’s orders, in the middle of the room. Nice, but they longed to head out the door and walk somewhere, anywhere, fast!
Given current research on the brain, I’m sure all this is creating new neurons. My leg may be broken but my brain is rejuvenating. I also figure the whole thing may just be fate’s gift of lessons for how to slow down and learn to ask for help. Both are hard to do.
Although this break tested my conviction to make the big break in where I live, plans for my move are gaining momentum. With help from family and friends, I’ll clear most of my stuff out of Harbour Heights by the end of August, pack things away in storage, and then live in a temporary home and work in a temporary office for a few months. Apparently, in today’s market it will be easier to sell than to buy. This schedule lets me do one thing at a time and may allow me to have a little patience as I look for the right place to plant myself next. Unless I’m really surprised, this won’t be my last move. It isn’t the one I and others have imagined, but it could certainly make another move easier.
In and around all the necessary tasks of packing and moving, selling and buying, keeping my work-for-pay going, and maintaining some sort of connection with friends, I’ll be pondering the meaning of breaks and shifts, repotting and liberation, editing back and imagining forward. For me, both conversation and writing change the ideas I start with and make them more real. I’ll be looking for chances to do both. Richard recently told me that decades ago I referred to most of the things I did, including my artwork, as “projects.” The word has always carried positive meanings for me. Some things don’t change much I guess. All this is definitely a project.
A talk by Mary Catherine Bateson at Town Hall five years ago gave me many ideas I continue to use today and prompted the following essay.
The age of active wisdom
Anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson spoke at Town Hall recently. Her book, Composing a Life, published a couple of decades earlier, reinforced themes I saw in my own life then – that a life of interruption could be understood positively as “multi-faceted” and that there were advantages in finding ways to adapt to change and new possibilities fluidly. The main title of her 2010 book, Composing a Further Life, seemed flat, but the subtitle, “The Age of Active Wisdom,” was more promising.
Almost everyone at age 50 has had some condition, she said, that would have killed them in the past. I could name at least one in my case, more if I count conditions that would only have given me constant pain or that would have made breathing a moment-to-moment struggle or that would have taken my mind away sooner than later. On average, we live 30 years longer today than people did just 100 years ago. Most of this can be attributed to medical advances and increased knowledge. Many people more or less my age have unprecedented levels of health, energy, time, and resources. We don’t have to expect, Bateson said, that a long life means “perpetual decrepitude.”
We also can’t think of our extra 30 years as just, sort of, tacked on to the end of our lives. Thirty years is much too long for that. She encourages seeing these years as a whole new period in a life cycle. This is a provocative notion, though I don’t much like the name she gave it, “Adulthood II.” Maybe I’m just slow to come to terms with being an “adult.” I use a definition from my step-daughter, an adult herself; what makes you an “adult,” she told me years ago, is knowing when you have to act like one.
Bateson claims that by having this new cycle in our lives we are becoming a different species. In much the way that adding a room changes our entire house, adding an extra 30-year phase should change the way we think about our whole life. This increased longevity requires us, she believes, to imagine a new way to “compose a life.”
Our concept of “retirement” and, even more fundamentally, our concepts of work must change. Otto von Bismarck created the first “retirement” plan in Germany in 1889. Bismarck set retirement age at 70, knowing that the average German worker never reached that age. In 1935, the U.S. instituted its own retirement plan and set the age at 65, when average life expectancy here was 61.7 years. We’re living with the same framework today, even though life expectancy for a woman my age is pegged at 84.8*, not 30 years more, but it hasn’t been 100 years since 1935 yet, either.
Built into the notion of “retirement,” Bateson says, is the assumption that work is a curse, and if we don’t want to work, what we will do with all that time? She (though not I) can imagine spending a year playing golf, but not 30 years. Rethinking the value of work in our lives is the task at hand, finding ways to contribute that mean something. She thinks we need a labor movement committed to adapting the circumstances of work so it’s satisfying, not something to escape. As I often do, I look to artists for ideas. Poets don’t generally retire from writing poems; sculptors may move away from back-breakingly large projects, but they don’t stop imagining and making work in three dimensions.
Bateson refers to liberation movements from the past – Black, gay, women’s. The act at the core of liberation movements is claiming the right to define oneself, to see ourselves differently, beyond both societal and internalized prejudices. She wants to change the assumption that age and the wisdom it can bring is sedentary. The new 30-year addition to our lives can, instead, be characterized as the age of “active wisdom,” a time to use what we’ve learned through a life, to take time to reflect on it and act with the stamina and energy that our relative health gives us.
A friend recently caught me in the midst of what no doubt sounded like the start an angry rant. I was sure I’d detected a patronizing shift in a telephone operator’s voice when I mentioned my age. With Bateson’s ideas fresh in my mind, I slid easily into talk about the need for a new liberation movement. Cathryn was tolerant but steady in describing her own comfort with and anticipation of withdrawing from the active work life she has led, especially in the past decade. She seemed to relish in advance the benefits of a slower pace and the opportunity to learn things more thoroughly. Her view pulled me out of the little lather I’d worked up. There are many ways of claiming those extra years, many ways of being “active.” Ultimately her view and mine may not be so much at odds.
* As I post this in early 2016, the life expectancy for a woman my age in the U.S. has increased to 86.5 years.
“I’m going to a baby shower and a death brunch,” Aviva told a neighbor in response to a question about her weekend. It was a Saturday morning in February in my dining room when she reported this with a grin to a tableful of some of my closest friends. We were gathered around a scrumptious meal Edie had made for us that started with a pureed parsnip soup topped with toasted walnuts, followed by a build-your-own Niçoise salad, and finished with homemade macaroons. Aviva, my stepdaughter, was one month from the due date for her second child. The baby shower the next day was for her; the “death brunch” was for me.
A quick caveat may be in order. As far as I know, though of course these things can’t be predicted, I’m not about to die. For now, I appear to be just about as healthy, energetic, and alert as a woman just beyond her 70th birthday can expect to be. To be sure, medical “issues” have accumulated over the years, but I’ve made peace with most of them.
Winter sun, mushroom death suits, and satin sheets
As we talked and laughed and told stories over brunch, the sun periodically broke through, lighting up my living and dining rooms with the special light that can only come from a low late-winter sun. Our talk was alternatively light and serious. We talked about how they’d get into my apartment in case of an emergency. My current home was fairly new to me, and I hadn’t made a very good plan for this yet. We took a close look at my power of attorney for health care, realizing we didn’t understand some of the language and discussed the differences between a health directive and a POLST (Physicians Orders for Life Sustaining Treatment). I have the first but not the second. Retired attorney friend Bob, who drew up the papers, couldn’t be with us, so plans were made to visit him in the next few weeks.
We talked, as we had in the past, about what funeral arrangements I want. This is a task I simply haven’t thought through very well yet. Earlier I had said that I don’t want my body to take up space, so cremation seemed right, and I had researched what Washington State law says about where ashes can be scattered legally. New ideas were also put on the table. I could, for instance, give my body to science. I was already listed as an organ donor on my driver’s license, so this would definitely make sense. A decision would still have to be made, though, about the disposition of the ashes after science was finished with my body.
Of course I could also, Tommer suggested, direct my body to be dressed in a Mushroom Death Suit and participate in artist Jae Rhim Lee’s “Infinity Burial Project.” Not only would the mushrooms in the suit aid in my body’s decomposition and decay (dust to dust, and all that), but the fungi would also neutralize chemicals and toxins that our bodies absorb over a lifetime. The introduction to the artist’s 2011 TED Talk called it a “special burial suit seeded with pollution-gobbling mushrooms;” it would be a very green way to go. The suit, which Lee wore as she talked, looked quite stylish: black with branch-like patterns of embedded spores waiting to be brought to life by a liquid culture after death.
Our topic included not only my eventual death but also emergencies I might not be able to handle alone. So we talked about some of my health and medical conditions, especially ones that had emerged recently. Earlier in the year, for example, I learned that I have Barrett’s esophagus, sort of an extreme version of GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), where the tissue lining the esophagus begins to resemble the lining of the intestine . . . not what you’d want if you had a choice. For one thing, Barrett’s increases the risk of esophageal cancer. Treatment aimed at preventing or slowing the syndrome’s progression includes instructions to allow 2-3 hours between eating and sleeping, and to raise the head of my bed by 3-4 inches. “Ah,” said Tommer, thinking I’m sure of a sloping bed, “I guess this means you’ll be giving up those fancy satin sheets!”
Endings were its beginning
Our Saturday brunch was the fifth of these gatherings. They got their start six years ago, about seven years after the end of a marriage. I’d finally made time to update my will to omit reference to a husband. When drawing up a will with a spouse it can seem easy to answer questions like who’s first in line to be executor, who has responsibilities in the event of health incapacities, or who knows where your accounts and all your stuff are stored. So without a spouse and with brothers spread far and wide, I turned to Aviva and some special friends who agreed to assume one responsibility or another.
It felt good to complete the revision, but I was also advised that it’s wise to review a will and health directive regularly, adjusting when necessary. “Fat chance,” I said to myself. If it took seven years to revise my will after a divorce, what on earth would get me to review it without an external kick?
Besides the divorce, another ending that led to these gatherings was the death of a close friend who had been an inspiration to me for 35 years. Along with five or six of her other close friends, I had visited Anne during the last eight or nine of her 94 years. She was fiercely independent and would not have been happy to know that “watching out” for her was on my mind when I visited. As these friends of Anne’s came and went in her daily life, we learned of each other. It occurred to me that we should share names, get ways to reach each other, and understand what roles we each played. And we should know how to contact the people who provided her key services – medical, financial, residential. So I put an annotated list together with what I knew and filled it out with help from all the others. I know the list was helpful to me, and I think it also was to others. After Anne died, I began to imagine a similar team and document of my own.
A file folder labeled, “My team,” sat nearly empty in a file cabinet for several years after Anne died until I realized that this team might also answer my need for a regular review of vital documents. The team included seven or eight people: some who had been given responsibilities in my will or my health directive and others who were close friends, next door neighbor, attorney, or bookkeeper.
How could I bring these pieces together? A party, of course!
A few facts provide context. First, it’s much easier to keep commitments to others than it is to keep commitments to myself. Second, I enjoy bringing people together – for conversation, celebration, parties. So I imagined convening my “team” periodically to thank them and celebrate their willingness to be there for me. We’d also review documents, discuss this last phase of life, and have a good time doing it.
An annual event seemed easier to remember than letting several years pass in between. And the date couldn’t be random but had to be tied to something I didn’t control. Putting it off would otherwise be way too easy. A solstice or an equinox would be perfect. I eliminated the solstices: summer comes when everyone’s trying to get away, and winter solstice falls too much in the midst of December holidays. Autumn equinox also comes at a busy time: school begins, work starts up again in earnest after the summer break, and civic and cultural programs kick into gear for a new season. So spring equinox became the date, and I refer to the friends who come together as my “Spring Equinox Team.”
Naw-Ruz, Hilaria, Festival of Isis, Higan no Chu-Nichi, Passover, Easter
After settling on the spring equinox, I discovered many reasons that the choice is even better than I’d imagined. On spring walks I tend to look for old fruit trees that show their age with knobby twists and turns in bark and branches but with blossoms as bright as on any other tree. Spring isn’t just for young trees or young people.
The spring equinox has been celebrated for millennia and by many cultures as a time of death and rebirth, of regeneration. I began to research the mythology and traditions of spring through time. Most mythological, spiritual, and religious traditions mark spring with festivals, celebrations, and high holy days. On the spring equinox Persephone returns to the earth after her six months in the underworld, bringing new life and vegetation. Hilaria, ancient Roman festivals, celebrated the Anatolian mother goddess Cybele on the spring equinox. Especially in the first few years of these get togethers, we talked of what spring means in our own lives. For our meal, we’ve often chosen foods traditional to spring celebrations – eggs, seeds, grains, fish, spring vegetables like asparagus and young greens.
Gatherings of my Spring Equinox Team take a lightly-structured form that keeps evolving over time. The first year, dinner was the main meal. For the second, we switched and made brunch the centerpiece to adapt to the sleep-nap-meal patterns of my then-one-year old granddaughter, Livia. I’ve not been very strict about hitting the equinox exactly; the date has ranged from early June, in a year when our schedules just didn’t synchronize, to early February this year, in anticipation of a second grandchild. And we missed a year when I moved to a new home at spring equinox time.
Each year, I update two documents: one with contact information for key people (brothers and other family, neighbors, doctors, close friends), and another full of other information that team members might need to know – about my will and health directive, overall health updates, financial files, thoughts about funeral instructions, storage locations, and so on.
What started as a way to make sure I review my will regularly has become much more than that. In fact, though we spent time reviewing my health directive this year, I haven’t looked closely at my will for a few years. More important has been the broad-ranging conversations we have together. We learn something one year that clears up a question from the previous year and takes it off next year’s list. Sources of information to answer specific late-life, end-of-life questions are much more readily available now than when we started, so some topics have fallen away.
We’ve talked about actions to take because I live “solo” and about what it means personally and societally that so many will live 20-30 years longer than people did just 100 years ago. The group helped me test my ideas about moving after 25 years living in one place. Over time, our conversations have become both deeper and lighter. We don’t feel as squeamish talking about what had initially been difficult.
During the first equinox party, Aviva was quite pregnant; about a month later, Livia Rose was born. After that Livia then came to all the equinox parties until this year. Everyone has had a chance to watch her grow, a year at a time. One of my favorite memories is of her standing out on my small garden deck, just bouncing up and down with apparent glee. This year, Aviva was again pregnant, and a few weeks later Henry Ellsworth David was born. With luck, he’ll be joining us next year.
Spring equinox has become a time to celebrate these cycles – baby showers and death brunches, circles of friends, and regeneration!
Shortly after I left one of my few “real” jobs, I was invited to be a kind of case study. Yikes! I thought. How do I prepare for that?
It was 2009. Renny Pritikin, museum curator and poet, had asked me to speak to a class in curatorial practice that he teaches at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco…no preparation necessary. He would just ask me questions – poking and prodding. He wanted to get students thinking about the real-life ramifications of their job choice. He wanted them to see another way to live a life in the arts. I would be an example, he wrote, of “someone with the courage to reinvent yourself, to make jobs for yourself rather than passively wait for someone else to hire you for their job.”
It certainly wasn’t the first time I’d reflected on the life I’ve made up for myself, but doing so in the context of a class more clearly raised questions I continue to ask, in evolving variations. What do I have to share and how can I share it? What does it mean to have gotten a living without having a job, and how do I live with some of the consequences? How are lives sustained when devoted to work that is not supported by market or government? Does my arts life affect my work, even when it doesn’t look like art? What are the practical implications of a life in the commons? What does it mean to be 70 and still kicking? How’s the best way to spend these “extra” years, years most people didn’t have 100 years ago and many don’t have now?
In a speech at a dinner celebrating his 70th birthday, Mark Twain spoke of standing unafraid and unabashed on his “seven-terraced summit.” I see it a little differently. It’s not just that I hope not to have reached the summit quite yet. I see my past as a seven-layered substructure that gives me something a little more solid to stand on than I had when I was twenty, a platform for building connections, having conversations, provoking questions, thinking deeply – a foundation for writing, learning, living, loving, and figuring out what to do with all my questions.
While I like thinking of myself as an aging commoner… deep down I aspire to cause a bit of a ruckus, to be une ancienne terrible. I take to heart my own words excerpted from a piece done for the Frye Art Museum in 2013:
Let’s raise up a music of sighs, the pale dew, the veils, the things that are hard to see, invisible and elusive. We’ll move in between, connecting as switches acting on genes. We’ll make shared spaces, soup pots and cauldrons, chambers and rooms.