For my 70th birthday, I looked forward to proudly proclaiming my age in order to bask in the obligatory “I would never have known,” and “You don’t look that old.” I planned my replies: Should I credit my Pilates training? Or admit that I take after my always boyish-looking father?
Seventy is the new 60 would be my mantra.
It didn’t turn out that way.
Time was irrelevant in my 20s and was still a friend in my 30s. Time seemed infinite in my 40s and all things were still possible in my 50s. Even in my 60s I thought I had time to accomplish lifelong goals.
Now that I’ve passed over to the other side of 69, I can testify that 70 hit me hard.
At 70 I can’t procrastinate.
At 70 you face the brick wall. However you want to improve your soul, whatever you hope to pass on to the next generations, whatever good you will do in the world — if you thought you would have time for it later, now is later. You need to start immediately.
The writer of Psalm 90 pleads: “The days of our life are 70 years, or perhaps 80, if we are strong. They are soon gone, and we fly away. So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.”
I’m giving myself the next five years for long-term goals: write my book, renovate our house, exercise to stay healthy, and, hardest of all, deal with a Cellar Full of Stuff so my children won’t have to deal with it. Sure, I might live 26 more years, if I take after my mother. But I have already outlived my father.
And if it’s hard to stop procrastinating at 70, imagine how decrepitude can sap the will at 80 and beyond.
To set the stage I planned to spend part of my birthday day at the Princeton Cemetery, the one smack in the middle of town, across from the Princeton Public Library. Partly I wanted to honor my high school English teacher, Frances, who took a liking to the cemetery when she visited us some 20 years ago. She’s been a good role model in how to gracefully accept the limitations of growing old.
Mostly I figured it would be a quiet place to pray and meditate and, literally, contemplate my mortality, not in a morbid way but in a “let’s get the show on the road” kind of way.
I picked up a cemetery guide and wandered around in the patch nearest to Wiggins Street. Twenty-five years ago, I had recognized only the historic names. Now, within a 20-foot square, I found three people I had known or reported on.
Settling in a shady spot, I looked for answers in Rabbi Harold Kushner’s “Living a Life That Matters,” which I’d just checked out of the library. Kushner and I are on the same wave length. He tells how Jacob prayed for advance warning that his time was coming to an end, that he might share last thoughts with those who would carry his name, his memory, and his values into the next generation.
Okay. Got that part. But I’m saying that elders of whatever age shouldn’t wait until the end. In her 96th year, my mother was OK one day and gone the next. I knew her values, I’d helped her write down her memories, and I was able to honor her claim that everything in her chock-full house had value. But only after my sister and I had finished selling and giving away most everything did we find my mother’s carefully written inventory of the provenance and value of each object. If we elders have something to say, we should do it now, not wait until our last breath.
Warns Kushner: “Most people are not afraid of dying, they are afraid of not having lived — the dread of insignificance, the notion that we will be born and live and one day die and none of it will matter.”
Here we differ. If I thought my life until now hasn’t mattered I would really be frantic. I’ve been blessed with many opportunities and — within the limits of job and family obligations — have tried to use them. What I do fear is the very real chance that I will fritter away the rest of my time.
Yes, I want to enjoy my leisure like any other retiree — travel, read, attend lectures, visit grandchildren. But turning 70, for me, has got to resemble the biggest New Year’s resolution ever made, and somehow in my elderly, supposedly wiser self, I must find the discipline to keep it.
Self discipline is not my strong point. I thrive on short deadlines, wilt on long ones, and habitually bite off more than I can chew. It runs in the family. When I cleaned out my father’s files, virtually every letter started with an apology for not responding more promptly. A cancer research scientist and a medical school professor, my father always had more ideas than time. After he died, my mother dealt with loneliness by keeping so busy that sometimes, when her grandchildren offered to visit, she had to turn them down.
My retirement isn’t the cold turkey kind. To keep my brain working I still freelance the occasional article to U.S. 1. Warned by other too-busy retirees, I started out by trying to limit my activities to those that could make a difference in the world, but, whoosh, before I could turn around, I had a time management problem.
To represent the newspaper I serve on the Princeton Regional Chamber board and attend high-tech entrepreneurial meetings. For my church I joined the board of Not in Our Town, which works to combat prejudice and racism, and pitched in on several big projects.
The biggest time sink is my blog, Princeton Comment. It makes me happy, but it consumes me. I’ll get up in the morning, read the newspaper, have a Thought that relates to my two decades at U.S. 1, and spend the next two hours doing a post. Or I’ll be so impressed with a speaker that I’ll want to record his thoughts for posterity.
And then I started to Tweet. And then I began to hone my speaking skills. And then I started to get back to writing dance reviews. And then. And then.
You get the picture. But until I turned 70, I didn’t. Am I crazy? How can I keep up this pace and also lower my blood pressure, find inner peace, be more present to my dearest and nearest, and accomplish my long-term goals — in short, attain a “wise heart.”
I went home and consulted my bookshelf, where I found Sam Wang’s book “Welcome to Your Brain: Why You Lose Your Car Keys but Never Forget How to Drive and Other Puzzles of Everyday Life,” written with Sandra Aamodt. Wang is one of my favorite Princeton professors; I’ve heard him speak three times. Like my father, he studies the brain and explains science in informal ways.
Wang cautions that age can deplete willpower, but he gave me hope, saying that willpower is a muscle that seems to become stronger with use. In our 70s, we begin to lose a set of abilities called “the executive function,” not just the memory but also the part of our brain that helps us focus, despite distractions, and process and respond to ideas. It also allows us, he writes, “to select behavior that’s appropriate to the situation and inhibit inappropriate behavior.” ` Wang’s antidote to losing executive function: Exercise. “When inactive people get more exercise, even starting in their 70s, their executive function improves. As little as 30 to 60 minutes of fast walking several times a week can effectively improve brain function.”
Sticking to the exercise program strengthens our willpower muscle. “People who stick to an exercise program for two months report reducing their impulsive spending, junk food intake, alcohol use, and smoking. They also study more, watch less television, and do more housework.”
So a brisk, daily 30-minute walk will tamp down my potentially zany behavior, preserve my brain, and help me get more done? That should be a no-brainer.
To help me, I have my husband’s example. George credits his 40-year jogging regimen with helping to save his life; he is both a heart attack and a cancer survivor. Currently he has the much coveted designation of NED, no evidence of disease. But we have had some brushes with death.
This next section deals plainly with death, and you may want to skip it if you are recently bereaved or have had a loved one diagnosed with a terminal illness. I couldn’t discuss the subject for the first months after my mother died.
I do have a strong faith, but the real reason I’m neither reticent nor squeamish about the subject is my background. My father was in charge of an Anatomy Board, which administers body donations. When my sister and I were 10 and 13 and our parents were out, we took the calls that came to our home phone number at night. We knew to say, “No embalming, keep it refrigerated, call us in the morning.” And among my favorite childhood memories is the acrid smell of formaldehyde as I sat on a stool watching my father deftly dissect a cadaver. I proudly say, “My father is a skeleton in somebody’s closet” because he had arranged for his own corpse to be transformed into a visual aid.
Also I have been an Army wife. Military families of any age must be combat ready, with all the “end-of-life” plans in place.
And I’m a life member of the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Princeton, previously known as the Princeton Memorial Association. It promotes informed and advanced planning for funeral and memorial arrangements. My plan, of course, is to donate my body to a medical school.
Why do I even bring up an upsetting subject? Because the time to think about it is when it’s least painful, when you have NOT been diagnosed with a terminal illness. I know this from experience. When I drove my husband to the hospital for open heart surgery, that was no time to start discussing where he wanted to be buried.
If you have not put your affairs in order when you were in your 40s, 50s, or 60s, your 70s is your last good chance. The closer you get to meeting (take your pick) St. Peter or the Grim Reaper, the harder it is to bring yourself to think about it. Your survivors will be grateful, and in fact, your well-laid plans may be among your most appreciated legacies.
The good result of my husband’s ill health experience is that we count our blessings daily and appreciate life more. Carpe Diem is the motto for cancer survivors. As Christiane Northrup says (she’s a public television medical guru and author of “Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom”), “Those who have had a serious illness know that illness is the biggest gift we could ever have. It pushes you back into your soul, where you must find your deep gladness, and it is your deep gladness that will bring you back to life.”
I looked up the source of her quote, from Frederick Bruechner, Presbyterian minister and Princeton University graduate, Class of 1948. I found it in his book “Wishful Thinking,” as “The place God calls you to is where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
The world’s deep hunger? My deep gladness? After all these years I can’t identify which of my joys is my primary one. And I don’t think I should throw myself into solving any world problems. Get your infrastructure in place, I’m telling myself. Get your mental and physical bags packed. Don’t be like your mother, a globe trotter whose frequent trips were preceded by chaos at departure time. Be like your friends Lou and Susan, who start packing their suitcases the week before they leave for vacation, assembling their stuff in an organized way. They put their suitcases in the car the night before they leave, wake up in the morning, and drive off, carefree, at dawn.
I need to get my stuff done now. Then with willpower and a wise heart I can blog, Tweet, gad about, travel, or serve wherever the deep gladness takes me. Carpe Diem.