“I saw a 95-year-old Tararhumara man walking across these mountains,” Caballa begins. “Know why he could do it? Because no one told him he couldn’t.”
—-Christopher McDougall, The Men Who Live Forever
Mark comes home with a sealed envelope. He believes (or says he believes, anyway) it contains a thank you note for a recipe I sent Debbie, his office’s administrative assistant. In reality, the envelope contains tickets to Fleetwood Mac’s concert in Columbus next month, the weekend before his birthday. It’s a complicated, convoluted transaction, but it works. I have the tickets, and the seats are great.
Mark’s anticipating a big birthday, a birthday that ends in “0”… and starts with a 6. Soon, I’ll be married to a 60-year-old man. How did this happen so quickly?
I used to tell people that when we got married, Mark was in his 30’s and I was in my 20’s, implying that I’d married an older man. Of course, I was 29, and he had been 30 for a scant couple of months when we made it official in his cousin’s living room, her justice of the peace husband presiding. Isn’t it funny that even then,—young, young, young,—we were already joking about this age thing?
So we’ll go to this concert to celebrate what feels like a big passage, the passage into the 60’s decade, Mark the intrepid forerunner. We approach it with some dread; 60, after all, means OLD.
We have already experienced some of the things associated with aging in our culture. We are AARP members of long standing. We have had the lovely experience of tests that only over-50’s get to take…viva la colonoscopy! Parts tend to wear out. Mark is the proud owner-operator of two titanium knees.
In a way, it’s like standing at the top of a long slide. We had a long slow, climb to get to the platform at the top, but once we sit our butts down and push—oh, man. Downhill in a hurry.
Well that’s the common wisdom, anyway.
Wait–is it ‘wisdom’?
My friend Susan is organizing an honors program for the little college where we’re both employed, and she has a committee working on finding a common book for the group. One of their choices is Born to Run, a book about the Tarahumara of New Mexico. This tribe is renowned for their running prowess. I looked them up online and found an article in Men’s Health about their longevity. Christopher McDougall notes their habits–they like to party till they’re bleary-eyed, he writes, drinking beer and gambling. Not so different from self-indulgent, undisciplined Yankees.
And yet, there’s that 95-year-old meandering across the mountains.
To put this into context, I begin reading a book I was elated to find on Half Price Book’s clearance shelves–Betty Friedan’s Fountain of Age. Published in 1993, I think Friedan hoped it would do for golden-agers what The Feminine Mystique had done for women–busting open the myths that surround aging in America.
Friedan writes about the notion that age and infirmity are firmly linked–we believe we can’t have one without the other. So we expect, as we blur down that waxed slide, to ache and suffer…but maybe–probably–we’ll be too feeble-minded to know much about it.
Soooooo… that’s the good news, right?
Friedan points out that we automatically pair age with ill health and mental incapacity, thinking that all three lurk around the corner of 65. She notes that many people treat the elderly as kind of reverse children, talking to them condescendingly (I witnessed this in the supermarket yesterday, where a young clerk TALKED VERY LOUDLY AND VERY SLOWLY to a woman who was probably in her 80’s. That woman was kind and patient, but when she picked up her bag to go, she turned to me, rolled her eyes, and shook her head. The clerk assumed that because the woman was old, she was both deaf and what my mother called ‘simple’.)
But the exciting thing that Friedan uncovers, despite all the literature supporting the downhill trend of the ‘golden age,’ is that there is, in reality, a wonderful capacity for learning in the years beyond 60.
“I think,” writes Betty Friedan, “it is time we start searching for the fountain of age, time that we stop denying our growing older and look at the actuality of our own experience, and that of other women and men who have gone beyond denial to a new place in their sixties, seventies, eighties. It is time to look at age on its own terms, and put names on its values and strengths as they are actually experienced, breaking through the definition of age solely as deterioration or decline from youth.”
I think of Rosie, our well-loved former neighbor, who recently died. Rosie was 92, and had lived alone since her husband Babe died long before we knew her. She retired and began to garden, and she transformed her modest yard into a wonderland, experimenting with exotic blooms, growing and canning veggies, ripping things out when they threatened to overtake, to require too much work, to be dissonant with Rosie’s vision. She traveled with her sisters, flying across the continent to visit family, sometimes heading to Florida when the Ohio winters were a little too robust. She was not sick. She was not ‘forgetful.’ She was independent and vibrant until a day or two before she died, when she reported to her younger brother that she didn’t feel quite right.
I think of Mark’s parents, living in the family homestead at ages 94 (Angelo) and 80 (Patricia). Last year, they had the house wired for Internet; Pat is an enthusiastic newcomer to the world of Facebook.
Heck, I think of Fleetwood Mac. I look them up on Wikipedia and see they’ve been together, in one configuration or another, since 1967. Mick Fleetwood is 67; Stevie Nicks is 66. Still rockin’ their concerts, moving and shaking Boomers–and children and grandchildren of Boomers, too.
Maybe, like McDougall writes about that 95-year-old on the mountain, no one ever mentioned to the members of Fleetwood Mac that they’re ‘supposed’ to slow down.
Maybe we all need to develop that kind of selective deafness.
Maybe there’s still a whole lot left to learn.