Lessons Not Learned

I’m beginning to suspect that there are lessons I will never learn in this lifetime. Such as empty the compost bucket you forgot about before leaving for vacation as soon as you discover it rather than after writing a blog post. Or don’t plan a lunch date for every day the week you return from vacation because it might just stress you out.

Seeing that these changes may never happen is a little like the time I realized I wasn’t going to read everything of consequence that had ever been written or see the whole world or learn to speak three more languages. That happened in my late twenties, and I was pretty upset about it.

I am not so upset this time around, which feels like progress. My own recalcitrance and resistance to change still puzzle me, but most days they no longer appear to be faults that might knock the world off its axis. (There are, of course, days when a lot of chocolate is required to achieve this perspective.)

Also with age has come the ability to recognize incremental improvements. For example, I had the good sense to leave myself a free day between travel and returning to work, which is a rare accomplishment for me. Of course I spent much of it watching Arrested Development, but we mustn’t rush progress.

Note: I apologize for the inconsistency of blog posts this summer. With any luck, this post should mark a return to a more regular publishing schedule.

“There Must Come a Time – 70”

Seventy is far closer to the end of life than I want to contemplate, but my mom plans to enjoy the entire decade.

Mom is one of the only people I know who has rejoiced at getting older. At some point in her mid-sixties she said to me with great delight, “I’m a crone!” By which she didn’t mean the shriveled up old woman who lives in the scary house, but a wisdom figure, an elder who may choose to live in a scary house for fun if she so desires.

When we say, “She looks good for her age” we mean “She looks younger than she is.” I’m as attached as the next person to being mistaken for a student, but I can also already tell where the spots on the back of my hands will be—at least the first round. Without Mom’s example of aging gracefully, that might freak me out more than it already does. She has given me a priceless alternative to clinging to the appearance of youth or mourning its loss.

I have a friend who is ninety, and the last year has been difficult for her. I understand—as much as anyone still in the first half of her life can—that aging is not easy. But in our culture we so rarely celebrate the joys of getting older: learning that so few situations are do or die, worrying less about what people think, gaining wisdom from having seen your successes and your failures fade, finding depths in yourself when those you love die. Not everyone learns these with age, but I’m not sure anyone can learn them without it.

When I was organizing Mom’s birthday party recently, many invitees said to me, “I thought she was younger than that.” I don’t think a drop of moisturizer has ever touched my mom’s face, so either she has really good skin or something else accounts for true youthfulness.

It might have something to do with elasticity of spirit and willingness to hope. And it may be what we need to enjoy life regardless of the number of years we’ve accumulated. Whatever it is, you’ll find it in my favorite seventy-year-old. Happy birthday, Mom.

Built to Last

Two pieces of advice: 1) Don’t throw away your junior high yearbook. 2) If someone invites you to spend an evening with four best friends who haven’t seen each other in fifty years, do it. And stick around until the yearbooks come out.

I lucked into just such an evening recently. An old friend of my parents had recently attended her fifty-year high school reunion, and her closest friends from that time had gathered together for a few extra days. She invited my mom and me to spend an evening with the group. It didn’t occur to me until the drive home that I’d just been honored to spend an evening with my elders.

Because we don’t much practice respect for our elders, the term for me conjures up tribal matriarchs in smoky tepees giving sage and perhaps difficult to understand advice. This is wisdom—mysterious in both content and transmission.

The evening bore no resemblance to that picture. The stories told ranged from hopping on a stranger’s motorcycle with a frog in order to arrive in Calaveras in time to register for the jumping frog contest to sneaking into the priest’s side of the confessional and accidentally hearing someone’s confession, complete with absolution and penance.

This is real wisdom—the gathered stories and laughter of lives fully and well lived, a love that survives an absence of fifty years, the sharing of both. We don’t find wisdom by trying not to make mistakes, by staying safe, or by striving to be good, as I often mistakenly believe. Wisdom finds us when we wade into life, when we enjoy the ride, when we look on the other side of the screen.

I’m certain none of those present thought of the evening as anything other than time spent with good friends. I can’t think of a wiser use of an evening.