The Palm of your Hands

I won’t do the math or muster up more metaphors of clocks measured in years; I’m sixty-two. How old that is, really, is hard to say. Some days, like those this past week, I can hike miles upon miles up steep slopes in the very thin atmosphere of seven thousand feet in 100 degree weather, and no matter how many times I had to stop and scratch my last will and testament into a stone, my need to push on and finish—really, my passion to reach our destination—was never in question, and not only did I make it, I felt a new surge of energy once I did. Screw you sixty-two.

But other times pulling myself out of bed to go for a walk at sea level is akin to clawing my way through dirt and stone out of a grave. It’s not that I can’t breathe; it’s that I really don’t feel like it anymore.

When I worked at the health club in New England, one thing the owner drilled into us during long weeks of training: the vast majority of our members’ primary problem would not be weight, it would be depression or anxiety or, worst of all, apathy. The weight would be a symptom of a deeper problem more difficult to address.

I’ll never forget sitting in my small office with the owner of the club and a member who needed to lose more than one hundred pounds. She asked point blank if she looked as fat as she felt and without missing a beat he responded, “Yes, of course!”

I looked for a hole in the floor to drop through.

But then, also without missing a beat, he added, “Did you want me to lie to you? That would only help you continue to lie to yourself. But so what? It is who you are! You want to feel better about your life! Of course you want to lose the weight, but more importantly, you need to stop feeling bad about yourself! You’re beautiful, no matter how other people make you feel! You need to surround yourself with people who make you feel good about yourself! Then you will, and the weight will be easier to address.”

She cried at the truth. It’s like he knew her pain firsthand, and, of course, he did. I stopped thinking of her and started thinking of me and nearly cried right there at my truth. This was almost forty years ago. It’s still that difficult sometimes. Today is a good example; when clarity sets in.

But at some point, it’s time to stop apologizing for who you are and start being honest with yourself and, in turn, others. It’s time to stop apologizing to others because the choices you make are not the one’s they wanted you to.  

“Your first step is not into this studio with Bob,” he added. “It is to find the courage to be honest with yourself and say to everyone, ‘This is me!’ and ‘This is what I’m going to do about it. People who don’t support you are probably the cause of the problem to begin with.”

Some of us wait in hope some solution falls in our lap, but we end up with the same problems decades on.

Some of us want everyone else to be happy but end up unable to pull ourselves out of bed.

Some of us worry about what others will think and explain ourselves instead of finally saying, “You want to know what happened, ask. You want to know how I feel, ask.”

Some of us are afraid to close any doors in fear we chose the wrong ones; we “wanted it perfect but waited too long,” as lyricists Marilyn and Alan Bergman wrote.

Some are martyrs, some are indifferent, or most tragic of all, frozen in fear of shattering what little hope they still have, what little life we still have. Some of us know exactly what to do to change our lives and get back on track, whether it be as challenging as losing weight the equivalent of another human, or simply being honest with ourselves and not rationalizing away the years.

I’m sixty-two-years-old. Sort of. I’m twenty-six. Kind of.

I’m eligible for Social Security. I’m walking nearly twenty-thousand steps a day.

Sure there are legitimate problems for which simply willing them away won’t work. But at the very least we need to stop inviting the problems inside, allowing them to fester, allowing them to dictate, to decide, to die with us or tear us apart.

Certainly, age is relentless. It is persistent and patient. Not one fat second will lose an ounce on our account. My students quip, “Oh man, you’re that old!” and I’ve learned to say, “Yeah. I am. And not so long ago I was twenty-three, and I nailed it. I did twenty-three great, but nothing like I did twenty-four and thirty two and…. It’s not the age, people, it’s how you do the age.

It’s my call: I can wallow in the reality that I’ve entered the fourth quarter, or I can keep climbing, through thin air and dry lungs, keep climbing. Richard the club owner was right: nothing improves, nothing, nothing at all improves until you start to feel good about yourself.

“Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock people. Times ticking away.” Yeah, at some point, it’s time to feel good again.

There’s More than One Way of Growing Old

Suddenly, it’s New Year’s Day, and since I’m not really doing anything except literally watching the clock and growing older, I’m wondering how many people completely start over—I mean absolutely begin again—at sixty-one. Now seems like a good time to consider this, being the month of Janus and all, the God of Doors and All Things to Come. Plus I couldn’t sleep.

This particular contemplation of “what’s next” is not random for me. I no longer teach full time after almost three decades at one college, the other college where I had hoped to continue teaching Arts and Humanities completely shut down because of Covid, and while I do teach a few classes at yonder university, and I do have a new memoir coming out soon, it turns out the world of Readings and Gigs and Workshops has ebbed into the Coronavirus Sea.

So, I looked for some examples of others who, as Janis Ian proclaims, “Make it when they’re old, perhaps they’ve got a soul they’re not afraid to bare.” It is time, after all, to note that, as T.S. Elliot points out, “Next year’s words await another voice, and to make an end is to make a beginning.”

Well, we shall see:

Grandma Moses didn’t start painting at all until she was seventy-six.

Frank McCourt, author of Angela’s Ashes, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Award, didn’t start writing until he was sixty-five.

Another writer, Laura Ingalls Wilder, started writing the Little House on the Prairie series at sixty-five.

Fauja Singh ran his first marathon at eighty-nine (luckily if I choose this path I can wait twenty-eight years before getting off of the couch).

Harland Sanders established Kentucky Fried Chicken when he was in his sixties.

And apparently Moses didn’t part the Red Sea until he was eighty years old.

And for God’s sake, Noah was six hundred years old when the waters started to rise.

Hell, I’m going back to bed.

Truthfully, it isn’t about starting over, really. We make resolutions this time of year to lose weight and exercise and save money and volunteer more, and those are common ambitions for a good reason: they’re admirable goals, apt adjustments to our otherwise well-planned life. Emerson tells us that “the purpose of life is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate and have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” I must do all of those things, for certain. But a slight adjustment simply won’t cut it.

It isn’t enough to wonder what all of us can do, but what each of us can do, what is my particular purpose, my part in the plan? Certainly, the atmosphere isn’t exactly conducive to positive change. Maybe its Covid, or perhaps it is the endless bickering and childish spats at all levels of government–all levels of society really–that I thought would be history by the time I became an adult. Really, I seriously grew up believing my generation was the one that would clean the world, bring peace to all countries, and create a more inclusive society. I know it was innocent and naïve, of course, and I didn’t really expect some land of Oz, but I also didn’t expect this pathetic disaster we still call humanity. We are a mess; our supposed “intelligent life” turned out to have little compassion for each other, and it is stressing me out more than my meds can handle. I don’t understand why it all gets to me and brings me down. It just does. I know that “a happy soul is the best shield for a cruel world,” as Atticus wrote. But listening to the news is akin to swimming in toxins, and it has become overwhelming, drowning out whatever happiness takes root. Something has to change–if not out there, certainly in here.

It helps to have a distinct starting-over point. A few times each year—birthdays, Spring equinox, for educators the first day of classes, and New Year’s Day for us all, we can take a deep breath and make some sort of commitment to do some small part; maybe not by changing the world, but by changing ourselves. I can only speak for me.

Of course, I need to save more money, exercise more, lose a little weight, and spend more time volunteering. And I will. But I need something else. Something more personal and more essential.

The clock is ticking while I’m distracted by society’s bad energy, spending valuable time on meaningless banter. I need to get back to me and remind myself, as Dan Fogelberg sang, that “there’s more than one way of growing old.” I need to take more chances and figure out which dreams I simply refuse to allow to fade before I die. Not all of my imaginings are realistic, of course. Certainly I can narrow down the list with some rationale: I can probably toss out the Wimbledon win and playing outfield for the Mets. I’m confident the circumnavigation of the world is sliding off the list as well, as is winning an Academy Award for directing.

But I’ve noticed a few elements common in those people who achieved later in life:

They’re not afraid to fail.

They’re not afraid to embarrass themselves.

They’re not afraid to be transparent.

They’re not afraid to be ridiculed, mocked, trolled, dissed, and dismissed.

And the ones criticizing the loudest are the ones on the sidelines. Paulo Coelho writes, “Those who never take risks can only see other people’s failures.” Yes.

With that in mind it occurs to me most of my successes came in the midst of countless failures for most of my life; I have embarrassed myself in front of crowds at least since I’m nineteen, I remain pretty open about myself, and as a professor and a writer, I have suffered a steady barrage of ridicule, mockery, and dismissal.

And now it’s New Year’s, and in less than two years the planet has lost 5.5 million people from Covid alone. I’m sure a disturbingly large percentage of those lost souls never completed the dreams they had not yet grown too old to achieve. Let that thought hang here for a second.

You and I still have some dreams. And we’re still here. And in the words of Hamlet: “I do not know why yet I live to say, ‘This Things to do.'”

***

Some of us are simply mentally exhausted. Why do we get so tired? Why do we have such little faith in ourselves? Is it ignorance—we have truly no clue where to begin with some of this? Is it a fear of wasting our time? “I’m just going to gain the weight back,” people rationed when I worked for Richard Simmons. We used to tell those who wanted to quit that in everything in life we have two options: I will attempt this and do what’s necessary to succeed, or I will not bother trying because I’m likely to quit anyway or simply do not have the energy. Some succeeded, some tried but quit, and some signed on with those famous “good intentions” but didn’t bother to show up.

Which group do I want to be in when I’m older? When I am near the end of the end, what would I have been successful at if I had just, well, showed up? Today’s a fine day to think about this because more and more I’m finding myself sliding into that third group, and that must become unacceptable. “I’m too old to change now,” I’ve heard friends say. That’s fine for those who found their place, and sometimes I feel the same way. But for some, life is too short to simply run out the clock.

I’ve shared this next part before, I’ve read it to my students, I read it to the people who came to my classes at Richard’s, and I’ve memorized it. It is from Joseph Zinker at the Gestalt Institute:

If a man in the street were to pursue his self, what kind of guiding thoughts would he come up with about changing his existence? He would perhaps discover that his brain is not yet dead, that his body is not dried up, and that no matter where he is right now, he is still the creator of his own destiny. He can change this destiny by taking his one decision to change seriously, by fighting his petty resistance against change and fear, by learning more about his mind, by trying out behavior which fills his real need, by carrying out concrete acts rather than conceptualizing about them, by practicing to see and hear and touch and feel as he has never before used these senses, by creating something with his own hands without demanding perfection…We must remind ourselves, however, that no change takes place without working hard and without getting your hands dirty. There are no formulae and no books to memorize on becoming. I only know this: I exist, I am, I am here, I am becoming, I make my life and no one else makes it for me. I must face my own shortcomings, mistakes, transgressions. No one can suffer my non-being as I do, but tomorrow is another day, and I must decide to leave my bed and live again. And if I fail, I don’t have the comfort of blaming you or life or God.

It’s New Year’s Day, and we all know this year, like last, is simply unlike any we’ve had before, but for me, this year seems different, more urgent. When you think about it, if the bills are paid and your health is cooperating, the best approach is to “enjoy the passing of time.” But some of us need to also untether whatever limitations we’ve placed upon ourselves because of routine or fear or society’s expectations, and live a bit more before the living is over.

People do it all the time.

I know a man who joined the Peace Corp at seventy-five.

Another who learned French and became a translator at seventy-one.

There are barriers to these resolutions, to be certain. Pressure, stress, money, fear, and sheer exhaustion. Age; dear, persistent and unyielding age. The obstacles can seem insurmountable, but as Moliere said, “The greater the obstacle, the more glory in overcoming it.” Still, on top of this, those battling depression have to also face those internal voices telling us there’s no point, those for whom the “resolve” in resolution can be a monumental task, those for whom as a friend of mine recently noted, “no longer care if there’s a light at the end of the tunnel; I’m tired of the tunnel.” But none of us, I am not wrong about this, none of us wants to reach the point of death, as Thoreau reminds us, only to find out we never really lived at all, and, even worse, never even tried.

For me, this year’s New Year’s resolution is simple: start something worth finishing.

So,

“If you don’t lose patience
With my fumbling around
I’ll come up singing for you
Even when I’m down

I’ll come up singing.”

Happy New Year everyone.

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Fauja Singh
Still running marathons, here at 100