Alexandra Merrill: Aging Meaningfully

“I’m not done with my transformation.”

Alexandra Merrill, on the cusp of 80, quoting Stanley Kunitz in his poem, The Layers, which he wrote upon turning 90.

Zanda, as she is called, embodies aging meaningfully.

I’m proposing substituting “aging meaningfully” with the commonly used phrase “aging successfully,” which makes aging sound like a competition: either you age successfully or unsuccessfully. If one succumbs to a blue period, is she aging unsuccessfully? Aging meaningfully makes room for those days when you might feel like retreating or simply don’t feel well.

Each of us has to arrive at her own vision of meaningful aging. For those of us reaching for a way to conceive of our remaining years, Zanda offers food for thought.

Contemplating a Meaningful Older Life

I first met Zanda about ten years ago when I was living near her in Tenants Harbor, Maine. I was struggling with a love relationship and a friend recommended Zanda who offered conversations for clarifying one’s personal issues. They were a sideline to her retreats for women group leaders.

As Zanda describes her childhood during World War 2, it becomes apparent that her affinity for women’s circles can be traced to assisting in her grandmother and mother’s circles that were knitting socks and making bandages for the war effort.

A WW ll women’s knitting group similar to what Zanda joined as a girl

By the age of ten Zanda had incorporated her family’s creed to be of use in the world. She was also taught to be kind and to try not to do harm along with the reminder if one does something harmful, it’s important to make amends. To this day Zanda holds this philosophy central.

With a community engaged mother and an academic father, Zanda commented, “It never occurred to me not to work.” Her first job was as a public school teacher. Since she found herself more interested in the process of learning and how groups work over teaching content, she eventually left teaching to train as a group leader. This shift occurred in the 1980’s when Feminism’s second wave was in full swing.

Zanda embraced Feminism, creating her life’s work by integrating Feminist principles into her work with women’s circles. For the past 35 years she has been conducting retreats for women leaders. More recently she has been co-leading women’s retreats and retreats for all interested persons with astrologer Arifa Boehler.

When asked to reflect on her life as an older woman, Zanda expresses gratitude for her “secure retirement.” She finds her Elder stage to be one that “is slower, deeper and satisfying in a more gentle way.”

Zanda working with a women’s group in India, c. 2007

Zanda was careful to point out that sometimes being a white woman ‘Elder’ in the white world, which doesn’t often welcome its Elders, is not a simple process whereas most everywhere else she has travelled, especially in the communities of color, Elders appear to be received and well-held. Ageism intersects with misogyny and racism and classism everywhere she has been.

At present Zanda finds herself pondering:

What must I still learn?

What is there to teach?

What do I need to pass on?

How can I still be of service?

How can I use my remaining years in the service of compassion?

In response to the latter, Zanda finds meaning in her volunteer work with Hospice. She encounters the “cruelty of ageism” in the lonely patients she regularly visits. She is indebted to her Hospice work for “keeping me in the face of mortality and helping me not to get cynical. I am trying to stay present this way to the complexities of the world.”

“The cruelty of ageism” which often isolates older women

Zanda describes her quiet solo country life with an almost Buddhist reverence. She appears at peace with herself, without apologies for her life. When asked what advice she might have for older women who struggle with aging, she answered for herself, “I don’t want to be lamenting. I’m lucky to be alive.”

For Zanda a big perk of aging is being a grandmother. She lights up as she comments on the joys of grand parenting, noting that a grandparent’s job might be to provide “a safe house,” or “a place where my grandchildren can visit and bring their friends and be comforted.” She elaborates, “Being a grandparent means, “being able to hold space for whatever may evolve.”

The joys of being a grandmother: Lisa with her granddaughter, Gigi

Perhaps the essence of aging meaningfully is represented in Zanda’s commitment to her continuing growth: “There is no end to learning. I’m hoping that I won’t shut down to my own growth.”

For more information on Zanda’s retreats, “Patterns of Fate,” visit her website:

This post originally appeared on WOW Blog on June 6, 2017.

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