I conducted a full-day workshop yesterday. A few months ago I wouldn’t have thought it possible. Oh, not that I couldn’t run a workshop — I wouldn’t have accepted the job if I thought I couldn’t make it through the day. No, what surprised was how alive I felt. How much energy I had that day into the next. How I’d come back to a place I’d never expected to be again — at 79 no less! Obviously, I had to reevaluate how I thought of myself, my age and what I was still capable of doing.
Most of my life, I’ve had to reach beyond my physical abilities in order to accomplish whatever goal I set for myself. (When in my thirties and forties I worked as a sculptor, I created pieces that went way beyond my actual strength, building them by dint of will alone.) If I was felled by an accident or illness, once the situation resolved itself, it was as if it had never happened. I would return to “normal” as if nothing untoward had occurred.
In my early fifties I became a Pilates’ devotee attending classes two and three times a week. Pilates propelled me back to how I felt in my late teens/early twenties when I studied dance under Martha Graham. I knew I wasn’t capable of doing what I’d done in Martha’s classes, but just doing the movements, knowing Martha worked with Joseph Pilates, made me feel young again. Then my body betrayed me. First I damaged my shoulder — insanely taking up tennis — this from someone who had flunked gym in high school. Shoulder surgery ensued and it took months to get back to where I’d been. Then I damaged my knee ballroom dancing and once again I had to fight to regain what I’d lost. Only this time I couldn’t. While I was still enormously flexible — something I’d always been — the onset of arthritis made movements painful. My instructors kept telling me to accept where I was on any given day; to stop comparing my present self to my former one. I got to a point where Pilates was no longer a joy. I found myself weeping during sessions. Depression ensued. I quit and started to work out at a gym. (I knew — like fish oil — it would be good for me.) And while I accepted my new normal, I still got up, out and at it daily, worked long hours, travelled for business and ignored whatever changes were taking place in my body. I kept at bay any thoughts that pointed up the obvious: I was aging.
Then, around age 75, all that changed. I found my will to battle life and my body waning. It started with the workshops. For almost thirty years I’d had no problem giving the same exercises, telling the same stories as I coached the various presentation skill sessions — much like an actor who goes on stage every night breathing new life into the same lines with each new audience. And even if I had a repeater or two in a particular group, I knew that workshop participants would not remember everything they had seen or heard the first time. Minds wander; memories alter and fade. Then, four years ago, the thought of saying, “You are there to take care of an audience; the audience is not there to take care of you!” one more time, exhausted me. So I swore off holding more sessions, sold my home of forty years, moved into my present digs, and here and there worked with clients.
Once again my body intruded. I needed knee replacement surgery; had a heart attack and a stent (I’m fine!) and then a year ago received a diagnosis of CLIPPERS — a weird auto-immune disease — one most doctors have yet to hear of. It is controlled by heavy doses of steroids which is what I’m on. The accumulation of these onslaughts had me more aware than ever that time was dwindling. That this time not only did I have to accept my new normal, but I had to act accordingly. Or so I believed.
My sense is that each of us reacts to the vicissitudes of aging by behaving as we always have. If health allows, the intrepid among us will grab onto each moment racing from event to event until we collapse. One friend who is six months older than me can be on her exercise bike in the morning, see her daughter for lunch, take in a movie in the afternoon, practice piano for three hours, meet a friend for dinner and a show, and be back up at it the next day. This in spite of a condition that would have anyone else sitting it out. When questioned about her extraordinary energy, she answered, “It’s how I’ve always been!” In stark contrast to my friend, I have never been able to absorb that much stimuli at one time. So not rushing about, staying indoors when it hits 20 degrees outside, isn’t new. What’s new is that I began to think I would never be fully alive again. That, I should behave much like my mother before me who decided not to have surgery that could have prolonged her life at 83. That I, too, would go gently into the good night. No raging against it. No living fully to the end.
The workshop experience has changed all that.
Coming back from an illness can be difficult at any time in one’s life. People gather round you when you’re ill. You are taken care of, doted on, surrounded by kindness and concern. Then as you improve, people get back to their own lives and you are left to find the wherewithal to rally alone. The transition can be difficult at any age. But as one ages, it becomes even harder. We might not have as much to come back to. We know we’re on a countdown rather than a count up. Of course, at 79 I am not where I was at 69, 59 or 49 (I’ll stop there.) But the workshop day had me recalling a visit many years ago to my nephrologist who had seen me through a two-year bout with a previous auto-immune disease. As I walked into his office from the examining room, he demanded to know why I was stooped over. “Stop walking like that. You’re well! Stand up straight!” And, much to my surprise, I was able to. I’d been hunched over for so long, I didn’t know I could.
My point being that none of us know what we are capable of, at any age, unless we try. As my seventy-nine year old friend put — the one who is Ms. Energy plus — it just gets harder to do. And while the easy chair often reaches out to me with a warm enveloping embrace, I plan to resist its charms. If invited to speak, I will accept without fear that perhaps I will not be up to the task. I will book the safari trip to celebrate my 80th. And I will put words to paper for as long as they come. The point is that no matter what age I am, I can still strive, thrive and remain fully alive. In other words I will aim to be who I’ve always been for as long as I possibly can.
Have a look!