AGILE AGING AT THREE (May 31, 2022)
I was surprised to discover that May marks this blog’s third anniversary, with 50 posts already published. The writing project still feels fresh; there’s seldom a shortage of new topics for monthly exploration. As for the mindful aging the blog was launched to encourage, each day convenes a continuing seminar.
On the other hand, May 2019 seems an eon away. The main reason is probably that the intervening period has been so action-packed. We’ve witnessed Trump’s defeat, denial and a violent insurrection. International stability is being throttled by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Nancy’s and my personal lives have been totally reshuffled by relocating to a retirement community. Dominating both these macro and micro domains have been COVID’s disruptive invasion and stubborn resurgences. Retirement was supposed to be a transition to tranquility. Instead, we’ve been riding a roller-coaster.
Short or long, three years seems a fitting period for stock-taking. What have I been learning about how to blog? More important, about how to age? Here are some candid self-assessments. As always, I’ll value your feedback and your reciprocal progress reports. firstname.lastname@example.org.
REVIEWING THE BIDDING: WHAT I SET OUT TO DO
I’d forgotten the details but a scroll back through this project’s inaugural posts retrieves my original objectives. Two simultaneous influences brought Agile Aging into being. At my 50th law-school class reunion, a panel of experts “urged us to think and act affirmatively as we aged.” Resisting this counsel, several of my classmates spoke out passionately against retirement; what they did for a living had morphed into who they had become. Two days after this gathering, my older brother’s sudden passing “was a sharp reminder of death’s unpredictability.” Spurred into action, I contemplated writing about age and aging as an affirmation and an aspiration. Celebrating seniority as respectable and respected, as I’d repeatedly observed during 15 years living in Italy. And identifying attitudes and activities to convert predisposed optimism into dedicated practice. Nancy persuaded me that a blog would be more flexible than a book, and a channel for inviting feedback and dialogue.
What began to flow in at-first fortnightly (later monthly) installments were brief essays combining my personal experiments and experiences with expert opinions, peer profiles and readers’ contributions. I tried to be honest about seniors’ declining capacities and mobility, while trumpeting our free time, opportunities and accrued resources. Posts interspersed my own road-trip journals with others’ innovative adventures and courageous struggles. Serenity was a recurring theme, sketched with recommendations for reading, walking, swimming, meditating and even Nancy’s and my restorative “solo retreats.” At times, I plunged into national and international affairs, often in despair, sometimes counter-balanced with hope. Through the months and years, my focus tacitly evolved from anticipating old age to traversing it.
WHAT I’VE BEEN LEARNING ABOUT BLOGGING
Producing this blog has remained a diversely satisfying senior project. More a creative passion than a hobby, the joy of writing remains intense as the craft becomes more natural. In particular, I’ve learned to risk exposing and sharing more personal feelings, instead of keeping readers at a distance with analytical analysis. The ambit has steadily expanded. Posts now reach an audience approaching 2,000: high-school, college and law-school classmates, professional colleagues, worldwide friends, retirement-community neighbors and self-selecting subscribers.
A steady flow of feedback confirms what’s working well. Most readers prefer stories to essays. Multiple voices and experiences are particularly valued: Peer Profiles and guest contributors’ recollections. My book reviews stir wide interest. Accompanying photos (mostly by Nancy and from Shutterstock) make an unfailing hit; they add color and depth to the tales. Most appreciated by far are posts about growing old: what I (and others) are experiencing; and how we feel (not think) about it. Many readers send word back that they too are navigating parallel passages – especially, loss of loved ones and diminishing capacities. Wrenching anecdotes resonate as much as uplifting ones.
MY ATTEMPTS AT AGILE AGING
This project has always been about learning how to age gracefully, not merely how to write about it. For the first year or so, I believe I made considerable progress in practicing what I was preaching. Unashamedly embracing age and aging. Cherishing spare time, without rushing to fill it up. Savoring the freedom of not working. Gearing down. Taking byways not freeways.
COVID lockdowns clipped all of our wings. With a super-vigilant retirement-community administration, for long months Nancy’s and my personal worlds virtually shrank to apartment walls and the property’s perimeter road. Despite that confinement, after years living and working in developing countries, we were relatively self-reliant and calm. Without children or grandchildren, we did not suffer, like so many neighbors, from being cut off from loved ones. Pandemic isolation may even have enhanced my adjustment to agile aging. Enforced immobility invited absorption in reading, writing, listening to music, and meditating.
When governmental restrictions began to relax, we were initially chary. Simple grocery-store errands seemed risky. Who were those unmasked strangers? Through trial and error, we developed family routines for more ambitious roadtrips.
Ironically, longed-for re-emergence now seems to be complicating and compromising my agile-aging progress. In our retirement community as well as nationally, the release of pent-up energies is driving a burst of social interactions. For me, this has translated into accepting invitations to contribute to elder-village governance: serving on the Residents’ Association Board and participating in the search process to recruit a new Executive Director. Drawing on my professional background as a governmental policy advisor to help make our community function more effectively feels like a responsible public service. But, in tandem with my bouts of alarm over political and economic turmoil, I sense this creeping engagement is destabilizing my equilibrium. Just when I’d thought I was getting the hang of mindful seniority, my dedication is weakening, along with my equanimity.
On Sunday mornings, Nancy and I like to slip away from our retirement-community campus, selecting one of a half-dozen area cafes to enjoy a quiet latte and pastry, a change of scene and a respite. This family custom started when living in Italy, where the local coffee bar was a beckoning oasis.
On a recent morning, we finished our snack at La Baguette and strolled past vibrant flowerbeds at the Stanford Mall. It was early hours so we shared the elegant spaces with only the occasional worker arriving for a shift. At the end of our 15-minute loop, Nancy took my hands and asked if I was aware what had just happened. Although her gesture and tone were surprising, I realized instantly what she meant. During our entire restorative walkabout, I’d been rattling on with a blow-by-blow recap of a New York Times feature. Why had one Amazon warehouse’s labor-organizing campaign brilliantly succeeded while a second miserably failed? What explained the discrepancy? Was this a national precedent? How did it relate to an elder-campus lecture I’d just hosted? No detail in my account was too trivial. And meanwhile, I’d totally missed the delphiniums and snapdragons, the obedient Labradoodle, and my silent wife’s companionship.
In this and follow-up chats, we exchanged concerns that my senior serenity was being squeezed. Nancy observed that my living-room stack of borrowed library books was no longer getting read and returned. I confirmed my diminishing fidelity to daily walks or swims. Even with the return of pleasant afternoon temperatures, I hadn’t resumed my prior pattern of patio meditations. Between dashing off to campus caucuses and getting depressed by geopolitical conflicts, I was making room for stress in my life by giving up peace of mind. When I confided that I was considering freeing up scheduling space by taking a summer hiatus from blog-writing, Nancy whispered “You’re breaking my heart.”
She shared with me a poem she’d run across on-line. I was immediately taken by it, because it introduced a cultural dimension into my personal struggle to regain healthy balance. I reached out to the poet, who kindly gave me permission to reproduce her work for this post.
How Brave You Are
How brave you are for slowing down. For not finishing
that to-do list.
How courageous you are for not crossing that finish line,
because your body said “enough.”
How fearless you are for choosing the quiet of your soul
over those voices driving you always towards more.
How bold, how rebellious –
you, out there,
honoring your own natural rhythm,
going against the culture’s breakneck speed.
We tend to make heroes of those hungry with ambition,
relentlessly doing, producing always more.
We applaud those who refuse to stop or rest. Who push
themselves so hard in the name of achievement, that
they sacrifice their body and soul and heart in the
process. We celebrate those who are ill or aging but
never show it never slow down, never reveal a moment
This drivenness can be heroic, at times. It can be
necessary for our survival or the greater good.
I want to make heroes of those who slow down.
I want to make heroes of those who listen to their
bodies, who do not strive for more than what the soul
I want to make heroes of those who do not force or
push, but surrender to each moment as it opens.
I want to applaud those who may not be driven towards
success as we know it, but instead are nurturing
something deep and subtle and needed.
I want to celebrate those brave enough to cease all
doing, even for a second, and sit with the ache in their
hearts. A task many may find harder than summiting the
I want to make heroes of those who honor their
Who are unable to keep up with the busy-ness of our
times, yet show up to each profound, necessary
It is truly an act of courage and rebellion to do any such
thing, in a world demanding you resist your own self,
your own rhythm, your own soul.
And the paradox is, that often when we cease our
incessant doing, even for a minute, and listen to that
quiet voice within, we discover what it is we absolutely
must do, and what instead can fall away.
We finally hear the call towards what serves our soul,
and what then will serve the world. Nothing more,
A hero is simply someone brave.
So come, be softly brave.
Be a new, quieter kind of hero.
Few may applaud, it’s true, but your soul certainly will.
Leyla Aylin (www.leylaaylin.com) (2022).
What most struck me about this summons was that it seemed un-American, so deeply embedded in our national ethos is an unquestioning commitment to achievement and busy-ness. Aylin and I chatted briefly by email. We agreed that these values have deep, tenacious historical roots. Whatever happened to stillness? To being, instead of doing?
A few days after that Sunday, as we continued our discussions, Nancy began reciting another poem, worlds apart but striking congruent chords.
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers –
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, sanding on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the seas;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.
William Wordsworth (1802).
Wordsworth’s enemy was not compulsive busy-ness but the debilitating allure of the Industrial Revolution. Still, his passionate sonnet reminded me that a quest for serenity is not the invention of 21st Century retirees.
To round out the riff, here’s an excerpt I rediscovered in an early blog post:
AUTUMN LIGHT: Season of Fire and Farewells
Colette, in her meditation on the splendor of autumn and the autumn of life, celebrated it as a beginning rather than a decline. But perhaps it is neither – perhaps between its falling leaves and fading light, it is not a movement toward gain or loss but an invitation to attentive stillness and absolute presence, reminding us to cherish the beauty of life not despite its perishability but precisely because of it; because the impermanence of things – of seasons and lifetimes and galaxies and loves – is what confers preciousness and sweetness upon them.
Pico Iyer (2019).
I don’t want to end this post with a cluster of literary digressions. At its core, agile aging must remain an individual commitment and responsibility. And in my case, I’ve somehow slipped away from mindful balance, losing touch with the restful retirement I’d envisioned. My life is too crowded, too stressful. Too empty by being too full. I’m discovering, painfully, that unrelenting activity can be obsessive. I need to carve out restorative space and time from swirling obligations.
Operationalizing this recognition will demand hard choices. Small steps, but lots of them. Learning to say no to earnest requests for intensified community engagement. Nurturing a few close friendships. Valuing the quality of shared conversations more than their quantity. Pausing to welcome chance encounters as much as scheduled appointments. Listening respectfully, with empathy. Acting, and interacting, with quiet compassion. There’s more to this rehabilitation than trimming my dance card. Who’d have thought that, approaching 80, I’d still have more maturing to do?
With thanks, as always, to Nancy Swing and Shutterstock.com for their photos.
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