This took so long to write, it could’ve been called my most complicated thoughts about aging. Aging itself is simple. Really simple. All you have to do is breathe to make it happen. How difficult it is is directly proportional to how well you want to do it. I want to do it well. Mightily well. Superwoman well. Nobel Prize well. Or at least New York Times bestseller well. I want to live long, make a difference, be strong, be funny, create beauty, fight injustice, love well, be happy, and a bunch of other things.
Here’s are a few of my simple/complicated thoughts.
Yoga is good for a body. Anybody’s body. A similarly aged cyclist friend of mine, said several years ago her body felt the best when she practiced two hours of yoga for every hour of cycling. She cycled several hours every week; I wondered if she was living in a yoga studio! It makes sense to me though. Yoga attends to flexibility, balance and strength and synchrony of body and mind. I did not expect to discover in my fifties that because of yoga I have more flexibility than I had in my thirties. Never my strong suit, I always had to seriously warm up to be able to reach my toes. Now I can reach my full hands past my toes. Yes. I. can.
Why does this matter? Because losing flexibility and balance means falling is more likely. Falling means we’re more likely to break. Breaking means a serious interruption, or worse, to our aging happiness.
I grew up with “yes, you will eat breakfast” and “be present for meat and three on the table every night at 6:00. Sharp. Uh, no, you cannot eat early to meet your friends somewhere.” My mother is a great cook and we grew up eating food well prepared. Fried anything was a treat as was the rare processed food snack. Food was important but not what life revolved around. There is no doubt that we carry our childhood eating habits into adulthood. I have a pretty healthy relationship with food and was lucky not to have to unlearn bad habits.
Even so, the decades seem to gradually alter the relationship between food and body. I’m no expert on the biology behind it, but it seems obvious my body is less efficient now than it was 30 or 40 years ago. Metabolism seems different, I would say lazy even. Skin doesn’t work as hard to fit like spandex; it fits a little more like the pleated jeans that were never really in fashion. Young bodies seem quick to forgive periodic indulgences and days or weeks of failure to eat green things. No longer. Consequently, I’m now more devoted to blueberries, kale, bananas, lots of plant based protein (being vegetarian), nuts and chocolate. Super sizing nothing and eating when I’m hungry and not when I’m not are even better ideas than they used to be. I do however, cling to the belief that holding on to one or two vices is good for the soul. I cling to this because I think it wisest to have one beer or glass of wine in the evenings, but truthfully, I almost always have two.
Sweating is an element of my mantra. Which means sweating is important to me, not that thinking about my mantra makes me sweat. Sweating is the twin to eating well. Sweating means I’m doing cardio, dammit, to take care of my heart. I love cardio less than I used to. For reasons unexplained by the universe, some things I used to find joy in are now achieved through discipline. Still, at the end of boxing or spin class, I’m sweating and bragging a little…(to myself)…“such a bad ass!”
Do I believe sweating is the only way to get to 103? No. Well, yes. So, maybe? There’s isn’t much way around taking care of ourselves as much as we deserve without sweating a little, but I don’t think it has to be torturous. Raise the heart rate. Keep it up there a while. We’re grown. We can do it.
I know it’s trendy and maybe everyone isn’t dying to do it, but I’ve jumped on the simplification train. Not simplifying my whole life necessarily…I continue to love a jumble of things going on in my life all at once…but my environment. Fewer things. Less stuff. I have a vision of taking one thing out of my house every day for a year. I haven’t mustered the discipline for it yet, but I’m working on it. This means donating, not sending to landfill. Simplifying my life doesn’t mean as much if it sucks for the environment.
Simplifying isn’t as lofty as it sounds, particularly when you start with as much stuff as I have. I’ve never been one to spend a lot of money on anything, but being a big fan of sales, salvage, and reuse has made it easier to amass cool and interesting stuff because it didn’t cost much. Not a fan of clutter either, it can take a good bit of time to organize, straighten, and store a bunch of stuff. Getting rid of stuff doesn’t only make spaces in my house easier to take care of, it unclutters my mind.
I am way too in love with my routine. There are benefits to routine and ritual, like less likelihood of forgetting something when I’m trying to get out of the house in the morning. Make coffee, feed cats, ask Alexa to play NPR news, write in journal, read (if I read at night, I fall asleep!) eat breakfast, take shower, meditate (sometimes), get dressed, make lunch, pack gym bag, get out. My routine is comfortable and easy but also something of a change-for-good nemesis.
A year or so ago I decided to get up earlier to have more “good brain” time to write. I tried to write late in the evening but by then my brain’s got nothing. I like early morning; getting up earlier wasn’t difficult. Breaking the routine though has been difficult, like building a house out of toothpicks difficult. Instead of neatly folding this one more thing into the routine, most mornings I end up following the exact same routine I’ve always followed but I stretch it out over more time. It would be funny if it wasn’t so ridiculous. I don’t know if there’s research to explain this exactly, but I do know our brains lose plasticity as we get old. I wonder if my brain just wants the easy, lazy, inflexible, boring way? That can’t possibly be good.
Maybe I’ll start with 10 minutes less reading and 10 minutes writing. Doesn’t sound impressive but it’s a start.
I read a lot of fiction. Straight up fiction. Murder mysteries, funny or mesmerizing or painful or hopeful novels, the occasional historical fiction. I’m trying to read more other stuff, like history, how-to, biography, how things work, in depth news. There seems to be academic controversy about the evidence, or lack thereof, about the long term benefit of reading, working puzzles and playing brain games when it comes to delaying or preventing cognitive decline. The thing is, it’s safe to say no one’s brain ever got damaged by continuing to learn. Even if giving my brain more to think about doesn’t help me live longer, it sure as hell should make me more interesting.
Meditation, good for young and old, has become more relevant to me in the past decade. I’d like to become the elder who is at peace and has gained calm wisdom. Even though an erratic practice, when I meditate my restless mind is a little more aware the rest of the day, a little more present. I remind myself to breathe more often. I take note more often of what I’m thinking and feeling. I’m less reactive and more intentional.
There is research about health benefits of meditating; mind and body. The list of benefits makes meditation read like its own magic self help plan. Among a zillion other things, its practice can lower blood pressure, help manage anxiety and depression, increase productivity, be an effective anger management tool, reduce pain, increase creativity and there is some evidence that it can slow the progression of dementia. My climbing gym offers classes in meditation. There’s an elementary school in Boston that sends kids to the meditation room instead of detention. Google offers meditation during the work day to its employees. It is no longer unusual to have meditation included in a treatment plan for management of chronic pain.
There’s a great quote by Ringo Starr that rings true for what motivates me to meditate:
“At the end of the day, I can end up just totally wacky, because I’ve made mountains out of molehills. With meditation, I can keep them as molehills.”
And more eloquently stated:
“Meditation is meeting eternity in the present moment. It is resolving every problem as it comes. It is resolving every tension as it creeps in. It is facing the challenges of life in a non-fearful way.” ~Vimala Thakar
I know people who say they aren’t looking for a particular longevity and want to go before anything starts to break down. I think differently. My hope is to adjust and adapt and protect and refine in body, mind, and spirit (to borrow from the YMCA) until this world and I have given and taken all we can from each other. I’ve said for years I’d like to die in my sleep in Paris after having wandered around the city all day…at 103. More recently I would change the location of the wandering to New York, but other than that, my hope remains.
Find the first parts of this series here.