by Amara Rose
The day before I turned 55 I received a letter from my bank. The auxiliary checking account I’d opened for online transactions would shortly be assessed an $8 monthly fee unless I (a) maintained a $1000 minimum balance, (b) deposited $250/month or (c) used my ATM card at least ten times per month, none of which was feasible for me.
A bit put out by this parsimonious behavior from a bank I’d found very customer-centric until then, I contacted the assistant manager. She skimmed the letter and said confidently, “We’ll find a solution.” After a couple of basic usage questions, she asked, “Are you 55 yet?” I exclaimed, “My birthday’s tomorrow!” She said, “Then the account is free,” and scrawled, “55+ FREE” across the notice in red marker.
This was my first encounter with the unexpected perks of my seniority.
Sea Change in Consciousness
No doubt about it, coming of age as a member of the silver tsunami is a sea change in consciousness from growing older in yesteryear. As the Boomer wave grays the globe, some members of this tribe have concocted playful descriptions: “chronologically gifted” and “over the speed limit” are two of my favorites.
Language matters, because, like the mirror, it reflects how we see ourselves. Cross-cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien once shared how a child stroked her grandmother’s cheek, crooning, “Grandma, you have such pretty designs on your face!” Too young to “know better,” the little girl viewed her grandmother’s facial lines not as a sign of senescence, but as fine art. Wrinkles can signify ripeness, wisdom, and a life lived by design, indeed.
Yet even as robustly alive as many of today’s elders are, I’m nowhere near ready for “Gran Central Station,” as I refer to the exuberant members of a senior center in a nearby town. And therein lies the conundrum.
“Forty is the old age of youth. Fifty is the youth of old age,” wrote French novelist Victor Hugo 150 years ago. Hugo lived to be 83, considered pretty “ripe old” for the 19th century. His observation is daunting to me at 59, because I don’t feel remotely on the cusp of old age.
Marc Freedman agrees. Of the description “young old”, the author of The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlife asks sardonically, “Are most people in their 50s and 60s in anything resembling ‘old age’? Are they elderly? Senior citizens? (Why not child old for those in their 40s, infant old for the late-thirties set, and prenatal old for latter twentysomethings?)” Prenatal old. Love it!
While it’s vital to “die” to earlier life stages, beliefs and behaviors in order to fully live, excessive focus on the aging process can keep us contracted in fear. To discover what ecstatically alive aging looks like, I turned to some over-the-speed-limit role models:
- Susan Sarandon, a leading lady on the Silver (!) Screen at 69, who also volunteers in service all over the world;
- Shirley MacLaine, best-selling author and truth seeker, an 82-year-old tour-de-force: her Sage-ing While Age-ing is a bracing exploration into the deepest questions of existence;
- Louise Hay, whose classic You Can Heal Your Life served as a template during my awakening journey, launched Hay House in her late 50s. Now 89 years wise, the personal growth pioneer oversees a global publishing company;
- Indefatigable Betty White hosted Saturday Night Live at 88 and was offered her own NBC show at 89, Betty White’s Off Their Rockers, where seniors play practical jokes on the younger generation. The show’s been canceled, but Betty is rockin’ on. At 94, she’s active on social media, and recently paid homage to hip-hop artist Queen Latifah with a dramatic reading of the latter’s lyrics.
This can be a juicy time. Visionary OBGYN Christiane Northrup, M.D., author of the breakthrough health guides Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom and The Wisdom of Menopause, says midlife brings potential for regeneration; clearing old habits creates the opportunity for healthy aging. She cites research that shows women in their 60s and 70s enjoy the best sex of their lives. Clean out emotional debris, claim your power — and it’s an erotic feast!
A Place of Passionate Possibility
Just as old age was reimagined as “the Golden Years” and retirement as a destination (Sun City), Boomers now in midlife and beyond are rapidly reinventing this time of our lives as a place of passionate possibility.
In The Big Shift, Freedman chronicles how Granville Stanley Hall essentially invented “adolescence” at the beginning of the 20th century with a landmark book by that title, later bookending life with Senescence: The Last Half of Life, published when he was 76. Written in the aftermath of WWI — “decades before the first Social Security check, proclamation of longevity revolutions, or emergence of the concept of centenarians,” Freedman points out — Hall characterized this period, which he depicts as beginning in the early forties, as “an Indian summer,” a “precious bud of vast potentialities,” and calls on midlife people to step up, regardless of how they’re regarded by others:
“We have a function in the world that we have not yet risen to and which is of the utmost importance — far greater, in fact, in the present stage of the world than ever before. Modern man was not meant to do his best work before forty but is by nature, and is becoming more and more so, an afternoon and evening worker” (and he’s not referring to shift work!).
“Not only with many personal questions but with most of the harder and more complex problems that affect humanity we rarely come to anything like a masterly grip till the shadows begin to slant eastward, and for a season, which varies greatly with individuals, our powers increase as the shadows lengthen.” Indeed, Hall’s greatest creativity and achievement came after age 50.
One of my defining moments arrived several years ago, when I was reading Deathing by Anya Foos-Graber, an uncommon guide to creating a spiritually informed dying process. The composite protagonist, Selma, in preparing for a grace-filled departure from this life, shares an inner vision of seeing people on a half-built bridge, “spilling into the sea, drowning in their own ignorance because they had no bridge, no reality construct to cross from this shore to the Other Side, from one reality to another.” And just as a voice instructs Selma to “Build them a bridge,” I realized with chills of recognition that my recurring childhood dream of a train on an unfinished track jutting out into space was Spirit dispatching my mission statement: Become a world-bridger, build the bridge between mainstream and metaphysical. I was initially shown my life purpose in a dream at age eight, and only completely understood this early message at 55! I reveled in awe and gratitude for this belated awareness — even though I’ve been “on purpose” for years.
How can we awaken to the clarity of who and what we are, whatever our chronological age? Freedman says that by midlife, life has become a run-on sentence in dire need of punctuation, and he proposes a metaphorical semicolon to capture the sense of renewal and redirection.
Becoming An Elder of Excellence
Anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson, author of Composing a Life and Composing a Further Life, calls for establishing what she elegantly terms “a midlife atrium”: a sabbatical of sorts that functions as an opportunity to let in more light and air — which is precisely how Kathy Bates describes this shift in the film Fried Green Tomatoes. When her perplexed husband asks his quintessentially evolving wife, “What’s changed?” she muses, “Oh, the air and the light.”
Bateson writes, “The doorway to this new stage of life is not filing for Social Security but thinking differently and continuing to learn.”
We all have the choice to become “Elders of Excellence,” a Louise Hay euphonic. Even the word “elder” confers an essence of wisdom and respect that seems lacking when we append “ly”, transforming the vibrant, vintage noun into a frail, forgotten adjective.
Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, author of the wise guide, From Age-ing to Sage-ing, says we become elders not by accruing years, but by harvesting our wisdom in service to others — future generations, yes, but also our peers who may be aging fearfully.
Elders, he writes, “have an ongoing responsibility for maintaining society’s well-being…They are pioneers in consciousness who transmit a legacy to future generations. Serving as mentors, they pass on the distilled essence of their life experience to others. The joy of passing on wisdom to younger people not only seeds the future, but crowns an elder’s life with worth and nobility.”
Becoming a sage also means making peace with our mortality. As MacLaine writes in Sage-ing While Age-ing, “We talk about making a soul connection with our bodies. It occurs to me so often now that one day I will literally not have this body any longer, and I will live with only my soul memory of what my life was like living inside it. My perceptions and familiar tools of physically relating to the world will be over and gone.”
Wonder and Wisdom
Perspective shifts as we do. I learned this most profoundly from my lifelong friend Ellie, who lived alone after her husband’s transition until she was nearly 96. At 72 she began writing letters to the editor of her local newspaper, expressing strong opinions about the salient issues of the day — and continued to do so for the next 22 years. Most of her letters were published, and in 2009 the paper ran a front-page profile lauding Ellie’s chirographic activism.
When I interviewed her at age 92 to write about her life, Ellie shared how she was considered a surrogate mom by “lots of young people.” I was 48 at the time and wondered what she meant, since to me “young people” were in their teens and early twenties. I was amused by her reply: “In their fifties.” By the time you’re 92, fifty is young.
Ellie’s enduring gift has been the joy with which she greeted each morning, her gratitude for “being accepted” by Source for one more day on Earth, alive and alove, keen to give it her best and create a little more beauty in the world. The last time I saw her, she scampered down three flights of stairs (yes, at 95) and pressed her nose up against the glass prior to opening the door to her apartment building, causing me to giggle.
“I hope you never lose your sense of wonder,” sang Lee Ann Womack, and she might have been channeling Ellie. Although my friend never learned to drive a car, she lived over the speed limit in every sense of the phrase. As elders-in-training, we can all embrace this teaching: when you get the choice to sit it out or dance, DANCE!
© Copyright 2013-2016 by Amara Rose
About the Author:
Amara Rose helps individuals and organizations create spiritually successful change. Her transformational toolkit includes personal and business coaching, e-courses, a CD/mp3, talks and playshops. Learn more at LiveYourLight.com, where you can subscribe to her inspirational e-newsletter, What Shines.