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Let's Just Not Get Old
A brief preoccupation with sliding into oblivion
One day near the end of her 84 years, my Nana told me, “Whatever you do, LaDonna, don’t get old. It’s the pits.”
“Ok, sure, I’ll get right on that,” I told her. “Do you know any vampires?”
She just flapped her blue-veined hand at me and laughed her smoky rasp.
I’ve been thinking about Nana a lot lately. And about immortality and vampires and eternal youth.
Maybe my preoccupation with mortality was prompted by the recent death of Anne Rice. Or the recent deaths of Sidney Poitier, Bob Saget, André Leon Talley, Joan Didion, bell hooks, beloved Betty White, even friggin’ Meatloaf.
Maybe it’s something about the time of year—it seems more people die in the winter than any other season. Morbidly poetic, if you think about the cycle of death and hibernation. The barren trees, the greying skies. The threads that tie us to earth thin, perhaps, in these months of quiet things, of waiting for warmth.
Maybe it’s because I watched Don’t Look Up and I can’t stop thinking about the end of the world. Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading too much news from the States. Maybe it’s because Marido and I are so close to wrapping up a Very Big Deal, but one of the main parties involved is quite old and has been in and out of the hospital and—here’s a baldly selfish confession—I’m so afraid he will die before we’re done.
Maybe it’s because I myself am older than I’ve ever been—I am undeniably middle-aged now—and I have to find new ways to leverage myself up off the floor. Maybe it’s because I notice my knees now and I never used to used to and my jaw looks more jowly than it used to and everything is so much softer than it used to be—belly, biceps, brain.
Or maybe my preoccupation with mortality is simply because we’re mortal, all of us. We end, all of us. It’s really not terrible to think about the end every once in awhile.
My parents have lost quite a few people recently. My father’s aunt was 97 when she died in December. His cousin John succumbed to COVID complications in early January. My mother’s best friend was felled by a stroke last week. And our friend Ro, in Brazil, lost her mother just a couple of days ago.
You never know when it will be your turn to go.
We all toss some version of that platitude at each other, from time to time. More often, probably, during these pandemic-ridden years.
live as if you were to die tomorrow_don’t wait, the time will never be just right_seize the day_no day but today_you only live once_tomorrow is promised to no one_etcetera
And I can’t mock it because those were exactly the thoughts Marido and I had when we decided to move to Portugal. Why wait until we were older, why wait for retirement, we thought. There is no guarantee of retirement, of health, of well-being of any kind. All we’ve got is now!
So we swallowed the risk and took the leap and for the most part, we landed on our feet. Even if our feet do require orthopedic arch supports that would have embarrassed the heck out of us in our 20s.
But then, so much about how I go about life today would have embarrassed me in my 20s. Maybe it would have embarrassed me pre-COVID, even.
So many priorities have shifted, I can’t be bothered to care that my outfit is weird or my shoes are lame or my hair is flying wild. Sometimes I stare at my jewelry box, mystified that I ever had occasion to deck myself out in such dangly and complicated earrings. And lipstick! Why do I have so many shades of red? We’re all just going to keep hiding our mouths behind masks anyway.
Not working in a professional setting has drastically changed the way I present myself to the world. There are so many more stretchy waistbands and soft-soled shoes in my repertoire. I just can’t figure out how to care about all that anymore—all the harried ways of life that were so normal I never considered why I subscribed to them, I just did. And now… now they’re undid.
But with all that undoing comes more time to think about who we are and where we are and why we are and how we just. keep. getting. older.
“Let’s just not,” I told Marido the other day with a shrug. “Let’s just not get old.”
And he laughed, because what else can you do?
But maybe we’re wrong to fear our oncoming age. There is research that suggests our happiest time of life lies yet ahead of us:
“A landmark longitudinal study across the adult life span—the first of its kind—by Charles and USC Dornsife Professor of Psychology Margaret Gatz showed that negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, stress and frustration, far from increasing as we get older, actually decrease steadily with age. Positive emotions, such as excitement, pride, calm and elation, remain stable across the life span.” -from a University of Southern California publication
You’re happier in your 70s than in your 30s, the study shows. Researchers point to factors like employment—a vast number of people don’t really enjoy what they have to do to make a living. When you’re older, you’re free from that drudgery.
You’re also quite a bit wiser when you’re older, so you get choosier about your companions. Who you spend your time with is a key factor in the happiness quotient. Older people know better than to spend time with people who make them feel like shit. (I sure wish I had figured that bit out in my 20s, it would have saved me a lot of wasted time and tears!)
The older you get, the better you get at regulating your own emotions, at prioritizing the things that bring meaning and fulfillment and pleasure.
So you can look at getting older and think that you’re closer to your end, that you’ll suffer the loss of friends and family, the loss of health and independence. And you could assume that loss would bring you down. That the ticking clock would be all you hear. Not so, it seems. Old age can be one of the best times of life.
“People just assume that loss brings decreases in positive affect. So, it’s kind of amazing—kind of wonderful, actually—that with age we don’t see that,” says Susan Charles, who earned her Ph.D. in psychology and is now professor and chair of psychological science at the University of California, Irvine. “Almost everything else you study in aging often doesn’t end well, but emotional well-being looks pretty good as we age.” (Read the entire article here.)
I’ll go back to pondering my own expiration date now, but I’m leaving you with this gorgeous poem, which cuts right to the core of things in the way only poetry can:
by Ada Limón
Say tomorrow doesn't come.
Say the moon becomes an icy pit.
Say the sweet-gum tree is petrified.
Say the sun's a foul black tire fire.
Say the owl's eyes are pinpricks.
Say the raccoon's a hot tar stain.
Say the shirt's plastic ditch-litter.
Say the kitchen's a cow's corpse.
Say we never get to see it: bright
future, stuck like a bum star, never
coming close, never dazzling.
Say we never meet her. Never him.
Say we spend our last moments staring
at each other, hands knotted together,
clutching the dog, watching the sky burn.
Say, It doesn't matter. Say, That would be
enough. Say you'd still want this: us alive,
right here, feeling lucky.
from Bright Dead Things / milkweed_books / 2015
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Copyright © 2022 LaDonna Witmer
Bonus poem about aging:
by Lynn Melnick
I don’t need to be told
my body is not what my body
was, descending, live wire,
the option to light.
People keep telling me
it’s my ass
or my face but it’s neither
and it’s both.
Tell me what to do
about sliding into oblivion
about what is material
and what will be remembered.
Aging is a motherfucker,
I say to myself.
I fuck myself, I mother.
When I’m alone
I document that I was here
while I’m still here.
from REFUSENIK: POEMS / yesyesbooks / 2022