Being 80

So, what is it like, really like, to turn 80? Writing about one’s identity in a truthful and engaging manner is always challenging. Though perhaps not as anxiety producing as unveiling details of one’s sex life, revealing the delicate topic of age takes guts, especially in a culture fixated on face-lifts aping thirty-year-olds. Since I happen to be reading, re-reading Kate Millett’s memoire Flying (or are there no coincidences?), I am inspired to share an effusion of my personal experiences and reflections a la Millett style. Millett, who died at 82 on September 6, 2017, is the author of the scathing exposé Sexual Politics. Written in the early 70s, her book of revelations was a wake-up call of tidal wave proportions, detailing the abuse of women within the patriarchal system, in the home, workplace, and political and cultural arenas. Her memoire Flying, written afterward, was her own life-preserver response to that behemoth uprising, which, by her own account, forced her to become a reluctant spokeswoman for the many media and movement groups wanting her spotlight to enhance their own agendas. In Flying she struggles to document her own complex identity; within a poetic, brilliant, rambling narrative, she spills out the critical details of her life with painful honesty.

As Kate Millett was determined to not hide behind an identity shaped by public need, but expose a true complex self, I too feel an urgency at this time to portray myself fully, determined to peel away superficial expectations and images of what to expect in my elder age and bravely examine what I actually am going through. In reading more details of her life, I see I am unveiling a sister muse within the pages of her writing; she takes my hand, so I know I am not alone and tells me of our similarities: we both came from the Midwest, with dominant mothers who simultaneously nurtured and chastised us. We were both sculptors in our first careers (needed to carve out visible identities?) and had supportive, creative relationships with men artists, whom we married, even as we were finding our passions and paths with women. We both refused to smother the complexities of our impulses in order to stand safely on one side of the fence or the other. We both have understood the saving power of words, our own words, in our struggle to join political work with creative work, and to shape an image of ourselves that allowed us to breathe and grow. That she is/was a prominent force in our women’s movement is inspiration to me. Though I have not performed as visible a role, I have marched by her side in my own fashion, thankful and inspired by her compassion, guts and fierceness of will to make a difference.

One more thing or two about Kate: Her death came several weeks after I turned 80. In reading her obituaries, I came across one in the New York Review of Books that curtly summed up Flying as “simply unreadable.” Shame on you, unnamed critic (to protect you from a barrage of protest!). That is no way to write about her book. To believe you can judge for others what is, or isn’t “readable,” is arrogant, pretentious and delusional. I, an experienced reader, writer and thoughtful person, am relishing Millett’s dynamic stream of consciousness, all informed by leaps of her creative unconscious to make vital connections in her story telling! Flying is supremely “readable.” As I read her work, I promise myself that while I am alive, be it at 80 or 90, I will allow all my selves to be expressed as freely, honestly, insightfully as Kate has done.

Thus, inspired by her writing, I too will use unabashed personal reflection to anchor my authentic identity. How many times in her writing did Millett state that in speaking out her truth, she hoped to inspire other women to do the same? I am indebted to her for giving me the courage to do that. I want to rise above the whirlpool of clichés that anxiety and fear in being 80 has whipped up and propel myself to more solid ground.

First of all I have to fully embrace the fact that I am writing, thinking, wrestling with this topic. Me, 80? No way! My father was 80 a few decades ago, an occasion that caused a difficult confrontation in my family. What should have been a grand celebration of that touchstone birthday, as he had become an octogenarian in good health, became a painful rejection of me as a lesbian with a partner. The family, with my oldest brother as spokesperson, decided that I could not bring my then partner to the weekend celebration, because “this important event is only for family members.” I was deeply involved in a relationship with a single mother and her son. I had made a commitment to love them and help raise this boy as my own. I did go to my father’s 80th birthday without my chosen family even as I reprimanded my blood family for their prejudiced and ignorant treatment of my beloved ones. In 1980, straight people felt morally and legally justified for ostracizing their lesbian and gay children. Gay marriage did not start to become legal in our country until 2004 and it took until 2015 to become legal in all states. I cannot muse about my feelings today, almost four decades later, without that painful event rising up. I am profoundly sad once again.

Three years later my mother turned 80. Then years later my oldest brother hit that old age mark, followed six years later by my other older brother. Not until this year did my twin sister and I become that remarkable age: not yet old-old, but seriously along in years and in the minds of too many people seen as hovering at the gate-way of a kind of twilight zone, meaning not yet in a group or an assisted-living home, but not “with-it” enough to be vibrant functionaries of our society.

I thought turning 70 was challenging! And then feeling pressured to celebrate it! But after that apex, I became younger with each passing year, or so I convinced myself. And 80 was so far ahead of me I didn’t have to think about it for a long, long time. But it came, and it is here and I have to confront another cliché: “Life Begins at 80.” Who said that first, and whom were they trying to convince? (Possibly, Frank Laubach, Christian missionary mystic, in an Ann Lander’s column.) For me “Life Begins at 80” is the struggle to accept being 80 and to grapple with all its complexities.

When I look in my mirror, known for its accuracy (which isn’t the same thing as seeing a live human being with one’s own eyes, but it’s all we have to check up on our self) I am already faced with contradictions: At the same time that I am determined to honor my continued zest for living as actively as I can, I see a visage not jiving with the feistiness of my desires. More darkness under the eyes, frown and wrinkle lines growing, and even the playful twinkle I thought I would always have dims under a cloud unless I call it up in the endeavor to not look old. So, I am continually juggling the natural path of my body’s aging with my also natural (but too often not honored or nurtured) continued creative energy, hunger for life and learning along with a healthy ego still in place wanting to be of use and to be acknowledged for my contributions.

It’s time in my ruminations to discuss that I am blessed with close, loving, nurturing relationships. I have a partner I feel married to, though we are not bound by the law, but by love, need, interests, politics, creative work, appreciation and natures that respond to, empathize with and enjoy each other. The legal state of marriage doesn’t work with us financially; nor do we need it to prove we are responsible and steadfastly dedicated to each other. When the need arises to define our relationship to others, we do so, using the terms appropriate for the occasion. That we met just before I was 70 on the dating website, Concerned Singles, says a lot about the community we live and work in: we were looking for serious lovers with whom we could share intimacy and ourselves as artist-activists.

This is key to my sense of wellbeing: Just as a one-year-old, 20-year-old, 50-year-old needs touching, my 80 year old self needs cuddling, hugging, holding, massaging, caressing, loving, sensual and sexual expression in all creative forms to keep me lively, sexy, vibrant, connected, and needed. Every loving, physical attention I give to another and those given to me I receive and relish with joy; showing and making love nurtures and connects my brain, body and being and makes me know I am alive and well in the deepest parts of me. Touch is a magic balm.

As a writer, composer, performer, I also wanted a partner with whom I could share and discuss my work. It has proven to be a very enriching and creative connection: we perform together and have produced CDs of my original songs (she’s the bass player) on my recording label, SeaWave Recordings, first established in the 70s. In the recent production work for Time Traveling with Sappho, she took charge of the research and production of the book that accompanies the CD. A full time therapist, she is also a trained musician and published writer. Her compelling and timely science fiction novel, Beyond the Horse’s Eye, is enthusiastically reviewed and available on Our mutual interests and developed skills continually enhance our political and creative work. We are either rehearsing songs, (right now we are producing 7 Protest For Love! songs as music videos for You Tube), editing each other’s writings, or assisting each other’s professional journeys in a myriad of ways. Those interested in hearing excerpts from these music recordings can go to my web site:

I’m constantly aware how necessary loving and creative relationships are for maintaining healthy bodies and spirits as we venture into our elder years. I am also blessed with a civil, respectful and caring closeness with family members. We don’t see each other often since we live in different parts of the country, but we are there for each other at momentous occasions: births, weddings, birthdays and deaths. I had begun writing this essay when my brother died at 83. When a close sibling dies, one’s own sense of mortality undergoes yet another sobering confrontation. Siblings are truly part of one another; the loss of my brother makes me confront again the fragile boundary between life and death, how all relationships are a precious affirmation of our complex interconnections and interdependencies. I will always miss him for both teasing me about not following “the rules” and for simultaneously honoring me for being a creative spirit that challenges those rules that repress and disfigure the human body and spirit.

That my siblings and I shared responsibilities around our parents’ aging, illnesses and deaths brought us closer together again. Though we all successfully “left home” and established our distinct and meaningful lives, the familial ties between us can’t be erased. Connections between all kinds of families, those we’re born into and those we create, cannot be ignored or dissolved, no matter how hard we might try to do that.

My longtime and new friendships of all sorts help me feel connected to the vital and challenging issues of our times and in solidarity with others whose needs are similar and different from mine. I am so fortunate to have an ex-partner living in my building who has transformed into a beloved sister artist/activist. She and I are intensely involved with our building’s tenant action group’s struggle to prevent the erection of up-scale condos atop our modest rent stabilized 7 story building, gravely endangering not only the inhabitants of our building, but the entire neighborhood. That will be another article in my blog. But this reflection isn’t centered on the extent and nature of my various relationships. That story would take a long writing, if not a novel or two, or three, or more (I actually am just finishing three of them). This rumination is an attempt to pen down what it’s like for me to be an octogenarian. Thus, I’ll continue with that focus.

So Being 80 is the label I give to this complex, personal rendering of what I am feeling, experiencing, as juxtaposed to what I had supposed I should be encountering; you know, all the flotsam and jetsam in my head that I’ve garnered through the years offering spooky intimations of inevitable decline and deterioration. Though I am already aware that life after 80 is not easier, I affirm in this writing that I am not ready to sink permanently into a beach chair or stick my head into the sand; I will continue to be a productive protestor and creative assertor as long as I can think and move, with or without a wheelchair.

As for my own experience of witnessing people reach 80, I immediately think of my parents. At that ripe age they needed to uproot themselves from their “homeland” Michigan where they had been born and nurtured, where they attended college and then raised a family of their own, all the while living their decent, Republican, Protestant, upper-middle-class life. But when they reached their 80s, they could no longer handle the cold winters, the deep snows, the constant repairs of a large house and the isolation from all of their off-spring. They pulled up their deep roots in a swirl of anxiety and uncertainty. With the precariousness involved in transplanting older trees, they replanted themselves into a retirement community in California’s wine country where one of their daughters (my twin) lived and could look after them. That they were stoic, independent, family-oriented people helped them survive separation from their own hard-wrought community, their friends, their particular ethics and habits, their church, their country-club, their family doctors and familiar streets. And though they managed to survive into their 90s, they did not escape the loneliness of unfamiliar surroundings.

So they taught me that life does not get easier after 80. The only reason I would even bring this possibility up is that when I was young, retirement and aging generally looked like this: a heterosexual couple, gray haired but tanned, at the beach, chatting amiably from beach chairs, with umbrellas protecting them from cancer-causing sunrays, and smiling obliquely at each other or grinning as if to say, “Sweetheart, we made it! Now we can relax into old age.” Retirement from teaching did not bring me those beach chairs, sun and sea. Retirement brought me the time to resume what steady salaried work for 30 years had totally or partially interrupted: my full concentration on being an artist-activist, creative human being, whose works were meant to further truth, justice, peace, and quality of life for all living creatures. As for positive images back then of finally making it to 80, I can’t remember any. Too often, “you” were dead or widowed by that age.

Okay, enough stalling with these colorful introductions. What do I have to say about Being 80 that can both help me with owning my current existence and can serve others in parsing out tares from wheat. I would like to reinvent that enormous pile of tares, aka stuff, oft times referred to ominously as, “The Ravages of Old Age,” into a more helpful approach to the topic of aging. How can I ever forget the humiliation and self-reproach my father felt when he started falling, and the guilt my mother felt when she didn’t have the strength to pick him up anymore! If I may be so bold, I am going to examine what I want Being 80 to mean for me.

Topics to be addressed in a serious, but hopefully entertaining manner: What is happening to my body during this period? What is happening to my mind during this period? What is happening to my ego during this period? And lastly, what the F––K is happening to my country and to my planet during this period!?

What is Happening to My Body?

Why is this period different from any other? First off, it isn’t a time of sudden, marked change. What is happening to my physical body is a continuum of what has been happening, but which I haven’t written about in detail, just notated certain conditions in recent short stories and journal writings (Going Somewhere!?, Digital Addiction and Alienation: AKA Words with Friends, Seeing the Total Eclipse in Nashville, Tenn.) Now that I am forcing a definition of myself within a time and space framework, Being 80 becomes my reference point for all the present conditions and sensations in my bones, nerves, muscles, heart and mind, informed by the past.

My permanent imbalance situation, imparted to a character in my short story, Going Somewhere!? has increased. I have to address it with escalating exercises, mind-awareness, enlightened-acceptance, and never ending determination to overcome by any means necessary the rocking phenomena which pulls the rug out from under my determination to stay a feisty, athletic, sexy dyke and creative-loving human being well into my 90s. In turns designated as vestibular imbalance, MdDS (Mal de Disembarquement Syndrome) or uneven gait, I gyrate or rock sideways even as I try to move forward down the street. I experience episodes of light-headedness and dizziness as well, all of which are exacerbated by stress and emotional upheaval. Though there is no medicine to cure this condition, (essentially the two sides of the brain do not communicate as well as they should), a daily regimen of exercises do work with my body’s natural self to strengthen and embrace these idiosyncrasies of my brain.

If I obsess on my imbalance and how it increases under stressful and agitated conditions (a crowded room or subway, a frightening event or confrontational speech, an emotional interchange with a loved one), rather than being engaged in a challenging activity that I can handle at my own speed, with quiet focusing, I become increasingly anxious about my vulnerability and ability to handle what I can only call, “the down-side of being 80.”

I have recently called up the spirits of my mother, who survived with her mind and much of her body intact until 95, and my father, who to a lesser degree sustained a semblance of liveliness until the age of 92. (One of my father’s last pithy instructions was: “Toss my ashes to the four winds, please.” My mother’s was: “I want you kids to throw my ashes where the dolphins are playing off the coast of Rehoboth Beach.”) Now, in the middle of the night I pray: “Spirits of my mother and father, come into me and lead me into a ripe old age, still able to walk on my own two feet with, like you, a fairly pleasant look on my face.”

This is important: How to keep smiling, aware of yourself and others, as you walk down the street to catch a bus or subway, to go to your next doctor’s appointment, physical therapy session or exercise group at the JCC for elders who are just like you, whose limbs don’t move like they used to, and whose images of themselves have to be re-shaped to jive with their actual physical capabilities. It is tiring to have to go to a different doctor each week or month, and to have yet another body part be checked over. I didn’t know I had so many body parts before hitting 80. And they keep multiplying: tarsal bone connected to the talus bone; talus bone connected to the tibia bone…. I try to do at least a half hour of physical exercises every morning to engage my vestibular system, my muscular system, my skeletal system, etc. etc. This takes discipline, takes will power, time, effort and determination.

So what drives me forward? The experience that it does feel better to do exercises than to not. Also, I stand taller, stay more relaxed, and have more assurance and more vim and vigor. It takes imagination and recall to keep up a regimen every day and to attend these healing exercise and physical therapy sessions. Thank God, I was an active kid when I was younger. Praises and thanks to my mother who encouraged sports, gardening, dancing, and looking in the mirror and checking myself out and smiling. Smiling does make one feel better; for one thing it takes fewer muscles to smile than to grimace and secondly, one’s body relaxes more when one smiles. Thirdly, a smile is catchy and encourages the people walking by to smile back at you; better than facing a grimace, I’d say.

What is joyous to experience at this awe-inspiring age of 80? If we listen to our body’s needs, giving care and consideration to every part of our physical being, they will return the favor. Physical therapy can seem miraculous, not with miracle meaning the experience of something unexpected out of the blue, but pragmatic practices that really work and come from a focused, experienced-based program executed by skilled practitioners who can empathically tune in to their patients’ needs. Massage therapists who use Alexander Techniques, Shiatsu Massage, Acupressure Points, and a procedure called Zero Balancing, using both gentle and firm manipulations of the body to employ whole-body healing procedures, are addressing my particular issues and enabling my body parts to relax in places I didn’t know were tense and out of kilter, allowing my natural energy to assist in the healing process.

I realize I’ve not been that clear about my “rocking situation.” Is it because of an ingrained, mid-western characteristic to not reveal that much about myself, or is it because of the nature of the onset of this condition. Here are more specifics: After a glorious sailing trip (I was one of the sailors), I was left a permanently rocking tar with unsteady gait and sensations of all sorts related to my brain/body gravity. Nevertheless, it took several years and many visits to esteemed medical centers focused on imbalance and “dizzy” conditions before I was finally diagnosed with MdDs. Many imbalance specialists either misdiagnosed my syndrome or only partially explained it. However, each place gave me more clues on how to work with my strange sensations. I soon learned it was not strange at all: there is a worldwide MdDS organization focused on research and increasing public awareness for thousands (hundreds of thousands?) persons suffering similar conditions. I must mention that my two brothers also became afflicted with unsteady gait, rocking, and dizzy-spacey episodes in their later years, indicating a genetic predisposition for this disease. That my twin sister does not suffer this affliction is a conundrum neither I nor any doctor can explain.

One of the medical centers offered rehabilitation therapy where I was taught a series of Tai Chi Movements that have become my sacred ritual, which I perform at least five times a week. I now teach them to others who are imbalance afflicted. These particular Tai Chi Movements have been extracted from the traditional Tai Chi form taught at health clubs around the world. (Warning: traditional Tai Chi instruction caused me to tear the meniscus in the left knee; the movements were too strenuous and too rotational for one such as me, rocking the whole time. Two opposing motions at the same time can cause stress and tearing.)

With all this mindful help, I am learning to work with my imbalance disease. Being playful helps. “I really rock!” I tell others and mean it. I am also finding ways to cope and compensate with other like-afflicted elders through an exercise class at the JCC. The dynamite developer and instructor of an exercise program called Fall Stop Move Strong, guides us elders with balance issues in a complex series of exercises to strengthen and use all our muscles, bones and nerves, making us more aware of what we can do/be and what we need to do to keep developing our body awareness and health.

The Riverside Physical Therapy center has provided me with many healing and instructive sessions, leaving me with numerous exercises that I can keep following on my own.

A brief description of other health concerns I have at this time will give a more complete picture of my 80-year body. I have been informed that I am in good condition, accept for the following concerns: The school where I taught (an all-special-ed high school for 15 to 21 year old students, in downtown Manhattan,) was located several blocks from the World Trade Center. After 9/11, everyone in Manhattan was exposed to toxic air, though the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency told us that the air quality was safe, except in the immediate disaster area. It was not safe. (Our government’s refusal to acknowledge, mitigate and prevent contamination, destruction and obstruction of our natural resources, air, sunlight, soil, and waters through ignorance and greed is increasing the disease and devastation of all types of life forms; who can forgive the tyranny of Love Canal and Flint Michigan’s toxic water!) Though countless first responders have died or are suffering from the effects of working in an extremely toxic area, many other New Yorkers in the years that have followed the World Trade Center bombing have also suffered severe physical and emotional ailments, or have succumbed from the ensuing toxic pollution. Yet, only if your home or work place was located in a specified radius of the disaster site, are you eligible for medical dispensations. My school was located five blocks north of this specified boundary.

Since that time, I have been afflicted with GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) as well as chronic inflammation in certain areas of my lungs. At times I have asthma like conditions that interact with the acid reflux, causing coughing, sneezing, and choking episodes that prevent natural breathing, forcing me to use a pro-air atomizer. I have one available in my pocket or purse at all times. Following a careful diet, the limited use of alcohol, caffeine, fatty and fried foods, plus sleeping on a wedge pillow so my upper body is on a slant and acids are kept in my stomach where they belong, I am relatively in control of the situation.

Only one more interesting health issue to note. Three years ago my body decided to change the way blood moves into the heart. After an EKG, my general practitioner doctor announced I had LBBB, e.g. Left Bundle Branch Block, “but not to worry. It can happen even to a healthy teenager. Just don’t look it up on the Internet or you will feel you are in serious danger.” Of course, I immediately went to my cardiologist to have a stress test and a complete heart checkup. He verified that I was fine; maybe take a little more red yeast rice to keep the cholesterol levels down and the white fatty matter in the heart to a minimum.

Along with these health issues and the practices I follow to mitigate them, making me stronger and more aware than I was in my 70s, comes the reality that “I am not a spring chicken” and “time waits for no one.” A young friend announced decades ago to me, “Our ride on this planet earth is short!” and I never forgot it. Day by day, life becomes more and more precious. There is no time like the present to deal with my problems, change and grow, and fulfill the promises I made to myself. A new elder-friend marks her 80s as “the time to open new doors.”

But how do I deal with the pressure I put on myself to age well? Though I can repair and replenish my bones, muscles and nerves (to a certain degree), I cannot stop the natural aging process and the vulnerability of my body. Yet by exercising with the guidance of trained health professionals and nurturing myself with the right, healthy nutrients, all melded carefully together with daily tai chi, deep breathing and meditation practices, every moment becomes valued. If I can transform the sometimes-overwhelming awareness that I am going to die, with the knowledge that my life can be lived fully, joyfully and honestly until then, I can continue to enjoy a rich and heightened awareness and appreciation of the gift of life, itself.

What is Happening to my Mind?

My sister-muse, Kate Millett, was 40 when she wrote Flying, having been scrutinized, pulverized, criticized, eulogized, and lionized, with the publication of Sexual Politics. As I have mentioned, Flying became her struggle to find herself after the overwhelming demands forced upon her from the world-wide success of Sexual Politics, originally her scholarly and diligently researched thesis for the doctoral degree. To filter through the tyranny of publicity and demands put on her by political movements and main stream media, she struggled to immerse herself in her own richly palpable life-story, and to dig up her truth, taking herself and her reader through the documentary of her own deeply lived and deeply complex life.

Her openness, honesty, painful scrutiny into her journey, choices and experiences is mindboggling and terribly impressive. She did not want to become the Joan of Arc of radical-feminism, or the scapegoat of either the women’s movement or the lesbian-feminist movement. Her purpose in writing Flying and all her books that followed Sexual Politics was to be honest, to be herself and to let herself explore all the complexities inherent in a feeling, sexual, thinking, politically searching and creative woman’s mind. Though you died recently, Kate, you made it through your 80s to the age of 82, almost 83. And I am deeply thankful that you used your life and time on this “short ride” so seriously and responsibly by penning down the workings of your mind and body and spirit. You have inspired me to keep on tracking my own journey and to believe that it means something if I make it mean something.

The complexity of your emotions and probing mind, and the make-up of your upbringing and your intense engagement in struggle for justice and fairness, brought you much enlightenment and much suffering. How did the drugs forced upon you, and the alcohol and cigarettes you used to self-medicate, calm you or increase your vulnerability to others’ fears (family) that you were off your rocker? (Sorry, I have a fondness for “rocker” metaphors!) I don’t know enough about that part of your life to even surmise. In The Looney Bin Trip, the next book of yours that I have begun to read, you chronicle forced residencies in psychiatric facilities. I know by this account that you faced head-on the terrible experience of being judged and incarcerated by family, friends and lovers; they could not hear or trust your own explanation that your various mental states were normal reflections of your own particular emotional make-up reacting to your struggles and needs. You wrote: “It is the integrity of the mind I wish to affirm, its sanctity and in viability. Of course there is no denying the misery and stress of life itself… But when such circumstances are converted into symptoms and diagnosed as illnesses, I believe we enter upon very uncertain ground.” (P. 311, The Looney Bin Trip, University of Illinois Press, 2000.)

But you survived this phase of your intense grappling with your own human struggle and turned your own account of that looney bin trip into a fierce hymn and cry: you suggest that all forms of madness, which are not causing harm to the self or others, are primary expressions of the very inventive, visionary and probing mind. You decry our system’s forcing of so-called mental patients into institution/prisons, shackling them to their beds and injecting them with harmful drugs, as an indisputable crime against humanity.

During the writing of this challenging essay, (time passes) I have also poured through Mother Millett, your meditation on your mother, your upbringing, and your familial rejection as a political activist, artist and lesbian. Just as with Flying, I laud its existence. Your voice, your perseverance to your train of thought, your ecstatic self-revelations all are inspiring me to seek my own. Thank you, my sister from the Midwest, equally judged by family for making choices that did not follow their rules.

My mind at 80 is continually seeking to know itself. I am constantly grateful that I can think, and that I can slowly, gradually find the words or thoughts that I’m trying to express. They don’t always come right away, so I need patience, endurance and willpower to persevere until I can express myself accurately and creatively with a refreshing image or metaphor. Kate was facile in her ability to conjure up an incident, a mood, an image with poetic ease: (“…The full moon breathes down upon the cutout of his shape at the base of the huge tree. The pride of his stance. The sound of his content….” Flying, Ballantine Books, 1974, p. 157.) As with my body, I am thankful that my mind is receptive and flexible. When I fret at night, I try not to reach immediately for Lorazepam, or Melatonin. I drink herbal teas and try not to watch a horror movie or upsetting news before going to bed. Reading thoughtful prose is calming, and meditation is centering. I often chant the phrases from insight meditation practice: “May I be happy. May I be free from suffering. May I be healthy. May I live with ease.” And then expand this chant with particular needs at the time: “May I be loving, May I be kind. May I be courageous. May I be forgiving. May I be satisfied….” Or, I simply sing öm up and down the scale.

I work to be thankful for all the gifts and blessings in my life; I’m learning that appreciation for what one has is the key to a sense of wellbeing. But, still I do have a lot of fear and frets. Being 80 segues with witnessing a lot of sickness and death of friends and family. I have to work on how I am going to be able to encompass, embrace this reality, accept the paradoxes in life: to live means to die, to love means to accept change, to grow means to endure pain and loss. It is a fulltime job to learn how to be 80 with ease, and still allow the needs that are running around inside me: I need to accomplish. I need to love. I need to be needed. I need to grow. I need to get excited. I need to make others laugh. I need to be helpful. I need to not let others hurt me because of their own fears and limitations. I need to forgive others and myself. I need to appreciate. I need to be appreciated. I need to handle rejection. Speaking of rejection:

What is Happening to My Ego?

I must take time now to express what that loaded word, ego, means to me. Right now, I think of it as a life-force, the self that sings out, “I’ve got to make it better.” The self that needs to write out what Being 80 looks like, feels like, and is like for her, the self that dares to assume that I can do a good job writing this personal essay, so others might find it useful and enjoyable. I like to recall a favorite scene I am planning to incorporate in a memoire; the occasion is my birth, a story told to me many times by my mother:

Yet unborn when my twin sister has been breathing the air of the maternity ward for 7 minutes, I am pulled with trepidation from my mother’s womb. That I emerge intact with all the proper body parts, alive and squirming, is a miracle to the two doctors and three nurses attending me. There was fear in those days, 1937, that the second twin might be damaged (or dead?) and the reason for the delay in birthing. Apparently, when my tiny wriggling body made its first appearance into this world, I received a standing ovation. Of course, to be so generously received, all I had to do was come out alive and well. But from that first reception and my mind’s future fantasy of it, that clapping and joy became embedded in my very being, my ego awareness of being alive. “And this is why,” I tell my friends, “I need to be applauded for my creative actions, in which I show I am still giving birth to myself and coming out of the darkness in human shape and still wriggling.”

But what is happening to my ego in my 80th year? That is the question, Gertrude. (My middle name is Gertrude, by the way, as it was my mother’s name.) My ego is alive and well, thank you. If anything is wrong with it, I would say it is too patient. I have a studio full of writing that needs to be published (okay, after some more editing!). I have songs that I have not yet recorded. I have a continual need to be applauded and honored and loved and appreciated. My siblings have given me enough restraints: “You don’t follow the rules. Who wants to hear your lesbian love songs, your leftist protest songs, your longing, yearning Sapphic expressions, your endless protests for love and justice for the good of all.”

In most of the depictions of elders that I see in film, story, essay, I see wariness about the ability of an older person to do a competent job, to have the stamina that a younger person would have. Elders are too often objectified with worn-out clichés and not given space or respect to speak up for themselves. Too often the importance of older people being encompassed as vital voices in various areas of our society is not recognized. Whether as political spokespersons, journalistic commentators, dedicated educators, devoted artists, our informed elders need to be heeded. “Listen up, you whipper-snappers! By the age of 80, elders are ripe and ready to share their insights, their creative skills, and overall guidance in how to live life more empathically and mindfully.” In summary: Our elder egos need to be treated respectfully and nourished carefully with community recognition that our resources are desperately needed.

What is Happening to my Spirit?

How do I distinguish my spirit from my body, or my mind, my ego, since I think it is very destructive to perceive these entities as functioning in isolation? Unfortunately, I live in a society and culture that tends to do just that and then tries desperately to find the connections between them. For now, I’m just going to wing it and try to put down a working definition for Spirit. I’ll use the word in three different contexts: The spirit of the 60s. You are a very spirited person. Keep your spirits up. So I use the word, spirit, to mean a general feeling, then a defining adjective, and finally a noun that is understood to be connected to one’s healthy humanness.

The Spirit of the 60s. I can try to define that use of spirit by comparing it to the spirit of the 70s or 80s. And when I try to do this, I think back on my own experience of the 60s with a broad brushstroke, as they say. I think about my concerns then, my emotional framework, and my actions relating to them. And I look at these aspects of myself in the context of my larger world, my friends, my community, my country, my world. I’m going to resort to single words now to express aspects of a total gestalt I might call, the spirit of the 60s. Uncertainty, exploration, confrontation, separation, communalization, expansion, are only some of the words I would pen to the phrase “spirit of the 60s.” For the “spirit of the 70s,” I immediately feel a more personal orientation and focus on self-development, self-identification, ritualization, feminization, and psychic investigation.

Thus, in expressing a general feeling of my 80-year-old-spirit in 2017, I have to take into consideration the unique, if not troubling spirit of these times. I would say I am struggling to stay a spirited 80 year-old person in spite of the fact that our government has been taken over by men who would run rip-shod over my spirit. I try to distinguish what I believe is my true 80 year old spirit from its bereft counterpart, struggling to overcome an onslaught of anti-caring, anti-thinking, anti-embracing, anti-loving, greed-run, hate-filled manipulators undermining the 99% of humanity with whom I share this earth. It is this dire situation that begs me to tear off the shackling of my 80 year old true spirit, that I might be a force to help others do the same. We must call forth our spirits, our powers to overcome the negativity invading our lives. Let our spirits fire up. Lift up our bodies so that we can take action with our full beings and clear our earth of hate-prone humans and their killer instincts. By keeping hope in our minds and hearts, by uniting all of the aspects of being human, we keep our heart, our mind, our body, our ego ready to act in unison, each with one another and oppose, transform, wipe out the fascist, intolerant disease that is suffocating humanity now.

What is Happening to my Environment and my country?

What is happening to the social, political, and physical environment is the result of the denigration of the spirit of those in control at this time. It is our capitalist system that puts profit over people so that human life means little and is expendable. The accumulation of wealth and control over others has become a formidable force. Sexism, racism, classism, imperialism are abuse systems to divide and destroy humanity. I want to use my 80-year-old self to inspire and maintain a caring protective environment for all living creatures as well as for our earth. The deliberate denial of the ravages of man-made Climate Change, the bludgeoning over-development, encroaching walls and policing, the deteriorating humanitarian conditions, and the endemic racism and misogyny, all must be upended. We need ever-increasing awareness and communities of people all over our globe working together to save the planet and nurture humanity. May this personal essay forged from my 80 year old fingertips be a raised fist, a bird’s song, a spreading smile, a plate of nourishing food, a penguin rescued from oil spillage, a stream protected from chemical pollution, a tribe protected from genocide, a child protected from parental abuse, a woman protected from rape, a powerful protest that all women must be allowed to make our own choices for our bodies, our minds, our lives without being manipulated or abused.

Now I see, I will have to devote another personal essay to the topic: Why is my country and my world in such chaos now? But for now, let Being 80 show a woman working to stay as healthy as possible, a force wanting to transform each injustice I meet, as I diligently work with others to create a nurturing home for all earth’s inhabitants. Here’s looking at you, Kate!

One thought on “Being 80

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