Demographically, baby boomers have already lived much longer than most of our great-grandparents. Thanks to modern medicine, we have survived childbirth and childhood diseases that would have killed off many of us in earlier eras. Now, suddenly, baby boomers are facing en masse a new longevity that few survivors previously attained.
Since those born after World War II are now in their sixties; many are reclaiming The 60’s as their own, in some resonant echo with the 60’s in which they came of age. The sixties are the new forties, I hear. But I think of grandmothers, worn out and surrendered to old age at forty. My mother at seventy thought of herself as thirty-five, despite longstanding aches and pains. Nearly seventy, I think of myself as seventy, with few aches and pains, at present. (Thanks, Aquafit!)
In approaching my eighth decade, I contemplate the years ahead and behind. So far, so good. To surrender ambition, competitiveness, greed: how freeing. I have spent the allotted lifetime of three score and ten, accumulating, accomplishing, gathering. And now the work is in letting go, shedding, prepared at any point to surrender IT ALL.
How do we learn letting go, surrendering the unnecessary, the outmoded, that which is not useful? How do we live completely in the moment, so that we no longer live in dread of our spouse’s illness, our own? How do we age creatively? How do we grow up without the wisdom of older guides? How do we mature into elderhood, with so few signposts to guide us?
Neoteny, the expanded time for growing up that our culture allows, is a word that I have lately been examining. “Neoteny is the retention, by adults in a species, of traits previously seen only in juveniles.” Croning may begin at fifty these days. What new possibilities begin at seventy, at eighty and on? We know all too well what diminishes, and what ends.
How are we to grow into creative aging, with so few pointers? Since we’ve thrown away or lost ancient traditions that might have helped, we need to draw our own maps, our own definitions of maturity. What is an elder? Can we define the term, or do we need to live the question into our own answers, as Rilke suggests in Letters to a Young Poet:
“…have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
Sherry Ruth Anderson’s Ripening Time: Inside Stories for Aging with Grace is a remarkable exploration of this new territory of personal growth. Anderson’s book is both her own journey into elderhood and a guidebook that brings the reader along as a friend whom she invites into her garden. Having written such formative books as The Feminine Face of God and The Cultural Creatives, Anderson is well qualified to articulate the first steps toward elderhood. She is adept at tracing the social implications of her own investigation as it reflects cultural changes. Her personal is indeed political.
Anderson’s own questions, ponderings and fears remain, but now she begins to live the possibilities of elderhood.
P. 83: “Almost always, when I feel my fear open up like this, something unexpected happens… my familiar sense of self has shifted into a deep calm and stability. I feel sober and mature, steady as a mountain and at the same time quite spacious and relaxed. The sensibility is of one ancient and wise.
All of this is quite paradoxical. I feel empty… containing all possibilities— so unformed I’m no longer caught in my yesterdays; so free I’m miles of sky with no clouds.
Will I ever get over how experience changes when I don’t run away from it? Here my fears about getting old and losing my mind have opened to a new sense of maturity… that ancient calm wisdom… the perspective of an elder, I wonder?”
In her inquiry, Anderson quotes some renowned elders. Mary Daly in her seminal Gyn/ecology writes: “‘We knit, knot, interlace, entwine, whirl and twirl…’ And what women found, she said, was a place to develop their integrity and ways to break the spell of the culture’s clocks.” As theologian Nelle Morton mused, “we were hearing ourselves into speech.”
What can we learn from the process of creative aging? What wisdom can we claim? Anderson is never content to keep her own findings to herself. She has developed elder circles across the continent. In group dyads, she poses such questions as “Tell me a way you deny your experience of diminishment.” “What’s it like to feel that denial now?” “What are the gifts reserved for age?” She listens to the responses and invites us into a deeper hearing of one another.
Anderson presents “a new perspective on aging, inviting the reader to engage the aging process through the art of inner inquiry. This work guides beyond our culture’s mind traps through stories where elders face into the lies, the losses and endings, the tender and bittersweet and ferocious truths of growing old.”
May we too long continue to explore on all levels, inner and outer.
May our histories be recalled. May we all remember
the right role of elders: to listen, to be heard, to be held
in respect. To hold on. To let go. To be held.
For further exploration, see Ripening Time: Inside Stories for Aging with Grace by Sherry Ruth Anderson. Changemakers Books, 2013. ISBN 978-1-78099-963-0, www.sherryruthandersoncom and www.changemakers-books.com.
See also Jean Shinoda Bolen’s www.millionthcircle.org/JSB/mc.html. Highly recommended is activist Judy Rebick’s transformative book, Transforming Power: From the Personal to the Political, www.transformingpower.ca/en/about-book.
– Penn Kemp
writer-in-residence for Creative Aging Festival, London