Tag Archives: aging

Creating my vision board

I recently created a vision board, something to help me focus during my sabbatical year—travel I am planning, the things that bring me joy and goals I have set.

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Even the first step of writing down what is important to me was helpful in identifying what I do and don’t want to do.

Without a job to go to or my mom to care for, I have plenty of free time, and I want to focus that time on exploring the next chapter of my life.

I scoured magazines for pictures to illustrate my dreams, goals and vision; and in the process, I realized how people my age are often portrayed. We are the parents who have memory issues and need care (often shown as an elder with a fifty-something adult child sitting on a park bench). Or we are the empty nesters looking to downsize (which usually means moving to a planned community where everyone is our age).

Where are the pictures of people like my friend Betty, who for her eighty-eighth birthday went on a twenty-mile bike ride? Or my mother who lived in her own home until she died at ninety-five?

Where are the pictures of us hiking at a state park (as I did with some friends a few weeks ago)? Playing cards (our memories still intact enough to remember the rules)? And gardening, kayaking, walking, running and biking?

Where are the pictures of us in classrooms, learning new languages, skills and hobbies?

Or in classrooms teaching younger generations skills that will help them in life?

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I am not denying that with age comes decline. I cannot run like I did when I was forty, and I am usually asleep by 10:30 p.m., 11:00 at the latest. I no longer go to bars for nights of drinking (not that that was ever a good thing to do), and I am much more conscious of my calorie intake (I use fewer calories as I am aging).

I do, though, still look forward to the future. I am excited about the prospects of my next chapter and am still discerning where and how I can best use what I have learned in my life. I want to follow my mother’s example and live until I die, open to new ideas and learning new things. I want to keep discovering what brings me joy and where God is calling me to share what I have learned from life.

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The best is yet to come

My life has been turned a bit upside down recently by my mother’s death and my leaving the job I have had for the past seven years. Two big losses at the same time and lots of empty space in front of me.

No more dinners with my mother or shopping for her or calling or stopping by to check in.

And no more work emails or office to go to or meetings to attend.

I have to admit that it is a bit scary to stand in front of this vast empty canvas without the commitments that have structured my life for the past years. And yet…

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I have decided to view the coming year as a sabbatical, a time to pause after thirty-five years of working in nonprofit management, to reflect on and say goodbye to what has been, and to prepare for what is to come.

Almost as soon as I made that decision, two retreat opportunities presented themselves—one is focused on discernment for people in transition and the other is for writers. I had not been looking for either one, but both seem opportune, and I signed up for them. One is virtual, and the other is in Texas—my first flight since the pandemic lockdown in March 2020.

As a child, I had no idea what I might be when I grew up—no passionate hopes or dreams to be this or that. As an adult, I tended to fall into jobs more than selecting them with a goal in mind.

So here I am in the third third of my life, still deciding what I want to be when I grow up. Only now, I have lots of experience and a pretty good idea of my gifts and talents.

And that knowledge and awareness energizes me—standing on the precipice of the next chapter in my life is thrilling.

My friend Jim used to say, “The best is yet to come.” I am in total agreement, and I am looking forward to what the next chapter of my life holds.

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My mom

“I want to live until I die,” my friend Jim said when he understood that an incurable brain cancer would soon end his life. He did not want to be kept alive by artificial means; he also did not want to live or die in a hospital.

My mother felt the same. When the doctor offered her a pacemaker after her first heart attack three years ago, she said, “No.” He explained that her heart would probably give out while she was sleeping and she would just not wake up one day. “That would be a blessing,” she said.

At the time of that first heart attack, my mom was ninety-two, still driving, going to card parties every week, living in her own home and enjoying life.

After that heart attack, she began to slow down a bit and cut back on some of her activities, but she continued to live on her own and to cook, clean and do her laundry. She was very independent.

Over the past three years, she has had several medical issues that landed her in the hospital for a week at a time, and each time, she returned to her home determined to live as fully as possible.

After an internal bleeding incident in January, her doc took her off heart medicine, and she went on hospice. Then we knew it was only a matter of time until her heart gave out.

When she started falling a few weeks ago, we knew she was getting weaker every day.

Her consistent wish was to live and die in her home.

With some help, my sisters and I were able to make that happen. The past three weeks, someone was with my mom 24/7.

Giving up was not an option for my mom. She had known people who did just that—they stopped doing what they had always done and just waited for death. She would say they stopped living before they died. That was not my mom’s way.

Just last week, she looked at a silk flower arrangement on top of a cabinet and asked me to bring it down. “I want to wash the flowers and rearrange them,” she said. I brought down the basket and helped my mom get to the kitchen sink where she washed the flowers. It was exhausting for her; it was also her way of living her life.

Last Wednesday evening, she ate her last supper. On Thursday, she was too weak to get out of bed and too weak to swallow. We made her as comfortable as possible and kept vigil over the next two days.

Hospice nurses came every day, and each one said some version of, “You girls are doing a great job with your mother.” We are not medical people, and their affirmations were appreciated.

After only two days in bed, my mother died peacefully on Saturday morning, surrounded by family. She truly lived until she died—a role model for living a full life.

Wearing purple

I was still young when I read the poem,

When I am old,

and I wondered why anyone would wait

to wear purple.

My wardrobe was saturated with purple—

shirts, jumpers, hats, coats, scarves and gloves.

Even purple shoes

(because life is too short to wear black,

my sister said when we were shoe shopping).

Is purple the color of old women

the way pink is the color of little girls?

Was my love of wearing purple a sign

that I was old before my time?

I wondered about other parts of the poem, too.

Why wait to gobble up samples in shops…

And learn to spit?

Perhaps it is an insight into my upbringing that

I thought store samples were for me and that

I learned to spit as a girl on the farm

(we had contests to see who could spit the furthest),

and I kept on spitting as a women runner.

No, wearing purple was never a sign that

I had become an old woman.

But when I was out for my walk the other day

(wearing my purple jacket, by the way)

and tripped and fell,

I knew I had crossed the a line

and had become

an old woman.

I only want to be…

I only want to be a SPP, a priest friend used to say. SPP stood for simple parish priest.

I was reminded of that when I read that Padre Pio used to say, I only want to be a poor friar who prays.

Both of those statements got me to thinking of what I want.

Growing up, I had no idea of what I wanted to be. Teachers would suggest possible careers for me—writer or teacher being two of the most popular—but those suggestions sounded beyond my capabilities. My low self-esteem was deeply ingrained.

I was not allowed to go to college after high school, and looking back, I imagine that may have been where I might have discerned my desires.

In my mid-twenties, when I was very involved in my church and attending Mass every day, many people suggested I become a nun, and I did explore that option. But again, it was not something I had always dreamed of (although I did once have a nun doll that I rather liked).

My truth was that I never thought of myself as having a dream; I don’t remember ever saying, I only want to be.…

I tell myself that lots of people don’t know what they want to be when they grow up, and I have learned that lots of people start out as one thing only to discover that is not what they really want after all.

Nurses become pharmaceutical sales representatives, teachers become real estate agents, and businesspeople become nonprofit leaders (or vice versa). I even know a doctor who had been an architect. Imagine all that schooling only to discover it is not what you really wanted.

I know several lawyers who discovered they did not want to be lawyers. Two are now elementary school teachers, another opened a bookstore, and another works in fundraising.

Now, deeply in the third third of my life, I can see that life plays out in ways I and many others could not have imagined. I suppose having a dream, an idea of what one wants to be, can provide a base, but sometimes that dream can get in the way of using our gifts and talents to their fullest.

Padre Pio is a good example of someone who allowed himself to become what people (and God) needed him to be—a sought-after spiritual advisor and confessor. Perhaps he imagined he would have more time for prayer, but he seems to have adapted to the needs of the people who came to him.

A neighbor recently attended a function at my work and commented that she could see that my work is more than a job. You belong to those people, she said, and they belong to you. Growing up, I may not have known what I wanted to be, but my life has worked out better than I probably could have planned.

Have you ever said, I only want to be…? Has the dream changed over time?

Looking ahead

We celebrated my mother’s 94th birthday last week. At a niece’s wedding last fall, people kept telling me that my mother is “amazing” and “awesome.” I got tired of hearing it, and I also smiled at the truth of it. My mother is amazing and awesome.

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At 94, she still does her own cooking, cleaning and laundry; and she is still trying out new recipes! As my mother has aged, she has, in some ways, become more open to change. Part of that, she would say, is that we, her children, have forced her to accept change because we don’t do things the way she once did them. But, after a little resistance, she goes along.

My grandmother lived 96 years, and most of my mom’s siblings lived well into their 80s. One uncle died just days short of his 98th birthday. We have longevity.

The thing about my mother and her family’s longevity is that it is a constant reminder to live as though I, too, have longevity. It is an invitation to see a vast future waiting for me to explore.

And, because I have had so many friends die young, I also know an early death is possible and that each day is precious.

Balancing those two realities reminds me of a large rock I once saw. One side of the rock had the quote, “Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die” etched into it, and the opposite side had a quote about planning for tomorrow. I was more of a “live for today” kind of person, so I don’t even remember what the other side said!

Having lived longer than a number of my friends (some did not even reach thirty) and considering my mother’s advanced age, I think more about the future now and ponder how I am being invited to live into that future. Intentionality is the word that comes to mind when I think of what is ahead—living intentionally.

For much of my early life, I moved around—a lot. I think in all that moving around, I was trying to run away from my past, searching for something external to bring me peace—only to find that wherever I went, I took my history with me. Eventually, I realized that everything I needed was inside me. I feel settled now and plan to stay put. I am unpacking and looking to a future built upon what I have learned.

Are you more of a “live for today” kind of person? Or are you someone who plans more for the future? Are you able to find a balance between the two?

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My wild and precious life

We recently celebrated my mother’s ninety-third birthday. Her mother lived to be ninety-six and one of her brothers died a week shy of his ninety-eighth birthday. We have longevity in my family.

As I pondered my mother’s long life, Mary Oliver’s poem The Summer Day came to mind. It ends by asking,

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

After college, when I went into nonprofit work instead of returning to the FBI, my mother was not happy. For eight years, she had been able to say, “My daughter is a secretary in the FBI,” and people understood what that meant. She had been looking forward to saying, “My daughter is an FBI agent,” but that did not happen.

Instead, I got a job recruiting advocates for people who have developmental disabilities. My mother had no idea what that meant. My work defied easy explanation, and she could not imagine how I spent my days. She was baffled.

“Where did you ever get the idea to go into that kind of work?” she asked.

I told her that she had given me the idea by the way she lived.

My mother always made room for one more. When my unmarried uncle got cancer, he moved in with us, and my mother took care of him. When my grandmother needed a place to live after my grandfather died, my mother welcomed her into our home.

She showed me how to greet new neighbors with a prepared meal and to comfort someone in pain by being present and listening. She always has extra food prepared because no one leaves her house empty-handed. “What can I give you?” she asked as I left her house on her birthday.

That is the thing about parenting—so much of it is in the doing rather than the telling. I learned by watching.

When a friend of mine was having twins one summer, I offered to come help harvest her garden. For three days, I picked beans and tomatoes and then canned—quarts upon quarts of veggies to get her family through the winter. Toward the end of my visit, she told me she had been resistant to my coming because others had come offering to help, but they just ended up being more work for her. “You have helped me so much,” she said with gratitude and also a note of incredulity in her voice.

“You don’t know my mother,” I responded, because my mother’s example and her voice in my head would not allow me to be a burden. If you can’t help, stay home, would be my mother’s advice.

When I imagine myself at ninety-three, I hope I can look back and see that I have lived my one wild and precious life with integrity and meaning, helping more than hindering, giving more than I have taken.

Every morning, I pray the Prayer of St. Francis. That is the life I want to live.

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Aging gracefully

When I was in my mid-forties, I became more aware of women who were aging gracefully. These were women in their fifties, sixties and seventies who were not embarrassed by their grey hair or shape-shifting bodies. They exercised for health but did not obsess over the effects of gravity. Peace and wisdom seemed to emanate from them, and just being in their presence calmed me.

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These women were content with themselves and their lives. They lived in gratitude for all that had been and hope that the best was yet to come—even though they had endured hardship and suffering.

One woman had lost a son to suicide and another had a life-threatening disease. Another woman’s husband had been having an affair and after forty years of marriage, he asked for a divorce. My friend was devastated by his betrayal. Yet, even in her pain, she was able to pray for the grace to see her ex-husband and his new wife as God saw them.

What courage, I thought. I want to grow old with that much courage and grace.

I know that holding onto hurt and anger can make me bitter and cynical, and that is not how I want to live. I believe God calls me to live as my friend did—to forgive and let go, to be compassionate and merciful, to try to see as God sees and to love as God loves.

Last Friday, I turned sixty-five; I am a senior citizen by every definition. We have longevity in my family—my mother is ninety and her mother lived to ninety-six—but I know I have many fewer days ahead than have already passed. That awareness gives me a greater sense of urgency to appreciate each day.

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The Native American story of the two wolves that live within me has been coming to mind recently: One wolf is good and does no harm. She lives in harmony with everyone around her and takes no offense when none was intended. She is joy, peace, serenity, hope, love, kindness and compassion.

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The other wolf is full of anger. The littlest thing will set her off in a fit of rage. She fights anyone, any time, for no reason. She is full of envy, greed, anger, regret, self-pity, false pride and resentment.

The two wolves vie for my attention and energy; whichever one I feed will dominate.

I am paying more attention to the negativity within and around me and trying to counter it with positivity and hope.

I tend to think of my life in thirds—the first third was formative; the second third was restorative and this third I want to be generative.

Like those women I admire, I want to show compassion and mercy, to forgive and to encourage others to let go of anger and regret. I want to be content and grateful.

Life is short—no matter how many years we have, and I want to live each day to the fullest.

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