Normally I look forward, eagerly anticipating what’s next: a walk with a friend, spending time with my sisters, a trip to someplace new, even the writing-related work I do for clients.
But during this past year, spent mostly at home and unplugged, even from family and friends, I’ve found myself looking back at my life, often with regret for missteps and mistakes that include not wearing sunscreen, tolerating an abusive high school boyfriend before I knew any better, hosting a 40th birthday dinner for a friend instead of going to the hospital to visit my dying dad, accidentally sharing information about a cousin’s health when I’d been asked not to, not standing up for myself when I sold my business and not getting married and moving to DC when I had the chance.
My regrets also include missed opportunities: dropping out of high school track despite being told I had potential, giving up on watercolor painting before I’d gotten the hang of it and not saying yes the first three times a friend offered me her Paris apartment for as long as I wanted to stay.
At first I thought I’d have a long list. But I don’t. At least not yet. I also thought that reviewing my regrets would make me sad. It has…but it’s also empowered me to make amends and to think more seriously about what I want from my life moving forward.
And while I haven’t yet finished reading The Midnight Library, I am journaling about what my life would be like if I, like the book’s protagonist, had made different choices. Sure, some things would be better, but I’d still have plenty of wouldas, couldas and shouldas to contend with. That’s life!
But I also know that, moving forward, I will do better…at trusting my gut, taking risks, leaping at opportunities and, most importantly, being true to myself.
This fast, fun and friendly book, Austin Kleon’s third on creativity, kept me going this past year.
In it, he offers exactly what the subtitle promises…and exactly what I needed to hear:
Take one day at a time.
Establish a daily routine.
Finish each day and be done with it.
Over this past year, I took this and his other advice to heart, especially one directive that really resonated with me: “Disconnect from the world to connect with yourself.”
This phrase became my daily mantra, helping me see my COVID-induced isolation not as a punishment but as a gift.
That said, disconnecting was a challenge, especially early on. Like many others, I missed attending meetings, joining colleagues for coffee and going for walks with friends. I even missed shopping, a task I’ve never much enjoyed.
So, I was delighted when first one friend and then another invited me to Zoom with them. However, it took just two friend calls plus a handful of work-related video calls for Zoom Fatigue to set in. Even the thought of joining my beloved book club online wasn’t enough to get me to log back on.
I stayed in touch in other ways. I called my 94-year-old aunt every odd-numbered day of the week and a friend or other family member every even-numbered day. Plus I mailed at least one letter and a handful of cards each week and sent numerous emails.
But as I embraced Kleon’s advice to disconnect, my reaching out to others fell by the wayside. So did my posting on social media. Nobody seemed to notice.
Until this week.
On Tuesday, my friend and fellow writer Diane reached out to ask if I was okay as she hadn’t received a reply to an email and realized that my last Facebook post was on April 2 and my last tweet on April 5. Today, I received a similar email from Maery, also a friend and fellow writer.
My friend Laurie also checked in, wondering how I was doing with what she referred to as “reverse pandemic whiplash.”
The answer? I’m not sure.
After a year of isolating from everyone who wasn’t family, I finally got vaccinated and ventured out to get a long overdue haircut and join my book group in person for the first time in more than a year. It was wonderful to be together, outdoors and face to face on a beautiful Saturday morning.
However, getting together made me realize I’m still not ready to return to the out-and-about life I led pre-COVID.
Instead, I am still eager to connect with myself and, as Kleon states, that means disconnecting—not because I’m afraid of the virus, but because I want to thoughtfully add back in only those people and activities that fit the person I am now, a person I don’t yet know very well.
Am I the same go-go-go person I was or have I become more of an internal seeker rather than external doer? Are all my friendships ones I want to carry with me or are there some I am ready to let go of? What about my hopes and dreams? How have they changed?
These are some of questions I’m striving to answer while I get to know myself and before I once again find myself caught up in the busyness of life.
What about you? Have you disconnected from others to connect with yourself? If so, what have you learned along the way?
Aging. I’ve been doing it my whole life, but it’s only since turning 60 that I’ve become mindful of it. I wish I’d started earlier.
If I had paid attention, I’d have stayed out of the sun, stuck with yoga, journaled more consistently, spent more time in therapy and consumed less alcohol. I’d also have spent more time with family and friends and worked more diligently at developing resilience.
For most of my adult life, I planned, in as much as one can, that I would live to at least 90 and die peacefully in my sleep, just the way the grandmother I adored did. (She’s pictured here just months shy of her 91st birthday.)
But then, my parents died: my dad in 1997 after a year-long battle with lung cancer, and my mom in 2000 in an instant due to a stroke. They were both only 70. I was in my early 40s.
That’s when I began to realize that I, too, could die at 70. Ever since, I’ve been reminding myself that if I do, I only have 25 … 20 … 15 … 10 … 9 … 8 … 7 … years left. And if that wasn’t bad enough, along comes the pandemic, making my thoughts of death even more omnipresent.
Even if I live longer than my parents, and I sure hope I do, life expectancy isn’t what it used to be. According to an article in the April AARP Bulletin, U.S. life expectancy “plunged” in the first half of 2020, primarily due to COVID-19. As a result, we Americans can expect to live a full year less now than we could have expected in 2019.
The numbers are worse for African Americans and expected to worsen for all Americans as the number of COVID-19 deaths continues to rise.
But just because death is inevitable doesn’t mean that I (or any of us) should go gently into it.
That’s why I started reading about aging, including a book a found both enlightening and engaging: Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power of and Potential of Our Lives by Daniel Levitin.
Via it, I learned that a woman’s chances of getting Alzheimer’s disease now exceed her chances of getting breast cancer. Also that two-thirds of overall risk of getting the disease is based on one’s genes, with the remaining one-third associated with environmental factors such as a history of depression or head injuries.
While Alzheimer’s doesn’t run in my family and my only head injury was when I was knocked out by a football in my early 20s, I have already undergone a Mini-Cog test during which I was I asked to remember and repeat the names of three common objects, name the president of the US and draw a clock face showing the correct time as specified by the doctor who examined me. (This was harder than I thought it would be as it’s been years since I’ve used an analog clock.)
Thankfully, my doctor had no concerns. But I do. Every time I can’t remember a person’s name or forget my coffee cup in the microwave, I wonder if it’s a sign of cognitive impairment.
I hope not. But I also realize that I might be the last to know.
Either way, the timeline of my life is getting shorter: today’s average life expectancy is 77.8 years. And with the pandemic front and center, the possibility of an earlier-than-hoped-for death looms large. While I could let that depress me, instead, it’s motivating me to pay more attention to both my physical and mental health and to put family and friends ahead of work.
How about you? What, if any, changes are you making in order to enjoy the years that lie ahead and increase your own chances of aging successfully?
When we are five, we laugh 113 times a day. By the age of 44, that number shrinks to 11 times a day.
Those statistics, which I came across in Voice of the Innovator, made me feel sad for my adult self who, now in her early 60s and pretty much isolated due to the pandemic, often laughs even less than that.
A few days after reading that statistic, I emailed a long-time friend I haven’t seen in years, ending my message with these words: “I hope you are doing well…healthy and happy.”
He responded immediately with one sentence: “Yes, insanely busy and insanely happy!”
That simple reply gave me pause.
Despite having read at least a dozen books on happiness and taken several happiness classes, including Berkeley’s the Science of Happiness and Yale’s The Science of Well-Being, the idea of being insanely happy had never even crossed my mind.
In fact, happiness, even at a basic level, often felt elusive. And the busier I was, the harder it was to be happy. Instead, I was stressed and anxious, and often heard myself saying, “I don’t have time to be happy now. I just need to get this done.”
Then my friend Laurie sent me a video clip of an orangutan’s reaction—one might say insanely happy reaction—to a simple magic trick in which a man makes a chestnut disappear. Watching the video made me laugh and provided me with a jolt of jolly. The first time I watched it, the 13th time and even the 21st time.
And while I’m still not laughing as often as a five-year-old, I’m definitely ha-ha-ing more often in pursuit of my new “insanely happy” goal.
Just thinking about the video makes me laugh. Perhaps it will do the same for you.
Two years ago a friend introduced me to Clutter Chronicles, a podcast that features a woman named Mary and her “unusual relationship with stuff.” Ever since, I’ve been working hard to rid myself of my clutter, as well as all sorts of other stuff I no longer need or use.
I’ve made good progress. I’ve tossed reams and reams of client files from a four-drawer, 48-inch-wide file cabinet. I’ve donated hundreds of books, a dozen bags of clothes, several sets of linens and my favorite china.
Parting with most of that stuff turned out to be easier than I thought thanks to another friend who encouraged me to stop dragging my anchor behind me and instead toss it out in front of me.
But I’ve since come to realize that there’s a category of clutter I’m still having trouble letting go of: aspirational clutter.
I’d never even heard of aspirational clutter until a third friend introduced me to Apartment Therapy, a home and décor site that defines aspirational clutter as “anything you’re keeping for a future version of yourself.”
As a lifelong goal-setter with all sorts of imagined future selves and plenty of storage space, I’ve accumulated a great deal of aspirational clutter, most of which revolves around hopes and dreams related to creative pursuits such as writing, drawing, painting, sewing and knitting, all things I used to love doing as a kid but gave up decades ago.
Some of my aspirational clutter is electronic, like the list of words I keep on my computer, words I aspire to one day not only remember the meaning of but also use in a short story. The list includes noctilucent, opsimath, sere and wheedle.
There’s also a list of clever headlines, as well as lists of books to read, movies to watch and podcasts to listen to, all in line with my aspirations to develop compelling creative content in a variety of forms.
But what about the things that do take up physical space? A shoebox filled with recipes. A plastic bin of yarn. An untouched set of oil paints I received for my 40th birthday. A six-inch high pile of pages I’ve torn out of magazines in preparation for making collages.
Despite the fact that some of these things have sat dormant for decades, tossing or giving them away is harder than I would have imagined. And that’s exactly how my more creative future self would want it to be.