Long before a turning point is evident, tiny shifts lead to change: The last cut of the axe before a tree falls, the gathering force of an avalanche before it lets go, the final few cells piling up to a clot that blocks flow and becomes the stroke, the gradual loosening of a sleepy child’s fingers before the toy slides to the floor, the droop and dangle of a leaf before it drops, the new insight added to insight as a mind is changed.
At autumn equinox, a near balance is struck when day and night are almost the same length before the northern hemisphere tilts toward winter. Minutes of daylight have been slipping away since June, and September’s days, though still sunny, are cooler. I don’t welcome the coming darkness, but accept it. And autumn has its compensations: apples, fires, and glorious colors.
During the drive from home to being away, my mind travels extra time merging memories of past trips with plans for the next weeks. The years that pacifier inventory and gentle shampoo were critical has slowly morphed into double checking the packing of face creams, medications and comfortable shoes. Very slowly, but with determined forward motion, until time starts happening instead of moving.
Corn grows as far as the eye can see along the highway. Rivers and ponds look high for a second or third year. Construction has moved about twenty miles further south than the prior trip, but large trucks are still annoying in the cone-formed single lane. Too early for lunch, breakfast’s beverage wanting out, the discussion changes from the morning news and towards where to stop for a comfort break or whether to push on for an early burger.
August has always been vacation month for our family. What started out of necessity because of participation in post-season youth ball tournaments grew into tradition. Kids would get new sneakers and fresh summer clothes to avoid back-to-school shopping after returning home. Vacation in September is sweeter once untangled from kid schedules, but some places close Labor Day weekend making it hard to rent a kayak or find a soft-serve cone after time on the beach.
Weighted down by sun screen and sun prevention clothing, watching birds swoop into the water for food and parents with preschoolers playing in the shallow spots, I remember a skinny teenager in a two piece subconsciously flirting with a boy, an older teen stranded with a car breakdown near a forbidden quarry, a honeymooning young woman and all the years leading to this person in this moment. Feet resting in shoreline water, a comfy chair, an umbrella and a book. Storing up another year.
Sixty-six degrees at eight in the morning on July 4 in Door County. My hands smell of lavender from making bouquets and the harvest piles up in an old, rusty green Suburban Garden wagon. The cold spring delayed sprigs maturing, but the first varieties are now ready. These mornings of working at a table with a sweeping view of blooming lavender rows, friends bent over the bushy plants, and collies running offer a respite from news and worries.
Yes, the world is dipping and swaying for huge reasons, and it is hard to be proud of the state of our nation. I couldn’t get into the goofy happiness of a small town 4th of July parade and snapping pictures of kids on decorated tractor wagons and the grocery store staff pushing decorated shopping carts. I haven’t absorbed the sickening news of another mass shooter at a different parade. National discord and gun violence keep Americans in an uncomfortable state of anxiety so I’m looking for moments of simple pleasure to build personal peace of mind. I’m talking really simple pleasures:
Fresh peas, shelled by someone else.
Sunshine and cool air this morning.
Two fawns playing in a neighbors’ yard.
Straight from the field strawberries.
Farmers market greens and cherry tomatoes.
Giggles of a happy infant granddaughter.
Our eight-year-old granddaughter singing.
Music while working.
A short pile of books.
Family and good friends a call or text away.
Some days you must restore your own core to keep pushing through your role in the bigger world. Here’s hoping you can create a list of simple pleasures to support minutes of personal peace.
A screeching, beeping monster clawed a mountain of dirt from my front yard, pirouetting in a repetitive mechanical dance.
In a surprising moment of consideration, the monster’s keepers preserved my ratty, overgrown boulevard garden, which fringed the gaping hole where sidewalk used to be. As if that garden is worth the care they gave it! They didn’t know I’d gladly be rid of the hosta and daylilies.
Workers in neon green coveralls appeared waist deep in the front yard. Urban prairie dogs. Do they like standing in holes, dirty and damp? Being where the rest of us don’t go? Searching for a pipe—hidden—but not exactly a treasure.
Weeks later, cars still charge up to the roadblock in disbelief, apparently thinking, You can’t stop me, I’ll get through. Some seem to contemplate launching à la Thelma and Louise over the one-foot precipice into the scraped dirt and escaping, only to accept reality, veer into a nearby parking lot, and cut through the alley. Back on their way.
That’s how this summer, or really this whole year, has felt because of COVID. We’ve hurried toward the life we wanted, only to see—again—not here, not now. Go around, adapt, try again.
At night it’s peaceful. No clattering buses driving by. No thumping bass from passing cars or snatches of song from cyclists.
Several years back, while serving on the board of the Vital Aging Network, I helped develop Aging With Gusto, a program designed to help people develop more positive views of aging and live their own lives with gusto.
Research shows that people with more positive views of aging live an average of 7.5 years longer than those with more negative views. What’s more, people who perceive their elder selves as a burden to others tend to view their lives as less valuable, which in turn increases their risk of depression and social isolation, both of which have proven to be “silent killers” for older adults.
I felt like I was doing pretty well when it came to living with gusto—I was working less and enjoying life more—but then COVID came along and all my gusto got up and went away-o.
So did the me I knew…and liked.
That me juggled a lot of things at once, effortlessly kept track of deadlines, friends’ birthdays and bill due-dates. She walked 10,000 steps a day, volunteered often, went to yoga on Saturday mornings and loved getting together with friends, even if it meant driving across town in rush-hour traffic.
She also traveled. In 2019, she spent February and March in Panama, May in New York City and much of that summer and fall at a rustic fishing resort near the Canadian border. In 2021, she was set to spend March and April with her sister and her family in Los Angeles, but that trip was cut short due to COVID. So were other travel plans.
And now, roughly 18 months later, I’m no longer she.
My hair, which I used to color blonde, is now gray. My face has new wrinkles. My skin, once taut, is now crepe-y. And while I know these changes took time to develop, it feels like these changes occurred practically overnight while I was quarantining due to COVID.
And the changes aren’t just on the surface. Last summer, after walking became so painful I stopped doing it any more than was absolutely necessary, I was told I need hip replacement surgery. With elective surgeries advised against at the time, I’ve put it off, which is why, when friends invited me to walk with them (one of the few things that felt safe enough to do), I declined.
Instead, my friends and I did a few Zoom calls. Then, because looking presentable wasn’t high on our lists, we talked on the phone. Eventually even that got to be too much, in part because many of us were dealing with some big stuff. Not used to being together 24/7, my partner and I were struggling to get along. One of my sisters and her husband almost lost their business. One friend had pancreatic cancer. Another had a husband with a brain tumor and a son who nearly died from alcohol poisoning.
Living through—and aging—during a pandemic has caused so many of us to reprioritize. As a result, rather than traveling and enjoying many of the other out-and-about activities that we enjoyed pre-pandemic—we are busy taking care our relationships, our livelihoods, our health and the health of our loved ones. No one can blame us; it’s the right thing to do.
But the pandemic has made everything more difficult, more urgent, more immediate. And more solitary. In the process of caring for ourselves and our loved ones, we risk isolating ourselves from support we may desperately need. Doing so can be costly: one study says isolation increases the risk of death by 29 percent, another that loneliness is as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
So, I’m working on reclaiming my Aging-with-Gusto mindset by being more proactive in maintaining my own social connections: I’m calling at least one friend or family member each day and sending at least five cards each week. While these are small things, I know from being on the receiving end that they can make a difference. Plus, it’s one thing I can do no matter what is happening with COVID. I call it Gusto Lite, but at least it’s a start.
What are you doing to age with gusto? Please share.