THE TASK OF GROWING OLD

One of the advantages of growing old, is that you can enjoy going to the movie on a weekday afternoon. A couple of days past, Nancy and I went to see the movie from India, “Lunchbox”, at four in the afternoon. We had planned, and did enjoy gilding the lily, by ordering a meal from Crossculture, an Indian Restaurant in Doylestown, to eat as we discussed the movie afterwards.

One of the main characters in the movie is an older man who is about to retire. At one point, he is looking at himself in the mirror and he says, “I could smell my grandfather as I looked at my face in the mirror. It was then that I realized I had become my grandfather. How did it just happen without my knowledge?” Growing old does slip up on us.

Eight years ago, as I was approaching the age of sixty-five, I decided to focus my creative energy on stories for the last third of life. Since then I have developed two performance of Jung stories: Imagining the World of Carl Jung and  Dancing with Daemons, and a god in your pocket. These performances explore the ideas of Jung that intrigue me. Are they really focused on stories for the last third of life?

What the hell should we be focused on at this time in our lives? Grandfather Jung always said, “live your life as if you will be here forever”. I do not agree. I have not taken to a rocking chair to while away my days, but I do spend more time “understanding” the life I have lived. I also try to spend more time being aware of the life I am living today. Let me give you a couple of little stories to share what I am trying to do with the last third of my life.

Yesterday was a beautiful, spring day in our part of Pennsylvania. The sun was shining. The temperature was seventy degrees, but there was a light west wind to cool a sweating brow. For our daily walk, Nancy and drove to Lake Galena north of Doylestown. Because it was a pleasant Saturday afternoon, there were a lot of people in the park. So on impulse, we veered off the path around the lake and followed a path into the woods, away from the crowd. The path followed the stream that feeds the lake. Soon we were caught up in identifying plants and their newly budded flowers: spring beauties, trout lilies and too much lesser celandine. We found a  bench and sat down to quietly to observe the life around us. A pair of hairy woodpeckers appeared overhead. We speculated if they were matting. Then, a third bird appeared from a hole in the tree. Was there a nest? What was the relationship among the three birds? An hour soon passed watching birds, insects, identifying plants, and enjoying the balmy spring afternoon.

Last evening, after our wonderful walk, I went to bed at my usual time of nine. By nine-thirty I was sound asleep, again as usual; and by three in the morning, I was awake. I got up and went out to the living room couch with Joseph Campbell’s  Creative Mythology. There I happened upon his discussion of the Greek myth of Sisyphus. As you may remember, this is the story of an immortal who was bound to the task of pushing, or rolling, a stone up the hill, only to have the stone roll back down to the bottom of the hill. It was suggested that this endless task is only a tragedy if Sisyphus has hope that some day his task will end. If he accepts the unending task, he can find relief, and even perhaps joy, in watching the stone roll back down the hill as he walks unburdened behind it. Perhaps growing old is something like this, we can not escape the task, but there are times when you get to watch the stone roll back down the hill! Nancy and I have enjoyed a couple of these breaks from the task of growing old over the past two days.

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1 Response to THE TASK OF GROWING OLD

  1. Bill Wood says:

    Ray, It’s nice to have you walking ahead of me on this path of life and sending back reports for the last third of life! Two things to say about this. First regarding Sisyphus. We should remember that when Pandora opened the box all the ills of the world flew out, and all that remained in the bottom was Hope. Most people interpret this as a sort of silver lining. That despite all those ills something positive remains, but the myth tells us simply that the box contained all the ills of the world, which leads to the interpretation that Hope is also an ill. Perhaps the most devastating ill of all! Also I’d like to share with you a post from the facebook page of Elizabeth Gilbert who wrote, Eat, Pray, Love. IN PRAISE OF THE INNER CRONE!

    OK, we all know about the “inner child”, right? The innocent being who still lives inside of us, who needs and deserves love and care, and whom we sometimes have to channel in order to learn self-compassion?

    I’m a big fan of the notion of the inner child. It can be a really healing construct. Once, when I was going through a particularly dark season of self-loathing, I taped a sweet photo of myself (age 2) on my mirror, and taught myself that any harm I did to me, I also did to HER. It made me kinder and more tender to myself. Imagining other people’s inner children makes me kinder and more tender to them.

    So the Inner Child is a good thing.

    These days, though, I spend less time thinking about my Inner Child lately, and more time focused on my INNER CRONE — the old lady who lives inside me, whom I hope to someday be.

    Because she’s a serious bad-ass.

    The really old ladies always are bad-asses. I’m talking about the real survivors. The women who have been through everything already, so nothing scares them anymore. The ones who have already watched the world fight itself nearly to death a dozen times over. The ones who have buried their dreams and their loved ones and lived through it. The ones who have suffered pain and lived through it, and who have had their innocence challenged by ten thousand appalling assaults…and who lived through all of it.

    The world is a frightening place. But you simply cannot frighten The True Crone.

    Some might consider the word “crone” to be derogatory, but I don’t in the least. I honor it. The crone is a classic character from myth and folklore, and she often the bearer of great wisdom and supernatural power. She is sometimes a guardian to the underworld. She has tremendous vision, even if she is blind. She has no fear of death, which means: NO FEAR.

    I keep a wall of photos of some of my favorite crones, for inspiration. The photo below is of a Ukrainian Babushka who lives in (get this) Chernobyl. There are a group of such women — all tough elderly peasants — who have all recently moved back to the radioactive area around Chernobyl.

    You know why they live there? Because they like it.

    They like Chernobyl because that’s where they came from. They are natural-born farmers. They hated being refugees.They resented being shunted off their land after the catastrophe. They hated living in the shabby and crime-infiltrated and stress-inducing government housing in the city, and they much prefer the independence of living off the land in the most contaminated nuclear site on earth. They have formed a stupendously resilient retirement community there, in what some would call the world’s most terrifying landscape.

    Is it safe? Of course not. Or, whatever. After 90 years of hard living, what does “safe” even mean? They drink the water. These women plant vegetables in that radioactive soil and eat them. They butcher the wild pigs that scavenge around the old nuclear power plant, and eat them, too. Their point is: “We are old. What do have to fear from radioactivity? At this age? Who cares?”

    All they want is their freedom. So they take care of themselves and each other. They cut and haul their own wood. They make their own vodka. They get together and drink and laugh about the hardships of World War II and the evils of the Stalin years. They laugh about everything, then they go outside and butcher another radioactive boar and make sausage out of him.

    I would put these women in a Bad-Ass Contest against any cocky young alleged Bad Ass you’ve got going, and I guarantee you — the Chernobyl crones would win, hands down.

    We live in a society that romanticizes youth. We live in a culture where youth is considered a real accomplishment. You look at a seriously powerful classic crone like the woman in this photo and you see foolish we are — to imagine that the young offer much for us to aspire to, or learn from. No wisdom like the wisdom of survival. No equanimity like the equanimity of somebody who plants a garden right on top of a nuclear disaster and gets on with it.

    So these days, when my Inner Child gets all fluttery with the panic of living, I just ask myself: ” WWMICD?”

    “What Would My Inner Crone Do?”

    Ask yourself that same question. See what she tells you.

    One thing I can promise you she will never say? She will never say: “WORRY.

    She will more likely tell you this: “ENDURE.”

    Hang in there, all you future awesome crones!

    LG

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