Standing in my dressing room one morning, I looked at myself in the mirror and thought, Well, you always wanted to grow old gracefully.
On the table next to me a small framed picture of a beautiful young woman smiled back at me.
Well, I certainly don’t look like that anymore, I said to myself. But that’s okay.
My 75th birthday was coming up, and being 75 years old and all that comes with it had been on my mind.
How much time had passed between the 30-something-year-old me in the picture and the 74-year-old me in the mirror? And who woulda’ thought that—along the way from unhappiness, confusion, making terrible choices and lots of mistakes, and not having a clue what I was doing—I would finally be able to reach contentment and self-assurance in my own skin.
While I was having breakfast, I started to think of the milestones I’d met and decisions I’d made that had changed the course of my life—and what I’d learned from them.
It all started when I was about 50 years old…
1. I did lots of personal work. I began a regular meditation practice, saw a therapist, did holotrophic breathwork, attended grief workshops and about every 12-step program that would let me in the door. I learned that you really are able to re-write your story while embracing the one you were born with.
2. I made amends. I had hurt a lot of people in my life with my unconscious, irresponsible behavior. Through 12-step programs I learned that making amends for the suffering I had caused—more than merely apologizing for it—was the secret to rebuilding torn relationships.
3. I quit full-time employment at the age of 55. I was working 60 to 70 hours a week to put money toward a future that I had no assurance would even come. I learned that feeling safe in the world was a mindset, not a paycheck.
4. I reduced my lifestyle needs and learned that less “stuff” to be responsible for equated to a quieter, more peaceful inner life.
5. I went on a cash-only basis. If I didn’t have the money in my banking account to pay for something I didn’t buy it. I waited. This simple act eradicated my previous need for instant gratification.
6. I stopped watching television news. I learned about what was happening in the world on my own and formed my own opinions sans commercial media. I was also relieved to learn that the less I allowed others to interpret world events for me, the less I was afraid of those events.
7. I exercised. I did yoga, lifted weights, worked out in the pool, and, if I all else failed, walked every morning. Yes, I took my heart and my lungs with me on my exercise endeavors, but I also took my mind. I learned that—besides keeping me physically fit and attractive—exercise both calmed my physical stress and my spirit, and kept my mind clear and active.
8. I made a conscious decision to remain sexual for the rest of my life. To me, the death of my sexual self represented the death of my passions, and I consciously decided to meet new male “friends.” I learned that sexuality and age have nothing to do with one another.
9. I sought alternative medicine. For the years that I was depressed I didn’t treat my depression with prescription drugs; I instead considered it a sign that I had more work to do. I learned of the vast array of natural products, behaviors and even diets that addressed all of my ailments.
10. I worked part-time. Part time work gives me the money I need to supplement Social Security and I learned the many benefits of working part time here.
Most important, however, looking back I saw that the many years I had lived amounted to what I can call “Life School.” I had learned a lot about myself and what I have to offer and saw that my experiences and history—especially my mistakes—were a vast treasure trove to draw from when it comes to facings life’s struggles and heartaches.
I am not perfect by any means, nor do I feel that I have graduated from Life School. There’s always more to learn. I’m also not suggesting that what I did is what anybody else should do.
I am saying, however, that in a life that started out looking like it was not going to end well, leaving behind a trail of broken promises, poor judgment and terrible relationships, I have been able to learn from it and end up valuing my years—all 75 of them—rather than seeing them as a liability.
To me, that’s a good definition of what it is to “grow old gracefully.”
Author: Carmelene Siani
Image: Courtesy of Author, used with permission from photographer Jade Beall
Editor: Toby Israel