The month of June is named for the Roman goddess of marriage, Juno, as well as the Latin word iuniores meaning “youth.” Whether intentional or not there is a connection between the two. Key to both a successful marriage and a youthful spirit are qualities such as openness, resilience, spontaneity, flexibility, playfulness, curiosity and adventure. But while we don’t have total say in the success of a marriage, a youthful spirit is completely within our reach.
Throughout history, there has been a fascination with youth. In earlier cultures, where the life span was much shorter, the interest was more about immortality – the hope that one could find the secret of eternal youth, thus defying death and living forever. But in the past century, preoccupation with youth has been more on the surface, almost like a fashion statement. Sleek bodies and flawless skin have become the criteria for a successful life, and as the baby boomers find themselves entering their sixties, “youth culture” is reaching a fever pitch. Images of youth plastered on bulletin boards and blaring from TV’s are so pervasive that none of us are immune to their effects. In such a climate, it is more important than ever to understand that youth is not a chronological age but a state of mind. No matter what our age, the experience of youthfulness is available at any time.
In that spirit, on this first day of June, choose one of the qualities above to focus on. Find a quiet place where you won’t be interrupted. Start by standing feet apart, arms at your side. Take a moment to lean forward, back, side to side, until you feel centered. Raise your head, as if a string were attached to your crown and pulling it up. At the same time feel the force of gravity rooting your feet firmly to the ground. Now locate a place near your solar plexus. Feel your breath flowing into that spot, feel it flowing out – notice the sensation as it flows in and out. With the next breath, bring the quality of youthfulness you’ve chosen for the day to mind. As you say the word and breathe it into your center, feel its own unique characteristic rippling through you. If a particular sensation or image comes into your awareness, allow yourself to enjoy it. If a painful emotion, thought, or sensation arises, allow yourself to experience it then return focus to your chosen quality for the day. Next, shift your weight from one foot to another. With one step, breathe in the chosen quality. With the next step breath that quality out into the world. Breathe in, breathe out – from right to left foot and back until it fees like you’re walking in place. After a minute or two, take an actual step, breathing in the quality, step, step, step, breathing it out. Walk slowly like this, feeling your feet solidly on the ground, your head rising into the air, the quality of youthfulness you’ve chosen to focus on, radiating through your body. Continue like this for another few minutes.
As you move through the day, stop every so often and turn your attention to the day’s quality. You might want to write it out on small slips of paper or note cards – putting one on the fridge, one a mirror, one on your desk, as a reminder. Whatever confronts you during the day, whatever you feel, the quality you’ve chosen to focus on is there to remind you that the spirit of youthfulness is only a breath away. No matter what your age or physical condition, you can be playful, flexible, resilient. A youthful spirit is available to each of us at any time.
I was lucky to have parents who modeled youthfulness until the day they died. At the age of 70, my father, an avid wilderness explorer and athlete, was still beating everyone in tennis and journeying into the far reaches of Canada and Alaska on his legendary canoe trips. But at 71, he developed Parkinson’s. For the next eight years he went from being vital and able-bodied, to almost totally paralyzed. Midway through his decline, he met a man who led wilderness trips for the disabled. Announcing to my siblings and me that he wanted to go on another canoe trip, he asked the man to organize one. Several months later, he set off once again for Canada (in diapers, barely able to walk) in the company of this guide, a legless Viet Nam vet, my sister and my two sons. Used to paddling in the stern, he relinquished his role as “Hawkeye” and sat in the middle of the canoe. Throughout the trip, he sat still as if enraptured. When he returned, his eyes teared up, “That was the most wonderful trip of all!” he murmured (his voice also beginning to fail). Accustomed to driving hard, his eyes acutely focused on the next rapids, the farthest shore, he was able to sit back for the first time in his life and absorbed the beauty. “I never saw such clouds,” he whispered. “I never took time to look up.” In his last years, confined to a chair, he focused all his attention on finishing “The Search for Adventure,” a multi-volume chronicle of a life devoted to disarmament and the outdoors. On the day before he died he was still hard at work on it,
dictating corrections – his eyes closed, his voice barely audible. Driven by feats of endurance most of his life, he handled his last feat with unusual acceptance and grace. At the end, totally paralyzed and barely able to speak, he didn’t complain. His spirit continued to blaze.
After he died, my mother, spent a year mourning. As she’d spent much of her life alternating between bouts of depression and periods of child-like joy, my siblings and I were afraid that she’d sink into the kind of geriatric depression we’d seen in some of their friends. On top of that, her cerebellum had begun to atrophy, slurring her speech and making movement increasingly difficult. The beginning of the end, we all thought and we braced for the inevitable outcome. What we didn’t factor in was the force of her spirit. Almost a year from the date my father died, she crossed an invisible line. One night, after an evening of theatre out with my son, she met a woman who was on her way to perform at a
well-known jazz club. My mother brightened, as if an old memory had been ignited. “Let’s go!” she exclaimed, lifting her cane in excitement. And from then on, every night for the next ten years, she was a regular. Sitting in a designated seat at the edge of the stage, front row center, wearing one of her signature hats, her eyes closed, her feet tapping, she swayed back and forth to the music. Occasionally she fluttered her fingers at one of the jazz greats passing
through – all of whom became her friends. Often, after the club’s last show, she would go on to the late show of “Miss Richfield,” a flamboyant female impersonator who had also become a friend. And sometimes, if she could convince whichever unfortunate soul was accompanying her, she would carry on to Patrick the performance artist’s “Open Mike.”
Though her body became increasingly frail, her adventures continued during the day. The Giant Water Slide at the state fair – which she descended over and over, her cane raised in the air, an expression of unmitigated joy on her face. The International Fire Works Show in North Dakota – where, as guest of honor, she sat in a special box with Irv, the fireworks impresario who had founded the show.
An Owl Release – when, with a team from the Wildlife Rescue League, she released a baby owl named Jane (named after her) out of her gloved hands. Recalling the little owl soaring into the air, she told me, “It was synergy!”
(a favorite new word, which she confused with “synchronicity”) “It’s as if your father was there.”
A week after she died there was a celebration at her beloved jazz club that went from noon til late into the night. Musicians came from all over the country to pay tribute. Local performers held forth, honoring her with poetry, song and dance. At the end, Irv ignited a masterpiece of fireworks in the back yard of the club. She’s here! we all thought, as we watched the colored flares, sparking, blazing, glittering across the night sky.
I think of my parents often now as I approach my 70th birthday. And daily, I live with an acute awareness that I have a choice. I can choose to focus on the limitations of my aging physical body – its aches and pains – the approaching finish line. Or I can choose to focus on the small miracles that present themselves each day – the unexpected adventures around each corner – the incredible diversity and richness of this thing called life. At any moment I can chose to feel spontaneous, resilient, playful – remembering that age is a state of mind available to each of us at any time. It’s never too late to feel youthful.
Although some of the books listed here use the words “Death” or “Aging” in their title, they are really books about how to live – happily, healthily, youthfully.
IT’S ABOUT YOU; Regaining Youthfulness and a Spirit of Adventure by E. S. Smith. Smith gives a guide to bringing a spirit of youthfulness, adventure and exuberance into everyday life. Drawing on experiences in his own life, he encourages each of us to see life as a precious gift to be savored moment by moment, day by day. Instead of feeling stressed, exhausted, unfulfilled, or anxious about the future, he asks us to understand how unique each of us is. Throughout the book he presents tools that can help us take steps toward becoming more youthful and adventurous.
AGING WELL; Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development by George Valliant. Valliant pulls together data from three separate longevity studies that follows individuals for over fifty years, saying that “We all need models for how to live from retirement to past 80 – with joy.” He includes subjective observations and interpretations, which give a richer picture of the people he interviews. One of his conclusions, “Owning an old brain is rather like owning an old car . . . Careful driving and maintenance are everything.”
HEALTHY AGING; A Lifelong Guide to Your Physical and Spiritual Well-being by Andrew Weil, M.D. Weil’s main message is that aging gracefully requires accepting the process instead of fighting it. He focuses on proper nutrition, moderate exercise and meditation as crucial components in retaining a healthy body and youthful spirit. “Aging can bring frailty and suffering,” Weil writes, “but it can also bring depth and richness of experience, complexity of being, serenity, wisdom and its own kind of power and grace.”
THE QUEST FOR IMMORTALITY; Science at the Frontiers of Aging by S. Jay Olshansky and Bruce Carnes. For over a decade, the authors have conducted research on individual, societal and population consequences of aging. In their book they explore the questions of why we age, how we age and what we can do to live healthy lives in the face of aging. They distinguish between the quest simply to prolong life and the dream of living long lives while remaining independent and healthy. In the foreword they write, “Growing older can and should be a rewarding physical and emotional journey. For most of us throughout the majority of our lives, the passage of time can and should be marked by improvement in physical fitness, emotional growth and enhanced wisdom.” They quote Charles Schultz, “Just remember, once you’re over the hill, you begin to pick up speed.”
THIS IS GETTING OLD; Zen Thoughts on Aging with Humor and Dignity by Susan Moon. In her mid-sixties, Berkeley author Susan Moon wrote, “My Buddhist practice encourages me not to turn away from what’s difficult . . . so I started writing about getting old. I wanted to look right into the face of oldness. What is it?” The essays in this book are grouped into three sections: mind /body, relationships and spirit. Humorous, poignant, probing, Moon takes us along on her journey into the heart of aging. She speaks of ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging – “Flowers that wilt quickly are particularly valued because they demonstrate the beauty of impermanence. The very fact that they fade makes them precious.”
LIVING IN THE LIGHT OF DEATH; On the art of Being Truly Alive by Larry Rosenberg. In this book, Rosenberg shows how intimacy with aging and mortality can be a means to liberation. If we become intimate with these facts of life, he believes, we can accept them as such and let go of the emotional agendas that accompany them. Rosenberg gives anecdotes from his travels to illustrate that aging, illness and death can teach us how to live well. He quotes a beloved teacher, “Aging, illness and death are treasures for those who understand them . . .
If they were people, I’d bow down to their feet every day.” When we think that the body is ourselves, he reminds us, we are afraid when we see it change. Caring for the body is a practice in awareness. “The practice is about moving beyond all images, being intimate with the raw, naked of experience of your body . . . You never come to the end of the practice of awareness. It will serve you well for the rest of your life.”
BEYOND YOUTH PROJECT; Facebook. I include this project on facebook as it provides opportunity for dialogue. Gale Bailey, the creator of this project writes, “Baby Boomers are getting older – and we will revolutionize aging as we revolutionized work, dating, marriage, and parenthood during the boomer era. We didn’t live like our parents and we’re not going to age like them either! We are as Bob and Joan defined us – FOREVER YOUNG. We’ve got the talent and the passion to live long active productive lives no matter our age. Join us at Beyond Youth Project on facebook.com to connect with folks, share ideas and build community as we change what it means to grow from young to old. facebook.com/beyondyouthproject
I’ve added a new retreat to my offerings – Developing Balance. This retreat grows out of my observation that many of us feel overwhelmed by the daily flood of information and the ever-more frantic pace of life. In such a climate, it is increasingly difficult to make wise decisions, be innovative at work, or engage meaningfully with others. In response to this growing trend, I’ve developed a retreat for those of you who want to increase your effectiveness at work and bring greater ease to your everyday lives.
The retreat takes place in a charming cottage outside the town of Occidental on ten acres of rolling meadows, oak, bay, redwood trees, only minutes from the ocean. There is an option to stay at a nearby inn, dividing the retreat over two days so that you can take advantage of nearby Russian River, Bodega Bay and the area’s spectacular hiking trails. Other options are also available.