Bette Davis famously said, “Old age ain’t for sissies.”
The scariest thing I’ve done this month is to start taking a yoga class at a local Senior Center. After the first class, I couldn’t shake the disquieting feeling that there was something wrong about the whole thing. The room was too dark; the instructor went too fast; other people blocked my view, whine, whine whine. I had only paid for half the sessions and resolved after only one class not to see it through. Forget that the stretching made me feel better, that other returning members graciously lent me their mats and pillows, or that I discovered a beautiful Japanese garden next door. Clearly being there wasn’t for me!
Upon reflection – you know, that part of you that knows better – (Freud called it the Supergo) –the part that says you shouldn’t eat that or you’re going too fast – that part called bs on my lame rationalizations. I didn’t want to go because it was in the Senior Center.
Do you know where the nearest Senior Center is to you? I wager that 90% of you – even being asked that question – will dig your hands deep into your pockets and wrap your coat or jacket closed as if you were just hit by a wind off Lake Michigan. That’s not a place I should know; that’s not for me; that’s for old people.
We are catastrophically embarrassingly horrible to our elders in this country. And I use that term carefully; we call them the elderly while other nations and cultures call them elders – the wise ones, the ones who teach us, the gurus who can show us the way. Here in America, it’s the elderly, the ones we put in the corners in the dark, the ones we like to joke about, the ones we don’t want to be. And the funnier it was when you were twenty to talk about getting older, the more afraid you get when it starts looming in front of you.
Superego Point #1. Nobody wants to get older, no matter what age you are. When you’re twenty, you hate the idea of looking for that permanent job, getting a mortgage, a pension, a marriage. The thirty year old feels the financial anaconda tighten further, as you think about 401Ks or tuition if you have children or the ticking biological clock if you don’t. At forty, the wear and tear on the body starts to settle in; you can’t eat the same things or exercise at the same pace. Social Security becomes something to think about. Which is worse? Getting ready to receive it or fearing it will disappear because we’re all not currently paying enough into it? At fifty, you start noticing people you know in the obituaries and all the rock stars, athletes and celebrities you admired start to look so old – what happened to them? You do the math. You wrap your coat even closer.
No age is a “good age.” When you’re twenty, you’re clueless. If you knew at twenty what you know at fifty – oh, you would not have done some of those really dumb things. (Of course you would have because it isn’t being older that’s the key but having survived the stupidity, yet still…) Thirty you spend too much time thinking about what comes next. Forty, well, now you’re getting somewhere, now you know some things and take advantage but do you? And fifty? Fifty ain’t no thing. Fifty is liberating. Fifty is when you don’t give a flip anymore. Fifty is perspective.
More rationalizing? You bet your sweet bippy. And you have to be close to fifty to know where that phrase comes from.
Superego Point #2. Senior Centers are vibrant places offering opportunities for athletic, volunteer, and social activities. They have the same hum of activity as a wine bar or a playground or a disco. We may joke about not wanting to play bingo or take a bus to the casinos, but it’s really not that different from any other like-minded group of people wanting to hang together. After all, watching people doing shots or wine tasting isn’t that interesting either if you don’t drink. Sports bars are a great shared experience if your team is playing in the championship; if you don’t like sports, they’re full of obnoxious loudmouths, obsessed over trivial entertainment.
Superego Point #3. We worry about getting older because we see our parents going through it. It is their Alzheimer’s, their surgeries, their frailties that make it seem so real to us. We wouldn’t want to go through that alone and in the dark cold neglected world of our imagination. But here’s the thing. Our parents did the best they could for us; and we do the best we can for them. They faced aging pretty well knowing that we’re there to support them as we can, as scary as it is for us. (Not everyone is good to their aging parents; but everyone I know – everyone who might read this – surely does the best they can.) Our society could be less discriminatory towards its elder population, but then we should have universal health care, too, and eliminate global warming and yeah that’s gonna happen. It will be easier for us than it was for our parents and for their parents and for their parents.
I have been going to the downtown San Francisco YMCA for 24 years, and at nine o clock on a weekday, most of the members in the swimming pool are older people. I once heard a woman tell another that she was 93 years old. There’s only one way to respond to that – Wow! I hope I am still swimming when I am 93 years old. How brave is that? 93 flippin’ years old? She probably started going to the Senior Center early just to hang out with all the cool people.
So time for me to stop being such a baby. Off to yoga class and whatever comes after. And maybe everyone should find out exactly where their nearest Senior Center is. You’re gonna need it.