In August, my sixty-fifth birthday approached and passed. So? Age is just a number, and many of my students and friends are older than I am. Both of my parents are almost thirty years older. And how much can I comprehend from my experience of ageing, as compared to someone in their mid-nineties?
Was this a milestone birthday or not? I had time to think about it on a trip I made to visit friends in Crowsnest Pass in Southern Alberta. The four-hour drive was long for me and I had not driven the route before, and was nervous about doing so alone. But I pushed through my fear. Discovering new places on my own is a pleasure I have enjoyed in the past and hope to in the future. But it takes work. Fears, concerns, insecurities have to be managed now more than ever. Still, it is worth ‘managing’ them, if you want to keep growing and learning.
Being by myself, I could pull off the highway whenever I chose, to take photos or just witness the incredible vistas in front of me. Was I looking at the backs of the mountains I knew so well, or an entirely new mountain range? I had time to stop, open a map, figure it out.
Growing up in Calgary, I was familiar with the nearby Rocky Mountains. When my sister and I were kids, my athletic father took us skiing a couple of times a month in the mountains outside Banff, stopping for a dip afterward in the nearby hot springs. The directions I had for ‘The Pass’ did not mean driving due west from Calgary, but rather straight south on a two-lane highway, romantically called The Cowboy Trail, where the foothills were the main attraction. The mountains I saw from my car window were rounded and less jagged than Banff’s Rockies, and set so far back that sky also became part of the vista.
The self-fulfilling prophecy of ageing
In Blairmore, one of the five historic mining communities of Crowsnest Pass, I spent two nights with friends (both professors well into their seventies). My recent birthday in mind, I asked them questions about their hopes and plans for the decades ahead, and how they worked to get less stress and more movement into their lives. I was impressed to hear that Blairmore, where they live for a few months each year, has a fully equipped 24-hour gym right down the street and they fob in and out of it often. A commitment to health was high priority on both of their lists. And I was struck by their positive expectations of their final decades.
Our attitude toward ageing can be critical to how each of us approaches the ageing process. Thomas Hanna, the famous movement theorist and author of Somatics writes about the potent effects of expectation on ageing. Hanna believes that the mental attitude people have about the ageing process may cause things to turn out exactly as they expect. To expect the worst sets the body up to reinforce discomfort as a permanent condition, which then makes the body become resistant to improvement and self-healing. Hanna writes urgently of the need for a ‘pride of age,’ since how we interpret certain discomforts is crucial to how they will play out in our bodies.
Perhaps my friends’ lives were not typical; theirs was a relatively new, second marriage for both of them. But they stand out as older adults with a good attitude to ageing. I was with them almost solidly for two days and heard no complaints about ailments or pain. They had both faced adversity and intense loss in their lives, but were committed to self-healing, positivity, and exactly what Hanna refers to as ‘pride of age.’
As I lay in bed on my last night with them, I thought of all we had talked about. Stress reduction was key on their list of what should be managed. We also spoke about strategic thinking, rather than impulsive bursts of activity, and how none of us wanted to retire from the life we loved of reading, teaching and writing. What did make sense, we discussed, was retirement from perfectionism. Those words rang true for me and meant many things: from accepting the purple circles under my eyes that no amount of sleep can eradicate, to the fact that it is no longer important to polish my kitchen floor to within an inch of its life. Retirement from perfection also meant that the goal of using exercise to achieve a certain ‘look’ or ‘body perfect’ was behind us. The goal now was function, strength and ease of movement.
On my last night, I was awoken by a train that rumbled through the town, blasting its horn two blocks from the house (all our windows were wide open in lieu of air conditioning). I had no idea what this signified for me, but I jolted up in bed, enjoying the magnificent roar of the train, and smiled like a kid.
On the drive back to Calgary I was reflective. I had been nourished by delicious meals and intimate conversations, but I was also overstimulated by too many thoughts, questions and ideas. I missed the turnoff to Route 22, and had to make a quick stop and redirect. Perhaps I had been distracted by passing Frank Slide, an unusual graveyard. Here, in just a few seconds, many lives were changed. In 1903 the east side of Turtle Mountain released an avalanche of rocks burying the Crowsnest highway and a part of the village of Frank. Nearly 100 townspeople were in the path of the rock slide, and today victims remain buried under the massive boulders that lay on both sides of the highway.
I found Route 22. My stress from the missed turn and self-judgement about not paying attention had passed. The road was almost empty. The radio buzzed in static and I clicked it off. I sank into a mood of contemplation: I thought about the years ahead, my goals and my dreams. A sixty-fifth birthday is a milestone. Why not admit it? Much more of my life lies behind me, than ahead. Some things may heal or be resolved, but more will wear out or break down.
Turning 65 will mean different things to different people, but it should mean something. For me it means a commitment to continue to learn and not let fear or hesitation stand in the way of what I want in the remaining time I have left. Plus travelling through that stunning part of Alberta reminds me of how important it is to get out into nature more—alone or with others.
Next week’s blog will focus on how to use strategic thinking, quiet time and reflection to identify future goals.