Things really suck. Mostly, we are surrounded by uncertainty and its ugly cousin, fear. Disagreement and incivility still dominate the news, and I am challenged to see an easy path to restoring social trust. Then, there is COVID-19. Whether you mask or don’t, we live with more isolation and less freedom than we are used to. I desperately miss family members who I have not have seen in person for a year or more – especially grandchildren who are growing up without our hugs. As my husband says (too cheerily), our only real job for the next six months is to stay healthy. Now, if that’s my only job it’s boring AND scary when you actually think about it.
But I was struck by a second mandate: “While we can’t control what’s happening around us, we can cultivate the capacity to be with what is with more ease, joy, and freedom.” (Sebene Selassie). Salassie’s words brought to mind the much bigger job that faces me: finding a fulfilling life while we are in the cusp of shifting from middle-aged to older, from working to retired, and from planning-for-the-future to living-as best we can-today. Karen Martha and I have written about this from different perspectives, emphasizing the importance of building a “hope muscle”, using the space and time that has been thrust upon us to find joy in a new challenge and pondering how we redefine meaningful “work” when we are partially or fully retired. And yet, many of us are still sitting awkwardly in the cusp…
And then Babs Plunkett sent me a pre-publication copy of her new book, Choose Joy. No, it is not a sequel to Kay Warren’s best-selling Christian books of the same name. Rather, it is more analogous to what Studs Terkel, our treasured oral historian, would have done if he had chosen to find out what older people thought about finding happiness in the last third of life.
I was immediately drawn by Bab’s willingness to follow an unexpected inner voice. She admits that living with her miserable and crabby grandmother was the source of a life-long conundrum on how to avoid the same fate. The solution was unanticipated: “I just woke one spring morning (March 1, 2018, to be exact) with a fiery passion to collect stories about people aging with joy and purpose.” Finding joyful older people was a matter of using her personal networks, asking for nominations, and following them up with interviews, which she has distilled into engaging portraits.
Some of the people she describes prepared for retirement and entered with a blueprint – they are inspiring, but they are not me. Most however, slid into retirement (as Karen Martha and I have done) without a concrete plan or purpose. More importantly, “Most didn’t find just one big thing that filled their lives with purpose. Rather, they curated an engaging collection of interests that gave their lives meaning.”
Ahh, curating….the antidote to the burdening social expectation that we develop a retirement passion that can be inscribed on our tombstone. And an affirmation of the idea that we don’t always find a passion—opportunities and purposes appear and we are prepared to collect them. I plunged into the stories…which are arranged to reflect the typical recommendations for living a longer life (always a good place to start as far as I am concerned…), and will reflect on just a few that touched me.
Expert recommendation #1 is to keep your mind active – and many people do that by volunteering in ways that keep them engaged in learning. I was particularly struck by Barbara’s story. Rather than finding a particular volunteer opportunity and sticking to it, Barbara’s mantra is Tikkun Olam – healing the world – by finding many places that need short-term volunteers. She has filled in for librarians, made recordings for the blind, and substituted in afterschool programs. “When the volunteer role isn’t fulfilling anymore, I find something else”. Her mind is clearly activated by challenging herself with new ideas and routines, while at the same time doing good. I found this inspiring: I have friends who have found a volunteer passion, but I don’t have one – like Barbara, I will probably be best if I can find ways to learn by dabbling while doing good.
Molly’s story stood out for me because she is doing what she loves. But what she loves is, on the surface, in inexplicable pastiche– birds (both the indoor and outdoor kind), pottery, and learning the harp! It is wonderful to read about someone who feels totally fulfilled with many small passions because it is the combination of them that keeps her excited, engaged, and learning. As I consider how to curate the small passions that I have never had enough time for, I am heartened by Molly’s obvious joy in having the time to deepen old hobbies while re-engaging with newer pleasures for which she now has time. Molly is working with all of her senses in her curated mix, and I the joy I might have if I savor my own mix as “enough” feels within reach – even if it looks a little weird to an outsider.
I was struck by my introverted husband’s announcement that the end of the election cycle had left him feeling as if there was a void in his life. His solution is to commit to calling at least one person every day – some old acquaintances and some newer. I found another curating story in Choose Joy that expresses the same therapeutic power of the cell phone. Lois, at 100, has created a wealth of connections that sustain her even though she has chosen to live independently in an assisted living facility close to one of her children. Rather than keeping in touch only with family and what (at 100) would be a shrinking list of old friends, Lois keeps a phone list that includes people from all phases and places in her life. She doesn’t wait for people to call her – she reaches out. As someone with a bit of a phone phobia, she causes me to think about the importance of making new phone (or zoom) friends. Especially in this time when our social world seems to be shrinking, Lois is a super heroine at curating relationships.
As I reflect on the other stories in this lovely book, I find many that will help me think about how I can curate to find joy in this “in between time” where physically “joining” is impossible but I can’t bear the idea of losing a year. I am writing down all of the website, on-line groups, and opportunities to do volunteer work by zoom that I can find. And they are a diverse bunch, ranging from supporting an array of people who find themselves in challenging circumstances to exploring the meditation chapel website to finally learning enough chess to play with my husband (who knows all of the openings in the Queen’s Gambit). Oh, and reigniting my tactile delight in knitting by finishing some of the projects that have been on my list…find me on Ravelry!