Dan and I recently decided to dip back in to Grace and Frankie, the comedic overview of aging, divorce, sexuality, friendship and family. Season 1 is, at its heart, about relationships, which go from testy to close when Grace (the retired uptight businesswoman) agrees to participate in a “Say Yes” evening with Frankie (the aging hippie) (Episode 12). Their compact was an obligation to agree to anything the other person proposed. The scene where Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda, two 70-ish women, bond on a sidewalk curb after being thrown out of a nightspot where they dared each other to dance on the bar (to the applause of the 30-something crowd) revealed the power of YES. It happened because they trusted each other to push the boundaries of their routines.
Pondering the power of YES, I was drawn back to one of my own memories. My father, recently widowed, began having a series of small stokes, each of which had equally small but incremental effects on his mobility (certainly not his brain or his wit). He would get sad and anxious for about a week, and then would pick himself up and say, “well, I can’t walk a mile with a cane, but I can….” Well, fill in the blank, because there was always something that he could do. When one of the later events left him unable to walk far without being in a wheelchair, his life changed again…but not his YES. On his 83rd birthday, a friend gave him a new chance — a 1 hour balloon ride over the St. Croix Valley in Minnesota, where we lived. It was quite an ordeal getting a wheelchair and my dad onto the field and into a little basket, along with his friend and the balloon operator, but he was game. He said YES to adventure, wherever possible.
What does saying Yes involve? And what does it require of us? And why should we think about it anyway? For me, Grace, Frankie, and my father suggest that it is the importance of being open to something that is unfamiliar – and even a little scary. Something that is challenging, that requires more than you normally expect of yourself. It means going outside of your comfort zone – or at least pushing hard against the boundaries of your comfort zone.
It has been hard to say YES over the past five years. Covid accustomed us all to doing less, being out less, and interacting with strangers less. This is not a mindset that promotes YES, which implies novel experiences that we can incorporate into the evolving story that we tell about ourselves. In the past, I have not had to think about this – opportunities have presented themselves and I decided to say YES – often with little rumination or thought — just as my father delighted in going up in a balloon in a wheelchair.
But the last years have meant that random adventures have become fewer and I sometimes feel that I have gone from being brave to cautious. I am not happy about this. But simply hoping that the old opportunities will present themselves unannounced is about as reasonable as expecting anything else to “go back to the way it was.” I realized, after seeing Grace and Frankie saying YES, that I have to be responsible for creating prospects for YES rather than waiting for them to appear.
I need to be prepared, and like Grace and Frankie, it helps to have others along. Dan and I have started to plan a road trip to Washington, where we can try to reconnect with friends who have, for one reason or another, drifted from our day-to-day lives.
Every road trip provides many opportunities to Say YES by veering off the highway and into a small town with a place to stay, a museum and an adequate meal, so on our last trip to New Mexico we decided to stay in a converted cowboy bunkhouse on a 23,000 acre ranch rather than a hotel – and I know that we will be back (this time with food) to experience the solitude and stars. (No museums, but some strange flying bugs).
Karen Martha and I committed to a week in in Rome – a city that I have not been in for over 40 years, where we will be unleashed from a hotel-and-planned itinerary mentality to allow us to choose our own adventures. That’s how I used to travel when I was in my 20s—and I can do it again.
I have already argued for breaking the rules that dictate appropriate behavior in older people! But it’s also my job to imagine opportunities to challenge my own easy routines in collusion with others who are willing to challenge theirs. To paraphrase Frankie, “You can’t say No until it’s over.”
So bought a new pair of hiking boots in order to be ready — for something.