Who Is the Old Lady Directing This Circus?

vintage photo

A week ago, I sat in a zoom circle organized by Jenny Antolak to reflect on a problem endemic to almost anyone over the age of 30:  We have been so busy growing up that we have often forgotten how to fall in love with our lives.  Jenny directed us to Shel Silverstein’s remarkable poem, “Growing Down”, which starts with a description of Mr. Brown, “the grumpiest man in town” who constantly hectors children to grow up, but ends up learning from them:

He got his trousers torn and stained,

He ran out barefoot in the rain,

Shouting to all the folks in town,

“It’s much more fun, this growin’ down.”

As we shared about the rules we followed in order to become successful adults, I confronted my carefully nurtured self-image as a bit of a rebel and a rule-breaker.  Sure, I made some career choices that were “risky”, leaving a plum job at Tufts University to go to a soft-money research institute, and later making a decision to detour from an obvious path to higher administrative positions in order to become a “regular” faculty member – but those were within a game where I knew all the rules and which ones I could break with no consequences.  More often I made careful and conventional choices that were “adult” and “responsible”, in marriage, in work, in friendships and other commitments.

But, while recovering from a divorce that my then-husband and I had avoided for years (those rules– “until death do us part”), I fell in love with someone who, before we were even sure that we were an item, asked me to join him in a spitting contest on the porch!  The silliness of it blew me away – as well as the utter charm of being childlike in my mid-50s.  When we married, I included in our vows his obligation to make me laugh every day.  No problem there, but on the outside, I still held on to the persona of someone who had been handed the playbook of life and had memorized it.  And I wanted to look it.  I colored my hair.  I wore eyeliner.  I bought my clothes at the American Craft Council shows, not at Macys.  And of course I had the black dress (or pants and top) to show them off.

Fast forward to retirement…when all the rules could change because we had played by the careful financial planning rules for middle-income professionals. But then there is a new script – the script for aging gracefully from the New York Times. Horrifyingly, it starts not with social skills or running barefoot in the rain, but with buying a hearing aid sooner rather than later and making sure to give up your driver’s license before, rather than after, an accident. 

Another article also triggered me, reporting that The Villages, a retirement community in Florida, has grown to more than 150,000 residents–with a 10 page list of rules governing residents.  Could Mr. Brown learn to “grow down” there, or would he be tied to an art class at 10, golf at 1, and cocktails at 5?  The behavioral rules of aging tell us where we want to live, what we should wear (read any woman’s magazine, which has hair and clothing suggestions tailored to age….), what to eat, how much to exercise, and repeatedly urge us to stay socially connected (once we get the hearing aids that allow us to…)

What happened to “When I Grow Old, I Will Wear Purple”, and Jenny Joseph’s 1992 warning that,

I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick flowers in other people’s gardens
And learn to spit.

Jenny argues for joyful silliness and breaking rules precisely because we are old enough to realize that we could always have gotten away with it – but were too cautious (or forgot).

Karen Martha laughed when I mentioned this, recalling that, when she recently complained about loud music in a coffee shop, her granddaughter (who happens to be our blog’s technical assistant) looked at her and said, “you usually don’t act like a grandma, but just now you did.”  Ooph – a 2X4 to the side of the head to remind us that it’s ok to ask for a quiet table in a restaurant when we are out with our 70+ year old friends, but not ok when we make it into a rule.

Which also reminds me that my 16-year-old granddaughter was invited to see Chicago by a friend’s grandmother.  The kids assumed that they were going to see a local production of the musical.  When they got there, it turned out to be the band  by the same name—at least some of whom are septuagenarians.  They had a blast listening to the songs that rocked our world when we were in our 20s!  Now that’s an astute grandma.

We are still part of the circus of life. So, every circus has lots of rules – they are there to govern the safety of the performers.  However, the performance needs to ensure that the audience is only aware of the magic and not what keeps the circus functioning behind the scenes.  The behind-the-scenes rules for those of us who wish to age well while “not acting like a grandma” is to pay attention only to new rules that keep us safe (if your knee suggests that a cane will keep you from falling, use it!), while ignoring the rules governing old people’s behavior that are designed to keep us invisible.  Even more, can we celebrate everyday events that suggest that we, like Mr. Brown, are growing down rather than growing up in the way that modern memes of aging expect?

I remind myself that the circus—especially Cirque du Soleil and its more modest spinoffs –  is magical because it pushes us to think about our humanity beyond our usual imagination.  For me, that will translate into more humble efforts: Getting down on the floor to play with a 4-year-old (my knees remind me that it was a lot easier with the oldest grandchild, but I can still do it).  Or remembering to have another spitting context.  Or sometimes just doing whatever equivalent of running in the rain strikes me.  I am reminded of the last lines of Brittany Spears’ song – prescient as the voice of someone who was forced to play by other people’s rules for much of her life:

Don’t stand there watching me, follow me, show me what you can do
Everybody let go, we can make a dance floor just like a circus

I guess that I am the ringmaster here….

–photo of t-shirt from The Old Ladies Rebellion

What is Aging When I’m Still the Same Kid?

Nick Hitchon is the handsome young 21 year old on the far right.  That picture was taken four decades ago, after the release of the third film in the “Up” series, which has followed the lives of those in the picture from age 7.  “63 Up”, opened to thoughtful reviews, with many critics quoting Nick’s observation: “I’m still the same little kid, really.  I think all of us are”, probably because it captures a universal dilemma.  What we retain—the “essence of me” as we barrel into the future— is at the heart of defining identity as we age. 

The jokesters say, “I didn’t expect to turn into my mother” while the cynics say, “you can’t get rid of the past”.  In my case, the joker and cynic regularly change places.  In my 60s, whenever I met my kid I was surprised.  Now she is following me everywhere, mimicking my mother (and my father as well) and occasionally still rebelling at them.  Some of my kid-acquired habits are modestly noble (giving as much money as I can to those who have less) and some are laughable (squirming, as I did this year, at the Ghost of Christmas Past visiting me again with the groaning mantra of “a little lutefisk at Christmas keeps you Swedish for the rest of the year”). 

But the good side of revisiting my kid is that it causes me to think about the power of childhood experiences that have shaped me forever.  How being asked to write the music for my 4th grade school play left me with the belief that I could do most things that I had no idea how to do if I had some help along the way and didn’t expect the outcome to be perfect.  How traveling to Norway for a year in 1955 (we had to go on a boat!) gave me both a life-long commitment to visiting new places and a belief that kids are really alike, even if they travel to school on sleds rather than buses, eat whale, and don’t speak English.  I learned  to  “Knit the Norwegian Way” even before Arne and Carlos became famous…These experiences, which were challenging and joyful, are a deep part of who I became.  I think about them now not as stories of fun times, but as stories about the kid who is still within.

The “positive aging” gurus call revisiting these stories legacy wisdom (or a similar term):  We want to make sense of what we have experienced or done so that we can explain it, with modest coherence, both to ourselves and our grandchildren (Lord only know that our children don’t really want to listen to it….).  Just as important is remembering how my “inner child” is reflected in what I choose to do today and how I choose to do it.  Now this can get even more fraught than legacy wisdom, since “inner child work” is identified with healing early traumas that hold us back.  I have nothing against that, but I honestly don’t feel that any difficulties that I experienced before I hit late adolescence were anything but bumps in the road – certainly not axel-smashing potholes.

Instead, I remind myself that I am still what I was then.  As a child, my mother took me to the library every week and I would read the 5-7 books under the covers with a flashlight in order to be ready for the next visit.  I loved the words as well as the stories. I liked playing with other children, but I also liked being alone – my father made me a perch in a small poplar where I could sit and read as the leaves quaked silvery green. 

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 1955-karen-copy.jpeg

I was curious, and looked forward to exploring our encyclopedia (it was bound in a pseudo-green leather and I can almost see the print in my mind). I was always too ready to speak up in class, which some teachers loved and some hated. I was not a daredevil, but I wasn’t worried about doing new or unexpected things when they came up, and I was never concerned about being perfect.  Although I rode my bike everywhere (like all children then), I was happier when I was sitting. I was not a jokester, but loved to groan at my father’s shaggy dog stories. (I also have to admit that I was regularly mean to my little sister).

I am all those things today — curious, wordy-nerdy, happy with others but equally happy alone, experimental and modestly allergic to formal exercise.  These inner child characteristics are, perhaps, even more apparent than I was when I was jousting with the world of work and frantically trying to maintain a reasonable role as a mom while maintaining a svelte shape – in other words, wearing my adult overachiever persona like a shield. But meeting and enjoying my personal kid does more than solidify my identity – as a “person of a certain age”, when I bring my child with me, I am less afraid of the very real uncertainties of tomorrow.   Listening to my kid means paying more attention to the activities and interactions that reward her rather than “professional Karen”, whose persona is also still part of me.  It is my kid who experiences joy that goes beyond satisfaction with accomplishment.

I review the list of opportunities that I described in Curating Joy – and think more about how they will make my kid feel.   What is the right balance between Zooming with others and being alone?  What will nurture my curiosity?  How can I plan my days to make sure that I have time to knit and read?  So, as I write this I am playing with my wordy-nerdy kid rather than cleaning my house, which is crying for attention.  I was never a perfectionist….

Let me end with the surprising similarity between Nick Hitchon (a physicist) and Gertrude Stein (an iconoclast):  Stein said, “We are always the same age inside” before Nick came to the same conclusion.  Or, perhaps, we all come to that realization on our own, which is why if you google “I’m the same kid” you will find over 1 billion hits. 

At least I am not mean to my sister any more.