People say age is only a number. Hah! It’s much more than a number. It’s how people see you or think about you or find you interesting enough to get to know you. Ageing, especially for women, gets a bad press. It’s good to be young, bad to be old and wrinkled and saggy. Ads and culture say: Do what you can to look and feel younger. It’s almost an obligation to avoid looking or acting old, whatever that means. Old people—no particular age designated—are used up, washed up, of no value except as consumers of products and places especially designed for old people.
People tell old people: be careful, watch your step, don’t rush, don’t take risks, don’t climb a ladder, don’t, don’t don’t. And for the do’s . . . Do rest. Do take it easy. Do live in adult only communities. Do be careful. Do accept that your time as a sexual, vital person is over. Be afraid you might fall. Be afraid you might be lonely. Recognize that society regards you as a person whose time of contribution is over. Retire with grace and acceptance—out of sight.
Do I sound angry? Annoyed? Frustrated? Tired of dealing with clichés? Making a big fuss about nothing? Are you ready to tell me about all the wonderful old people you know who do amazing things? That’s like saying, “One of my best friends is a . . .” Proves nothing and doesn’t change the generalizations that fuel movies, television, and social media.
How we age is a crapshoot, dependent on genes, luck, attitude, luck, self-care, determination, luck. Why so much luck? Because things happen that we can’t foresee . . . I bought a house in Santa Fe, when I wasn’t looking, quit my teaching job, and moved 2,000 miles when I was 65, to a place where I hardly knew anyone, with no idea who I’d be when I was no longer a university professor—an identity I’d had for 35 years. As it turned out, my son called shortly after I moved and said, “Mom, now that you’re not a professor you’ll need new business cards. I’ll make them for you. What should I write?”
I didn’t even hesitate. “Storymaker.” There went my identity crisis. Does your identity depend on your work? If so, what happens when you stop doing the work you’ve been doing? Who will you be? How will you know?
Ageing is a mindfuck because it’s full of traps. Take me for example: I hike three times a week, often on a steep trail, by myself, in all kinds of weather, doing between 4 and 8 miles regularly. And yet, when I’m invited to do a longer hike—8-14 miles I now question whether I can do it. There’s no evidence I can’t. There’s every bit of evidence that I can, and yet the number 84—almost 85—gets in my way. I have to work hard to separate reality from fear, and it’s the damn number that causes the trouble.
I read this statement in an article in the NY Times on Friday, March 31, 2021: Most of us, as we get older, will find that our ability to remember and think dulls a bit. This is considered normal, if annoying.
How the fuck do they know this? From whom did they get this information? How many people did they interview to decide this? How old were the people, if they interviewed anyone? What were their lives like? And why should it be considered normal if annoying?
I just wonder how much of aging is self-fulfilling prophecy. Maybe my disinterest in “normal” is serving me well as I “age,” like wine in a bottle.
As part of my 80th birthday celebration I chose to do a vision quest—four days and four nights alone in the wilderness, with no phone, books, watch, or digital devices. I hoped being alone, with no distractions, and only a journal to write in, would enable me to shed emotional and psychological burdens I’ve carried all my life. I avoided thinking about my age. I knew I’d be the oldest by at least fifteen years. I knew I was the oldest participant the leaders had ever allowed to do a vision quest with them. I answered questions from friends who asked why I needed to do such a thing at my age, by telling them, “Because I need to.”
There were nine months of preparation—making a string of 44 prayer ties filled with cornmeal and tobacco to encircle our vision quest spot, a visit with the vision quest leader each month where we talked about being alone and on our own—how we wanted to spend the four days and nights, and what we needed to do to prepare for a 12-hour mini-vision quest in a nearby forest. Once we were at the retreat center in southeastern Canada, as part of our preparation, each of us brought a sleeping bag, four gallons of water, a tarp, and a bag with personal items and a journal to our space in the forest. As a group, and individually, we met with our retreat leaders to discuss our intention, participated in a sweat lodge, and performed ceremonies for two days before beginning the vision quest. Nothing we did prepared me for what happened.
We entered our separate, designated locations the first morning at 5am. I lay down on my sleeping bag, with only a tarp for protection and immediately slept for hours, lulled by the sounds of the forest. I was woken by an inner voice telling me it was time to get started.
What I did during the four days and nights is considered medicine, not to be shared. What I can say is that each time an inner voice told me to do something, like stamp on dead branches, memories of my early childhood surfaced—memories of horror and abuse and murderous violence—of living away from home many times before I was five. At times, I viscerally remembered events I’d been told never happened. Other times, experiences surfaced for which I was blamed and shamed. I began to understand the pernicious effect of the childhood abuse, that although I blame myself, the abuse was not my fault, that no child asks to have her bones broken, her body violated, her will shattered. As I thought about relationship choices I’d made during my adult life, I realized it was as if I’d had a metaphorical sign on my chest saying, “Abuse me.” I worked hard to allow memories and feelings and thoughts to arise without judgment. Being in the forest, feeling the warmth of the sun, the chirps of the birds—all helped to soothe and comfort as I did my best to leave the wilderness, knowing more, feeling more.
On the morning of the fifth day, we were awakened by drumming, calling us back to the retreat center where we processed what we had experienced during the four days and nights. I had no desire to share and never raised my hand to offer. Then, there was no one left. It was my turn. I cried for the first time since I was 16, when I had been refused entry into a school club because I was Jewish. The other retreat participants waited with calm, waited until I was ready to speak. I told the truth of some of the abuse, how it had scarred me, how I never felt good enough or smart enough or lovable. They listened with no judgment, many quietly crying. When I finished there was a perceptible silence. No one moved. Had I said too much? Had I said the wrong thing?
Then, as a group, they came over to me, offering hugs, encouragement, kindness, caring. For the first time I felt part of a group. For the first time I felt good enough. I understood that my age didn’t matter to them. Although the issues we dealt with during the vision quest were different, in the end, we were all questors, all seeking inner knowledge.
Once one knows something, one cannot unknow it. What I experienced doing the vision quest made it possible for me to continue healing, by choosing to be with people who treat me well and with kindness. I’m still learning how to feel good enough. It may have taken 80 years to feel strong enough to face the truth of my life, but it’s comforting to know that going forward, no matter how few years I have left, they will be years spent freer from the effect of people and experiences that burdened my life for so long.
Here are two photographs one of the questors took after we cleaned up our vision quest spots at the end of our stay.
I moved to Santa Fe in 2001 and immediately fell in love with the mountains surrounding Santa Fe—Sangre de Cristo to the east, Taos to the north, Jemez to the west, the Sandias to the south. I’ve hiked them all, each with its own awe-inspiring typography and place in my heart. Every hike was an adventure. Every hike left me increasingly grateful that I live amid such an amazing landscape.
I have dealt with depression all my life. Nothing—not drugs, biofeedback, therapy or supplements—made me feel better What always helped, at least for a while, was vigorous outdoor exercise in nature.
In 2006, facing months of chemotherapy. I scheduled treatments as best I could so there was at least one day in the week I felt well enough to hike. One morning, depression grabbed hold of me like I was its best buddy and would never let go. Desperate, I called a friend and asked if he would drive me to Big Tesuque so I could hike up to Aspen Vista—only a mile, but fairly steep, and very beautiful. “It’s snowing,” he said.
“Please,” I begged. “I really need to be in the mountains.”
“Don’t you have treatment today?”
“Not till noon. If we leave in half an hour we’ll be back in time. Please.”
He’s a good guy. A kind man. Very reluctantly, he agreed. When we got to the Big Tesuque trail head it was snowing hard. “You sure this is a good idea?” he asked, clearly sure it was a terrible idea. In response, I put on my backpack and started hiking. He followed, not pleased to be on a steep trail in the middle of a snowstorm with a woman frail from chemo treatments, but I could feel my spirit rising, a deep happiness filling my being.
“Could you take a photo?” I asked. He sighed and took some photos with his cellphone. As we climbed he kept asking if I was all right. I kept saying I was fine. “My soul is happier than it’s been in years.”
He muttered something like, “Good for your soul,” but even he was soon enraptured by the beauty of the snowy woods. We hiked the rest of the way up in silence, broken only by him asking how I was. When we got to Aspen Vista road, we stopped for a moment, enjoying the vastness of the mountains frosted with snow, before heading back down the trail and to my treatment. The glow from the hike continued to nourish my soul and raised my spirit for days.
Above is one of the photographs from our hike.
Soon after the treatment ended I celebrated my 70th birthday by joining a local Sierra Club hiking group. My first hike with them was supposed to be eight miles. After crossing a stream, which I thought was half way, I learned, much to my dismay, the hike was actually ten miles—more than I had ever hiked. There was nothing to be done but to do it. At the end of the hike I was filled with joy, more than a little surprised at how well I’d hiked, even more amazed at how much better I felt at the end of the hike than I had at the beginning. I discovered I could do more than I thought I could—a valuable lesson when it came to going on long hikes. I soon relied on these outings to maintain a modicum of wellbeing and keep depression at bay.
In March of 2020 my hiking buddies quickly disappeared, not wanting to hike with anyone, even though groups were usually less than five, more like two or three. I live alone and my cat doesn’t hike. Previously, I had seldom hiked alone, and never on trails in the mountains, but the thought of confining myself to hiking on trails close to Santa Fe—parking lots and paths crowded with lots of people—was disheartening. I began to experience increasingly powerful and overwhelming bouts of helpless/hopeless feelings. I needed to do something to make myself feel better that wasn’t dependent on anyone else. This meant confronting fears about hiking by myself on a steep trail that few people knew about. This meant I was less likely to contract the virus from others, but if I fell or needed help, I’d be pretty much on my own since cell service is spotty at best. I chose to ignore my fears and hike three days a week, mostly in the mountains, knowing this was the only way I could hope to feel better.
It’s not so hard to face my fatigue and fears when the weather is sunny with mild temperatures. It’s harder when the relentless summer heat sucks energy faster than drinking electrolytes can replace it. Most difficult is hiking on unbroken snow-covered trails when the temperature is below freezing and every step is a slog. And yet, when a hiking day came, no matter the weather, with depression lurking, ready to pounce, I hiked, often feeling crappy as I began the hike, always feeling fine and grateful when I finished.
I began solo hiking in March of 2020. It is now March of 2021. Although I am a year older, approaching my 85th birthday, the decision to hike three times a week, mostly on a steep mountain trail, by myself if necessary, has been medicine for my soul and nourishment for my spirit.
How did you take care of your soul and spirit during the pandemic?