GETTING OLD, STAYING VITAL
by Zelda Gamson
from the Summer 2016 issue of Jewish Currents
Either you will
go through this door
or you will not go through.
If you go through
there is always the risk
of remembering your name.
Things look at you doubly
and you must look back
and let them happen.
If you do not go through
it is possible
to live worthily
to maintain your attitudes
to hold your position
to die bravely
but much will blind you,
much will evade you,
at what cost who knows?
The door itself
Makes no promises.
It is only a door.
“Prospective Immigrants Please Note”
SONYA OSTROVSKY looks out at me steadily, with sad eyes and a slight lift to the sides of her mouth. I am in that picture, age 12, holding onto the side of her chair and smiling broadly. She is an old woman, heavy in the chair, her hair pulled back in a gray bun, face still beautiful but worn and in folds. She wears a black dress touched by an old-style rhinestone brooch.
Now I examine myself in the mirror. I see Sonya in my face, but there aren’t many wrinkles and my skin isn’t sagging much. While I have gotten plump, my body has muscles and can be relied on to do what I need it to do. I have the same passions I always did, and I still smile broadly. Maybe this is why younger people tell me I don’t look “that old.”
What do they expect me to look like? I don’t ask, just joke that it’s better to look good than to feel good. Of course, longtime friends who have grown old with me don’t even notice how I look.
Turning to my grandmother again, I realize that I am now fourteen years older than she was in the picture. Yet I look a generation younger, and for this, I am grateful. Sonya left her close family of sisters and brothers in Odessa and came to Philadelphia with her husband. She had seven kids and never learned English. I don’t know if she had any friends. By the time I knew her, she hardly ever left the house.
By coming to America, she and my other grandparents had given me the life they never had. I had escaped the suffering and violence I undoubtedly would have faced living in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and ’40s. I had grown up in a family without much money, but we never worried about whether we would have enough to eat, or face a pogrom or Nazi soldiers. If I got sick or needed my teeth fixed, I could go to a doctor or dentist. As a girl, I was free to go to school and roam around as I wished, ride a bike, take the subway, make my own friends. I could finish school and go on to college to study whatever I fancied.
AT 80, I’VE LIVED longer than any of my grandparents did, even longer than my mother. I’ve reached a stage in life that psychologists and gerontologists are now calling a “developmental” stage, like the teens or the terrible twos, while offering tricks for getting through it happily and in good health. Still, I read more obituaries than I used to, have gone to more funerals and memorials, written more eulogies and poems and a song or two about friends who have died. I cherish those who remain more than I ever did, and find myself checking in with the ones I haven’t heard from for a while to make sure they are still around. I have reconciled myself to a life hijacked by health appointments and to learning how the body works, something that never interested me.
I have come to this pass after decades of acting like I was 22, ignoring all aches and dancing the Charleston after skiing. In 1975, that resulted in my tearing the meniscus in one knee; now I now have two prosthetic knees. More recently, I lifted a 50-pound antique sewing machine while wearing Crocs in 90º weather, and I tripped and destroyed the rotator cuff in my right shoulder.
Today I pay a little more attention and move slower. I allow myself some “geezer” privileges like parking lots and comfortable seats on airplanes.
One way to think about getting older is as a series of giving-ups: jumping, running, climbing, skating, biking, tennis. I am very taken by the list of things my bad-ass acquaintance Barbara Norfleet, a Harvard professor and documentary photographer, says she has given up: “martinis, men, surfing, sailing, makeup, spike heels, bikinis — the things you no longer do when you get to be over 90.” I admire people like her who get old and say “So what?” She is still sexy and attracts younger people, who enjoy spending time with her.
I live in a wonderful little Martha’s Vineyard community, where it is expected that people of all ages and backgrounds help each other. We automatically make eye contact, even from our cars when we shoot each other a little wave from the steering wheel. Carpenters, landscapers, the guys who bring me my Amazon deliveries all like to stop in my living room for a few minutes for a chat about the weather, our families, and the latest controversy. I have had funny and profound conversations with some of them about getting older. Among them are pretty tough women who learned a long time ago how to create and conduct their own lives. They wear country boots and baseball caps and know how to deal with power outages and snowstorms. They are musicians, artists, and writers who are still creating. Peggy Freydberg lived in a house by herself on a bluff overlooking the ocean. She died at age 107, a few months before her last book of poems was published.
THERE’S A GENDER story in here. Women my age are generally in better physical and mental shape than men my age. The men just didn’t develop the emotional muscle to cope with aging. Women in my generation had to struggle more, and were ready for whatever might come at them. And they often ended up taking care of their husbands.
Here’s my theory about differences between men and women in my generation. I was born during the Depression into a small generation. By the time we were entering adulthood in the 1950s, the economy was beginning a long post-war expansion and demand for workers outstripped the supply. Men benefited much more than women from this growth in working-class jobs, where they were represented by mostly male unions, and in managerial positions controlled by other men. In academia, where I have lived most of my life, the tremendous growth of higher education accompanied the economic boom. Faculty jobs were had for the asking. This was before affirmative action, and men had a lock on the best teaching jobs: An adviser would pick up the phone and call a colleague to recommend his favored male students for jobs and lucrative grants. Women academics were on the margins, watching, and fighting for everything they got. They were channeled into less lucrative jobs and, if married, were expected to cope with children and housekeeping at home — while serving up gourmet dinners for their husband’s colleagues and bosses.
The men of my generation, including my husband and his friends, lived most of their professional lives with the wind at their backs. Wives and children left their homes, schools and friends to follow them to the better jobs, the tenure-track appointments, the think tanks in California and DC, the fancy conferences in Bellagio and Jerusalem.
But when the men retire, it all stops.This becomes a time of crisis for men of my generation. They are suddenly invisible and don’t know what to do with themselves. The women, who coped with the lousy hands they were dealt, are more resilient. They push ahead in their fields or move into different arenas — joining with younger colleagues, following a new pursuit like photography or poetry. Some older men follow this path, too, but it is my experience that the more high-powered they are, the harder a time they have reinventing themselves.
Joining them soon will be a huge generation of “new old” baby boomers, a more egalitarian generation, with men helping more at home and women going to work. For better or worse, these boomers have created lucrative opportunities for marketers and product developers. We could all live out the rest of our lives reading books and going to workshops about forestalling or even avoiding the disease of old age by taking supplements, following exercise and yoga routines, making attitude adjustments, etc. Magazines, both maintream and alternative, display good-looking men and women with gray hair atop the buff bodies of 20-year-olds, with ads and puff pieces about anti-aging skin creams, plastic surgeons and Botox, fashion styles that make you look like a coed, and older celebrities who have turned in an old body (or partner) for a younger one.
I have been tempted by these pitches, and have a drawerful of expensive supplements to prove it. And when I was diagnosed with an auto-immune disease thirty years ago, I discovered the world of not-covered-by-Medicare holistic/alternative/complementary practitioners, and paid big bucks for their services. I have creams for my face and for my aching joints. In the 1980s I also hit retreats, Jewish and non-Jewish, and have a Kirlian photo of the purple “aura” around my head from one of them.
But now that I have launched into my eighties, I find myself turning to other places for inspiration — to friends, especially. I recently exchanged chatty emails with three good friends, all men, and mentioned that I was working on this article. One of them, a performer and teacher in his seventies, wrote back, “Did you mention death? Shame on you! If we don’t talk about it, it won’t exist — right?” Denial works for him. But it clearly doesn’t work for my other friend, well into his eighties and still a practicing psychoanalyst and writer, who sent me his poem, “The Seventh Stage,” based on the “All the World’s a Stage” monologue in As You Like It, with stanzas entitled “Sans Teeth,” “Sans Eyes,” “Sans Everything.” And the third friend, a professor in his eighties, simply said, “Old age sucks.”
Denial and despair are not my way. What is? I remember Art Buchwald, who famously graduated several times from hospice and found himself being treated like a meyvn on death. Not one to pass up the chance to make a wisecrack, he said, “The question is not where we’re going, but what we were doing here in the first place.” That pretty much sums up how I feel: I am thrown back to adolescence, trying to make sense of life and my place in it. And while I’m at it, figure out who I have become . . . and maybe have been all along.
Saying this feels a bit self-indulgent, New Age-ish, not Jewish enough. So I thought to find out what Jews have to say about the subject of aging. My relatives didn’t have much to offer: Growing old happened to them, it was obvious, and then they died. This was the way I experienced my grandparents at the end of their lives. My parents lived longer than their parents, and by the time they needed it they had access to pretty good medical help. As she grew older, my mother intoned the Russian saying, “Starost ne radost,” meaning old age is no fun. My father had his own formulations, such as “the body is like an automobile, the parts just wear out.” My parents never spoke about the arc of their lives, let alone who they thought they were when they were young or what they thought they became — this in spite of the fact that both had traveled thousands of miles across Europe to get to America, and my father had read Whitman and Kafka.
QUESTIONS about my own trajectory find some answers in several books by rabbis and other writers. Getting old is a “privilege” that offers a chance to deepen longstanding commitments or strike out in new directions, writes Patricia Gottlieb Shapiro, taking a phrase from actress Laura Linney for the title of her book, The Privilege of Aging (2013, Gaon Books). Shapiro tells stories of twelve Jewish women from Atlantic City, New Jersey, ranging from 76 to 102, who have fashioned worthy lives in their old age — some focused on their families, others on social activism and study. They have faced tragedies, including the deaths of husbands and children, homelessness, and illness. One of the women survived a concentration camp.
Perhaps the best thinking about aging from a Jewish perspective is Wise Aging: Living with Joy, Resilience, & Spirit by Rabbi Rachel Cowan and a Jewish educator, Linda Thal (2015, Behrman). They see getting old as a very good thing, a time of life to explore new ideas, relationships and pursuits. They offer practices to help readers reflect on their own lives from Jewish and other perspectives. These practices, personal stories from the authors, and pithy quotes from great Jewish and non-Jewish thinkers are dotted throughout chapters like “The River of Life,” “I Am My Body; I am Not My Body,” “Cultivating Spiritual Qualities for Well-Being,” and “Conscious Dying.”
The book reminded me once again that the first step for those who want to come to an understanding of their lives is to be alone for regular periods of time. Early in the book and several times after, Cowan and Thal turn to Nachman of Bratslav, the founder of the Breslov Hasidic movement in the 18th century and grandson of the Ba’al Shem Tov, on the practice of “hitbodedut” or “being alone with oneself.” They suggest
being fully alone, either in an outdoor setting or indoors, and speaking out loud — with no witnesses or listeners — about the . . . concerns, troubles . . . on one’s mind. This practice is a form of stream-of-consciousness communication, which Nachman referred to as “pouring out one’s heart.”
I have done this over the years, one way or another. When I have felt exhausted by responsibility, I have given myself retreats from everyday life, meditated at home and in nature, and poured out my heart in writing and in making music. In another remarkable and beautifully written book, What are Old People For? How Elders Will Save the World (2004, Vanderwyk & Burnham), physician William Thomas, who describes himself as a nursing home abolitionist, argues that modeling withdrawal from the adulthood of doing, striving and achieving is the contribution older people have to make to the world. This is not a new insight — elders in traditional societies are respected exactly for the wisdom that comes from living a long time. But Thomas’ formulation grounds the continuing need for such wisdom in the society we live in now. When older people shift from doing to being, they can get in touch with what they have learned in their long years and impart it to their families and communities.
The late Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Ronald Miller, in From Aging to Sage-ing: A Profound New Vision of Growing Older (2014, Grand Central Publishing), say pretty much the same thing. Elders who have given up earning a living or raising children offer the “invisible productivity” of deep friendship, creativity, community building, and political engagement. The aging population is not just a problem to be solved; it is also a resource.
My own community runs on generous retirees who contribute to town government, shelter the homeless, study the habits of wildlife, volunteer in schools. I am part of that world. I feel responsible to the children and struggling families in my community, and I am treated as someone who can contribute to their lives. I am gratified when someone I don’t know tells me she recognizes my name from an article in the paper about affordable housing or some other cause I’ve worked on.
I worry about my own children, now well into their fifties, who are coping with a society that is less benign than the one in which my husband and I came of age. I feel especially desperate about my five grandchildren, the oldest 21, who are facing a precarious economy, continuing wars, and the dangers brought on by climate change. I wish I could protect them and provide them with a safe haven.
But I realize the best way I can do that is to fight for justice, as I have my whole life. I traveled to New York for the People’s Climate March in September 2014 and my heart filled with happiness as I saw people of all ages marching about the future of the Earth. I love the artistic expressiveness of this generation of activists. I loved the life pulsing down the parade route, with people from cities and towns across the country: indigenous people, African Americans, Latinos; farmworkers, domestic workers, migrants; the labor movement, political clubs, non-profit organizations. I joined the Jewish contingent among the “faith-based,” waiting uptown on a side street for hours to enter the march, and met old friends and people I hadn’t seen for years. When we stepped onto Central Park West, I felt like my legs were praying (A.J. Heschel’s phrase about marching in Selma in 1965). It was hope — at my age, a most nourishing gift.
Zelda Gamson, a contributing writer to our magazine, is a sociologist who was on the faculty of the University of Michigan and the University of Massachusetts. She is currently working on climate change and affordable housing issues.