A Secret I Should Be Keeping


It’s a cool July morning, with the Pacific fog sitting plump as a grey hen on the far hills. I love the way the mist hides us here in the flatlands above San Francisco Bay, as if we were in a time out of time. When the sun breaks through around noon, I tap my niece Catherine’s number on my cell phone and let it ring for a while. It’s 3 p.m. in Rhode Island. Ava’s still at day camp and the baby might be asleep. No answer. Ten minutes later I try again. Someone picks up and I hear Cat yelling in the background, calling goodbye. Now she’s shouting into the phone, “Hi, Auntie Sherry! I’m just finishing my Filipino stick fighting lesson!”

Cat is my goddaughter, my brother Howard’s second-born. At 34, with two kids, a terrific husband and her work as an acupuncturist, she has a life that seems expressible mainly in exclamation marks. Cat is the child of my heart, the girlfriend/daughter I never had. She and I tend to see the world pretty much through the same lenses. Our conversations reflect this, generally sluicing through the rush of our lives, washing out the gold along with assorted detritus. But once in a while, the pace slows down. Like now.

“How’s Paul,” she asks casually, so casually I know she knows the answer.

“We had to call an ambulance on the weekend.” I tell her how we were walking on Deer Island when Paul sat down hard on the ground with a pain in his chest that sent me running home for the car. And how it turned out okay after all. No heart attack. On Tuesday, I tell her, we’re going into the city for his third stent surgery. I know I’m using the odd locutions that I can’t seem to avoid, like “they’re going to try and open the right artery again” as if an anonymous “they” composed of all the doctors and nurses and consultants in the big Kaiser hospital on Geary Street are aligning in a communal entity that will help my beloved husband’s heart beat steadily again. Cat asks a few acupuncture-doctor-type questions and then comes back to being my friend. “You must be very worried,” she says. “It must be really hard.”

 

Last year was hard, I tell her, when Paul slumped on the bathroom floor at 6 a.m. and eight firemen thundered up the stairs carrying a stretcher and some heavy equipment. My own heart froze then, shutting down against the fear. As I followed the sirening ambulance to the E.R. in my car, I talked to myself: Don’t have an accident. Remember to breathe. Pay attention. You’re okay, you can do this. Like when I was 17 and the firemen ran down our front stairs with my father on the stretcher looking, like Paul, pale as old flannel and scared.

Paul turned out to have food poisoning that first time, I tell Cat. I brought him home, a little green and chagrined at all the fuss. And the second and third times the ambulance came, it was angina but not an attack. Not deadly. We’re getting used to it, I say, going to the hospitals. Our bodies are more vulnerable now.

“Getting old sounds awful,” she bursts in furiously. “Awful!”

I stop. She’s not my girlfriend. All this talk about doctors and ambulances and getting old and vulnerability is upsetting her. Something inside me sits down, like when you’re a kid and you’re out of breath from running and you find yourself a curb and just sit down.

 

Silence opens up when you sit down like this. Stillness comes in. I sit down here, in the gap between the worlds, in the slice of eternity between the world of thirty-year-olds—in the midst of diapers and summer camp and building a career and finding time for sex—and my world now, the world of Paul and me and our sixty- and seventy- and almost eighty-year-old friends and colleagues.

It’s not awful, I say finally. But I feel wordless. Getting old is so far from awful that I don’t know where to begin. I want to tell this to Cat. I would need a lot of time, I want to tell her, and I’d need you not to be in a hurry. I’d need you not to be 3000 miles away and minutes from having to pick up your baby and get Ava from camp. Maybe I could tell you if we were walking by the ocean the way we did on the day your grandfather died, and maybe a cloud of monarch butterflies would envelop us as they did then and help us find the fierce, honest words we need to understand each other.

I say only, “Getting old is different from what you think.”

“Oh yeah, probably is,” she says. “Love you. Let’s talk again soon.”

 

I don’t want Cat to think getting old is awful. I can’t bear for her to be afraid of what lies ahead, to be trying, at 45 or 50 or 60, to be “younger next year.” I don’t care if she bleaches her teeth or colors her hair or gets botox or pearlescence or whatever the face treatments will be called by then. That’s not what’s important. I want her to know what growing old is like on the inside.

What if I say, “Getting old is an adventure so exquisite that it breaks me open every single day”?  What will she think of when I say “adventure”? When I lived on the side of an active volcano in Ecuador four years ago and hiked into the rain forest and hurtled through the Andes on the night bus to Otavalo, Cat and her brothers were thrilled for me. But this growing old that is a change in the texture of life itself —who in their thirties would call this an adventure?

Most mornings Paul sits at the breakfast table in his red bathrobe, his reading glasses making his eyes look big as he clicks through his e-mail and sips coffee from his big white mug. I sit across from him, drinking jasmine tea from my red thermos and watching the blue jays fly in to fight for a place at the bird feeder. What could be more boring?  And yet, well, I just have to laugh at the truth of it: in these most ordinary moments, the universe opens up. Universes, really. Because it’s not the events that catch my attention, not those encapsulated, separate phenomena: “blue jays flying in,” or “Paul drinking coffee.” It’s the texture of the living moments, each … what should I call it?

If I say “each instant” or “each moment,” you’ll get the sense of a separate package of time, of some event wrapped up like a birthday present or a stinking fish in newspaper or even old kitty litter, something you want or don’t want or really don’t want. But it’s not like this anymore, not like a package you have an opinion about. Instead of instants or moments, here-and-nows unfurl like fiddlehead ferns till their tight little fists turn to feathery expanses of possibility.

Many days the truth of getting old feels like these unfolding possibilities. There isn’t one thing missing or any place I’d rather be than here. Can I tell this to Catherine?  I couldn’t have told it to myself at thirty, or even forty or fifty.

I honestly never expected that simply being where I am and who I am would be enough, and that enough would feel like overflowing. It’s not only that I didn’t expect to feel this way in my sixties. I didn’t imagine I could ever feel like this.

This seems like a secret I should be keeping. It’s not just hard to communicate. The nature of such experiences feels private. Not just untranslatable but unsayable.

I told this to my friend Jim. Read what the great poets write late in life, he told me, and quoted a few lines from W.S. Merwin:

it is the late poems
that are made of words
that have come the whole way

That’s what I want, I said, to come the whole way through. I ventured, “It’s a great thing we’re living now, isn’t it?  Getting old, I mean.”

Jim flashed a conspiratorial smile, “It’s a new frontier.” Then he told me a dream he’d had the night before. Stick figures moved in a slow dance of controlled ecstasy. As they danced, their heads and faces shifted through different forms, sometimes skulls and sometimes just empty shrouds and sometimes sheaves of wheat. “I was a little surprised that I wasn’t scared,” he said. “But actually, I was intrigued at the solemnity of it all and I felt I was learning something fascinating.”

Aging seems to be like this in its essence. Leaving nothing out—not death, not emptiness and not whatever harvest may come. Not pulling back half-grown at middle age, but letting myself unfurl in an ecstatic dance I’m just beginning to get the hang of.

Sherry Ruth Anderson Ph.D., teaches the Diamond Approach to Spiritual Development in the U.S. and Europe. Formerly, she was head teacher at the Ontario Zen Center in Canada; she chaired the Department of Psychological Research and was Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto Medical School. Anderson co-authored the best-selling The Feminine Face of God (Bantam) and The Cultural Creatives (Random House). Her new book, Ripening Time: Inside Stories for Aging Gracefully, is in press with Changemaker Books (2013).

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14 thoughts on “A Secret I Should Be Keeping

  1. amy kaplan

    Sherry, right on!

    You articulated what I have felt and haven’t articulated because, well, this feeling of maturity and ease at the base of my being, feels like I should keep it a secret in a culture that views aging as a shame and so, causes, all of us shame for having lived and yet, at the same time, glorifies living a really, really long time while marginalizing us at the same time. So crazy-making.

    But, even the words we use– getting old, aging, etc.— are not the right words to describe passing through our lives here and now in these bodies we are in here and now. At any given point, in these lives, we have aged to the point where we are . . . from conception forward. We have moved. Life is movement.

    I think the shame associated with “looking our age, etc” has to do with the deeper fear and denial of death which is pathological in our culture, and, can’t be denied the longer we live, because, the longer we live, we know, as Jim Morrison said, “The end is always near,” but, then, the end is always near, always from concpetion forward or before even, ie, only one sperm penetrates and the others die.

    Thank you! I gained more courage and strength from your story to tell mine some more . . .

  2. Esther Bradley-Detally

    Lacework with substance – wonderfully written – you had me on the plump grey hens. I’m almost 75 with older husband, so I identify; but I love being older, because there’s a wisdom that booted the self-doubt rock deep within aside. Wonderful piece; hope to read more of whatever you write.

  3. Jan Stone

    This is beautifully thought out and expressed. You’ve done such a great job of capturing some fleeting moments that are fearful but different at other perspectives. Bravo! What a talent you have.
    Jan

  4. Ruth Resch

    Thank you for telling me your secret and not keeping it! After all the little sturm and drangs I’ve been living the past few years, little places of fraught, I too have stepped into the sweetest place in my life, unbearably happy without object or reason. Thank you so much tell me — so that I could notice…….

  5. Patty Cogen

    Dear Sherry,
    Your piece captured me from the first image of the fog-hen sitting on the Bay Area hills—I could smell the ocean, the California sage and eucalyptus–and I was glued to your words until you closed with the last gesture of your ecstatic dance. Thank you for putting in to words, what is so elusive, yet once named, so obvious!

    I have to confess, when you switched from the story narrative to the concept of “adventure” I reared back. But you swiftly drew me in to recognizing the yin/yang nature of the adventure. The phrase, “texture of living moments” captures the our changed perceptions and feelings.

  6. Ann St James

    This piece is so profound I can barely stand it. As the writer says, I too never expected that simply being where I am and who I am would be enough. And I also love the writing – the style – and I envy the metaphors – I wish I had thought to compare the fog to the plump grey hens – or – you find yourself a curb and just sit down. Wow! and Wow again! Loved this piece and will re-read.

  7. Phyllis Hiefield

    Sherry,

    Your article is exquisite. I am at a loss to express the joy I experienced while reading it, and still feel. Your writing is so poetic and full of such pure love, that I know only you could have written it. I am pleased to report that you have captured my own feelings about being an Eighty-Something with situations and conditions that others might not consider life-enhancing but which do not detract in the least from the happiness that I, too, experience at this time of life. I really look forward to your upcoming book.

    With love,
    Phyllis

  8. Merimee Moffitt

    Wow! This is so lovely and just right on! I’ve been grappling at bit with the words and ideas regarding aging, perhaps less gracefully. However, I am deeply moved by this essay. Can’t wait to see the book coming on “Inside Stories.” This may be ineffable territory; perhaps our gen is the first to produce such numbers of writers, women who will just speak out like this, into an unknown, a fog. Just love this to pieces.

    1. SHERRY ANDERSON

      Wow! back to you, Merimee. I’m so touched at your response because I’ve been wondering if this perspective would resonate with other women. The book can be ordered soon but there’s a lot on my website now. Let me know what you think about it!

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