I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet. –Sylvia Plath
Age is a very sensitive and difficult issue to address. Recently I’ve had a number of people tell me how very lucky I am to be in my twenties, in the proverbial “golden years” of my life. Although I agree with them that I am lucky, I disagree that these are the golden years (and would even argue that they don’t qualify for silver or bronze, either).
On Tuesday morning I met a very sweet ninety-five year old man at the gym. From his waist up he was crooked and bent, his spine formed a disproportionately squashed “s”-shape, and both of his wiry legs had a sizable limp–which actually ended up almost normalizing his gait. As he hobbled slowly towards me, I watched him grimace with each step, his face seemingly registering pain slightly late, just a nanosecond after each foot hit the ground.
He sat down next to me in the cafe area, heaved a heavy sigh, and laughed to himself as he said, “Dammit, getting old sure isn’t for pussies…”
Thrown by the absurdity of this statement and unsure of how to appropriately respond, I just smiled at him and nodded. When in doubt, smile and nod. But he stayed and I stayed, both silently sitting with that noisy thought. A couple of minutes later we started small-talking and then later, large-talking. The real steak-and-wine kind of conversation, if you will. It became immediately apparent that he had lived a rich life, full of love and friendship, and as he told his stories I couldn’t help but envy him.
Here was a man that had established a complete life for himself. He had honorably served our country in two wars, worked hard in numerous different jobs, raised a family, and by the warmth in his voice, it was apparent that this man still found joy in each day.
He told me about the love of his life, Betty, who had died nine years earlier. About his sons Paul and John who both went to college to get degrees and who now had their own jobs and families. About his seven beautiful grandchildren. With a proud voice he rolled through his stories and I, too, felt proud of his life.
After a while, he got up to go swimming and I watched him limp away and thought about his life, and my own. I have never dealt with the physical decay that he has. The natural but depressingly erosive process of time on the body. I have never dealt with mortality as intimately as he has– losing close loved-ones, or dear friends. But I also have never felt the deep abounding joy of having children. I have never been secure professionally or truly felt gratified in a career. In my youthful, healthy body that older people envy and tell me to appreciate there is a maelstrom of insecurity, indecisiveness, and fear. Like Ms. Plath, I sit at the bottom of a fig tree and starve while I wonder which branch of life to choose.
Don’t get me wrong, there are a multitude of reasons this is a great age to be. But there are also a number of things that I would instantly change. Being perpetually broke, for one… But I guess that feature can come uninvited at any age. Regardless, I think we can all agree that every age can be hard. My one hope is that with age, we simply become better equipped to deal with it.
There is pleasure in the pathless woods, there is rapture in the lonely shore, there is society where none intrudes, by the deep sea, and music in its roar; I love not Man the less, but Nature more. -Lord Byron
I have a chronic problem where I tend to overwork myself until the physical, mental, and emotional stress are entirely consuming. My very wise fourteen year-old brother recently named this phenomenon “The Fog”. Quarter-annually, almost as if governed by an intrinsic time-clock, the fog will creep in unnoticed and muddle things in my brain-case. For those of you that haven’t felt this way before, I have a couple of analogies that should shed light on the sensation:
1) You are horrendously hungover and your brain is accessing memories at what feels like 2 thoughts per minute. The Fog.
2) You wake up in the morning disoriented, and it takes a couple of minutes to realize where, or who, you are. The Fog.
Now fog by itself is fairly innocuous, I’m not trying to villainize it by any means. But anything that slows down or obscures thinking/feeling is definitely not a friend to me (with the exception of red wine). So when I start to feel the fog coming on, I try to find ways to de-stress. Quick fixes to give myself a reset emotionally/mentally. One of these ways is spending time outside.
It’s funny that it takes things breaking-down before we tend to take care of them. This is particularly an interesting issue in the realm of medicine. I’ve had innumerable customers talk to me about wanting to change their diet now that they have diabetes, bad cholesterol, high blood pressure, etc. Although this is always exciting news to me, and definitely beats the “Well, I took my Lipitor this morning, so I can eat all the bacon in the whole world” approach 10/10 times, it’s still unsatisfactory. It really shouldn’t take scary diagnoses to inspire us to be healthy.
It is hard to practice dedication in taking care of your body. Some mornings that 5:30 alarm for exercise before work is actually the voice of Satan. But it is so much easier to maintain health than it is to try and re-discover it. Emotional health deserves the same attention and is even harder to be aware of.
So recently I’ve been trying to make a habit of spending some time outside every day. Nature has always had a way of making me feel very pleasantly insignificant and calm. I’m hoping that doing this outdoor thing will eradicate the fog phenomenon, which is scheduled for next Tuesday it looks like. Will keep you posted.
Here’s some nature photography, in case you don’t get enough
*sorry about the spiders*