Before therapists and self-help books and life coaches and memes, people were left to pursue personal growth with the unregulated, irresponsible method of “life experience.”
This haphazard means of gaining wisdom was mostly used by previous generations. A widespread cultural shift toward vanity and the visceral has the newer generations spending the first few decades of their lives ambitiously pursuing self-actualization through yoga poses and signing bonuses.
In the early evening temperatures, the sun dipping behind robust Ponderosas, I sipped my sparkling water while my companion jingled the ice cubes in her wine glass. At 92, she’s got it figured out.
“I climbed one-hundred and forty stairs today,” she says.
Her coffee is weak and her wine is diluted. Her mornings begin when she wakes up and her days end when she feels like going to sleep. She eats “what she likes” and she occasionally wins a nickel at bridge club.
“How is it,” I ask carefully, “to grow old in this way?”
I am wondering if it is imprudent to discuss mortality when someone is on the edge of theirs, but something tells me she knows things I can’t find in a book.
When you spend time with her, you’d think her life had been an easy one because nothing much seems to bother her. She grew up in Wisconsin (quite possibly the most easy state), went to school to be a teacher, worked until she retired. She built a house on the Deschutes River in the eighties with en vogue floral-print wallpaper, pine cabinets and blue carpet.
Then she spent forty years watching birds and gardening. She eats danishes for breakfast, reads crime novels one-after-the-other and stares bright-eyed through her gold-rimmed glasses out over the river.
She tells me she has three rules: One, when she gets stressed out she slows down.
There’s no need to rush about and make a mess of things. Just slow it down. (I pay about $100 an hour for this same advice from a trained therapist.)
Two, breathe. With this, she purses her lips and sucks in a deep, fierce breath through her nose, eyes closed, belly rising. She rests her knobby, wrinkled, knowing hands on her abdomen as it lifts, and when she is quite satisfied with this, she opens her eyes and slowly, fully releases her breath. “Qi Gong,” she says. She took lessons at the senior center.
Third, she avoids toxic people. Simple as that. Steer clear. Her life was as full of adversity as anyone’s. When she was young, she fell in love with another woman. To keep the secret, she bought the house next door, helping her raise three children from a safe distance, supporting her though the slow, cancerous death of another. She watched her unsung love survive a heart attack, then tolerated her Egg Beaters and margarine for another thirty years.
When her partner died, she ransacked the house and cleaned the drawers in a systematic purging of nearly sixty years of a shared life.
She said she didn’t want anyone to have to clean up after she goes. But in a picture we rescued, she’s kneeling next to my grandmother smiling, their pinkies intertwined.
Her wine is now more ice melt than grapes and she sips just as contentedly on that. Her silver white hair is alight with the last rays of sun. The river roars past us with its constant crashing against the rocks. I cannot see how any life can be fuller than hers.
I want to ask her if she meant to become a disciple of the Dalai Lama or if she’s just an accidental Buddhist.
“I thought of a fourth one!” she starts.
I look at her expectantly.
“It’s none of my business anyway. And that one,” she says triumphantly, “has been the most liberating.”
Ammi Midstokke can be contacted at email@example.com.
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