I thought of my friend, Margery, the other day, and specifically her 80th birthday when she threw a party in Naples, Florida. Some 40 people or so came, including me. She was the type of woman who loved to bring her friends together, so some of us knew each other from long ago and we greeted one another happily, knowing we’d come to celebrate the one big thing we had in common, and that was Margery.
On her 80th birthday she was still driving a roadster. You opened the door, slid in, and went horizontal. She did the same behind the wheel. It didn’t occur to her to give it up.
The dinner took place at her home on Saturday night. Champagne was poured, we milled around, and finally someone asked for a hush. Her grandson wished her a happy birthday, showed a brief family video on the TV, and told us to go eat.
“Wait, wait just a minute,” I said.
Everyone turned to look at me. Don’t we want to talk about this woman? I wanted to say. Don’t we want to talk to her, tell her how much she means to us, what has happened to us over the many years we’ve known her? Don’t we want to squeeze out of this moment all the love and appreciation we have for her?
Instead, I felt I’d done wrong. It’s not your party, a voice whispered inside, you’re not her family. You’re intruding into something not your own.
I said some lame words—the only public testament spoken aloud—and we went to eat.
It wasn’t the first or the last time that I saw people gathering to celebrate, with no understanding of how to create collective meaning out of the occasion (other than providing food and alcohol). We had flown from the Northeast, West Virginia, and Ohio to be there. There was so much to take in, so much to express to her and each other, so much to remember about the confluence of our lives.
Instead, there was no talk from the heart, no reaching out. A party like any one of many, many parties thrown regularly in that wealthy part of Florida.
There’s a lot I can say here about our lack of basic rituals to create a shared space of value and meaning. Instead, something else comes to mind.
In my rural area of Massachusetts, I run into many people by phone or Zoom who are my age (71), a little younger or a little older, many retired. When I ask them how they spend their days they answer vaguely: I go on walks, I see my kids or grandkids occasionally, watch YouTubes or TV. All agree on one thing: The day goes by before you know it. I don’t know what I spend my day on, only that it goes and now it’s time to go to sleep.
And then I imagine this dialogue:
“But what about your journey?”
“Whatever journey you’ve been on. It isn’t done just because you’re over 65.”
“I’m not working anymore. Family all grown and gone away, they show up for Thanksgiving. I got my errands. I got my housework, I putter—”
“But aren’t you still on a journey? Don’t you want to help people? Don’t you want to master something, give back something, express something? What about your vows? Don’t you want to awaken?”
“I guess so,” they say hesitantly. Or: “Maybe.” And even: “Not really.”
For me, the journey has no finish line. Every day, regardless of the cold, I go out with Aussie to a new adventure. The snow sparkles more now than ever before. I confront a blank white page every day. Maybe there’ll come a time when I won’t have anything more to write, but for now I know how to deal: Let my fingers click the keys down, let the inner voice speak. Don’t doubt it and don’t worry it to death.
Most important: Trust this path. Trust yourself. My life is like an unraveling ball of yarn, I see so many threads I never saw before, see them both apart and balled together. I can’t stop the voice in my head about what to write next, what to teach next, how to practice more. Newness is everywhere around me. I don’t get fazed by the state of the world, I simply want to leave something helpful for the next generation.
None of this stopped after 70. I sleep more than I used to and don’t work the long, long hours. But the great unknown is still there. Something’s coming, I think to myself just like I did every morning when I lived in Manhattan and walked out of the apartment building. Something’s here.
The simplest things in the world feel like a path right now; the potential to connect with more and more of life is greater than ever before. Stroking Aussie half a dozen times a day has become a wider and wider gate, my fingers plowing through the black fur, feeling her heart beating through her chest. Something beckons every single day, even when the left knee hurts a bit or I didn’t get a good night sleep.
How do you spend your days?
There’s always something to do.
But what about your journey? What about your journey?
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