Last week the rowing club was more adventurous than usual, traveling to a large regatta in Florida. My husband and I stayed with another club member at his mother’s house not far from the race course. She is a delightful English lady who loves to have guests and is very outspoken, making blunt remarks such as “Absolute rubbish!” when, for instance, my husband suggested that we might take our clothes to a laundromat rather than inconvenience her by using her washer and dryer.

She is 86 years old and very active, going sailing once a week and doing charitable work regularly. When the heat got to me on the practice day before the races started, she sympathized with me by saying that she recently had gotten rather dehydrated playing tennis for two hours on a hot day.

That evening I still didn’t feel quite right after rowing and being outdoors for a long time in the heat. When I got in bed, I felt as if it might be rocking gently, like a boat. That reminded me of reading Kon-Tiki as a child and pretending that my bed was a balsa-wood raft floating across the Pacific Ocean. So, as I couldn’t get to sleep right away, I decided to populate this imaginary scenario with my adventurous future self, Fannie. I pictured us looking up at the stars from a natural-fiber mat on the raft, with plenty of comfortable pillows.
 

Photo of the Kon-Tiki raft in its museum.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)
 

“So, Fannie,” I asked her, in my best faux-English accent, “would you say that the stories our culture tells about aging are absolute rubbish?”

“No, I wouldn’t actually,” she said, drawing out the vowel into an absurdly long ‘ah’ sound, “and by the way, you are rubbish with ah-ccents, and I never got much better with them over the years. So we might do better to stick with ordinary American conversation, though there’s nobody around but a few imaginary flying fish to hear us embarrassing ourselves.”

Fannie snuggled deeper into the pillows and went on to say, “Putting energy into rejecting a cultural narrative only feeds it more power. What we resist persists; that’s from Carl Jung, a very wise man. When you feel that society has you in a box, there’s no need to kick and beat on the walls. Just look up, and you’ll see the sky and feel a breeze flowing through. The box is not solid. All you have to do is step out of it. Dance and skip out of it. Do handsprings and cartwheels out of it. Oh, was there a box around here somewhere? I hadn’t noticed. Where it went, I can’t say. Maybe it’s in that field over there, behind all those tall weeds.”

“Once upon a time, long, long ago,” I said, getting into the spirit of it, “there were people who thought they had to stay in boxes; or at least, that’s what my great-grandmother told me.”

“Lost in the mists of time,” Fannie agreed cheerfully. “And while we’re on the subject, maybe instead of picturing the archetypal Crone just sitting and telling stories, you might want to invite her to play some tennis. Yes, I know you are rubbish at tennis, but the Crone hasn’t played in many years either. Of course, I’m no better at it, since I am you, so that’s nothing personal.”

I thought that I heard Fannie chuckling quietly to herself, but a fish leaped out of the ocean just then and landed with a particularly loud splash, so I couldn’t be quite sure.

This year my husband and I have been rowing singles many days, rather than only sculling in our double. We bought the singles to celebrate our 30th anniversary, which was in May. It was my husband’s idea and a surprise to me. I had suggested that he might want to look into buying a single because he had been taking a very old club boat to the regattas, and it was too big for him and poorly suited to his rowing style. I never thought about getting one for myself, though. The club boats did not fit me any better (worse, actually), but I was happy with the double, rarely rowed singles, and never had considered racing one.

Now that I’ve had a few months to get used to rowing a single that is the right size and is set up the way I like it, I’ve been starting to feel more comfortable with the idea of taking it to regattas. My husband suggested that I enter an October head race on our favorite course in Tennessee. (Head races are 5K races during the fall season, so-called because they often take place at the head of a river.)
 

One double and two single sculling boats. 

I was wondering how many women would be competing in my age group. When my husband looked up last year’s race, he told me that there was only one rower in the category of women over 50 racing a single. Other regattas that we like to attend are much the same, with very few older women rowing singles; and my practice times are competitive with their race times, despite my lack of experience.

Although that should mean I can expect to win medals, it is also a bit disconcerting. I understand that much of it is generational, in that most women my age were not encouraged to be athletic when we were growing up. A woman of my generation might enjoy racing in a mixed crew with her husband, but she is not as likely to think about signing up for individual events. Younger women often are more adventurous and competitive because the times have changed.

So, it doesn’t mean that I am now so old that my competition has started dying off. Nor does it have any logical bearing on how many years I might be healthy enough to row. The fact that such thoughts even briefly came to mind bugs me anyway, though.

Last year I began writing occasional stories about my fantastically adventurous future self, aka Fannie, mainly to remind myself that there are many other possible futures besides the usual culturally-conditioned aging scenarios. I decided that Fannie should be 119 years old, not because I expect to live to that age or any other particular age, but simply to kick all such expectations much farther down the road.

Some folks really do live that long in the present day, and it seems likely that longevity will increase as a result of scientific advances. That puts Fannie within the bounds of reasonable possibility, although I never intended my stories about her to be realistic, or close to it; they’re aimed more at liberating my thoughts from other people’s overly narrow ideas of what is or should be realistic.

In that spirit, and without making any assumptions beyond observing that the future surely holds more possibilities than we know, I’ve found myself reflecting on the ideas I had about aging when I was a teenager. Back then, to the (very minimal) extent I thought about it at all, I didn’t see myself living past 80, which seemed ancient and very far away. This morning I put a birthday card in the mail for my mom, who turns 80 next week and is generally healthy. My dad and my husband’s parents already are over 80, and whatever notions I might have had about when a person becomes “ancient” have changed accordingly.

So I’m wondering—now that becoming “ancient” seems much farther away than I once imagined it, and there is at least some possibility I could have another half-century or more of healthy life remaining—why should I feel any closer to old age (whatever that may mean) than I felt when I was a teenager?

I recently had a midyear conversation with my manager about resources available for building more skills, among other things. The company has been encouraging employees to use online training materials for personal development.

My manager said that she had been talking with other people in my workgroup about their plans. Some wanted to keep doing the same job, while some were looking to change positions or to retire, and others hadn’t settled on what would be next.

Although she didn’t come right out and ask, I got the distinct impression that there was a question in there; so I replied that I was in the “not sure what comes next” group. That was true enough.

I have been doing pretty much the same work for many years and sometimes feel as if I’ve gotten stuck in a comfortable rut (which I didn’t say). The job is well suited to my temperament and skill set, and my manager and coworkers are very nice people.
 

Rutted road bordered by telephone poles and fences.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)
 

In our turbulent modern society, there is now an expectation that we need to plan far ahead. Otherwise, we’ll miss out on valuable opportunities and put ourselves at risk of falling too far behind to ever catch up. It’s no longer enough just to be a responsible adult who is working and paying the bills.

There are rational reasons for that fear. Many people really did end up in bad situations because they lost a job to offshoring or automation and did not have the skills needed to get a better job, or they wanted to retire but did not have enough savings. So, now we’re always seeing news articles that admonish us to save much more, improve our skills at every possible opportunity, and plan our entire lives in great detail.

There is an emotional cost to all this pressure, though, which I don’t believe our society is fully taking into account. When we’re expected to run faster on the hamster wheel at all times, we get stressed out. And stress causes health problems, detracts from mental flexibility, and leads to persistent feelings of being overwhelmed and insecure. Then, on top of all that, we feel guilty for not doing a better job of managing our stress, and we get even more stressed.

So I’ve decided that I am not going to worry about what might come next. Why should I feel obligated to live up to some arbitrarily created checklist—which, given how fast the world is changing, may not even come close to my actual future circumstances? To me, it makes much more sense simply to exist in the moment, saving a reasonable amount and learning enough to broaden my horizons, but without forcing anything. Then, maybe, when the time is right, discovering “what comes next” will happen naturally.

My husband always does the mowing, while I am responsible for anything that grows in the yard and is not grass. Planting annual flowers in the spring is fun, but weeding—not so much. It didn’t really bother me at our previous house, which had well-established perennial flowerbeds and very few weeds. When we moved to this house, though, the neighborhood still had several vacant lots, and plenty of thistle seeds and other annoying weeds blew into the yard.

Digging those thistles out of the flowers often left me feeling achy the next day, unlike when I did the easier gardening at the other house. I started to wonder if I was getting sore because I was older. After all, I was turning 40, which had seemed quite far in the future when we were 30 and moved into the previous house. As time went by and I got busier with such things as the kids’ sporting events, I rushed through the weeding, with the mindset that it was a miserable chore and probably would always give me aches and pains.

This year, however, I decided to test the hypothesis that whatever aches I got were caused mainly by too much rushing around, rather than anything to do with my age. I did some weeding on Saturday while my husband mowed the lawn. Instead of rushing through it, I slowed down, taking a little time to walk around and stretch every few minutes. I also alternated weeding with a little pruning, so that I wasn’t in the same position the whole time.

A more leisurely pace didn’t actually take much longer; my husband was putting away the lawnmower at about the same time I finished the weeding. I felt fine afterward and spent a few minutes browsing through and uploading Creative Commons photos to the library for my art display. I particularly liked the photo shown below, entitled “Old Loggers Path.” I’m sure that must mean an old path used by loggers, but it gave me a mental image of a group of brawny guys with gray beards walking along carrying axes.
 

Loggers' path with sunlight filtering through tall trees.

(Photo credit: Nicholas A. Tonelli)
 

When I woke up on Sunday morning I wasn’t at all sore. I had to conclude that I would have avoided years of aches from weeding if I’d taken the time to consider possible causes and solutions. It seems simple enough in hindsight, but our culture doesn’t encourage a mindful approach to health. Instead, the prevailing assumption is that the body naturally falls apart as we get older and there’s not much to be done about it.

While it’s certainly true that the body, like a machine, sustains some amount of wear and tear as time passes, I suspect that much of what gets attributed to age is not really inevitable. Sometimes, all that’s needed is to make a few improvements in maintenance.

Chilly weather kept me indoors the past week, but that was all right because I stayed cozy while rereading the classic children’s book “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett, which is set in 1900 or thereabouts. A disagreeable and selfish girl named Mary, who always had servants to wait on her and never learned to do anything for herself, is sent to live with her uncle in Yorkshire after her parents’ sudden deaths. The local children befriend her, although at first she does not even know how to play with other children. She finds a secret garden that has been neglected for ten years and decides to make it beautiful again by weeding, planting seeds, and pruning overgrown roses.
 

Red and white roses blooming.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)
 

Mary discovers that her uncle has a son, Colin, whose mother died when he was very young and who is even more selfish and spoiled than Mary herself. Colin was sickly as a small boy and overheard adults saying that he would not live to grow up, which caused him to worry obsessively about his health. He became afraid to go outside because he worried about catching some disease or being stared at by pitying passers-by. Staying in his bedroom all the time and being a very picky eater made him so weak that everyone thought he was unable to walk. He did not go to school, and a servant pushed him in a wheelchair on the rare occasions that he left the house.

After Mary interrupts one of Colin’s frequent self-pitying tantrums by shouting at him that there is really nothing wrong with his health—which none of the servants had ever dared to say—she tells him about the secret garden and how happy she feels being out there in the sunshine. She persuades him to let one of the local boys push his chair to the garden, where he feels so much better that he embarks on what he calls a “Scientific Experiment” to become stronger with the help of the same “Magic” that makes the plants grow. After months of exercise in the garden and good nourishing meals, Colin feels perfectly healthy. His father is very surprised, upon returning from a long trip abroad, to find a much better-tempered Colin and Mary running and playing happily in the garden that Colin’s mother once loved.

The story is chiefly about the power of thoughts to change the course of people’s lives, for better or worse. It left me pondering whether the occasional aches and pains that I’ve noticed in recent years might have to do with feelings of being too busy. Although I am not really all that busy compared to many people, or even to myself in the past, I have spent a lot of time in the backyard the past few years, pruning shrubs and small willows that got damaged by recent cold winters and dry summers. Maybe that contributed to aches in my arms (from “pushing” to get things done) and my feet (from being “run ragged” by the to-do list).

So, like Colin, I’ve decided to make this year’s gardening season into a “Scientific Experiment” to test the hypothesis that the random aches and pains will naturally go away in a few months if I don’t feel overly busy. Instead of thinking in terms of always having “yard work” to do, I plan to look at it as playing in the garden and to be cheerful about going out to play. I am even going to look at myself in the mirror before going outdoors and imitate the country Yorkshire accent of some characters in the story, telling my reflection, “Eh, lass, get you gone an’ play you!”

Of course, I don’t really have any idea what a country Yorkshire accent sounds like, even in modern times, much less what it would have been like a century ago; so, needless to say, I’ll sound quite ridiculous. That is all right, though, because play is not supposed to be serious, so it will just add to the fun!

I had some random aches and pains on Sunday, which didn’t seem to have been caused by anything in particular. This has been going on for the past few years, and I suspect it’s largely psychological, involving a combination of past stress and internalized cultural attitudes toward aging.

Whenever I get into a quiet, contemplative state and ask my body what it needs, the word that generally comes into my mind is “rest.” Well, okay, I’ve been working on that for a while now. Clearing away clutter, reshaping my life into a simpler and calmer flow, avoiding unnecessary stresses and obligations, and learning Reiki and setting aside old anger and worry—but, once again, “rest” was the word.

Given the fact that I was just sitting around on a Sunday afternoon doing nothing, it didn’t look like I needed more rest in the literal, physical sense. I hadn’t been overly busy with work or personal projects so far this year either, and I’d been sleeping fairly well. What was “rest” all about?

I considered the figurative uses of the word. Maybe I needed to be putting things to rest, such as old disappointments and outdated assumptions. Another possibility was that I had been giving something too much mental energy, and it was time to give it a rest.

I started thinking that I should write all this down as a blog post, which would help me to get my ideas better sorted. I’d have to find a nice restful image to illustrate it. A photo that I took in early January would do pretty well—a view of Tampa Bay from my hotel window.
 

View of Tampa Bay at sunset from Grand Hyatt hotel window. 

Then I looked at what I was actually doing in the here and now. After all, I’d made a resolution for this year to be present in the moment. What I noticed was that, instead of just sitting around resting, I was pondering the meaning of “rest” while busily composing a blog post in my thoughts. I wasn’t really “doing nothing” at all!

Rather than writing the post right away, I decided to let it wait while I took a nice relaxing soak in my whirlpool tub—which I’ve rarely used because I spent so many years feeling rushed and taking showers. I have to admit, the tub literally got dusty on more than one occasion.

By the time I got out of the tub and put on my pajamas, my mental gears had downshifted and I wasn’t in a mood for writing anymore. That was okay, I told myself—that blog post could just as easily get written on Monday. As it turned out, though, Monday was sunny and warm, and I did a little yard work in the afternoon because it seemed much too nice to sit indoors. Besides, I needed to pull grass out of my daylilies, which were coming up fast. I ended up playing a computer game with my husband in the evening.

On Tuesday, when I finally started writing this post, I looked up the origin of the word “rest” and discovered that it came from the Latin for “stand back.” There was also a digression about the word “restive,” which originally described unruly animals such as mules that just stood around and wouldn’t do as they were told. While that was interesting to learn, it didn’t seem to give me any useful perspective on what sort of rest I might need, unless what I needed was to stand back and let others do more.

So, after writing this much of the post, I left the rest of it (while noting that “rest” also means a portion remaining) for Wednesday. While I didn’t get around to finishing the post on Wednesday, it turned out to be a good day. Without getting into the details, I discovered that I had been mistaken about something that happened four years ago, and I hadn’t actually caused a problem that I had blamed on my bad judgment. Putting that self-blame to rest definitely did me some good, whether or not the mysterious aches might have had anything to do with it.

This past week I’ve been posting calm, soothing nature scenes on my digital art display, looking for healthy and nurturing images in a world that often seems to lack them. The picture shown below, which was captioned “Serene,” gave me a particularly peaceful feeling.
 

Pond fountain with green trees in background. 

As I’ve mentioned a few times before, I generally avoid political issues on this blog because I prefer to discuss the broader cultural stories that shape our perspectives, with a view toward reflection instead of argument. However, this does not mean the two can’t overlap sometimes.

I am referring to guns, which in the United States have gotten so totally out of control that just discussing the cultural issues is nowhere near enough. People often say that the problem is the culture rather than the guns; but, of course, it is both. While I don’t dispute that our culture is full of violent images, the fact that there are real-life guns everywhere blurs the line between fantasy and reality.

Although millions of people play shooter games on their computers and watch dramas with gun violence, those games, TV programs, and movies do not in themselves cause mass murder. There are also millions who enjoy empire-building games and watch epic movies with armies of swordsmen and archers—but when have we ever seen a news story about a mass killing committed with a bow?

Archery and bow hunting are common sports, even in today’s world, and anyone who wants to buy a bow and arrows can easily do so. Guns also are commonly used as sporting equipment, for target shooting and hunting. So, it’s not just the availability of weapons that leads to mass murder, either. Nor does it depend on the speed of the weapon; in medieval times, skilled archers were very quick and effective.

I think what’s different is that bows, unlike guns, are never used to kill people in the modern world, so pictures of archers at war seem very far removed from what anyone might imagine doing in real life. Nobody has a basement arsenal full of bows and arrows. But in the United States there are many people who buy military-style weapons, thinking they may someday need those weapons for self-protection. Violent crime rates are in fact very low and continuing to fall, but everyday images of violence make it feel otherwise.

If military weapons were not sold in gun stores and kept in people’s homes, that in itself might change the culture enough so that guns would chiefly be seen as sporting equipment like bows, rather than as tools for killing other human beings. It’s true enough that the United States is awash in guns, and destroying all assault weapons would take many years. But frankly, that strikes me as a good reason to start now.

When I started writing a recent post about cultural beliefs and archetypes related to aging and health issues, I have to confess that I wasn’t quite sure where it would end up. The plan was simply to visualize my inner Crone, ask her what she’d like to say on the subject, and wing it from there. I was pleasantly surprised when she offered to tell me a story.

Closing my eyes for a moment while I sipped my imaginary coffee, I listened. She began the tale with the traditional “Once upon a time,” and then she went on speaking in a smooth, flowing cadence…

——————————

In a far western desert valley, there lived a girl named Rose. The name suited her well because she climbed all over everything, just like the big pink roses on the trellis outside the kitchen window. She climbed pine trees, getting the sticky sap all over her saddle shoes and poodle skirts; and she climbed the high cliffs on both sides of the valley.

Her favorite spot to climb was the steepest part of the cliff, right next to a little stream that flowed out of the rocks and through her family’s small farm. A smooth ledge, almost all the way up, made the perfect place to sit and watch everything that happened in the valley. Sometimes she would lie down on the ledge and look at the clouds drifting by.

When her parents saw her up there, they scolded her about the danger. Rose had no fear of falling, and she imagined that she would keep on climbing to her favorite ledge forever. But eventually she grew up—as we all must—and her days of climbing cliffs became a distant memory. She spent time with friends, but she never married; and when her parents died, she inherited the farm and lived there alone.

She rarely felt lonely because she had a big shaggy dog, Jack, to keep her company. There were days when she felt unsettled, though, as if she had lost track of something that once had meant a lot to her. On a hot summer day, after going for a long walk with Jack, she came back to the house feeling tired and achy. A hawk passing over the farm made her glance up, toward the ledge on the cliff.

“I am starting to get old,” she said to herself, wondering what had become of the little girl who loved to climb. Had it really been that many years? Wanting to get such thoughts out of her mind, Rose impulsively decided that she might as well just go and climb that cliff right now. After all, there was nobody around to tell her to act her age.

She set off toward the cliff, taking long strides across the rocky ground. Jack happily trailed along, though he didn’t look as cheerful when Rose began to climb. She ignored his whine of concern as she pulled herself upward, searching for the handholds that once had been so familiar. It took a lot of effort. Sweat dripped down her face. The ledge still looked far away. Could this be the same climb that had felt so effortless in her younger days?

Nowhere to go but up, Rose told herself. It can’t really be that hard—after all, people say you’re only as old as you think you are.

The sound of splashing water soothed her as she climbed higher. On her right, the stream that sprang out of the cliff was flowing steadily. She placed a foot carefully to avoid a mossy rock that looked slick, and then she reached for the ledge.

Just as she started to pull herself up with aching arms, Rose lost her grip. The ledge hadn’t been as dry as she thought it was. She tried to catch herself, as she always had been able to do before; but she wasn’t nearly as slim or as limber as she once had been. She tumbled all the way down the cliff, breaking several bones in her feet and ankles.

Slowly, nudged on by Jack, she managed to crawl back to the house and reach a phone to call for help. The doctors at the county hospital patched her up as best they could; but even after they told her the bones had healed, putting weight on her feet was still painful. To get around the farm, she took slow, difficult steps, leaning heavily on a walking stick.

Almost every waking minute—which now included much of the night because her aching feet often kept her awake—Rose berated herself for having been such a fool as to think she could still climb that cliff. She also had a lot of anger toward the doctors, at first because they hadn’t completely fixed everything and, later, because they cut off her pain meds out of concern about addiction. Soon after that, she stopped going to town. It was just too hard, and she didn’t want to see anyone’s pitying faces. In fact, she didn’t want to see anyone—period.

Giving up any hope that she might ever be healthy enough to farm again, Rose leased much of her acreage to the power company for wind turbines. She arranged for her groceries and other supplies to be delivered. If there wasn’t anything perishable, she might leave the boxes on the porch for days. Nothing seemed to matter anymore.

After a while Rose’s old truck rusted out, and brambles grew around it. Weeds filled the yard. A cold snap one winter killed most of the climbing rose on the trellis. Rose didn’t care—she had no interest in looking out the kitchen window because that was the direction of the ledge on the cliff. She kept the curtains drawn and spent most of her days lying on the couch.

Jack, who faithfully kept her company, was by now an old dog. A veterinarian living nearby, whose name was Henry, was kind enough to make house calls. The day came, however, when Jack fell gravely ill, and there was nothing to be done.

When Henry came back with the urn after having Jack’s remains cremated, he also brought—much to Rose’s surprise—a small brown mixed-breed puppy.

“One of my clients was giving away the litter,” he explained in a deep, gruff voice, looking somewhat uncomfortable as he shuffled his big feet on the dusty hardwood floor. “I thought you might want him.”

“Well, you thought wrong,” Rose snapped. “Take him away.”

“Maybe just think about it for a bit, then. I’ve left a bag of puppy food on the porch.” Putting down the puppy, Henry scooted backward and was out the door before Rose realized what he was up to. By the time she struggled up off the couch and got to the door, Henry’s van was roaring away.

Rose’s first impulse was to shout something very nasty after him; but she didn’t want to frighten the puppy, who wasn’t to blame. Instead, she just said, “Oh, for pete’s sake!”

The puppy wagged his little tail happily, in the evident belief that she was talking to him. Rose couldn’t help but to smile at that; and then she told him, “All right, so it looks like we’re stuck here together for now—Petey.”

Although she gave him a name, Rose had every intention of giving him back to Henry at the first opportunity. The last thing she needed, as she saw it, was the nuisance of having a puppy around. She had to take Petey out for walks because he was small enough that he couldn’t be put outside unattended, or he’d be a tasty snack for a hawk or coyote. Leaning on her walking stick, she trudged along painfully on cold winter mornings while Petey, at the end of his leash, gave impatient yips.

As hard as it was, though, she had to admit that by the time Henry finally showed up about a month later, she was doing better. The more she got off the couch and moved around, the easier it seemed. By then, Petey was fairly well housebroken, and she had gotten used to seeing his perky face every day.

“I might keep him,” she allowed grudgingly. “Not making any promises, mind you.”

Henry just grinned.

Winter soon turned into spring, and Rose found that she had enough energy to start cleaning up the house and yard. She whacked weeds, cut back the half-dead rose on the trellis, and got rid of the old truck. Instead of just heating up random food from a can, sometimes she cooked a nice dinner and invited Henry over to eat with her.

Now that she was in better shape, Rose didn’t need to lean on her walking stick like she had before. She still carried it out of habit, though. Her pain, although no longer constant, hadn’t gone away. She still had twinges during the day and bone-deep aches that left her tossing and turning at night, often with her mind troubled by those old angry thoughts.

On a warm evening in midsummer, Rose was throwing a tennis ball for Petey to fetch. He had grown a fair amount but, still, he was a small dog—mostly terrier, she thought. She threw the ball especially far, and Petey dashed eagerly after it. Just then a large coyote bounded over a rise, heading straight for him.

The panicked dog fled toward the nearest cliff and somehow managed to scramble most of the way up. Rose ran toward the coyote, shouting and brandishing her walking stick until it ran away. Shaking in terror, Petey sat huddled on a ledge. It was the same ledge from which Rose had fallen; but, with her thoughts entirely on rescuing her dog, she didn’t even notice that until after she had climbed up. With Petey tucked under her arm, she carefully made her way back down to solid ground.

It wasn’t until Rose got back to the house that she realized she had climbed the cliff without any pain or difficulty. Climbing had felt natural, in fact—just like when she was a young girl. She hadn’t even remembered to pick up her walking stick, which still lay at the base of the cliff where she’d dropped it when the coyote ran off.

Just as soon as those thoughts came into Rose’s mind, the pain came back. But this time, instead of letting herself get overwhelmed by stale feelings of anger and helplessness, she opened the curtains wide and gazed out at a beautiful evening.

Rose sat down at the kitchen table, with a contented Petey wagging his tail at her feet. She sat with the pain until it faded into the last gleams of sunlight on the cliff, the pale blooms of the rosebush, and the stars coming out across the desert sky; and then she went to bed and slept soundly.

——————————

I put down my empty coffee cup and said to the Crone, “Thank you for the story, and for taking the time to visit with me. Both are very much appreciated!”

The Crone rummaged in her handbag for a dark red lipstick and touched up her lips before she answered. “Any time, dear. I’ve quite enjoyed your company.”

About two years have gone by since I rewrote my money story by sending my inner Cinderella away to start a new and happier life in the imaginary village of Channelwood. I’d say that the project was a success because I feel more confident about my finances now. Although my husband and I still have the same jobs with ordinary pay raises, we feel more comfortable talking about money. Expenses seem easier to manage, and in general, we have things better sorted.

Another area of my life that could benefit from revising outdated stories is health. I’ve thought so for a while, but my internal narratives are so jumbled and conflicting that it hasn’t been easy to get a handle on where to start. Objectively, I am in good health: I eat a reasonably good diet, get regular exercise, and have no serious medical issues. For the past few years, though, I’ve felt that my health is not what it ought to be. Annoying, persistent little aches crop up every now and again, for no apparent reason, in various places where I’ve had no injuries of which I know.

Many people would say that after age 50 aches and pains are normal, and I should just get used to that. But I suspect that some of it has to do with cultural expectations of decline—that to some extent they become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the body subconsciously adjusts its physical condition to match whatever image the mind perceives.

What was I to do, then, in rewriting my health story? The logical starting point was no different than with the money story—that is, identifying the archetypes that shaped the narrative and deciding how best to plot a new trajectory. There didn’t seem to be any single character who represented my health story when I thought about it, however.

One major positive influence on my view of aging has been a family history of longevity. My maternal grandfather, who was an active, ambitious world traveler, appeared to be in perfect health until he died suddenly at age 90 of a heart attack. If anyone had asked me then how I felt about getting older, I would have said that I expected good health and a long life. That archetype includes Star Trek’s Vulcans, who often lived for centuries and greeted each other with “Live long and prosper,” and the almost-immortal elves from Lord of the Rings, with their patriarch Elrond relating tales of long-ago battles: “I was there, Gandalf, three thousand years ago…”

Obviously that wasn’t my whole health story, though, or anything close to it. Our culture has such deeply ingrained expectations of failing health that it has become nearly impossible to think outside that box. Although I couldn’t specifically identify any older characters with aches and pains who might have taken up residence in my subconscious mind, the general old-woman archetypes have been around for millennia: the poor old lady hobbling around with a cane who depends on charity; the cackling village witch who stirs her cauldron with gnarled hands; and the Crone, who imparts wisdom to younger generations while sitting most of the day to rest her weary bones.

I decided to sit down and have some imaginary French Vanilla coffee and blueberry scones with the Crone in a sunny breakfast nook. The reason I chose coffee was because my judgmental younger self, who disliked the taste and never drank it, thought that if you needed coffee to wake you up, that meant you were old. I didn’t start drinking coffee until the long road trips to my daughter’s college soccer matches gave me more appreciation of its benefits.
 

Sunny breakfast nook with brightly colored cushions on a bench.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)
 

While I brought the coffee and scones to the table, the Crone settled herself into the brightly colored cushions. She looked sort of like me, but with deep wrinkles and thinning hair that had gone mostly gray. On the table in front of her sat a big untidy handbag like my grandma carried.

She was not one of my older selves, to be clear on that point. Every once in a while, an older self shows up in a dream or while I’m half asleep and gives me a few words of advice, but I’ve never gotten a clear view of what a future me looks like. To be precise about it, the Crone, as I saw her, represented a present-day guess as to what my younger selves might have thought I’d be like when I got older.

“I don’t mean to bother you,” I said, as she picked up her coffee cup, “but I’ve been trying to get a few things sorted in my own mind, and I’d be grateful if you can help. May I ask you to share your thoughts on what people often call the aches and pains of old age?”

“That’s not something we ever talked about in our family,” the Crone calmly noted, highlighting yet another inconsistency in my internal narratives. It was true—I had never actually heard an older person say that in real life. Although I’d seen plenty of written descriptions of old folks who complained at great length about their many ailments, how much of that was reality and how much was stereotype? And to the extent that some of it was reality, that still left me with the question of how much was culturally determined.

Sunlight streamed in through the broad window as birds twittered riotously in the shrubs. Branches waved in a gentle breeze. I ate one of the blueberry scones, which were fresh-baked and still hot, while I worked on untangling my thoughts.

“Whether or not something is part of a family story,” I said, talking as much to myself as to my companion, “that doesn’t necessarily mean it is real for people in general, or even for those in the same family. There’s so much that goes into our perceptions of reality—what we hear from family and friends, what we learn from teachers and others in authority, our own experiences, and the cultural stories that create a framework to hold it all together.”

The Crone quietly sipped her coffee, nodding as if to encourage me to go on, but not speaking.

“What I’m looking for is not so much to understand how people decide what weight to give each of these factors,” I continued. “That gets into psychology, and cultural anthropology, and the social sciences in general, all of which have their own particular research studies and metrics. Rather, what I have in mind is just to explore where I might have gotten some of my own ideas about health, and how they can be changed in the realm of imagination.”

“Ah,” the Crone exclaimed, now looking quite pleased indeed, “you want me to tell you a story!”

I thought about it for a moment before I realized that this was exactly what I was asking. “Yes, please.”

After I brought her another cup of coffee, the Crone arranged herself more comfortably in the seat cushions and began, “Once upon a time…”

(continued here)

I came across the word “postliminary” while reading, not long ago, and it left me thinking about how rarely that word is used. (The spell checker didn’t even recognize it when I wrote this post.) It refers to things that people do after finishing an activity, like cleaning up and putting tools away. In employment law, it means a worker’s necessary tasks at the end of a shift, such as taking off protective gear and hanging it up, which are counted as work time for purposes of calculating overtime pay.
 

Rows of hard hats hanging on a wall.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)
 

It is closely related to “preliminary.” Both words come from the same Latin root meaning a threshold or a boundary. “Post” means after, and “pre” means before. So, “postliminary” literally means after the boundary. That’s all fairly straightforward as word origins go. What I find interesting about it is that although “postliminary” gets almost no use except as a specialized legal term, we’re always using “preliminary” in ordinary conversation. That word has become so common that it even gets abbreviated, such as when we talk about an athletic event’s prelims. (The spell checker recognized prelims.)

I’m thinking that maybe this difference in word usage reflects a culture with a strong focus on planning and carrying out plans, but with very little consideration given to what comes afterward. Companies have been doing better in recent years, using continuous-improvement processes to measure and analyze project results; but as individuals, we often don’t have a good sense of what comes next when we reach transition points in our own lives. We haven’t thought much about what we might find after the boundary.

That’s understandable because people never really needed to think about it before the modern era. Our ancestors’ little villages didn’t change much from one year to the next. When something changed, it generally was simple enough that everyone knew how to deal with it—a good harvest or a bad one, a birth or a death in the village, a flood or a drought. If someone invented a better tool or returned from a long voyage with new knowledge to share, this was such a rare event that the villagers had plenty of time to learn all about it before any other surprises turned up.

Now, in the Information Age, we find something new just about every day, which means our brains are always on overload trying to cram huge amounts of unexpected new stuff into our existing mental maps. It’s no wonder that we spend so much time and energy planning how we’re going to manage each day in this busy, competitive, confusing world. We might realize in the abstract that it would be a good idea to consider our next steps, too; but because today’s society is so free-flowing, we often don’t know how to go about it.

We no longer have the predictability of life in those long-ago villages. While that’s good in some ways because we have so many choices and opportunities that our ancestors couldn’t have imagined, we also have more challenges to navigate. Sometimes we just need to step back from our busy plans for a moment and think about how we’re going to clean things up afterward!