Remember when you were, oh, say, six years old? And then, just a few months after your birthday, you were already counting, “I’m six and a half. In just three months I’ll be six and three-quarters. I’m growing up!”
Growing up. That was always the goal. To be double digits, to be sweet sixteen, to be twenty-one — Sometime shortly after twenty-five, numbers drop out and growing up is measured instead by status and possessions and activities. In homes and cars and jewelry and stocks, in moving higher up the corporate ladder, taking more and longer and farther vacations. Whatever the measure, growing up means having, and doing, MORE and MORE and MORE.
Same holds true even in working out at the gym. I came late to free weights. I was 60 when I began my first workouts with my first trainer. Much to my amazement, it was exhilarating. The sense of strength in my own body, the pleasure and power of discipline and control, of measurable effort and measurable results. The more effort, the more rewards. From two to five to eight-pound weights, then to ten and sometimes twenty.
The formula always held: more repetitions, more weight. The more you work out, the more you progress. “You’re the strongest 65 year old in this gym,” said my trainer one day. Wow, did that feel good! I swelled (modestly, internally) with pride. And figured it would go on forever.
Then we moved, and the new gym was okay, but I didn’t find a trainer I really was inspired by, and the winters were harder so I skipped more sessions, and I got older. Mostly, I got older. Rounding 70, I wasn’t moving forward very much, but I was certainly holding my own. And I was sure that the slippage was my own fault. I wasn’t doing enough. If I did more, I’d be gaining more, right? Because growing is always up, isn’t it?
And then we moved again, and I was 75. I had a small heart attack. The miracle of modern science fixed me up right away with a stent, and I didn’t even pause for very long. I was right into cardio-rehab, on the treadmill and lifting weights again. These are only two and three-pounders, I thought. Baby weights. I can do more than that. And I could. Before I finished rehab, I was back doing five-pound weights. But, cautioned the instructor, that’s probably it. Do more reps if you want, but don’t push the weight.
Along about now you’re probably waiting for the punch line, for the triumph, for the ten-pound weights again. Moving forward. Guess what? That’s not the way it goes down, guys.
(A digression.) One of my favorite books in the world is Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland with its sequel, Through the Looking Glass. Brave, serious, adventurous Alice has always been my heroine and role model. At one point in Looking Glass country, the Red Queen grabs little Alice by the hand and yanks her along, running full tilt, crying “Faster! Faster!” When they stop, though, Alice sees that they are in the same place they began. She exclaims, “Everything’s just as it was!”
“Of course it is,” said the Queen. “What would you have it?”
“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else — if you ran very fast for a long time as we’ve been doing.”
“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that.”
That’s where I am now, friends. I am now 80, and I dwell in the country of Old, where it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place. Here we have stopped growing UP and have begun to grow DOWN. “I’m not getting older,” I joke, “I’m getting shorter.” And I am. “Five foot two, eyes of blue” has become five foot one, and the blue is faded. If we live long enough, we all grow shorter. We all begin growing DOWN. I do my exercises with five-pound weights, and I’m happy to do so. Not only will I not be increasing to eight pounds again — I will feel lucky if when I am 81 or 82 I’m still able to hoist those five-pounders. It takes a whole lot of effort to stay in the same place. Red Queen, you were right!
But what I really want to tell you is, It’s okay. It’s all okay. Friends used to have that as a kind of mantra, It’s all good, they’d say. Pooh, said I to myself. But now that I’m here, whaddya know? It is okay, it’s all good.
Growing DOWN instead of up means, at least to me, simplification. Letting Go. Uncluttering. I don’t need so much, I don’t want so much. I don’t bother with useless frills like “he hurt my feelings” or “what do you suppose they think of the way I look.” Most things don’t MATTER the way they used to. I’m alive this morning, and I take a deep breath, and am grateful to do so. Liberation! That’s what I’m talking about. Not of the body — because that’s all too likely to be experiencing, what shall I call it? Slippage? But liberation of the spirit. Free to be me, as a reality. Hey, that’s not bad.
Which is why, my young friends, who are busy doing more and more exciting things, looking forward, striving, achieving — this post isn’t for you in the here and now. It’s really for you to keep as a talisman, kind of. One day, far in the future, when you arrive in this country, maybe you’ll remember and say Aha! So that’s what she was talking about so long ago, and you’ll be reassured that yes, it is okay, yes, it’s all good.
For you, my midlife friends, the same message, only the reassurance may come in handy sooner.
In an odd kind of way (and I’m only discovering this now, right in this moment), growing DOWN instead of UP is simply a different perspective. It’s disconcerting like all new learning, but it’s interesting. It’s an adventure. In the end, what keeps life worth living is the adventure. Here we go, through the Looking Glass to Wonderland.