Memoir: Aging Gratefully

Why is it that so many of us are decidedly happier now than we were decades ago? A progress report from the near side of 60

by Anna Quindlen
anna quindlen image
Anna Quindlen at home in New York City, 2011. Her country housecame through a catastrophic storm with flying colors—and so did she
Photograph: Joyce Ravid

Most of us don’t have tornadoes in our lives. Our disasters are manageable and predictable, the losses systematic and expected. The car conks out, a young man is promoted in our stead, our incomes shrink, the heart goes haywire. Our grandparents die, then our mothers and fathers, then some of our friends. People manage to rebound from great devastation; we read about them every day—the parents who survive the death of a child (though we know we couldn’t), the workers who lose lifelong jobs (a turn of affairs we’re certain we wouldn’t survive), the patients whose bodies are wracked by terrible disease (which we wouldn’t want to live with). And then sometimes we become one of those people and are amazed, not by our own strength but by that indomitable ability to slog through the storm that looks like strength from the outside and just feels like every day when it’s happening to you.

The older we get, the better we get at this. The older we get, the better we get at being ourselves. We’re not busy being born but busy being born again. My knee makes this noise like Rice Krispies when I do squats and lunges, and my dermatologist likes to joke that she has to clear her schedule when she checks my skin for age spots. But as my friend Robin Morgan, the writer and activist, said as she was approaching 70, “Parts of me I never even knew I had sometimes ache—but parts of me I never knew I had in my brain sing.”

 So much of our knee-jerk negative response to aging is a societal construct. It’s yet another version of the conflict that shapes and sometimes deforms our lives, the conflict between what we really want and what we’re told we ought to desire. We are supposed to think young is better. But we know deep inside, in the ways that count, that better is now. On the day my friend Lesley’s first grandchild was born, she sent out a message that ended, “You’re never too old to have the best day of your life.”

I opened the screen door tentatively after the tornado was over, took the dogs and went outside to relearn my immediate world. There were trees and branches everywhere and a wicker rocker from the front porch flung into the back field, and beneath it two squirrels, unmarked as though they’d died as we all say we want to die, lapsed into a good night’s sleep that never ends. And I thought, How in the world will we ever come back from this? How in the world will this place ever look the same? A year went by, and then two, and it didn’t look the same, any more than I do. In two places on the banks of the pond I found large pointed rocks slammed several inches into the dirt, rocks the wind turned into missiles, or weapons. For a moment I considered that if the dogs and I had been walking around the pond, as we often do, one of those rocks could have hurtled toward me and done the kind of damage my daughter so feared.

But for whatever reason, that didn’t happen. Life is various, millions of moving parts, dogs, stones, high winds, sandwiches, squirrels, tornadoes. There was a time when I behaved as though I were the center of that universe. It was a good time, when I was young and eager and terribly insecure and not beholden to anyone else, without responsibility for houses or children or the cleanup after a disaster. I just like this time better. I used to wonder what I was going to be when I grew up. Now I know.

 

Copyright © 2012 by Anna Quindlen. Excerpt adapted from her new book, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, published by Random House.

Anna Quindlen is a best-selling novelist and Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist. She turns 60 in July and has never colored her hair.

 

Click here for a behind the scenes video of the author at her New York townhouse as she discusses her book.

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First published in the May 2012 issue

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Comments

Patricia Wilson08.05.2012

I read Ms. Quindlen's article with interest. It had been forwarded to me by my dear granddaughter who is now grown up with teenagers of her own. She wondered how I viewed the article. Here's my take: At 50 I thought 65 was getting close to elderly. At 65 I decided it must be 70, because I didn't "feel elderly" yet. Around that time, I decided not to be concerned about when I would get old. I was, and am, in good health, active and enjoying a busy lifestyle. Several years ago I decided to take each day as it came, and not to spend time analyzing what point I have reached in the aging process. At 81 my mindset is still the same. I don't worry about how others perceive me. I just do what I do, and welcome each day I'm given. There are ups and downs, but there always have been, and always will be. Today is sufficient for me. I love the life I've been given, and thank God for the gift of every new day and whatever it holds for me. Relax, Ms.Quinlan, and enjoy the ride. :-)


Thank you. Quindlen articulates what I've been thinking about for some time now. I am 61 and life is good. And, I like it that way. I don't think I'm old. I don't feel old. So, thank you. I'm definitely sharing this with others, like me, who know what's happening, but weren't able to really describe it. It's been done very well here.

Maricia Johns05.17.2012

Loved it! I have always admired women who aged gracefully--not trying to be someone or something else. Please take a look at "thisisyourbestyear". It is a blog for women of a certain age, and our journey.

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