A while ago, on January 2, 2011, I wrote a reflection piece called Reverse Resolutions – 11 Reflections on 2011. I suppose it’s normal to reflect like this on days of passage and that would include a 65th birthday. It’s hard to believe that last article was 10 years ago already, but so that goes as we age as well. Don’t worry, I’m not going to burden you, dear reader, with 65 reflections on the occasion, but taking stock of a few things is not a bad idea from time to time. These are not resolutions or revelations that I woke up one morning realizing after an epiphany – it’s just things I’ve been thinking about lately.
The Call to Therapy
This is my second real go-round with therapy. I went for 14 or 15 years straight some time ago and I’ve said many times that it’s made all the difference in my life. My current therapist and I have been meeting electronically since the pandemic began. I sign in to a virtual waiting room and when he comes online, I get a chime from the system. It’s lovely and reminiscent of a Tibetan singing bowl and when I pointed that out, he said it’s like a Buddhist call to meditation but in our case the chime is calling us to therapy, to health, reflection and accountability. That’s pretty good. We always start with a little small talk and that includes “How are you?” I never quite know how to answer that and last week we jumped in right there and we both agreed that if we’re not dead or wanting to be dead, it’s a good day and we’re doing fine. This is life at 65.
One thing we hopefully learn over the years, some of us having made at least a few foolish financial decisions in the past, is the importance of honoring and respecting our money and our own labor. One way to think of currency is that it represents a measure of opportunity, nothing more, nothing inherently important about money in itself. We cash it in so to speak – we spend it – on opportunities, for other things we value – necessities, experiences, gifts, charity, freedom from debts to others. But this isn’t about money, and that’s not what I’m talking about, dear reader. It’s important to honor our money but I feel like the only real currency I have now is time. There’s just not a lot of it left, and it’s all downhill (or uphill, depending on your perspective) from here. What’s left is not all going to be great, some of it not even very good. My body’s as good now as it’s ever going to be and that’s sobering. Every day is increasingly expensive. I have a sense of urgency and a sense of waste and cost when even one single day slips by without having made the world a better place for someone, invested in myself somehow, or without having lived. We think we have time. We don’t. My time informs everything that follows below from here.
Choose Your State
I hate platitudes as much as anyone. But sometimes little gems of wisdom come dressed up as platitudes and might be worth a second look. So it was for me with the idea that we can choose happiness. How stupid; ridiculous! Right? Right?! I mean, If we could choose happiness, wouldn’t everyone simply choose to be happy? No, they wouldn’t. First, some people need to be miserable, and for some, it’s all they know. Second, it’s not a switch that gets flipped. It’s a practice like most things of value in this life. The more I’ve thought about it and deliberately made conscious choices about my own reactions and responses, I’ll be damned, the more I found myself really evened out emotionally and genuinely content. I don’t have time to feel like shit. I have also discovered that someone else’s feelings, attitude and behavior do not obligate me in the least to respond in kind or in any certain way at all. My friend Pastor Brian Q. Newcomb turned me on to the idea (and we play with it every once in a while) that we don’t have to attend every argument we’re invited to. The same goes for many other kinds of invitations we get, rooted in other folks’ internal stuff. I don’t have time for that shit.
That’s not to say that I am relieved of my obligation to love. In fact, it requires me to know what love actually is, to have the wisdom to figure out how to practice it on difficult emotional terrain, and then to have practiced enough and be courageous enough to pull it off. Some people need misery and some folks will not allow love into their lives. You will not be able to love everyone. There are certainly obvious loving gestures and acts of kindness – feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, things like that – the ones we all know. But in the end, the love you practice through the course of a day or a relationship is sometimes not going to be the love that others recognize as love at all or even as useful or virtuous. Wish them well, do whatever good you can, learn, and then go where your love is celebrated as love. Again, time… there is no time to waste your days and effort when it’s not received or appreciated.
I signed up for Medicare a couple days ago. That alone is a welcome to oldness. Health is the bull in the 65-year-old china shop. I talked about it above a bit, but here’s the thing. It’s not only the bull in the china shop, it’s now also the proverbial frog in the pot, where we begin reaping the consequences of lifestyle choices we made years ago. And even if we’ve been pretty good at making adjustments even at early ages, shit just happens. I’m a vegetarian, very near vegan (cheese, dammit!), not overweight, don’t drink or smoke, and until the pandemic I’ve been working out religiously 6 days a week for as long as I can remember. And even with that, my ears are getting worse, my bad cholesterol has been creeping up and is now too high (“How can that be, when I eat the way I do and work out as much as I do,” I ask my doctor? “Genetics,” he says), I have an eye floater in each eye at risk for retinal detachment, two meniscus tears in each knee from years of running and playing basketball, and because I grew up in Southern California roasting myself to a crisp at the beach, I have to get my skin checked every year. My gums and hair are receding. I used to see the doctor once a year for a physical, but it seems that now I always have a next appointment on the calendar. And I consider myself pretty lucky and pretty damn healthy, all things considered. Back to the frog. There’s going to be a time when it will be too late to make changes, especially the big important ones, where the point of no return has been reached and past. The best time to plant a tree may have been 30 years ago, but the second-best time is today, like it or not. Those years are gone, but it’s not yet too late to do something – yet.
Work and Retirement
This is what’s supposed to happen at 65, right? I’ve never been one to look forward to putting myself out to pasture and spending the rest of my days golfing and fishing. I imagine that might entertain me for a couple months (actually not even that because I don’t golf or fish, but you get the idea). I’ve known too many people that retired and were dead less than a decade later. I’ve also known people who got bored with it after a lifetime of making plans for it, and then went back to work. My job brings me an incredible amount of meaning. Viktor Frankl found that meaningful work along with love are two of the most important elements of meaning and purpose for human beings. I expect to work as long as I can. The alternative in my world is not golfing and fishing – it’s irrelevance, and that is just not something I can accept. Here again, I consider myself lucky. I’ve spent almost 100% of my career doing things that blur the line between work and play. I’d do it for free (“Wait, you want me to teach History of Rock, and I’m gonna get paid for that?!”). I encourage my students to find that place in their lives, where they are enriched by their work, where it gives them a sense of mission, purpose and meaning. It’s not for the paycheck, it’s for the other currency. How do you want to spend your time? Do that. Yes, there’s a way, and the path goes right through a shit ton of hard questions. Retirement… pfft.
Yeah, no. The conversation hardly even interests me anymore other than the impact of religion on society, especially toxic here in the U.S.
Whatever that is – let’s call it a nurturing of the inner life. I want to be a better person, to increase my capacity and become more and more a part of the community of beings, human and otherwise. I want to leave a legacy of love and kindness and I feel a very long way off from that ideal still. Most people in the U.S. believe that atheists have no morals or sense of spirituality. This is just raw ignorance and nothing could be further from the truth. Since I’ve left the supernatural and all theologies by the wayside, it’s like having fully awakened at last. I would like to increase my own enlightenment and spiritual depth. The legacy idea is powerful for me right now. I have a musical body of work and will keep working on that, and students whose lives I’ve helped influence, but when I die, what I’d like most is to be missed (please never refer to me as having “passed.” I will have died, not “passed.” Honestly, what are we so afraid of?). And that doesn’t come just from a body of work. It comes from love, kindness and generosity, from having made people’s lives a little better, from helping them get in touch with what it means to be human. I’d like to have been an example, a help and inspiration to others, and that’s enough. I know I have to do more than I think is necessary too. There’s always a gap between what we feel we’re giving and the love people feel they are receiving. Be the one who loves more and tries harder.
Lots to be said about aging and sexuality too, another elephant in the room. I don’t have a lot to add to what’s out there, other than to say that it changes as my body changes and I have no intention whatsoever of going gentle into that dark night of asexuality. I read recently somewhere that masturbation in old age is not really about sex as much as it is a system check. Sex is something that has to be cultivated and nurtured, even if how it looks is different. Touch, caressing and being caressed are so central to being human that I can’t imagine life without it.
Jesus, we spend a lot on unnecessary, stupid shit. A trip through almost any big-box store is almost embarrassing if you really look around and think about it. Part of my learning to honor my own labor and money has been taking a hard look at what is actually essential in my life and trying hard to let go of everything else. Possessions become our prisons. For me, paring way down has freed me to travel and spend more time on music and teaching. It’s lovely. Here again though, it’s not just simplifying (another platitude) but a realignment of values.
The James Baldwin documentary, “I Am Not Your Negro,” although mostly about race, depicted this aspect of middle-class aspiration and Western values powerfully. Many songs, movies and books have done that too, but that film was a real eye-opener for me in a blunt, cut and dried moment. The convergence of spiritual growth, a sense of meaning, the move away from religion toward a desire to understand what it means to live a more ethical life has resulted in looking beyond myself and my little world, to the rest of the world where there is real suffering that I can actually do something about, even with modest means. I can channel the difference between what is essential and what I earn to charities that are accountable and efficient, where the dollar gets to the ground to feed and immunize children, to provide malaria nets (more important than you might think; the actual cost of one net is less than a dollar, and that alone can save a life), clean water and education. There are all kinds of reasons and excuses we have that keep us from donating to such causes, and I’ve finally been convinced that the money I can give can save a life just as surely as pulling the switch on that train about to run over a stroller. I will leave the rest to you to explore if it so calls you, but Jesus, we spend a lot of money on unnecessary, stupid shit and whether this is ever part of any legacy or not, I have to sleep with myself.
It’s everything. Each family structure and composition is different and it’s been such a great life-lesson to learn to honor the many types, especially those whose makeup, origin and culture is so different from my own. I confess that I am out of touch with a lot of my own family members and it’s sad that in almost every case it has been because of religion or politics, usually both. The only time I am the one who cuts the chord is when it becomes abusive or disrespectful. But I am NOT out of touch with any of my kids, and by the gods, I will spend my last and dying breath if I have to, working to make sure they know they were loved dearly, not just in word, but by action and example. It’s also how we can know there’s no hell. God is better than I am, I imagine, and there is nothing that will come between me and my kids, even if they were to abandon me. Nothing. This can be hard sometimes too because we all have family dynamics. It again requires that I know what love actually is, that I have the wisdom to figure out how to practice it on sometimes-difficult emotional terrain, and that I have practiced enough and to have courage enough to pull it off.
That’s enough for now. I might add more as it comes. After reading the post from ten years ago, I realize this one’s more urgent, a bit less lofty, a bit more “Get-off-my-lawn” with some “I have no more fucks to give,” thrown in too and hopefully a little Zen. Well, I’m 65 now and there is that currency, after all. We think we have time and we don’t. Ten years have passed since the last post. How many of those do I have left?
Thanks for writing this. It’s very insightful and quite inspirational really. Although I have followed a similar path from exuberant christian to thoughtful atheist, I often think of when Jesus was asked about the most important thing and he said – love your neighbor as you love yourself. The golden rule. And I think it is that simple – the words of a man I no longer believe in. If you can find a way to love others AND yourself, then the rest will probably take care of itself.
Again, thanks for all of you posts. I’ve read and reread all of them and I’m inspired each time. Keep pushing forward, brother.
Thank you, and thanks for reading.
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