Birthdays that end in 0 are much easier for me to handle than the ones that end in 5.
I came to that rather trivial realization sometime over the past year. Approaching 30, 40, 50, or 60? No big deal. In fact, for that last one I used the occasion to gather 60 lessons I’ve learned over six decades. It was great fun.
The ones that end in 5, however? Umm…they seem to be more problematic. Perhaps it is because I’m suddenly closer to the next 0 and the next decade than to the one in my rear view mirror. At 35 most of us finally realize, if we haven’t already, that we are no longer a kid. At 45 you can claim with some degree of persuasiveness to fall in the middle age bracket, but that has its own set of challenges. (Mortgages, anyone?) By the time you hit 55 you are conscious of the fact that few people live to be 110, and you are face-to-face with all that implies. And at 65? Well, no one makes it to 130 so you have no claim to that middle age moniker. Of course, as if to drive that point home, at age 65 all the senior discounts, Medicare, and Social Security benefits kick in across the board. Not to mention aches in places you didn’t know existed.
Thankfully, I now have a very different outlook than when I reached 35, or 45, or 55. I am approaching my 65th birthday this week with a great deal more excitement for whatever lies ahead and what I’ve yet to learn, in whatever time is left. My gap year exploration of what’s next has certainly helped. Watching my father successfully navigate the final third of his life changed my perspective on the possibilities. But the primary reason that I’m optimistic is my recent work to look at personal experiences through a lens of remembrance without regret.
It hasn’t always been this way.
Regrets tend to lock us in a past where we constantly relitigate our actions. Truth be told, I’ve not always handled the “no regret” part of remembrance very well. From an early age I was a first-class worrier, and I still hold on to a part of that history. They may not matter to anyone else, but regrets matter to those who hold on to them. Regrets stop us from moving beyond past experiences in order to revel in fresh challenges. Yet we don’t realize that those past experiences, when ultimately faced, can turn out to be much less of an issue than they appear in our clouded memories.
I doubt there’s a person alive who remembers that at age 9, as I was playing in a piano competition in front of a room full of people, my memory suddenly went blank.
But I remember.
I stopped playing piano that day and suddenly found it took a great deal of effort to play any music in public, no matter how much I might love it. The regret of failure was too present. Knowing I wanted to move past this, I challenged myself at age 40, took a year of piano lessons, and then sat down in front of my teacher — and her group of elementary school students with all their parents — to play in a recital. And I aced it!
It was a step past regret to build new memories, new remembrances, of joy.
It is so tempting to sleepwalk through many phases of life, avoiding the places, literal and figurative, where we might have to face our regrets in order to learn anew. While these places appear countless times throughout our lives, major milestones often amplify their significance. The culmination of a career or the ending of a job, voluntary or otherwise, can be an occasion when regrets arise for work undone. The end of a relationship can push us to forget the wonder of a love once held outside time and space. Instead we focus on regrets and recriminations. When family and dear friends get ill and die, we struggle with regret instead of remembrance and, where possible, celebration. We forget the notes, and in the process overlook what brought us to love music in the first place.
The challenge to cut through the knot in the stomach is one I still face on occasion, more than fifty years after sitting all alone on that piano stool. But traveling through that challenge is necessary to reach these places where affirming memories are formed, connecting over time, to create our true identities. And the travel may very well be symbolic. “The real voyage of discovery,” as Marcel Proust once said, “consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
Thankfully, I realize there is so much yet to do. Musicians and actors I’ve admired have been incredibly productive later in life. Many of my favorite writers are still turning out meaningful work well into their seventh and eighth decades. I’ve always been fond of Madeleine L’Engle’s observation that “I am still every age that I have been.” It reminds me that simply because I am now well into the sixth decade, I don’t have to forget the astonishment that came so easily during the first ten years. We’ve all seen examples of people who, as they move through life, fear what’s next and want to hang on to what they have and what they wish to be true. As the writer Ursula K. Le Guin notes in No Time to Spare, these are the ones who have “given up on the long-range view.” I keep reminding myself: don’t be that person!
Fortunately, there are also those who, in her words, realize the incredible amount we learn “between our birthday and our last day.” If we are flexible enough in mind and spirit to recognize “how rich we are in knowledge, and in all that lies around us yet to learn,” we can maintain the seeking, trusting capacity for learning and life that we had as a two-year-old. We can build hope for the future grounded in memory.
Observing and listening to make sense of life leads to interior places not normally visited in our daily routines. But looking at this voyage of almost 65 years through new eyes helps me remember the basic things that make us human. It helps me find ways to get to the heartbeat.
I want to say thank you to the many family, friends, colleagues, and even strangers who have been there for me over 65 years. Your support has led me to a place where I now move quickly past feelings of regret to memories that provide a solid foundation for whatever is next.
You may, or may not, remember what you did to lift me up. But I remember.
Have a great week.
More to come…
Installment #23 of The Gap Year Chronicles