I am 78 years old. Were I to keel over my keyboard this moment, no one would say, “Oh, and he was so young.” It is a curious feeling. Part of me is aware of this thing called, “age,” yet another part of me is ageless, remaining the same spiritual essence which has been observing the countless personas and roles I have played over the decades. One of the tasks of what is pejoratively called, “old age,” but is more appropriately, “elderhood,” is the rediscovery of one’s essential nature. That is no easy task in a culture which exerts every effort to deny or obscure that essential nature.
I used to be a runner, a strong, swift, long-distance runner. For almost four decades running was a given in my life. These years saw me thrive as I ran on mountain trails, along city streets, through parks, on canal banks, and occasionally on tracks. I would eagerly travel to road races just to get the Tee-shirt and the occasional medal in my age group. I ran the Avenue of the Giants marathon through the coastal redwoods in California and the Fiesta Bowl Marathon through the desert of Arizona. Most of the time I ran 10K races rather than marathons, however. I’ve run in the company (for brief moments before they disappeared into the distance) of Bill Rogers and Alberto Salazar. (If you know these names, welcome to my age group.) When I ran I felt fully embodied and alive.
In the past decade I have gradually fallen victim to the stories my culture tells about growing old. “Slow down,” I am told. “Take it easy and don’t injure yourself,” I am warned. “Find ‘age-appropriate’ activities,'” I am cautioned. The litanies continue, “Go to doctors at the first sign of whatever. Walk, don’t run, and walk shorter and shorter distances less and less often.” Nancy and I live in a retirement community and you can imagine some of the images of aging that surround us every day. I have a heart arrhythmia but it is not life-threatening and doesn’t preclude exercise. So what is going on here?
I used the phrase earlier, “I used to be a runner.” Somewhere within, I still am. Decades ago, I used to read the wonderful works of George Sheehan, a running philosopher whose words informed and inspired a generation of athletes and would-be athletes. I picked up one of his books recently and marveled at the way his words seemed to speak directly to my soul about the myths of aging. My spirit is telling me that I have been listening to the wrong advice.
So now the neighbors see me jogging through the early morning coolness – slow, but getting faster; resting often, but getting stronger. So much is outside of my control. Society is toxic and I can’t fix it. Culture impinges on my spirit at every turn and I can’t change it. My body is mortal and I can’t avoid that. I can, however, refuse to believe and act upon culture and its myths. I want to continue emulating my elder teacher, Lao-Tzu, by stepping away from all that is not authentic. There is more to me than an age. I am still alive and my body is asking me to pay attention. “I want to run again,” it is telling me. I’m listening to it. Screw the voices of cultural caution. I am alive.
Stay tuned for more dispatches from the outlaw/elder liberation front.