How terribly strange to be 70. — Paul Simon
When did 70 become young?
I guess when us baby boomers started turning the age that I still can’t believe I will reach on Saturday.
The older I get, the older old gets. In a conversation with a friend the other day, I said,
70!! That’s old.
Nope, he said. The new old is 80.
Another friend quipped, Or 90. Ninety is unequivocally old.
And in a conversation with my 85-year-old sister:
Me: People think 70 is old.
Ora: It’s not old. It used to be old.
Prince Charles, Olivia Newton John, Stevie Nicks, James Taylor, Al Gore, Kenny Loggins, Wolf Blitzer, Jackson Browne, Cat Stevens all turned or will turn 70 this year. As did the State of Israel. I’m in good company.
But still. It. is. impossible. to. accept. the. idea. How did it get to be so late so soon?
There is a new vulnerability. A fear that various body parts will become pustigi as my mother would call rotting food in her native Bukharian. Like when you rub your eye and wonder if you’ll irreversibly damage your eye lid or whatever it is they insert in that magical cataract operation. But I remember feeling this when I turned 50, too – and so far, so good. Tfu tfu tfu.
There’s no way around 70 being the end – if not past the end – of middle age. The problem is I never admitted to myself that I was middle aged. I’m one of those people who never paid much attention to age. Other friends – even those younger than me — tell me they feel odd being the oldest person in the room, the office, the dance floor. I’m beginning to understand. A voice is now constantly whispering, “Seventy. Seventy. Seventy.”
Death, of course, is ever closer. (Have you been to a Death Café yet?) My first boyfriend died in his sleep a few months ago. He’s the first friend whose contact information I deleted. I know there will be more.
I am baffled, troubled, unbelieving, a little scared. I know so much of our relationship with age is in our heads (except the part that’s in our hips and knees.) So I decided I would think of myself as turning 50. Again. If I can convince myself that age doesn’t matter and relate to myself as 50, I’ll be rid of that voice telling me I’m old now.
I’ll think less about what some young person I’m talking to is seeing. That never occurred to me before, but it’s been happening recently. The hair at my temples is nearly all grey. Various bodily parts are feeling the pull of gravity. Are my interlocutors relating to me as “old?” How does that affect our conversation? People relate differently to old people. I know I do.
The fear – not of death so much as of deterioration – abated somewhat when I spent time at the that Mecca of baby wisdom, the Pikler Institute in Budapest, with Anna Tardos, one of my heroes, last summer. She’s 87. And yes, she climbs the stairs to our seminar room more slowly than she used to, but she teaches people from throughout the world with all her usual focus and sharpness.
Thing do change: bone density numbers go down, cholesterol goes up…but in reality, I just don’t feel old.
I’ve started washing my favorite underwear, which I’ve had for years, by hand, assuming they would last longer that way. I had bought as many as I could before the company, Organic Beach, folded. But if I hold a pair up to the light, I can see that the fabric is becoming thinner, the warp and woof of the weave is loosening. I look at that fabric and think: Is this what’s happening to my muscles, bones, joints? Like my underwear, are they are wearing out? Is there an equivalent to hand washing that I can do to my body and mind to make them last longer?
I – and all of you out there turning 70 – are actually privileged. The vast majority of people who have lived on this planet, did not see 70. In 1900, the world average life expectancy was 31. Average life expectancy in developed countries reached 70 only in the 1960’s, according to Wikipedia.
Seventy is not a person who is still trying to figure out the best way to get stains out of clothing, to keep the house straightened, or how best to communicate with her kids. Seventy has it all figured out. Seventy is somebody’s grandmother. Well, that part now applies.
All thoughts of stopping any medical intervention at 75, as Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel has publicly suggested, went out the window with the birth of our first grandchild. When I’m 75, she’ll be six. I want her to have me – in good health! – for as long as possible. I don’t want her to go through her grandma’s death when she is a little girl. We already have a special relationship. Even at a few months, she’d smile and kick her legs when she saw me and sometimes we’d hear a little gasp, as if she couldn’t contain her excitement.
I’m still doing new things – and hope I never stop. I recently conducted my first staff training based on the RIE and Pikler approach to baby care. I’m still learning – that I must check the tag before bleach spotting a spot on a favorite white dress; that I can listen to my kids without trying to fix things for them. I’m still learning – I doubt I’ll ever master this one – to stop and think before reacting, to try to find the freedom that Victor Frankl says lies in the space between stimulus and response.
The other day a work colleague, upon seeing an invitation to a fundraiser for our Ethiopian children’s music scholarship program in celebration of my 70th, expressed his disbelief. “I thought you were my age!” he said. He’s 54.
When a friend turned 40, she posted a photo of herself on Facebook and wrote, This is 40.
So I turned full face to Shmulik and said, This is 70.
Suddenly – maybe out of desperation – it occurs to me that 70 is a young old. That’s my nechama, my comfort.
So yes, Paul, it is strange to be 70. But I hope, with some luck and help from the powers that be, to enjoy the decade – until I face turning the even stranger 80.