We began writing Notes to Our Older Selves when we were in our fifties. We were in that season of life when it is common to watch parents and elderly friends grow older and become more dependent. We knew that we were soon to follow. As we worked to support those in the generation ahead of us, we were in a position to observe moments of grace and moments of gracelessness. After difficult encounters with elderly family and friends we often found ourselves saying: “I need to write a note to myself to remember not to do that when I am older.” At other times, moved by the gifts and grace we experienced as we shared time with aging loved ones, we would say: ”I need to write a note to myself to remember to be sure to do that.”
Several years have gone by since we first began writing and discussing the notes we wanted to write to ourselves. In those years we have cared for many family members and friends through their final months and their final hours. We have seen much, done much and learned much. Our lives have been touched by each one we cared for and spent time with in their final season of life.
We are now the oldest generation in our families. But we are still relatively young in the land of the aging. (Well, that’s what we tell ourselves, anyway! The truth is we are, and have been for some time, part of the group who gets senior discounts without having to ask.) Because of what we have experienced with our elderly loved ones and because we are now the old people in our families, we come back to this task with new perspectives. Interestingly, in spite of the powerful impact of witnessing the grace experienced by the elderly we have cared for, we both found ourselves suddenly resistant to writing these notes to our older selves. We realized that we needed to pay attention to this new resistance. Our resistance was blocking our ability to work on this project. But even more than this, our resistance was keeping us from being open to our aging selves. So, we journaled and talked about our resistance.
What we discovered was that our inclination to avoid this writing was related to our fears. We were not somehow magically exempt. We were just as afraid as the elderly we helped support. We, too, were afraid of the growing dependencies of aging. We, too, were afraid of the losses we would experience.
It turned out that it was easier to think about writing this book when we were indirectly addressing older family members and our theoretical older selves. But now, it was no longer about the elderly we were supporting. Now we were writing directly to ourselves. Now it was for real. Now it was our car keys that were in question. “Nope,” we thought, “nope, we don’t want to be saying this crazy stuff to ourselves about having to give up things like our car keys!”
We seemed to be helped by acknowledging our fears. Our fears had created a constriction around our hearts, in our lungs and in our bodies. We were holding our breath, tightening our muscles and clenching our fists in an attempt to cling to things-as-they-were. Somehow the acknowledgement of our fears allowed us to relax the constriction around our hearts and open our closed fists just a bit. This small relaxing and letting go seemed to allow us to catch glimpses of the gifts and grace that aging might bring.
The experience of aging is marked by change, loss and vulnerability. It turns out that being human is marked by experiences of change, loss and vulnerability. When we were young and healthy and able-bodied, we could maintain fantasies of being in charge of the changes in our life. We could maintain a sense of invulnerability. We could maintain delusions of being in control of things. We could keep our armor on. Even shine it up a bit.
But when we are ill for very long, or disabled in some way, or just plain old our armor begins to come off. We see the truth. There is much, so much, that we cannot control. Change is a constant. Loss meets us regularly. Vulnerability is a daily reality.
We don’t like any of this. Not much. Well, not at all. We assume that a gradual loss of control is something to be avoided. We find ourselves wanting to distract, pretend, minimize and push away the inevitable. Anti-aging creams and anti-aging supplements are just the beginning.. The real issue is the tricks we play in our minds. The very tricks that caused us to be shocked the first few times we were offered those senior discounts. “How did they know!?” we wondered as we hobbled away.
But what we both have been learning for a very long time is that change and loss, and the vulnerability they expose are invitations to become our best selves. To be vulnerable and unashamed is to be free to be who we really are. When we let go of our resistance to change and loss, when we open ourselves to vulnerability, we discover that vulnerability offers us amazing gifts.
So, yes, aging is about change, loss and vulnerability. But it is also about being offered another opportunity to accept the gifts that vulnerability can bring. These gifts are at the heart of all that matters most in life. Like love. And intimacy. And tender heartedness. Like freedom to forgive and bless others— and to be forgiven and blessed by others. Like deep joy and peace.
For us, life is a spiritual journey. And aging is a significant part of this journey. We have come to see aging as an invitation, another amazing opportunity, to open to the goodness, the blessing and the love that has always been ours.
The surprise for us has been that writing these notes to our older selves has been a gift to us now. As we say in the epilog, it has helped us see the whole process of aging in a different way, easing our fears and allowing us to catch glimpses of the goodness and mercy following us all the days of our lives, all the way to the end.
We hope, whatever your age, that reading this book will be a gift to you, as well. Whether you are young, middle aged, newly old, or very old, may these reflections bless you with humor, hope and wisdom for living well all the days of your life. We decided to write this book with one voice, blending our perspectives, observations and experiences in a way that we hope will make for greater simplicity and ease in reading. The book is organized into nine sections. Each section is focused on letting go of what has been, and on learning to embrace what is being offered to us at this time in our lives. Each section begins with a brief introduction and ends with questions for reflection and discussion and with a suggestion for prayer and meditation.
Growing old is not easy. We need each other. We need to be in conversation and community with each other as we travel these paths. We need to commiserate together. We need to cry and laugh together. We need to share our stories of receiving and growing in grace. Our hope is that this book will become a vehicle for gathering people into conversations in community centers, churches, neighborhoods, online, or over the phone.
We also hope that these notes to ourselves can be the basis for discussions in families. We hope that they will encourage conversations between spouses and friends. We pray that they will open dialog as well between those of us who are now part of the oldest generation and our children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews and care takers.
We offer these notes to our older selves and to you, our reader, with the prayer that we will all be intentional about receiving with gratitude the gifts that are being offered to us each day of our lives. We offer them in the hope that we each will learn greater grace as we journey toward our final days.
“Growing old is crazy!” exclaimed one of our eighty seven year old parents. It does look kind of crazy sometimes. So how do we navigate the last stages of life with open, generous hearts? How do we turn something that looks so crazy into something that can bless us and bless others? That is what we want to explore. Thank you for joining us on this journey!.
This meditation is taken from Notes to Our Older Selves: Suggestions for Aging With Grace by Juanita Ryan and Mary Rae. You can get a copy at Amazon.com