I am seventy years old. This happened suddenly. No, really. I was just ffity and feeling like I was getting a handle on how to live and do some good and raise a son and love my husband, and now, I am sure it was weeks later, I ended up at this point. I still feel I know more than I did at thirty, and have some added perspective than I had at sixty. .but seventy! That is into “early old age” or “entry to old age” or “semi -old age.” The words “old age” are still there though. I don’t believe in “seventy years young. “ I don’t believe in “gentle anything for seniors.” I love being told I “don’t look it”, although I wonder what “it” is supposed to look like: toothless? Tottering? Blue hair? Vacant expression when new music bands are mentioned? Okay that last one I cop to. I read the Variety sections of both the Times and the Strib and many times have no clue to what kind of music many musical groups even produce…So okay. I am old.
I have been wondering, in a more serious vein, what it is about being older that alarms us. For me it is simple: I need more time to do all I want and need to do in this world and that time span is clearly not limitless. Of course it never was, and at any moment over these years I could have gotten hit by a car or had my cancer return, or slipped on the ice and had a major head trauma. Yet this is different. This is based on actuarial tables and scientific evidence and demographics. I am near the last quarter of that continuum which is a lifespan.
What I don’t feel, however, is fear. I am not too fond of the idea of a long protracted death or some comatose state with others running around trying to get court orders to do what I have asked to be done. Yet I don’t feel trepidation, not the stomach turning, perspiring palms trepidation I feel when an imminent danger is upon me, a car sliding toward me on the ice, my foot missing a step at the top of a hiking trail in the mountains, a phone call in the middle of the night. My fears are of the unknown, the unknowable. And any fears of death seem to reside in the netherworld of my mind, where they emerge at the end of a long day when I find I don’t have the stamina I used to have, or at the top of a flight of stairs when I am out of breath more easily.
This train of thought has led me to expand my exploration here to include the qualities fear itself: about how fear seems to run the show for many, how its presence or lack of can determine our health and connection to the joy of living. My luck is to have lived a life, with a few exceptions, where I have been able to nudge fear to the small hiding places of my being. It emerged when I needed it; when I was recovering from a sexual assault at the age of twenty-one, when I was diagnosed with cancer at the age of sixty. I felt it again, on 9/11 when we could not find out where our son and daughter-in-law were in New York during that whole long day. I believe my fears have been a gift in some ways: I park carefully at night under streetlamps when I am going out, I maintain my health with regular visits to my doc, I keep in touch with our son and his family frequently.
Perhaps it is the fear where we feel we have no control at all, where we are subject to the whims or forces that surround us that is the kind of emotion that governs our behavior. I have a whole realm of control over my life because I am not subject to anyone’s whim at this stage; not judged by my skin color; not struggling with poverty.
I have not lost a job, nor do I have huge unpaid medical bills. I do not lack of an affordable wage to feed my family. I get the fear around all these things. It is a gnawing anxiety, it can eat away at your spirit. I get that a person of color in this country can feel fear when he is to be interviewed for a job and everyone on the committee is white. I even admit that if you have been misled by the news media and you walk down a street and are surrounded by people whose culture you are not familiar with, you might feel a twinge of anxiety. And this applies not just to white people who become nervous in parts of the city where they are not in the majority, but to black people too, in an all white part of town.
Yet in other contexts I still puzzle about this state, this fear. Many people respond to my questions about having conversations about racial justice with statements like: “That is fear. You are dealing with fear there when they don’t want to talk about it.”
Fear of what? Making a mistake? Being called a racist? Losing the power to control a school, a discussion, a conversation? And if this is true, if we are leaving the burden of having these discussions up to people of color, then won’t we, as white people, still harbor the fear within us?
I am not talking about those white men who shoot black men and claim they are standing their ground. I am talking about those who want what is best for their small segment of their geography and damn the rest. What do these folks fear if poor and black and brown kids get adequately funded schools? Are we all living in some fear bubbles? And do we simply reinforce each other in our fears of “the other”, thus making it impossible for us to come together? I wonder how much competition and rugged individualism play in our national psyche and mindset. Have we become a country where there is not a scintilla of concern for the common good left, especially if it means we have to give up something to make racial, economic justice happen? I don’t want to believe this, but I worry we cling to our silos, where our views, our desires are paramount for our lives.
Maybe it is because I am reading The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander now. Maybe it is because I am wondering, despite my gentle entrance into aging, how this country could have begun in bloodshed, continued in it, and perpetuated the results of slavery and genocide against the natives here and that we have not as a nation to make up for this. We have not decided to re tell the truth of our history and search for redemption, reparations and liberation. What is it that fills us with fear when we are asked to work on this?
The perspective you have as you age, is one of historical experience. It is one of not so much looking back in nostalgia, as looking back with more clarity, more perspective. Because I have enough to eat and read and even travel some and live a life of painting and writing and working with kids and teachers, I am able to spend time observing what we have left, not only undone, but what we have backtracked on. It is not that I believe I will witness in my time some substantial resolution, some hope for the planet. It is not as if I believe I will be around to cheer for a dramatic change in the economic power structure in this country. But I had hoped that I would see us begin.
So I return to fear and my seventy year old fear, is that we will never start the shift from a individualistic mindset to a communal mindset, a belief that what is good for the parts of the city where poor children live, is good for my children. I am not cynical nor am I hopeless. I am utterly disappointed. I have had the honor of connecting to a student from twenty-three years ago. Edo Walker now works with young men on the north side of Minneapolis. He mentioned to me, when he was describing the high school age students he mentors, that around tenth grade they reach a time when disappointment steps in and messes with hope. At seventeen they see the future narrowing. And they sell themselves short. Perhaps that is a metaphor for our country, we become disappointed and then we sell ourselves short. And we stop aspiring, stop working for what we want to see happen. We become cynical.
Along with my more abstract fear about what I cannot control and the sorrow I feel each day for those I teach and learn from, I have this bizarre optimism. I continue to believe that some powerful force will sweep in and save us from the loss of our soul as a country. Or that we will become so ashamed as a nation at what we have done, we will work together. What fear means for me in my lengthening years is a force beyond disappointment. It sometimes even reaches the visceral stomach turning kind of anxiety. It has to do with my grandson, my son, their lives in this country, now. I keep it at bay.