I have lived here at my 55+ apartment building for three years now. During this time I have been honored to develop a relationship of sorts with Maxine, who is almost ninety years old. A lifetime dancer, Maxine stands at least 5’8”. She carries one trekking pole as a balance aid (I am trying to introduce her to the benefits of two trekking poles!) and her mod clothes always complement her vivid orange hair. For years Maxine has taught line dancing at the local senior center; now she sits on the sidelines dictating instructions to one of her seven children who in turn demonstrates the steps to the class. Once I met her by the elevator and she was excited to tell me she had just gotten “such a deal on potatoes at Costco,” and would I like some? She invited me in and shared five stout bakers with me. We take care of each other at the Blakely. Another time Maxine rode the elevator with me and announced, “You seem like a really nice girl. Would you come for coffee at my apartment?” It was a delightful hour of storytelling evoked by each antique that graced her living room. My most poignant conversation with Maxine occurred the time I came upon her unexpectedly. A look of terror passed over her countenance. She apologized, saying that once she had been assaulted and since then surprise is an unwelcome experience. Today was different. I rode the elevator with Maxine and her oldest daughter, who must be at least seventy-five. Maxine seemed to function well on the surface, but I noticed much more disorientation than I have ever seen before. Her daughter’s demeanor hinted at the beginning of exasperation, and perhaps fear of what lies immediately around the corner. It scares me too. What is it like entering this stage of aging? What can we do to live in it with grace? I am only seventy, yet I have momentary glimpses of it. I like to tell myself these moments of disorientation stem from a physical condition, and they do. But… Living here reinforces what I have longed believed, that we grow old as we have lived all along. I think the way to do this is to live life as the mystics set it before us: let go, let be, live from our deepest being. I am working on letting go of the need to rant about the things that irritate me in a 55+ community. Ranting just gives the negative power over me, and instead of living life, I live the rant. Not pleasant for me or for those around me. The facility of animals to adapt to their environments inspires me. Someday I too will be disoriented; right now I learn how to take care of myself and simultaneously respect the place others are in. In this moment I type on a computer in the communal “office.” It is air-conditioned. My apartment is 90 degrees. It’s working out just fine, too! I may have met some “Chatty Kathys or Keiths” here, but not this time. I’m learning to imagine ahead of time what the effects of my choices might be, so that surprise doesn’t sabbotage me. This leads to more instances of letting be and the possibility of living from my deepest self. I’m far from sainthood. I almost strangled my cat at 3:00 A.M. this morning when she decided it was play time. However, I think I’ve come up with a template for the spiritual practice of growing old. Good luck to you if you share my era, good luck to you if you have to deal with my era!
Life in 55+ housing has no dull moments. I’ve lived on the sixth floor of such a building for two years, and the adjustment has run the gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous, sometimes all on the same day! The elevator provides a rich assortment of spiritual practices around patience and compassion with others and oneself. For example, I’m learning to laugh at myself after I have walked halfway around a hallway in search of my apartment which is on another floor. Hey. If I’m having a lively chat with a neighbor who gets off on floor five, why not continue the conversation? You would think that by now I would have memorized the paintings in front of the elevator on each floor, or at least, look at the floor number before I get off. Then there’s moving days, when through no fault of their own, departing tenants hold up the elevator on their floor. Patience. Tenants on wheels slow things down. Tenants standing in the open door talking or holding it for someone down the hall slow me down. Several times a day I have to let go. It’s ever so good for me; however, my internal dialogue can become quite colorful at times.
We have a custom of putting out unwanted items by the elevator for anyone to pick up. When my cat died I put out her little pink carrier and it was gone within ten minutes. So, on Saturday someone on my floor put out an antique end table with three drawers which I thought could nicely replace the inadequate one I had. I carried it to my apartment and rearranged everything. Excited to re-gift the end table I replaced, I put it out by the elevator. Finally, I settled down to read with all my accoutrements neatly organized nearby. Alas, within the hour I had an allergic reaction. The end table had mold in it. Upon examination, I also discovered a dangling leg. Another opportunity to learn patience. I decided to try taking the high road. I’ll retrieve my inadequate end table and take this one down to the recycling, I thought. I went in search, and you guessed it, the table had already been snatched up. My disappointment was eased by the knowledge that I helped out someone else, just as I thought I was being helped out. The office opening at day’s start yesterday, found me there checking out a cart to take the broken and moldy table downstairs. Outside my apartment, where the table sat, I met Mandy, the house cleaner. She asked what I planned to do with the table. I told her. “Oh, she said, I’ll take it for my daughter’s room. I’m a cabinet maker. I can fix this easily.” And she already had decorating plans for it.
There are days that I long for my spacious condo, sans elevator, but I wouldn’t miss these little opportunities to let go, for the world. I’m convinced that we grow old the way we live. Life in a 55+ is the playground of the sublime and the ridiculous.