Hard Lessons

To paraphrase a Bruce Springsteen song, life has been giving me some hard lessons lately, about pain, loss, disability and hope. Years of chronic pain, my mother's death, my hearing impairment and other serious medical problems have sorely tested me. When I finally found a doctor who took my pain seriously, he asked me why I had checked "suicidal thoughts" on my new patient questionnaire. I told him, "I have 30 years ahead of me if I live as long as my mother did. I refuse to live in pain for another 30 years."

In all that I've learned and written since then, the most surprising discovery has been my ability to remain optimistic about my life and my future. If you hear despair, anger, frustration and fear in what I post here, please don't turn away. All is not dark, and eventually a glimmer of hope will light the path ahead.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013


Until I turned 50, I never had a sense of my own mortality. My elderly mother had been reminding me that she wasn’t going to live forever, but somehow I thought that she and I were both immortal despite the fact that I was morbidly obese and troubled by a host of health problems. I had undergone more surgeries, medical procedures and treatments, and taken more prescription medication, than my mother had in her entire life.

In the years that followed that milestone birthday, I lost a lot: my job, my 90-year-old mother, 100 pounds and my old lifestyle. At the same time, I learned there is truth in the old saying, “You’re only as old as you feel.” That truth wasn’t always rejuvenating. I often felt lost and confused. I had attained an age that was unimaginable to me as a 20-year-old. Other than perfunctory contributions to 401K and IRA funds, as a young woman I had made no plans for my middle and later years. That might be just as well, because in truth, my expectations for myself at age 20 were far smaller than my expectations are now, as I hover on the edge of my 60th birthday.

A few years ago I told a young coworker that I was 56 years old. Now I don’t remember why I shared that information with him, but I hope I never forget Garrett’s response: “You are not 56!”

I offered to show him my driver’s license. He shook his head and said, “You don’t act like you’re 56.”

Although for much of my life my mother had admonished me to act my age, I took Garrett’s comment as a compliment. One benefit of being 50+ is that I care a lot less about what other people think of me, not because I want to act outrageously but because I want to be true to myself, because I trust myself enough now to worry less about the mistakes I might make, and because I know I will learn from them as they happen.

Friends, family, and business associates who’ve known me for 10, 20, 30 years tell me they’ve been surprised by my new lifestyle. I shut the door on a high-paying, high-stress, mostly sedentary business career that sent me all over the globe as I worked 70- to 80-hour weeks and ate myself into obesity. I joined a fitness center; took a low-paying, lower-stress, part-time retail job; wrote and published five books; and recently joined the board of directors of OutsideIN, a new non-profit business that provides jobs and training for chronically unemployed workers who rely heavily on public resources for their survival.

My non-profit work pays me not in monetary income but in what Mom used to call spiritual income. Although we welcome volunteers of any age, I believe I have far more to offer now, at 50+, than I did in my youth. It’s work that draws on all my past work experience and allows me to use my unique talents, some of which had lain dormant for decades. It also requires me to stretch and learn new things. I’m especially happy about that because I believe that the moment we stop learning is the moment we’re ready to go home forever.

The photo below shows me at the fitness studio wearing a favorite t-shirt. Its imprint describes my new identity at 50+ years. One of the most surprising things about being 50+ is that I’ve evolved from being a fearful, pessimistic Miss Rainy Day, to an upbeat, optimistic Little Miss Sunshine. Even as the aging process challenges me, often slows me, and sometimes pains me, I wake up every morning eager for the new day. Perhaps time is becoming more precious to me as my fund of new days dwindles, but for now I’m going to go on believing that I’m immortal.