Sunday, May 18, 2014

On Turning 60 Part 1

On Turning 60 Part 1
May 18 2014

I would like to begin this morning’s message with a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson. His advice to greenhorn ministers in 1838 still inspires those of us who stand behind the podium today, and I adapt it for my gender: “The true preacher can be known by this, that she deals out to the people her life—life passed through the fire of thought.” Today’s sermon may seem to be simply a reflection about my age, but it has a point, and that is to set the scene for another 60th birthday later this summer – ours as the Unitarian Universalist Church of Augusta!

I participate in a monthly teleconference that is part of a UUA program, Beyond the Call, in which ministers from across the country in small groups explore and discuss worship. This week, one of my colleagues talked about the difference between anxiety and vulnerability, when it comes to sharing our personal - and possibly pastoral - stories with the congregation.

Seeing as how I’m reflecting on getting older, this remark made me think about how I approach talking about my age. Probably above all else, I usually think carefully about words I’m using, and today is no exception – and so I felt I should mention that the proper term for a person between 60 and 69 years of age is sexagenarian. Now this may sound like being 60 is a lot of fun, but I think it’s a truism that when you’re 60 you can live without sex, but not without glasses.

There are other things about turning 60 that are amusing, I hear: You get into heated arguments about pension plans. Your joints are more accurate meteorologists than the national weather service. Your secrets are safe with your friends because they can't remember them either. There is nothing left to learn the hard way.

To make me feel like I am not alone in celebrating this milestone, I looked to see if any famous women are turning 60 this year – and of course, the most famous media female icon of all, Oprah Winfrey, is one of the celebrities turning 60 this year. She claims she’s never felt better. In fact she says “I approach this milestone, the landmark of 60, with humility, supreme thanksgiving, and joy.”

But other famous people have commented on being 60, and it’s not all good:
When I was younger, I could remember anything, whether it happened or not. - Mark Twain
Age is a high price to pay for maturity. - Tom Stoppard

My favorite, though, comes from Oscar Wilde: To get back my youth I would do anything in the world, except take exercise, get up early, or be respectable.

I was looking for advice on how to handle turning 60, and one website said “Find a hair cut that suits your face. It is a golden rule that shorter hair suits older ladies”….so that explains my new hairstyle this week.
A lot of literature about growing older suggests that I’m at a stage when I can be less cautious about what I do or say – for example, Jenny Joseph’s poem, “Warning”:

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple

With a red hat which doesn't go, and doesn't suit me.

And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves

And satin sandals, and say we've no money for butter.

I shall sit down on the pavement when I'm tired

And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells

And run my stick along the public railings

And make up for the sobriety of my youth.

I shall go out in my slippers in the rain

And pick flowers in other people's gardens

And learn to spit.

You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat

And eat three pounds of sausages at a go

Or only bread and pickle for a week

And hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes.

But now we must have clothes that keep us dry

And pay our rent and not swear in the street

And set a good example for the children.

We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.

But maybe I ought to practice a little now?

So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised

When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.

I like this idea of giving yourself permission, after a lifetime of asking or waiting for it. This is also the delicious twist of what writer Ian Martin’s advises on turning 60: Before you say anything nasty about someone, just pause for a second… and browse through some really good adjectives in your head. Sounds like turning 60 is going to be fun!

I know that many have transitioned before me this year in becoming 60 – including my husband, who is much older than I am – he turned 60 in January. But I’m impressed by this number: in 2006 76 million people, know as the Baby Boomer generation, began turning 60. This phenomenon caused the coining of a new phrase: The Silver Tsunami. And the person who came up with the phrase, Mary Finn Maples, looked at the characteristics of this generation as it ages, and one of her observations was that “Baby-Boomers (the Silver Tsunami) hold worldviews vastly different [from the previous generation], because they were raised in a country at relative peace and have not been exposed to a global war.

Moreover, these worldviews have encouraged them to expand their attention to their own spirituality, allowing them to focus as well on their physical, emotional, mental and financial health.” From her research, Maples compiled hundreds of definitions of spirituality from interviews with her subjects, and this is her resulting description of Baby Boomer spirituality:  that intangible essence that brings and maintains meaning in one’s life. It is larger and more encompassing than religion, though religion can be seen by choice as an aspect of spirituality.

When dealing with Boomers in a pastoral or counseling context, Maples suggests that there are several positive abilities that can help them cope with aging:

               equanimity – the ability to balance spiritual and wellness perspectives and experiences
               perseverance – developing the self-drive to keep going, accept and meet the challenges of reconstructing one’s life when one has experienced physical, emotional or spiritual adversity
               self-reliance –believing in oneself, especially following the loss of spouse or partner. The ability to grow spiritually when one is now alone after a number of years in a partnership.
               emotional aloneness – allowing wanted aloneness but also reaching out to others, at the appropriate time.
               meaningfulness – life satisfaction comes from spirituality or making meaning out of goals, aspirations, future thinking, physical exercise and experiences.

I’ve certainly gained life satisfaction, and one way, that comes with growing older, is becoming a grandparent.

Writer Ian Martin says that “Grandparenthood is a beautiful revelation. You have kids, you know you will never experience that feeling of unconditional love for anyone else, ever, and then it happens all over again. A heart-stoppingly beautiful miracle.”

At the other end of the spectrum from grandkids, the two elders of our family, Wil’s dad and my mom, have both demonstrated to our family their ability to cope with ageing. Both lost their life partners of many years, a devastating blow, but resulting for both of them in self-reliance; well, more so for my mom! My father-in-law decided to remarry, but his faith is very important to him, and his second wife is a true partner in that sense, enabling him to reconstruct his life while growing spiritually.

My mother, as some of you know, moved to St John Towers last year, and is the life of the party there. You would never guess that she spent over a decade as the primary caregiver of several members of her family as they grew ill and died. It could be said that she’s making up for lost time…but I prefer to look at it from the perspective of Rabbi Abraham Heschel, who said: “Old age is not a defeat but a victory, not a punishment but a privilege. One ought to enter old age as one enters the senior year at a university, in exciting anticipation of consummation.”

There is no doubt that as I cross the threshold into my senior years, I am, at the same time, a youngster in my career path. The average age of our freshly minted UU ministers is the mid-40s, and that is fairly old, I guess you could say. But when I went to the First-Year ministers workshop in Boston at the end of February I met a woman who is 88 and in her first year of ministry! Her first career was as a psychologist, then at 76 she got her law degree…and then found her calling to the ministry after that.

The fact is, I have no idea where life will take me, no one does. I don’t feel particularly anxious or vulnerable when talking about turning 60, because I aim to enjoy each day with whatever it brings, and to use my gifts as I am able to make this world a better place – and, as a true Universalist might say, to love the hell out of the world! I believe I’ve found my purpose in life, and that I’m settled into the journey. No one could express the feeling I have about my travels like Mary Oliver, and so I’d like to conclude this part one of my reflection on turning 60 with her poem The Journey.

The Journey
One day you finally knew 

what you had to do, and began, 

though the voices around you 

kept shouting 
their bad advice—
though the whole house 

began to tremble 

and you felt the old tug 

at your ankles. 

"Mend my life!" 
each voice cried. 

But you didn't stop. 

You knew what you had to do, 
though the wind pried 

with its stiff fingers 
at the very foundations, 

though their melancholy 
was terrible. 

It was already late 
enough, and a wild night, 
and the road full of fallen 
branches and stones. 

But little by little, 

as you left their voices behind, 
the stars began to burn 

through the sheets of clouds, 
and there was a new voice 

which you slowly 
recognized as your own, 
that kept you company 
as you strode deeper and deeper 

into the world 

determined to do 
the only thing you could do—
determined to save
the only life you could save.
May it be so, Blessed be, Amen.

Mary Finn Maples, Spirituality, Wellness and the “Silver Tsunami”: Implications for Counseling.