This is a “ghost post” from John Clark’s late mother, A. Carman Clark, gardener, writer, newspaper columnist, role model:
I’m skinny-dipping at dawn, disturbing the glass surface of the pond by rolling like a dolphin. Three loons glide out of Katy Cove and appear to swell and shrink as I view them through traces of mist. Swimming alone in this early morning stillness feeds my spirit. The water supports my body; I move with little effort. On land, I’m aware of increasing stiffness in my 80-year-old joints. Sometimes I compare my movements to those of lumbering turtles. But within the pond, the turtles and I move with ease and grace.
While I roll and paddle and watch loons, apricot clouds streak the eastern sky. This will be a sunny day, too hot outside at noon but cool in my home office. I’ll stay inside then and use two hours to finish writing this week’s newspaper column and two hours to work on conference workshop plans. Meanwhile, the stillness of the valley at this hour provides uninterrupted time for writing in my head. Here I drown weak verbs and search for strong ones: blare, bash, smack, chortle, jerk, flail, hurl.
I shift from quiet moving and thinking to exercise, steady kicking, fast swimming. Each day I follow the advice, “Keep moving if you want to be able to keep moving.” Six hundred strokes, back and forth parallel to the shore. For years I preached and practiced “never swim alone” and still value safety. But now watching sunrises and sunsets while in the pond has higher value. I can roll about and swim briskly in shoulder-deep water. Then I climb the shaded path up to the open field and swing my arms in the sunlight. It’s good to feel alive and happy, to begin the day with anticipation. Good to give myself the freedom of solitude–with no one here to ask: “Why are you doing that? What is the matter with you?”
At 80, I have less physical agility, but I see more. I’m far more aware of the wonders of the world around me. At the top of this hill, I’ll stroll through the gardens I’ve built. Here morning glories twine up the strings with pole beans, and bright annuals blossom along the edges of vegetable plots–raised beds instead of single rows. Wide, sawdust-covered paths let me move through with a wheelbarrow, encourage grandchildren to run in and out, and inhibit the invasion of weeds.
Since I gave myself the right to make decisions that please me, that feel correct, I’ve had 20 years of a richer, wider and more rewarding existence. I no longer compromise when such action would limit my thinking and doing. Sometimes I think of this time period as a second adolescence–but it is a planned rebellion, a deliberate move into independent living.
My 60th birthday was the turning point. Weeks before that April date, I began writing “60” and “60 years” whenever I had a pencil in my hand. This unconscious doodling awakened a flood of feelings, including the sad surprise that 60 years of living were over, had gone by. I was physically healthy and busy, but each time I wrote “60,” I wondered how much longer I would be active, how much time I had left.
At age 60, looking at limited time ahead, I was willing to change, but for a new goal. This time I was not striving to please others. I wanted to learn how to live the last quarter of my life with joy, to greet each day with anticipation instead of muttering, “there must be more to life than this.” As I pushed to take control of the last quarter of my life–working a job that rewarded me both personally and financially, and ending a bad marriage–I aimed for important changes: solitude without voices of complaint and anger, space and time to complete thoughts without interruptions, freedom to wander forth through fields and woods.
Recognizing the rewards of the way I’m living in my life’s fourth quarter came gradually. I treasure the luxury of solitude and enjoy my own company yet recognize the need for laughter and other voices. Keeping a journal has helped me see and appreciate minor pleasures. Not too many major events happen in one’s life–graduations, marriage, birth of a child, winning a Nobel prize. But if I’m alert, I have moments of laughter in each day, discover surprises, see new birds at the feeder and look up to watch the cloud formations drift across overhead. Valuable minor events.
Maturity–growing up in mind and spirit–involves being able to laugh at one’s own personal quirks and idiosyncrasies. Such laughter, shared and repeated, is healthier than harboring fears of getting old, being dull, rigid and forgetful. I lost my car keys when I was 40. At 80, I hook them into my purse with a neat marine hitch. I used to fret about not knowing every subject others were discussing, worrying that I’d be considered ignorant. Today I’m comfortable saying, “I know nothing about that. Tell me.”
The goal I set: to make the best use of what I am and what I can do, each day. It’s give me twenty rich years.
What are YOU waiting for?