April 2022
Leaves from My Notebook
by
Elaine Greensmith Jordan

Eighty

Not just a number

When my eightieth birthday arrived, I hosted a tea party to mark the occasion, a party catered with fancy foods, tables set with flowers, and friends managing china cups and saucers. My cousin flew here from Austria to video the event and polish old silver. I must have needed a ceremony, with people speaking in mannerly voices and wearing nice clothes. A tea party also suited a view of my future filled with gracious living, chamber music and philosophical discussion. Picture me as dame Elaine in gown and pearls.

Of course, that future was just a fantasy I’ve put away with the silver and china. I’ll soon be giving away those treasures. Maybe my truly gracious days are up ahead, when I’ll be content to listen instead of sing, read instead of teach, and stroll instead of hurry. I’ll accept the hard facts: I’ll never move back to California to live in a home I’ve designed. I won’t travel far to take an expensive hotel room in a city that has great theatre and concerts. I can’t audition for the role of Eleanor of Aquitaine at the Center for the Arts. Those dreams disappear like dancers leaving the stage, and I practice acceptance.

I like to write about the journey that is my life. I’ve even written a book about my experiences as mother, minister, teacher and wife. Putting those words on the page explains myself to me. I hope that by the age of eighty I’m well acquainted with me — or am I? I’m not so sure. Do we ever really know ourselves, except by way of how others respond to us? I’ve a friend who looks a little worried when I approach, as if I’m going to bite her. Another called me austere. My children see me as a remote figure who writes, can’t cook very well, and doesn’t know how to use a smartphone. My students treat me as an informed expert, learned and funny. I like that one. Austere? Really?

I have no idea how to dress this new eighty-year-old body, this expanded width and overgrown top. (You don’t want to know about my lingerie; it’s a sad story.) I’d like to wear clothes that proclaim my inner growth, maybe flowing robes and dangling earrings. I’d like my hair to be long and lustrous, the locks of an aging spiritual soul. Instead, I’m short-haired, clothed in turtleneck tops and roomy pants as I write in a cluttered study.

I must now confront losses that come constantly. They are bitter. They comb your tangles and set you straight. Grieving the loss of friends, family, and pets takes a lot of time and sends us into sorrows. We lose our looks too, and the brain goes funny with hearing, vision and memory losses. Acceptance of these realities is the most challenging discipline I face. Don’t tell me I’m only as old as I feel. I feel about eighty. Within this reality, the poet Sara Teasdale expresses my hopes as a writer:

I shall take my scattered selves and make them one,

Fusing them into a polished crystal ball

Where I can see the moon and the flashing sun.

I’ve seen some character improvement in me as I age. I think I can say I’ve sloughed off my former accommodating self and replaced her with someone I like better, a more outspoken, candid person. I can write my truth, and when folks turn away I’m learning to accept rejection. I wish I’d learned it sooner.  You’ll be wanting my counsel after eighty years of living. I’m now an official sage, a crone with profound thoughts to impart. Teasdale implies that as we age we grow wise:

I shall sit like a sibyl, hour after hour intent,

Watching the future come and the present go.

So my advice is this: you have to figure it out for yourself. That is, even though we learn a bit from others, mostly we learn by making mistakes. I know that the sum of those mistakes has created whatever wisdom I’ve acquired. I’m still learning, of course — from my patient husband, and from my friends who listen as I process my life over a mug of tea or glass of spirits.

The poet Linda Gregg writes of a world “Near the Border Between This Country and the Next One,” a place I find myself these days:

Each evening I walk for an hour, paying

Attention to real things . . .

An ant carrying the wing

Of a butterfly like a flag in the wind.

Those ‘real things’ are what

matter, of course.

Elaine Jordan, author of Mrs. Ogg Played the Harp, is a local editor who’s lived in Prescott for thirty years.