“To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest.” ~Pema Chodron
Throughout my childhood, I wanted to be a Maryknoll missionary nun. When I thought about my time in another country doing this, I pictured baptizing children (I was raised Catholic), but most of what I pictured had to do with feeding children and giving them love. Even though I am no longer part of any church, the desire to serve lives on in me. I have been experiencing this desire even more strongly in the past few years. This led me to go to nursing school, and I thought I would take this skill with me to a country that needed my help. But by the second year of the program, I realized that this was not my path.
I turned 66 in October. A couple of years ago, my life led me to a precipice that reminded me of the Fool card in the Tarot deck. The only way to move was off the cliff. I looked at my current life, and felt certain that if I were to die today, it wouldn’t change the life of any single person on the planet. I had built up this safe quiet little life in which I was doing nothing important. I was living in a place I loved, with a huge beautiful garden. I had 3 cats who were doing very well, in spite of troubled beginnings. But I could see that continuing as I had been would result in my having a low-key life that would wind down imperceptibly, and then I would die. That was unacceptable to me. But so was jumping off some rock high above the ground. There is no safety net, as Pema Chodron reminds us. I tried not to jump off, but each time I turned back, I saw a flank of factors that was slowly advancing, leaving me less and less space on my rock. As my life seemed to be conspiring to get me to jump off, I was in the process of learning how to be in my sixties gracefully.
In the past two years, many questions have rotated through the revolving door of my consciousness. Such as: What is my biggest dream? Is there something I’ve been contemplating, wishing, hoping, or just dreaming about doing at some point? What is that thing that I just know I want to get to?
During the fall of my first year in nursing school, a project we were assigned took me to an assisted living facility to interview an elder living there, using a provided list of questions. I visited with a 96-year-old man, who was very spry and alert, who was able to take his medications without help, who could get himself to meals without assistance, and who had a very positive outlook on life. At one point, I was lamenting that I waited so long to do this program, at which point he told me emphatically that I had lots of time left. In fact, he suggested I make a 40-year plan. That started to shift the way I was thinking about my age. Then recently, I was taking care of a 90-year-old man, helping him with various activities of daily living. He asked me how old I was, and when I told him, he said, “Oh to be 65 again!” I am also brought back to a memory of something my mother said, probably a year or two before she died. She was suffering from a lingering cold, and said how different it is at 80 to try to recover from a simple illness, that it’s just not the same as it is when you’re in your sixties, when you get over it. I had spent a lot of time looking at age from a younger perspective, and now have an opportunity to see it from the vantage point of an older age, looking back.
I have come to believe that this age is a really good age. There is so much I don’t have to worry about any more. Granted, I lived my life is such a way as to have few financial assets at this time. But I have robust health. I go trail running, and I ride my bike good distances. I am excited about things. And I don’t have to worry about negotiating with a partner. I don’t have to be in a relationship at all, in fact, which most of my life I thought I did. I have good friends: quite a few young women, a few in their forties, and some in their fifties. None my own age. I simply feel liberated. And this is a perfect time for me to go into the Peace Corps.
I have no idea what’s ahead for me. My life could go any way at all. On one hand, I might find I like volunteering in the Peace Corps enough to re-up when I complete my 27 months. Or perhaps, as I make my way home from my assignment, I discover somewhere in Greece where I can live while teaching English and volunteering on an organic farm. Or work at the cooking school of my favorite Greek cookbook author on a Greek island. Or maybe I’ll die. I just really don’t know. As I look at the potential paths I could take, I realize that Death could come in like the railroad engineer and switch the rails on any of these paths at some point, and that would be it. Death will ultimately have me, but I don’t know when. The grace of this awareness is that I am finally acknowledging limitation. The result (who knew?) is that life is so much sweeter now.
There is a long list of fabulous, gritty poems put to music in the tradition of the Greek Rembetika, in which the singer is talking to or about Death – a proper noun, a name, a figure. One song sings of Death coming into the taverna where he and his friends are drinking, and he buys Death a glass of wine. Friends are conspiring to ambush Death together in a dark alley in another. Then there is one in which the singer is negotiating for his life. As I recall, Death grants him continued life, but promises to return. Death is sometimes portrayed as the enemy, at other times as one of the guys, the parea, though one is alert around him.
I don’t have a near death conversation going, but I feel Death’s presence simply as part of the wallpaper of my life, along with many other themes. I don’t fear it, and in fact at times feel welcoming toward it. I do feel, though, that in a small way, I’m negotiating with it. I want to get back to Greece before I die. I’d like to experience again the love of a dog in my life. I’d like to publish something good, maybe even important, in my life. Above all, I would like to serve humanity in some way that is uniquely my gift to give.
I don’t know exactly when I first jumped off the precipice. But I have felt so free and joyful in the process. Life is rich and beautiful, and I am so glad I’m alive!
Peace Corps? Yes!