On the second day of January 1999, I held a small dinner party with a couple of close friends where we staged our own combination memorial services and wakes.
Just make believe, of course.
I had asked them to let me know in advance what each of their “last suppers” would be, their favorite final food. To come with a CD (because that was what we had then, that or old vinyls) of the music they would like to have played. And to come prepared to dictate, and have signed by a witness, an anticipatory obituary. What our life circumstances had been, where we lived, our family make-up, our accomplishments — and our regrets.
There we were, a quartet of Boomers in relatively good health, in what has been called the prime of life, making a night of eating together: a strange but delightful combination of pizza and grilled fish, rare steak and various desserts I no longer remember. Of learning what each other’s last request might be — mine was to sing Somewhere Over the Rainbow karaoke-style. About when and how we might have died, all of us many years hence and quickly (of course). In my case, surrounded by a husband who was still alive, our three children, five grandchildren, and two golden retrievers (at a time when we preferred that breed and could manage large dogs). With my last words being, “Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh.” Hebrew for holy, holy, holy. Which was an odd and almost inexplicable choice for a religious humanist. Except if it meant that everything was holy now, in that moment, and forever.
Each of us in turn lay down on our living room sofa, each in turn covered lightly by a white sheet. Our favorite song was then played. For me it was a no-brainer: The Hard Way by Mary Chapin Carpenter.
Everything we got, she reminded us country-style, we got the hard way (and actions speak louder than words). Then our own obituary words were spoken to us about what we had done and what we had not: our lived and our unlived lives. What had come to pass and what was missing at the end. So in this scenario, before I died, I had written three non-fiction books, scored a weekly column on religion and values that was nationally syndicated, and had been instrumental in promoting interfaith dialogue and activities, especially Jewish-Christian.
As for the unlived life, the frustrated wants and wishes, the unprovided opportunities: I would never have founded the first Unitarian Universalist Society of Verona, Italy (a favorite travel spot with a long history of humanist thought and culture) or really learned to watch birds or master pie crust. Or have that one more child.
How would I be remembered? That I was smart, too smart for my own good much of the time. I was passionate. I was high strung. And like so many of my generation, never at full peace.
This was not the last time that I would be given the chance, the challenge, of getting out ahead of my own dying and death, or in a term penned by anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson, composing a life, writing my own notes and lyrics in both a faithful-to-fact and a fanciful way. There have been workshops and workbooks, private conversations and public sacred conversations in which I have captured on butcher paper and in journals both the life I have been able to live and the parallel life that might yet, but might never, happen.
Over the years since, the composition, or the work of creative non-fiction, that is my life, this life, has been back-filled with memories of had-already-dones: of playing a Kabuki-style sleeping beauty in a semi-professional children’s theater production, of judging the San Francisco Stand Up Comedy competition — twice, of writing a column about my life as a single parent and about my life in general for a small daily newspaper that went belly up.
And the growing list of things missing, of wants: to learn Hebrew, to go to Israel — which I recently did when it was finally safe to do so (or I no longer had dependent children), to travel to India and Cuba, to identify 20 wildflowers, to dance at my daughter’s wedding (as if that was something over which I had any control).
In 1999, long before gray hair (or at least before I let my hair go gray, a process that took as long as carrying a pregnancy) and before I was sent almost daily reminders to sign up for Medicare supplements, and when I was only occasionally asked, usually in small rural towns where grandparents might well be 40, whether I wanted a senior discount on my fast food biscuit and coffee, there still seemed to be a spaciousness of time to live out the myth of my potential, as psychoanalyst Adam Phillips calls it. To turn myth into reality, of what we have in ourselves to do or be. To fill in the lines or scribble outside the lines of a life that one memoirist has described as dancing in the fields of infinite possibilities. And by another as like forever only much shorter.
In the intervening years, the almost decade and a half since that memorial wake dinner party, not only have all of us turned the corner past 60, twice 30, the age of adults we were once, perhaps falsely, quoted as never trusting, we have all passed some public marker of being in the stage of life that can be called most euphemistically later adulthood. We have been courted by the AARP, we have qualified for discounts for art film movies (which we willingly accept), for Wednesday discounts at the super market, and yes, for McCafes.
We only ask that the server not shout our order (egg white muffin, hold the Canadian bacon, and a senior decaf) across the counter for all to hear.
We have come into a time in our lives, in the opinion of columnist Ellen Goodman (whose life and Pulitzer prize I had wanted to emulate and achieve) that all of our obituaries, metaphorically and otherwise, are already written, neatly on file in a newspaper office, so in a sense, she believes, we have nothing to prove. But we still have those longings, those regrets, the need to be productive, even to achieve. To do more than going through the motions, self-editing, holding back from living wholeheartedly in very tangible ways.
We have our bucket lists — a log and catalog of all the stuff we want to accomplish before we expire or “kick the bucket” — both travel and spiritual, from visiting every national park, to riding a bamboo bike, to going on pilgrimage to all the world’s sacred spots. There are even websites and apps to help us keep track, and to boast to others.
We have our books on encore careers and anti-aging solutions that, at the least, might help us have better bodies and ideally reverse the process of growing old(er) completely. To keep striving, to keep flourishing, to keep thriving as the healthcare commercials boast. Even as they are careful to not call us anything approaching old, not senior citizens, not even older. Telling us instead (as they sell us colonoscopies and shingles vaccines) that at 65, society expects us to act a certain way. Disappoint them. Refuse.
Despite our denials, we have indeed acquired bum knees and hips, eye floaters and other signs of changing vision, rock and roll ears, or so we hope, and all other manner of deteriorating physical signs that it is not just a time of age related discounts we have come into.
As we have come into aging, we have lived through a terrorist attack of great proportion on our own soil, the killing of thousands, the changing of society to allow a level of inspection and invasion of privacy that we would never have anticipated integrating into our lives — or fighting against. And a devastating economic recession that was in many ways a post-traumatic replay of previous recessions in the early adulthoods of people of my generation — the recession of 1969-1970, a slump which ended the economic expansion of the 1960s, followed by a severe recession in 1973. What this meant quite concretely was both inflation and joblessness.
Boomer graduates who had been promised the world in exchange for their degrees were scooping ice cream, labeling green bean cans, working swing shift at credit bureaus, and writing freelance articles for pennies per word. The fear of complete wipe out, of permanently unlived lives, is not new.
We have not always been so secure and privileged, even as we were raised to expect otherwise. Our lived lives actually got hijacked at a young age, our choices at least temporarily shrunk, and it took many of us years to get a toe hold.
This just-past recession, and the gigantic shift in job locations and skill sets in the global economy of a digital age, is the back story for the first summer feel-good movie, more specifically, the first of many summer testosterone feel-good movies, if the 20 minutes of previews were any indication. Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson play laid-off, high-end, luxury watch salesmen (obsolete in this era of cell phone time checks) forced to do what millions of other Americans have had to do in the past six or so years — reinvent themselves, switching courses in their lived lives, let alone making any headway in their more grandiose, more unlikely unlived lives.
They decide to reject the pragmatic option of selling mattresses or electronic scooters for the risky and open-ended possibility of an alternative life to be excited about, applying to be summer interns at Google, or a career in Eden as they later exclaim.
A world of free bananas and bagels, napping pods and volleyball courts, as well as programming language and work ethics (poor socialization skills and ultra competitiveness) that for these 40-somethings, makes for a steep learning and adaptation curve. A world in which they are the diversity, being older and technologically challenged.
In this most Hollywood of films, there is an upbeat wrapped-up Hollywood ending. An ending not so promising for others, for actual older workers especially, whose vocational lives (read whole lives) were monumentally disrupted and have not yet, if ever, recovered. Whose non-Hollywood reality has led to an alarming spike in suicides among Baby Boomers, raising the question: Why?
A very recent article in the Washington Post, which has been making the rounds among Unitarian Universalists on Facebook, tells the story of Frank Turkaly, a 63-year-old retiree living alone in a Pittsburgh suburb on disability checks, mired in credit card debt and saddled with health problems and medications for depression, bad cholesterol numbers, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
Faced with estrangement and despair, he tried to overdose on tranquilizers, citing his social isolation as the main trigger. But he is ironically not alone in his desire to end his own life. Among Baby Boomers, suicide rates shot up in the last decade, with high increases among men in their fifties, nearly 50 percent, and among women in their early sixties, rising by more than 60 percent, though still relatively low.
There has not yet been a reliable, large scale study of why we Boomers in greater numbers are making this fatal choice. Part of it has been tied to the economic downturn, but partly it has been tied to our being the first youth generation which hasn’t idealized growing up and getting mature in the way previous generations have. That is reluctant to accept the realities of aging, both in its physical limitations and in its apparent squashing of limitless possibilities, ways to take not just one fork in the road, but many — to make our unlived lives our reality, sooner or later. It is the loss of the prospect of any sort of life yet unlived, the aspirations that make us at least feel special in the face of a possibly indifferent universe, that is the difference, we are told, between a kind of Darwinian survival and a bearable, even pleasurable, continued existence.
And now it is later, a later that is going to be a longer later than might ever have been imagined. Anthropologists like Mary Catherine Bateson call this life extension, thirty more years in the 20th century, another 20 since World War II, from a prediction of less than 40 years of life to well over 80 years of life, much of it spent in productivity and potential. Not a simple add-on but nothing short of an evolutionary development challenging the whole notion and fabric of retirement.
Who am I, and what do I want for my life, are very different questions, she suggests, when life is neither sweet or fleeting, not nasty, brutish, and short in the words of Thomas Hobbes.
Platitudes or former truisms declaring sweetly that “sixty years bring with them the privilege of discernment and vision; a capacity to behold, in the blink of the eye, the sweeping panorama of a life fully lived” no longer hold true.
Life fully lived? When there is still lived and imaginative unlived life in me, in us?
My task, the task facing Boomers and the generation just ahead of us, is not “who am I?” but “am I still the person I have spent a lifetime becoming?” In my real life, in my shadow and fantasy life?
Mary Catherine Bateson suggests that it is not a matter of one road or another taken or untaken, or even of two parallel lives, but of stages, eras, chapters, each with their own punctuation and landmarks. Each one, and all of them, imbued with the developmental tasks of our whole lives: to gain the basic strengths of hope, will, purpose, competence, fidelity/allegiance, love, care, and what she is now calling active wisdom, our time of transmitting skills and culture imperative to human survival. To not become invisible, disconnected, or withdrawn.
So I prefer now to say I am in Adulthood Stage II, and that my task and challenge is to remain vitally engaged, in elder Boomer style, which this religious tradition and this faith community has enabled me to do for my tenure here, as we honor and explore human development in all its complexities.
I repeat some words I spoke at the time I ended my lay ministry in this place, many years ago now, before I completed theology school, became fellowshipped, was ordained by this very congregation, and went on to serve several congregations and alternative settings for ministry.
Pioneer UU Minister Violet Kochendorfer, the first woman graduate from Starr King School of Ministry in 1962 wrote, “ministry is the sacred privilege of helping others find meaning in the mysteries of birth, the struggles, conflicts, and limitations of life in the inevitability of death and all the implications this might have for life. To be in ministry is to have the precious experience of sharing relationships on every possible human level. To be protector and catalyst for the greater expressions of human creativity.”
I thank you all again for the mistakes you have graciously forgiven me, hopefully not so much for saying or doing the absolute wrong thing in the face of individual crises — but by not saying or doing quite the right thing in quite the right way.
Over the past seven years, as you have allowed me to share in your lives, I have witnessed such mutual compassion and courage in times of brokenness. And I have been so humbled and honored by your trust in me.
May you fully experience both your lived and unlived lives. This day and always.