“If I had known when I was twenty-one, that I should be as happy as I am now, I should have been sincerely shocked.”
– Christopher Isherwood (Letter to Edward Upward, August 1974)
This year on July 4th, I turned 70.
Someone who’s lived that long should be able to be more articulate about what turning 70 feels like than I seem to be able to manage.
Like most of my recent birthdays, deciding to acknowledge another trip around the sun with a formal ritual involving other people seemed somewhat . . . optional. In terms, I mean, of trying to experience my birthday as personally significant, and this year’s in particular as some sort of watershed moment.
The main thing I can report about what it felt like to turn 70 is that it felt a lot like turning 60, or, for that matter, 50 or even 40. This is hardly something to complain about, but I still find it surprising, given the hoopla surrounding these decade-marking birthdays. but I still find it surprising.
In terms of my physical health, which remains astoundingly good for an American my age, I have noticed that at 70 I don’t have the stamina I used to have. Mere two-hour stints of gardening (vs. the all-day marathons of yesteryear) now seem ideal, as do fewer consecutive hours of, say, shopping in the most fascinating of antique malls. And the prospect of any dawn-to-dusk traipsing around even the quaintest neighborhoods of overseas capital cities is decidedly a thing of the distant past.
The main way I cope with this slight diminishment in stamina is by taking daily naps – a luxury that even after five years of being retired I still enjoy. Like my daily doses of hot tea every morning, my naps seem to help a lot with keeping me content and operating contentedly within the limits of my current energy level. I realize that this is mainly because I am not yet coping with any chronic illnesses or with the result of any debilitating accidents that beset many a retiree my age – and, for that matter, many Americans younger than me.
Still, I suppose I assumed, when I was younger (especially much younger) that I would feel at least wiser at 70 than I felt at 50 or 60. But no, that’s not the case, unless you count being especially vigilant about guarding the limits of my stamina counts as wisdom. I do feel that I’ve learned to take myself a little less seriously the older I’ve gotten, and have taught myself to be at least occasionally more flexible and a bit less judgmental than in previous decades.
One of the reasons for this noticeable if somewhat incremental and belated transformation has been educating myself over the past two years (along with another ten friends of mine) about the Enneagram. I’m still a novice at understanding the Enneagram’s implications and potential for me personally, but the little I have gleaned about that particular typology of personality styles has been helpful in guiding me to occasionally break the pattern of certain ingrained habits that for too long dictated some of my mental habits and reflexes.
Another powerful influence that’s been helpful in a few habits of thinking and behaving has been a more recent one: my almost ten-month-old significant relationship with Randy Taylor that began during the middle of a trip last year with several friends to Italy. Randy’s way of doing things (and of thinking about things) is often noticeably – and helpfully – different than mine. The fact that Randy and I have been spending so much time together in the runup to the 70th birthday, and the fact that I’ve been learning so much from him while I enjoying our time together, will likely make my 7th decade feel quite a bit different from my previous decades.
In any case, whatever subtle and/or gradual transformations may be happening with the way I habitually move through the world and try to frame – or re-frame – what happens in my world and what my options are for all manner of things – habits, relationships, hobbies, projects, householdery routines, travel-related plans – I haven’t turned 70 feeling significantly diminished in either my general well-being or in my level of curiosity and enthusiasm about whatever my post-70 years will bring me, or what I hope to bring to them.
Be that as it may, I did want to conjure up a way to celebrate this 70th birthday a bit differently than I’d celebrated most of the previous ones. Ever since I co-purchased with some friends a cabin in the north Georgia mountains almost 20 years ago, I’d spent most of my birthdays there. This year, I decided to invite several friends to join me here in Atlanta for a potluck picnic and the obligatory fireworks-watching. . As it happens, Randy and some of his friends had been celebrating July 4th at the pond in Avondale Estates, and our inviting some of our respective friends to meet each other there on my birthday seemed like a sufficiently convenient and low-key way to celebrate my 70th.
Except for the blazing heat (we had to get there before sundown to nab a sufficiently spacious spot with a decent view), the humidity – and the ants – the pond-side picnic in Avondale Estates was perfect.
In retrospect, I suspect that next year I will probably designate an air-conditioned environment for celebrating my birthday. I also need to refine my preference for people bringing only edible presents to asking that they bring only non-sweet edible presents! The wonderful cake, pie, and fudge that friends or siblings made for the 4th I am still serving all these weeks later! (Thank goodness I was born in an era after refrigeration was invented!) I certainly gained some extra poundage from that picnic and its aftermath that I wasn’t burdened with on July 3rd, and am planning to hoping to take care of that by eventually resuming more frequent and longer walks in the appealingly walkable neighborhood I am lucky enough to be living in.
During which walks I should have plenty of time to contemplate how my 70s resemble – and differ from – my 60s, not to mention frequent thoughts on how the astonishing fact that I’m alive still, and that, among other delights, I have such interesting and loyal friends, some of whom were able to join me in marking my 70th birthday, some of whom could not for various reasons, including the melancholy fact that some of my dear ones are no longer alive themselves.
I have a lot to be thankful for, having known all these people, and I continue to learn from all of them – the ones still living and the ones not living – about how to make my remaining years – as few or as many as they will be – as rich and interesting as we can make them.