was nora ephron right? does getting older suck?

by nikki meredith

In the last essay in her book “I Feel Bad About My Neck and Other Thoughts on Being a Woman,” the late Nora Ephron expressed unhappiness about being older.  The tone, which borders on the desolate, is quite different than the lightness of the other essays in the book.   ‘The honest truth is that it’s sad to be over 60,” she wrote. I assumed the despondency was due to the recent death of one of her closest friends. Now I wonder if perhaps she had already gotten her own bad diagnosis.  In any case, when I read, ”Why do people say it’s better to be older than to be younger? It’s not better.” I wanted to shout. “You’re wrong, Nora. There are many things about being older that are better.”

There is, for example, a level of self-acceptance that often develops naturally as one ages — an acceptance I wish I’d know about when I was younger.

In 1984 I read an interview with the writer Raymond Carver in the New York Times that was about ten years after he’d achieved sobriety. He was, he said, happy, a new experience for him, and he enumerated the many things he had to be happy about, among them: the love of a good woman (the poet Tess Gallagher), mending his relationships with his kids, the poetry he was currently writing. But it wasn’t in the vein of the off-putting (to me) cliché, “I feel so blessed.” Rather, the emphasis was on acceptance and on not wishing for things to be any different. As he talked to the reporter about his happiness, he looked out over the water of his Port Angeles house, and said, ”Nietzsche has a phrase, Amor fati: Love what is.”

I couldn’t remember when a three-word phrase had such an enormous impact on me. I vowed that I would never waste another minute pining for anything – professional accolades, material goods, new kitchen cabinets – and would instead forevermore focus on appreciating what I had. My resolve didn’t last long, probably only as long as the minute I had vowed not to waste, but the idea continued to hold sway with me, if only intermittently.

I had made a somewhat similar pledge ten years earlier after reading “Be Here Now” by Ram Das.  When I read it I was coming down from the mountains where my husband and I had been high in both altitude and LSD.  It was my one experience with the drug and I felt, in tandem with the Ram Das book, that I had glimpsed a life stripped of stress, acquisitiveness and ambition. Once the lysergic acid diethylamide circulated in my brain, being there then was, in fact, the only option available. (We certainly weren’t going anywhere else. Mobilizing the initiative to move our blanket a few feet from the hot sun to the shade took several hours.)  LSD did not become a part of our lives but we could occasionally summon flashbacks that would remind us of how sublime it was to deeply savor the present.

Once down from those heights, I noticed how many of my friends, mostly with the help of therapists, struggled to discover ways of living without a daily bath of fight-or-flight chemicals.   I didn’t recommend drug use. For one thing it isn’t a permanent solution. Also, I knew that taking psychedelics was the lazy man’s path to enlightenment and I wasn’t proud of my inability to do it the hard way through meditation. On the other hand, I was suspicious of people my age who were able to achieve spiritual detachment by facing the wall, crossed-legged on little round pillows for hours at a time. I secretly believed that their ability to exist above the fray predated their meditative practice; they’d been detached, I was certain, from the moment the doctor literally detached them from the umbilical cord.  (If you detect bitterness and envy, you’re on the mark. I’ve never been able to meditate longer than 30 seconds without jumping out of my skin.) The rest of us un-Zen types continued to struggle with mortgages, preschool applications, career angst, science fair projects and dirty laundry.  Not only did we have to do it all bathed in elevated cortisol levels, we had to endure the feeling that it wouldn’t all be so difficult if we were doing it right.

In the mid-90’s I heard a radio interview with Richard Carlson, author of a best selling book, “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff.”  His message was a variation of the same theme: Live in the present; right now is the only time you have.  Focus on now and you won’t worry about then. As long as you focus on the present moment, you won’t fear the future.   I was inspired. I renewed my love what is vow. But a few days later walking past a bookstore I saw the actual book and the book’s complete title: “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff (And it’s All Small Stuff.)”  What the hell was Richard Carlson talking about? It was all small stuff?  Losing a job? A house? One’s legs? A child? A parent? Getting a terrible diagnosis?  Suddenly all of the circulating new age/ self-help homilies seemed like arrogant, ethnocentric, class-centric bullshit and meaningless in the face of the enormous struggle for survival in which much of the world was engaged.  Maybe the Zen masters had this contradiction worked out – acceptance of one’s fate vs. raging against injustice — but my tradition was more closely aligned with Saul Alinsky and Martin Luther King Jr.

I never reconciled the two priorities. My solution, and I assume it’s the same with most people, was to alternate between a focus on my own struggle and my concern for the plight of my fellow humans.

This all came back to me the other day when I was culling old books to make room for new ones. I was astonished at the number of titles on some variation of the be here now/love what is theme. None of them seemed to have anything to do with me and my current life.  I realized that I no longer had to work at it.  I love what is because what is, is all I’ve got.  It’s wonderfully liberating and not in the Janis Joplin, nothing left to lose, sense. I certainly have much that I can and, sadly, will, lose some day but accepting the way my life is feels natural for this stage of life. It made me regret whatever psychic energy I invested in trying to quell what was natural for a younger time of my life. The task of early and middle adulthood is to focus on building a life for yourself and your family and some of that inevitably involves dissatisfaction with the way things are. So I want to tell young people to forget about paddling upstream.  Resign yourself to the struggle but know that it will get better when you’re older.

This realization made me happy.    I continued with my sorting project, tossing books by gestalt therapist Fritz Perls, various Zen guys and an enormous number of stories by and about Sufi guru Idris Shah, into the donation bin in a mild state of euphoria. NPR was on in the background but I hadn’t been listening until I heard the compelling voice of a 92-year-old African American woman in Mississippi who was explaining why she probably wouldn’t be able to vote in the next presidential election. The story was about the new voter I.D. laws and the requirement in some states that voters have government issued identification. The woman explained that the closest such place to her was the Department of Motor Vehicles and that office was 10 miles away from her home. She doesn’t drive and there’s no public transportation. Because I’m over 60 I remember the poll tax. I remember the literacy tests. I remember the many diabolical ways white southerners devised to keep African Americans disenfranchised almost from the minute the slaves were freed. I remember the elation that accompanied the Voting Rights Bill of 1965 which repealed those attempts.  My euphoria instantly vanished.  How can I possibly love what is when a woman who has voted in every presidential election since she voted for Franklin Delano Roosevelt is now in danger of losing her voting rights simply because she’s poor and black? How can I love what is when women are on the brink of losing reproductive rights that, for decades, were hard-fought and hard-won? How can I love what is when a sizable portion of our citizens no longer believe that communities should pool their resources to support education, libraries, health care, people with disabilities?

Just at the moment when I am the most satisfied with my own life, I am watching so many advances accomplished in my lifetime unraveling.  I may have discovered self-acceptance, I may love what is in my little life but, with some exceptions, I have never been as unhappy or frightened about the larger picture.

I regret to report that I have come full circle. Nora was right. It isn’t better to be older.  Those of us who are over 60 witnessed breathtaking progress in our lifetimes only now to see so much of that progress threatened. It is sad to be over 60 but it has nothing to do with crinkly necks or stiff joints.