My friend Karin told me about a man who passed away last week at the age of 88. He began doing yoga in his 70’s and practiced almost every day until his death. At the clubhouse meetings at his senior living complex, he would sit in lotus position while the other residents, seated in their chairs and wheelchairs, stared at him like he was an extraterrestrial.
I never met this man, but I love him.
Here’s why: he didn’t let other people’s expectations shape who he wanted to become. In our society, the elderly are considered irrelevant, unpalatable reminders of what we are all destined for, and are shunted aside for the new, young, and lovely. (I don’t care what People has to say about being “Sexy at Any Age!”; they only mean that if you look like Sophia Loren.) Once you hit 70, you’re expected to put yourself out to pasture, move to Boca, and wait to die. It’s not the time for reinvention, to build a start-up or take up parasailing. It’s certainly not when a person decides to become a yogi.
But this dude did.
He spent his final decade of life transforming himself inside and out, and joining a community of yogis of all ages who respected his dedication and accomplishments. It wouldn’t surprise me if those last ten years were the best of his life.
Imagine what those years would have looked like if he’d put himself out to pasture, as he was supposed to.
This man is the kind of person I want to be. How many times have I held myself back because of the messages I’ve gotten about who I’m supposed to be? How many times have I let opportunities pass by because there was no room for them in the box I’d squeezed myself into? Women can’t do that; I’m a mother now; That’s not for Orthodox Jews; I could have done that, if only I was younger.
I’m 35, people.
My husband’s grandmother, Etta, went to college at 52 and earned an MSW, and for the next 20 years had a hugely successful social work practice. Nola Ochs, at the age of 95, became the oldest college graduate in 2007, finishing a degree she’d started in 1930. Imagine if either of them had said, It’s too late for me. Who knows how many people would have been left without support or inspiration?
Listen, we all have real lives and responsibilities that prevent us from doing everything we want. I can’t just abandon my family and live at Kripalu for a year (though I’m tempted to around 6 p.m. each day). But that doesn’t mean the door has closed forever on my goals. I used to think that I had to do everything NOW, or else I would run out of time. But I’ve discovered that there truly is a time for everything. As my Auntie Jane says, “You can have it all; you just can’t have it all at once.” Maybe that’s why life is (hopefully) so long.
Our lives our the stories we write. And the best stories are the ones that deepen and expand, right up to the final act.
I hope mine will be like Karin’s recently departed friend, who finished his story with a twist.