The author, 70, and Wing Chun instructor after my first class Julia Hubbel

Words from wise people who have plenty on the muddled middled-aged mess that so  many of us feel beginning at forty

I got a message from Saga Supporter Nurit Amichai today which inspired this article. Here's what she wrote:

For all those people who seem to think that life is over at 75, I beg to differ.  I'm living and doing things I would never have done earlier in life.  I'm braver, stronger, smarter and dare I say, better, than I ever was at 50 - and I was damned good then!

I love this woman.

Before I address this, some context. Stay with me here.

I hear a great many people say that life is over at forty. Or fifty, if they are being generous. But first, let me start WAY out in left field and then come home.

I've never been a Patrick Swayze fan. I liked him in Dirty Dancing, but that was about all. Last night, I lay on my couch working on the scar tissue that knots up the top of my post-surgical left foot, and I watched Road House.

Too campy for me. But.

What struck me were two things: first, Swayze's oiled body doing tai-chi moves while the camera made love to him. Second, watching him chain smoke, as he was wont to do, through the entire movie.

First, for context:

Then, suddenly, this, almost overnight, after the rapid rise to stardom:

Credit: The Sun

Swayze had stage four pancreatic cancer, which he himself attributed to his five-pack-a-day habit. Months after his diagnosis, he was gone at 57.

He was barely through middle age, with no chance to even begin to enjoy the life that those who blow past sixty are enjoying if they take care of themselves.

Why this hit home for me:

I started smoking at sixteen. By the time I was nineteen, I was smoking five packs a day. I nearly ended up like Swayze, a beautiful man with oiled muscles on the outside, and rotting organs on the inside, the cancer eating at him day by day. My father died of cancer, a three-pack-a-day Marlboro Man and a lifelong alcoholic.

So many of us in America are battling addictions of all kinds, ranging from food to sex to booze to oxy or any combination thereof. My brother died young (at sixty-two) of drugs and alcohol and depression. Doesn't matter; the point is that we abuse our bodies while thinking that somehow the rules don't matter, that somehow OUR body is going to resist the damage that we're doing to it.

My body expresses the life I've lived. Scars, a mouth full of implants so that I can snap in my dentures. Oh there's damage all right. There is so much that could have ended me much younger.

But unlike the beautiful, popular and athletic Swayze, who had it all, I stopped smoking. I stopped the addictions. I quit smoking at nineteen. I finally quit the eating disorders at 58. I'd lost my teeth, and while I'd been able to lead a healthier life by losing weight and eating better, I still had CHSP, a much rarer form of eating disorder. That's long over.

At 70, I'm entering my second decade of decadently happy life, a life lived without addictions, more and more without limits, and more and more without being driven by fears.

I just started martial arts, am just about to have the third of four surgeries to get me back to tip-top shape, and am back at the gym, every morning before sunrise. And that's despite one foot in a boot, a recovering fractured left knee, and soon to have one hand in a cast for weeks.

A good friend of mine just started a brand new job with the Fed. She's 65. Listening to her discuss her reactions to returning to work, watching what comes up and the mastery she now has to be "curious" about what she's watching and feeling instead of being swept away by it is a joy. That's what we get with age and experience. She knows how to observe her behavior, her feelings instead of being managed by them. As a result, she chooses her reactions, rather than having the reactions choose her.

That's mastery.

Now, let's go back home to Nurit.

I never EVER would have done what I started doing at sixty when I was thirty. While I had skydived plenty, and I had ridden my bike for hundreds of miles, I simpy did not have the courage to button down my inner demons and throw myself headlong into adventure travel. Trust my gut, train properly and do it with love instead of self-loathing.

Today at 70 I am champing at the bit like Secretariat at the starting gate. The way I channel that energy while my body is undergoing these surgeries is to start Wing Chun training right before my second hand surgery. Mad as a hatter? Nope. It's completely intentional. I would vastly prefer to be distracted by classes and the challenge of learning a brand new and difficult sport than to sit on my couch and watch movies while I recover.

I get to be a rank beginner right about the time I have finally learned how to be a rank beginner.

That is an enormously powerful skill. You sit the ego down, laugh at your mistakes, watch your resistance rise, use humor to stay creative, and keep trying over and over and over until something learns. As we age, if we are wise, we learn how to learn better. We learn to put the ego in a corner and use what we have instead of trying to show what we know (which in my case ain't much).

I am watching the brilliant, funny, engaging, informed and dedicated members of my circle get after it as age gets after them. Whether it's running or hiking or exploring or whatever it is we do, what energizes me is how life energizes us.

I have a martial arts class in twenty minutes. I don't know about you but I'm too busy being engaged in life to be concerned about wrinkles. The pain I had at fifty about my changing face is a distant memory. Too much life to live, better than it ever was.

My martial arts class, getting ready to practice. Julia Hubbel

While I am still searching for the perfect dojo home (more on that later) the point is that I have no time for whining about what I've lost. Those people I love and respect most are too  busy living and giving right here, right now to be dragged into worrying about spent youth, spent funds or spent energy. We are revitalized by every new day.

You can be, too. It starts between our ears. When you expect to be braver, stronger, better, smarter than you ever were, that is where you and I will find ourselves. Braver, stronger, better smarter.

Keep on walking. Or running or hiking, whatever floats your boat. But let's do it laughing as we head into our best years ever.

Beautiful evening sunset
Photo by Sebastien Gabriel / Unsplash

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