Sh*t To Help You Show Up April 9, 2021
I want to live forever!
I have been reading this fascinating little novel by V.E. Schwab, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, about a young woman who makes a deal with the devil in order to escape the small, confined life that is prescribed for her in the mid-1600s in rural France. She gets to live forever, except no one will ever remember her. Literally, as soon as someone can no longer see her she slips from their memory.
Imagine if every time you got up to go to the bathroom everyone in the room would forget that you had ever existed, and you would re-enter the room as if none of you had ever met? There is a freedom in that— to constantly reinvent yourself— but you are also permanently untethered. You cannot own anything. You cannot belong anywhere. You are completely isolated from the web of human society.
Suffice to say, if you are ever offered this bargain, don’t take it. It’ll make you crazy, and not in a good way.
Luckily, Addie’s life is not mine. I am part of a whole web of people, and I and many of the people I love have been confronted with the realities of aging of late. I have been dealing with troublesome symptoms of perimenopause, as has a dear friend of mine. My partner has been dealing with high blood pressure and other symptoms that are forcing him to actually pay some consistent attention to his health before things spiral. His dad’s wife just recently got a cancer diagnosis, and we’re waiting on news of the extent of its spread.
It has all left me ruminating on aging— to what extent we have any individual control over the course of our aging, and to what extent our experience of aging depends on the integrity of our culture and communities. In this case, I use integrity not in the sense of standing up for what’s morally right, but in terms of wholeness and integration. To what extent is aging perceived as a necessary, and important, part of our lives as whole people? To what extent are our communities and our culture built around systemically integrating healthy aging and veneration of lived experience?
It turns out that much of our experience of aging here in the United States is culturally constructed. As in, the nature of our food system, our health care system, our built environments, and our sense of “family” all work together to make our lives shorter and more isolated. Individualism and relative ease are, it turns out, killing us.
Our highly medicalized, youth-oriented, patriarchal culture here in the U.S. treats the transition of women into the years in which they can no longer produce children as a move into obsolescence and inevitable decline. There are few things less valued than an old woman.
But guess what? Women’s experience of menopause is almost completely dictated by culture. Dr. Mary Jane Minkin, a researcher of cultural differences in women and men’s experience of menopause, told Reuters, “In societies where age is more revered and the older woman is the wiser and better woman, menopausal symptoms are significantly less bothersome…Where older is not better, many women equate menopause with old age, and symptoms can be much more devastating.”
In her blog, Lara Owen describes how patriarchy sets up cultural expectations of menopause from the time we are children learning that menstruation is gross and shameful, to the medicalization of childbirth and legal systems which limit women’s bodily autonomy, and right through to ideas that older women are supposed to age-out of wanting sex. (Spoiler, we don’t.)
The words we use to describe menopause even underscore this cultural perception of women’s lives. In Japan, the word for this transition is kōnenki, which broken down translates as follows: ko “renewal and regeneration”, nen “year or years”, ki “season or energy.” In contrast, menopause comes from the Greek roots men “month” and pausis “stop or cease.” For the Japanese— implicitly, linguistically— it is a beginning. For us English speakers, it is the end. But it doesn’t have to be.
Where People Live Forever
Okay, okay. There’s nowhere where people live forever. But there are places around the globe where, on average, people live vital, healthy, lives integrated within the heart of their communities that are much, much longer than we manage here in the United States.
Researcher Dan Buettner, with the help of National Geographic, set out to find and study these communities to find out what they had in common. His project named them “Blue Zones”. Here’s Dan giving a really illuminating short talk about them.
The nine practices that tied all of these communities spanning the globe together were:
Moving naturally, as in incorporating movement into the inherent nature of daily life.
Having a sense of purpose.
Building downtime to step away from life’s stresses into daily and weekly life.
Eating less, as in stop eating, always, when you’re 80% full.
Slanting diet towards plant-based eating.
Prioritizing community, whether it is faith-based or not.
Prioritizing family, however you define that. Keeping family close their entire lives.
Prioritizing friendship. Investing time and energy in maintaining intimate relationships with people who share your ideals and lifestyle.
Other aspects of all of these communities are that everyone gardens and they enjoy growing old. When age lends status in the community, extreme respect, and a sense of place and connection, how could you not?
But what can we do here in the United States to push back against a culture that is shortening our life span and sapping our vitality? Even Buettner would argue that individuals following the nine steps above can’t necessarily fix it all on their own. Instead, the answer is, like the answer to so many problems, systemic. Whole cities are banding together to address the systematic ways that culture and community can encourage health and longevity. Watch!
I hope all of these resources, no matter your age, make you think about the daily fabric of your life and the structure of your community. I believe we have a real opportunity in the wake of this pandemic to rethink so many of our systems and expectations. We can, as a country, have a rebirth into the next phase of life, community, and longevity.
How are you approaching aging? What are you doing to support your vitality and longevity?
Monday my next Let Your Life Speak interview is coming out! It happens to be with one of the women who will be part of my moai group, that group of friends I’ve been cultivating for decades and plan to grow old with. Don’t miss it!
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