Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Three for twenty-five more

Commentary by Jo Ellen Collins


Jo Ellen Collins

My friend was giving his granddaughter Bella a ride on his shoulders the other day when she asked for more. With a sense of humor, he said, "What will I do when you are a grown up? I won't be able to do this anymore!" Bella said, "Oh, don't worry, Grandpa! You'll be dead!" We both laughed, but her comment gave me pause.

The subtext of all I do is implied in Bella's reminder; life is short and the end is nearer than ever, so I plan to fill my remaining time meaningfully. Here are some conclusions I've reached in the two and a half months since I turned in my keys at the school I have called my home away from home for many years.

I've considered the joys of travel, new relationships, the decision to "retire" at what I still think of incorrectly as middle, not old age. I find myself adjusting to some things easily and others begrudgingly. For example, I miss the loving cauldron of school, the daily affection of kids, the rapport with parents and my colleagues. Recently, in spite of other joys, during the many blessed days of quiet in the Alps, there were times when I craved that clutter of interaction. I am hopelessly gregarious.

With my newfound time, I have determined to organize my everyday life around the pursuit of three life components: physical, spiritual and intellectual. Emotional fulfillment should naturally follow.

Physical fitness has to be top on my list, most especially because that is the aspect I have most ignored. A sickly child, I spent my early years inside, drawing, reading and surrounded by love but constantly cautioned against overexertion. Even by seventh grade, I was absent enough that the P.E. teacher swore I was malingering and, on the days I returned from my bouts with asthma, assigned me the chore of weeding the edges of the new playground. In high school, I was so skinny I suffered humiliation when we played softball in baggy red bloomers during second lunch. Unfortunately, the diamond was adjacent to the lunch area where the senior boys I admired in secret teased me by yelling "Hey, Bones!" whenever I struck out.

So physical training wasn't something I often practiced. Now, because of a desire for bone strength and a longer life, I work out at a local gym and walk at least 45 minutes everyday. A month ago, I found myself on a challenging hike near the Eiger in Switzerland. A friend said that I could meet a group for lunch "about 10 minutes from the hotel." Two hours and 2000 snowy vertical feet later, I arrived. The round trip was daunting, but I actually felt good AFTER. So I'm getting there. Incidentally, I noted a much older couple behind me that day enjoying the same trek. The Swiss walk everywhere; perhaps that's why they're fit, not fat. Without health, not much else I want to do is possible.

The attainment of spiritual integrity is tougher; meditating for more than 5 minutes makes me restless, and I am trying to quiet the constant background noise I crave so that I may consider my relationship to my world and to the universe. Playing the piano daily is now an option, one way to quiet down while I make "noise." I also enjoy fabric art, a soulful pursuit. I do observe some religious rituals and hope that being loving and giving might guide me. I have learned that teaching, a practice I can't easily abandon, is one source, and being of help to others is another. Need I add that I try to laugh a lot?

Finally, I enjoy aiming for intellectual strength—even playing Scrabble or working The New York Times crosswords don't seem like meaningless play when I consider how I love language and how this activity is purported to stave off Alzheimer's. Reading, reading, reading and varying my "mind candy" escapism with more challenging literature and non-fiction is now more possible because I have given myself at least 40 hours more a week. My writing always requires discipline but also offers many rewards.

Often my three goals overlap, of course. Walking my affectionate doggies in the peace of our glorious mountains while planning this column combined all three.

Judith Viorst, in Forever Fifty, said it best: "There's time left in this game. May we find (along with the inability to tell ourselves that we'll keep playing forever) a few compensations."

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