There’s growing old gracefully and then there’s growing old with gusto. I just love this quote by writer, Mark Frost, and God-willing and good health-permitting, hope to follow its contention: “Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body. But rather, to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming...Wow, what a ride.” I’ve met too many people who chide, “Act your age,” or who decide that growing old means sitting in a lounge chair watching others have fun and the world pass them by. I once met a woman who decided to chop off her long, beautiful, blond tresses because, “I’m too old for hair below my chin.” What? Who makes up these rules? Spending a full ten days at sea with the older set gave us ample time to observe and then envision how we’d like to spend our later years. It certainly won’t be sitting in a chair and if the spirit doesn’t move me, I’m not planning to cut my hair.
Most of our shipmates were continuing to embrace life, paying little attention to the fact that they were well into their 70s and 80s. Diminished physical capacity and the always-present aches pains of maturity, what my Dad says his Mexican grandmother called “Los achaques de edad,” are not easy. But studies have found that those over 65 are the happiest demographic and over and over our elders admit that one of their few regrets is that they wished they’d been less cautious and had risked more.
We tend to abhor aging, especially in the US (and do all we can to disguise it), when what we should actually be doing is welcoming the change and the freedom it affords. Rather than looking in a mirror wondering what happened to the taut muscles of our youth or trying to figure out how in the world we got so jiggly, our backs so stiff and our knees so creaky, we should concentrate on what else we want to learn and where else in the world we want to experience. Much easier said than done, of course, but we need to follow in the footsteps, literally and figuratively, of Angus from Toronto and Bob from Philadelphia.
We spent time speaking with Angus, his lilting Scottish accent belying any thought that he’d always lived in Canada and his khaki adventurer’s hat protecting his head, a former civil engineer cruising alone. He had lots to share about his travels and interests and Mary, the love of his life, whom he had lost to cancer when she was in her fifties. Angus had traveled all over the globe including to Antarctica the year before and he showed us some of the delicate watercolors he’d done of penguins and landscapes. His artwork was remarkable, but what was even more amazing was that he’d taken up painting just two years before. Now 91, Angus was an artist newbie who did absolutely beautiful work. Bob from Philadelphia, also traveling solo, was in our excursion group and at 86 had not yet tired of seeing the world (just like my Dad who at 84 travels significant distances every few weeks to see one of his 11 children and 26 grandchildren). This was Bob’s second cruise on the Aegean Odyssey and he’d already booked three more. He told us about how he had sold a successful restaurant in Provincetown on Cape Cod 30 years ago (“You wouldn’t believe how much they paid me for it,” he confessed, still incredulous) and had spent much of his windfall traveling ever since. No longer quite steady on his feet, Bob needed an assisting arm or firm grasp from a travel mate to go up and down the uneven stairs through the old towns and over the rock-strewn ancient ruins. There are few helpful handrails in Greece, Albania and Croatia, but Bob kept going like the Energizer Bunny, shuffling one foot in front of the other and always arriving on time.
There were only a handful of passengers (in addition to the aforementioned bitch-with-a-cane) who still, at their advanced age, hadn’t learned proper manners. After a heartfelt talk in the Ambassador Lounge about Venice by a British woman who had married an Italian and lived in the city with their three little girls, an older woman in the audience declared rather frostily and with obvious disappointment, “I had expected your talk to cover more about your daily life...” It hadn’t occurred to her that there might have been a better way to ask the young speaker to share the details of living day-to-day in Venice that might not have sounded so condescending.
There’s always something to learn from our elders but sometimes the tables can be turned. I did my best to school one elderly British gentleman on the benefits of the online world when he scolded me while I sat beside the pool with my Mac on my lap, tsk-tsk, to stop looking at my computer and just enjoy the trip. I drew a long breath and took a big bite of the shiny green apple I’d taken from the breakfast buffet before I responded. The cartoon thought bubble above my head read, “And you think I’m not enjoying myself because...?” I felt chastened and since I don’t like the feeling, I responded that I actually was enjoying myself and decided to follow up with some questions:
“Sir, are you reading books on board?”
“Oh yes,” he replied, “I’m reading several.”
“Well, I’m reading a really good memoir on my computer. Do you read the newspaper?” I asked.
“Of course,” he added, holding up the printed Guardian excerpts provided each morning in the ship’s library. “Do you?”
“Yes, but my newspaper is on my laptop,” and I showed him the article I was reading.
Pushing my luck, I then asked, “Have you written any postcards since we left Piraeus?”
“Yes, a few,” he admitted, “to my daughter and my grandson.”
“And I write notes to my children as well, almost every day, but I send them emails with pictures attached,” I shared.
And then he observed, “I hope you don’t mind me asking, but I saw you typing this morning in the Observation Lounge for an awfully long time. A long email?”
Clearly, my intimate relationship with my laptop and the time we spend together had piqued this man’s interest.
“I don’t mind at all,” I told him and then filled him in on our yearlong travels. “I’m writing a journal about our experiences and it’s all right here on my trusty computer.”
“I’ve always wished I’d kept a journal each time I travel, but I’m afraid I never have,” he confessed, rather wistfully.
We talked a bit more about traveling and as he packed up his things to head inside for tea, conceded, “I stand corrected. You appear to know just what you’re doing poolside.”
The next morning, he passed by me at breakfast with my computer open next to my muesli and yogurt on the table and with a quick wave and a wink declared, “Enjoy the headlines!”
I think I may have won him over. With gusto.
Pictures of our adventures: http://gapyeargirlgoestoeurope.shutterfly.com