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Yesterday, I got from the library a beautiful book Aging Gracefully, Portraits of People Over 100, by the German photographer/ writer Karsten Thormahaelen. The book contains 52 portraits of men and women who have already celebrated their 100th birthdays. On the pages facing their photographs, they tell us briefly what makes them tick. The author had a wonderful relationship with his grandparents when he was growing up and his passion is taking photographs of old people. He has traveled all over the world to bring us these portraits. And what portraits! Just looking at them makes us feel good. Most of these centenarians are smiling and happy; their faces exude a quiet strength and contentment. They are from all over the world (France, Germany, The Netherlands, Norway, Iceland, Italy, the United States, Peru) but many are from two places known for the longevity of their inhabitants: Vilcabamba( Ecuador) and Okinawa ( Japan).

After enjoying the photographs, I tried to mine the capsule biographies for clues to the longevity of these people. What was it that enabled them to live long and, more importantly, to remain engaged and happy? At first they did not seem to have much in common. For instance, many of them had long and happy marriages but then there was Henriette Cathala, a Parisienne and former hotel staff manager. She had never been married and is happy with her lot. “No husband, no children, no problems”, she says with a smile. Sometimes, people contradicted themselves. One, a Dutchman, advised “Go to bed early, don’t smoke and don’t drink – although you can make an exception now and then for a whisky, And for gin, too.” That hardly makes him an advocate for abstinence.

Surprisingly, only a few mentioned prayer and of the five who did, two were priests.

These are the things I did find that many of them shared.

  1. Many of them were born poor and had led very difficult lives. Several had begun to lose their faculties. Some were suffering loss of hearing, one had lost the use of her legs and another was blind. Yet all of them accepted their lot and retained their positive attitude. They did not let their handicaps cramp their style but worked around them.
  2. They were still independent to a surprising degree. They lived by themselves, cooked and cared for themselves with only occasional help from the family or from caregivers. Many of those from Okinawa and Ecuador grew their own vegetables in little family plots.
  3. Many stressed the importance of walking or otherwise being active. One Norwegian described how he takes short walks every two hours throughout the day.
  4. Many had hobbies or interests which they enjoyed. Common hobbies were music, singing, working out, reading, knitting, gardening and watching TV. One man from Los Angeles took up metal sculpting late in life and had his first exhibition at the age of 100!
  5. They were very social and maintained close relationships with family, friends and neighbors. A lady from Okinawa said that it was important not to stay at home but to do things with others.
  6. They were moderate in their habits.” Never go to extremes “as one put it.
  7. Lastly and most importantly, was maintaining a positive attitude, avoiding stress and trying to do good. This was expressed by several people in different ways. “Enjoy, be happy, laugh”. “Give love to others. Be noble”. “Live and work in harmony with yourself and others’.

Perhaps the attitude of these centenarians is best exemplified by Edward Palkot of Long Island who still plays golf at age 102, lives on his own, tends his garden, eats out frequently, reads, does crossword puzzles, chats with the neighbors and loves doing the polka.

I admire the vigor and zest for life that these elders have but what I appreciate even more is the serenity and sense of fulfillment they possess. One gentleman from Okinawa, who is very much at peace with himself and his life, says that if he ever met a kind hearted fairy, he wouldn’t know what he could possibly ask  for.” I really have everything I need.”

What a wonderful thing to be able to say.

 

 

 

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The director Judd Apatow once bought a home gym. After using it three or four times, he stopped lifting weights and the gym fell into disuse. He didn’t get rid of it, however. It still sits in a corner of his office where it functions as a storage room cum clothes hanger. Apatow tells himself that it could be used one day. As he puts it “ … anything’s possible. All hoarding is hope. You think ” I can’t die because I have to watch that stack of DVDs! Makes you feel immortal, having too much stuff.”

Really? For a moment I thought that Apatow might have hit upon something. But , upon further consideration, my reaction is ” Nah!”

I have a friend who has 5,000 records and CDs. He is retired now and is busy cataloging his collection and , of course, listening to his favorite songs over and over again. Another friend is at once a bibliophile, a film buff  and a music lover. In his house he has a large loft, three walls of which have shelves containing his collection of books ( many of them autographed by the authors) and CDs and DVDs. He admitted to me that there is no way he could possibly read, listen or view his entire collection. Once in a while ,he may dip into this or that but his chief pleasure is in owning that collection and knowing that he can access it whenever he wants. I myself had a large collection of books ( particularly cookbooks) before I gave half of it away to an acquaintance. What remains is still sizeable and I have no illusions that I will read all those books again or cook one tenth, one-hundredth of those recipes. I like having those things around because of the pleasure of possession.

A good friend of mine put it perfectly. He said” I have boxes and boxes of stuff, most of which means something only to me. These things are not valuable but I will never get rid of them. One day, when I am gone, my son and daughter will go through the things in my garage , then call the junk man and have them hauled away. That’s OK but, as along as I’m around, I want them.”

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At a picnic last month, a friend called out to me , saying that he had badminton rackets and shuttles and would I like to try a few rallies? I accepted with alacrity because I’d always loved badminton. We walked a little ways to a grassy patch and began to play. What a disaster! For one thing, there was a mild breeze blowing. When it was at our backs, the shuttle sailed over our heads and far out of reach. On the other hand, when we were hitting into the breeze, the shuttle didn’t make much headway and fell well short of where we wanted it to go. All in all, it was the rare ” rally” that lasted even three shots. What was more frustrating though was the difficulty I experienced in trying to get to the shuttle. My reactions were slow and my feet felt leaden. It was no fun stumbling around and I was not unhappy when my wife sent word that I should call it a day. A doctor friend who had been watching us play cautioned her that we were risking injury by playing in our casual footwear.

As we walked back, I reflected how the passage of time lays everyone low. I had last played badminton in 1975 and now, more than forty-five years later, at age seventy-five, just getting the racket on the shuttle was difficult. I had thought that because I still play table tennis reasonably well, that my skills had not eroded so much. I was wrong, as my brief foray proved my badminton playing days were over. So gradually does the change take place that one is not aware of it and thinks he is still almost the same as he once was.

However, the discovery was not in the least a cause for lament. After all, I had not played the game for forty-five years so how could I miss what I’d not enjoyed in so long ?  In fact, it was a liberating feeling. There is nothing to prove anymore. If others continue to play the game, more power to them. I’m not in competition with them or with anyone else.

There are other  advantages too. Now, when I see a game being played I am better able to appreciate the skill, the dexterity and the endurance of the players. At the recent All England championships,  Nozomi Okuhara ( Japan) defeated P.V. Sindhu in the Women’s Singles final in an epic match that some have called the greatest of all time. One amazing rally lasted seventy -three shots. Seventy three ! In fifteen minutes of play, my friend and I barely managed to hit the shuttle that many times. I now appreciate Okuhara and Sindhu’s performance even more than I previously did. So too do I feel about Roger Federer’s balletic grace on the tennis court or Odell Beckham’s acrobatic catches in the end zone.

So, you will not see me feeling sorry for my lost skills or for the fact that some pastimes are now beyond me. When one door closes, another one opens. Next spring, as soon as it is warm enough outdoors, you will find me on the bocci court trying to pick up a game which I can easily hope to play for the next decade.  Who knows? I might even try my hand at pickle-ball.

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( I ‘ve only just started posting again after a two month long hiatus. The reason… many things, but particularly, the birth of our first grandchild, our granddaughter Saya, in San Francisco. This post is about our emotions on seeing her for the first time).

When we told our friends that we were leaving for San Francisco to see our new granddaughter, they were delighted for us. Those who had grandchildren of their own were particularly effusive. ” We’re so happy for you. That moment when you see her for the first time: cherish it. There is nothing like it'”, said one. ” Sheer magic”, gushed another. With such a build -up, we were eager to see the baby.

We arrived in San Francisco, took a Lyft to our son’s apartment, greeted him and were ushered into the living room where Saya was cradled in her mother’s lap. My first thought upon seeing her was how small and vulnerable she appeared. She  was not yet one month old and I had not dealt with babies that young in a long, long time. I took in her features : the gimlet eyes that seemed to look right through me, the Cupid’s Bow mouth ,the cute little nose, the neatly combed hair – and I began to feel the first stirrings of love, an emotion that grew stronger day by day as this little stranger became a person and stole into my heart.

I remember the exact moment when it happened.

Little babies have it so hard. Thrust suddenly into a world they cannot comprehend, utterly helpless, completely dependent on large strangers for their every need, they can communicate their needs only by crying. Life is an endless cycle of eat, burp, sleep, eliminate and get clean. Even after being burped, Saya would be affected by hiccups. At such times, the only thing that brought her comfort was sitting in her grandma’s lap and being rocked gently until the hiccups subsided. We also discovered that Saya loved to hear the Hindu chant, Soham, sung by a church choir. As soon as we put it on, the crying would stop and , in minutes, she would doze off. I loved to look at Saya as this happened. One day, she was apparently asleep and my wife was thinking of putting her in the crib, when Saya opened one eye and looked at us. The look was so knowing and yet trusting that my wife and I were both charmed. It was magical.

Another such moment happened when she was fast asleep in her crib. As I watched, a beatific smile stole across her face. What could she be thinking of that brought such peace and contentment ? I thought of angels and Heaven and was reminded of the Inner Divinity that resides in all of us. The smile lasted for only a few seconds but , as I wondered if it had really happened, it happened again! O happy day !!

When we came back to New Jersey it was a wrench, parting from Saya. Even now, our thoughts are often with her. After we left, we heard that she was sad for a couple of days. Then, she got her shots and was miserable for a week. Hearing that, we were too. Luckily, her other grandmother is there now to take care of her and to pamper her and Saya is smiling again. We FaceTime with her on Sundays and, while it is no substitute for face- to face interaction, it is the next best thing. We get to see her and how fast she is growing and keep tabs on what is happening with her. We count the days until we can see her again in November.  Will she remember us then? Or will we have to make her acquaintance all over again?

Children and grandchildren both bring us joy but, as a friend once remarked, we are more relaxed with our grandchildren. Having brought up children, we know what to expect and are not as nervous as when we were young parents. At our stage of life, we also have less worries than when we were still making our way in the world.

I often think of how fortunate we are, those of us who have children and, perhaps, grandchildren. We have seen our children grow up, tended them through their mishaps, rejoiced in their achievements and shared in their happiness. Now, through our grandchildren, we get to re-live those golden years once again. Truly, we are blessed.

 

 

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We humans are intensely interested in what the future holds for us, particularly in how long we will live. Palmists, astrologers and others tout various ways of determining how many years we have ahead of us. Even though there is no scientific basis for such predictions, these forecasters thrive. There is one numerologist/ astrologist whose ubiquitous TV ads  claim that he has” half a million satisfied customers” in the U.S. I suppose that are always those who want to believe, who are desperate enough to think that someone can help them find what the future holds. As P.T. Barnum famously said,  ” There’s a sucker born every minute.”

As for myself, I remember what a friend of mine discovered when  he was working  temporarily as a morgue attendant. He knew a bit about palmistry and he ” read” the palms of several of the corpses, mainly those who had died young, in accidents. Many, many of them he told me had long tenar lines which are supposed to indicate the length of one’s life. And , yet, there they were in the morgue, well ahead of their time.

There is one story about the length of one’s life that I love. Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov ( 1698- 1760) taught that each of us is born with a fixed number of words to speak.  This number varies from person to person and, when we have spoken our allotted number of words, we die. The words we speak are up to us, the number is not. The moral of the story is that since we do not know how many words we have left, we should be sparing with them; that, whenever we are about to speak, we should stop and ask ourselves” Are these words worth dying for?”

This is, of course, a teaching story , one intended to make us careful with our words. I wish though that I could tell it to a couple of my long-winded friends and convince them that it was true. Wonder if it would have any effect.

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Last year, Denmark was selected as the happiest country in the world ahead of Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, and Finland. The United States was in 13th place, the U.K 23rd and Japan 53rd.

What is it that accounts for the Danes happiness? Well, it is not about having things. The Danes have a name for their condition ; it is hygge ( pronounced hue-gah). There is no easy one-word  definition of this term but it can be understood to mean creating an atmosphere of warmth and intimacy and enjoying the good things of life with good people. It also means building sanctuary and community and connecting to others whether they be family, friends the community or the earth itself.  And it stresses small pleasures over the pressure to be perfect.

The first part of the definition ( enjoying the good  things of life with good people) is not new and is not unique to the Danes. People in countries the world over are well aware that happiness does not lie in excessive materialism and that it is the small things in life that are important, particularly when enjoyed with other people. Some such pleasures: family get-togethers, tucking into delicious food in the company of good friends, tea served in fine china, curling up with a good book, and a summer afternoon at the beach. These are some of the things that give value and meaning to our every day lives, make us feel at home, generous and content.

It is the second part of the definition ( about living in a society that stresses the importance of community) that is unusual. Danes like living in a society that provides a solid social framework and emphasizes personal contentment instead of status. Some of the features of  Danish society  are trust, a supportive education system and affordable healthcare. I’m sure Danes grumble about the high taxes they pay but they also know what they get in return and are happy with the compact. It allows them to have a good work-life balance and creates a strong foundation for fulfillment.

I can’t help thinking of the United States and the situation we find ourselves in today. Here, we stress individual freedoms to the point where the feeling of community is being undercut. When I speak to older Americans, they longingly remember the sixties as a time when there was a sense of unity, when most of the country was middle class and there was a sense of optimism about the future. None of these are true today. Last year the U.S was 13th on the list of the happiest countries in the world; next year I fear that we will be lower. All we can do to enjoy is to remember hygge … enjoy the little pleasures of life, live completely in the present moment and nurture the relationships that are important to us.

 

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My previous post was about a photographic collection, 100 Photographs that captured important moments in our history. It was a captivating book but many of the photographs were necessarily about tragic events ; few of them were about joyful happenings. When I was going through the book I suddenly recollected The Family of Man, a memorable photographic exhibition from the mid-nineteen fifties.

The Family of Man exhibition was curated by Edward Steichen, Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art. First exhibited at MOMA in 1955, it was subsequently shown in thirty seven countries over the next eight years and is now permanently displayed at Clervaux Castle in Luxembourg. The 503 images in the exhibition were also assembled in a book that sold more than 4 million copies and is still in print. The photographs focused on the ties that bind people the world over and celebrated peace and brotherhood. Some critics felt that they were excessively sentimental  but I myself remember them as being a balanced depiction of the human condition, evoking as they do happiness and joy, horror and sadness in equal measure.

After so many years I remember only a few of those photographs. One that stands out is the image of a drum-major in full regalia, including his shako, practicing his parade moves. Back arched, face upturned to the sky, his front leg out thrust he struts across a yard as, unknown to him, a line of mischievous kids mimics his moves. The photo perfectly captures the moment, the impishness, the naughtiness and the carefree nature of childhood. Looking at it, the viewer cannot but recollect what it was to be a child. Another photo, I seem to remember, showed a Peace Corps worker and a turbaned Punjabi farmer sharing a meal, literally. They are both eating with their hands from the same metal plate, bent over , oblivious to the camera, intent only on the food. To me, that photo encapsulated the brotherhood of mankind, the feeling we are the same under the skin.

One photograph that also occurred in the 100 photographs book was ” Migrant Mother”,Dorothea Lange’s Depression era portrait of a desperate mother and her two children. The family had lost their farm in what had become the Dust Bowl and was journeying from Oklahoma to California. The woman in the photo had just sold the tires of her car to buy food, supplemented with birds killed by the children. Defeated,desperate, worried, resigned to their fate the woman stares past the camera at a future without hope. The photograph brought home to the nation the human cost of the Great Depression and put a face on suffering.

If you wish to see some of these photographs, you can google The Family of Man photos. It will give you some idea of why people like me remember it sixty years later.

 

 

 

 

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