And I’m feeling so many emotions right now —
Relief at getting through the Hebrew!
Feeling a sense of completion
Proud and thrilled at my accomplishment
Curious about the future and a new beginning
Excited about having you all with me at this moment
Grateful for being alive
I want to talk to you about the past, the present and the future. The past – harvesting a lifetime of experiences that bring me to this day. The present – where I see myself now at my 70th Rite of Passage; and what lies ahead – my feelings and questions about the future. I have so much to celebrate and be grateful for. After all, I’ve raised two sons, become a grandmother and lived through world shattering events beginning with WWII and Hiroshima and now this latest war in Iraq. I’ve worked in politics, the arts and healthcare, enjoyed all of it and had successful and satisfying careers. I’ve found great happiness in a second marriage, and together we’ve made significant contributions to our community in Chicago and here in Montana. So my 70th carries with it a lot of history, and the joy of experiencing the fullness of life. I’m curious and excited about the years ahead with many goals to accomplish and even more to learn. I’m vital and healthy, so I can put these next years to good use. Still, over these last months my 70th birthday loomed large on the horizon. So to prepare for this day, I took a 4-day retreat with a dear friend to think about what this birthday means to me, and whether I even wanted to go through this ceremony. For several months a mantra has been going through my head every time I have trouble bending, or remembering things or feel tired. I’ve been hearing a little voice saying, “Well what do you expect? You’re going to be 70 years old!” When I hear this voice, I feel sad about the future and the possible loss of mental and physical prowess. I fear losing my independence and being a burden. As my friend said to me, when she reached 70 she found herself grieving her own death. I find myself wondering what death will be like – how it will feel. Traditionally, bat or bar mitzvah ushers celebrants out of children and into adulthood. It is a first step to being accepted in an adult world. Obviously, I am at a different stage of life. I am entering a new stage – some call it the Third Age – The Age of the Eldering. It feels just as much a process of growth as entering adulthood, but very different. I am clear that Eldering is very much a deep internal learning process. And, I understand that you don’t automatically become an Elder. It has to be earned. Eldering feels like a struggle between fear and courage, between integrity and despair. But what’s utterly clear to me is that Elderhood requires more courage and stamina, more wisdom and honesty, than any other stage of life. As I stood at my parents’ grave before moving to Montana, I realized that I had arrived at the age at which they became ill. I began to ask myself how would I write the history of my journey down this road? Would I have my father’s humor? Would I have my mother’s grace? So I’m looking down the road ahead – my last years – a summing up of my story. Sociologists tell us that we are living longer than any other generation in history – an average of 20 bonus years – two more decades. They say we are at a new frontier of human development, with new and different potentials and possibilities. This Third Age is one of going inside rather than accomplishing anything in a material sense.
It is very different to explore internally rather than to produce some thing, different to simply be rather than to do, so I have no answers right now, only questions. Over the past four years, I’ve wondered what my experience of this time would be:
Will there be the excitement of discovering inner resources that I didn’t know I had?
Will my need to be noticed be as important?
Will I find a passion that drives me and excites me in these final years?
Will I be able to say, like George Bernard Shaw, “I want to be thoroughly used up when I die”?
Or, on the other hand, would I be able just to be, to reflect, to be present to each moment, rather than doing all the time—to take time to examine my life experience - to look at what was valuable and what was not.
And how can all this be measured? In relationships, in children and grandchildren, in my writing, in service to the community, in sage advice?
What difference do I want to make? Will it even matter, and if it does, why?
I was always a late bloomer. Maybe this is just another blooming that will yield the sweetest fruit yet? All I seem to have are questions without answers, but maybe that’s a good thing. When we think we have the answers, the questions die and the subject is closed. There are no more possibilities. So as long as I live in the question, there is always possibility. So what are these possibilities?
Time for dealing with issues that remain unresolved.
Time for harvesting years of productivity.
Time for honoring accomplishments.
Time for learning.
Time for spiritual growth.
Time for listening for what others need.
Time to tell it like it is.
Time for rest.
Time to let myself be honored and appreciated
Entering Elderhood doesn’t give me answers. Perhaps the wisdom is to learn how to ask the right questions—to search for meaning. All my life I’ve wanted to be certain, to have all the answers, to be sure of my path, to know what was ahead, to be right, to succeed. Many times I had blinders on but thought I saw everything clearly. But if I give myself permission to be in the question—that’s a kind of freedom that I have never experienced. I can be free of my self-imposed need to be right; free of culturally imposed standards of having to know and having to do. I’m finding it refreshing not having to find answers now—not having to know. But it makes me uneasy as well, because the path now is uncertain. The questions are unending and the road ahead is foggy. Sometimes specters rise through the mist. Dreadful memories of abuse, of a bad marriage, of mistakes I made raising my sons, of friends to whom I need to apologize and ask forgiveness. All the unresolved issues that I need to deal with before I can move on. A very wise man – Bill Bridges who writes about – facing life changes – said, "that you must say goodbye to the past before you can move on." But it’s not that simple for me. There is a period in between letting go of my past and finding new direction. That’s where I am now as I find myself sifting through memories, looking for my truth – whatever that is for me. Only after sorting it out will I be able to make peace with the past and see a clear vision for the future. That’s when I’ll earn admission to the Council of Elders as a true Wisdom Keeper. What’s the lesson of my Bat Mitzvah? To turn to face the hard questions and search for a truth that lies beyond questions and answers. I need to experience the core of my being, and to trust that Spirit will guide me, that health will sustain me, that I will be enriched by connecting with the world around me. Then I can learn to live like a whole piece of cloth, without tears or rips, listening for Spirit’s whispered encouragement. So I’ll take Virginia Satir’s advice and “go deep inside myself and find the treasure that is my name.”
Ina Albert, author, workshop presenter, was healthcare communications and marketing professional for 35 years, and is co-author of the book “Write Your Self Well...Journal Your Self to Health.” She has published short stories, non-fiction articles in national journals and recently had a chapter on journaling included in “The Art of Grief,” an anthology of alternative therapies used by grief counseling therapists, published by Routledge Publishers. Ms. Albert lives in Whitefish, Montana with her husband, Rabbi Allen Secher.