By Bridget Manley, publisher
Old age. Many spend life dreading it, fearing it and even fighting it. But maybe that’s the wrong approach. A collection of essays released this year argues that the later season of life can be as — or more — fulfilling and meaningful as other points.
The book, “Better With Age: Creativity, Discovery and Surprise,” features a collection of 26 essays, two poems and a song, all reflecting on how age can tap into the wisdom, talent, creativity and nerve that can lead to new adventures.
The book’s contributors range in age from their 60s to their 90s. Many of them live in the Valley, and some are immediately recognized by the local work they have done over their lives.
“The Valley certainly looms large in this collection,” said the book’s co-editor, Jack Greer. “There [are] some very talented people here, and it’s wonderful to see.”
Greer and the other co-editor, Robert Bersson, conceived the idea of the book as the “this-es and thats” of getting older began to hit the two as their senior years crept in, and they realized the season of old age was as complex as it was rewarding.
Greer said the notion of eating well, doing crossword puzzles and keeping active are all good pieces of advice as people age, but doing things that make us feel alive are just as important.
“What can you do in your later years — as the Buddhists say — to make it new,” Greer said. “There’s got to be something more, right? What else can we do to enliven ourselves and not just cope, you know? Really get engaged and get involved.”
So they decided to ask others what they were doing to make this act of their lives meaningful. The book was born.
The book, which is available at OASIS Fine Art and Craft in Harrisonburg and on Amazon, is an homage to the last chapter of life and represents a direct repudiation of the notion that age equals decline.
“Probably almost anyone who reaches a certain age realizes that the main thing we should have done all along is to have appreciated our lives as they were happening,” Greer said. “One person writes that it’s the small things, like the time she had spent with her grandmother, and the little family events that occurred, the conversations around the table…which at the time, you take for granted, and you realize how precious those moments are.”
This look at aging is more than just facing our own mortality but appreciating life while it’s happening, he said.
“You just wish you’d asked more questions, that you’d been more engaged with your family and your friends in the moment, instead of always rushing onto the next thing,” Greer said.
Some essayists address the social and political changes they have seen in their lifetimes. For instance, former Harrisonburg and Charlottesville reporter Christine “Chris” Edwards uses the essay essay “Fireflies and Us” to delve into the social upheaval the country has faced in recent years.
“‘Geezing’ means lamenting change; putting a rosy glow on the past,” Edwards says in the essay.
She writes about her dismay in 2016 that the progress that had been made over her lifetime “might be obliterated by geezers who boast they will ‘make America great again.’”
Edwards writes that pushback to that sentiment has renewed her hope in the future and that while the end of life is part of its cycle, the fireflies she chases with her grandchild will continue to rise for her great-great-grandchildren.
Another section of the book — “Empowerment through the Arts” — explores tapping into creativity through music and theater.
Tom Arthur, a retired theater professor at James Madison University as well as a blogger and director, contributed the article “I’m Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” in which he took on directing the play “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” at a local theater after retiring from the directing game in his 80s.
Arthur recalls in the essay how in October 1979 he brought to JMU the playwright Edward Albee, who wrote “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” in 1962. Arthur brought many actors, playwrights, and directors to the university for lectures during his career. His essay recounted Albee’s kindness to Arthur’s children and wife as they hosted him at dinner.
So he decided to take on directing the play. However, Arthur says he always had hoped he would retire graciously from directing when his time came, and now has found a new way to express himself artistically: to write.
“The only thing that was important to me when I stopped directing … was that I had to find an art to go on doing,” Arthur told The Citizen. “I’ve been writing. I don’t pretend that I’m a great writer. I’m not. But I’m OK, and I go on writing.”
Writing of the joys and sorrows
An essay titled “Better With Age” by retired lawyer and community activist Ruth Stoltzfus Jost, looks at the arc of life through the wisdom that is gained by experiencing it. She describes her joy of childbirth, marriage and child rearing as seen after the experience of it as well as the joy of seeing those children raise their own children — “a kind of love that makes you ache.”
She writes how the sadness of human suffering and injustices are the blight on this happiness, and she worries if the work done in her life will prevail. But she ends the essay, “…by now I’ve had chances to see that the kingdom of heaven is actually here. It’s emerging all around us and within us, each of us, each with our own little arc of human life.”
Some of the essays are deeply personal. Novelist and former NPR and WMRA reporter Martha Woodroof’s essay “Dancing With Cancer” is a joyful and hopeful essay about the happiness of uninhibited dancing, even as she faces her own mortality and her slow-moving cancer.
Woodroof, who also contributed reporting to The Citizen earlier this year, wrote about how, as a teenage teacher’s assistant in a preschool classroom, she watched happy 5 year olds dance with freedom and joy. She decided then and there to carry that joy throughout her life.
Now living with cancer, Woodroof told The Citizen she lives her live with “as much festivity as possible.”
She said it doesn’t mean denial but “staying real and not magnifying the challenges in life.”
“My life is my adventure, and I’m the only one who gets to have that adventure,” Woodroof said.
In her essay, she writes that dancing has been her baseline go-to of joy her entire life. It has been her companion throughout the highs and lows of motherhood, sobriety, marriage and now terminal illness. “I’ve chosen to live till I die; dance till I can’t.”
“Dying is the last adventure in life,” Woodroof said. “Who knows what happens afterwards. I don’t. But what I do know is that there’s absolutely no reason to give up on joy just because I’m dying; the joy of the things I can do. It’s my choice whether or not I want to have the fact that I’m dying take over my life – what’s left of my life.”
The last words in the book are contributed by counselor, pastor and teacher Harvey Yoder in the final essay, “The Final Yes.”
In it, Yoder said legacies do not have to be grand — that they are anything that made a difference, left a footprint, or something people will remember.
“Can an old man continue to see visions and dream dreams
and finally lay himself down to sleep
well content when his time comes
feeling finished and fulfilled
at winter’s end and eager to
welcome eternal spring?
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