My 86-year-old grandmother died last week. She had been sick since earlier this year; I traveled up to New York in February to say goodbye. Yet still she soldiered on for many months with my parents caring of her, visiting her several times a week, being with her, talking to her, sitting quietly with her, and holding her hand.
My grandmother could be hard and full of nasty language, and was endowed with the personality of an unstoppable tank. She could also make you laugh at her jokes. Well past 80 years old, when you would call to simply say hello and ask what she was doing, she would say she was getting into trouble. She might say she was on the way to the casino to get drunk or to look for a new boyfriend. Then she would crack up laughing.
She was never reluctant to share her hard advice, whether you liked or appreciated it. She just didn’t care. Her husband, my grandfather, died back in 1991, and my grandmother lived 22 more years surrounded by friends and family. She loved to cook throughout her life. Cooking was her passion and she had awards all over the walls of her small apartment. Back when she had more energy, she would regale visitors with stories of great dinners and events she had cooked for, of the great numbers of people she had served.
My grandmother came from a different time and was brought up on different values. I tend to think later generations have become too soft and that a no-nonsense approach to the world (the world, itself, being a hard place) is no bad thing. But despite differences in those values across generations, her life and love for her family bridged and transcended all. An aging body can close in around a fiery soul but the soul itself is not beholden to time even once words and enthusiasm become difficult.
Passion: Oh No, Not That Word Again!
Passion is an overused word. Some terms would seem trite and hackneyed by overuse so that another blog post about the subject is liable to be perceived as trite or hackneyed, as well. But life is what it is, and has been for years, centuries and millennia. People will either be enthusiastic about their lives–and about the time they have in that space between two bookends of darkness–or they will choose to live burdened by the weight of those bookends. That is the choice every person must make, for a choice it is.
The kind of passion my grandmother had was not always easy to live with. My guess was that it wasn’t always easy to possess, either. Some people devote the majority of their time to building and maintaining strong social connections. The equilibrium that can be attained by shaping one’s life to interpersonal relationships is a powerful elixir to keep away the judgment and the slings and arrows that typically get directed at those strange firebrands who don’t quite seem to give a shit what other people think.
People talk about you when you don’t get in line, when you veer from the straight and narrow, when you peer inside for motivation instead of outside at what propriety and the wrist-slapping threat of the ruler dictates. My grandmother’s personality colored the world. Her moods could turn the sunniest of days into a tornado and her jokes could turn a hailstorm into a rainbow. There was no in-between with her–oh no, not with Anne.
I don’t know if I’m passionate or not. Like anyone, I wonder about choices I’ve made and qualities I’ve decided to develop in myself. I’d like to think I’m passionate, yes, but who has the benefit of objectively assessing the face in the mirror? Yet, if self-assessment is at best a flawed project, one’s feelings cannot be misread if one also possesses an open heart and I know I miss my grandmother. She was a wonderful lady who I loved and who lived in a class of her own. In honor of…no, not her passing…but in honor of the 86 years she lived, I wish to share here my thoughts on passion and aging, and what I think it must mean to get older if you happen to be as passionate as she.
Passion and Youth
It is easier to be passionate when you’re young than at any other time in your life. The world is your audience, all excited by your prospects and your at-yet unknowable future, encouraging you to have wild ambition. The most powerful emotions tend to be connected with events that cannot be circumscribed by hard reality. We are frightened of the dark for what we can only imagine is hidden within. We are jubilant for the future of young people whose major life choices remain before them, unknown but imaginable, not yet achieved but also not yet destroyed.
It must be easiest, at this point in one’s life, to say: I will do this or I will do that. I will be this thing or I will be that thing. Barring unexpected tragedies, the world offers a sunny path before you, filled with wonder. Life has not yet been lived, the canvas not yet painted upon. It costs nothing to claim one’s future. The rest of the world believes you; the very act of claiming a stake means you care about something, which is reason enough to celebrate.
Choices, too, don’t carry much weight. In the heady days of youth, you may drink too much and wake up next to a stranger. But eventually the stranger goes home–indeed, they rarely want to stick around long–and the hangover is gone by noon. You can be lazy about writing one research paper, but not to worry, there is always the next paper, and the mid-term and final exams to get you back on your feet.
Life would seem to provide second, third and twentieth chances, assuming you don’t go for the gold in ill judgment or bad behavior. Many people look back enviously on their days of youth because these are the circumstances of life. There are lots of do-overs.
You can be passionate about anything because life has not fettered you, restricted you, boxed you in. It’s exciting to be excited. Youth is a great time to be alive!
Passion and Middle Age
By the time you approach middle age, life has begun to encourage you to color inside the lines, and most of the choices you make, even the small ones, can have greater longer-term consequences. If you don’t grow scared (and many do), you grow cautious. And caution can mean an increased appeal for the straight and narrow and of doing what must be done to fall in line. One begins to think now of stability more so than passion. Stability, actually, is no bad thing. Those devoted to living too much life can, as Neil Young once sang, burn out rather than fade away. Mr. Young sang as though he’d rather burn out given the choice, but rock and roll songs aren’t always the best model for life.
You find a job that turns into a career; you earn a decent salary. You get a spouse, some kids, a car and a house. You have friends, a church, a summer vacation and comfort. What more can one want? If you are blessed to have been born with passion, you’d like your career to somehow reflect what you are passionate about. You would like to feel fulfilled and to know that what you do every day set your heart on fire during the days of heady youth, back when you had the time and the lack of consequences to determine what you loved. If your job and your passion align, you’re in great shape. Let the good times roll!
But let’s say you’re one of many for whom the choices made in life haven’t quite brought you to the intersection of your career and your passion. Let’s say something you have always loved has somehow been left behind in that quest for and accumulation of other things, of what at one time became quite appealing in he short term. What then?
The good news is that, as George Eliot once said, or Buddha, or someone–it’s one of those sayings that so many have laid claim to–well, someone once said: “It’s never too late to become the person you might have been.” At 41 years old, I am blessed with a wife and son, and a great career. I have so many reasons to be grateful, and yet I also began this journey a few months ago of starting a blog and developing a series of social networks dedicated to enhancing the visibility of my writing. I have been writing for years, but never quite was able to make a career out of it. And as the years passed, my shoulders grew heavier with the burden of ever-more responsibilities, and most of the time that used to exist in an endless supply now has vanished into a series of obligations.
Not that I’m complaining. This happens to everyone and I am blessed with everything my life contains. But when you realize you’ve been caught in a web of demands, and you still can’t help but think about that one thing–just ONE thing–that you used to love and be passionate about but don’t have much time to invest in anymore, just remember–you need to find the time!
Screw the straight and narrow. There is nothing sadder than letting a talent or interest go to waste; there can always be time if you create it to do exactly what you have always loved. But middle age is the time when you need to decide if you are going to be the kind of person that does something like that–that holds fast to that passion and makes the time, to do what you always loved when you were younger and obligations were not as apparent.
Passion never dies, even if you try to stifle it. It’s always a voice whispering in the back of your mind, calling out to you for something. It becomes harder to engage that voice, the older we get. It’s your choice to listen to it or not and, because the choices we make do become weightier the older we get, the choice to give yourself to your passion ends up determining the kind of person you are and who you become.
Passion and Aging
I cannot speak to this point other than to, as I have done above, share my observations of my grandmother. She was vibrant, energetic and sassy. She was an inspiration, not someone who gave up on life even when life had begun to slowly give up on her.
I also am aware of one of the most beautiful and sadly unheralded songs of aging called Vanishing Act by Lou Reed. Lou sings:
It must be nice to disappear, to have a vanishing act.
To always be looking forward, and never looking back.
It must be nice to disappear, float into a mist,
With a young lady on your arm, looking for a kiss.
In the section above, on passion and youth, I mentioned how the wonder of not knowing the future gives it a kind of power, that one is able to secure one dreams on an as-yet unknowable time. I find Lou Reed’s word choices interesting–”vanishing”, “mist”. Both leave behind that hard world of accumulating obligations, of the physical realities that manage our lives and often threaten to rob us of our soul’s fulfillment, for something more indiscernible. In a way, the song represents that kind of longing for youth, for a time when everything was an ethereal mystery and, indeed, when everything remained possible.
We only have once chance to live on this earth, so we might as well do it right. We might as well be true to our lives, to our hearts and to our passion. I must be true to my writing, since that is what I do. I’ve read many times, including in this recent post on The Huffington Post, that one of people’s greatest regrets at the end of life was that they were never true to themselves and what they loved. My grandmother did not have the easiest life. She had a lot of trouble. But she never lost her love of cooking, nor her desire to share it–in the form of meals for her friends and family. She never lost her sense of humor. She never ceased to give advice or to launch into a tirade when something bothered her.
I would like to think my grandmother did not succumb to all life’s forces without pushing back–without SHOVING back–with all she had and with all she was worth, no matter what tried to keep her down. I can’t think of a stronger way to live, especially as the clock keeps ticking, than to do what you always intended and always wanted, regardless of what might result. It’s never a good idea to treat other people poorly, but that begins with not treating yourself poorly too.
Anne was a great lady who will be missed. She meant a great deal to our family, and for everyone who knew her, she was a role model of how to live for every day she was with us.