Last week, out of sheer boredom, I picked up an autobiography of one Josephine Whitney Duveneck in the library of the assisted care facility where I was visiting. You wouldn't know of this local hero and legend unless you have deep roots in this particular part of the California Bay Area. I randomly flip through the pages, and my eyes rest on this line, where young Josephine in 1912 observes that there are some people (most certainly men) who are "singers" of the world and they will have their reward, "but what about the rest of us whose work is but chaff? We will be left in nakedness having neither accomplished our dreams nor labored for our souls." (Life on Two Levels, by Josephine Whitney Duveneck).
Wanting more than the life she had, she seeks to engage with the larger community and do what she can to serve others. Her greatest social contributions came after her midlife ennui, when she began to activate her values and strengths. That might be the case for you as well.
You don’t have to just live your life. You can create the life you live. You can seek to be happier, and you can seek the work that is in you to do.
Even if it’s a small thing, a side gig, or an effort to eliminate a negative thing in your life, you can get moving on it. You can seek it out, no matter how big or small. Place your intention out there and take the first step. It’s the only way to awaken the possibilities that exist in your life.
Some may say it’s an extravagance for those who can "afford it" -- for those who have the money, time, energy, resources, confidence, or whatever their perceived deficiency. But don’t you hope that it’s possible for anyone to strive to better oneself under any circumstance? That a will to try counts for something?
Poet Rainer Maria Rilke says...
You see, I want a lot.
Perhaps I want everything:
the darkness that comes with every infinite fall
and the shivering blaze of every step up.
So many live on and want nothing,
and are raised to the rank of prince
by the slippery ease of their light judgments.
But what you love to see are faces that do work and feel thirst.
You love most of all those who need you
as they need a crowbar or a hoe.
You have not grown old, and it is not too late
to dive into your increasing depths
where life calmly gives out its own secrets.
― Rainer Maria Rilke, Rilke's Book of Hours
Do your own thing, however small. If you have a dream or a wish, what’s keeping you from trying? Knowing you are striving for your own thing can give pleasure and something to focus on. When do you think is a good time to start?
I’m in California tending to my dying mother. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about death and dying - over decades of my parents’ illnesses - not just days and weeks. Mostly, what I've learned is about living, how to live and what is important.
At my mother’s bedside, hours stretch on indefinitely, one indistinguishable from another. Outside, it’s another day, except it's a warm November day, bright sun against a blue sky. The living are busy with the tasks of living and making a living. The dying are busy in their own world, between worlds.
I recall two poems by Mary Oliver. "In Blackwater Woods” starts
Look, the trees
their own bodies
And I notice the persimmon tree, its leaves now turning bright orange, setting the tree ablaze with color before it it drops its last fruits and leaves. People can be like that too, glorious, shining out for others in an unexpected season of their lives.
To all of us, Oliver says,
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
Long ago, the poem, "When Death Comes," became my anthem for living. I’ve never forgotten it. It changed how I live, and hopefully, how I’ll pass from this world.
When Death Comes
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
Poems from Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems, Vol. 1
So I get this in my email last week. Someone is telling me I have to see this. It’s a link to a Huffington Post article:
80-Year-Old Model Crushes Stereotypes With His Runway Swagger
High fashion runways don’t usually feature older models, let alone those with more than half a century in life experience. But this 80-year-old grandfather is proof designers have been making one BIG mistake. ... Read the full story
The story is eye-catching because we don’t expect “old” people to be runway models, much less an Internet sensation because of it. (Ageism is all around us and it colors our expectations, so this calls our attention.)
And here’s Deshun Wang - his confidence, vitality, physicality - strutting down the catwalk and he becomes an instant international hero to young and old alike.
Watch his video “Be the Fiercest” as he tells us about himself. He laughs, simultaneously heartily and relaxed, at the fact that he’s being called “the Hottest Grandpa” and an “Internet sensation” after his catwalk in a Chinese fashion show last year.
“But you know what,” he says, “to prepare for this day, I’ve been getting ready for 60 years.”
He explains: At age 24, he was a theatrical actor, and he started learning English at 44. At age 49, he started a pantomime troupe and went to Beijing and became a “Beijing Drifter” starting “everything from scratch.” He began working out at a gym at age 50, and returned to the stage at 57 with his original “Living Sculpture Performance.” At age 70, he “really started getting serious about working out,” and he had his first runway experience at age 79. Turning 80, he says he “still has some left in him” - things he yet wants to do.
He tells us:
“Potential can be explored.”
“When you think it’s too late, be careful you don’t let that become your excuse for giving up.”
“No one can keep you from your success, except yourself.”
“When it’s your time to shine, be the brightest!”
On the Internet, “life coaches” and health coaches are eating this up, but for very different reasons than mine. It is true as Deshun Wang says in a separate interview, “People can change their life as many times as they wish.” But this doesn’t happen just by motivation and having a goal, while those things are critically important.
For me, it’s a case study in what I call “VIPS” -- one's personal Values, Interests, “the three Ps”, and Strengths. Based on online interviews, it’s clear that Deshun Wang knew his VIPS from an early age and adhered closely to it throughout his life, undeterred by the twists and turns of life.
Look now at his signature strengths and values, how they are reflected in all that he is and has become, and how they shine through him: a display of creativity, courage, curiosity, vitality, physicality, persistence, openness and adaptability, humor… of being “fierce” (strong) and unstoppable… Deshun Wang lived and is living his VIPS. He made them his core centerpiece, and they made him shine, unique and extraordinary.
What are your VIPS and how do you honor them?
Finally, it's about having a mindset that allows you to experience your life as an adventure. As Deshun Wang says about aging: “One way to tell if you’re old or not is to ask yourself, ‘Do you dare try something you’ve never done before?’ ”
Thoughts for creating success in the second half of life.