You’re probably wondering why I chose the title of this post. No, it’s not a reference to my 88-pound frame, and it doesn’t mean my life is about to end.
These words have crept into my thoughts quite often recently, when I’m contemplating giving a speech at Toastmasters or writing a blog post here. What do I have to say? What do I have to contribute?
“My Little Life” is partly humble, partly self-deprecating, and partly the result of a changing perspective on my whole life as I get closer to being old.
Old keeps receding. It used to be age 50; then 60; now it’s perhaps—75?
Yet more and more, the realities of old are already here.
This year, 2021, has been hard for me to write about because it included heartache, sickness, serious injuries, and deaths. I can’t write about these experiences here—they are not my personal experiences (or not mine alone), and the privacy of others must be respected. But they made me realize that I’m at an age when my peers will increasingly have health challenges and even face death. I watch my physical decline accelerating, but I am grateful for my relative good health and all the activities I can still enjoy.
Two speaking challenges
My biggest challenge ever as a public speaker came when I was asked to give a speech (online) at my Toastmasters District Conference—an annual event, virtual in 2021 because of Covid-19. The conference organizers asked me to speak about my “heroic Olympic journey” in an 18-minute speech.
Condensing my thirteen years of running before the 1988 Olympics into a meaningful message (one that completely rejected the idea of my Olympic achievement being heroic) took extensive thought, organization, and practice. However, I was determined to conquer my nervousness. On April 30th, I received my first Covid-19 vaccine in the morning; and in the evening I got ready for the Zoom camera and delivered my speech to a big audience of Toastmasters. It went well!
My next speech challenge was much more casual, and I wasn’t nearly as nervous about that one. Kevin O’Connor and Ellen Clague, coach and president of the Vancouver Falcons Running Club (VFAC), asked me to give a one-hour presentation online as part of their regular speakers’ series. There weren’t a lot of people watching that one live, but I did have a chance to connect with some old running friends. I was surprised by all the emotion that talk stirred up. It made me realize how much I’ve lost and given up since 2010, when I had my first knee surgery. Arthritis forced me to cut back my running to two short runs a week, and competing on pavement was deadly for my knee, so I typically raced only two 5Ks a year—until Covid-19 shut all races down in March 2020. We had just closed down our 29-year-old Phoenix Running Club the month before that because of our dwindling and aging membership.
Speaking with the VFAC members warmed my heart as we recalled past Pinetree cross-country meets in Mundy Park, and other races.
The greater significance of these two speeches, though, was that my preparation for giving them involved looking back over a long period of my life, starting from the time I started running at age 16. More clearly than ever before, I saw the bigger patterns of my life and the way it could be divided into major chunks.
These chunks were defined not only by big life changes like graduating from university, getting married, having a child, going back to college to train for a new career, leaving my husband, and starting a new relationship. Parallel to these events were all the major achievements and changes of my running career: success on Canadian cross-country teams, running with the best at international road races, participating on Canadian Commonwealth, World Championships, and Olympic teams, going through two leg bypass surgeries that allowed me to be competitive again as a masters runner, and the devastating end of my competitive career after tearing my ACL in 2009.
Reviewing all these events in my mind was sobering. Suddenly, I was confronting how many years had passed. And how many things are irretrievably gone. Over. My Little Life.
A quiet depression
Covid-19 hasn’t affected me as much as it has most people. I haven’t been personally touched by tragedy. My editing work life hasn’t changed. Like most people, my circle of real human contacts was very small for a while, but I always had the essential closeness I needed. I never felt isolated or lonely.
Yet I’ve often struggled with negative thoughts, and also a sense of being repressed and having no outlet. As I wrote at the outset, many experiences must be kept private.
The words My Little Life come from a sense of how insignificant I am, even in the running world, where I used to be impressive. I’ve slowed down a lot in the past year, increasingly limited by my knee arthritis and a stubborn hamstring insertion injury. Now I’m not even one of the best “for my age.” I’ve lost the desire to compete. Partly this comes from pride—I don’t want people to see the crippled runner I’ve become. Partly it’s because trying to run fast doesn’t come naturally anymore. It hurts too much.
Going over decades of my life to prepare for my speeches made me acknowledge how unconventional my life has been in some ways. Paul and I never created a nuclear family. We always had friends sharing our home. We had many years of happiness together; yet our marriage had serious, worsening flaws. I did the right thing by not trying to have a “forever” marriage with Paul. Now, I must accept the fact that if I live to old age, I’ll probably be alone. My only child has been in Japan for twelve years; if I’m lucky enough to ever have grandchildren, will they be in Japan?
Like many people my age or older, I’m often overwhelmed by a world that seems qualitatively different, in ways that I can’t adapt to. There is so much new technology. I resist learning some things that are trivial to most people; for example, phone apps.
As an editor, I’m constantly exposed to new platforms and software that could help me be better at my work or at marketing myself. I feel overwhelmed; I question my value as an editor as I struggle to decide which software tools are essential for me to master. Sometimes I think I started my editing career too late.
Yet in more positive moments, I assess myself as an editor differently. For many clients and projects, I’m the perfect editor. Editing isn’t mostly about technology, even in 2021; life experience and a lifetime of reading count a lot. Also, being a good editor is about listening and reading carefully, and being able to communicate with flexibility and tact. My current editing job requires exceptional levels of patience, diplomacy, and organization. Not many editors could do what I’m doing in this project, technically limited though I am.
I also know what I get out of this project. Work energizes me. I love getting up early in the morning and knowing I have a book to work on.
And, as so often happens with me, it was a book that gave me a positive spin on this experience of getting older.
Successful Aging with Daniel Levitin
The book Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of Our Lives (2020), by Daniel Levitin, is one that I can’t possibly recommend too highly. At age 63, Levitin is himself an inspiration; not only is he a neuroscientist, a cognitive psychologist, and a musician, but he has written four New York Times bestselling books.
Successful Aging gave me a huge lift because Levitin gives so many examples of what people in their eighties and nineties have accomplished. He gives simple, practical advice about nutrition and exercise to best promote physical health and mental acuity. In fact, his book set my mind at ease about the futility of trying to find a “magic bullet” or elixir to prevent aging or disease. Despite what advertisers, fanatics, and futurists would have us believe, the proven methods for staying healthy as long as possible are simple and inexpensive.
This is not to say that Levitin is in denial about the difficulties and heartbreak of aging. He includes chapters that acknowledge the huge, unsolved problems of pain and disease. He also gives good advice about preparing ahead of time so that one is prepared for difficult decisions about finances, living arrangements, and medical treatment.
Getting old with the rest of the Baby Boomers
One of the great things about being part of the Baby Boomer generation is that we’ve always drawn attention to ourselves and changed the world by virtue of our numbers. #trendingElectricBikes!
So at least we have lots of company and can seek support, advice, and commiseration from our friends.
On Thanksgiving Day Keith and I were part of a small dinner party where we met another couple (I’ll call them John and Lucia) for the first time. Chatting, we quickly made several “small world” discoveries. John and I had received major surgery (my knee, his shoulder) from the same surgeon. Lucia and I had friends in common from her teaching and my running club. Best of all was my conversation with John about Ontario cottage country.
Like me, John had grown up in Toronto. For all my childhood summers, my family rented a cottage on Lake Shebeshekong near Parry Sound, where for two weeks each summer my brothers and I had an idyllic time swimming and playing with the kids of our parents’ friends. John’s family had owned their own cottage on a similar lake. He told me that on the last day of school each June, he didn’t even go home—his mother picked the kids up from school and they drove straight up north to start their “second life” at the cottage, where they would remain all summer.
John and I shared deep-seated memories of what “cottage country” felt like. I remembered escaping from the stifling heat, humidity, pollution, and burnt grass of Toronto summers to a place where the air smelled sweet and the cool lake always beckoned. It was such a simple life there. Bare feet. Being in the lake as long as we were allowed. Canoe excursions. Badminton, ping-pong, games of tag in between swims. Card games, Scrabble, Yahtzee, and Monopoly on the rare rainy days. Going inside the small cottage as twilight deepened and the mosquitoes got serious; reading a book from the mountain of books I had brought from the library. Campfires on the beach a special treat. Falling asleep to the sounds of the adults’ raucous bridge games.
John said he wouldn’t have become the person he was if he hadn’t had those summers.
It was a wonderful nostalgia we shared: for those times without technology. At the cottage we had no TVs, no phones. Computers were not even invented in our world.
But John and I share more than nostalgia. We share the energy and optimism of the Baby Boomers, of whom Daniel Levitin is a stellar example. We’ve worked hard and played hard; we’ve had the surgeries and the physiotherapy that have allowed us to continue doing the sports we love. For our generation, becoming adults didn’t mean devoting oneself solely to one “job” or raising children. We hope there will be no traditional “retirement”—we don’t ever want to stop learning, creating, and being physically active.
Cherishing My Little Life
At the end of this long post, I have nothing original to offer.
Maybe I’ll always struggle with getting older and the losses that come with it. I’ll never fully conquer the times of “quiet depression.”
But far stronger than depression is my exultation about this one little life I have, and I’ll cherish every moment of intimacy, beauty, and high energy that each day brings.
With Keith at Kitsilano Beach on Thanksgiving Day