I recently attended two parties in the same day. The first was the celebration of neighbor baby’s first birthday. The baby recently took his first steps and the proud parents were circulating among the crowd of guests to share the video that they captured on their phones of that happy event. We celebrate firsts like this throughout our early years: first steps, first day of school, first kiss. They are happy occasions that signify growth and development, forward movement in life.
The second party was for a friend’s grandson who was leaving the country on a mission assignment for his church. My friend gave her grandson a copy of Karen Kingsbury’s book, Let Me Hold You a Little Longer. Kingsbury’s book suggests that we also savor ‘lasts’ – milestones that will likely happen for the last time. The message my friend inscribed in the book to her grandson was that she enjoyed sharing all the moments of his life and was finally ready to let go of the boy and see him as the man he was now.
As I get older, I increasingly recognize the value in ritual for binding us together. That evening, at home with my feet up and a glass of wine in my hand, I reflected on both parties, appreciating being included in the celebrations that marked important events in the lives of my friends.
It occurred to me that except for birthdays to mark decades or retirement parties, seniors seldom celebrate life’s significant moments. Too often, the tone associated with aging is about loss and limitations. Milestones, however, are simply markers of transition. Change is a constant at any age. What is important is to keep moving forward.
What if we gathered friends for a dinner party funded by that first Social Security check or held a group garage sale to help everyone downsize? What if, we sent cards of congratulations when friends tried something new for the first time: a hot yoga class, a solo cruise, or an audit of a college course in ecology? There are plenty of firsts to celebrate in our lives at any age, as long as we attend to significant events or are willing to try new things.
And, as Kingsbury suggests, we can also commemorate the things that we may never do again. What if we looked at those things, not as losses, but as signs of continued maturing? What if we treated aging as a time to free ourselves of outdated goals, a process of discernment? I made a mental list that evening of some of the things that I may never do or be. I may never:
My list went on, some of it frivolous, some poignant. I was struck by how many things that I had once aspired to no longer fit the current version of me. Some of those old goals belonged to a much younger version of me or, worse yet, were someone else’s idea of what I might like. There were things on that list that felt freeing to let go of, to draw a line in the sand and say, “This will never have a place in the story of my life.” Others tugged at me.
It wasn’t hard to segue from the list of things that I lamented letting go of to refreshing my bucket list. I may never wear a bikini again, but I might be brave enough to shop for that bright red bathing suit that I saw in a shop window. I am not up to the hassles of overseas travel anymore, but I can create a reading list that includes the history and geography of Australia, especially the region where my distant ancestors settled. A cross country trip may no longer be in the cards for me, but I can plan segments of short trips that are still of interest.
The list of things that we may never do gets longer as we age, due to physical limitations or just realistic estimates of time remaining, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If we approach the list objectively and creatively, it can still be inspiring. Aging allows us to live more authentically, to let go of the things we “should” do and focus on the things we truly want and can do.
If there are things on our bucket list that suddenly seem out of reach due to present circumstances, we can find interesting substitutions or adaptations. The list becomes less ‘pie in the sky’ and more of a signpost for the immediate future.
Happiness, as we age, comes from the ability to accept reality while focusing on fresh experiences. There will always be ‘firsts’ to celebrate for those who seek them, ‘lasts’ to savor for those who accept them with gratitude, and ‘nevers’ to let go of with liberating resolve.