The Happiest Year:Happiness and Age (an Interview With My Extraordinary Neighbor)

Aging is an extraordinary process where you become the person you always should have been. -David Bowie

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What would you tell your younger self about happiness?  Or someone younger than you?  What advice or perspective have you sought out from someone older than you?

I felt the warmth generating from my neighbor Anita as soon as I met her, though I couldn’t tell you how or when we first met. She seemed calm and self-assured, yet approachable and genuine.  She reminded me of a mentor I had in the early years of my career, who was someone I always imagined myself growing into.  I knew she was a person I’d like to get to know better.

Four years and one pandemic later and I find myself full of gratitude to be doing just that.  2020 has pushed us all into uncommon ways of connecting with other humans as we’ve navigated the boundaries of physical distancing from one another.  Anita said she recognized the challenges being stuck at home with two small children might present me and initiated writing stories, silly tales about misshapen cucumbers becoming pickles and grape children rolling down hills, with my preschool aged daughter, to be sent via text, mail, or the occasional FaceTime chat.  L loves stories, and she was happy to have interaction with a face besides mine.  I was, too.

I found out Anita and I have much in common.  We’re both flutists (Anita currently and me back in the day), both attended University of California, San Diego, both writers with careers in education, and both yogis.  The kicker was when Anita mentioned her meditation practice to me…FINALLY someone who I could nerd out about meditation with!

Our new friendship lead to my telling Anita about my blog and The Happiest Year project, and she volunteered to be my interview subject for June’s theme: Aging and Identity.  I was thrilled to be presented with the opportunity to get the perspective of a woman who seemed so content with her own life but who had also expressed to me that her life has not been without challenges.  Plus, Anita is an AMAZING storyteller.

First, some personal notes on aging.

I’ve been called an “old soul” my whole life, and I’ve felt it, too.  I’ve always been referred to as mature for my age, impressed teachers with my vocabulary or others with my demeanor, always had older friends.  I’m not saying this to brag, and I have certainly gone through my share of immature growing pains (hello early 20’s)…I say this because I sometimes feel like I’ve done about as much soul-searching in my 34 years as someone else may have in twice as many.

That being said, I’ve looked forward to aging as the process of growing into myself more.  I’ve recognized the sureness that comes with experience, at least for people I admire and strive to be like.  As a society, we often regard aging as something to avoid at all costs, but I really feel like if you embrace all that life has to offer, what a GIFT to walk this path.

I was really eager to hear about Anita’s path, especially as it pertained to happiness, because she seems so darn happy!  In researching for this post, I read that happiness typically evolves in a U-shape as we age: it goes down in midlife and up again around 50, for a combination of reasons.  I strongly suspect a lot of it has to do with putting one’s foot down about what makes one happy and learning to invest your time primarily in those things.  My interview with Anita mostly confirmed this suspicion.  Read more, below!

(note: information is synthesized from conversations with Anita and written responses)

Anita gave me a bit of background on herself that sounded fairly typical.  She was born in San Diego to Helen and Harry Smith, high school sweethearts.  Her parents had a shop in a popular local neighborhood and her childhood was mostly happy until her father passed away when she was 12, at which point she said her mother became unstable and home became “frightening”.  She left for college at 17, raised 3 children with her first husband and worked as an educator around San Diego County.

I sometimes wonder how many of us intend to live life with no regrets, and how many of us actually live that way.  Somewhere in her 50s, Anita had a “shakedown” that made her really examine what she might regret when she got older: she was diagnosed with and went through chemotherapy for breast cancer.

Not all of us have such a poignant turning point in our lives, or one at all, but Anita’s diagnosis caused her to end her 29 year unhappy marriage and, it seems to this outsider, really begin to find her true self.  I asked Anita what she would tell her younger self about happiness and she said:

 I couldn’t tell my younger self much about happiness because she wouldn’t be able to hear it and understand, even though she wanted very much to be happy.  But the one thing I would tell her anyway is, above all, ‘Be kind to yourself.’

Even as a relatively young 34 year old, looking back on my flippant early adulthood, I can relate.

But perhaps part of the beauty of aging is that you can learn to look back on that former self as a butterfly may look back on its little, learning caterpillar of a self: with tenderness and gratitude for building that chrysalis that allowed you to finally sprout your wings.  Even Anita told me to fully forgive yourself as a young person…you were doing the best you knew how.

Many years post-cancer treatment, Anita is a jazz flute playing, made-from-scratch home cook, published journalist, novelist, yogi, indie film producer (see more about the film documenting the amazing story of Mary Sue Duncan here), and meditation teacher.  Talk about someone who is unapologetically herself! She’s even taken on a new name in writing and art to reflect her true persona: Anitra, to new acquaintances.

Something that hit a note with me, personally, is the credit Anita gives to her Kelee Meditation practice for her overall satisfaction with life:

My experience with being old is better and deeper because of my daily Kelee meditation practice.  When I started doing Kelee 23 years ago, I only tried it because Ken, my new love, suggested that he thought it would be something cool for us to share.  Privately I thought it was probably just some New Age bullshit waste of time.  But I went to class anyway with Ken and met his teacher Ron W Rathbun.  And I dutifully did my five minutes of Kelee meditation morning and night.

Then something annoying happened.  The practice I thought was a waste of time began to work.  I started to change.  I noticed I was calm while teaching high school humanities to a roomful of bright-eyed-opinionated 16-year-olds…Even though I was going through an arduous 4 year divorce, I began to feel relaxed and free.  Clearer and more balanced.  Since then, I have dissolved a lot of my issues, and without them, I’m more myself.  Plus, Kelee has played a big part in my happy marriage to Ken.

If you know anything about me, you know that meditation has changed my life for the better, and I’ve only just scratched the tip of the iceberg.  It’s amazing to hear from someone with much more experience in an meditation practice (albeit, a different type of meditation that I look forward to learning more about) continue to find equanimity and bliss through this exercise that is truly available to anyone, anywhere, at any time.

When I asked Anita what she would say about happiness and age in general, she said this:

Happiness happens when you’re not thinking about it–when you’re just enjoying being with someone you love, or doing something you enjoy or just feeling at peace and happy.

I think the main points that I’ve gleaned from my talks with Anita, what I’ve admired the most about her approach to life and things that I might also tell my younger self, are these:

  • Follow your own passions, follow your heart.  Play flute for a jazz band because you want to or take a rest on your patio when you feel like it.  Quit the job that no longer serves you (in Anita’s case, teaching and then journalism) for the one that lights you on fire (journalism and then novel writing).  But check your retirement benefits first ;).
  • Be a lifelong learner.  Often when I speak with Anita she is trying something new.  Learning how to make homemade corn tortillas, trying yoga via Zoom, learning Japanese.  I love this quote from her: “We are only as old as the freshness of what we’re learning.”  I love the perspective that every moment of every day offers a chance to start that thing you’ve been meaning to learn more about.
  • Embrace your life, all of it.  This is related to change, opportunities, and also the past.  It seems to me that Anita has made the most of most experiences in her life and followed paths as they arose.  She once talked a dean of a local college into making a position for her, and her entire novel and subsequent movie producing experience is based on a conversation she had with a gentleman at a party on the very last day she had given herself to see if a bigger project than jazz articles popped up.  As for those tough spots in life, Anita doesn’t deny that they are there.  She recommends coming to terms with them, but also pursuing happy despite them.  Anita cites meditation as a source of coping more easily with life’s challenges.
  • Be unapologetic.  Even at 76, Anita has a twinkle in her eye when she speaks about growing out her blonde highlights and having gray hair down her back, or shocking her granddaughter with talk of sunbathing in the nude in her backyard. And why the heck not? There’s just one very special you in one very brief blip of time. The world needs you just the way you are, no apologies needed.

I asked Anita to sum up what she has to say about what it’s like at 76.  She said,

Society says I’m not useful or attractive, but individuals say otherwise.

I’m so grateful for these recent conversations with  Anita because, despite our society’s regard of aging as a sort of death sentence to happiness, I can see it isn’t so.  It gives me something to look forward to, this getting to know myself better, depending relationships with people that matter, shedding the weight of the expectations of those that don’t, and learning what it truly means to be at peace with your own self and path.  I hope it does for you, too.

What have you learned about happiness as you’ve aged?

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