“Three Secrets to Aging
with Vibrance and Pizazz”
[Excerpted from Ageless Pizazz! Nine Secrets for Turning Up Your Oomph, Having More Fun, and Being More Powerful as You Get Older
by Ariel Lexina Adams]
Age cannot wither her,
nor custom stale
her infinite variety.
Shakespeare, Anthony and Cleopatra
Imagine you’re driving north on Highway 101. It’s a gray day and the sky is darkly overcast. The highway is wet. The fields and trees are wet. You’re in your late fifties, feeling despondent about your life, and you’re hoping this day will be a turning point. You’re driving up to see your wise friend Joan, who’s an energy worker in the small Northern California town of Sebastopol.
As you drive, the clouds part a tiny bit, a ray of sun breaks through, and then a rainbow forms, making a perfect arc over the highway ahead. You keep driving. The rainbow stays there. You’re getting closer, and it’s still there. Now it’s right ahead, right over where you’re driving. You pass under the still-vivid rainbow. This has got to be a good omen!
And it was; I was the driver. I drove under the rainbow and up to Joan’s beautiful home, where I spent the weekend with her, and she skillfully helped me retrieve my good spirits and begin to turn my life around. Now, at the time of writing this book, I’m seventy-five. I met my husband and love of my life when I was sixty-eight; we got married at seventy-two, and things keep getting better. I can truthfully say this is the best time in my life—and it can be for you too.
I was fifty-eight at the time of the rainbow story and for the past few years had been at the mercy of the aging experience. All my inherited beliefs, all the expectations imprinted on me by my elders and my society were coming to pass. I felt pallid and powerless. Unattractive, with all my sexual magnetism gone.
When I was a girl in the 1940s I used to listen to a soap opera called The Romance of Helen Trent—“the story that asks the question, ‘Can a woman find adventure and romance after the age of thirty-five?’” (Maybe you remember it too.) And right around then I read a story in one of my mother’s magazines. It opened with an unmarried woman looking into the mirror on her thirtieth birthday and feeling like she’d lost her chance at life.
These cultural attitudes about what I had to look forward to as a woman were deeply etched into my mind. Thirty-five loomed ahead ominously.
But somehow my life unfolded in a different way. When I hit thirty-five I was, after a brief marriage, living in a house with other creative people. I didn’t have a life partner but I usually had a boyfriend. I felt very attractive.
I had always looked and felt young for my age. When I was in my early forties my students (I was teaching English as a second language in adult schools) said I looked twenty-five. I usually had boyfriends who were younger than I was. I felt like I wasn’t aging, like it wasn’t going to happen.
At forty-seven I went back to school to do what I’d always wanted: become a psychotherapist. Then one day when I was about fifty I looked in the mirror and saw that my upper eyelids were all swollen. They were puffy and droopy and weighted down my eyelashes. “It must be a cat allergy,” I thought, and I stopped letting Attila, our sweet orange cat, come into my room.
So I ruined my relationship with my favorite cat ever—and the eyelids stayed puffy and droopy. It was my first clear sign of aging and I felt betrayed. I realized I had felt entitled to keep looking young—that was who I was, after all. But I had started aging, and would keep on doing so.
People started calling me “ma’am.” Oh, how I hated that! Guys’ eyes stopped lighting up when they saw me, or they’d look right through me. I’d enviously look at a young, attractive woman walking toward me on the sidewalk and think, “Just wait, honey, it’ll happen to you too!” And when some old lecherous guy would eye me, I’d actually be grateful! I had a boyfriend who was younger than I, and on a trip to Mexico, more than once some young person asked him, “Es su madre?” (Is she your mother?) In pictures taken of me during that period I look droopy and apologetic.
My self-esteem plummeted. The worst part was realizing how much it was based on my good looks—or should I say on what our culture regards as good looks, meaning young looks. I’d thought my self-worth was based on intelligence, creativity, compassion. But no. When I’d started looking older and stopped receiving that reflection back that attractive younger people constantly get from the world, I wanted to dig a hole and crawl into it.
This went on for a year or two. They were very bad years in my life. Finally I woke up one morning with those insulting voices going in my head—“lost your looks,” “not attractive anymore,” “not spiritual either,” “what good are you?”—and I rebelled.
“That’s enough!” I told myself. “I’ve had it! I’m going to turn this around.”
I had studied some Tibetan Buddhism and always loved what Chogyam Trungpa said about skilled farmers: they collected the dung left by their cattle and turned it into fertilizer. And that, of course was what I needed to do with my own negativity.
A Turning Point
So I decided to go get help from Joan, my shamanically trained friend up north. In our sessions, she helped me to go deep inside and retrieve something that was much deeper than all the stereotypes and judgments I’d been battling with: my vibrant spirit. I returned to my life regenerated, vowing to free myself from the age stereotype, and to help other women get free of it.
I wanted to find an older woman who had been through this transition to mentor me, but I didn’t know any. I certainly couldn’t get help from my mother, who was lonely and obese. So I set out to become that mentor. I wrote my master’s thesis on the subject of women coming to terms with aging, and I’ve been working with women on this issue ever since.
I’ve made a deep study of the question “how can we avoid the trap of the age stereotype and live fulfilling, creative, juicy lives?”
And from what I learned (and keep learning), I created my Ageless Pizazz!® groups, where we use art and play to transform our pain and fear into the power to be who we want to be and live the lives we want to live.
In the process of this work I discovered nine guiding principles, which are the subject of my book, Ageless Pizazz: Nine Secrets for Turning Up Your Oomph, Having More Fun, and Being More Powerful as You Get Older. The first three follow here:
Secret Number One: Be Here Now
Come new to this day.
“Remove the rigid overcoat of experience . . .”
~Rebecca del Rio
It was rush hour at the supermarket and I was standing in a long, slow-moving line. Everyone ahead of me seemed to have some extra quibble or demand, and I was stuck there behind them. I felt myself sinking into heavy, frustrated resentment. My jaws started clenching, my shoulders contracting, my face falling into that droopy, blank stare of someone helplessly trapped.
Then I caught myself. “Wait a minute!” I thought. “Is this how I want to be? Am I maybe just making it worse with this attitude? Yes, I think so.”
So I took a deep breath. Right away I started noticing the tension in my jaws and shoulders, so as I exhaled I let them relax as much as I could, and I made the choice to just be present.
I kept breathing deeply and started noticing things. I felt the soles of my feet, pressing down into the floor. I listened: I heard some music playing over the loudspeakers, the murmur of voices, the occasional wail of a child. I looked around, starting to actually see the people. Who were they? Ahead of me, a little girl in line with her mother had arranged all their items in a neat, clever pattern on the belt. I exchanged glowing smiles with the child and her mother, and everything around seemed to brighten.
“She always does that,” said the mother.
“Looks like she’s growing up to be an artist,” I said.
The little girl grinned.
Then I saw that the pretty cashier was smiling and making a brief, warm contact with each person in line, doing everything she could to make our experience more pleasant. A man checking out was laboriously, interminably writing a check; the cashier turned back to the next customers with a smile and a greeting, letting them know she was on top of things. A man in a wheelchair was next in line. When he dropped something, she came lightly out from behind her counter and picked it up for him.
I let myself be lit up by her good will. Magic was in the air. I talked with people, made quips. They responded with pleasure. My tedious wait in line had become a festive celebration, and the energy I slipped into there carried me through the whole day.
But I could only slip into that beautiful energy by first coming into the here and now and being willing to experience what was already there: my irritation, my body tensing, the people around me, the items on the conveyer belt—the ordinary, day-to-day things that I don’t usually pay much attention to. By doing that, I opened my “doors of perception” and was able to experience at a deeper level.
The principle “Be here now” underlies all the others I teach, for if you are not fully present, you cannot feel your feelings, transform your complaints, cultivate your creativity, or follow any of the other principles I offer in my book. When I talk about pizazz, I’m referring to a sort of effervescent joy, a deep pleasure in living that, I believe, is our natural heritage. We can tap into it when we allow ourselves to be fully here in the present moment.
If you are fully here in the present moment, you can begin to touch into your own pizazz—that alert, unprogrammed, spontaneous spirit at your core. The first thing I teach in my classes is a simple practice of sensing your body, looking, and listening, to be done every day. We use it to stay present throughout the evening, go more deeply into ourselves, feel our own presence, power, and connection to the world around us, and express our power in new ways that may surprise us. Part of being fully present is being willing to be surprised, as expressed by Rebecca del Rio in the poem that I quoted at the beginning of this section:
Come new to this day.
Remove the rigid overcoat of experience,
the notion of knowing,
the beliefs that cloud your vision.
Leave behind the stories of your life.
Spit out the sour taste of unmet expectation.
Let the old,
almost forgotten scent of what-if
drift back into the swamp
of your useless fears.
without the armor of certainty,
without the planned results for the life
Live the life that chooses you,
New with every breath,
New with every blink of
your astonished eyes.
And part of what gets in the way of being present is expecting something in particular and being stuck in a particular outlook. So secret number two is about managing our expectations.
Secret Number Two: Expectations
“I know for sure that what we dwell on is who we become.”
By expectations I mean the ideas or beliefs you have acquired about aging over your lifetime—conscious and, more importantly, unconscious.
These expectations are key because they affect our memory, our hearing, our overall health, our enjoyment of life, our sense of ourselves, and our life expectancy.
Dr. Becca Levy of Yale University has done a number of studies on what she named “stereotype embodiment.” All around us—on TV and radio, in ads we receive in the mail, in the assumptions people make when they talk—are stereotypes of aging, and when we’re young we don’t question them; we just let them in, as I let in the “over-35” stereotype communicated in the Helen Trent soap opera.
These stereotypes live inside us as unconscious expectations, and then as we get older we start to automatically embody them. That’s what I was doing when I was feeling so unattractive. Maybe we start to slump a bit. Or our voices get more apologetic, or sharp, or gravelly. We talk about our “symptoms” more. They even become a viable topic of conversation!
Dr. Levy found that our conscious and unconscious attitudes about aging affect every aspect of our lives. In one study, for example, elderly Chinese subjects performed better on a memory test than elderly Americans—because, she hypothesized, the Chinese tend to have a more positive view about aging than the Americans.
As we unconsciously start to embody the stereotype, our identity starts to change, like that of a Hunter College librarian I knew in the late 1960s. I was in my 20s then, teaching English. One day I was wearing a fashionably short skirt to work and stopped by the library on the way to class. The librarian, who was about 40 and still attractive, remarked cattily, “Hmmph! The instructors are getting snappy! Not in my day!” I wanted to say, “You mean it’s not your day anymore?” I vowed not to follow in her footsteps.
Then, when I reached my 50s, I got sucked into the aging stereotype in spite of myself. But now, in my 70s, I still do consider it “my day”—even though I’m not wild about twitter and cell-phone apps.
Turning Back the Clock
Another psychologist who has done amazing work to show that it’s our expectations that fuel our aging symptoms is Ellen Langer, who in the fall of 1981 created a total immersion experience for eight men in their 70s. She had come to see that a psychological “prime” could trigger the body to heal itself. The prime in this case was a five-day stay in a converted monastery in New Hampshire, where the environment was set up to reproduce the era when the men were 22 years younger: 1959. (Grierson, 2014)
At the beginning of their stay, a few of the men were arthritically stooped, others walked with canes. They were assessed for dexterity, grip strength, flexibility, hearing and vision, and memory and cognition. From the outset the men were treated as if they were younger; for example, they had to carry their belongings upstairs themselves. They wore the clothing styles from 1959; listened to Perry Como and other popular singers of the day; watched Ed Sullivan on black-and-white TV, and Jimmy Stewart in Anatomy of a Murder. On tables and bookshelves were magazines and books from that year. They discussed, always in the present tense, “current events” such as the first U.S. satellite launch. Everything was set up to create the illusion that they were back 22 years earlier. There were no mirrors, no recent photos or publications to spoil it.
At the end of their stay they were assessed again. They were found to be more supple, with greater manual dexterity and better vision; they walked taller and, according to independent observers, looked younger.
In another study, in 2010, the BBC sponsored a re-creation of Langer’s project, called “The Young Ones.” Six aging former celebrities were driven via period cars to a country house retrofitted to 1975 and lived as their earlier selves for a week. When they emerged they showed a marked improvement on the test measures.
One, who had rolled up in a wheelchair, walked out with a cane. Another, who couldn’t even put his socks on unassisted at the start, hosted the final evening’s dinner party, gliding around with purpose and vim. The others walked taller and indeed seemed to look younger (Grierson, 2014).
Freeing Ourselves from the Stereotype
Now we have a name for the phenomenon that’s driving our aging: “stereotype embodiment.” So what do we do with it? How do we un-embody the stereotype, and is that even possible? How do we divest ourselves of a stereotype?
The first thing is to identify it as a belief, or set of beliefs, and not as ourselves.
A client of mine, Carol, succeeded in doing this. Carol was a successful therapist, wife, and mother who was participating in one of my Ageless Pizazz groups. She came in with the belief that life got boring as you got older, and guess what? She was feeling bored with her life. In the group she was able to turn that belief around. She told us stories of her wild adventures as a young woman and realized that that wild young woman was still alive in her. She began to really relish who she was, and near the end of the group she took off on an adventure, a trip she had been wanting to take for a long time, and came back and told us about it with sparkling eyes.
So after identifying the belief and acknowledging it, we find ways of changing it, or replacing it, as Carol did by calling up her youthful self and going off on a trip. We look for models—and, now that the health-conscious Boomers are into their 60s, there are many good models out there. We imagine different ways of being and try them out. We hang out with other people who will validate our new, chosen belief. And one thing we do a lot in my Ageless Pizazz groups is play with it. Read on.
Secret Number Three: Laughter and Play
“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing. “
~George Bernard Shaw
Because play, which is activity that we do purely for enjoyment, has no goals outside of the activity itself, we may tend to relegate it to a lower rank of importance than money-earning, career-enhancing, or household-maintaining pursuits. But most of us, except for the most hardened puritans and workaholics, know deep in ourselves that play is of core importance in life. It makes us come alive. It connects us to each other. It gives color to our lives.
Just for fun, here are some things people have said about play:
- -Lucia Capacchione: “Play keeps us vital and alive. It gives us an enthusiasm for life that is irreplaceable. Without it, life just doesn’t taste good.”
- -Tom Robbins: “Humanity has advanced, when it has advanced, not because it has been sober, responsible, and cautious, but because it has been playful, rebellious, and immature.” ( 2001, p. 17).
- -Albert Einstein: “Play is the highest form of research.”
- -Plato: “ Life must be lived as play.”
- -Joan Almon, educator: “Creative play is like a spring that bubbles up from deep within”
The Benefits of Play and Laughter
Describing the importance of play for adults, Margarita Tartakovsky (2012) lists some of its benefits. On a practical level, play has been shown to
- -trigger the release of endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good chemicals,
- -promote a sense of well-being,
- -relieve stress,
- -stimulate the brain,
- -help prevent memory problems and improve brain function,
- -boost creativity and problem solving,
- -stimulate your imagination,
- -help you adapt to whatever is going on, and
- -even relieve pain.
Stuart Brown, a doctor who worked with Patch Adams and author of the book Play (2009), tells us play is anything but trivial—it is a biological drive as integral to health as sleep or nutrition. Brown, who has extensively studied play among both humans and animals, describes its essential role in fueling intelligence and happiness, not just during childhood but throughout life. He compares play to oxygen: We need it in order to live, and “it’s all around us, yet goes mostly unnoticed or unappreciated until it is missing.”
What Is Your Play Personality?
Brown identifies eight modes of play and the “play personality” that prefers each type (pp. 65–70). Of course, we all enjoy more than one mode; we’re al combinations of the various types. Which types fit you best?
The Joker: If you’re a joker, you may have been the class clown at school. You like to do silly things, say funny things to make people laugh. You want to get a response from people.
The Kinesthete: Kinesthetes are people whose bodies thrive on movement. They love to walk, dance, bounce on trampolines, and play active games for the joy of moving rather than the success of winning. As kids they risk being classified as ADD, but when their parents and teachers allow them to move around instead of sitting still all day, they thrive.
The Explorer: The explorer is attracted by whatever is new or novel. She revels in searching out and experiencing new environments, getting to know new people, feeling new or deeper feelings, exploring new ideas, and researching new subjects. Following her ever-active curiosity is her idea of play. My husband, Michael, is like that. He is always finding different routes to get to work, or to a favorite restaurant or store.
The Competitor: The competitor loves playing to win, loves focusing on getting good at the pursuit and racking up those points—whether it’s tennis, video games, or the stock market. What’s fun for this person is the thrill of competition and the joy of winning.
The Director: Directors enjoy making things happen. They like organizing events, working out the logistics, delegating roles—starting out with a vision and orchestrating it in real life. When collaborating with others they can be much appreciated, but if they’re not careful, and just assume their friends or associates will be eager to carry out their ideas, they may find people avoiding them. My friend Clarinda, when she was a girl, found out her friends were avoiding her because she was so “bossy,” always assigning them roles in little projects. She had just thought she was enthusiastic.
The Collector: A collector focuses on a particular kind of object or experience and collects them enthusiastically. One friend of mine traveled to various locations in Europe to see Black Madonnas, and brought back wonderful pictures, which she gave to friends. Another has figures and pictures of all kinds of frogs. Collectors are great to give presents to, because you know just what they’ll like—if they don’t already have it.
The Artist/Creator: These people love to make things—beautiful, artistic things, works of art; or practical things, new inventions; or even silly things, like those oversize, strangely shaped sunglasses. I find that all of us have some artist/creator in ourselves, and this comes out with enthusiasm in groups where we make collages, provided there are enough magazines and scissors to go around.
One More Type: The Performer: I think that Brown left out a play personality type that rings true for a lot of us: the Performer. Performers love to tell stories and dramatize, for large or small audiences, or for just one person, or even alone for themselves. When my sister and I were kids we used to get together with friends, create little shows, and perform them for our parents, or just for each other (I was particularly good at doing witches). And even when alone, the performer might dance around, make up a line of song about some task she’s doing, or talk to herself dramatically.
How to Bring More Play into Your Life
To stay healthy and vibrant, it’s good to sprinkle play throughout your day, every day. If you’ve identified a couple of your play personalities from the list above, you can start from there. If you’re a kinesthete (and most of us are, to some degree), begin the day by moving your body, dancing, moving to music. And throughout the day, punctuate your activities with movement and dance. If you’re a performer or a joker, add some silly or dramatic attitudes to your movement. Or let your explorer self find ways to move that are different from your habitual ones. If you’re motivated by competition, get a jump rope, and keep increasing the number of jumps you can do without missing a step. That’s competing with yourself; of course you can also join a team and play competitive sports.
A wonderful website you can use to punctuate your day is the mindfulness bell at fungie.info/bell. You can set their gong sound to ring at any interval you choose: every 30 minutes, every 60 minutes, or whatever you prefer. Then when it rings, take a deep breath, smile, stand up and move, sing, shout, say a line of poetry, or whatever lights you up.
Here are some more ideas of ways to bring more play into your daily life:
- -Cultivate a playful attitude. Wake up in the morning “what mischief can I get into today?”
- -Imagine you’re wearing a pair of Goofy Glasses and looking out at the world through them.
- -Make faces at yourself in the mirror
- -Sing loud and off key in the shower
- -Hang out with young children and play games with them. Let them show you the way and leave your grownup mind behind!
- -Take a walk or day trip without any plans or route
- -To make it extra playful, toss a coin to decide on the direction you’ll start out in. Then just go wherever you are drawn. Let your playfulness lead the way
- -Spend more time with the most playful person you know
- -Join meetup groups dedicated to doing fun things
And if you’ve enjoyed this article, you can come to my ageless Pizazz!® group in the San Francisco East Bay, where we are devoted to having fun as we transform our pain and resistance into power and creativity. Or you can take my online class and be part of a larger community of women who are dedicated to becoming not only more powerful, vibrant, and fulfilled in their lives, but more influential as wise women elders in steering the course of our beautiful planet, which is so threatened by the dominator culture.
If you resonate with what I have been saying, you can subscribe to my email newsletter or sign up for a complimentary “Powerful You” discovery session by telephone. I send you my love and blessings and wishes for joyful well-being and never-ending openness to new discoveries and adventures.
Brown, Stuart. (2009). Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. New York: Penguin.
del Rio, Rebecca. (Date unknown). Accessed July 9, 2015, at: http://www.wisdombridge.net/the-generous-heart.html
Grierson, Bruce. (2014, October 22). “What if Age Is Nothing but a Mind-Set?” New York Times Magazine. Accessed at: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/26/magazine/what-if-age-is-nothing-but-a-mind-set.html?_r=0
Robbins, Tom. (2001). Still Life with Woodpecker. Harpenden, England: No Exit Press.
Tartakovsky, Margarita. (2012). “The Importance of Play for Adults.” World of Psychology (blog). Accessed July 10, 2015, at: http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2012/11/15/the-importance-of-play-for-adults/